Amen(d)s

Writing About My Life's PurposeAn 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.

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9 Comments
  • Reply
    Tom Lund
    July 25, 2018 at 4:15 am

    Hello Matt, This is a powerful post! It is easy for people to agree that alcoholism is a disease, but hard to believe that it’s not self-induced. Thus the 12 step apology tour of AA. Your words have given a perspective of the disease that many don’t understand. I feel that you are helping a lot of people rethink their ideas about alcoholics and alcoholism while giving alcoholics themselves new hope. You are making an important difference.

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      July 25, 2018 at 4:37 am

      Thank you, Tom. Thanks for reading with an open mind. Your feedback means a lot to me.

  • Reply
    Mike Young
    July 25, 2018 at 6:42 am

    Amen. Keep working on your recovery.

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      July 25, 2018 at 6:48 am

      You know it, Mike. Thanks!

  • Reply
    Patti
    July 25, 2018 at 7:49 am

    I really am grateful for being an alcoholic…it has made me realize that I am a strong, kind person. The stigma of shame has changed in the 7 years I’ve been sober. It’s almost ” cool ” to be sober!!
    I’ve often said that everyone needs to go through recovery of some kind…not that I wish everyone was addicted, but it makes you much more grateful and humble as a human being.

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      July 25, 2018 at 9:00 am

      I couldn’t agree more, Patti, about how much of a benefit recovery is. Truly life changing. I wonder, though, if your impression that the stigma is better now than seven years ago is because of how much healthier you are now. Eighteen months ago, I was so, so ashamed. Now, I don’t care what anyone thinks. Is the stigma better now, or are you better now? What do you think?

  • Reply
    Jen Mitchum
    July 25, 2018 at 2:10 pm

    Hi Matt,

    Another thought inducing piece, good job. While I am an active participant in our AA community, our amends process doesn’t have to be grueling. Neither is it entirely for our benefit but rather the recipient who receives the apology. Most of caused direct harm and further intensified the situation through lies and excuses. We proclaimed “I’ll change” or “it will be different this time, or I’ll never drink again”. I feel like it’s not me apologizing for my alcoholism or my behavior but more how it made them feel and the hurt it caused. My sobriety is the true testament of my living amends and my words not being hollow, like they were before.

    I don’t believe AA is necessary to achieve sobriety. I like having a home group with fellowship and accountability, people who can help guide me back to center when I start to stray. With our odds low, statistically speaking, whatever it takes is the key to sobriety. I’m glad you are finding your own set of tools and strategies to keep it.

  • Reply
    Matt Salis
    July 25, 2018 at 8:21 pm

    Jen, I thought of you often while writing this post. I know how important AA and the fellowship has been to you. I cannot possibly thank you enough for your thorough and well spoken comment. This – this conversation right here – is what I am so desperately trying to achieve with this blog. You didn’t take my questioning of AA and turn defensive. You responded eloquently, and, frankly, gave me some things to think about.

    My favorite part of your comment is, “My sobriety is the true testament of my living amends and my words not being hollow, like they were before.” Now that is something I can get behind. I am so proud to be acting like the person I want to be in all of my relationships now. “Living amends,” – I LOVE THAT!

    In addition to these thought provoking comments, I have received a bunch of email today with different perspectives on this topic. Conversation about alcoholism – what more can I ask for? Thanks again, Jen, and please keep the comments coming!

  • Reply
    My Responsibility | Sober and Unashamed
    July 31, 2018 at 3:44 am

    […] week, I wrote about my rejection of the amends process as part of recovery from addiction. I shared that while I am endlessly sorry and apologetic to my […]

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