Recovery Rising Excerpt: Shame Revisited

Recovery Rising Book Cover PaperbackIn 2007, the recovery advocacy movement was progressing beyond anyone’s expectations. Thousands were marching in recovery celebration events and each year the number of new local grassroots recovery advocacy organizations grew exponentially. I was being invited to speak across the country and my advocacy essays had just been published by the Johnson Institute. From pulpits and podiums I was calling on a vanguard of recovering people and their families to stand together and declare their existence in this culture. I wrote about how such public disclosure of one’s recovery status could be done respectfully and tastefully without violating the anonymity traditions of Twelve-Step programs. The “coming out” of recovering people was signaled by buttons, bumper stickers, license plates, T-shirts, sweatshirts, hats, posters, and other assorted movement paraphernalia. I was given such tokens everywhere I traveled, transferring items to the Illinois Addiction Studies Archives and keeping some duplicates for my own pleasure. I proudly donned such trappings at addiction conferences and recovery advocacy meetings.

And I wore them at home. Florida is T-shirt and shorts country so I often slipped on a recovery T-shirt to hang around the house or work in my bamboo garden. On a day, like hundreds of others, I was wearing one of my favorite T-shirts—one given me by a group of children that had a child’s rainbow painting on it below a child’s printing of the words “Happiness is Recovery.” It was a beautifully designed shirt and one that had taken on special meaning to me. On this particular day, my wife asked me to run to a nearby grocery store to pick up a few items for dinner and, without thinking, I slipped off my Happiness is Recovery T-shirt, slipped into a nondescript T-shirt and headed to the store. A few moments down the road, I suddenly realized what I had done. It was a piercing moment of self-awareness. With all my bluster about making recovery visible and public, I still experienced some embarrassment related to that status, still feared the judgments of strangers, and feared that the recovery message on my clothing would be read with incomprehension or disgust. And this was deeply ingrained shame experienced by someone who had been drug-free for decades and who was challenging people in recovery to put a public face and voice on recovery.

The stain of shame penetrates deeply. We can scrub it from our skin, emotionally expiate it, and declare it gone. And still it seeps outward through our pores from deep within us. It tells us we are unworthy. It tells us we have no right to be. It calls us names and makes us sweat and blush with embarrassment. It whispers that we do not deserve full citizenship. It looks for judgment and contempt in the eyes of others. It dwarfs and silences us. Can you recall experiencing such feelings? Do you still experience such shame related to your own history or your close association with people recovering from addiction? One reason people need connection to a community of recovering people is to regularly purge such poison from our systems. The experience of community is the ultimate balm for shame.