As infants, we thrived on pleasure: eating, sleeping, being cuddled, touched, looked at with love. These things satisfied inborn needs, and we were always in control, usually contented, and immediately satisfied if we were not. As we got older we looked for this satisfaction and contentment in other ways, the pleasure of running and playing, delight in our playmates, the scary thrill of discovering that we weren’t really part of our parents, but individuals with our own abilities.
Still, as children we depended on the steady support of our caregivers.
In early adolescence we began to separate from our parents and seek our support elsewhere. We made lifelong friends, tried out relationships, discovered that we could be self-sufficient, and began to put on the trappings of adults. Eventually we segued into mature, functional partnerships with equals of the opposite sex, started families, and continued the cycle.
That’s the way it’s supposed to work, but for many of us (and practically all addicts) the process was interrupted. We may have been raised by parents who were too busy with their own lives to give us the care, nurturing and love that we needed. They may have perpetuated a pattern of varied abuses that was ingrained by their own parents. There may have been chronic illness in the family — perhaps a sibling or other person who got much of the attention that we needed. They may have lacked the emotional maturity to allow us to separate, and instead smothered us with unneeded care and prevented our learning to satisfy our own needs in mature ways.
For whatever reasons, we may not have gotten the kind, loving, caring, approving upbringing that is only possible for healthy, committed parents. Some of us were left wanting, and instead of experiencing the love and nurturing of childhood, moved on into physical adulthood still longing for those unfulfilled needs to be met.
We may have met them in various ways: alcohol and drugs, eating disorders, sex and relationship addictions, compulsive sexual activity, shopping, etc. — all of them unsuccessful efforts to fill up that void left from childhood. Emotionally healthy people fill it with knowledge of and satisfaction with who they are, and the love, approval and pleasures of adulthood are merely icing on the cake, not the filling.
For those of us whose cakes never made it out of the oven, the only place we know to look for that filling is outside ourselves, in people and things that can never provide what we need in the ways that we need it because we don’t yet understand or believe that the healing must occur in our hearts, not our bellies.
Recovery is about learning healthy ways of filling up that empty place. It’s about discovering the love and approval of our peers, and clearing away the ghosts in our closets so that we can finally learn to love ourselves in real, nondestructive ways. There are many paths out of our dilemma, but whichever we choose will take us into uncharted, frightening territory. We need guidance, and allies to accompany us down that long — but no longer lonesome — road.
That’s what the fellowship of recovery is all about.