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Can You Blame Us?

30 April 2014

Pete Rose, or someone purporting to be Pete Rose, has a twitter account. He tweeted about having pushed an Umpire, and receiving a suspension. In response to this, Hope Jahren tagged me asking:

It’s an interesting question. And one for which I don’t think I have a satisfying answer. I think there are a couple of important different questions actually being asked though. First, there’s the question of moral culpability. How much responsibility does an addict have for the acts they commit while in an active addiction? Second, there’s the question of interpersonal affront. How much restitution is an aggrieved party entitled to if an addict injures them while in an active addiction? Third, there’s the question of offense and insult. How angry are we justified in feeling toward an addict when they injure us while in active addiction?

Each of these has its own answer, and for its own reasons. And I doubt it would be easy to get any two people to agree on precisely what they are. Especially from a legal or ethical perspective. And yet, we addicts in recovery – at least in the 12 step programs – have come to a fairly uniform and comprehensive answer to all three of these questions. For ourselves, anyway.

How much responsibility do we have for acts we commit while in active addiction? All of it. We are completely responsible for our actions, behavior, and damages. Being an addict does not justify our behavior. It may explain it. It may help us to understand it. It may enlighten us about it. But it does not excuse it. We are fully morally culpable for bad acts committed while in active addiction.

How much restitution is an aggrieved party entitled to when we injure them in active addiction? The same as they would be if we injured them in active sobriety. Where we do damage, we should make amends. Making amends means trying to set right, as they were before. Insofar as that is possible, and it is often not. But often, things can be made far better than before. We are not, however, required to do whatever is asked of us by an injured party. We return things to a pre-injured state, if we can. We do not become hostage to our victim’s whims. The fact that we are addicts does not really come to bear on this topic. This is just how people should behave.

Finally, how angry is an injured person justified in being at an addict that harms them while in active addiction? It is not our place to mediate such matters. People’s emotional responses are their own. I have found in my own life that people are rarely (but sometimes!) angrier at me than I deserve. One task of recovery is to try to set right the things the things we’ve done wrong. It is not to manage the emotions of persons we have harmed. Their feelings are theirs. They are entitled to them, and how anyone expresses their own emotions is no business of mine.

Addiction is a compulsion. Yes. But our behavior is deliberate. I’m not entirely sure how to reconcile those two statements, and yet they are, in my own experience, entirely in concert. I am powerless over alcohol. I chose to drink every time I drank. I have irresistible cravings for alcohol when I drink any at all. I deliberately and knowingly wrought ruin in my life, and in the lives of others, through my drinking.

The matter of blame? I have no difficulty accepting blame for the harm I’ve caused. While actively addicted and subsequently in sobriety. Seeking to shirk blame is a symptom of precarious recovery, in my experience. What I don’t have to accept is continuous vilification. I do not have to prostrate myself interminably. I neither dwell on the past, nor seek to shut the door on it, just as it says in our promises.

How you choose to blame an addict in your life who harms you is up to you. How we choose to blame ourselves is up to us. Recovery depends upon accepting responsibility, making restitution, and then moving forward.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Penelope permalink
    30 April 2014 17:34

    Food for thought …..we have had a raging alcoholic living with us for the last 6mos, he’s moved on now…but it was an a fascinating social experiment…..I found that I could super easily excuse poor drunken behavior, while my husband had no problem blaming him fully for whatever he did while drinking. marcus’s position was clearly healthier.

  2. Syd permalink
    1 May 2014 08:37

    In Al-Anon, I have learned to have compassion for the sick and suffering alcoholic and to hate the disease and not the person. Hard to do sometimes. I don’t accept unacceptable behavior or make up excuses for the alcoholic. But I also know that alcoholics don’t choose to drink alcoholically and have heard countless stories in recovery of alcoholics saying how sick and tired they were of drinking. Making amends to the alcoholic was part of my ninth step.

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