In the title of her book, Girlfriend of Bill, author Karen Nagy riffs on the time-honored public code for mutual AA recognition: “Are you a friend of [AA co-founder] Bill?” Nagy says she was unable to find any material written “specifically for someone who is new to such a relationship or who is thinking about dating someone in recovery.” So she wrote one, and the publishing arm of Hazelden brought it out. People in Hazelden-style recovery (Nagy calls them “PIRs”) can present challenges, since, as Nagy learned by dating several of them, stopping drinking or using is not necessarily the end of the matter.
Readers should know that the book is written from the perspective of a member of Al-Anon, who is also a firm believer in the 12 Steps. But if dating people who participate in AA or NA is not your thing, than Nagy suggests dating people from SMART recovery, Secular Organizations for Sobriety, church, mental health peer support programs, therapy groups, and so on. Her own experience, however, appears mainly limited to men in and out of 12-Step recovery programs.
While the controversial disease model of addiction continues to provoke heated debate, Nagy discovered that “knowing addiction is a disease has helped me to confront and get over my past prejudices about alcoholics and drug addicts, and to better understand why they might think, act, and react the way they do.”
“Change is tough for all of us,” says Nagy, “but it can be especially hard for an addict” because of the strong tendency to rationalize and resist needed change. Addicts, she adds, “are also known for ‘wanting it now,’ a trait that could be related to their brain chemistry and addictive cravings.” (Or, as non-practicing addict Carrie Fisher memorably put it, “instant gratification takes too long.”)
Her summation of the notion behind the AA/NA concept of a higher power is a common one these days: “Some might call their Higher Power God; others might define it as nature, the positive energy of their group, or an unnamed sense of spirit.” While that may sound naïve to some, what the addict must grasp is that white-knuckle notions of triumph through personal will may have to be abandoned along the way, if we are talking about chronic, active addiction. And she correctly points out that the AA Big Book is “written in an old-fashioned style that hearkens back to the 1930s,” when the amateur self-help group known as AA was founded.
It’s easy to forget that there are common experiences that most recovering addicts are heir to. “We who care about a Person in Recovery are also powerless over alcohol and drugs,” Nagy writes. “Try as we might—we can’t control whether or not the PIR uses them.” And non-addicts who are dating them might usefully be forewarned about such things, Nagy believes. In addition, “It can take months for an addict’s body to adjust to abstinence,” she writes. “Aches and pains are common in withdrawal, and so are digestive problems that can include constipation, diarrhea, and loss of appetite… sleep disorders can be a huge problem….”
Nagy also tips boyfriends and girlfriends to the widening and primarily generational dispute over the use of medications for craving or associated mental health disorders. “Believing ‘a drug is a drug is a drug,’ many old-timers in recovery resist taking medications, whereas younger People in Recovery are more open to taking them if they need them.”
Addicts new to recovery may be coming off a period of social isolation, and a sense of being cut off from others. Nagy advises that a summary knowledge of the 12 Steps can be helpful, in particular the business about “making amends” to people one has harmed. Forgiveness is a touchy and ongoing bit of business. It never hurts to say you’re sorry, if in fact you are. Or to say it again.
Perhaps the single most common complaint takes the form of jealousy or irritation: Why is the Person in Recovery spending so much time with those other people, rather than with me? Aren’t I “supportive” enough? Nagy views the essence of AA/NA as a “spirituality of companionship—friends accompanying friends, helping, sharing, daring, celebrating, or grieving.” In the end, Nagy believes, “it’s not about religion; it’s about connection.”