An hour or so into a several hour family meeting to discuss the impact of my alcoholism on all of our lives, my mother made an observation. My sister, her husband, my dad and my wife, Sheri, all listened intently as my mom turned to me and said, “You know what we haven’t heard? We haven’t heard you say you’re sorry.” I had been anticipating this question, and I blurted out my answer almost before my mom finished speaking. “I’m not,” I said defiantly. “I’m not sorry for my alcoholism.”
Alcoholism is a disease. It affects not just the afflicted, but layers of relationships that surround the alcoholic to varying degrees. My parents and sister worried and prayed about my drinking. As I tried and failed to control my consumption, they tried to manage the anxiety that resulted from feelings of helplessness and confusion.
My innermost layer is Sheri and our four kids. We depend on each other for survival. This is where my sorrow lives. I am a year and a half sober, and I continue to apologize for my alcohol-induced mistakes and the pain I caused my wife over many years of drinking. I have talked openly and honestly about my disease with my children. I have asked for their forgiveness. A child’s love for a parent is unconditional. My children have forgiven me without hesitation.
And yet, my pain from the damage I have caused my wife and kids is still there. It lingers. I don’t think it will ever go away. I hope it doesn’t. That pain has made me who I am.
With my innermost family, I have made amends for my alcoholic transgressions. I have done so naturally and without hesitation. I have apologized profusely and continuously specifically because of our dependence on one another for our survival. I owe them the best I have to give, and at times, I have let them down.
I don’t feel I owe anyone else a thing.
There are others who have suffered through my addiction with me – friends on the receiving end of a crass comment or a joke that might have been more hurtful than funny, my family and my wife’s family who knew something was wrong but were powerless to fix it – they have suffered, too. Alcoholism is ruthless and indiscriminate. It mows down anyone who gets in its path with no mercy. My addiction left a whole bunch of us roiling in its wake.
To these people who suffered alongside me – I do not have any apology to offer. I’m sorry this happened to us. I’m sorry we had to go through this together. I’m sorry for all of our pain. But I do not feel responsible or remorseful.
If alcoholism is a disease, why should I be sorry? Should a cancer patient apologize for being weak or tired? Should a leper apologize for dropping limbs on the floor? Should a heart attack or stroke sufferer apologize for the inconvenience of their life threatening tragedy?
No one would ever dream of seeking an apology from the victims of these widespread and deadly health problems. So why are the victims of the disease of addiction expected to repent?
The twelve steps of recovery in Alcoholics Anonymous explore the concept of making amends in great detail. I have never been to an AA meeting, so I am far from an expert. However, I have read extensively about AA including parts of, “The Big Book.” As I understand the steps, alcoholics in recovery through AA are asked to make a list – an inventory – of everyone their drinking may have hurt. They share the list with a sponsor and dive deep to ensure its completeness. Then they make amends to everyone on the list as long as doing so does not cause further damage. It is a long and grueling process. Recovery is a long and grueling process. I get it. If we are not working on our recovery, the chances of relapse are perilously high. Making amends as suggested by AA takes a lot of work. This work – working the steps as described in AA culture – keeps alcoholics sober.
My lack of sorrow for pain my addiction caused those outside my innermost family must sound like blasphemy to my AA friends. Maybe I’m wrong. Alcoholics anonymous had been around for many decades before I decided to get sober. They have experience and millions of meeting attendees for whom their steps are working. But they also have a dismal overall success rate just like most – maybe all – recovery programs. Maybe there is another way.
Alcoholism is a disease of shame. I am ashamed that I forced my wife to stay at parties long after she wanted to go home because I still had more drinking to do. I’m ashamed of the mornings my kids found me asleep in a chair next to a full beer that I passed out before drinking. I am ashamed of late-night alcohol-induced arguments with Sheri, and I’m ashamed of the lies I told to hide the full extent of my drinking.
When I stopped drinking, the shame rolled on. I was ashamed to be the only person at the party too weak or pathetic to be able to handle his booze. I was ashamed to refuse champagne during a toast or to decline invitations to events that were really thinly veiled excuses to drink alcohol. I was ashamed of my affliction – my disease – because our culture has inextricably linked alcoholism and shame.
The idea of listing all of my shameful acts so I can seek out the offended and apologize for behaviors that resulted from a disease our society forced on me keeps my shame overflowing.
What if instead of making amends, we end the stigma of shame?
What if the offended recognize that I am not defined by my drunken behavior from my alcoholic past? What if we celebrate my sobriety rather than hold grudges? What if we drag conversation about alcoholism out of anonymity and into the light of our culture’s glorification of all things alcohol? What if we work hard to end the shame and stigma? What if we do so unapologetically? What then?
I thank God for my alcoholism. Changing our society’s disgusted and shameful view on those of us who contract this disease has become my mission. Ending the stigma has given my life purpose. I would rather spend a million hours trying to change the misconceptions surrounding addiction than spend a minute making amends.
I have a lot of work to do. Just like working the twelve steps is key to keeping AA members sober, the work involved in attacking the stigma of shame makes me stronger in my recovery with every word I write.
Not only does this work keep me sober, it is the fulfillment of my life’s God given purpose. I am not working to end the stigma out of anger or jealousy or spite. I’m working to rip the shame out of alcoholism because it’s what I am supposed to do.
God knows I’m sorry – not just because I’ve told Him, but because I’m human. I’ve prayed for His forgiveness and asked Him for direction. I’ve felt His less-than-subtle nudge. I don’t think God is interested in amends.
When God answers our prayers, I think He wants to hear Amens.