Philosophy Stirred, Not Shaken

Insights on Addiction and Philosophy

Active Addicts Are from Mars and Recovered Addicts Uranus

Blah, Blah, Blah Sobriety

The world that active addicts and addicts in recovery share is the same in some important respects. None of us can simply overrule the laws of gravity or no longer need oxygen and food. There are limits on how we can live and what we can do that are inescapable. We just need to accept gravity.

Against this common background, though, the world and its meanings are radically different in some deep and abiding ways for active addicts and recovered addicts. As the philosopher Wittgenstein might say, recovered addicts and active addicts inhabit different forms of life.

Consider some of the difference between people with long term sobriety and those who are actively using or newly sober. Newly sober people often assume that life is going to be no fun, boring, and tedious. What they see is only loss and deprivation. They cannot imagine what it would be like never to use again. Some fear abstinence is a social death sentence; they will be the loser with no friends.

People not in recovery often cannot make sense of people who are in recovery when they tell them life could be better. All the talk of sobriety, recovery, better life, etc all sounds like an adult talking in The Peanuts. Or better still, like the dog Ginger in a Far Side cartoon by Gary Larson. In the first panel of that cartoon, “What We Say to Dogs,” a man scolds his dog, “Okay, Ginger, I have had it! You stay out of the garbage. Understand, Ginger? Stay out of the garbage or else.” In the second panel, “What Dogs Hear,” is “Blah, blah, Ginger! Blah, blah, blah, blah, Ginger, blah blah blah.” Blah, blah sobriety.

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The good news is the gap between recovering people and people still active in their addictions is not unbridgeable. 

There is an asymmetry between people in recovery and those still active. People in recovery used to be active; we’ve been there and share similar experiences. This is a far distance from saying that all addicts are the same. However, there are often shared patterns of experience, which in turn shape how we see, experience, and understand ourselves and the world around us. Our using patterns and habits are not identical but they do share a family resemblance, another important concept from Wittgenstein.

My brother and I do not look alike in easily identifiable ways. A quick glance and even closer scrutiny may not make it evident that we are siblings. There is no one feature that we share but rather there are some similarities that criss- cross and overlap. We have similar hand gestures, character lines (not wrinkles mind you) that run in the same directions, and the same laugh when we find the other in certain difficulties. Meet my sister, mother, and father, and what you see is a series of shared traits among us that belong to a pattern. What we have in common is that each of us is a weave in that pattern that is Family O’Connor.

This is the sort of resemblance addicts have to one another. These similarities and criss-crossing threads are both behaviors and ways of thinking. I have never been arrested like some others, but I risked expulsion from school. Another may have risked her job by chronic tardiness. Someone else drove drunk while another often hopped on and then fell off her bicycle.  Sit in any gathering with addicts, and one of the most common refrains is “I didn’t do that exactly but I did…”

The power of others in helping us to name, understand, and transform ourselves and our lives is enormous. We help each other to make sense of our behaviors and habits. In telling stories and sharing what we used to do, we give each other the opportunity to grab hold of little bits of similarities. Those little bits are spun into a thin fiber that begins to cross other fibers, as Wittgenstein describes a thread. The more criss-crossing, the stronger the thread. The stronger the thread the better able we are to make a different sense of ourselves.

Peg O'Connor, Ph.D., is Professor of Philosophy and Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota.

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