Resilience

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.

Perfect is Never Part of the Plan

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“She’s not perfect. You aren’t either, and the two of you will never be. But if she can make you laugh at least once, cause you to think twice, and admits to being human and making mistakes, hold onto her and give her the most you can. She isn’t going to quote poetry or think about you every moment, but she will give you a part of her that she knows you could break. Don’t hurt her, don’t change her, and don’t expect more than she can give. Don’t analyze. Smile when she makes you happy, yell when she makes you mad, and miss her when she’s not there. Love hard when there is love to be had. Because perfect people don’t exist, but there’s always one person that is perfect for you.” ― Bob Marley

When addicts come to recovery, there is always a desire to do it perfectly. On the one hand,  their ego tells them they can. “Twelve steps, twelve days, knock it down, what’s next!” I’ve heard it more than once.  On the other hand, “failure, missing the mark is so painful I don’t want to get up and try one more time” is a common lament from many.  More than one addict can testify that they have a drawer full of chips reminding them of commitments made and broken. Why try if I can never reach the mark, never measure up?  Recovery becomes like the life they have always lived. Somehow I should be able to do this perfectly and I cannot because I am woefully imperfect. 

Baseball great Mickey Mantle once reflected on the average experience of his Hall of Fame baseball career. He said, “During my 18 years of major league baseball I came to bat almost 10,000 times. I struck out about 1,700 times and walked another 1,800 times. You figure a ball player will have about 500 at-bats a season. That means I played seven years without ever hitting the ball.”

The average experience of a baseball player is making an out, not getting a hit. In the presence of striving for success, even for someone as great as Mickey Mantle, there is a compelling story of difficulty and strife to share. Mantle’s authentic willingness to connect with his intimate battle with failure forced him to practice the fundamental basics of self-care. As a result, these common-place experiences of struggle enabled him to look back at his Hall of Fame career and understand how to put imperfection in its proper perspective. No matter who you are, transforming meaningfulness from mundane moments of struggle and failure requires accepting imperfection. It is necessary to embrace the benefits of average commonplace struggles.

When you don’t measure up to what you expect, you then scale down your expectations of achievement which can be helpful or disastrous. Moving acting out behavior from your inner circle to your middle circle and denying that it is any longer acting out but just high-risk behavior is disastrous for sobriety. You just practice old destructive behaviors you did before recovery with a different label. In your attempt to be perfect, you end up accelerating more shame. No one ever beats themselves up to a better place.

However, when you fail to measure up to what you intended, it is important to adjust the way you treat yourself. Rather than criticize and judge your failed behavior, it is transformative to recognize the mistake and then focus on the next right behavior which always anchors being centered. Centered living involves grounding yourself in your values. When you blow it, either by relapsing into addictive behavior or falling short of treating yourself and others with respect and dignity, you will need to practice ignoring the inner critical voice, bring yourself back to the center, and anchor yourself to your values. You will feel hypocritical, discouraged, and dejected because of your failed behavior. You will need to embrace your imperfect behavior by positively affirming who you are. This takes practice and everyday conditioning. You will need to create healing affirmations that you engage in as frequently as you brush your teeth before they consistently transform your imperfect behavior into empowerment.  Slowly your new relationship with imperfection will emerge. Being able to bring yourself back to center is more important than never having left center in the first place. 

Imperfection contains the secret message the universe would like you to have to live life in harmony. Striving to be perfect deafens your inner ear to the message of the universe. When you persist toward perfection, you will hide inevitable shortcomings and run from the message they have for you. Managing imperfection requires that you listen to the pain of failure and shortcomings. For example, as an addict when you crave a fix from your drug of choice, after you take yourself out of harm’s way, listen to the legitimate need that must be met with healthy self-parenting. Your imperfect craving will contain a message from the universe to take care of yourself in this extremely needy moment. Perfection will try to deny the craving and thus miss the message from the universe. By embracing your imperfection you will transform the curse of craving into a blessing of personal care and intimacy. Imperfection teaches you to listen to your feelings and become present in the present moment. 

Managing imperfection means that you will need to recognize when you have handed the reins of control over to the small child within. As a child, you become emotionally stuck around the needs that did not get met and are fueled by neglect and abandonment. When that perception is triggered as an adult, the inner child seizes the moment and flees or freezes with fear. At that moment, you give power to the little boy or little girl to address an adult decision and you render your powerful wise-mind adult inoperative. The results of this interaction are dismal. Perfection denies or becomes overwhelmed with the failure. Managing imperfect moments means that you take the reins respectfully from the child and assert your adult-wise mind to address the need or situation. This, too, will require training and practice. Again, perfect is never part of the plan.

Managing imperfection requires that you cultivate the concept of Velvet Steel. This recovery skill is an art form. Most addicts are hard or harsh (steel) where they need to be gentle, and soft (velvet) where they need to be steel. The misapplication fuels addictive behavior. In striving for perfection you will miss cultivating velvet steel. Likely, you will become stoic and stern in your endeavor to live a sober life.  

Managing imperfection requires learning when to apply the strict letter of the law about your behavior and when to be gentle. Parents must learn this as they guide children through the stages of life. Rigidity around failure and imperfection is a breeding ground for shame. 

You will develop the art of living when you learn to make imperfection your teacher.  Allow your difficulties to become your learning and source for growth. Set recovery goals that challenge rather than defeat you before you begin. Be realistic. Accept imperfection and stretch yourself from there. Your imperfect feelings will help you grow in self-care and understanding toward others. 

Your choice in recovery is not whether to use affirmations. We’ve been affirming thoughts and beliefs since we were old enough to speak. The choice in recovery is what we want to affirm. Whatever thoughts you give energy to, empower you. Are you willing to release, or let go of, negative thought patterns and replace them with positive ones? Will you choose to affirm imperfection and make it good? Remember, perfect is never part of the plan. 

Talkin’ Trash

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“Here I am – Do You See Me.”

 —KW

Blown by the wind without notice

Others just like me become my blanket

Gathered in a desolate corner

Invisible until we become so many

Scorned with disgust from others

Would someone please rid me of this filth?

There’s a trash can—put me there

Make me out of sight

Make me invisible like the night

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

I’m the reality of  your imagination

I’m dog shit

People shit

The wrappers of dreams to make me disappear

Straws for smack and blow to get you to forget

But here I am—

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

I’m the writer who paints your park benches

Your trains, your overpass bridges

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

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

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

Wash away the crust 

I’m just like you

Broken family, broken dreams

Close your eyes and listen 

It’s all the same—so it seems

Just talkin’ trash

Just talkin’ trash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When there is relational safety in the community, anything and everything can be explored and sifted and sorted through. Pain becomes the fellowship’s touchstone and signpost indicating an imbalance in life. The community provides a sound studio to listen to pain’s message. Common shared brokenness is its draw, not common likeness or interest. Becoming emotionally naked by sharing our deepest feelings and secrets is commonplace and expected. It’s a space where we can fit in and be accepted as we are. It is a sanctuary in which to learn how we can wear our own skin well. It’s a space to accept our own acceptance while staring at imperfection. It is a place to grow ourselves into adult maturity and discover inner brilliance. 

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 Agility, Adjustment and Resilience—Necessary Capitol to Achieve Sobriety, Serenity, and Success

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When you begin a project it’s impossible to prepare for all the obstacles, difficulties, and challenges that lie before you. It doesn’t mean don’t plan. It just means you need more than the right connections, financial resources, and blueprint for creating what you hope to achieve.

A fixed rigid mindset will be your detriment. It is important to be stubborn with your intent to fulfill a dream. It is also essential to cultivate physical and mental agility. Adjusting your plans and approach in order to complete your goals is crucial. People who are unwilling to adjust and create new pathways become unbending which contributes to falling short of fulfilling their aspirations. 

Here is a list of considerations that come into play while you attempt to fulfill your pursuits whether it be entrepreneurial success, addiction sobriety, emotional serenity, or whatever else you aspire to achieve. 

#1: Intensity. Creating dreams requires intensity. Merriam-Webster defines intensity as extreme energy or force expended.  A synonym for intensity is passion. You will not be successful with a half-hearted effort. You must prepare your heart to be intense. 

When I was a kid my favorite football team was the Chicago Bears and my favorite player was middle linebacker Dick Butkus who just passed away a few days ago. Butkus was a living incarnation of intensity on the football field. During plays he was knocked down, he popped back up and sprinted to the other side of the field to make the tackle. Those who played or watched him knew that he was intense about achieving his goals on the football field. 

When I was Little Leaguer, I was intense about winning. When I pitched, if the players in the field were not “talking it up” with chatter, I would go to the teammate and get on his case. I thought that was what it took to win. 

We are not all football or baseball players or fans. Some people in pursuit of achievement do not fit the projected stereotype of one who is intense. They may appear calm and quiet but when you connect with their spirit you discover a burning intense desire within. The takeaway is that intensity is a necessary ingredient to fulfill whatever you are passionate about. A half-hearted effort will never fulfill your dreams. 

#2: Detach and surrender what you cannot control. You will not be able to control all of the factors as you pursue your goals. You must learn to be flexible and live life making constant adjustments. The more rigid you are, the more you must have what you want when you want it, and the less likely you will create your dreams. It’s not like you cannot create success but it is more likely success will begin to own you rather than the other way around.  Rigid people lose sight of the goal along the journey and even once the goal is accomplished, there is a subtle sense of hollow fulfillment. 

Practice the Serenity Prayer, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot control, change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Detaching from what you cannot control, being clear about your lane of responsibility, and staying there is the hardest simple thing to do in pursuing a life goal.  Dream fulfillment is dependent upon your capacity and commitment to let go of what you cannot control. Detachment is a daily lifestyle, not a one-and-done event. 

#3: Play the hand you have been dealt to the best of your ability and you will win! When things don’t work out as planned, it is easy to become stuck in self-pity. You will need to assess what are the strengths and resources you have to draw from and adjust your focus and strategy as you move forward. If you allow yourself to get bogged down in discouragement, self-pity, and self-defeat, you will not fulfill your dream.

Sunny Weingarten is a perfect example of someone who refused to be mired in self-pity. Sunny was a friend of mine when I was a minister in Denver, Colorado. He was a key member of the board of directors for a citywide ministry that I engaged. Sunny was struck down with polio when he was a young boy.  His days were controlled and confined to an iron lung every day of his young life. 

Sunny was determined to live life outside of the iron lung.  As a young adult, he disciplined himself and practiced forcing air into his lungs sort of swallowing and forcing air into his lungs outside of the iron lung enclosure. Eventually, he conditioned himself to live up to 10 hours outside of the lung. He purchased a Van, hired a driver, and engaged in life, including activities on my board.  He was a powerful energetic force. He began attending Denver Bronco football games and never missed a home game for over 20 years! In the course of time, Sunny tapped into his creative spirit and designed a lightweight portable lung that allowed him to operate outside of the lung for the entire day. Soon, drawing from his entrepreneurial spirit, he organized a company and flew around the world making a living selling his Port-a-lung to those in need! 

Sunny demonstrated passion with intensity, a willingness to surrender what he could not control, and played the hand he had been dealt as well as anyone I knew. Though confined to a wheelchair in the day and an iron lung at night, Sunny lived 70 years of life a true winner. 

When you are discouraged and tempted to wallow longer than necessary in a mud hole of self-pity, remember an old saying that says “When you don’t like the way you are sailing, don’t curse the wind, change your sail”.

Play the deck you have been dealt with intensity, detaching from what you cannot control, and what you desire and hope to create will become reality.

The Sweet Spot of Centered Living

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Every day presents a new set of circumstances and issues in addict recovery. Some days go smoothly without major conflict while other days are challenged with triggers, cravings, and stress that create feelings of insecurity, impatience, and overall struggle. There is no necessary rhyme or reason. It is the common thread of issues that addicts in recovery grapple with in order to remain sober. For sure, staying sober is a battle of resistance with the forces of life that tug and pull to numb out with a cocktail of addictive processes. 

Addicts in recovery learn to create a sweet spot which represents a center of balance in life to respond to life’s provocations. In racquetball, the sweet spot on the court is the space maintained that gives the best vantage to respond to the opponent’s shot. The sweet spot in recovery is the space that an addict creates that offers the best possibility to engage tests and temptations from an empowered position and with poise. Trauma professionals sometimes refer to this space as a window of tolerance. This is a place you are able to self-soothe. You are able to maintain emotional self-regulation. It’s the position that you are best able to access resilience and flexibility. In the midst of everyday fray, you are capable of being connected to your mind, body, and emotions anchored in the window of tolerance. 

Some days just don’t play out in the sweet spot. You scramble to keep up with a busy schedule. People criticize you for shortcomings. Life throws you one curve ball after another. The harder you try, the “behinder” you get. It’s just one of those days or one of those seasons in life. The build-up of stress with physical and emotional fatigue triggers cravings that push you to the precipice of relapse. It’s amazing how quickly you can be right on the edge of disaster.

This experience is what trauma professionals refer to as flooding which can be hyperarousal (fight or flight) or hypo-arousal (freeze). Addicts must pay attention to the warning signs to avoid the pitfalls of relapse. 

Triggers are the memories, core beliefs, feelings, and body sensations which are connected to past traumatic experiences that have the potential to move you out of your sweet spot in recovery. Addicts benefit when they do the homework of identifying mistaken beliefs that block intimacy and monitor those beliefs daily. Rather than going all out to eliminate the belief, simply paying attention with a skillset to shift out of the mistaken belief that enervates and empowers addictive response, and shift into an intimacy-abling belief is all that is needed. It is important to become aware of life situations, relationship challenges, and mental states that fuel mistaken beliefs and address them daily. 

Flashback memories of old experiences are just that! They are not reality in the present moment no matter how powerful they seem. They trigger maladaptive responses and require the grounding skill of “acting as if”, meaning that in spite of the felt struggle, you commit to act doing the next right thing regardless of feeling. It may require ritual breathing, keeping your eyes open, and grounded conversation. It doesn’t mean I must act out in old destructive behaviors. 

Triggers can activate hyper arousal response including building anxiety, impulsivity, reactivity, anger, rage, nightmare, rigidity, and hyper-vigilance. You may notice difficulty in concentrating, obsessive-compulsive thoughts or behaviors or panic, and becoming easily irritated.  Many addicts do program work without ever paying attention to these critical signs of hyper arousal that take them out of their sweet spot.

A hypo arousal response is also a sign of flooding which pulls you from your window of tolerance. This response includes depression, fatigue, not being present, dissociation, feeling numb, going on autopilot, and disconnecting from feelings. You may experience increased aches and pains and not be able to think very clearly. 

It will be important for you to evaluate your typical response to the trials and tribulations of recovery living that pull you from your sweet spot. Managing your ability to return to the sweet spot in recovery requires that you discipline your awareness to recognize the warning signs of flooding. 

Do you most likely respond with freeze or fight/flight given the description of both responses? Many clients have told me that their body experiences periodic aches and pains without ever considering that the source of this discomfort might trace back to a hypo-aroused response to the stressors of life that pull them away from their window of tolerance. Others think medication is needed to quell the anxiety and panic that dominates them every day. Still others are stupefied wondering why they are having nightmares, being so reactive with anger and rage. One reason you may find yourself emotionally eating is because of the fight or flight response to the stress and tension that exists within your life. You may need a prescription to alleviate the intense edge of anxiety that triggers a rageful response. It can be helpful to attend an Overeaters Anonymous group to stop destructive out-of-control eating. Yet, for sure, it will be critical to recognize the warning sign that triggers the emotional flooding. You will need to address the stressful situation and recognize the flood in your life which pulls you out of your sweet spot in recovery. Consider these steps:

1. What expectations do you have in your life and your recovery? Be clear and specific. Are your expectations realistic? We all begin with enthusiasm and a lot of fire in recovery. It will flame out if your recovery goals are not realistic. Be clear and accountable for your bottom lines. A contract without accountability has no bite to it. 

2. Examine the Data. Project out a few weeks. When you get to a certain point in your recovery journey, evaluate if the results are what you intended. Like plays drawn up on the chalkboard at halftime in a football game, the way it works out on the field of recovery may be quite different than what you planned. Look at what you intended when you made your commitment to improve your behavior with your sponsor or in a recovery room. Are your results what you meant to be reality? Be honest, practical, and realistic in your assessment.

3. Make adjustments. This is key. Returning to your sweet spot will require that you work out of your rigidity and become flexible. Things never work out just the way you plan. What you thought would be easy will sometimes be hard. This is the way it is in life, not just recovery. Your working recovery from the sweet spot will require that you be flexible and make adjustments.  Embrace a sweet reasonableness about your expectations. Know when to apply the strict letter of the law to your recovery life and when to be gentle with what you expect from yourself and others. This is a practiced art form. 

The sweet spot for recovery growth requires gardening. Utilize your quiet time each day to recenter your focus. Know your tools for regulation and how to use them. I encourage addicts to create a plethora of recovery tools that are placed on the shelf for resources like a woodworker puts her tools on the shelf of her garage. Practice what you know. It will help you to return to your window of tolerance. It is the sweet spot that propels long-term growth and serenity.

Failure Friendly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adjustments – The Key to Overcoming A Fixed Mind

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When you combine addiction with age, sometimes you come out with a grumpy old man. At least that is what it seems like for me some days. Addiction can be like working out. It makes you sore. You want what you want when you want it, but in recovery you know it doesn’t work that way. No matter how hard you work Step 3 to let go and let God, some days are just hard, irritating, and exhausting. Makes you want to swear. I know guys in recovery who live in a constant b******g and moaning state. They’re not fun to be around in a 12-step meeting. God only knows what they are like at home. 

I tell people that as a recovering addict, I wake up most mornings with a bad attitude. In recovery, if you don’t manage your spirit and attitude, you will be in for a long day. So I do. I have discovered that I am prone to become rigid with fear and anxiety which leads to shame, judgmentalism, and sour thoughts about the world around me. These fixed thoughts can fossilize in my brain unless I get out of my comfort zone every day to break up my fixed mind and stretch my thoughts. I open my heart to less-than-ideal situations, to people who don’t think like me, and to situations that are irritating.  Opening my heart with acceptance and tolerance helps to foster love toward me and others in the world around me. 

It is helpful to stop and observe those who adjust to whatever circumstance is presented. Outdoor enthusiasts tend to be this way. When camping out and something breaks, is left at home, or they are hit with a deluge of rain, they just adjust and do the next best thing. Some outdoors people are amazing in terms of how they remain calm, make adjustments, and move on as if it is no big deal. My son Sam exemplified this snowmobiling in Idaho. His machine broke down. He replaced a worn belt that had been shredded with a new belt. The new belt promptly shredded, leaving him stranded about 20 miles from somewhere. Then he broke the tool inside the carburetor of the machine and he seemed really screwed. But, he just hitched a ride with his partner, and we went to beautiful hot springs and renewed and refreshed with nary a major complaint. Later, he had to tow his machine behind his partner’s. There were even yet more hassles trying to get the part fixed. Yet, he just kept adjusting and putting the negative in a positive frame of mind. 

How can an addict do the same when faced with obstacles, disappointments, and times that are tough?

1. Take a deep breath and lean into the difficulty. No one signs up for hassles and frustration. Hassles are difficult, but they are not the end of the world. Most of us live to see another day when it seems everything has gone awry. Sitting with your struggles is a way to calm your mind and heart. Take a few minutes and just be still. Allow the anger, disappointment, anxiety, and resentment to build, then at that moment, it will subside. If you express yourself when these powerful feelings are building, you will hurt yourself and others. If you need to take a break, a walk, a drive—anything that will help you de-escalate, do it. Condition yourself to lean into the struggle and accept it for what it is. It is not glamorous but it works.

2. Be grateful at the moment you most want to explode with criticism, cutting remarks, or just give up. Boy, you say, this is easier said than done. It’s true! So, you must work to train yourself to begin gratitude recognition, not because it feels good but because it will help you adjust and shift away from a bad attitude.  Re-condition your mind from negativity to focusing on positive possible outcomes throughout the day. Gratitude fuels enough energy to plant your feet and your heart so that you can be true to your life source.

3. Rely on your affirmations. I am not a positive mental attitude guru, but if you are one who is stuck in a bad attitude, it sure beats the hell out of hanging out in the dregs of negativity. Yet, this doesn’t happen by simple choice. It requires that you stoke your brain with ongoing positive messages about yourself and the world around you.  When you do this with regularity, it breaks up the sludge of negativity and helps to make the necessary adjustments that make recovery worthwhile.

4. Don’t force your will on to the day’s experience. Have a plan and work on your recovery. Be prepared to shift when things don’t work out as planned. Let the fruit of your day come to you. If you work your plan and shift from a fixed mind (inflexibility), watch how meaningfulness surfaces in the midst of your difficulty. You will be able to bring forth your brilliance from an average day of struggle. Rather than force purpose and meaningfulness, let it come to you with acceptance and surrender to what happens around you, to you, and through you in an average moment each day.

Over the 30+ years I have been in recovery, I have observed many 12-step addicts sustain long-term sobriety. I know many who have very little patience, tolerance, or capacity to adjust when things go wrong. I don’t know any who experience daily serenity but who have not deepened their journey with Step 3 and learned to become flexible, letting go and adjusting to life as it is presented each day.  Adjustment is a life skill that keeps your heart open.  It is a cure for an inflexible, rigid, closed heart.


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


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Collective Resilience

“The human capacity for burden is like bamboo—far more flexible than you’d ever believe at first glance” – Jodi Picoult, My Sister’s Keeper

Resilience is the capacity that a person has to adapt and readily recover from adversity. It is evidenced in the picture that contrasts the mighty oak that fought the wind and was broken and the willow which bent with the wind and survived. Recovery from addiction requires resilience. There are many up-and-down experiences. Addicts must develop the capacity to adapt in order to do recovery on life’s terms. As life unfolds, plans are foiled and people disappoint. Flexibility is necessary in order to maintain long-term sobriety. Chaos gives way to calm in recovery when an addict practices resilience. 

Resilience is a recovery quality that increases when exercised and practiced. The following suggestions will help you strengthen the practice of resilience in your recovery.

  1. Stay positively connected to at least one other person in recovery. Resilience tends to wilt in isolation. Recovery requires connection to others. When a sense of community wanes, addicts withdraw and close their heart where they need to be open. Twelve-step meetings are designed to accelerate connection and openness. However, large meetings make it difficult to be open. They trigger isolation for some in recovery. Building resilience in a large meeting requires the same commitment to connecting with others that is necessary in a small meeting. Go out of your way to have coffee and conversation with at least one person. It will greatly increase your capacity for resilience.
  2. Make meaning from mangled moments. These are moments in life where nothing goes right. Thank God this doesn’t happen all the time! Yet, when they do occur, it seems like they always occur. During these times you can get caught up in moaning and groaning. Long-term complaining will snap serenity and threaten sobriety. Take a deep breath and then let go. It’s just one of those days! Step back and learn from these mangled moments. There are priceless lessons you can gain when things go wrong. Practicing gratitude will help you open your heart and make meaning out of mangled moments.
  3. Help someone else when you are in the midst of your own trials and trauma. I learned this from my mom. There were always trials for her in raising 12 kids. There would be one crisis after another. What kept my mother sane was that she always had her eye on others whose struggles were greater than hers. In our community, there was the Fryman family who had 22 children. My mom was forever gathering clothing and food for this family whose trials were greater than hers. There was a poor woman in our community known as Sister Harris. My mom would have her iron our clothes for 50 cents a basket because she needed the money. When the clothing came back with a musty smell my mom made us put up with it because Sister Harris needed the money. My mom seemed to gain inspiration for her own trials by helping someone else. Try this in your recovery. It will inspire you while you increase your resilience.
  4. Imagine a positive future. My mom used to imagine what it would be like to take a vacation to St. Louis, only 2 hours away from where we lived in East Central Illinois. I sat with her at the picnic table in our backyard listening to her daydream about a trip to this favorite city. I developed deep satisfaction saving money from my paper route and mowing yards to make this trip possible for my mom. It was a future vision that propelled me through my childhood trials and tribulations. Creating a vision for the future will help you stay the course in your recovery life of sobriety. When times get tough, maintaining an unspeakable imagination for the future will sustain you and create a way through the agony of craving. Keep your eye on the prize of a positive future. It will strengthen resilience in your recovery.
  5. Simply forgive! In the aftermath of addiction carnage, resilience increases when you simply forgive. Forgiveness means to let go and not hold against. You must first forgive yourself before you will effectively forgive others. You forgive yourself for doing the same thing in principle as that which was done to you. Though you didn’t commit the same behavior in like kind, you did so in principle when you consider times when you did what you wanted, when you wanted it, regardless of its impact on others. This is a universal principle of offending that all humanity has engaged in at some time in their existence. When you forgive yourself, you create the necessary resilience to forgive someone else. This is the secret to getting out of your own emotional prison from a hurt perpetrated by another. Forgiveness requires that you believe in your capacity to forgive. The word “believe” is an Anglo-Saxon word that means to live in accordance with. Therefore, you must live out forgiveness of self and others daily. Seldom is forgiveness a one-and-done experience. Most often, it requires a daily practice of letting go and not holding a grudge against yourself or others. This practice increases resilience.

A 12-step community is a place to practice collective resilience. Every person within the community struggles with the same issues of craving and need for sobriety. The power of resilience can deepen in a collective way. Collective resilience encourages collective courage. In a 12-step community, everyone is invited to deepen the practice of resilience while facing the adversities that are inevitable in the recovery journey.