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Relationships, Connection, and Addiction

Recovery demands three connections:

  1. With yourself (self-awareness)
  2. With others
  3. With something that makes you feel alive, energized, and vital (e.g. volunteering).

One of the questions clients ask is if one of these connections is more important than another. It’s interesting that many in active addiction have very good self-awareness (though many also struggle with this). Some of the finest literary writers produced very good books while in active addiction.

Think of John O’Brien’s novel, Leaving Las Vegas. O’Brien was an alcoholic, and his book provides good insight into the nature of addiction. He was fully aware of what addiction was, what it cost him, and why he drank. But even self-awareness didn’t help O’Brien; he took his life while in addictive alcoholism. So, connecting with the self may not be the most important connection.

According to a remarkable amount of research, the one connection that persons with addictions seem to struggle with the most is the connection with others. Even John O’Brien wrote about his struggle to connect with others in Leaving Las Vegas. In fact, the importance of connecting with others is the main theme of the book. And, of course, Eugene O’Neill, the Nobel-Prize-winning writer, recognized that it was his feeling of separation from others that was the cause of his drinking. His greatest works are about why connecting with others is the key to being clean and sober. In O’Neill’s own struggles to recover, it was through rebuilding connections with his wife and parents that led him to abstinence.

Relationships

You should know that psychology now promotes relationships as one of the most important factors of life. In the old days, we used to focus on the individual only, trying to understand human beings by studying them in isolation. Today, however, more and more psychologists are developing theories and models that say that the way to understand human beings is through their need to exist in relationships.

So, if we had to choose one type of connection, it would not be a bad idea to choose a connection with others.

During active addiction, a person interprets others mainly according to the principle: can they help me get and use the substance, are they neutral, or can they hinder me from getting and using the substance? A family dinner can be a place of suffering if the person wants to get loaded and the family prevents them from using. Even being with your kids can be a problem; they might catch you. Bosses are certainly dangerous because they can fire you—or send you to treatment. People avoid you in public; how many people want to sit next to you on the bus if you’re loaded?

man staring out window alone and isolated.

Remember the Lessons Sunshine Coast Health Centre

There is a reason why Sunshine Coast Health Centre is a residential treatment center. Living with others 24 hours a day and 7 days a week may not be too attractive to most new clients, but it has great therapeutic value for overcoming addiction. Those in active addiction, who learned to push others away and isolate themselves, now have to learn new methods to live comfortably.

For example, let’s say a client is in a foul mood. He likely has no problem letting others know he is angry, even though all the other clients are struggling with their own issues. This client has no problem taking his anger out on someone, even yelling or punching a wall. Perhaps this client doesn’t care about keeping his room tidy. The fact that this is expected of him at Sunshine Coast does not matter to him. He has not paid attention to policies or laws or family requests for many years.

When you live in a bubble, nothing outside the bubble really matters.

If they continue to act this way, they will soon discover other clients want little to do with them. If they don’t change or learn to connect with other clients, they will likely be miserable in treatment. Rather than change, they will probably start inventing all sorts of nonsense: other clients are jerks, counsellors are useless, and so on. But almost always, they learn to connect.

Clients at Sunshine Coast Health Centre learn to pay attention to others and what others are feeling, especially in small group. They discover that they share a great deal with others, that they are accepted, warts and all.

The Secret to Connecting with Others

The great thinker, Martin Buber, gave us the key to good relationships. Buber said that we have to treat others as valuable and worthwhile human beings, what he called the “I-Thou” relationship.

Treating another person as worthwhile and important usually takes practice. How many times have you seen one person treat another with disrespect, which then leads to an angry reaction from the person insulted? The justification is, of course, “well, he started it”. If you are alumni of Sunshine Coast Health Centre, you may have been reminded by your counsellor that because someone treats you disrespectfully, is no reason to treat them disrespectfully. You are still the author of how you react – but this is a tough one.

The blessing of learning to connect with others using ‘I-Thou’ is that you will feel better. Life will be more rewarding. You lose the feeling that you are an outcast, that you are different than others. You gain a sense of belonging, of fitting in, of being part of.

These benefits are precisely why connecting with others is so important for recovery. The great psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl, said that the reason people with addictions use substances is because they have little connection with others. Because of this, life has little personal meaning. But those who connect with others at a deep level discover that life is exciting and meaningful.

two men embraced in friendly handshake smiling

Dating

Connecting with an intimate partner is another type of relationship. The key is to have two healthy equals come together in a relationship.

Due to most in early recovery being filled with guilt and shame, they may not think that they are worth much. One client told us the reason he dated certain women in bars is because he didn’t think a healthy woman would want to be around him.

It is interesting how many clients and alumni seek out someone to rescue. They tell us that they are doing ‘good’ in helping the less fortunate. But if we operate according to the principle of equality in relationships, we can see that rescuing someone is not a partnership among equals.

Similar to rescuing the damsel is the notorious practice at 12-step meetings of ‘thirteenth stepping’, another doomed connection. A person new to the fellowship is vulnerable. Another member sees this and acts as if he or she (yes, it goes both ways) can help the vulnerable member. Of course, the older AA member is simply using the vulnerable person to satisfy his or her lust or loneliness. Using another person for your benefit is hardly a relationship of equals.

Some use the ‘victim’ role to attract dates. Being needy is attractive to those who need someone to rescue them. Obviously, this is not a good basis for a relationship.

Connecting with Others Helps Connect with Yourself

This is one of the main dynamics behind group therapy. How you treat others in the group—how you connect with them—will likely determine how they treat you. Members of group therapy learn quickly that if you don’t show up on time for group, interrupt others, and focus only when the topic shifts to something you are interested in, then you will not form good connections with others. When other group members see your behaviour, they conclude that you have no interest in them, so they won’t bother trying to pursue a connection.

If other people continue to avoid making connections with the person, he’ll likely be more convinced than ever that he is unworthy of caring. And so, he’ll just keep behaving as he does. It’s a vicious cycle.

On the other hand, if you approach others with the attitude that they are important, you generally find that you are well treated. Based on this constant feedback, you will likely come to believe that you are a good person, a decent person. And, of course, being a good person will likely help you to continue to treat others well.

Forgiveness

Dr. Ken Hart, one of Canada’s foremost addiction researchers, reports new research on overcoming shame. Studies have found that the experience of having someone forgive you actually helps you to forgive yourself. And forgiving yourself is one of the key factors in overcoming feelings of shame.

In this example, you make sense of yourself based in great measure on how another treats you. This is why helping out in the community often makes someone feel better. To use an extreme example, let’s say an alcoholic killed a child while driving intoxicated. We’ve discovered that one way to help alleviate guilt is for the person to volunteer with kids in the community or create a foundation to help underprivileged kids or some other activity. Because of this effort, they will get feedback from others, likely positive. This feedback often helps them in the process to forgive themself.

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