The Enmeshment Dilemma: Where I Stop and You Begin
Series Three: Blog Eighty-Four
Addicts in recovery get better . . . they aren’t cured. There is a spectrum of what constitutes better. Many addicts in recovery stop acting out with their drug of choice as a result of working a diligent program that involves peer support, therapy and family reconstruction. However, it’s not 100%. Some never stop using and at best learn to reduce the harm of their addictive behavior. There are national coalitions that help develop strategies of overdose prevention and harm reduction education that is helpful in all forms of addictive behavior.
Even when an alcoholic puts the cork in the bottle, many migrate to other more acceptable destructive behaviors like obsessive work, rage or pleasing others. Addicts become obsessive in their attempts to craft a cocktail of addictive behaviors to fill in the hole that exists in their soul.
Enmeshment is a common underlying issue in the treatment of addictive behavior. It is a result of boundary violations in relationships. It is the absence of differentiation and autonomy. Children in dysfunctional families become enmeshed in the pathology and are unable to individuate. Enmeshment becomes the bond that holds the family together. It is the personalization of another’s reality, problems, feelings, beliefs and so on. Enmeshment grows from storied belief systems, family rules and premises that provide protection and loyalty through denial and sometimes threats in a family system. It is the result of poor role modeling, abandonment and neglect as well as other forms of abuse that exists in a family. Addicts repeat symptoms of enmeshment as an underlying attempt to resolve childhood dilemmas. It is repeated throughout life without conscious awareness. It becomes a significant obstacle in recovery that stymies an addict’s journey toward establishing self-esteem and intimacy.
Enmeshment is intergenerational. In other words, the family problems that existed in your family-of-origin are most likely to appear in your nuclear family and relationships. You may do the opposite from some problematic behaviors but essentially the dysfunctional behaviors are passed from one generation to another through denial and minimization. Here is an example, my grandfather (on dad’s side) died from alcoholism. He was a raging, mean alcoholic. My dad got religion and was a teetotaler. My brother David, died from alcoholism and cocaine abuse secretive to members of his family-of-origin. It was fueled by the denial of his nuclear family. Through denial it is likely that the dysfunctional strategy of embracing the improbable and denying the obvious will be passed on to future generations. The thread that keeps the dysfunction alive is enmeshment. It is the primary basis for codependency, isolation, spiritual bankruptcy and addictive behavior.
Enmeshment runs deep and is unlikely to be curable. My father learned to deal with his fear of abandonment from his father by protecting his mother. My grandfather would get drunk, come home and try to kill my grandmother. My dad would try to protect his mother but was inevitably helpless. When his father finally left the household my dad quit school in the 8th grade to work to provide for his mother and siblings. All of my lifetime my dad had two to three jobs. He lived his life with the scarcity of never having enough. This became the intergenerational connection to my own workaholism.
My mother tragically was involved in an accident at age 9. While playing with candles with her little sister who was 6, wind blew the flames onto the dress her sister was wearing and before help could be found her sister was badly burned and later died from her injuries. My mother believed she killed her sister. She became a very good baseball player in an attempt to seek her parents approval. Later she gave her life for service to the poor in an attempt to seek the approval of God. Both behaviors were pursued with extreme intensity. It’s the serious magnitude of pursuit that marks enmeshment. She needed to be more to keep from being less. She never learned where she stopped and others began. Though impacted by dementia in her dying days, one of her last statements of confusion related to being on time for a baseball game and a reference to having killed her sister. My mother’s compulsive care toward others became a root trigger to my own codependent behavior as a partner, parent and professional. These roots are deep and most likely will take a lifetime to address.
Enmeshment is manageable. While I seriously doubt that the depths of enmeshment will be cured, I do experience dramatic improvement toward self-management. I think management of enmeshment is a proper focus and not a cure. I have been able to stop sexually acting out and curb my workaholism. I have not cured my enmeshment that is expressed through codependent behavior. I have been influenced by over one hundred years of codependent behavior from parents and my own practice. It is unlikely that I will have a “born again” experience around enmeshment. That said, I do not give license to allowing enmeshment to run hopelessly amok.
Here are some considerations that have been helpful in my recovery.
- Practice setting internal boundaries around issues and areas of life where you are prone to lose yourself. In consultation clarify the Achilles heel life experiences that trigger enmeshment. It could be your partner’s behavior, your kids safety, other people’s problems, etc. Internal boundaries focus on your recognition of limits. Verbalize those limits and your defined boundaries to others so they can hold you accountable as you manage your tendency to enmeshment. You will need their support to remain clear and remind you when you have crossed an internal boundary. Visualizing internal boundaries is like adjusting the focus on binoculars. You must pay attention to the pull of enmeshment or you will quickly lose focus. Recovery from enmeshment is a practice not a peak for perfection.
- Make Step 3 an everyday lifestyle practice. In the Big Book, Step 3 is “made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.” Whether you identify with God or another energy source, managing enmeshment requires surrendering what you cannot control. It is a struggle simply to recognize your enmeshed behavior. You might be convinced that you are compassionately caring or standing for principle. However, upon reflection you realize that you have got out of your lane and need to surrender your care or your insistence of being right because it is not about you. This will not be a one and done humbling experience. Some days it happens with multiple issues. It can be discouraging but it does require “turning it over” and getting back in your lane.
- Practice humility: When your kids tell you they experience you as disconnected and absent when you spent your time worrying about money, profession and the like—believe them! Don’t get defensive and try to help them understand. Just accept your shortcoming. You don’t want to hurt your kids but you did. It’s not always black or white. It doesn’t mean you are a schmuck even if you didn’t prioritize them when you were enmeshed with your work, seeking approval or trying to fix something. I have learned that the best response to children’s experience is to validate and ask “How can I be supportive now”. Validation is not a brush over. It involves a genuine honest acceptance of your son or daughter’s experience of you.
- Accept that you are not perfect while being accountable. Mentally you can accept that you are not perfect in your recovery. However, translating this reality to your heart is no small chore. Recovery is about the journey and not about arriving. Your enmeshment behavior will teach you to embrace your real self if you will allow yourself to be accountable and coachable.
- Poise and perspective is the result of recovery practice. There is a tendency to look to wise old sages in recovery rooms with the perception that they have arrived. Yet, perspective that cultivates poise is gifted to the addict who understands that recovery from enmeshment is a journey not a place to arrive. Recovery creates your own identity separate from what you do for others. The antidote for enmeshment is identity. Recovery is a journey of recognizing that you are an unrepeatable miracle of God as you separate your being from healthy and unhealthy behaviors. The more you identify being separate from your behaviors the less you will be stuck in the muck and mire of enmeshment.
Series Three: Blog Eighty-Three
Yesterday was Thanksgiving. Holidays trigger many things. For many, it’s a time to connect with family and friends. It’s a time to engage traditions. For others, it’s a time to reflect and contemplate where you have been and where you are headed. Holidays always involve stress and strain.
When people who have history with each other intermingle during a holiday, inevitably some kind of conflict arises. Old wounds get re-opened. New wounds trigger old responses and before long feelings get hurt. Folks revert back to old destructive behaviors they engaged when they were a kid. There is a tug and pull for family members to engage roles they played when they were kids. The pressure is strong and the perception is real every time a family gathers for a holiday event.
My family was big, 9 original kids plus 3 more. My parents raised my oldest sister’s 3 children. My dad was always given a turkey from the AFL/CIO union he belonged to. It was big, about 25 – 30 lbs. It never lasted beyond Thanksgiving. There were no leftovers for the weekend or to make sandwiches for school or work. There were 5 boys. I was the youngest. Thanksgiving always meant celebrating God, country, turkey and football in our family.
We would always have a touch football game before dinner to help work up an appetite. There were 5 Wells boys and then we would recruit 5 neighborhood kids to round out a game of 5 on 5. It was a pass and catch flag football game. We played in the street on our block. The driveways served as first down markers. On one Thanksgiving day one of my brothers went out for a pass. He caught the ball on the run and pivoted to run down the street to the goal line. He ran smack into a parked car full speed. He was out for the rest of the game.
Two of my oldest brothers always took the game way too serious. They were always pitted against each other. The older they got, the fatter and the slower they got. One would try to trip the other or cheat in some other way and soon they would be in each other’s face and fighting, even after they were grown men. Kind of put a damper on the game. Then there was dinner. Both were angry sweating and cussing beneath their breath. I don’t think they ever bowed their head for a thanksgiving prayer for the food we were about to devour.
After stuffing ourselves with all the food my mom made, my dad would go for a nap and the brothers would settle in to watch the Detroit Lions play. That was when they had Milt Plum as quarterback and Alex Karras, Lem Barney and Dick LeBeau on defense. They were all good players but as a team the Lions always sucked and seem to always lose.
Holidays are often tough for addicts. They trigger a lot of unresolved relationship pain. Here is a list of considerations to help you get through the holidays and avoid skirmishes when you gather with your family and friends.
- Pay attention to who is in the driver seat. Family of origin gatherings during holidays trigger family members to resort back to childish ways. When someone behaves or responds in a way that triggers hurt and anger, make sure that your wise-minded adult is behind the wheel of your thoughts, spoken word and physical actions. There will be millions of fights driven by adults who lost their sense of self and turned the wheel over to their angry rebellious child. More relationship harm will occur within a few minutes because of hurtful words and destructive behavior than can ever be repaired in a life time. The crash and carnage is the result of your inner child being placed in the driver’s seat. Drive safe and keep your inner child properly secured within the confines of the seat belt.
- Picture the kind of relationship life you would like to experience and act as if it were already in existence. For sure, you are unable to control the response of any other family member or friend. The breakdown of connection and communication may be so broken that you may not be able to even be physically present with your loved one. For many, there is that much animosity between family members. Yet, that does not limit you envisioning the relationship you would like that will help you project the positive energy you would like to with family members who may be estranged. Send positive energy from the picture of love and closeness you have created within your mind. It’s a way of you being in the driver seat.
- Base your thoughts and actions regarding family of origin relationships on the empowered person you are today and not from the rules that governed your childhood. Relationship decisions and behavior around family of origin is often made unconsciously based on the erratic and unrealistic rules you learned as a child. Break away from the bizarre pull to a surreal past and empower your wise mind adult to demonstrate courageous open hearted words and actions to create the adult relationships you would like in your family of origin. Not everyone will make the same choice but you will be relating from a position of strength and avoid the weeds and entanglement of old rules, immature remarks and and judgments that can linger as a nightmare for months to come.
- When family members feel hurt by you from past or present behaviors, you can always validate. Your adult children don’t need from you nearly as much as you think. In family gatherings, if your children want to speak to you about a criticism they have regarding the way you raised them, listen and validate. Validation is not agreeing with someone else’s view. It is recognizing their experience of you. With your children and family, when someone points out an experience with your weakness, validate them and ask them how can you support them now. It has been my experience that adult children only want to experience that your wall of defense is down, feel heard and validated. They can take care of the rest!
- Don’t jump to conclusions. Family members or others act the way they do because of what they have going on in their lives. It is easy to personalize and jump to conclusions. Your inner growth about your family of origin will require patience, tolerance and self-acceptance as you navigate through grief about what could have been with your family of origin but never was. It will demand that you carefully put the wise experienced adult mind in the driver’s seat to remain true to yourself and not get lost in the woods of family dysfunction during this holiday.
Series Three: Blog Eighty-Two
When Someone Deeply Listens to You
by John Fox
When someone deeply listens to you
it is like holding out a dented cup
you’ve had since childhood
and watching it fill up with
cold, fresh water.
When it balances on top of the brim,
you are understood.
When it overflows and touches your skin,
you are loved.
When someone deeply listens to you
the room where you stay
starts a new life
and the place where you wrote
your first poem
begins to glow in your mind’s eye.
It is as if gold has been discovered!
When someone deeply listens to you
your bare feet are on the earth
and a beloved land that seemed distant
is now at home within you.
This beautiful poem expresses so much of what most people long and yearn for. It is a gift simply to feel heard by another. Feeling heard is more than hearing the sounds and syllables pronounced by another to you. It is engaging the presence of another and comprehending the meaning of the spoken word. Listening is so powerful, yet such an elusive skill. Some experts have said that 85% of all learning is acquired through listening, yet they suggest that 75% of the time we are distracted from what we hear. It is believed by some that only 20% of a lecture is remembered less than one hour afterward. Some believe that human beings attain only 25% efficiency of the capacity of our listening possibilities and that our current span of attention is but only 8 seconds. All this said there remains great potential in the resource of listening to self and another.
Our society fosters a poor listening environment. We are blitzed every day with massive doses of technology to our brain. We are constantly triggered to shift our attention from one thing to another. Algorithms are designed to influence what you listen to determined by what triggered your interest in past sites visited on the internet. There is constant competition for your attention which lessens your capability to listen to yourself and others around you. Some studies suggest that spending more time in front of a computer screen lessens your ability to concentrate because of the influence of distractions to your brain. The challenge to listen is not new. Over 100 years ago William James wrote that there is “a ceaseless frenzy always thinking we should always be doing something else”. There is the urge to do, to declare, to sleep or do anything other than the work of listening to another. The airwaves are full of talking heads. Seldom do warring countries sit down for peace listens. It is always for peace talks.
In today’s world, media often distort what has been spoken.. There’s the little boy who thought he was repeating a well known prayer translated by what he heard grown ups share numerous times. He began “Our Father who does art in heaven. Harold is his name.” I recall as a young boy listening to public prayers in church. My dad would verbally declare “Grant it Lord” indicating his support of another’s verbal request. As a young boy I always thought that my dad was comparing God to a piece of granite rock. It is easy to carelessly distort what others say.
Without developing listening skills you will lose sight of the sacred in life. Addicts must cultivate heart listening. This requires quieting the soul to uncover true yearnings of mind and spirit. There is constant clamor of distractions that addicts must learn to sort and sift in order to listen to the heart and discover true aspirations. Addicts approach recovery not knowing how to listen to their heart. Rather than seek understanding, an addict is driven to numb pain and avoid discomfort. Yet, the sacred is uncovered when you listen to your truth. Some people like to think that written texts provide a way to know truth without listening to their heart. Through religion they seek truth packed in sacred texts like the Bible, the Koran or Bhagavad Gita. But truth is discovered in your heart with assistance from sacred texts like a Big Book in 12-step recovery, etc. There is no understanding without listening to your heart. Addicts must cultivate the capacity to recognize needs that must be met in healthy ways through the identification of their feelings. Breath work helps to slow inner distraction and to notice feelings. Being able to recognize feelings provides a vehicle to meet legitimate needs in mature and healthy ways. Addicts transform the curse of feeling addictive craving into the blessing of intimacy through meeting needs in a healthy manner by listening to their heart.
Less talk and more listening cultivates understanding that relieves frustration and suffering in others who feel injustice and misunderstanding. Compassionate listening helps to calm reactivity in others. Fear is born from a wrong perception. Trying to correct misperceptions before carefully listening and understanding only fuels debate. As you listen think about what is behind the words. What does the person want you to know and what meaning is behind the words? It takes courage to listen to someone who is espousing a belief that you do not believe in. Lean into the possibility that you might be changed by what you hear.
Become aware of your “wanting” agenda. Be conscious of you wanting the person’s approval, wanting the conversation to go a certain direction, your desire to fix the person etc. All of these impact your listening skills. Can you recognize your agenda and let it go? Can you simply seek to understand? Can you stop planning your response while listening to another? Can you wait to express your thoughts and feelings and focus on another? Maybe, not even address the misperception until later. It is difficult to listen without speaking when you feel threatened or offended. It is difficult to attend to the spirit of another when aversion arises. We want to control the conversation.
Practice becoming a receptive open presence. Conditioning your mind to listen began with inner listening to yourself without judgment. This requires ongoing training. You then extend your receptive open presence to another. It takes meditation and practice to listen to another without judgment and to attune to their spirit. You will need to anchor with your breath and give yourself care while attempting to do the work of listening to another. Telling another that you have not understood their suffering and that it is not your intent to make them suffer more relieves suffering and struggle. Telling them you are eager to hear more about their suffering heals the greatest divides the world knows. It impacts your significant relationships and offers healing to those who hate you and despise what you stand for.
In a world of divergent interests, pejorative perceptions and unfriendly resistance toward others who are unlike you, practice becoming a receptive open presence. As you sit with your family and friends during this Thanksgiving holiday, courageously listen to another’s passion and frustration. Practice extreme listening. Find a common ground. Always know that when the other person feels heard it is the beginning of trust which heals hate and hurt perpetrated throughout the world by those who choose not to deeply listen.
Series Three: Blog Eighty-One
“When you’re lost in the woods, it sometimes takes you awhile to realize that you are lost. For the longest time, you can convince yourself that you’ve just wandered off the path, that you’ll find your way back to the trailhead any moment now. Then night falls again and again, and you still have no idea where you are, and it’s time to admit that you have bewildered yourself so far off the path that you don’t even know from which direction the sun rises anymore.”- Elizabeth Gilbert
Have you ever been lost in the woods? It’s scary. Do I go this direction or the other? Is there hope that I will be found or am I getting more and more lost? It feels helpless. It’s overwhelming. You want to panic. Depression feels this way. It is like being wrapped in a heavy wet blanket that never dries out. It is claustrophobic to the max!
It’s been awhile. I was 38 years old, a pastor in Cherry Hills, Colorado. I was sitting in the family room at Denver General Hospital with the family of Laura who had just taken her life with an overdose. She was triggered by a poor interaction with her brother who had earlier in life molested her. The family was distraught. Her father pointed his quivering finger at me and said “You are responsible for this. You carelessly supported her leaving the treatment hospital that took her life!” Of course, I wasn’t responsible. The grieving father was suffering indescribable pain. I was not a newbie to the experience of suicide as a pastor. There were others. During the past 3 years there were ten suicides whose funerals I presided over. Each was a tragedy. Yet, somehow, this one was different for me. I walked away from the hospital numb. I recognized that I had begun to emotionally shut down. I couldn’t think or talk. I was emotionally paralyzed. I sat in a chair throughout the night. I had fallen into a major clinical depression. The death of Laura triggered my own memories of childhood sexual abuse. I wallowed in the nightmare of vagueness of what happened to me. I agonized about times in early life that I crossed boundaries with siblings.
I didn’t function. Inside my brain it felt I would go from being numb to anger to helplessness. At times it felt like an old washing machine had been turned on inside my brain as my mind churned back and forth. I stopped functioning. I didn’t want to leave the house even though I didn’t feel safe inside it. I ended up going to a friend’s basement and laid there for days on end. Emotionally, I was gone, unable to function as a husband, father of three small boys or as a minister. I stopped eating. In six weeks I lost 48 pounds. At times, I became very angry. I was suicidal. I attempted to walk through a door leading to the runway at Stapleton International Airport in an attempt to walk in front of a taxiing jet. This was before the TSA era, but still very difficult to accomplish. Two dear friends rescued me from my suicide attempt, saving me from hurting myself, humiliation and possible incarceration. I was very destructive. I began cruising in my car for hours, seething with anger while marinating in depression. I drove to an area of Denver known as “5-points”. At the time it was an area known to be a territory for the “Bloods” and “Crips” gangs. I aimed my vehicle at a group of kids I thought were likely gang members. I thought if I drove into them they would shoot me. So I tried. The kids scattered from the street and pointed their fingers. It was dusk and I figured their fingers were guns and I waited to be shot but was not. So, I kept driving.
I was out of control, obviously mentally ill. I began seeing a shrink who prescribed Xanax for anxiety. I wasn’t sleeping and was given Haldol which is an antipsychotic to help calm my suicidal ideation and bizarre thinking. I clearly became confused. I would forget when or how much Xanax I took. I remember wanting to get better. I thought the drug would help me. In confusion, I took 7 Xanax in a very short period of time. I was dangerous and needed hospitalization.
My wife and two friends convinced me to enter Columbine Psychiatric Hospital. I wasn’t there long. It was only three weeks. The first day I stared at a piece of fuzz on a big picture window for eight hours and was not high on anything, just emotionally lost. The staff left me alone during that time. Later a matronly type nurse tended to me. She was gentle and warm. Later, I connected her warmth to the lack of connection and warmth from my mom. This was helpful in later stages of recovery.
They let me go to a physical rehab room that had a punching bag. I would punch the bag for a long time until my clothes were totally wet and I would collapse with exhaustion. I didn’t even know what I was pissed about at the time. Another guy who was struggling with his own delusion threw a chair into the community TV causing it to explode. I lunged for him and would have attempted to beat him to death if two orderlies had not intervened and pulled me away. I remember thinking “why am I so angry? I don’t even really care about the TV or the ballgame I was watching.”
The heavy wet blanket of depression continued to suffocate me. A breakthrough experience occurred for me in the proverbial padded cell. They put me there because I was a bit rowdy on the floor one night. As I sat alone in the middle of the cell with the same Bible I still have. I turned to the first verse of the 91st Psalm “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty”. I thought to myself, “Here I am crazy, clearly suffering from mental illness”. I had sacrificed my life to do the work of the Lord. The dysfunction of cult-like upbringing in an abusive church had finally caught up with me! I wanted to scream out one long F***ck!! I remember hitting my Bible open to the 91st Psalm until my knuckles began to bleed and I gave way to fatigue. I just wailed alone for the longest time. Later the nurses came and got me and I slept deeply for the first time in a long while. It was the first time I remember expressing anger about the concept of God that had been ingrained and the hurtful relationship to the institution of church.
I began a long journey of putting my life back together. It was not a spectacular visible change. Thirty three years later I have been “born-again” many times. Healing has been an evolution of internal wisdom and behavioral change. The essence of who I have ever been still resides within my soul. The scars of past experience will always be. All of the things I have ever done, both the hurtful and helpful, comprise who I am in the present. I have the potential for harm and health. My future mental health depends upon my daily choices. I have been on a journey of making peace with my past, addiction and struggle for several decades now. While I have never “arrived”, I continue to transform myself. I have learned to be proud of where I have been and who I am in the present. Depression remains a daily struggle.
I have revisited the 91st Psalm many times. My understanding of God has evolved and changed many times. Now, I do take refuge in the God of life force. I also recognize that God takes refuge in me. I need God and God needs me. It’s a merger of life force. In order for awakening, understanding and love to be real in an everyday world, it requires God to take refuge in me. It is not a one-way street. Awareness is necessary for connection.
During the journey of healing throughout my life I have learned to make depression, addiction and struggles in life the voice of God. Each experience brings a message signaling emotional needs that must be addressed through healthy alternative measures. While it is not helpful to be paralyzed with mental illness, depression does bring awareness to life imbalance. When you listen to the message that depression brings, it does help you find your way back to your center of truth. Though for many it takes time. Deep listening to depression with your heart can help you to find your way out of the woods.
Series Three: Blog Eighty
Is an inner awakening,
And this inner awakening
We must share
With the rest of the world.”
― Sri Chinmoy
Finding the way of peace is a journey addicts in recovery long for. Turmoil and chaos is created by the junkie worm every day an addict lives. In desperation addicts search for escape from the insanity that rules their life. Even in recovery many continue to struggle in search for peace in the midst of sobriety. Stopping the runaway train going down the track is a relief but not necessarily peaceful. The question remains “How do I create calm out of chaos?” “Is it possible to have peace when there is a storm that rages all around me?” Of course, addicts are not the only ones who want to know the answer to this quandary.
In 1975 thousands of Vietnamese fled their country by sea following the collapse of the South Vietnamese government. Crowded into small boats, they were prey to pirates, and many suffered dehydration, starvation, and death by drowning. When challenged with rough seas, many in the boats panicked causing the boat to sink and many to drown. Thich Nhat Hanh remarked in his book Being Peace that even when one person remained calm and lucid knowing what to do, he or she would help others to avoid capsizing the boat. When their voice and facial expression communicated clarity and calmness, others trusted, listened and avoided capsizing. (Page 12)
Addicts in recovery are boat people trying to survive the currents that pull and tug them back to the sea of addictive behavior. There is panic and an onslaught of craving that crashes against the recovery program of every addict who desires to escape the domination of addiction. Recovery requires that you become a peaceful person who sits in the midst of the storm around you with perspective and poise. Where does this panorama of equanimity come from in recovery?
Consider the following:
- In the midst of addictive chaos, return to being true to yourself. The demands of recovery are intimidating. It is tempting to compare your recovery journey with someone else’s recovery journey. Some people are talented presenters. At a speakers’ meeting some tell wonderful compelling stories about recovery and you wish that your recovery life looked like theirs. But it doesn’t. It simply looks like yours. This is a time that is important to maintain perspective and return to being true to yourself. That is all you must do. Remember an oak tree is an oak tree. That is all it has to do. If there was a demand that it grow and look like a palm tree, it would be in trouble. When you think you and your recovery must be something you are not, you will get into trouble. Just be you. It is your only requirement. Being true to yourself is where you will discover poise and perspective.
- Seek Understanding. It will provide compassion toward yourself and others. Addicts in recovery come from a lifestyle of self-absorption. Addicts want what they want when they want it. Their life is about taking up too much space. There is no perspective or understanding that makes sense except that which leads to achieving a desired fix with their drug of choice. It’s a very narrow view of understanding. This distorted thinking does not change overnight in recovery. An addict must seek understanding in order to cultivate compassion for others. Understanding transforms addict behavior. Understanding why you do what you do accelerates self-compassion and love for others. It is common for an addict to compartmentalize their thinking to only seeing the world from their viewpoint. Yet, when you expand your understanding with deep listening, it provides a depth of compassion for self and others. For example, I recently celebrated a birthday. However, my three sons failed to recognize my birthday. I was disappointed. Yet, when I explored the situation that each was experiencing, it provided understanding. One was traveling out of state. Distracted with covering responsibilities for a small child and engaging pomp and circumstance of a special event, he became distracted and overwhelmed with his own agenda. Another was distracted with the adjustment of a newborn and suffered from a lack of sleep and the responsibilities of being a new father. A third did call me, belated, while snow skiing. He was huffing and puffing while boot packing his way up the mountain for his first ski rendezvous of the season. His thoughts were about climbing to the top of a mountain, not my birthday. When you put yourself in other’s shoes you awaken to deeper understanding which creates room for compassion for the conditions you encounter in your world. Practice understanding.
- Practice cultivating community. Most addicts struggle with creating harmony and awareness in meaningful community. Addicts tend to isolate. If they do create community it is with those in the group that they can “relate” to. Everyone in a 12-step group is an addict. We all can relate to each other. Addicts tend to be rigid and unable to adjust or become flexible with who they connect to. A 12-step community is a good place to learn how to create connection with people you would normally not relate to. This exercise is a secret to long-term sobriety. It is important that an addict take with them the ability to create community wherever they go outside a 12-step room. While easier said than done, mature recovery goes beyond a 12-step room and includes vulnerable sharing with others engaged throughout the course of life. Developing community must become a priority for addicts in recovery.
Peace in the presence of turmoil can be achieved when addicts practice community in the highways and byways of their lives. It is anchored when addicts are true to themselves and deepened through understanding.
Series Two; Blog Seventy-Nine
Polarization is a problem in the world. Us versus them is a mentality that has always existed. The criteria for who is in and who is out are determined by those who have the power. Historically, the criteria for acceptance has been tragic. Jewish people were rejected by the Third Reich in Germany, who determined that the entire race should be exterminated. African Americans were once considered only 3/5th human in America simply because of the color of their skin. Racism, sexism, patriarchy, ageism, etc exclude some and include others because of someone’s definition about who is acceptable and who is not.
When I was a kid I tried to hang out with only Cub fans. If you liked the St. Louis Cardinals, there was something wrong with you. My dad was a blue-collar worker and we were Democrats. We prayed for those who were Republicans and wondered why! We thought that the Pope was the antichrist. There were 3 areas of our town: Elm Ridge, where the rich people lived; Grant Park, where the poorest lived, and then the rest of us. We learned to categorize people by their address. We looked up to the folk in Elm Ridge as successful. They were the “haves”. We fought to keep our address out of Grant Park where the “have nots” lived.
Judgmentalism has separated people throughout my life. There was the Red Scare and McCarthyism in the 1950’s. Famous people like Paul Robeson, who was a great black athlete and actor, was ostracized and accused of being Communist because he refused to bend to popular opinion. There were Christians who thought the world was going to end in a ball of fire in the early 1960’s. They were scoffed at by scientists and ostracized as Holy Rollers. Now, scientists push the alarm of a catastrophic global warming, and many of those same Christians scoff and ostracize the scientists.
Polarization is a challenge to recovery. Healing requires integrating both the best and the beast within each person. In community, us versus them undermines the healing process. Judging others’ social status or recovery progress paralyzes the potential for transformation. It requires each person to recognize their own dark behavior in order to have compassion for other people’s struggle. It is by recognizing compassion and identification that transformation occurs.
No one escapes childhood unscathed. I have learned that working through abuse requires the acceptance of a victim/victimizer dynamic that exists in those who have suffered abuse. When you have been victimized it is important to face ways that you have victimized others, perhaps not in like kind but in like principle.
You face behavior where you selfishly wanted what you wanted when you wanted it. It is important to face the impact of feelings and consequences that your behavior created for others and experience the gravity of their plight rendered because of your actions. Then, you focus on forgiving yourself which simply means to let go and not hold the behavior against yourself. It also means to stop the hurtful behavior. When you do this, you become less polarized from those who have victimized you. By accepting your own dark behavior you can create compassion for the dark behavior of others who hurt you by perpetrating abuse. Through common shared brokenness you can experience healing and forgiveness which can produce freedom from the abuse.
Essentially, this controversial process can be framed as a way of getting out of an emotional prison that an abuser’s behavior created. Some have described it as a healthy selfish way of forgiving the son of a bitch who perpetrated pain and devastation in your life. You don’t have to be friends with someone who has hurt you. However, polarization is less likely because you have addressed in principle the victimizer dynamic in yourself that also exists in the perpetrator who has hurt you.
When this does not occur, communities remain fractured and polarized. Perpetrators, like sex offenders are excluded from their communities. Some people think that if we segregate, isolate or polarize people, then somehow we become a safer community. I don’t see evidence that this is true.
Through my work at Psychological Counseling Services, we have witnessed transformation and healing by bringing victims and victimizers together. When sexual abuse is the issue, careful consideration of healing factors are assessed for both victim and victimizer before such integration takes place. Through 25+ years of engaging this process, I have observed and facilitated healing and transformation for both victim and victimizer. Regarding betrayed partners, we have integrated them with addict betrayers for many years. I have listened to partners who have shared that listening to the heart of an addict who is not their partner has been helpful to cultivate compassion and healing toward their own addict partner. On the other side of the coin, I have listened to addicts state that hearing the heartache of a different betrayed partner helped them to deepen empathy toward their own betrayed partner.
When we face each other’s pain we promote healing and transformation and eliminate polarization. This makes far more sense to me.
I do not think there is just one way to heal trauma from abuse. There are many alternatives. I do believe that polarization has splintered communities throughout our country. Judgmentalism through categorizing and labeling people has been detrimental to healing in our country. I suggest that we overcome judgmentalism and polarization toward others through identification of common shared brokenness with shared accountability and consequences.
Take time to be curious of someone who is unlike you or represents a position you vehemently disagree. Notice how judgment comes up and simply sit with gaining an understanding of another person’s plight and position about life. You don’t have to change your mind about how you think. But, you can find a way to connect with someone who sees things different than you do. A way to overcome polarization is to integrate common shared brokenness through listening to a different perspective.
Series Three: Blog Seventy-Eight
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 going on 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. The tough part is 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 who 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 from 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 focus on vulnerability toward addictive craving. 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 laid, 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 on 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 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 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 of 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.
- 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 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 do recovery 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 alway 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.
- 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 to make 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 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 shortcoming, he thought he needed to minimize hurt or lie about what seemed unsatisfactory. Both men’s attempt to rely on their partners for approval and self-care had a short shelf life. They were destined to fail and they did.
- 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 into 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 isolates 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.
Series Three: Blog Seventy-Seven
Every day presents a new set of circumstances and issues in addict recovery. Some days go smooth 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 buildup 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 hyper-arousal (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 experience 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 response 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 and rage, nightmare, rigidness 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 auto pilot 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 a 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 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 re-center 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 resource like a wood worker puts her tools on the shelf of her garage. Practice what you know. It will help you to return your window of tolerance. It is the sweet spot that propels long term growth and serenity.
Series Three: Blog Seventy-Six
Recovery is never a static proposition. Once you decide that you have had enough chaos, heartache and hangover, it doesn’t all go away by attending a 12-step meeting. Rather than being “born again” once and for all, there is need for rebirth each and every day.
I like to establish goals for the next day before I retire each night. When I awake very early each day, I look at my goals and I question “why?” or wonder “what was I thinking?” I begin to build excuses for why it can’t be done. Every day in the early morning hours I must make a daily adjustment in attitude before I begin.
Long term sobriety requires the flexibility of making daily adjustments with attitude, thoughts and awareness of feelings. The way to serenity is often a circuitous journey. A rigid black and white outlook must give way to a malleable reality of life as it is. The world will not cooperate and pave the way for you to create the serenity you hope for and deserve. You must create it, be it and live it by directing the energies of your life toward harmony within, without controlling the environment outside. There are many things you can control—your schedule, daily actions, attitude, thoughts and mindsets. However, you cannot control other people in the world around you. The world is imbalanced, chaotic, unjust and unfair. Every day tragedies occur and lives are snuffed out with no more regard than a swatted mosquito. Someday your life will be a fatality statistic read by others.
Transforming this dour reality into a meaningful destiny demands a strategy that I refer to as a daily adjustment strategy (DAS). It starts with the Serenity Prayer in accepting the things you cannot change. You cannot change people, most circumstances or the problematic conditions that plague society and the world around you. However, when you do accept the things you cannot change, you position yourself to influence others with positive energy and empowered action. Step by step you can impact with positive force the energy and behavior of others around you.
Courageously, you change the things you can. When your attitude sucks, you can transform it with humility. By choice, you do not surrender to the forces of depression, darkness and defeat. When you are down, you lean into it and accept that ups and downs are part of recovery and you accept the downs as being human. Even when down you can still do the next right thing.
Depression is a life experience that can dominate. I remember being shut down by depression. I had no emotional energy and was overwhelmed with darkness. Yet, even then I changed the things I could. At the time, though unconscious of it, I did reach out to two friends and my wife who enrolled me in a psychiatric hospital. Even though I stared at a piece of fuzz on the window for hours, I did make the choice to be in a healing space that eventually saved my life. While gazing at a window, I decided to eat, to sleep and join the living again. I began making daily adjustments that transformed my life. I had lost 40 plus pounds in six weeks. I tried to end my life more than once. I learned to make a daily adjustment just to breathe each day. I was knocked down but not knocked out. I learned to fight—more for me and less for others. At first, I just fought—anyone and everything. I fought a guy who threw a chair into a TV while I was watching a Cubs game just to see it explode. Today I am not even a Cubs fan. I beat the hell out of my Bible until my knuckles were bloody in a padded cell. I needed to do those things to come back from the dead into the land of the living. It was a part of my daily adjustment at that time. From there I learned to be resilient and committed to positive reason. I became open to correction. I learned to champion doing what was right for me.
Recovery requires that you learn the difference between what you can and cannot change. People get lost trying to change others behavior, outlook and poor habits. It can become extreme to the point that you lose your own identity. Daily, you must clarify your expectations about what you want to change. Learn to realistically examine what’s going on. What is sensible in what is happening where the rubber meets the road in your life. Learn to trim away unrealistic expectations and employ a sweet reasonableness to what can and cannot be done. Bring yourself back relentlessly to the change you can control within you. Let go of others and quietly observe the transformation that happens in your world because of your daily adjustment and never-ending pursuit of shaping the destiny that exists within you. It all begins with your daily adjustment strategy. Are you ready to sift and sort the adjustments that are necessary today?
Series Three: Blog Seventy-Five
Addicts have many anxieties and fears. They grew up with holes in their souls with unmet childhood developmental needs from parents who failed to provide the fundamental emotional needs necessary. Some addicts suffered woeful negligence from physical, emotional and sexual abuse. For many their parents failed to provide necessary support because they didn’t know how. Their parents loved them but were unable to give their children which wasn’t given to them. Those addicts knew their parents loved them because they provided clothing, food, shelter, even education. However, children know they matter through parents spending sufficient amounts of time with them on the child’s terms, not the parents. When this doesn’t happen, kids figure they don’t matter rather than something is wrong with mom and dad and their priorities. Developmentally they become like a chunk of Swiss cheese with the holes. Each hole represents an unmet childhood need. Kids learn to compensate by trying to fill the hole from the outside through a cocktail of relational experience. It never works because the depth of emotional need can only be filled from within. They become like the little kid who can’t get enough sugar. Their emotional neediness becomes insatiable. Eventually they organize a dependency upon an addictive substance or process that delivers what it promises. For many, it involves a collection of addictions to assuage their fears and anxieties and to numb out what hurts.
One of the greatest fears that an addict faces is that of abandonment, physically, emotionally or both. Abandonment is like the metaphor of a pack of wolves that chases you through the woods. The pack pursues you relentlessly even though you create diversionary tactics of avoidance. Eventually, the pack corners you. Either the pack wins and consumes you with addictive behavior or you choose to face the gnashing teeth of abandonment to only realize that it is not the terrorizing force that its growl suggests.
Addicts become pleasers, workaholics, and deniers to avoid conflict. Behind their behavior is the pernicious fear of abandonment. They will do anything to avoid feeling deserted. Addiction becomes a lifelong affair to avoid abandonment. Some addicts have described their relationship to their drug of choice as a snuggly blanket that offers consistent warmth from fear and anxiety. What lurks behind every addictive high is the fear of abandonment. How to address abandonment is critical to the long term sobriety from addiction. Here are a few steps to consider:
- Embrace that the fear of abandonment is universal. Abandonment is not just a fear that afflicts addicts. It impacts the world at large. It is a common thread of life experience. Recognizing that everyone experiences this fear helps to avoid isolation or concluding that you are particularly flawed and different from those around you. You are not! We all must face our fears of abandonment.
- Others may dessert you but the key is to learn not to dessert yourself. This may seem obvious. Yet, simple things are not easy. It’s an automatic response for a child to subconsciously attempt to capture a parents’ attention when neglected. When a child lacks recognition for who they are they try to compensate by what they do. If the inattentiveness is chronic the child will learn to do something they hope will get their parent’s recognition to avoid abandonment. Over time they learn that who they are matters less than how they act or what they do. Essentially, they learn to abandon themselves. Overcoming the fear of abandonment requires that you learn to reclaim the importance of being and parent yourself in healthy ways. You must learn to pay attention to your genuine needs and not abandon yourself through pleasing others.
- Listen to your triggers, don’t just run from them. Triggered with fear or lust for your drug of choice can be a gift! Put yourself out of harm’s way and take time to let the trigger talk to you about unmet needs that must be met in a healthy way. Some addicts spend much of their recovery reporting about triggers and chronic high risk behaviors, thinking that telling another addict when they have been tempted is enough. However, it is a beginning. When tempted think about the legitimate need that is represented in the trigger and endeavor to self parent by meeting the need through adult choice and interaction. Rather than abandon yourself by running from the trigger, allow the trigger to speak its truth and transform the trigger from a curse to a blessing. Practicing this skill set is a major step that avoids abandonment of self.
- Take the people with you who abandon you. People hurt each other and abandon one another. People die. Relationships end through the passage of time, betrayal and a myriad of other reasons. It sucks to feel abandoned. Yet, it is a broken experience that is common to all. It requires skills to grieve the loss of what once was. Some people live life longing for yesterday’s experiences in order to avoid feeling abandoned. I suggest that you take the lost person or experience with you. Keep it with you in your heart. It is not necessary to live in the past. Yet, you can bring those experiences with others with you in the here and now through treasured memory. Even in the face of betrayal, you can embrace your truth and the closeness that once was and the intent you generated when others had ulterior motives. Precious memories need not be abandoned. Loved ones who are now deceased can be alive in your heart. We all live in a nanosecond of present time and then it too becomes historical. So we hold precious experience by treasuring its memory in our hearts. Learn to address abandonment by taking your precious personal intents and initiatives with you in your heart. The good in all the relationships you have ever experienced can dwell inside of you no matter what others choose to do. Take the experience of relationship with you. When you consider the power and potential that exists within, you never need be dominated by abandonment again.