Forgiveness is a topic that comes up constantly, especially (but not only, obviously) for people who struggle with addiction. We do all kinds of stuff we’re ashamed of when we’re caught in it, but one of the biggest sources of pain I hear is the regret about time lost. The years and sometimes decades that pass by when we weren’t there; the lost time with our kids; the relationships and opportunities that passed us by. How do we forgive ourselves for these things? That’s what I’m addressing.
I have been an addict since I can remember. I’ve been and am still addicted to shopping, people, food, and marijuana—I smoke every day. I used to smoke A LOT of weed every day. Now I just vape at night to fall asleep. I used to smoke cigarettes, but I quit five months ago. I am a teacher and have been for 17 years. I have traveled the world and have had many successes in my life. But I’m still an addict, and I do a really good job at pretending that I am content in my life. There is a part of me, a big part, that is very angry at myself for wasting so much time addicted, wasting my life away. I am now 38 years old, have never been married or had children, and I yearn for an authentic and meaningful life with a partner. I can’t get past the amount of time that I have wasted high when I could have been making a life for myself, creating a family of my own. I get it: I know I would have messed it up anyway, just because I was still an addict back then. I guess I’m angry that I am this messed up that I still can’t have a successful and meaningful relationship with a man (amongst many other repercussions from my addiction).
I have been sober before. I know I have to stop vaping. I still can’t believe I don’t want to let it go when it has done so much damage to my life.
My question, for now, is: How did you forgive yourself for wasting so much of your life because of your addiction? How did you make amends with yourself?
I hope you consider my question. I think it is a question all addicts have: we can’t forgive ourselves for the damage we’ve done.
Can you please help?
Your words are healing.
Can’t Forgive Myself for the Time Wasted
The first thing I did when I read your letter was go back and count the number of times you said “addict.” I clicked Ctrl+F, and the search returned eight results. Eight. Eight times in your short 321-word letter, you said “addict” or “addicted.”
Let’s replace “addict” with “human.”
I have been a human since I can remember.
But I’m still a human, and I do a really good job at pretending that I am content in my life.
I get it: I know I would have messed it up anyway, just because I was still a human back then.
I think it is a question all humans have: we can’t forgive ourselves for the damage we’ve done.
The way I read you saying “addict” in your letter was like watching someone keep a bitter piece of food in their mouth that they won’t spit out. Here’s something: you never have to call yourself an addict again, despite what you’ve been told. Really. Do you need to own the fact that you can’t mess with weed (and whatever else)? Yes. Do you need to kick weed to the curb for good and do the deep work of healing the wounds underneath that caused you to hide in the first place? Definitely. But you do not need to keep whipping yourself with the word “addict.”
To your grief: the losses are real. To tell you they’re not would be disingenuous and untrue. Addiction steals our time and our essence, and our ability to receive love, among other things. Feel all the way into the pain of what you know you lost, and also the unknowable things. But. But. Hear this: you didn’t chase weed and people and cigarettes and shiny things because you’re just “that messed up.” You did it because you’ve been looking for love, like Johnny Lee did, in all the wrong places.
And you did that because you were trying to get your needs met. Like all humans do—not just “addicts.” Addiction is a natural human instinct gone awry. It is a thing all people experience, and some of us acutely. You and I happen to be two of those people. So what?
It took you 38 years to get here. Do you realize that most people will never ask themselves the questions you’re asking or do what you’ve done already? However long it took you to arrive…you’re here. That’s a really big deal.
One of my friends has never had a problem with substances, but she’s addicted to her anger and rage and her stories about her past, and it has kept her stuck in the same loop for two decades.
I worked with a guy who has a beautiful family, a house on the water, and an enviable career, and yet he embezzled millions of dollars and is now facing jail.
One of my friends can’t have children.
Another friend has five children, and one of them is severely disabled, and she doesn’t know how they’ll make ends meet most months.
Another friend got in an accident and lost his right leg.
Another one’s husband keeps getting laid off.
My mom’s best friend is battling cancer.
And so on.
My point is: we all have our stuff. Your stuff matters because it’s yours to face, but it also doesn’t really matter at all in that it says nothing about who you actually are. Other than you’re totally in. On life. On the big mystery of it all. On this bizarre, miraculous, painful, and astonishing thing we do while we’re hurling through space. Your addictions are just your personal invitation to join the party.
Addiction is a creep, but I also love that it happened to me. Because it brought me to my knees. It slammed me into a wall of pain so thick I had to stop running. It shattered all my flimsy beliefs about myself and the way life works and forced me to create new ones that would actually sustain me. It shook me awake, so I could see where I was missing my life. It blasted away my judgment of others. It got me so desperate that I had to ask for help and reach out to God. In these ways and a million more: it showed me my humanity.
You can love it about you, too, if you use it as a pushing-off point instead of a personal statement about all the ways you’ve failed.
The reason I can sit here and write this to you and know—really, really know, beyond a shadow of a doubt—that you have nothing to forgive is the same reason I can show up for other people’s pain without flinching or shrinking back. Because of what I said above: I have seen my humanity, and so I see yours, too.
Like you, I’ve been the person who’s gone against her integrity so many times she wasn’t sure she could ever come back. I’ve chosen substances over people. I’ve lied, cheated, and stolen. I’ve stepped on the necks of people who love me. I’ve trashed my gifts and my honor.
Like you, I have extended unnecessary kindnesses from the goodness of my heart. I’ve demonstrated a willingness to participate in life. I’ve created and appreciated beauty. I’ve loved deeply, purely. I’ve fought very hard for myself and others. I have shown up, despite it being difficult to do so. And I did these things long before I got sober—I did them when I was a child, I did them when I was growing up, and I did them even when I was really deep in the dregs of addiction, although less because that’s who I really am.
Use that to tell yourself who you really are, too.
My addiction was a symptom of someone who was afraid and in pain. That’s all any of our less-than-stellar human behaviors are, including yours. We do dumb, weird, reckless stuff when we’re hurting and scared. And healing that doesn’t come from more self-flagellation and beating ourselves into submission about “how messed up” we still are. It comes from compassion and love and understanding that we all do the best we can until we know how to do better.
And you know how to do better now, don’t you? You quit smoking, which is huge. You’ve significantly cut down the amount of weed you smoke, which is also huge. I’d say you know better, and you’re beginning to do a lot better, wouldn’t you?
Your addictions are pointing you to your magical sensitivities, not your flaws. And if you choose, you can keep turning over those parts of yourself like stones in dry dirt. And then you can kiss each one, wash it clean, and reclaim it. That is how forgiveness works: we look at every single part of ourselves (especially the bits we’ve called ugly), and we see them as necessary simply because they existed in the first place, and we decide to love them despite what much of the world tells us about them, and then we dare to show them to other people and say, Here. Look. This is who I am.
That’s also how you will come to have a loving relationship. You will see your perceived flaws as the places where you have become interesting and magical. You will stop seeing your time spent with addiction as wasted and instead see it as time spent learning what you didn’t yet know. It takes what it takes, lady, and it’s only wasted if you don’t flip it—if you hold onto this heavy story about yourself and keep whipping yourself with the “addict” stick. Stop thinking that being addicted is what’s wrong with you and instead know that it has the potential to reveal what’s best in you.
If you can’t extend this kindness to yourself just yet, think of someone you love. For me, it’s my daughter. When I’m really beating up on myself, I imagine I’m talking to her the way I talking to myself. It makes my whole body hurt—I would never do it. So imagine someone you love and speak to yourself the way you would them.
Now, when I was first getting sober, I could only see the ugly stuff, and I’m imagining that’s where you are now. I couldn’t acknowledge anything good about me or my story because I didn’t believe those things existed anymore—if they ever had. Removing all these crutches has left you pretty raw. When we stop doing the things that have kept us from feeling for so long, those feelings rise up and ooze right out of us like slime. Especially the gnarly ones like guilt, shame, anger, and grief. There were days when I thought I might suffocate from it all, but I didn’t. And you won’t either. It takes work, and it takes putting one foot in front of the other day after day, and it takes time to distance yourself from the way you once lived. It will be hard, but every time you choose the treasure of your own frequency over the toxic bull your brain is telling you will make you feel better, you’re going to move closer to the life that’s meant for you. Maybe that life includes a relationship and a family, and maybe it doesn’t. Either way, you will love it because it will be yours.
It’s normal to grieve what is lost. To be approaching the end of your child-bearing years and feel like the window is closing on the opportunity to have a family is a pretty crushing realization. You should feel all the way into that and suspend the charade that you’re content with your life with people you trust to witness your grief. Name the regrets as you did here and grieve the hell out of them; let the river of sadness move through your heart and wash it clean. It will.
And then, please start speaking to yourself more kindly. You are not a messed up person who has thrown their life away and squandered all her opportunities. You are a beautiful soul made in the image of the Divine who forgot who she was (and, by the way, has a hell of a lot of life left to live). Next time you catch yourself thinking only of what you’ve lost, gently pull yourself back and try love instead.
Here’s how: apologize.
Sincerely and sweetly and honestly. Don’t berate. Don’t reprimand. Don’t slap with another sting of shame. Simply say, “I am sorry, baby.” To all the you’s you’ve been before this moment, but especially the little girl inside. You know, the one you probably left a long time ago. Apologize to her for everything you didn’t know. For all the ways you denied her. For giving her over to people and things that could not love her. For whatever made her afraid. For whatever caused her so much pain, she had to hide from other people and drugs and things.
Let her cry and wail and scream and shout or whatever it is she needs to do. And then…wait.
Because this is when things get really good.
This is when grace comes in and does for you what you can’t do for yourself. It may take a very long time. You may have to apologize and fall apart hundreds of times before something really shifts. But if you commit to this radical act of “no matter what” love, forgiveness will come to you just like it has come to me. I don’t hold myself in contempt for one single thing I did in my addiction. Not for the really brutal stuff like being unfaithful to my husband or putting my daughter in significant danger, or for the smaller but equally ruinous ways I chipped away at my integrity year after year. And not because I don’t own it all or because life is wrapped up in some perfect bow of acceptance and spiritual perfection. No.
Just yesterday, I flew into a fit of judgmental rage because I felt attacked by someone. I wish for a partner like you, and sometimes I get so lonely it feels impossible. I’m pretty sure I will be paying for my poor financial choices until I’m in diapers again. The difference is I don’t hate myself for any of it. Because at some point, I decided that wasn’t going to work anymore, and I pushed off into a new place, even though there were no promises it would be better. I accepted that my life couldn’t have gone any different. How do I know? Because it didn’t. It just didn’t. I cut the bullcrap with alcohol and put together day after day of sobriety and committed to the deep work of facing the reasons I drank to begin with.
Then, somewhere along the line, I fell in love with myself again. And you will too. I don’t know when, but you will. There’s no other way for it to go. As Rob Bell said in a podcast about boundaries, “The universe is tilted in the direction of your healing.”
Start with an apology to your sweet, kindred self. Surround yourself with people who can reflect the best image of you back to you. If you don’t have those people right now, ask for them to show up. Keep doing the work that is meaningful to you. Ask God to come in, or whatever it is you believe in. If you don’t believe in anything, use the sun rising every morning or the fact that the ocean keeps lapping up against the shore as proof of life’s desire to keep happening, to create itself anew. Find beauty and use it as proof that it exists for you to witness because it does.
And take it from me that you are already, and always, forgiven.