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The Search for Intimacy and Commitment

"Her Story"

Chuck and I met on a blind date for a fraternity party. I was instantly attracted. I guess it was mutual, as we started dating.

I was in nursing school; Chuck was in college. He went home for summer break. I stayed and pined for a letter or a phone call, all to no avail. By the end of summer, I had finally given up any hope of hearing from him again, when a letter came a week or so before school was to start. I was instantly hooked once more.

Heavy drinking was an accepted part of the college scene in the 1960's. Neither of us thought much about it. This was either naivete or denial.

We married and eventually had four children.

Over the years, there were times when I'd become angry about the drinking. After softball games, Chuck would stay out and come home fairly drunk. Friday evenings were "stop with the guys after work." Again it didn't seem too unusual, as all his friends did the same.

After twenty years of gradually more and more drinking and then lapsing into a maintenance mode, Chuck decided he was a problem drinker and was going to give up alcohol.

Abstinence seemed to be going fairly well. Like many others, I thought since he wasn't drinking any more, all our problems would be solved. Take away the alcohol and everything seemed just fine. Chuck undertook a new high-pressure job. Of course we hadn't heard about avoiding big changes during the first year of recovery. For that matter, we hadn't even heard of recovery!

Chuck's alcohol therapy group fell through. He was on Antabuse, but AA wasn't in the picture. His cravings weren't talked about. Day by day, depression started to creep in for him. But I didn't notice the slow decline in Chuck's energy or his low feelings.

In early January, now six months since his last drink, Chuck suddenly quit his four-month-old job. The next day his depression and suicidal thoughts were our main focus. We spent a terrifying day in the emergency room. The psychiatrist on duty felt it was inappropriate to treat Chuck because the psychiatrist had been and still was my own therapist at the time. We limped home. Chuck was put on anti-depressants.

We saw another therapist early the next week. She said unless we went to AA and Al-Anon, she couldn't treat us. It hadn't crossed our minds that his depression might be alcohol-related. We didn't know that 12-Step programs were necessary in our lives. Looking back, I feel the therapist was too hasty. She needed to talk to us once or twice more to help us acknowledge and accept the role alcohol had played and was insidiously still playing in our lives. At that time I was totally devastated: I felt I had reached out for help and it wasn't given. I was overwhelmed.

As a "good codependent," I stayed home and tried to do a suicide watch. I read about depression, noting the craziness in Chuck's frightening attitudes toward our youngest child, and toward life in general. I tried to control things and make them better-- "fix it." I had reached my bottom.

Finally, I just couldn't do it myself anymore. I phoned the hospital for the weekend therapist who was on call. Luckily, when I got through, I reached another therapist we had seen as a couple years earlier. I knew, liked, and respected her and her judgment.

I remember saying about AA and Al-Anon that we didn't want alcohol to be the focus of our lives. Wisely she asked, "What is the focus now?" Of course it was the alcoholic and alcohol, plus the resulting depression. A light went on for me.

I was getting emotionally more and more sick, being dragged down by my worry about Chuck. It was time to "Detach Lovingly," time to "Let go and let God." And I did it!

I went to Al-Anon and started taking care of myself. I learned more about alcohol, addiction, and codependency at a local treatment facility.

When my stomach was in knots, I'd go for a walk outside the house. I realized I couldn't control anything but myself and my attitudes. I learned not only "One Day at a Time," sometimes even that was too long--but one hour or even one minute at a time. This was pointed out to me by a true story on TV about a man sailing alone around the world.

Sometimes he had to break a day down into minutes or seconds not to give up. A month, six months, or a year into the future looked too bleak for me, but an hour or a day could be gotten through.

Meetings gave me support and encouragement, and of course a place to share my pain. I came away each time with hope, peace, love, and growth.

After about five months, Chuck decided he wanted to get better, too. An alcohol education and support group was available through our HMO. We started to attend together.

One of their premises, which I thoroughly agree with, is that the whole family is affected.

If one person is to recover, the family needs to recover, too. The alcoholic or addict and the codependent both need education and support about their roles in the dysfunction or disease. Recovery changes the couple dynamic. When one person is recovering, the other must change also, if they are to stay together and be happy together.

After "Family Night" we would go out for pizza or Chinese food with other couples from the HMO support group. This was one element of the fledgling start for RCA in our community. We could share with other couples who were working to change themselves in order to stay together.

In September of 1988, a 12-Step "Couples in Recovery" meeting was started in Berkeley, California. We debated about affiliating with Al-Anon or AA. Al-Anon was chosen in hopes of widening the group's appeal. There were just four of us at the first meeting, but the group soon outgrew our small room and moved to larger quarters in nearby Oakland. A second meeting was started.

Couples who survived active addiction and still felt there was good in their relationship were drawn to the meetings, as were couples struggling to recapture lost trust. Stories were told, and members shared how they dealt with painful issues from in-laws, to rearranging the household furniture, to buying a car together. Clean and sober couple friendships were started.

After the "Couples in Recovery" meeting had been growing in size for about nine months, a member shared about a new fellowship she had noticed in a recovery magazine. It was called Recovering Couples Anonymous. The California meeting contacted RCA headquarters in Minneapolis for information.

After much debate, our group decided to affiliate with RCA. It seemed to more closely address what we couples were looking for than did Al-Anon or AA. The Steps of RCA said just what we were hoping to attain: more commitment and more intimacy.

It's easier to share feelings and thoughts about couples' issues around addiction and recovery with someone who is gaining acceptance, understanding, and recovery from personal experience. Even though each person has to put his or her primary program first in order to maintain health, the coupleship needs to be strengthened and nurtured too.

Our coupleship is stronger since sharing our experience, strength, and hope through RCA meetings. We value the love and friendship we have found in our recovering community. Each meeting is a reaffirmation of our commitment to each other and to growing healthier in a clean and sober relationship.

"His Story"

The support of RCA is warm and enriching. There's usually a special tone in RCA meetings, a vivid spirit of fellowship, sometimes a quality of awe.

Two years into recovery I started going to Couples meetings. Before these groups, I'd heard a lot of good advice and stories in other 12-Step programs but little about relationships, struggles with intimacy, sex in sobriety, and commitment to a partnership. I heard pained and angry complaining about members' partners, and for sure I was one of the blaming malcontents myself. Often it felt like "us versus them," and at other times as if relationship and commitment topics were bad form.

Ann and I, with our separate meetings, resented the other's "selfish" time apart. I know I'd grill her afterward about who had been at her meeting and what she had said or hadn't said.

I glowered about her going to fewer meetings than I did and also what I decreed were her less visible efforts and less driven resolve to work the program of my understanding(!). I identified with people in my own meetings and began to dis-identify with my partner. I started to feel "better than," superior, more informed, more aware.

Plus, with my long-standing fantasies of being rescued by females, I was especially drawn to certain program women; we would share long phone calls in the evenings, or strolls in the park, lunches, almost dates. Tension between Ann and me grew. Were our individual recoveries to take place in separation, and maybe generate even more strain between us?

Both of us felt this tension and sometimes were able to discuss it; Ann defensively and with hurt, it seemed, and me with haughtiness, badgering, and harsh anger. Looking back now, I believe we both sought more intimacy but feared greater closeness, both of us longing and resisting at the same time.

The Couples meetings helped right away. The group met first in a day-care nursery. (Today this seems highly appropriate!) We had been to Marriage Encounter years earlier, before our recovery had started. We remembered how we'd cherished the closeness we'd felt and declared we'd wanted. It was painful and distressing that this welcome connectedness didn't endure. In the Couples meetings, we felt others' awkwardness and defensiveness, longings and hurts. With hesitation, we started to talk of our own distress.

After a while, I was able to share about my sexual impotence during my great depression in early recovery, about my guilt in coming to the painful belief and understanding that while a practicing addict I had loved work and alcohol more than I did my partner, about my anger when we'd be driving through a ritzy neighborhood and Ann would exclaim, "Wow! Look at that big house!" I'd take this as a veiled, justified, and mean exposing of my deep secret inadequacy as a partner and provider.

Gradually I was able to share my confusion and bewilderment, groping to understand how I'd fallen into the months of extreme depression half a year after my last drink. Was it the collapse of a sobriety without a firm program? Was it my bottom around compulsive working and compulsive activity? Was it deflation and implosion, after years of growing rage and impotence being unable to control my partner, our finances, and our children?

Some of these things I'd been able to explore in my ACA support group, or in AA or Workaholics Anonymous meetings. But wasn't it dangerous and shaming to tell this in a Couples meeting, with Ann present? Wouldn't other couples take sides and judge me? Wasn't I inviting ridicule from members who could see falling-apart me next to detaching and accepting Ann? Wouldn't other couples turn to each other knowingly, and cluck their tongues and nod their heads, smirking as if to say, "Yes! Just as we thought! Another pretend husband! There is something phony and deranged about them!"

So my admission of powerlessness over our relationship was painful and difficult. And my group-level acceptance of that powerlessness was at first unimaginable. This despite having thought I'd done the First Step in three other programs.

I began to hear in other programs about practicing these principles in all my affairs, and began to hear members tell me of the progress they saw in me that I had not seen for myself, and later I started pinching myself and recognizing some changes, noticing my relief and diminished fears, the absence of panic attacks, night sweats, occasional dizziness in crowds, my initial alarm at being called on to talk in recovery meetings--all this good material, and then the jarring contrast of feeling like a critical, impatient, sarcastic, despotic, withholding ogre at home with my partner and kids. My sense of shame was scalding and acute.

Talking in meetings with one's partner right there adds a special dimension to relationship recovery, and also listening without interruption or crosstalk when my partner is sharing. Or noticing that another member has said something striking, and telling myself what a wonderful insight that person's just had, and what a beautiful gift I've just received to be able to make that insight my own and later, to realize suddenly that in last month's meeting, or last week, or fifteen minutes ago, my partner had said the exact same thing, and I'd mentally rolled my eyes and had secretly wished she had said something more profound and riveting--"my partner, my spouse, who can make me and make us look good, or make us look bad," I'd tell myself.

As I write here, much of this sounds nasty, harsh, and unrecovered. And so it's a good reminder that lots of that has gone away, that I've been relieved of much of that automatic lashing-out and habitual contempt, the judging and loathing which served ever too well to keep my partner safely at a distance for ever so long.

For what RCA has helped me see was that my behaviors and thoughts, routinized and instinctive and promptly available as the rock-solid defenses they were, also kept me unable to get out of my self during those occasions when more closeness was desirable and safe, when deeper sharing without guardedness or fear of ridicule was urgent, when the yearning to break down "The Wall" was intense. I was starving at a banquet.

Now it's different during those institutionalized opportunities for painful stress and fear-generated hurtfulness like: April tax season, Christmas, in-law visits, or awkward dinner parties. Now we don't get nearly so crazy. When Ann does something less than perfectly (to my eye), I'm not as harshly quick to "clarify" her behavior for her or "offer helpful solutions" as to what she obviously should have done. All of that for me was poorly disguised abusive superiority to cover up feeling "less than" or excluded, or hurt about something I experienced long ago which my partner had nothing at all to do with. Thankfully, we're more able to accept weakness and vulnerability and confusion. We're healthier in conveying what we want from our pleasurable "couplings in recovery." We're more able to say "No!" with less fear of being withered in retaliation or igniting a two-week conflagration. We don't as frequently play master and slave, trading off occasionally for variety. As a couple, we're not so often paralyzed or angrily silent as before. Something amazing: we no longer have raging conflicts with our children or nasty fights about them.

A warmer and more loving relationship is actually being granted us. To paraphrase some program stuff, what we've received is a free gift, and yet in some small part we've made ourselves ready as a couple to receive this gift.

All of this helps a lot as I recover from two primary addictions, compulsive working and excessive activity plus alcoholism. In my recovery I get a lot of support from WA and AA, which in and of themselves are certainly a basis for a more joyous partnership. RCA helps me to be sober and more content in my two primary programs; the relief and hope I receive in RCA are an additional insurance policy for my recovery around work and drink.

So in a way, RCA is something other than my primary program, but it definitely is a glue or catalyst or strong supplement that serves to sustain my WA and AA recoveries. RCA helps me become available to receive some of the promises of the program. Other RCA members share the same thing in meetings.

Today I'm glad Ann and I are the couple we are. We're able to let go of many of our crazy-making expectations. It's easier to have and state our desires, hopes, and goals. For both of us, our fear is diminishing of being blind-sided by relapse or one of us recovering and leaving the other behind. Our tangible capacity for enjoying our lives has flourished.

Ann has inspired me through some of her changes, and also I've been grateful to see her lay down some of her burdens. Also, though and perhaps selfishly for me she's been able to be more there for me, and in being there, support me, to be me.

Our more intimate life together has supported me as I've sagged through dry drunks, or gotten crazy around jobs, or struggled with long stretches in recovery between jobs. One terribly upsetting event was when our sixteen- year-old son horribly broke his arm, a grotesque and nauseating sight, and all his awful suffering. Right afterward at the hospital, I had a strong clear vision that if he were put under general anesthesia he wouldn't come out of it. I'd had compelling visions and dreams before: I knew that it paid to heed the messages.

Well, I stonewalled the intake doctors, and the anesthesiologist. I insisted on a local anesthetic only, while we all waited for the other doctor who'd per form the five-hour surgery. I was grim in my determination not to sign the consent form. I resolved to protect my child by honoring the warning I'd received. You can imagine how Ann felt during all this!

The surgeon arrived. He explained why a local anesthetic just wouldn't help. Gently he asked for our consent. Ann and I left to another room and I told her of my vision. Finally we decided anyway to give our consent. Ann was wonderful and supportive and considerate, but I'm so grateful that she was able to take full care of herself as well.

Chris was wheeled away. Perhaps it was one of those occasions when I really surrendered, not quit, just surrendered. Chris made it through the operation, plates and screws, gross incisions and general anesthesia and all. Soon I was able to accept that I'd been overtaken by normal terror, or perhaps that the outcome was different in a parallel universe or something. Ann and I were both able to be really there for Chris, for each other, for ourselves, and for our coupleship. Ann says she gets a kick now out of telling at meetings, "And Chuck was able to say afterward, 'Thank God it wasn't something to drink over!' "

Where are we now with RCA? We got a sponsor couple way back. We'll be doing our Fifth Step with them soon, so we're writing our Fourth Step now. We started two new RCA groups in the past sixteen months, and we go to two or three RCA meetings a week. Of course, we need our other programs as well. Ann is serving on the RCA Intergroup that's just been formed to support the five RCA recovery groups in our area and carry the message.

We've experienced a lot of our own euphoria in RCA meetings, plus the obvious excitement and hopefulness of most newcomers and regulars. In the last few months I've felt somewhat different in the meetings; maybe it's the end of the RCA pink cloud, or taking for granted the gift of the initial relief, or my stumbling around and in the Steps of RCA (how do you work the Steps as a couple??!!). Or the fact that there are no couples with twenty or ten or five years of RCA recovery we can look to and say, "There's what the future for us can be. They've got what we want."

Maybe it's the healthy release of an early illusion that Ann and I would finally, fully merge into one harmonious entity, no disagreements or disappointments, no drudge work left. Maybe it's a gradual withdrawal from codependency, while we grow and learn more about healthy interdependence, healthy caring between us. Maybe it's the Dreaded Fourth Step!

Today it feels more comfortable to be in a close, committed relationship with my partner, with our many different preferences and beliefs. The old habits die hard, but they are diminishing, little by little. Our wonderful times together are more common and less remarkable; while our average times together seem no longer mostly hollow or cold or distasteful and tense, lives of quiet desperation, but instead OK, pleasant, non-anxious. I don't feel "alone and lonely inside a relationship" anymore. No longer do I feel I could get healthier and better and get exactly what I wanted if only I were somewhere, anywhere, else.

In our meetings we've felt and seen our own progress and also the striking changes in others. Two couples who are friends of ours have gotten married in RCA. One pair has moved back in together. Two partnerships have had first babies. One couple got engaged. Some members have used RCA to help them reach the decision to separate or to end their relationship.

For myself, I'm grateful that these RCA meetings came into being. I no longer feel we're a defective couple or bad people trying to get good. The Fellowship has helped a troubled coupleship that longed to be healthier. Thanks, RCA!