How I Used My 12-Step Program to Navigate Toxic Relationships

By Cleo Sailer 04/05/17

Every real problem I’ve had in life can be solved with the steps and traditions.

Someone with bare feet holding shoes and walking forward.
I turned my life over in the first three steps and I was being led.

In life and in meetings people will fail us, however, the steps and traditions will not. Last week I walked into a popular cafe to meet a young lady from the rooms. She was struggling with a messy break up and I felt that I could offer some support. The break-up was not romantic in nature, it was with her AA sponsor and she was left confused about how to move forward. Relationships in recovery tend to get intense and sometimes they end poorly. The issue is that we sought out these rooms to save our lives! So how do you take care of yourself and more importantly stay sober when these rooms that you are so dependent on become toxic? At some time or another, I have heard most of my recovery friends say they’d prefer to avoid a certain person, or meeting. After six plus years in twelve step recovery some of my worst fears ensued when I had a falling out with a sober woman and I am here to share that the most troublesome endings can be the brightest new beginnings.

Every real problem I’ve had in life can be solved with the steps and traditions. As annoying as that may be when those simple concepts are applied to any given issue the solution can be found. As an addict I hate pain and all of my using can easily be traced back to trying to escape suffering. When I feel low I want to get high and I cannot stand to feel low. I'm a resilient and capable woman, and I have been able to achieve almost anything I have put my mind to. But throw emotional pain AKA feelings in the mix and I’m squirming like a baby. My inability to sit with discomfort has been a blessing and a curse. On the one hand it drove me to drink, drug, and jump from one codependent relationship to the next; however, on the other hand it’s driven me to grow positively, work the steps in multiple areas, and use the tools without delay. All of this is a process one day at a time and it works.

Around nine months ago I had a breakup with an active alcoholic; it wasn't the first time but I swore it would be the last time. I knew that the common denominator in my abusive relationships was me so I committed to another round of step work where I uncovered truths, came out of denial, and came into myself. Seven weeks of cathartic writing and intense inventories and I had sort of a spiritual awakening. I was really able to see how I volunteered myself for these victim cycles and played the same role in the majority of my interactions. Throughout this process I hit lots of meetings and my fellowship game was strong; however, I also started to realize that my world was small in many ways and I wanted new energy to flow in. Although I had come into a stronger sense of self, I was in this incestuous small nest of AA and it didn’t feel good anymore. I also still had boundary-less friendships that were starting to suffocate me. I was ready to broaden my horizons, meet some new people, and continue the evolution. I wrote a letter to my higher power asking for help with my relationships. It was suggested to me a few years ago to write letters to GOD, the universe, or HP, asking for what I wanted and needed. At first I was apprehensive because it seemed so corny and even lame, but after receiving direct results many times I incorporated this tool into my recovery and it comes very naturally to me now.

About four or so days after writing this letter to higher power specifically asking for guidance toward positive relationships, I had what I can only describe as a miracle...just not a fun fabulous one. I had the craziest falling out of my adult life and unfortunately it was with a close sober friend. I knew that attempting space in this relationship would be tricky however I wildly underestimated the situation. This sober person who knew all of my deepest darkest secrets reacted in extreme vengeance toward me. Character assassination, false accusations, spreading rumors in the rooms, on social media, on the streets, and even assaulting me outside of a meeting. Every inch of my existence was threatened as I was yelled at and even physically pushed and shoved. As a low bottom alcoholic it is a miracle I didn’t pick up. I was shaken to the core and even worse terrified to go to a meeting! This dramatic tale of friendship gone awry may sound unreal but I’m here to tell you it isn't. If you've experienced turbulence and trouble with others in the rooms of recovery, you are not alone and you can certainly get through it. I hear talk of similar situations often and relapse is common but it doesn't have to be. We are in a spiritual program and the solution is to walk along spiritual lines. I was told early on that others people's actions were none of my business. Nevertheless it’s challenging to carry on with your recovery life when it's been poisoned. One of the promises states that fear of people will leave us and we will intuitively know how to handle situations that used to baffle us.

To be quite honest, fear of people was at an all time high for me as I was going through this drama. My name was slandered with preposterous accusations and some people easily chose to believe it. I was given strange looks by some, rejected by others, and there were the obvious social media unfriendings. I felt as though I could not escape and as an addict escapism is my go to. This went on for months. My solution was to stick with the winners: men and women I trusted and who had my best interest at heart. I got vulnerable and hit new meetings where I felt safe. I sought recovery and relationships in rooms that were known to be solution-based. I talked to fellows that had more time and I practiced principles over personalities. There is a saying “when I’m focused on others my life is unmanageable.” With that in mind, I kept the focus on my healing. I continued to show up in secure places and refused to participate in the dysfunction with retaliation of any form. I especially didn't go around defending my stance and discussing this with biased parties although it was tempting. I stayed away from what no longer served me and I continued my step work. Fortuitously I was in the fourth step and this happened to be the most intense and thorough inventory yet. I let it rip, no holds barred, pen to paper, with fears, resentments, and secrets; it was not easy. I turned my will over in prayer every day and night and trusted that I was being taken care of. The GOD of my understanding is loving and it's essential for me to have faith in that. I used my personal recovery tools of free writing and exercise to keep my mind positive and clear. Once again and most importantly I kept showing up despite what other people were doing. That included showing up for my business, clients, and continuing to take actions for a prosperous life.

Easy does it but do it, live and let live, let go let GOD, first things first, service, keeping my side of the street clean, anonymity, and go where it’s warm, are the virtues that saved me throughout this nightmare. I have made people my higher power so many times and it was challenging not to do that in the midst of this chaos. My worst fears were actualized when two people openly set out to damage my reputation, however, they were just that-- “fears.” My sponsor reminded me several times they are not higher power. I turned my life over in the first three steps and I was being led. Rejection truly is protection. I have changed so much throughout the past several months and when I wrote that letter to HP my prayers were answered. My life consists of solid friendships with solid boundaries and as I recently worked through the fifth step I was able to see the glaring character defects that had me engaged in all of this non-sense from the get go. I am certainly a more compassionate and loving person that no longer feels the need to attach myself to others in fear of not being good enough. I have also gained valuable insight on trusting my instincts; as well as letting relationships go in faith long before it gets messy.

The facts are this: relationships end disastrously every day and recovery relationships are not immune to this. If you experience turmoil in your sacred recovery rooms you have the option to rise up, own your power, and expand. These can actually be lessons and blessings if you channel the trauma into the right place. Everything positive that has every happened for me has been a result of twelve step recovery and it’s the only way I have been able to cross over to the most serene place yet. This pain has been the touchstone of spiritual growth as usual and the new found self love I have is a beautiful thing I get to share with my sponsees or anyone else that comes to me in times of darkness.

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