The Gift of No Shame
What does shame feel like? It feels red-faced, head down, kickin’ yourself, isolated, and like you’re covered in a big blanket of sin that you can’t seem to shake off. It loves to dwell as a secret in one’s soul.
So who carries shame in the world of addiction? Is it the sick one, or families, or both? Having been involved in parent support groups for years, I’ve seen so many family members burden themselves with shame when their loved ones suffer from the disease of alcoholism or drug dependence. I want to shout at them, “Why are you ashamed of your child? He’s sick and needs help!” I don’t shout, however.
I want everyone to have what I have, which is the Gift of No Shame.
My Gift was given to me in 1981. Someone I greatly respected told me his daughters were in treatment for alcoholism and drug abuse, and they were suffering from a brain disease. I listened intently as he told me what he had learned in the family education programs. I remember thinking, Well, that’s nice, but I don’t know much about drug addiction. This is all very interesting.
Five years later, the Gift became more personal. One of my beloved adult family members was sick with alcoholism. I adored this person and would gladly point him out as my relative because he was so wonderful. It was kind of like I had bragging rights. He was my relative. Isn’t he great? But beneath all of his wonderful attributes, he had the disease of alcoholism, and his health was suffering considerably. He quietly went to detox to save his life. My Gift of No Shame must have been apparent to him, because I was the only person he allowed to visit him during detox.
As our son approached his teen years, my husband and I talked to him about the dangers of alcohol and drugs. By age fourteen, he was voicing an interest in marijuana, and we discouraged his thoughts of using it. In hindsight, I realize he was already using it and was actually looking for our tacit approval. It was more than a year later when he was arrested for alcohol possession with two other boys. We thought they were all out on a summer night’s lark. The county-appointed counselor assessed him as not having a problem with alcohol.
Slowly, however, over the next few months, there were signs and behaviors indicating that alcohol or drugs were being consumed in great quantities by my special son. Some of it was hard to figure out, but my Gift of No Shame had allowed me to alert neighbors to be on the lookout for him if he was seen out late at night.
One day I was driving down our neighborhood street, and as I approached the turn to our driveway, I saw five young men standing on the street corner. One was my sixteen-year-old son, two were his neighborhood friends and contemporaries, one was someone who had recently been described to me as a drug dealer, and one was the new fourteen-year-old boy who had recently moved in next door. The fourteen-year-old wanted to “hang” with the big kids.
I was horrified, and my Gift of No Shame allowed me to immediately telephone the mother of the new boy. Into the phone, I said, “Your son Peter is on the street corner with my son and a bunch of older boys.” My new neighbor responded with, “Oh, that’s great. He’s making friends.” My response was, “Well, it’s not good because my son uses drugs and one of the older kids is a dealer.” “Oh!” she answered, “it’s time for me to call him in for dinner. Thank you!”
A few days later, she called to tell me how surprised she was by my openness to identify my son that way. I explained that I had unsuccessfully been searching for help for my son, but I didn’t want another innocent to get caught up in drug-using peer pressure. Many of my neighbors knew my concerns. I was open about it and was cautioning them about their own children, who were actually using drugs, but they didn’t believe that was possible.
We finally found that Caron Treatment Centers had an appropriate program for teenagers, and my son started on his road to recovery in Pennsylvania. After he transitioned into an extended-care treatment center in Washington State, he told me that I could tell his story to anyone. At that time he was holding no shame, and I had already been given my Gift of No Shame, so I started to become active in support groups and Twelve Step programs. As I sat in those rooms, I witnessed so many parents carrying shame like seventy-pound backpacks. There was still so much for me to learn about addiction and family dialogs and boundaries, but I wasn’t impeded by shame. My Gift of No Shame had saved me that burden, and it was wonderfully freeing.
It’s been fourteen years now since my son went to Caron as a teenager. There have been ups and downs for all of us in the family, and yet my Gift of No Shame has allowed me to be open to hundreds of parents, strangers, treatment centers, and providers in the addiction treatment world. That gift allows me to educate strangers and maybe, bit by bit, help erase some of the letters in the words stigma and shame, which hover over anyone battling the baffling disease of addiction.
My Gift of No Shame is now thirty-eight years old. It’s still shiny and new in spite of its constant use. I am so grateful it was given to me, and I try to share it with others.
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