Oneself as Another
Updated: Jun 16
We find ourselves in others. We come to know ourselves as others know us. That is how we find our identity in relation to others. It is by engaging with others that we discover our purpose and self-worth. This has important lessons for those suffering from “substance use disorder” and for recovery treatment.
The title of this blog comes from a famous work by the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur (1990) in which he brought together his ideas on how self-identity is defined and expressed through time in relation to the other.
Like many alcoholics, my drinking started in my early teens. I was soon deliberately drinking to get drunk. It wasn’t just teenaged bravado. I liked the feeling. It gave me a sense of release, even if it often came at the price of painful hangovers. My drinking spiralled out of control through my twenties, however, until my first collapse and admission to treatment at the age of thirty two.
Despite acknowledging my loss of control, suffering greatly, and genuinely wanting to get well, it was another ten years before I finally had my last drink. That is now more than twenty two years ago. It was only following my final crisis and turning point that I properly started to take on board what I had learned from this journey.
The seeds of interest in my addiction and recovery were sown during my initial introduction to psychotherapy. I was curious about the process. I started to read Freud and Jung. I had always had an amateur interest in philosophy and my curiosity led me to read more widely. I became more interested in what we might broadly call spirituality and about fifteen years of formal study culminated in a doctorate in philosophical theology.
Perhaps surprisingly – or perhaps not, on reflection – my heavy drinking continued throughout almost the entire period of study. How did I manage it? Good question. But I only started properly to put in practise what I had learned when I started to pay more attention to others around me suffering from “alcohol abuse disorder”.
I first attended group meetings during my initial course of psychotherapy. It was actually me who suggested it rather than the therapist. I didn’t find it all that helpful. On reflection, I think that was probably because I was too focused on myself. But as I began to emerge from darkness into light ten years later, I came to believe that I needed something more to sustain my recovery because I hadn’t been able to achieve that previously through my own effort.
I started to join online meetings in chat rooms – there were no video meetings in those days. I wanted to hear about what others were doing. One of the regular attenders was Brian H, who had been sober for twenty five years. I used to thank him for his regular insights but I didn’t really understand why he was there. Why would somebody who hadn’t touched drink for such a long period of time still feel the need to participate?
I had the same feeling when I re-engaged a few years ago but this time in face-to-face meetings. It was very striking that many of the regulars had been sober for even longer than me – some for more than thirty years! Why were they there? Why did they keep coming back? Indeed, I was actually worried about going into meetings because I thought that others would ask the same question of me!
Now after years of study and volunteering with fellow sufferers in my current role, I really get it at last. I’ve become one of the group of recovering alcoholics who have been sober for many years but who continue to sit down and share their experience.
So, why do so many of us still do it? We go partly because we still need it, of course. It reminds us of where we've come from and what we did. It sustains our own recovery. We go in gratitude for the help that we’ve received in sustaining recovery. We also go back to help and encourage others. We receive something back from this “service”, as previously discussed in Giving and Receiving in Recovery.
The fundamental point here, however, is that it is through talking, sharing and listening that we find ourselves in others. We are not isolated self-determined subjects. We are subjects as we encounter others and we are personalised - made persons - in relation to others. Building on recovery in this way is a bit like coming home – it’s a process of self-discovery.
I completely understand why some people do not want to participate in group meetings. Some find it intimidating. Some find it provides uncomfortable reminders of what they’ve been going through. Some are still battling their demons. For many, it’s simply too early in the recovery process, just as it was for me all of those years ago, and they need more intensely personalised treatment.
All of us, not just alcoholics, belong in community. Don't take the view that your recovery is done. It's just a work in progress. It's unfinished. Continue to engage with others who have come before you and, hopefully, you may find yourself one day looking back after many years of sobriety.
You can't be a subject without an object. You can't truly be a self without another. Keep in mind the saying of John Donne the Elizabethan poet – “no man is an island”.