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When I think about shame in the addictive process, I'm often reminded just how common it is. A high percentage of the people I've worked with struggle in this area. I'm not sure that any therapists in the addiction treatment field works with anyone who isn't struggling with shame to one degree or another.
When I think about shame in the addictive process, I think about clients such as James (please note that any names I use throughout this presentation have been changed). James, who is from the Midwest and was in an addiction treatment program, said something to me that I thought was very poignant, 'I think the shame that I feel over my own addiction is really nothing but a refinement and purification of the shame I felt as a child because of my father's addiction. On an emotional level, I have drunken liquor that has been twice brewed. To think that I could end up like my father; to think that my disease would impact my children as his disease impacted me has been a prospect far too horrible for me to even begin to want to comprehend.'
He went on to say 'this was the wrong meal of shame that I milled and that I baked into a very fine pastry. I spent so many years trying not to recognize what it is that my father and I had in common. We did things really differently. He did all of his drinking outside the home, and I did so much of my drinking and using within the home. He did a lot of crying and was very open with his tears, and I worked very hard so people would never see my tears. I can remember over the years though, he didn't get help. I remember him pleading and crying for help. I understand today that superficially we were very different, but underneath we truly had the same disease.'
Another client, Cindy, was raised with two addictive parents and was married to an addict—her husband was in jail for a felony drinking and driving charge. She told me, 'You know, as a kid, all I ever wanted was to do it differently than how it was when I was growing up. Here I am just a couple of days away from my twenty-third birthday, my husband is in jail for a felony drinking and driving charge, and I'm looking into the eyes of my baby who is thirteen months old whom I'd just thrown across the living room floor. It was at that moment that my world and sanity absolutely crumbled. I was clearly doing it exactly as my parents had done it.'
However, from that moment, some wonderful things would happen very quickly for Cindy. It was that realization that compelled her to reach out to a local community mental health center and in that local community mental health center she was referred to a psychologist who quickly said to her, 'I believe I understand why this is happening to you, and I believe that I can help you,' and then he talked with her about her willingness to come back and see him on a regular basis. But he would also introduce her for the first time to a twelve-step program, and that's where she would find her recovery—both from the community mental health center and that twelve-step program. When her husband came out of jail, he would begin his own recovery process, and I think this was propelled not just by his experience in jail, but by the fact that his wife had reached out for and gotten help. He could see the difference it made in her life.
Then there is the sixteen-year old who said to me, 'You know, I was probably in first grade before I ever understood that 'worthless' was not my first name. I really thought it was my first name. It was the only thing my parents ever called me.' And she said, 'I had a middle name. You want to know what my middle name was. If I wasn't worthless, then I was simply called 'stupid.'' Sadly, that is the legacy that keeps on going. Those are the legacies of internalized shame.