Recovering alcoholics in relationships
An inability to form a true partnership
When I was still in my early days of recovery, my wife and I came to a parting of the ways. I was not well enough to sustain a functional relationship with anyone. I knew that I was the problem and not my wife. In the AA literature, Bill made a statement about alcoholics that is a very accurate description of my pathology. It had been my reality from as far back as I could remember:
“The primary fact we fail to recognize is our total inability to form a true partnership with another human being.”
12&12 – Page 53, Step Four
My therapists view
I refused to get a sponsor and work the steps. Instead, I found a therapist. I began to see Liz for one-to-one sessions. After a while, she thought I might benefit from exploring my relationship patterns in group therapy. I agreed because I liked and trusted her.
Liz had spent some years working in a 12-step rehab. After several years, she resigned from the rehab and set up a private practice. The group met once a week for two hours. It consisted of people with substance addictions, codependents, and some members with eating disorders.
One day, we were talking about relationships in recovery. Liz made a statement about people who were struggling with addiction. What she said stunned me!
“Addiction is a substitute for a relationship.”
In that one sentence, Liz described the story of my life! I had been in an intimate relationship with substances and addictive behaviors since I was a young child.
Sugar and compulsive overeating
Being single, my Mother had to go out and work. She had to make the difficult decision and put me into care. I was placed in care when I was eighteen months old. My childhood was in the cold atmosphere of a foster family. I soon turned to comfort eating as a substitute for the love that I craved from my Mother. Sugar became my first drug of choice.
A psychotherapist once told me that my food addiction was a compensatory behavior. Liz was right in her assessment. My relationship with food was my first and only meaningful relationship.
Being a mother substitute, my addiction to sweet things was a substitute for the “sweetness” I craved from my Mother. Sugar addiction was very primal and deep. When I came into recovery, it wasn’t difficult at first to stop drinking and drugging. Food and sugar were a different story. I struggled with it for a long time.
A monster that took on a life of its own
By the time I was in my early teens, my relationship with food progressed into bulimia. On top of the bulimia, I began to self-harm. These behaviors were an adolescent’s way of expressing his feelings of pain, rage, and resentment.
My Mother was physically unavailable. My foster Mother was emotionally unavailable. I felt rejected and emotionally abandoned. Thankfully, the self-harming and bulimia didn’t go on for too long.
The time came when all the addictive behaviors I developed growing up were to be replaced by the longest and most intimate relationship I ever had. By the time I hit my teens, I became a full-blown alcoholic and addict. It was a marriage that spanned twenty years until I arrived at my first meeting.
Addiction to alcohol and drugs replaced any closeness or intimacy with another human being. So long as I had the money, they never let me down. In stark contrast to my Mother and foster Mother, alcohol and drugs were always there to meet my needs.
The geographical cure
In my late twenties, I ran away overseas, where I met my first wife. Initially, it wasn’t about love; it was about survival. I had to get away from London, where addiction was slowly killing me. I’m not proud to admit that I used my wife to escape London. Today, I understand that I behaved this way because I was ill and not bad. Of course, like myself, I married an alcoholic and addict.
Our marriage was a chaotic pattern of drinking, drugging, and abuse. Whenever things got out of control, I would blame my environment. First, London was the problem, and now it was Norway. We returned to the UK and went to our first meeting. Our first day clean and sober was May 15th, 1984.
After many years of relapse in AA, I had to get serious about the program. I knew I was going to die if I didn’t start getting honest with myself. The Big Book of AA states:
“Selfishness – self-centeredness! That, we think is the root of our troubles” (BB p. 62)
I was certainly no exception, especially in relationships.
It became clear that I had used women in the same way that I had used alcohol and drugs. Girlfriends were there to fix me and rescue me from my inner emptiness. They helped to relieve the loneliness and isolation of untreated alcoholism. Until I did the steps, all of my girlfriends were just my medication. Later on, I discovered that this was my codependency, just another aspect of my spiritual illness.
My rejection of the twelve steps
When I first read the twelve steps, five mentioned God, and step two, a higher power. My foster mother was very religious, and I went to a Catholic boarding school run by priests. My early experiences with religion were not favorable. From an early age, I had resentment toward my childlike idea of God. When I was a newcomer and first saw the twelve steps, I wanted nothing to do with God or any higher power. As far as I was concerned, as a newcomer, God and a higher power meant the same thing.
In the AA Big Book, I read that to recover from alcoholism, you had to be honest, open-minded, and willing. I was the opposite: dishonest, closed-minded, and willful. As far as I was concerned, the twelve steps were all some kind of quasi-religious nonsense! I am lucky that my attitude to the program didn’t end tragically. The only thing I did right was that I kept coming back!
“I did it my way” (Frank Sinatra)
I went to meetings every day but only paid lip service to the idea of step work with a sponsor. My mission in life was to feel better about myself through the pursuit of relationships, a promising career, and money. In hindsight, my sense of worth was dependent on external achievement. On the inside, I was a mess! There was little or no self-esteem because I didn’t have a relationship with myself.
Like alcohol and drugs, I used people, places, and things to help me feel better about myself. Because of my self-will, the day would always come when I destroyed any progress I made with another relapse. Then, as had always been my experience, I was left with a deep sense of disappointment and failure. The painful ache of my inner emptiness would return and bring me to my knees stone-cold sober!
I went to my first AA meeting in 1984. My mistake was investing all my efforts into therapy, not the steps. I didn’t get serious about the program till thirteen years later.
At that time, I had one relationship after another. I can only speak for myself, but every liaison I had with a woman was codependent and dysfunctional. My relationships with women were the same as my addiction to alcohol and drugs. They all ended in misery and failure.
I used these relationships to mitigate emptiness and loneliness. I am sure many of my codependent girlfriends used me to fix themselves in the same way. Not one of these relationships was genuine love. Our primary purpose was to make our emptiness more bearable. How could there be any honesty when we both had such selfish and self-seeking agendas?
A relationship with myself
After more than a decade of relapse in AA, my maladapted alcoholic ego collapsed. Although painful at the time, it was the best thing that ever happened to me! On that day, I realized something essential. I had no working solutions to make life a happier experience.
Could this be because I had always tried to feel better about myself externally? My self-esteem was dependent on sex, relationships, power, and money. These solutions were only temporary. For a short time, they helped me to feel better about myself. People in AA were declaring:
“Recovery is an inside job”!
Could it be true? There was only one thing that I hadn’t done in all my years in AA. It was time for me to go within. The twelve steps allowed me to finally face myself. What were the “causes and conditions” (BB p. 64) of my misery, both drunk and sober?
The importance of sponsorship
My present sponsor once told me. The relationship between sponsor and sponsee is likely to be an alcoholic’s first honest relationship. Going through the steps with him taught me what honesty even was. With my history, I wouldn’t have known what honesty was if I fell over it! Initially, honesty took work. Like a new language, I had to learn it.
My sponsor and the twelve steps led me toward truth and the truth has set me free! The honesty I learned from my sponsor and the program was the best investment I ever made. It set the foundation for eventual progress in both romantic and platonic relationships.
The greatest gift of all
After so many years of relapse in AA, I am grateful that I received the Gift Of Desperation (Acronym for GOD). For the first time in my life, through the unconditional surrender of step one, I began to follow Good Orderly Direction. I began to face the defects of character that had always made life so unmanageable.
Carl Jung, one of the world’s most renowned psychiatrists and therapists, made a powerful discovery. It was very relevant to my journey. He said that a person can never really become a whole person until they have faced what he called their “shadow self.” These were my ego-driven shortcomings. My most glaring defect was a failure, to be honest.
The steps helped me to do just that. They helped me to face myself and the past. I had to face and deal with all the resentments and fears that made life so painful. I must admit that I completely distorted my perception of my history. Another expression for the disease of alcoholism is ‘a disease of perception’
By challenging my perceptions in the step work, I connected to the real me. My true self had been a prisoner of my ego for many years. My work with a sponsor gave me the greatest gift of all: the gift of myself. Through all my addictions, I was searching for a connection with the real me. What a surprise! To find that connection, I had to look inside and not outside.
The gift of the twelve steps
Now, at 67, I have been in my longest and happiest relationship. It is the first functional one that I have ever had. I owe this gift to my sponsor. He took me through the steps without any pressure to believe in God. AA itself and the suggested program became my higher powers.
I always used to believe that love was good sex. Then, I discovered the secret to a successful relationship. For an alcoholic like me, a commitment to spiritual growth makes the difference between a healthy relationship and a codependent one. For it to succeed, it must be grounded in honesty, sincerity, and integrity. These are the newfound character assets that help us grow toward mature love.
Dr. Bob Smith
Three months before he died in 1950, Dr Bob spoke at the International AA convention in Cleveland, Ohio. He said that the two central principles of the AA program are love and service
If I remember this in my relationship, I feel confident that together, we will journey towards old age and the promise of a “happy destiny.” (BB p.164)
My alcoholism was only a tiny part of my spiritual illness. Besides all my other addictions, codependent relationships were just another symptom. I have come to believe that I suffer from a mental and emotional illness that only seems to respond to a spiritual solution.
What are your thoughts about relationships in recovery? Do you believe relationship difficulties can be overcome by spiritualizing them with the twelve steps?