Whenever you talk about guilt and shame you strike at the dark heart of substance use disorder. In a broader sense these feelings fall under the topic of morals, principles, ethics, honesty and decency. To those of us suffering from compulsive substance use, these things are as far away as the moon is from the earth. Like the moon, we can see morality very clearly because we are painfully aware of our sins. Yet we just cannot touch the honest light of truth. It is too far away.
I’m reminded of the classic American novel The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. The story centers on a woman convicted of adultery. The year is 1642 and she is a Puritan. Puritans were a strict religious group that considered adultery a very serious sin indeed. The woman will not name the father. As a result she is forced to wear a big, red “A” sewn on her dress. The “A” stands for adultery; an outward sign of her inner sin. It is a sign of shame.
The letter “A” could just as easily represent Alcoholic or Addict because too many people struggling with substance abuse live as if there was a big, red “A” branded on their chest. They live in shame, allowing what they did to define who they are. This is a lie we tell ourselves to stay stuck in our disease.
The woman in the story was more or less a victim of her times. Back then, committing adultery made you an adulterer. You were your sin. Consequently she wore the “A” until she died, at which time the “A” was chiseled into her tombstone. End of story.
But what about your story? Do you have to wear your “A” until you die? There is a difference between guilt and shame, and it’s important to know what it is because it will make a difference when it’s time to chisel your tombstone.
Guilt refers to feeling bad about something you did or failed to do. In contrast, shame is the belief that you are defective as a human being. Guilt is a feeling about a behavior, while shame is a belief you have about yourself.
Shame sucks. Think about it. You can’t change history or undo something you’ve already done. It’s impossible. So you may have lied but you’re not a liar, cheated but you’re not a cheater, stolen but you’re not a thief, punched someone but you’re not a batterer, abused drugs and alcohol but you’re not an addict or alcoholic. Not anymore. Turning shame into guilt removes the “A.”
Are you willing to stop punishing yourself for being something you are not? If so you can transform your shame into guilt, then address each guilty act in a healthy way until your conscious is clear.
As a person in recovery, it was essential for me to go through the process of turning my shame into guilt, then dealing with the guilt. I was great at abusing drugs and alcohol, lying and manipulating. For me it was a 24-hour a day, 7-days a week job. I am not proud of the many things I did to fuel my habit. But if I thought for one minute that any of those things I did defined me, I would jump off a tall building. They were that bad. Before recovery I couldn’t breathe under the weight of my shame. Instead of jumping, I chose to act myself into thinking. I turned to AA, NA and CA. I prayed. I got honest. I changed my friends. I became responsible for my actions. I dealt with the consequences of my past. I didn’t drink or use no matter what. I was forgiven by others and by myself.
I now choose to believe I am a good person, as you are. I am not the sum of my sins. Nor are you.
Keith Angelin, MBA, CADC-II, CNDAI, is a Master’s level, board-certified alcohol & drug counselor, and nationally certified intervention specialist. His 14-year battle with drugs and alcohol included multiple overdoses. His recovery compelled him to re-evaluate his life and share the miracle with others. He is author of the “At Home Recovery Workbook.” Learn more at www.InterventionRx.com. Send your comments to Keith4Counseling@gmail.com.