The Cycle of Shame in Addiction

“I relapsed, had a slip and drank for days. I hate myself right now. I know I have an illness but I can not go on living with this person I have become. I have no respect for myself. I am full of self-loathing.

I want to be able to look in the mirror and be proud. A year from now I want to be able to look back and feel pity for this person but know it’s in the past. I want to have faith in myself and for my husband to be able to trust me, to feel at peace in our relationship. Our bond is so fragile. Whatever love he feels for me is being rapidly erased. I can’t believe he even has any love for me left.” 

The words above struck me, as I read the recovery blog of a fellow writer, who is struggling with a relapse. I read over and over her lines, so laced with pain, as she describes the insanity of living inside of her head, where 95% of the time there is a loop that tells her to find pills and drink – over and over again – all the time. She describes relapsing – getting drunk and hitch-hiking to the other side of the country, leaving her husband and small children behind. She describes the terror of arriving home and seeing her husband taking himself and their children to his parents’ home. She dissects the feeling of waking up alone in an empty house, feeling the shame of her actions, the deep hatred at own person… the fear, the terror, the blame.  She bears her shame and guilt in an accountable way – because that is what we have been programmed to do. We end up believing that our actions must stem from a horrible place in our souls, that we are wretched, horrible people. We are the first ones to judge and shame our own person.

I read and re-read, tears streaming down my face. I could literally feel the heavy coat of her loathing on my shoulders – and I wanted so badly to find her hug her. The words are so hurtful – especially because they could have been written by me a few months ago. I closed my eyes think of this crazy loop that we are stuck in – us, alcoholics and addicts. It’s such a devastating cycle:

One one hand, the recovery community tells us that we are ill and that we suffer from a disease, and not from a behavioral problem. On the other hand, our anonymity (perpetuated among addicts and alcoholics ourselves, based on an AA tradition) and the limited amount of information that is available to the outside world regarding our disease, makes is almost impossible for anyone to treat us with the kindness and compassion that other illnesses get.

Between our own silence and anonymity, and the lack of public information about our illness– we get lost in the madness of shame and guilt. We buy into “being responsible” for the symptoms of our disease, and the constant shaming from the world results in the same shaming towards our own selves — and the people around us continue treating us like this.

What to do? Think for a minute. Put yourself for one second in her shoes right now and imagine the hopelessness and loneliness that she is feeling. Devastating, right?

Now imagine her not an addict, but a cancer patient. Seriously. Swap the illness of addiction for cancer. Any cancer. Imagine her having a relapse, with her cancer having come back. She is feeling awful and throwing up, and sweating and shaking and can’t speak properly. She can’t help run the house or tend to her husband. She can’t go to work or do life normally, because she is sick. Her world is falling due to the cancer in her body. Imagine that for a second.

Do you see a husband taking his kids and fleeing? Do you see the world pointing fingers at her, leaving her alone to deal with her disease? Can you imagine her looking at herself in the mirror with disgust, thinking how much she hates herself for the way she is feeling and acting…for her body having relapsed into another episode of her disease? Would she speak of the shame that comes with her actions, and how she feels guilty of her husband jumping ship – because she is sick? Do you see cancer having this reaction from others and from herself?

Do you see the insanity? Do you see the parallels? Do you see the pain in this comparison?

Alcoholism is a disease. Just like cancer is a disease.

Alcoholism needs treatment. Just like cancer needs treatment.

Alcoholism does not go away on its own. Just like cancer does not go away on its own.

Cancer needs love, compassion, patience, treatment; it needs a loving environment of family members and friends. It needs self-loving and self-compassion. It needs surrender to the treatment and continuous care.

Alcoholism needs love, compassion, patience, treatment; it needs a loving environment of family members and friends. It needs self-loving and self-compassion. It needs surrender to the treatment and continuous care.

Cancer patients are not the ones causing their symptoms and behaviors. Their illness is.

Alcoholism patients are not the ones causing their symptoms and behaviors. Their illness is.

I don’t have a grand finale for this essay. I am sad. I am ill to my stomach. I want to get on a plane and go help this woman who lives in England and whom I have never met. I want a Coke campaign to come and “teach the world about alcoholism” to the tune of their 70’s Harmony campaign. I want people to speak up and start giving information and spreading compassion. I want for our AA community to become active outside of their rooms, bringing the message of what we suffer from to schools and churches and community podiums. I want to shed the shame and fear that come with being anonymous. I want for us, addicts and alcoholics, to speak up against the shaming. Other communities who suffered shaming for years have managed to turn their boat around…

So if you can – think about this. And the next time that someone in your circle of recovery goes through this, throw a little loving perspective their way. And rather than just shoo them to an AA meeting, give them love and compassion, and remind them about their illness being separate from them, and not a reflection of who they are as a person.

And if you relapse yourself, hug yourself the next morning. Give yourself the same space of kindness that you would give yourself if a tumor came back. For real. 

And for the love of God. If you are in our community of recovery, speak up. We cannot continue perpetuating this insanity with our anonymity and our 1930’s traditions and our inner-circle shaming and fear. It’s time. It’s time. It’s time.

It’s time.

Sober Mami ::

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