Advice on Forgiveness for Recovered Alcoholics

brain chemistry

Forgiving without excusing.

Being a recovered addict—of any kind—means more than just laying off the substance in question.  That’s kind of unfair, because doing just that is extremely hard.  But living as a recovered addict means keeping the rest of your house in order.  You have to get into harmony emotionally—it’s your entire emotional life that matters, since that is what will keep you from needing the substance.

That’s why in this blog I’ll be talking about things having to do with a lot of life issues, and not just quitting per se.  One of the things that is important to anyone, but especially a recovered alcoholic, is being able to forgive others.  It’s ironic, because you are the one who seeks forgiveness for so many things you’ve done wrong.  The alcoholic breaks a lot of promises and disappoints a lot of people, and his recovered self gets a chance to apologize for a lot of things.

However, some of the emotional baggage that a lot of alcoholics carry around has to do with things they think people have done wrong.  You get into plenty of fights as a problem drinker, and a lot of words are exchanged.  Even though you have a problem and you know you do (or did), yours feeling may have been hurt at one time or another.

However, the kind of forgiveness you will be embarking on may have nothing to do with alcoholism.  It could have to do with wrongs from your childhood that have plagued you.  It could have to do with new slights that have nothing, on the surface, to do with drinking, but that can be a threat to your emotional well-being.

Aristotle identified the five social virtues as courage, compassion, self-love, friendship, and forgiveness.  He felt that forgiveness was intimately tied to friendship, required for long-term relationships.

A modern-day philosopher, Professor Christopher Cowley of University College Dublin, offers a definition of forgiveness that I find very helpful:

” the decision to forgive involves the conscious attempt to prevent one’s spontaneous and morally legitimate resentment from influencing one’s thoughts about the offender, on the basis of some sort of new understanding of the offendor and the offense.”

What Cowley is saying is that you don’t forgive someone only by telling a story to yourself that somehow justifies what the person did.  That’s where things get tricky.  The idea is to forgive, in the sense of saying, “I’m over it.  I give forgiveness to you.”  If you felt that the things the person did was OK after all, you wouldn’t be giving a gift of generosity by forgiving, right?  And that’s what you’re trying to do.

Don’t Have to Be Right

Gaining control in any small way is crucial to the drinker, even more than to most people.  You want things to make sense, you want some order in the universe.  So when someone does something you think is wrong, it can be important to spend a lot of time brooding on it, playing over and over in your head how wrong the thing was, etc.  That breeds resentment.  In that environment, forgiveness is impossible, since you feel that considering the wrong to be a wrong.  You feel that there’s no reason for you to let that so-and-so get away with it.

Get Past the Half-Forgiveness

Now, sometimes, the resentment will wear off, and you’ll get into a mode where you think it’s been so long there’s no reason to worry about it.  You may not announce some sort of forgiveness to the person, but you may feel, in your mind, you’ve kind of let go of it.  In this case, there’s an extent to which you’ve gotten past the need to be right, since you’ve let go of the issue.

But, and take it from the master of this: you’re not all the way out of it.  You’ve never really let go of the pleasure of being the one in the right—you’ve basically forgotten without forgiving.  You’ve forgiven the person—in your mind—and you have no hard feelings.  But what happens if the person does something rude to you, particularly something that reminds you of that other offense?

I know I had a few experiences with my girlfriend.  In short, she had a tendency to tell me some of my thought or anxieties were ridiculous.  Variations were self-indulgent, neurotic, paranoid, etc.  This was when I was pretty far along in my recovery, so if I had these traits, I had them a lot less so than I previously had.  I’d made a lot of improvement, and got self-conscious when she’d be critical.

So, when I’d feel she was being truly insensitive, saying things that were really problematic, I’d forgive her.  As above, the idea of whether I was right or not was no issue.  I didn’t tell myself a story that it was OK or that I should just get over it.  I looked at forgiveness, not as giving in or giving up, but as an active thing that I wanted to do.

But the problem would arise when she’d do the thing again.  What would happen was, I’d brood on it, but then I’d go back to thinking of previous times when she’d been critical, instances for which I’d forgiven her.  So I was sort of undoing the forgiveness.

Now, it is hard to forgive someone when that person keeps doing the same thing.  But that applies to the new thing, not to previous ones.  Further, I do think it’s possible to keep forgiving the offenses.  I don’t know how good I am at it, but I’ve had some success.  Even when the same old behavior came down the pike, I took a deep breath and just gave the forgiveness.

Each Time is Different

What I learned was that affecting a certain tunnel vision was really beneficial.  Concentrating and exercising self-control, and refusing to remember previous behaviors is key.  So when your girlfriend keeps being critical, forget it’s part of a story and treat it as individual.

One of the reasons this may be more possible than you think is that the incidents indeed are different.  Even if they may seem the same to you, like one big act of being critical, it may not seem that way to your girlfriend.  Think about it—if it seemed that way to her, why would she keep doing it?  Also, she may have had a bad day on one particular incident, etc. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re deciding that the person was indeed right, just that if the conditions were different on different occasions, you shouldn’t treat each incident as part of a big pattern in a way that will make it harder to forgive.

The Sin and Not the Sinner

If you’re getting mad at the person and not the thing she did, you’re in trouble.  It’s easy, all too easy, but it’s easier to forgive a behavior than a person.  This is an extension of the idea that each incident is different.  Note what the good prof said, above: you are trying to prevent “resentment from influencing one’s thoughts about the offender.”  So, Cowley is specifically talking about your thoughts about the offender.  He isn’t saying not to be ticked about the offense.  What he is doing is drawing a line between offender and offense.  Don’t let the offense cause you to change your mind about the offender.

This means, to me, thinking of the offense almost as an object—a bit of mental sleight of hand, perhaps, but meaningful sleight of hand.  Think of it as something that the offender himself doesn’t like and would like to stop doing (and this often is the case, right?) and thus make it a mutual enemy.

The Gift of Forgiveness

This next part is rather corny, so prepare yourself.  But you really have to think of forgiveness as a gift.  Not only that, but you have to be humble enough to think of it as a gift in the way I’m about to describe.  I don’t mean thinking of it as a gift in the sense that it’s so valuable (though it is) or that it means you’re some kind of prince for giving it.

I look at it more as a gift from a standpoint of how it feels to give one.  When you’re at a store and you see they have blank DVD’s on sale and that your buddy is running out, you get a warm feeling thinking of how much he’ll appreciate it.  That’s the fun of gift-giving, right?  Here’s Cowley on the subject:

” The donor of a genuine gift has no expectations; the gift is in no way a payment, an investment, a lubricant; it has nothing prudential or self-regarding at all. “


Now, is it easy to be that way?  Of course not.  But I think most people don’t have this way of looking at things, either—they just wing it.

Give Yourself the Gift of Oxytocin

So, above, the feeling of anticipating the gratitude of your buddy Allen when you give him the DVD’s: that’s a flood of oxytocin.  Oxytocin is probably the most pleasant chemical that can affect the brain.  Unlike dopamine, it’s not about quick pleasures such as a gooey chocolate chip cookie, winning one race at the track, making out with a hot woman, etc.  Oxytocin has longer-lasting effects and causes one to feel safe and secure.

One gets oxytocin from helping others.  Giving the gift of forgiveness, holding on to that forgiveness, knowing it is still there, that you’re still nurturing it, will help your brain chemistry, which is what you need to keep going with your recovery.

I hope some of these musings helped.  Feel free to leave comments or questions.

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