by Lisa N.
More than 15 years ago, I remember a very active member in of AA who had been sober much longer than I had. She was suffering from a severe and quite visible eating disorder. We watched this lovely creature wasting away. It was both baffling to me and frightening. I couldn’t comprehend how someone working such a great program could so evidently struggle with what can be considered as another form of addiction. I mistakenly saw it as some sort of failure. Back in what I like to call my “pink cloud days” I did not understand that having a solid program in recovery did not guarantee a lifetime free of addictive behaviour. A rather immature inner voice would throw around judgements like “SHE must not be practicing a very good program.” Fortunately, I’m a teeny, weeny, bit more evolved now (I hope!). The critical know-it-all has been replaced with a more earnest and gentle observer who knows we are all just peeling the layers of the onion to get the flower inside.
The empathy I feel today for those who struggle on their path of sobriety with other addictions did not arise out of a grand spiritual awakening resulting in sober sainthood. Rather, the understanding was borne of the struggles I faced well after I sobered up and gained by witnessing similar troubles of others who I loved and respected. I truly can say I have experienced the multifaceted face of addiction.
In addition to 12-step work I’ve done over the years, I also enjoy reading about addiction issues, watching professional speakers, listening to podcasts covering social, scientific and spiritual issues to gain a broader perspective on alcoholism and recovery. As a result of this “schooling” combined with personal experience, I have come to believe that addiction is complex; that recovery can be a non-linear process and that addiction may rear its head in different forms. Amongst my travels in 12-step circles, I have witnessed die-hard smokers, sugar junkies, sex and love addicts, debtors, gamblers, all who’ve kicked the booze with great success, but stumble with one or more other addictions. Some beat them, others don’t. I walk amongst them with heartfelt grace because I see my own reflection in them all.
At times, it can be difficult for 12-step members to open up about other issues/addictions that directly affect their sobriety. The traditions are often misunderstood in AA and may discourage people from discussing secondary addictions or even issues like mental health. The 10th tradition simply calls for AA members to disengage from public discussions or representing AA regarding outside issues like politics race religion, public health/addiction policy. Over the years the phrase “outside issue” has morphed into a reference to an addiction other than alcohol such as drugs. This is not the intent of the tradition, so we mustn’t feel afraid to talk about these problems a way that is related to our recovery and to get help if we need it.
I think it is so important for us to be able to share openly in meetings; as addictive behaviours of all kinds directly impacts sobriety. The 12 steps and traditions simply remind us of the primary purpose of AA to help those in recovery from alcoholism. Stories in many editions of The Big Book (including the first) include people’s experiences with some of these struggles. I emphasize this not to be controversial, only to encourage those of you who are challenged by other addictions to not be afraid to share; to feel free to ask for the help you need that often may be outside of the 12-step group.
A case in point: how often have you seen a friend suffer from codependency that ends up drinking over a difficult relationship? Freedom from codependency, for example, might be for some people an inherent part in maintaining sobriety. For most of us, we have to hit one addiction at a time. Let’s face it, who could survive being instantaneously stripped of all their coping mechanisms at once, no matter how faulty?
During times of stress or loss, I have hit walls with my addiction in varied forms. I have used a myriad of things in a mood altering fashion: television, nicotine, food, the internet, relationships…the list is long. For me, as long as I do not drink, I have a chance. But I need to attend to these flags when they arise so that they do not take me back to my first and most terrifying addiction.
I love the saying “I’ve got seven garbage cans but only six lids and one of ‘em is stinkin’!”. I’m no longer afraid to admit it, and have accepted that it just seems to be part of my process. I have sought outside help since entering into recovery. Every time I make it through, I learn. Future challenges become more short lived and easier to face. I used to be ashamed that I wasn’t a “perfect alcoholic.” Part of letting go of my shame is talking about it openly. Our secrets really will harm us, and there is always someone out there who has experience that can help you feel better about yours.
In preparation for writing on the topic of other addictions, I had the good fortune of speaking with Dr. Vera Tarman, author of “Food Addiction”, and founder of Renascent’s pilot program for women with food addiction. According to Dr. Tarman, when folks in recovery from alcoholism begin to recover from a coexisting food addiction, they achieve an even more intense spiritual, mental and physical freedom than they did the first time around. Dr. Tarman suggested that food addiction is often the primary addiction for many alcoholics and addicts—beating the alcoholism or drug addiction is the first step in cracking a shell to go even deeper. Her passion for the process of a recovery from another addiction was exciting to me. While I have experienced glimpses of such peace in my sober life, I am still in the process of cutting my own diamond in the rough. After our conversation something truly important settled in to my soul—just because another addiction stops you in your tracks, it does not mean that you have failed in some way. She reinforced for me that it simply is part of a process, and that we should never ever give up.
Dr. Stephanie Cassin of Ryerson University who runs a program called “HEAL – Healthy Eating and Lifestyle”, had a similar message. Many of the patients she treats with eating disorders uncover additional addictions while seeking help. She told me that most people in treatment are honestly doing the very best they can at the time; there is always hope for improvement. After speaking with Dr. Cassin, I was again reminded that a struggle with addictive behaviour is absolutely not a failure; it is a new opportunity to further learn to deal with our emotions at a higher level, one day at a time.
I was grateful to speak to these health professionals, as they gave me an appreciation for my own process, as well as hope. It is my honour to share hope with you, and wish you greater freedom every day in your journey of a lifetime of recovery.