“Shame threatens the soul. Its signs appear on the face ‘like a flash of fire.’”
Annibale Pocaterra, sixteenth-century physician and poet
Where do the roots of addictive behavior lie? Is it some darkness that lives within a chosen few, damage to some chromosome that expresses endless want, a want so great that we reach, and reach, and reach till we no longer exist. Or is it a reaction, a normal reaction to trauma, chaos, and perpetual pain that bathes our souls, that holds us down, under water, without breath, without any chance to connect with ourselves and with the world that surrounds us.
These roots are important, vitally important, they are the anchor, and the life force, and the place, where we will find the solution. Though many roots exist, the root of shame has been the soul, the source, truly the fabric of my addiction. This shame, an intense inferno of fire, is the energy that breathes life into compulsive and addictive behavior, and is the demon that constantly lays in wait, to pull me back down, into the cold, dark ground. Facing this demon, exposing this demon, and letting go of this demon, has been my path to freedom.
As a child, I remember, the cold air, that constant ache of loneliness, hopelessly waiting to be released, to find a glimpse of space, to run, from the darkness that shadowed my every move. This darkness, a force that was supposed to love, and nurture me, tortured my soul, with anger, and pain, and shame, layer upon layer, of thick, molten hot shame, that covered my soul, ultimately destroying it, and replacing it with that same shame.
John Bradshaw in his book “Healing the Shame that binds you” describes this feeling of toxic shame best;
“What I feel is emptiness and exposure. I have no boundaries and therefore no protection. I must run and hide. But I feel like there is no place to hide since I am totally exposed. They are after me, and they are going to take me by surprise. The hunter is always approaching. There is never a moment when I can relax. I must be constantly guarded lest I’m ever unguarded. I am alone in the most complete way.”
Shame is a normal human emotion signaling guilt or regret from having done something wrong. It provides us with guideposts, showing us limits and letting us know we are human. As humans we make mistakes, we are perfectly imperfect and that’s ok, because those mistakes don’t define us. When shame is internalized it becomes our identity, it becomes toxic and it tells us we are flawed at our core. This toxic shame, an excruciating feeling of being defective, unlovable and deserving of nothing good in this world is what drives addictive behavior. When we are vulnerable and toxically shamed, our core, the essence of who we are, becomes an enemy to ourselves and the psychic pain becomes intolerable.
I have lived these lines and it is a terrifying existence, the constant threat of exposure is a fear of such intensity, it defies description. When we believe, we are flawed, and are intensely afraid of showing ourselves to the world we create masks, false selves, to appear as we believe the world wants us to be. This destroys authenticity and we become objects who are absent from our own experience. This is the heart of addiction and shame is the ruler.
In my mind, the deepest parts of my mind, the parts that are the essence of me, I am flawed, unworthy, unlovable and deserving of nothing, and when the world, that unpredictable, beautiful, and desolate world, gripped me with shame and stigma, my toxic shame is forged, and the isolation from myself and the world becomes infinite.
The addict that is me, always refused to accept myself and lived a life of secrecy, isolating, denying, living in a magical world, seemingly real, but only synthetically so, and always fearing exposure at any moment. This was my life, and this is the life of an addict, no better, and no worse than another, and not special in any particular way, just a human, struggling to survive, while battling powerful demons in the dark.
Addiction, that merciless demon, always bearing gifts of shame. That demon that hides in the shadows, and lives in my secrets, tearing me down, bit, by bit, leaving the ash of something that once was. Addiction, that slow, chronic, progressive sickness that is fueled by toxic shame, and is reinforced by the shame and stigma the world paints on those that struggle. It is profound, and complex, it is subtle, and ferocious in infinite ways, but it can only live under the cover of darkness.
Incredibly, shame cannot survive in the light, exposure is death, and is the very thing we are terrified of. If for a moment, we can walk through this fear, even just the smallest of steps, avoiding that paralysis of thought, we might be able to see that things are ok, and the shame subsides, and suddenly we are free. This has been my way, exposing the shame, placing it back where it belongs, and letting go of the dark swirling thoughts that live in my mind, the thoughts that tell me I am nothing, the thoughts that have no basis in reality, but always appear as if they do.