I recently had a conversation with another recovering addict about early recovery issues. In my case, I believe the biggest stumbling block was what I’ve since come to call the Missionary Effect.
By the time I managed to get sober, the Twelve Steps and their program of recovery looked like the answer to everything. I had such a profound sense of relief and hope that within a couple of months I’d determined to bring this wonderful discovery of mine to the rest of the world. I’ve since found that to be pretty common among folks in early recovery, but at that time it seemed like I was one of the chosen few and it was my duty to carry the message — not just to recovering alcoholics and addicts, but to everyone.
One of my first intentions was to re-write the Big Book (Alcoholics Anonymous, the principal text of AA) for the modern world. The language was outdated. The ideas were good, but they suffered from old-fogy thinking. Surely my skills could improve it. All it needed was a makeover.
Then I became a recovery guru, ready with advice, analysis, and ideas about how you could improve your program. If you didn’t have a program — if you weren’t even an addict — that didn’t stop me. Everyone could benefit from the Steps and the self-improvement that goes along with them! My new way of life was supplying me with answers that seemed to be working wonders, so why shouldn’t everyone else benefit from my newfound wisdom?
It’s natural for folks with poor self-esteem to project their own needs onto others. It’s also natural for us to want to make up for some of the troubles we caused by offering something back to the world. When we’ve found answers that work for us, it seems like they are the answers to all of life’s troubles, not just our own.
For a naturally pedantic guy like me, this evangelical zeal was an extremely dangerous thing. It allowed me to concentrate on what you needed, while merely giving lip-service to my own issues and my own need to change. And that was the problem: I lost sight of my own goals, because of concentrating on things external to my own program. I hadn’t yet figured out that recovery was about changing me, not you.
I didn’t relapse officially but I was definitely in relapse. Relapse occurs before we pick up our drug of choice. It’s a state of mind born of our desire to avoid looking at our own reality; the drugs just make it official. I was as close to drinking and drugging as I’ve been in my entire recovery, because I was focusing on others, not on my own needs. In fact, I was assuming that I was okay. I was cool, and that’s one of the most dangerous places a recovering drunk and druggie can go.
In the years since, I’ve watched with concealed amusement as any number of other newcomers went through a similar stage. It’s amusing to see where I came from, but it’s not funny. I’ve seen too many of them lose track of their path entirely. When that happens, the old rut is still out there waiting, with a familiar look and lined with familiar places.
I never did get that re-write done.