"Professor Peter Cohen writes that we should stop using the word "addiction" all together and shift to a new word: "bonding." Human beings need to bond. It is one of our most primal urges. So if we can't bond with other people, we will find a behavior to bond with, whether it's drinking or watching pornography or smoking crack or gambling. If the only bond you can find that gives you relief and meaning is with a drink or splayed women on a computer screen or bags of crystal or a roulette wheel, you will return to that bond obsessively.
One recovering heroin and crack addict, Dean W., put it to me simply. "Addiction," he said, "is a disease of loneliness."
Johann Hari - Chasing The Scream.
The other day I called an A.A. newcomer to check up on her. All I knew was that her name is Emma S. and that she is struggling. She can't seem to string more than a few days of sobriety together before the cravings become overwhelming and she drinks once more. And with the drinking all the problems and all the self loathing that she is trying to escape from by using alcohol seem somehow amplified and even more painful. It's a terrible place to be. An intensely lonely place. But I’ve been there, obsessively returning to my bond with alcohol, for years after it stopped working. Having also been trapped in addiction I felt uniquely qualified to call Emma and try, in whatever way I could, to help her out. To give her a pep talk - put some wind in her sails - show some support to let her know that she is not alone. We spoke for over an hour and connected on a very profound level. A level that I never imagined would be possible for me. We bonded, almost immediately, on a spiritual level. In our first conversation ever we discussed the need to let go of our old ideas. To pray on our knees, if need be, for relief. We talked about being willing to accept the supernatural concept that a higher power would be able to do for us what we were completely incapable of doing for ourselves, put the drink down...for good. I realized then that in A.A. we truly meet each other backwards. Usually when I meet people I start off slow and guarded, discussing the mundane details of life, not getting too close too soon. Or, in fact, not getting too close, ever. But in those first conversations with Emma we just laid ourselves bare - complete vulnerability with a complete stranger and it felt wonderful.
I heard in a meeting once that at birth infants naturally bond with a caregiver and that that bond helps to give them a solid foundation for life. Through this initial nuturing bond they learn to trust the universe. Unfortunately that was not my experience. But when I discovered alcohol I bonded with it, and trusted it, completely. And that relationship with alcohol helped me to live comfortably in the world for a full decade (from ages 15-25) until it stopped working. I see now that Johann Hari is right, once my bond with booze was cemented I returned to alcohol obsessively - long after I realized that it would probably be the death of me.
The next time I spoke to Emma we discussed the "things of the world" as I like to call them. After having gone so deep in our first conversations we returned to the superficial. Our last names, where we live, our jobs, families, pets, etc. But those are all just minor details because more than that I know who she is deep down. I know what makes her tick - as she knows what makes me tick. Like Emma I feel that I never learned certain coping mechanisms that other people seemed to have been taught early on. Where was I when the "How to live a life" handbooks were passed out in third grade? Most likely I was smoking a cigarette behind the swings so missed getting my copy.
We are all so different but we come together in A.A. with a common goal: to live a sober life. And because we share a serious problem - a problem that can, and often does, result in death - we approach each other with respect for our common enemy and an honest desire to help. We bond to each other by sharing our own experience. How did we get out...and stay out...of that addicted spiraling mess we had created of our lives? When the darkness seemed inescapable where did we see light? Where did we find hope? What else can we do other than drink and drug to soothe our rattled craving bodies and minds? What things can we bond with (other than drugs and alcohol) that can help make our time here on planet earth enjoyable? Things that don't come with all the shame and negative consequences of active addiction.
And so I shared my experience with Emma and I hope I helped her. But I know I helped myself, by reminding myself where I had come from, how hard I had battled for my sobriety, and what tools I had used in my early days…and to this day…to just not pick up that first damn drink. I realize now that I love meeting people backwards. What a novel and liberating way of getting to know someone. Without judgement, with openness , with honesty. Also, if someone already knows all the evil darkness festering within me then I can only go up in their estimation! And that's always better than going down.
The fact is that in the rooms of any 12 step program I'm surrounded by people who are wired just like me. Maybe we are not alike on the surface, but deep down, where it really matters, we are. Every single type of person shows up in the rooms of A.A. We are not alone, but even better than that we often find ourselves in excellent company.