Relationships and Early Sobriety

Relationships with other people are one of life’s greatest challenges, especially for those of us new to recovery.

 

This is the reason why we learn in AA to avoid romantic relationships during the first year of our recovery.  Although establishing them may be one of our greatest achievements in recovery, the challenge of an intimate relationship is too great for us in our fragile first year.

 

Many of us have returned to the dumpster of addiction because we ventured into romance before we were ready. Recovery is as much about getting healthy as it is about getting real.  By getting real I mean facing the sources of our pain and misery.  For years—even decades—we have shielded ourselves from pain through drugs and alcohol.  The beauty of pain is that it provides the catalyst for change.

 

When that pain reaches a critical threshold, non-addicts summon the courage to finally change their ways.  For the addict, however, the pain that would normally provide transformation is numbed out by alcohol and drugs.  That is why—if we are being truly honest with ourselves—we addicts are all emotionally immature.

 

Bill Wilson was acutely aware of this.  In “Emotional Sobriety,” published in a 1958 edition AA Grapevine, Bill W. confides in us about his demands for approval, prestige, and security from others.  “Since AA began, I’ve taken immense wallops in all these areas because of my failure to grow up, emotionally and spiritually.”   It took Bill W. nearly 20 years after his last drink to face the pain and suffering these demands caused himself and others.

 

By denying our pain, we have denied our own growth.  So how can we take on the ultimate life challenge—intimate relationship—when we lack emotional maturity, the very thing that makes relationships work?   And how can we be truly intimate with another when we have never been emotionally intimate with ourselves?

 

The answer is the AA meeting.  For many of us, we walk through the doors of AA for the first time very alone in the world.  If our friends and loved ones haven’t washed their hands of us, then we have done the job for them through isolating, one of the addict’s favorite defenses against pain—and growth.  One of the greatest gifts of AA comes from meetings. They are the classrooms for emotional maturity.

 

In them, we discover the power of connection.  We come to the truth that we can’t stay sober on our own.  But this discovery is the easy part.  Then we must do the heavy lifting.  And that is clearing away all the stones we have put in the wall between us and other people—to finally be vulnerable.  Without vulnerability, people cannot connect with us. Without connection, we cannot experience deep relationship, which is ultimately the source of all our cravings.

 

Yes, vulnerability involves heavy lifting. But we get the help we need in meetings when AA veterans show us through their sharing what vulnerability looks like.  And it is a thing of absolute beauty.

 

This modeling of vulnerability gives us the confidence to do the same in meetings.  And if we can be vulnerable in meetings, we can be vulnerable in our relationships outside meetings.  But before we venture into the advanced coursework of intimate relationship, we must get the practice in connection and vulnerability we need with the friends we meet in the classrooms of AA.

 

Incentive powers personal growth.  One of the greatest incentives is relationships.  And for good reason.  They are the fastest path to personal growth.  Other people are mirrors that show us how we are playing in the world.  Those mirrors reveal to us the blind spots that have created so much division within ourselves and between ourselves and others.  These blind spots are the reason we have continually stumbled on our path to emotional maturity.  Bill W. learned this lesson in his own life.

 

So we need to heed the advice of our AA elders to chop wood and carry water during our first year of recovery.  Through the 12 Steps and the friendships we form in AA, we develop the emotional tools we need to finally become successful in the ultimate challenge of our lives.

 

And the sublime beauty of intimate relationship is the ultimate payoff for all the blood, sweat, and tears it took to embrace it.

 

Kind Regards,

RJ Handley

The Letter that Revealed Bill W’s Dependencies

One of the most influential reads in my early recovery was Bill W’s “Emotional Sobriety.”  Published in a 1958 edition of the AA Grapevine, Bill writes about his battles with dependency. This time it is not about dependency on alcohol but dependency on approval, security, and prestige.

These dependencies, as Bill reveals in this letter, created much suffering in his life. “Since AA began, I’ve taken immense wallops in all these areas because of my failure to grow up, emotionally and spiritually,” Bill admits in this powerful letter.

Nearly two decades after the publication of the Big Book, “Emotional Sobriety” allows us again to spend time with the man who Time magazine recognized as one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th Century.

And little wonder.  Empowered by his own wounds, this is a man who led from the front and walked the talk that would save countless millions from the debilitating despair of addiction.  In “Emotional Sobriety,” Bill W. lives the values that he preached in the Big Book: honesty, humility, faith, and service.

In this letter, Bill speaks of the impossible expectations he held for himself and others that led to his severe bouts with depression. Torn between his unconscious “fears, compulsions and phony aspirations” and the spiritual awakening of the 12 Steps, Bill agonized over why the program didn’t work to release him from his own depression.

Finally, according to this letter, his answer came to him one day as he stared at a line from the Prayer of St. Francis:  “It’s better to comfort than to be the comforted.” Suddenly, in an epiphany, Bill realized the problem.

“My basic flaw had always been dependence—almost absolute dependence—on people or circumstances to supply me with prestige, security, and the like.  Failing to get these things according to my perfectionist dreams and specifications, I had fought for them. And when defeat came, so did my depression,” as he says in the letter.

From his spiritual development and the “Grace I could secure in prayer,” Bill found that he would experience little joy unless he could cut away these “fatal dependencies.”

“Plainly, I could not avail myself of God’s love until I was able to offer it back to Him by loving others as He would have me.”  As long as false dependencies gripped him, Bill understood that the glimmer of emotional maturity and adult love would elude him.

In the light of this truth, Bill recognized that emotional stability came from offering love to the drunk stranger on his doorstep while demanding nothing in return.  Expectations, he discovered, are premeditated resentments.

“If we examine every disturbance we have, great or small, we will find at the root of it some unhealthy dependency and its consequent demand. Let us, with God’s help, continually surrender these hobbling demands.”

Only then, he says, can we be set free to live and love.  Only then are we able to Twelfth Step ourselves and others into emotional sobriety.

As Bill confronted his dependencies, his letter encourages us to do the same.  “Emotional Sobriety” is really about clearing away the obstacles that stand in the way of our emotional health, our conscious connection to God, and our service to the still suffering addict.

So you can experience the entirety of this two and a half page letter, I encourage you to locate a copy of “Emotional Sobriety” online.

As a recovering alcoholic myself, I will be forever grateful to God for choosing Bill W. as spokesman for addiction issues.  To me, the Big Book is a masterpiece, not only because it provided the first published pathway for recovery but also provided us with a truly exemplary guide who we meet again in this letter.

May you also find emotional sobriety.

Kind Regards,

RJ Handley