Q&A Part 1: Whose fault is it?

Editor’s Note: This is the first entry in a series called Questions & Answers. This series will attempt to cover topics and/or questions which have been raised by readers. Feel free to submit your own questions, and we’ll see what we can do about addressing them.

“Hi, my name is Bill, and I’m an alcoholic.”

“Hi, Bill. We’re glad you’re here.”

“I’ve been drinking pretty much every day since I was twelve years old. I remember that first sip of beer. It was awful – tasted like stale horse piss, but the feeling it gave me before I threw up was incredible. I’d finally found a way to escape the way I felt, the way he made me feel. He used to come into my room at night whenever he spent the night with my brother. I knew it was wrong because it didn’t feel right, but he threatened to kill my dog if I told anyone about it. While I used to thank God that boy drove me to drink, drinking has caused me more grief than he ever did. That’s really as much as I want to get into right now. Thanks for being here, and thanks for letting me share.”

“Thanks for sharing, Bill.”
“You’re in the right place.”
“Keep coming back.”

This is a familiar script for those of us in recovery. We introduce ourselves. We share our story. We step back to let someone else take the spotlight.

We don’t dive too deep right out of the gate, and we don’t dawdle. The more time we spend sharing, the longer the focus is on us. The longer the focus is on us, the less comfortable we get because we’re more likely to share real truth and real brokenness if we keep talking.

But as we sit and listen to other people share their experiences, we hear our stories. We come to realize that we are not alone. There are others like us. We are not terminally unique. As a matter of fact, we are so alike in some ways it’s uncanny.

For instance, we all have a desire, and therefore a tendency, to blame. You see, my drinking or drugging or acting out in whatever manner I see fit is clearly not my fault. I will latch onto anything or anyone in order to place blame squarely outside my realm of responsibility.

Unlike a lot of other games, the blame game is not something we play for fun. It’s something we play to survive. It’s something we play in a desperate attempt to cling to our sanity. It’s something we play to make sense of decisions we’ve made which would otherwise be inexplicable without some sort of excuse.

It’s natural to place blame. It’s natural to want to place blame. But that doesn’t make it healthy.

While there are plenty of things we could (and have) blamed for our addictions, there are only a few risk factors which are commonly accepted as actually to blame (so to speak) for the addictions in our lives:

  • Genetic predisposition to addictive/compulsive behavior
  • Early exposure to/use of maladaptive coping mechanisms (drugs, alcohol, pornography, sex, relationships, etc.)
  • Social environment (the culture one was educated or lives in & the people/institutions with whom they interact)
  • Mental illness (conditions affecting thinking, feeling, mood)
  • Childhood trauma (or a traumatic experience later in life)

Embracing the above issues as risk factors requires a certain level of acceptance in the disease model of addiction. According to WHO, “a risk factor is any attribute, characteristic or exposure of an individual that increases the likelihood of developing a disease.”

Recognizing and identifying risk factors is NOT a means of placing blame. Recognizing and identifying risk factors provides an opportunity to better understand who I am and what contributes to who I’ve become. People who experience that exact same risk factors are likely to come through them differently. But these underlying risk factors must be addressed if someone wants to gain and maintain sobriety.

How is this different from playing the blame game?

The blame game is an attempt to pass the buck. The blame game offers an opportunity to make excuses, whereas identifying the root causes of our addictions, compulsions, and destructive behaviors highlights the things in our lives which need to be addressed. These are the places we need to work, and oftentimes, we need to work on these things and/or identify them with the help of a professional. It pays off in the long run to recognize that there are simply things we cannot do without the proper education and training. All the personal experience in the world is not enough to plumb the depths of someone else’s underlying issues (which may include but are not limited to depression, anxiety, and trauma).

In life we make choices. I hope we see and understand now that those choices can be influenced by a myriad of unseen and often unrecognized factors. But we also have to recognize that if we’re living out an addictive lifestyle, we’ve made some bad choices along the way. And instead of recognizing and addressing those initial poor decisions, we perpetuated them until we found ourselves here.

But blaming ourselves isn’t going to make us better any faster either. If anything, self-blame may lead us deeper into the spiral of addiction by re-initiating the cycle of guilt and shame. That’s why those of us who struggle need to recognize our roles in acting out and, rather than blaming ourselves, accept responsibility for our actions. Only then are we presented with the opportunity to move forward as a result of our rigorous honesty.

There’s another side of this blame game. No person goes through life alone. Our actions and decisions affect those around us, whether we choose to believe that or not. And it’s easy for those of us whose loved ones struggle with addictions or compulsive behaviors to take that blame and place it squarely on ourselves. This is even more true when the person(s) in our life who struggles is a spouse or a child. We’re supposed to have some responsibility to and authority over those people in our lives. At the very least, they are in our immediate circle of influence. How could their struggles not be my fault?

You didn’t get them drunk, and you can’t get them sober.
Your loved one’s addiction is the result of a myriad of factors colliding, but you did not cause their addiction and indeed are not capable of doing so. Unless you were in some way abusive toward them, chances are you’re not even a contributing factor to their current behavior and mindset. Feeling guilty and responsible won’t make them better; it’ll only make you worse. And with regard to making them better, the only one with that power is them. They might need rehab or accountability or therapy or jail or any combination thereof, but they won’t change until they’re ready.

Alright, what can I do?

Recognize that rock bottom is a bit of an ambiguous term.
Most addicts have to hit rock bottom before they find the path toward recovery, but that looks different for everyone. Just because something happens in their life that you would like to identify as their bottom doesn’t mean that they’ll see it that way. You can’t force it.

Use love appropriately.
Love is not a bargaining chip. If you try to leverage your love for them as collateral for sobriety, you’re going to end up without them. Love them unconditionally; just don’t allow love to lead you into the trap of taking care of them. (which leads us to our next point)

Don’t bail them out.
They will get in trouble. Maintaining an addictive or compulsive lifestyle always leads to headaches and problems. Your loved one will undoubtedly participate in behavior you never would’ve imagined and might not even believe possible. When they do, let them suffer the consequences. Perhaps letting them take responsibility for their actions rather than enabling them will be an enlightening experience (for all parties involved).

Take care of yourself.
Self-care is not selfish – it’s necessary, it’s healthy, and it’s vastly underutilized. The best thing you can do for your loved one is ensure your own emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual health. Go to meetings. Pursue hobbies. Have lunch with friends. Do what you need to do to make sure that when everything hits the fan, you have the skills and abilities to deal with that in an appropriate manner.

Don’t give up hope.
“Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord will personally go ahead of you. He will be with you; he will neither fail you nor abandon you.” – Deuteronomy 31:8

Well I know everyone that there’s no need to know in this city
I watch them all walk over one another
But we all day it so there’s no one to blame
I mastered myself. I found out all there was to find out
And if I didn’t have bad health I’d have none at all
And maybe we were supposed to be somewhere else
I don’t believe in anything that doesn’t wear itself out unnaturally
I’m falling down the stairs to the beat of second guessing
I can pick it up halfway down on any street and take it home with me
I’m falling fast
I’m low and I’m guilty

No One To Blame
Cheap Girls

“In all these situations we need self-restraint, honest analysis of what is involved, a willingness to admit when the fault is ours, and an equal willingness to forgive when the fault is elsewhere. We need not be discouraged when we fall into the error of our old ways, for these disciplines are not easy. We shall look for progress, not for perfection.” – Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, p.91 Step Ten

“For the Lord is the Spirit, and wherever the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. So all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord – who is the Spirit – makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image.” – 2 Corinthians 17-18

And so, together, we move away from a place of blame and into the freedom of peace which comes from a relationship with our higher power, Jesus.

– Alex Walker

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