Intimacy

Wounds That Boomerang and How to Stop the Re-Enactment

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“If you bring out what is inside you,

what is inside you will save you.

If you fail to bring out what is inside you, 

what is inside you will destroy you.”

The Gnostic Gospels

I have experienced this truth over and again as a therapist treating sex offender behavior. The question has always been why would anyone sexually abuse another, whether adult or child? The answer is always found in a desperate need for control, and re-enactment of being wounded, dominated, and helpless at a vulnerable time in life toward someone else. 

A common scenario is that one guy marries a woman who has a young female child. The intimacy-disabledness in his previous relationship was never addressed and worked out. So he brings that forward into this new relationship where he has become a step-parent. He repeats the same intimacy disability in that he feels one down to his partner, cannot connect at a deeper level, can’t please his partner sexually or be pleased himself, avoids conflict and only knows to dominate or be dominated by his partner. 

Things don’t work out. But, he does feel a special kinship to the stepdaughter. With her, he feels empowered, helps her with homework, becomes her confidante, and engages her in physical horseplay. To his spouse, this is everything that her previous partner would not do. 

So she is devastated when she finds out that her new partner has been molesting her daughter, watching her undress, etc. In shock, she wonders where did this come from?

He is also fearful, wishing he had never gone down this path. Now forced to do therapy he uncovers unresolved neglect/abandonment and no one to meet his needs as a child. He traces the lack of control he experienced as a child to his inability to be empowered in an adult relationship. He acts out his insecurity through attempts to meet his needs with a child through domination and control.

Does everybody compensate for childhood needs in their adult life in this destructive way? Of course not! However, none of us got through our childhood unscathed. If we do not face and address our own childhood pain of being broken we will relive the break in some form of re-enactment later in life!

The various ways of re-enacting are numerous. Whether pain and suffering have a proper place in our lives or whether we become cornered and trapped in the pain and suffering depends on an individual’s efforts to integrate the painful experience into life experience which later becomes a source of wisdom.  It has been my experience in treating trauma that what is not integrated is repeated. It is repeated through compulsions (addictions of all types) and all kinds of controlling behaviors that create intimacy disability. Not every person who has been sexually or physically abused sexually offends another. Yet for sure, everyone who has been abused in childhood will re-enact that abuse in some way as they go through the stages of life, if not addressed. There are many ways to act out the hurt and pain in hidden ways that are subconscious to the individual and acceptable to the culture. Behaviors such as workaholism, male machismo, being a social “player” and perfectionism are all examples of facades that hide many types of abuse manifested in early childhood. 

Consider the following:

1. Face, feel, and accept: Stopping the cycle of re-enacting painful experiences requires that you access the courage to face what is. Most of us won’t do this until the pain of not facing reality is greater than the pain of embracing truth. You will need to declare a personal jihad face to your own demons. To do so means that you must experience the feelings that have been creating discomfort. Leaning into the feelings is the only way to get through them and accept the reality of what is. Short of that you will tend to seek revenge to avoid facing your own shortcomings. Rather than distract yourself with schemes to get back at others who have hurt you, face your demons and find the acceptance that will create a sense of connection with others. 

2. Integrate or disintegrate:  When you are not willing to look at your part of a problem in relationship, you re-enact ways that you have been controlled as a child into a use of power to control others in your adult life. You may bully with intimidation, act like a victim, or shut down and sulk. All of these and many other strategies represent ways that you disintegrate trust and connection in adult relationships.

Integration incorporates past experience with present encounters and helps to create a different future. Integration involves recognizing how past abuse impacts present response. It includes redirecting shame carried to the caregiver who gave it to you in the first place and to the hurtful behavior you engaged in the here and now. Once you have stalked the shame to its source and redirected it to behavior, instead of self, you will be better able to integrate the wounding experience with a grounding of self-empowerment. Every time you face your own pain and brokenness you interrupt the need to re-enact old destructive behaviors in the here and now. When you don’t, you repeat the suffering and pass it on to others. 

Facing and cleaning the wounds from the past will integrate your life experience with others and strengthen the bonds between you and the world around you. Ultimately, what you refuse to face inwardly will get acted outwardly into the world around you. It will require courage for you to address your historic pain.

Dating Protocol Considerations to Avoid Painful Past Patterns

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According to the most recent data from the American Psychological Association, the divorce rate in the United States is around 40-50% for first marriages. As you might guess it is higher for second marriages and on up from there. You would think with those kinds of repeat numbers, you would slow the process down so that you don’t repeat the second time around the agony you experienced the first time. But, it doesn’t work that way. 

The relief of getting away from the agony of a relationship that hurts and the need to fill the emptiness of being alone, and without the intrigue of a romantic relationship, overpowers perspective and contemplative consideration. Add to all of that the rush of oxytocin, endorphins, and dopamine that comes with the honeymoon feeling of a new relationship, and you have a cocktail kick that blows past rational thought and deliberation. It all contributes to why the likelihood of failure in a second marriage is higher than the first. 

Analytically, we can figure it all out. Yet, even after enlightenment we go against what we know and plunge down the same rabbit hole we just escaped. 

Why is this? There are many reasons. People carry with them old tapes of mistaken beliefs learned from their family of origin that create relationship sabotage. Why consider something that might spoil the fantasy relationship I think I can have in the here and now? Many people choose to run from what hurts and never want to stop and scrub the wounds that come from betrayal and various forms of intimacy disability. All this makes sense. It’s just that doing the same thing you have always ever done, doesn’t work toward healing a broken heart that comes from a dysfunctional relationship. 

So, here are some considerations to think about regarding relationship healing, before engaging the next exclusive romantic relational experience.

1. Take some time to catch your breath. You have been running so hard to fix the hurt of the old relationship in ways that did not work, or you are running as hard as you can to get away from the relational pain. Take a time out and catch your breath. Relationships in distress or pursuit burn a lot of emotional BTUs. How much time do you take? One size doesn’t fit all. Some people need 6 months; others need a year. The time you need is unique to you. After you have calmed the chaos, the amount of time you need to heal before engaging in a serious new relationship will vary. The point is to catch your breath before rushing ahead. 

2. You will need time to grieve. How much time? Again, it varies. The rule of thumb is that you will need more time than you are thinking about right now! You will need time to grieve what used to be and no longer is. You will need to grieve what never was that you hoped would have been. You will need to grieve the reality of what is. It’s hard to engage in grieving when the oxytocin, endorphins, and dopamine are rushing through your veins with someone new. Most of us don’t know how to grieve deeply. We cry, feel empty, might get drunk, and on we go to the next relationship. But, there’s the need to go deep and feel the hurt of the sadness of what will never be again. Relationship ties undone with family, the loss of the good times, the hurt of the pain, and the impact on others (kids particularly, friends, relatives, etc) all must be embraced experientially before moving on to something new in a serious relationship. The truth is that you will need to create space in your life to grieve and let go of what used to be periodically for the rest of your life. It isn’t meant to grovel in the pain of an old relationship. Yet, recognizing painful experiences in past relationships and letting go is a part of the pattern of being an adult. The time it takes you to sufficiently grieve will vary and you will be wise to consult with counsel and to live in consultation with support people. 

3. Learn to be with yourself. When you end a relationship there is an empty spot. There is a great temptation to fill it in with another relationship, work, travel, and a lot of other activities. Our culture provides so much stimulation that you can just go from one high to the next. But, you won’t heal yourself that way or know who you really are by doing a blitz on stimulants that come from dating and other activities. Embrace the winter of your life and learn from it.

4. Unravel the patterns that sabotage intimacy. If you don’t you will keep doing it and likely blame the other party for your relationship unfulfillment. Some people can date and unravel this self-sabotage behavior at the same time through counseling and group support. Most of us cannot. If you have never been in a riptide current at the beach, you would be wise to stop swimming and learn from those who have experienced and managed the riptide. Ignoring this suggestion is how many people drown in the next relationship doing the same things as before. Unraveling your self-sabotage pattern that contributes to relational failure is difficult. You will need to address unresolved family of origin issues that contribute to the way you do relationships today. Soren Kierkegaard was right when he wrote “Life is meant to be lived forward but can only be understood backward”. To move forward and not self-sabotage you will need to look backward and understand what brought you to where you are today. On the other hand, it’s easier to blame your past partner and keep truckin’ wondering why you keep hooking up with partners who hurt you.

5. Sex is always an issue: If you are stuck in the juggernaut of sexual addiction, sex has become an organizing principle of your life. Any reason is a good reason to be sexual. Most likely your behavior is about objectifying another person. Objectification is a way of using another person to get your needs met without dignity and respect or consideration of others. Non-addicted people can objectify as well. If you use another person’s space to meet your needs without proper scrutiny of that individual’s needs then you are objectifying that person. Some people say no sex for 6 months or 1 year after a breakup! Maybe so or maybe not! It makes sense to discipline your tendency to accelerate physical connection so that with moderate speed you are better able to distinguish the difference between intensity of feeling and true intimacy. All too often with oxytocin, adrenaline, and dopamine in control, people thicken the plot to an unhealthy relationship by mistaking intensity for intimacy. In this equation, addicts can’t get enough of what they don’t need and many non addicts adopt an unspoken mentality that my half plus your half will make us a whole! On the contrary, you take what is and make it less because the other person cannot supply your basic need for self-care, so 1/2 + 1/2 = 1/4, not a whole. 

6. Don’t forget the impact on other key relationships: This doesn’t mean you don’t date. It just means that you don’t date lacking sensitivity to the community of people who provide support and who respect and love you. This includes careful considerations about dating others who were once romantically involved with your friends, family, or workmates. Most companies have policies that govern romantic relationships at work. However, not all are the same and many people try to bend the rules to engage in romance. It’s important to be careful and considerate in comprehending the consequences of romance in these situational dynamics. Children need to be carefully considered. Bringing a new person in and out of their lives can be very destructive to them without thoughtful consideration of their care. Each of these impacts requires consultation and accountability with people who are in your support group. 

We are all designed to experience connection with others. How we engage romance requires thoughtful preparation and consideration so that the charm that wells up within does not become harm that hurts others.

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.

Self Empowerment — Making Things Enough

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Addicts in recovery often struggle with knowing how to meet their needs in healthy ways. As a child, many developmental needs were left unmet because parents who never had their needs met when they were young and vulnerable failed to meet their children’s needs. They pass along the same dysfunctional patterns they learned from their parents. This is one way dysfunctional patterns of behavior are intergenerationally transferred. 

As a child, they learn to compensate in order to survive. They become very good at improvising—doing what pleases their parents and gets their attention. They learn to do and perform because the value of being is de-emphasized. Children learn to do anything to avoid neglect and abandonment which are terrifying experiences. This is when a child loses a sense of identity. Children mistakenly believe that whatever they do to get noticed is who they are. So they lose themselves in family roles (hero, scapegoat, lost child, etc) or in taking care of others. Sometimes they act out with negative behavior or through personal accomplishments to get attention. They hope to be noticed by caregivers. The result is that they are never able to do enough outside behavior to fill the empty space inside. That is when they create a cocktail of life experience to avoid the feelings of neglect and abandonment. 

The mistaken beliefs that come with abandonment are, I am not worthy, not enough, or don’t measure up to matter to those you most want to be noticed by. So they learn to numb out and avoid the extreme emotional pain and fear associated with neglect and abandonment. Addiction doesn’t take away the pain but it does give what it promises. It is like a warm blanket on a cold night that offers temporary relief and escape from the harsh reality of a world full of winter experiences. 

Every addict must stop the run-away train going down the track in order to get at the root cause of their destructive behavior. They learn to identify and express their feelings, which they were disconnected from in addiction. They have to be taught how to recognize needs represented in personal affect. They must learn how to assert meeting the needs housed within the emotions expressed. This journey requires education and a lot of practice. Ultimately, they must face their fears of neglect and abandonment. Most people are afraid to express what they feel or need because they fear they will be abandoned. As children, they have been abandoned emotionally, physically, or both. They learn to avoid this fear by the thoughts they embrace and the things they do. They compartmentalize what happened or did not happen as children. They protect those who have abandoned them with staunch family loyalty. They forgive prematurely, minimize results, and deny the impact of abandonment. They do everything possible to avoid facing the fear of abandonment. They learn to regulate themselves emotionally by trying to regulate everyone around them.

In my book, Dare to Be Average—Finding Your Brilliance in the Commonplace, I told the story about a little boy who loved PBJ (peanut butter and jelly sandwiches). He would go to the pantry, take the jar of peanut butter, and spread it on his bread. Then he would slap the jelly and peanut butter together and enjoy his PBJ. When there was daylight at the bottom of the jar of peanut butter, he would pitch it in the trash and reach for a new jar. All was good until one day there was no backup jar in the pantry. So with disappointment, he resigned to do without. As he walked away, his father noticed and asked him to come back to the kitchen. He took the jar of peanut butter that was thrown in the trash, made sure there was no gunk on it, and then scraped the sides of the jar which provided for 1/2” thick of peanut butter rather than the normal 1” thickness. He then noted to his son that he was willing to go without when he could take what was and spread it around and make it enough. 

This story points to a skill set that many addicts fail to incorporate in their recovery program. When faced with the fear of abandonment in a relationship, they panic. Some insist that their partner fix the fear. They focus on their partner’s shortcomings. This is a subtle way to make the partner the identified problem. 

Others run from the relationship through an approved replacement addiction like work etc. Many refuse to face their fear of abandonment and resolve the pain. They look outside themselves to medicate their fear. If not through acting out with their drug of choice, they utilize schemes of manipulation and overcontrol impression management or a myriad of caretaking strategies to avoid facing their fear of abandonment. They perceive their relationships through the view of a terrorized disempowered child. Consequently, they look for others to fix what they can only fix from within themselves. It renders them ineffective to take what is in a relationship and do their part to make it enough. Paralyzed in neediness, addicts look to others outside to fix their fear of abandonment.

Managing the fear of abandonment requires empowering an adult perspective in the following areas:

1. Recognizing your fear. In reactivity, we can cover our fear of abandonment by focusing on the injustice behavior of a partner. Since we cannot fix our partner when he or she complains or is unhappy, we become defensive and become embroiled in a circular argument trying to fix the blame. What gets lost in the skirmish around who is at fault is the reality that you fear abandonment from your partner at some level.

2. Address the childhood fear of abandonment. This requires taking time to identify ways that you were abandoned in childhood. You will need to dismantle family loyalty by taking your parents off the pedestal in order to perceive the ways you were abandoned. You will know you have your parents on a pedestal by the feelings of guilt you experience when you speak to the times they abandoned you physically, emotionally, or both. You will need to grieve for the young impressionable part of you that was abandoned. In your grief work, you will need to move the energy of what you feared from your parents to the issue of abandonment. You will then need to transfer this energy to the empowered adult self to provide the safety you need in the here and now. This is not a one-and-done life experience. Rather, it is an adult skill set that must be honed and practiced throughout life.

3. Make amends when you fail to empower the adult. Insight does not create perfection. You will backslide into giving the reins to the child within to negotiate decisions that require an adult mindset with your partner. When you recognize this to be true, take a deep breath, step back, gather yourself, and make amends. Then request a do-over. Practice will not make perfect. Yet, the combination of practice and a willingness to make amends will provide the incremental progress necessary to grow intimacy and reduce the fear of abandonment. 

Don’t forget the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Always remember that as the adult in charge, you will have the power to take what is in a relationship spread it around, and make it enough. You do not have to be dominated by the fear of abandonment. 

Things We Need to Talk About But Don’t Touch

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“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. 

Curse or Blessing: The Transformative Metaphor Every Addict Encounters

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Meaningful insights in recovery addiction often surface in paradoxical metaphors. “To be in control you must let go”; “in order to win you must lose”; “To know God you must be willing to embrace what you don’t know”— are common anomalies that contain significant wisdom and understanding. Sleuthing wisdom from the intensity of addictive craving requires the capacity to sit with addiction and not run from its claws of control. In order to transform addiction into sobriety and serenity, an addict must cultivate the capacity to sit with the struggle. In this manner, he/she can know how to manage the intensity of impulsive desire. It sounds so nonsensical. Many times addiction management suggests that you do the opposite of what seems compelling. Recovery is often counterintuitive.

Addiction recovery can be like bushwhacking when hiking. The term “bushwhacking” is when you go hiking off the trail and make your own way. My son Sam will do this at times. Once, he worked with one of my colleagues and a family in the wilderness. My colleague described that Sam took them on a long hike off the trail. They made their way through briar patches, hiked over boulders, down creek banks, and up over brush piles. It seemed that the entire hike was experienced as one big obstacle. As they made their way, irritation, uncertainty, and growing insecurity began to mount in my colleague and members of the family who followed. However, Sam appeared to meander casually without much consternation as he made his way seemingly aimless through the brush. What seemed acceptable to him was one big obstacle course for those who followed behind! Finally, they reached a place of clearing where there was a break from the brush, even a nice little stream that provided beauty and a breather from the tension of bushwhacking. Family members began to chuckle about the journey and engage in the profound subtle experience of peace in an outdoor space that they would not have known had they not bushwacked with Sam on that day. Suddenly, arriving at a desired destination wasn’t so important anymore. In the moment, the boulders and brush that had been such an obstacle were now experienced as a terrain that set free the pent-up emotions in exasperated relationships and opened each family member’s heart to new experiences of bonding to each other. The obstacles that were challenges on the course of bushwhacking became opportunities for closeness and family connection.

Addiction recovery invites us to reframe our experience with obstacles as something that flows in the universal stream of life. When we see our addiction as only an irritation or obstacle—like a boulder in the way that must be climbed over—we miss the insight and wisdom that the obstacle or addiction would share.

The curse of addiction is an obstacle in life that is designed to be transformed into a blessing. Most addicts are at first dumbfounded by this thought. How can intense addictive craving ever be a blessing? It seems so antithetical. Many curse the addiction and hate themselves for being an addict.

I like to think that addictive craving is the voice of God trying to communicate legitimate needs that must be met in a healthy way. When an addict craves for a drug of choice, it is important to listen to what is going on underneath the addictive urge. In other words, there are legitimate needs and feelings that must be addressed. For these needs to be met, an addict must tune into his/her feelings. Typically an addict will disconnect from unwanted feelings like shame, anger, disappointment, resentment, etc. Most likely an addict would rather numb out with a drug of choice than to sit with the intensity of discomfort of an unwanted feeling. Immediately triggered, an addict will move in the direction of acting out or curse the addiction while asking for help in some way. Either way, the addict will be unfriendly to self and the addiction in particular.

We talk about “the addict” within. Many times I hear guys say how much they hate their addiction but are glad for their recovery friends. They live in an adversarial relationship with their addiction. It makes sense. You want to live free of destructive behavior so why not hate your addiction. My concern is that I don’t see that working toward long-term serenity. Treating your addiction as a curse has proven helpful for short-term sobriety for some. However, it is my experience that addicts rob themselves from long-term serenity by hating themselves for being addicts. It leads to more of a “white-knuckling” mentality.

Buddhists speak of cultivating unconditional friendliness toward oneself. Serenity requires self acceptance of all of yourself, warts and all. Addicts who learn to work with their addiction through deeper acceptance become more aware and acute to listening to their addiction with effective dialogue. Running from addictive urge fuels ignoring needs that must be met in healthy measures. It’s not like saying “I’m fine with my addiction, no big deal” or “I just love being an addict!”. None of us who know addiction would ever sign up for that torment. Yet, working with addictive urge and listening to decode what need is left unmet is critical toward emotionally growing yourself up by using that which would be destructive and transforming it into something constructive. Addiction recovery is another form of growing yourself up to the adult that you are destined to be. Everyone, not just addicts, have the assignment of emotional maturity.

Growing yourself up sounds sophomoric. Befriending addictive urge is not about giving yourself a pass or rationalizing addictive behavior as “OK”. It is about deepening Step 3—“Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him”. The goal is that through surrender and acceptance, you work to transform addictive response to a healthy self-parenting response. Hating and despising yourself is always counterproductive. Addicts who stay stuck in this mindset agonize over every temptation and destructive behavior and usually don’t change in the long term. They usually settle for painful cyclical lapsing behavior.

Rather than hate yourself for having the urge, practice listening to the craving, accept it, and choose responsible self-care. This involves removing yourself from a high-risk situation and asking your “wise mind” what need must be met in a mature way. Build strength through consulting your outside support for clarity of immediate intervention. Figure out what is going on underneath the addictive urge. Once you identify what you are feeling and what need must be addressed, surround yourself with encouragement to cultivate intimacy rather than isolate through addiction behavior. When you do this effectively you become a mature adult meeting your needs through healthy self-parenting. This strategy is simple but not easy. It takes a lifetime of conditioning and training yourself. You never reach perfection but throughout life, you just get better and better. Essentially, addiction is an intimacy disability. By listening to your addictive urge you become capable of transforming an intimacy disability into intimacy ability when you parent yourself and meet the need with intervention and self-care. It comes back to the reality of a paradoxical metaphor of being able to take what is experienced as a curse and transforming it into a blessing. This is the way of mature recovery.

What Can Be Learned From Those Who Do Not Make It

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Every blog post I have ever written addresses tools to help addicts avoid relapse, rebuild their lives, and deepen intimacy with themselves and others. I have worked in the field of addiction recovery for 28 years. There have been many inspirational success stories. There were some I thought would maintain long-term sobriety for years but left the program and went dark. There were others who I swore didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell to maintain sobriety, who became a source of inspiration for healing in the world they live. It’s impossible to know who will stick to a recovery program and who will not. 

Today’s post is about those who didn’t make it.  If you work in the field of addiction recovery you become conditioned to know that some addicts seeking recovery will respond and others won’t. It is tough when someone does respond and makes solid progress, then tragically goes back to old destructive behaviors. They disappear from group attendance and you don’t hear from them again.  It’s disappointing! Once you were close in communication and knew more about their life than anyone else on the planet. Then suddenly they’re gone, never to be heard from again. The situations that are most difficult are those who lost their lives in the fight against their demons.  It is difficult to let go of these tragedies. Over time there have been many in my professional life I never forget those whom I have worked with who lost their lives to their drug of choice.  I want to dedicate this blog to those who lost their battle with addiction and their lives. Part of me left this world with them when they lost the fight. I would like to share a few stories about those who tragically lost their battle against addiction. Of course, I have changed the names to protect their anonymity. 

Max was a truck driver. He was tough, burly, and an all-or-nothing type of thinker. He meant what he said and with determination would follow through with his recovery commitments. His weakness was gin and tonic. His wife Martha loved him and codependently tried to please him. When Max wasn’t drinking he was great. When he drank he was mean, unpredictable, and volatile. He was also bipolar and when he drank gin and tonic he would stop taking his medication.  Max routinely worked a 12-step program and credited a new-found faith in God for deepening his commitment to program work. All went well for Max during the many months I worked with him to overcome his addiction. However, throughout the course of time tension grew between Max and his wife. He began to struggle with the long over-the-road hours that his job demanded. He shut down communication with his wife and pulled away from others who had been helpful. 

He complained that the trucking company he worked for cheated him of his earnings.  He was resentful and angry that they reprimanded him for inaccurately documenting driving hours while on the road. His backslide was shockingly rampant. He became sporadic with his program. My contact with him became more crisis-focused around fights with his wife and less focused on vulnerability toward addictive cravings.  He stopped taking his meds and became more combative in our conversations. Then, one night his wife called me and said that Max had gone off the deep end. She said he holed himself up in a hotel with a couple of bottles of gin and tonic and a gun. She wanted me to call him so I did. Though Max was glad I called, he was very reactive and agitated. Someone had called the police because of erratic behavior witnessed by others at the hotel. When the police arrived they knocked on his door and he panicked.  He began screaming obscenities with irrational thoughts about his wife and the world around him. The police entered the room with a management key. Instantly Max picked up his gun pulled the trigger and shot himself in the head. I will never forget walking down the concrete corridor of the morgue at the hospital with his wife to identify his body. When they pulled the curtain back from the window in the room where his body lay, screams from his wife echoed throughout the concrete corridor of that hospital. Max was a dear man. Without the meds, he lost his reasoning. Without the support community, he lost his way, his self, and his life. I often wonder how many like Max remain in the bubble of self-destruction unable to tame their demons of addiction.

Steve was a medical professional, a family man, and a sex addict. He struggled with perfectionism trying to please his wife Wendy. When he failed to do so, which was often, he responded by shutting down with denial, half-truths, and lies by omission. Shame dogged him like a pack of wolves chasing him relentlessly through the woods. He just couldn’t handle the failure. He tried to beat himself up to a better place, and that never works.   His public persona was quiet and even keel. However, inwardly he was deeply troubled with visceral turmoil. His inner struggle began to explode at home. I worked with him and his wife for a season of time. There were many hours that I walked alongside while Steve languished in turbulence and unrest about his defensiveness and deceit. During that time he made good progress but would chronically relapse. He sought support through a 12-step recovery and made a few connections. He worked hard and demonstrated hope for healing. However, over time his gains faded into failure and he wallowed in shame and guilt. He began to isolate himself with bitter disappointment. Slowly, he began to cut out most of his therapy and 12-step support. The relationship with his wife that he prized and hoped would heal ended in divorce. He spiraled into uncontrollable depression and defeat. Shame ate away at his core self till nothing was left to build on. He lost sight of hope and help. He made one last effort in treatment with failed results. Steve wallowed in immense emotional pain.  In desperation to escape the pain and emotional struggle, he took his life while in close proximity to others who were trying to help him fan the flame of hope and resilience.  Overwhelmed with shame, misery, and mental illness that accompanied his compulsive sexual behavior, hope was snuffed out once and for all. Steve was a sensitive soul. He was not a hardened playboy with a long resume of sexual infidelity. He simply was unable to stop masturbating to porn and find a way to forgive himself. The hounds of shame had cornered him, and suicide was his only way out. 

Why is it that some people face the adversity of addiction and seem to transform their lives while others are unable to get back on their feet and even perish from the same challenge? Here are a few considerations gleaned from the stories of Max and Steve.

1. Shame dominated both men.  A rigid embrace of sobriety is not sustainable. Both men were clear about their bottom-line behaviors that indicated acting out. Neither knew how to bring themselves back to the center when lapse or relapse behavior occurred. They struggled with being stuck in the mud of shame and self-criticism. Staying stuck in shame without knowing how to crawl out of the muck and mire of failure distorts perspective and increases the mistaken belief that you can never recover right. Both men were perfectionists which is like throwing gasoline onto a fire of dry tinder. Many addicts in recovery never learn to stalk their shame in order to separate their behavior from their sense of self. So, if they do shitty behavior it means they are a piece of shit. Ultimately, if an addict stays stuck in a mistaken belief, h/she will produce results to support the distorted belief. Max always contended that he was not normal and would not be able to measure up to others. Steve was mired in perfectionism from day one. The harder they tried to get out of their own way, the deeper the hole they dug striving to do recovery perfectly. It was a major force that influenced their demise.

2. Both ignored developing self-parenting skills.  Recovery is about successfully learning to do self-care. The term “self-parenting” fits because subconsciously addicts try to fulfill parental needs, that were not met in childhood, through significant relationships in the present. Yet, what happens is that when you try to fulfill individual wholeness from a partner, the opposite occurs. It’s the old adage that 1/2 x 1/2 = 1/4 when you thought it would make a whole. To fulfill your quest for happiness and safety, it is required that you take responsibility for making yourself whole by addressing your own childhood neediness. The only way to become whole is to practice being your own parent. When Max came home physically and mentally exhausted because of his cross-country truck run, he expected Martha to fill his empty cup with attention and care. Martha ran around like a chicken with her head cut off trying to make Max comfortable and glad to be home. But, Max was a perfectionist and when he was needy no one on this side of heaven would possibly be able to fulfill his needs in the way he wanted. Steve was determined to do things just right to get the smile of approval from his wife. But in his mind, he always screwed up. To cover his shortcomings, he thought he needed to minimize hurt or lie about what seemed unsatisfactory. Both men’s attempts to rely on their partners for approval and self-care had a short shelf life. They were destined to fail and they did.

3. Both men wanted their partners to be emotionally close and then pulled away in isolation. Both Max and Steve were intimacy-disabled which is the essence of addiction. Each had plans to approach their partner with open hearts. We talk about different strategies to make it happen. Yet, mired in perfectionism, each was stymied. when the results did not turn out exactly as they had hoped. Max was disappointed after surprising Martha with dinner at a favorite restaurant. Martha was exhausted from cleaning and preparing the house for his return home from the road  She was too tired to be sexual after dinner. Max pouted and thought he screwed up and withdrew. The next day they fought about something small and silly cementing isolation between the two. Steve was under pressure the entire week with numerous surgeries in succession every day. His wife engaged a ladies’ night out on Thursday. By then Steve was totally exhausted, functioning on fumes. He decided to go to bed early. While checking his email, he gave in to the urge to look at porn and ended up masturbating. The next day when his wife asked how he did with his sobriety he lied and denied any challenges. Locked with shame he left for work isolated and lonely. He began to think he could not stop the porn, the masturbation, and the lies. Both shrunk from open-hearted confession with their 12-step groups. In the end, both were alone, isolated from themselves, their partners, their support, and their world. It drove both men to the edge and over. 

It is uncommon for most addicts who relapse to become so profoundly stuck that their only choice is to take themselves out. That said, it occurs more frequently than most realize. For sure, every addict who is stuck in the muck and mire of shame, who fails to practice healthy self-care and is isolated from support is destined to relapse. Without addressing these key areas of recovery you will not create long-term sobriety. It is important to learn from the pitfalls and failures of those who have hurt themselves and did not make it.

The Rendezvous with Traumatic Relationships

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Take time to think about times you felt hurt earlier in your life in ways that resurface over and again. Traumatic relationship experiences have a way of recycling throughout the course of life. For many, trauma is like being lost in the woods and walking around in a circle. It is deja vu all over again.

It is familiar for some to consistently pick emotionally unavailable people to partner with and then wonder why they cannot connect or get their emotional needs met. This pattern becomes solidified throughout life. They marry someone who is emotionally unavailable to them. They work for a dysfunctional organization, they allow that employer to use them, thinking that if I go above and beyond then I will be appreciated. Eventually, they quit both the marriage and the job and then go find another job and partner and reenact the same dysfunctional relationship without realizing what is happening. Unresolved validation and unmet developmental needs from earlier times in life are played out in unhealthy repetitive relationships throughout life. As a therapist, I listen to people who are now in their fourth marriage relationship, all with abusive addicts who are emotionally unavailable!

Here are a few suggestions for ending this destructive relationship pattern.

#1: Drain the pool of pain by scrubbing the wound. As long as you clutch past hurtful experiences you will sully your present relationship experiences with misgivings. You must scrub the wounds of past experience and drain your pool of pain. It feels like wallowing in yesterday’s misfortunes. But, it is not. Attempting to ignore or avoid the pain will take you back to wallowing in yesterday’s mud hole. By scrubbing the wound, you embrace the pain and give back the shame that was perpetrated on you by a significant person in your life. You simply grieve the loss of protection and kindness, calling out the shameful message with the decision that you will not be dominated by the accompanying mistaken belief but instead, choose to move forward and act with self-empowerment. This experience is not a one-and-done event but a chosen lifestyle. Metaphorically, putting down the stones you throw or the gun you grasp for protection is the only way to give up the storyline that creates unhealthy relationships. You will begin to heal by establishing relational boundaries that empower healthy connections with care and love in relationships.

#2: Lean into the pain. This suggestion seems far-fetched! But, think of the Chinese handcuff. I remember as a young boy sitting in church trying to work my way through another long tedious worship service. In my pocket, I had a Chinese handcuff. I took it out and began to explore. So, I put my left and right index fingers into the ends of the handcuffs. The handcuffs were cylinder in shape and made of a straw-like material that was flexible. The more I tried to pull my fingers out the tighter the cuffs held me. A surge of panic struck and I pulled harder. But, the small cuffs would tighten further. But, then when I did the opposite and leaned my fingers into the middle of the problematic cuff, the small casing slackened and I could gently and slowly work my fingers free!

With relationship challenges, often the pulling in panic only handcuffs you further and tightens the grip of fear in your life. Running from the pain only deepens and complicates matters. Trying to think your way through only thickens the mental wool that snares you. Geniuses like Einstein or Edison when befuddled and stuck would take a break or take a nap and in surrender to the problem they discovered a solution. Leaning into the pain is facing what is real and allowing it to be, without panic. Sitting with the pain provides the eventual solution. Leaning into the problem that is gripping you will allow you to work your way free.

#3: Practice Forgiveness. Many of you have experienced painful past trauma. It was indescribable. The struggle to survive and the enduring suffering will never be forgotten. Sometimes it seems that if you heal it will mean that you will allow what happened to evaporate from the memory of those who need to be held accountable for your agony. So you believe the only way is that you must commit to reliving the awful experience daily or your suffering will be for naught.

However, you do not need to define yourself by past trauma. To give up this part of your storyline, you will need to forgive those who were responsible and those who could have intervened but did not. Without forgiveness, you will remain stuck in resentment which is a cancer that grows and will dominate your existence.

Forgive means to give and to receive. You begin with receiving forgiveness. Often people wonder what I need to forgive, it was the other person who hurt me. However, it is important that you be able to identify in principle, not in like kind, how you have hurt others like you have been hurt. The one who hurt you wanted what they wanted when they wanted it, right? Think of a time that you wanted what you wanted, when you wanted it, regardless of its impact on others. Seek forgiveness for that. It might be something as obscure as forcing your way while changing from one lane to the next on the freeway. It’s not about comparing whose selfish want is greatest but just owning your own selfishness and forgiving yourself, which means not holding it against yourself. To do this you must sit with the awareness of how your hurt impacted others. This is defined as scrubbing the wound. Being able to sit with the pain of another because of your selfish behavior is necessary to create forgiveness of self. Once you do this you make a conscious choice to not hold your selfish behavior against you.

Now, for the one who hurt you. Once forgiven, you offer the same to the one who egregiously harmed you. Forgiveness does not mean you forget what happened. Rather, it means that you will not hold it against the other person but walk in the opposite direction of resentment to the freedom of thought about the past hurt. Rather than hate, you send positive loving energy to that person. You do this so you can be free from your own emotional prison. Forgiveness is a daily action before it becomes a reality of feeling. Seldom is forgiveness a one-and-done experience in life. You practice forgiving the one who hurt you every day, as it comes up.

You don’t have to engage by making friends with the person but letting go and walking away from resentment is your responsibility. When you learn to lean into the pain and scrub the wound through forgiveness you will end your rendezvous with trauma and stop building intimate relationships with emotionally unavailable people.

Muddy Waters

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When I was in high school a group of us guys would go to a pond to swim. Many times the ponds were murky and stirred up before we arrived. We knew to wait for the pond to settle before we dove in. At one particular pond under the surface was an area of debris at the bottom. There was some concrete and re-barb that someone had dumped.  There were safe places to dive but we had to wait for the wind and the water to calm in order to see what was underneath the surface of the water. Once the water cleared and we could see, we dove in. Some of us swam to the bottom of the pond and swam between the debris once it was recognized. To just dive in without caution would have led to disaster.  

This story is an example of what many addicts do. Throwing caution to the wind, many addicts jump into the uncertain waters of relationships and experiences without waiting for the water to calm to see the hazards and difficulties present. Some falter in the high-risk situation and succumb to addiction relapse. The problem was they did not carefully survey the obstacles that were present underneath the surface before diving in. There are many examples of muddy water that should be avoided during recovery. Listed are a few that create hazards in recovery.

1. Mistaking intensity for intimacy. When your heart is broken and you feel desperately lonely in life, you are vulnerable to mistaking intensity for intimacy in relationships. Romantically, you meet someone who triggers a lot of chemistry. They are fun-loving, lighthearted, engaging. You are physically and emotionally drawn to this person. You like their personality. Your attraction magnet becomes super glued to him/her. Immediately you want to spend all your time in their presence. You begin to think about this person all the time. You can’t get them out of your mind. The intensity of the relationship becomes the muddy water that prevents you from evaluating and cultivating intimacy. All you see is attraction. No time to really sit with differences, challenges, or conflict. Regarding conflict, there is none at the intensity level. All you want to do is be consumed with the love and love-making in the relationship. When the intensity begins to wear off to a more realistic level, you are off to another relationship with more intensity that leaves behind a trail of emotional carnage. Slowing the pace of development in a relationship is an important step to staying out of the muddy waters that intensity often creates. The same can be said about the intensity of a working relationship. Before you sell your soul to the company store, moderate your long-term commitment to determine the feasibility of working with those who are around you. You can be honorable and productive without losing yourself in your work. The deeper level of healthy intimacy in a valued work environment takes time to cultivate and develop.

2. Making your sponsor, therapist, or anyone else your Guru. To be a guru means to be a teacher which we all are to each other. However, “parentalizing” others, making them your authority, gets in the way of being your own authentic self. You may think you need to see the best therapist in the land. However, if you overtly or subtly put them on a pedestal, you likely will remain stuck in your immature behavior. When you are stuck in shame you will tend to “pedestalize” others who you think represent what you want to be. This dynamic becomes muddy water that will prevent you from becoming your true assertive self. Be coachable while becoming your own guru. 

3. Greed, envy, resentment, bitterness. In the pursuit of achievement, these powerful emotions must be addressed in your recovery program. They are mud puddles that trigger recovery imbalance and if left unaddressed will derail you from fulfillment and satisfaction.  It is typical to want more. It is easy to compare where you are to where someone else is. The danger of comparison is in losing your sense of self. Comparison triggers envy about wanting what others have. You make up that others are more respected, more appreciated, or more loved than you are.  Eventually, this leads to resentment and bitterness that fuels mistaken beliefs that you are not enough and never have been or will be. Typically, these beliefs come from a family-of-origin experience. Each of these feelings represents muddy water that blurs sobriety, and obstructs serenity and deeper fulfillment in life. 

Muddy water is more than an isolated emotion. It’s a position, a posture, and attitude that poisons perspective. Don’t be careless about where you choose to swim. If you have quickly plunged into muddy water it is not too late to get out and wait for the water to settle. Are you willing to let the muddy waters clear and settle before you dive in? Recovery requires it.