When I first entered recovery in the summer of 2000, I remember hearing people introduce themselves in 12-step meetings with statements like, “Hi, I’m Joe. I’m a grateful alcoholic.” And my first response to that was, “Really? What the heck is so awesome about having an addiction that you’re actually grateful for it?” Every time I heard that statement, I felt a strong urge to leap out of my chair and strangle the person who said it. Occasionally, I gave voice to this sentiment, and the old-timers would smile and politely mutter things like, “Keep coming back,” and, “Don’t worry, it gets better.”
Being grateful for addiction did not make sense to me. My addictions were the bane of my existence. Thanks to my drinking, drugging, and compulsive sexual behaviors, every aspect of my life was coming apart at the seams. I was drowning in shame about how my world had gone bad, and I knew – I absolutely knew – that there was absolutely no way that my life was ever going to get better. Not enough better for me to feel grateful about it, anyway. The damage was too deep; the consequences too severe.
Well, that was then and this is now, and I’m truly, honestly, genuinely grateful to be an addict. I don’t introduce myself as a grateful addict at 12-step meetings because I remember the anger with which I responded to that statement in the first few years of my recovery. But that hardly means I’m not grateful for my addiction. In fact, when I create my 10-item gratitude list every morning, being an addict often makes the list.
I was speaking about that with a newcomer the other day – a newcomer who’d just complained in a meeting about someone introducing himself as a grateful addict. The newcomer said he could understand why someone would be grateful to be in recovery after suffering through an addiction, but he couldn’t understand why someone would be grateful for the addiction in the first place.
I told him that I couldn’t speak for the individual who’d identified as a grateful addict, but I could explain why I’m grateful for my addictions.
I began my explanation by sharing that from an early age, starting in elementary school, I’d felt uncomfortable in my own skin. I believed that in some important way I was defective and not good enough, and that even though people were nice to me it didn’t mean they liked me or wanted to be my friend. They were just being nice because I was able to put up a front and pretend that I wasn’t utterly and completely ‘wrong’ and ‘abnormal.’
I made it clear to the newcomer that I felt that way before I ever tried alcohol or drugs or sex. I felt that way before the teenage angst of puberty. I felt that way all the time, no matter what. That’s why alcohol, drugs, and sex were so appealing to me. Those substances and behaviors (temporarily) silence the gremlins that live between my ears and shout, “You suck!” at the top of their lungs 24/7/265. (Some people refer to these voices as ‘shame tapes,’ but I’m a child of the 80s and Steven Spielberg’s Gremlins is one of my all-time favorite movies, so I tend to call them gremlins.)
Unfortunately, my addictions eventually stopped working for me, as addictions always do. Tolerance and escalation set in, and all I could do was feed the beast. I found myself desperately trying, and failing, to just get back to zero. Instead of escaping my emotional discomfort, I was stuck in it, with or without my addictions. There was no longer any relief from feeling uncomfortable in my own skin. Not even for a few moments.
This is what recovering addicts are talking about when they say, “My addiction stopped working for me.”
When my addictions stopped working for me, I was left with… well, me. And I was not comfortable being me. I could be drunk, high, or acting out sexually, and I could still hear those pesky gremlins telling me what an awful person I was. I could hear them say that if the people around me could see the real me, they’d light their hair on fire and run screaming from the room.
I told the newcomer that when I arrived in recovery, my life was in shambles. I was miserable, and my one and only coping mechanism no longer worked. So I did the same thing he did. I went to a 12-step meeting and got pissed off when people said, “Hi, my name is Joe, and I’m a grateful alcoholic.”
I also (eventually) started to listen to what these happy, smiling, grateful people were saying about recovery and healing, and I started to take in their advice. I got a therapist and a sponsor, I worked the 12 steps, I spoke at meetings about my feelings, and, most importantly, I started to connect with the people around me. I shared my deepest, darkest secrets with them, and they listened and did not light themselves on fire. Instead, they said things like, “I’m glad you got that secret out into the open so it can stop festering in your brain. Should we get some lunch now?”
This incredibly unexpected reaction gave me freedom from the gremlins. It taught me that the little monsters were lying. And that much-needed revelation would never have occurred if I was not an addict.
Please remember, I was uncomfortable in my own skin long before I was an addict. Without my addictions, I would not have experienced all the horrible consequences that destroyed my life and drove me into recovery. And I would still feel inherently defective. I would still be unhappy. I would still feel intensely uncomfortable in my own skin.
Today, I am none of those things. Instead, I am happy and content and perfectly OK being myself. Most of the time, anyway. I can look myself in the mirror and not cringe. When people are nice to me, I accept it at face value. That’s pretty awesome, and it’s all because I’m an addict.
So, just in case I’ve not made it clear by now: I’m grateful for my addictions. They made my life hell, but without them, I would never have learned to feel comfortable in my own skin.