December 14, 2012

Empathy: A necessary ingredient

A friend recently told me that I lack empathy. She also hinted that, since I am male, the problem might be endemic, if not incurable. In the old days, and certainly during my drinking days, such a comment would have prompted me to become defensive at best, abusive at my worst.

Not so today. Today, the comment simply prompted me to take stock.

I’ve spent most of my adult life writing, editing, studying, and teaching the English language, so the word “empathy” isn’t foreign to me. At the outset, however, I struggled to understand how my actions communicated a lack of empathy. So, like any good high school student asked to understand an abstraction, I clicked over to and re-read the definition of the word empathy: “Theintellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.”

Concerning the matter at hand—the particulars of which really and truly are not relevant here—I was guilty as charged. As a 50-something American male born at the tail end of the Baby Boom, there was no way in hell I was going to intellectually identify with or vicariously experience the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of a 40-something American female. She was absolutely right; I didn’t get it. So, I promptly went to work making amends. After numerous text messages, two hours of Christmas shopping, and a promise to cook dinner on Saturday night, the air between us was—if not clear— at least less cloudy. We both agreed, in the end, it was not difficult to understand why I am twice divorced and living alone.

I can joke about the matter now, but at the time, the criticism hit particularly hard. Not because it so accurately characterizes my long-term inability to live well with others, but rather because empathy is the very word I associate with the people I admire most in sobriety: Men like my sponsor and his cronies, men who—whatever character defects they may still endure and find it necessary to work on—never, ever fail to have empathy for the still suffering alcoholic.

And by still suffering, I don’t necessarily mean those alcoholics who have not yet found a path to recovery. More often than not, I mean those alcoholics who suffer before our very eyes. In many cases, the still suffering alcoholics are those who come in and out of meetings on a consistently irregular basis and never manage to embrace the simple kit of spiritual tools laid at their feet. They are close at hand, yet very far away.

These are the people for whom I cannot fail to have empathy—as distinct from shallow pity or even sympathy. I can’t help but feel their pain because I have had their experience and know what a horrible and frustrating journey they’re on. For the first seven years that I came around the tables, I was just as likely to leave a meeting and drink as I was to go home and call my sponsor or read the Big Book. Surrender simply wasn’t in the cards, though I’d already endured a healthy dose of desperation.    

Alcoholics slip away from sobriety long before they have a slip. The warning signs of an alcoholic’s imminent departure from the fellowship are all too easy to identify and equally easy to ignore or rationalize away. In my early attempts at sobriety, whenever I felt the need to change my regular meeting schedule, to ditch or upgrade my sponsor, to read anything rather than read the Big Book, or to find fault with the steps, I was clearly headed for a relapse. This pattern played itself out the same way at nearly three years of sobriety as it did at three weeks. I simply decided I could not surrender my liberty to drink no matter how good my life had become and no matter how much I loved the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous.

In recent months, I’ve watched more than a handful of people gradually fade away from the program only to drink and then return to meetings, drink and return, drink and return, and drink and return yet again, just as I had done so many years ago. In the even sadder cases, I’ve spoken to those alcoholics who leave the program to drink and report back how wonderful their lives are despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary—evidence so overwhelming they don’t even need a forest or its trees.  

It troubles me most, however, when I hear those who are fortunate enough to stay sober boldly judge those who have left. “He wasn’t working a program anyway,” some say, or, “She found her new higher power—a boyfriend who tells her she isn’t alcoholic because he’s a drunk himself.” I’ve heard more; I’ve heard worse. What I don’t hear often enough is, “I pray they make it back. So many don’t.” 

I know from my own experience that it was only a matter of one or two drinks before I began longing for the experience, strength, and hope of those I’d left behind in the program. I also know that it was foolish pride and fear of judgment that kept me from coming back sooner than I did. Luckily, when pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization destroyed me, I was welcomed back unconditionally by those whose empathy for the still suffering alcoholic never wavers … and the naysayers wisely kept their distance.

Every year around my sobriety birthday my sponsor and I meet for dinner to assess the year gone by and to map out goals for the year to come. Almost every year, he reminds me that the longer we stay sober, the narrower the path becomes and that no matter how secure we may feel, we’re still alcoholics with alcoholic minds that are always plotting ways to escape Alcoholics Anonymous. Without a spiritual defense and a daily reprieve, I’m just as likely to leave the path and drink as I am to stay on it. Passing judgment on, or failing to have empathy for, the still suffering alcoholic isn’t likely to fortify my spiritual defense.

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I’ve been around long enough to know there isn’t much I can do for an alcoholic who chooses to leave Alcoholics Anonymous and do what we do best and most naturally—which is to drink and to drink with a passion. The risk for newcomers is particularly high at this time of year when so many of us would like to believe once more that we are not mentally or physically different from our fellows, that things surely will be different this time. And for a time, probably a short time, things might be different. But if they are alcoholics of my type, they’ll quickly experience the progressive reality of our disease, and things will ultimately get much worse. I only hope that if and when they return, I can be there to greet them with empathy and neither ignore my own past nor close the door on it.

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