Relationships and Early Recovery
Relationships and Early Recovery by Ben H
Ben H is a person in long-term recovery himself who has worked as a prison chaplain and in street-level out-reach for many years, both in Manchester and Los Angeles.
I came to recovery at the age of 44, at the same time I started working as a chaplain in an English prison. What I was learning in early recovery about my own addictive behaviour helped me tremendously in my work with men in prison, a large majority of whom had substance abuse issues and/or other out-of-control behaviours. I would like, in this article, to share some of what I have learned over many years accompanying such people, whether in prison or not. When I have the opportunity to share some of these insights in 12-step meetings, rehabs and other places, I find that many people, even when they are a good bit younger than I, respond positively and identify readily with what I am saying.
The first thing I learned is that I can’t sell recovery. Of the many people to whom I suggested AA, NA, Al-anon or other such groups, of the many to whom I handed literature from these fellowships, few if any responded to this direct approach. Though I could see that 12-step programs offered a solution to their problems, they were generally not ready or open to consider this option.
However, I eventually discovered that the strange, off-hand way we have ‘in the rooms’ of telling people how we see them in a blunt but non-judgmental manner bore a lot of fruit. Most people are secretly pleased that someone who seems to have a bit of substance is interested enough in them to observe and reflect on their personal
qualities and actions, and is concerned enough to share observations and insights. The secret seems to be in offering your perceptions in a friendly way that is not critical or shaming, from a stance of ‘I’ve got problems, you’ve got problems, every body’s got problems, and, in case you’re interested, this is how I see your problems.’
This approach does not get people to the rooms of recovery immediately, but it prepares the ground for the seeds of interest and curiosity to be sown. And those seeds, in my experience, will most often not be sown by me or family members or anyone closely or emotionally involved with the addict. It will normally be some apparently accidental remark by a nurse in an emergency room, a probation officer, a prison guard, or an old using or drinking buddy who says the words that eventually get the person moving.
After sixteen years in England, I was reassigned to our community in Los Angeles ,where I continued to work with prisoners, addicts and homeless people. When I returned to England some seven and a half years later, I found that a number of my old friends, whom I had tried valiantly, years earlier, to interest in recovery, had now found their way to ‘the rooms’ on their own, in just the ways mentioned above. After three years back in Manchester I continue to come across old friends who are crawling onto the raft of recovery. I call it a raft because it is at surface level, where it is fairly easy to crawl onto. It is also fairly easy to drop, or get swept, off, unless you’re holding tight yourself, or being held onto by others.
Another challenge of carrying the message informally in a prison or rehab setting is learning to present the spiritual heft of the 12-step programs in ways that make sense to people with various attitudes toward ultimate truth, toward religion or faith, attitudes ranging from hostility and indifference to mania and proselytizing zeal. Trying to open people to such thinking without putting them on the defensive requires sensitivity. My approach is to wait till the other person broaches the subject, and then to listen carefully to their experiences and thoughts. Since my own wanderings and struggles took me through various patches in the gardens of belief, I find that I can often identify where the person finds himself and then either affirm their conclusions or respectfully suggest a way forward that might help them to develop their understanding of their spiritual itinerary.
Now let us move fast forward to early recovery. How often I have heard people with a few months of recovery gradually stop talking about the wonderful new freedom they have found and start talking about how lonely they are. I sometimes joke that if you want to get everybody at a 12-step meeting to pay attention to your share, you only have to start talking about loneliness.
At this point I often remember letters exchanged with my older brother when I was in my early 30’s. I was trying to understand why I felt so lonely and disconnected so much of the time, and I wrote to him asking if he was aware of any factors from my childhood that would explain it. Was I an accident, unwanted, illegitimate, adopted or otherwise anomalous? My brother had always been popular, out-going and friendly, he had a healthy marriage and family and a successful career, hobbies and involvement in various groups. I felt that he was a lot more ‘normal’ than I was. His response was as follows.
‘My dear brother, there was nothing strange about your childhood. Not only were you wanted, Mumma and Daddy made conscious efforts over a period of time to conceive you. But loneliness is just part of the human condition. Everybody is lonely at times, and many people are lonely a lot of the time. It’s just a fact of life. It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you.’
That helped me learn to live with the loneliness life presents me with, and accepting it has led me to the conclusion that it serves a purpose. It makes me aware that I need others, that I need another, that I need something bigger, stronger, higher–in effect, that I need other people and a God of my understanding.
I am convinced that the craving at the core of addiction is a spiritual craving. Based on my own experience, I would say that we humans need an infinite amount of love and attention. As regards substances, the reason ‘one is too many and a thousand never enough’ is this: one is too many because the one we are using is the wrong thing, it won’t do the job. What we need is love, belonging, connection, not just a substance-generated feeling—or lack of feeling. And a thousand is never enough because I can never get enough love and attention. I need more than any one person or even group of people can give. I would say that I need an infinite amount of love. And if you don’t believe me, ask yourself why famous people who have loads of money, thousands of admirers, enormous respect, abundant rewards and lots of love, still sometimes over-dose from drugs or commit suicide. They want or need even more than they have. This is not so much a sign of greed as a sign of the depth of our neediness. Our longing for love—our longing to love— is profound, if not infinite. There is only one source big enough to give all we need.
Sometimes in recovery we hear people talk about ‘the God-shaped hole’ at the heart of one’s being. That image is paradoxical since for most people God is a spiritual reality with infinite extension and no specific shape or form. What the image means is that we have a need and a yearning for something infinite, for something eternal, for something far greater than we can ever contain.
What does it mean to say that the craving at the core of addiction is a spiritual craving? The word ‘spiritual’ comes from the Latin word spiritus meaning breath, as in respiration, inspiration, perspiration, etc.) To say that a human being is spirited is to say that he or she is fully alive, fully animated with the breath of life. Spirituality is not something exotic or difficult, not something ethereal or demanding. Spirituality is as basic, as simple–and as necessary–as breathing.
Ask yourself how long you can go without food. Probably no more than a day or two before you start feeling faint. How long can you go without water? You start to get dry-mouth after a few hours and chills after a few more. And how long can you go without breathing? Seconds, for pearl-divers maybe a few minutes–and then you’re dead.
Your body needs air. There is even a special emptiness at the core of you (your lungs) that cries out for air, and the air you take in affects your whole body. When you’re anxious or panicky, your friend will tell you to take a few deep breaths. You immediately feel yourself becoming calmer.
Imagine that you are in a car with four or five other people, driving over the moors from Manchester to Sheffield. Music is playing, a kind you don’t like. Two people are talking loudly about something inane. One is smoking. Another is eating something with onions. The car deodorizer is sickly sweet. When you get to the top of the curvy road you have a head-ache. You are grateful that somebody has to stop and take a pee. You all get out. You walk a few feet from the road and take a deep breath. The air is cool and full of the odour of peat and heather, with a waft of pine from the valley below. You see hardly anything, a grey sky, some bare hills, nothing. But you are not breathing nothing, you’re breathing air. You can’t see it. You don’t have to believe in it. If it were nothing, you’d be dead. But it’s air, and it’s life, and your headache is gone.
If you’re one of those people who says proudly, I only believe what I can see, I urge you to stop breathing. Try it. You won’t succeed. You can’t help breathing, it’s your nature. You can’t see gravity either, but you obey it all day every day. And if you venture out into space where gravity is undetectable, take a deep breath of the real nothing that’s there, and you’ll be dead as dead can be.
Spirituality as Relationship
Very well, you say, but spirituality is about more than the air you breathe. Zen may begin with counting breaths, the mantra may be chanted to the rhythm of your breathing, you may recite the Jesus Prayer with each breath you take, but, you’re right, spirituality implies something more than air.
But just as breathing is a symbol of your relationship with all that is beyond and outside and bigger than you, spirituality is about a relationship with ‘it all’, or with what transcends ‘it all.’ Every human being has a relationship, for instance, with the earth. At the very least it is called gravity. But you can have a much richer relationship with earth than merely letting it hug you to itself in sleep or prevent you from jumping to the moon. You can see her as mother. You can explore her surface and even excavate deep within her crust. You can descend deep into her seas, explore her caverns, hike down into her canyons. You can look at her from the moon, as the astronauts did, and it will give you a feeling of tenderness and nostalgia. You can spend a lifetime getting to know our earth, and that’s still only a beginning. So why can’t you have a relationship with something even bigger than a planet, with ‘it all’, or with what transcends ‘it all?’
Even as the air invades and permeates your body, so ‘all that’ does, in fact, claim you as its own, does in fact disregard the boundaries of your self, does in fact eventually dissolve you. ‘The dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it.’ (Eccles. 12:7) How you describe and experience that relationship with what is beyond you and within you is what you could call your spirituality. I would define spirituality as the whole way a person or group experiences and expresses its relationship with what is unseen, with what transcends ordinary material realities.
First of all, spirituality has to do with relationship, connections, a sort of mutuality or reciprocity. Then it has to do with something that is higher, that is invisible, that transcends. Those who are averse to God-concepts often say their Higher Power is the group, or humanity, or some abstract concept like love, life, truth. Even if one’s concept of Higher Power is something concrete and visible like the group or humanity or nature or the universe, I don’t think many people would scruple that there is a certain immaterial abstractness about such concepts.
People who have prejudices about religion or who have had negative experience of religion, often make the crack that ‘Religion is for people who are afraid of hell. Spirituality is for people who have been there.’ This is a clever way to dismiss religion, but it is both unfair and dishonest. Many religious people are motivated by love, devotion and faithfulness far more than by fear. Personally, I would be inclined to say that religions are the cultural embodiment of the spirituality of a group, nation or people. Just as an individual’s spirituality is expressed in certain ways of thinking, acting and praying, certain images, patterns of behaviour and priorities, so, over time, the spirituality of a large group of people (or peoples) becomes incarnate in certain forms. I say this not to ‘push’ or justify religion. I fully understand why many people are wary of religion. But it is sad when people cut themselves off from a rich supply of spiritual nourishment that could be immensely helpful to them simply because they have not worked their steps on resentments left over from childhood or thought through for themselves prejudices inculcated by influential others. To refuse all religious wisdom is to act like a person who won’t go to a doctor even when seriously ill because he had a bad experience at a hospital in childhood.
Now, to move on from this discussion of the relationship with one’s Higher Power, we are also concerned in recovery and in the spirituality of recovery with other relationships. To mention a few, we have a relationship with nature, with self, with society, with friends, and with a partner or spouse. For many people, nature is where they most easily find a sense of connectedness with creation and whatever stands beyond it. Through our relationship with the natural world we break out of the confines of social roles and explore beyond our personal limitations. The wonder and the terror of the natural world connect us with our primitive past and invite us toward our imagined future.
I often hear people in recovery, especially when they have been around for a year or more, talk about discovering for the first time who they are as a person. They begin to realize that they are more than simply a hungering neediness to be filled or anaesthetized. They begin to sense a relationship with themselves. At the very least this could be described as a communication between the observing, aware self and the self that is observed, noted and increasingly granted some degree of love and respect. As time goes on, this relationship with oneself can develop into a healthy affection for one’s humanity and a realistic appreciation of oneself as a person.
Our relationships with society in general and other people in particular is an area that, for most of us, requires a lifetime of resentment-therapy, healing and conscientious hard work. We find those sympathetic souls who share enough with us that we can identify with their strengths and weaknesses and call them friends. We often discover real friends for the first time in recovery. Before we were so focused on our needs and desires, on what other people had and we didn’t, that we could not really see the person as a per-sona. That is, we could not see beyond the outer social mask or façade representing a role or character, the actor’s mask, out of which sounds the living voice of a real human being, a surprising and unpredictable reality who is and must remain mysterious.
We could talk at greater length about these and other relationships, but I want to return to a theme I broached at the beginning of this article—the tendency people in early recovery have to feel lonely and lose themselves (and often their recovery) in a romantic or sexual relationship with a lover or partner. I have several points to make about this, and I suppose it is a bit futile to make them, because the intensity of the feelings aroused normally makes those experiencing them deaf, blind and paralyzed before any influences that would seek to mitigate them.
The first point is that ‘falling in love’ or ‘infatuation’ is built into our human nature. Both physically and psychologically we are hard-wired to have such feelings. And these feelings are so powerful that they often overwhelm our defences, our better thinking, and even our moral values. These feelings are stronger than most drugs, and, in fact, I think they probably represent the underlying pattern or paradigm on which other addictions are based. I would also hazard to assert that for most addicts, their substance-misuse problems manifest after and derive from earlier experiences of person-centred dependencies, whether in the family or in early romantic/sexual experiences. We often turn to substances to help us cope with confusing romantic or sexual feelings. The substances might mask or neutralize the feelings if they are experienced as conflictive and negative, or they might disinhibit us and allow us to go ahead and act on our feelings if that is our inclination.
Someone to Depend On
The word for ‘addict’ in some languages is ‘dependent’. ‘Je m’appelle Ben, et je suis dependent.’ In Italian, the more formal word for ‘drogato’ is ‘tossico–dipendente’ (depending on poison). In my opinion most people with substance dependencies (alcohol, drugs etc) are also inclined to be dependent on people and enter into dependent relationships. The default relationship pattern of addicts is to fall in love with somebody who will help them function in their preferred lifestyle—which means someone who is co-dependent, who ‘needs to be needed’, who is a care-taker, a rescuer, an enabler.
The tendency of dependent type people (whether addicts or co-dependents) is to look for someone who will complement their needs and their neediness. The illusion of falling in love is that I have found the one who can satisfy my deepest needs, and the more deeply I feel my needs, the more deeply will this illusory bond glue me to my partner.
But we have already seen that our neediness is profound, even infinite, so to imagine that there is one person who can satisfy that need is totally unrealistic. It is a delusion and puts an intolerable burden on the other person. Sooner or later both partners will realize that such a bond is simply untenable, and the relationship will disintegrate into disappointment, rebellion, betrayal and hostility.
What then? The fact is we do need a help-mate, a partner, a beloved. Is there any solution? Is there any such thing as a healthy marriage, a balanced relationship? Of course. It is one in which both partners have reasonably good and growing relationships with themselves, with friends and family, and, above all, with their Higher Power, and in which both partners’ primary dependency is not on each other but precisely on their Higher Power, the only source of love and affirmation sufficient to our insatiable need. Those who, for whatever reason, decide to or are obliged to live without a partner as formal or informal celibates will probably have to compensate for the anchoring, steadying presence of a spouse by intensifying their other relationships, especially the relationship with their Higher Power.
So, we return to the main point of this article, that the craving at the core of addiction is not for substances, not even for human relationships, but precisely for spiritual fulfilment. ‘Anything you put before your recovery, you will lose!’ ‘Any relationship you put before your relationship with the God of your understanding, will fail you.’
And, I will add, in conclusion, if your relationship with your Higher Power is on-going, vital, growing, then your concept of God will become ever deeper, richer and more fulfilling. The caricatures of God that militant atheists ridicule and reject were long ago left behind by all those seriously searching for a deep understanding of life’s meaning and purpose. In the end, as the great spiritual masters of the ages always teach, no concept of God can measure up to the reality of God. Just as each individual person is a mystery too deep ever to be plumbed, so our relationship with God invites us to explore ever more deeply and more fully what the mystics describe at the Mysterium Tremendum.