First, a Story
I recently had a conversation with Matt, a young man I am sponsoring, who lives in the Sober Living house that I used to manage. As Matt’s sponsor, I had to get to work with him to find out why Matt relapsed. I asked him point blank to tell me why he would jeopardize his life and his home to go drink. Matt asked me what I meant, “life and home.” I said, “well, if you get caught drinking again, you will be kicked out of the house, right?” I went on to say, “Now, if you get kicked out, you are homeless. If you are homeless, you will lose your job. If you lose your job, and you are homeless, you have no life. So Matt, why did you choose to drink?”
Matt thought for a moment and said, “ I wanted comfort and I wanted to feel healthy at a time when I was very anxious.” I asked Matt if he thought about the consequences. He said yes, but that he was powerless in this period of weakness. We talked about this weakness and his decision to follow it. I told Matt that I had made that decision many times myself, and that I understood that feeling of powerlessness. Matt asked me how I overcame it. I told him that, in the beginning, drugs and alcohol could solve any anxiety I had. In fact, the buzz of alcohol made me a better man in my eyes. I was more in the moment in life. I was more funny, creative, daring and brave. I loved this feeling. There was probably nothing that drugs and alcohol couldn’t improve as far as I was concerned. Matt totally agreed and said he felt the same way. I went on to tell him that, over time, that magic started to wear off, ever so slowly. No matter how much I drank, or how many drugs I did, I couldn’t get back that feeling of euphoria I experienced earlier. Later on, I was going in the opposite direction; I was losing my sense of judgment and morals. I was given to fits of rage and sadness. In the end, all I was left with was a feeling of overwhelming darkness in my soul. My magic pills and bottle were no more. Now I was only poisoning myself for no gain whatsoever. So, to answer Matt’s question, I could clearly see drugs and alcohol were not the answer to anything, except maybe death.
Matt thought for a moment before he spoke. He always does this when I say something that is close to home for him. Matt said “I can see myself going there Bob, I really can.” I asked him what he was afraid of. He mentioned many things like feeling anxious, bored, self-conscious. I asked Matt if he was afraid of success. He said “not really, it’s mostly those other things.” I asked Matt if he thought he was smarter than most people. He sheepishly said, “Yes, I have a big ego.”
I said, “ Matt you are afraid of success. I say this because you have proven to yourself and others how intelligent and capable you are, but you always find a way to screw things up in life.” Matt replied “maybe I am.” I told him that most addicts and alcoholics are afraid of success; even the seemingly lucky ones like athletes, rock stars, business moguls and others find themselves doubting their abilities and turn to drugs and alcohol to cope. The fear of success prevents us from achieving goals in life, and when people have a big ego, such as Matt and many other addicts, and are not fulfilling their perceived destinies, they become depressed and anxious. Once we find drugs and alcohol to quell those feelings, we are hooked and hooked bad.
I ended our conversation with, “Matt, the key to you getting better, and staying sober, is to face your fear of success. You need to challenge yourself to be as great as you imagine yourself to be, and accept failure along the way. Matt, you are living in a Sober Living home, and you have a job. For you, that is a success right now. Matt, don’t screw this achievement up.”
Why Fear Success?
That’s an excellent question. It could be that, if you were to become successful, you would have to maintain that success. For example, this could be a job promotion that would require you to take on more responsibilities. With more responsibilities comes expectations and pressure for results. This can be overwhelming to some people. It may also be that you are afraid to fail, so instead, you abort any chance of being successful. In any case, fear of success prevents many capable people from aspiring to be their best while overcoming addiction.
When you look at the fear of achievement, it seems illogical. Of all the things to be afraid of, success should be at the bottom of the list. Though this fear may not make any sense, you see it all the time. You see it in yourself, and you see it in others in everyday life, as well as in recovery. We have all had friends, or siblings will have tremendous potential that was never realized. I know I have fled from things I really wanted to do in life out of fear I might succeed. I always blamed it on anything but myself. After examining my life, I could clearly see how I was the one to blame.
Fear of Success in Recovery
The definition of fear is an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain or a threat.
The definition of success is a person or thing that achieves desired aims or attains prosperity.
You see fear of success, as it relates to recovery, in many alcoholics and addicts. Why? Well, if an addict or alcoholic becomes successful in their attempt to become sober, they then have to maintain sobriety to remain successful. This brings about an unpleasant emotion. Why? The first thing that comes to mind is they no longer will have their crutch, their coping mechanism. Now when they are depressed or anxious, they will have to face this alone. Addicts and alcoholics are not used to this; they are used to getting out of these stressful situations by drinking and using. They are accustomed to sabotaging successful sobriety out of fear.
When I was living in a Sober Living Home, I encounter all kinds of fear in people living there. People feared they would never regain the trust of others. They feared they would be ostracized from their family and loved ones. They feared they could never get their life back on track again. To me, the biggest fear they faced was fear of becoming sober. Being paralyzed by fear of success is a very real emotion to addicts and alcoholics.
To prove this fear exists, I will share a common story I would frequently hear at the House. When asked, “do you believe, if you were to go to meetings, get a sponsor, do the steps, that you could become sober and stay sober?” Yes, would almost always be the answer. Then why don’t you do these things? “I don’t know,” would be the answer most given.
The truth is they do know. They are afraid to be successful at sobriety. Why else would you not do the things that have been proven to help?
Matt was apparently sabotaging his chances for a successful attempt at becoming sober out of fear; fear that he would be in anguish and pain. I was trying to give him a far greater thing to be afraid of homelessness or even death. Matt agreed and made the connection.
When we hear about people dying from drug and alcohol abuse, we are perplexed. How could this happen? Why didn’t they just stop? There are many factors that have a role in these events. Poor life choices would be one; refusal to get help would be another. Sometimes it’s just an accidental overdose.
In the case of habitual addicts or alcoholics, it could be fear of success. Fear of joining the world without substances that block out all the inevitable pain life sometimes offers up. Fear of being successful at life.
There is a line Tony Bennet delivers in the movie, Amy about Amy Winehouse. Tony said, “Life teaches you how to live it if you live long enough.” I think he was trying to say if Amy had not feared life and her sobriety, she would have lived and eventually figured things out. Once we understand that there are greater things to fear than success, then we can begin on the road to recovery.