There is a story about the subtle snag of grandiosity in The Spirituality of Imperfection by Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketchum: A past president of the Hazledon Foundation, a leading treatment resource for alcohol and drug addiction, was approached by a young researcher asking, “Why is it that even intelligent alcoholics can get so trapped in denial of their alcoholism? Is it because of grandiosity—they think that they can do anything to their bodies and survive, they think that they are ‘too smart’ to be alcoholic? Or is it because of self-loathing—they despise themselves and feel they deserve to die, if they are alcoholics?” The past president sighed and replied, “The alcoholic’s problem is not that he thinks he is very special. Nor is the alcoholic’s problem that he thinks he is a worm. The alcoholic’s problem is that he is convinced “I am a very special worm!”
Entitlement is an overlooked component in the life of a recovering addict. Clearly, it is a major contribution to the demise and derail of many addicts dominated by their narcissistic wound. It can show up in recovery like a blind spot undetected or can be as obvious as a swollen black eye. It is fueled by deprivation, usually a deficit from emotional needs not being met. Most addicts have never learned how to meet their emotional needs in a healthy way.
Too impatient to learn, many addicts ignore deprivation and try to will their way into stopping the acting out. It is common for an addict to vacillate between feeling like a piece of shit for their behavior to overconfidence that they have this thing called recovery down! Whenever I do an autopsy on relapse, I always discover grandiose entitlement that traces back to underestimated deprivation. Twelve step shares around relapse are replete with addicts who share the mentality of thinking of themselves as a “special worm”. It’s a dynamic that all too often destroys sobriety and defeats attempts toward recovery.
The following recovery interventions should be understood in managing the “special worm” syndrome:
1. Condition yourself to recognize unmet emotional needs. Craving is a conditioned response to a legitimate emotional or physical need. The rut of response that leads to acting out must be redirected. It is helpful to slow things down and reflect about the emotional/physical need that can be met in a healthy way without acting out. As an addict, you can figure that you can blow right past your emotional needs and focus on whatever pursuit that is in front of you in the moment. That’s usually a fatal mistake and a contribution to chronic relapse. Recognition of emotional needs requires that you pay attention to what you feel. Sounds simple and it is. Yet, simple in recovery is difficult. Sitting with your feelings can be unbelievably uncomfortable. Yet, the secret is to recognize what you feel and to determine what need the emotion is identifying that must be met in a healthy way. Then it requires that you creatively brainstorm how you might meet that need in a non-destructive self-affirming way. This represents self-parenting. With addiction, the goal like so many other aspects in life is to emotionally grow yourself up. This strategy can all sound good and clear. Yet, these actions toward sobriety require step by step conditioning and daily practice. One day at a time is never more true than learning this skill set in recovery. In the presence of intense impatience and the temptation to yield to an “I don’t get it mentality”, slow your thoughts down in order to recognize unmet emotional needs and work toward meeting them in a healthy way. Don’t be harsh with yourself if you botch it up or find this strategy difficult and awkward.
2. Go the distance in recovery. I recall reading in M. Scott Peck’s book The Road Less Traveled a metaphor described by Peck that the journey in life for many is likened to traveling through the desert. In their journey, many people make it to the first or second oasis and then stop rather than using the oasis for renewal of strength for the travel to the other side of the desert to lush green terrain of personal and relational intimacy. This can be true in recovery. For many addicts, the goal of achieved sobriety is enough. The remainder of life hovers around appreciation and celebration of overcoming being dominated by addiction. Twelve step meetings can become a kind of oasis in the desert where recovering addicts appreciate one another for their recovery. Many times their intimacy and recovery becomes confined to group members and experiences with other addicts who understand and walked through the desert with them to find the oasis of 12-step recovery. Yet, for many the journey stops at a 12-step meeting. Personal growth in relationship intimacy with partners, family, and other relationships is stymied because of the temptation to hover around the oasis at a 12-step meeting. Some addicts are more emotionally intimate with fellow addicts than they are with their romantic partners. It can be tempting to rest on the laurels of sobriety in the secure confines of a 12-step fellowship. It has been my experience that this dynamic is a subtle lure to a “special worm” mentality. The need to push forward and deepen relational intimacy in everyday relationships can be substituted by the acceptance and comfort of the cocoon found in 12-step fellowship. Yet, those who utilize the support from a 12-step fellowship as a launching pad to dive into the vulnerability of opening their heart and becoming emotionally naked in their relationship journey with their world will avoid the perils of becoming a “special worm”. In recovery, sobriety is establishing a ground zero for personal growth. Living with an open heart and pushing for relational intimacy will require moving beyond the oasis into the depths of vulnerability in order to make it through the desert to the other side.
3. Don’t forget C.S. Lewis who said “A good egg stays ripe for so long—it will either hatch or become rotten.” Life is brief. The opportunity for personal growth in any relationship presents itself with finite time constraints. Relationship recovery is a blend of highs and lows, bitter and sweet. Recovery life is a tapestry that presents opportunities for connection with self and others that you cherish. It doesn’t last forever. The opportunity is a dynamic that will hatch into the richness of relational intimacy or become rotten in neglect and missed chances for closeness. Being seduced into complacency in the present will fuel a “special worm” mentality. Seductively, you can adopt an “I’ve been there, done that, no need to do more” mentality about your recovery work. This is a subtle form of “stinking thinking”. You tell yourself “I’ve done enough time to rest on the laurels of recovery work”. You begin to feel entitled that you now deserve to avoid the “hot seat” of recovery scrutiny now that you are sober. Soon you become the good egg that becomes rotten. It is crucial that you embrace the relational growth opportunities in front of you. To do this you must become hungry for personal growth around the next challenge in relationship and life dynamic. “Rotten eggs” are discarded relationship opportunities that carry wistful thoughts about what might have been had we only overcome the “special worm” syndrome.