Picture this. You’re walking home from your local greengrocers with a tote bag brimming fresh organic veggies. Sure, they were a little expensive, but you can afford them now that you’ve stopped drinking. In fact, you can afford a lot of things these days, and you’re more than a little pleased with yourself. You’re feeling the sun on your newly glowing sobriety skin, the breeze is toying with gently with your hair. You’re sober, you’re content, you’re living in the moment.
You turn a corner, and WHAM. There’s the bus stop where you emptied your stomach of its boozy contents rather too publicly that time. WHAM. There’s the cocktail bar you were forcibly ejected from after getting argumentative with security. WHAM. There’s that street corner where you got arrested, or got in a fight, or got attacked, or lost your phone, or passed out, or hooked up with someone you really shouldn’t have.
Your heart sinks right to the soles of your feet. That beautiful, fleeting, organic vegetable moment is gone. You know you’ll always be the person who did those shameful things. You worry about what other cringe-inducing memories are lurking around which unanticipated corners. Will you ever be free of the shame? It’s enough to ruin your day, even your month. Sometimes it’s enough to make you turn to alcohol again. Drinking does, after all, seem to alleviate negative emotions, albeit very temporarily.
These toxic, unexpected little doses of shame are the reason why most of my early attempts at sobriety stalled before they ever really got going. At times it felt like my entire city was dotted with shameful reminders on every avenue like checkpoints in Pokemon Go. Every public park, tube station, or pub garden seemed to present a ghost-like version of me doing something that the new me found abhorrent.
The sense of repulsion was visceral. A wash of shame would pass over me. I would clamp my eyes closed, try to shake away the memory like a wet dog shaking off pond water. At times it stopped me dead in my tracks, and busy Londoners really don’t like people just stopping in their tracks.
Then came the paranoia. What other shameful and regretful activities had I partaken in before I started to straighten out my life? Was there photographic/video/anecdotal evidence? Would some misstep, presently clouded by the grey fog of drunkenness, eventually come into the fore to smack me down a few pegs? The feeling of dread was intolerable, the anxiety was raw.
Like many parts of sober life, learning to live with — and eventually overcome— the shame and regrets of a less than pristine past, takes time, practice, and persistence. Shame is an intrinsic part of modern society, even outside of addiction and recovery communities. When it comes to our bodies, careers, social media, and bank balances: life both on and offline is set up to criticise us on these things daily. So how can we learn to avoid something so toxic and yet so prevalent?
Change the narrative genre of your shame
For once, my compulsive googling of all things shame, recovery, and drunken regrets actually landed me somewhere useful. An academic paper called ‘Is shame a barrier to sobriety? A narrative analysis of those in recovery’ by Francesca Sawyer, Paul Davis, and Kate Gleeson might sound dry at a glance, but I found it compelled me to inspect the tone of the stories I told myself.
The paper, which details a qualitative study of shame narratives expressed by a handful of participants in recovery, identified three genres that our drunken inner monologues tend to fall into.
- Melodrama: high stakes, high emotional intensity, exaggerated characteristics.
2. Quests: discovery narratives, which followed the protagonist searching for (and often finding) a happy ending.
3. Comedy: ironic, humorous accounts, designed to induce laughter in the listener.
Reading this was a light bulb moment. When I find myself revisiting painful or embarrassing stories from my drinking days, I question myself as to whether I’m telling a catastrophic melodrama, a quest, or a comedy. Being the childish person that I am, I tend to find the latter two more preferable than the former.
Maybe the time I was so drunk I tripped and fell into a table, causing an entire bottle of red wine to spill over a young couple ruining their first date, doesn’t make me a total monster. It’s uncomfortable. Certainly inconsiderate of me. But not evil. Who knows, I might even get an honorary mention on their wedding day!
Substitute the main character
I have a hunch that we, as sober people, judge our missteps more harshly than we tend to judge others. One method we can utilise when the weight of shame gets too much to bear is to substitute or switch out the main character in your story.
Sure, we all know it was you who got blackout at your best friend’s wedding and changed the music midway through the reception to ‘lift the vibe a bit’. Of course, you cringe when you think about the bride’s disapproving glare while Super Bass blared out across the congregation. But would you perhaps crack a smile if you heard the story about somebody else? I have to admit, I definitely would.
Ask yourself how you might feel if the story was being told to to you by a friend, featuring somebody else as the lead actor. Fancying myself as a non-judgemental person, I often conclude that I would try to make light of the situation, rather than compounding shame and undue concern upon that individual.
Counteract negative experiences with positive ones
This is something that will come with the fullness of time. As life levels out, and your sobriety progresses towards becoming second nature, taking steps towards feeling good and righting those internal wrongs is a great way to eradicate shame.
For me, this looks like taking care of my mind, body, and personal space. Even the simpler moments of positive action like stumbling through Yoga With Adrienne’s easiest video reminds me that I have the power to take good decisions, as well as bad.
When you see drunken hot-messes vomiting in the street or struggling to find their way home, offer your help (if they want it). Give them the bottle of water from your bag, or point them in the right direction to wherever they’re heading. By showing compassion to other people impaired by alcohol in a non-judgemental, light-hearted fashion, you remind yourself that you too are only human. Alcohol is designed, after all, to get us drunk. Stop blaming yourself for falling into it’s trap.
I’d be lying if I claimed to have completely mastered these techniques for overcoming drunk shame and regret. There are days when I don’t find it particularly difficult to brush aside my trespasses and stay focused on a sober, peaceful future. Other days, the malignant call of the past and unanticipated triggers feel impossible to avoid. Laughing at myself is the last thing I want to do.
Next time you find yourself in the trap of revisiting regrets and ruminating on intoxicated behaviour, try this. Try and find one (just one!) aspect of the story that you can laugh about. You might just feel a little better.