Sweater of Shame


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.

6 responses to “Sweater of Shame

  1. What is sad is that there is a need, whether from an addictive place or not, to try and “take,” something that will help us escape those feelings.
    We cant openly express sadness, grief and brokenness.
    We have to be “happy,” and constantly seek something to “make” us feel that way.
    I am impressed with your honesty and say, the only difference between a heroin addict and a prescription pill addict is the acceptance society has for the one that profits those who create the rules and the paradigm.

  2. I recently did some coaching that helped me see my shame more clearly. For me, shame is always wrapped up in how other people see me. I can be more objective about my guilt and see that my best then is not my best now. There’s something about that simple recognition that takes away the shame’s power. I know how painful a shame episode can be hut it sounds like you’re processing it with clarity!

  3. Reblogged this on Overcoming Generalized Anxiety Disorder and commented:
    “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?”

  4. I agree with the above comment – that quote from your post resonated very strongly with me. You are not lying to anyone which makes you introspective and thoughtful. Shame and low self-esteem do drag us down and there will be plenty of people who will judge from their ivory perch.
    However, you are speaking from a more honest place.

  5. This was written so beautifully and found me at a time when I needed it. Watching my close friend crumple under the weight of her addiction hurts. I have a lot of anger I feel towards her, especially since her teenage sons turn to me to fill the mother role & she’s too strung out on pills to notice. It helps to put into perspective that as much as those who love her are suffering, it’s probably only a fraction of the suffering that she feels. And the reminder that while her actions are destructive and hurtful, it wasn’t her intention to become this way. Thank you for providing an honest and sincere perspective to those of us on the other side.

  6. This site is Christian-based. BUT… even if you aren’t Christian this is a very very good definition of the difference between shame and guilt. You have to skip the top part to get to the gist of what they think the difference is.
    guilt – doing wrong in light of a ‘standard of right/wrong’
    shame – feeling wrong in ‘the eyes of someone else.”
    here is the website address.
    http://www.covenanteyes.com/2013/02/01/guilt-vs-shame-why-definitions-matter/

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