Progressive transformations of personal character and relationships are central themes within narratives of addiction and addiction recovery.
Entrapment within the self and its eroding effects on personal character are endemic features of addiction. Such entrapment goes by many names (narcissism, selfishness, self-centeredness), all reflecting a reordering of one’s needs and desires that morphs into near-total self-absorption—an entire orientation of being that shapes how we face the world and process reality. How one perceives, feels, thinks, judges, and acts are all transformed within this ever-shrinking capsule of self and the dominating self-drug relationship.
The loss of control and creeping fear of impending insanity within the addiction experience require extreme defensive adaptations (the masks of addiction). Common among these defense mechanisms are distortions of reality (e.g., problem minimization and denial), elaborate rationalizations, overcompensation, increased grandiosity and arrogance, projection of blame on others, constant resentments (envy/ jealousy/ anger), narrow-mindedness, black-white / either-or thinking, increased emotional insulation, and social isolation.
There has been much debate over whether such attributes are the cause or consequence of addiction. While we lean toward the latter view, both scenarios are possible when viewed within the multiple etiological pathways of addiction. The answer to the “which came first” question varies from person to person and, for many of us, is part one and part the other. The “defects” of character one brings to addiction are magnified and hardened during the course of addiction. Even where such “defects” are minimal, addiction reorders priorities in a way that magnifies the ordinary self-centeredness that all humans possess to some degree. Whether the cause or consequence of addiction, people in the throes of severe addictions experience a unique form of self-imprisonment—imprisoned by the drug and by the defensive machinations required to sustain the drug relationship.
Recovery narratives often portray processes of personal transformation and transcendence—shedding the drug, peeling away one’s character armor, and seeking resources and relationships beyond the self. Recovery is as much about escaping this process of self-absorption as it is shedding the drugs from our lives. This reflects the growing belief among people in recovery that their journey involves far more than the removal of drugs from an otherwise unchanged life. This reflects an understanding that people may achieve drug abstention while remaining trapped within the mutated self (as is referenced in the term “dry drunk”) without larger enhancements of global health and functioning (e.g., A.A. co-founder Bill Wilson’s call for “emotional sobriety”). People who choose a recovery identity and lifestyle do so not just to remove the destructive drug relationship, but also to escape the larger self-absorption in which it is so firmly nested. They choose to remain abstinent not just to avoid the ruination that would likely result from resumed drug use but also to avoid returning to the captivity of unremitting self-focus.
The present blog examines one dimension of this journey toward character transformation in recovery—the journey from self-entrapment to self-transcendence and, more specifically, the evolving capacity to enter into authentic relationships with others. Such capacity is most often marked by incremental steps rather than immediate outcome of recovery initiation. In the early 1970s, Dr. John Wallace suggested that the primitive defense structure that sustains addiction may quite paradoxically need to be realigned to support early recovery before it can then be shed for more mature styles of coping within the later stages of recovery.
The increased ability to authentically relate to others through the recovery process is time-contingent and contingent upon processes of physical, psychological, and spiritual healing. As such healing unfolds, often with professional assistance and a structured program of recovery, several steps can be observed: increased humility and gratitude, a heightened awareness of others, and the increased capacity for empathy. As resentments and distrust of others weaken, there is heightened capacity to listen to others and experience a degree of mutual identification. This allows a movement along a path from tolerance to compassion to acts of generosity and service. The fruits of this journey are bestowed not at the onset of drug cessation but as the promise and gift of a mindful and sustained recovery process. To move through self-absorption to tolerance, compassion, and service requires a process of recovery maturation.
The term tolerance suggests that we will permit without complaint another person’s existence, behavior, and speech, but the term also implies a preference for social and emotional distance. The authors can imagine, and have experienced, simultaneously resenting and tolerating a person. Tolerance may deepen into respect, but may still do so at a distance. We can tolerate people without hearing them on anything but a superficial basis, without the need to enter into their inner world to discover aspects of our own inner experience. Tolerance is but a first step out of our cocoon—a doorway that can lead to the deeper connection of compassion.
Compassion marks a movement beyond tolerance towards a greater capacity for intimacy. It abandons distance and draws us toward a person through recognition of our shared humanity—recognition of our mutual suffering and mutual aspirations. It requires quieting the self and facing the world with an open heart and mind. It calls us to slow down, cease our internal dialogues, cease judgment, humbly place our own views on probation, and fully listen (actively attend) to the stories of others—via a ministry of presence. These are critical steps in self-emancipation and experiencing common ground with others. In some cases, it first requires forgiving those who we perceive to have injured us in some way.
Compassion is not flabby, nor does it eschew asking pointed questions or making determinations about the harmful actions of others. But it is a commitment of understanding and emotional connection. And like newly developing muscle, it requires regular effort on our part if it is to fully develop. Rarely does it come without invitation or flourish if unattended. By compassionately entering another person’s world and by hearing and absorbing (identifying with) their experience, another brick in our self-absorption falls away.
Compassion, grounded in gratitude and humility, elicits unseen acts of generosity and unpaid acts of service to others. Such acts are embodied most visibly within the service ethic within secular, spiritual, and religious communities of recovery and serve multiple functions. Service is an actionable expression of compassion that expands relational connection with people beyond our inner circle. It is a medium of character reconstruction. It can aid the expiation of guilt and serve as a form of generic restitution for addiction-related harm to others. Service can also be a means of strengthening one’s own commitment to recovery—strengthening one’s own hope by serving as a recovery carrier to others. When a community of recovering people commit themselves to service, they become a catalyst for the healing of communities that have been wounded by addiction and related problems. That is when people who in the past been part of the problem rise to become part of the solution.
Making progress on this journey beyond self-entrapment requires effort, but is not solely a product of one’s own effort. By quieting our self and reaching out to others, one is opened to resources, relationships, and experiences of positive change that are inexplicable. Whether such transformations are credited to the aid of some higher power or some another gift of grace beyond the self, they remain one of the joyous mysteries within the recovery experience. And in one of the great paradoxes of recovery, in escaping absorption with self, we enter into a process of regeneration in which we encounter and finally are able to embrace our true self.
We wish you Godspeed on your journey to tolerance, compassion, and service—dimensions that invite closer relationships with people we may not like or agree with on issues of great import. These three healing ingredients invite commonality and community within a world that is setting itself on fire with exploitive rhetoric of hate and division. If people whose lives have been ravaged by addiction can travel this road toward hope, wholeness, and connection, perhaps our country and the world can also make this journey. And perhaps these are gifts that those in recovery can bring to the world.
This article was used with the permission of William L. White. He is one of the foremost writers in North America on recovery issues. For more articles go here.
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