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 connecting power of play

“God enters through the wound.”

Years ago I read this quote attributed to Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology. The words have remained sacred to me, and I have applied their balm to even the most superficial of wounds.

I find it easy to confide in others about the deep wounds life opens. Yet, it’s these small, seemingly insignificant scratches that, for me, cut as deep as glacial ice.  Over time they have carved out my self-image.  These are the ones that I keep secret because I am embarrassed to show them.  But, as I have learned in recovery, it is what I keep secret that makes me suffer.

Today is no different. I have found that I have been living a lie.  It’s another one of those silly scratches that I struggle to reveal because I don’t want others to laugh and say, “Really? Is that what you’re upset about?”

Yet, silently, I am in awe how God enters the wound if we allow ourselves to acknowledge that we have, indeed, been wounded.

Just yesterday I was completing an exercise from the book The Confidence Gap by Russ Harris.  It asked what values and goals I have in four facets of my life:  love, work, health, and play.

All was going great.   I was experiencing a flood of warm, glowing feelings of how much I have grown in my ten years of sobriety and my work as a spiritual life coach.  I was really patting myself on the back.

Yep, I was feeling like the Lebron James of love, the Wayne Gretzky of work, and the Hank Aaron of health.

Then I came to writing my values and goals for play. WTH! Crap!  I felt like I was hit on the head with a bat.  I came to the realization that I am the Pete Rose of play.  I have sabotaged my career as a player, the very thing that used to bring me joy.  I tried to remember the last time I went out on the town with a friend.

I came to the startling realization–a core truth:  The reason I drank was because I believed it was the only way I could feel a connection to others.

WTH! So I am sitting here today bleeding from the epiphany that I know as much about play as Donald Trump knows about public service.  I don’t just suck at playing, I haven’t even put on the uniform for what seems like years.  I have been so busy with my career and my commitments that I’ve forgotten how to engage in play with my friends.  I knew the power of play as a child, but my career and my commitments rob me of my play time.

At least that’s the lie I have been telling myself. The truth is that I find play to be uncomfortable.   It puts me right back into the story I have been writing over the years that I am socially defective.

I think about all the amazing people I have known in the past 20 years of my adult life. Many of those I have worked with.  But I poured myself into my work-a-day world so I went numb to my own needs and to theirs, neglecting the power of play to create the connection we needed between us.

So it grieves me to admit it, but I am suddenly—and consciously—aware that the reason I haven’t been doing fun things with colleagues, friends, and other loved ones is that it surfaces my own inadequacies.

As a child, I played fearlessly. But as I entered adulthood, I just sort of gave up.  I felt—and still do at times—that I am unworthy of play.  For years, I stood on the edge of my circle of friends, envious of the joy and laugher they shared, giving my social shame the power to keep me sidelined.

Is it any wonder that I worshipped the effects of alcohol? That it did for me what I couldn’t do for myself?  Instantly, without doing any work on myself, I could suddenly connect in play with others with just a couple of drinks.

It’s easy to blame my socially-isolated parents who never modeled for me what having friends over looked like. Yet, I promised my sponsor and myself to abandon my victimhood as I did the bottle when I became sober.  I know there are things that happened to me that I am not responsible for but, as an adult, I am responsible for healing them.

God really does enter through the wound. And it’s my commitment, just as it was with my 4th Step, to fearlessly look at myself and surface my character defects that keep creating the wounds.  And, just as before, I will get on my knees and ask God for the same miracle that got me sober.  Surely, if God’s grace could free me from the power of alcohol, then that same grace can free me from the prison of my own social fears.

I acknowledge to myself that play is crucial because it is how we, as human beings, connect. It will take time and courage to tear up the story about my social defectiveness.   In The Confidence Gap, Harris says that our problem is not that we lack social skills, it’s that we become fused with the story that we lack those skills.

Today, I am making a vow to call up a friend and ask him to join me in play. It takes practice to overcome any of our perceived defects.  Harris’ words hearten me in keeping me committed to this crucial project: “The actions of confidence come first; the feelings of confidence come later.”

I thank God that he used the simple exercise in Harris’ book to reveal to me a deep truth about myself that I have been hiding from for years.

God really does enter through the wound—even the scratches—and transmutes the pain into victory.

Living Life in Disguise

I was amazed to recently learn just how many men struggle to connect with other men.   When asked to answer the question, “What don’t you want other people to know about you?” a surprising number of the 24 men I had joined for a weekend training stated that they had difficulty creating deep and lasting friendships with other men.

I must admit that I was one of those men. And I was also one of those men who felt a tremendous sense of relief to be reminded that I was not alone in this struggle.

It’s been just over a week since I attended what’s called the New Warriors Training Adventure hosted by the ManKind Project, an international nonprofit that seeks to empower men to become more self-aware, and in the process become more emotionally mature and more skilled in relationships at home, at work, and at play.

During that weekend, one of the most transformative of my life, I realized at a deeper level that I can survive but never thrive without connection.

I remember the show Cheers with its theme song saying, “You wanna be where you can see, our troubles are all the same. You wanna be where everybody knows your name.”  I felt a temporary connection with Sam Malone and company while watching, but it also left me feeling hollow in the absence of those connections in my real life.

It wasn’t until I entered the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous ten years ago that I began to witness the power of connection. Yes, our troubles were all the same, and we learned from the old timers in the group that you can’t save your ass and save your face at the same time.

Facing death by alcohol has the power of waking a man up to living life by honesty.

Like with my experience with AA, the ManKind Project has helped me realize that I have a choice: I can live life fully by allowing others to really see me as I am or I can live life partially by pretending to be who I am not.

I admire the spiritual teacher Ram Dass. He said as a challenge to those who live their life playing a role rather than themselves, “Are we always going to meet on the stage? Don’t we ever take off the costumes?”

When asked why he cherished working with people who were on their deathbeds, Ram Dass said that imminent death had a way of removing the mask of who we pretend to be to reveal the beauty of who we are.

Many of us don’t want to remove the costume because we have invested a lifetime in creating it. Others may believe that living the illusion is more exciting than living the reality of who we are.

I was moved recently by learning the top regrets of people who are in hospice care. In the top five was the regret of not allowing others to truly know them, to experience the truth of who they are.

I’ve learned that it’s an impossibility to live our lives with any deep connection if we hide from others who we really are. We need to “get down from the stage so that we live out, not act out our lives,” says Joyce Block in her book Family Myths.

We must dare to be vulnerable if we dare to connect. In our early days together, my girlfriend expressed her frustration with trying to read me.  She said I was often opaque to her.  She asked, “So RJ, you don’t like small talk and you don’t like being emotionally intimate.  How do people connect with you?”  Ouch.

But I ask you that same question. How are men or women going to connect to you?  Are they going to connect superficially to the actor? Or are you willing to take the risk of removing your costume and descending the stage into your genuine self?

Help another person out by sharing in the comments what you have done to shed your costume.

10 Reasons to Get Off Your Relationship Badonkadonk

When I was drinking, I would often discount the importance of relationships.  In recovery, I now know why.  I wasn’t good at them.

Relationships are one of the most crucial parts of our lives. We are built for relationship, and we need them to thrive.

Everything is relational.  Nothing exists in isolation.   Look at nature.   The tree that I see from my window has a relationship to the air, to the sun, to the soil, and to itself.  How much more is true for us as complex human beings?

In previous posts, I have shared my own experiences and the wisdom of relationship experts.  Relationships are so critically important that I ask you to put down all the baggage you’re carrying from past relationships so that you can open the door to new possibilities.

Past hurts and fear of rejection can immobilize us.  We often, then, resort to our default setting of isolation, preferring loneliness to the fear of engaging.

Here is a list of the benefits of friendships and partnership.  I provide these in hopes that you will summon the courage to put your fear in the backseat and get out there and live the life that is waiting for you:

  • Relationships satisfy our need for connection.
  • Relationships are the greatest catalyst for growth.
  • Relationships enable us to better give and receive love.
  • Relationships bring fresh perspectives to our lives.
  • Relationships open us to new experiences.
  • Relationships help us see our blind spots.
  • Relationships provide support.
  • Relationships make us better at relationships.
  • Relationships deepen our understanding of ourselves.
  • Relationships are fun,  dammit!                                                                                                                                   Next time, I’ll share about ways to meet other people so that you start enjoying the benefits listed above.