It’s been awhile since I’ve written in this category, I’m not sure why that is. But since I’ve missed another Monday post, now’s as good a time as any to write one.
I missed this past Monday because I didn’t attend the meeting; I asked a regular attendee to cover for me. I didn’t attend the meeting because I have been feeling under the weather for past 10 or so days, whatever’s got me has really grabbed hold! I have been through all the regular permutations of an infection… sore throat, cough, aches, chills, and I’d say for the most part they’ve come and gone. What’s lingering now, and has been for at least 5 days, is this unrelenting lethargy… it feels like I’m moving through water, and I could sleep at any moment.
It’s bad enough that I actually went to the doctor, which may not mean a lot if you don’t know me, but says something significant if you do. I intensely dislike going to the doctor’s. He gave me an antibiotic, and paperwork to get my blood tested, and told me the exhaustion is normal; since my body is fighting an infection, it is working overtime, so it’s tired!
Problem solved, case closed. For what possible reason would I be writing about such an inane subject?
Answer: I have uncovered an interesting mental side effect of this physical illness, and that is guilt. I feel guilty for feeling sick.
Illogical, irrational, and most likely makes me sound unbalanced, but it’s the truth. I have no energy, and I berate myself for getting nothing done. The monkey mind creates a laundry list of things I should be doing to get well: exercise more, fight through the exhaustion! Drink more water, eat healthier, meditate harder, snap out of it.
“You’re not that sick,” says the monkey mind.
I do try to talk back to criticism, but suffice it to say the circular argument is exhausting to think about, let alone write it out, let alone have it in the first place.
And even when I’ve completed the laundry list, there is always, always another item added for which to feel guilty because it has gone uncompleted.
Three days ago, I awoke from a disturbing dream. All I can remember from it is that I was diagnosed with cancer. The disturbing part was the emotion I experienced, which was guilt, because I was convinced that the cancer was my fault for something I had done, or something I had failed to do.
When I realized that was my take-away from the dream, I knew I was troubled. And I examined where guilt was infecting my life, and was startled to discover how pervasive it was. Truly, it is egotistical how much responsibility I give myself.
So my inflated ego… something else about which to feel guilty.
While the illness is the catalyst for this self-examination, I believe I will find that, even as I heal, even as I become more active, take on more responsibility, and so on, guilt will still be playing a role. My best guess is that it’s always been there, I’m just painfully aware of it now that I’m sober. I’m still not sure what that is, if it is:
A. connected with addiction
B. residue from being raised in an Irish Catholic household
Or maybe it’s
C. all of the above
And more important, here’s the essay question that needs to be answered:
How the heck do you overcome an addiction to feeling guilty?
Feel free to respond, especially if you’re in recovery… from guilt!
Taking the time to write this post, because I know I am going to get great responses to help me tackle this issue!
Today’s reading selection came from the book As Bill Sees It: The AA Way of Life. I would describe it as a “best of” book, in that it is composed of excerpts from hundreds of different letters, articles and book chapters written by the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson. Each selection of excerpts centers around a particular topic or theme; this morning I chose the guilt as the topic from which to read.
While smaller in attendance than last week’s meeting, the sharing was much more animated than the week prior. I did take my own suggestion and brought donuts for the first meeting of spring, so perhaps sugar is the key to conversation! In any event, everyone had a personal experience to relate with regard to the topic of guilt. Here are some of the highlights:
- There is no comparison to the role that guilt plays in the life of the actively addicted versus the life of a recovered person: guilt is all-encompassing and pervasive while we are still drinking. No matter what feelings of guilt we experience in sobriety, they pale in comparison to the guilt we lived in active addiction. Every one of us in attendance this morning had the opportunity to recall the caliber of guilt in active addiction, and be consciously grateful that we no longer have to live that way.
- Mucking around in the past is a pointless exercise that needlessly brings back guilt. Sometimes it is necessary to stop yourself mid-thought and bring yourself out of that state with the reminder that the past is unchangeable; all that can be done now is to live the best way you know how today.
- The worst thing we can do with our guilt is to keep it inside; one of the greatest blessings of fellowship within a 12-step program is the ability to share our burdensome feelings with people who understand completely. Sharing our guilt helps to lessen its power.
- Guilt over past mistakes with drinking can very well lead to relapse. The inability to forgive, combined with self-pity, led one attendee in the room back to the bottle time and again for years. Each time she would drink, then feel horrible about herself for drinking. Over time the guilt turned to thoughts of “why is this so hard for me?” Eventually, those feelings became too much, and she would pick up again. It was only in letting go of past mistakes that she was able to accrue her three years (and counting!) of sober time.
- Several of the long-timers cited step four and step five, in which they completed a personal inventory of themselves and then shared that inventory with a trusted advisor, as the turning point in the eradication of guilt as a driving force in their lives. The act of looking at their drinking lives thoroughly and honestly, and admitting to themselves and another human being their defects of character, was enough to allow them to let go of the past. The follow-up work in steps 8 and 9, where they made amends for the more egregious of faults, solidified their ability to live in the present rather than bemoan the mistakes of the past.
I picked this topic today because it had application to some recent events in my life. This past weekend I attended an annual charity event in which members of my family have participated for years. Personally, it is an event I dread in the days that lead up to it, and this year for whatever reason it bothered me more than most. The problem is that I associate bad memories with it both in active addiction as well as in sobriety. The active addiction is simple enough: I think of the times I attended while chemically altered, and the guilt hits me like a blow to the stomach. But then the memory hits me, like a one-two punch, of the first time I attended this event sober. It was very early in my sobriety, and I still had so many strained relations with a variety of family members, I actually had to walk away from the whole event and circle the block, I was having such a hard time catching my breath.
Both memories are still so powerful to me, they are really hard to shake. This year’s event was a perfectly fine one, both of my children participated and had a marvelous time doing so (my daughter even won a medal for second place in her age category!), plus I had a variety of friends participate this year so there was lots of good distraction.
But the bottom line: emotional hangovers can be nearly as powerful as alcoholic ones, and I wound up feeling physically sick most of the day Sunday. I could be creating a link where one doesn’t exist, but at the very least the emotional hangover did not help the physical ailment.
So what’s the answer when guilt grabs you by the throat? I’m not sure I have the sure-fire remedy, but I can certainly tell you what doesn’t work: wallowing in the memories. I spent some time doing that this weekend, and I can say with certainty that wallowing only exacerbates the issue.
The only two solutions I know I have employed this morning: I prayed, and I talked about it. I suppose this post counts as a third: I am taking the time to write it out. Hopefully all three things will help put these demons to rest once and for all!
Waking up and getting back to a normal routine after a sad sick day is always a miracle!