Overcoming Terminal Uniqueness in Addiction Treatment

For many newcomers to drug and alcohol treatment programs, feeling like they don’t belong in the group because they don’t have anything in common with other members is common. It’s a phenomenon known as “terminal uniqueness,” and it’s a form of denial that allows addicts and alcoholics to believe that the situation they are facing is unlike any situation anyone else has ever faced, ever. For newly recovering addicts entering alcohol treatment programs, terminal uniqueness can become an excuse to leave treatment – if you let it.

What Is Terminal Uniqueness?

Terminal uniqueness, also known as personal exceptionalism, is a belief that the bad things that are happening to others in your situation can’t happen to you, because you’re different. Think of the smoker who continues puffing away even though he or she knows that cigarettes cause lung cancer – that person is suffering from terminal uniqueness. It’s called “terminal” because, if you don’t knock it off, it will kill you.

As an addict in the throes of active drug or alcohol addiction, terminal uniqueness can allow you to continue self-destructive behaviors. No matter how many times you see others destroy themselves, terminal uniqueness will allow you to tell yourself that it couldn’t happen to you – you are somehow, as if by magic, exempt from the rules of addiction that govern the lives of so many others.

Terminal Uniqueness in Drug and Alcohol Treatment Programs

For many addicts who are new to recovery, terminal uniqueness doesn’t just disappear because they sobered up. Instead, it allows addicts and alcoholics to tell themselves that they don’t belong in alcohol treatment programs, because they’re not like the other people there.

If you’ve sat in a 12-Step meeting or a group therapy session and felt like you didn’t belong because you don’t have anything in common with the other members of the group, you’ve experienced the undermining effect terminal uniqueness can have on your recovery efforts. When you look at the other members of your treatment group, all you can see is what makes you different from them.

Of course, there’s a good chance that you are very different from the other members of your treatment group, especially if you’re attending 12-Step meetings that are open to the community. People from all walks of life and all backgrounds find their way into alcohol treatment programs. Most alcohol treatment programs will be populated by people of different ages, races, professional backgrounds and genders.

Your recovery program will probably put you into close contact with people whose lives have been very different from yours, and these people will likely hold some very different opinions and view the world through very different perspectives.

Finding Common Ground in Drug and Alcohol Treatment Programs

Just because the other people in your addiction treatment groups have very different lives and backgrounds doesn’t mean you have nothing in common. In fact, you have one very big thing in common – you all suffer from a substance abuse disorder.

It’s easy to get hung up on the differences between yourself and the other members of the group. If other members of your group have been abusing multiple substances for years and you’ve only abused one substance for a short period of time, it’s easy to tell yourself that you’re not as bad an addict as they are. If you’re a woman and most or all of the members of your group are men, it’s easy to feel like an outsider. If you’re young and other members of your group are old – or vice versa – it’s easy to feel like they won’t understand you or take your struggles seriously.

Instead of getting hung up on how the other members of your addiction treatment program are so much different from you, look for ways in which you are similar. Look past the superficial differences between you and listen hard to what the other members of your group tell you about themselves. When you pay attention, you will find that you have more in common with the other members of your group than you thought. And, if it turns out that you really are a poor fit for your treatment program, you can always find another program – but not without giving the one you’re in a chance first.

Whether you’re still in active addiction or you’ve entered treatment, thinking you’re different from others in the same situation is a dangerous trap to fall into. Focus on finding the common ground you have with your peers in treatment, and you’ll find that you’re able to help one another more than you ever expected.