Intimacy

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. 

Monkey-Minded Friendships

“The truth is, everyone is going to hurt you. You just got to find the ones worth suffering for.” – Bob Marley

I was at the Tucson Zoo a few days ago with our little 4-year-old granddaughter Mo Jelly. She’s in a stage of social development where she finds a slightly older girl who might even be a stranger and then will follow her around like a puppy dog, mesmerized by the other girl’s every move. She then will try to mimic whatever the girl does. I watched this unfold at the zoo. Mo Jelly noticed another little girl. When the other little girl grabbed her mother’s hand, Mo Jelly reached out for her grandmother’s hand. Wherever the other girl went, Mo Jelly would follow. When the other girl rode the carousel, so too did Mo Jelly. The other little girl got off the carousel and gave her mother a high-five. Mo Jelly gave her mother a high-five too. It was amusing and typical to a little girl’s social development.

Mo Jelly made up a fantasy relationship about another little girl she did not know. This happens in the recovery world. People make others to be a figment of their imagination. They make up that others work a solid recovery program or have a cool personality. They put people on a pedestal and make them up to be what they are not. They are disappointed when others do not meet expectations.

I have often heard people complain that their sponsor is not responding as expected. Frequently, I hear others bemoan that their 12-step group is disappointing and less than anticipated. Just like Mo Jelly, they have made their expectations about a recovery community to be a figment of their imagination. People are simply human with flaws and disappoint others with their shortcomings. This is true of every organized group. Developing healthy relationships in a 12-step community involves the same dynamics as establishing good relationships elsewhere. Listed are observations about utilizing a recovery community to learn how to cultivate friendship and connection.

1. Friendship relationships take time to develop. This observation is familiar and well-worn. Most addicts who seek recovery do not put in the time to cultivate connection. They settle for intensity and do not do the work of intimacy. In a 12-step group there are interesting characters with personality flair. Frequently, addicts are enamored by the intensity of personality and the mantras that are shared during a meeting without internalizing the principles of recovery. This is the work of intimacy. I have listened to addicts complain about not being able to relate to 12-step meetings after attending one or two times. What they are really saying is that they are not willing to invest the time to connect. The value of a 12-step community is the space it provides to be vulnerable. Vulnerability requires time to unfold. When you invest the time you will create the deepest friendships.

2. Friends are just who they are. There is a tendency for people to idealize and make their friends what they are not. But, friends are never a perfect fit. They won’t change your life or make whatever has been wrong, all of a sudden right! You won’t like everything about your friend. They will irritate and disappoint you. They don’t entertain or make you laugh all the time. You learn to let your friends be just who they are.

3. Friendships share space. In a friendship one person cannot have all the power, make all the decisions, and dominate the space. When this is true friendships don’t last long. The relationship morphs into codependency or some other form of dysfunction. Addicts are oblivious to how much space they demand in a friendship relationship. They think their space includes other people’s space. As long as they relate to others in this way, they sabotage their potential to deepen friendships, if they have any. Friends are curious about the interests, needs, and expectations of each other. Between friends, there is mutual respect of boundaries. There is never demand, that is a one-way street. Friends are willing to share space.

4. There are cycles to friendship. There is ebb and flow to friendship relationships. There are times of much conversation and times of silence. Just being in the presence of your friend is meaningful. Friends don’t fuel chaos or turn each other’s lives upside down. They go with the flow of life issues. There are times that a friend will have an issue and need time to address a challenge and you let them have their space. Friends don’t have to be in each other’s presence 24/7 to be close. There is space and time for each to go his/her own way. True friendships are both close and distant in the course of time.

5. Deep friendships don’t personalize the issues of the other. Don Miguel Ruiz taught us not to personalize other’s behavior and actions in his acclaimed book The Four Agreements. Friends work to recognize each other’s flaws. There is an ongoing willingness to make apologies when actions or behaviors have been personalized. This is a lifelong process and deepens relationship between two friends.

Henry Nouwen framed the journey of true friendship in a beautiful description. He said “When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing, and face with us the reality of our powerlessness—that is a friend who cares.”

Monkey-minded friendships have a limited shelf life. Embracing the long journey of deepening relationships through vulnerability and perseverance creates the richest experiences in all of life.


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


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Intensity or Intimacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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