Sober since April 6, 2006


Monday, April 17, 2006

Regret, Guilt, and Waking Up "30"

I just watched the lighthearted comedy "13 Going on 30" for the first time in a long time. It's a great movie -- and if you haven't seen it -- you should! It's cute and very entertaining, but it also contains a great moral for alcoholics -- if you cut out the last five minutes of it.

In the movie, 13-year-old "Jenna" rejects her best friend "Matt" to pursue a position in the popular crowd of kids. Wishing for popularity and beauty on her thirteenth birthday, she magically wakes up 30 years old, immersed in a new life that she has no memory of living.

Her entire life after her thirteenth birthday had been blacked out from her memory, and she soon discovers that the life she had lived up to that point was a very bad one. She had apparently treated people terribly and had done horrible things. She was shocked to find out what an awful person she had been during that time. (Seeing this reminded me of myself. I feel the same way right now.)

To make a long story short (without giving away the movie), she is faced with decisions for handling her mistakes. When she found out that she had wronged someone, she didn't deny it or beat herself up over it, but instead focused her efforts on making things right. Good people she had previously rejected, she now befriended. Bad people she had previously accepted, she now rejected.

As for rejecting Matt years ago -- she is given the opportunity to make things right with him. She realized how wrong she was to reject him, and she was desperate to do ANYTHING to reverse what she did. But even so, her past mistakes created agonizing conditions that simply could not reverse the wrongs she had done to him.

Of course in Hollywood, every story must have a happy fairy tale ending. But in real life, we cannot make wishes with magical pixie dust and wake up with "everything okay again". We cannot go back in time. For our lives, the story ends in the excruciating realization that "You screwed up and you can never make it better" -- and a new story begins from that point.

And for alcoholics especially, we find ourselves in similar situations. We find out that we said or did terrible things that we don't even remember. We find out that we hurt people. Sometimes we are aware that our actions hurt people, but we were so drunk at the time that we didn't realize the specific effects or extent of the damage. Sometimes we had a vague idea of the damage, but we were too drunk and ashamed to face the truth. So we immersed ourselves in MORE alcohol to escape feelings of guilt and futility (which only made things worse).

The Big Book describes the alcoholic as a "tornado" sweeping though the lives of all around. Imagine the sun rising upon a city that was destroyed overnight. During the night time, we can estimate damage -- and even deny it. But once the sun comes up and the destruction is brought into the light, there can be no more denial or escape. So it is with the alcoholic who still drinks -- they can only estimate the damage they have caused until sufficiently sober to view the true destruction "in the light".

In sobriety, we will sometimes agonize over the destruction we have caused others in our alcoholism. Without the numbing shield of alcohol, we are forced to finally acknowledge the exact details of the destruction we have caused. And it is often painful enough to send people back to the drink. Seeing no hope for repairing the damage, we want to escape far away. Back to the bottle some will go: some to cause more damage, others to disappear into death. But those who do not resort to drinking again have hope of making amends -- of trying to make things as right as possible, but it will never be perfect.

Things are as they are, and if we are honest, we recognize that we made them that way. We can blame it on the alcohol. But in the end, the responsibility lies with us -- we CHOSE to drink. We CHOSE to live that way. We made bad choices that hurt people we love.

There is no way to go back in time and do things differently. Instead, we are faced with more choices. The choices of today influence the choices we will make tomorrow. But the choices we made yesterday are completely out of our hands. We will still experience the consequences of those choices, but there is no sense in excessively mourning over them. Beating ourselves over the head for things we cannot change accomplishes absolutely nothing. Which is why the serenity prayer is so important:

God, Grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
The courage to change the things I can;
And the wisdom to know the difference.

Some past mistakes can be amended -- and those amends should be made whenever possible. But some past mistakes cannot be amended. THOSE mistakes are the ones that produce and magnify guilt to the point that we feel we cannot go on. THOSE situations are the ones we cannot change and need to make peace with for our own sanity.

Being completely dumfounded right now, I think a good way to make peace with such situations may be to:
1) accept responsibility for what happened;
2) pray for the person we hurt -- not that they would forgive us, but that they would heal from the pain we caused and experience true freedom and happiness in their lives;
3) learn from that mistake and never repeat it again;
4) decide to accept the situation as one of the things we "cannot change";
5) forgive ourselves.
Forgiving ourselves can be a terribly difficult thing to do. I have not forgiven myself of a single thing yet. I do not feel like I should be forgiven. But it is necessary for healing and continued spiritual growth. Resentments of any kind will bring recovery to a grinding halt.

Which is where I find myself today.

But I think I am finally finished with looking for a way to "undo" certain past wrongs. I realize that I cannot go back in time to do things the right way -- nor can I say or do ANYTHING to remove the hurt I caused. And I am learning to accept that. (Such a seemingly trivial lesson ... but for me, it is a BIG one worth sharing.)

In the mean time, watch the movie! It's good! You'll laugh, you might cry (tears of joy) -- and you will get your daily dose of 80's music. What more could you want?

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