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Dealing with Guilt and Shame

When we enter recovery from addiction, and even after we have been sober for a while, it is common to look back on the past with feelings of remorse, sadness, guilt, and shame. It’s easy to do, as our time of abusing substances–especially toward the end when many of us were approaching rock bottom–was the lowest point of our lives. It might be significantly lower of a point than many non-addicts ever have (this is not necessarily true but it can feel like that, and sometimes it is true). In all likelihood, we damaged our physical health, lost jobs and ruined careers, alienated and saddened our families and loved ones, lost friends, wasted money,possibly caused brain damage to ourselves, maybe ended up in hospitals, detoxes, or psychwards, and in general created a living hell for ourselves. There is no denying it–we lost a lot during our time of addiction and wasted a lot of things too.

That being said, living in the past with a heart full of sadness and regret is completely paralyzing. Not only is it mentally and emotionally draining, but it is not pragmatic. It takes energy away from the present, which we should be focusing on; we need to live in the present to work on our recovery and moving our lives forward materially and socially. The past is gone–it does not actually exist. Nor does the future. Only the present. Zen Buddhism and other philosophies expound on this concept extensively. With meditation and practice we can train ourselves to talk back to our brain when it draws us into morbid reflection on the past and bring our awareness back to the immediate presence. This can be very calming and it can clear our minds of lots of negative thoughts, bad self-talk, and ruminations.

AA promises us in the 9th step that “We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it.” What exactly does this mean and how do we arrive at this position of serenity? For one, and this is what the 9th step focuses on, it is vital to make amends to those we have harmed. The Big Book goes into this process extensively and, even if you do not subscribe to the AA approach,the section on making amends is well worth a read and considering. We make amends both for the peace of mind and healing of the other person and, although it may seem selfish, for ourselves. But this is not truly selfish because the healthier we are emotionally and mentally,and the stronger our sobriety is, the better we can give back to the world and create joy and peace where we go in the future. We are usually quite trepidatious when we approach people from our past to make amends–we are scared that they might be angry with us, we don’t want to face up and admit our faults and wrongs. But we are often surprised–90% of the time or more–by the welcoming and warm reception we receive, and by the amazing forgiveness offered to us, by the mending of relationships. The relief we feel is unprecedented. It allows us
to look at the past calmly now and with peace, without wanting to hide it away in the dark or “close the door on it.”

We also realize that our past experience can help others. When we meet newcomers to sobriety we can actually offer them support and tell them our experiences. (It is not often recommended to give actual, hard “advice” in sobriety; we are not therapists, but telling our experience and giving support makes perhaps more of a difference than advice.) We see the eyes of newcomers shine a bit brighter with hope when they realize there are many people exactly like them who have succeeded in managing the disease of addiction and living wonderful lives. If we are in AA, we begin visiting rehabs or other institutions to speak and lead meetings, and we start to work with sponsees. In this way we see that we are of serious use to others because of our experience with the pain of addiction and the hard work of overcoming it.

Finally, we begin to see that there are myriad blessings of sobriety that we genuinely would have missed out on had we never been addicts. We learn ways of managing stress and difficult emotions, we learn about forgiveness and acceptance, we learn to be grateful for all the simple things in life, to take care of ourselves each day mentally and emotionally, to build a connection with a higher power, to meditate, and many other things. Some people may go their entire lives in a sort of low-level misery simply because they never reached a crisis point where they were forced to work on this. They may have a lot of financial success and “look good on paper” but they might inside be very side. As recovering addicts, we work on ourselves so much that we can very often achieve a level of emotional resilience that others do not have. This is probably part of why a lot of sober people say “I am a grateful alcoholic.”

The past, as they say, is prologue.

Harmony Haus is a men’s sober living home in Austin, TX. It offers a wide arrange of support for those in recovery, in addition to luxurious accommodations and an atmosphere of serious recovery. Give us a call anytime.