I don’t feel shame, I slip into it like an old sweater. That sweater that’s been around forever and is threadbare and holey with age; the one that is comfortable in its familiarity but smells like the back of the closet. I can sense it over my skin; it changes the way I appear in the mirror.
For years I wore that garment more often than I wore anything else. It was hard for me to notice or care what I had on underneath, in fact. That’s been changing in these last years, as I discover ways to take responsibility for my choices without putting myself down constantly. On days like today I notice how much things have changed, because when shame wraps around me it no longer seems quite so familiar.
I’ve been following some threads started by a friend about how the increasingly harsh regulations regarding prescription of narcotic painkillers, and doctors’ reactions to these rules, are impacting the lives of people who need medical pain management. For every person like me who became a full-blown addict, there are many who continue to use the painkillers legitimately. I know many who have been on the same dosage for ten or fifteen years.
Anyway, people are suffering, and some of them are people dear to me. It’s getting worse rapidly: people who move or lose their insurance can’t get a new doctor because entire practices are blacklisting all narcotics patients. Long-term pain patients are having their doses abruptly cut with no justification, and if they protest they are labeled drug seekers. From what I am hearing, this trend is having an especially vicious effect on the 55 and over population. Some are even predicting a wave of suicides as untreated patients, many of whom also battle depression or other mental health issues, succumb to despair at their low quality of life.
So, as I witnessed people sharing their experiences, outrage, worry and fear in comments over several days, I felt a deep regret for the way I contributed to this awful problem. In my addiction, I was a drug seeker. I started out as a legitimate pain patient, and over a period of years I became something else. I don’t know why some people change this way and some don’t. I’m not responsible for the stupid ways the powers that be are responding to the problem, but I am responsible for my past behavior and how it played a small part in creating this situation.
As I read comment after comment over several days, I felt as if I were fading away. I was losing my identity and becoming “other.” One of those addicts, one of those drug seekers ruining things for the innocent. One of “them.” It felt like being at a party with my friends–dressed up, happy, talking confidently–and being pulled aside by police who scrub the makeup from my face, confiscate my shoes in favor of some dingy slippers, and drape my ratty, smelly gray shame sweater over my head as they usher me out.
I tried to let go of these feelings quickly. This issue isn’t about my self-esteem, it’s about the needs of others. But the reactions clung stubbornly, and when I took some quiet time with them I realized, with a burst of sadness, what it was.
For the first time in years, I felt truly ashamed about being an addict. I don’t generally feel ashamed of being one these days: make no mistake, I was terribly ashamed of being a practicing addict, but in recovery I allow myself to feel the dignity of a person who has made changes. Also, the frequent sharing and mutual support in recovery makes addiction not “other” to me anymore. Because I need to, I even find meaning and nobility in our struggles, and I am quite often proud to be a person in recovery.
To have that feeling of dignity stripped away; to see myself as they must see people like me, hurts.
Perhaps it should. That’s an eternal question, one I have considered before and will again: where’s the line between appropriate guilt and toxic shame? It’s fitting that I feel guilt about the wrongs I’ve done. It’s also fitting that I not think well of myself when I specifically consider these things. So where should I stop?
When I chose to try to live, I kind of made an assumption that there’s enough good in me to be worth preserving. Going and staying too deep in shame makes me wonder if I was wrong, and that’s dangerous. On the other hand, I refuse to be someone who flits around being inconsiderate and saying “I can’t afford to feel guilty, so I won’t bother caring when I act like a jerk.”
I don’t know yet what exact forms my ongoing amends to the medical community will take. For now, the best one is for me to work the hell out of my recovery so that I can keep from ever repeating my bad behavior. I’ll also try to let go of the part of my shame that is self-absorbed and practice humility instead: offering myself as I am, and letting others decide what to make of it.