The Things I Got Away With

Present-Moment Awareness for Addicts in Recovery

A friend of mine who’s a recovering alcoholic recently told me he couldn’t quite shake the guilt he felt from his drinking years. It wasn’t the things his family knew about this period that troubled him; it was the things he’d “gotten away with.” In other words, the bottle drove him to behaviors that his family never found out about, things he thinks would horrify them. His family has very much come to terms with the fact that my friend had little if any control over his actions when the bottle ruled his life. They’d put very real hurts behind them, and offered him their unconditional forgiveness.

The trouble is, he can’t forgive himself.

We all have secrets; no one’s life, laid bare in the cold light of day, would score 100% on a personal ethics inventory. My friend’s problem is that his moral failings are eating away at him from the inside. I’m quite sure these secrets aren’t felonious or criminal in nature; the man had the kind of job in which you have to keep your nose clean in that way. It was, however, the Mad Men era, in which “boys-will-be-boys” was the rule of the day. Males repeatedly got away with all manner of offenses under this cultural rubric, and drinking to excess was often an indistinguishable feature of it. Drinking to the point of intoxication does seriously cloud one’s judgment, of course. Add to that a culture of near-impunity (for males) with regard to sexual dalliances, and the result is a long list of offenses that were weighing heavily on my friend’s newly-sober conscience. How could I offer him meaningful help?

One thing came to mind immediately. I told him, “It seems to me that being an alcoholic who managed to put down the bottle has made you a compassionate individual, not so quick to judge other people for their flaws. You know from experience how easy it is to screw up in a major way, so you’re much more likely to make allowances for others’ imperfections. Maybe, without that issue in your life, you wouldn’t have wound up being the compassionate human being you are.”

He clearly got what I was saying, and maybe it helped a little. Still, I saw that he remained deeply troubled. I asked him if he thought confessing his ethical failures to a therapist or a counselor might help. That was a non-starter; I happened to be the one and only person in whom he’d chosen to confide.

What’s interesting (and more than a little sad) to me is that there’s a chance this issue will remained at least somewhat unresolved for the rest of my friend’s life. No amount of advice along the lines of “stop beating yourself up over a past you are powerless to change!” can dislodge his firmly established guilt; he has to be the one to decide to let it go. I get that he feels as if he doesn’t deserve the love, support, and forgiveness his family has extended to him without strings. (His family is actually so happy to have him alive and well after those years when he seemed to be drinking himself into an early grave, they’re quite willing to close the book on the past.) The question is, will my friend eventually be ready to do the same?

I don’t think he’s in danger of relapse; aging has made his body too fragile to handle the poisonous effects of alcohol. He’s in what I consider a pretty good state for an addict in recovery: he gets sick before he can feel the effects of his drug of choice.

I very much hope my friend comes to the point where he can forgive himself for his unalterable past and begin living fully in the present moment. I know his family has no desire to see him punish himself for offenses they consider “under the bridge.” They’re not naive; they know the kind of things actively drinking alcoholics do. I doubt that any of his stories, if told, would be terribly shocking to them. The question is, will he eventually be ready to be as forgiving and compassionate toward himself as his family has been to him?

I certainly hope so.

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