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The Way Out Is In
The holiday season is upon us. For the non-addict, the air is full of sleigh bells and yule time cheer. Television and social media are clinking from the sound of stemware filled with wine and champagne.
But for the addict, it is a time of year that is fraught with expectation and temptation and trepidation. The ubiquitous presence of alcohol is difficult for many us, especially those in early sobriety. And then there are all the get togethers. Let’s face it. As addicts, we are not very good with people.
Both the Big Book and the 12 x 12 say that relationships bring us continuous and recurring trouble. Even after our 12-Step work, the greatest challenge we face as alcoholics and addicts is relationships. Why is this?
When clients come to me in my spiritual life coaching practice, it doesn’t take long for them to see that what powered their addiction was often regret over past relationships failures or struggles with their current relationships. As someone who drank alcoholically for 18 years, I suffered my own relationship tragedies before getting sober a decade ago.
At the heart of the problem is that as addicts, we numb ourselves out to the very thing that is crucial to our development as human beings. And that is pain.
It’s clear from Step 1 and Step 2 of the 12-Step program that our lives had become unmanageable and that we were far from sane. Psychologist Carl Jung said that the cause of all mental illness is the avoidance of pain.
As addicts, we become masters of pain avoidance. And one of the greatest sources of our pain is relationships. So we avoid them. Or we withdraw from them. As our addiction increases in power, so does our avoidance. And this manifests itself in increased periods of isolation.
Regardless of where we are or were on this continuum of avoidance, we intimately know its costs.
I worked with a client plagued by thoughts of suicide. He had spent years isolating himself from others because relationships were too painful. His former sponsor had asked him when he spoke of his suicidal thoughts, “Why would you want to kill someone you don’t even know?”
Though the question upset him deeply, it did point to a truth. When we continually used alcohol or drugs to numb us from pain, we cheated ourselves of the power pain has in increasing our self-awareness. Tragically, the result is emotional immaturity.
In AA we say honesty got us sober. And when addicts practice that honesty, they come to face two realities: that they don’t really know who they are and that they have fallen far behind their peers in emotional maturity. Maturity is the product of facing pain, not avoiding it.
Fortunately, there is a solution. Although relationships are extremely painful for addicts, they are the surest path to self-awareness and emotional maturity. Relationship expert Guy Finley says that our interactions with life and with others cannot be any deeper or satisfying than the understanding we have of ourselves. So we have struggled in relationships because of our lack of self-awareness. If we don’t understand ourselves, how are we to understand others?
It may seem paradoxical that relationships—the very thing that causes us pain—are the doorway out of our pain. Relationships are like mirrors for us. In them we can see how we are playing in the world. This grants us a new perspective. Instead of avoiding the painful moments inherent in all relationships, they become precious to us because they show us what we need to change in ourselves. They rid us of the blind spots that have sabotaged all of our relationships. Because we have been unconscious of our issues, they have controlled our actions and reactions to other people.
A word of caution, though. We need to take baby steps in relationships. In our first year of recovery, AA cautions us to avoid seeking romantic relationships. Although establishing them may be one of our greatest achievements in our later recovery, the challenge of an intimate relationship is too great for us in our fragile first year.
We need to start where we are. If we have completely isolated ourselves from other people through our addiction, we can start by attending AA meetings where we meet others who are eager to reconnect with people. I suggest arriving to meetings early and staying late to build your relationship muscles. Although this will create some initial pain, powering through it will allow you to experience the benefits of relationship: self-awareness and emotional development.
If you have a partner and he or she has stayed with you through the worst of your addiction, then recommit to that relationship through emotional intimacy. Talk about the challenges you have with relationships. Dare to be vulnerable. The gains will far outweigh the risks.
In parting with you today, I encourage you all to seek out relationships with others. Use the gift of desperation that brought you to the rooms of AA to also inspire your commitment to relationship building. Be intrepid in your desire to connect with others on a deeper level. And dare yourself to remain open and vulnerable to yourself and others even when doing so comes at a terrible cost to your pride.
I would love to hear your comments or to have you share your relationship success stories.
If you would like to work with me one-on-one about your relationship or addiction issues, go to rjhandley.com.
RJ Handley, Spiritual Life Coach
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