I grew up not knowing the difference between shame and guilt. Shame told me that I was fundamentally unworthy, insufficient, and unlovable: a “wrong” person. Guilt is what I feel when I make choices that disrupt the harmony between myself and my Higher Power, other people, or the universe.

My shame came from physical and emotional abuse suffered in childhood, a lack of validation and support at home, and a rule-oriented religious practice that seemed to say I could almost accidentally be damned. I also discovered, at age 11, that I was gay. I thought it was something horribly unique to me that made me an unfit human being. Feelings of shame and guilt made it very difficult for me. Since I saw myself as “wrong,” the hope of being a good person was hard to realize.

Shame robbed me of the thought that I could be loved. I didn’t see that I deserved love, which had a huge negative impact on my relationship with my Higher Power. God was a fierce judge, not a loving parent.

Shame meant I didn’t understand that love is unconditional. It seemed to me that God’s love came with many conditions and catches, and had to be earned. I thought this was true of human love, too. It led me to set conditions about whom and when I would love; conditions so impossible to meet that I couldn’t love freely.

In my months in Al-Anon, I have never felt judged by any other member. Instead, I received the message that I am loved just as I am, character defects and all. The first three Steps are teaching me how to trust my Higher Power, Al-Anon members and principles, and the universe.

I have learned that my Higher Power is there to help me grow and change; pick me up when I stumble or fall, and teach me that I am loved unconditionally.

I am not a finished product, but I am finding enough serenity in the Al-Anon program to make hope take root and grow. I am starting to feel some gratitude. I am learning to live without unreasonable fear. I am starting to feel love, and return it.

By Joe M., Kentucky
The Forum, June 2016