What you need to know when dating someone in recovery

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Almost a year after Karen Nagy's relationship ended, she still found herself wondering what happened. Her boyfriend just stopped calling.

It wasn't the typical relationship that ran its course -- Ms. Nagy's boyfriend was in recovery.

"No other boyfriend I had had behaviors quite like these," said the Greensburg native, 56, who now lives in southern Florida. She is a musician and an actor who teaches at Miami Dade College.

Throughout Ms. Nagy's research, she couldn't find any books written for someone in her situation, so she decided it was hers to write. "Girlfriend of Bill: 12 Things You Need to Know About Dating Someone in Recovery" is the first dating guide to broach the subject. The book ($14.95), published by Hazelden, is being released today.

"There's nothing like it out there," said Sid Farrar, senior trade acquisitions editor at Hazelden Publishing, part of the nonprofit Hazelden Foundation, which also offers addiction treatment and support. "This is an important piece of the puzzle for people who get in relationships with people in the program. It's a huge life-changing event, and you enter a new culture and new way of thinking of yourself and the world."

Hazelden looks at several hundred submissions each year, but few are chosen, Mr. Farrar said. Even more rare, the publisher kept the author's original title.

Ms. Nagy's title plays off the phrase people in recovery might use to identify their participation in Alcoholics Anonymous to other members. Instead of referring to AA, one might ask if someone is a friend of Bill or Bill W., referring to Bill Wilson, the co-founder, to keep to the organization's tradition of anonymity. While dating a man in recovery, Ms. Nagy felt her actions with her significant other were affected -- if he was a friend of Bill, she had become an extension of that or "a girlfriend of Bill."

There are more than 2 million members of AA around the world and 1.2 million in the United States, according to the organization's fact file. Ms. Nagy describes the two cultures of people who are in the program and those who are not as "two different worlds" where there hasn't been much crossing over until now, which explains why there is little information for people who are considering dating someone in recovery.

"Now there is online dating, which means more intermingling and questions being asked," she said.

The most important thing Ms. Nagy said she took away from her research is that just because a person has stopped using drugs or alcohol, it doesn't mean he or she has recovered. Recovery is a lifelong process, but that doesn't mean people in the program can't have successful relationships.

"Sometimes it takes years for PIRs [people in recovery] to realize that their emotional sobriety is not progressing as well as their physical sobriety. This makes sense, because in early recovery they've got enough to do just trying to live clean and sober," Ms. Nagy's guide says. "As a result, a non-PIR could very well be dating a 45-year-old PIR whose emotion age is 16!"

Chapters range from explaining the 12-step program and how to have fun on dates to information on addictive behaviors that might carry over to a new relationship. She reminds readers that not all recovering addicts are the same; some might be OK with going to places where alcohol is prominent while others might not.

"I've learned through mistakes to now be very straightforward with PIRs instead of guessing if they are comfortable with a certain setting," she wrote. "Everyone in recovery is different, so their comfort levels, of course, will vary."

Manipulation -- being talked into something you don't want to do -- is one behavior a person in recovery could continue even after becoming sober, Ms. Nagy said. She found herself loaning a large amount of money to a boyfriend in the program and did so again five months later.

"People in the program are not supposed to be borrowing money. I would've put my foot down," she said.

Throughout her research, Ms. Nagy learned about her own tendencies of being a co-dependent. She admits that she stayed in relationships for too long while she let partners get away with behaviors they shouldn't have.

"I lay myself out in this book," she said. "If it helps somebody, then that's why I did it. I was just as naive as anybody."

For information about Al-Anon, a resource for friends and families of problem drinkers: al-anon.alateen.org.

Sara Payne: spayne@post-gazette.com.

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