Romancing the Relapse: Relationships in early recovery

U. S. Library of Congress

One of the first things we hear in recovery, both in treatment and around the rooms of the support groups, is “No new relationships in the first year.”  If it’s not one of the first things we hear, it’s certainly one of the first things that get our attention.

That’s hardly surprising.  Emotions that have been suppressed by alcohol and other drugs are suddenly bubbling to the surface with none of the edges knocked off.   Add to that the fact that we’re feeling at loose ends, with all that time on our hands that we formerly spent using, and the fact that we really don’t want to face life directly yet, and we’re ripe for distraction.  Since rehab romances are one of the most common issues in early recovery, it crosses our minds, “Why not, as long as the other person is in recovery too?  We’ll have so much in common!”

Human beings are hard-wired for romance.  We are wired to be attracted to “our kind of people,” and to become obsessed with them to the virtual exclusion of everything else until we have consummated the relationship and are well along the way to creating a family unit — at least theoretically.  That’s nature’s way of making sure we continue to produce little people.    One of the most basic things we have in common with other people in early recovery is addict behavior.  We speak the same language.  If we find them sexually attractive as well, of course we want a relationship.

Because such relationships are so all-consuming, in early recovery they create the ultimate distraction at a time when all of our attention needs to be focused on learning how to exist and progress without our drug(s) of choice.  Anyone who has been “in love,” (lust) knows how the other person consumes our thoughts and — with opportunity — our time.

The bare facts of the matter are (a.) we need to give our full attention to our program until we have mastered the skills of sober living; (b.) we need to learn to have healthy relationships with ourselves before inflicting them on someone new; and (c.) any relationships we enter so soon after getting clean and sober will almost certainly fail as we grow in different directions from the significant other.  Last, but hardly least, relationships in early recovery are, in the opinion of many, the number-one cause of relapse.  That’s what you’re likely to have most in common.

Make sense now?

Home Groups, Sponsors, Reservations, and Families That Use

This time we’re combining four questions that don’t require long answers into one post.

How soon should I find a home group?

You need to find a group where you feel reasonably at home.  This may change over time, but you need to look for one where you aren't totally uncomfortable.  Don't look for perfection, because it doesn't exist.  Groups are made up of people — all kinds of people.  Again, reasonable comfort is the key.

There’s no set limit.  Generally, it is suggested that we spend a few meetings in each of several groups, then stick with the one that feels best for a while.  When we’ve made that much of a commitment, making a home group decision shouldn’t be difficult.

How long should I wait to get a sponsor?

Generally speaking, the same rule applies to sponsors.  Listen to what people say.  Look for people who are happy in sobriety, and sound like it — consistently.  Look for people who sound honest.  Avoid people who quote the literature constantly, and look for people who make sense when they’re thinking for themselves.  Don’t wait too long, but try to choose based on those ideas.

There is no set rule, but since a sponsor is your guide through the program and the steps, it’s not good to wait too long.  If you’re doing a meeting a day, you should have a pretty good list of candidates in a couple of weeks.  Then ask them to go for a cup of coffee, and spend some time one-one-one.  If that feels good, then ask.  You're not getting married, but you don't want a one-night stand, either.

What is a reservation?

A reservation is an excuse to use that we make in advance.  Here are some examples:

  • I’m an alcoholic and can’t drink, but a little pot can’t hurt.
  • I’m a painkiller addict, but it’s OK to have an occasional drink.
  • I’ll go to meetings and do as I’m told, but it’s hard for me to trust people so I’m not getting a sponsor.
  • I’ll go to meetings, work the steps, and do as I’m told, but I’m sure that after I’ve been clean and sober for a while it will be OK for me to have a drink now and then.
  • I’ll go to meetings and work the steps, but to heck with that one-year thing.  I’m going to have a relationship if one comes along.

To put it another way, a reservation is a recipe for failure.

How often should I see my family members that still use drugs?

How often do you want to be tempted to use drugs yourself?

Talk about pushing buttons!  Our families hard-wired our buttons for us.  They can push them without even meaning to.  In any case, people who are using around you clearly don’t have your best interests on their mind.  Add to that the fact that seeing you clean and sober may make them uncomfortable enough to actively encourage you to use, and the answer is simple: very seldom, and always in the company of a sober companion. (See “reservations.”)

That's it for this time.  Keep on keepin' on!

The Poison That We Drink

Resentments are the poison that we drink, and then wait for the other person to die.
– Anonymous

Some of the truest words you'll ever read.

Think about it.  Think about that terrible thing that (insert name here) did to you back in the long-ago.  Think about how bad it made you feel.  Think about how you'd like to get back at them,  how you'd like to tell them off in words that would make them shrivel and leave them with nothing at all to say.

How often do those thoughts come into your head?  Once a week?  Once a day?  Whenever you think of that person?  Whenever you do something that reminds you of them?  Whenever their name comes up in conversation?  Whenever you're just feeling sorry for yourself and want to feel better by reminding yourself how terrible someone else is?

I thought so.

Now, while you're making yourself miserable thinking about how you've been wronged, what do you think (insert name here) is doing?  Do you think she's spending her time thinking about the subject?  Do you figure they think about it at all?  If you confronted him, would he even remember the incident? Would he remember it the same way you do?

See, the thing is, renting out space in your head to that person, that incident, that resentment, hurts nobody but you (and the people you inflict it on from time to time).  You're the one whose stomach is boiling, who gets all tense, who drinks the poison that is meant for that other person.  They will never taste it, but you will taste it as long as you keep holding that poisoned cup.

So deal with it.  It's your problem and your misery.  It's only hurting you.  That s.o.b. is oblivious, and would probably think you were hallucinating if you brought it up.

It's up to you whether or not you pick up that cup again.  Do you want to be righteous, or do you want to be happy?

Is it an adjustment for children once you are sober?

Having a family member get sober is an adjustment for everyone.  While we are drinking or using other drugs, our behavior and effect on other family members is considerably different than when we get sober.  It is sometimes a shock to newly-sober people to discover that when they get back home things are not always sweetness and light.

We have written elsewhere about how unreasonable it is for alcoholics and other addicts to expect to be trusted, simply because they have been clean and sober for a few weeks or months.  Children may feel that a parent was not there for them when they needed support.  They may remember bouts of anger, even abuse of the other parent or themselves.  They probably have their own anger related to missed occasions, sports events, a normal family life, and general absence of a parent whom they love and look to for nurturing.

The same is true of a spouse.  In addition to all of the above, he or she may resent having had to single-handedly deal with responsibilities that should have been shared.  These things may apply to older children, as well.  It may even be that these members will resent the attempts of a formerly-ineffective parent to step up and fill the roles that they have gotten used to.

Some or all of these issues will exist in every family where a parent or sibling has been actively addicted.  For that reason, it is critical that families undergo joint therapy, where issues may be aired and adjustments made in the presence of skilled professionals.  Individual therapy may be necessary for some or all members as well.  Without such help, the likelihood of further family problems is high.

How do you separate yourself from friends and family who are using? They’re the only friends I have!

Café Terrace at Night - Vincent van Gogh

Imagine that we are sitting at a sidewalk cafe in Paris, enjoying a cup of great coffee and a croissant.  Most of the folks around us are speaking French, and since we don’t, it’s not very interesting until we hear some folks speaking English a couple of tables away.  Immediately we’re like, “Where are you from?  How long have you been in Paris?  Where were you before?  Where are you going next?  Oh, me too!  Do you know so and so?”  Perfectly natural.  These are our people and they speak our language.

If a person was looking for a sure thing, as far as relapse is concerned, he couldn’t go wrong by hanging around with active addicts, especially family members.  As addicts we thought in predictable ways, behaved in predictable ways, and we even spoke in ways that identified us — to ourselves and others — as members of “the club.”  In early recovery those are, to a degree still “our people.”  They speak our language, and we’re still trying to learn the language of recovery.  They can get us into a world of trouble.

The old people, places and things are big triggers, and smart people avoid them even when they’re no longer beginners.  Old friends — and especially family members — are the ones who wired our buttons, and they can play us like a barroom piano.  It’s the way we’ve always interacted with them, and they can’t help it.  Nor can we help reacting when they do it.  Add familiar circumstances and places — maybe the local pool hall and bar — to the interpersonal stuff, and even an addict with quite a lot of clean time can be in trouble.

Family is hard to deal with.  Those who use have a vested interest in seeing us get high again, and even the sober ones may find the “new” us a little hard to take.  Sort of a “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t” thing.  If they start the same old stuff, we probably will too, and it’s a sure way to end up relapsing — when we start speaking and thinking in that language again.  That’s why we recommend halfway houses, sober houses and other lodging away from home for beginners, places where the folks around us know where we’re coming from.  When we attend family functions, we make sure we bring a sober person with us.  What host is going to turn down our friend for Thanksgiving dinner?  Then the two of us can sit there and watch the drunks, giving each other an occasional knowing look, and split when things get really rowdy.  “Gee, I’m sorry Mom, but Joe has to go and I need to give him a ride.”

You know how everyone is always talking about developing a support system, going to meetings, getting a sponsor, getting involved in service, and so forth?  That’s because we need to find new people, places and things.  That’s where we meet the sober people, make new friends and hang out with our recovery family.  Then we branch out and have fun in other places, but always with one or more of our new friends.

Sober people do a lot of things besides sit in smoky meeting rooms, drinking coffee, and talking about the program.  Most of us end up having more fun than we did when we were using.  We go scuba diving.  We ride motorcycles in sober motorcycle clubs.  We organize and put on dances, and attend those organized by other sober groups.  Sober cruises are fairly common, and every cruise ship has a meeting (just check the activity boards for “Friends of Bill”).  There is quite literally nothing that we can do loaded that we can’t do sober — except get high.

So, the answer to the question in the title is simple.  We don’t separate, we just back off.  Chances are that we make our old buds nervous anyway, and they’re not likely to pursue us very hard.  We hang with our new friends in recovery, and that takes care of the second part.  Our using friends are no longer our only friends, and it’s a safe bet that our new, sober, friends will become just as important in our lives as those others were — and they won’t be trying to get us to poison ourselves, either.

Questions From Newcomers: What Should You Look For In A Sponsor

Original Draft of "How It Works"

There is a line in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous that reads, “If you have decided you want what we have and are willing to go to any lengths to get it, then you are ready to take certain steps.” It is accepted in the rooms of the 12-step fellowships that the way we achieve lasting sobriety is by making changes in our lives. The steps are the basis of those changes. They provide a framework for action that we take to begin to get our lives back on track and on the way to normal living. They are based on ideas that have been found to work – if we work at them.

In order to “work” the steps we need guidance, and that is the purpose of a sponsor. A sponsor's job is not to lead us around by the hand, or counsel us in our relationship problems, or lend us money, or provide transportation, or be our friend – although some sponsors do some of those things. Emphatically, it is not the job of a sponsor to tell us how to live our lives. The purpose of a sponsor is to guide us through the steps. Many of us continue to use our sponsors as sounding boards and develop lasting friendships after we complete the steps, but that is a bonus. If a sponsor has taken us through the 12 steps carefully and thoroughly, then he or she has completed the job. Anything else is secondary to that duty.

That said, the sensible thing for us to do is to choose a sponsor strictly on how carefully we believe they seem to have done the steps. We want sponsors who are clearly sober, who have obviously worked through most of their issues, who are living sober lives in the community, and who are generally the sorts of people that we would like to become.

That means that, among other things, we want sponsors who won't become distractions from our program. If we are male, we want male sponsors. If we are female, we want female sponsors. If we are gay, we carefully choose sponsors to whom we are not likely to become attracted, of whatever gender. Sponsors and sponsees work closely together, share confidences, and develop extremely close relationships within the context of the program. It is all too easy to fall into the trap of carrying those relationships too far. In that case, we no longer have a sponsor/sponsee relationship, regardless of how we may try to fool ourselves, we will be distracted from our program, and we are risking not only our sobriety but that of the other party as well.

Another common trap is to choose sponsors who are “right for us.” We are in no position to make those decisions. If we knew what was right for us, we wouldn't need meetings. My advice is to choose the person in the room who has a quiet, solid sort of sobriety, the person that the chair calls on when no one else wants to share, the person who talks about how he or she did it, not about how others should do it. The person who doesn't necessarily share all that much, but who invariably leaves us thinking “Yeah!”

Another indication of a good sponsor is to take a look at their sponsor, the one who will become our “grand-sponsor.” A string of two (or three) solid individuals who seem really to have it together will virtually guarantee not only that we will get a good sponsor but that we will have good resources to fall back on if needed.

Finally, remembering the reason for getting a sponsor to begin with, we want one who talks about the steps – about their understanding of them, what they have meant in their life, how they continue to incorporate those ideas into their daily living, and so forth. High-falutin' ideas about spirituality, or religion, or New Age ideas have nothing to do with sobriety. Spirituality is about being a good person and doing the next right thing. Religion and New Age ideas have no bearing on the steps, and should be pursued separately if one desires. It is easy to be swayed by big talk. Look for the person who lives the steps, and you won't go far wrong.

Questions From Newcomers: How Do We Earn Respect And Trust When We Get Sober?

One of the common issues facing us in early recovery is the lack of trust and respect from others in our lives, whether family, friends or employers. While some — especially family — are often willing to accept our new, sober selves and welcome us back into the fold, there will always be some who find themselves unable to trust, and others who will continue to think of us as they did when we were active in our addictions — as worthless drunks and junkies.

And why shouldn't they? Compared to the chaos that we created when we were using, and the length of time involved, why should a few weeks or months of new found sobriety impress them? Most of us used for years, eroding the trust and often respect of practically everyone around us. How many unkept promises, how many financial fiascoes, how many drunken escapades, how much despair, worry and heartache did it take to damage those relationships?

That being the case, it's not the least bit surprising that it might take quite a while for folks to trust us, and to see that we really are trying to do the next right thing. The remains of our addict personalities (which certainly don't disappear simply because we put down booze and/or other drugs) don't help the situation, either. Defenses built up over years against our behavior can't be expected to disappear overnight. If we were in their positions, we'd behave the same way.

So, what can we do about it? Simply continue to live our sober lives. The only way that we can reasonably expect others to begin trust and respect us again is by earning that respect and trust — the same way anyone else would — by showing ourselves to be worthy of it. This doesn't happen overnight, just as it wouldn't with a stranger that we happened to meet. We would watch that person, trusting them a little more each day, until we came to consider them a friend we could count on. Is it not reasonable to expect that the same would be true of people who knew and were affected by us in our addictions? Where we have no reason but caution to be leery of strangers, those folks have plenty of reasons to worry about us. Most will get over it in time; others may never feel the same way about us as they used to. If that is the case, and if we have been unable to repair the relationships despite our best efforts, then we have to accept that things may never be the same. That can be painful, but we have to live with what is, not with what we might wish it to be. We need to remember that while we are responsible for making amends and righting wrongs to the extent that we can, we are not responsible for the way that others react to our efforts.

So we live our sober lives. We take care of our recovery by sticking with our support groups and doing what we need to do. Then we get jobs, pay bills, go back to school, carry out our obligations to our families and others, and generally live trustworthy lives that command respect. This isn't going to happen overnight — but the chances are good that it won't take nearly as long to regain people's regard as it did to damage it to begin with. Remember – most of them want to give us the same regard they used to, they're just afraid. It's up to us to show that it's safe for them to do so.

It's amazing how we often get what we are looking for in recovery, simply by living clean and sober, one day at a time.