As Sick As Our Secrets

There’s an oft-heard maxim in the recovery community: “We’re as sick as our secrets.” Every now and then you will hear someone mention it at a meeting or occasionally in private conversation—often as punctuation for a particularly typical story that someone has told. We may say these things—may in fact occasionally give them some thought—but I suspect that many of us do not follow this particular thought through to its logical conclusion.

Just what secrets are we talking about? Certainly we all have things about our pasts that we would just as soon were not public knowledge. Some of us even have things that we swore we would never tell to another human being. We deal with those issues by completing a thorough 4th and 5th step. That is the whole point of those steps and they, along with the 8th and 9th, are the tools of recovery that get us OK with who we are, and that facilitate cleaning up the wreckage of the past. When, however, we limit ourselves only to the secrets of the past, we are only addressing part of the problem.

How many unpleasant little secrets are we harboring today? We tell ourselves that we are “happy, joyous and free,” but just how free are we? I put it to you that if we are harboring anything that we would not willingly tell another person, then there are issues in our lives that need to be addressed, whether or not they seem to have anything to do with addiction and recovery.

If recovery were only about not drinking and drugging, the problem would be solved by a few days, weeks, or—at most—months of abstinence. The obvious fact that addicts often relapse weeks, months, even decades after becoming abstinent is prima facie evidence that there is more to it than merely staying off the sauce. Addicts and alcoholics are, by definition, people who do not know how to live normal lives. Many of us arrested our normal growth at a very early age, by changing the focus of our lives from the process of maturation to the acquisition and use of our drugs of choice (whether chemical or not).

If we have been thus handicapped since our early adulthood or, in many cases, since early adolescence or even before, we will have failed to learn a great many crucial living skills, such as handling personal finances, applying for jobs, keeping our surroundings neat and clean, and so forth. Parents or other caregivers who unconsciously resisted our growing up and leaving the nest may even have exacerbated this.

If, perchance, we did manage to learn these sorts of skills, along with the people skills necessary in order to have reasonably healthy interpersonal relationships of all kinds, it is usually because we came to our addictions—at least to a debilitating degree—much later in life. That notwithstanding, the way in which our perception and use of these abilities is skewed over time by addictive disease means that a period of re-programming to a balanced view of life will almost certainly be required before we can again assume our places as parents, spouses, employees, employers, and so forth.

This is what recovery is about: learning or relearning, after years of dysfunction, the skills of normal living. Until we are well on the way to doing so, our inadequacies may combine with situations of high stress and convince us that we might as well return to drugs, alcohol and/or other addictions, since this recovery thing is not working all that well for us. This is why we need supports—people who have made their way successfully through the confusion and fear inherent in “growing up all over again,” and who are able to help us over the rough spots.

By now you may have lost track of the secrets issue, or may think that I have. Nope. There is more to living a recovering lifestyle than simply learning a new bag of tricks, for as we become more skillful at living we also become more skillful at putting up a good front and making ourselves look good—perhaps even to ourselves—when in fact our behavior may not be as healthy as we think.

This is where the secrets come in, as indicators of the health of our recovery program. By secrets I mean all those little things that you don’t want others to know about. Are there a couple of gigabytes of porn hidden away on your hard drive? Do you douse yourself with perfume or aftershave to hide the fact that you aren’t bathing as regularly as you might? What about your relationship with that attractive neighbor? What about that habit of stopping by the bar a couple of times a week to have a coke and play a couple of games of pool? What about that prescription for painkillers in your desk drawer that you hung onto just in case of a sudden bout of major pain? What about the couple of hundred you dropped on the ponies last week, or that you slipped to your son the addict when your spouse wasn’t looking?

If there is nothing wrong with those things, why do you insist on keeping them secret?

Think about it. Think about all your little secrets. Do they facilitate your recovery, or do they keep others from calling you on your shit? Only you know the answer. Be honest with yourself. Your dishonesty may be killing you.

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