Two friends of mine are angry with one another.
They are both in recovery, both working the steps, both going to meetings, both have a sponsor and are generally doing the deal.
They’re REALLY mad at one another.
I have a second pair of friends; one habitually treats the other with casual indifference, the other is hurt by the disregard.
“I’m not going to make plans with that bastard anymore,” one tells me.
The other is blissfully unaware he’s done anything wrong, asking: “Why’s he acting so strange?”
“Maybe you should ask him,” I say.
I have a friend struggling to balance his personal life with meetings and step work, another who is more worried about getting his career on track than anything else (including going to his home group or honoring commitments), another who is getting beat up by members of an old home group and doesn’t know how to respond, another who is frustrated that his friend won’t share in his spiritual journey, another who is….
The list goes on and on and on.
Is it codependency? Should I send them to a CoDa meeting?
Perhaps. If these matters cannot be resolved, if each person cannot find the spiritual solution within our literature or the principles or by spiritually growing up for God’s Sake… CoDa is probably their best bet.
However, let’s not be too quick to blame codependency.
Many of us struggle with relationships. We struggle at five years sober, at ten, at twenty— let’s be honest: relationships are trying no matter how much time we’ve put together.
But in those first few years sober? Damn. It can get bad.
So many of us stumble, saying and doing truly STUPID things, injuring our friends, offending our closest buddies, irritating the hell out of those who USED to love us more than anyone else.
If we’re not running to Codependents Anonymous, what should we do? Where might we turn for answers?
Thank God we have a book!
Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Recovered From Alcoholism contains a chapter frequently overlooked when new AA’s go through the literature: The Family Afterwards. With a few small shifts in emphasis, The Family Afterward becomes a marvelous tool for addressing ALL the relationship problems I’ve mentioned.
If you are struggling with friendships, especially close relationships with active members of Alcoholics Anonymous, you will find this helpful.
(For notes on the how and why of it; for further explanation of presenting the Big Book in this edited fashion, scroll to the bottom of the page. For easy reference, all sections are followed with page numbers.)
Let’s start reading.
PRIDE & SELF WILL
We’ve suggested certain attitudes to take with someone recovering from alcoholism.
Perhaps we’ve created the impression that the new member is to be wrapped in cotton wool and placed on a pedestal.
Successful readjustment means the opposite.
Friends must meet upon the common ground of tolerance, understanding and love.
This involves a process of deflation because the new member is likely to have fixed ideas about his companion’s attitude towards himself or herself.
Each friend is interested in having his or her wishes respected. We find the more one companion demands the other concede to him, the more resentful they become. This makes for discord and unhappiness.
And why? Is it not because each wants to play the lead? Is not each trying to arrange the show to his liking? Is Our Friend not unconsciously trying to see what he can take rather than give?
Let friends realize, as they start their journey, that all will not be fair weather. Each in his turn may be footsore and may straggle.
There will be alluring shortcuts and by-paths down which they may wander and lose their way.
Now and then friends will be plagued by specters from the past, for the early years of sobriety of almost every recovering alcoholic are marked by escapades, funny, humiliating, shameful or tragic. The first impulse will be to bury these skeletons in a dark closet and padlock the door. These two friends may be possessed by the idea that future happiness can be based only upon forgetfulness of the past.
We think that such a view is self- centered and in direct conflict with the new way of living.
USING THE PAST AS A WEAPON
On the other hand, it is possible to dig up past misdeeds so they become a blight, a veritable plague. For example, we know of situations in which two friends in AA fought angrily over some perceived slight, some trifling matter blown into a mountain of resentment and bitterness. In the first flush of spiritual experience they forgave each other and drew close once again. The miracle of reconciliation was at hand. Then, under one provocation or another, the aggrieved one would unearth the old affair and angrily cast its ashes about. A few of us have had these growing pains and they hurt a great deal.
Infrequently, relationships end over these arguments. Others have been obliged to separate for a time until new perspective, new victory over hurt pride could be re-won.
In most cases, the alcoholic survived this ordeal without relapse, but not always.
AA friends keep few skeletons in the closet.
Each friend knows about the others’ trouble. This is a condition which, in ordinary life, would produce untold grief; there might be scandalous gossip, laughter at the expense of other people, and a tendency to take advantage of intimate information. Among us, these are rare occurrences. We do talk about each other a great deal, but we almost invariably temper such talk by a spirit of love and tolerance.
Another principle we observe carefully is that we do not relate intimate experiences of our friends unless we are sure they would approve. We find it better, when possible, to stick to our own stories. A man may criticize or laugh at himself and it will affect others favorably, but criticism or ridicule coming from an other often produces the contrary effect. Two recovering friends should watch such matters carefully, for one careless, inconsiderate remark has been known to raise the very devil. We alcoholics are sensitive people. It takes some of us a long time to outgrow that serious handicap.
THE TWO PATHS OF EARLY RECOVERY
Many alcoholics are enthusiasts. They run to extremes. At the beginning of recovery a man or woman will take, as a rule, one of two directions. He may either plunge into a frantic attempt to get on his feet in business, or he may be so enthralled by his new life in AA that he talks or thinks of little else. In either case certain problems will arise. ]
With these we have had experience galore.
We think it dangerous if Our Friend rushes headlong at his economic problem. His new acquaintances will surely find themselves neglected.
He may be tired at night and preoccupied by day. Our Friend may take small interest in meeting his former confidants for coffee or conversation and may show irritation when reproved for his delinquencies. If not irritable, he may seem dull and boring, not fun-loving and affectionate as his friends would like him to be. His close acquaintances are all disappointed, and often let him feel it. Beginning with such complaints, a barrier arises. Our Friend is straining every nerve to make up for lost time. He is striving to recover fortune and reputation and feels he is doing very well.
Having been supportive during the difficult first months and years of Our Friend’s recovery from alcoholism, his compatriots may think they are owed more than they are getting. But Our Friend doesn’t give freely of himself. Resentment grows. Our Friend becomes still less communicative. Sometimes he explodes over a trifle. His friends are mystified. They becomes critical, pointing out how he is falling down on his spiritual program.
THE SUPER SOBER
(OTHERWISE KNOWN AS THE BABY BIG BOOK THUMPER)
Assume on the other hand, Our Friend has, at the outset, a stirring spiritual experience. Overnight, as it were, he is a different man. He becomes an Alcoholics Anonymous enthusiast. He goes to every convention. He attends two meetings a day, carrying his AA literature with him everywhere he goes. He is unable to focus on anything else.
As soon as his sobriety begins to be taken as a matter of course, his friends may look at his behavior with apprehension, then with irritation. There is talk about spiritual matters morning, noon and night. He demands that his friends have the same zeal for AA fundraisers, new meetings, speaker tapes, or event promotions that he does. Or, Our Friend may exhibit amazing indifference to them and say he is above worldly considerations. He may tell his dearest friend, who has been sober for a number of years, that he doesn’t know what it’s all about, and that he had better get Our Friend’s brand of recovery while there is yet time.
When Our Friend takes this tack, his fellow recovering acquaintance usually reacts unfavorably. He may be jealous of the cause, meeting, or sponsor who has stolen his friend’s affection. He often forgets that Our Friend was beyond human aid.
“Our Friend is not so spiritual after all,” he might say. “If he means to right his past wrongs, why this concern for everyone and everything in the world but me? When am I going to get MY amends?”
These sorts of things can be avoided.
Both Our Friend and his close companions are mistaken, though each side may have some justification. It is of little use to argue and only makes the impasse worse. Each friend must realize that each of their fellows in AA, though marvelously improved, are still convalescing. Each should be thankful both they and Our Friend are sober and able to be of this world once more.
Let each praise the other’s progress.
Let them remember that his drinking wrought all kinds of damage that may take long to repair. If they sense these things, they will not take so seriously Our Friend’s short periods of crankiness, depression, or apathy, which will disappear while all involved learn tolerance, love, and spiritual understanding.
PUTTING MONEY AND CAREER IN PERSPECTIVE
Although financial recovery is on the way for many of us, we found we could not place money first.
Our Friend must learn that material well-being always followed spiritual progress; it never preceded.
Since our relationships have suffered more than anything else, it is well that each man exert himself there. He is not likely to get far in any direction if he fails to show unselfishness and love to his best friends. We know there are difficult people in our close circles as well as challenging companions, but the man who is in his first few years of recovery from alcoholism must remember he did much to make them so.
PUTTING RECOVERY MATTERS IN PERSPECTIVE
Concerning those with an abundance of enthusiasm for AA: Our Friend is not so unbalanced as some of his closest fellows might think.
Many of us have experienced Our Friend’s elation. We have indulged in spiritual intoxication. Like a gaunt prospector, belt drawn in over the last ounce of food, our pick struck gold. Joy at our release from a lifetime of frustration knew no bounds. Our Friend feels he has struck something better than gold. For a time he may try to hug the new treasure to himself. He may not see at once that he has barely scratched a limitless lode which will pay dividends only if he mines it for the rest of his life and insists on giving away the entire product.
If his intimate friendships are marked by cooperation and support, Our Friend will soon see that he is suffering from a distortion of values. Our Friend will perceive that his spiritual growth in Alcoholics Anonymous is lopsided, that for an average man like himself, a recovery life which does not include his obligations to friends may not be so perfect after all. If his small circle of loved ones will appreciate that his current behavior is but a phase of his development, all will be well. In the midst of an understanding and sympathetic group of friends, these vagaries of spiritual infancy will quickly disappear.
HONESTY AND SELFLESSNESS
As each resentful friend begins to see his shortcomings and admits them to his fellows, he lays a basis for helpful discussion. These talks will be constructive if they can be carried on without heated argument, self-pity, self-justification or resentful criticism. Little by little, each friend will see they ask too much, and give too little.
Giving, rather than getting, will become the guiding principle.
The opposite may happen should friends condemn and criticize.
Our Friend may feel that for years his drinking has placed him on the wrong side of every argument, but now he has become a superior person with God on his side. Strangely, if his friends persist in their criticism, this fallacy may take a still greater hold on Our Friend.
Instead of treating his friends as he should, Our Friend may retreat further into himself and feel he has spiritual justification for so doing.
Though one ally need not fully agree with another’s AA devotion or spiritual activities, they should let him have his head. Even if at times he displays a certain amount of neglect and irresponsibility towards his closest chums, it is well to let him go as far as he likes in helping other alcoholics. During these first years of recovery, this will do more to insure his sobriety than anything else. Though some of Our Friend’s manifestations are alarming and disagreeable, we think he will be on a firmer foundation than the man who is placing business or professional success ahead of spiritual development. He will be less likely to drink again, and anything is preferable to that.
Those of us who have spent much time in the world of spiritual make-believe have eventually seen the childishness of it. This dream world has been replaced by a great sense of purpose, accompanied by a growing consciousness of the power of God in our lives. We have come to believe He would like us to keep our heads in the clouds with Him, but that our feet ought to be firmly planted on earth. That is where our fellow travelers are, and that is where our work must be done. These are the realities for us.
Our Friend must learn there is nothing incompatible between a powerful spiritual experience and a life of sane and happy usefulness.
GIVING SPACE; FINDING BALANCE
Drinking isolates most homes from the outside world. Our Friend may have laid aside for years all normal activities— [showing up to work on time, meeting at Starbucks for Lattes, even grocery shopping, buying new shoes, playing video games, having a pizza night, watching football with friends]. When he renews interest in such things, a feeling of jealousy may arise. Our Friend’s cirlce of allies may feel they hold a mortgage on him, so big that no equity should be left for outsiders. Instead of developing new channels of activity for themselves or joining Our Friend on his quest for deeper involvement with AA, his fellows may demand he spend more time with them to make up the deficiency.
At the very beginning,the two friends ought to frankly face the fact that each will have to yield here and there if the friendship is going to play an effective part in the new life. Our Friend will necessarily spend much time with other alcoholics, but this activity should be balanced.
Entirely new acquaintances who know nothing of alcoholism might be made and thoughtful consideration given their needs. The problems of the community might engage attention. Though the neither friend has much in the way of religious connection, they may wish to make contact with or take membership in a religious body.
We have been speaking to you of serious, sometimes tragic things. We have been dealing with alcohol in its worst aspect. But we aren’t a glum lot. If newcomers could see no joy or fun in our existence, they wouldn’t want it. We absolutely insist on enjoying life. We try not to indulge in cynicism over the state of the nations, nor do we carry the world’s troubles on our shoulders. When we see a man sinking into the mire that is alcoholism, we give him first aid and place what we have at his disposal. For his sake, we do recount and almost relive the horrors of our past. But those of us who have tried to shoulder the entire burden and trouble of others find we are soon overcome by them.
So we think cheerfulness and laughter make for usefulness. Outsiders are sometimes shocked when we burst into merriment over a seemingly tragic experience out of the past. But why shouldn’t we laugh? We have recovered, and have been given the power to help others.
Everybody knows that those in bad health, and those who seldom play, do not laugh much. So let friends play together or separately, as much as their circumstances warrant. We are sure God wants us to be happy, joyous, and free. We cannot subscribe to the belief that this life is a vale of tears, though it once was just that for many of us. But it is clear that we made our own misery. God didn’t do it. Avoid then, the deliberate manufacture of misery, but if trouble comes, cheerfully capitalize it as an opportunity to demonstrate His omnipotence.
SEE A THERAPIST WHEN NEEDED
Now about health: A body badly burned by alcohol does not often recover overnight nor do twisted thinking and depression vanish in a twinkling. We are convinced that a spiritual mode of living is a most powerful health restorative. We, who have recovered from serious drinking, are miracles of mental health. But we have seen remarkable transformations in our bodies. Hardly one of our crowd now shows any mark of self-indulgence.
But this does not mean that we disregard human health measures. God has abundantly supplied this world with fine doctors, psychologists, and practitioners of various kinds.
Our Friend should not hesitate to take his health problems to such persons. Most of them give freely of themselves, that their fellows may enjoy sound minds and bodies. Try to remember that though God has wrought miracles among us, we should never belittle a good doctor or psychiatrist. Their services are often indispensable in treating a newcomer and in following his case afterward.
MAKE SPIRITUALITY A PART OF YOUR FRIENDSHIP (OR NOT)
In time, Our Friend’s acquaintances will see he is a new man and in their own way they will let him know it.
Perhaps Our Friend will invite his buddies to join him in a morning meditation or some other spiritual activity. Perhaps he will invite them to take part in a discussion of AA principles and they can learn and grow together, without rancor or bias. From that point on, progress will be rapid. Marvelous results often follow such a connection.
Whether his friends wish to join him in a certain spiritual activity or not, the recovering alcoholic friend must not shirk his own growth: he must expand his spiritual life if he would stay sober.
FOCUS ON THE BIG THINGS (AND IGNORE THE LITTLE ONES)
Here is a case in point: a certain man was a heavy smoker and coffee drinker. There was no doubt he over-indulged. Seeing this, and meaning to be helpful, one of his friends commenced to admonish him about it. He admitted he was overdoing these things, but frankly said that he was not ready to stop. His friend was one of those people who is passionately devoted to health, so he nagged, complained and brought up the affair over and over. The continual intolerance finally threw Our Friend into a fit of anger. He got drunk.
Of course Our Friend was wrong—dead wrong. He had to painfully admit that and mend his spiritual fences. Though he is now a most effective member of Alcoholics Anonymous, he still smokes and drinks coffee, but neither his wife nor anyone else stands in judgment. Our Friend’s companion realized he was wrong to make a burning issue out of such a matter when more serious ailments were being rapidly cured.
We have three little mottoes which are apropos. Here they are:
First Things First
Live and Let Live
Easy Does It.
Thank you for reading this far. I know it was a long post! I hoped it helped.
As promised, heres a quick note on how and why I’ve presented this edited version of The Family Afterward, a chapter from Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Recovered From Alcoholism.
At some point during the past eleven years, I picked up a technique that has proven very helpful in getting my sponsees to understand how a particular text or selected section of our literature applies to them specifically (and is not simply a nice section of the Big Book for “other people”): I have them read themselves into the text.
Here’s a simple example, if I was reading myself into Step One, I would say:
Chris is powerless over alcohol and his life has become unmanageable.
And a slightly more complicated example…
If I was reading myself into the famous passage on selfishness, I would read it this way:
Selfishness—self-centeredness! That, I think, is the root of Chris’ trouble. Driven by a hundred forms of fear, self-delusion, self-seeking, and self-pity, Chris steps on the toes of his fellows and they retaliate. Some times they hurt him, seemingly without provocation, but Chris invariably finds that at some time in the past he has made decisions based on self which later placed him in a position to be hurt.
This technique is simple enough – replace a pronoun with a personal noun. Substitution of this kind is a basic interpretive tool, used frequently by those who study literature to get under form and find meaning.
When I’m explaining chapters like To The Wives, To Employers, and The Family Afterward — especially when the person I’m talking to doesn’t have a wife, doesn’t have kids, and doesn’t have a job — I do something very similar: I find the point of connection and help my sponsees to see how it DOES relate to them.
This we do through the process of substitution.
In the text presented above, I’ve substituted all terms for wife and family with friends and acquaintances, fellow and chums, fellows in alcoholics anonymous and the greater recovery family. I didn’t try to transfer the entire chapter, nor did I use any language not used elsewhere in the text.
Despite my care, I know some will find these substitutions upsetting. I am well aware that some members believe any adulteration of the text as it was first presented is blasphemous.
I apologize if you are disturbed.
However, I deeply believe four things:
- The Family Afterward provides valuable insight into how we behave in early recovery and more importantly, how we can head off problems of selfishness, misconduct, and miscommunication before they wreck too much damage.
- I will happily disturb anyone if it will help someone apply the principles of recovery. I will go to ANY lengths to make the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous and the life-saving message it contains relevant and meaningful for my sponsees (first) and the rest of the world who might stumble upon the page (second).
- I’ve studied the edited version of The Family Afterward carefully. I did not uncover a single misrepresentation of the principles and message of Alcoholics Anonymous. Instead, I found that the text is amazingly amenable to this type of interpretive technique.
- Our Big Book is wonderful. It is glorious. It is NOT inspired. I believe a better attitude to take in regards to Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Recovered From Alcoholism would be to say:
Our book is meant to be suggestive only. We realize we know only a little. God will constantly disclose more to you and to us. Ask Him in your morning meditation what you can do each day for the man who is still sick. The answers will come, if your own house is in order. But obviously you cannot transmit some- thing you haven’t got. See to it that your relationship with Him is right, and great events will come to pass for you and countless others. This is the Great Fact for us.