B16: Shame In Recovery

In case any of the following seems to the reader severe or harsh at all, I’d like to preface it with the following explanation. I have no judgment when it comes to addiction. I try to have as little judgment about anything as I can. But the following blog is not about right or wrong and good or bad. It’s about cause and effect, and choices. I’m not saying the right thing for an addict to do is to find recovery; they may not want to and that’s their choice.

The following descriptions and suggestions are probably only relevant to those addicts who’ve decided for themselves that they do want to find recovery. Those that don’t are best going to the High Times website or the local tavern and not reading a blog about recovery by a recovering addict who works 9 to 5 as a drug and alcohol counselor.



One of the major contributing factors to relapse is shame. A healthy dose of guilt when someone has made a thoughtless, selfish, inconsiderate or mean-hearted decision or action is normal and useful. It reminds us that our action was outside of our code of ethics and causes us to learn from that action and not repeat it, or it prompts us to make direct amends for it if necessary.


The difference between guilt and shame is that guilt is a feeling based on something we have done where as shame is a feeling based on who we believe we are.


Addicts/alcoholics can under no circumstances afford the luxury of wallowing in shame.

When an addict/alcoholic experiences shame they want to either punish/hurt themselves, or they want to escape themselves, or both.


The preferred way of hurting themselves is to punish their body with chemicals and toxins and to deprive themselves of their loved ones by disappointing them via another slip. The addict/alcoholic’s preferred mode of escaping themselves, of course, is also intoxication, inebriation or sedation of some description, and as another slip or relapse is (in the minds of most addicts/alcoholics seeking recovery) the most shameful thing one can do, it increases the global level of shame and nicely sets the addict up for another slip a few months/ days/ minutes later on down the track.

This cycle of shame and relapse is so common in recovery circles as to be a well known process. The equation is tried and true and understood globally. You simply replace the x with your personal circumstance e.g. I’m such a bad x (mother, father, wife, son, employee, boss, recovery person, etc…) that I feel x (ashamed, guilty, self hate etc) and therefore I might as well go and x (drink, get high, fuck, gamble, eat etc).


It is essential to remember that our past (whether it be years ago or even just seconds ago) is not ‘who we are’ or ‘how life is’ but really just a reflection of how we chose to operate in those moments. We have many other choices of how to act and if we give ourselves some love and compassion and if we can humble ourselves to gather support and guidance we can successfully start making new choices and acting differently right now.


Many alcoholics/addicts trick themselves into believing that shame is the only honorable or noble way to feel after the transgressions they’ve committed and pain they’ve caused. They feel that their shame is not only valid but that to ‘let it go’ would be a form of cowardice, dishonesty or hypocrisy.

The reality is that the addict/alcoholic’s sense of entitlement to shame is simply a disguised form of arrogance, and it is really just the internal addiction’s cunning manipulation to keep the alcoholic in a constant cycle of relapse.



In early recovery we need to be on guard at all times against such thoughts, watching and patiently waiting for the familiar self criticism to start nagging and whining away at us. When this occurs we need to remind ourselves that this is not ‘profound truth’ or ‘our just comeuppance’ but merely a shadow cast from our years of self-abuse. When these thoughts, and their accompanying feelings, occur we need to take immediate action to distract ourselves. We must not entertain these thoughts at any cost! They are a relapse knocking on our door.


The best distraction is a 12 step meeting or a phone call to our sponsor or other stable recovery person. If these are not available (though 99% of the time they will be if we seek them earnestly) we can temporarily substitute them with prayer, meditation, recovery literature, internet recovery groups, speaker tapes, daily inventory sheet, recovery journal, gratitude list etc…


As your recovery progresses you will learn to see the patterns around when and why these thoughts and feelings attack. You will often see that the ‘shame’ experience is covering some other feelings, feelings that we are not skilled or experienced in coping with or processing.

Through working the 12 Steps with a sponsor we gain experience with these uncomfortable feelings and grow to realize that they hold huge growth and learning for us, they are not our enemy but our greatest friends and teachers. The fear they bring up in early recovery is totally natural and normal and exactly why we need lots of NA/AA community, daily meeting attendance and daily contact with a good sponsor.


The following suggested daily program has prevented many a shaky early recovery from

turning into a relapse.



Do the following things at least once daily.


1) Morning prayer/meditation

2) Read from a daily reading book

3) Attend a 12-step meeting

4) Spend a minimum of 20 minutes working on the 12 Steps

5) Read from a recovery book (AA Big Book or NA Basic Text etc)

6) Ring or meet with your sponsor (texts don’t count)

7) Ring or meet with at least one other addict who is not your sponsor and has 2 years+ clean time.

8.  Complete a daily inventory work sheet (either NA ‘living the program’ or Capri black book, or a daily journal)

9) Do some simple good deed for another person, or the community, without anybody knowing of it.

10) Evening prayer/meditation


Many sponsors may also encourage many other things such as exercise, a certain nutritional régime, additional spiritual reading, additional 12-step socialising, fellowship service, journal writing, gratitude lists etc.

They may also have some weekly activities like meeting up to do step work.


What is described above is merely the minimum required to ensure an addict/alcoholic in early recovery stay clean. It may sound like a big order but we need only do one thing at a time. Compared to the time, effort and resources we put into maintaining our addictions, the above program is relatively modest.


Remember recovery isn’t just about ‘not using drugs’, it’s about creating an enjoyable, inspiring, meaningful and exciting life for ourselves.

Many addicts/ alcoholics may say “but I’ve already deprived my family of so much through my drinking how can I justify taking 90 minutes a day to go and attend a daily meeting now” or “I’m so broke through my using I have to catch up on earning money/paying debt, I have to work” or “I can’t afford to spend my money on babysitters and I don’t want to take my kids to a meeting” These thoughts are just the shame creeping in the back door. We can respond to these thoughts simply by saying “thanks for sharing, but my family prefers me alive/sober/healthy than with a little more time and money but full of secrets and chemicals’.


The very best thing we can do for our family is to do whatever it takes to achieve recovery and for most of us that takes more than a token effort, and for all of us it takes more than ‘doing it my way’. The reality is no matter how different you think you and your circumstances are, you’re not.


Becoming the parent/child/sibling/employee/boss etc we never were in active addiction is one of the deeply rewarding miracles of recovery, so too is looking after our bodies properly, finding new interests and becoming more involved with our friends or communities. These things all serve to enrich our experience of life and add to our personal growth. However, if they come at the expense of our daily program, they are as dangerous to us as hanging out in a bar or a drug pad.


It is as though we are each a house and through our addiction we wrecked our house to the core, the bedrooms and hallways the walls and the roof. The windows were broken and even the foundations were collapsing. In recovery we need to repair our house from the ground up. There’s no point in renovating the bathroom or kitchen or wallpapering the master bedroom when the piles are unstable and the house is about to collapse.


For this reason recovery must come first. The most generous, thoughtful, loving, rewarding act we can gift our families (and ourselves) is our active commitment to recovery.


Lastly, there is no evidence that says only people that enjoy meetings stay clean by attending them. The same is also true of prayer, daily readings, working the steps, calling a sponsor etc. Out of the billions of dollars worth of studies produced annually worldwide they have shown that there is little correlation between enjoyment of recovery tasks and their effectiveness. This means that everything above applies to you, no matter how much you hate: NA, AA, OA, public speaking, ‘the god stuff’, reading, workbooks, phone calls, socialising, that ‘type’ of people, the sponsor thing, etc…


You don’t have to like it for it to work, you just have to do it.




2 Responses to “B16: Shame In Recovery”

  1.  maria Says:

    reading that made sense to me. thanks for writing and sharing it.

  2.  Claire Says:

    I get that – I never enjoyed meetings< not for many years but kept on taking the action. I am so glad I did! It's great to have that confirmed for all the rest of those suggestions too. It is so little really – no excuses!

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