Comrade Conflictions: Moments of Hard Truth
To non-alcoholic confidants, our progress through AA can suddenly shift from endearing to endangering.
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When I first got sober – truly sober, not white knuckling a few dry weeks sober – I wanted to scream it from the mountaintops. After countless false starts, I had finally realized the type of behavioral and personality change necessary to yield long-term sobriety. I was a free man: My obsession to drink had been lifted.
Most of my friends and family were aware of my struggles with alcoholism. Their individual insights regarding exact details varied but, through both eyewitness accounts and rehashed reports, my many inebriated escapades were widespread and well-documented. Notoriousness implies notoriety.
It was welcome news for them to learn of my burgeoning recovery, and I was not particularly shy about discussing it. As I expressed how relieved and grateful I was to no longer be mired in a seemingly hopeless cycle of drinking and despair, I could see in their eyes a genuine joy for my newfound lease on life. My fellow alcoholics, I’m sure, can relate: our family and friends are truly and completely happy for us when they hear that our fears – and oftentimes likelihoods – of landing in prisons, mental institutions and morgues are being overcome through the Fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous. I was no longer on a path to total destruction – a point wholly and unanimously lauded by each new confidant.
As I progressed in sobriety, however, reactions to the initially innocuous “How is AA going?” question began to slowly and subtly shift. No longer in crisis mode, I was making great strides with my relationships, my career, myself. I relayed how the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous – including Step 9, with which many had already become intimately familiar – had become far more than a means to get and remain sober. Rather, it had become an instruction manual for a content and productive lifestyle in which I was thriving.
They heard firsthand about the tools I was accruing to help erode the type of character defects that had led to my alcoholism in the first place. I was striving to lessen my fears, tamp down my temper, counteract my envies, prejudices and overall negativity. I spoke of becoming, albeit gradually and with sputtering setbacks, more compassionate, less anxious, better equipped. Through my willingness to remain teachable by the principles and fellow members of Alcoholics Anonymous, I was becoming – plainly and simply – a better person.
AA wasn’t going good. It was going great. It had spared my life, and was now saving my soul.
It’s about this time when some of my non-AA friends and family members – not all, not most, but some – start getting a bit uncomfortable with my upstanding updates. In a few, I sense hints of skepticism – and this is completely understandable. Many alcoholics, I’m sure, are familiar with waxing poetic about a moral high ground even while treading the lowest of roads. In active alcoholism, I couldn’t walk the talk; I needed to plug the jug for that to become possible.
In others, however, the issue isn’t wariness. As I speak, their reactions seem to go from entirely outward to at least partially inward. Expressions of sheer joy seem to dampen as mine increases. An awkward yet fascinating facet of human nature plays out through subtle countenance.
The reason is this: In discussing my efforts to quell my character defects, I’ve touched upon one or more of their own. They are comparing my progress to their self-perceived faults.
In doing so, I’ve uncovered a hard truth about relationships and recovery: To non-AA confidants, our personal progress can suddenly go from being wholly endearing to at least partially endangering. Everyone is happy to see us getting better… until they fear we may be getting better than them. “After all,” we see them saying to themselves, “isn’t this the same insane ex-drunk that was making amends to me a short while ago?”
“In sobriety,” we suspect our frazzled friend is surmising, “this person is becoming at least my equal and, I fear, perhaps something more than that.” The result is, I’m sure, an uncomfortable confliction: at once, they are both thankful for our recovery and threatened by it.
Initially, my primary reaction to a friend’s suspect attitude was one of hurt. But more and more, my instinctual self-centered response is giving way to a far healthier feeling of gratitude for Alcoholics Anonymous. In the 12 Steps, I’ve found an invaluable guide to living a useful, contented life in the form of tangible, near-perfect rules to which most others simply aren’t privy.
Think about it: how many people do we alcoholics know who would drastically benefit from the 12 Steps? Nearly all, I would argue… but only a select few have plumbed the depths of depravity enough to desperately embrace them. We’ve gone from belligerent to blessed; few non-alcoholics ever experience such a drastic, mindset-altering turn of fortune.
So these days, upon reading a friend’s less-than-thrilled reaction – nearly three years into recovery, I’ve become adept at picking them up – I’m coming to realize the importance of not judging it overly harshly. After all, everybody has character defects; mine were merely so marked that they drove me to alcoholism and then, mercifully, to AA. I only began addressing my grossly outsized flaws because they were literally killing me. Self-preservation is by no means akin to heroism.
I try, then, not to take a friend’s noticeably downgraded enthusiasm as a personal slight. His character defects – or rather, his own perception of himself – are really his business, and working to alleviate them (or not) is his own choice. In essence, he’s not feeling bad because I’m feeling good; my evolving wellness is simply reminding him of a persistent flaw he sees in himself. There’s a big difference in those two distinctions, and I stand nothing to gain from petty personal animosity or childish schadenfruede. His pain is not my fault – and it certainly isn’t my pleasure.
Frenemies, Fortitude & Freedom
In considering our comrades’ conflictions, there are a few prevailing takeaways that, once examined, provide both insight and instruction.
The first is the outing of – and therefore, the potential to work through – frenemy issues. I am no stranger to being competitive to a fault; I still can’t stand losing in many situations (read: miniature golf). But as high school and college give way to the real world, our formerly harmless rivalries can transition to deeper jealousies over more seemingly defining discrepancies in career success, wealth, romance and perceived happiness. As we attain varying levels of accomplishment and satisfaction along individual timelines, the opportunities for envy are plentiful.
Overcoming frenemization – our friends’ as well as our own – is tricky and imperfect, but no problem can begin to be addressed until it is revealed. Unfortunately, however, sometimes this sort of awkward semi-animosity reveals a relationship that is no longer attractive in sobriety. People grow apart and, to forego modesty for honesty's sake, I've done a lot of growing in the past three years. In the process, some formerly close friends have become little more than acquaintances. In AA, we've been taught that our success relies upon rigorous honesty; this includes acknowledging the harsh truths uncovered by our newfound clearheadedness. One such truth: the qualities we will look for in close friends are likely to change.
Another takeaway surrounds our mandate as members of Alcoholics Anonymous to be helpful - to fellow problem drinkers especially but also to non-alcoholics. Speaking of personal growth to someone who seems to be more defensive than delighted may be temporarily uncomfortable, but it may be just the jumpstart a friend needs to commit to his own improvement. We may be immediately inconveniencing but inevitably inspiring.
In addition, sharing openly about the miraculous impact Alcoholics Anonymous has had on our lives may prove useful down the road - say, by a friend of the person presently squirming in front of you. We become a sober referral of sorts; I've been blessed to have opportunities to help several problem drinkers through similar circumstances, including spouses of friends and even a family member of a colleague.
The last consideration pertains to anonymity itself, which is, perhaps, AA's most sacred tradition. So sacred is anonymity, in fact, that not once during nearly three very involved years in AA have I ever witnessed - or even heard of - one alcoholic violating another's anonymity. Pretty impressive for an organization comprised of recovering pathological liars, habitual gossipers and spiteful slanderers.
So why, then, would I choose to forfeit my own anonymity - especially when doing so sometimes evokes unease or tension from a confidant?
For one, society has become increasingly enlightened about the disease of addiction, and many alcoholics see less reason to remain strictly anonymous. The stigmas once endured by even recovering alcoholics have dramatically diminished, meaning many of us no longer risk social exclusion or consequences in the workplace through such a revelation. And since you are reading this right now, I am obviously one such fortunate recovering alcoholic.
Second, I firmly ascribe to the notion that working the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous can make us happy, joyous and free... with some added emphasis on the free part. I thoroughly enjoy my openness; in fact, it marks the first time I’ve ever felt comfortable being honest about anything this important. This continued honesty, I think, is in the best interest of my overall recovery, and supersedes any mild misgivings others may have with it.
In active addiction many of us, myself included, were pandering people pleasers. We played varying roles in conspicuous attempts to convince others - as well as ourselves - that we were fit for whatever part we imagined was being cast. We tried to be charmingly chameleonic, but instead, we later learned, were more like pathetic pendulums: swinging to and fro just to keep pace. In the process, we lived life to the beat of others. We were rudderless. Our lack of a true identity - a personality to call our own - was the result of inadequate self-esteem.
After rebuilding my self-esteem through (who would've guessed?) estimable acts, in sobriety I'm learning who I am and - just as importantly - have come to respect this initially foreign sense of self. Part of this calls for me to stop apologizing for who I am and - cliché but crucial - to be true to myself. I didn't get sober to be a people pleaser, or to speak half-truths to spare others from hard ones.
I got sober to be comfortable in my own skin, even if someone else isn't.
Christopher Dale is a recovering alcoholic and freelance writer who frequently covers recovery-based issues. He is the founder and sole contributor to www.ImperfectMessenger.us, a blog which, in addition to topics surrounding sobriety, also discusses politics and social issues.