Giving and Receiving in Recovery
Alcoholics and other sufferers from addictive disorders have a hard time accepting help let alone reaching out to others in a similar situation. In the early stages, this is part of self-denial. If you will not acknowledge to yourself that you have a problem, then you are hardly likely to welcome the intervention of others, however well-meaning their offer of support.
But as you progress on the recovery journey, you find that in accepting help you want actively to reach out to others in the same situation. That is because giving and receiving are about reconciliation as part of a healing process. Giving and receiving are about what it is to be a human person living in communion with others.
I was talking to one of my addict mentees about summarising various aspects of the 12-step recovery programme. In a related vein, he asked me whether he really needed to seek out people who he had hurt and ask for their forgiveness. My response didn’t directly answer the specific question but made a more general point. It was as follows.
As you emerge from recovery in sobriety you find yourself actually wanting to reach out to others. You feel the benefit of being well and you want to share it with others. I told him it was a bit like the old “faith versus works” debate during the Reformation. It’s not the doing of “works” as such which is primary, but faith gives rise to works. In other words, a sign of an alcoholic getting genuinely well is that he or she will want to reach out to others.
That is because reciprocity is part of recovery. In reaching out to help somebody else, you find that you receive back from them. This is part of the healing process. It is why the 12-step programme culminates in so-called "service". It doesn't have to be interpreted as a "commandment". It's actually what you will find yourself wanting to do.
When I first volunteered as a mentor, I was quite daunted. After I had spoken to my first potential mentee - and discovered, unsurprisingly in retrospect - that he was another person just like me, I reported back that I had "enjoyed the experience". Actually, I felt the experience to be uplifting and it gave me a feeling almost like elation.
This might seem like a surprising thing to say. What I found and confirmed as I continued this journey is that it was helping me. I came to look forward to these private discussions. They were helping me to open up, to remind me of my journey.
There was an element of risk in setting out on this journey. A work colleague warned me to beware of picking at old wounds and he was right. Triggers to relapse can occur in surprising ways.
But what the process was really showing me is how recovery works in practise. Interestingly, and rewardingly, I found that when I started to suffer in my own personal life (with problems unrelated to drink), my mentees asked after my own health. I was trying to support them in recovery but the process was reciprocal.
This provides an important insight into a key aspect of personal growth. It is in being known by others that we come to know ourselves.
Augustine said that loving and knowing are integrated. What he meant by this is as follows. We are subjects of experience. Our experience of others and the world around us comes through our subjectivity. Different people perceive things differently. We only come truly to know both ourselves and others when our subjectivity and the objectivity of the other person are reconciled and integrated. This occurs in love, when there is unconditional giving and receiving between persons. Knowing is unhindered and not distorted through the lens of what we want to see.
What does this rather complicated idea mean in practice when we think it through? It is in helping others to get better that we are healed. The message is this. Don't close down and shut yourself off from others. Move outward, not inward. Accept and receive the gift. In doing so, you will find that you have something to give also in return.
All of this was summed up beautifully in an address by the Bishop of London at the 10th memorial anniversary for Princess Diana in 2007. You don’t have to be religious to appreciate the spiritual significance and insight of what he was saying:
“And the mystery is this - the more you go beyond yourself, the more you will become your true self; the more you lose yourself in loving and serving others, the more you will find yourself; the more you keep company with those who suffer, the more you will be healed”.
In summary, for alcoholics in recovery, one of the best ways of continuing on your own personal journey is to reach out to others in a similar situation.