Guilt vs. Shame
Ok, this one is pretty straightforward:
Guilt -- I did something bad.
Shame -- I am something bad.
As straightforward as that appears, though, those two things can become very tangled in the mind of an alcoholic.
For people who suffer from addiction, when we're "out there" our behavior is, to put it politely, The Suck. Plus, I think it's fair to say that when we're using, our brains are awash in huge amounts of chemicals (ethyl alcohol or others or, more likely, both. Or more! All! What have you got? Can I have some more? Oh, by the way, what did I just take?). Our brain chemistry is constantly swinging from one extreme to another as we drink to dissolution or tweak to oblivion (or whatever) -- which just screws up our thinking even more. Even when we're not actively using, our brain chemistry is still whacked from the last round. We're practically loaded even when we're not loaded! And screwed up thinking plus loaded actions makes for some very bad behavior. We do bad things. Selfish, foolish, rash, ignorant, violent ... let's just leave it at "bad."
(I can do selfish, foolish, rash, ignorant things even when "dry" if I let my alcoholism go untreated. But that's another Cage Match, I think: Dry vs. Sober.)
And you know what? For me, when it's right-sized, guilt is the appropriate emotion when I reflect on some of the things I did. Sobriety, recovery, the process of the Steps, is not about letting me off the hook. It's not about pretending. It's the opposite of that. It's about owning my part in things, and making direct amends whenever I can (except when to do so would throw somone else under the bus instead of me.)
But for a lot of alcoholics, especially when there are other issues to contend with (family stuff, mental or emotional illness, etc.), the equation goes like this: I did something bad, thus I AM something bad.
No. No, you're not.
As the old expression goes, we're not bad people getting good, we're sick people getting well. That's not an excuse, it's an explanation.
For example, speaking hypothetically: If I have a seizure disorder of some kind, and I come over to your house and I happen to have a seizure and I break your favorite vase, I didn't do a bad thing, in the context of a moral judgment. I am responsible for what I did, but as the result of a medical condition I flailed around and did some damage. I'm not a jerk, I'm a guy with a seizure condition. I need to clean it up and make it right and replace to the best of my ability what I broke, but it's not a moral issue. It's a medical one.*
So when I was drinking and using I flailed around in my alcoholism and stole from my parents and was a very (very) bad roommate and trashed a sibling's apartment (ok, ok, 2 sibling's apartm... ok, ok, more than 2 and more than once), and I drove (very) drunk and was a profound danger to myself and others, etc., etc., etc. -- I need to make those things right in whatever way I can, but to let that morph into some sort of self-abusive thing in which I walk around thinking I'm the
biggest turd in the bowl worst person on earth is directly opposed to the idea that alcoholism is a disease.
Plus, somewhere in there, walking around thinking how terrible I am, I'm drifting into self obsession.
If Anger + Self Obsession = Resentment, then maybe in some instances Guilt + Self Obsession = Shame.
And alcoholism just loves self obsession -- that is really fertile ground for alcoholic thinking to grow. And if you do enough alcoholic thinking then you're likely going to start doing some alcoholic drinking.
*But in the whole "Seizure Disorder" example, there can be a larger responsibility, on the part of the person who is sick, to take their medicine so that a situation in which they put themselves or others at risk, and potentially damage things, doesn't occur.
If that's too obtuse a point for you, let me spell it out:
As an alcoholic in recovery I am responsible for taking my "AA medicine" so that I don't wind up having an "untreated alcoholism seizure," flailing around emotionally or mentally and damaging the people and things around me.
And if you think that's a cutesy-poo analogy, and a little too precious for your taste, then I suggest you've never been around an untreated alcoholic who is not drinking. Sometimes they're scarier than the wet ones. 'nuff said.