Engaging and Growing: Progressive Recovery Through Relationships
For this final episode of Season 2 of the Recovery Sessions, we wanted to explore one of the most critical aspects of engaging in progressive recovery: developing and nurturing healthy relationships. We spoke with Amy and Michelle, who shared with us how addiction and recovery has impacted their relationship.
In the early stages of recovery, why is it important to avoid beginning new romantic relationships, and what changes as you get deeper into recovery?
AMY: Single and sober was the last place in which I wanted to find myself at 23. The sobriety part grew on me but the single part did not. The drinking and drugs had “quit working” sufficiently enough for me to attempt abstinence, but when it came to relationships, there was still a lot of value to be had from experiencing the highs of infatuation. In other words, romantic relationships were “still working.” My earliest recollection of a really good high was the summer after Freshman year in high school. I was 15 and had my first falling in love experience with a girl I’d met at summer camp. I made a move on Summer Camp Girl (it always worked with the boys!) and found out very quickly that she did not reciprocate my feelings of attraction. The remainder of that summer break and the first half of the following school year were some of the darkest times of my life, having found the best drug (infatuation) in my world, but not having people at whom I could aim it. Shortly thereafter, that changed and I began to find girls who were willing to play the Game: fall in “love,” devote every ounce of energy and time to each other, crash and burn. Repeat ad infinitum.
It didn’t matter whether the circumstances surrounding my relationships were drunk or sober, I have always been able to find the girl to play the Game. So when I got sober, the challenge of finding that girl, entering into obsession mode and subsequently getting her to like me and thereby having all my “needs” met was increased 10-fold because I no longer had alcohol and drugs on which to fall back. This way of surviving in the world is inherently problematic in a multitude of ways.
First, the lows that are suffered during the rejection phase or the I’m-over-it phase felt like death. And what did I do when I felt like death? Escape via the Bottle.
Second, it is nearly impossible for me to be genuine during the Game. It is almost entirely a ruse to get the other person to become as obsessed with me as I am with them. And when I’m not being genuine, my spiritual growth is severely stunted, if not halted entirely. So I’m not even really able to work a program thoroughly or honestly. And if I’m not able to work the steps, my chance of avoiding Escape via the Bottle is lessened considerably.
Thirdly, it’s an endless cycle. At least until I gain enough awareness (in my case through step work) to be catapulted out of the vortex or, in my case, get married. I have had both of those experiences, the most concrete of which was getting married. Then for a people pleaser like me, the Game has to change. And after several years of being in marriage and beginning to see the Truth through working the steps, I had to decide if I actually loved my wife or if she was just another pawn in my Game.
What has happened for me in recovery is the more time that passes, my old ways of surviving of the world get ripped away, and I am left with more of my Self each time. To paraphrase a line from a piece of 12 step literature, this “separates the boys from the men and the girls from the women.” I work the steps and get a look at my deepest, darkest fears, the fears which call for nothing short of Escape via the Bottle and/or Escape via the Woman. I learn why I do what I do and that my responses to life are perfectly normal (though harmful as they may be, they presumably kept me alive). The more I can see my truest shortcomings – fear of not being loved – and abandon those shortcomings to Higher Power when I’m able, I no longer have the desperate and insatiable need for validation in the ways in which I’ve just described. I am in no way saying that I am completely healed of the character defects. But it has gotten different has a result of working the steps and telling the truth in such a manner that I am not forced to act blindly upon desires and am able to sit with my discomfort with some level of peace and serenity to an increasing degree. In other words, I no longer have to run away.
MICHELLE: As a rebel coming into the rooms of recovery I dared anyone deny my opportunity for Love/Sex/Addiction!! Seriously, I hear people suggest many things that are not necessarily the WORD of NA. I feel much more open about allowing myself and others to hit bottoms and experience pain to grow. In my view – if I delay a relationship it won’t make me better in relationship later. I can only practice relationship while being in relationship. My relationships have certainly evolved from what they were when I was using and in early recovery. But honestly, I have the same dependencies on others now as I did when I was using. I have the same old ideas that still cause me pain, just more awareness associated with the pain along with a deeper understanding of Higher Power.
How has both of you being in recovery impacted your relationship?
AMY: The spiritual work I have done in relationship with Michelle is by far the most challenging and the most rewarding. As a result of both of us being in recovery, we share a really solid foundation and starting point for the work we get to do together. After about 5 years of being with Michelle, I began to understand why the divorce rate is so high (my love addiction tendencies aside).
Recovery, and specifically the steps, set us up perfectly to dig deeper into imago work with a licensed therapist. One of the key tenets of the 12 steps is being able to see one’s own part in a situation which corresponds beautifully with one of the main tenets of imago work – empathy. When I am truly able to see why Michelle did what she did or what she said as a result of her working the steps to get down to the heart of the matter for herself, the dynamic of our relationship fundamentally changes. For instance, one day recently, Michelle asked me to do something for her. My immediate and unconscious response was discomfort. I could feel it in my body and my thoughts began racing to find a justification for saying No. It was time for step work. What I found was not new information, but a repeated iteration of story-telling based on my belief system.
My “old idea” belief set tells me that I MUST make sure Michelle is okay with me, that I am pleasing to her. And further that I am ultimately responsible for her well-being. Faced with these old ideas, the only way I can respond to her is to say “Yes, I’ll do it.” Regardless of any other circumstance, I must say “Yes.” My way of surviving that is resentment and departure. For Michelle’s part, any indication of my refusal to do something she’s asked, is perceived as rejection. I reject her, which translates into the old idea that she’s alone in the world and can’t rely on anyone for love or support or help; it’s the perfect storm. The way we get here is the steps.
For us, the benefit of being in recovery is that we have a shared framework for living and knowing how to dig into all the uncomfortable spots in our relationship. The steps are deeply practical, malleable, and fluid. Therefore, they can be applied to any and everything, including relationship.
MICHELLE: When Amy and I got together I had about ten years clean. I had gotten a little lazy about the program and working with a sponsor. Amy was brand new in recovery and was attracted to recovery so it definitely made me pick up the pace so to speak. I wanted to impress and please and attract. That lasted for a couple of years then I was back in the same lazy spot in recovery. I often dreamt of escape and suicide was not off the table some days. I had convinced myself that I had grown all I could from recovery and the pain of life felt inescapable. I had created the belief that I had worked the steps as many times as I could and with as many sponsors and joined as many homegroups and did as much service as anyone! Therefore, fuck it.
It was this bottom that helped me and Amy hit a bottom, as she soon started to judge my recovery aloud. It wasn’t until we broke up that the veil of denial had lifted my eyes long enough to see the truth. It was the beginning of the next phase of my emotional development. At first, I really took off. Recovery was new again – I was desperate for the program again. That was a few years ago and while my desperation has eased the new path of a progressive recovery path has not.
I know that part of this is ego, but essentially Amy helps me stay motivated. She and I talk about recovery and go to meetings and workshops together. We have even participated in relationship panels for meeting events. On the dark side of this – we are both so emotionally damaged from our youths the work is never finished!
Do you have any advice for people in recovery who are also working on being in a committed, romantic relationship?
AMY: If there is one thing I would recommend to those deepening their progressive recovery work, it would be Tell the Truth!
MICHELLE: I would say my greatest lesson (and the best one I can share) is that self-sufficiency is a lie and that I can't fix me. I experience freedom in asking for help and relying on a power greater than myself.