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The one thing I know from decades in 12-step recovery is that I can’t do this alone. “This” means anything I can’t otherwise stop doing compulsively or stop using as a mood-altering drug, from spending, eating, drinking, sexing, Interneting, raging, underearning, co-dependent-ing, adult child-ing, “you name it.”
And when I say alone, I’m talking about my need for help from other humans, not so much the relationship with a Higher Power (or HP), which is fundamental to recovery, but for me, a big part of attaining that spiritual relationship includes my turning to others for help as well as extending my own hand in support. The fact is, my HP most often speaks to me through other people.
My Higher Power will Never Leave Me
In some ways, the one-on-one relationship with my HP is easier to manage than the ones with people, once I got the hang of it. Oh, there’s the occasional demoralized moment when I think I’m alone in the universe or I when I sink into self-pity, railing against some mis-perceived nasty targeting by my HP. But if I hang in there, eventually, I come to my senses.
Really, My HP never leaves me, though it sometimes feels that way, I must admit. But when I reach out, making the effort through meditation or prayer or just a friendly conversation, in other words, making conscious contact, well, there he or she is, waiting with open arms. And my HP never lets me down. It’s just that he or she doesn’t always give me what I want, which I have come to see is always in my best interest, though you’d never know it by the ranting, raving tantrums I throw when in the throes of being told no, not now, or never.
Somehow, This Crazy System Works
But it’s different with people, harder. I have real expectations of them. And they often disappoint me. But that’s just because I forget that they, just like me, are simply trying to meet their own needs. And if I had no expectations of others, I’d never be disappointed, right?
Even if you’re not in a 12-step program, I think you can understand what I mean. Not only do I have expectations of people, I get attached to them. So when they leave me, metaphorically, for reasons that may or may not have anything to do with me, I feel like the rug’s been pulled out from under me. I feel panicked, unmoored, freaked out.
In 12-step recovery programs, it doesn’t matter which one, we’re basically instructed to become vulnerable to others, to share our deepest, innermost thoughts and darkest secrets with newly met friends, trusting that we can trust them. Somehow, this crazy system works.
Higher Power Gives Us a Push When We Won’t Let Go
But when you’ve been in recovery as long as I have and worked as many programs as me, it’s inevitable that you’ll lose a source of support at some point, and, more likely than not, in a terribly painful and unexpected manner. In fact, because it happens so often, I’ve come to believe that these losses are actually part of our recovery journey, and through the pain they cause, if we stay sober, these experiences will lead us to a new levels of surrender and spiritual growth.
Even better, I’ve come to see that these endings are always my Higher Power pushing me off a cliff because I’ve been too afraid to jump. And even when the pain lingers for a long, long time, the landing may feel hard, but the fact is that I’ve only been bruised, not broken. I may walk away limping, but I’m ambulatory. And I always end up in a far better place because of being forced to let go.
Phone Meeting Relationships are Fragile
All but one of my meetings are on the phone. I’ve developed extremely close, long-term friendships with people in recovery whom I have never seen, not even in a photograph. I’ve also experienced sudden, harrowing, hurtful losses in those phone relationships. And I must admit to being on the giving end of that pain a few times, myself, though I always try to do it with integrity and not just cut and run.
I’ve found that these phone-only relationships are more fragile, those no less intimate, than those we have with people we see on an ongoing basis in live meetings. If you’re a sponsor, sending a goodbye text with no real explanation (that happened to me) or just disappearing (that happened to me too) is a lot easier if you never have to worry about running into the person. Sometimes, we don’t lose the relationship entirely, but the nature of it changes, such as when a sponsor loses her abstinence and must release her sponsees temporarily. When the sponsor is honest about what happened, friendships may become even closer because of the shift in roles.
Some of us work recovery programs where we are expected to speak to, or email, a sponsor or action partner daily or on a regular basis. When we lose that source of support, it can send us spinning. Over the past year, I’ve lost five of those people. Two were my choice because the relationships had become toxic. And then, there are the recovery friendships lost because people in our support network dropped out of program or simply no longer answer our calls, emails, or texts.
Some losses are less painful, like when it isn’t really a surprise, when you feel like it’s nothing you’ve done, when you’ve barely gotten to know the person, or when you don’t feel a personal sense of rejection (like when a sponsor loses her abstinence and has to release her sponsees). But the relationships with people I’d truly come to love, trust, and count on, where I felt gaslighted or manipulated or betrayed or when someone disappeared with just a text and no real explanation, those are the relationship losses that make me feel like I’ve been kicked in the gut and then punched in the face.
We Need the Eggs
The real trick for me is getting back into the game—being willing to open up again—despite getting knocked down. But I know there is no recovery in isolation. So for me, there is no choice but to pick myself up and engage with others. I’m reminded of the old Woody Allen joke from the movie “Annie Hall:”
A guy walks into a psychiatrist’s office and says, hey doc, my brother’s crazy! He thinks he’s a chicken. Then the doc says, why don’t you turn him in? Then the guy says, I would but I need the eggs. I guess that’s how I feel about relationships. They’re totally crazy, irrational, and absurd, but we keep going through it because we need the eggs.
That’s nowhere more true than in 12-step recovery.
Change in Life is Inevitable … So Why Does it Always Shock Me?
I think the real problem is that I become complacent. I’m never prepared for a major loss. Heck, I’m rocked when there’s even a minor change to my routine. But that’s ridiculous, isn’t it? Because all of life involves change and loss. Nothing, absolutely nothing, stays the same forever. So why am I always so surprised when change happens in a relationship?
Every time I lose a sponsor, I immediately jump to the thought that I’m going to lose my sobriety. But no matter how terrified and hurt and scared and abandoned I’ve felt, I just remind myself that all I have to do today is exactly what I did yesterday and I will get through the day sober. And that has worked every time.
I know that I cannot let my sobriety be dependent on another person, no matter how attached I’ve felt or how helpful they’ve been. It’s just a delusion. That person was sent by my HP as a vehicle to help me learn my next spiritual lesson.
It’s emotionally hard to lose a sponsor in all 12 step programs, but in some, not having that support person actually does jeopardize your recovery. There are sub-groups within 12-step programs around compulsive eating and spending of which I’ve been a part that actually consider it a break of abstinence if you go even one day without committing your food or your money, respectively, to a sponsor.
The problem is that it’s tricky if you work that kind of program, if you lose your sponsor or action partner. To whom do you turn it over if you have no one to turn it over to?
OMG, you have no idea of the stress and anxiety that has caused over the years when I was in-between sponsors. I would make call after call to reach someone, feeling increasingly frantic if the day went on and no one picked up.
In retrospect, I think it was good for me to have the willingness to go to any lengths to reach out. But today, I know that I don’t have to react in a panic if the earth shifts under my feet. There is still a HP to whom I can turn if I can’t reach a human. But I have to confess that I still experience fear during those in-between times. Despite the fact that I am powerless over the situation, because I can’t follow my comfortable way of doing things, I’m worried that it means I’m losing my abstinence. But that’s nonsense. It doesn’t mean anything of the sort.
Acceptance is the Answer
The key, during stressful times, is to continue staying rigorously honest. What I can’t do is use a break in my routine as an excuse to debt or binge or engage in any of my other addictions. I need to respect that it’s a time for caution. As I said earlier, I cannot become complacent, especially after an earthquake. During those times, I have to watch my addict mind even more carefully as it looks for a crack in the foundation, all the while still working to replace the missing pieces of my recovery.
But I also can have faith that my recovery is strong enough to withstand the pain of loss and a temporary change in how I work my program. If I am committed to dying sober, abstinent, and solvent, then, by golly, I can remain so if life throws me a curveball by dissolving a relationship. Losing a recovery relationship only threatens my sobriety if I refuse to accept my new reality.
As it says in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous on page 417 of the 4th Edition:
Acceptance is the answer to ALL of my problems today. When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing or situation- some fact of my life- unacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing, or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment. Nothing, absolutely nothing, happens in God’s world by mistake. Until I could accept my alcoholism, I could not stay sober; unless I accept my life completely on life’s terms, I cannot be happy. I need to concentrate not so much on what needs to be changed in the world as on what needs to be changed in me and in my attitudes.