On Guilt

By Jowita Bydlowska 08/11/16

For me, guilt is a buzzing invisible insect that I can’t get rid of. I don’t feel I have the right to get rid of it, yet, and the feeling of guilt is one of my motivators for staying sober for good. 

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On Guilt
Guilt is good... to a point.

“…It is not the experience of Today that drives a person mad. It is the remorse or bitterness of something which happened Yesterday and the dread of what Tomorrow might bring.”

This fragment from the piece of prose “Two Days We Should Not Worry,” which is read at many AA meetings, illustrates a conundrum known to many addicts. How can you not be remorseful for causing something bad to happen Yesterday? How do you stave off that remorse and protect yourself from going mad? I imagine that after doing an honest inventory of yourself and fulfilling most amends, the guilt—that constant companion of this alcoholic—lessens and forgiveness becomes a possibility. But in the meantime, for me, guilt is a buzzing invisible insect that I can’t get rid of. And if there was some magical way to remove it, I probably would forgo it for now: I don’t feel I have the right to get rid of it yet, and the feeling of guilt is one of my motivators for staying sober for good. 

I’m not being a martyr, yet I find a reasonable amount of self-flagellation is a proper response and punishment for the transgressions that I’ve committed while under the influence. The adage “guilt is not productive” rings false. It is productive in that it motivates me to do better—simply because I don’t want to invite any more guilt into my life. 

A study quoted in Moral Emotions and Moral Behavior by Tangey, Stuewig and Mashek, states, "Moral emotions provide the motivational force—the power and energy— to do good and to avoid doing bad." (Kroll & Egan 2004) Guilt is what separates psychopaths from the rest of us. It keeps us in check. It is a moral compass, of sorts.  

But guilt is dangerous in that it can turn on you. It is also what keeps many addicts from using—I’ve certainly drank to at least temporarily relieve myself from the guilt I felt over drinking and behaviors caused by my drinking. There were so many mornings when, after a night of drinking, I would wake up in a state of absolute dread and despair. The faces of my loved ones were instruments of torture, whether they were angry faces or forgiving faces: There I go, blearily appearing at the kitchen table, at breakfast, my husband and my son eating their cereals. No one is talking, the air seems heavier. (A 2013 study showed that that kind of heaviness is not just a metaphor. In fact, “unethical, guilt-inducing memories led to increased reports of weight.”) My son looks up. His big, trusting smile causes my throat to constrict and I become so paralyzed by shame I can’t even come up to him and hug him. And what can I possibly say to my husband—who understands more than my boy does—this time around? I’ve promised to stop and I’ve apologized a thousand times. 

I meant it every time. And meaning it was the fuel of my guilt. 

I’m thinking of the story of the jaywalker in the Big Book of Alcohlics Anonymous. The jaywalker continues to jaywalk despite the consequences. “On through the years this conduct continues, accompanied by his continual promises to be careful or to keep off the streets altogether. Finally, he can no longer work, his wife gets a divorce and he is held up to ridicule. He tries every known means to get the jaywalking idea out of his head. He shuts himself up in an asylum, hoping to mend his ways. But the day he comes out he races in front of a fire engine, which breaks his back.”

That’s how it was with drinking. Why couldn’t I stop? Why was I forgetting the promises I’ve made? Why was I walking out of a liquor store with a mickey of vodka, crying in utter helplessness because I didn’t want to drink it, and drinking it because of this truth: although temporary, alcohol was the eraser of guilt. 

And the next day, I’d be baffled, again. I’d again—again, again, again—try to come up with words that would be at all sufficient to make up for breaking trust. 

If you believe addiction is a disease, it is a strange disease, unlike any other, where remorse—and apologies—are part of its progression. As time goes on and the disease gets worse, apologies become a worn-out soundtrack accompanying moral and physical hangovers. The words don’t mean anything anymore. Because they never result in actions, they are lies. During my last relapse, my guilt was so overpowering that the words I had turned on me: saying I’m sorry started to seem like a mockery. 

Currently, I don’t have the words that would alleviate the guilt connected to this particular memory: My son walking away from me with his Thomas the Tank engine suitcase as I wail drunkenly on the sidewalk in front of our house. Out of all the sadness in my life, this is one vignette I might never unsee. The guilt will keep me in check; I need to remember so that I can never drink again, even if I am forgiven and I forgive myself.

Speaking of forgiveness—forgiveness is the antidote to guilt. There is a lot of research about the benefits of it. For example, it has been found to improve physical and mental health. It lowers stress and brings a sense of personal power. It can even make you live longer. 

After my last relapse, instant forgiveness from loved ones would be like a celestial gift and one that I haven’t earned. And I might not be forgiven, which shouldn’t stop me from trying to earn it. But, however abstract it seems now, self-forgiveness is a crucial component that will lead to my healing and the healing of people whom I hurt. 

This is what I know from having forgiven others: often, forgiveness metamorphoses into love and loving is the opposite of guilt. It is freedom from it. 

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