I've been a fan for as long as you've had the column. You have always dealt beautifully with my main issues: writing, relationships and existential despair. Yet you have often written about something that until now I have had no experience with: alcoholism. I am writing to ask for your advice to someone who is wholly new to this phenomenon except for what I've read in your column. I trust you deeply on this matter, and I need advice from someone I trust because everything else in me is telling me to do what I think is the wrong thing.
I just met this guy, he's terrific, and then I find out he's approximately 1.5 months sober. Previously, he was sober for 10 years, then a social drinker for about five years, then more problematic, then went back to AA about a month and a half ago. He's going to AA.
I see a therapist, whom I trust. I told her about this and she said it was too early for me to be seeing him. She's worked a lot with alcoholics in recovery, has certifications, etc. But she suddenly put this professional hat on to explain "you need a year," etc., and I had to really push her to become the insightful person that I trust (rather than someone just parroting the words they were trained to say) and tell me from that perspective why she thinks I should leave.
Well, it's August -- she's about to go on vacation. (!) So can you help, too? She's told me they say no relationships for the first year. She told me physical addiction is different from my own low-level addictions (to love, to food, to the Internet -- those forms of escapism) because of the additional component of how the body metabolizes alcohol and the psychological changes that result (tendencies across the board to be manipulative, denial, etc). That anyone at this early stage of addiction is "under-organized" and isn't even fully a self so can't truly be relating to me, so what I like about him is partly not real.
Do you also believe that there are no exceptions, that it is too soon, that if I truly care for him I'll leave him? I actually brought this up with him expecting he would agree with me and make it easier -- ha! That was very flattering but also alarming. My therapist says he isn't taking his recovery seriously. He hasn't told his sponsor he's dating me.
I guess I know I have to break it off -- can you help me? I will miss him so much. My therapist did bargain with me that I could try again once he's eight months sober ...
My Insane Family Didn't Drink
Dear Product of Insane Non-Drinking Family,
Yep, I gotta say, I agree with your therapist. What she told you is great. Please follow her suggestions. Just tell this guy that you're going to wait until he's sober one year before getting involved with him.
He may argue with you. Just tell him what you're doing: You're going to follow the suggestions of your therapist and of people in the program.
Keep in mind that you're powerless over what he does. You really are. That is the great thing to learn here. The alcoholic learns that he is powerless over alcohol. Everyone else learns that they are powerless over the alcoholic.
Now, I'm not asking you to believe every word I say or that your therapist says. I'm no philosopher. It makes sense that you asked your therapist to explain this business to you. I thought she explained it in exemplary fashion.
For the addict, though, clear explanations do not always help him stay sober. Action is necessary. In early sobriety our thinking is impaired. We like to say, "Our best thinking got us here." Your friend's best thinking told him he could be a social drinker, and look how that turned out. So we try something different. We suspend furious thinking and analysis, calm down, be humble and take suggestions. We rely on a program of action to suggest how we might best conduct our lives. We rely on the collective wisdom and experience of those around us and those who have gone before us and written down their experiences.
In this way we learn to trust. So trust the accumulated wisdom of many thousands of recovered alcoholics and addicts.
Why one year? you may ask. I see that you made a deal with your therapist to revisit the matter in eight months. It's certainly possible that some addicts are emotionally ready to begin intimate relationships before they've been sober a year. Others may not be ready after 20 years of sobriety. So it does seem arbitrary. But if eight months is the same as a year, then maybe one little drink is the same as no drink. We alcoholics can't afford this kind of equivocation. We benefit from unambiguous guidelines.
So I would just be clear and firm with him: one year.
What? You want more advice?
- Read more Cary Tennis in the Since You Asked directory.
- See what others are saying and/or join the conversation in the Table Talk forum.
- Ask for advice. Letter writers: Please think carefully! By sending a letter to email@example.com, you are giving Salon permission to publish it. Once you submit it, it may not be possible to rescind it. So be sure. If you are not sure, sleep on it. You can always send tomorrow. Ready? OK, Submit your letter for publication.
- Or, just make a comment to Cary Tennis not for publication.
- Or, send a letter to Salon's editors not for publication.