Getting selfish to get sober?

In recovery, we’re always flirting with the idea of selfishness. There are the worried mothers wondering if it’s “selfish” to leave their kids at home during a meeting. There are old-timers who claim to be at the meeting “selfishly” - not for your sobriety, but for theirs. There are the chronic relapsers who state that they couldn't stay sober for someone else - not for family, friends, or their partner. Rather, their reasons had to be “selfish.”

The notion of selfishness confuses me. It took about thirty seconds in an introductory philosophy class before I stopped believing in whatever the opposite of selfishness is - selflessness, I suppose. Selfishness to me is intrinsic to being human, to experiencing first-hand the consequences of our own actions. We cannot help but pursue consequences that we deem “good,” whether in the short- or long-term, and attempt to avoid those we call “bad.” Yes, occasionally we call the feeling of self-sacrifice “good,” and our own pleasure “bad.” But this is still quite neatly selfish. Martyrs we are not. At least, that's what I think.

And that's where my mind goes when people in a meeting start worrying about selfishness. When they ask questions like, “Is that selfish?" "Am I selfish?" "Does this program require me to be selfish?”

If they replaced the word “selfish” with “shellfish,” it would make just as much sense to me - and be a whole lot funnier.

“I had to get sober for me. I couldn’t get sober for anyone else.” I hear that said a lot. I hear it said that getting sober “for others” “doesn’t work.” Intuitively, I’ve always agreed with this; I’ve nodded along, even though I don't think it's possible to do something "for others" without also doing it for ourselves.

I think we are using simple language to mask complex meanings. This example, I think, captures the difference we're really talking about:

#1 I got sober to get my mom off my back.


#2 I got sober because I couldn’t stand hurting my mom anymore.

If I were a betting woman (which, luckily, I’m not; this is one case where my risk aversion outweighs my self assurance), I’d say #2 has a better chance of staying sober. Not because #2 is more selfish. Not because of who she's getting sober for. In fact, both #1 and #2 are selfish, and neither one is really about mom. But #2 appears to be in a little more pain, and is therefore a little more ready to change. #1 is irritated; #2 can’t stand to be in her own skin.

Personally, my reasons for getting sober were like those of #2. My skin was a tough place to be. But here’s the thing: despite my best efforts, I am a social creature. Much like you, and much like the rest of humanity. As such, my every action has social consequences, more or less direct, and these consequences inevitably shape my experience. The feeling of being in my own skin. I could not hurt others without hurting myself, too.

“Is that selfish?" "Am I selfish?" "Does this program require me to be selfish?”

When people repeatedly ask a question that doesn’t make sense, chances are they are actually asking something different. When we ask, "Am I selfish?" I wonder if what we mean instead is, "Am I okay?" "Can I explicitly ask for space?" "Will you judge me if I do?" "Can I be strong enough to withstand judgement?"

If, in recovery, we began with the base-level knowledge that we are, in fact, selfish - and that this is, in fact, okay - we'd be unstoppable. We could demand space, rather than guiltily stealing it. We’d be hell on wheels.