The recovery community is a subculture in that it has its own code of ethics, social norms, and even its own language. By that, I mean, there are terms and sayings that you will often hear in the rooms and in the addiction treatment setting that are specific to recovery. And one of those terms you will often hear about is ‘terminal uniqueness.’ Your therapist or sponsor might caution you at times that you think you are ‘terminally unique;’ something to be aware of and rectify as soon as possible. So, you may be wondering, “What is terminal uniqueness and do I have it?”
The concept of this term is basically this: people with a history of addiction often want to think that they are somehow different – unique – from other people with addiction and substance abuse issues. Addicts who want to tell themselves that they are different from other addicts often focus on the differences, rather than the similarities, between themselves and others. And this is dangerous territory.
Terminal uniqueness, also referred to as personal exceptionalism, is the false belief that your experiences with substance abuse are unlike anything any other addict or alcoholic has ever experienced and therefore would be unable to relate.
This isn’t to say that all individuals are the same, with no distinction for personality, experience, beliefs, and quirks. Of course, we are unique in these ways. But, when it comes to those who experience addiction, we have more things in common than not. And it’s of the utmost importance that we realize and accept this – the sooner the better.
Now that you know the terminally unique definition, it’s important to recognize signs of this type of personal exceptionalism. Terminal uniqueness symptoms include:
Many people learn about being terminally unique in AA, where the dangers of this trait are discussed in depth.
The terminal part of this phrase comes from the very dangerous nature of this way of thinking; having this sort of belief has the potential of getting you killed. Sounds dramatic, I know. But, when you finally accept that the disease of addiction is a killer, then it makes a lot of sense to see how this line of thinking could be treacherous.
People who think that they are somehow an exception to the way the disease of addiction works, despite having had happen all the things that we know to be the consequences of addiction, are more likely to return to drinking and drugging because they think that, somehow, they will be able to control it this time. And because addiction is a chronic, progressive, relapsing disorder, the person will inevitably end up in the same – or worse – dire situation that brought them to consider recovery in the first place.
Unfortunately, the progressive aspect of the disease means that the addict’s personal demise happens much more quickly and puts them at a greater risk for death from a fatal overdose. In fact, there is a greater likelihood of fatal overdose after a relapse following a period of recovery. Much of this has to do with diminished tolerance: the addict has expectations of how much they can ‘safely’ use based on their past experience, prior to treatment. However, depending on the individual, such as body chemistry and metabolism rate, even a short stint in detox can lower their tolerance drastically. When they back out and use, they are likely to do too much, leading to overdose.
If an addict or alcoholic is unwilling to take advantage of the treatments or recovery programs offered because they are convinced that they are an exception to the rule, a special case, then it’s clear that they subscribe to the belief that they are terminally unique. This orientation towards therapeutic methods in treatment as well as towards their peers will cause a chasm between them and their ability to heal and recover. A person operating under this belief – of being somehow different, unscathed by addiction – will lead to clashes with those who are trying to help them.
Understanding the qualities of this condition can help you avoid falling into a trap of uniqueness. Addictive thinking worksheets and therapies can help you break free from this type of toxic perspective.
If you or someone you love is struggling with substance abuse or addiction or you have recently experienced a relapse, help is available. Call toll-free 1-844-422-6926 to speak directly with an Addiction Specialist. You are not alone.