Note: This article was originally published in the Summer 2005 issue of MeadowLark, the magazine for alumni of The Meadows.
An Expense of Spirit and a Waste of Shame
By Lawrence S. Freundlich
There is so much about her that I admire. Her knowledge of Western culture is vast; she is one of the best-read individuals I have met - including at the highest levels of academia - and she seems to remember it all. But her book learning hasn't isolated her from the world. She has a rich social life. She attends premier art openings and theater and music events. Her circle of friends includes the business, cultural, and social movers and shakers in America and Europe. Many of them have been her lovers.
But all of these virtues are awash in alcohol. She has partied all over the globe and left a trail of real and metaphorical broken glass and stained gowns. She is famous or infamous (depending on whether she is your friend or your foe) for her scurrilous mockery of pomposity among the rich and powerful. She is afraid of no one. She is welcome in as many circles for her sanitizing iconoclasm as she is unwelcome in others for her preposterous rudeness. For some she is a culture hero - for others a dreadful boor. She has not spared her several husbands or children the spectacle of her shaming grandiosity.
When I was drinking, this woman and I were often in one another's company, bonded by alcoholic gaiety and amused by one another's provocative hostility. Neither of us would have recognized a boundary violation if we were hit over the head by it.
When I sobered up, after I had worked hard at making what I learned at The Meadows a part of my life, I came to see my friend for the adult wounded child she was, and my heart went out to her. I was particularly touched by her admiration for my own recovery. Because she often expressed how much of a better person I had become, I thought that I could lead her down the path of recovery.
I wanted very much to change her - to make her want what I had. I encouraged her to tell me about her upbringing, and she did. It was a very painful tale in which the false empowerment of privilege and the disempowerment of abandonment left their morbid residue of grandiosity, shame, and worthlessness over all her relationships and trapped her in alcoholic denial of her own immaturity.
During a recent vacation retreat at her home in France, at which several of us were her guests for a few days, we were the recipients of her usual hectic generosity. Then the liquor began to do its work: slurred speech, repeated anecdotes, insults, confused lectures. She was always on stage, leaving hardly any air for me to breathe. Once again, I was the little child in the presence of his shaming parents - too frightened to speak the truth for fear of being abandoned. I should have left, but I did not. Instead, I sulked silently, and my carried shame began to grow like a tumor. My authentic self shriveled. I masked my worthlessness in a constant interior monologue of contempt for her bad behavior, when it was my own shame, fear and powerlessness that were torturing me. Before the week was over, I alternated between wanting to scream in her face or hide in my room with my head under a pillow.
In the months since that sad event, I have reflected on how ill-advised it is for us recovering people to think we can save friends and partners from their addictions. Since so many recovering people have had childhoods in which their wounding involved not being heard, they are vulnerable to post-traumatic stress when their active friends and partners mock their advice by continued dysfunction. When they inevitably fail to understand us, our own shame wounds are opened, and it is we who put our recovery in danger.
The model upon which our recovery is based will often leave us feeling on the outside. This loneliness is not a personal failure. Accepting it is the difficult but healthful gift of having become a mature adult. The wound of "not being heard" creates an abnormal need to hear things discussed intelligently and straightforwardly. I say "abnormal" because such boundaried and conscious behavior in relationship is abnormal for the species. We may be forced to accept our need for and insistence on boundaried and conscious relationship as an idiosyncrasy spawned by our own trauma histories. To fall into self-pity because we harbor a delusional notion of recovery according to our standards is an expense of spirit and a waste of shame.
The First Step is for the addict to take - we cannot take it for him. No one took it for us. If modeling sober behavior for our addicted friends does not lead them in the right direction, perhaps the only other thing we can do is to pray for them. Prayer, after all, doesn't require their understanding or willingness.