"Bonding is the key to openness. When we have people we can trust and a group where we belong, we can begin to open."

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Episode 67 -- December 3, 2020

Find Your People: Belonging to Others in Recovery

In a year when access to our friends and family has been complicated or fraught, many of us are realizing again how important it is to have trusted and beloved people in our lives. Those of us in recovery came to know the life-or-death value of having at least one person who knows us through and through—and cares about us anyway. In this excerpt from his book, A Gentle Path Through the Twelve Principles: Living the Values Behind the Steps, Patrick Carnes focuses our attention on the vulnerability and trust inherent to the Fifth Step. Openness and trust require bonding with others. As we find our people, and come to know and be known by them, we will also find our own voices.

It has been edited for brevity.

Most of us show up at our first Twelve Step meeting with all sorts of trust issues. We trusted people we shouldn't have. We didn't trust people we should have. We didn't tell the truth. We didn't do what we said we'd do. We didn't stay faithful to our partner. We kept secrets. We invaded other people's space. We violated our own value systems. We didn't even know what or whom to trust. In fact, we didn't know how to trust and we certainly didn't trust ourselves.

In order to trust, we first need to belong. Yet most practicing addicts don't feel they belong anywhere—except, perhaps, with their addictions or with other addicts.

The Longing to Belong
Before we began our recovery, many of us had little experience of being part of a healthy family, of fitting into a functional community, or of living in a climate of trust. Often, from a very young age, we were denied the opportunity to bond with other people.

Bonding—or what psychologists also call attachment—begins very early in life. Bonding is not about feeding a child, or changing diapers, or making sure a child is entertained (though of course these are important). Bonding occurs when the parent simply holds the child and the two gaze silently in each other's eyes for minutes at a time. The parent is not trying to teach the child something or keep him or her amused. That unblinking gaze is a deep communion—two people being fully present with each other. This experience is vital because it assures the child that he or she has a place in the uni­verse, that the child deserves to be here on the planet, that the child matters. Because the child has the full attention of Dad or Mom, the child knows he or she is valued. As a consequence, the child is much more likely to grow up feeling safe, secure, and confident.

Many of us addicts did not have this experience. Our deep human need to bond was thwarted—and we know it. In the depth of our brains, we can feel that we missed out on something. We deeply, and often unconsciously, crave bonding and intimacy. Yet we also have trouble bonding with other people, often because of insufficient bond­ing experiences when we were small. Instead, we bond with addiction.

A common example is the sex addict who has one new sexual partner after another. The sex may or may not provide physical plea­sure, but what the addict really craves are bonding and intimacy. Yet these are precisely what the addict cannot achieve in a stream of ca­sual encounters. With each new sexual experience, the addict hopes to finally feel fulfilled; instead, the addiction worsens. People who are deprived of bonding as children often grow up feeling unworthy, unconfident, or shameful. These painful feelings can further enable an addiction, as the addict tries to blot out the pain with drinking, drugging, or compulsive behavior.

Becoming Known
In Twelve Step life, all of this changes. When we go to meetings, suddenly we belong. The people in our group understand how we feel, what we've been through, and what we're thinking. As our recovery deepens and we attend more Twelve Step meetings, we begin bonding with other people in the fellowship. Our deep hunger for being part of a group, a clan, a tribe, or a family begins to be fulfilled. We see that we deserve a place in the world and that we are welcome in it. Our Twelve Step group becomes like a family—a family we have chosen.

The bonding among people in Twelve Step groups is often profound. Fellow Twelve Steppers often tell me, "This is what I'd always hoped my family would be like. Everybody talks honestly and openly. We laugh together and listen to each other. We don't criticize each other. I've always felt in my bones that this is how it's supposed to be. I'm supposed to have loving, supportive people around me, helping me do my best."

Finding Your Voice
Bonding is the key to openness. When we have people we can trust and a group where we belong, we can begin to open. We open our minds to new ideas and new ways of seeing the world. We open our hearts to empathy, compassion, and love. And in Step Five, we open our lockbox of secrets and wrongdoings and tell them to someone we trust. This person listens to us and cares about us. It's basic bonding, but adult with adult instead of adult with child.

Something else essential happens in this process. In opening to this person and admitting the exact nature of our wrongs, we make ourselves vulnerable. Our witness learns all about the mistakes we've made, the harm we've caused, and the values and vows we've broken. Yet the listener doesn't disrespect us, or criticize us, or go away upon knowing about our flaws and wrongdoings. Instead, he or she accepts us. Our disclosure doesn't end the relationship; it deepens it.

This encounter sends our brain the same message as the silent parent¿child gaze. It tells us, You are redeemable. You do deserve a place on the planet. You belong here. It is the beginning of our release from feelings of unworthiness and shame. Day by day, we open, we bond, and we heal. It's because of this bonding that many people in Twelve Step groups form lifelong friendships, and many treatment groups continue to meet socially for years after treatment has ended.

Over time, we learn to take this ability to bond out into the world. We also discover that every honest, authentic conversation with another human being—every shared opening—is an opportu­nity for bonding. Of course, all of this probably seemed a universe away when we first contemplated doing a Fifth Step.

Think back to the first time you did a Fifth Step. Which of the following got in the way?

  • Secrets
  • Shame
  • Too much trust in the wrong people
  • Too little trust in the right people
  • Too little trust in yourself

In that Fifth Step, we began opening our mouths and speaking the truth. Our voice may have been a hesitant whisper at first. But as we deepened our recovery, told and retold our story, and bonded with more and more people, our voice naturally gained strength, confidence, and volume. This is a wonderful thing, but too much of a good thing can be a problem. As some folks work the Steps and Principles, their voices become too strong, too confident, and too loud. I think of my uncle, who can best be described as stark raving sober. For years he has told almost everyone he meets how wonderfully sober he is. He's addicted to letting the world know about the benefits of sobriety.

Many of us go through this stage in our own recoveries. After a while, though, we become quieter about our sobriety. We realize that our words will never be as profound as our actions and our openness. We speak from our hearts, but not too loudly or too often. We find a middle path between muffling our voice and drowning out others' voices.

On a scale with Quiet and Hesitant on one end, Confident but Subdued in the middle, and Loud and Fervent on the other, rate how loud you are as you answer the following questions:

  • When you did your original Fifth Step, how was your voice?
  • After you were in recovery for a year without relapse, how was your voice when you talked about your recovery?
  • Has there been a time since then when your voice was not in balance? When was that?
  • Looking back, why was it out of balance?
  • When you speak about your recovery today, how is your voice?

About the Author:
Patrick J. Carnes, Ph.D., is an internationally known authority on addiction and recovery issues. He has authored over twenty books including the bestselling titles Out of the Shadows: Understanding Addiction Recovery, Betrayal Bond, Don't Call It Love, and A Gentle Path through the Twelve Steps, now in an updated and expanded edition. Dr. Carnes's research provides the architecture for the "task model" of treating addictions that is used by thousands of therapists worldwide and many well-known treatment centers, residential facilities, and hospitals.

© 2012 by Patrick J. Carnes
All rights reserved