The alcoholic – An egomaniac with an inferiority complex
A contradiction in terms
Soon after I arrived in AA, I heard a bizarre description of the alcoholic personality. The alcoholic is “an egomaniac with an inferiority complex.” What a strange definition! It seemed like a complete contradiction. How can you have a big ego and suffer from an inferiority complex at the same time?
A person with an inflated ego has an exaggerated opinion of themselves. Conversely, someone suffering from an inferiority complex has a low opinion of themselves. Here are two polar opposites. Although it sounded like a contradiction, it had an uncanny feeling of familiarity about it. Could it be describing me?
AA – A simple program for complicated people
I left school when I was thirteen. At that age, I already had a problem with alcohol. Within a couple of years, I found myself on the streets, a homeless drunk. Not long after that, I became a consumer of the mental health system. After 17 years of active alcoholism, I arrived in AA. Seeing others recreate their lives gave me the hope that I could do the same.
From day one, life without alcohol was a challenge. The image I projected was cocky and arrogant. Behind this facade, I was anxious and insecure. The self-confident persona was quite different from the truth. I tried to fool everyone, including myself, that I had it all together. Was I hiding behind the defenses of a false ego? Being an egomaniac with an inferiority complex does require convincing acting skills.
“Each person is like an actor who wants to run the whole show” (BB p. 60)
An undiscovered genius
On the one hand, I was a chronic people-pleaser. I would deny my integrity to be liked and accepted. On the other hand, I secretly believed that I was an undiscovered genius. Once people recognized this about me, I would shine and get all the attention I craved. I wasn’t the only one who saw myself in this way. As I discovered, the fellowship is full of undiscovered geniuses!
A journey of self-discovery
Soon after coming into AA, it became clear that if I wanted to stay sober, I would have to resolve the issues I drank to avoid facing. After getting to know me, a friend at meetings said that, in many ways, I was my own worst enemy. The truth was that I had little or no relationship with myself. After getting sober, I was determined to find a partner. How could I make it work with anyone if I had no idea who I was? The AA literature made my situation very clear.
“The primary fact that we fail to recognize is our total inability to form a true partnership with another human being.”
I read many books about psychology and personal development. They didn’t help me to stay sober. In early sobriety, I was so mentally and emotionally unstable that I kept relapsing. There was a fear that I would end up in a psychiatric hospital. From as far back as I can remember, I felt socially alienated. As a teenager, I developed a strange idea that I was an alien from another planet. All these negative feelings persisted into sobriety. Eventually, I went to see a doctor. He prescribed antidepressants. This medication made staying sober bearable.
The maladapted alcoholic ego versus the authentic self
My head, or ‘ Radio Andy’ as I came to call it, was frequently at war with itself. It was like having two people in one body. One day, it occurred to me that my alcoholism amounted to an inner duality. As I grew in self-awareness, I came to call these two conflicting aspects of myself’ the maladapted ego’ and ‘the authentic self.’
It wasn’t easy trying to stay sober with so much inner turmoil. I was in and out of AA for a long time. How was I going to resolve my inner bedevilments? Rather than surrender to the twelve steps, I decided to go into therapy. In the hands of trained professionals, I had great hopes that psychology would be my salvation.
The hole in the soul
The aggressive internal dialogue between the negative ego and the real me created loneliness that was hard to tolerate. In the AA literature, I remember reading: “Almost without exception, alcoholics are tortured by loneliness.” (12&12 p.57) I was no exception. Since childhood, I had to find a way to medicate inner emptiness. My first drug of choice was food, especially sugar. Then, as a teenager, I graduated to alcohol and drugs. For many years, I didn’t see my addiction as a problem; they were my solution!
The ego in well-adjusted people
It wasn’t until I came into recovery that I began to learn about the alcoholic ego. I was significantly different from an average, well-adjusted person. A person with a balanced sense of self can get ahead and become successful. The ego of alcoholics becomes so maladapted that although they frantically try to win the game of life, their low self-esteem propels them to their eventual self-destruction.
The maladapted ego within me wasn’t creating anything worthwhile; quite the opposite! Once I crossed the invisible line into alcoholism, my ego turned against me like a boomerang. I blamed my childhood for the fact that I became a homeless drunk. The hatred I felt for my primary caregivers was like drinking the poison myself and expecting the people I resented to die.
The insanity of the alcoholic illness
As an alcoholic, my thinking and behavior were so self-defeating and repetitive that insanity was probably an appropriate way of describing me.
“Insanity is making the same mistake repeatedly and expecting different results.”
Attributed to Albert Einstein
I would not take one shred of responsibility for the life I had created. This kind of dishonesty continued to make life unmanageable. My maladapted alcoholic ego became highly accomplished at lying to myself. I had myself convinced that I was unique and super special. In contrast, my lack of self-esteem told a very different story. After a few years in AA, I admitted that the behaviors generated by this mindset were insane.
It’s not a coincidence that when Bill W wrote the Big Book and The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, the term insanity and all its different variations was used 18 times. The words sanity, sanely, and sane appear in the literature 25 times!
Step two of the Twelve Steps suggests that we can only describe ourselves as sane after we complete the first nine steps.
“Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.“
Blame – An end game for alcoholics
Blame fuelled my anger. The Big Book describes anger “as the dubious luxury of normal men.”
Chapter Five makes another compelling statement, describing the fourth step inventory process. Bill saved my life with the following sentence. It was an entirely new way of looking at life. For the first time, I could no longer deny that it was me, not anyone else, that was the problem.
“Referring to our list again, putting out of our minds the wrongs others had done, we resolutely looked for our own mistakes.”
Bill’s method of tackling step four began to dismantle the belief that I was a victim of other people’s harm against me. Ego kept these resentments alive.
“Resentment is the “number one” offender. It destroys more alcoholics than anything else.”
The miracle of the twelve steps
Where everything else failed, the twelve steps resurrected me from the living death of untreated alcoholism. Steps four and five helped me see that resentment was eating me alive. My reaction to life was the problem, not what others had done.
Step six introduced me to the things in my character that created the painful duality. In AA, I began to understand why members describe alcoholics as “egomaniacs with low self-esteem.”
In step seven, through humility, I am learning to reduce the destructive nature of my character defects. A willingness to overcome my shortcomings requires a daily surrender of self-will.
Step eight gave me the willingness to make amends to the people I had harmed. The process of asking to be forgiven was very healing. In return, I received the gift of self-respect. After completing the first nine steps, I came to know “a new freedom and a new happiness.” (1st promise BB p 83)
On completion of the first nine steps, Bill makes the following statement. I was so grateful that his words became my own experience.
“For by this time, sanity will have returned.”
As an agnostic in recovery, I gradually experienced a non-God-centered spiritual awakening. Through love and service to other alcoholics, I have found happiness and fulfillment. The journey of the twelve steps has taught me to “trust the program, clean house, and help others.” AA’s simple program has allowed me to reduce my ego and increase my self-esteem.
What a priceless gift!