Last 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 wife and our four kids, I do not feel I owe anyone else an apology for my alcoholic behavior. I received a lot of feedback, and much of it was negative. None of it touched me quite like this email I received from my sister, Joey.
Good morning, sweet brother of mine! I hope you’re having a good week. I read your most recent post this morning. Another good one. Your writing seems effortless. Really well done!
So – one thing I wanted to clarify about the apology thing: I will speak only for myself: one time, when you were drinking, you threatened to, “jump across the table and take me down. ” We were bantering (sort of) back and forth, and you began getting mad – physically aggressive toward me. I had never been on the receiving end of that tone and look before, and it rattled me. Later that night, you and Chris got into a physical altercation, so I knew it wasn’t just me, but…I am a woman, half the size of you….your little sister…
Another year, up in NH, when I was pregnant with Reese and struggling with 18 month old Max, I grew impatient with Adam – who seemed to be having a much easier vacation /drinking a lot/ and when you heard me say something to Mom about it, you told me that he was a good father and I was being ridiculous. I don’t know why that struck me and has stayed with me all these years. Again – it was probably the tone and look that came along with the words that dug in. In those moments – like many others through these years we’ve dealt with this disease – you made me feel insignificant and not worth very much. I can’t explain it. Even now, as I write this, I am uncertain how you will react. What if those words and actions back then came – not from being drunk – but instead, from your heart? What if you read this in your sobriety and think, “Here she goes again, wimpy and weak Joanna.”
Perhaps these hurts crave awareness rather than apologies. Alcoholism is the disease that allowed the words to come out of your mouth, but where, why, and how did those words, looks of disgust, judgment ladened eye rolls come from? They had to be just below the surface waiting for overconsumption to let them out, right? These are some of my scars that ache when I hear you say that you don’t owe any of us a thing. If it was just you being over the top with laughter and risky behavior (skiing at night) or passing out before bedtime, or drinking too much on occasions where I needed my big brother fully with me (taking shots in Papou’s basement when we were there for his funeral), it would be easier to stomach reading those words in bold print today. But – it goes deeper than that, and I flinched when I read them. I love you, brother. Let’s keep working through this.
As I finished reading, I realized I was covered head to toe in sweat and gasping a little to catch my breath. This physical sensation was very common for me the morning after over-drinking in the last few years of active alcoholism, but something I have not experienced in over a year and a half. I was filled with shame. I felt worthless and evil and was overcome with self-loathing.
I immediately apologized to my sister. I tried to explain that my drunken actions and words were not – 100% and absolutely NOT – how I really felt. They were not my inner truth lying just below the surface waiting for the liquid poison to coax them out of my mouth. That’s just not how it worked, at least not for me.
I had this same conversation with my wife, Sheri, countless times when I was drinking. Alcohol is often described as a truth serum, and it is true that a few drinks lowers inhibitions and loosens otherwise tight lips. But when I drank a lot, the booze ceased to draw out hidden truths, and rather, changed my very being. It’s like I wasn’t even there – like my body had been hijacked by a monster living in my brain. I don’t know where the vile, hurtful words came from. I rarely even remembered spewing such venom the next day. My wife always found this explanation hard to believe. How could someone who claimed to love her so much ever conjure such words of evil hate?
Now, as I tried feebly to explain to my sister, I’m sure she had the same doubts. Joey’s email and the conversation that followed caused me to rethink my position on amends. Maybe I do need to make a list of all the people I might have offended while drinking and start apologizing. Maybe I am wrong. I am no longer burdened by a big ego or gobs of self-confidence. Alcoholism beat the pride out of me. I have no trouble admitting when I am wrong.
But when I think about reaching out to friends and family to apologize for alcoholic transgressions, it feels like apologizing for the actions of another person – the hijacking monster. I can say, “I’m sorry,” with ease – just as easily as I apologized to my sister. While I feel deep, profound empathy for Joey’s pain, the man that commited that evil doesn’t exist anymore. It makes the apology feel – not to Joey, but to me – insincere.
A lot of the feedback I received about my rejection of the ameds process focused on the idea that I am not taking responsibility for my actions. One reader shared a quote from a recovery warrior I really admire, Laura McKowen, “It’s not your fault. It is your responsibility.” I love that. I do take responsibility. I am responsible for never drinking alcohol again. I am responsible for my recovery from addiction. It is my job to stay healthy, well rested, avoid temptations and pray for strength.
I don’t feel responsible for filling all the potholes of the past. That is where the shame lives. The stigma of shame permeates alcoholism. I believe the stigma of shame is the reason alcoholism is an epidemic afflicting tens of millions of Americans and affecting hundreds of millions of their friends and family members. I feel a deep responsibility to work to end that stigma.
Shame keeps us drinking long after we realize we are in trouble. Shame causes relapses when everyone around us is drinking and we feel weak and grotesque in our abstinence. Once we get a foothold in recovery, the idea of circling back and apologizing for the cretin we used to be brings the shame washing back over us. I do feel responsible. I feel a responsibility to help educate our society about our disease so those of us in recovery can shed some of the shame associated with addiction – so that we can skip that shameful apology tour because our friends and family will know that wasn’t us. They will know we didn’t mean the words the monster said. They will know we never meant to hurt them. I will work tirelessly so that those blessed to not have experienced addiction will understand enough about addiction to celebrate the recovery of the afflicted. And forgive. Forgive without apology. It is my responsibility to share that message.
I was surprised to receive a great deal feedback rejecting my assertion that alcoholism is a disease. I was surprised because this feedback came exclusively from people in recovery. I didn’t realize the classification of alcoholism as a disease was up for so much debate. I have thought about it a lot this past week, and maybe some recovering alcoholics prefer that we call alcoholism a deviant behavior, a character flaw, a weakness or a predilection.
But here’s why it is important to active alcoholics and non-addicted members of our society that we address addiction as a disease. If we don’t, it won’t receive the attention required to bring about a cure. I don’t know if it fits all the clinical or scientific requirements of disease classification. Here’s what I do know. I have whatever Robin Williams, Chris Farley, Anthony Bourdain and millions of non-celebrities had. And whatever it is, it’s killing us.
I have long said the lines that distinguish addiction from mental illness are blurry. In fact, I think addiction is a form of mental illness, and I’m not the least bit interested if it is self-induced by lifestyle choices or planted in our brains by a God with a plan or just the crappy luck of the draw. I have it, and it is real and deadly and needs to be taken seriously. Debating the status of alcoholism – is it or is it not a disease – is a waste of time and resources. Diseases get attention. Predilections and character flaws get the stigma of shame. For the sake of the alcoholics still suffering, and those drinkers yet to cross over the line into addiction, I feel it is my responsibility to call our affliction a disease.
My sister believes alcoholism is a disease, and it terrorized our family. I’m so grateful to her for sharing the details of her pain. Recovery – her recovery – is not possible until she faces her demons head-on. I’m glad she is doing that and I feel tremendous empathy for her pain. I get it.
My sister-in-law, Kim, gets it, too. I love Kim very much, but we have not always had a smooth relationship. At times, my drinking has angered Kim because it was hurting her sister. At times, my alcohol-induced comments have hurt Kim directly. At still other times, Kim and I have disagreed because we are both loud and stubborn. Now – this summer – our relationship has never been stronger.
Kim’s ex-husband died of medical complications of alcoholism a few years back. Kim’s father was an alcoholic who died far too young. Kim knows the effects of alcoholism on a family. She knows them deeply and in the most painful way. Now, as Kim reads my explanations of my experiences with addiction, she is one of my most supportive fans.
Kim has lived surrounded by the shame of alcoholism her whole life. I’ve never apologized to Kim, and yet her support of my efforts are strong and heartfelt. Kim gets it. She knows me. And she knows the monster that hurt her and her sister is not the man I am in recovery. I don’t think Kim wants an apology. I think she wants me to keep fighting the stigma of shame. I’m not the last alcoholic left in Kim’s life. For her, my fight, our fight, is still very important. In fact, it could be life or death.
My good friend and active Alcoholics Anonymous member, Jen Mitchum, also gave me feedback on my rejection of the amends process. When explaining how she addresses making amends, Jen wrote, “My sobriety is the true testament of my living amends and my words not being hollow, like they were before.” I love that. Living amends – that is something I can dedicate my life to achieving.
If alcoholism hurt you, you are in good and loving and empathetic company. I would be honored if you would share your pain with me like my sister, Joey, so bravely did last week. It will help you heal to face your pain. “Perhaps these hurts crave awareness rather than apologies,” Joey explained. That makes sense to me. If it makes sense to you, too, please share your hurts with me. I will understand, and I will, in loving solidarity, try to absorb some of your pain.
The epidemic of addiction is growing. Our recovery programs have dismal success rates. We are losing our battles with the mental demons, and we turn to alcohol and drugs to self-medicate. Our friends and families are being torn apart. We are dying. Call it a disease, or call it something else. Whatever you call it, alcoholism is killing us.
Insanity is commonly defined as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Downgrading addiction from disease status is not working. Shaming addicts in recovery as part of a healing process is not working.
Not understanding alcoholism as a culture and a society is simply not working.
Eliminating the stigma of shame from the disease of alcoholism is my mission from God. I will spend the rest of my life working to that end, and I will do so with love and empathy for all the victims – those afflicted and the ones they love.
Alcoholism is not my fault, but I’m making it my responsibility.