connection

Looking For Truth in Wrong Places

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

“Tough love and brutal truth from strangers are far more valuable than Band-Aids and half-truths from invested friends, who don’t want to see you suffer any more than you have.” ― Shannon L. Alder

We live in a time when there is significant spreading of misinformation. Each news media has its own bias. Some purposely promote false information to create chaos for the strategy of undermining what is real. It is difficult to identify what is truthful and what is a lie. It is a scary thought that I might be looking for truth in the wrong places.

This is no less true in the world of recovery. Addicts live in a world of make-believe and lies. Facing the truth about addiction is far too painful. Addicts can be unwilling to stop the compromise, the promotion of half-truths, the blaming of others for their own unhappiness, self-sabotage, and otherwise bullshitting themselves and everyone around them. They often give themselves a pep talk about why they cannot quit, but deep down they know that it’s all bullshit. When they have to circulate around sober friends and family they don’t ask questions, not because they are fearful someone will lie to them, rather because they fear someone will tell them the truth. 

Not unlike others, addicts guard and keep their system of reality and what they assume themselves to be. They don’t want to be told any different. In uncanny fashion, people try to convince themselves that they are in total control at the very moment they are losing it. Everything that can be said about ducking and diving truth by a user, not in recovery can fit for one in recovery and to the rest of us who don’t identify as an addict. 

People often tell themselves lies, in order to reach what they consider acceptance in difficult situations. In reality, they fool themselves into believing they are healed until that lie is corrected by time, further information, or their own personal growth. True healing comes when we learn to not avoid truth but face it. Only then will we be set free.

Here are some observations about seeking truth in recovery:

1. Hiding from the truth will prevent you from experiencing vitality and serenity in your recovery program. Facing the truth will lead you back to the pulse of what is sacred in your recovery journey. 

2. Many in recovery ask program buddies questions they already know the answer in their hearts. They put the question out to the group because they don’t want to face changing their system of reality.

3. Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced. (James Baldwin) Seeking truth is this way. If you are seeking new truth via a new therapist, new treatment modality, new sponsor, psychedelics, etc. but you are not willing to face the truth that you already know, it is like hiking around the entire base of a mountain looking for a shortcut to the top and ending up where you began. 

4. When all the dust settles, the most difficult truth for an addict to face is to let go of what you cannot control. Letting go and surrendering what you cannot control is the common thread that weaves addicts together and creates a tapestry of serenity. 

5. When I won’t let go and surrender, I say I want compassion when I really want others to feel sorry for me. Indicators that I am stuck in this place are resentment and feeling stuck. This space is a common watering hole for addicts who seek control. Other common traits are whining, complaining, and bitching about other people. 

6. Unwillingness to grieve what you cannot control blocks truth from restoring freedom. Grieving is painful. No one wants to sign up for pain. Maybe you would, if you could, know how long you have to hurt. Grieving takes as long as it takes. You want more clarity about how long it takes. The universe refuses to tell you. So you remain stuck and willfully hang on to trying to control what you cannot. The truth about this is that you have put yourself in an emotional prison. 

7. When you are stuck in unwillingness to let go, find someone else who is also stuck in their unwillingness to let go of control and look for yourself in them. Together you will find a way out. Bill W and Dr. Bob (Alcoholics Anonymous) famously told the story that once when they were under siege of craving for a drink. They decided that what they needed was to find another alcoholic and listen to their story. In doing so, they saw themselves in the other alcoholic and found the answer to their craving that satisfied their craving to drink. 

8. In the end, the Tibetan monks have it right. There are three things that matter: (1.) How well did you love; (2.) How fully did you live; (3.) How deeply did you let go? 

To that end, it resonates that the truth will set you free but most likely it will hurt before you experience release. 

Things We Need to Talk About But Don’t Touch

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

“We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we began and to know the place for the first time.” —T.S. Eliot

This is true about recovery. It is such a repetitive cyclical experience in so many ways. There are many portals to explore and understand about addictive behavior. Open one door and it seems to lead to the next. You learned how to end your addictive behavior and stop the out-of-control train going down the track. Desperation opened the door to a belief in a Higher Power that restored you to sanity. Yet, stubborn willfulness blocked the decision to turn your will over to the care of that Higher Power. It brought you back to where you started with your addictive mindset dominating your behavior, and you repeated the same experience as before. Each time you repeat, the pattern becomes an opportunity to know yourself for the first time. 

The recovery experience invites you to talk about things that you don’t touch. There are secrets. You are invited to open your deepest darkest hidden experience and expose it to the light of day. You are encouraged to get emotionally naked about reality, often in the presence of people you don’t know that well or for that long. 

The exploration doesn’t stop with the addictive behavior. The challenge is to explore all of our behaviors and our relationships. Some 12-step groups insist that you only relate to one identified addiction during your time to share. I have always found this limiting. Recovery is pervasive in its journey of research and examination. It requires that you turn over every stone and inquire, with curiosity, pathways you have not explored. Many in recovery choose not to open doors about intimacy and relationships. They limit their 12-step journey to remaining sober from their addiction. They know a lot about staying sober and less about intimacy and building relationships. 

Addicts talk about things with their sponsors and others but often don’t open their hearts to their partners. They become good about sharing vulnerability with those who are distant. They give good advice about how to be emotionally open but remain closed and distant at home. There is so much that needs to be talked about that is never touched at home. 

Feelings like stress, anxiety, and fear build on the inside. An addict becomes lonely and seeks escape from discomfort. H/She sits with a craving to escape through their drug of choice. It is powerful because it works for a while. The pain is so great and the relief is so powerful. 

Your partner also has anxiety, stress, fear, and loneliness building within. They also want to escape. It could be through their addiction. It often takes the form of a cocktail of other experiences like busyness, electronic games, children’s activities, running errands, or exercise. The emptiness in the relationship builds as both partners avoid what needs to be talked about but is never touched. 

An addict may talk about the experience in a 12-step community. Yet, if it is never discussed with your partner, the 12-step group becomes a lifelong partner of triangulation. You can avoid opening your heart to the partner you should be talking with by sharing instead with a third party. The void between you and that person grows as you lament to your 12-step group. This becomes particularly sad when that person is your romantic partner. 

To stop the fantasy about your addiction you need to tell on yourself to your partner who, in turn,  needs to talk to you about how they try to escape from their discomfort. When partners do this with each other, the void between them shrinks and the feelings of discomfort give way to the richness of emotional intimacy.  No third-party relationship has ever been able to replace the richness of intimacy that is created when you touch what needs to be shared with your partner about the truth of who you are. Each time you talk about what you don’t want to touch in a relationship you will arrive where you began and know the place for the first time. 

Talkin’ Trash

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

“Here I am – Do You See Me.”

 —KW

Blown by the wind without notice

Others just like me become my blanket

Gathered in a desolate corner

Invisible until we become so many

Scorned with disgust from others

Would someone please rid me of this filth?

There’s a trash can—put me there

Make me out of sight

Make me invisible like the night

But you can’t, cause I’m here just like you

I’m the reality of  your imagination

I’m dog shit

People shit

The wrappers of dreams to make me disappear

Straws for smack and blow to get you to forget

But here I am—

You can’t forget me, you must do something about me

I’m the writer who paints your park benches

Your trains, your overpass bridges

Got stuff you don’t get in carts on permanent loan

Sleep in places that scare the hell out of you and me too

Others just like me—in the heat and cold, moan and groan

Wash away the crust 

I’m just like you

Broken family, broken dreams

Close your eyes and listen 

It’s all the same—so it seems

Just talkin’ trash

Just talkin’ trash

No one wants to be invisible or forgotten. Being unwanted and uncared for is worse than being hungry with nothing to eat. When people are objectified their essential self is invisibilized.  People objectify others as sexual body parts to be pursued and conquered or as sources to achieve power, fame, or fortune.  People who are takers and not givers reduce relationships to what’s in it for me.  Solutions to social dilemmas require a giver mentality. Objectification is about taking. It’s about wanting what you want when you want it.  It’s about going through the world seeing only what you want to experience and ignoring the suffering that challenges others.

From Martin Buber’s book, I and Thou, it can be emphasized that when you engage others and the world around you as an “it” you organize and manipulate the world only as you want to see it.  Human suffering, social dilemmas, and environmental challenges become obstacles to ignore while material and relational pleasures become objectified. An “it” mentality is a pathway to becoming alienated from the world around you as it is. Buber wrote, “To look away from the world or to stare at it, does not help a man to reach God; but he who sees the world in Him stands in His presence.” There is a sense of spiritual connection that occurs when what you see and experience in the world around you connects with what is in you. It becomes a source for “thou” relationships which holds great respect for others problems and challenges in life.

Everyone needs a safe and trusting community to be seen. Here, vulnerability and trust are serendipitously expressed through our grief, joy, and challenge. I don’t know anyone who exemplifies this truth more than Sally, a client I once had. 

Sally had every reason to isolate and avoid the community when she first came to see me in my office. Emotionally, she was fragmented. She suffered horrendous physical, ritual, and sexual abuse from her parents who were involved in a cult. Her parents solicited her to other members of the family and cult. She experienced everything that would make a family unsafe. She fled from this frightful gruesome family to a life on the streets. 

While learning plenty of street savvy, she also learned to stuff her sorrows and the sadism she’d experienced throughout her childhood with a cocktail of addictions. When she initially sought professional counsel, she experienced more abuse and betrayal from those who were supposed to be healing and safe. She learned to deaden herself to the world at large and to disconnect from the community. Eventually, she decided to attend our intensive outpatient program, which involves sixty-five hours of therapy in 8 days. 

When she began her plunge experience, there was no trust, only desperation. However, as the days unfolded, her barriers began to come down. Maybe it was the intensity of one session after another beginning at 7:00 a.m. and continuing until 8:30 p.m. It could have been the many different approaches that her relentless counselors used. Whatever it was, she reached a watershed point where she decided to open her heart to the possibility of healing. As she progressed throughout the week, she decided that this would be her last attempt to find hope. She decided that she would do whatever it took to get healthy.

As she became committed to healing herself, she committed to integrating her fragmented inner self. She embraced the emotional pain that dominated her life, rather than medicate it with addiction. She resolved to attend 12-Step meetings to address her compulsive behaviors. Though dominated with fear and full of anxiety, slowly she shifted and allowed her 12-Step community to become a touchstone and signpost for reality in her recovery. Sharing her brokenness in the community provided relational safety for Sally. 

When there is relational safety in the community, anything and everything can be explored and sifted and sorted through. Pain becomes the fellowship’s touchstone and signpost indicating an imbalance in life. The community provides a sound studio to listen to pain’s message. Common shared brokenness is its draw, not common likeness or interest. Becoming emotionally naked by sharing our deepest feelings and secrets is commonplace and expected. It’s a space where we can fit in and be accepted as we are. It is a sanctuary in which 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. 

Today, after many years of recovery and therapy, Sally has carved out a commitment to a 12-step community based on a shared brokenness that has proven supportive and sustaining. Today, though she continues to work out her emotional brokenness, she has become an inspiration to those who work with her professionally. She has become a leader in her field of expertise. Her husband and children continue to benefit from her resilience and commitment to her healing journey. 

Recently, she told me her recovery life has rendered her 1,000 percent improved. She echoed that without a community to share her deepest feelings of brokenness, in concert with therapeutic intervention, her road to recovery would have led to a dead end. 

There are thousands of Sally’s in the world around you including the homeless. My wife Eileen and I have chosen to live in a neighborhood where homeless people live all around us. Each morning we walk our dog through our neighborhood streets. We pick up trash and dog poop with our sanitary gloves as we make our way. Along the canal that we walk there is graffiti painted on park benches and backyard walls. There is trash all around including dog and human feces. At first, it was disgusting. Over time, I have learned that the trash has a voice that represents the many unfortunate ones. The trash is their voice to tell me and you that  “I am here. Don’t forget me. Please see me!” 

Do you know someone you would describe as forgotten? When you drive to work, worship, or play, do you notice the street people in your community? Not knowing what to do with misfortune, many look away from the homeless, choosing to deal with discomfort by distancing themselves from it. What about the person at the grocery store who shuffles by with a blank stare on his face? Do you think of him as invisible? 

Today every piece of trash I pick up, I hear the voices of so many on the streets and elsewhere saying please treat me as a “Thou.” Just talkin’ trash!

Peace in the Presence of Turmoil

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

“Peace

Is an inner awakening,

And this inner awakening

We must share

With the rest of the world.” 

― Sri Chinmoy

Finding the way of peace is a journey addicts in recovery long for. Turmoil and chaos is created by the junkie worm every day an addict lives. In desperation, addicts search for escape from the insanity that rules their life. Even in recovery, many continue to struggle in search for peace in the midst of sobriety. Stopping the runaway train going down the track is a relief but not necessarily peaceful. The question remains “How do I create calm out of chaos?” “Is it possible to have peace when there is a storm that rages all around me?” Of course, addicts are not the only ones who want to know the answer to this quandary. 

In 1975 thousands of Vietnamese fled their country by sea following the collapse of the South Vietnamese government. Crowded into small boats, they were prey to pirates, and many suffered dehydration, starvation, and death by drowning. When challenged with rough seas, many in the boats panicked causing the boat to sink and many to drown. Thich Nhat Hanh remarked in his book Being Peace that when one person remained calm and lucid, knowing what to do, he or she would help others to avoid capsizing the boat. When their voice and facial expression communicated clarity and calmness, others trusted, listened, and avoided capsizing. (Page 12)

Addicts in recovery are boat people trying to survive the currents that pull and tug them back to the sea of addictive behavior. There is panic and an onslaught of craving that crashes against the recovery program of every addict who desires to escape the domination of addiction. Recovery requires that you become a peaceful person who sits in the midst of the storm around you with perspective and poise. Where does this panorama of equanimity come from in recovery? Consider the following:

1. In the midst of addictive chaos, return to being true to yourself. The demands of recovery are intimidating. It is tempting to compare your recovery journey with someone else’s recovery journey. Some people are talented presenters. At a speakers’ meeting some tell wonderful compelling stories about recovery and you wish that your recovery life looked like theirs. But it doesn’t. It simply looks like yours. This is a time that is important to maintain perspective and return to being true to yourself. That is all you must do. Remember an oak tree is an oak tree. That is all it has to do and be. If there was a demand that it grow and look like a palm tree, it would be in trouble. When you think you and your recovery must be something you are not, you will get into trouble. Just be you. It is your only requirement. Being true to yourself is where you will discover poise and perspective.

2. Seek Understanding. It will provide compassion toward yourself and others. Addicts in recovery come from a lifestyle of self-absorption. Addicts want what they want when they want it. Their life is about taking up too much space. There is no perspective or understanding that makes sense except that which leads to achieving a desired fix with their drug of choice. It’s a very narrow view of understanding. This distorted thinking does not change overnight in recovery. An addict must seek understanding in order to cultivate compassion for others. Understanding transforms addict behavior. Understanding why you do what you do accelerates self-compassion and love for others. It is common for an addict to compartmentalize their thinking to only seeing the world from their viewpoint. Yet, when you expand your understanding with deep listening, it provides a depth of compassion for self and others. For example, I recently celebrated a birthday. However, my three sons failed to recognize my birthday. I was disappointed. Yet, when I explored the situation that each was experiencing, it provided understanding. One was traveling out of state. Distracted with covering responsibilities for a small child and engaging pomp and circumstance of a special event, he became distracted and overwhelmed with his own agenda. Another was distracted with the adjustment of a newborn and suffered from a lack of sleep and the responsibilities of being a new father. A third did call me, belated, while snow skiing. He was huffing and puffing while boot packing his way up the mountain for his first ski rendezvous of the season. His thoughts were about climbing to the top of a mountain, not my birthday. When you put yourself in other’s shoes you awaken to deeper understanding which creates room for compassion for the conditions you encounter in your world. Practice understanding. 

3. Practice cultivating community. Most addicts struggle with creating harmony and awareness in a meaningful community. Addicts tend to isolate. If they do create community it is with those in the group that they can “relate” to. Everyone in a 12-step group is an addict. We all can relate to each other. Addicts tend to be rigid and unable to adjust or become flexible with who they connect to. A 12-step community is a good place to learn how to create connections with people you would normally not relate to. This exercise is a secret to long-term sobriety. It is important that an addict take with them the ability to create community wherever they go outside a 12-step room. While easier said than done, mature recovery goes beyond a 12-step room and includes vulnerable sharing with others engaged throughout the course of life. Developing community must become a priority for addicts in recovery. 

Peace in the presence of turmoil can be achieved when addicts practice community in the highways and byways of their lives. It is anchored when addicts are true to themselves and deepened through understanding.

A Need for Unity and Connection

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

“We are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided.”

—J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

There are forces in life that divide and separate us. Race, class, religion, income inequality, and many other designations categorize and label people and their life experiences. Because of these divisions, our understanding of each other suffers. As a result, we isolate and fail to see the connections that we all share. Comparison and competition also divide people. Children learn to compete and compare very early. There is a place for competition, and it is commonplace for people to compare. Without checks and balances, competition and comparison become a cancer that eats away at the fibers of life that connect and create community. Forcefully, the energy of competition forges a zero-sum mentality of winners and losers, haves and have-nots, and us versus them. When the emphasis on comparison and competition becomes imbalanced, the spirit of cooperation shrinks. 

Feelings are the network that connects people. Sadness, loneliness, fear, and insecurity bond the wealthy to the poor. Only when we focus attention on our different conditions do we separate. We become judgmental which isolates us. Certainly, inequities must be discussed and remedied.  We are more likely to create a resolution when we can find a common thread that weaves our hearts together. Emotional experience is the tapestry that weaves the hearts of us all together as one. Oppression, suffering, and struggle are common stuff that make up life for everyone. 

Everyone suffers defeat. We all experience disappointment when things do not turn out the way we hoped. Like a river, there is ebb and flow in life. When defeat and disappointment are minimized or ignored, it fractures the spirit of the community. We begin to pretend that life is different than it is. We hide the hurt and pain and begin to separate from others who we think are successful. Our failures begin to magnify. We conceal our pain, and loneliness intensifies. 

Study the following consideration: 

Listen: Take a deep breath and slow the frenzy of life. Take time to focus on listening to another’s plight and circumstance. Don’t offer suggestions for solutions. Just walk alongside and identify with the life experiences shared with another. Contemplate being in their shoes with their perspective. Avoid judgment, and just be with the other person. Practice being in their skin the best you can.  Sit with the discomfort of not knowing a resolution and feel the burden of another. Healing happens through the connection of feelings, not through cold rapped-out counsel of what to do next. 

Feel before you try to fix: The emotions that come with uncertainty are scary. There is a compulsion to rush toward fixing a problem shared by another. It is easier to argue about how to solve the problem of poverty in the world than to sit with those who suffer and experience overwhelming feelings of loss of power, food insecurity, and life. The deeper we connect with the emotions of those who suffer, the clearer a solution will arise on the horizon. When counseling someone suffering from addiction, it is helpful and healing to simply sit with the feelings of desperation and loss. It is tempting to want to immediately set up a recovery program to fix and rebuild a healthy life. Taking time to feel the emotions that an addict experiences can easily get lost in the chaos that is presented. However, it is healing to sit with the groan and the moan of emotional pain. 

Bond through Identification: It takes courage to identify with someone who suffers in ways that scare you. It means you must crawl inside their shoes and walk through what they have experienced. Emotionally, this takes hard work. Others’ behavior can feel repelling and disgusting. It is much easier to judge and label people. Addictive behavior can be this way. When people relate to an addict with pronouns like “they” or “this population” it can create distance from the individual. Yet, the essence of being an addict is “wanting what I want when I want it”. Everybody knows what this experience is like. An addict is simply powerless to stop the compulsion without help. 

For the past 27 years, I have treated sex offender behavior. I can honestly say that I have never listened to a story of sex-offending behavior that I could not relate to. It is not because I have struggled with wanting to sexually offend someone or that I can relate to a particular sadistic offense. Rather, it is because I know what it is like to want what I want when I want it. So can you. Every sex offender story that I have heard included a need for control. Everyone can relate to this need. The capacity to identify lies within each of us. In the field of treatment of sex addiction behavior, there has been a stronger need to define the difference between sex offending and sex addiction. Of course, there are differences between pathologies. However, I have experienced more healing with clients through identifying likenesses than underscoring differences. While being a sex addict does not necessarily mean that you will break the law through child molestation or sexual assault. It is an offending behavior. Partners of sex addicts will substantiate this reality. Bonding through identification means that you are willing to connect through common shared brokenness. 

We all share the same river. It flows beneath us and through us. When we connect to the whole of life, it has the power to soften and open our hearts to each other. We may speak different languages, and live very different lives, but when the river swells through brokenness and struggle it pulls us toward each other. May we never forget the power of connection through common shared brokenness.

Failure Friendly

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

It is impossible to live without failing at something unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default. —J.K. Rowling

The Oxford Dictionary defines failure as the lack of success in doing or achieving something. Really! Somehow, with so much emphasis placed upon not failing in our world, you would think they would come up with something more pronounced than that. If that’s what it is, who doesn’t fail, not once but dozens of times every day? I didn’t brush my teeth twice today, I ran two not three miles. I didn’t clean the house, wash the car, read 50 pages from the book I committed to wade through, meditate, and stop eating yogurt! Some days it seems that I don’t achieve anything that I committed to do! Does that make me a failure?

There is such emphasis upon hiding the “don’t be’s” that the things you achieve get overlooked or minimized. You did put your goals down on paper. You did run two of the three miles on your goal sheet. You did brush your teeth one time of the twice-a-day goal. You did read 10 of the 50 pages you committed to read. While there are many things you can do to adjust your focus, strategy, and effort to achieve more, you are less likely to maintain perspective without a more friendly view of the word failure.

Baseball great Mickey Mantle once reflected on the experience of his Hall of Fame baseball career. He said, “During my 18 years of Major League Baseball I came to bat almost 10,000 times. I struck out 1700 times and walked another 1,800 times. You figure a ball player will have about 500 at-bats a season. That means I played seven years without ever hitting the ball.”

The average experience of a baseball player is making an out, not getting a hit. In the presence of striving for success, even for someone as great as Mickey Mantle, there is a compelling story of difficulty and strife to share. Mantle’s authentic willingness to connect with his intimate battle with failure forced him to practice the fundamental basics of self-care. As a result, these commonplace experiences of struggle enabled him to look back at his Hall of Fame career and create a meaningful perspective from his experience of professional failure.

Here are a few things to reflect on when addressing failure in life.

1. Everyone experiences daily failure. It is one of the common threads of everyday living.

2. Make sure you underscore what you did do when you highlight what you didn’t.

3. Fail forward. Wallowing in the mud of failure only gets you more muddy and in need of a bath.

4. Take time to grieve. It’s a bummer to come up short after all that effort! Feel shitty! Embrace the bitterness, anger, disappointment, and emptiness that come with failed results. Express it fully! Philosophical reflection can come later.

5. Funnel your grief into action. Don’t act prematurely. When you embrace your feelings around failure, you will know when it’s time to get off your duff and act. Don’t allow negative self-talk to stymie your view of future destiny. Most achievements are completed amidst the roar of negative talk from the conniving inner critic that attempts to sabotage destiny. Learn to ignore the negativity within like an athlete learns to block out the hostile heckles and catcalls in a stadium.

6. Be a heart champion. Model how to go from blight to beauty. Know that failure is a part of life. Determine never to let an outcome define who you are. Instead, let your definition be determined by the vision of destiny you have within that supersedes any result.

7. Chisel out a North Star focus. Cultivate support from others around you to maintain an “eye of the tiger” pursuit of your purpose and plans of fulfilling your destiny.

8. Re-define prosperity. Rather than scaling back your vision, transcend your pursuit and go beyond concrete results that ultimately you don’t control. Embrace the unconditional confidence that no matter what you experience, you can go down and come back up.

9. Clarify what growth means toward the goal you seek to achieve. There are many definitions of growth. If you only know growth by measuring the end result, you will miss the incremental steps that are necessary to get to the end result. Carefully clarify each step needed in your journey. It will help you to enlighten what you can and cannot control.

Strength and inspiration come through the experience of failure by sharing and connecting with the human spirit of others. You will experience a genuine depth of human connection when you learn to stay in the presence of overwhelming discomfort triggered by failure. The human spirit is resilient and has the capacity to transform agony into poise and healing peace when the discomfort and heartache of failure is embraced and shared.

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.

Only the Lonely

“Only the lonely, Know the heartaches I’ve been through-Only the lonely-Know I cry and cry for you.”
(Roy Orbison “Only the Lonely” lyrics)

Loneliness drives escapism. In an unsettled world there are a million different reasons to want to avoid reality. Traumatic experiences in home life can trigger the desire to travel anywhere but home to escape further stress and psychological harm. More than 15 million Americans suffer loneliness attributed to major clinical depression. Many will do anything to escape the dregs of emptiness, loneliness and anxiety that come with it. However, a temporary new environment is not the cure. Often, when this form of escape through travel is done impulsively, there’s a greater likelihood that symptoms will rebound or return even stronger than before. Lonely older adults are twice as likely to be prescribed an antidepressant compared to adults reporting no loneliness (27% vs 14%). This indicates that medication alone is not a cure to the challenge of loneliness.

Most addicts suffer from loneliness. For many, home was disastrous, chaotic, totally abusive and unsafe. People need to belong, experience sanctuary and be treated with dignity and respect. Addicts run from the fear that if they slow down they will have to face the anxiety and terror of coming home to themselves. The experience is devastating. For those who do not come to terms with loneliness, it is a shadow that follows and never releases its grip. Addicts in recovery must learn to manage the experience of loneliness. It is a major trigger for relapse. Here are a few considerations to help you work with this common malady that affects everyone.

1. Practice coming home to yourself: Addicts learn to lose themselves with busyness and activities that distract from the discomfort of anxiety and other difficult emotions. Thich Nat Hanh stated that sitting is an act of revolution. In the presence of the urge to rush and be active, it is counterintuitive to sit with your feelings. However, sitting with your feelings will cultivate awareness. It helps to separate your thoughts and emotions from your true nature. As some say, sitting helps you to see your true nature to be like the sky and your feelings and thoughts to be like the clouds that come and go away. Coming home to yourself is a way of connecting with yourself and accepting what is.

2. Quiet the clamor and clutter by putting away your electronic devices for a definite period of time each day. It has been said that in America, the average person spends 7 hours looking at a screen each day. Your computer and cell phone distract you from being connected with yourself. You would think social media would help you to connect with others. However, it is an illusion that social media helps you to connect with others when you do not connect with yourself. Technology does not help reduce loneliness. Take time each day to turn off your phone and all other technology each day to cultivate conscious awareness. Make it a deliberate act.

3. Connect with the here and now. Distractions keep you from being present. You might be doing something important but your mind is somewhere else. People go through their life distracted without being connected to the present moment. Poet T.S. Eliot penned “we shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time”. Many people will never experience this reality in reflection because they don’t know how to connect to the present moment. Don’t allow yourself to live a life of distraction from the here and now.

4. Go Inside. Loneliness is about feeling disconnected from others. You won’t connect with others until you connect with yourself. Becoming a social butterfly can make you popular with many acquaintances. Yet, you can be lonely in a crowd of people. Loneliness will disappear when you go inside. Learn to become an island to yourself. Buddhists teach that you go inside yourself through the in-breath and the out-breath. Hahn says that you tidy your home within by going inside. This is where you calm your spirit and connect with yourself. It all begins by cultivating a lifestyle of going inside.

5. Make peace with your loneliness. There is a wounded child within each of us that needs to be recognized and embraced. Loneliness is magnified when you busy yourself with activity and neglect the pool of pain that exists within you. People try to minimize this pain by comparing their life experience with others. This only isolates the wounded child and intensifies loneliness. Coming home requires that you focus on healing your wounded child.

6. Liberate yourself from the prisons of the past. Addicts live with a vacuum inside that makes them uncomfortable connecting with others. Their wounded child has been betrayed and let down by others. They don’t trust themselves or others. Dominating their brain are mistaken beliefs that keep them inside an emotional prison. Liberation requires an act of daily forgiveness which simply means that you will not hold this egregious destructive behavior against yourself any longer. Every day you come home to yourself and make this agreement. You then walk away from destructive behavior and embrace healing and practice being helpful to others. Addicts who choose to live this way liberate themselves from loneliness effectively. They learn to use their eyes to look at others with compassion and eliminate criticism.

Polarization

Polarization is a problem in the world. Us versus them is a mentality that has always existed.  The criteria for who is in and who is out are determined by those who have the power.  Historically, the criteria for acceptance has been tragic. Jewish people were rejected by the Third Reich in Germany, who determined that the entire race should be exterminated. African Americans were once considered only 3/5th human in America simply because of the color of their skin. Racism, sexism, patriarchy, ageism, etc exclude some and include others because of someone’s definition about who is acceptable and who is not.

When I was a kid I tried to hang out with only Cub fans. If you liked the St. Louis Cardinals, there was something wrong with you. My dad was a blue-collar worker and we were Democrats. We prayed for those who were Republicans and wondered why! We thought that the Pope was the antichrist. There were 3 areas of our town: Elm Ridge, where the rich people lived; Grant Park, where the poorest lived, and then the rest of us. We learned to categorize people by their address. We looked up to the folk in Elm Ridge as successful. They were the “haves.” We fought to keep our address out of Grant Park where the “have nots” lived.

Judgmentalism has separated people throughout my life. There was the Red Scare and McCarthyism in the 1950’s. Famous people like Paul Robeson, who was a great black athlete and actor, was ostracized and accused of being Communist because he refused to bend to popular opinion. There were Christians who thought the world was going to end in a ball of fire in the early 1960’s. They were scoffed at by scientists and ostracized as Holy Rollers. Now, scientists push the alarm of a catastrophic global warming, and many of those same Christians scoff and ostracize the scientists.

Polarization is a challenge to recovery. Healing requires integrating both the best and the beast within each person. In community, us versus them undermines the healing process. Judging others’ social status or recovery progress paralyzes the potential for transformation. It requires each person to recognize their own dark behavior in order to have compassion for other people’s struggle. It is by recognizing compassion and identification that transformation occurs. 

No one escapes childhood unscathed. I have learned that working through abuse requires the acceptance of a victim/victimizer dynamic that exists in those who have suffered abuse. When you have been victimized it is important to face ways that you have victimized others, perhaps not in like kind but in like principle. 

It is critical to confront behavior where you selfishly wanted what you wanted when you wanted it. It is important to face the impact of feelings and consequences that your behavior created for others and experience the gravity of their plight  because of your actions. Then, you focus on forgiving yourself which simply means to let go and not hold the behavior against yourself. It also means to stop the hurtful behavior. When you do this, you become less polarized from those who have victimized you. By accepting your own dark behavior you can create compassion for the dark behavior of others who hurt you with perpetrating abuse. Through common shared brokenness you can experience healing and forgiveness which can produce freedom from the abuse. 

Essentially, this controversial process can be framed as a way of getting out of an emotional prison that an abuser’s behavior created. Some have described it as a healthy selfish way of forgiving the son of a b**** who perpetrated pain and devastation in your life. You don’t have to be friends with someone who has hurt you. However, polarization is less likely because you have addressed in principle the victimizer dynamic in yourself that also exists in the perpetrator who has hurt you.

When this does not occur, communities remain fractured and polarized. Perpetrators, like sex offenders, are excluded from their communities. Some people think that if we segregate, isolate, or polarize people, then somehow we become a safer community. I don’t see evidence that this is true. 

Through my work at Psychological Counseling Services, we have witnessed transformation and healing by bringing victims and victimizers together. When sexual abuse is the issue, careful consideration of healing factors are assessed for both victim and victimizer before such integration takes place. Through 25+ years of engaging this process, I have observed and facilitated healing and transformation for both victim and victimizer. Regarding betrayed partners, we have integrated them with addict betrayers for many years. I have listened to partners who have shared that listening to the heart of an addict who is not their partner has been helpful to cultivate compassion and healing toward their own addict partner. On the other side of the coin, I have listened to addicts state that hearing the heartache of a different betrayed partner helped them to deepen empathy toward their own betrayed partner.  

When we face each other’s pain we promote healing and transformation and eliminate polarization. This makes far more sense to me. 

I do not think there is just one way to heal trauma from abuse. There are many alternatives. I do believe that polarization has splintered communities throughout our country. Judgmentalism through categorizing and labeling people has been detrimental to healing in our country. I suggest that we overcome judgmentalism and polarization toward others through identification of common-shared brokenness with shared accountability and consequences.  

Take time to be curious of someone who is unlike you or represents a position you vehemently disagree with.  Notice how judgment comes up and simply sit with gaining an understanding of another person’s plight and position about life. You don’t have to change your mind about how you think. But, you can find a way to connect with someone who sees things different than you do. A way to overcome polarization is to integrate common-shared brokenness through listening to a different perspective.