Early in my sobriety, I became friendly with a university professor who regularly attended my home group meeting. This person taught political science, and I enjoyed our conversations about current events, especially discussions around the Middle East, as Israeli and Palestinian tensions were peaking during this period. He was a supportive friend, and encouraged me to mentor another newcomer who later became one of my very best friends.
A short time into our friendship, the professor showed up late to our meeting and was disruptive throughout the hour. He stood up several times in the middle of other people sharing, washed his face in the small kitchenette sink, and had several coughing fits. It was odd, but I didn’t know enough to confront him or suggest he leave the meeting.
Following the meeting, I offered to drive my friend home, as I often did. In the car, he reclined the passenger seat, fiddled with buttons, and was simply rude and self-centered. I drove quietly toward our destination, not knowing what to think or what to do.
What I did know for sure: the person sitting next to me was not the man I used to know.
Having never been on the other side, let’s refer to it as the Al-Anon side of the transaction, before that evening, I had no idea what spouses, children, friends and others go through dealing with a drunk. Up until this point, my references were solely that of the drunk. I didn’t understand how emotionally exhausting it is for the person at home living with someone who is active in his or her disease.
The university professor would not be my last Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde experience. Since then, I’ve had many experiences dealing with people who are trapped in the midst of their addictions. I can only imagine what it must be like for a family member whose qualifier has relapsed, the metaphysical transition literally taking place right before their eyes. I suppose this speaks to the importance of participating in family and children’s programs when a parent or spouse is inpatient.
Another experience I had was working with a once-highly accomplished and well-regarded community leader. I was aware of this person’s work and watched online videos of her telling her story of triumph over adversity to a crowd of thousands. Her presentation elicited a pure and profound reaction from the audience; the feeling of wanting to take action was evident on each of their faces.
I now sat in front of a woman who bore a physical resemblance to the person in the video but was certainly not the same person. Steeped in her addiction, she spoke in riddles and made little sense. The progression of her disease, and its subsequent damage, glared in the eyes of her torn family and formerly close friends.
This is the quintessential story of addiction that plays out in the lives of millions of people every day, once at the top of their game, robbed of everything by drugs and alcohol. Sometimes in these situations, the only suggestion I can make is for family members and friends to focus on self-care. In other words, work on themselves, and stop trying to fix the addicted person.
This is often a bitter pill for the invested observers to swallow considering the emotional, spiritual, and monetary damage caused by the addict. Because the family is not yet in recovery, they often internalize this suggestion as the addiction being their fault.
Most family members initially resent the idea of having to attend Al-Anon meetings and participate in recovery, when they are, after all, the victims and not the perpetrator. It takes some time before family and friends understand the value in their own recovery.
Other suggestions I make include finding other individuals who have lived with active addiction in their families and have learned to focus their energy on improving the quality of their own life, as opposed to changing the addicted individual.
I know from my own experience as an active addict and alcoholic that I acted in a way I would not ordinarily act. This is true of people who are under the influence; alcohol and drugs causes them to do things they otherwise wouldn’t consider.
I had some time in the program under my belt before I fully realized the arrogance and self-centeredness of my actions. Often, I recall some of these bad decisions and wonder: what was I thinking? It all seems so clear now.
Even though I’ve been sober for some years, it still amazes me how my understanding of this disease continues to evolve. I was told early on my story would change, or at least, my understanding of my own story would change over time, and it has.
Sadly, I never heard from or saw the professor again. Maybe he’s at another university on the West Coast, or publishing great works on political science, but that was nine years ago, and somehow, I doubt much good followed after he got out of my car.