I awoke slowly and tried to blink my eyes into focus. I stared at the ceiling and realized my memory of the previous night was incomplete. There were missing pieces – again I had gaps in my recollection I would have to piece together. It had been happening like this for decades now. Not every night, or even every week. But every month, certainly, I drank far too much and couldn’t remember the details.
I started looking around for clues. Were my clothes on or off? Did I brush my teeth? Was there a cup of water on the bedside table? Did I plug in my phone to charge? Did I put myself to bed, or did I simply fall down when I’d had too much?
I was terrified to wake my wife, so I laid silently still until my fear of the unknown surpassed my fear of her reaction. I didn’t roll into her and put my arm gently around her for fear of an elbow to my ribcage. I shook her shoulder gently, and braced for her reaction.
It was the same as far back as college – starting the day after a night of heavy drinking cloaked in the fog of the last night’s drunken blackout. Back then, I waited for a roommate to come to life or the friend sleeping on the couch to stir. Now, it was my bride of many years, but the confirmation I sought was exactly the same. What would their initial reaction tell me about the night before? Was there anger, frustration, confusion or dismay? In college, no matter how poor my behavior had been, I was far likelier to be embarrassed by laughter than to be scorned. “Dude, what the hell? You were wasted last night. You puked in your sock drawer and passed out on the floor.”
Now, that lighthearted reaction was gone. My only hope was that I passed out peacefully. There would be no laughter from my wife. She would either be angry or not depending on the depth and breadth of my drunken antics. I shook her shoulder. She didn’t move. She didn’t roll toward me. With her eyes still closed, she coldly muttered, “What do you want, Matt?” My wife’s not a “morning person” on a good day, but those five words spoken through gritted teeth made one thing perfectly clear. This would not be a good day.
I used to care so much what others thought of me. My friends, my parents and most of all, my wife – their opinions carried so much weight. I remember many occasions on family vacations when I emerged in the morning with blackout gaps from the night before and watched through squinted, apprehensive eyes to see what reaction my sister or my father would give me at the breakfast table. I was so hungry for approval, yet so willing to drink myself into their unavoidable disappointment.
Shame. It is the cornerstone of alcoholism. The shame we immerse ourselves in starts innocently with ribbing from other heavy-drinking friends, and transmorphs into anger and worry from the people who love us the most. Shame drives the cycle. We drink to blackout, face the shameful consequences and then drink to make the pain and embarrassment go away.
Alcohol works wonders. At least that’s what we think. Even when we know it isn’t working anymore, we still drink to hide our shame because we are one-trick ponies, and drinking booze is the only form of relief we know.
For a very long time – years into my sobriety, in fact – I thought that one of the most miraculous benefits of being alcohol free was that I no longer cared what anyone thought of me. There was a hump to get over for sure, and the arduous nature of defeating the shame of alcoholism should not be overlooked. For a year or more, I was even more embarrassed to be sober in an alcohol-emersed world than I had been ashamed to be an alcoholic. But eventually, my perspective shifted, and the shame was replaced by a lack of interest in the opinions of others.
I would get out of bed without concern for my wife’s reaction. I would traipse downstairs on family vacations with bed-head and morning breath and smile and plop down on the couch in front of my parents and my sister. The lack of concern about the opinions of others was the preeminent glory of permanent sobriety.
I didn’t care what you thought! Your opinion didn’t matter! At least that’s what I believed. It turns out, the truth is even better than that.
It’s not that I don’t care what anyone thinks of the me I’ve become in permanent sobriety. I’m actually proud of myself. Pride, not ambivalence, is the feeling that replaced the shame of my addiction.
This might seem like a minor distinction. Until recently, it’s one I didn’t understand myself. But the pride of an enlightened and “out loud” recovery is the difference between a successful sober evolution and trudging through the misery of relapses and the failure of countless day ones.
A good friend of mine is stuck. She has suffered great loss and tragedy, and she can’t stop blaming herself. Her drinking adds layer upon layer to the relentless pile of shame, and she can’t release the demons that hold her in their grip. She is trying to get sober. She is trying to recover. But the distance between shame and pride is so long and wide that she can’t imagine life on the other side. For her, the pride of sobriety will not just be a good feeling. For her, the pride of sobriety will be a limitless salvation.
If only she can get there.
I don’t care what others think of me. But it’s not simply because I’ve lost my self-consciousness or concerns for the opinions of others. It’s because I am trying to be the best version of me. If I fall short of your expectations, I guess that’s your problem, right? I’m doing my best, and alcohol is not getting in the way. What can I say – I’m pretty proud of that.
Pride has a bad reputation. Humility and humbleness is important, but feeling good about myself has an important place in my healthy mental state, too. In the recovery community, pride is often linked to relapse and disaster. I don’t see it that way. I think pride in living a life of service and respect is the way to go. And pride keeps the shame away. Without shame, I don’t have anything to drink away.
If you’d like to make the transition from shame to hopeful pride, please consider joining our SHOUT Sobriety program for people in early recovery from alcoholism. It is a huge undertaking, but we are doing it together, and we’ve got room for you to join us. For more information, to make a donation or to enroll, please click the button below.