My Partner Is Battling Addiction: Here's How Spirituality Has Helped Us Both
I've never enjoyed labels. So I'll admit that the first Al-Anon meeting I attended triggered me. I was irritated by words like "loved ones," "sponsor," and "qualifier." But most of all, the talk of "Higher Power" stirred in me that childhood question of who my God was.
I chose to attend Al-Anon meetings to better understand how addiction took hold of my relationship with the man I loved. Addiction clutched him to the point of disfiguring both our souls. We acted in ways contrary to who we had been and who we believed ourselves to be. He was afraid of losing autonomy as his addiction gained greater control over his life. I was scared of abandonment as our connection became more tenuous through the haze of alcohol.
After attending a few more meetings, I realized that my recovery required not that I become religious and choose a God as a Higher Power but that I discover my spirituality.
I was not being asked to declare a faith or embrace some particular form of mysticism. Instead, I needed to develop a personal awareness of myself in the moment, free myself from the buzzing thoughts that made me reactive, and look for wisdom outside of myself.
My path toward presence.
At first, I began to revisit my former curiosity of Zen, Taoism, and Buddhism sparked by cultures of my professional postings in Japan, Cambodia, and Thailand. I dusted off books by Charlotte Joko Beck, attended workshops offered by Pema Chödrön, and listened to my favorite meditation by ISHTA Yoga co-founder Alan Finger. Mostly, it was an intellectual pursuit aimed at convincing myself that I was practicing a form of spirituality that would ultimately save my relationship with the man I loved.
But the practice of being present in the moment, regardless of the motivation that spurs it, has a strange effect. It wedges open a door into who we are.
Gradually my efforts translated into greater self-awareness. A subtle shift toward mindfulness occurred, not in words but in consciousness. My need to "fix" everything eased, and I began to experience my days with greater openness and acceptance of myself.
I became more compassionate toward the emotions that were, as I initially thought of them, "caused" by my partner. I began to reflect on more internally focused questions: What caused my anger? When was my anger the most palpable? What would happen if I labeled my emotions without trying to control them?
These reflections helped me experience the tension in my body when I felt uncomfortable feelings without needing to act upon them. I replaced my compulsion to justify my emotions with the practice of acknowledging their presence.
In the interactions with my partner, I observed how the mere sound of a text message on his cellphone could spark my insecurities and how I automatically reacted with anger. I also noticed that his inability to magically know my feelings of hurt even when I did not even attempt to express them gave rise to a sense of being unseen.
This pattern of reactivity showed up in so many places in our relationship. If he voiced doubt about our ability to communicate, I immediately felt a deep-seated sense of failure. There was no curiosity or even a momentary pause.
The cause and effect of our interaction were well rehearsed. My discomfort with emotional suffering converted instantly into anger. Faced with my hostility, my partner responded in kind with guilt.
Within minutes of the chime on his phone or a forgotten "how are you?" we were enmeshed. We both slipped into well-worn behaviors and endlessly replayed old roles from the days of his active addiction.
With self-awareness, I discovered that I could interrupt this chain reaction.
If I stayed present to the anxious feelings caused by my anticipated emotional suffering when my partner and I disconnected, I could slow down my learned reflexes to fear.
Breathing and observing my anger, seeing it float above my fear of abandonment, was the first step to holding the tension just long enough not to react to it.
Practicing self-awareness is a way to train oneself to stay in the present moment rather than be yanked back into the past. In the space of that moment, I can free myself from an automatic reaction and chose a different way. I can walk out of the room, let my partner know that I am vulnerable because my old friend—insecurity—showed up, or reach out to a friend. I can resist the urge to lash out at him and get ahead of what I project will be painful memories. I can remind myself that these emotions' immediacy will pass or at least diminish their pull with a pause long enough to take just one breath.
With greater inner calm, I can foster my ability to choose how I want to deal with the situation that arises.
Moving forward & learning to love.
When couples extend compassion toward one another, they offer each other the greatest gift, the opportunity to grow.
Earnie Larsen, a pioneer in the field of recovery, believes that after a person has broken the primary addiction, the next stage is "learning to love." Since love only exists in a relationship, he believes that the core of recovery "is becoming a person increasingly capable of functioning in a healthy relationship."
Spirituality is my pathway to mindfulness, which, in turn, connects me to my partner. When I cultivate my ability to be aware of what is going on with myself, I develop the muscle memory I need to deal with the more complex and dynamic interactions I share with the man I love.
This break from the tendency to regress to the old storyline of who I was before recovery allows me to create a new narrative for myself. Because spirituality is transformative and changes me into someone more compassionate, forgiving, and loving, then it is also, in some ways, at the core of my recovery too.
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