Love & Death in Early Recovery

I can’t stand how I feel… so I met this guy and he drank like I did. We started on that dance of death like we do. – quote, AA speaker

The famous psychologist Sigmund Freud proposed the concept of Eros and Thanatos to account for the duality of human nature between the forces of life and death. Essentially, he offers the idea of a continuum from love to aggression, from creativity to destruction, from light to darkness. It is believed that human instincts fall somewhere on this continuum, with Eros driving us to welcome and nurture life, and Thanatos driving us toward fight or flight.

Eros is the life force within. It stands for love, beauty, fertility, and desire. The pleasure principle guides us to satisfy the powerful biological and psychological need to stay alive. Its function is to sustain life. We do this by seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, by taking care of ourselves. Also, we need and enjoy togetherness with others - to love, bond, and procreate. As we explore the world and move forward, we survive adversity. We pursue the joy of life, and we grow, mature, and heal in the process.

Thanatos on the other side, the death drive, accounts for the aggressive component of our nature. It is also important for our survival – it enables us to respond to fear, anxiety, and the sensation of tension. We do this by posturing, fighting, and defending against others, by becoming active in the presence of (real or imagined) danger. When negative thought patterns and anxieties take over, the impulse to reduce tension can turn into habitual resistance, avoidance, withdrawal, procrastination, and repetition. This happens when we become enslaved by compulsions and addictions.

An overwhelming percentage of addicts have become fear-based during a childhood of abandonment, abuse, and trauma – where the natural maturation process was disrupted, and carefree playfulness was replaced with survival skills like anger, aggression, defiance, and contempt. As a consequence priorities were confused and reversed – and so they cater to forces, which end up destroying them.

Some addicts don’t remember adverse childhood experiences, but still live with uncomfortable fears, insecurities, and a pervasive sense of hopelessness and helplessness, which leads to a generalized disinterest in “normal” human pursuits and endeavors. The ensuing desolate and inconsolable inner emptiness can also be expressed through artificially administered pain. Self-injurious actions produce tension release and communicate cognitions like, “I suffer. I bleed. Look at me! Feel with me!" And also the masochistic position, “I can take it. I’m strong. See what I can endure!” An added bonus is the triggered endorphin release, which produces a mild high as a life of emotional suffering gets self-medicated in order to make it bearable.

The addict fears life more than death. Dedicated to a peculiar distortion of the pleasure principle she tends to reduce life to physical concerns and sensual experiences. Addiction is a mental disorder where the pleasure principle has been compromised in such a way that seeking pleasure overrides the natural fear of death, and more importantly, the death drive is turned inward, where it is perverted into an auto-aggressive impulse. What this means is that eventually a lethal amount of euphoria-producing pains and poisons becomes desirable. Giving in to this impulse unduly, we withdraw from life, isolate from people, and our development ceases, while the protective fear of death gradually wanes.

When an alcoholic is exhausted and depleted from exclusive service to the death drive… she might want to give life another chance. However, when she attempts to awaken the life drive, she may find that the death drive is still operating in full force, opposing it, that she is dealing with a Thanatos-side that has become like an overgrown and overactive vicious beast within. This is when alcoholic ambivalence is activated, as in, “I need some dope while I’m kicking!” or “I’m fully prepared to pay ANY price!” meaning I must have some relief right now even if it defeats the purpose altogether. The death drive can also masquerade as cool indifference, as in “I don’t care (about the consequences).” On the verge of death an addict can fall back into vague ennui and arrogance, as in “I’m not sure I like the color of the life saver you’re throwing me or the way you’re doing it”…

Addicts in early recovery know that they have survived extremely difficult and exhausting times. Tension and anxiety levels are typically high. This is the time to stabilize and get some strength back. This is not the time to be loving and caring to others. Self-preservation comes first. Romantic and sexual involvements must necessarily be secondary, even though such endeavors may promise some tension relief, especially when one has been feeling deprived, needy, and lonely for a while. Acting out on this impulse can turn out to be self-defeating, when one hasn’t had a chance yet to build self-confidence, correct fear-based behavior patterns - and feels the need to own and control a partner who is also unstable. This can quickly get confusing, overwhelming, and explosive, and cause suffering to all involved - where one feels tempted to resign from a constructive life style altogether. As a result, the death drive might reactivate denial, illusion, and delusion – and with that, habitual tension relief with the help of mind-altering substances may appear irresistible again.

The challenge at this phase is the fact that life and death drive have become opposing forces (when normally they both serve life). The art of recovery then is about rekindling, nurturing, and encouraging the life drive back into power, while letting the death drive wither through inattention.

There is some work to be done. It takes a major psychic change to restore the lost balance between the forces of life and death. A process of re-covering an authentic sense of self must take place, where the truth is sought whole-heartedly and without reservations. Nothing else will do. Through willingness and courage to endure whatever it takes to become whole again, the recovering addict will eventually regain mental clarity and psychological stability, which is necessary for a meaningful and enjoyable life.

The spiritual path is suggested to aid reorientation. Mental constructs that further fear-based resistance, must be replaced with surrender to the Divine Forces of fate. Once this process is initiated, it requires one’s full life force to counterbalance habitual surrender to the drive for dissolution and destruction. Diversions during this critical phase may prove to be fatal. Alcoholics Anonymous offers a safety net, which serves the need to belong to a community for re-parenting and healing to occur. It’s about disengaging from defiance, befriending the world, and welcoming life. Through bringing love, understanding, and hope, transformation becomes possible, and that might end up to be a far better thing than one could ever imagine …

I try to remain active in this program and the dark, negative, crazy thing in my head goes away – quote, AA speaker