Two of the most prevalent feelings an addict or alcoholic experiences when they get sober are guilt and shame. Guilt is an emotion that results from remorse about how we have treated others. Shame is what happens when we feel as though we have disgraced and dishonored ourselves.
The reality is that few addicts or alcoholics get to a treatment center without having committed some awful deed or embarrassing act as a result of their substance abuse. The very nature of chemical dependence drives us to do things we would never even consider if we were sober. People steal money from their families, they sell their bodies for drugs, they neglect their children, abuse their spouses, get fired, go to jail…you name it. Because addiction is such a powerful motivator, people become willing to do almost anything to get a fix. This includes alcoholism –many a drunk has robbed a convenience store just to get a six pack of beer!
Sober: The Reality
When a chemically dependent person gets sober, shame and guilt set in almost immediately. It is usually guilt, however; that becomes the more bothersome of the two. In the beginning, reconciling our own shame doesn’t seem nearly as important as finding relief from the all-consuming, agonizing and excruciating pangs of guilt. By the time we hit rock bottom, we have become well acquainted with shame. We even become accustomed to living with it. Guilt? Now that’s a different story.
When we get clean, the mental fog clears and the haze of denial begins to lift. Then, reality kicks in. We can no longer deny just how awful we have been to the people we love the most. We were down right despicable, in fact, and we would be willing to do just about anything to take back the things we said and did as a result of our addiction or alcoholism. The problem is, the past is gone forever. We can’t go back and rewrite history. What’s done is done.
The good news is, if we work the steps, we will be given the opportunity to do offer a sincere apology to those we have hurt and take whatever action is necessary to make things right. Then, and only then, will we truly begin to find freedom from our own guilt. Step Nine says, “We made direct amends to such people [the people we hurt] wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.” The problem is; drunks and drug addicts aren’t known for our patience. We want what we want when we want it! We want relief from our own guilt immediately, just as we want everything to be okay between us and the people we’ve hurt…and we want it now.
Here’s the thing –the 12 steps are in order for a reason. Amends should only be made when the time is right, after some serious recovery work. If you were to go to your friend/family member/romantic partner/boss after a week of sobriety and apologize for all the lousy things you have done in months gone by, your apology would mean nothing. After all, you’ve probably said you were sorry a hundred times in the last year and gone right back out and done the same thing again…only to apologize again. Making a proper amends is about action, not lip service. After you have been clean and sober for a few months and diligently working a recovery program, you will understand that Step Nine is about more than just saying you’re sorry –it’s about making an effort to correct the wrong that you caused.
If you’re feeling guilty about your past actions and behaviors, give yourself a break. Recognize that you’re now moving in a positive direction and working toward getting healthy. Remember that you are not unique –every addict and alcoholic has regrets from the days when their addiction was running the show. Also remember that you are not alone. Talk to your sponsor about your feelings. Share with your 12-step group and support circle and listen for the experience, strength and hope of other recovering people. Give yourself some grace. Stay in the program, work the steps and the time will come when you can make a sincere amends, find forgiveness and get rid of the guilt for good.