Early Recovery: What is Your Role?
Yesterday I had a conversation with a new friend who knows someone newly in recovery. The alcoholic, sober six months, has asked my friend for a letter of recommendation. He needs this because he was terminated from his prior position for behaving badly while an active alcoholic. It is not entirely clear to me if his termination was in part explicitly due to drinking on the job (I think not), or if it was merely the result of the fruits of that tree (inappropriate behavior). Regardless, the dismissal happened, and alcoholism was in no small part a factor.
However, this alcoholic remains unwilling to allow future employers to be made aware of his condition, which my new friend feels might mitigate some of the negativity associated with his prior dismissal. Alcoholics in recovery are just like regular people, right? If the problem is addressed, then a new employer shouldn’t hold prior bad acts against an alcoholic, right? Or at least should consider the change in risk associated with recovery?
Well, maybe. That’s a question for another day. Today, I want to address what the roles of friends and family are when an alcoholic is in early recovery like this man is. First of all, six months is not a long time in recovery. Huge numbers of alcoholics flame out in the first year. Something like half of people who attempt abstinence fail in the first 30 days, and half of the remaining fail in the next 335. And that’s guessing generously. Far fewer than 25% of people who show up to AA one time are sober a year later.
Of course, far more people show up to AA once than have any intention of getting sober, and AA only works for people who are open, willing, and honest with themselves. But it is perfectly reasonable to be suspicious of six months of sobriety. Obviously, everyone’s experience is different, and the kind of program the person is working matters more than anything else, but at the population level, six months of sobriety does not necessarily instill confidence that a permanent change has taken place. But whether an alcoholic’s recovery is permanent or not is not for anyone to judge. We simply can’t know. Not even we alcoholics can know.
So, what is the answer to my friend’s question? Should the letter be written? And under what rules?
My answer to this is that each of us has the right to dictate our own involvement and preserve our autonomy. The alcoholic’s wish, that his condition not be reported to his new prospective employer, should be honored. If, that is, my friend chooses to write the letter at all. My friend has the right, completely and unambiguously, to say, “I would be willing to write the letter if I can be completely unfettered with regard to content. I am not willing to write a censored or expurgated letter. If you can accept that, then I will write the letter. If not, then I am not the person to write a letter for you.”
That is, we cannot control how anyone else behaves, and we can’t control how they feel or the (in our view) mistakes they make. We only get to decide what we can live with, and if we will participate in their designs or not. If my friend feels that the alcoholic is making a bad decision by not revealing the underlying cause of the behavior leading to his dismissal, then that’s as it is. People are free to make bad decisions. My friend can only decide how to engage, and guidelines under which a letter might be written.
Alcoholism has direct effects on people who don’t have it. In a way that is different from many other diseases. It wraps people up in codependencies that are toxic for everyone involved. And so friends and family of alcoholics often need their own recovery. They often need to understand how they’ve been seduced into enabling or reactivity. They may fear (even correctly!) that the alcoholic will die or suffer without their engagement.
Here is the truth: you have the right to let us suffer and die. You have the right to abandon us even in sobriety. You have the right to set boundaries and enforce them. In fact, I believe that doing these things helps us far more than enabling and engagement. Enabling us may help us stay clothed and housed and drunk. It may help us financially or medically. But it can also simply prolong a terrible death. Or buttress our own self-arranged misery. Even in sobriety, many of us choose the path of misery.
What is the role of the friends of alcoholics, when they enter early sobriety? Be supportive. Be compassionate. Be skeptical. And decide where your boundaries are. Stand by them. And if you are really close to an alcoholic, whether they are in recovery or not, consider a support group, like Alanon, for the friends and relatives of alcoholics. We visit misery on so many. Sometimes, some of us recover, and repair or attempt to repair the harms we’ve done. If you want to participate in that process, that’s wonderful. But you are not obliged to. You do not owe us anything.