What do you do when you are 25 years sober and feel like your mind is slowly unraveling? Every relationship seems overly complicated. Like anything you do will cause a rift or uneasiness. Constantly feeling the need to defend and finding myself out of balance at work, at home, and even in meetings. Wondering what the real meaning is behind everything.
I was busy. Busy at home, busy at work doing my job, and busy sponsoring women. I took direction and was always willing to look at my part, to acknowledge that the problem was in me. I read lots of inspirational and spiritual books. I made sure to start almost every morning in prayer. But nothing helped. There was an emptiness I couldn’t put my finger on.
I think we are all bound to have our episodes in the wilderness. It’s what makes us humble and ready to take the next step, whatever that may be. Usually it turns out that our answer is something obvious, but for some reason we are blind to the real problem. We need a seismic shift, an existential crisis to break us down every single time.
Mine came in the form of Patrick.
Patrick had been my friend almost since I first moved to Jacksonville. We worked at the same company and started going out to lunch with the group. As time went on, we became close confidants, gossiping about the politics in our organization and where our loyalties should be forged. I broke my anonymity with him, and we started hanging out after work. I followed him from that first job to the next.
One of the things he liked best about me was my ability to pause and sense the most graceful way to handle a situation. He was impressed by my approach of stepping back from a political snarl in the office and thoughtfully observing coworkers without immediate judgment. Patrick had a lot of passion. He was quick to form an alliance or hastily judge other people. I took a more measured approach, but I didn’t like it when someone was mean. I could identify with his feelings, and we complimented each other because while I avoided confrontation he welcomed it. What he didn’t know was that my diplomatic skills were not innately acquired; they were gleaned from years of watching more seasoned members of the fellowship navigate troubled waters and share their wisdom.
He liked to drink, and this was part of his formula for happiness in the gay community. I was an older married lady who lived in a gated neighborhood. Nothing terribly exciting happened since I had gotten sober. Not that I missed the terrible excitement. The DUIs, wrecked cars, brawls with boyfriends and horrible post-blackout remorse were a thing of my past. Now that my kids were grown and out of the house, my social identity as a mom was disappearing. I liked to hear about his friends, their little squabbles and the emotional firework displays when they slept with each other’s boyfriends. It was exciting stuff to listen to, kind of like guest starring on a reality TV show.
Of course, I was playing with fire by vicariously enjoying all the drama I used to live, still looking for a distraction. I was also compromising my values every time I participated in his favorite game of character assassination, even if I was only listening and making comical observations. Our code for something juicy was starting a sentence with “I shouldn’t be saying this, but…”.
It was harmless fun I rationalized; he’s my good and loyal friend. Then came the day when I had to choose.
Patrick was livid when his friends Jerry and Don, who were a couple, unfriended him on Facebook. They got into a texting war and he wanted me to look at all the messages on his phone so I could validate how awful they were. I sympathized with him, but knew I didn’t want to take sides. I had watched him get mad at people and cut them off in an emotional flare only to feel miserable later, regretting that he had acted harshly. I also really liked Jerry and Don. My husband and I would go to dinner with them and they seemed more mature than a lot of his other friends. I didn’t look at the messages, but I knew he wanted me to stay on his team, so I pretended to support him in his little war. When my husband and I saw them at a party that weekend, we were friendly as usual. Patrick briskly walked by as we stood inside the patio doors talking to the couple while the rest of the crowd played flip cup in the backyard. Not a great place for a recovering alcoholic – what the hell was I thinking hanging out with all these party boys?
That next Monday when I approached Patrick at work he told me that I had betrayed him by cozying up to his enemies. I tried to explain myself, but he said I had passed the line where I should have been “cordial, and nothing more”. I told him that I was trying to avoid all the drinking in the backyard, and he responded with, “that doesn’t bother you”. I couldn’t really argue with him, because I’d always acted like it was no big deal even when it made me uncomfortable. Witnessing their inebriated antics reminded me of how much fun I had experienced for the brief moments when my drinking wasn’t completely out of control. I knew I couldn’t get away with it anymore, but I liked feeling their intoxicated glow by osmosis.
The following week Patrick acted like I was dead to him. I called my sponsor. I talked to my husband. Two of my co-workers told me I was not being loyal, but everyone else said I was doing the right thing, that it was petty high school stuff and I should just rise above it. I tried to act like it didn’t bother me, but inside I was devastated.
During this time period, one of my sponsees told me about a new meeting she wanted to check out. I decided to meet her there, just out of curiosity. It was called “Big Book Step Study”. I liked literature meetings, but this had a different format than any room I had ever been in. For one thing, I wasn’t allowed to share anything other than my name. Someone I knew from my home group was there, and indicated she was almost through the process that would allow her to share. I asked her to take me through the steps when she was on the other side of her work. Two weeks later, she was ready to sponsor me, telling me we would do the steps with regard to codependency.
I knew I was in emotional pain from the Patrick situation, and since some of my coworkers were taking his side, going to work every day was excruciating. I had done some codependency work early in my sobriety, having an alcoholic father and boyfriend and finding my way into the rooms through Al Anon and ACOA. I thought I had already dealt with those issues, since I had married a normal drinker. Boy, was I wrong.
Bill Wilson wrote an article on “emotional sobriety” in 1958. In the essay, he states, “Those adolescent urges that so many of us have for top approval, perfect security, and perfect romance – urges quite appropriate to age seventeen – prove quite an impossible way of life when at age forty-seven or fifty-seven.” That was where I was, still feeling like a teenager with a broken heart. He also wrote, “If we examine every disturbance we have, great or small, we will find at the root of it some unhealthy dependency and its consequent unhealthy demand.” It seems like the phrase “emotional sobriety” is just code for codependency. Most alcoholics don’t like that word.
I happened to have dinner one night with my new sponsor’s first sponsor, who I told about my dilemma with Patrick. She looked me right in the eye, saying, “I’m so sorry for your pain” and highly suggested a new book on codependency. The book re-opened my eyes, and helped me see how my patterns of unhealthy behavior originated in my childhood. I was recreating the pain I felt as a little girl by manifesting the same situations over and over again in my life. Meanwhile, my new sponsor was walking me through the steps from a different point of view, helping me see how I was so powerless over my codependency. I couldn’t fix it, no human power could, but God could. The trouble was, I didn’t know how to clean house properly for God to come in and sweep it all out, to replace my old destructive behaviors with something new and healthy. Thankfully, I had her help. She taught me how to follow the directions the way they are in written in the Big Book, precisely. I always tried to tell the truth, but I didn’t know what it was. I found out that I was being dishonest by telling myself lies about who I was. I still believed deep down that I was unworthy because of the way I was treated as a child. Or maybe it was the way I internalized the way I was treated as a child. It didn’t really matter, as long as I understood that those hidden lies were preventing me from experiencing the joy of living.
I really needed to look deep down at the root of when my problems began. I was an unhappy kid, and drinking was a solution to the pain I felt. Once I got sober, the fellowship gave me a place to speak my heart and relate to people who saw and felt the world the same way I did. But since I couldn’t see the truth in the lies I was telling myself I just kept manifesting the same pain.
I’m happy to say that I made it through that fourth step, and gave it all away to my new sponsor in a very thorough fifth step. I did a searching and fearless inventory of my childhood, where it all started. I included all troubling relationships going forward in the list, so that I could see how the pattern kept repeating. She helped me see the things I had been completely oblivious to, like not ever really feeling safe. I was able to start catching myself when the self-seeking behavior would start, even when it was only in my head. I knew that beneath all of it was only a fear, and that the fear was irrational. For me, it was almost always “I am defective, un-loveable and will be abandoned”. Once I was able to identify that, to hear it over and over as the root cause for almost every resentment I ever had, I could finally let go of it. If I was really defective, unlovable and abandoned, why had God brought kept me sober for so many years? Why had He gifted me with a good career, a loving husband and two beautiful daughters? No, I wasn’t defective or unlovable. The truth was that I am and always will be a beloved child of my creator and that He made me on purpose. And He never would abandon me.
I no longer work with Patrick, but I see him occasionally when I get together for lunch with some of my old coworkers. He did unfriend me on Facebook, but I know he still has my number because he texted me out of the blue the other day when he ran into someone from our past. It doesn’t bother me that we are no longer close, because I have new relationships where I’m no longer acting out destructively. And I truly am experiencing the joy of living.