I joined Al-Anon more than 8 years ago when I had hit a horrible bottom. I found myself alone, with a new baby, and completely lost. I was in a very bad place emotionally and Al-Anon literally saved my life. Since joining Al-Anon my life has changed in more ways than I could ever have imagined.
One characteristic that I have; similar to many Al-Anons, is a fear of abandonment. I was abandoned by my father at a young age which has affected the way that I connect with others. Some people who experience abandonment become very clingy. I, on the other-hand, let very few people into my heart. I tend to keep my close friends for long periods of time and can be fiercely loyal, sometimes to a fault. This is something that I haven’t done much work on and, after 8 years in recovery, it led to my second Al-Anon bottom.
This second bottom was not nearly as bad as the one that brought me in to the program. I am still calling it a bottom because, as step one says, I was “completely powerless and my life had become unmanageable”.
3 years ago a lifelong friend decided that she didn’t want to continue our friendship any more. We had been growing apart over the years and had always had our ups and downs. I assumed this would be a break and eventually we would come back together, as we had several times in the past.
You see, this friend had known me since I was 9. She was there when I was living with a heroin addict, she was there when I lost my virginity, she was there for all of my heart breaks, she was the maid of honor at my wedding, there for the birth of my second child. I was there for all of her life lessons that are only hers to tell. She was too close and the thought of loosing her terrified me.
As time passed I would occasionally text her . Sometimes she would answer and sometimes she wouldn’t. I remembered that, about 10 years ago, I had cut her off and she would text me almost every morning to tell me to have a good day. Eventually this won me over and I forgave her for what she had done. About 6 months ago she texted me and we had a conversation about how much we missed each other. I had hope.
After that conversation my life started to get unmanageable. I would frantically text her every couple of months. No reply. Her lack of response caused me to feel foolish, anxious, and unworthy. I would promise myself that I wasn’t going to text her again and after a month or two I would pick up the phone and the cycle would repeat itself. The feelings of guilt and embarrassment were overwhelming. I would lose sleep from racing thoughts and regret. Why did I reach out to her again? Why did I think that this time would be different? Eventually I started to feel depressed and weepy. These feelings were all too familiar and I knew that I was in an Al-Anon relapse.
I was reminded of a story that my first sponsor Nancy told me. It was about a psychology study with rats. 3 different rats were in 3 different cages. The first rat would hit a lever and each time, the lever would dispense food. The second rat would only get food occasionally when they hit the lever. The third rat would never get food with they hit the lever.
“Which rat pushed the lever the most?” she asked me.
“The one who didn’t get food,” I said.
“No, the rat who never got food gave up first since there was no point because it never got the reward. The rat who always got food gave up next because he sensed the game had changed. But the rat, who only occasionally got food, that rat drove itself crazy pushing the lever.” she said. “ It’s called intermittent reinforcement and is the hardest behavior to change.”
This is what happens with us Al-Anons. Addicts/Alcoholics occasionally give us what we want/need, therefore we keep going back, in hopes that this time there will be ‘food’. This story deeply impacted me when I first heard it. The story still rings true for me today.
I kept pushing the lever (texting) in hopes that she would respond. One night I went out to a concert and drank a lot of alcohol. I had been sad the days leading up to the concert, thinking about how this old friend was about to be married and I would have no part in her wedding. After a few glasses of wine I sent her a slew of drunken messages, basically begging her to forgive me. I also called her three times. No response, no answer. I was devastated.
The next morning I woke up with a reply from her. The response was argumentative. I didn’t agree with everything that she said but I had no fight left in me. I felt humiliated, like I had lost all self-respect. I had basically begged someone to love me who didn’t. I was harassing someone by sending repeated unwanted texts and calls. I had hit another Al-Anon bottom. How did I get here? How did my self-esteem get so low? I responded with a short apology for the messages from the night before. Feelings of sadness washed over me and lasted for the next several days.
That was the wake-up call that I really needed to let go of that relationship. Sometimes in life you have to crash and burn and that is ok. One thing that I’ve learned in Al-Anon is that it is “Progress, not perfection” that is important.
Does this mean that all of the progress that I had made was lost? No. It means that I have more work to do. More work to do on loving myself. I have always known that in Al-Anon the work never ends. A person is never “cured” or “fixed”. I just never quite imagined myself in this situation.
Today I will practice forgiving myself. Loving myself. Practicing grace.