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Do You Have “Reluctant Recovery Syndrome”?

Elaine was beginning to wonder if her drinking had gotten out of hand. Recently friends and family had begun suggesting that she “take it easy” or “slow down” when consuming alcoholic drinks at parties or other get-togethers. But Elaine would repudiate their concerns, telling them that with her stressful job, drinking was her way of relaxing and she needed that relief.

Fred has been arrested three times for driving high on marijuana. But he insists that he does not have a problem with substance use. “I can stop using any time I want,” he says. “I’ve just had a run of bad luck in getting stopped by the cops.”

Elaine and Fred share a common belief regarding their use of their chosen substances. Neither feels the need to seek recovery. Elaine, regardless of a growing suspicion that she might need to change her habits, minimizes that necessity. Fred refuses to see the truth for what it is, blaming bad luck for the consequences of his substance use. Both Elaine and Fred can be said to have “reluctant recovery syndrome.” Their life circumstances have presented them with evidence that they may possibly need to seek recovery, but they are resistant to the idea and reluctant to seriously consider it.

Could You Have Reluctant Recovery Syndrome?

Do the excuses of Elaine and Fred seem normal or acceptable to you? The following signs indicate reluctance, indecisiveness or lack of commitment on one’s part, regarding the possibility of seeking substance abuse treatment.

Do you recognize any of these signs in yourself?

Emotional Signs:

  • Fear:  The fear of losing face and feeling shamed is, according to the late John Bradshaw, a leading addiction authority and author of Healing the Shame That Binds You (Health Communications, 1998), the motivator behind most of our “toxic” behaviors, including compulsion, co-dependency and addiction. Substance abusers often fear that they have made a mistake (substance use) that they may not be able to recover from, and that trying to change their situation is hopeless. They may fear the negative consequences associated with their behavior, or feel defective, like they are failures. They are often concerned that they will be criticized if the full truth about their substance use becomes known.
  • Denial and Minimization:  Refusing to recognize the full impact of one’s substance use requires “adjusting” the truth to suit one’s desired beliefs, as Fred does when he insists that bad luck, not his own choices, lead to his problems. Minimization is the tactic Elaine uses to convince herself that her drinking is less problematic than her friends and family believe it is. Both denial and minimization require a person to be dishonest with themselves, which may help them avoid pain and shame for a while. But the truth always surfaces, with even more dire consequences the longer it is avoided.
  • Beliefs in Myths and Misconceptions Regarding Recovery:  Sometimes people are reluctant to consider entering a recovery program because they have heard negative stories about what to expect. One persistent myth is that recovery programs use shame, guilt and other forms of social chastisement to encourage participants to make lifestyle changes. Others think they have to “hit bottom” before entering treatment. Neither of these myths is true and therefore should not be used as reasons to avoid seeking help. For more on myths and misconceptions about recovery, see the article 4 Persistent Addiction and Recovery Misconceptions De-Bunked.

Behavioral Signs:

  • Isolation:  Avoiding friends and family who criticize or express concerns regarding one’s drinking or substance use is a common defense mechanism. If Elaine’s friends and family persist in expressing their worries, they may drive her away. But this is not the answer for Elaine. She should recognize that only people who genuinely care would risk speaking up. Reaching out, rather than isolating, would be in Elaine’s best interest.
  • Resistance to Lifestyle Change:  Many times people are reluctant to seek recovery because they don’t want to make the necessary lifestyle changes that will be required. But an honest appraisal of the ways that ongoing substance abuse can and will affect one’s lifestyle in a negative manner should be enough to override such concerns. If you have not yet suffered negative consequences related to your health and relationships, or you have not yet incurred legal or financial issues, you are nonetheless setting yourself up for these if you continue to resist recovery and continue to use….it may be only a matter of time.


Addressing Reluctant Recovery Syndrome

If you see yourself in any of the above descriptions, you are more likely to avoid or put off making a decision about entering recovery; and delays in getting the help you need could make your initial recovery steps more difficult to navigate. Consider carefully whether your concerns are valid, or whether they are merely based on  negative assumptions and worries. Working through any fears you have about the change process itself is the first step.

Combat Commitment Phobia

Perhaps you are experiencing “commitment phobia”, or fear of making a decision. People often resist making important lifestyle decisions because they are afraid that they may create for themselves a situation where there are no further options, no backing out if they decide they don’t like the choice they’ve made. Such concerns are normal. However, even if you do have legitimate concerns, these can be addressed in the early stages of your recovery process. If you are simply reluctant to leave your comfort zone (which likely soon will become much less comfortable), you will waste valuable time and potential progress by using this as a reason to hesitate.

Overcome Procrastination

You procrastinate when you put off things that you should be focusing on, or doing, in favor of remaining comfortable in your “waiting” mode. One way to avoid letting procrastination derail you long-term is to focus on educating yourself as you wait. Since you may be negatively influenced by irrational fears or misconceptions, make it your priority to search out the real truth about your possible course of action. By educating yourself about the recovery process, including ways of addressing potential pitfalls, such as relapse, you can prepare yourself to make an informed, rational decision. You can move forward with certainty vs. hesitation and be more likely to move into the future you truly desire.


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