One of the main reasons we have problems in early recovery is our inability to be open and honest with others. Most of us have spent a good part of our lives hiding one truth or another from the people around us. Telling the truth about our addictive behavior would endanger it, and we protect our addictions with everything we’ve got. We convince ourselves that no one knows what’s going on (wrong, in most cases) and that as long as we can keep them in the dark about our activities we can keep using and be okay.
But there’s another, deeper reason why most of us kept secrets: shame. Shame is the feeling that we are unworthy of affection and good regard. It’s the belief, deep down inside, that we are simply bad and that if anyone knew the “real us” they wouldn’t want to have anything to do with us. It’s the reason that we tell stories about ourselves instead of admitting who we really are.
There are so many stories that we build on shame: work record, life experiences, education, what books we’ve read, where we’ve lived, who we know. Addicts will eat in the same restaurant with a celebrity, impose on their good nature for a selfie, and from then on they “had dinner with Clint…nice guy…a little weak on his knowledge of literature, but boy does he know music!”
Okay, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration, but not very much; we’ve all done similar things, because deep down inside all us addicts think we’re not good enough — don’t measure up in some way — and so the “real us” has to have a new paint job and a little chrome added.
The opposite of shame is vulnerability. Vulnerability is “capable of being wounded or hurt”, or “open to moral attack, criticism, etc….”, and it’s a truly scary thing to us addicts. Many, if not most, of us have been hurt many times in many ways: physical and emotional abuse, abandonment, ridiculously high expectations of parents or others, living in addicted, dysfunctional families and so forth. We’ve been told many times, in one way or another, that we’re not good enough; that we don’t measure up; that if people knew our secrets they wouldn’t want anything to do with us.
The fear associated with shame and becoming vulnerable will keep us from getting sober if we can’t overcome it, but that’s the wonderful thing about our recovery programs: we can talk to those folks. They’ve been there. They’ve done the things we did, and felt the way we’ve felt. They can understand us like no one else can! As we sit in meetings, have coffee, talk with and get to know other recovering people, we slowly become aware that — far from being superior beings — they are humans who’ve suffered like we did, for essentially the same reasons.
We come to understand that we have nothing to fear from these people, that we can be ourselves, learn to trust, and allow ourselves to become vulnerable and talk about the things of our heart — because we won’t be judged. Getting involved in a recovery program is like coming home, except the families that we build in the rooms aren’t waiting for us to mess up, aren’t looking down their noses, and they most certainly aren’t going to rat us out, because we know just as much about them as they do about us.
So we trust, and we learn to look them in the eye and talk about the moldy, hidden things that have kept us so frightened and so sick. The first thing about cleaning out hidden places is to let in some light and fresh air. When we do that, the slimy things that live in the mud shrivel up and die, leaving room for new growth.
And we can begin to live.