Almost all of us at one time or another have been sandbagged at a meeting. Without any warning or preparation time, we are asked to qualify and share our experience, strength and hope. Our first impulse may be to say no. Many of us have a fear of public speaking. Then of course there is our old friend perfectionism who chimes in, “how can you speak without any lead time? Your qualification is going to be lacking in so many ways”. Once we push through these reservations, we arrive at the essence of our reticence. Deep down inside we don’t think that the story of our recovery will be of benefit to anyone. A lot of this is based on the fact that we have a lot of shame about our past. How can our journey to recovery be of value to anyone else; given that it is studded with self doubt, denial, and repeated failure.
The truth is that is probably exactly what someone needs to hear. So many of us believed that we were “the only one” who felt a certain way or behaved in a certain manner. When we hear someone else describing a struggle that we are currently going thru and coming out on the other side; it can be incredibly empowering. A share can literally open up a new pathway towards sobriety for another member
Personal Reflection: Do you avoid qualifying at meetings?
As active alcoholics and addicts we did many things that we weren’t proud of. When we entered sobriety, we finally put down our drug of choice. That was a truly wonderful thing. The problem was that we carried around remnants from our days of using. These often manifested themselves as guilt. Even after an extended period of sobriety, we still had strong feelings of shame. We continued to have obsessive thoughts about events from long ago. Although others had long forgotten those actions, they were still front and center in our mind.
What changed for us was that at meetings we began to hear people speak about their gratitude. They too had done things in the past which they regretted. By going through the steps they had made their amends where possible and had moved on. Their focus was now on the present. Many of them had a daily practice of making a gratitude list. We decided to follow their example.
Over time many of those obsessive thoughts of guilt and shame dissipated. Since we could only keep one thought in our mind at it time, it made sense to us to make that thought one of gratitude. Even when we had guilty thoughts about current actions, we learned to let go of them as well.
Personal Reflection: Do I chose gratitude over guilt?
All of us make mistakes. It’s a part of life. Of course we initially get upset, but hopefully after a few days we get over it. For many people that is actually what happens. Then there are the rest of us. Something happens and we too get upset. The only thing is that we don’t let go of that upset. In fact over the next few days, weeks, months and sometimes years we continue to carry those feelings around. Some people turn it into rage and resentment, some into shame and some into guilt. Each of those feelings can have a very long shelf life. The problem with carrying them around is that they can actually intensify over time. What might have essentially been a triviality turns into a major issue in our minds. When this happens it can cloud our decision making abilities. Everything becomes tainted because we are holding onto a greatly inflated set of feelings.
To escape from these long carried sentiments many of us turned to alcohol, drugs or food. We then felt guilt and shame about having turned to our drug of choice as well. It was only when we put down drugs and alcohol that we could begin to address our long held feelings. We began to learn to be more in the moment and leave guilt, shame, resentment, and rage in the past where they belonged.
Personal Reflection: Is there something I need to let go of?
As we were growing up, we were not issued a manual on how to navigate this life. Many feelings arose for us on a daily basis. Although some were positive, many were not. All those feelings of fear, anger, shame, jealousy, envy and pride hobbled our ability to function on a daily basis. We suffered greatly because of it. Then one day, we discovered alcohol, drugs or food. As soon as we ingested our drug of choice, all of the pain we suffered from lifted. At least for a short while we had a respite. The problem was that a short respite was not enough and we increased our usage. Before we knew it, we couldn’t even identify what a feeling was. We walked around in a coma like state; one day aimlessly following another.
At some point we were able to put down our substance. Within a short period of time, we began to truly feel alive once again. Shortly thereafter all of those old troubling feelings came flooding back as well. This time we didn’t run away from all of those feelings. With tools garnered from our 12 step program we were able to deal with life issues without turning to substances. We had learned the meaning of living life on life’s terms.
Personal Reflection: How do I deal with feelings today?
There is a reality to sobriety that is irrefutable. We cannot and should not attempt to do this program by ourselves. That was our modus operandi while we were active. Although we had many feelings of anger, fear and shame we chose to not share those feelings with anyone else. We walked around in a state of upset. As a result,when the opportunity appeared for us to relieve ourselves of all of that upset through our drug of choice, we were more than willing participants. Then of course we felt remorse for using; or for actions while we were under the influence. Since we didn’t share this with anyone else, it was just piled on along with all of the other buried feelings. The cycle of upset, drug of choice and remorse had begun once again.
When we finally put down the alcohol, drugs or food, the cycle was temporarily broken. However if we failed to change our behavior, we would quickly end up back on the despair treadmill. A big part of that change was the acknowledgement that this is a “we” program. The failure to recognize this usually lead to relapse. Utilizing the wisdom and support of other members of the fellowship was critical to recovery. Once we got beyond our pride or shame and opened ourselves to the help and concern of others; we had a much greater chance of success.
Personal Reflection: Am I practicing a “we” program?
Over and over again you hear in the rooms how difficult it was for people to enter the program. There was often huge resistance to even going to a meeting. Shame about our disease kept us out of the rooms. Denial that we had a problem prevented us from crossing the threshold. Then, one day, a miracle occurred and we actually made it to a meeting. The bigger miracle was that for many of us, that date became our sobriety date, the first day we refrained from using our drug of choice. Congratulations! That moment was a truly awesome one.
Hopefully we began to realize that a lifetime of personal dysfunction followed us into the rooms. Drugs, alcohol or food were just a symptom of the problem. Our accumulated dysfunction required a lifetime of personal, transformative work. The program provided an excellent framework for beginning that work. In particular, the process of going through the steps could be life altering. The establishment of discipline and commitment by going to meetings and calling our sponsor was also crucial. Everything was laid out in front of us to initiate the process of personal change. What now mattered was our level of engagement. Our failure to do so often catapulted us back into our addiction.
Personal Reflection: What issues of mine still require work?
Perhaps the following has happened to you. You’re in the supermarket and see a beautiful bag of apples for sale. The skins are mottled with reds, greens and browns and they have a wonderful bouquet. You grab a bag of them and head for home. After lunch you cut one of the apples open and see that it is rotten to the core. What a drag. It was so beautiful on the outside and smelled so delightful, but it was essentially inedible.
Secrets are like that. Many of us look great from the outside. We might even be called a poster child for the program. We make meetings, call our sponsor and do service. But inside, all is not well. There are secrets which we have carried for years or even decades. We don’t talk about them. We are afraid that if you find out what we did in the past, you will stop being our friend, or have many judgements against us. Shame holds us back from sharing these secrets because we have some misguided idea about having to always be perfect.
When we finally take that step and begin to share those secrets, we usually experience a tremendous sense of relief. We have begun the process of separating ourselves from the secret and the person who created it. Each time we share, we help to create a new healthier persona.
Personal Reflection: Am I still carrying secrets?
Occasionally in the news we hear of a case of extreme sleep walking. A person might have taken the bus to work or driven their car to a take out restaurant all while asleep. When we hear of cases like this, we are grateful that we do not suffer from this condition. The reality is that there is another kind of sleep walking. It’s not of the variety of clinically diagnosed sleep walking. In fact we are fully up and fully conscious. Yet we are still asleep. How is that possible? Because we are asleep to who we really are.
Many of us in the program fell into this category. While we were active, we had a vision of ourselves that was totally distorted. Some of us were full of pride, arrogance and grandiosity. We smugly felt superior to everyone. Then there were those of us who felt we were hopeless cases. We frequently berated ourselves for our inadequacies.
When we finally joined the fellowship, much of that bravado or shame was shed and we were able to take an honest look to discover who we really were. For most of us, this has been an ongoing process. The more we work the program, the more we are able to see who we really are; and to accept and love that person.
Personal Reflection: In what area of my life am I still asleep?
A lot of excuses surround people when they come into the program. Of course the most common is that, “I will never be able to stop drinking or drugging”, along with “I’m too old to begin this program”. There is also a tremendous amount of shame around our past and fear of the future. We are constantly dogged by the inner voices which attempt to discourage us from sobriety. The flow of 12 step is in the opposite direction. Our attention is focused on the here and now. This is why during the first year of sobriety we place such emphasis on day count. At a meeting you will hear someone say, “I have 57 days”, or “4 months since I took my last drink”. Upon hearing this, people will often burst into spontaneous applause. We do so because we are celebrating where you are in this moment. It’s not about the past or future, but your recovery right here, right now. As we grow in our recovery, the same principle also applies. When a person says, “I never qualified before at a meeting”, they are still encouraged to share their experience, strength and hope. After doing so, they will often find that someone deeply identified with their story. Wherever you are along the road to recovery, you can always begin a new chapter of growth.
Personal Reflection: Where is my recovery at this moment?