Can I be friends with an older man in sobriety?

I desperately want to stay sober, but the social part is wigging me out!

By Cary Tennis
Published October 5, 2009 11:06AM (UTC)
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Dear Cary,

I am a 20-something female who has just passed my 30-day sobriety mark. I have been in and out of AA for a few years now, and it isn't until recently that I've become really serious about my recovery for a variety of very serious reasons. Mostly because my life has changed dramatically for the worse, and I know that if I don't stop the destructive pattern I'm on, I will die.

Enough with that. My real problem is the problems that AA is starting to cause for me! Because I do go to one of the same meetings multiple times a week, I have consequently made friends with a variety of different people of all ages. I have coffee with women twice my age, and even go to dinner on weekends with women all in their 50s. I don't find this odd at all, everyone has been really welcoming and there just aren't many girls my age in the program. I do have a few girls in their late 20s that I hang out with, but they are few and far between. There is also an appeal to me to spending time around people with more years of sobriety under their belts.

So now I'll get to the point ... Here's my issue. I recently have become close with someone 30 years older than me. Here's the kicker. It's a man. He and I go to dinner, go on walks, and talk on the phone. I know this must sound weird, but really, nothing physical has happened, and it really is just a friendship. He has children my age and I don't get the feeling he looks at me in a sexual way. Am I being naive? What would a 55-year-old man and a 24-year-old girl have in common?

Well, that's the strange part. We can talk for hours, he is so interesting and intelligent, and not like anyone I've ever met. I just like his company. I can't explain how the friendship began, but we just hit it off. We have the same humor and like the same things. I just like being around him, and he keeps my mind off drinking. I get this gut feeling it's wrong, though. Just the way that people look at us when we are walking, or getting coffee -- looking at him like he's a pervert, and me like I'm a gold digger. The thing is, he has lost everything due to his addictions and I'm not getting anything out of this other than his company and support. He's only been sober a year, which I feel is great, but not very long either.

The main reason I feel it's wrong is because women in the group say to never get close with a man. And I feel that they are mad at me for talking to him or spending time outside of the meetings with him. I don't feel this is dangerous for me, because I only think of him as a friend and someone for support. It kind of makes me mad when other people assume other things, or when women start inferring that he is after me. I have way more women friends. In fact he is the only male I talk to in recovery. I just need to know if this is an inappropriate relationship or not. Can men and women with age gaps be friends?

Anonymous in Recovery

Dear Anonymous,

I'll say this right upfront: Yes, men and women with age gaps can be friends. May I say, indeed, Hell, yes, you can be friends.

I'm saying that right upfront because what follows is a long and impassioned rant I wrote before I even finished your letter, because of what you said up near the beginning that blew my mind and made me get up and pace around the room, shouting and throwing up my hands.

You said, "If I don't stop the destructive pattern I'm on, I will die. Enough with that. My real problem is ..."

Your real problem is ...

Do you hear how offhandedly you just gave away the tragic insanity of your plight? Do you hear it? I hear it and it is as familiar to me as my own heartbeat. If I can't stay sober, I will die. But my real problem is ...

You know, I was watching Mackenzie Phillips interviewed by Larry King the other night, and he asked her the "What will happen if you start using again?" question and she answered with the "I will die" thing and I had the sense that to people who do not have direct experience with the addiction phenomenon it may have sounded like a cliché or an overstatement or a protective mantra and not a pure and simple statement of fact that is both full of emotion and as coldly clear as the law of gravity, so as I teared up thinking about what she had been through as an incest survivor and drug addict, I thought, you know what? Larry King is never going to get this. Not really. And good for him. Why should he? Why should he have to know these things? Sweet old Larry King? Who should have to know these things? Who should have to know what that feels like? Who should have to know that sadness?

But enough with that. Enough with that "if I keep doing this I will die."

Larry King, bless his apparently immortal heart, also asked her if she had used while she was pregnant, and she answered directly with apparent truthfulness that indeed she had, sir, and he asked her if she thought that was a good idea, and she told him with that same apparent utter truthfulness that when you are in your addiction, (fer chrissakes, man!) you do not think about whether this or that action is such a good idea. Damned right you don't, I said to myself! You do not think, Hmmm, well, I have this little heroin addiction but, you know, I'm pregnant, so maybe I'll just lie here and shake and vomit for a few days instead of using the heroin. That would be the responsible thing to do! Because, for heaven's sake, I'm pregnant!

I was grateful to her saying that of course she used drugs when she was pregnant! What the hell does he think she's been saying all along? That she was a casual user? She was a junkie! That is what junkies do! That is the sad, infuriating dirty truth of it. And that is why we need healthcare and clinics. That is why we need preventive care, counseling, a society of "meaning on demand"! That is why we need money for rehabs, money for counseling for children who are being fed drugs by and having sex with their fathers because they cannot talk about it or no one will listen and act when they do talk because the father is such a big, big star and we have to protect our big, big stars from the scurrilous lies of their children, who have nowhere to turn because of the terrible taboos about these things.

Here is another thing she was saying not just to you and me but to all her fellow incest survivors and drug addicts suffering in silence the terrible truth of their condition:

These things happen. Yes, they do. It is the simple truth. It is what we do. We take drugs when we are pregnant. Incest happens to us and we do not know how to stop it or to step out of it or to tell it. These things happen. And only rarely through some unseen grace do we rise out of this insane whirlwind downward into death and insanity. Only rarely does a person such as me or you or MacKenzie Phillips find through hellish chance and imponderable grace a modicum of peace in sobriety.

But enough with talk of life and death. Enough with the melodramatic. Yes, if you keep doing this you will die having wasted your life. You will make all those who love you sad beyond measure. But enough with that. Let's instead talk about the ways that your program of recovery is causing problems in your social life. Let's talk about how people might look askance at you.

You have found crucial friendship with another, one whose life experience can help you, who has come to your aid, who perhaps represents, in his elder form, a masculine wisdom and strength that may satisfy some deep need in you that is not sexual but archetypal. But let's worry about how people might look at the age difference.

Seriously. You and I know what you're up against. There's no reason to dwell on the fact that you either get this thing this time or very likely there won't be another go-round for you. No reason to make the casual observation that the majority of people afflicted with this problem do not survive, that many take innocents with them as they crash their cars and lend their needles and drag children, spouses and lovers into their own dark spiral of lying, insanity, codependence, manipulation, theft, violence and disease transmission. No need for that. You and I know how just behind the curtain lies a vast horror of needless suffering and incalculable pain radiating outward from the addict to those who would rescue and help, to those who would unknowingly lend money, to those who would love and have children with the addict, to those who would be born into families with, to those who would attempt to instruct, to those who would be robbed by and beaten by, to those who would merely interact in a casual way at the grocery store and feel themselves subtly degraded by, subtly dragged down by this person's genius at pulling others into his depravity. No need to go into that. Let that be the quiet background to our talk about how 30 days into your recovery it is causing problems with your social life.

And please, if there's any greater power out there, I will ask this: Let our evocation of what lies just beyond the casual toke, the tiny sip, the single snort, the taster shot, let that evocation give you the courage of the desperate survivor who truly knows that she is at the end of her road. As in: Who the fuck cares what other people think about how you go about fighting for the very survival of your body and your soul? Who cares about the opinions of a world so narrow,  fretful and self-conscious that it would look askance at two genuine friends of different ages? Who the fuck cares?

You are fighting for your life. This man is fighting for his life, too. There is a bond between you. In this bond may be found the support you need to survive another day with this insidious malady that, need I remind you, is just waiting for you to slip, to fall, to collapse into its embrace of deadly solace.

So keep this friendship with this older man sacred and cherish it like a lifeline in a stormy sea.

Addiction stuff? Yeah, we've got that

Makes a great gift. Can be personalized for the giftee of your choice. Signed first editions on sale now.

What? You want more advice?


Cary Tennis

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