Keeping it in “the I”

I’m an alcoholic, addict and codependent. My name is Bill.

When I came into the 12-step rooms, I was told several basic things: sit back, shut up and listen; don’t drink or drug between meetings, find a sponsor, work the steps, help others, and many more simple ways to find a sure footing on the path to recovery. I was not encouraged to share. My first sponsor told me that I didn’t really have anything worth hearing, and that unless I thought I was going to drink or drug that day to just sit back and listen on the unlikely chance that I might actually allow myself to learn something.

His logic was the following: early in sobriety, when we decide we’re going to share, we stop listening to other people and begin making up our speech in our heads. When we share (unless we’re in distress) we worry about what people will think about our sharing, so we probably aren’t spontaneous, open and honest anyway. Then, when we run down, having finally remembered that the meeting isn’t all about us, we spend our time thinking about what we said, whether the other people seem to be agreeing with it, and whether it impressed the cute person down the table. In any case, once we decide to impart our wisdom, we don’t hear much of the other folks’ experience, strength and hope, thus missing the whole point of the meeting.

I know whereof I speak. In my early years in the rooms I was Mr. Hot Shit. I’d been to arguably the best treatment center in the world, been a big star in the aftercare program, facilitated a recovery discussion group (at six months sober…hmmmph, snort), and had generally confused the idea of recovery with codependency and ego to the point of not hearing much of what anyone said, unless I thought it applied to me — and damned little of it did because my excrement was accumulated, folks!

The old timers just sat there, and smiled pleasantly, and nodded their heads occasionally — just the way I do now when the latest two-step hotshot begins sharing wisdom instead of experience.

As the years have passed and the desire to let everyone know what a guru I am has slowly receded, Bill’s policies with regard to sharing have begun to make more sense. He was a pretty good sponsor, even though he did fire me after about six months. Whether or not you (and your sponsor) practice this exercise of keeping your mouth shut and demonstrating your humility, you have to admit that Bill had several good points. Or not. Actually, you don’t have to admit a damned thing, but I wish you would.

Discussions about whether newcomers should be constantly sharing aside, there is one pertinent point about sharing that was drummed into me early on. I think it’s important to discuss it, because I see it being ignored right and left in the rooms nowadays, and over the years I have seen it cause many problems. The principle is “keeping it in the I,” and in order to get the point, we need to understand what sharing at a meeting is all about.

There are, essentially, two main reasons that we share (apart from massaging our egos). They are

  • because we are in major pain and are afraid we are going to go out and use; and
  • because we have had a problem similar to the one under discussion, and we believe that telling others about our experience might provide input that they can use to help come to their own conclusions.

That’s it. You will note that the word “advice” did not raise its ugly head. That’s because giving advice when we’re sharing is one of the quickest, surest ways to mark ourself as an egotist, and make sure that our sharing is pretty-much ignored. There are several reasons for that, all of which are clear to the people listening — including the advisee — but obviously aren’t to the adviser. If they were, we most likely wouldn’t be giving advice.

First of all, when it comes to giving advice, we don’t really know what we’re talking about. We don’t know the situation, the people involved, their history, the complexity of their relationships, or the whys and wherefores of the myriad issues that bear on the ones I’ve mentioned. We don’t know what their capacity for effecting change is, how much change is possible, or even whether the changes would be a good idea — they’re just our opinions.

Second — What if they listen, and do what we suggest, and it turns out we were wrong? Are we willing to take on the responsibility of having shot from the hip and caused someone even more problems?

Third — if you’re reading this, you’re most likely an alcoholic, addict, or codependent. Why else would you be reading it? Now, imagine that you’ve just been sharing at a meeting about a problem that is causing you deep pain. It might be your relationship, financial worries, illness or the illness or death of someone close. You might be suffering any number of the emotional and physical problems associated with early recovery. You might be contemplating suicide. You might be right on the edge of using, because you’re so miserable that you figure it couldn’t be any worse and it might make you feel better for a little while, at least.

What, then, would be your likely response to some character you barely know (if at all) listening to you, then looking you in the eye and telling you that “you need to,” or “you ought to,” or “you should” do…whatever? It’s quite likely to be something on the order of “Who is this clown to be giving me advice? If she’s so cool and together, why is she at this meeting? What makes him think that he knows enough about me and my problems to be telling me what to do? He’s just another bozo on the bus. F*%#& their F&*$#! advice!

I’m not saying this will happen every time; maybe not even most times, but it will happen in a significant number of cases. None of us — especially alcoholics, addicts and codependents — like to be told what we “should” be doing. We’ve been working on this problem for (hours, days, weeks…decades) and some clown thinks all the answers can be found in three minutes of listening and a few minutes of uninformed advice? Bullshit!

That, folks, is human nature. Human nature and common sense. Our advisee is quite right. We don’t know squat about the problem, so how can we give advice?

But, there is a way around this problem, dearly beloved. There is a simple way to not only sound like we know what we’re talking about, but also to help our fellow bozo get useful information and be in a frame of mind to listen and use it. We talk about what we do know: our own experience, strength and hope, and that’s all we talk about.

I don’t know what it’s like to be in your relationship, but I remember when mine almost went on the rocks because I was rapidly becoming a stranger to my partner after I stopped drinking and drugging. I know what I did, and I can tell you about it. The same is true of my financial problems, my desire to use drugs and drink in sobriety, my losses, my grief for loved ones now gone who I treated badly, my grief for myself and my “lost years.” Hell yes! I know all about those things — and you don’t, just like I don’t know about your stuff. But I can tell you about my problems, and how I solved them, and maybe — just maybe — you’ll hear something that will help you come to terms with yours.

Because when it comes to us drunks and druggies, the similarities are just as important as the differences, even if we don’t want to think so, and that’s how — and why — it works. We organize our thoughts by speaking them out loud, and then someone else tells us how she solved a similar problem.

That’s what “keeping it in the I” is about. Sharing my experience, strength and hope. Whenever the word “you” creeps into my sharing I need to take a quick change of direction, because I’m venturing onto dangerous ground. I need to stay with I, me, and occasionally we.

See, the point is, we all want to help one another in the rooms. Why handicap ourselves? It’s so easy to do it another way.

Thanks for letting me share.

1 thought on “Keeping it in “the I”

  1. isabella mori

    beautiful post, bill.

    someone once said, “anything that’s not an autobiography is not plagiarism”. there is great truth in it. we really don’t know very much at all, and what little we know is mostly about us.

    here’s an interesting point, though: while i agree with you 100% that “you should” rarely works, there is a certain hunger for hearing it. have you noticed that? at some level, people want to hear advice. i suspect it has something to do with thinking that, just like our parents, these people who dish out advice, care for us.

    but boy it feels so much more real when we just share our stories.

    all of this is an interesting challenge, btw, for me as a blogging counsellor. if you feel inclined to visit my site again, please feel free to point out where you feel i go overboard with not keeping it real. i can use the help!

    Hi Isabella,

    Thanks for your comments and the compliment.

    I agree completely that there is a desire in many cases for a “grownup” to make our decisions for us. My personal belief, however, is that advice should only be offered after careful consideration of the specific matter — seldom the kind that one finds in the midst of a meeting. Furthermore, I think people in recovery need to be guided in the direction of making their own decisions, so advice per se is usually not desirable. After all, isn’t recovery “growing up all over again”?

    And, of course, I’m speaking of meetings, not consultations with professionals.

    Incidentally, I love the title of that book. As a student of Buddhism I know the hungry ghost reference from both sides, and it certainly describes the tortured spirit of an active addict.

    Thanks again,


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.