Sometimes I feel pulled in opposite directions by my two programs – AA and Al-Anon – though the confusion actually arises, not from contradiction between them, but from my muddled thinking as a codependent alcoholic.
AA tells the alcoholic in me that “Our very lives, as ex-problem drinkers, depend on our constant thought of others and how we may help meet their needs” (20). On the other hand, Al-Anon tells me that “…many of us develop the habit of putting [another] person’s needs first… To recover we have to learn to keep the focus on ourselves” (9).
How can I do both? How do I constantly think of your needs and keep the focus on me?
When I was new to AA, I resented the idea that selfishness was the “root of [my] troubles” (62). I was a victim. Other people hurt me. It took years of meetings and a fairly forceful sponsor to open my eyes to the ways I victimized myself. Living in ego, I was “[d]riven by a hundred forms of fear” (62) that there wasn’t enough to go ’round and I wouldn’t get mine. My sponsor taught me how my egocentric expectations that others do whatever would make me most comfortable laid the foundations for a life of discontent. (See What a 4th Step is and Ain’t)
In AA, to stop being a black hole of need, we have to literally reverse the direction of our energy flow. I had to learn to see others, not as appliances, but as fellow children of god to be loved. Luckily for me, god set me up a bunch of tutorials in this matter. Here’s one: In early sobriety, I used to envy a beautiful young woman who secretaried a huge meeting, ever popular and lusted after, dressed to the hilt week after week. She later relapsed, fled to her friends’ home, and while they were out, chugged a bottle of Drano from under their sink in an effort to die. Last I spoke with her several years later, she was still missing much of her esophagus and needed a feeding tube to eat. Her heart itself was scarred.
That’s the pain of alcoholism we share, sans a spiritual solution. Once I could begin to know and internalize that others struggled with the same invisible demons that I did, I could begin to give from the heart. What the founders of AA knew was that sometimes you have to prime the pump by going through the actions before you feel the spirit. That’s why service work is such a foundational part of our program. When I feel the outpouring of my own good intentions in making coffee or taking time for a sponsee, I begin to actually want good things for you – to love you. As my love flows out to you, love from god flows into me, filling my emptiness – and I am healed!
That’s just a spiritual law.
Meanwhile, back at Al-Anon, the core of the program is “Live and Let Live.” That’s actually two sets of instructions. The first one, “Live,” means be true to yourself – know yourself, be yourself, love yourself. Each of these is, for me, a 400-level grad school course that meets 365 days per year. It’s tough! When I was new to Al-Anon, I resented my sponsor’s conjecture that I probably didn’t know what I wanted. How ridiculous! I’m a very passionate person! Of course I know I want… I want…
What do you think I should want? I kinda like ABC – is that okay? Do you like it? Really? So, you must like me! Yay, I win!
In Al-Anon I realized that I had little to no center, that I’d been a reactor all my life. I set up relationships of turmoil to keep myself busy so I’d never have to take responsibility for my own happiness. The greatest distraction from my assigned work of “Live” was harping on how you ought to live. Really – look at yourself! You’d be so much better off if you just did X, Y, and Z! And I can’t do ABC because you hold me back!
Here comes the second half of the Al-Anon slogan: “Let live.” Okay. You are sole boss of you. I haven’t lived your life up until this point, so I can’t know what’s best for you. That’s between you and your higher power. I can only tell you how your actions impact me and what I need, and then, based on your response, make choices for my own behavior (which may include parting ways).
But guys, you know what’s still hardest for me? Weathering disapproval from people who believe they know better than I what I should and shouldn’t do. You may have your own set of judges, but mine are my siblings; my recovery in AA put us terribly out of step. Apparently I love, climb, parent, and write wrongly. For many years I struggled to win their approval, mistaking that effort for “how [I could] help meet their needs.” But the truth is, no one needs to approve of me!
This is where Al-Anon’s “focus on ourselves” comes in, to help me recognize internal factors – hello! fear of conflict! external locus of self-worth! – that are harming me and helping no one. I can easily detach in other parts of life, but to practice detachment with our first family requires, I’m beginning to think, a black belt in Al-Anon. I’m still very much a work in progress.
The goal in both AA and Al-Anon is to grow toward my god rather than as dictated by my ego or someone else’s. God moves me to love and help others, but never toward what I decide they “ought” to be, or in ways that harm my own serenity. To achieve balance, I have to accept that my doing good for anyone depends on the foundational practice of self-care and self-love, so I can show up with my unique strengths and radiance – complete, confident, and compassionate.
Some day, that’ll be me with my sibs!