“We shall get rid of that terrible sense of isolation we’ve always had,” notes the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. “Almost without exception, alcoholics are tortured by loneliness.” I can’t stress enough how true it’s been for me that isolation isn’t merely a byproduct of my addiction in the past, but remains both a symptom and a signal of pending danger currently. Or maybe it’s that isolation is part of my addiction.
Not unlike how the terminally unique voice in my mind continues to exist with a bend toward perfectionistic thinking, it also perpetuates concepts that help distance me from others. In my life, my distorted thinking has created a divide between myself and others, even the friends I’m closest with, telling me I’m not perceived as as good or close a friend to them, as they are to me; as if someone can be my best friend, in my eyes, while I’m only ever just an acquaintance to them. So, taking that feedback from my terminally unique inner voice, I internalize separation and remove myself from others, grasping to some sense of “control” by creating separation between myself and that person, paradoxically ensuring that the close friendship I desire never truly comes to fruition. I expect to be hurt or to be abandoned, and to protect myself from that I preemptively hurt and abandon, myself. It’s the egomaniac with an inferiority complex all over again: somehow I’m both less than, lacking something, unrelatable, different from, and other than, while also being more complex, interesting, and worthy than I’m being made out to be. As written in his book The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz writes, “We think everyone else will judge us, victimize us, abuse us, and blame us as we do ourselves. So even before others have a chance to reject us, we have already rejected ourselves.” All this encourages is self-imposed isolation. And in that space, diseased thinking only gets worse. “The illusion that I am separate from everything else,” writes Cheri Huber in That Which You Are Seeking Is Causing You to Seek. “The part of me who’s always comparing, the part who feels superior, or inadequate, or deprived. It is the one who clings and resists, who sees me as a subject and everything else as object. It is the source of my suffering.”
The literature of Alcoholics Anonymous is really inconsistent, but when I do find myself identifying with it I really identify with it. One of those moments which I do identity with comes when the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions touches on the ways this sort of thinking regularly manifests within the actions of other alcoholics, where it explains this sort of self-aggrandizing and self-limiting behavior. It reads,
“We ‘constructively criticized’ someone who needed it, when our real motive was to win a useless argument. Or, the person concerned not being present, we thought we were helping others to understand him, when in actuality our true motive was to feel superior by pulling him down. We sometimes hurt those we love because they need to be ‘taught a lesson,’ when we really want to punish. We were depressed and complained we felt bad, when in fact we were mainly asking for sympathy and attention. This odd trait of mind and emotion, this perverse wish to hide a bad motive underneath a good one, permeates human affairs from top to bottom. This subtle and elusive kind of self-righteousness can underlie the smallest act or thought.”
I’ve cycled back to the concept of paradoxes that exist in recovery numerous times in prior chapters, and I’ll add to the list this very exercise, what I’m doing here with this writing, as it’s both a healthy form of processing ideas and expression for me, while also being a slippery slope into isolating behavior. This isn’t a new realization for me, by any means. In a 2014 blog post, I was speaking directly to myself, writing,
“I can’t keep going to the Internet to feel important. I can’t come here, to this page, and add words, thinking that doing so in and of itself accomplishes something. Ultimately my writing is a seclusive exercise, and sharing thoughts publicly so as to potentially find someone the words connect with (online) does not give the process credibility. (This means something. After all: just look at the words! I’m trying!) But someone might read them, or click on the blog, and more is better, and more clicks validates the words… Throwing ideas online as an act of connecting with others, and believing then that I’ve made progress, is insane. What makes the words important isn’t if people read them — or share them, or like them, or tweet them — it’s whether they encourage change [in myself].”
The intention, or “motive” as it’s referred to in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, behind the practice of writing for me is what’s at the heart of my point there, and in the nearly two decades I’ve been blogging, it’s fascinating to look back on how that intention has ebbed and flowed. At times, writing has taken a healthy form, promoting connection with other people and encouraging processes and self-expression, while at others it’s been a stand-in for connection, reinforcing a wedge between myself and the outside world, which ultimately always always always seems to come back around to some form of self-destructive, secretive, addictive behavior. That’s where this blog post quote came from; a period of time where I was hyper-focused on intention, incredibly self-critical, writing to myself while writing at no one in particular. “Our innate need for connection makes the consequences of disconnection that much more real and dangerous,” writes Brené Brown in The Gifts of Imperfection. And for me, in that space of self-imposed isolation, compounding the addictive behaviors and terminally unique mindset has been feelings of shame and guilt that only serve to sustain and perpetuate the downward spiral into self.
Amin Maalouf’s book In the Name of Identity bears a passage that uniquely resonated with me in a way that it probably didn’t with many other readers. Wholly unrelated to addiction or recovery, Maalouf writes, “My Canadianism and Americanism are at times at odds with one another. I feel immediately inferior when Americans make fun of Canadian stereotypes, as though that is me. Likewise, I feel ashamed of my Americanism every time its preventable gun violence reaches an international audience. In a way this form of shame is a form of self-prejudice rather than self-awareness, self-forgiveness, or self-understanding.” I’ve got my own internal struggles over dual-citizenship, with that perfectionistic voice regularly reminding me that by only spending the first half of my life in Canada, I’m not Canadian enough to be a Canadian, and by being born in Canada I’m not American enough to be an American. But in positioning shame as a form of deeply rooted self-prejudice, this quote helped frame it in a way I hadn’t previously considered. Shame is a strange phenomenon, but shame within the terminally unique mind is something else altogether, influenced strongly by a form of prejudice against others and the self. I mean, what is A.A.’s phrase of “contempt prior to investigation” if not prejudice, a “preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience”?
This self-facing judgement is something that only gets worse with time, the longer it goes unchecked, leading to an increased sense of utter self-consumption. (An A.A.-ism that I particularly enjoy is fitting here, which says: I’m not much, but I’m all I ever think about.) About two years after I released Believed to Be Seen (and about eight months after I’d relapsed, I’ll add) Gabrielle Glaser published a comprehensive and well-received article in The Atlantic titled, “The Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous.” I was immediately jealous of the acclaim, but without being able to place the feeling at the time, what I was overcome with was something even more destructive than jealousy. It was a feeling like this article was somehow being written at me, and the reception was somehow being projected at me, illuminating my failures as a writer, all despite this having absolutely nothing to do with me. Looking back, this sort of thing happened all the time, taking things that were unrelated to me personally. (I previously referred to this as “personalization” in an earlier chapter, when mentioning cognitive distortions which tend to plague those with addiction issues.) “What causes you to be trapped is what we call personal importance,” continues Ruiz in The Four Agreements. “Personal importance, or taking things personally, is the maximum expression of selfishness because we make the assumption that everything is about ‘me.'” What is a maximum expression of selfishness if not an action of taking an article published by someone I’ve never met, from a publication I’ve only ever read sparingly, about a subject I had tried to distance myself from, as though it was an affront against me personally?
This sort of problem with my thinking is certainly something that could have been aided by therapy, as a huge benefit of adopting awareness around cognitive distortions comes in learning to challenge warped patterns of thought as they’re experienced, but the reality was I didn’t start there. And while I grew into adopting personal therapy to help continue my recovery process, my experience of change relevant to this topic was one grounded in A.A. While it did take finding “rock bottom” for myself to get there, I did come to an understanding that “The philosophy of self-sufficiency is not paying off,” as is noted in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. And when I started to accept that as fact, I did so with a self-serving sense of surrender in mind, and a sense of hope that the assistance could at least help me stop kicking my own ass all the time. What I found was a benefit provided by A.A. that was unexpected, nor was it one something I genuinely thought I needed, but one that ultimately had a huge impact on me.
I’ll lean on yet another quote from Bruce Lee, where he said, “Understanding oneself happens through a process of relationships and not through isolation.” The greatest immediate and continued benefit of “working The Program” for me had little to do with step-by-step procedures, and more to do with the companionship of other people who were dealing with problems similar to mine. As I’ve said, I was never able to reconcile with a higher power as a creative spirit of the universe, but do grasp the practical nature of saying that two heads are better than one when working on solving a problem; particularly a problem that I’ve been unable to fix by myself. Where cognitive behavioral therapy can help change one’s relationship with their own thoughts, the greatest benefit of step work might be found in changing relationships with other people. Through action such as “service work,” A.A. promotes the beneficial practice of self-forgetting, which is echoed by the likes of Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning, where he draws a direct line between getting out of one’s own mind and self-transcendence. He writes,
“By declaring that man is responsible and must actualize the potential meaning of his life, I wish to stress that the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system. I have termed this constructive characteristic ‘the self-transcendence of human existence.’ It denotes the fact that being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself — be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter.”
To extend the quote that opened this chapter, the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions reads, “Almost without exception, alcoholics are tortured by loneliness. Even before our drinking got bad and people began to cut us off, nearly all of us suffered that feeling that we didn’t quite belong. […] There was always that mysterious barrier we could neither surmount nor understand.” That mysterious barrier isn’t one purely separating an alcoholic from the outside world, but it also creates a separation within. And that barrier, once again, illuminates the self-prejudice, the self-judgement, and self-rejection that is at the heart of terminally unique thinking. When talking about recovery I like to use the word “integrity,” because of how the process serves to reinforce the bond between how an alcoholic tells themself they should be living, and how they’re actually living. Much like recovery in general, integrity is something that sways, but it’s worth mentioning here as it directly relates to the concept of connection for me: Addictive behavior, whether that be drinking or otherwise, stands as an indirect form of self-rejection, feeding off a perfectionistic voice which echoes “never enough.” This is almost certain to happen in a state of isolation, and once integrity begins to slip it’s hard to get back.
Beyond developing a sense of harmony between action and motive, the word “integrity” also works to characterize relationships and interactions with people, places, and things outside the scope of the self. Those relationships with others cannot be enhanced without also improving the relationship with the self, and vice-versa; they change and grow stronger in tandem, not in isolation of one another. Once again, this is a value nurtured by the principles behind step work. A.A.’s eighth and ninth steps read that its members “Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all,” and “Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.” In my own life, through the amends process the words “I’m sorry” were discouraged, with a focus instead being on the exact nature of what I had done wrong, from my perspective, accepting ownership for that behavior, and offering to try to make it right with the person harmed by my actions, if it’s possible to do so, however they deem it appropriate. I appreciate Jason Wahler’s characterization of the amends process, where he calls it “a social application of the shame reduction.” Commenting on this process in Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure, Charles Bufe writes, “Practicing alcoholics live in a state of denial — that is unwillingness to acknowledge their condition — and normally are unwilling to honestly discuss their use of alcohol and many other subjects which hit too close to home. The willingness to openly and honestly discuss sensitive personal matters is a huge step toward recovery, self-acceptance and a happier life.” The point is, healing happens in the light of connection and not in the darkness of isolation or seclusion.
This is still a work in progress, of course, but through step work I discovered an unexpected relationship between adopting a stance of vulnerability, rather than the defensiveness I’d grown accustomed to, and a shift away from self-rejection. A.A.’s fourth and fifth steps encourage sharing “the exact nature” of personal “wrongs” with a safe person — which in my case was a sponsor — which assisted in unraveling broader patterns of dysfunctional behavior that had as much to do with what came after an event as the event itself. What I mean by that is, the mental punishment that follows an act of transgression can often be more severe than the act itself, and through uncovering those hidden thoughts can someone begin to heal. While in my original writing a decade ago I shared plenty about myself, I also self-edited parts of my story out to help make myself look not quite as bad as I should have. For example, in 2007, about a year before I got my DUI in southern Minnesota, I’d hit another vehicle while driving home one night. I was on an on-ramp, merging onto the highway, and accelerated too fast, leading me rear-end the vehicle in front of me. I don’t remember much of what happened before or after this point in the night, but I recall this moment with haunting clarity. At first I wasn’t sure if our bumpers had actually connected, but as the driver proceeded to flag me down, signaling to pull over, a sinking feeling overcame me. I don’t know what inspired the other driver to take pity on me and send me on my way, but they did. Maybe it was seeing the shape I was in and trying to save me from the rightful legal consequences of my own actions that night, but they just told me to get home safe before getting back in their vehicle and driving off.
I hadn’t told anyone about that, ever, at any point for nearly a decade, until sharing it with my sponsor through our step work. Drunk driving is terrible, and regrettable, and I wish I’d never done it, and I’m thankful that I never injured anyone, but compounding the shame internalized by the act itself was the secretive nature of hiding it away where no one but myself could see it. The fact of hiding it made it worse. What that did was further serve to instill within me a sense of otherness, that I was unlike anyone else, and that no one else would be able to accept me for the shameful parts of my life because I was never able to acknowledge to anyone that they’d even happened. Accountability comes as a counterbalance to the denial that fuels self-rejection, and as I began working through this kind of stuff I found that I began to become less hard on myself and others. Again, this continues to be a work in progress, though that makes it no less true. None of this work offers a one-for-one payoff ratio, where one of A.A.’s steps provides a definitive benefit of relief or self-actualization. But the work does help, and for me it helped reduce the feeling that I was fundamentally different from other people to a point where I was able to show sparks of self-compassion here and there. Had that turning point not existed for me in the way it did, and had I not had the positive experience with my sponsor in the way I had, it would have only been a matter of time before that internal powder keg was sure to burst.
During the time I was a regular member of A.A., I figured I had to reconcile myself with its language and identify what a higher power could be, and that meant defining for myself what spirituality was. Her words had already connected with me elsewhere, and when looking at this area, Brené Brown’s explanation made enough sense to me to run with it. She writes, “Spirituality is recognizing and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to each other by a power greater than all of us, and that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in love and compassion.” Regularly there’s billowy component to the language of recovery, and I think my younger rebellious self felt that adopting it for its practical qualities would somehow reflect as though I were not a radical free-thinker amid a flock of sheep. Or something like that. Maybe it’s just a smoothing of the edges that comes with time, but adopting a sort of language as this, provided by Brené, was part of a broader shift in my relationship with putting down my rigid resistance to guidance that sounded remotely religious. This also helped reshape how I’ve internalized such terms as “faith” and “hope,” which is important to me because of how the two have become inseparable when also considering connection with other people and the inner-connectedness of Brené’s approach to spirituality.
Thinking back, there were a few times when telling my “A.A. story” to other people where I used sort of a funny example to characterize the bounce-back that occurs from the desperate lows of hitting rock-bottom. Being a professional wrestling fan, I’m aware of a term called a “hope spot,” which happens when the villain wrestler has beaten the hero down, but the hero starts working their way back up, summoning some previously untapped resource to return to their feet and turn the match around. The thing is, hope spots for me never manifested in isolation. Confusion did. Disillusionment, certainly. Depression, sadness, addictive behaviors, but rarely hope. Hope happens around other people.
In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg writes, “We do know that for habits to permanently change, people must believe that change is feasible. The same process that makes A.A. so effective — the power of a group to teach individuals how to believe — happens whenever people come together to help one another change. Belief is easier when it occurs within a community.” Isolation is a breeding ground for hopelessness, so it would only make sense that connectivity serves as a measure of promoting hope. And what’s nurtured in a recovery community is a sense of faith that life can change through seeing others who have done the thing that has yet to be accomplished personally. I think that’s what my very first sponsor was trying to tell me when he was using phrasing around saying what was yet to come had to be believed to be seen, and not the other way around. That’s faith, and it’s not some silly, disposable concept I can chalk up to religion.
In her book titled A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit writes, “The things we want are transformative, and we don’t know or only think we know what is on the other side of that transformation.” When stepping out of active addiction and into recovery there is certainly an aspect of doing so where we only think we know what is on the other side of that transformation. Stopping drinking helped course correct with countless areas of problematic thinking for me: A lot of really simple stuff, like learning to recognize how the motives of other people aren’t always less noble than my own, better recognizing when I’m being unreasonably hard on myself, or something akin to what Russell Brand discusses in his book, Recovery, when he writes, “I now acknowledge that I am often wrong in my interpretations of other people’s behavior and that I am better off not to judge them at all.” It’s all very simple stuff in theory, but the dividends of reducing this sort of outlook are huge.
If the process of personal change I’ve outlined here is aligned with what Carl Jung was saying when suggesting that only a spiritual experience can relieve someone of their addiction, great. If this is what the Big Book means when using the phrase “spiritual awakening” to describe the process one goes through in recovery themselves, also great. The language and meaning to this concept don’t matter much to me anymore. I haven’t attempted to draw upon the limitless potential of some universal energy which binds all things and creates a holistic tapestry of being: I’ve just stopped drinking, and for the first few years of my recovery, I did so by primarily by connecting with other people who had a similar goal.
As Solnit continues in her book, she writes, “Hope is only a beginning; it’s not a substitute for action, only a basis for it. […] Hope gets you there, work gets you through.” Hope, faith, and connectivity might be vital requirements for change to occur, but none of which are a plan or action, as she’s saying here. Whatever puts the wheels of recovery in motion is going to be different for everyone, but sustaining that takes work takes regular tedious action in support of maintained progress, or it can easily drift away. And when it does drift away, it can feel like an impossible task to find your way back to hope’s shoreline without the help of other people.
[The track opening and closing the episode is called “styles.”]