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Isn’t Hurting Ourselves Enough?

15 September 2014

We alcoholics hurt people. Over and over again. We do terrible things and we victimize people over and over again. We take advantage. We behave boorishly, vilely. And we don’t seem to care about the damage we do. After all, if we cared, why would we keep repeating it?

A friend asked me recently why we alcoholics have to hurt others before we can recover. Why, I was asked, isn’t hurting ourselves enough? I wish I had a different answer than the one I have. Because the answer I have is uglier than I want to be. We alcoholics often have to take everything and everyone around us down before we approach recovery, if we ever do at all.

But it isn’t hurting others that makes us, that made me, recover. It was hurting myself. The answer is: hurting ourselves is the only thing that matters at all. We hurt others because they simply don’t matter to us. It is when we get hurt too that we have hope of recovery.

Most of the injury I did to others in my drinking career, I think, was the result of not giving a single thought to anything but how those people could help me get what I needed and wanted. Or how to maneuver them out of the way of what I desired. People were tools, obstacles, and mannequins. They were not people. So hurting them didn’t matter.

It was when I began to lose the things that I wanted. When I began to be unable to see myself as successful. When I became crushingly aware of the waste I’d made of myself and the people I loved (Yes, I loved them. I just didn’t care about them.), that was when I began to have hope of recovery. Because the sting of my venom had turned against me.

I did not, of course, realize this at the time. It took me a while, and some uncompromising therapy and sponsorship, to see it. To accept it. To understand it. To lament it and want to amend it. To emerge from narcissism to rectitude (such as I have). Alcoholics are users. I was a user. I still struggle against my inclination and aptitude to use people to get to my desired ends. It’s something I learned well, and became good at. I needed to, to drink like I drank.

Why isn’t hurting ourselves enough? It is. It’s the only thing that’s enough. Other people may enable us, they may thwart us. We may want something from them. But when we are active in our drinking, they do not matter as people. And so hurting them is unimportant. Yes we can recognize it. We may feel bad about it. But usually, we feel badly because we have disrupted a relationship that was enabling us.

And when we have ruined enough of those relationships, when we lose the things we love: our comfort, our stability, our self-respect, our ability to be in denial, our support; when we start to feel the pain of our alcoholism directly, then we may have hope of recovery. When alcohol won’t give us what we need, and no one will give us alcohol. Maybe we can recover.

If an alcoholic in your life is hurting you, you have the right to disengage with us. This is true whether we are sober or not. We alcoholics may, in sobriety, recover or discover our empathy. I believe I have, mostly. But while we drink, people are simply objects we consume to get what we want. Hurting you only matters if it hurts us too.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. jenny permalink
    15 September 2014 13:58

    The truth hurts.

  2. mytchondria permalink
    16 September 2014 00:26

    I shall un-out myself as the person asking for advice. I have a friend that tells me I should never ask a question I don’t want the answer to. And I think about that now because your answer really, really is brutal.
    I hate everything about this post. I hate your candor, I hate that these words flowed from you within hours of my questions making me think you had a clear idea already of what I was talking about. But mostly, I hate that my worst fears are confirmed about the thought process of an addict.
    I distain all forms of ‘all or none’ mentality including that which surrounds addiction care. And the tough love idea does not resonate with me. There is such a level of selfishness about it that I find the very thought repugnant. Someone I loved deeply just felt so much tough that they could no longer see the love. They did not survive alcoholism.
    And yet, this is the first post I’ve read that makes me think there is something about hearing how history can play out over and over again that makes me appreciate you more 24, like you slightly less and feel more cynical about my willingness to continue to live out this drama over and over. Thank you.

    • 16 September 2014 06:32

      I’m not a big believer in “tough love” either for addiction either. I believe in setting boundaries. And we alcoholics love to transgress boundaries. Setting them and enforcing them is about survival. And everyone has the right to survive.

      But I’ll temper the post a bit too. If you’ve listened to my podcasts, you’ll know that one reason I was spurred to recovery was finally understanding how I was hurting my then-wife. That’s what I was alluding to when I wrote, above, that we find we can no longer be in denial.

      We’re not hurting people on purpose. It’s not sadistic. It’s just that nothing matters as much as getting the next drink. Anything can be rationalized. Anything.

    • 16 September 2014 06:35

      And briefly, I don’t care for “all or none” either, for everyone. Not everyone who is a problem drinker is an alcoholic. And I have seen people who were once problem drinkers return to normal drinking. It can be done, for some people.

      I’m just not one of them.

  3. Syd permalink
    22 September 2014 11:47

    It is hard for a non-alcoholic to understand the alcoholic’s way of thinking. I tried and failed. Now I replace the why’s and what if’s with compassion and detachment with love. I get that I can’t understand an alcoholic because I am not one. I am on a journey to understand myself and it will continue until I die. Great post!

  4. scott drozda permalink
    24 December 2016 17:10

    Wow. Spot. On. I didn’t care about how I treated my wife, nor did I have any empathy for her. Until she was ready to walk out. That affected my stability. That was what brought me to the rooms of AA.

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