Why do people, who have been sober for years, behave inappropriately with alarming regularity? Recently, I was asked this question in group therapy (the exact words have been edited as they were not fit to print). The person who posed the question felt she had been misled. She believed that, even after decades of recovery, some people were "still messed up and acting out their issues."
Similarly, a reader who commented on my post, "What Recovering Alcoholics Can Teach Us About Happiness," discussed her negative experience in AA. She described some longtime members as "seething cauldrons of anger." Another commenter observed that many AA members are caught in a cycle of negativity. This is certainly a common view for many who spend time in AA.
There are several possible reasons for this.
When someone enters addiction recovery and starts attending 12-step meetings they hear of the wonders that await them if they can remain sober. This is in the form of what Alcoholics Anonymous calls The Promises. To acquaint those unfamiliar with AA, here are The Promises:
"We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace. No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others. That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. Self-seeking will slip away. Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change. Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us." Alcoholics Anonymous
These are lofty promises. Those who have been invested in AA swear these promises are realized. Many newcomers wonder how long-time members can make these claims when sober members are still acting out.
Having such expections can lead to a let down. One such expectation: Sobriety will resolve all the issues that addiction has caused. Initially, newcomers see hope in what long-time members offer. Newcomers may well see AA old timers, who have been sober for a decade, in a glorified light; it is as if they are meeting a guru for the first time. The glorified image may soon fade when the glorified makes mistakes and displays natural human emotions.
This happens for a number of reasons. First, the newly recovering individual has the expectation of near perfection. Think of how quickly we lambaste those in religious or political authority who fall short. But who doesn't, at times, behave hypocritically? Having such an unrealistic expectation pushes the newcomer to pose the question: "If they're sober, why are they still jerks?"
However, this is not the only reason.
Here is another fact: Many recovering addicts do not actually practice the program as they claim to. This is true for many who claim religious propriety (remember that guy with the religious bumper sticker driving selfishly or flashing a nasty gesture). We hold these people, who state their commitment to a more propitious life, to higher expectations. Yet many who claim that level of commitment are not as committed as they'd like us to believe.
My clients have pointed out that many old-timers in 12-step programs remain in a negative cycle of beliefs and behavior. They hold onto sobriety, but are miserable because of it. I tell clients in addiction treatment: The first step of AA (admitting there is a problem and drinking isn't an option any longer) is enough to keep one sober; it is the other steps that lead to happiness without the substances. Many people in 12-step programs don't practice the rest of the steps. They do not work hard at changing their attitudes, beliefs, and behavior.
There is also another idea: The 12-step program is a selfish program. I have heard old-timers tell new members that one must be selfish; put yourself first in order to recover. Although there is some truth to this, wiser 12-step members refer to it as a selfless program. The idea that an individual, who is finally quitting substances, must continue being selfish is a tough pill to swallow. Family members often feel like they've tolerated enough. The newly recovering family member says: "I know, but I can't (help around the house, take Bobby to practice, mow the lawn, clean the bathroom) because I have to make my AA meeting. I don't want to slip and I have to be selfish about my recovery."
As with most problems, the solution is as difficult or simple as we make it. Balance is the key. Sometimes you must put your needs first. Sometimes, consider how your behavior has affected others. Or maybe those crotchety old timers like to complain about life. Or the newcomer has unrealistic expectations and judges others unfairly. Perhaps some just prefer to behave like jerks. Acceptance of one another and each individual's right to walk her own path is the solution.