In recent months, many of us have found ourselves cut off from our loved ones, including our fellows in sobriety. We have had to spend more time alone than usual and rely on ourselves more than we would like to. Sometimes the feelings of loneliness and isolation have been painful, especially for those of us who live on our own.
All of this aloneness has gotten me thinking about the perennial dilemma of how much support we should demand from the people in our lives and to what extent we should expect to care for ourselves.
Not surprisingly, there is a sober saying about this. And it gets right to the point:
We should not ask too much of our loved ones.
But how much is too much? We want to be able to turn to others for comfort and companionship, help and advice, but where do we draw the line?
This dilemma seems to be especially daunting for anyone who experienced challenges as a child. Most of us have some childhood issues or unmet needs, no matter how sweet or well-intentioned our parents. Some of us are loaded down with dysfunction and trauma from our youth. And all humans have a tendency to bring our unresolved issues into our closest relationships.
I wish we lived in a world where anyone with family baggage could be met at childhood’s end by a rescue squad of medical and psychiatric first responders (and perhaps a speedy getaway vehicle with a loud siren). These heroic rescuers would carry traumatized (or even mildly neurotic) folks (plus luggage) away from their dysfunctional youth, wrap them in blankets, nurture them back to sanity and release them into adulthood.
Alas there is no such healing posse to meet us when we leave our families of origin, no matter how much our childhoods resembled natural disasters, burning buildings or crime scenes. We depart, or sometimes escape, on our own, often without seeking professional help or treatment (at least not immediately). It is our intimate friends, and especially our loving partners, who bear the brunt of our yearning for rescue.
I wish I had known when I was destroying my relationships with my neediness what I am in learning as a sober person, which is to take more responsibility for my own wellbeing.
Fortunately, recovery offers a few guidelines on self-care beyond the general suggestion of never asking too much of others.
For starters we learn a simple approach to looking after ourselves known by the acronym HALT:
We should never let ourselves get too Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired.
In sobriety we are expected to feed ourselves, find ways to calm ourselves (exercise, meditation or attending a recovery meeting are a few popular choices), make sure we are rested, and reach out to our friends.
We are also encouraged to develop a network of sober acquaintances, preferably more than just one or two, whom we can call upon for comfort or companionship when we feel lonely or distressed. Attending regular meetings also helps to satisfy our need for love and community.
And of course we should seek professional help for any physical, psychological or circumstantial problem that is more than we and our friends can handle.
There is one more piece of sober wisdom when it comes to not asking too much of our fellow humans, perhaps the most important advice of all:
Find someone you can help.
Instead of focusing obsessively on our own needs and wounds, we are taught in recovery to reach out to others. In particular we are encouraged to help other alcoholics and addicts who might need “experience, strength and hope.” But we don’t have to limit ourselves to our friends in recovery. Reaching out to all of the people in our circle, anyone who might want to connect in friendship or need, is a surprisingly effective antidote to our own neediness.
The secret to this magical move could be that many of our problems as alcoholics and addicts are attributed to our extreme self-preoccupation and isolation. It stands to reason that by taking unselfish action to help another we simultaneously heal ourselves.
Nothing lifts my loneliness, ennui or malaise more swiftly and effectively than focusing on helping a relative, friend or new acquaintance. And in these tough times, we will never be at a loss for someone in distress to whom we can extend a loving hand.
I don’t want to ask too much of you. So here is a gentle suggestion:
The next time you feel restless, irritable, discontented or lonely, try reaching out to help. Call or text someone. Inquire about someone’s health and happiness. Listen and empathize. It will help you, too, more than you could possibly imagine.