Guilt is a very destructive emotion, and when left untreated, it will eat away at your soul. Making a list of all the people you have harmed intending to make amends to them is something I think everyone should try at least once in their life, alcoholic or not.
I had been sober several months when I began working on my step 9 amends list, writing down every detail I could remember about the people I had hurt. There were, of course, girlfriends I had betrayed or disrespected, as well as employers I had cheated. I even wrote down the kid I had beaten up in sixth grade. Our little schoolyard brawl had occurred over three decades ago, but I still felt a tremendous sense of shame every time I thought about punching him repeatedly while all the other kids hollered encouragement. My list also contained the many mistakes I had made as a direct result of my drinking.
Once I had it all down on paper, I was able to review it like a map that had led me to this point in my life. I could see all the hurt I had created in the world, the people I had punished, discarded, or crushed, simply because they didn’t serve the purpose I expected or wanted from them.
It sounds horrible, I know, the idea of seeing how shitty we’ve been to certain people over the years. But it’s more liberating than it sounds. This was my one chance to make things right. This was my opportunity to repair the wreckage I had left in my wake. This was my opportunity to correct the pain I had created.
Forgiveness from others is a blessing. Forgiving ourselves is a necessity.
By the time I completed my amends list, I was exhausted. More importantly, I felt an enormous sense of relief. I had faced up to the pain I had caused others and made things right to the best of my abilities. I certainly didn’t do it perfectly, no one ever does. But I did my best to meet the challenge and asked for, and mostly received, forgiveness from those I had hurt.
However, forgiving myself would prove to be more difficult. I still carried a lot of shame for the way I had conducted my life, especially in the last few years of my drinking. I found it incredibly painful to realize how much time I had wasted pursuing oblivion from a bottle. How could I have allowed this to happen? Why didn’t I jump off the train of addiction earlier? Why had I polluted my body, mind, and spirit to such an extent that it almost killed me?
There is an ongoing debate about the cause of alcoholism, whether it’s a disease we’re born with or something we learn from our environment. Is it nature or nurture? Do we learn to become alcoholics through our environment (nurture), or are we born with a specific propensity to be alcoholics (nature)?
I think it’s a combination of both.
I believe that I have a genetic predisposition to addiction, which runs in my family. Not only do I drink alcoholically, but I also do other things “alcoholically.” Whether it’s cigarettes, sugar, or television, I often overindulge to the point of excess. When I find something that takes away stress, boredom, fear or pain, I pursue it with abandon. I have a deep need for escapism in any form.
However, I’m also convinced that I’ve learned many of my self-destructive habits from sources outside of myself. I grew up in a time when alcohol and drug use (and abuse) were considered fun and cool. And if there was anything I wanted when I was young, it was to be considered fun and cool. Our culture is awash in mind-altering substances that promise a means of temporary escape, glorified through smart marketing and social conformity. Like millions of other people, I have fallen victim to advertising and peer pressure that told me drinking was not only acceptable but would help me cope with life while having a great time. Not only would my life be more exciting if I drank and used, but I’d also be sexier ad more impressive because of it. Hell, yes! Sign me up! Open the bottle and pour that shit down my throat!
- Was I born with a disease called alcoholism? Yes.
- Did I learn a lot of bad habits from the world around me? Absolutely.
- Could I have sought help earlier, before it took control of my life? Without doubt.
- Am I to blame for being an alcoholic? It doesn’t matter. I AM an alcoholic, and the sooner I face the facts and deal with it, the sooner I’ll find peace.
Once I was able to start reconciling these truths in my mind, the process of forgiving myself became easier. Like all difficult challenges, it took time before I was entirely able to forgive myself for the life I had lived in addiction. Even to this day, I occasionally feel regret for the years I lost to alcoholism. Yet there’s nothing I can do about it other than take comfort knowing that I was born with a disease that will never be cured, only managed. And many of the bad habits I picked up along the way were absorbed by forces that permeate society.
One morning, after I had finished my amends, I stood before the mirror in my apartment bathroom, preparing to shave. This was the same mirror in which I had spit at my reflection when I was still drinking, disgusted by the site of my face.
On this morning, I felt good, blessed to be sober and forgiven by others. I managed to smile into the mirror and said out loud, without embarrassment:
“I forgive you.”
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