Shame from Innocence: The Curse of the Stigma


Shame from Innocence: The Curse of the Stigma

The cinder-block-sized, first-generation cell phone rang disturbing the quiet concentration of the fifth floor of the Indiana University library. My friend, Eric, picked it up from the table we shared as we studied. “Yeah,” he said as everyone on the floor listened agitatedly to only Eric’s side of the conversation. “I told you not to call me on this line…What!…That can’t happen…Get the shit back, and kill him!” With that, Eric slammed the foot-long phone back down on the table, and returned to his economics book as though nothing had happened. I tried to stifle my laughter as I, too, put my head back down and pretended to study. The rest of the students on the fifth floor whispered anxiously amongst themselves, and stared in our direction in disbelief.


A few minutes later, all eyes were still on us as Eric and I put the toy phone in a backpack and headed to the basement cafeteria for a pizza. That phone had exactly one function – if you pushed the right button, it would ring a few seconds later. That’s it, and boy did we have fun with that $3 plastic replica.


We had studied for about seventeen minutes, had a pizza during a hard-earned break, and mutually agreed that we’d accomplished enough at the library for one night. We hustled back to our fraternity house just in time to watch Melrose Place with our other four best friends.


The six of us sat on a couple of filthy used couches smoking cigarettes, drinking cans of Natural Light and watching a weekly evening soap opera with literally not a single care in the world.


We were all far from home, away from the nurturing hugs of our mamas and the guiding discipline of our fathers, and we were a family. We didn’t know it at the time. At least I had no idea what we provided for each other. But now, looking back, we were clearly making the transition to adulthood together. So full of confidence, but also the innocence of our mere twenty years of life experience. We felt independent – free from the shackles of high school, but yet, we were probably as dependent on each other as we’d ever been on anyone in our lives.


We validated each other’s decisions. We protected each other from the threats of the outside. We laughed at all the stupid jokes, loaned each other beers and made it always feel like a socially acceptable time to drink alcohol and be minimally productive.


Those friendships – they were a form of love for sure. I was as comfortable with those guys as I would ever feel around anyone, except maybe my wife. We all tried hard enough in school to eventually graduate. We all had girlfriends come and go, and were there for each other when our young little hearts broke. We shot potatoes at things with a “tater shooter,” slept until the afternoon whenever we could get away with it and found our personalities and party grooves with each other for four of the best years of our lives.


We drank. A lot. But drinking in college was nothing like the medicinal depression fighting of my active alcoholism. Our drinking was joyful. It was excessive, dangerous and occasionally painful, but it had the naivete of our age and our upbringings. We were at college to get degrees and have as much fun as we could, in that order. We were not there to create destructive life patterns or make decisions that would negatively impact our futures. It was innocent. We were innocent. We were just a bunch of kids trying to do the right things, and enjoy the ride.


I remember just sitting with those guys for hours and hours – talking, laughing, drinking and smoking. That it never seemed to get boring was just evidence that we loved each other. And we needed each other in unspoken ways. We gave each other rides, and tried to help each other with school stuff. We saved seats for each other, bummed cigarettes to each other, pooled our money to buy beer and vodka, tried to help each other with girls and checked on each other several times a day. There was no facebook, and the only cell phone between the six of us was the plastic toy we took to the library to avoid studying. We were friends. We were kids. Our bond created all the protection we thought we might ever need.


After college, outside the cocoon of mutual protection, life gradually got harder for all of us. There were divorces and failed businesses. One of us came out as gay, and one of us could never get over the commitment hump and has never married. One of us is an addict, and is very public about his battle with alcoholism and recovery.


About six or eight years after we parted company and began our real adult lives, we came back together to bury another friend. For some of my college best friends, that funeral is the last time I’ve seen or spoken to them. We’ve drifted apart, too busy to make the effort any longer. Too different now to remember when we were all so much one and the same.


We’ve all faced challenges – divorce, bad business decisions, coming out gay in a homophobic world and coming out alcoholic in a society ripe with stigma. None of it was easy, but that’s OK, because no one told any of us that life would be easy.


But here’s the thing – here’s the point of all of it. Nothing the six of us have been through resulted from bad intentions or depravity. Life is hard, and life happens. And even a group of friends, who were just trying to accomplish meager goals while having a good time, get caught in the sausage grinder of life. We didn’t intentionally do anything wrong. We didn’t get what we deserved. We did our best, and sometimes life breaks left when we are hoping it will break right.


There is no room for shame in this story of six loving boys coming of age. We made mistakes, for sure. Most of our pain was avoidable, and some of it was predictable. But there is no getting around the fact that we don’t know what we don’t know.


I didn’t know my excessive drinking from ages eighteen to twenty-two would lead to addiction and debilitating depression. I didn’t know it would result in pain for my family and a mountain of marital challenges. I didn’t know. If I had, I would have avoided it.


There is so much anger, deceit and blame associated with alcoholism. So much pain. For most of us, healing, repair and forgiveness are the challenge of a lifetime. But there is no malicious intention. I am aware of the details of so many cases of alcoholism, and I don’t know of a single one that was born of evil intent. Not one. In every case, enjoyment became pain relief, and pain relief became uncontrollable compulsion.


This is not an attempt to excuse behavior. Nor is it a plea for the loved ones of alcoholics to stay when they need to go. It is only a call for empathy and compassion. Addiction is hard enough without the shame we associate with contracting one of the world’s most common chronic diseases.


Shame is what keeps us from curing the disease of alcoholism.


Bad things come from evil places. But sometimes, often really, bad and hurtful things are born from innocence. When that happens, there can be no shame, because when there is unwarranted shame, relief is elusive.


If you are struggling with the blame and shame of early sobriety from alcoholism, please check out our SHOUT Sobriety program. There is nothing easy about early recovery, and we want to share what we’ve learned. For more information, to make a donation or to enroll, please click the button below.

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  • Reply
    May 19, 2020 at 5:44 am

    Matt, Great article. Your story just flows and is so relatable.

    This is certainly my truth as well: “enjoyment became pain relief, and pain relief became uncontrollable compulsion.”

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      May 19, 2020 at 6:55 am

      Yes, Chloe! It all happens so innocently.

  • Reply
    Ainley Doyle-Jewell
    May 20, 2020 at 9:53 am

    That was very powerful. Obviously, I think of my mother who died from alcoholism, and my brother who is in recovery again. I have struggled with the belief that my mother didn’t love me. Many years ago, I came to the understanding that she did love me, but wasn’t healthy or available. This article helped me to understand a little bit more about her and her struggle. Thank you! You are helping people recover and not all of them are suffering from addiction, but rather the fallout from a loved one’s addiction struggle. Ainley

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      May 20, 2020 at 10:12 am

      Helping the loved ones of alcoholics understand is as important as anything to me. Thanks for sharing your experience, Ainley!

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