Of all the things addiction has taught me, nothing has been so powerful as the education I’ve gained through the experience of vulnerability. I wish I could say I’ve embraced it, that I’ve opened myself to the experience by way of some self-inspired desire to grow, to better know myself, or to be a more authentic person, but this wouldn’t be true. I doubt very many people come to understand and embrace vulnerability this way. Personally, I was dragged, kicking and screaming, into my first in-depth confrontation with vulnerability by alcohol and opiates.
Before I found myself consumed by addiction, I hadn’t spent much time pondering my weaknesses, my flaws, the fact that there are things in my life that will crush me. I’d never considered the fact that there are things that I wouldn’t be able to overcome by force of sheer will. In fact, I’d held the opposite idea. I’d imagined myself a survivor, a fighter, a person who persevered, and I applied this way of thinking when the time came to do something about my addiction. I don’t know about you, but I fought like hell. I exerted all of the willpower I could muster. I made promises to my family and myself, and I meant them wholeheartedly. And for the final two years of my addiction, I lived in that awful state of wanting nothing more in the world than to be clean, and failing over and over again to will my way into recovery.
Though these two years held some of the most excruciating experience I’ve lived through, they were necessary, and I’m grateful for them. Discovering and honestly confronting the fact that I couldn’t get clean and sober by my own will power was required to enter recovery, though I wouldn’t understand how this worked until much later. To be honest, as I approached recovery, the idea of surrender felt absolutely counterintuitive. I didn’t understand how I’d overcome addiction by ceasing to fight, by admitting my weaknesses, and by quitting to apply my will power. I didn’t understand how letting people see me in my weakness would accomplish anything. I know I’m not alone in this. I often hear the same confusion from people new to recovery, and I believe it’s rooted in the way we think and talk about illness as a culture.
When we talk about illness, we tend toward the language of warfare. People battle cancer, we fight to end Alzheimer’s, the AIDS virus invades the body, and here we are again in 2017, waging another war against addiction. In her essays, “Illness as Metaphor,” and “AIDS and It’s Metaphors”, Susan Sontag explores the language we use to describe the experience of illness. I highly recommend both essays. To boil one argument down for the sake of this piece, she suggests that the metaphors we use to talk about illness are harmful because they burden the sufferer with the responsibility of recovery, which creates all kinds of moral judgment around the experience of being ill. We see this with addiction, but we also see it with people who are “losing the battle against cancer” or “falling victim” to other kinds of illness. By thinking about illness—an experience that exists within the body and/or mind of an individual—as a war to be won or lost, the outcome of the war depends on the fight of the individual. From this angle, the ways in which we become ill and the ways in which we fail to overcome illness are associated with, among other negative attributes, the weakness of will.
As I fought my addiction, and failed to overcome it, I began to develop a great deal of shame. My self-perception of being a fighter and survivor was devastated by the experience of addiction. With my failures came shame, with shame came the experience of isolation, and this isolation perpetuated my addiction. Brené Brown speaks to this experience in her research on shame and vulnerability. In her TED Talk on the subjects, she suggests, “shame is really easily understood as the fear of disconnection: Is there something about me that, if other people know it or see it, I won't be worthy of connection?” She goes on to suggest that underpinning this fear of disconnection is the feeling of not being good enough—handsome enough, thin enough, wealthy enough, smart enough, fill-in-the-blank enough—and in this way, the experience of not being strong enough to win the battle of addiction on my own perpetuated my shame. This, too, is not something unique to my experience.
The relationship between shame and disconnection becomes very interesting if we look at it in the context of addiction and recovery. In other essays I’ve written, I’ve touched on the idea that addiction stems from disconnection, and there is a great deal of research that backs this idea up. Alongside the research, my personal experience fits into this framework. My recovery began once I was lifted from isolation and began to experience a sense of connection to myself, others, community, and society. The way this sense of connection happened for me was a process, but what I’m now able to see in hindsight is that I began to find connection once I found the courage to be open about the fact that I am vulnerable, but more than this, once I began to embrace this vulnerability as a way of being in the world.
As I mentioned earlier, my personal experience with addiction showed me a lot about vulnerability. The final two years of my addiction whittled away the belief that I can overcome any challenge that comes my way. This weakness of the will right-sized me. It humbled me by making clear the limits of my power as a single human being in the world, and showing me clearly that there are ways in which I am weak. All of these things were important, but in community with others who have experienced the same thing, two very important things happened. First, people gave me permission to stop fighting; in fact, they encouraged me to completely surrender. I was given a new perspective on illness, one that existed outside of the language of warfare. Suddenly, addiction shifted from something I was supposed to battle until I’d beat it or it beat me, to something I could accept, coexist with, and recover from. Second, I was encouraged to embrace that state of vulnerability. There is an important distinction here for me. It’s one thing to experience a moment where we are vulnerable; it is another to approach life from a place of vulnerability. For me, when vulnerability became a way of life, my recovery began to flourish.
My own personal fear around vulnerability has always been rooted primarily in how I think I’ll be seen in the eyes of others. Part of it has to do with the fear that my weaknesses will become a burden. A little bit has to do with the fear of what flaws I’ll find if I stop pretending I have my shit together. At times, I fear that in facing and accepting my weaknesses, I’ll realize that I don’t have the capacity to amount to anything. When I boil all of this down, it’s clear that my fear of vulnerability is rooted in my belief that if people see me clearly I’ll be rejected, disconnected, and utterly alone. Here, we return again to Brené Brown’s definition of shame. The problem with this approach is that at the core of the experience of shame is a desire not to talk about it for fear of disconnection. And the less we talk about shame, the more we feel it, and the more we feel it, the more disconnected we feel, and on it goes. To the contrary, the more I allow myself to be seen in my weakness, my flaws, and my struggles, the more connected I feel, and the more I’m able to accept and love myself in an authentic way.
Maintaining my recovery has required a continued process of opening myself up to be seen. When I can find the courage to live vulnerably, I feel a deeper sense of connection, and my recovery benefits. Unfortunately, I have found it harder to be honest and open with the same depth now as I did early on in my recovery. When I was close to that initial experience of being crushed by addiction, I lived with the sense that it was life or death, either I’d open up and take the risk of being seen, or I wouldn’t make it. Almost ten years down the line, however, it’s easier for me to pretend like I have everything together. At my worst, I really begin to believe that I do have control, that I’m a badass who can take anything on, and that I don’t need help. At other times, I feel that as a person who has been in recovery for this long, I shouldn’t be struggling in the ways I struggle. This is an especially sketchy place for a person in long-term recovery to end up.
I’m writing about vulnerability for this reason. I need to be reminded of a couple of things on a regular basis. First, I need to remember that addiction is not something to be conquered, it is not an enemy to be destroyed, but an illness that is part of me that I can coexist with, and recover from. When I take this approach, I make progress. It still feels counterintuitive, but it’s true in my experience. Second, I need to be seen in my vulnerability. I have to let people know how I struggle, how I’m flawed, and the ways in which I’m weak. This is the way I get connected, and in connection I receive the help that I need. Never once has being honest about the ways I’m vulnerable caused rejection—the contrary has always been true. Finally, and perhaps most important, I need to demonstrate how to live vulnerably to those who come to recovery grappling with shame. As I mentioned, I didn’t come to any of this through my own good character. People who were living vulnerably showed me how to be vulnerable, and I consider it my responsibility to do the same.
When I can do these things, I get the good stuff of recovery. I begin to feel worthy. I begin to feel like a more authentic human being. I begin to feel less ashamed. These things are key for recovery, but I believe it goes deeper than this. What really happens when I can be vulnerable is that I begin to love myself more deeply, and a person who loves herself despite herself has no reason to drink or drug. When we learn to love ourselves in all of our brokenness, we find ourselves in a place of true refuge. We have nothing left to hide from.