Isolation, “I-Thou” and Addiction Recovery

Human beings have evolved with inherent needs for physical, psychological, emotional, social, and many would suggest, spiritual connection. If these needs are unmet, neglected, or abused in the developmental years of childhood and adolescence they often result in lifelong difficulties with interpersonal (with others), intrapersonal (within self), and transpersonal (beyond the self) relationships.

Feeling alienated in childhood and adolescence seems common to many of us in recovery from addiction, which doesn’t surprise me as often alcoholics/addicts have had less than perfect childhoods and have attachment difficulties as a result. Also, I think feelings of disconnection are probably quite common in the teenage years as it’s a difficult time of transition for most, and existentially, it can appear that we’re all fundamentally alone and separate. Anxiety about our aloneness is apparently one of the four main existential human concerns.

However, many suggest not all addicts have had difficult childhoods, and some in recovery say they felt loved and a part of when growing up. There are various interacting bio-psycho-social-spiritual factors that can lead to addiction, and those who haven’t felt alienated throughout childhood and adolescence will have developed a problem with addiction due to their own unique mix of these influences. For example, Some, I believe, have a strong genetic predisposition to addiction, and when combined with a culture that encourages drinking etc., and where there’s abundant availability, addiction can develop.

I would add that I don’t think feeling alienated is an “excuse” for addiction, but it’s one of the many valid causal factors that can lead to it in those with other vulnerability. Not everyone who felt alienated or neglected growing up develops addiction problems and my response to this observation is that they were blessed with other resilient resources e.g., genes, character traits and biology that are resistant to addiction.

Thinking about my own experience during my adolescent years I often felt lonely, neglected, and unloved growing up within an alcoholic home. These feelings of disconnection and unmet needs fuelled my relationship with alcohol and my first girlfriend. Due to my emotional insecurity, I needed to get drunk at every opportunity in order to cope with trying to connect intimately with another human being. This wasn’t that difficult for me as my family lived in a public house where access to alcohol was easily available. I realise now that I struggled with interpersonal relationships as a result of my sense of intrapersonal disconnection. Inwardly, I felt cut off from love, joy, and happiness and my primary conscious feelings where of fear and anger. This led to very dysfunctional relationships with other people often characterised by conflict, aggression and rejection. This pattern of relating followed me into adulthood and later into my recovery from addiction.

These feelings of alienation compounded my sense of separateness existentially, which is an intrapersonal and transpersonal sense of our ultimate aloneness in the world. The experience of existential isolation “is part of the limitation of being human. An inability to accept this limitation can lead to neurotic, dependent, and symbiotic relational patterns.” (1) Within loving, supportive relationships we can learn to accept and fully connect to ourselves and our sense of separateness. This in turn allows us to develop the capacity to be emotionally independent and to apply healthy boundaries with others.

Recovery meetings that facilitate social connection, and a program of self-development psychologically, emotionally and spiritually, can help greatly in our efforts to connect to ourselves and others in an authentic and healthy way.

However, for this to occur we need the willingness and capacity to be very honest with ourselves and others. For me, this is a fundamental of the recovery process of change and growth. In order to feel truly connected within, between and beyond I must strive for relational authenticity and integrity. It’s the quality of the relationship with myself and others that’s important in terms of feeling whole and meeting my inherent social, emotional and spiritual needs.

The existentialist philosopher Martin Buber’s theory of I-It vs I-Thou relationships expresses the need for authenticity really well – if we are to feel genuinely connected. The I-It means of relating is superficial and lacks depth and meaning. It’s relating to others in an objectifying and mechanical way. This type of relationship is ultimately unsatisfying and we remain alienated in relation to It. By contrast, the I-Thou (or, “I-You”) relationship is from the heart and is meaningful. It requires a mutual sharing and a willingness to be vulnerable. A ‘way of being’ that includes respect and empathy for one another. I would suggest that the intimacy within authentic I-Thou relationships is connecting interpersonally, intrapersonally, and transpersonally.

I think that for those of us that feel disconnected within, sharing as honestly as we possibly can with others what we think, and, more importantly, what we feel, is essential for developing a greater sense of wholeness. According to Buber, we become whole through the quality of our relations with others. He also suggested that all authentic relationships ultimately bring us into connection with the Eternal Thou. (An ineffable “encounter” with spirituality)

In order to be authentic in relation to others in recovery meetings we need to practice trust and to feel safe. This requires a mutual willingness for group members to practice the ‘core conditions’ of empathy, non-judgemental acceptance and genuine openness with each other. A high ideal for many with a history of relationship dysfunction. However, the best recovery meetings often do come close to this ideal, and then we are provided with the opportunity to be real.

Applying Buber’s relational theory to 12 Step ‘fellowship’ and its ‘program’ of recovery is helpful for me. Recently, I’ve been struggling with resentment primarily due to feeling disconnected and rejected in meetings. Historically, I’ve suffered with these feelings and they’ve often caused me relationship difficulties as a result. My thinking tends to get hijacked because of these unresolved emotions and I then externalise them onto others. The “blame game” as we say in AA. This relational pattern is explained by Freud’s theory of Transference, which is the projection of past relationship issues into the present.

The shame, hurt and fear associated with my feelings of rejection and disconnection are often expressed through anger, rather than the more painful feelings underlying this cover emotion. This way of expressing myself is inauthentic to a degree and a strategy to avoid vulnerability. It tends to be a self-defeating behaviour as anger generally drives others away. The rare occasion when I’ve shown genuine vulnerability in recovery meetings has usually been met with love and support from others. Ironically, the risk of rejection is what prevents me from being more honest in meetings. Clearly showing vulnerability wasn’t wise during the developmental years of my past.

My solution to chronically feeling disconnected is to seek out supportive and empathic relationships with people who are secure in their relational patterns. These I-Thou relationships are not easy for us to find, although if we are lucky they do exist.

According to Buber we cannot force authentic I-Thou relationships. He suggests that they are a combination of “will and grace”. We are required to wait for the opportunity for authentic relationship with others, and when it’s presented must have the courage and willingness to engage in it. If we are willing and ready the opportunity will come to us. The authentic relationship, where mutual vulnerability is present, is an “encounter” with the other, where those involved grow in the process of relating. We become fully human within the I-Thou relationship.

While I cannot force the opportunity to connect genuinely with others, I can seek out the right meetings, people and interests where opportunity is more likely to happen. In the meantime, I can work at being ready and willing in order to courageously and honestly meet and engage with grace.


About the Author

Steve K. has been a member of Alcoholics Anonymous for the past 28 years. He has a background in advice and counselling work, mainly in the areas of mental health, addiction recovery and social welfare law. Steve writes for his blog and has self-published a book entitled: The 12 Step Philosophy of Alcoholics Anonymous: An Interpretation by Steve K.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Donald

    thanks for the contribution, Steve K.
    I’ll admit, initial disturbance with terms “spirituality” and “blessed” in the thesis. but I kept reading and got past it.

    it’s funny, we are about honesty. authentic. real. yet the world that has evolved around us, is more deceitful, anything but authentic, literally, unreal. I do believe that selfishness, self absorption, are root causes for my circumstances, as suggested by bill, yet, today’s world forcefully injects more selfishness, more self absorption, than ever before. that’s a key part of advertising: subtle, even subliminal technologies deployed to create people as “happiness machines”: incessantly told we deserve, actually must be happy and satisfied, 24/7, at any expense, and that real happiness only comes from buying something we didn’t want or even need. that next car, the right brand of shoe, drink the trendy beer. not to veer off into conspiracy or such, but these are tangible, provable aspects affecting us all, and if we are to seek honesty, inclusion of this treachery must be included. it is exponentially worse today, than at bill’s time. research Edward Bernays, and the rise of “public relations”

    while I will occasionally bandied about terms like “authentic” myself (did a series of personal growth workshops, similar to landmark forums, and later I discovered they are just variations of EST, lol). I am more careful with that language. why? because it can be a straw man, a undefined (and generally unobtainable) lofty goal. we hear the language of the personal growth movements, dare I say Industry, creeping into our culture. I work for a gov agency, HUGE, and our plug n play, constantly revolving “leaders’ toss around authentic. transformation. win-win. jargon du jour parrots. they land empty, trite, meaningless. sounds good in personal growth literature, but exactly what does that look like? an authentic relationship? WTF is THAT? what does that mean? what does that look like? and who gets to determine it? what are the standards to qualify? often, it can become like a wiffle bat to bludgeon.

    what is the single important ingredient of “authentic”? time.

    my marriage has created a pretty darn authentic relationship. how? not by pushing on a string to make it happen, cap’n. more like staying together for 20 years.

    for me, I have the best outcomes, the best luck connecting with new people, with myself, when I do my best to avoid advice, and stay on what is what like, what happened, and what it is like today. ESH experience strength and hope. I am confident the only real magic the 12 step approach offers, isn’t books, steps, etc.. no.. it’s identification that can ONLY come when someone like me, talks as honestly as possible (and audience appropriate) about what it was like, what happened, and what it is like today.

    Identification. the freedom to open up just a little about my current situation. that heals the hopelessness of the isolated mind.

    1. Glenna R.

      I am really impressed with the depth of this offering. Can only say with gratitude. Buber’s, I and Thou has always been a hit since it came out in the seventies or earlier.
      The idea meshes with my deep reading of Shakespeare about the idea of not treating people as things or things as people. One play would be the Merchant of Venice, but it comes up often.
      I, too, have left many meetings since 1997 feeling extremely disconnected. It has helped me to join agnostic groups and to read the blogs on this site.
      Going for lunch at a Traditional Meeting has opened a door, slightly. Taking part and saying, I identify with the person’s; experience with alcohol, but not with their religious experience has helped me to be authentic.
      I hold hands for the Lord’s Prayer, but do not say it.
      Of course everyone likes to have their own ideas re-enforced. Yesterday, I read the Promises as there were a number of slippers and newcomers.People seemed without hope and the meditation was about dreams(to a room were many had difficulty dreaming) I didn’t realize that the God word was in the Promises, but read it as written. Let’s say, I connected with a lot of people and felt connected, as everyone was impressed with my perceptions!! They know my Home Group and don’t support it ! I even got a plug in for Shakepeare; yes, from the Tempest, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.
      Let me say before I quit, that although I have difficulty with the spiritual slant of Buber and many like-minded existentialists, I find myself attracted by the depth which is lacking in the Fundamentalists and the God People of A.A. I have always read spiritual books, but chafed at the supernatural God.
      Steve, I am grateful for your ideas!

      1. Steve K

        Thanks for your comments Glenna – much appreciated.

  2. Jax

    The kind and depth of trust required to open up fully to another person can and, I think, SHOULD take considerable time. An individual who forms a fully open relationship opens themselves to betrayal of confidences. A very emotionally devastating situation that can very easily result in the withdrawal of trust to all. Emotional recovery and the expansion of psycho/social development is usually paralyzed; sometimes for considerable time, sometimes permanently.
    I walked into my first 12 step meeting in 1990 and have yet to find a more damaging event than the betrayal of anonymity and its connected trust. Parts of the huge and long lasting wrecking of trust can sometimes be permanent.
    BUT!! The focus of the betrayed persons friends should always be focused on sympathy and hands-on support.

    Betrayal of trust that was hard won and freely given is in my view the worst thing that can happen to anyone in any recovery program. Perhaps the betrayer should be asked to find another meeting.

    I have done exactly that with good results.

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