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Terminal Uniqueness: Why You’re Not As Different as You Think You Are

“You don’t understand me” is the most common rebuttal from an addict. It’s a way of keeping people away. We like to think we’re unique in our heartache, despair, and deep understanding of the world.

Terminally unique is an AA expression that highlights that believing you are permanently different from everyone is deadly. If we do not make an effort to share our whole stories with another person and see ourselves in the histories of other alcoholics, we will struggle with sobering up. It is crucial to see where we belong rather than believing that recovery cannot work for us.

The problem of “terminal uniqueness” is also what keeps us from seeking recovery. It can be a dangerous form of self-assurance that prevents us from seeing that others face the same issues. Many addicts stay in their addiction a long time until they start to suspect recovery might work for them, as it has for millions of others. Unfortunately, addicts may never get to the crucial moment of clarity if they grasp the belief that they are separate from everyone else.

Face Reality: Addiction Is A Predictable Disease

As someone who has heard countless alcoholics’ stories, I’ve concluded that addiction follows the same path, over and over. The environments and characters are different, but the feelings and general downward trajectory are always identical.

After hearing the same stories countless times, you come to the conclusion that addiction progress along a boring path. Even the experiences that people consider the “highlights” of their drinking career are the same from person to person.

The beginning, middle, and end of an alcoholic story share the same characteristics. We started drinking benignly, and we found alcohol solved issues that it usually doesn’t for other people. It made us less scared of the world, less apart from everyone else. It felt like a puzzle piece that had been missing for all of our lives. We continue drinking, perhaps with periods of dry time due to career or family goals.

Then the drinking progresses. We start to have issues with the law, relationships, or finances. Everyone has different lengths of time where they can manage the middle period of progressing alcoholism before they start to do something about it. Some may only last a few years and others decades.

The end of our drinking is due to consequences. The consequences that bring us to recovery also vary. However, they are enough for us to jar us into another path.

Consequences include:

  • Intervention by family and friends
  • Job loss due to drinking
  • Divorce or the threat of divorce
  • Legal issues

Or the consequences can be much more “mild” in their severity. For instance, a result is that we can’t honestly look ourselves in the mirror because of our drinking. Our self-esteem may be utterly shot, and we can’t face who we’ve become. These feelings are enough to bring many people to recovery, even if they’ve not yet experienced external losses.

To summarize, the scenery that populates our stories differs, but the arch of our stories is always the same. As much as you think your background and life scars are unique, many others have followed the same road. You will meet them eventually. The feeling of meeting someone with the same story makes you feel like an integral part of the human fabric.

Many People Already Understand You

There’s a paradox with how we feel about ourselves and how alike we are to the millions of addicts who followed the same journey. You can explain nearly any situation in your story to another alcoholic, and they’ll reply, “I’ve been there” or “I’ve felt the same way.”

No matter how “bad” you think you are or your behaviors, someone else has been there. At a minimum, they can understand why your thoughts and emotions led you to take the actions. You aren’t unique in your faults.

It will be a comforting experience when someone shares a similar experience as yours, which you thought was immensely shameful. Over time, you’ll discover that someone else has matched all of your history. Your story won’t feel all that special when you have personally met others who have experienced it firsthand themselves.

Our minds want to trap shut against the belief that there are others like us. We’ve gotten immense comfort from believing we are unique, separate, and not like anyone else. It’s an alibi for explaining our heavy drinking. When it’s gone, we lose an excuse for why sobriety can’t work for us.

Staying Terminally Unique is Lonely

Accepting that you’re similar to others doesn’t mean you have to lose your personal qualities at the expense of conforming. However, forcing everyone to stay at arm’s length keeps us in perpetual loneliness.

We become lonely in the rigid ideology that we will never be understood. So we rarely build authentic relationships where another person truly knows our whole story. When no one on the planet knows us thoroughly, it’s hard to make a deep connection that plants us firmly in the human family.

How Get Our Terminal Uniqueness

Look for Similarites, not Differences

There are ways we can break the cycle of uniqueness and loneliness. One of the most important is to keep an open mind when we listen to others share. We compare our similarities with their stories rather than our differences. Instead of searching for gotchas where we say “I didn’t drink like that” or “That never happened to me,” we instead look for ways to relate.

Do Step Work to Make Us Human Again

Doing the steps with a sponsor also helps us see where we fit. Namely, when we do the fourth and fifth steps with a sponsor, we hear feedback that what we’ve done is not unusual. A good sponsor will share some of their stories to make us feel comfortable with our past, showing us we’re not as far down the scale as we think we are. The intimacy makes for an immediate connection with another person on a scale we’ve never reached with another soul in our entire lives.

Not Going Overboard

As a word of caution, we shouldn’t pour our deepest secrets out to everyone we meet in the program. We do not need to become confessors as part of recovery. Not everyone has our best intentions in mind. However, we usually start a new kind of real relationship first with our sponsor and then a handful of others in our network.

Keeping Our Secrets Safe

We should protect our secrets from getting into the wrong ears. But that shouldn’t stop us from opening up to someone we can trust. The release we get from sharing we really are with another person is profound and life altering.

It’s useful to be aware that some people get the wrong idea of what opening up means. They falsely assume they should open up about everything to anyone who comes by. For example, we may be possibly too open about ourselves at our place of work, when it serves no good purpose and clouds others’ opinions about us who may not understand alcholics.

In other words, we don’t need to become martyrs as proof that we’re being completely honest.

Benefits of Getting Out of Terminal Uniqueness

As we build authentic relationships with another person who knows our whole story, a feeling of connection with the world envelops us. We no longer live in complete fear of other people. We become part of the human family again. We no longer feel like an odd man out with a dark past. It is one of the most freeing milestones in recovery.

No matter how far we’ve fallen from our ideals for ourselves, we can recover the sense of belonging. Our past does not have to dictate our present lives and what we can become. We can emerge from a lonely, anxious place of profound separateness and find a place among our family, friends, work associates, and others members of recovery.


Despite the many songs and movies that tout the allure of being “different,” alcoholics and addicts are the most predictable population in the world. Across history, cultures, languages, and religions, addicts share the same traits and behaviors. The story arch of their progression to addiction also cuts across time, place, and creeds.

I wrote this post to burst the bubble of an addict who thinks another person could never understand them. The most eccentric addict with the wildest and darkest stories will eventually find someone who has been there. It’s a matter of time.

I hope you shake off the dangerous belief that you could never belong, even among a group who lives and thinks just like you.

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