Why Resentments are the Number One Offender

Why Resentments are the Number One Offender

American history is chock full of stories about famous resentments.  The most notable, well-publicized ones involve mutual dislike between people.  People like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali, Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison, and Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr – to name only a few.  Newspapers and magazines had a field day publishing features about their resentments and the resulting fallout.  The stories that have most captured America’s imagination, however, may be those about the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s.  It all started over a stolen pig.  Over the course of a decade, thirteen people were murdered, a home was burned to the ground, and various civil and criminal cases were prosecuted against members of both families.  Their stories are more than just a perverse American pastime.  They powerfully illustrate for readers how resentments can and do get really ugly.

Everybody probably has a basic understanding of what a resentment is.  That is, if you’ve ever been:  dumped by a girlfriend, fired from a job, passed over for a promotion, back-stabbed, made the object of gossip, lied to, ripped off, treated unfairly, embarrassed, bullied, unfairly blamed, verbally abused, or emotionally or physically abused, you probably held a resentment.  We’re human.  Our natural reaction if one of these things happens to us is entirely foreseeable: we become indignant; we resent it.

At the same time, we equally have a strong sense that holding resentments is somehow bad, even wrong.  While it’s true that resentments, because they are retaliatory in nature, imbue us with a sense of righteousness and control, they are more often likened to weeds that can multiply and ultimately take over a whole garden.  We suffer when we are filled with anger that has no place to go.  Lingering resentments can cause physical and emotional problems.  They can make us anxious and unable to focus on anything else.  They even keep us from sleeping.  Not surprisingly, the Lord himself commands that we love our enemies1 and turn the other cheek.2  Whatever sense of power that such resentments give us, all too often it comes at a terrible price. We become victims, playing the blame game to shield ourselves from responsibility, anxiety, and guilt.  Resentments rarely change the person whom we resent, either.  They almost never resolve conflicts. 

The Big Book definitely has a lot to say about this topic.  It says that the business of resentment is infinitely grave.3  It identifies the “greatest enemies” of alcoholics and addicts as “resentment, jealousy, envy, frustration, and fear.”4  Nevertheless, of these we are told that “Resentment is the number one offender.  It destroys more alcoholics than anything else.”5  This is a bold claim – one worth pausing to consider.  Why isn’t any other of the greatest enemies the number one offender, for example?  Why isn’t the obsession to use drugs and alcohol?  Or the physical allergy?  Or genetics?  Or neurobiology?  Or our psychological and social histories?   

Good questions.  The importance of resentments to the alcoholic/addict lies in the dead seriousness that the Big Book assigns to selfishness/self-centeredness.  Indeed, our own self-centeredness is identified as the ultimate root of our troubles.6  Unless this singular point about the addict’s selfishness is clearly understood, we can never appreciate why resentment is the number one offender.  Broadly speaking, there are three reasons for this.

First, in our self-centeredness we operate under the persistent, delusional, and dogged insistence that the world and everyone in it must conform to our desires.  We are, as the Big Book observes, extreme examples of self-will run riot.7  Time after time our self-centered delusion is powerfully refuted, yet we refuse to accept it.  Moreover, we refuse to accept it even while our lives are falling apart because our substance abuse impairs our ability to meet our responsibilities and protect our interests.  We become overwhelmed, angry and indignant, and turn ourselves into victims; and we blame others, refuse to take responsibility, and wallow in self-pity and fear – all of which are hallmarks of resentment.  Our emotional reaction, predictably, is restlessness, irritability and discontent – three bad hombres.  As substance abusers trapped in the cycle of addiction, we’ve only one way to deal with these.

Further, our resentments while we’re using are especially insidious because they loop back on themselves.  They create bitterness.  With our minds warped by substance abuse, we don’t just hold resentments, we become resentful people.  We invariably cloak ourselves with simplistic, black/white views of the world and everybody in it.  Our capacity to see things maturely in nuanced, complex ways is just not there.  Everybody gets lumped into opposing camps: good/bad, right/wrong.  Anybody who’s not for us is against us; but there’s nothing going our way anyway, so we may not see anybody on our side.  We still want justification, to see ourselves as good, and we need our anger to make us feel powerful.  With everything else in our lives out of control, our resentments are the only thing we have left to shield ourselves from the awful truth.  So we let our anger flow with abandon.  Our resentments become overblown and disproportionate to any wrongs we actually suffer.  We end up wanting to punish others not only for a present harm but also for every harm (or series of harms) that preceded it.  We even hold imagined resentments – freebies that give us all the rush of indignation without any actual harm at all.  In sum, when our resentments become our only sense of control, it’s no wonder that we can’t control our resentments, or all of the evils that accompany them.  

Finally, resentments shut us off from the “sunlight of the spirit.”8  They are a luxury that we simply can’t afford.  The very notion of a self-centered, recovered addict is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms.  Only God’s power allows us to rid ourselves of the selfishness responsible for the parade of horrors and resentments described above.  We can’t remove it by moral convictions or by wishing it away.  “We had to have God’s help.”9  It’s nonnegotiable.  Resentment is a recipe for powerlessness preventing us from acting in anyone’s best interests including our own.  We’re living in self and blocked off from God.  We’ve reneged on our 3rd Step vow to hand over the reigns of our lives and stop playing God.  Instead, we put ourselves back in God’s judgment seat.  Our resentments turn our focus inward and we again become spiritually sick.  Our attention returns to our own plans and designs.  We’re of no service at all to our fellows.  Instead, we’re propelled by selfish ambition, valuing ourselves above others.  We become easy targets – restless, irritable, and discontented – sitting ducks for wanting to experience again the sense of ease and comfort which comes by taking that next drink or drug.10

The Big Book well notes that a life which includes deep resentment leads only to futility and unhappiness.  The insanity of our addiction returns and we use again.  “And with us, to drink [or drug] is to die.11  If you haven’t worked your steps, you will have the opportunity to more closely examine your resentments when you complete your Step 4 Resentment Inventory while identifying your character defects.  Step 4 is infamously considered “the scary one.”  Because of the extreme importance of the work you will be doing, your efforts will be crucial to a lasting recovery.

Jeff Sage: A Prodigal Son Come Home

Jeff Sage: A Prodigal Son Come Home

Seeing Jeff Sage today, you’d never suspect he ever struggled with alcohol or drugs.  One of our CORE staff members recently interviewed Jeff, a man brimming with optimism who seems to inspire confidence in everyone around him.  Since coming to CORE three years ago, Jeff has become a born-again Christian, worked the 12 Steps, and commenced our recovery program.  In addition to holding down a full-time career, he also acts as a CORE house manager and is an advocate for our EDGE program for younger clients.  During our interview Jeff freely discussed the stark contrasts between his former life of addiction and his new life as a man of God.

Jeff enjoyed a typical American childhood growing up and played sports well into his high school years.  He showed an aptitude for billiards too.  There was no traumatic event that sparked his using, but he definitely had a rebel streak.  While a freshman at Kickapoo High School in Springfield, a friend introduced him to marijuana.  After high school, Jeff crisscrossed the country hustling pool and playing in tournaments from Chicago all the way down to Texas and Florida, and all the states in between.  During his travels he discovered that he liked to party: 

I liked the bar scene. A lot of gambling, a lot of playing pool, and drinking.  I was like, I like this.  It’s legal, and it’s fun, lot’s of fun back then.  My base was pretty much pot, and then alcohol.  They and other things just came and went. 

He eventually returned to Springfield and discovered his aptitude for sales.  Jeff hopped from selling fitness memberships, to cars, to interests in real estate.  Each transfer led to him making and spending more money than he’d ever dreamed possible, but his alcohol and drug use were starting to get out of control.  Even being blessed with a wife and child couldn’t reign him in.  In June 2009, he went out on a bender, wrecked his 4Rrunner, and went missing for several days while in the hospital.  Jeff’s relentless trek up the ladder of success came to a screeching halt.  He landed in rehab completely mystified by his inability to moderate his substance use:

So I’m full of shame and guilt. Things happened. How’d I let it get to this? Sharp guy [that I was]. I almost couldn’t get in because my blood pressure was so high I was so stressed out. How did I arrive to this point?

From rehab Jeff came to CORE for his first, albeit brief, stay.  His friends, family, and employer were supportive.  He still had his job.  All was not lost.  Yet Jeff wasn’t ready to do what was needed to recover.  He thought he knew more than the people who’d been there before and were trying to help him.  He recalls “I was going through the motions, telling them what they wanted to hear. I’d removed drugs and alcohol for sure, but hadn’t done any steps. Didn’t believe it.  I was different. I was smarter. I was successful. It didn’t apply to me.”  Jeff left CORE after only four months.  Things fell apart “pretty quickly” after that.  

Jeff eventually lost everything that mattered, his wife, home, and career, and he became almost a complete stranger to his parents and son.  A long string of lost jobs, wrecked cars, other rehabs, and another brief stay at CORE followed.  His life had become unmanageable.  “Sooner, worse each time, more miserable, and then on a spree,” Jeff tells us, “and the fun’s over.  Now, I’m full of anger, full of resentment. I hate myself. I’m drinking and using to survive.  And with all plans of quitting, getting a job, and starting over.  It never panned out.” 

To make matters worse, Jeff lost his dad in December 2016.  “He died, and we’d been close.  It messed me up really good.  And I used it selfishly to self-medicate.”  The next eight months are a blur in his memory, after which he found himself in a dark, bad place, both mentally and emotionally.  The man who once had everything had been reduced to “a broken person, empty, and scared.”  He had no plan to end his life, but he really didn’t care if he died, either.  That was the bottom for him.  After seven years of chaos, Jeff felt tired of hurting everybody, tired of not being able to look in the mirror, and tired of hating himself.  In his own words, Jeff was “completely beat down,” adding “I was done.  Really done this time.  I did not want to hurt anymore.”  Jeff prayed to God for help, and walked from a friend’s house to CORE’s recovery center in Springfield. 

Jeff made good on his plans this time.  He was baptized into Christ and dedicated his life in service to God.  He stuck with CORE’s program for the entire year and completed it.  Much of his year was spent in the company and under the tutelage of some men who already completed our program.  In them he saw a quality of genuineness and complete lack of motive to get anything from him.  “There was just something about them,” Jeff says, “it was the Holy Spirit in them.  There was a light about them.”  He wanted what they had and was willing to do what was necessary to get it.  They helped Jeff by showing him how to do the 12 Steps, do them right, and not question every little issue.  He distinctly remembers that, after doing his 4th and 5th Steps, he finally was able to sleep at night and get rest, saying “That stuff wasn’t eating my lunch anymore.”  By the grace of God and the 12 Steps, Jeff had recovered. 

As Jeff completed his year in the program, he was overwhelmed by what God had done for him:

“I’m getting paid spiritually. Maybe that’s weird to say, but I have a peace about me.  I know God’s real.  I know what he delivered me from to where I’m at now.  The relationships that I have with my son, with my mom, it’s nothing short of a miracle.  And I don’t have any resentments, I don’t have any jealousy, I don’t have any anger.  I’m grateful for the time I have with my son, being able to be part of his life.  God continues to show up and show off in my life.” 

Today, Jeff is confident in his transformation and knows that his mind has been renewed.  The Big Book Promises are happening, too.  His mother and son, whom he describes as his biggest fans, have come back into his life.  He’s grateful for the renewed friendship of his ex-wife, who hung in there with him during the years of his addiction.  Jeff also has embarked on a new career.  Further, having commenced our program, he wasn’t done at CORE, either. It was time to give back.  Thus, for the last two years, Jeff has served as a House Manager and worked part-time for CORE’s EDGE program, both of which offer mentoring and Big Book guidance to clients.  In transitioning into a leadership role at CORE, Jeff sees a golden opportunity to pay it forward:

I saw this as an opportunity to strengthen my foundation, get me out of my comfort zone, and work with these guys. Occasionally you work with somebody, and it will click. Then they’ll go out and work with somebody. It’s that ripple effect. It’s the most beautiful thing, so that now it’s just putting all this good stuff out there. The ripple effect reaches all these other people.

We at CORE foresee good things for Jeff and are pleased to have played a part in his recovery.  We look forward to more years of his friendship and help.  Jeff’s message to everybody in recovery: “God’s got a plan. We don’t always know what it is. You gotta have faith.”