"My sober-for-years-but-not-in-recovery-for-long alcoholic, it seems like the minute I give them any encouragement or support, they take it like a "get out of jail free" card, and start to treat me like crap again. How do I give any positive feedback, when they just use it against me?"
Oh, have I been in this writer's place - and it was a mystifying landscape through which to travel. One of my alcoholics is just this way, and I have had to learn that any support or encouragement I give has to be non-personal. If I put anything of myself into it, this person will then see me as vulnerable, and go on the attack. When I'm around this alcoholic, I feel as I might were a tiger in the room with me, waiting for the slightest sign of weakness, always ready to spring. That tiger never sleeps.
If this person says, "I have been trying harder," and I reply, "Yes, I've noticed that and I'm very grateful, and you are a good person..." I've just bought myself some mistreatment at their hands, because they see that the way a tiger might see me strapping some steaks to myself, and then walking back and forth an inch from its muzzle.
Sober is not recovery. Sober is sober, and while I can be grateful for the sobriety, if I see it and recovery as all of a piece/the same thing, I'm going to suffer for that misconception.
With this alcoholic, when they say "I have been trying harder," I have to reply with something along the lines of: "That's great; working your program will benefit you and those around you," and leave it at that. I have to keep myself and what I think, completely off the table. They will often try to put me back onto the table with questions like, "You've noticed, right, you've noticed I've been trying harder?"
And here I'm going to pause for a moment and point out that just because someone asks us a question, does not mean that we must answer that question. If we have a fairly clear idea of what's going on, ie the alcoholic is looking for a way in through our boundaries, and we want to keep them safely on the other side, we can repeat our original reply, or format a new one: "I try not to gauge my recovery on whether or not other people are noticing it, I try to do it for myself, and my Higher Power."
This can feel uncomfortable when I'm new to it - perhaps I feel
as if I am "withholding" some approval being sought. And that is precisely why it works so well against me.
I need to stop, detach, and ask myself: what's happening in this encounter? What happened last time we had a conversation like this? What was the result of me giving encouragement and support which included how I thought or felt, rather than a more generic kind?
If I begin to see a pattern emerging, I can talk to my sponsor, pray, reason things out with someone else, and choose how I am going to respond. I have the right to deal with this in the kindest way possible, which will permit me to retain my boundaries.
I do not have to accept any unacceptable behavior, under any label whatsoever.
I just had an interesting conversation with another program member about this, and one point raised was: When I respond, am I expecting a certain result? I can trip myself up in this way, with this particular alcoholic, because I lull myself into believing that this time, it's safe to be more open. This flies in the face of reality, since it never has been in any other past conversation, why would I think it safe today?
Why? Because I'm in denial, and my expectations or desires that another person behave the way I want them to, are overriding my sanity for a moment. I want it to be safe, therefore I'm going to act as if it is safe.
Then when it turns out not to have been safe, who am I really annoyed with about it? I'm annoyed with myself; had I not tied that steak to my leg before walking up to the tiger, I might still have that leg as part of my anatomy.
So it goes. Live and learn. Some of us are slower learners than others.