Growing up, my focus was always on my raging, alcoholic father, and what I could do to stay out of harm’s way. He made it clear to me that I was unlovable and worthless. At such a young age, I had no other choice than to accept his belittling remarks as the truth. My attention on my father’s behavior exhausted me, filling me with anxiety and fear. It stole the very years I needed to develop my sense of self. Instead, I believed the negative messages I was told—that I would always be a worthless failure. This filled me with shame, which confirmed my fears that I would never be enough and told me everything was my fault.
By the second grade, my behavior at school already demonstrated the effects of living in my house. If my class picture didn’t give it away, with my bewildered face, slumped shoulders, and the deeply perplexed look in my eyes, my conduct in class would. Staying after school because of poor grades or behavior resulted in severe punishment at home. My acting out drew attention to the chaos at home. This was unacceptable, as the family had to appear perfect.
My shame led to self-destructive behavior and tore me apart. It dictated the way I looked at myself, and my perceptions about who I believed myself to be were crippling. I felt that if I were given the short end of the stick, I deserved it! I never stood at the front of the line. I hid in the back, content with the scraps.
Life in my house took a more serious turn when my father’s unpredictability was escalated by his zealous relationship with firearms. The threats he issued to me were direct, and ratcheted up my already substantial anxiety. My shame told me to never say a word. Years of being told that what happened in the house didn’t really happen left me confused, as my denial wrestled with the truth.
My reactions to these events did not go unnoticed. I was 17 when my high school guidance counselor became alarmed at the rapid decline of my academic record and called me into her office. I had been a promising student, but now my grades were horrendous. She asked me what was going on, and in a moment of complete frustration, honesty, and emotional agony, I spilled the beans. She seemed stunned, and excused herself to leave the office. When she returned, she handed me two pamphlets. One was for Alateen and the other for Al‑Anon. Unable to grasp the blessing of this God-given moment, I chose to decline the possibilities offered me. I thought I could fix this situation myself, and her gesture angered me. Yet, a seed was planted that day that would take almost 30 years to sprout.
When I came into recovery at 47, I had been brought to my knees by my shame. I came close to killing myself to silence shame’s persistent voice, and I was finally ready to find a healthy solution for my pain. At my first Al‑Anon meeting, I was unable to do anything other than close my eyes and hold my head in my hands. With the air conditioner humming in the window behind me, an angel named Alice began to speak. She was leading the meeting on Step One. Her voice was calm and reassuring as she read from her book. I felt comforted by these strangers.
Soon after, I went to my first Al‑Anon adult children meeting, which opened my eyes to the fact I was the adult child of an alcoholic. I heard that I needed to put the focus on myself. I didn’t know how to do that! I was still weighted down with shame, and as hopeless as I felt, I couldn’t comprehend such a thing. As time went by though, with the help of many other members, I slowly took steps toward putting the focus on myself. Through many meetings and much spiritual growth, I began developing the sense of self that those early years stole, shattering the paradigm I grew up in.
However, despite my growth, I began to realize that there was still a younger part of myself, deep inside, that spent many years crying out for love, protection, and validation. The pain from being abandoned and not valued was still there, and I needed to not only pay attention to it, but also provide comfort, care, and love to ease the hurt. The relationship I have with myself is the same one I have with the rest of the world. If I love myself, I love the rest of the world. If my shame tells me I am worthless and I retreat into self-loathing, I will see the world the same way. The key to how I feel about myself is in my relationship with that part of me that still feels all the fear, anxiety, and shame. It is only by allowing that part to come forward to be nourished and protected that I feel the true sense of wholeness, serenity, and self-worth. By looking into my eyes in the mirror, I am able to affirm that I love myself, and my whole being hears me.
Shame can still occasionally be a nagging force that attempts to regain control of me. When shame rears its head today, I am able to confront it and disagree with its message. These are old recordings. It is up to me to be a loving parent to myself so I can reclaim my power over shame’s persistence. The thing that stands in my way is my way out. I am so worth it.
By Craig W., New York
The Forum, January 2021
Feel free to reprint this article on your website or in your newsletter, along with this credit line: Reprinted with permission of The Forum, Al‑Anon Family Group Headquarters, Inc., Virginia Beach, VA.