If you’ve ever had a conversation with an addict in their first few months away from substances, they will describe to you a roller coaster of sweet and sour emotions. During that first stretch, as the body stabilizes, and the brain struggles to do the same, the addicted person will likely spend a great deal of time floating between gratitude for their sobriety, hope for their future, and regret from their past.
Reflecting on their behaviors — their lying, their manipulating, and their self-serving activities — is a pronounced part of the process of acquainting oneself with reality. But without a veil of drugs or alcohol to distort their awareness of the present, and block their accounts of the past, many are left with a burden that they might describe to you as Guilt. I know this because that’s what I thought I had.
Like a sack full of bricks, I carried this new found Guilt around a treatment center, never putting it down, so preoccupied with holding it that I forgot to hold other things, like my coffee mug, my Big Book, and even my cigarettes. Those things I would carelessly leave in the common area, my room, and my jacket pockets almost daily. But my new found Guilt? I wouldn’t let it slip from my grip, because I felt it was a part of me, despite the inconvenience of its weight. I would be a heartless monster without it. I was Penance in a pair of slippers, shuffling through my days.
It wasn’t until much later on, once I no longer lived in a treatment center — and leaving my coffee cup for a few minutes did not result in my losing it forever — that someone asked me if I knew the difference between guilt and shame. “Guilt,” I was told, “is feeling bad for something you’ve done.” Check. I had done many bad things in my addiction. “Shame,” they went on, “is feeling bad for who you are.”
Something clicked for me when I heard this. The ‘new found Guilt’ I had been dragging behind me (which was no longer ‘new’ at this point, but ever the more present) was in fact deep-seated shame. I had come to terms with what I had done, and still felt bad about who I was. Unlike the ‘new found Guilt’, this Shame was actually a part of me.
I have written already about one specific part of my life where Shame can reign supreme, however that isn’t the only place my Shame lives. And I’m not the only recovering drug addict, alcoholic, and process-addicted individual who struggles with Shame, even in recovery. It is just as much a symptom of addiction as sneezing is a symptom of a cold.
I have been interested in Shame ever since I made that discovery about myself, so I was thrilled to have the opportunity to be present at a lecture last week entitled “Shame and Addiction”, given by Christoph Ziebarth, MC, CSAT. Ziebarth is also a 16-year alumnus of the same treatment center I finally got clean in. He’s a fellow addict in recovery, with more letters after his name than me, and even more years of sobriety and experience. I trust his understanding of Shame – what it is, how it works, why we have it, and how to cope.
“Shame in and of itself is not bad,” he began. “Shame is a normal human emotion; I need to feel shame in order to be truly human. Shame tells me I have limits,” he said.
According to Ziebarth, however, addicts are not exactly well known for their acceptance of limits. No matter which chemical, substance, or behavior brought us to our knees in the end, our real drug of choice has always been more. We do not use Shame for its intended purpose of letting us know when we need help, or to let us know that we are not all-powerful. To a non-addicted person, healthy Shame brings rise to humility and spirituality, encouraging them to ask for help from others when they need it, and believe in something greater than themselves, be that God, Creator, or science, because they have to.
“As addicts, we experience unhealthy Shame, and that kind of Shame that knows no limits,” says Ziebarth. “Addicts don’t just experience Shame, we internalize it.” He talked about Shame becoming a state of being, a form of identity. I failed this math test quickly becomes I am a failure. She doesn’t love me anymore becomes I am unlovable. I made the wrong choice becomes I am wrong. As a person, I become wrong.
I was not an easy child to contend with. I argued, I lied, I acted out sexually with other children and abrasively with adults, and I didn’t appear to be afraid of the consequences either. At four years old I stole my mother’s Paul Young tape and took it to daycare, where I lost it. After lying about it through a three-hour interrogation, I confessed. “You should be ashamed of yourself,” my mother growled. And I thought to myself, yeah, there’s an idea. Fast forward 25 years, and I still can’t hear “Every Time You Go Away” without calling myself a lowdown, lying thief. It’s a good thing “Every Time You Go Away” isn’t a song you hear very often. But every once in a while, there’s that one stuffy elevator… and I find myself checking my pockets for someone else’s things.
“When we have internalized this Shame, we learn to wear masks to cover it up. The People-Pleaser, The Blamer, The Care-Taker, The Judgey One, The Arrogant One – these are all masks we wear to cover up the Shame we’ve embodied,” Ziebarth explained, and a room full of mask-wearers nodded in agreement.
I’ve never been a huge believer in positive affirmations. I find looking in the mirror and repeating the words “I am enough” to be laborious, and a little condescending. Thankfully, Ziebarth believes that forgiveness — in lieu of leaving oneself thoughtfully worded sticky notes — is the key to unshackling us from the unhealthy Shame that keeps us sick.
“To see yourself as a human being, made as something good and meaningful, but also capable of making mistakes, is the first step,” he says. “Do not let the past determine your future negatively. Your past, the good and the bad, provides you with something to learn from, building character and strength to persevere in new ways, without masks or substances,” says Ziebarth. “Our pasts are our Hope.”
Accepting myself is an ongoing struggle. If I come home after a hard day and find myself searching for evidence of some good I’ve done, I can quickly slip into this state of thinking that tells me I am bad. If I catch myself having an inappropriate thought, I can jump to the conclusion that I am a pervert, defective and different. If I wake up from a using dream, I can resign to the fact that I’m simply not worthy of recovery.
Shame is a part of me, but it doesn’t have to be who I am. I don’t need to carry it around with me everywhere I go anymore. And slowly, I have started to detach from it. I’ve been putting it down, brick by brick. I feel a sense of hope every time I introduce myself at a meeting as an addict or alcoholic, though there once was a time when those words induced absolute dread. Today I use my mistakes as an opportunity to learn, rather than a chance to beat myself up. I can keep track of my coffee and my cigarettes now, because I’ve freed up space in my mind, and thus my hands by proxy. Finally, I have a little control over my own identity. I can start to find out who and what I am, because Shame no longer keeps me from looking.
And I have faith that, one day soon, bad elevator music will just be bad elevator music, even to a lowdown, lying thief like myself.
About Carli Stephens-Rothman
With a BA in Journalism from Ryerson University, Carli has been writing professionally for seven years. Today she can admit that six of those were mostly a blur. Reaching a year clean and sober in December of 2015 -- after privately (and then not so privately) battling addiction for much of her twenties -- Carli has refocused her personal and professional lives in order to nurture a new path. From her home on Vancouver Island, she continues to freelance for a number of Toronto-based publications, including The Toronto Star and SheDoesTheCity, while setting out upon a new academic journey in the field of addictions and mental health. When not writing or studying, or exploring the brilliant world of recovery, she teaches yoga with a focus on healing and confidence-building.