We are told in early recovery that drug addicts and alcoholics are not bad people learning how to be good, but sick people learning how to get well. This initially sounds like an effort to get people to move past their guilt and start doing something positive. People who hang on to too much guilt have a difficult time making the changes that are necessary to stay clean. Shame and guilt can push us right back into active addiction.
Pretty much any program of recovery, including the 12 step programs of AA or NA, include a heavy dose of self-introspection and “housekeeping.” In other words, instead of simply abstaining from drugs and alcohol, the goal for long term recovery is to progress spiritually, and that means examining and attempting to correct our immoral behaviors.
How can this be? If alcoholism and drug addiction are not moral issues, then why does a successful recovery require us to examine our moral standards so closely?
Part of the answer can be found in the disease model of addiction. The disease model shifts the blame for our past transgressions to our addiction, even though we admit responsibility for those wrongdoings and pledge to do better in recovery.
Given this, it seems like we should be able to sober up and still be morally “bad.” It turns out that this is a recipe for disaster, and trying to engage in old behaviors–such as lying, cheating, or stealing, for example–will inevitably drive the recovering addict back to their drug of choice.
In other words, if we want to stay sober, we have to be good! Very simple. But why is this?
The reason we have to be good is because guilt and shame will eat us alive if we are behaving badly. We cannot fool ourselves, and we will know if we are out of line, even if we have the whole world fooled. Recovery forces us to raise our moral standards, or return to self-medicating in order to avoid the bad feelings.
Consider also that some of the 12 steps specifically address our behavior and how it has affected others. Some of the steps are designed to alleviate us of the feelings of shame and guilt that might drive us to relapse. Other steps are designed so that we are living our life in a way that won’t produce these ill feelings (a guide for proper living).
I’ve almost never met a “bad person” in recovery. When you get to know others in recovery, you start to see that addicts and alcoholics really are good people. Some of us still struggle with our addiction, and the behaviors that ensue are inexcusable. That means that addiction or alcoholism is not an excuse for bad behavior. We are still responsible for our actions, regardless of whether we are sober or not. But when you sober up the meanest, angriest, most miserable drunk, eventually you will start to see the good in them. I have experienced this with every single angry drunk that I have watched get clean and sober. Some of these individuals have truly shocked me in their willingness to help others after they sober up.
This of course does not mean that everyone who sobers up is going to make it over the long haul. It simply points to a common and subtle error in thinking: that people who act badly while under the influence are bad people. They’re not. They truly are sick, and you can see an amazing change for the better if they sober up and start working a recovery program.
Being good can become a habit. I was lucky in that I was in a structured environment during my early recovery. Being good was mandatory, or I faced being discharged on to the street. In the place I was at, bad behavior simply wasn’t tolerated. While I doubt that every addict and alcoholic will need this level of accountability in the beginning, I can’t help but imagine that this was critical to my long term success. The reason for this is because I started to get into the habit of being good, and noticed that life was certainly worth living this way. Doors started to open for me, opportunities presented themselves in the form of jobs, school, mended relationships, and so on.
At first, “being good” might have seemed like a drag….but it started paying off in spades, and I started to delve into deeper spiritual questions in order to find more meaning in my life. What I found was a core set of spiritual principles across a number of different philosophies and religions, as well as the unifying principles of gratitude and helpfulness to others.