50 Shades of Vulnerable: The Art of Coming Clean About Recovery

50 Shades of Vulnerable: The Art of Coming Clean About Recovery

To tell or not to tell, that is the question many professionals in recovery must explore, but the answer doesn’t always come easy. In addition to the myriad of interpersonal issues one must consider prior to self-disclosure, the easily blurred line between personal and professional relationships can further complicate the decision. Not to mention, we are constantly inundated on social media by extremely intimate (or incredibly irrelevant) information, leading to a very elevated sense of pressure to self-disclose.

For so many years, my drinking was the foundation of my identity and controlled every facet of my life, including where I worked.-Jo Harvey

For a long time, I chose to keep my recovery status private. Not because I was ashamed, but because I wanted to experience life without standing in the shadow of my addiction. For so many years, my drinking was the foundation of my identity and controlled every facet of my life, including where I worked. Having spent too many years working in industries that not only allowed drinking, but encouraged it, I was thrilled to be sober in a professional setting and determined to keep my past a secret.

When colleagues would ask why I didn’t order a cocktail at happy hour, I would simply say “I can’t drink, it makes me sick.” While this may not have been the whole truth, it wasn’t a lie either. To get sober, I went through an aversion program which was quite successful, and to this day the smell of wine is enough to make me vomit.

For once addiction did not define me and I could pretend I was one of “those people” who simply didn’t like the taste or effects of alcohol. I was finally the girl I had always wanted to be, yet no one knew I had gone to hell and back to become her.

I would soon learn there is a consequence to everything, especially hiding a critical piece of my story. The more I glossed over my past, the more shame crept back into my experience. The truth is, I wasn’t ready to be vulnerable. I had just put all the pieces back together and wasn’t prepared to let anyone in close enough to see the cracks. One would assume individuals working in the addiction field may have less ambivalence or contention around disclosing personal recovery status. After all, such an environment should not only be free of shame, but supportive of those who have struggled with addiction. Many times that is the case, but secondary trauma, issues surrounding transference and counselor burnout can all impede the capacity for unconditional positive regard.

One would assume individuals working in the addiction field may have less ambivalence or contention around disclosing personal recovery status.-Jo Harvey

Although I’ve never participated in BDSM, I read the first half of Fifty Shades of Grey, which gives me just enough information to make a broad comparison between the bondage, submissive/dominance lifestyle, and self-disclosure. Brene Brown made vulnerability sexy with her infamous Ted Talk, but before revealing a critical piece of the Self, we must explore the concepts of consent, boundaries, safety, pleasure and pain.

When navigating the decision of whether or not to disclose, here are several points to consider along the way:

  • Frequently the decision has already been made. The “baggage” that follows those in recovery can often include a lengthy arrest record. Most employers want to know the extenuating circumstances around charges, even when the involvement of substance use is not automatically known. For those entering the helping profession, licensing boards require complete disclosure of any previous substance abuse.

  • What is the payoff to self-disclosure? Let’s be honest, it can create rapport with a boss in recovery or help facilitate trust with a client trying to achieve sobriety, but there is a danger in using it to cut relationship corners. When we use our recovery status to generate connection, the subconscious message is our suffering is all we have to offer, and again, addiction is back center stage.

  • Feeling safe is paramount, otherwise we can unknowingly create situations which reinforce our belief that people are not to be trusted.-Jo Harvey

  • People need to earn your story. Would you trust this person with personal information surrounding divorce, finances, religion, or politics? What evidence do you have to support your answer? Spend time contemplating the consequence of self-disclosure to determine if it would potentially bring you closer, or simply give the other person content to share at the water cooler. Feeling safe is paramount, otherwise we can unknowingly create situations which reinforce our belief that people are not to be trusted. When we confide in others who never had the capability of respecting our vulnerability, they inevitably hurt us, and then we justify retreating deeper into our shell. Bottom line, if you think a safe word is necessary, you may not want to play the game.

  • It is less about the audience and more about you. Sure, there is still a stigma around addiction and self-disclosure can feel a little like admitting to a recent bout of leprosy. That being said, the more we can integrate our story, the less power it holds. What is dangerous, is when we separate the story from the self. When we haven’t fully healed, we may talk about our addiction stoically, as if it happened to someone else. This protective mechanism is common with trauma survivors but rarely explored in the context of addiction, which is surprising, seeing as substance abuse often lends itself to dissociative experiences and is certainly traumatic. Just as EMDR, EFT and other trauma healing practices aim to do, we need to integrate our trauma into our experience in order to move forward. Healing is not simply swallowing our pain in a balloon, but allowing it to finally burst, forcing us to metabolize it completely.

There are many pieces of ourselves we choose to not disclose, and we typically don’t feel bad about it, so why should recovery be any different? There is no right or wrong answer, but it is important to look at our intention behind exposing or withholding our recovery status.

Disclosing because we feel we ‘should’ often denotes a hint of masochistic behavior and an underlying feeling we deserve to be punished.-Jo Harvey

Disclosing because we feel we “should” often denotes a hint of masochistic behavior and an underlying feeling we deserve to be punished. We get into trouble when we tell ourselves we “should” or “shouldn’t” behave, feel or respond in a certain manor. Rather than trusting our audience, let’s put trust back into ourselves and know in any given moment, we will make the right decision regarding self-disclosure. The goal is to accept whatever reaction our disclosure (or lack of) receives, knowing another person’s response is not about us, but our interpretation and subsequent feeling about the response is completely ours to own.

The most important thing to consider isn’t if you tell, but why. In a world that typically disregards intention, I would argue it is imperative we understand ‘the why’ behind self-disclosure, not only to protect ourselves, but to honor our experience.




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