The Illusion of Uniqueness

When I entered recovery, I was possessed by the idea that I was different. I was uniquely tortured. I was brilliantly artistic. The depth of my dysfunction was severe. I’d done things so awful Charles Manson would weep at my story. I was a special little snowflake, a delicate little flower. For me, this sense of uniqueness went one of two ways. I was either the most despicable human being that ever walked God’s green earth, or I was heaven’s greatest gift. I was leagues better than you, or unworthy of even a nod toward my existence. I was, as it is sometimes called, an egomaniac with an inferiority complex.

I’d lived with this feeling for a long time before I ever picked up a substance, but my uniqueness finally began to give way shortly after entering recovery. From the start, I was exposed to honesty from the people who surround me. I had the privilege of witnessing vulnerability, listening to people talk about the painful stuff, about stealing from their mothers, about getting locked up and leaving loved ones behind, about damaging people physically, emotional, spiritually. I witnessed individuals share these truths not from a place of guilt and shame, but as people who have transcended the most destructive parts of themselves, and in many cases, repaired the damage. In the presence of this kind of honesty, it didn’t take long to realize that I am no better and no worse than anyone else.

Later on, I began having the enormously humbling opportunity to sit down one-on-one with other people and hear their stories from start to finish. I’ve done this in prisons, in college dorm rooms, in the living rooms of expensive houses, in homeless shelters. I’ve had the opportunity to hear the gritty details with people of different races, ages, classes, creeds, and sexual orientations. And you what…I always find more in common with them then I do difference. 

The dismantling of my uniqueness began through identification with other drunks and junkies, but it hasn’t ended there. As I began embracing my identity as an individual in recovery, I continued to hold onto the idea that I was still different than the other 94.6% of people on earth who don’t struggle with drug and alcohol addiction (World Health Organization). Maybe you’ve heard of them. The normies. Regular folk. Those freaks who have it all together…What’s with those people anyways? When I am around people in recovery, I don’t struggle to feel right-sized, but as I have ventured out into the world, through jobs, relationships, different schools, parties, grocery stores, and a range of other public spaces, I often struggle with the feeling that my struggles are unique. It happens on a regular basis, even though I spend a lot of energy trying to keep my perspective right.

In asking myself why I fall into special little snowflake mode, I have only really found one answer. It serves that false sense of self I carry around with me called my ego. It’s a defense mechanism. For example, if I am trying to publish a piece of fiction and it gets rejected thirty times (which is not uncommon), I might say to myself, “I’m just not good enough at writing…maybe I would have been if I hadn’t spent my adolescence bashing my brains with liquor and drugs.” Or, I might think, “They just don’t understand my genius, they just don’t get my work.” Either way, these responses, which are based on having a unique experience of the world, distract me from the truth about my writing, which is that I still have a lot of growing to do, and that growth takes lots of hard work.

This sort of thinking happens a lot in my work life as well. For example, a coworker gets an assignment I wanted or gets promoted, and instantly I begin thinking about how easy they’ve had it all of their lives, how they’ve never had to struggle the way I have, and therefor have the upper hand. Or I get the assignment or promotion, and I feel superior because not only did I get it, but I had to suffer and struggle through unfathomable pain to arrive where I am. 

Fortunately, I’ve been plugged back into the world long enough to know all of this thinking is bullshit. The reality is that every human being on earth suffers. The only thing that makes me different from others is that in the past I have chosen to deal with my personal suffering with drugs and alcohol. This is one way to do it, but there are countless other ways to cope. Some people shop, others get lost in the television, lots of people build better looking lives on Facebook, people have unhealthy sex, over eat, over exercise, over work, over achieve, some become religious fanatics, other delude themselves with self-help philosophies, and many wallow in anger. There are, of course, healthy ways to deal with suffering, and people do those things too, but the point is that the chosen method of dealing with suffering is beside the point. All people struggle, and in this respect I am not at all unique.

It is difficult to maintain this perspective because it levels the playing field. It forces responsibility my lives back on me. In saying this, I am not denying the fact that people suffer to different degrees. Some people receive a leg up in this world based on their race, class, gender, ability, sexual orientation, and the context in which they exist—this is undoubtedly true— but even that rich white guy who has everything in the world suffers because he is human.

When I can approach the world recognizing that everyone struggles, I can truly join in on the good stuff of life. I can have real relationships, even with people who may not have a lot in common with me on the surface. I can be a part of a team at work. Be a part of larger conversations in my writing. I can be of service to other people as I move through my day.

The trouble is that recognizing commonality is a true threat to my ego. I want recognition. I want security. I want my life to have meaning. In this way, I suspect I am also no different than anyone else, but the lie my ego tells me is that I need to maintain my uniqueness in order to have these things.

The paradox here is that the more I buy into that lie, the more I suffer, the more lonely I feel, the more I grasp with the feeling that I don’t have enough. Uniqueness compounds my pain…pain requires relief…and for me relief can look pretty ugly. So there is another way, I think. It boils down to this: My suffering is not special, I am one of many, and my job is to just be human.