NAVIGATING THE GUILT AND SHAME OF ADDICTION

Anthony Acampora

I have often likened active addiction to an aerial view of a tornado as it tears through town. What’s left in either case, addiction or the tornado’s path, is tremendous destruction. If you look closely, you see the twister jumping over a few blocks leaving some areas untouched. In the addict’s life, there are a few sober days of clarity here and there, only to continue on the inevitable path of devastation and destruction. I lived it for nearly seven brutal years. Alcohol, Xanax, and gambling were the tools of my trade. While consumed with major depression, and its hideous companion anxiety- all a result of tremendous resentments, you look for a way out of the vicious cycle of pain, only to come to the realization that the said tools have become addictions and are providing you with even more pain than the reason you began using them in the first place.

The torment usually consists of a cruel cocktail of regret, anger, shame, and guilt which are often intertwined with a nagging feeling that you are a complete and total failure. Let’s not forget the intermittent sickening thoughts reminding you that you are the cause of the pain being inflicted on the few people who stood by you during this seemingly never-ending nightmare. Another component of active addiction is the constant wondering of what people know about what’s going on with you, and how they will react if and when they find out. It is an agonizing game of cat and mouse that seems to have no end. You are basically living a double life. We become one way with some people, and the exact opposite with others. One of the things addiction does, is it steals your identity. You do not really recognize who that person is in the mirror any longer; if you even dare to look. You come to despise your own thoughts, yet you cannot escape them.

Let’s shift gears and make the assumption that this horrible ordeal ended up with surrendering your will and entering a reputable treatment center. The initial days of treatment and early recovery are both extremely important. What I have experienced myself and observed working in the treatment industry, are the waves of guilt and shame that I felt, and the hurtful things said and done while in active addiction. We remember the horrible suffering we caused our family and close friends. Yes, we did these things while our brain was impaired with drugs/alcohol, and we may not have experienced all of the horror as we do now by being sober, but the damage remains. Thoughts rain down on us such as: I cannot believe I did that to people who were trying to help me, or, I will never be able to forgive myself. What I did not do in most treatment stays, and encourage you to do, is talk about the guilt, shame, and any other painful experiences in groups or with a professional. This is essential during treatment, but we usually allow this to take up residence in our heads outside of the group room, which is unproductive and demoralizing.

A word of caution- by not sharing about these things or other underlying pain, it will only prolong your pain and suffering as it did with me. I would never address the deep, underneath the surface issues that I should have in treatment. So go there! Do not just scratch the surface. There is nothing magical that happens from walking through the doors of a substance abuse treatment center, you have to actually do the work. The root cause of my pain was not being able to forgive. I carried it with me like a badge of honor as it was destroying me. It was not until through the deepening of my faith and much prayer, that I was able to truly forgive and move forward with life. The source that was fueling the depression and anxiety was finally eliminated. I was no longer a prisoner of my own resentful thoughts. Yes, forgiveness is not for the person who hurt us, it is for us! The only regret I had was not opening up about this earlier in the process.

As a result, I believe it is absolutely imperative to be completely forthcoming and honest when dealing with substance abuse and/ or mental health issues. If you are harboring resentments, make it a priority to forgive those who hurt you. The underlying issues are difficult to overcome and often elusive. The fact is, you cannot see them. It is not a physical injury that you can have an X-ray or blood test taken and determine the exact problem. The only way addiction or mental health professionals can truly help someone is by what the client is telling them. The key to successful recovery is transparency and by being completely open and honest. Share honestly in groups, at meetings, with your therapists and then leave it there. Don’t get consumed with these things as it will make recovery a much more difficult task. Give it all you have! Deal with all of the sorrow, suffering, pain, guilt and shame and leave it there!

When you are completing treatment or in early recovery, you may find that your loved ones are distant or may have simply ended contact with you. Do not be discouraged by this. They were hurt at a much deeper level than acquaintances or surface relational friends. The distance does not mean its forever, it may simply mean they are in the healing process and as we know all too well, that takes time. We are not talking about a broken bone, but a broken heart. Allow them time to heal and don’t rush the healing process. Your family member has also been through a lot of suffering just from a different perspective. In some ways, I think it’s more difficult for the families of the addict. The focus of the addict is usually on themselves as earlier mentioned. We are in pain, and looking for a way out of the pain. We medicate the pain with a substance, yet, the family member is usually going through this horrible experience without self-medicating. Their torment is the sleepless nights, waiting for the tragic call or not knowing if their loved one is dead or alive. Give them time- they love you.

The family experiences tremendous guilt and shame as well. They are thinking what they could have done differently, or what they did to cause this. For the family member of an addict or someone suffering with mental health issues, the phrase “walking on egg shells”, is taken to an entirely new level. They are afraid of saying the wrong thing, so they pull away, only to think that their distance is now making things worse. We can’t forget the bombardment of lies and manipulation the family member or close friend had to endure. As you begin to have some clarity, perhaps look at it through the eyes of the family member or close friend. You may acquire a much better understanding of just how difficult this was for them and in doing so, you take the focus off yourself. So, how do we make sense of something that is so senseless? How can we truly navigate guilt and shame? We face it head on! We are transparent and open with our past mistakes and poor choices. We take ownership of them and move on! The best way to repay our family and friends whom we have hurt in the past, is to live a purposeful, honest and substance free life. There is a beautiful life out there waiting for you. Actively cultivate your God given talents and gifts. All of the tests in life are now your testimony. Share your story to encourage the broken in spirit. Use the past pain and suffering to empower and encourage those who are in great need of hope. When in a dark place, just a little light can make a huge difference. Go out there and be that light!

Anthony Acampora is the Director of Faith in Recovery at Banyan Treatment Center. He is an Author and Speaker. In 2018, Anthony was selected as a Global Goodwill Ambassador representing the USA. In 2015, the National Alliance of Mental Illness, Broward Country awarded Anthony its volunteer Recognition Award. In 2014, the National Association of Social Workers, Broward County awarded Anthony its Public Citizen of the Year.
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