An excerpt from “12 More Stupid Things That Mess Up Recovery: Navigating Common Pitfalls on
Your Sobriety Journey by Allen Berger, PhD., Hazelden Publishing 2016
Louise quickly reacted and told John that this wasn’t her problem, it was his. As we continued our discussion, I learned that Louise’s sharp tongue had also alienated her from her four children.
STUPID THING #3
Confusing Meeting Attendance with Working a Program
We call it working a program because it takes effort! Simply sitting at a meeting is too passive. Confronting yourself, striving to have the best possible attitude, finding the right help or the right sponsor, and actively practicing the Steps is what matters.
Louise: A Perfect Program
Let’s look at an example of how passivity sabotaged both a recovery and a relationship. I want you to meet Louise, an AA member and the wife of my client John.
Louise seemed to be working a great program. The key word is seemed because, as you’ll see, she resisted doing some important emotional work that would have made a huge difference in her recovery and in her relationships with her husband and fellow AA members. Louise attended upward of four meetings a week, volunteered to serve as a panel speaker, had a sponsor, and even sponsored several women. Her recovery looks good when I describe it here, doesn’t it?
But please suspend your judgment until I tell you more about how Louise was dealing with her struggles with her husband and her children.
Louise had relapsed a couple of times during the past decade, but had also put together several long periods of sobriety, most recently celebrating five years.
Anyone in Louise’s Twelve Step community would have told you that Louise worked a great program. But the appearance of a good program— attending meetings, spouting the right platitudes, volunteering, and so forth— can be deceptive. It was the negative quality of her most important relationships— rather than her relapses— that tipped me off: Louise’s supposed “great program” was masking both passivity and a resistance to change.
Louise and her husband John had been estranged through much of their marriage. Her drinking and his codependency exacerbated their alienation. John had hoped that with sobriety they would finally find each other and become more intimate. But now that Louise was sober, they were still alienated. In many ways, Louise’s sobriety was even more painful for John because he could no longer blame the alcohol for their lack of intimacy.
Now he knew something else was wrong, and he was committed to finding out what it was. So upon my request, John invited Louise to one of our sessions. She reluctantly joined us. But as I would soon find out, Louise was only going to attend the sessions if it was on her terms.
After my initial welcome, she quickly assured me that she was there to help her husband clean up his act, because she was getting the help she needed from the AA program. “I don’t need therapy. AA is giving me everything I need to stay sober,” she declared. She went on to give me her diagnosis of what was wrong in their marriage. “It’s his attitude. He’s never satisfied with anything I do and criticizes me all the time.” John chimed in and said he felt the same way— that he could do nothing right as well. Louise countered that she was sick of John’s asking her to talk about their relationship. For her, there was nothing to talk about. She was working her program, he should work his, and that was that.
I pointed out to Louise that her position put her husband between a rock and a hard place.
“So you don’t want John to discuss his frustration or grievances about the marriage with you?” She didn’t hesitate. “No. He should go and talk to his sponsor. I am not his sponsor.”
I told her that it seemed like she didn’t want to be his wife, let alone his sponsor. She glared at me with disdain. Clearly she didn’t like that observation!
When I asked her husband to comment on her idea of how things were supposed to be in the marriage, he said that her attitude left him frustrated and hurt. He’d hoped they could discuss their issues and resolve their differences. “I’m tired of being put off by her and being ridiculed for wanting a relationship,” he added.
Louise quickly reacted and told John that this wasn’t her problem, it was his. As we continued our discussion, I learned that Louise’s sharp tongue had also alienated her from her four children, who had actively encouraged their father to get a divorce. Trust me, this isn’t normal. Children don’t campaign for one parent to divorce the other unless there is some real trouble at home.
Still, I’m not blaming all of their marital problems on Louise. It takes two hands to sink the ship, and John played his role in their problems, too. But the focus here is on Louise, who was supposedly “working a good program.” Though she was physically sober, she was not emotionally sober.
READ PART TWO