There’s a popular saying that states that the cure for addiction is connection (or that connection is the opposite of addiction). I loved when I first heard it—as did most people—in the popular TED talk by the journalist, Johann Hari who said it. It isn’t sobriety per se, but how we relate to others that can bring true relief to someone who just can’t stop using or drinking. As revealing as the concept was, it was also a hard one to swallow for someone like myself for whom human connections were a problematic issue. If my trauma was directly related to connection—after all, I was relinquished at birth—and my way of coping was drinking, which was also self-harm, what chances did I have trying to trust the very thing that put me in the position that caused me to drink? A hellish loop if there ever was one, where your cure is also what made you sick in the first place! This is why I believe that relinquished persons and individuals separated from family of origin have a more difficult time feeling whole in their recovery. Sure, many of us do become sober, but do we feel safe in that place? I know I didn’t for a long time.
I’ve always considered myself a social person and I missed and craved people while simultaneously feeling distrustful and anxious about their presence. My very first experience with a human being was one of rejection, from the one person in the world whose main task was supposed to make me feel accepted and loved.
I didn’t know what was wrong for a long time. I didn’t think about that life-changing event until I was forced to. For many years, I tried to conduct myself like every other human being, and I pretended to be as social as I could. I later started my own family and had my own children, whom I managed to help feel accepted and loved despite not having those feelings myself. But while all of that was going on, it was also eroding me and making me feel even more confused. Why couldn’t I feel comfortable with the people who loved me and who I loved? Why was I hiding in the basement at the end of it all to drink in secret? Why did I have all those secrets in the first place? Who was I protecting exactly?
I had to answer all those questions before my real healing began. These days, when I work with clients, I don’t just address their addiction, I take a holistic approach to it – and how they’re managing their connections. I like to address the past as much as I like to focus on the future, I know that everyone’s past informs their future. There’s simply no shortcut when it comes to real recovery, the one that allows one to feel both joys and sorrows in how they should be experienced, authentically without the aid of self-harming behavior – The sort of behavior that masquerades as something that supposedly protects us, that allows some of us to feel more comfortable in the world or detached to the point where we think we no longer care.
When I first joined mutual self-help recovery rooms, I was introduced to the concept of sponsorship. A sponsor is a person who guides you through the 12 steps and who is there to listen and offer suggestions on how to navigate the first months or years of sobriety. Some of those relationships last a short time, but many are lifelong engagements. I was scared of this concept; I didn’t know how I was just going to “naturally” trust a total stranger with all of my issues and all of my shame related to drinking. Here I was, being asked to suspend all of the information that I had about people—that they are to be wary of—and somehow make this work or… I would get drunk again. At the time, I did it because I had my wonderful wife in my corner, and children waiting for me once I got sober, so I had a lot to fight for and motivation to do it. I believed some of that worked only because I followed one unofficial slogan of AA, which is “fake it till you make it.” So I faked it, even though at the time I wasn’t consciously aware of it. I just had that determination to do whatever it would take. And I’m not saying that that was the right way to go about it, but I also must acknowledge that I might’ve hurt myself in the process. I had no idea of the extent of my trauma and very little understanding of what sort of encompassing care I needed in order to feel better.
I soon found out that getting sober was only a beginning of my journey and there was a lot more I needed to work on, including learning how to have boundaries and more discernment when choosing people I trust. That included sponsors and therapists and friends—eventually I understood that people’s energies were affecting me and that I had to be doubly vigilant about how I proceeded with connecting. To someone without the early childhood trauma, having a falling out with a friend might be upsetting, but to a person with abandonment issues it can be a life-altering thing, a thing that confirms that they’ve been right all along about people being out to get them. I’m lucky that I never had that tested to a deeper degree, and that by the time I moved beyond traditional AA in my search for my own version of Higher Power (which I call Reality), I was stable enough to understand my complex needs.
I keep all of that in mind whenever I’m taking on a new client and learn about their relinquishment. I know I am dealing with more than just one layer of recovery. I know that a person like that will need to address their attachment trauma as much as they will need to address their addictive behavior—addiction first, to get a clear mind, but trauma close second to keep that mind clear and eventually flourishing and achieving real recovery.
I don’t know where you are in your recovery journey and how you deal with connecting with others. But if you find yourself struggling and feeling as if something is missing despite being sober, I would gently encourage you to take a look at your attachments and how you feel around people. An honest assessment will only help you develop ideas that will lead you towards the sort of recovery that thrives on connections and no longer accepts them as a conundrum you have to put up with in order to feel better.