man holding a beer bottle feeling distraught and guilty after drinking

Replacing Guilt & Shame with Hope & Strength When Fighting Alcohol Addiction

Your alarm goes off in the morning, after a night of drinking, you’re still disoriented, a wave of emotions come over you when you think of last night…you gather your thoughts as you experience a combination of anxiety, depression, and a sense of worry. You can recall laughing, drinking, telling stories, more drinking, possibly dancing, maybe some flirting, and more drinking; it’s all very cloudy, a full and complete recollection/understanding is very far and possibly out of reach. All of a sudden the second wave of emotions hit in the form of embarrassment/panic followed by negative self-talk that comes over in a singular thought: OMG! What did I do…what is wrong with me?

Why do I feel so guilty after drinking?

This is because alcohol is a depressant, which will affect the brain's level of happiness. The night that you are drinking you will feel an increase in happiness however the next day you will be deficient in these same chemicals and this can lead to you feeling down or depressed. 

Guilt & Shame After Drinking

For many individuals, this unsettling feeling usually occurs after a night of overconsumption of alcohol; whether at bars, parties/social events, at home, or even alone. Unfortunately, the unsettling feeling is only a small portion of the recovery - in terms of the physical, mental, and emotional strife that will occur for the next several hours. At the center of all this, two savage emotions are usually present and are wreaking havoc, as the individual is recovering; Guilt and Shame. Society has overlapped these two emotions to the point that they are perceived as synonymous. However, there is a distinct and important differentiation between the two; the act of doing something wrong is guilt, and applying negative feelings to one’s own sense of self is shame.

Physically, the body feels weak, possibly nauseous; there is a strong chance that it did not rest or sleep last night, merely “passed out” and this morning “came to” not waking up. This is a result of the body trying to combat the sedative effects of the alcohol by releasing its own natural chemicals in attempt to keep the individual awake and prevent the body from losing consciousness. Unfortunately depending on the amount consumed, this is a losing battle, the longer the duration of the alcohol consumption continues; the greater the chance that the individual will “pass out” or worse “blackout”. Once the alcohol begins to be processed and dissipates, disturbances/interruptions in sleep; waking up at unexpected times because all the chemicals the body previously produced to counteract the alcohol are still present in the brain.

Emotionally and mentally this adds to a “raw” and unsettling feelings experienced, the body did not have the opportunity to unpackage/deal with the emotions and stress collected and/or internalized throughout the previous day or even the week. This is especially hard when an individual is mired in depressed feelings, despair and/or hopelessness leading to worthlessness. Individuals in the grip of addiction are frequently told by the disease that the solution for alcoholism is found at the bottom of the bottle while sitting in the corner of around room (which we know is impossible). This thought promotes unimaginable angst, stress, and frustration via negative feelings/self-talk. This is further exasperated when external criticism by others meets the internal criticism mentioned above and ultimately leading to increased consumption in an attempt to manage/deal with these feelings.

Shame keeps the individual isolated and mired in “I can’t”; a perception that includes thoughts like:

  • “No one will understand”
  • “I’m not worth saving”
  • “Change is impossible”
  • “Nothing is going to change”

However, these thought negative thoughts are not true, it is natural for the individual to experience anxiety, depression, worry and frustration because of guilt but it is important to prevent them from being internalized further to the point it becomes shame.

Alcoholic Guilt: Alcoholism Is a Disease, Not a Moral Failing

Alcoholism is a disease, not a moral failing that could easily be “turned off” like a light switch. The physical and psychological effects that alcohol has on the body takes time to heal from, including: thinking/comprehension, coordination, sleep habits and stress/emotional regulation. The time it takes to heal depends on the amount and duration of the use/consumption and the damage that has been done. On average Post Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS) takes about 3-6months for the body and mind to begin healing once alcohol consumption has ceased and about 19-24 or more months to fully heal from last drink.

It is important for individuals and their families to attend some manner of treatment and/or support, as the disease of addiction affects all aspects of that individual’s life including their family. Counseling or individual support through groups like Alcohol Anonymous work with the individual to recognize that although alcohol has been a major component of that individual’s life it is not central and that they (individual) are not alone; which is usually the barrier why individuals don’t always seek help. In Steps 1-3, an individual learns that the emotional weight and stress of attempting to control most, if not all aspects of life are not necessary. The fact that in letting go of things that do not need to be controlled or held on to, and allowing something greater than the self, take control offers something more drink could offer: calm without the chaos.

Throughout this article, the central theme of getting relief from guilt and shame is the desired outcome whether through overconsumption or through treatment and/or support. Let me ask this simple straightforward question:

“What will it take for this to be the last first 30 days?”

We know relapse happens for several reasons; but usually because the thought says, “I can’t do it”, which is only the shame talking. But what if you could? What if the strength to acknowledge that help is needed; to reach out that hand and break the cycle of addiction…what if this will be the last time of going through the first 30days of recovery? What would that be/feel like if that happened?

Help is here, Turning Point’s staff is here to help, as a trusted New Jersey alcohol and addiction treatment center for the past 45 years, we understand that this is not easy for the individual or the family. Turning Point offers a variety of Inpatient and Outpatient programs that will help meet you where you are; to help find a program that can help get traction under your recovery and begin the process of healing.

Jon Boschen, MSW, LCSW, LCADC has worked in the field of addictions for nearly 10 years, serving as a Director for the past 3 years at Turning Point.


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