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How Addiction Leaves Us Vulnerable
It's not just who we hurt, but also who hurt us.
I hate how I used to treat other people when I was drunk.
I was an angry alcoholic. The type of guy who would blow up over everything and nothing. The kind of person who made others anxious—as if they were walking on eggshells.
Since getting sober, I’ve spent a lot of time working on these anger issues. I’ve reflected on how I’ve treated others, done my best to make amends, seen a therapist, and developed anger-coping mechanisms so that I don’t keep acting so awfully for the rest of my life. [I’ve previously written about this in more detail: Alcoholism and Rage.]
After getting sober, it’s important to put in this work—to think about how our alcoholism hurt others and to improve our behavior moving forward. I’m proud that I’ve taken responsibility for how I treat others.
However, lately, I’ve realized that this is just half the story. I’ve poured a lot of energy into understanding how my addiction hurt others but this focus caused me to miss the fact that the harm often went both ways.
As an active alcoholic, I was a deeply vulnerable person. At the same time that I was mistreating others, I was allowing myself to be mistreated.
When I think back on the friendships and romantic relationships that I had during my years of heavy drinking, I’m shocked to realize how terrible many of them were.
It’s not as if every single relationship was dysfunctional, but there were certainly far more problems than I realized at the time.
When it came to friendships, I often ended up in situations where it felt like we didn’t even really like each other. There was a lot of one-upping, a lot of little rude comments tearing each other down, and a lot of feeling used.
My romantic relationships were even worse. I frequently fell into the pattern of letting myself be controlled and changing tons of things about myself—from my clothing, to the way I smiled, to what I did for fun—just to please someone else. I had one ex who said mean things about me constantly, ruining my self-esteem, and I just put up with it.
I’ll emphasize again that it’s not as if I was an angel in these relationships. I was a daily-drinking alcoholic who got angry and yelled at people for no reason. I was without a doubt a terrible jerk.
The fact that other people treated me badly doesn’t absolve me from how I acted, but the fact that I treated them badly doesn’t absolve them either. The world isn’t always black and white, with one “good guy” and one “bad guy.” Often, everyone involved is in the wrong.
Just as it’s important to recognize that I was acting badly, I also need to recognize that I let others treat me badly. I need to learn from those bad relationships so that I can form positive relationships as I move forward.
So, why is it that I let people act like such jerks to me when I was a drinker? What made me set such low standards for my relationships?
Part of the problem was that I didn’t realize how bad the relationships were. It’s scary how easily we can get used to the status quo.
As an alcoholic, I had spent years and years forming bad interpersonal relationships. I didn’t realize these relationships were toxic. They felt normal.
Another part of the problem was that I felt like I deserved it. As an alcoholic, I had an incredibly low opinion of myself. It’s no exaggeration to say that I hated myself.
When you hate yourself enough, you just expect everyone else to dislike you too. If friends or girlfriends tore me down, I didn’t think much about it because it fit with my self-image. It can even become a self-reinforcing cycle. As people treat you like crap, you think worse of yourself and then allow them to treat you even worse.
Lastly, I was scared that I couldn’t do any better. My alcoholism was incredibly isolating. It damaged my existing relationships and got in the way of forming new ones.
Especially in terms of romantic relationships, I always felt like if my relationship ended, I’d just end up by myself for the rest of my life. Even when I wasn’t happy, it felt better to stay in a terrible relationship than to risk being alone forever.
For all of these reasons, my alcoholism left me incredibly vulnerable. It caused me to put up with behavior that I never should have accepted.
Since getting sober, I’ve raised my standards. I’ve increased my self-respect and stopped putting up with poor treatment.
This wasn’t a conscious decision that I made. I didn’t even realize how much my relationships had improved until long after the fact.
Instead, this change flowed naturally from my sobriety. Getting sober improved my self-esteem, which has helped me to feel more comfortable pursuing the relationships I want and letting go of the ones that aren’t working.
When it seems like someone isn’t respecting me, I can just move on in my life instead of clinging to the relationship out of fear that I’ll never find another. When a friend acts rudely, I feel confident standing up for myself. I know that if the friendship is worthwhile, we will work through it, and if the friendship isn’t worthwhile, I can find happier, healthier connections elsewhere.
Just as it’s important for recovering alcoholics to reflect on how they hurt other people, I believe it’s also essential that we think about how our addictions let other people hurt us.
To recognize that harm goes both ways can feel like shirking responsibility, but it’s not. Accepting that I wasn’t always that bad guy doesn’t erase all of the times that I was. However, it does allow me to more completely understand the role that alcohol had in fermenting these toxic relationships.
After getting sober, we should all make efforts toward improving the way that we treat others. But, we should also make sure to improve the way that we let others treat us.
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