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Abusers in Recovery.

24 February 2017

I’ve commented before that AA is not a “safe space”. What that means is, there are no rules about being kind and gentle and accepting. People who are assholes are as welcome as people who are supportive, uplifting, and generous. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. Most of us in AA are good people working on ourselves to improve our lives and the lives of others. Not all of us are.

AA publishes a pamphlet called “problems other than alcohol” about other substances and whether those addicts are welcome (or not)  in AA meetings. And many AA meetings will be labeled “dual diagnosis” if they also deal with other mental health issues like depression, schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, etc.. There are meetings that include sex issues, and discussing difficulties in relationships is part of most meetings.

But there’s a class of alcoholics that none of that seems to serve very well. Emotional abusers. It is my hastily-developed opinion that emotional abuse is one of those broad-spectrum things. Almost everyone occasionally takes a bad mood out on a loved one inappropriately. Most of us occasionally lie or manipulate to get our way. A few of us act out on jealousy and suspicion to isolate or control our partners. And a small number are full-blown controlling emotional abusers who degrade and torment our partners.

Being in recovery, even longer-term recovery, does not necessarily move us from where we are on that spectrum. It can. If we choose to see that we are abusers, if we choose to see that we are controlling, if we choose to see that we are harming others, then the steps allow us to make changes in that if we are willing to work for it. But it does not guarantee that we will do so.

Unfortunately, the program also gives us powerful tools to enhance our abuse. The program gives us a powerful language of recovery that most people don’t use or know. If we choose, we can deploy that to make ourselves seem healthy and normal while actually twisting it to control or degrade or gaslight our partners. It’s also an incredibly powerful shield. It makes it very easy to say, in effect, “I’ve done the work on myself, and I know when I owe amends. So I know better than you that this is your fault, not mine.”

Alcoholics are master manipulators. We have to be to keep drinking the way we drink. We have to be able to lie, cheat, steal, and convince others to enable us. These are the textbook tools of abusers. I have said before that most male alcoholics are rapists. I say too: most alcoholics of any gender are emotional abusers. We either choose to see and understand it about ourselves and change it, or we end up using the tools of the program to increase its effectiveness.

Most of us, I believe, are in the former category. Most alcoholics, when we sober up, see how our emotional abuse has harmed others and work to change it. I did. I am quite a talented manipulator and liar, and many things I did when I drank fall squarely into the realm of emotional abuse. I am mortified now about them. I did what I could to make amends, and worked with both therapists and sponsors to change. All that work is ongoing, but the difficult bulk of it was long in my past when my current relationship started.

Not everyone does all that work. One of the reasons is that (and here I’m talking about males*) emotional abusers first come off as deeply charming, because that’s part of the manipulation. And charming men are able to easily get something that we tend to want a lot of: sex. But relationships require sacrifice and compromise and other things that mean often not getting exactly what we want exactly when we want it. And so when a sexual partner starts to want that stuff, she becomes disposable. And if you don’t care, if you’re just manipulating, if she doesn’t matter as a person? On to the next.

Emotional abusers often feel like they suffer in this too. It’s frustrating: why can we not find a wonderful loving relationship where the other person has no needs and just gives us exactly what we want all the time? To the alcoholic (even in recovery) abuser, that doesn’t seem like such a ridiculous thing to want. And not being able to get it is a constant source of suffering and misery.

It takes a lot of difficult work even to understand that we’re looking for something totally unreasonable. The selfishness of the alcoholic is deeper than you think, even taking into account that it’s deeper than you think.

It can be hard to tell, at first, who among us is worth the investment. Relationships with alcoholics, even those of us in recovery, can be a bit perilous. Most of us are good decent people working hard to be sober, useful, and kind. Some of us are not. And some of us still can’t tell the difference. Be cautious. It’s not stigma or discrimination to decide that dating a recovering alcoholic isn’t for you. But if you do find someone working the program hard about themselves, and not applying it to you – not taking your inventory, as we say – then we make good companions.



*I am barely qualified to talk generally about men in recovery. I am utterly unqualified to talk about women. I will say only this much: women are as likely to be emotional abusers as men, especially among alcoholics. But my experience of the manifestation is different from that of males. I have not had the extensive interaction with and discussion of female emotional abusers in the program as I have with and of males, and so I’ll stay quiet about it.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. 24 February 2017 09:07

    Very powerful post. I, too, am coming to terms with the emotional abuse I doled out to loved ones. It’s the one thing I’m most ashamed of. I sometimes can’t believe it was “me” who did those things. Thank you for the thoughtful and introspective post.

    • 24 February 2017 09:11

      Yeah, it hurts to realize we were abusers. But recovery can include that if we work for it! It’s a better life.

  2. 24 February 2017 09:28

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. I say this in my AA group and they look at me like I am from Mars. Most of the group talk about it being a “safe place,” when there is major evidence to the contrary. I married an AA member who sounded so good – and then realized when I listened to a tape of one of his idols that he only mimicked his words. Serious AAs can be easy targets because we are taught to look only at our own faults.

    I had to realize that writing inventories and working steps around that relationship were only my efforts to control and enjoy it if only I managed well enough. I don’t care how many times you write inventory on Adolph Hitler, he will remain Adolph Hitler.

    And believe me, I am not without blame. But, like you, I have worked diligently to identify and correct my behavior.

  3. 24 February 2017 16:29

    Great post, thank you. I came to terms with the fact that I was an emotional abuser many years ago, long before I ever tried to quit drinking. For me, the abuse I perpetrated wasn’t tied to the fact of my drinking (though of course, when I drank I was worse) so much as to the simple fact of having an addict’s brain, which I have probably always had, and to my specific history. Counseling and developing a deliberate spiritual life were both instrumental in helping me change those behaviors before I joined AA. The program has also been very helpful, both in helping me recognize residual harmful behavior and in giving me more specific tools to work with.

  4. 28 February 2017 06:31

    Terrific post.

    I know some of what you mean – there are people whilst I admire their recovery I don’t admire their sobriety if you get what I mean. They are still bitter twisted manipulative individuals – but I still welcome them into the fold as you say Tradition 3 says it all

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