The Core Suffering and Dilemma of the Nine in Recovery
You see the Type Nine—the peacemaker, the easy-going, self-effacing type—sitting at an AA meeting, initially withdrawn and distant, but with a little time clean and sober, a sort of likable, relaxed, I-won’t-bother-you-character, emerges. Gentle, kind, unobtrusive. Not quick to speak, and not wanting attention. Quiet. Humble. Unassuming. Considerate. Shunning loud and abrasive sharing. Occasionally emitting a smile, sweet and tender. Yes, at his best, when he’s present, you’ve got your own Mr. Rogers in your meeting, and such a blessing this is to everyone. There are enough gruff, ill-mannered, self-indulgent, loud mouthed, ego-bragging recovering alcoholics to go around (well, that is the nature of addiction), and without the Nine cooling the waters you’re just in another bar except there’s no booze flowing, only egos that are not fuel-injected. Believe me, you can still be a complete drunk without picking up a drink, and the Nine is there to de-ego people.
Yet, with closer insight, one senses that a great deal is going on beneath the surface. One wonderful Nine said it this way: “I’m sitting in recovery group and it appears as if I’m listening. But actually, I’m often off in my imagination constructing a cozy hobbit hole where I am comfortable, stockpiling this inner refuge with all the stuff that makes me feel good. I’m remembering those good times, my favorite times, reliving the positive moments, the positive times with friends, lovers, family, taking in only the positive impressions of the past like a wonderful visual drink. All is well. No one knows this but myself. It’s what I do to avoid the more horrific feeling that at any moment this peace can come undone, a tidal wave of disorder can disrupt me and annihilate me. My ability to preoccupy myself with my imagination is the tool I use to keep my personal suffering at bay. There, everything is fine with my family and kids, nothing has been lost, there are no fights, my drinking hasn’t harmed anyone, there’s no crazy behavior that I can remember. All of this I magically edit without even thinking about it.”
There is also a vigilance, a watchfulness the Nine embodies, quietly, secretly checking to see if any unwanted intruders or circumstances are approaching. Although sometimes appearing sleepy and distant, this watchfulness does not subside. It’s like a cat resting sleepily, eyes closed, but completely wired and present to any sounds or stirrings around him. He’s so quiet you don’t even see him as he blends into the woodwork of other recovering souls in the room. It’s the Nine’s fundamental strategy to stay safe. I see the danger before I become victim to it. I shapeshift into a quiet stream of nothingness so even the air I breathe is not disturbed.
And one day, as soft as quiet wind on your face, you arrive and notice that the Type Nine has disappeared from meetings, left the playing field of recovery. The gentle presence gently left. He is hardly noticed. Where did he go? What happened? Later investigation will reveal these facts. “I forgot to show up for my counselor’s meeting. I made a list of recovery meetings that I was going to attend, but I forgot about them. I don’t know why. I was going to see my sponsor today but I spaced it out. And I completely forgot what happens when I drink. How’d that happen? It’s like the knowledge that would scare the shit out of regarding my drinking got deleted from my memory tracks.”
This sleepy forgetfulness is typical of the Nine in early recovery, and surprisingly typical in later recovery. The baseline sleeping pill of the Nine: “I just forget what is critical to my growth and development. I flow with the stream of things, hide or get lost in the waves of the moment where I am not detectable, to myself or others, such that fifteen years sober, I have not ruffled the waves, and in fact, cannot feel my own existence. It’s like I become a vacant lot inside myself. It is then that partners abandon me (in my imagination I thought we were fine), friends tire of me, my connections with others lose vitality because I can’t show up as a full-feeling, individual in the matrix of my own life. In fact, spouses and friends often want to shake me to see if I’m home, if I’ve got any juice, spine, aliveness, fire, or individual perspective. As in, Dude, do you ever get angry? Does anything move you? At year five, ten, fifteen of my recovery, when personal losses occur, when my unconscious strategy to avoid being disturbed actually causes the disturbance I wish to avoid—disruption and abandonment—my addiction slips quietly up my soul stream and takes me over. Maybe it’s done so from the very start of my recovery after breaking thru the chains of drug addiction, when overeating, shopping, indulging in fantasy dreams, finding comfort systems that fill in for my real existence become my bargaining tool for avoiding any further contact with my real and felt sense of myself.” (We know this happens with all the types, they stop one addiction and pick up another, almost instantly.)
One very present and spiritually-seasoned Nine put it this way: “Like all the types, I began my recovery by finally dipping into the real, allowing myself to feel both my internal and external disturbances. I learned I can handle this. I felt an initial aliveness that was liberating. And then I discovered that I found a new, improved ‘automatic pilot,’ a new pattern of survival that allows my newly awakened ‘real awareness’ to slip beneath the waves. A newly formed automatic pilot sneaks in, steps into the driver’s seat, and I fall back to sleep. I start to disappear from real engagement with others, while having a better act, a more functional act, that makes me look like I’m really engaging. As I cheerily proclaim how great recovery is, my inner life is reverting to its default… numbness and disconnection, the very suffering that I drank over. It’s so challenging to spot this habit, this mechanism of my ego-personality.
Remember this if you can (you can’t—forget about it—you need wise men around you to keep you awake!): every new awakening, stretching you into new openness and vulnerability and humility—which feels really good—is followed by a new, slippery version of “I’m sound asleep just wearing different clothes” mechanism, in which one unconsciously steps away from one’s new found aliveness (it’s hard to stay present to the next arising moment) while imagining one is still open and present. All the types do this. Sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly. It’s human. We learned it as kids to survive. Just need to know this is what happens in recovery. Our well-honed survival habits don’t disappear because we’ve had a few months (or few years) of opening our hearts. These are the survival habits that are doing push-ups in the parking lot while we attend another recovery meeting. Now you look like a person in recovery, you say the right lines, you take the right ‘recovery’ actions but you’ve managed to find a new form of ‘showing good recovery face’ and unconsciously drop back into a newly anesthetized, numb-my-real-life mode. This pattern is insidious, and unless you know of its existence you will succumb, and so many do. In fact, this habit of falling back asleep is the real addiction one is challenged to navigate and master. This fundamental principle applies: You grow or you go.
Deep Wound/Relapse Pattern of the Type Nine—feeling disconnected from my felt-sense of peace with those I care for, I use my imagination to create a undisturbed imagined-peace. I disconnect from others imagining I’m connected. Key Commandment: To be loved and lovable and not banished into non-existence you must be at peace, and you must create peace for those around you. Deep Wish—to feel deeply connected with self and those around me, to trust life, to feel its warm embrace, to sense the deep peace that abides in me. He sees himself—as peaceful, easy going, unaffected by life, down to earth, able to soothe others. At Level 4 and below—I begin to disengage, to go along with the wishes of others, to feel particularly vulnerable to any kind of conflict, to lose contact with my inner stability and groundedness. Avoiding conflict begins to take my attention. I sink beneath the surface of life to avoid being affected by life. My Emotional Habit is sloth. In response to overwhelming fear I unconsciously numb myself, tune myself out, and stop sensing what I care about. In fact, I often feel exhausted when moving towards something I care about, or I simply lose the thread of my passion. I unconsciously live on a thin band of emotional response to keep myself peaceful. My heart-light turns way down. My Mental Habit isRumination or Daydreaming. I get addicted to the flow of thoughts, my imagination, chewing on things that don’t galvanize me or move in the direction of what I care about. I unconsciously avoid those thoughts that would move me to action, that would light up my very real curiosity, and get lost in the machinations of unimportant thoughts and considerations. Any thoughts that pertain specifically to my own arising and aliveness get lost in the sea of unimportant thougths. My Inner Critic tells me that I am nobody special, that I don’t deserve to take up the time and energy of others, that my job is to simply keep things peaceful for others, to not let on that I exist and have personal passions that matter to me. Stay unnoticed, then you are good and lovable…and safe!
A.H. Almass describes the very real power of the ego personality in these words:
“The personality will do anything in its power to preserve its identity and uphold its domain. This tendency – or, let’s say, this need – is so deep, so entrenched, so completely the fabric of our identity, that only the person who has gone a long way toward establishing the essential life will be able to apprehend and appreciate this. This need is in our flesh, blood, bones even our atoms. The power of the personality is so great, so immense, so deep, so subtle that the person who contends with it for a long time will have to give it its due respect. Its power is awesome. Its subtlety is unimaginable. Its intelligence is limitless.” (from Giving the Personality Its Due Respect, by A.H. Almass)
Protective Mechanism of the Nine—You will not affect me nor will you see me
The Nine’s protective mechanism is to not let life affect him, intrude upon him, or disturb his inner peace by not paying attention to what is disturbing. When in conflict he thinks about comforting things, he distracts himself with thoughts and images that don’t activate or disturb him. It’s as if everything slides past him, rather than landing and registering inside him. His safety depends on his ability to avoid being affected by events and people that evoke conflict—the dreaded ‘C’ word—so he retreats to an inner world we call his Inner Sanctum, a kind of internal cathedral consisting of all the impressions of experiences he’s collected that have soothed him, settled him down, made him feel at ease, or gracefully numbed him out. Having a difficult time with his wife, well, he’s got an internal repository of positive memories about her from those times when they were doing well, an inner video library that he can select from, like pulling a DVD from the historic library of his mind, he can, when needed, experience the ‘good’ wife whenever he wants to. Never mind the grouchy one!
The wife on the outside, in real life, might be a first rate pain in the neck to him, but not to worry, he’s hanging out with his ‘inner’ wife and all is well. He so loves her, and hey, what conflicts are you talking about, we’re doing great, why would you possibly want to go to couples counseling, we’re good, he replies, while his ‘real’ wife glares at him, wanting contact with something real in him, wanting on some level to shake him awake. In fact, his real wife sometimes feels more imaginary to him than the one he’s constructed in his imagination. In place of his substance abuse he’s become addicted to his soothing imagination-impressions and now drinks them for solace. In time, after suffering many losses due this his habit of disappearing under stress, he will relapse for certain, as it is only a matter of time before real life cracks into his Inner Sanctum. Tommy the T-bone—as counselor Dominic calls him—came to men’s group because his wife was demanding that he have one real, intimate conversation with her, or she was leaving him. This got his attention especially since this was his second marriage and he’d heard this ultimatum before. After nine months slip by in group, one of the men notices he hasn’t talked about this, or anything else of personal relevance, as in, “Tommy, what’s really going on in your life?” which Andrew, the gorilla-like Eight, asks, voice gruff, husky and piercing as in ’give me the straight talk and nothing less.’ You see Tony has that smooth-as-silk Nine skill of deflecting attention even with these experts of bullshit detection, so able to sit still as a stone and not be seen, his emotional house on fire but disassociated from while he hangs out in the basement of his awareness watching inner videos of The Waltons. In this case it took nine months for these guys to notice him. Not bad amongst men whose bullshit detectors are faster than a speeding bullet.
Tommy replies, “Everything is great. Everything, really, really great,” a smile gleaming from his face, he looking like a joyful, innocent nine-year-old, no ill-intention to be found anywhere (who could get angry with that face!) while his eyes flicker subtle signals of trepidation (Uh oh, this guy is coming after me.). Pressed on the validity of his everything-is-great-life, he gives up a few secrets, hoping this offering will be enough to stop further interrogation, saying gingerly, “Well, she did call me a racist pig last week, but I know she was having a bad day.” A perky, non-convincing smile flickers back at the men, while the jaws of eight men simultaneously drop to the floor. And Andrew the Eight, his instinctual radar registering a fantastic lie, says firmly, “Tommy, what the hell kind of Kool-Aid are you drinking, bro? Something laced with Valium? Geez Louise, she called you a racist pig. Dude, she is freaking furious with you. That’s a slam dunk that says don’t even think of getting close to me. Does she have to grab you by the ball-sack to get your attention? She’s asking for a response, insulting you to see if there is any life in you, and you sit there like white bread, smiling back at her? That’s what you do with us, bro, exactly the same! It’s a really subtle way of saying F.U. while smiling back at us. It’s maddening!”
Andrew the Eight takes a breath, aware he’s getting amped up, lie-detecting-fury rising in his spine and now entering his fists which he’s unconsciously clenched, furious that he’s been duped for nine months, lulled to sleep by Tommy’s excellent snake-charming trick. He continues. “So, if things are so-o-o-o great, when was the last time you had sex?” Tony searches his memory banks, the pressure of the Type Eight bearing down on him like a laser, and replies, “Well, it’s been a month. She’s been having a hard time and I’ve been trying to not upset her more,” he says, boy-like innocence flickering in his eyes again. Meaning…at home he’s walking on eggshells so he’s not pushing the sex agenda and deftly dodging this reality by imagining that his avoidance is an act of kindness and peace, that he doesn’t want to cause his wife further suffering—when in fact he is freaking terrified. Andrew, now up on the edge of his seat, his eyes black bullets of truth and intensity, is not buying it and quickly responds to Tony’s bullshit-deflect-the-question-I’m-just-being-a-peaceful-and-loving-guy ploy. “I can’t feel an ounce of truth coming from you. You know that, don’t you? You probably haven’t had sex for 6 months, right?” Tony, a flush of embarrassment filling his cheeks with bright crimson, looks down at the floor. Bingo! He’s been read and found out, and sputters to explain himself. Shame cuts the air, thick and sorrowful and heavy, the shame-knife hanging from his heart. This is exactly what he tries to avoid so desperately, this sense that he has created conflict and disturbed the inner peace. God forbid!
Still on it and ramping up with intensity at discovering something false, Andrew the Eight says, “Okay, man, you came here because your wife demanded you have an intimate conversation with her. Remember, that’s what you told us. How’s that going?” his question sharp and bristling with impatience. Tony ponders a minute, head down, hands in his lap, and then starts in, “Well, she got furious the other day and I left the house. I got in the car and began to drive, and as I drove, I had a conversation with her. She spoke, I spoke, she spoke, I spoke, and 30 minutes later we’d resolved it. We were friends again,” he says, his eyes full of redemptive hope. Andrew looks back at him, face coiled in a question mark. “So, where was she during this conversation?” Tony perks up, “Oh, she was at home.” Andrew’s eyes magnify and darken, a dragon of disbelief flaring inside him, and says, “Dude, that does not qualify as an intimate conversation. That’s you in your damn imagination dreaming you had a conversation and mistaking it for real. No wonder you haven’t been laid in 6 months. Do you see that?”
Tony’s eyes fall again to the floor. He knows no better. Sober five years, people in recovery know him as a kind and decent man, which he is, he wouldn’t hurt a flea. What they are unaware of is just how often he lives in his Inner Sanctum, how he seamlessly and invisibly slips into this cave in the face of conflict, how he can put on a happy, puppy-dog face when he is terrified or god forbid angry, and how distant he is from real contact with folks in recovery. He can recite the lines, he can do the steps, he can be a dutiful recovering alcoholic and please his sponsor, he can sponsor other men and at the same time, can totally not be home. I repeat: Not…be…home. As one Nine put it, the lights are on but no one is home, and frankly I like it that way.
Andrew and the group members are visibly shocked at what they have witnessed, this vulnerable unveiling of Tony’s retreat pattern. With heart-filled compassion they ask how they can help him. Tony stands at a perilous ledge of transformation, with what feels like an alligator-filled-quarry waiting below him. His annihilation is certain. This is no opportunity but an encounter with death. He listens but can’t really reply, is so flustered, can’t find words—what were we talking about, I can’t remember—his mind fogged and details lost, the shame an iron hand tightening around his throat. Others sooth him, reminding him that this is an opportunity to see a pattern that keeps him closed off to others, that he is cared about, hang in there, man. At best, he mutters, “I just can’t express my anger. I feel so selfish when I do. I don’t want to upset anyone,” and his words trail off in a grief-hidden silence to some distant place of familiar despair. Group ends and Tony leaves the room, sheepish yet cheerful. Man, he can pull cheerful out of nowhere.
And…he never returns to group.
In his Nine fashion he’s delivered the message, quietly and silently: “Do not mess with me.” The downside of not allowing life or people to affect you is that no one gets inside you and gets to know you, nor can help you, not even yourself. One remains a sort of invisible person, a wraith or phantom. If one always appears easy-going as Tony did, has no feathers that ruffle, appears to glide seamlessly around and under events, then what is seen is a constructed vehicle of no-response-peaceful-nothingness. You stay invisible to avoid conflict and your invisibility causes conflict. People get affected by your non-presence and in fact, your non-presence ruffles feathers in ways you don’t plan for and surely don’t want! Not to mention the war you create inside yourself, resisting your anger and your wish to show up in the world.
In addiction recovery, this Nine style is an important hurdle to be overcome. Here’s what happens for the Nine: they sit at meetings, never complaining, or reacting, or sharing their particular truth, and people think the Nine is doing fine and doesn’t need help. Underlying all of this is a fundamental childhood message that rules this quiescent behavior: It’s not okay to be seen, or to stand out. Better to stay invisible and unseen. Better to go along with other’s wishes, desires, and commands than to cause upset or turmoil for anyone, or do anything that might disturb their peace, or bring attention to oneself. You don’t really matter. Your presence doesn’t matter. With this message etched deeply into the Nine’s psyche, the idea of asking for help is fiercely dangerous. Better to appear to go along with others, to appear as if one is at peace with those around oneself, to appear as though you only need the slightest of help, if any. Appearing to be at ease with everything also fulfills the deeper desire of not being messed with or intruded upon. And why would anyone want to intrude on the Nine when they appear to be so peaceful and in agreement with those around him. No need for concern, all is well, better than well. They can be safely left alone and unattended to.
But what is the Type Nine feeling in early recovery? What’s on their insides? Many report a sense of deep anxiety, the sense that their comfortable world has dissolved and they are racing as fast and invisibly as they can to establish a new sense of inner stability, to feel as though they’ve got things back in place, that there is a routine to their life that is working, all the while projecting the image of being peaceful and at ease. And ironically, angry at those who are trying to get them to stop self-destructing, as in, “Why don’t they just leave me alone. I’m fine!” Talk about a high wire, balancing act. And yet here they are at AA or NA meeting or in a support group surrounded by grumpy, unpredictable recovering strangers who speak out, sometimes blunt as birth, sometimes crude and rough and threatening, mostly edgy and not peaceful, and the Nine is supposed to enter this dangerous chaos? Fat chance, dawg! More likely, instead of focusing on themselves and what they need to do to stay clean and sober, they are lying low not wanting to wake up a hornet’s nest in the room while they ruminate in their Inner Sanctum, dreaming about loved one’s at home, the son, the daughter, the girlfriend, the spouse. While their body is at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, they are with their family in their imagination, or chewing on comfortable thoughts like wouldn’t it be nice to drink as a diversion to feeling their anxiety.
It is a most difficult time. Discomfort crawling up and down their spine, their sense of safety and security severely threatened or destroyed, they put on the mask of “the calm one” while their insides freak out and the deep loss of disconnection with loved ones’ churns just outside the confines of their inner sanctum, trying to break into the delusion tunnel they are hiding themselves in. Internally they are a mess, a mess that does not want to reveal itself to self or other, that wants to reconstruct the peaceful façade immediately, both externally and internally. So, with survival instincts alive and well, nothing spontaneous is going to pour from them. No fast moves. They are working full-time to maintain a fabricated harmony. They are careful to stay in a low key, laid back, easy-does-it, just-out-of-sight framework so as to not wake up sleeping devils, even if those sleeping devils reside inside them and must be awakened for them to grow and survive. Stay calm, stay calm, make no waves, things will return to normal.
And yet they are sitting on a ready-to-erupt Mount Vesuvius, the peace that they have yearned for having come completely undone by their substance use. Their attempt at unifying with those they love via their imagination has utterly failed. In their mind they are running unity scripts, making plans, holding up the hope that they can return to their dissolved life and establish the unity they so long for without actually doing the recovery work—the 12 Steps, getting a sponsor or coach, letting themselves be seen, working with a therapist, uncovering internal dead bodies of suffering that they’ve numbed to sleep—and waking up their innate capacity and right to be here. In the midst of these scripts they can silently disappear from the room…quiet as a whisper.