change

Chaos and the Big Sleep

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“Everybody is somebody—but on any given day there is somebody who feels like nobody. At the end of the day, the question is “Does anybody care enough to walk alongside the one who feels like nobody long enough to help them feel that they are somebody again.” —KW

You can’t change the way you grew up. Mary Main, a professor at UCal-Berkeley suggests that people learn to engage in a cohesive coherent narrative of their life. What I think this suggests is that if you are an addict it is important to not just look back and identify all the acting out you have ever done. But dig in and look at the relationships with people in your life that connect to why you do what you do and who you are. It’s sort of like making sense of the chaos and learning to connect with yourself in this endeavor.

Chaos makes this hard to do. People who grew up with crazy chaos often carry a little crazy with them their entire lives. Chaos puts to sleep the awareness of living life through healthy alternatives. The way you survived is what you replicate later in life. Your habits for survival are tattooed on your bones.

Therapy teaches you to talk about your chaos. You can learn a lot intellectually about what happened—the abandonment, the disorganized attachment, and all the systemic dynamics about your dysfunctional past. But most of us who grew up in craziness will die with some of it still inside. Sometimes I wonder if this is why I will die an addict.

I, like many addicts, grew up in an environment that was so dysfunctionally complicated that it is exhausting just to talk about it, and I have been talking about it for years. Every abuse headline is connected to subheadings that guaranteed crazy living for mere survival. It’s been said that addicts learn to embrace the improbable and ignore the obvious. Is there any other way for an addict to survive a complicated abusive past? The web of instability is so complex that to endure required that you fall asleep to healthy behavioral options and live in a trance-like state to what is real.

For example, I grew up in a large family. The ubiquitous presence of sexual abuse impacted our family in every dimension. There was sexual abuse perpetrated by pastors and leaders at our church. There was sexual abuse that was pervasive in our family. The church I grew up in was a cult. There was patriarchal domination of men toward women in our home and church. In a cult, church life and home life environment become one. You must develop the capacity to fall asleep to the reality of what surrounds you just to survive. When I shared my sexual abuse by the pastor of our church to responsible leaders, they concluded that my parents who had attended the church for 40 years were troublemakers and shunned them for 3 months. You would have thought that victims treated in this way would sever relationships and find another church to attend. My parents didn’t. They went to sleep about the reality of what happened to their children and to themselves. Once, many years later I asked my mom about the church shunning her and my dad regarding the sexual abuse and she responded that it never happened. Of course, it never happened when you fall asleep to reality.

My parents fell asleep to the injustices that intruded their lives because they were overwhelmed with the history of abuses that took place in their own family of origin. If you don’t face and address injustice, the only way to survive is to fall asleep to the realities of abuse and domination that penetrate you and the people you love.

My parents ignored what was going on in their family by singing gospel songs like “When We All Get to Heaven” or “Victory In Jesus” in order to ignore the hell on earth that had pervaded every aspect of their lives. How is this so different than the way our society ignores the lies and deceit proffered by politicians, religious leaders, and cultural icons about what is real? Rather than sifting, sorting, and researching truth, most of us choose a media service to do our thinking and fall asleep to the incongruence of our own hypocrisy and those who lead us.

For those who choose to no longer ignore the emperor who wears no clothes, waking up takes commitment to truth and honesty. It also takes time. The effort to wake up requires that you stop doing what keeps you asleep. It’s no wonder you are sleepy if you keep taking sleeping pills.

You will need to stop your own crazy thinking like trying to do more to keep from being less. Slowing this locomotive down is no small task.

You will have to address your mistaken beliefs that exist and have created blocks to intimacy with yourself and others. Mistaken beliefs have been tattooed in your heart as a way of surviving the craziness of your childhood. When you do more and have more it is difficult to accept less and think you are more. Material gain is like booze. There’s nothing wrong with either one as long as you respect that both can make you drunk. Driving your life drunk is scary whether you are intoxicated with booze or the disease of more.

The only way to stop the chaos is to wake up from the big sleep. Nothing changes until it is real. When craziness is complex, waking up means to slow life to examine the inconsistencies, face your hypocrisy, and address your incongruence.

People talk about making America great again. Yet, if everybody, who knew somebody who felt like a nobody, was willing to walk alongside to wake them up from the chaos and craziness, maybe that would hold promise to a great future for the first time. Together, we can be somebody once again.

Desperation—Without it There’s No Change

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A calling is an inside force to be, create, or achieve a life experience that has not been realized. It is an exploit that cultivates bliss. Even once realized, there is a conscious enlightenment that you are doing what creates deep satisfaction within your soul. 

Callings are often missed in life for many reasons. Many people die with the music that resides within never expressed. There are a myriad of reasons why this is true. I would like to suggest only a few that I think matter most for you to consider. 

Henry David Thoreau wrote about people living quiet lives of desperation. Many never pursue their calling because they live their lives without marshaling their desperate lives. Rather than being dominated by quiet desperation, why not quietly move the energy of desperation in the direction of your favor? You don’t have to allow the days of your life to slip away into meaninglessness. If you grew up the way I did, you have every reason to feel desperate. In my recovery, I had to learn to take feelings like dread, depression, malaise, anger, shame, loneliness, and desperation and transform them into something helpful rather than hurtful. You will too. 

I have been reading Let the Record Show by Sara Schulman, a historical narrative for the Aids Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP). Schulman chronicles the influence and impact of those within the organization who in many cases sacrificed their very lives in pursuit of effective treatment for those suffering from HIV and AIDS. Even though there are tragically far too many deaths around the world from AIDS that are now treatable, the scientific advances that save lives today would not have been in existence had some members of ACT UP not paid the ultimate price of dying in the attempt to save others and their own lives. Schulman’s record is a narrative of desperation. Without it, the hope for healing from HIV + would have never been realized. Clearly, the annals attest to the value of desperation that existed within the calling of many thousands who mostly lived in gay and lesbian communities around our country in the 1980s and 1990s. One cannot read the accounts written of sacrifice and desperation without being inspired by their acts of service toward humanity. 

During the past three decades, I have treated many forms of addictive behavior. I have never been successful in helping an addict overcome their destructive behavior without that person being desperate. The 12-step community identifies the experience as “hitting bottom.” It’s the place where you decide down deep that you have had enough. It could be poverty, abuse, a bad marriage, addictive behavior, physical condition, etc., you name it. Only when you are desperate to change your life situation will you access the resources to transform your existence. You take the experience of desperation and move it from being victim to victor. You move the negative energy toward a positive result. You put pictures of past gloomy days of hopeless desperation in your mind that motivate you. You determine in the deep recesses of your soul that, no matter what, you will not repeat those days of hopeless desperation in your addiction or other plight of life. You become hungry and urgent with intervention. You decide to walk to hell and back to create the change you envision. You will put up with whatever discipline, behavioral change, and discomfort necessary to change the desperate environment that creates misery in your life. 

Schulmann chronicles this sense of desperation to have been most powerful in a collective community sense. Desperation is the average, common component in everyone’s life necessary to experience transformation toward discovering their own brilliance.  Without it, there would have been no ACT UP. Desperation is the component necessary to make peace from war, healthcare for all, and overcome poverty in our communities. Desperation fans the flame of personal and community will. 

Callings are stunted and fade from realization when individuals fail to redirect their desperate lives toward transformation. While you cannot do the individual work for another to redirect their desperation, collectively we can change the horizon and landscape that provides more possibility. I believe there is a calling within the community for individuals to answer. We cannot help everyone but we can take time to help others redirect desperation into transformation. The 12-step community identifies these actions as  “acts of service” that constitute living out the 12th step. 

Callings are muted by discouragement. We tell ourselves “If my situation just wasn’t so desperate!” The truth is that without your sense of desperation, nothing ever changes and callings are never answered. 

Are you feeling desperate about relationships that hurt, addictions that dominate, physical conditions that need to change, or feelings that overwhelm you? Move your experience of desperation into transformation. Become desperate to create something different. Decide you will do whatever it takes to end addictive behavior, compulsions with food, procrastination, and negative behavior that keeps you stuck and mutes your response to the calling that beckons within your soul.

Adjustments – The Key to Overcoming A Fixed Mind

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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. 


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Ignoring the Obvious While Embracing the Improbable

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“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.