Intimacy in Addiction and Recovery


The addiction process so empties some of us that we cease being a person. Having lost any semblance of boundaries, hugging us is like trying to hug smoke. Only a masked ghost of our former selves, we exist only as a drug-consumption machine dragging along whatever whisper of our former self that remains. We devolve to a simple organism that has only one function in life—to seek and consume the elixirs that are now the center of our existence. We can no longer assert or protect the self except in service to the drug. The self is empty and its psychological boundaries are now permeable and invisible.   

For others, protecting the addiction master requires developing rigid boundaries and impenetrable characterological armor. Hugging us is like trying to hug a porcupine. Completely hidden from others, we become similarly unknown to ourselves. To encounter us is to be repelled. We devolve into little more than mechanisms of defense: pushing people away with machinations of rationalization, intellectualization, overcompensation, projection of blame, black-white thinking, or hostility.

These two patterns share an integrating core: the loss of self and the lost capacity for intimate relationships. The extremes of this experience vary by our pre-addiction lives and by the severity and duration of our addiction careers.

Recovery, depending on our style of adaptation within the addiction experience, involves either forging or loosening boundaries on the journey to reconstructing ourselves. This process of character and identity reconstruction can be an intimidating if not terrifying experience, but the tasks typically unfold slowly across the stages of recovery.

Each stage of recovery entails an unfreezing and refreezing of the personal defense structure that once supported addiction. The critical issue in this change process is that of pacing. If unfreezing is too rapid, we become overwhelmed and the risk for addiction recurrence rises rapidly. If the unfreezing is too slow, we remain rigid and aggressively project our character armor in ways some depict as a “dry drunk” even when we remain free from drug use. In the two styles described above, the former challenge is to develop and assert boundaries and the latter challenge is to relax one’s defenses. Both require careful pacing and are essential to increasing our capacity for healthy intimate relationships.

A community of shared experience and vulnerability can facilitate growth in recovery. If we are diligent but patient, this will unfold over years, long after the cessation of drug use and long after the disengagement of professionals that may have helped us initiate recovery. For some of us, the time of greatest need of professional support may be after recovery initiation and stabilization. At that point, the question is not how to get into recovery. The questions instead are how to fill the “hole in the soul” once filled by drugs and how to relate to others without the filtering balm of such substances.

Perhaps most difficult is restructuring relationships that span addiction and recovery. Dr. Stephanie Brown and colleagues have eloquently described the “trauma of recovery” that families can experience during the transition between these two states. Intimate and family relationships that have absorbed all manner of drug insults during the addiction years but somehow survived are at risk of disintegration during the early recovery years if scaffolding of support is lacking to restructure relationship roles, responsibilities, rules, and rituals. A community of others in recovery and varied helping professionals can provide such scaffolding. 

Each of us brings a unique capacity for intimacy—a capacity commonly depleted through the addiction experience. Recovery offers the promise that with time and support such potential can be retrieved and expanded.