Tuesday September 23rd 2014

A.A. relationships

In A.A., they say to wait at least a year before entering into a relationship, the idea being before you can love somebody else you must first learn how to love yourself. But what if loving yourself just isn’t possible? What if in order to love yourself you must first know that you can be loved?

The following is an example of how an addictive relationship can end up being a saving grace for two hopeless addicts. And how to overcome codependency in relationships. Your messages, comments and opinions about relationships in the first year of sobriety are welcomed at the end.

Love and euphoric feeling

In her poignant first book Is it Love or is it Addiction?, author and psychologist, Brenda Schaffer, explains that love, like drugs and alcohol, can produce a state of euphoria in the brain characterized by the release of “feel good” neurotransmitters, like dopamine and serotonin. The result is an alteration in brain chemistry whereby we can become physically dependent on the object of our love.

Starting relationships in A.A.: wait a year or not?

This explains why my sponsor in A.A. kept telling me to wait at least a year before getting involved in a codependent relationship with an addict. As he explained it, by giving myself enough time to heal in recovery, I’d be less likely to use a relationship as a substitute for drugs and alcohol. Of course, being the smart kid I thought I was, I didn’t really think this rule applied to me. You see, I was different. I was special. I never had a real girlfriend when I was in high school or college. I never went out on dates. I never went out to parties. And while everyone else was out drinking, having a good time, hooking up with one another, I was sitting by myself in a dark, lonely apartment, downing bottle after bottle of bourbon and scotch whiskey. I figured this exempted me from the “no relationship for a year” suggestion. I took it even a step further and deluded myself into believing that a relationship was the only thing that could actually keep me sober. I mean, if isolation was my biggest trigger, then what better way to avoid being alone than by going out and finding a girlfriend?

My mission = find a woman

So, I made it my personal mission to go out and find a woman. And I didn’t have go very far either. My A.A. home group in Houston was chalk full of ‘em; skinny ones, fat ones, short ones, tall ones, black ones, brown ones, white ones, red ones…girls with black hair, girls with brown hair, girls with red hair, even girls with blue hair! They were everywhere. And the best part was…they were just as desperate and hopeless as I was. But, being the shy, socially awkward chemical engineer I was, I had a real difficult time initiating the required coquettish conversation. In fact, anytime I tried approaching a good-looking female my hands and knees started shaking so bad it looked I was still going through alcohol withdrawal. It gave me so much anxiety that I started fantasizing about glasses of wine as possible calming mechanisms. Of course, that would defeat the whole purpose. So, I hung it up for a while, and instead of trying to talk to girls and making myself nervous, I sat in the back of the meeting and just listened.

But then something magical happened. One day, while I was at home staring at the checkerboard pattern of wine stains tattooed in my apartment carpet, I got a call from a girl (let’s call her Vicky) whom I had met only two weeks earlier while detoxing at a hospital in downtown Houston. It turns out, I had given her my cell number and told her to call me, but I guess I was so drugged up that I had completely forgotten. Anyway, she said she was going to a twelve-step meeting at the detox hospital (they had alumni meetings there on the weekends) and wanted to know if I was interested in joining. “Hell yeah,” I said. “I’d love to join you.”

I brushed my teeth, threw on a nice sweater, laced up my shoes, and hopped in my Toyota Corolla. She lived all the way out in the boonies with her mom in a small farm town called Alvin, TX (the same town Nolan Ryan grew up in, consequently.) It took me nearly an hour to find it, and another hour on top of that to drive back to Houston for the alumni meeting. We had a good time though, talking, laughing, and sharing our addiction “war stories.” After two years of drinking in isolation, it felt great to be able to connect like that to someone.

Once the meeting was over, I took her out to dinner at Pappadeux’s. Then, we went back to my apartment and watched a movie about heroine addiction called, “Things We Lost in the Fire.” Now, I know what you’re thinking, but you’re wrong…nothing happened. Being the shy Southern gentleman I am, I offered her my bed while I slept on the sofa. There was absolutely no funny business; no getting up in the middle of the night and slipping under the covers, no team showers, not even so much as a bare nipple.

The next morning we got up, ate breakfast, and drove out to Bellaire for an early morning meeting that Vicky had heard about from her sponsor. After it was over, we had lunch and I drove Vicky back to her mom’s house out in the country.

I started getting addicted to the relationship

It went on like this for several months. After on work on Friday, I’d pick her up from her mom’s house and take her to the alumni meeting, after which we’d have dinner then crash at my apartment. We spent the whole weekend together, going to meetings, watching movies, and basically just keeping each other sober. We even went skydiving one weekend and wakeboarding another. It didn’t take long for me to develop some strong feelings for Vicky. Not only was she a sexy little Hispanic coke addict (what else could you ask for in a woman?), but she was also the only person in my life at that time who still wanted to be around me. Everyone else was gone, because I’d turned my back on them; my parents, my friends, my sister, my brother…I pushed them all away, because I was too ashamed of all the horrible things I’d said and done to them. But Vicky was different, because she didn’t really know me. She didn’t know that I hit my mom in the face and sent her to the hospital. She didn’t know that my dad called the cops and had me locked up in prison. She didn’t know any of this, because I never told her, and, in exchange, Vicky never told me anything about herself, at least, not anything too personal.

Starting over and keeping each other sober

But, could you love someone you didn’t know? No, probably not. But so what? That’s the way we liked it. It gave us a chance to start over and be different people. We didn’t have to face our shame and all those poison memories—we could just put them on a shelf somewhere and try to move forward. So, what if it wasn’t real love? So, what if we were just codependent? We kept each other sober and that’s all that mattered, right?

Then, it came to an end

Well, after about four months of seeing each other, Vicky suddenly stopped coming over. A dozen or so unanswered voicemails later she finally called me back and told me we couldn’t see each other anymore. She said she was getting back together with her ex-husband, who, it seems, had divorced her while she was in rehab, kicked her out of the house, and confiscated her vehicle. This explained why she was living all the way out in Alvin with her mother and always needed a ride to meetings. But, now, since she had proved she could stay sober for more than a few hours, her ex-husband was willing to take her back and “re-marry” her. She no longer needed me to pick her up and take her to meetings, because she got her car back, not to mention her house and her husband, whom she was still in love with.

Needless to say, I was completely shattered. I felt betrayed and used and fell into a deep, dark depression. I quit going to meetings. I quit calling my sponsor. (I never really liked him in the first place. The only reason I had him was because he was married to Vicky’s sponsor). After about a week of sulking, I started contemplating drinking, which at that point in my career was the same thing as contemplating suicide. You see, I had built my entire recovery around Vicky, and without her, I had nothing. I was lost. I was right back where I started.

Picking up the pieces

Now, I’d like to say I relapsed and fell out of the program and ended up on the street eating from a trash can. That would make this article all the better by driving home the “dangers of love addiction”. Unfortunately or fortunately, my story isn’t as neat and clear-cut as others on this topic. In fact, it’s downright confusing. I still haven’t completely figured it out. But, let me try…

The four months I spent with Vicky was the longest stretch I ever had staying sober, and somehow, it was just enough to “free” me from not just the physical, but also the psychological dependence I had on alcohol. By keeping me sober for those first ninety days out of detox, Vicky became a sort of crutch for my recovery…meaning she helped me to “walk” while I was still wounded, until I was healthy enough to “walk” on my own.

Is codependency all that bad?

Without really knowing it, we were using each other for similar reasons. I was using her love and friendship as a reason to stay sober, while she was using my car and apartment to get her life back together. And even though I was hurt that she left me for her ex-husband, I will always “love” her for being my friend when I most needed it. If it wasn’t for her, I would’ve never gotten sober and reconnected my family, and I certainly wouldn’t have had the chance to write about it in my first novel, Some Are Sicker Than Others. This makes me question the whole codependency issue and makes me wonder if an addictive relationship is really as horrible as all the experts make it out to be.

Relapse is always a possibility

I guess, if we would’ve kept going like that, things may have ended up in ruin. We may have relapsed and ended up falling out of the program, getting high, getting drunk, and spiraling down that wormhole. She could’ve gotten pregnant and ended up having an abortion or losing the baby due to drug complications, prompting her ex-husband to come back, rescue her, and shoot me in the process.

A happy ending

Either way, I think it worked out for the better, because, today, I’m happy to say I’m in a nice, healthy relationship with a girl, who I not only love, but who actually loves me in return. Sure, we encounter obstacles like in any other relationship, but never to the point where I’ve felt like my sobriety was in jeopardy.

A.A. and relationships: what about your story?

At that, I’d like to hear some of you’re stories about addictive relationships and the effect they had on you, either positive or negative. If you feel so compelled, please post a little ditty about how codependence either ruined you or, as in my case, ended up being recovery “training wheels.”

Photo credit: tanakawho

Leave a Reply

3 Responses to “A.A. relationships
Allayna
4:18 pm April 9th, 2012

Hello Andrew,

I think you bring forth the reality of overcoming addiction, which is that staying sober requires a change in just about every aspect of life. For you, being alone seemed to be a trigger, or a “safe space” to indulge your addiction. It makes sense that a relationship would appeal to you after all that time drinking alone. But it seems like you learned that participating in a close relationship felt safe until you realized your whole sobriety depended on its continuing.

I am coming at this from a different side of things in that I am in school to be a clinical psychologist. I learn about AA and 12-step programs in the context of intervention classes, in which everything seems very simple, streamlined, and “efficacious.” But I have wondered about the standard “relationship” rule as it applies to real people leading complex lives. In every other clinical context professionals advocate for people to pursue and explore themselves in relation to others, but this rule seems to paradoxically isolate people in a time of utmost vulnerability.

I think you have really helped me to understand why this rule can be helpful. I was really struck when you said “I had built my entire recovery around Vicky,” as I had never thought about the rule as a method of fostering independence and agency within recovery. It seems like you were able to explore the possibility of being in a relationship and still come out of it with a sense of autonomy…I would be curious to know anecdotally if you have found this to be the case with others who have pursued relationships in AA?

Andrew Seaward
4:37 pm April 10th, 2012

Hi Allayna,

You’re right. It is quite the paradox and to be honest I still haven’t completely figured it out yet. Although, in my case, a relationship helped me to break my tendency to isolate, in someone else’s case it could very well be a trigger for relapse. Here’s why:

When you first come into recovery, you are in a very vulnerable position. It’s the first time in a long time that you’ve been without drugs and alcohol and your body and brain are in a state of utter panic. You’ve spent the last several years of your life suppressing your emotions and dulling down your true feelings with massive amounts of drugs, pills, and alcohol. But now that those poisons are leaving your body, those emotions, those raw, uninhibited feelings, including your libido, are bubbling back up to the surface. After a few days, you start feeling a little better. You get your appetite back and a little spring in your step. Then you start noticing your fellow patients and how good they look and all of that. Before you know it, the guy or girl you’ve been noticing is pouring their guts in group therapy, going on and on about their innermost, personal feelings. You might find that you and this person have a lot in common. You both had a traumatic past, were abused by someone close to you, and turned to chemicals as a way to forget or “dull” those painful memories. As you share your stories with one another, you become closer and closer, because this person can actually understand what you’re going through. It’s only a matter of time before you fall in love with this person and start believing that he or she is the answer to all your problems.

This actually happened to my roommate in rehab (let’s call him Robert). He fell in love with a patient (let’s call her Jenny) while we were all in rehab together. The facility we were at was co-ed with the women on the third floor and the men on the second. The first floor deemed “the basement” had a work out room and some of the therapist offices, and at night was pretty much empty. This is where Rob and Jenny would meet and do you know what down there. Jenny was married with two young children and, upon discharge, she actually ended up leaving her kids and moving in with Robert.

They didn’t last one day out of rehab. Jenny was an alcoholic when I first met her, but her relationship with Robert had turned her into a full-fledged crack addict. They ended up spending all the money from Jenny’s divorce supporting their drug habits and had to panhandle for spare change in downtown Memphis. A few months later, they tried to make a run on a dealer and Robert got shot in the stomach, quickly ending the honeymoon. Robert survived, but was badly injured. The last time I talked to him he was bed-ridden, living at his parent’s house in Memphis. Jenny went back to her husband and children in Iowa, but not before taking another spin dry through the same rehab/detox.

Unfortunately, this is a pretty extreme example of what can go wrong in an addictive relationship, but is probably pretty common, at least common enough to have a rule in AA against it.

I was unique, in that a relationship was what I needed to help break my tendency to isolate. But in Rob’s case it was just another source of income and someone to get high with.

It’s confusing, I know, but led me to this very important realization, which is that there are no hard and fast rules for a successful recovery. There is no “magic bullet” no cure-all for addiction. We are all different. We all come into this thing with our own uniquities and experiences. What may work for one person, may not work for another. And anyone who tells you different is probably trying to sell you something.

It’s this ambiguity that makes addiction so maddening. It usually takes people a couple times to find out what works for them. I was lucky enough to have some very supportive people in my corner who continued to help me no matter how many times I screwed up. It took me several years, but I finally figured out my answer, which is a combination of a lot of things, including strong relationships.

If you’re interested, I wrote a novel called “Some Are Sicker Than Others” on this very topic; the ambiguity of addiction. Although fictional, it includes a lot of my personal experience.

The main character, Monty, falls in love with a recovering coke addict, Vicky, who he met a year ago in Alcoholics Anonymous. Against his sponsor’s warnings, Monty hinges his entire recovery on Vicky, believing he can stay sober for her instead of doing it for himself. But when Vicky is killed in a hit-and-run car accident, Monty is forced to confront the truth; he didn’t really love her and was just using her as a way to cope without alcohol. Filled with the guilt of this revelation, Monty embarks on a mission to drink himself to death. But his family intervenes and has him committed to Sanctuary, a rehabilitation facility high in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. There he meets Dave Bell, a former all-American track star turned crack addict, and the driver responsible for Vicky’s death.

The link is in my author profile. Check it out. It’s got some great examples of addictive relationships that are detrimental.

Allayna
2:53 pm April 11th, 2012

Thanks for taking the time to explain your experience further and provide me with an example of a failed AA relationship. I tend to approach these kind of interventions very seriously–I think the rules are very important, and I trust the experience of those who formulated them. However, I think you are absolutely right: each “addict” is a person, which means they are just as complex and unique as anyone else. The program provides a frame in which the person seeking help can feel a solid ground underneath them in their time of instability; similarly, the program provides a clinician with a sense of certainty that what they are doing will help those they work with. It seems that addiction is a desperate situation…until it isn’t. There is a kind of magic in the recovery process, because although AA/12-steps are very effective for many, they are just another stumbling block for others. I’m glad you were able to benefit from this kind of program, and I will definitely check out your novel!

About Andrew Seaward

Andrew Seaward is the author of Some Are Sicker Than Others. Although he makes his living as a chemical engineer in the Oil & Gas industry, his true passion is telling great stories through both acting and writing. He is a member and contributor of Benjy Dobrin Studios, the Cinematic Arts of Colorado and the Lighthouse Writers Workshop. He has written and acted in several short and feature length films, one of which won an Award of Merit at the 2010 Indie Fest.