5 Important Lessons about Forgiveness From a Recovering Addict

“Be the one who nurtures and builds.
Be the one who has an understanding and a forgiving heart,
One who looks for the best in people.
Leave people better than you found them.”
Marvin J. Ashton

The following is a guest post from Carl Towns, a strong person who managed to turn their life around by recovering from addiction.

Let’s start with this thought.
Holding on to grudges and resentment throughout your life will guarantee you one thing, and one thing only – a lack of true happiness. If like me, you are in recovery from the peril of addiction, you get two things guaranteed – that lack of happiness, and, furthermore, the distinct possibility of a sudden and dangerous relapse into the pit of self-destruction you have tried so hard to pull yourself out of. In other words, for an addict, the inability to forgive will lead you to misery.

I personally learned this lesson during my time in drug rehab in one of the daily group therapy sessions. Withdrawal, even though medicated, leaves you hollow, like a shell. You begin to fixate on the little things that form your routine. In those sessions, I always sat in a particular chair. One day, when I entered the therapy room, someone else was sitting there, a new guy. I immediately hated him, he’d wronged me. Why didn’t he know? My chair, my chair. Sad, but true – my old, petty, irrational way of thinking was still with me. That’s how addicts think. Hollow grudges, shell-like resentment. And the whole situation made me want to turn it all into a blur with a bottle. My hands shook with the craving.

Learning forgiveness, how to forgive others and how to forgive me, has saved me from many a potential relapse. I am now four years sober, with no conscious desire to live within a bottle – a more rational, more content man. A more forgiving man. And, as a recovering addict, the idea of sharing is one I believe in. It’s why I’m sat in front of my old laptop, early in the morning, typing this out for you.

So how do you define forgiveness? I like this one. Forgiveness, according to psychologists in general, is “a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness.” It’s the last part of that definition which is the most important. Regardless. That part, for us as people, and especially for recovering addicts, is our obstacle, the reason for our hesitancy, why we choose not to forgive sometimes. It was this I had to conquer to make my recovery something tangible, something achievable, to give it a chance of success. During my ongoing recovery, I have been taught five important lessons about forgiveness, and it is those I wish to share now:

Grudges & Resentment

Addicts, whatever their poison – alcohol, drugs, gambling, whatever – all have a number of things in common, and one of these is a list. A list of grudges, of times they believe they were wronged. They use these lists as justification for their addiction, and their resulting behavior. Does that sound weird and slightly deranged to you? Well, it’s how addicts think. I had my list, and, boy, was it a long one, built up over many years because of my inability to forgive and the power of my addiction. Getting rid of the list was the first positive step in my recovery. Such grudges and ill-will will, more often than not, include:

Authority: Being told what to do doesn’t sit well with your average addict.
Expectations: Even though an addict will have a very low expectation of themselves, they require others to act in a perfect fashion, placing high expectations upon those around them.
Traumatization: Many addicts have been hurt, abused, and beaten by others in their past. As justified as their resentment is, substance abuse is not the way to handle it.
● Lies: Being lied to, by family or friends, is another one for the list.

There are more, much more, and addicts can have quite the imagination, their state of mind having the last say on whether you make their list or not.

Grudges & Recovery

Addicts have spent their lives building these lists. For them, it is normal behavior, and it can be a difficult habit to break. However, break it they must. Thinking in a negative way is something a recovering addict can simply not afford to do. Holding on to their list will result in further misery. You just have to give it up. Dangers of failing to do so include:

● Justification: Sadly, it provides them with a justification to relapse.
● More Excuses: An addict that holds on to their list will use it as an excuse for not devoting themselves to recovery.
● “Stinking Thinking”: Negativity, in other words. Grudges and resentment de-motivate you.
● Emotional Sobriety: The most important, perhaps. Sobriety and I can testify to this, brings with it an inner peace for those who are in recovery.

Self-Forgiveness

True forgiveness begins with you. Fact. You cannot hope to show compassion to others if you cannot show compassion to yourself. Guilt, for an addict, can be a killer. It can be the barrier to a full and lasting recovery and a new and better way of living. A form of anger, only this self-directed, guilt will make or break you. If you can’t forgive yourself, you are already halfway down the road to relapse.

It’s important to understand why addicts can be faced with seemingly insurmountable guilt. Here a just a few of those reasons why (and, yes, I can quite confidently cross all these off my personal, emotional bucket list):

Forgiving Others: If you can’t forgive others, you have no chance of self-forgiveness.
Low Self-Esteem: Addicts are masters in the art of the “self-put-down.” No addict has a high opinion of himself or herself as long as they stay a user.
No Remorse: You have to feel true remorse for past deeds that hurt others.

The Benefits

So far, this article, gleaned from experience and sharing with others, may appear a little negative in itself. Let’s put that right. The benefits of learning to forgive are your prize, your reward. These include:

Happier: Forgiving, truly forgiving, makes us happier. Another fact. Furthermore, forgiving someone we feel close to heightens that happiness.
Healthier: Living with the negativity that deeply-held grudges bring, we are more likely to experience higher blood pressure and heart rate, and less able to deal with stressful situations. Additionally, some studies point to a detrimental effect on our immune systems.
Kindness: I can swear to this one. One of the most valuable rewards forgiveness has brought me is that of kindness. Selfishness, of which I’m a past master, has taken a back seat and been replaced with endless consideration for others. That, in itself, has made me more content with who I am today.
Better Relationships: Forgiveness will lead to healthier, more rewarding relationships, be they of the romantic kind or that of a solid friendship.
Better Marriages: For those who are married, learning to forgive wholeheartedly is somewhat of a necessity. My own marriage ended during my years of addiction. She simply walked out, and, I, for one, didn’t blame her. But it went on the list anyway.

Forgiving

This is the last lesson. For forgiveness to be truly a part of your life, you have to:

● Forgive absolutely. Forgiveness is not, I repeat, NOT absolving the other party of blame. You may never speak to them again. That’s life. However, you are letting go of that negativity inside, and, therefore, you are not defined by that negativity.
● Realize its benefits.
● Understand that we are all human, we all make mistakes, and we are all just immensely fallible beings just trying to get through the day without making a complete ass of ourselves.
● Further, understand that you only extend your own suffering by not letting go.

Your Willingness…

As renowned U.S. author Marianne Williamson once wrote, “The first step in forgiveness is the willingness to forgive.” How very true. If you don’t start with this, you’ll never start. So this is what I have learned about forgiveness, from the moment I stepped into rehab until today, these 5 lessons – grudges and resentment, grudges and recovery, self-forgiveness, the benefits you reap, and the need for forgiving.

Maybe there’s something not in my, dare I say, list (this is, for sure, a far better list than the one I used to have…) that you think should be included. What would that be? Please share in the comments below. And thank you for reading.