On Shame — It’s Just Gotta Go

In today’s blogpost I want to riff about a common concept in recovery, shame. There seems to be one thing almost everyone I know agrees upon: shame is the enemy of a healthy recovery from drug addiction.

The Original Shame

First, let’s look at that one big universal shame: the shame of being an addict. I’m going to start with the medical argument as paraphrased from my book, Quitting Crystal Meth: What to Expect & What to Do:

There is a physical, biochemical reason you are addicted. The medical community considers methamphetamine addiction to be a “chronic disease,” just the same as high blood pressure or asthma. The difference between meth addiction and these other diseases is the location of the malfunction. With addiction, the malfunction is in the brain—so the illness affects feelings and behaviors. Because of this, those who don’t know any better view addiction as a moral issue, a matter of willpower or character.

But the truth is: addiction is a biological process in a brain that is malfunctioning. We don’t blame someone with high blood pressure or asthma for the physical malfunction happening in their bodies. And we certainly don’t shame them for seeking treatment. Why is it different for the meth addict? It shouldn’t be.

Try to remember there need be no shame involved with addiction. It is a physical malfunction. It is not a sign that you are somehow mentally weak or lacking in character. In my experience, the truth is often just the opposite. Addicts are some of the strongest people I know and can, when no longer immersed in their addiction, become people of amazing character.

Second, let’s look at that other shame around meth use. Even something as self destructive as shooting heroin has its “heroin chic” aestheticism. For us meth heads, it’s just that awful before and after poster campaign that puts us in our place: pushing a shopping cart with rotting teeth. Unlike pills, cocaine or opiates, there’s no glamour and zero social status for our drug of choice.

Friends who are members of 12 Step programs report that they can easily admit to going to AA. (It can even prove beneficial to one’s career, depending on the industry; don’t let anyone fool you, there is an “AA professional mafia”). Yet many of these same people admit they can’t let it be known they go to CMA. And sadly, some addicts refuse to go CMA altogether, preferring the softer, less judged pastures of AA. If you are a 12-Stepper and don’t ever experience CMA, I’m here to tell you you’re missing something important. I’m not claiming to be a CMA member; I’m merely reporting what friends and readers tell me, which basically is: not truly knowing the joy of being in a room full of “your people,” recovering crystal meth addicts, you’ll miss out on something special. Sure the other “Anonymous” programs are good, can substitute in a pinch and/or model long-term sobriety that perhaps your local CMA group doesn’t yet have. But it’s well expressed that there’s just nothing like being in a roomful of fellow recovering tweakers to feel like you’ve finally come home. It’s “your people.” They get you.

To that point, CMALA (CMA Los Angeles’ big convention) is coming up soon, March 27 – 29. If you’re into the Program and are near or want to travel to LA, don’t miss this event. Click here for more information. If you want to be in a room of over 500 former tweakers joyously celebrating their recovery, this is the place. Workshops, fellowshipping, speakers from around the country, and a talent show that only the queens from Los Angeles can put on (yes, it’s a very gay conference, but don’t let that stop you. CMALA wants you and welcomes its straight brothers and sisters and you’ll stand out and get to meet even more people. Get your ass to LA in March if you can.) Now, back to shame…

One way I personally deal with the particular shame of having been a meth addict is by embracing it and proactively turning it into a strength. I proudly wear the badge. I turned my life around, so others can too. And I’m not alone, I add. Many people recover from meth. Usually when I tell people who meet me for the first time (party conversation, say), their jaws drop at my admission, and drop again that I’m actually proudly telling my story. I add that meth is epidemic from the housewife in the Midwest to the banker on Wall Street. Don’t believe the press stories or ad campaign you’ve most likely seen is fully representational of us. (Come to think of it, there wasn’t much diversity of meth users depicted on Breaking Bad either. Yep, we’ve had some lopsided press.) Because the reality is: we are everywhere. From your smiling tech at the pharmacy to the salesman at a BMW dealership to your chiropractor or estate attorney (I’ve personally known all the above).

To be clear, I’m not saying everyone should follow my lead because, in fact, it could harm your career and do more damage than good. But if you can come out of the meth closet, if you’ve one of those careers that allow it, please consider doing so. It’s probably the only way our image is going to change in the long run. It’s just like the gay movement, it took not just the famous in Hollywood, but ordinary neighbors, friends and family coming out for the larger population to finally get over the stereotypes.

Other Common Areas of Shame

There are a lot of other areas we harbor shame in our lives because of our using: shame for not being a good parent or shame for not being a good child. All of this generally centers around the shame of not showing up for family events (from breakfast to a funeral). This is where various programs or therapies can work wonders. In CMA, you can clean up that wreckage from the past and make amends to those you’ve harmed or you can process through your issues in therapy.

There’s often shame around the years you “wasted” doing meth that could have otherwise been spent living and growing a productive, prosperous life. Here some kind of psycho-spiritual work is often helpful – to gain that larger perspective of our lives as a journey and to reprioritize what’s truly important.

If you are a gay man, you most likely have a deep-seated, perhaps even subconscious, shame of your sexuality. Most of us do—or did. LGBT folk were raised in a society that told us our basic human desire to be loved was flawed, abnormal in expression. For gay men, I enthusiastically recommend Alan Down’s book, The Velvet Rage. Offering practical and inspired strategies to stop the cycle of avoidance and self-defeating behavior, Downs passionately explores the stages of a gay man’s journey out of shame. It’s considered a contemporary classic in the field.

Okay, enough. That’s my (rather long, as it turns out) riff on shame. Shelves of books have been written on it. As for shame and meth, we’re just beginning the conversation. But we’ve begun.

Until my next posting, peace from sunny Palm Springs, –Joseph