This post was originally published on June 16, 2014.
The other day I was at a noon meeting listening to a woman celebrating 41 years of sobriety share her drunkalogue, and I was reminded just how much of a positive role shame can play—not only in getting sober, but also in keeping us that way so long as we can remember how horrible it once felt. Granted, nobody likes to feel ashamed, but it certainly was a key ingredient in my addiction and (surprise!) I stopped feeling ashamed not long after I stopped doing the things that I was ashamed of. Funny how that works.
After the woman detailed a few incidents that would have made most sane (that is non-alcoholic) people quit the booze, she talked about her real turning point. And it wasn’t a DUI or going to jail or a divorce or falling down the stairs or getting fired from her job. If you listen to enough people tell their stories of getting sober, it’s rarely those things. Because when drunks get divorced, it allows them “to drink the way they really want to.” DUI’s mean walking to the bar or liquor store instead of driving. And for some alcoholics and addicts, going to jail just means “three hots (hot meals, that is) and a cot.” In fact, a heroin addict I first got sober with (who spent much of his adult life in the can) once told me, “I don’t mind jail. If they’d let me have a woman once a month, I’d gladly spend the rest of my life there.” Now that’s really shooting for the moon.
But I digress. For the woman sharing her story, it was a simple but profoundly shameful moment that changed her life. It was just another uneventful day in the life of a drunk, where she was hammered by noon and couldn’t help her nine-year old daughter tie her shoes. That’s when her daughter looked up and said to her, “Mom, you need to go to AA.” (Dad had gone six months earlier.)
At first, this woman became furious. And then she cried, because she knew her daughter was right. She was a drunk (just like her own mother) and her kid deserved a better deal in life than she had gotten. I once heard a guy say from the podium, “The kindest thing that you can tell an alcoholic is the truth.” So this woman heard the truth and it made her feel ashamed. She didn’t get sober for good that day, but it was clear from her story that it was the tipping point.
During the thousands of meetings I’ve attended in the last 10-plus years I’ve been sober, I have heard variations of that story, where parents (usually mothers, but fathers, too) finally see themselves through their kids eyes, the shameful truth overwhelms them and they start their journey towards sobriety. But it’s not just parents that shame works for; my shame story involves a whole different cast of less savory characters.
I was having a brutal time getting sober, and was going to meetings drunk (and driving to them despite a DUI). If you’ve ever been to meetings drunk, particularly when you actually want to be sober, trust me, it totally sucks and it’s very shameful, especially at first. But after doing it 60-to-70 times, that shame had started to wear off and I was beginning to settle for this being the way my life was going to go. Besides, booze and drugs can work very well in blunting all but the deepest shame.
One night I went to a meeting that was modeled after the legendary Woburn Men’s meeting, which is basically like a pirate ship minus the booze. The main focus at these meetings is on the first step and learning how to keep the drink down. There’s a lot of ball-busting but a lot of good fellowship and real kindness, and I felt welcome and at home there. When the meeting was over and I was heading out the door, one of the biker/construction worker old-timers said to me, “Hey kid. It works better if you don’t drink before the meeting.” That went right to my core, even though I barely knew the guy. But what he really meant was, “It’s time to grow up”—something no drunk likes to hear. It was also the truth and it probably saved my life because my feelings were hurt and I actually saw myself as I really was: a pathetic drunk.
I got pretty bombed for the next few days, but the booze wasn’t working as well as it once had, and with the help of prayer and meetings, I put it down a couple of days later and haven’t picked up since. For those who think it may have put me at risk of doing something rash with those hurt feelings, I was already committing suicide on the installment plan. And it has been my experience in both AA and Al-Anon that extreme kindness and the co-signing of bullshit also kills a lot of alcoholics. If it takes guilt, shame and remorse to keep me sober, I’ll happily take that.
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