Confession and Memory - Write it Down
I’m an alcoholic in recovery. There, I’ve just said it. It wasn’t that difficult. But I’ve been saying it for many years, so I’ve got used to it. Taking the first step in self-acknowledgement of a problem and confessing it to others is not easy. It’s a major hurdle to be overcome. It’s the first part of “coming out” at the start of alcohol treatment.
Confession is cleansing, liberating and, ultimately, part of a restorative process. Memory or recollection is part of confession. The seventeenth century philosopher John Locke argued that memory is part of our identity as persons. That is because memory constitutes our continuity as subjects of experience. It plays an important role in how we think and act.
How can we use confession and memory as part of an alcohol recovery treatment?
One of the things I’ve recommended to mentees is to write down the memories of their drinking experience. I’ve done this myself. The fundamental purpose of doing this is twofold. First, there is an element of confession, albeit this might not be shared with anybody else, at least in the first instance. Second, it also provides a record of the many fruitless attempts to stop drinking. This demonstrates that you can’t get well on your own.
When I started re-attending fellowship meetings in preparation for volunteering at the clinic, I was a bit worried about how I would be perceived. After all, I hadn’t had a drink for twenty years. I was concerned that people might ask “why are you here?” Daft as it seems now, I was a bit concerned that people might see me as a fraud. I was wrong, of course. People who have been sober for many years are commonplace at fellowship meetings, encouraging others on the path to recovery.
Fundamentally, though, I had to start at the beginning and ask myself, “was I really that bad?” So I wrote it all down in a timeline from my early experiences as a young teenager, through the countless episodes of drunken exploits to my ultimate collapse and referral to an alcohol treatment unit. It didn’t take long to re-discover that the answer to my question was of course, “Yes!”
These memories can serve a useful purpose. The inevitable time will come, perhaps after a long period of abstinence, when the alcoholic will be tempted to drink. The initial temptation will recall only the supposedly positive aspects of drinking alcohol – the short-lived feeling of well-being. Regular review of the written history will provide a counter balance, a reminder of where a resumption of drinking will lead to. It might also help to identify the triggers of relapse.
The written track record provides another purpose. It’s important to write down all of the various attempts and strategies to control the drinking. I’m not saying that self-control is impossible. But at minimum, a reminder of what happened is needed the next time you tell yourself “this time it will be different”. In my case, I ran out of strategies – changing what I drink, rationing units, having dry days, and so on – and I always ended up back in the same place. This becomes clear when I read what I’ve written.
There is not really a template for how to do this. The most famous of all is probably Augustine’s Confessions, albeit for a different addiction. That’s a major reason why he appears regularly in my writings. I don’t necessarily recommend reading it, however. That is because it’s hard going for somebody not trained in philosophy and theology.
One of the things I did, wearing my hat as a philosopher-theologian, was to work through the Confessions and record key quotations about events in Augustine’s life that related to the topic of addiction. Under each of these, I related my own experiences to what Augustine was saying. This was an attempt to understand both my slide into alcoholism and a possible pathway to recovery.
There is a simpler way to get started. Pick an autobiography of an alcoholic who was respected and talented in a field that interests you. It could be in sport, for example, or it could be a novelist or actor. There are countless examples. Read about what they went through and relate it to yourself.
Next, as an alternative, go to fellowship meetings. Listen to the stories of fellow sufferers. Forget about the supposed rules of the meeting and any imagined pressure to share, at least for now. Instead, focus on what is being said and relate it to your own experience. Afterwards, write down those elements of common experience.
Now you can use this material. When you feel tempted by the thought that this time it will be different, just remind yourself of how that worked out on previous occasions, and how your own personal experience is similar to others.
It’s important not to forget the forward-looking part. Further to the observations about your own past experience and the common elements shared with others, make notes about the path followed by those in recovery. Note the common elements. They will typically include confessing to others, sharing, doing new things and finding new meaning and purpose in life.
We can do all of this in formal therapy, of course. It’s about working out where you’ve come from, where you’ve been, who you’ve been with and the new path forward in recovery.
Make a plan!