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 a Higher Power stirred in me a childhood question about who my God was. I was yet to understand why recovery calls on us to be spiritual.
Al-Anon helped me understand.
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 of 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 recovery did not require me to become religious and choose a God as a Higher Power. It did, however, require me to discover my spirituality. I was not being asked to declare a faith nor embrace some form of mysticism. Instead, I needed to develop an awareness of myself at the moment. Freeing myself from the buzzing thoughts that made me reactive, and look for wisdom outside of myself was necessary.
Finding my version of spirituality.
At first, I began to revisit my former curiosity of Zen, Taoism, and Buddhism sparked by cultures I encountered in Japan, Cambodia, and Thailand. I dusted off books by Charlotte Joko Beck and attended workshops offered by Pema Chödrön. I 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 to 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 towards 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 towards the emotions that I felt. Initially, I thought of them as 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. My compulsion to justify my emotions was replaced with the practice of acknowledging their presence.
My awareness grew.
Interacting with my partner, I observed how the mere sound of a text message on his phone could spark my insecurities. Automatically I reacted with anger. His inability to magically know my feelings, even though I didn’t express them, gave rise to a sense of me 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.
How mindfulness helped.
With self-awareness, I discovered that mindfulness could interrupt this chain reaction. Staying present to the anxious feelings was important and helped slow down my learned reflexes to fear. Observing my anger, taking a breath, and connecting it with my fear of abandonment was my first step in learning not to react. To practice 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 let my partner know that I am vulnerable because I feel insecure or reach out to a friend. Resisting the urge to lash out at him and get ahead of what I project will be painful memories, is more productive. I can remind myself that these emotions’ immediacy will pass or at least diminish. Pausing long enough to take just one breath breaks the cycle. With greater inner calm, I can foster my ability to choose how I want to deal with the situation that arises.
Recovering as a couple.
The practice of mindfulness strengthens couples’ recovery work because it can break the cycle of trigger, automatic reaction, and predictable outcome. When couples extend compassion towards 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 enhance my recovery. 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 old patterns, allows me to create a new narrative for myself in recovery. Spirituality is transformative and changes me into someone more compassionate, forgiving, and loving. Spirituality is at the core of my recovery!
Chantal Jauvin, LLB, MBA