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Pain, Shame, and Rigorous Honesty

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One of recovery’s great spiritual gifts is the courage to live an authentic life.

What’s the difference between joining a church and truly believing? Or, as pastors in my rural Southern Baptist church might put it, “Are you just warming a pew, or do you truly love the Lord?”  However you understand or define God, you’ve probably given some thought to the question of authenticity, in faith and in life.

“I grew up going to church and was president of my Methodist Youth Fellowship, but back then I didn’t have that sense of choosing to live by the spiritual principals of forgiveness and love and dealing with resentments and relationships in a healthy way,” said Kitty Harris, PhD, LMFT, LCDC, director of Recovery Science Research at Texas Tech.  “Just that opportunity to walk a path that’s filled with compassion and empathy and serenity and, to the best of my ability, to love other people—that has been a huge gift for me.”

Our spiritual discussion began when I shared with Kitty something that has amazed me about the recovery community from day one—unflinching honesty. Let’s face it: If you’re an adult walking the planet, you have regrets—moments you wish you could take back; choices you wish you could change; people you’ve hurt, people who have hurt you; wrongs to forgive and to be forgiven for. However, speaking as someone who has never been involved with recovery, I’m not brave enough to be open about my regrets, and I’m in awe of people who not only possess that courage but exercise it daily.

“A lot of people put their pain and shame on the back burner, but in recovery, you don’t have that option,” Kitty explained. “It’s either going to eat you alive, or you’re going to have to deal with it. So 12-Step programs are all built around what we call rigorous honesty. What’s the first thing that happens in a 12-Step meeting? ‘Hi, I’m Kitty and I’m an alcoholic.’ That’s how everything starts. Number one, it’s humbling. Number two, it’s a matter of owning up to and not being ashamed of what you’ve done, of being able to establish an identity at some level as a person in recovery trying to live a different life.”

She pointed to a line in the 12 Steps which talks about “practicing these principles in all our affairs.”  The result is that people in recovery take the principles of honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness that they’ve learned while working steps and try very hard to practice them in all areas of their lives.

“It’s a courageous way to live,” Kitty said. “And it’s a very transparent way to live. In a recovery meeting, you don’t talk about the latest movie or television show you saw. You talk about your soul. You talk about your life. You talk about your pain. You talk about your trauma. So the foundation of recovery—and one of the reasons it’s so successful and so wonderful—is that you build intimate, genuine, authentic, transparent relationships that sustain you throughout your life.”

People outside the recovery community are often surprised to hear those in recovery express gratitude for their experience. Kitty explained: “I think the greatest gift from my own addiction and recovery has been the richness of the spiritual principles that I’ve embraced and lived. There’s a great saying by one of the AA founders, which I’ve remembered throughout my life: ‘Don’t let the good be the enemy of the best.’ Without recovery, my life would’ve been good, but it would never have been the best because recovery taught me that it’s not about what I get—it’s about what I give back. And it’s not about what I become—it’s about who I am.”

By Valerie Fraser Luesse

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