addiction

Fantasy

READ IT TO ME: Click play to listen to this post.

“Just My Imagination running away from me.” — The Temptations

Fantasy is a human experience. We know that other animals have cravings for food, sex, and domination more likely identified as animal instinct. Perhaps, we will never know if they fantasize in a similar way the human beings do. 

People fantasize about almost anything—money, sex, occupation, friendship, religion and on and on the list goes. The Oxford Dictionary defines fantasy as “the faculty or activity of imagining things, especially things that are impossible or improbable.” Where would we be in our world without the power of fantasy. Creativity and the power of invention would be stymied, even nonexistent without it. 

Fantasy is a wonderful human capacity. While it is difficult to measure and assess, it is known to put color and enhance romance in relationships. Sexual fantasy is a powerful experience that adds adventure and arousal to sexual relationships. 

That said, therein lies a problem. When fantasy becomes a block to connection to another in romantic relationship, it becomes a quandary. It becomes a source of secrecy, deceit, and even leads to betrayal. The porn industry generated over one billion dollars in 2022. Pornography is not a problem to all who view it.  However, there are many who have struggled to eliminate its use because it is against their values and relationship interests. Porn is all about fantasy. There are millions who are hooked on its use. 

Fantasy is a very private matter. No one really knows what goes on inside the mind of another. There is a certain degree of anonymity. You can fantasize about another—undress the person in your mind’s eye—and no one ever knows. For those who compulsively sexually fantasize about others without impulse control, it quickly becomes an unmanageable behavior, even an addiction. To those who struggle with this in our society, it is helpful to perform a pathological examination of a sexual fantasy.  

Sexual fantasy is a wisp of thought that can sweep into the mind without provocation. Typically, you won’t be able to completely control the prevention of thoughts that come into your brain. Bluntly, you can undress another person and visualize being sexual with that person in a nanosecond. It’s the nature of how the brain is wired.

People have tried to clamp down on their thinking processes to eliminate unwanted thoughts through mind control measures and even religious rites and rituals. There has been some success but not universal. 

In order to manage unwanted sexual fantasy, it is helpful to accept the reality that sexual thoughts and impulses indiscriminately enter the mind. The key is to manage the thoughts rather than try to play brain whack-a-mole whenever an intrusive thought is noticed. 

 It is wise for everyone to pay attention to sexual fantasy. Particularly, for those individuals who are compulsive or addictive in their sexual behavior.  Sexual fantasy represents a need that must be addressed in a healthy way. 

For example, you notice that a drop-dead gorgeous person moves in next door or just started working for the company you work for. Spontaneously, you think what it would be like to be in bed with that person. Problematic? Maybe, maybe not. It depends upon what you do with the intrusive thought. Many people would experience the thought, dismiss it and move on throughout their day. However, if you are compulsive or addicted to sexual thought, you will tend to linger and ruminate and feel the rush of excitement the idea brings to your brain. While you move through your day, the sexual fantasy lingers, gnaws and nags at the back of your brain. No one knows but you. What do you do?

If you are addicted you will need to move to a safe place that puts you out of harm’s way.  Think of it like sitting in the middle of a busy intersection in New York City and a bus is coming right at you. It is not time to ponder how did you get here. It is urgent to remove yourself from harm’s way. So regarding the fantasy, do a pattern interrupt. Shift out of the fantasy by thinking about one of a million other legitimate thoughts. Once out of harm’s way, revisit the fantasy. Decode what the fantasy is all about. Figure out what the legitimate need is that must be met in a healthy way. Many addict/compulsive sexual people have learned to sexualize their feelings. They practice cutting off unwanted feelings with sexual thought/ behavior that is against their values. 

Once you identify the need underneath the powerful sexual fantasy, you must develop mature self-parenting skills to meet those legitimate needs. Many people have not developed these skills. It requires training and reconditioning. You needed to learn these skills as a child from your caregivers but you didn’t. So, now you will need to resource yourself with other adults who do these skills well in order to recognize the legitimate need and meet the need in a responsible adult way. It requires impulse control, discipline to stay the course in the presence of discomfort and powerful urge, and staying with the process of applying healthy self-care.

Beating yourself up for having an inappropriate thought will not work. 

Personal self-monitoring skills require contemplation and self-reflection. This process needs to be included every day just as you would with other hygiene practices. When you don’t you will suffer from deprivation. You can be deprived in many ways—physically/financially/spiritually and emotionally. Your assignment as an adult is to monitor and meet these needs with restorative measures.  Unattended deprivation will fuel entitlement that culminates toward scheming to “want what you want when you want it.” It ultimately fuels addictive fantasy for whatever will numb you from your painful circumstance.

Sexual fantasy is meaningful for cultivating intrigue and healthy sexual experience. However, if you are stuck in compulsive destructive sexual fantasy, you will need to apply these interventions with regularity. These pattern interrupts apply to fantasies of all kinds. The interventions are counterintuitive. Lean into the understanding of your fantasy rather than run from it. It is possible to transform your destructive fantasy from a curse that promotes intimacy disability into a blessing of emotional, spiritual, and relational connection.

The Value of the Cold Plunge

READ IT TO ME: Click play to listen to this post.

Wim Hof, also known as The Iceman, is a Dutch motivational speaker and extreme athlete noted for his ability to withstand freezing temperatures. He has set Guinness World Records for swimming under ice and prolonged full-body contact with ice, and previously held the record for a barefoot half-marathon on ice and snow. He has motivated many to engage the rage of the cold plunge. There are many benefits promoted by advocates of the cold plunge including reducing swelling and pain caused by joint stress and muscle soreness.

In 12-step recovery there is another form of cold plunge. It involves the way you check-in with others during group processing.  Most attending a 12-step meeting approach check-ins with caution. Often with fear and trepidation, members disclose their addictive behaviors. Most avoid stark naked truth about acting out and either share with vagueness or reveal half truths. For them it is far too scary and vulnerable to say it straight. So they piecemeal the truth. Many talk about related issues that are less difficult and remain stuck in deception. Even, after untangling their first step with honesty about their addictive behavior, many retreat to sharing vaguely about everyday cravings and struggles. 

The cold plunge in recovery circles is about leading with the last thing you want people to know about you being the first thing you share when checking in. Rather than talking around a struggle you do the cold plunge and simply put it on the table for all to see. There is no going around the barn, hinting about what’s on your mind. You simply spill your guts. You lay out exactly what’s going on in your life with no edits. Your first thought might be “I don’t like anyone in this room.” Maybe, “I hate 12-step meetings.” Perhaps, “I want to act out right now or have been binging and the last place I want to be is at a 12-step meeting!” You just put it out there describing exactly what’s inside! This is a cold plunge check-in. 

There is a level of dishonesty that pervades a 12-step meeting when people don’t say it like it is. When the level of addiction is not unpacked, you can feel the drain of power in the room. Insincere shares fall flat like a lead balloon. Groups that maintain surface check-ins shrivel and eventually cease to exist.

What are the benefits of a cold plunge share? 

1. It sets the stage for emotional safety. Without emotional safety people remain surface in their shares. Breaking the ice and plunging deep with honest truth promotes others to do the same. When there is relational safety in community, anything and everything can be explored, sifted and sorted through. Pain becomes its touchstone and signpost indicating imbalance in life. Community provides a sound studio to listen to its message. Common shared brokenness is its draw, not common likeness or interest. Becoming emotionally naked in terms of sharing deepest feelings, even secrets are commonplace and expected. It’s a space where we can fit, be accepted as we are. It is a sanctuary to hide, to learn how we can wear our own skin well. It’s a space to accept our own acceptance while staring at imperfection. It is a place to grow ourselves into adult maturity and discover inner brilliance.

2. It promotes the practice of telling on yourself. There is no growth in recovery without truth telling. Cold plunge sharing eliminates hedging with the truth and highlights vulnerability. It helps dispel impression management and the fear of being real and authentic.

3. Cold plunge sharing activates a listening spirit. 12-step healing accelerates when you put yourself in the shoes of someone else. It requires that you identify with the share of another. When another addict says it straight, it is like a powerful slap in the face that demands a fair hearing. Truly listening to the broken voice that is sharing truth through a cold plunge manifests what others need to hear for their own healing. 

Cold plunge sharing smashes fix-minded inflexible thought that blocks recovery growth. Prejudiced thought about recovery is often rooted in rigid black-and-white thinking. Fixed-minded sharing closes the heart and diminishes the possibility of exploring healing. Recovery requires that you sit with the discomfort and uncertainty created by cold plunge sharing. It invites you to open your heart and trust your own inner brilliance to figure recovery out. It embraces fettered feelings that through sharing become like clouds that can be cleared to the awakening of inner brilliance and wisdom.

Yesterday’s Guilt

READ IT TO ME: Click play to listen to this post.

“Nothing is more wretched than the mind of a man conscious of guilt” —Plautus

Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night swimming in yesterday’s guilt. Things that I have done that hurt others years ago and have forgotten. Now, I remember them as if I had done them the day before. I tell myself that I have already made amends to them for the destructive behavior but guilt lingers. Sometimes it was something I did that I never told anyone about. I am the only one who knows. Recovery and activity over the years buried the behavior way down deep and now it somehow has worked its way to the surface of memory, and I ponder what to do with it at 3 am! Do you ever have bouts with yesterday’s guilt?

Guilt is not a pleasant experience. It’s the hound dog that never loses its scent and always relentlessly pursues.  There are overlays of guilt. You wake up each morning with the desire to do right. Yet, before noon you have already acted out with an addictive substance or process. Your heart descends from your chest to your stomach. There is a bitter taste of failure and guilt that seems to permeate every cell in your body. There is an overwhelming desire to be someone else, somewhere else. You feel sad, lonely, desperate, and guilty.

Guilt is a feeling experience that dominates most addicts. Even in recovery, guilt becomes a nemesis that is difficult to shake. Not only do addicts feel guilt about the destructive things they have done, but also the good things they never completed. Lying in bed replaying the things you did that were so hurtful. Like a nice warm glass of regret, depression, and self-loathing, guilt powerfully dominates the present with past memories of hurtful behavior. 

How do you manage guilt when you are committed to a life in recovery? Yesterday you stumbled. Maybe you did worse and fell off the edge of the cliff. You got drunk and killed someone driving. You had a sexual affair with your brother’s partner. You molested a child. You broke your partner’s heart with addictive behavior that created unbelievable pain for people you really love. How do you deal with the guilt that dogs you every waking moment?

1. What happened yesterday belongs to yesterday. There is an old saying in recovery that “Yesterday ended last night.” This is true. Guilt is caused by too much past, and not enough present. Wallowing in the mud and memory of past destructive behavior will never help you live free and clean in the present moment. Every day is a new day. It takes discipline to wipe the slate clean and live in the here and now and not be dominated by yesterday’s failure.

2. Guilt never rectifies past behavior. Guilt serves to remind you that you did something that hurt you or others. Sociopaths often don’t feel guilt when they hurt others. You do. Let guilt do its work and then discard it. Upon becoming aware that your behavior was hurtful to another, recognize that guilt is no longer useful to you. Feel it and let go. This will take daily discipline. Each day guilt will visit you. Practice forgiving yourself which means that you choose to not hold past behaviors against yourself and are committed to walking in the opposite direction from destructive behavior. Recognize what you are doing to rectify hurtful behavior with healing action and then dismiss guilt by taking action that demonstrates guilt-free living. Practice letting go of guilt moment by moment. 

3. Make amends. The 8th and 9th steps of the 12-Step program suggest that you make a list of the people you have harmed and make amends to them. These two steps pave the way to clarify and release guilt. Amends must be a daily practice. We hurt each other continually both intentionally and unintentionally. Amends create flexibility in relationships. It is unnecessary to defend your intentions, simply own the reality that your behavior hurt someone, and make it right with a simple apology. In this way, you eliminate the environment that breeds guilt. 

4. Learn to love your enemy. People tend to alienate unwanted feelings because they are uncomfortable. Guilt is one of those feelings. Radically, when you embrace guilt and love it for its worth, it will help you become more sensitive to ways in which you hurt others and the environment you live in. While it is not meant that you brood with guilt, it is helpful to listen to the message that guilt is sending and take positive action toward resolution. Proper management of guilt produces compassion for self and others. Guilt feels like an enemy to the soul. However, learning to love your enemy (guilt) will cultivate deeper appreciation and love for yourself and others. 

Guilt can be redemptive and can trigger love. Hating yourself and the feeling of guilt within intensifies the possibility of unwanted behavior. The power of self-love builds bridges to the destiny of future healing and positive actions.

Sitting With Your Own Insides

READ IT TO ME: Click play to listen to this post.

Someone once said, “Worrying is like a rocking chair, it gives you something to do, but it gets you nowhere!” Human relationships trigger worry. Everyone wants to be liked. You worry that what you might say or do is hurtful to someone you care about. You try to control others so they avoid unnecessary painful experiences. This is true in marital relationships when one partner tries to control what the other does around cooking, driving, or other annoying behavioral patterns. 

Sometimes people get stuck with obsessional control. This is common with dysfunctional family relationships. Family members become enmeshed and attempt to control what another family member thinks or does by trying to live inside their skin. It is very intrusive and destructive. Sometimes families control what children do for play, making friends, and creating pressure about career choices. Families strongly influence the choice of a life partner. Cultural, religious, and economic status are family factors that play a critical influence on an individual’s decisions about life. To the extreme, family members lose sight of where they stop and another family member starts because of intense enmeshment. 

Addicts lose themselves in their addiction. They take up too much space. If addiction is a big balloon in a small room, the addict takes up all the space and smashes everyone against the wall to get what they want when they want it. They don’t know where they stop and other people start. 

The first order of business in recovery is to get the runaway train going down the track (the addiction) stopped. The second order of business is to establish boundaries with friends, family, and work. Addicts act like my old Craftsman lawn mower; without a governor, it revs up faster and faster until the engine finally explodes. Addicts need a governor. That’s what learning boundaries are all about. They are essential for addicts to recover.

Addicts go to a treatment facility to stop the train from running out of control down the tracks. Most treatment facilities are very good at helping an addict recognize that he/she is out of control. By the time 30-60 days of treatment is complete, an addict can see and think straight for the first time in years. They feel better physically, emotionally, and spiritually. 

The test is when they return home, the dysfunctional dynamics are the same. An addict is expected to come home and fit right in. “Treatment was for you. You need to know how to fit in with your family. We are your people who love you!” Comments like this greet a recovering addict upon home arrival. Family members walk around the dead dog in the living room. The family game of ignoring the obvious and embracing the improbable is in full operation. The unhealthy roles family members play are solidly enforced. The family is in denial of its dysfunction. Members project that the addict is the identified patient. Hurtful enmeshment is denied. If the addict confronts hurtful, dysfunctional behavior, he is met with comments that he/she is being dishonest and is delusional. “That’s the reason you went away for treatment” it’s concluded. All too often the family remains the enabling system that fuels the addictive behavior. Dysfunctional families cannot see the forest for trees. Essentially, nothing changes in the home environment that the addict returns to.

Friends also are impactful. Most addicts must create an entirely new set of friendships. This is difficult. Addicts who follow through and do this or at least try, wrestle with not belonging, loneliness, and feel ostracized. It takes courage to overcome despair, eliminate delusion, denial, and dishonesty and minimize defensiveness while recovering from addictive behavior. 

Learning to sit with what you feel inside is hard to do. It requires training to sit with an uncomfortable experience and not numb out with an addictive choice. It is common for addicts to become busy with recovery and avoid sitting in discomfort. You can become busy with doing recovery tasks, attending recovery meetings, completing 12 steps, and participating in recovery social gatherings which adds to the busyness of doing life with all of its demands and never learn to sit with your own insides. Here are a few things to consider:

1. Learn to stay in your own lane. This is what boundaries are all about. Much has been written about boundaries and recovery. Successful recovery requires that you create internal boundaries that help you to separate from trying to please others when you need to care for yourself. You will need to create strong external boundaries that do not let others treat you with disrespect. You cannot make a person respect you but boundaries with consequences will take care of you when others treat you with scorn and disrespect. Work with a therapist, sponsor, and recovery friend to fine-tune your boundaries in order to improve your capacity to sit with your own insides.

2. Train in detachment. Learn to separate from high-risk scenarios, family settings, and friendship situations that you know are destructive to your recovery. Addicts are intensely fearful of being abandoned. It started with their family of origin. Detaching from hurtful situations is a way of growing yourself up into the powerful adult that your destiny requires of you. It’s scary. Yet, it is an important way to teach others to respect you and treat you with dignity. Detachment will never occur without the voice of assertion. Other people will learn to appreciate your values when you assertively detach from unhealthy behaviors. Sometimes when you step back, family members will take note and offer a new respectful appreciation for your boundaries. Other times family members might misunderstand, feel hurt, and distance themselves from you. Either way, you will need to practice internal and external boundaries that promote self-care. Your willingness to sit with this discomfort will be a critical proving ground for building a solid foundation for recovery.

3. Learn to grieve. Addicts need to grieve the loss of addictive behavior. It involves embracing the entire gamut of feelings. When you don’t grieve your losses you will tend to live outside of yourself. This creates distance from what’s truly going on inside. Grieving embraces the resentment for no longer having your “friend” of addiction choice in your life. That resentment needs to be felt and expressed directly. You will need to cry for yourself. Many men learn to cry for others but have been told they cannot cry for themselves. There are many things to grieve in recovery. Loss of childhood, loss of honesty and integrity, loss of childhood dependency needs not being met, loss of curiosity, adventure, and loss of choices are only a few issues that need to be grieved.

4. Practice affirmations. It takes courage to sit with your own insides. When you do, clarity will appear. It’s not magic but it is assured. To do this task you must engage in affirming yourself. The practice of self-affirmation is an age-old recovery skill set that is most often overlooked. Yet, it is helpful to affirm your feelings. Learn to practice self-affirmation about your sense of being. Make it a part of your daily experience in the same way you do physical hygiene. You will find it transformational. This skill practice is nothing new but revolutionizing. 

Addicts in recovery have learned to sit with their own insides. They deepen their own self-awareness with keen intuition. They learn to navigate dysfunctional systems by staying in their own lane, detaching from what hurts, and grieving the inevitable losses that come in life. In the end, addicts who practice affirming themselves assert the transformational power of recovery.

Adjustments – The Key to Overcoming A Fixed Mind

READ IT TO ME: Click play to listen to this post.

When you combine addiction with age, sometimes you come out with a grumpy old man. At least that is what it seems like for me some days. Addiction can be like working out. It makes you sore. You want what you want when you want it, but in recovery you know it doesn’t work that way. No matter how hard you work Step 3 to let go and let God, some days are just hard, irritating, and exhausting. Makes you want to swear. I know guys in recovery who live in a constant b******g and moaning state. They’re not fun to be around in a 12-step meeting. God only knows what they are like at home. 

I tell people that as a recovering addict, I wake up most mornings with a bad attitude. In recovery, if you don’t manage your spirit and attitude, you will be in for a long day. So I do. I have discovered that I am prone to become rigid with fear and anxiety which leads to shame, judgmentalism, and sour thoughts about the world around me. These fixed thoughts can fossilize in my brain unless I get out of my comfort zone every day to break up my fixed mind and stretch my thoughts. I open my heart to less-than-ideal situations, to people who don’t think like me, and to situations that are irritating.  Opening my heart with acceptance and tolerance helps to foster love toward me and others in the world around me. 

It is helpful to stop and observe those who adjust to whatever circumstance is presented. Outdoor enthusiasts tend to be this way. When camping out and something breaks, is left at home, or they are hit with a deluge of rain, they just adjust and do the next best thing. Some outdoors people are amazing in terms of how they remain calm, make adjustments, and move on as if it is no big deal. My son Sam exemplified this snowmobiling in Idaho. His machine broke down. He replaced a worn belt that had been shredded with a new belt. The new belt promptly shredded, leaving him stranded about 20 miles from somewhere. Then he broke the tool inside the carburetor of the machine and he seemed really screwed. But, he just hitched a ride with his partner, and we went to beautiful hot springs and renewed and refreshed with nary a major complaint. Later, he had to tow his machine behind his partner’s. There were even yet more hassles trying to get the part fixed. Yet, he just kept adjusting and putting the negative in a positive frame of mind. 

How can an addict do the same when faced with obstacles, disappointments, and times that are tough?

1. Take a deep breath and lean into the difficulty. No one signs up for hassles and frustration. Hassles are difficult, but they are not the end of the world. Most of us live to see another day when it seems everything has gone awry. Sitting with your struggles is a way to calm your mind and heart. Take a few minutes and just be still. Allow the anger, disappointment, anxiety, and resentment to build, then at that moment, it will subside. If you express yourself when these powerful feelings are building, you will hurt yourself and others. If you need to take a break, a walk, a drive—anything that will help you de-escalate, do it. Condition yourself to lean into the struggle and accept it for what it is. It is not glamorous but it works.

2. Be grateful at the moment you most want to explode with criticism, cutting remarks, or just give up. Boy, you say, this is easier said than done. It’s true! So, you must work to train yourself to begin gratitude recognition, not because it feels good but because it will help you adjust and shift away from a bad attitude.  Re-condition your mind from negativity to focusing on positive possible outcomes throughout the day. Gratitude fuels enough energy to plant your feet and your heart so that you can be true to your life source.

3. Rely on your affirmations. I am not a positive mental attitude guru, but if you are one who is stuck in a bad attitude, it sure beats the hell out of hanging out in the dregs of negativity. Yet, this doesn’t happen by simple choice. It requires that you stoke your brain with ongoing positive messages about yourself and the world around you.  When you do this with regularity, it breaks up the sludge of negativity and helps to make the necessary adjustments that make recovery worthwhile.

4. Don’t force your will on to the day’s experience. Have a plan and work on your recovery. Be prepared to shift when things don’t work out as planned. Let the fruit of your day come to you. If you work your plan and shift from a fixed mind (inflexibility), watch how meaningfulness surfaces in the midst of your difficulty. You will be able to bring forth your brilliance from an average day of struggle. Rather than force purpose and meaningfulness, let it come to you with acceptance and surrender to what happens around you, to you, and through you in an average moment each day.

Over the 30+ years I have been in recovery, I have observed many 12-step addicts sustain long-term sobriety. I know many who have very little patience, tolerance, or capacity to adjust when things go wrong. I don’t know any who experience daily serenity but who have not deepened their journey with Step 3 and learned to become flexible, letting go and adjusting to life as it is presented each day.  Adjustment is a life skill that keeps your heart open.  It is a cure for an inflexible, rigid, closed heart.


This new post was written by Ken Wells. In Dare to be AverageKen’s new book, you can embrace healing, peace, and self-acceptance through meaningful insights to discover purpose and fulfillment in everyday life. 


Use these icons to share this post on social media or email this post to a friend.

Ignoring the Obvious While Embracing the Improbable

READ IT TO ME: Click play to listen to this post.

“Who so loves, Believes the impossible” — Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Addicts ignore the elephant in the living room. It is obvious to everyone that dad, mom, brother, or sister is acting out in addiction. Yet, nobody confronts the issue. Everyone pretends that there will be a better day. Nobody admits that addictive behavior is running rampant. You drink the Kool-Aid of denial and project that the family is good and everything is going just great. 

Families with untreated substance addictions are not the only ones who ignore the obvious while embracing the improbable. There are families who project being very religious while ignoring that dad is a serial philanderer. There are couples who project the image of harmony and happiness in public but who privately barely speak to each other. Is it hypocritical? Sure! Yet, over time those who ignore the obvious gradually learn to believe the improbable is real. There really isn’t a dead dog in the living room!

Businesses and institutions also ignore the obvious while embracing the improbable. There is a certain type of game that is played. Once I worked as one of the ministers at a large dynamic church. It was promoted as the largest of its kind. The lead minister avowed and reported that several thousand people attended his church each Sunday. It was questioned so he asked that I organize a count of worship goers for six weeks. After the allotted time, I reported that there were 1000 fewer people attending the worship service than he boasted. He was very angry and insisted that his estimate was correct and my count was wrong. So we pretended that 1000 people were there that were not. Eventually, the infrastructure of embracing the improbable implodes and reality deflates perception like a deflated balloon. When you ignore the obvious it will eventually become devastating. 

Everyone is tempted to embrace the improbable. We don’t want to face the obvious when the reality is disappointing. 

Historically, many did not want to think of John Kennedy or Martin Luther King as philanderers but they were. Many wanted to ignore that steroids in baseball were a problem, but they were. I wanted to believe that Lance Armstrong was an unbelievable athlete who did not cheat, but he did. What is obvious, and that which is improbable, bump up against each other throughout life.  How do you sort or sift what is real in your life?

1. Don’t play games. Face what is real in your personal life. There are payoffs for people who play games. The games that I reference are not “Ha-ha” games. They are games that you keep you safe in a dysfunctional family. Every family creates rules and gives messages about what is OK and what is not. Family is the cocoon in which children learn to interact with the outside world.  When a family is unhealthy, a child will not know the difference between what is hurtful or not. The sphere of their family world is all they know. Unhealthy families become rigid so their rules and regulations become gospel and make it difficult for new information from the outside to penetrate the protective sphere of family influence. So if dad gets drunk on Fridays and screams at everyone or slaps mother because she said something he didn’t like, it is easy for a child in that environment to interpret that all families live like this and that walking on eggshells around dad, with fear and anxiety, is a normal part of everyday living. It takes time and deliberate action to demythologize your parents and the family rules that dominated you. You must first recognize how unhealthy family rules and messages impact you in a negative way. Without this deliberate action, your tendency will be to ignore the obvious and embrace the improbable. The process is unnerving and likely will trigger guilt for questioning the fundamental beliefs that your parents taught, depending upon how dysfunctional your family of origin is. If you learned that you are not to question the authority of your parents, then be prepared to struggle with guilt.  You may need the help of a therapist to detach from the guilt and the rules of your family. They are powerful.

2. Once detached, train in observing your behavior around authority figures and the culture you engage at work and other organizations. It is normal to want to please those you work for or with. When things don’t go your way, pay attention to how you respond. Notice when you become triggered and overreactive. Pay attention to what goes on emotionally underneath the surface about the issue that triggers you. If you have a patterned history of struggling with authority figures, it is a signal that you have unresolved family-of-origin issues to address. Maybe your struggle is that you tend to go along to get along. It might mean that you won’t address a principle that you believe in for fear of rejection. On the other hand, you might find yourself quibbling and irritated without knowing why. What you think is a personality conflict might be an issue of unresolved family-of-origin work with your parents. If you don’t address these issues you will repeat ignoring the obvious and embracing the improbable. You must pay attention to your behavior and the games you play as well as the rules of the games other people play. When you learn to detach from both, you will respond from a position of strength and not weakness.

3. Embracing the obvious opens the potential for the impossible. Nothing changes until it becomes real. When you identify the elephant in the living room, you can do something about it. You can separate destructive behavior from the person. You stop playing a game and identify the destructive behavior for what it is. You transform behavior that is experienced as nonproductive to being a curse and destructive into a blessing of resolution and relational connection. This is the essence of what love is about. It is not ignoring what is hurtful but it is leaning into the obvious. Seeing the obvious with mature compassion and love is the way to responsibly create a different world. Love teaches you what is beneath the surface. It helps to see what is hidden to the eye but known to the heart. When you embrace the obvious you can allow the wisdom of love to work its magic in transforming relational dynamics in family, work, and the culture at large. Breaking through denial and facing the dead dog in the living room is necessary to heal unhealthy relationships. This form of love is the dynamic that transforms the impossible within you and creates possible healthy relationships with those whom you engage. 

A Worn Road Less Traveled

READ IT TO ME: Click Play To Listen To This Post

“Two Roads diverged in a wood,

I took the one less traveled, 

And that has made all the difference.”

– Robert Frost

An addict contemplating recovery sees only two options. It is either use or die with craving. Addicts don’t usually die with cravings but they habitually succumb to acting out. In the beginning days of recovery, addicts are poor at creating options. They come from an either/or, black/white world. They either use or obsess about using until the craving has subsided. 

People live with shame and pain. They live disconnected from their inner self. Most of us long for connection. Mindlessly, we listen to the radio or to a podcast when driving. Aimlessly, we scroll texts, emails, and a host of social media platforms disengaged and lost in the spectacle of it all. For an addict, any reason is a good reason to use. In recovery, creating options to using requires that you take the road less traveled. There are no shortcuts. There is no room for perfection. It requires a willingness to endure painful moments, relentless perseverance, and a commitment to being a little better today than you were yesterday. 

Along the road, there will be a dawning that you are a spiritual being having a human experience. This will transform your struggle into sacred meaningfulness. This awareness is hallowed throughout 12-step rooms across the world. Carl Jung once concluded that what chronic addicts needed was a spiritual experience and ongoing communal support. 

Most addicts in recovery settle for sobriety. Certainly, it beats the hell out of wallowing in the pain and distortion from a life lived in the agony of addictive behavior. Yet, few engage the worn road less traveled. Once you have put the cork in the bottle, what is next? Are you willing to go deeper? Are you willing to explore what is missing? Are you curious to understand why the addiction? Why the pain? Do you want to address that feeling in your gut that you are not good enough? These questions and more represent the gateway to a worn road less traveled. To those who have committed to sobriety and who are no longer content to rotate the object of addiction, I offer the following road markers on the worn road less traveled.

1. Adopt a mindset for recovery: Practice brainstorming more than one option for every challenge you face. Breakthrough the either/or mentality. Change your language about how you see yourself and the world around you. Dare to dream about creating the kind of person you want to be.  Figure out what your song is and sing it. The expedition in recovery truly begins when you earnestly are willing to truly change your mindset about addiction, yourself, and the world around you.

2. Become a Sponge: What has helped me to be successful in my world of endeavor is that I became a sponge to learn everything I could to be the best I could be. I was a minister in a church for over 25 years. During the beginning days of my training, I worked for three years for free, with whom I thought was the very best.  I asked so many questions that the lead pastor asked me to stop asking so many questions. Today I am proud that I learned to be a sponge in ministry and as a professional counselor. That said, it saved my life in recovery. Early in recovery, I adopted the mindset of learning everything I could about recovery. It is one of the fundamentals that has projected my personal growth during the past 33 years in recovery. Be a sponge!

3. Learn to fail forward: People who embrace a healthy recovery mindset create a paradigm shift in their thinking about failed behavior. They make it exciting. They realize that within their failure are lessons to learn that will help them become a little better today than they were yesterday. Rather than wallow in the mud of shame and negative thinking, they practice conditioning themselves to pursue a better way to live. They learn to transform the word excitement from a necessary feeling to a committed action of exploring what went wrong and doing something different. 

4. Practice Playback: This road marker is related to the previous one. When an addict relapses, it is common to admit the destructive behavior and then get back on the horse and try again. It is often brushed off with the idea that “I’m an addict” and what needs to happen is that I just need to bear down with my recovery skills. Sometimes, they commit to going to 90 meetings in 90 days or start again doing the 12 steps. What often is overlooked is the importance of playback. When addicts admit their failure to their support community, what is left out is why they relapsed and what happened. What often is overlooked is the importance of playback. It is crucial to go back and unpack what happened and where the breakdown was. A golfer will learn to improve his/her swing by watching videos of past swings. A basketball player will learn where they were out of position and how to correct other mistakes by watching past videos of performances. A recovering addict needs to do the same. Go back and fastidiously review triggers, build-up behaviors, and mistaken beliefs that dominated and then practice over and again replacement behavior that corrects what broke down. We never become perfect. But playback will help you become incrementally better than before. So, practice playback and pay it forward with an incremental positive change that over time will make a profound difference. 

5. Protect your imagination and get outside your comfort zone: It is counterintuitive for an addict to embrace discomfort. Running from emotional and physical pain is at the root of why addiction grows in the first place. Though contraindicated, in recovery an addict learns to lean into the pain and sit with it. Recovery requires that you get outside your comfort zone. Only when you do this, are you able to give birth to the person that your destiny is pulling you toward. The worn road less traveled demands that you live outside your comfort zone. This is where the problem is. Once sober from the hectic helter-skelter life of addiction and within the warm and friendly confines of a 12-step community, an addict is asked to push toward living outside of his/her comfort zone. It requires sensitivity to the support of the community while pushing forward to dream and realize your destiny. In doing so you must protect your imagination from the negative messages of “you can’t” or “who do you think you are.”  You must protect your imagination from the impact of your personal failures or others who subtly want to pull you back into an old mindset. It is a road less traveled for those who live outside their comfort zone. Laying it on the line and pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone will require a commitment to being the best person you can be one day at a time. Sometimes you will take 2 steps forward and then 3 steps backward. Everyone slips even as they soar. Overcome your setbacks by doing the next right thing regardless of how you feel. You won’t think your way into acting differently. You will act your way into a different way of thinking. Don’t abandon your quest to fulfill your imagination. Stop flogging yourself with negative messages. Every positive thought and action will move you closer to your desired transformation. The worn road less traveled requires that you protect your imagination and live outside your comfort zone. 

6. Choose your support community carefully and elevate those around you: One of the biggest challenges for an addict is to create an environment that fosters sobriety and personal growth. Most addicts have not surrendered to recovery behavior and hang around old friends who either influence them to return to addictive behavior or who thwart their vision of fulfilling their destiny. Like the old saying, “Hang around the barbershop long enough and you will get a haircut”, many addicts can testify to the reality of this powerful truth! The worn road less traveled in recovery will require that you weed out those who bring you down. You will need to distance yourself from the dream crushers around you. Don’t let them rent premium space in your mind. Foster a web of influence that will inspire you to achieve and transform yourself and hold you accountable to your imagination. Build an environment where half-assed efforts are unacceptable. Cultivate your brilliance by choosing a support community that expects greatness within. Create a support system that you can solicit counsel from those who will inspire you. Always know that on the worn road less traveled, life transformation is a team sport. 

When I wrote the book Dare to Be Average, Cultivating Brilliance in the Commonplace the emphasis was the opposite of half-hearted living. Rather, it is about taking the worn road less traveled and embracing the common everyday moment—even those that provide emotional discomfort—and mining meaningfulness from each one. This pursuit of meaningfulness is required in recovery for those who choose the worn road less traveled.

Nine Thoughts that Shape Recovery

READ IT TO ME: Click play to listen to this post.

I have been in recovery from addiction for 31 years. I have been reflecting on the 9 thoughts that have shaped and governed my recovery life. I want to share them in hopes that perhaps I can offer hope and strength to those who struggle with maintaining sobriety today.

1. Attitude is your greatest stock-in-trade. Sometimes people think they have to pay an exorbitant price to work with the best-known inpatient facility or a perceived guru in order to address addiction. Sometimes this attitude wreaks of entitlement. They have the money so they feel entitled to demand the best. One time this guy came to see me and said I heard you were the best and I want to only work with the best. I responded by saying “Why do you need the best therapist, you are not the best client.” What is far more important than finding the best therapist is to bring with you the best attitude you can manifest. When I got into recovery, I did not have any money. It took some time but I created a great attitude about recovery. My wife and I decided to embrace the mantra that we would “hock our socks” and do what was necessary to be healthy and sober. We found many resources that were free including 12-step programs which offered free cassette tapes and books. I learned to look for what would help me develop and grow my sobriety. I found individuals in 12-step rooms who were serious about living a sober life. I would sit or stand in the parking lot talking to them about recovery life. When confronted by others in 12-step meetings, I did not always receive helpful feedback. I learned to latch on to what was helpful and let go of what was hurtful. It was a good attitude that helped me to keep coming back again and again. Thirty-one years and over 3500 meetings later, the number one reason that I am sober is because I learned to live with a good attitude toward growth and recovery. I have to work on it every day. The greatest investment I ever made was not for a therapist or an inpatient facility. It has been my determination to be coachable and have a good attitude. It serves me well.

2. Be hungry. Let the world be your library. What does it mean to be hungry about recovery? Literally, the physical craving for food is a motivation to satisfy the need for nourishment. It’s not different in addiction recovery. When you don’t have a white-hot intense hunger for sobriety, serenity, and recovery, you miss out on what others get. Some people think they only do recovery when they attend a 12-step meeting, do the steps, or sit in a therapist’s office. Not me. I have learned that recovery is all around me. I have greatly appreciated the different therapists who have helped me throughout my journey. Yet, if I limited my resources to identified recovery sources I would have stunted and stifled my recovery growth. Being hungry for recovery growth means that you bring this mindset to all that you are and all that you do. I have gained great insights from the imagination of children and the persistence that I have observed from people who live a hardscrabble existence. I have walked alongside very wealthy people and have learned recovery principles. I have experienced even more wisdom from the poor and homeless. I have learned spirituality from my depression, impatience, and dire failings in my life. Emotional and physical pain have been great teachers. Recently, sitting next to Sequoia trees in California helped me to keep my vision for change to extend beyond my own time and onto future generations. When you are hungry for insight and understanding, you find it all around you. Let the world be your library to stretch yourself and grow.

3. Tell on yourself. The hardest thing in recovery I have ever had to do was to get emotionally honest at a deep level and tell on myself. That meant to tell on myself about times I was insecure and unsure. It meant that I needed to learn to live with being “emotionally naked” to those who I identified as support. This is much easier to write about than live. It meant that in order for me to show up at a 12-step group, I had to be honest and lead with the last thing I wanted people to know about me and let that be the first thing I said. I have pissed people off, said things I wasn’t comfortable saying, and put up with blowback from others because of what I said. I don’t do this everywhere I go. Yet, when it comes to recovery groups, the only way I have been able to always get something from each group is for me to show up and tell on myself. This mentality has conditioned me to cultivate deeper intimacy with my wife and those I care about and who I have invited to be close. Practice telling on yourself.

4. Do the next right thing no matter what it takes. We say this all the time in 12-step work. When you screw up, make a relationship mistake, or act out, the hardest thing is to face the consequences and do the next right thing. You feel shitty about yourself and getting up out of the mud hole you created for yourself is really hard. Sometimes it feels impossible. It requires that regardless of how you feel, you have to force yourself to move in the right direction, not perfectly, but you’ve got to move! While the voices are screaming that you can’t do recovery, give up, just numb out, and get high, you have to take yourself by the nape of the neck and do the next right thing. This move is not spectacular and there is no glory in it. The war with addiction behavior is hammered out when you drag yourself from wallowing in the mud and pick up the phone, tell on yourself, and go to a meeting. You can never get away from doing the next right thing no matter what it takes.

5. As an addict, what you think is most important, seldom is. In my addiction, what I thought was so important never was. John Prine wrote this great song about Sam Stone who became a morphine addict in the VietNam war and lived out the rest of his days addicted. He wrote, “When he popped his last balloon… there was nothing to be done but trade his house that he bought on the GI-bill for a flag-draped casket on a local hero’s hill.” That’s always the result of addictive demand. There are times, even now, that I can be so damned insistent on wanting what I want when I want it. The next day it didn’t even matter. After the build-up of addictive craving and you too have popped your balloon, what you thought was so important on the other side seldom was.

6. Be your own guru. Activist Grace Lee Boggs wrote a book when she was 98 years old. In the book, she said “We are the leaders we are looking for.” This applies not only about our country’s destiny but is also true for those in recovery. I lead several groups of men who gather on weekends to work through addictive behavior. The tendency in groups of all kinds is to look to someone to be the guru. Usually, it is someone who has a way with words, is charismatic, or who just simply talks a lot. Guru is synonymous to being a teacher, master, or sage. The idea of being a teacher is great. However, it is common for group members to look to a teacher and build them up and put them on a pedestal. I find this very annoying! I can teach you and you can teach me. There is no need to pedestalize anyone. In religion, we make saints out of people. We do the same thing in recovery groups. Perhaps, out of insecurity, we put others on a pedestal and make gurus out of them. I find it detrimental to recovery growth. I suspect that this is done because we don’t want to grow ourselves and become our own guru. Recovery growth in my life has required that I become my own guru.

7. Addicts change only when the prospect of not changing is more painful than the change they are facing. This has been said by many regarding the change of behavior. It certainly has been true for me. Only when the pain of remaining stuck in old behavior—addiction, procrastination, lack of exercise, healthy eating habits, etc, became intolerable did I transform myself around these behaviors. Many talk about change. It will require that you increase the pain of hurtful behavior to an intensity that change is less painful than remaining the same. Personal growth throughout the rest of your life will demand that you make decisions around this experience of tension.

8. What is more important than sobriety is bringing yourself back to center. Sobriety is sacred. It is hard won by all of us who experience it. However, throughout the years I have learned to value the skill of bringing myself back to center to be more important. No one does sobriety perfect. In the world of sex addiction, few have ever put down the addictive process and never returned through relapse. Even among those who do, lapses into high-risk behavior is common. Bringing yourself back to center is a way of managing your humanity. You will make mistakes. You will need to cultivate the concept of velvet steel if you intend to maintain long-term sobriety. When – not if – you blow it and make a big mistake, you will need to know how to bring yourself back to center with humility and gentleness. You will need to know how to assert necessary firmness and resolution that will ground and help you to be true to your heart.

9. Be who you are – don’t try to be someone else. Musician and poet Van Morrison wrote, “Live the life you love and it will bring the blessings from above”. So many people try to be someone they are not. It is not necessary to try to live life through another’s persona. It’s an impossible way to live and extremely painful. Recovery flows and is rich when you commit to being your authentic self. You will never remain lost in your recovery when you practice being true to yourself.

Intensity or Intimacy

The nature of addiction is to crave the escape that comes in the pursuit of a substance or a process high. It could be numbing out with drugs and alcohol—the adrenaline rush of something new like the risk of a new relationship, physical challenge, exotic adventure, or the rush of meeting a deadline at work. At first, the pursuit seems subtle, like the calming effect that a cup of coffee has to starting your day. Over time it roars like a lion and becomes a dominating organizing principle of everyday living. Someone addicted to nicotine cannot comprehend going through the day without lighting up, dipping or ending the day with a cigar. The entire day becomes organized around taking the edge off by engaging in nicotine. Some addicts describe having an intimate relationship with their addictive behavior.

One of my sons told me a story about doing a rigorous hike in the desert with a couple of friends in the summertime when it was way too hot. After hiking a great distance, they were sweaty, exhausted, and stopped to take a break. He reached for his water bottle to quench his thirst and find relief from the heat. His two friends reached for a cigarette and with sweat streaming down their face found relief with nicotine and later took a drink of water. 

Addiction response can be extreme and radical. Some of the most intense people I know are addicts. Do you know a workaholic who has literally slept at their office? NFL football coaches have been known to work all day and sleep in their office. The rush that comes from getting prepared for the next game can be intense. For a workaholic, pushing for completion and fanatically reaching to meet a deadline can be powerful and consuming. Stories of addicts fiercely lusting for a hit and radically moving heaven and earth together to satisfy a craving are replete. 

Intensity or Intimacy? Addicts confuse intensity with intimacy. Intimacy can be understood as a close personal open heart connection with self and another person. Many people refer to sexual intercourse as intimate. Of course, this can be true. However, compulsive sexual behavior is often not intimate. At times, the insatiable drive to be with another person is the furthest experience from true intimacy. It has been described by some that the intense desire to be close to another is like wanting to be inside the other person’s skin. There is a craving for another that is more about neediness than intimacy. The need is intense.

Addicts become disconnected from their feelings. They are poor at managing moments of emptiness. An addict will often seek to fill the emptiness with chaos and addictive behavior. Emptiness and loneliness trigger addicts to fill in the hole of their lives with drugs and alcohol and other compulsive behaviors. Most addicts create a cocktail of adrenaline experience that can include substance, relationship pursuit, work intensity, exercise, food, and high-risk adventure. When one or more of these behaviors don’t do the trick, then they just go to the next combination in behavioral experiences. This response is described as addiction interaction behavior. The intensity of this daily cocktail experience can be mistaken for intimacy with self.  

Recently, a young man counseled with me about feeling extreme loneliness and depression from a recent relational breakup. He engaged in meditative silence and then shifted to extreme outdoor adventure. He stated that he felt very intimate with himself by testing his physical endurance. For sure, engaging physical endurance activities can be intimate. Yet, for this person, he came home to the same dilemma of intense loneliness and depression after the endurance adventure. Rather than embracing and grieving the loss, he had mistaken physical intensity for emotional intimacy. This is a common experience for addicts. 

Intimacy begins with an interpersonal connection. What is important is to carefully listen to your feelings. This requires slowing down and embracing the very emotion you would like to avoid. Intimacy demands that you be able to embrace discomfort. Knowing that you can feel uneasiness and sift and sort understanding and meaningfulness from this experience is necessary in order to meet the personal needs that exist underneath the uncomfortable emotion. This is fundamental to practicing intimacy. It begins with an inner connection with self before it can be extended to another. Many attempt to first connect with another believing this connection will help awaken feelings within. However, it is a precarious path that often leads to relational intensity being mistaken for relational intimacy. What is missing is the cultivation of interpersonal connection with your own feelings. Those feelings become lost with the intense hot pursuit of another person, substance, or experience. 

Intimacy requires that you be open and honest, first with self and then others. Emotional honesty demands that you be willing to embrace unwanted feelings. In the context of this embrace, you will find the pathway that leads to intimacy. The intimate discipline of sitting with your own feelings will spawn understanding and separation between emotional intimacy and emotional intensity in an addict’s relation to self and others.