red-love-heart-valentines Many things have been written and said about romantic relationships in early recovery. Considering most of us have a poor track record with romantic partnerships throughout our drinking and using, it makes sense that some people in early recovery feel overwhelmed by any level of intimacy. Others are eager to jump back into the game after the years of isolation and loneliness that alcoholism inflicts. Many of us may have survived trauma at the hands of our partners and once sober, become adverse to the issue entirely. Some might abuse physical intimacy as “another form of alcohol” to the point where we must seek outside help or a specific fellowship for it. Being 12-Step based, we do not wish to be the “arbiters of anyone’s sexual conduct” as it says in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous.

In the case of romance, we alcoholics are simply suggested to do a thorough inventory, to look at our conduct in regards to intimate relationships. We are aiming to find our patterns and identify the kind of partner we have been in the past. If done correctly, it is not usually a pleasant thing to review. Yet, thoroughness and honesty will pay off in a big way once you have a fair appraisal of how things are. We are given the opportunity to make amends to those old romantic partners, as long as our doing so will not injure them further. Empowered with these experiences, we then get to create an ideal for our future romantic life.

I’ve had sponsors instruct me to write down all the traits of who I imagine to be the “perfect” partner. Then I get to live up to it, with God’s help of course. After I first got sober, I caused wreckage in my romantic relationships for years before I learned how to be in a true partnership. Now I’m able to use those experiences to help other AAs struggling in romance. Continuing to take spiritual action throughout my recovery has allowed me to shape myself into my ideal. Now, I can look back and see my capacity for love and intimacy is wildly different than it was 7 years ago. I can’t imagine what the next decade or so will bring.

I once heard an old-timer tell a newcomer “the man of your dreams doesn’t want you yet”. While this may sound harsh, the truth is that most of us are not ideal people when we walk into the rooms. I wasn’t. When we are given the blessing of someone else’s love, we are often too scared to fully repay it without strings or expectations. Even years into sobriety, this is often our most vexing issue. Yet as is true for all of life’s dilemmas, the best answers and gifts come after taking spiritual action.

“Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

As soon as I read the second step on the wall during one of my first AA meetings, I shuttered. I recognized I had a problem that I could not solve. Yes, that’s why I was at the meeting in the first place. But the idea that I had to will myself into believing in a higher power was too much. I was terrified and so scared that AA wouldn’t work for me because at the time, I was an atheist. In reality, I privately struggled with the loneliness that atheism brought to my life while relying heavily on foxhole prayers during the darkest times in my addiction.

Now, there are many, many non-believers in recovery. I have many friends with double digit sobriety and they are committed atheists. I was sober for almost 2 years while claiming non-belief. However, the difference with my early sobriety is that for those 2 years I was unwilling to grow in my spiritual connection and practice. I believe I was just trying to take an easier, softer way. I didn’t want to have to rigorously practice prayer and meditation. It was too scary for me to open up spiritually. It took me a while to be able to pray in front of people, even at meetings. I grew up in a family where you argued about the existence of God but you didn’t seek to grow in understanding.

I also know many people who struggle with step two because they were raised with religion but it didn’t click with them, or they are still very religious but it doesn’t keep them sober. Luckily, the solution is the same for all of us. We only need to be willing to believe that a power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity. If a thorough step one has been done, we have come to know that our thinking and behavior is truly insane. Once we are fully and humbly in that place, we are usually at least willing to be open to the possibility of a change in belief and/or perception. For some, this starting point is the act of going to a 12 step meeting and being willing to listen to the experience and suggestions of the group. For others, it looks differently. For me, I decided that I would give up the need to be “right” and inquire more deeply as to why I cried out for god’s help in times of crisis. It started with a seedling of openmindedness and has now grown into a deep, unshakeable relationship with a higher power of my own understanding.

Don’t worry about what faith or belief you enter the rooms with. The 12 steps are compatible with all of them. As it says in the 12×12, “all you really need is a truly open mind.”

The Big Book tells us that practically no one liked to admit complete defeat when it came to alcohol or drugs. Alcoholics and addicts are a headstrong bunch. But not many of us like to admit complete defeat in other areas of life either. We want to think that we are doing the right thing, for the right reasons and intentions, and if only everyone could get on board the world would be a happier place. Recovery can be described as the slow and painful sloughing off of those old notions.

In the beginning, almost every area of my life was baffling and troublesome. Surrender was necessary in every difficult area of life in order for me to discover a new way of living.

When one is newly sober, it is often a struggle to simply be “cash register” honest. Maybe we admit we have a problem with drugs but maybe we resist the notion of powerlessness over alcohol. Yet after we fully admit that we are alcoholics, we learn what it feels like to be fully and completely honest. We learn not to steal, not to overtly lie, not to cheat other people, not to intentionally harm others physically or emotionally. Seeing as the newcomer is in a state of total willingness, they are often open to many suggestions. This is such a crucial time in sobriety which is why many people suggest going to treatment and sober living to give the newcomer a better chance to grow and challenge themselves. Old environments and relationships often abide by old rules.

In my experience once one works the 12 steps and gets more time sober, a beautiful, full life follows. Inevitably your spirit wakes up a little bit more. Often you realize you have been engaged in some behavior that doesn’t match up with your value system. This has happened time and time again in my recovery. Maybe you aren’t stealing but you didn’t give a cashier back extra change wrongly given to you. Maybe you aren’t cheating, but you are seeking validation in people outside your relationship. Maybe you aren’t getting into fist fights anymore, but you are gossiping and participating in character assassination. Maybe you are sponsoring other alcoholics or addicts but suggesting things that you are not doing yourself in your own program. Discomfort can come when your spirit lets you know adjustments should be made. These are all opportunities to grow that many people in 12 step fellowships have encountered. Unfortunately, these lessons can be even harder to learn because we might feel we already know how to be honest with ourselves, that we are already people grounded in spiritual principles. These struggles are such valuable opportunities to revisit Steps 1-3.

It makes sense. We don’t learn everything at once. If we did, we would be overwhelmed and probably quit. So when I surrender to a circumstance outside of my control, this is an opportunity for me to grow in my faith but also to investigate any old behaviors or ideas might not be serving me well anymore. Part of my faith is to trust that my higher power is teaching me the lessons I need to learn now, and I don’t have to learn any faster than that. I can trust that something greater than myself knows what I need to learn so I can be the best version of myself in the present moment.