Addiction Recovery and Climbing Out of the “Crab Bucket”

Bestselling author Elizabeth Gilbert recently shared this story that poignantly highlights the dynamics that recovering addicts face on an ongoing basis: “A few months ago, I was on stage with Rob Bell — minister, teacher, family man, great guy — and a woman in the audience asked him this question: ‘I’m making all these important changes in my life, and I’m growing in so many new and exciting ways, but my family is resisting me and I feel like their resistance is holding me back. They seem threatened by my evolution as a person and I don’t know what to do about it.’” Rob said, “’Well, of course they’re threatened by your evolution as a person. You’re disrupting their entire world view. Remember that a family is basically just a big crab bucket — whenever one of the crabs climbs up and tries to escape, the other crabs will grab hold and pull him back down.’” “This was an unexpected comment to come from a minister and a family man. Rob surprised me even more, though, as he went on to say, ‘Families are institutions — just like a church, an army, or a government. Their sense of their own stability depends upon keeping people in their correct place, even if that stability is based on dysfunction or oppression. When you move out of your correct place, you threaten their sense of order and they’ll likely try to pull you back in.’” Consider the risk factors that contribute to drug abuse and addiction:

  • Genetic pre-disposition
  • Neurobiological conditions
  • Trauma and neglect or abuse
  • Response to stressful circumstances
  • Peer pressure
  • Mental health diagnoses
  • Environmental influence

Several of these are beyond the control of the addicted person. Others are more easily influenced and can be impacted upon positively with an adjustment in attitude and choice. A closer look at key risk factors shows: Response to stressful circumstances. Conventional therapeutic wisdom says that everything is a coping skill. Some work better than others. Some are healthier than others. What are ways that you can relieve the impact of the stressors in your life that don’t involve a bottle, pill, powder or needle? They might include exercise, meditation, writing in a journal, praying, spending time with sober supports, attending meetings and volunteering. Peer pressure. The first thing that may come to mind is early experimentation with teen or pre-teen friends. In therapeutic settings, it’s not uncommon to hear stories from addicted adults who report smoking marijuana for the first time at age 8 or 9, which was offered by an older sibling or friend, or raiding a parent’s liquor or medicine cabinet as part of a dare. While this may be so, peers grow up and move on, but even into adulthood those who abuse drugs and alcohol are surrounded by some of the same friends who encourage indulgence as part of social interaction. Environmental influence. In many families and circles of friends, alcohol is part of ritual that goes beyond religion. Drinking together becomes customary as a means of celebrating rites of passage, holiday gatherings, shared work projects such as home improvement, helping someone move (think pizza and beer as reward for hauling furniture), camping trips and vacations. For some, it would be as unthinkable to forgo the booze on the boat as it would be to forget the sunscreen. Escaping the “Crab Bucket” of Addiction So what happens if you’re that crab who wants to escape the bucket? It’s getting confining, the other crabs are nipping at you, and you want to see what the world looks like outside your silver shack. You stretch your claws and inch your way up when you hear your compatriots whispering, “Who do you think you are to leave the bucket? Do you think you’re better than we are?” They may feed you with fearful thoughts such as, “Who says life is better on the outside? This is what you’re used to. You’ll be bored. You’ll be back. And we’ll be here waiting for you.” You may begin to second-guess yourself. Not wanting to be the odd-crab out, you could hesitate. Misplaced loyalty to the clan might keep you down. What if they’re right? Not stopping to think that perhaps it’s because of their own fear that they can’t make it outside their pseudo-safe confines. Often when people (and apparently crabs) live in fear, they’re threatened by anyone who dares to improve their lives and escape constraints of culture, habit and rules that no longer work for them. “If I can’t be successful, than neither can you,” might be the mindset and message. In the human world, on the other side of “the bucket” are people who’ve scrambled up past the naysayers and kicked their way out, and as a result have discovered a life of satisfaction and sobriety. Look around you for those survivors — the bucket escapers who didn’t become dinner. By Edie Weinstein, LSW Follow Eddie on Twitter @EdieWeinsteinn

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