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 simply not well enough to sustain a functional relationship with her. I knew that it was me that was the problem and not her. 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”
Twelve steps and twelve traditions – Page 53, Step Four
My therapists view
I refused to get a sponsor and work through the steps. Instead, I found a therapist. I began to see Liz for one-to-one sessions. After a while, she thought I may 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 in private practice. The group met once a week for two hours. It consisted of alcoholics, addicts, codependents and some members with eating disorders.
One day, we were talking about relationships in recovery. Liz made a statement about people that were struggling with any type of 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 behaviours since I was a young child.
Sugar and compulsive over eating
Being single, my Mother had to go out and work. She was faced with the difficult decision of putting 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 addiction to food and sweet things was a compensatory behaviour. Liz was right in her assessment. My relationship with food was my first and only meaningful relationship.
Being a mother substitute, my eating disorder was very primal and deep. When I came into recovery, initially, I found it easy to put down alcohol and drugs. Food and sugar was 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 behaviours were an adolescent’s way of expressing his feelings of pain and rage.
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.
They were soon replaced by the longest and most intimate relationship I ever had. In early adolescence, I became an alcoholic and a drug addict. It was a marriage that spanned for twenty years until I arrived at my first AA meeting.
My addiction to alcohol and drugs replaced any type of 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 from 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, it was London that 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 Chapter five “How it works” p. 62)
I was certainly no exception, especially in my marriage.
It became clear that I had used my wife in the same way that I had used alcohol and drugs. Her job was to fix me and rescue me from my inner emptiness. She helped to relieve the loneliness and isolation of active addiction.
I wasn’t aware of this at the time but she was my medication. In fact, until I did the steps, all of my girlfriends were just my medication. Later on, I discovered that this was my codependency. It was just another aspect of my spiritual illness.
My rejection of the twelve steps
When I first read the twelve steps, I was horrified. God and a higher power were mentioned in six of them. My foster mother was very religious and I went to a Catholic boarding school run by priests. My early experiences with religion were not positive. From an early age, I had resentment towards my childlike idea of God. When I was a newcomer and first saw the 12 steps, 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. For me, it was totally the opposite. I was dishonest, closed-minded and willful. As far as I was concerned, the 12 steps were all some kind of quasi-religious nonsense! I am lucky that my attitude to the 12 steps 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 good career and money. In hindsight, I was totally dependent on what I saw as external success. On the inside, I was a mess! My self-esteem was still very fragile because I had no relationship with myself.
Like alcohol and drugs; people, places and things were designed to help me feel better about myself. Because of my self-will, the day would always come when I would destroy my progress with another relapse. Then, as had always been my experience, I was left with a feeling 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 to invest all my efforts into therapy and not the steps. I didn’t get serious about the program till thirteen years later.
In that time, I had one relationship after another. I can only speak for myself but every one of them was codependent and dysfunctional. My relationships with women were the same as my addiction to alcohol and drugs.
I used them to satisfy my insatiable neediness and loneliness. I am sure many of my codependent girlfriends used me in the same way. None of these relationships was based on genuine love. Our primary purpose was to make our emptiness more bearable. How could there be any real honesty or integrity 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. On that day, I realized a very important thing. I had no working solutions to make my life happier and more manageable. Could this be because I had always tried to feel better about myself through external gratification?
My self-esteem was dependent on sex, relationships, power and money. These external fixes 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 12 steps allowed me to finally face myself honestly. What were the “causes and conditions” (BB “How it works” 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 experience of an honest relationship. Going through the steps with him, taught me what honesty even was. With my history, I had no idea.
I wouldn’t have known the truth about anything if I fell over it! Initially, honesty didn’t come easily to me. Like a new language, I had to learn it. My sponsor and the twelve steps led me towards the truth. The truth has indeed 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 the eventual progress I made in all my future relationships; both romantic and platonic.
The greatest gift of all
After so many years of relapse in AA, I am grateful that I was finally given 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 (another acronym for GOD). I began to face the defects of character that had always made my life so unmanageable.
Carl Jung, one of the world’s greatest psychiatrists and therapists made a very powerful discovery. It was very relevant to my own 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 my failure, to be honest.
The steps helped me to do just that. They helped me to face myself and my past. I had to face and deal with all my resentments and fears. I had to admit that my perception of myself and my history was entirely distorted by my alcoholism. Another expression for the disease of alcoholism is the “disease of perception”
By challenging my perceptions; I connected to the real me. My authentic self had been imprisoned by my maladapted ego for a very long time. The work I did with my sponsor gave me the greatest gift of all; the gift of myself. Through all my addictions, I was searching for a connection to my true self. What a surprise! To find that connection, I had to look inside and not outside.
The gift of the twelve steps
I am now 67 years old. For the last six years, I have been in the longest and happiest partnership that I have ever had. It is my first healthy and functional relationship. I owe this gift to my sponsor. He took me through the steps in an agnostic-friendly way.
I always used to believe that love was good sex. As a recovering alcoholic, I have discovered the secret to a successful relationship; one that works for me. I now fully accept that my alcoholism only responds to a spiritual solution.
If my relationships are to have any chance of success, they have to be guided by spiritual principles. They are honesty, integrity and sincerity. These are the newfound character assets that are helping my partner and me to grow together spiritually.
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, my partner and I will journey towards old age and the promise of a “happy destiny.” (Last paragraph of chapter eleven in the Big Book: “A vision for you” p.164)
My alcoholism was only a small part of my spiritual illness. Besides all my other addictions, dysfunctional, 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. I was already afflicted with it for many years before I picked up my first drink.
What are your thoughts about relationships in recovery? Do you believe that relationship difficulties can be overcome by spiritualizing them with the twelve steps?