When I was in my early teens, my mother’s boyfriend told me I was aloof.
I was horrified to hear that. I didn’t want to appear aloof. I desperately wanted to be popular. But I felt socially awkward. I didn’t feel like I fit in.
When I got older, I decided that I preferred to be alone. It was easier than being with people. Being with other people wore me out. Trying to think of things to say was exhausting. I longed to escape to a mountaintop or a book or just to be alone with my own thoughts.
At the same time, I was lonely. I had a rich fantasy life that revolved around a mysterious soul mate, who would one day discover the beautiful person I was inside and love me and make me feel whole.
My soul mate would be handsome and wear sweaters. He and I would drink coffee at the edge of the lake a sunrise, take long walks through the woods in fall, read the Sunday paper on lazy Sunday mornings. We never had to talk.
In Al-Anon, I discovered that I’m not alone in this. Many of my fellow Al-Anons, particularly those who grew up in the disease, have what we often refer to as “a tendency to isolate.”
It’s not very mysterious. Like most of my character defects this tendency began as a self-defense mechanism. If I don’t let you get close, you won’t hurt me. If I don’t let you inside, you’ll never know how hollow and rotten it is in there.
So my relationships were a combination of holding you at arm’s length or creating just enough drama to keep you there. Until I got too scared and I blew the whole thing up. Because if I was the one to leave, you couldn’t leave me.
Not long ago, my husband and I attended the wedding of a friend I have known for maybe a dozen years. She was a bridesmaid at our wedding. She told my husband that she used to pour her guts out to me.
“Do you know what I got back?” she asked. “Nothing. I got nothing. Kathy never told me a thing.”
What she said shocked me, but I had to admit it was true. I gave nothing away. Not even to my closest friends.
I took that with me into Al-Anon, and hung on to it for a long time. People would say they found friendships and love in the program. I didn’t know what they meant. I found help, yes. But that magical feeling of fraternity eluded me.
Until I got involved.
I put off service work until I got to step 12. I am, after all, a commitment-phobe. I didn’t mind helping, I just didn’t want to commit to it.
Once I took a service commitment, everything changed. My schedule had changed and the meeting that I would be most likely to attend regularly was a new meeting for me. But it was clear it should be my home group, so I started there.
I started with set up, because I’m compulsively early and because it would give me something to do. I wouldn’t have to talk to anybody. Only when people saw me setting up, they’d ask me questions because I looked like I knew something. So I’d try to be useful.
Next, I decided to really push my boundaries and be a greeter. Of course, I felt shy and awkward, but I remembered how the greeters in my former home group hugged everyone that came in. I remembered how that made me feel, and decided I would do the same.
I’m not afraid to admit I was more than a little nervous about it. My new home group wasn’t a huggy bunch. But I called people by name and hugged them and, to my surprise and delight, they responded warmly. Before long, they were hugging me.
Each time service commitments came up, I picked something different. Before long, the group representative was asking my opinion about things. I realized I finally felt a part of things. Each Monday night, I walked in and felt welcome by people who really did seem to care about me.
Of course, faith played a part. As I started to fill up that God-sized whole with my higher power and stopped trying to fill it with another person, I naturally lost interest in selfish things, just as the Big Book promised. I became interested in other people. I sought out the newcomers. I tried to be useful. Like everything else, that new attitude has bled into the rest of my life, and what a difference it’s made.
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