I was delighted to be asked and honored to take part in one of the excellent “The Hope Interviews” with Steve Jones for the recovery newspaper “Keys to Recovery” – our interview is on page 9 and it was a experience strength and hope type interview from both a 12 step recovery and a neuro-psychological perspective, showing how these perspectives are very compatible and how we need a spiritual solution to a neuro-psychological problem.
Over the next six months I will be blogging about my adventures in coming to terms with my insecure attachments in recovery.
I will blog on how “helping others” helps me (or not) with my insecure attachments.
I do think sitting in a room of recovering alcoholics helps one find a more “secure base” or experience a learnt attachment via recovery groups.
I have always thought 12 step groups seem to be full of people with insecure attachment issues so maybe we can see this in each other and can help each other finding loving bonds with others in “the rooms” or help mend or increase loving bonds in our own private lives too.
We do essentially heal and recover in recovery because of the loving actions of others. It is difficult recovering without deciding to trust at least one other person in recovery.
We have to let someone in to our private selves it seems. We have to bond with another human being!
But then again, do alcoholics have this attachment issue – can I talk on behalf of a whole recovery movement?
And if other alcoholics do suffer from it, can we deduce that these issues were there prior to recovery?
Are they antecedent to alcohol problems, are they part of the pathomechanism that drives additive behaviours?
Is addiction partly driven by attachment disorders?
We will start by looking at alcoholics and then in later blogs look at sex and eating disorders too. I think we may find that insecure attachment to primary care givers has a big part to play in all addictive behaviours.
So is addiction partly driven by attachment disorders?
The study (1) has shown that people with alcohol dependence significantly differ from non-alcoholics in terms of attachment style.
They also received significantly higher scores on insecure attachment style – anxious-ambivalent and avoidant style, and higher scores on attachment dimensions – anxiety and avoidance.
Empirical studies clearly confirm that the history of the attachment relationships significantly affects the shape and quality of interpersonal relationships formed in adulthood, shaping personality and developing a sense of identity, emotional functioning, coping with stress etc
Two distinct dimensions with regards to bonding are: anxiety – corresponding to fear of rejection, and avoidance – referring to avoidance of intimacy (closeness).
Empirical studies confirm that patients addicted to alcohol and other psychoactive substances are very likely to have insecure attachment styles and to display severe anxiety and avoidance in attachment dimensions.
The results of this study confirm our hypothesis that alcohol dependent persons are significantly more likely to exhibit insecure attachment styles (anxious-ambivalent and avoidant styles) than non-alcoholics, and significantly less likely to display secure attachment style.
As indicated by the results obtained, alcohol dependent persons also differ from non-alcoholics in terms of anxiety and avoidance attachment as they received higher scores on these dimensions.
These results are consistent with the results of other studies in which the percentage distribution of the occurrence of the secure style in people addicted to alcohol varies from 5.4 to 40%, while insecure attachment styles vary from 66 to 94.6% [21, 23, 24, 35].
Studies have also shown that among addicts variables such as the avoidance of closeness and fear of intimacy assume much higher values than in patients without addiction .
It seems therefore, that the occurrence of insecure attachment styles and dimensions of such intensity (that indicates feelings of mistrust in interpersonal relationships) is prevalent in patients with alcohol dependence.
Both men and women dependent on alcohol exhibit difficulties in establishing secure, trusting interpersonal relationships and at the same time have an increased tendency to feel anxiety and fear about the stability of the relationship, resulting from the lack of a sense of security and/or actively avoiding forming close, intimate relationships.”
So it seems the prevalence of insecure attachment style is very high from 66-95% in alcoholics which suggests the vast majority of recovering alcoholics know exactly what I am sharing about when I mention my issues around insecure attachment – and are also in a position to help me with these issues.
Wyrzykowska, E., Głogowska, K., & Mickiewicz, K. (2014). Attachment relationships among alcohol dependent persons. Alcoholism and Drug Addiction, 27(2), 145-161.
In AA they say people who engage in service, i.e. helping out at meetings, sharing, making the tea and coffee, sponsoring others, helping on A A telephone helplines, inter group etc have a much greater chance of staying sober and in recovery long term than those who do not.
Although I was scared of my own shadow when I came into recovery and my brain was still incredibly scrambled and disorientated, I believe doing service in AA is one of the main reasons for me still being in recovery nearly 10 years later.
It helped me become part of AA not just someone who turned up and hung around on the periphery. 12 step recovery is a program of action not self absorbed introspection. The spiritual and therapeutic aspect of 12 step recovery is connectedness with others who have the same condition and share the same common purpose of wanting to remain sober and in recovery.
Doing service is an outward sign of one taking responsibility for their own recovery and declaring it too others in the meetings via service. When I see a newcomer to recovery start to do service it gladdens my heart as I know they have dramatically increased their chances of remaining sober and in recovery long term.
This has been my experience.
A reality, however, seems to be that most people are very anxious, lacking in confidence and fearful when they reach the rooms of AA.
When you have spent a long time drinking in increasing isolation, suddenly being at a meeting among strangers can have it’s problems.
When we go to meetings, to begin with, we are often unaware that we are actually in the company of people just like us, sensitive souls. Most have at some time at issues around social anxiety.
It is often said that this social anxiety is linked to the not belonging” feeling that many alcoholics experience throughout their lives prior to drinking.
Some have said it can be traced to insecure attachment to a primary care givers or to trauma or abuse in childhood.
Equally I have known many alcoholics who had idyllic childhoods who also have this feeling on not belonging socially, not fitting in, so I suggest that this social anxiety or not fitting in may be the result of some genetic inheritance which gets worse via the adverse effects of abuse or insecure attachment.
The vast majority of alcoholics I have met over the years have this sense of not belonging, having a “hole in the soul”.
I believe it is some neurochemical deficit, such as oxytocin deficit that has a knock-on effect on other brain chemicals, that decreases our feelings of belonging, which we all inherit and which can be made more severe via stressful adversive childhoods.
It often leads to isolation, being a loner, not only in adolescence but sometimes in recovery too. We seem to often like our own company but equally it is something to be wary of.
I have often heard of people relapsing after becoming isolated from 12 step fellowships. They stopped doing service, then reduced meetings and then disappeared off the scene, locked away in isolation.
So we seem to have a tendency to isolate and this may be due to many of us having social anxiety issues. Social events often seem like too much effort and this can be a dangerous thought.
So who do we cope with a room full of people?
I just came a cross a study recently which addressed how AA is almost perfect for dealing with this issue of social anxiety.
I will use some excerpts from it. It relates to youths in recovery but is applicable to all people in recovery or seeking recovery.
“In treatment, youths with social anxiety disorder (SAD) may avoid participating in therapeutic activities with risk of negative peer appraisal.
Peer-helping is a low-intensity, social activity in the 12-step program associated with greater abstinence among treatment-seeking adults.
The benefits from helping others appear to be greatest for individuals who are socially isolated.
Helping others may benefit the helper because it distracts one from one’s own troubles, enhances a sense of value in one’s life, improves self-evaluations, increases positive moods, and causes social integration.
The myriad of existing service activities in AA are readily available inside and outside of meetings; are low intensity; and do not require special skills, prior experience, time sober, long-term commitment, transportation, insurance, or parental permission.
Peer-helping in AA, such as having the responsibility of making coffee at a meeting, empathetic listening to others, reading inspirational meditations to others, or sharing personal experiences in learning to live sober, may have the effect of greater engagement in treatment and improved outcomes due to patients’ active contributions.
Learning to live sober with social anxiety is a challenge in society where people can be quick to judge others
Coping with a persistent fear of being scrutinized in social situations often requires learning to tolerate the opinions of others, feeling different, appropriate boundary setting, and enduring short term discomfort for long-term gain—skills that are in short supply among adolescents and those in early recovery.
The low-intensity service activities in AA offer youths—and those with social anxiety in particular—a nonjudgmental, task-focused venue for social connectedness, reduce self-preoccupation and feeling like a misfit, and transform a troubled past to usefulness with others.
AA should be encouraged for socially anxious youths in particular.
As stated by a young adult, “I wanted to be at peace with myself and comfortable with other people. The belonging I always wanted I have found in AA. I got into service work right away and really enjoyed it”
1. Pagano, M. E., Wang, A. R., Rowles, B. M., Lee, M. T., & Johnson, B. R. (2015). Social Anxiety and Peer Helping in Adolescent Addiction Treatment. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 39(5), 887-895.
When I first arrived in AA I was told by a big scary looking man that in AA you will get better.
That “we will help you by loving you back to health”.
I was quite alarmed by this situation to be honest “loved back to health”? Was this guy some relic from the hippy era?
What he said, was very threatening to me. It suggested unconditional love, a concept that I was only partially familiar with.
I had always knew my father loved my unconditionally but this was less the case with my mother. I knew she loved me in her vague, through a distant Valium haze but part of me was always reaching out, crying out for more. More love.
I found that love in liquid form in alcohol. Or so I felt. Alcohol was constant. It always delivered without fail, transported me to the person I would much rather be. Allowed me to escape the person I did not want to be.
I now accept my mother suffered from addiction just like me and I have immense compassion for her because of that, she did the best she could under the circumstances. I forgive her completely and love her completely.
She was not a bad person she as an ill person just like me.
Did this relationship with my primary care giver have any effect on my teenage drinking and later alcoholism?
Like many alcoholics I have spoken to over the years I too seemed to suffer from the “hole in the soul” they spoke of.
That not feeling whole, like something in you, some part of you was missing.
Having a curious mind, I always wondered what it could be? It must be something that can be discovered? I wasn’t happy to leave it was a vague spiritual condition.
It felt too emotional just to be a spiritual thing, although it is also that.
It felt like I was lacking in something, something in my make up was not there or in diluted measure?
Later I found out that this relationship with my mother was called an insecure attachment and that lots of people in recovery had this insecure attachment with their mothers or whoever reared them.
This insecure attachment they said often resulted in novelty seeking and hunting out some “secure attachment” elsewhere, in a bottle, syringe, sex, a poker machine, food or other addictive behaviours.
It is lonely recently that I found there is a brain chemical linked to this insecure attachment called oxytocin, the “love chemical” which effects all the neurochemical said to be involved in addiction.
Oxytocin is badly affected by the stress reaction to insecure attachment, abuse trauma and a tough upbringing. The oxytocin is then reduced which reduces the other chemicals too and we search for these at the bottom of a glass.
Unfortunately alcohol seems to give us cocktail of these chemicals in liquid form. But never enough.
For a while anyway, it gives us the illusion of attachment, of that fleeting feeling of being part, of being loved.
Through the years all these chemicals start running dry and the drink stops working.
We are then left with the problems we had before we put a glass to our mouths.
So when the drink stopped working and I had to go to AA – not one wants to go there, let’s face it, it’s because we have to!
So the big scary guy may have been right all along. I have found that he is right over the years of attending AA.
I have found a new, surrogate family in AA, a “learnt attachment” within the fellowship of others in the same boat as me, who have felt the same as me. I have found this attachment to others, by being looked after and trying to help others – my oxytocin, the “love chemical” the “cuddle chemical” has gone up dramatically while my stress has plummeted as I have bonded with others in recovery.
This connectedness is my spiritual solution to a neurobiological problem.
I now feel part of for the first time, I have filled the hole in the soul with love given and received.
Like many others in recovery from alcoholism and addictive behaviours I grew up with this really uneasy feeling of “not being part of”, “never belonging anywhere”.
I felt like I did not belong or did not fit in. In fact it was only when I got to AA that I had my first sense of belonging, of being amongst my own kind.
I had found my own recovery family and had this feeling of having gone home in some strange way.
I grew up in a house with three older sisters so thought I did not fit in completely with them because I was a different gender and had my own bedroom.
I also felt warily distinct or different from my parents too. I was always wary of my parents because I never completely trusted them.
Their violent arguments had lead to many traumatic incidents in my early childhood which still scar my psyche to this day. In fact I still suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) today as do about 40 % of alcoholics.
So I felt I never completely trusted and hence never completely attached to my parents, especially my mother. I loved them deeply but there was always this invisible almost unconscious wedge between me and them.
I also grew up in the “troubles” of Northern Ireland. I grew up in the highly usual scenario of being a Catholic in a very predominantly Protestant neighourhood.
This was also traumatic at times so I never attached with the society and culture beyond my home. I also got trouble from Catholic kids at school for coming from this Protestant area. I was always having fights to defend myself. So it was a fairly traumatic upbringing inside and outside the home.
Looking back I had more than enough reasons to feel not part of.
It wasn’t until I came to AA that I found a whole bunch of people who had also felt the way I did – they also felt they never belonged.
I was suddenly struck with a choice – either I felt I never belonged because of various circumstantial factors (which quite frankly did not help) to do with my upbringing or because I was an alcoholic?
As I feel completely at home with other alcoholics this seemed to be the reason I felt that I had never belonged.
If you feel that you do not belong it may be because, like me, you haven’t found your society of like minded people.
People just like you. People who do not fit in naturally with the so-called “normal” world?
In fact when I look back on my early drinking at about 14 or 15 years old I remember alcohol giving me that warm euphoric glow which felt like someone had poured “love chemicals” into my blood.
I had a “spirit awakening” if you like, whereby I felt so much more comfortable in my own skin, relaxed, expansive, acting spontaneously without fear, connected more with other people, felt the warmth and camaraderie of my fellow human beings.
Alcohol allowed me to more fully join the human race.
I allowed myself via alcohol to belong temporarily, to attach to the warmth of others.
Then in cold sobriety these feelings would shrink and recede – until the next time.
But was the illusion.
For me the so-called euphoric recall contains that feeling of belonging, or not being desolately alone. But connected. In fact the spirituality of 12 step groups is about the connection with others in the same boat as yourself..
In later years when asked by my wife why I drank, I would answer “to get away from myself”; to escape me!
I found a surrogate home in AA, a learnt attachment. Like my own family it can be far from perfect at times, but it is here I belong ultimately, with my own.
Accepted completely for who I am.
Where I am free to be me.