Early on in my recovery, I expected people to forgive me because – after all – I had been sober for three months. It was easy to be upset when I felt my loved ones were still holding the past against me. Wearing my rose-colored glasses, I didn’t understand that true forgiveness takes a long time to earn. I came to that realization through my step work which helped me understand that, while people might forgive me for a specific thing if I asked, it would take a long time for my family to become willing to forgive me across the board.
It’s all well and good to expect a family to offer forgiveness, but let’s be realistic here. The family is generally still reeling from the chaos and destruction of drugs or alcohol. They’re still picking up the pieces. And they might well be upset and hold the past against their loved one until they can rebuild trust. Trust and forgiveness are earned, not given, through actions, not words. Families need to see their loved one’s feet and mouth going in the same direction for a long time as a demonstration of their commitment to sobriety. And that process takes even longer when children are involved. They will be so guarded against disappointment for a very long time until they can see that a parent’s recovery is for real.
In my line of work, I often see people newly in recovery carrying a chip on their shoulder because their family isn’t whole-heartedly accepting “the new and sober me.” Quite understandably, the family has been shattered by their loved one’s addiction and is guarded against its return. Yet the person in early recovery magically expects everyone to be all better at the snap of a finger. When I see that dynamic play out in my office, I call it out at the risk of angering someone or everyone. But I need to show them the road map to recovery, and it says “Grow, or Go.” As a side note, I’m thankful that, through the grace of God, I have a job where my unfiltered truth and honesty can help others find and stay on the right path.
Now, let’s talk about another side to forgiveness. By working the steps, I came to understand the things I drank about and the resentments I had towards the people who had harmed me and made my life so miserable. But I came to a healing epiphany: Those people who had harmed me? Well, somebody had harmed them too. We’re all just human beings.
And here’s the power in that realization: If I expect to be forgiven by the people in my life - and in order for me to let go of worries that I would drink again - I had to let go of those who hurt me. I had to be willing to forgive anything and anyone that held me hostage. I had to be willing to forgive them so I could come to a place where I could be free. My biggest desire is for true forgiveness and grace from the people I hurt in my family, so that means I better be willing to hand it out myself to those who hurt me.
So, I’ve forgiven others for the pain they caused, but how do I forgive myself for the pain that my drinking caused? I’ve done a lot of work with my sponsor, and I have asked the Lord for forgiveness. Still, there are times when I grab back ahold of that guilt or shame. And sometimes I even feel like I have been given too much grace and I don’t deserve it. It’s not that I want to beat myself up or relive it…it’s just the disease and my humaneness.
Forgiveness is a powerful thing. It can free us from our past and open up our future. It touches so much more than me, or you. It touches, and can change, all of us.