I have two recovery mentors that I’m privileged to interact with on an almost daily basis, Dr. Robert Weiss and Dr. David Fawcett. And both of these men, when it comes to sobriety and emotional healing, preach one thing above all else: the need to feel intimately connected.
The longer I am sober, the better I understand this maxim.
My active addiction was a 20-plus year effort to push away feelings of disconnection and loneliness. I was desperate for intimate connection, but rather than becoming vulnerable and reaching out to others in ways that would let them know the real me, I built an emotional wall that kept them away. I did and said a thousand different things each and every day that told the people around me, “I don’t need you or want you, so please don’t invade my space.”
I did this because I was afraid. I thought that if I became vulnerable, if I showed you my true self, you would think I was weak, or needy, or defective, or just plain unworthy. I thought you would reject me, laugh at me, leave me stranded and alone forever. So I beat you to the punch, pulling away and walling myself off so I would never have to feel that pain.
And yes, I see the irony in longing for intimate connection but never taking the risks that must be taken to build it.
I was lonely. I didn’t know that, of course, because I never let myself feel it. Instead, I numbed myself with addictive substances and behaviors. That’s what addicts do, right? When we feel emotional discomfort, we escape it by any means necessary, even when our addictions and our isolation are killing us – body and soul alike.
I thank my Higher Power every day that my world finally collapsed. I finally hit bottom. I finally realized that I couldn’t live the way I was living any longer because I wasn’t actually living. I was avoiding life. I was a walking zombie. By fearing and avoiding intimate connection, I was missing out on the things that make life worthwhile. I wasn’t feeling any pain, but I wasn’t feeling any joy either.
When I entered recovery, I was intensely lonely and disconnected from others, from the world, and even from myself. In an effort to stay safe, I’d made choices that kept me ‘apart from’ despite the fact that what I truly wanted and needed was to be ‘a part of.’ And sadly, that state of being was an inside job. My loneliness was my loneliness. The people around me were not the problem; I was the problem.
That is a lesson I learned as part of healing from addiction. It’s not a lesson I wanted or expected to learn. What I wanted from recovery was for people to think I was addressing my issues so I could keep my job, stay out of jail, not lose my home, etc. I was not interested in meaningful change; I wanted my consequences to stop, and that’s about it. But recovery has a way of sinking in whether we want it to or not. Even with issues as pervasive as loneliness.
In group therapy and 12-step meetings, my fellow addicts continually greeted me with smiles and hugs. They continually asked how I was doing and then listened when I answered. Then they said things like, “We’re going for coffee after the meeting. Will you join us?” and, “We’ll see you tomorrow, right?” They even wheedled my phone number out of me, and they actually picked up the phone and called me.
In the early stages of healing, I could barely tolerate these efforts to connect. Hugs made me want to jump out of my skin. I was terrified of a ringing phone. And talking (and laughing!) over coffee with a group of people? No way could I manage that. But I also knew, on some deep level, that these loving individuals were offering me the empathetic, nonjudgmental, emotionally intimate connection that I’d craved my entire life.
Eventually, I started to look forward to these genial overtures, and then I started, slowly, to accept them. Now, many years later, these wonderful men and women are integral and emotionally intimate parts of my daily life. They know me, warts and all, and they love me unconditionally. I know them, too, and love them in the same way. I am no longer lonely. I no longer pursue disconnection. Instead, I take emotional risks because I know the joy of being known and accepted and cared for as the person I truly am.
Finally, I understand that loneliness is an inside job. And so is connection.