Learning to be Honest


Addicts know they live fundamentally dishonest lives. They have an over-riding desire to hide the central fact of their existence, their need for drugs, behind a facade of normalcy. And they know it even as they deny it, so they have to lie. I heard this stated with eloquent simplicity from an AA speaker who described the addicts’ code as, “Lie your ass off and hope for the best.”

Once sober, addicts acknowledge they paid a heavy emotional price in guilt and shame for their lying. I’ve heard sober addicts at many meetings say how alluring sobriety was because it relieved them of the need to lie. In fact, I heard this at the very first AA meeting I attended, voluntarily, about three months before I was forced into rehab. I didn’t go for any positive reasons, but as aversion therapy, to inventory all the ways I was different from the people there and motivate myself to control my drinking so I’d never to have to go back. I wasn’t looking to learn anything.

But the speaker talked about how grateful he was to finally be living an honest life after years and years of a thoroughly dishonest existence. He described how much simpler it was. “I don’t have to try and remember what I told to which person anymore,” he said, “And I don’t have to live with the knowledge that I lied from the moment I woke up in the morning to the moment I passed out at night.” Nor did he have to deal with the guilt and shame that resulted by blotting it out with alcohol-induced unconsciousness.

It didn’t make me willing to admit I was an alcoholic or enter treatment. But it planted a seed that was later nurtured in rehab. And it proved to me that you can go to AA meetings for all the wrong reasons and still get something positive out of them.

AA says honesty is an essential ingredient for staying sober, particularly being honest with yourself. I was told by an AA member I admired, who’d been sober for decades, that “becoming,” rather than “being” honest, was the goal, particularly in early sobriety. She said it was a process and cautioned me not to get too down on myself when I wasn’t completely honest right away. “People who’ve spent most of their lives lying can’t just snap their fingers and become the opposite,” she said. Like everything else about sobriety, honesty is something that has to be practiced. And practiced and practiced.

Step 1 was about being honest with yourself about drinking and using, she said. Steps 4 and 5 were about becoming honest with God and another person. Steps 8 and 9 were about putting honesty into action. The last three steps were about maintaining honesty on a daily basis.

Meetings are a place to see others practicing honesty about how they felt and what they were going through that you can learn from and emulate. Honesty requires making yourself vulnerable. Seeing others put themselves in that position and not suffering unbearable consequences makes you believe you can too. It’s only possible with humility: it requires getting past worrying about what others will think of you.

Honesty also has a spiritual component. One memorable AA speaker defined God as “the power you can’t lie to.” It’s also crucial to humility — knowing what you can control and work on changing versus what you can’t and have to learn to accept.

But to most recovering addicts, honesty isn’t natural, at least at first. It’s scary because it leaves you exposed, especially when you’re sharing your fears, doubts, and inadequacies. It’s easier to fudge, to be selectively honest. But there’s a saying in AA (there’s a saying for everything), that “You’re only as sick as your secrets.” Secrets result in shame and guilt which trigger the cry for relief and the craving that only a drink or drugs can bring. Thus, I was told, honesty is essential for continuing sobriety and survival.

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