humility

The Secret Life of Long-Term Sobriety, Part 1

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

For many in recovery sobriety is a mystery.  A 12-step group usually starts with a prayer and often ends with clasped hands in a circle repeating in unison “It works if you work it and you’re worth it”. Over the years I have heard many addicts testify that in those same meetings, after all the good-declared intention, they acted out before they got home and sometimes even before they left the parking lot.

There is a great divide in reality at 12-step meetings. There are the haves and have-nots. Those who have sobriety and those who don’t. For many, sobriety is elusive. At times, after working hard to achieve sobriety, it can slip through the fingers in the blink of an eye, or so it seems. How are some able to achieve and maintain long-term sobriety while others cannot?

Over the next two blogs, I want to propose 11 keys that are vital to creating long-term sobriety:

1. A decision to stop no matter what it takes. This, like the ten other keys, seems like a no-brainer. Yet, through observance of the meetings I attend and the addicts I counsel, this key is often missing. I ask many addicts who come to do work at PCS if they are done with their addiction. I often get the reply “I’m here, aren’t I?” It’s almost as if somehow showing up to the PCS building would be magical and that the building and all the therapists will transform him or her from a raging addict to zen-like sobriety. Addicts can make a great therapist look inept or an average therapist into a rockstar. It all depends upon the attitude that he or she chooses. I recall my wife Eileen and I saying to each other that “we would hock our socks” to get healthy. That was about the reality that we had no funds for treatment. The decision was to do whatever it takes. Many addicts come to a 12-step meeting without a “white hot” intensity to transform their lives. They look for someone to give them something or to take care of them. It is common for some addicts to show up with an attitude of entitlement. Long-term sobriety requires something very simple: You must want to stop more than anything else in the world.

2. Be humble. You would think that an addict’s life of frustration and failure would result in humility. Yet, often this is not the case. Addicts present most frequently with arrogance. Some are full of conceit and presumption while others seem demure on the surface, but underneath are full of disdain and hubris. The truth is that practicing humility is a lifelong challenge. It requires charting a recovery course that includes holding your attitude and spirit accountable to group members. It demands that you put people in your life who role model humility. It is common for addicts in recovery to assume they won’t need to practice humility and lose their hunger for it. Often, addicts fall into a trap that they have done this work for so long that they do not need to embrace this fundamental component of recovery. This is where you fall into lapse or relapse behavior. You might not act out but for sure you will stop growing deep without humility.

3. Be coachable. I will never forget my earliest days in 12-step recovery. I would question the purpose of each step and present as cynical of the overall process. My sponsor, Chip, who was for the most part mild-mannered, cleared his throat and said “Ken, I think it would be in your best interest to shut up and just do what you were told to do”. This admonition hurt my feelings and was used to save my own life. It is rare to find an addict who is hungry to take guidance. Most of us think we can do this by ourselves. You can be inspired by others who testify about reaching out, but most of us don’t do this very well. This is true even though your best thoughts and actions got you into the addict-behavior mess you are in. With stubborn inflexibility, many addicts refuse to listen or take action from what they hear in a 12-step meeting. The doctor can write the prescription, but you have to take the medicine.

4. Live your recovery in consultation with accountability. There is an oft-repeated saying around 12-step groups, “If 8 or 9 people tell you that you have a tail . . .check your ass in the mirror!” Though humorous, there is important recovery wisdom here. Addicts don’t want anyone telling them what to do. They bristle with direct feedback. Yet there is no other way to establish long-term sobriety. It requires a shift in spirit and attitude. The reason a sponsor tells a sponsee to call them every day is to create the habit of living in consultation. Most addicts won’t do this. It contributes to shortsighted relapse. There is a difference between consultation and dependence. Recovery becomes a paradox. You are taught to consult, and in the end, every action you take in your life is about your choice and decision. Be accountable. Live in consultation with others. It cements long-term sobriety.

5. Don’t just do the steps. Learn to live them in commonplace experience. Addicts get overwhelmed trying to do the steps. Perfectionism is a contributing reason why some addicts stop before completing all the steps. Step 4 is particularly difficult. More addicts get stuck in Step 4 than any other step. Addicts think they have to do this monumental undertaking. It’s as if you must walk through burning coals and stay there until your sponsor permits you to step out. Step 4 is difficult. We don’t have to make it harder than it is. A thorough Step 4 is never complete. So, address a character flaw, even a few. Sit with it. Learn what you can in the moment of focus and then move on. It is important in recovery to understand we don’t do the 12 steps but we learn to embrace and apply them in the common places of everyday living. 

Step 2: The Step That Creates Humility in the Presence of Willful Self Destruction

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

“Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” 

“It belongs to the imperfection of everything human that man can only attain his desire by passing through its opposite.” Soren Kierkegaard

In 12-step addiction recovery, the phrase “self will run riot” is cataloged and documented in our first step focuses on the out-of-control and unmanaged behavior that dominates our lives. Step 2 is an invitation to step back, take a deep breath, and examine the carnage that you created through the eyes of your spirit. 

In recovery, spirituality is a very difficult concept to embrace. It asks of you to consider opposites. So, in order to win it encourages you to lose; to be in control, it asks that you let go, to know is to humbly embrace what you don’t know. At times, it seems like trying to nail jelly to a tree. You talk about your spiritual experience in a support community. At the time, it seems so meaningful and then later it seems so difficult to make sense from what was then helpful. The worthwhile dialogue gets fuzzy in your head. Wisdom and learning can be this way.

Examining what I need to relinquish in order to gain sobriety and serenity requires introspection and deep honesty with self. Letting go of what I cannot control demands courage and integrity to the values that go deeper than the grip of what I am afraid to lose. Embracing what you do not know requires that you be willing to sit with uncertainty and the insecurity that comes from things around you being impermanent. There are no cookbook recipes or formulas that are universal for you or anyone else to do in life. You have to figure it out yourself. Kurtz and Ketcham in their book, The Spirituality of Imperfection, compared spirituality to the mortar that holds a fireplace together. The metaphor invokes that you consider what it is that you are truly counting on to hold your life together. Upon reflection, as a Christian, I knew the appropriate response would be Jesus. Yet, spirituality required me to go deeper with honesty. Careful examination revealed that what I really depended upon when cornered by life’s demands, is that I would work my ass off. Then I would dress it up with religious words. Nothing wrong with working hard. Nonetheless, spirituality beckoned me, to be honest with self. This is the heart of spirituality. 

Spirituality can be unnerving. Some identify their spirituality with a relationship with God. Others think it to be Jesus. Some even re-work the steps and put Jesus’ name in many of the steps. Others think spirituality centers around Buddha, Allah, Jehovah, the Great Spirit, Pachamama, Mother Nature, higher power, higher self, unknown creative force, life force energy of the universe, and even the tree in the backyard. Annie Parisse said, “One man’s cult is another man’s religion.” Spirituality wraps around and through all of these concepts. Even, the word itself is limited. It is just a vocabulary word which does rankle some. Atheists do not believe in God and many are bothered by the very word spirituality. Surely, with the thousands of words in our vocabulary, there can be another word to embrace this dynamic. Spirituality does require vulnerability—looking at yourself from the inside/out. It implores you to become emotionally naked to yourself and amazingly expands when you share this with others. Why others? Others mirror back to you your own bullshit. Seeing your own bullshit in others becomes an invite to a deeper, more clear spirituality within.

Spirituality is found in the wound of human failure. Entangled with the wound is the powerful shackle of shame that wraps itself around the spirit like an infectious worm. Defeat and desolation from addictive acts become compost for cultivating humility, a cardinal component of spirituality. It is by fertilizing Step 2 and nourishing your spirit that later in Step 9 we make amends from the compassion for others spawned from Step 2. Spirituality is the ingredient that forms an antibiotic for conceit and arrogance. It combats self-sufficiency, self-centeredness, and the pride that denies need which is the root of all our struggles. In a strange turn of events, the Step 2 process takes the broken condition of addiction and connects it to every other human tribulation. We are all one. Through this epiphany, we look to a greater spiritual dynamic to address the limiting “crack” so common to us all. I have often queried addicts about which part of their destructive behavior is the most difficult to face—the consequences, the realness of a loved one’s painful screams, etc. Once identified, I suggest this to be the place to set up shop and cultivate spirituality—in the wound. It is in the scrubbing of shame (the wound) in this most painful place that spirituality is fostered and nourished.

Spirituality is about oneness and unity. It is about a relationship between equals. It is about recognizing the shared life force within all living things. We are one: Catholic, Jew, Pentecostal, fundamentalist, atheist, animal and plant—we are all one. Differences for sure. Yet, connected with like-kindness so often obscured. Spirituality creates compassion for yourself in the midst of destructive behavior which cultivates compassion for the weakness of others. You become one with every “sinner”.  So the victim of destructive addictive behavior is one with the perpetrator because we are all one in common shared weakness. Essentially, we all offend and this common thread of paradox creates spirituality. Spirituality becomes a necessary ingredient for accountability. If we all offend, not just the addict, then it stands to reason that holding each other accountable is necessary to create safety in community. It becomes the glue that holds the parts of recovery together.

Spirituality is a pilgrimage, not a destination. It always encompasses the terrain of personal struggle and failure. Spirituality does not travel the same line that a crow flies. It takes a very circuitous journey. It includes winding, up and down, backtracking, getting lost, criss crossed paths and starting all over. Spirituality looks like a picture of a labyrinth that a kindergartener has scribbled all over. Spirituality finds meaningfulness in the experiences of each day versus the amount of growth or “distance” gained. Joseph Campbell states “When you’re on a journey, and the end keeps getting further and further away, then you realize that the real end is the journey”. In recovery, it is not the days counted as “success” or those experienced as “failure” but rather it is the journey that we take that is underscored as being spiritual, not the desired destination. 

Spirituality is about community. St. John of the Cross, a mystic, said that the soul who exists outside of community is like a lone coal away from the fire which soon grows cold. You are a social creature that needs connection for spirituality to thrive. Spirituality helps to adapt and to learn flexibility. You will learn to hold fast to what is in the “now” for you never know where your spirituality might take you. In your recovery life, you will notice that it is not a pilgrimage that marches straight ahead because we always have many twists and turns, ups and downs. Those who seek to do it perfectly either fail miserably or become so wound tight that eventually, they explode. Learning to accept your own recovery failure and get up and keep going is the perspective that anchors spirituality. How far you have come pales in comparison to how far you have yet to go. Spirituality gives birth to hope when you face the unknown in that you know that you are not alone in this struggle or in facing your human failure. Your struggle is exactly what someone else will need to do the next right thing and their failure is exactly what you will need to give you hope in knowing that you are not alone. This is reality spirituality.

In truth, spirituality does not lead to all the answers. It helps to embrace and engage the questions with genuine honesty. It promotes a beginner’s mind and will help you to become teachable. Step 2 fosters spirituality through the embrace of paradox in the contest of everyday common places of life.

The Enmeshment Dilemma: Where I Stop and You Begin

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

Addicts in recovery get better… they aren’t cured. There is a spectrum of what constitutes better. Many addicts in recovery stop acting out with their drug of choice as a result of working a diligent program that involves peer support, therapy, and family reconstruction. However, it’s not 100%. Some never stop using and at best learn to reduce the harm of their addictive behavior. There are national coalitions that help develop strategies for overdose prevention and harm reduction education that are helpful in all forms of addictive behavior. 

Even when an alcoholic puts the cork in the bottle, many migrate to other more acceptable destructive behaviors like obsessive work, rage, or pleasing others. Addicts become obsessive in their attempts to craft a cocktail of addictive behaviors to fill in the hole that exists in their soul.

Enmeshment is a common underlying issue in the treatment of addictive behavior. It is a result of boundary violations in relationships.  It is the absence of differentiation and autonomy. Children in dysfunctional families become enmeshed in the pathology and are unable to individuate. Enmeshment becomes the bond that holds the family together. It is the personalization of another’s reality, problems, feelings, beliefs, and so on. Enmeshment grows from storied belief systems, family rules, and premises that provide protection and loyalty through denial and sometimes threats in a family system. It is the result of poor role modeling, abandonment, and neglect as well as other forms of abuse that exist in a family. Addicts repeat symptoms of enmeshment as an underlying attempt to resolve childhood dilemmas. It is repeated throughout life without conscious awareness. It becomes a significant obstacle in recovery that stymies an addict’s journey toward establishing self-esteem and intimacy. 

Enmeshment is intergenerational.  In other words, the family problems that existed in your family of origin are most likely to appear in your nuclear family and relationships. You may do the opposite from some problematic behaviors but essentially the dysfunctional behaviors are passed from one generation to another through denial and minimization. Here is an example, my grandfather (on dad’s side) died from alcoholism. He was a raging, mean alcoholic. My dad got religion and was a teetotaler. My brother David, died from alcoholism and cocaine abuse secretive to members of his family of origin. It was fueled by the denial of his nuclear family. Through denial, it is likely that the dysfunctional strategy of embracing the improbable and denying the obvious will be passed onto future generations. The thread that keeps the dysfunction alive is enmeshment. It is the primary basis for codependency, isolation, spiritual bankruptcy, and addictive behavior.

Enmeshment runs deep and is unlikely to be curable. My father learned to deal with his fear of abandonment from his father by protecting his mother. My grandfather would get drunk, come home, and try to kill my grandmother. My dad would try to protect his mother but was inevitably helpless. When his father finally left the household my dad quit school in the 8th grade to work to provide for his mother and siblings. All of my lifetime my dad had two to three jobs. He lived his life with the scarcity of never having enough. This became the intergenerational connection to my own workaholism. 

My mother tragically was involved in an accident at age 9. While playing with candles with her little sister who was 6, wind blew the flames onto the dress her sister was wearing and before help could be found her sister was badly burned and later died from her injuries. My mother believed she killed her sister. She became a very good baseball player in an attempt to seek her parent’s approval. Later she gave her life for service to the poor in an attempt to seek the approval of God. Both behaviors were pursued with extreme intensity. It’s the serious magnitude of pursuit that marks enmeshment. She needed to be more to keep from being less. She never learned where she stopped and others began. Though impacted by dementia in her dying days, one of her last statements of confusion related to being on time for a baseball game and a reference to having killed her sister. My mother’s compulsive care toward others became a root trigger of my own codependent behavior as a partner, parent, and professional. These roots are deep and most likely will take a lifetime to address. 

Enmeshment is manageable. While I seriously doubt that the depths of enmeshment will be cured, I do experience dramatic improvement toward 

self-management. I think the management of enmeshment is a proper focus and not a cure. I have been able to stop sexually acting out and curb my workaholism. I have not cured my enmeshment that is expressed through codependent behavior. I have been influenced by over one hundred years of codependent behavior from parents and my own practice. It is unlikely that I will have a “born again” experience around enmeshment. That said, I do not give license to allowing enmeshment to run hopelessly amok.  Here are some considerations that have been helpful in my recovery.

1. Practice setting internal boundaries around issues and areas of life where you are prone to lose yourself. In consultation clarify the achilles heel life experiences that trigger enmeshment. It could be your partner’s behavior, your kids’ safety, other people’s problems, etc. Internal boundaries focus on your recognition of limits. Verbalize those limits and your defined boundaries to others so they can hold you accountable as you manage your tendency to enmeshment. You will need their support to remain clear and remind you when you have crossed an internal boundary. Visualizing internal boundaries is like adjusting the focus on binoculars. You must pay attention to the pull of enmeshment or you will quickly lose focus. Recovery from enmeshment is a practice not a peak for perfection.

2. Make Step 3 an everyday lifestyle practice. In the Big Book, Step 3 is “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.” Whether you identify with God or another energy source, managing enmeshment requires surrendering what you cannot control. It is a struggle simply to recognize your enmeshed behavior. You might be convinced that you are compassionately caring or standing for principle. However, upon reflection, you realize that you have got out of your lane and need to surrender your care or your insistence of being right because it is not about you. This will not be a one and done humbling experience. Some days it happens with multiple issues. It can be discouraging but it does require “turning it over” and getting back in your lane.

3. Practice humility. When your kids tell you they experience you as disconnected and absent when you spent your time worrying about money, profession, and the like—believe them! Don’t get defensive and try to help them understand. Just accept your shortcomings. You don’t want to hurt your kids but you did. It’s not always black or white. It doesn’t mean you are a schmuck even if you didn’t prioritize them when you were enmeshed with your work, seeking approval, or trying to fix something. I have learned that the best response to children’s experience is to validate and ask “How can I be supportive now.” Validation is not a brush over. It involves a genuine honest acceptance of your son or daughter’s experience of you.  

4. Accept that you are not perfect while being accountable. Mentally you can accept that you are not perfect in your recovery. However, translating this reality to your heart is no small chore. Recovery is about the journey and not about arriving. Your enmeshment behavior will teach you to embrace your real self if you will allow yourself to be accountable and coachable. 

5. Poise and perspective is the result of recovery practice. There is a tendency to look to wise old sages in recovery rooms with the perception that they have arrived. Yet, perspective that cultivates poise is gifted to the addict who understands that recovery from enmeshment is a journey, not a place to arrive.  Recovery creates your own identity separate from what you do for others. The antidote for enmeshment is identity. Recovery is a journey of recognizing that you are an unrepeatable miracle of God as you separate your being from  healthy and unhealthy behaviors. The more you identify being separate from your behaviors the less you will be stuck in the muck and mire of enmeshment.