Codependency and Abandonment

Series Three: Blog Thirty-nine

One of the great fears that exists in relationship life is that of abandonment. It is scary to become emotionally naked to someone. Many people never achieve deep vulnerability to their partner or anyone else for that matter. There is an underlying fear that if you know what I know about me you will run away from me. This fear is often disguised when people say I don’t want to tell this truth because it will hurt the person I love. It can be true but underneath the stated qualm is the distress that if you expose the truth about yourself you will be abandoned.

The fear of abandonment is kindling for most codependent acts in relationships. Codependency is a gnarly description in relationship life when people try to control another’s behavior in ways that are extreme. Everyone wants to be loved and accepted. Yet, when people go to the extreme of lying, manipulating with niceties, tolerating abuse, losing their identity, or ignoring painful experience because they desperately want to be accepted or loved, it is hurtful. This behavior is identified as codependent. Codependent behavior is always motivated by traumatic experience both present and past. When someone offends you, it is common to hesitate or judge your response based on past experience of being hurt by others. Putting up with the intolerable is endured because of the fear of losing something or someone you don’t want to live without.

Both addicts and partners participate in the trauma response of codependency. It varies in degrees of expression. While it is suspect to put everybody in any one category, typically both parties fear abandonment. Extreme is defined in a myriad of behavioral responses. Ultimately, people act in certain ways to protect themselves from the hurt of abandonment.  When you scare your partner with betrayal behavior, the cascading emotions triggered by betrayal is immense. Obsessional thoughts triggered by treasonous actions is common. So is trying to control what you cannot, to the extreme. The pain of deceit is so deep that compulsive codependency takes over to avoid further trauma. Many respond with codependent response at the onset of betrayal while for others historical codependent response from past trauma is magnified by present betrayal trauma.

Addicts avoid telling the truth from a fear of abandonment. Pressed with the crisis of telling the truth or losing a relationship, an addict is forced to do disclosure. Some tell the truth because they are serious about ending their destructive addictive behavior. Others piecemeal the truth, mistakenly thinking that if I just tell enough my partner will be satisfied and I won’t have to face the fear of abandonment.

After disclosure, many addicts avoid sharing their emotional truth about how they experience their betrayed partner triggered by shame about their addictive behavior and from a fear of abandonment. 

However, if there is not a process that moves a relationship to sharing emotional truth, codependency motivated to avoid abandonment will lead to the realization of what both fear the most—a relationship break up. Codependency is accelerated when a couple does not tell each other what they feel or think because of a fear that if the other knows it will crush them. When a couple concludes that it is their responsibility to protect the other from truth that is deemed hurtful, they create the reality of what they fear most–desertion.  In fear of abandonment, a couple can either tolerate unbelievable loneliness and emotional pain, or divorce. Either way it is possible to never address the fear of abandonment.

In order for codependent behavior to stop, the fear of abandonment must be faced. Here are some considerations:

  1. When you fear saying it straight, you must face the greatest fear you want to avoid. If the greatest fear is that you will be embarrassed with your lack of knowledge, face that first. If your ultimate fear is that if I say to my partner what I really believe, h/she will leave me, you must face that first. If your greatest feat is that your real truth is that you do not have the physical or emotional strength to achieve what is required, then you must face that first. Go to the place you fear the most and practice letting go of what you cannot control and then return to the here and now moment. You likely won’t be facing your greatest fear in the present. But, inside you react as if you will. You must uncover your greatest fear as if it is present in the now moment of your life. When you do this you will be able to address your present moment fear of abandonment.  This requires engaging the letting go and surrendering process of Step 3 of 12-step recovery. You must admit that you cannot control or prevent you partner from walking away from you. You will need help but facing this reality is first toward overcoming codependency around abandonment. It is also true about fear in other aspects of your life. You must face the fear of failure and know that you will survive on the other side. When you do this you will be able to manage the anxiety of the present moment.
  2. When you are stuck and paralyzed with fear of abandonment in a relationship, you will need to address past unresolved traumas. Most people don’t want to do this. I hear “I don’t have any past traumas in my childhood or life”. Sometimes peoples say “I don’t want to live in the past” or “I let that go a long time ago”. Yet, the fact that you are reacting to your partner on a level of intensity of 9 or 10 (on a scale of 1-10), but this issue would normally be a 3 to 4, tells you that you need to stop and figure out where the over reaction is coming from and address it. Addressing it means to go back to the point of pain and scrub the wound. It might be a present wound that must be addressed and it can be a childhood wound that has been left unaddressed. Essentially, you need to grieve the loss and the pain. You will feel worse before you feel better. When there is a medical intervention it is common to feel worse before you feel better. Abandonment requires that you go back and scrub the wound. Simply acknowledging, reading or talking about the loss won’t be enough. You will need to give back pain and feel the hurt of whatever occurred that paralyzes you with fear. PCS, The Meadows, Hoffman Institute, Onsite and a host of others specialize in this important grief work.
  3. Be your own best friend. The feeling of abandonment is a most lonely, scary feeling. The reason many people don’t stand for principle is that it feels so lonely to do so. In a moment of aspiration many say “I don’t care what anyone says or does, I will do what in my heart is right”. But, when the moment comes to stand for principle, it is lonely and scary to do so. Yet, life has a way of bringing us all to that moment of recognition. In that moment when you need to stand for principle while facing abandonment, you must be your own best friend. Others can be supportive. But, no one else can be there with you in that moment of truth. So, be gentle with yourself and bathe yourself in the predetermined affirmations that breathe life and inspiration into your moment of fear. You can do this. Pause and breathe deeply and know that when others abandon you, you will never abandon yourself again! Once you do this, then you can rely upon others to remind you of your personal commitment to yourself and hold you accountable with love and support.

Yesterday’s Guilt

Series Three: Blog Thirty-Seven

Nothing is more wretched than the mind of a man conscious of guilt.”- Plautus

Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night swimming in yesterday’s guilt. Things that I have done that hurt others years ago and have forgotten. Now, I remember them as if I had done them the day before. I tell myself that I have already made amends to others for the destructive behavior but guilt lingers. Sometimes it was something I did that I never told anyone about. I am the only one who knows. Recovery and activity over the years buried the behavior way down deep and now it somehow has worked its way to the surface of memory and I ponder what to do with it at 3am! Do you ever have bouts with yesterday’s guilt?

Guilt is not a pleasant experience. It’s the hound dog that never loses its scent and always relentlessly pursues.  There are overlays of guilt. You wake up each morning with the desire to do right. Yet, before noon you have already acted out with addictive substance or process. Your heart descends from your chest to your stomach. There is a bitter taste of failure and guilt that seems to permeate every cell in your body. There is an overwhelming desire to be someone else somewhere else. You feel sad, lonely, desperate and guilty.

Guilt is a feeling experience that dominates most addicts. Even in recovery guilt becomes a nemesis that is difficult to shake. Addicts feel guilt about the destructive things they have done and the good things never completed. Lying in bed replaying the things you did that were so hurtful. Like a nice warm glass of regret, depression and self-loathing, guilt powerfully dominates the present with past memories of hurtful behavior.

How to manage guilt when you are committed to a life in recovery? Yesterday you stumbled. Maybe you did worse and fell off the edge of the cliff. You got drunk and killed someone driving. You had a sexual affair with your brother’s partner. You molested a child. You broke your partner’s heart with addictive behavior that created unbelievable pain for people you really love?

How do you deal with the guilt that dogs you every waking moment?

  1. What happened yesterday, belongs to yesterday. There is an old saying in recovery that “yesterday ended last night!” This is true. Guilt is caused by too much past, and not enough present. Wallowing in the mud memory of past destructive behavior will never help you live free and clean in the present moment. Every day is a new day. It takes discipline to wipe the slate clean and live in the here and now and not be dominated by yesterday’s failure.
  2. Guilt never rectifies past behavior. Guilt serves to remind you that you did something that hurt you or others. Sociopaths often don’t feel guilt when they hurt others. You do. Let guilt do its work and then discard it. Upon becoming aware that your behavior was hurtful to another recognize that guilt is no longer useful to you. Feel it and let go. This will take daily discipline. Each day guilt will visit you. Practice forgiving yourself which means that you choose to not hold past behaviors against yourself and are committed to walking in the opposite direction from destructive behavior. Recognize what you are doing to rectify hurtful behavior with healing action and then dismiss guilt by taking action that demonstrates guilt free living. Practice letting go of guilt moment by moment.
  3. Make amends. The 8th and 9th steps of the 12-Step program suggests that you make a list of the people you have harmed and make amends to them. These two steps pave the way to clear and release guilt. Amends must be a daily practice. We hurt each other continually both intentionally and unintentionally. Amends create flexibility in relationships. It is unnecessary to defend your intentions, simply own the reality that your behavior hurt someone and make it right with a simple apology. In this way, you eliminate the environment that breeds guilt.
  4. Learn to love your enemy. People tend to alienate unwanted feelings because they are uncomfortable. Guilt is one of those feelings. Radically, when you embrace guilt and love it for its worth, it will help you become more sensitive to ways in which you hurt others and the environment you live in. While it is not meant that you brood with guilt, it is helpful to listen to the message that guilt is sending and take positive action toward resolution. Proper management of guilt produces compassion for self and others. Guilt feels like an enemy to the soul. However, learning to love your enemy (guilt) will cultivate deeper appreciation and love for self and others.

Guilt can be redemptive and can trigger love. Hating yourself and the feeling of guilt within intensifies the possibility of unwanted behavior. The power of self love builds bridges to the destiny of future healing and positive actions.

The Sacred Fire Within

Series Three: Blog Thirty-Six

It has been nearly 26 years since Muhammad Ali stepped back into the spotlight to ignite the Olympic cauldron with fire during the opening ceremony in the midst of battling Parkinson’s disease. The lighting of the Olympic cauldron fire motivated and united people around the world with perseverance whose inner fire flickered with debilitating illness. It underscored the sacred fire that exists within each of us.

Fire is a symbol of many things. It points to eternity in the measure of time. It highlights continuity as symbolized with the Olympic flame. It points to hope, rebirth and resurrection of dreams and possibility. It represents the deep passion and desire within one’s spirit.

Fire can also represent destruction and symbolizes the place of Hell. It can be destructive or creative. Its use is dependent upon personal responsibility.  Managed irresponsibly it destroys forests and devastates dreams. When responsibly directed, inner fire rekindles creative thought and fuels personal passion. Love for another often reflects a “fiery, consuming passion” that knows no bounds. Athletes often speak of their determination to excel in terms of a fiery passion that exists deep within their spirit.

Life requires a sacred fire within to procreate, to create connection with others in community and to explore the spirit of the unknown. Every human being comes into the world with a sacred fire to live and survive. There is no recovery without a sacred fire within that longs for a different way of life.

Life is a braiding of highs and lows, bitter and sweet, gains and losses that impacts the intensity of the sacred fire within. The inner flame must be continually fanned and rekindled. Sometimes it must be restarted. 

The indigenous Algonquian Potawatomi tribe of the Great Plains, Upper Mississippi and western Great Lakes region identified themselves as the “True People” who were “keepers of the sacred fire”. They established a confederacy with the Objibwa (Chippewa)and the Odawa (Ottawa) tribes. They interacted with each other like members of the same family. They forged their relationships between tribes with the fires of mutual interest and brotherhood.

Addiction is a fire that is out of control. It consumes and destroys anyone in its path. There must be a sacred fire that longs to stop within the heart of every addict to end the destructive behavior and experience healing. When it is not present or has been snuffed out, it must be rebuilt and sustained.

Listed is information to guide and maintain the sacred fire within.

1.Sacred fire requires taking personal responsibility. Becoming a fire starter means that you must organize and gather kindling. You must gather tinder which includes fine twigs and a nest of dried grasses or shredded bark. Then you must cut plenty of logs and construct your fire so that it gets plenty of oxygen. A single match fire-start, in less than ideal rainy conditions, is no small order. It requires preparation and determined work.

Cultivating a sacred fire within also requires personal initiative. As an addict there must be a time and place where you are done. It is common to identify that place as “hitting bottom”. Like Charlie Brown who tries to kick the football and Lucy pulls it away at the point of contact, leaving Charlie sitting on his duff on the ground, he finally concludes “no more football”. An addict, too,  must  say “No more football” meaning no more acting out.  Typically, this is an every day declaration with a commitment to follow through. This is the beginning of building the sacred fire.

In addition, the kindling and fuel for the sacred fire is in storytelling. The sacred truth is that the shortest distance between a human being and Truth is a story. Telling your story and listening to others’ stokes the sacred fire within. The greatest healing truths are uncovered only through unpacking the intricate details of one’s own story.

2. Every fire requires a spark. Once the kindling is in place, the beginning of a fire requires the spark of a single match. There is some risk that when you strike the match, the spark will not be enough to engage the kindling provided and there will be smoke but no fire. Yet, when the kindling is right the single match ignites the tinder and soon a fire begins that  creates embers that burn for a long time.

In recovery, sparks are the crisis addicts create that trigger a jump start into recovery. However, many sparks simply fizzle. There may not be enough kindling and tinder to allow the fire of recovery to gain traction. So what happens is that an addict will start recovery but will flame out. The spark will only create a sacred fire when the addict commits to kindling recovery with the fuel of an in-depth recovery program. Without this spark, healing will quickly die.

3. Recovery requires a fire keeper. Unless you maintain the fire, it will soon burn out and become cold. Some indigenous people learned to maintain fire with shkitagen (pronounced- skit-a-gin). Shkitagen is a tinder fungus used as a fire keeper. Once an ember meets shkitagen it will not go out but smolders slowly in the fungal matrix, holding it’s heat. Even the smallest spark, so fleeting and easily lost, will be held and nurtured if it lands on a cube of shkitagen.

In recovery, the “shkitagen” for sacred fire is found in the wisdom of mature guides and sponsors. Protecting the sacred fire within means to cherish the wisdom and knowledge of the elders in recovery and those who maintain a deep commitment to sobriety and emotional growth. It means to remain closely connected to those who have guided you to a place of sobriety. There must be a commitment to remain hungry for sobriety, spiritual and emotional growth or the sacred fire of the heart will wane. Many who have experienced long term sobriety have left their “shkitagen” in recovery untended and as a result no longer have a hunger and thirst for personal growth. Their sacred fire has burned out and is now cold.  The fire within must be renewed. Others have allowed their sacred fire to burn toward materialism and self absorbed living. They have lost their balance and allowed their fire to burn out of control with little perspective. They endanger their sacred fire to be suffocated and risk the positive attributes attained in recovery to be destroyed.

Recovery fueled by a strong sacred fire within will stand the tests and tribulations of addiction recovery. However, it will be necessary to maintain the sacred fire by burning the underbrush of resentment and other distractions that threaten to extinguish the sacred fire of recovery.

The Way of the Windigo

Series Three: Blog Thirty-Five

The Windigo is a legendary monster of the Anishinaabe native American people. It is the villain of a tale told on freezing nights in the North woods. As the legend is told, during cold freezing nights you can feel the Windigo monster lurking behind you as you walk thru the woods. It is a being in the shape of an outsized man, ten feet tall, with frost-white hair hanging from its shaking body. With arms like tree trunks, feet as big as snowshoes, it travels easily through the blizzards of the hungry time, stalking its terrified traveler. The hideous stench of its carrion breath poisons the clean scent of snow as it pants behind. Yellow fangs hang from its mouth that is raw where it has chewed off its lips from hunger. Most telling of all, its heart is made of ice.

Windigo stories were told around camp fires to scare children into safe behavior.  Windigos are not born, they are made. They are human beings who have become cannibal monsters. Their bite transforms victims into cannibals.

Addicts, too, evolve into cannibals of life experience like the Windigo. They never get enough of what they really don’t want. Addictive craving pushes them to care more about satisfying their own addictive urge than anything else.

The truth is that there is a Windigo nature in everybody. We all need to learn to recoil from the greedy part of ourselves. There is a dark and light side in everyone’s life. It is important to recognized the power in the dark side of life and to learn not to feed it. Habits that become overindulgent and self-destructive represent the Windigo nature. Seeking out to fulfill lustful desires for possessions and acquisition, not for the need but for the greed triggers the Windigo nature to flourish. Ultimately, your heart will become more like ice and you will begin to distance yourself with indifference to other people’s experience of life. The trials and tribulations of others become simple facts and you become less connected to others around you.

Compulsive overconsumption fuels the Windigo monster that lives within each of us. People live their lives with the fallacy that human consumption has no consequences. Indulgent living that was once considered wasteful is now considered success by many. A consumption driven mindset is presented as a high quality lifestyle but it eats away at the core being within. People never get enough. There is a craving for more and more. It is a like a black hole of the stomach that never gets filled.

When you are not careful you allow the “market” to define what you value.  The common good depends upon lavish lifestyles that enrich the seller while bankrupting the soul and the resources of the earth.

It is helpful to assess the Windigo thinking that exists within your life experience. Addicts who have learned to come to terms with their own limits are signposts to the rest of the world to manage the Windigo monster that lives within.

Simple Surrender

Series Three: Blog 36

We live sophisticated lives. People multitask and move about with jet speed. When things don’t go as planned we obsess about fixing what is broken. The amazing world of technology has helped to fix many things. We call people around the world on our cell phones. We text our messages and have conversations back and forth with people in various areas of the globe. I have planted new sod in my backyard. Today I am traveling and am concerned about the need to continue to water the new sod while I am gone. No problem. I simply purchased a timer for my water hose with a wand and can start and stop it with an app on my phone. Farmers in western Kansas who till thousands of acres operate their irrigation systems in the same manner. Today’s technology is amazing!

However, technology fuels an illusion that we have a sense of control when we really don’t. With all the gadgets, apps and evolving automation that is present in our world, we have precious little control over the people we love. If only we could make them robots and do exactly what we programmed them to do! But, it doesn’t work that way. When children choose to disobey or live a lifestyle which we disapprove, no matter how hard we try we cannot make them do what we think is best. Yet we try so hard! We deceive ourselves into believing that if we caretake, our loved ones eventually do what we want them to. We tell ourselves they will be so glad and grateful that we paved the way for them. Like Ralphie in the Christmas Story who daydreamed that he would be the teacher’s star pupil and be adored and loved by her and every other student in class, we have to wake up and smell the coffee. You cannot control anyone other than your own attitude and actions in life. It is a simple but powerful reality.

Most people don’t believe this. If I set the alarm, I can remind my husband to go to the AA meeting. I will set all of his medication in a daily pill box next to his bed on the nightstand, and then he will not forget to take his meds. Surely, if I remind him how old he is, he will realize he cannot do what the doctor has already warned him not to do. If I walk on eggshells, then maybe she won’t blame me for everything under the sun! With fury I will rag and nag on my loved one about their sugar intake when the doctor told them that as a diabetic they will need to change their relationship with sugar! But, it never works! Yet, we continue to do more and more of what was never effective. Still, we trudge on thinking that this time or perhaps today my loved one will see what they never saw before and change their ways. There is not gadget, app or other form of technology to make you let go of what you cannot control. Control is as addictive as any process or substance ever was. I know people who have lost their health and their very lives intent on controlling what they cannot. Gabor Mate in his book The Body Keeps the Score shared his research of women and men whose poor health with cancer and autoimmune diseases were correlated to their extreme codependent behavior. They were trying to control what they cannot control to the extreme.

Listed are a few helpful considerations:

Listen to yourself. It’s not the behavior of the other guy that is driving you crazy, it’s you! When you stop and listen to yourself, you hear the lament and complaint that has built to a level of explosion inside you. With exasperation, you tell yourself no matter what you do, you can’t get h/her to do what is right. You are correct. So why do you keep doing what doesn’t work and what causes you to burn emotional BTU’s and even destroy your health? They are not the problem anymore. You are because you won’t simply surrender and let go of trying to control what you cannot. You need a reality check. Go to a Codependency Anonymous (CODA) 12-step meeting, or an Adult Children’s Anonymous (ACA), or an Al-Anon meeting. Listen to what people who struggle with what you are battling and simply do whatever they tell you.

Let Go of what you cannot control! Letting go is like jumping off a 60-foot cliff into a lake. It’s far enough to think about it on the way down. No one wants to experience the sensation of free falling. Grasping for thin air is not only exasperating, it is scary as hell. It is overwhelming and you won’t be able to do it yourself. You need to go a meeting, sit down listen to the stories, tell your own, and then with cursing, tears and resignation simply surrender to a Higher Power. It is simple but who said simple fits with easy?

Build boundaries to care for yourself not to control the other person. By now your intelligence tells you that what you are doing is ridiculous. It tells you that if you operated your professional life with the strategy you are trying to control a loved one’s behavior, you would have been fired a long time ago. So stop and build a boundary with consequences to take care of you. There are no boundaries without consequences. You only have a request. You haven’t set boundaries which is why you are in the predicament you are in. So, sit with your 12-step support group and ask them to help you figure out the boundaries you need to establish around the issue of control that has rendered you stuck. Carefully consider appropriate consequences that fit the situation and that you are willing to follow through with. This is the toughest step with surrender. It will trigger all the abandonment issues that you ever had. Lean into the fear and pain of abandonment. If you need to take a timeout and do inpatient work on your own stuff, then do it. Unless you face and address your historical abandonment and neglect issues you won’t follow through with boundaries. Boundaries are life-giving. You can lecture about them to your loved one, but they only become effective with quiet implementation on your part.

Simple surrender is seldom a one and done experience. Surrender is not like some Christians describe as being “born again”! Surrender requires daily practice. It becomes a daily exercise regimen that you practice every day. Learn to live your day in tight 24-hour compartments. Live out each day one hour at a time, practicing surrender each hour. Some days will be smeared with a lot of failure. You must take yourself by the nap of the neck and surrender the other person again and again. Your commitment must not be to perfection but to circling back and renewing your commitment, to let go of what you cannot control, and to never give up coming back to surrender.

Celebrate your brave step of surrender and enjoy the empowerment that it brings. Letting go is relieving and releasing a 900-pound gorilla from your back. It does feel like being “born again”. You will see life with renewed energy and perspective. Even though the challenges around you remain the same, you will be empowered to do what you need to do to care for yourself. Surrender is not letting go of caring for others. It is prioritizing self-care with effective life giving boundaries. Do it! You matter! No one is going to come and rescue you. You are the lifeguard. Save yourself and celebrate life.

A Need for Unity and Connection

Series Three:  Blog Thirty

We are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided.” —J.K. Rowling, (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire)

There are forces in life that divide and separate. Race, class, religion, income inequality and many other designations categorize and label people and their life experience. Because of these divisions, our understanding of each other suffers. As a result, we isolate and fail to see the connections that we all share. Comparison and competition also divide people. Children learn to compete and compare very early. There is a place for competition, and it is commonplace for people to compare. Without checks and balances, competition and comparison become a cancer that eats away at the fibers of life that connect and create community. Forcefully, the energy of competition forges a zero-sum mentality of winners and losers, haves and have nots and us versus them. When the emphasis of comparison and competition become imbalanced, the spirit of cooperation shrinks.

Feelings are the network that connect people. Sadness, loneliness, fear and insecurity bond the wealthy to the poor. Only when we focus attention to our different conditions do we separate. We become judgmental which isolates. Certainly, inequities must be discussed and remedied.  We are more likely to create resolution when we can find a common thread that weaves our hearts together. Emotional experience is the tapestry that weaves the hearts of us all together as one. Oppression, suffering, and struggle are common stuff that make up life for everyone.

Everyone suffers defeat. We all experience disappointment when things do not turn out the way we hoped. Like a river, there is ebb and flow in life. When defeat and disappointment are minimized or ignored, it fractures the spirit of community. We begin to pretend that life is different than it really is. We hide the hurt and pain and begin to separate from others who we think are successful. Our failures begin to magnify. We conceal our pain, and loneliness intensifies. Study the following considerations.

Listen: Take a deep breath and slow the frenzy of life. Take time to focus on listening to another’s plight and circumstance. Don’t offer suggestions for solution. Just walk alongside and identify with the life experiences shared with another. Contemplate being in their shoes with their perspective. Avoid judgment, and just be with the other person. Practice being in their skin the best you can.  Sit with the discomfort of not knowing a resolution and feel the burden of another. Healing happens through connection of feelings, not through cold rapped out counsel of what to do next.

First feel before you try to fix: The emotions that come with uncertainty are scary. There is a compulsion to rush toward fixing a problem shared by another. It is easier to argue about how to solve the problem of poverty in the world than to sit with those who suffer and experience the overwhelming feelings of loss of power, food insecurity and life. The deeper we connect with the emotions of those who suffer, the clearer a solution will arise on the horizon. When counseling someone suffering from addiction, it is helpful and healing to simply sit with the feelings of desperation and loss. It is tempting to want to immediately set up a recovery program to fix and rebuild a healthy life. Taking time to feel the emotions that an addict experiences can easily get lost in the chaos that is presented. However, it is healing to sit with the groan and the moan of emotional pain.

Bond through Identification: It takes courage to identify with someone who suffers in ways that scare you. It means you must crawl inside their shoes and walk through what they have experienced. Emotionally, this takes hard work. Others’ behavior can feel repelling and disgusting. It is much easier to judge and label people. Addictive behavior can be this way. When people relate to an addict with pronouns like “they” or “this population” it can create distance from the individual. Yet, the essence of being an addict is “wanting what I want when I want it”. Everybody knows what this experience is like. An addict is simply powerless to stop the compulsion without help.

For the past 27 years, I have treated sex offender behavior. I can honestly say that I have never listened to a story of sex offending behavior that I could not relate to. It is not because I have struggled with wanting to sexually offend someone or that I can relate to a particular sadistic offense. Rather, it is because I know what it is like to want what I want when I want it. So can you. Every sex offending story that I have heard included a need for control. Everyone can relate to this need. The capacity to identify lies within each of us. In the field of treatment of sex addiction behavior there has been a stronger need to define the difference between sex offending and sex addiction. Of course there are differences between pathologies. However, I have experienced more healing with clients through identifying likenesses than underscoring differences. While being a sex addict does not necessarily mean that you will break the law through child molestation or sexual assault, it is an offending behavior. Partners to sex addicts will substantiate this reality. Bonding through identification means only that you are willing to connect through common shared brokenness.

We all share the same river. It flows beneath us and through us. When we connect to the whole of life, it has the power to soften and open our hearts to each other. We may speak different languages, and live very different lives, but when the river swells through brokenness and struggle it pulls us toward each other. May we never forget the power of connection through common shared brokenness.

Dealing with the Rendezvous of Painful Memories

Series Three: Blog Twenty-Nine

Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get”—Forrest Gump

Pain and addiction can meet up like a blind date for an addict. On any given day, physical and emotional pain can dominate. When they do it is intense. Addicts are not stupid. We want to avoid pain just like the next guy. The challenge in recovery is to find relief through connection with others and to not isolate and reach for unhealthy ways to mask the pain that rivets the soul.

Here is an example of what I mean. I decided to visit my oldest brother Sonny who is now confined to a nursing home. I traveled 4 hours from my sister’s house in East Central Illinois to the boot heel of Missouri where he lives. When I arrived, I was told to go to room 25 and so I did, but he was not there. Eventually, I find him in an open-room class doing a craft with others that a kindergarten kid would engage. At first, I did not recognize him. When I did, I put my arm around him and told him “This is Kenny your brother!” He thought I was “Ken Harper” an old preaching colleague from his days of being a pastor. Sonny suffers from Lewy Body’s Dementia (LBD). It is a form of progressive dementia, second to Alzheimer’s in commonality. Sufferers have similar symptoms as Alzheimer’s with distinct differences. Difficulty concentrating and confusion are common. However, symptoms of Parkinson’s with slow movement and tremors and hallucinations also define LBD patients. Sonny suffers from both. It also has affected his speech which is garbled. I could only understand one or two words from each paragraph of speech. He knew I could not comprehend and was frustrated. He tried to speak louder. It didn’t help. He was frustrated and desperate. I tried to say something that would indicate that I understood him. But the more I tried, the more difficult it was to comprehend.  Finally, we just stared at each other.

For a moment I leave the room in my mind to past days of memory of my relationship with Sonny when I was much younger. He is 11 years older than me. Like a mental rolodex, I remembered stories of him being really good at running the mile in high school. Today, he is bound to a wheelchair. He could not see without his glasses. Once playing basketball, he broke his glasses and dribbled the ball out of bounds because he could not see the stripe. Little chance he could have seen the basket! Once he lost his shoe in a snow blizzard walking home from school and he showed up at home freezing with one shoe missing. I recalled visiting him when he lived in St. Louis and worked downtown. I would go to work with him and would explore downtown St. Louis as a kid. I hung out at Union Station watching the trains come and go. Once I met Paul Silas and Lou Hudson who were then professional basketball players for the then NBA St. Louis Hawks.

Later Sonny got religion and became a pastor. I was one too. I always looked up to Sonny as my oldest brother. But when he became a pastor, the tables turned. I pastored in a huge church out West, and he would look to me as an expert. I was awkward and uncomfortable. I always wanted him to be the older brother. I remembered when he and another older brother Dave hung me out of an upstairs window by my ankles. I thought they would drop me, but they didn’t.

Then, I thought of a most bizarre behavior. When I was a small boy Sonny would rip off a branch from a weeping willow tree in our neighbor’s backyard and strip the leaves except for the last 2-3 inches at the tip of the branch. He would then walk up and down alleys in the South end of our town, shaking the branch in front of him and talking to himself. I remember seeing him do this on numerous occasions.  I never knew what it was about, and no one ever questioned him. It was just playfully referred to as “there goes Sonny playing “horsey tails”. I don’t even know how the description “horsey tails” came into existence. It just seemed odd and strange that no one ever stopped to ask what he was saying or “What in the hell was that all about?” No one ever knew.

In a flash all of these thoughts came to me. I didn’t understand him then and I wasn’t understanding him now. I smiled and put my hand on his shoulder as the nurse whisked him away for lunch in spite of his protestation. I sat there kind of numb and feeling really helpless. It was really painful. Sonny was in physical pain. Some time back he fell and broke his neck. He healed from that injury but continued to fall a lot.

Emotionally, I found myself vulnerable. Emotional pain closed in like a vice grip. I looked around me. There was so much that triggered memories of past abuse. The religious symbols that dominated the nursing home began to feel creepy. I had to get out of there. I am pretty good at self-containment. As I left, I made my way to the dining hall to say goodbye to my brother. He was the only one in the dining hall. He was wearing a bib and had his lunch all over him. He was mumbling words that I did not understand. I squeezed his shoulders and said goodbye.

When I got to my car. I let out a scream and cried a little. The emotional pain was not about visiting a nursing home. I figure there is a good chance someday it will be my home. It was about desperately wanting to connect and feeling so isolated. It was a Deja vu experience of my childhood. It was an experience that triggered so much of my own acting out in sexual addiction. I have been in recovery for 32 years. That said, when I pulled out of the parking lot, the only thing I wanted to do was act out. I was desperate to get away from the pain I was feeling.  I felt a little numb and the pull to further escape was great. I wanted to find porn or do anything to act out. I took a deep breath, got my lunch, got on the freeway and drove 4 hours until I got back to my sister’s house and connected with her and Eileen. There I began to feel grounded and safe again.

I hadn’t prepared myself for what I encountered. I know to do different. I am a veteran in recovery. I know to insulate myself with “what if” plans, healthy connection with Eileen and others in recovery for support. I left unprepared for the moment I would face. I have brought myself back to center, and I will do better. I have done better in the past.

Here are a few things I will do better, and you might consider as well.

  • Life is meant to be lived forward but is understood backward” -Soren Kierkegaard. My colleague Marilyn Murray taught me that most emotional responses to life difficulties merit a “4-6” on a Likert scale of intense feelings of 0 to 10. When the level of intense pain that is triggered is an 8 to 10, then likely it is triggering an unresolved painful past memory that is not about the current stress at all. This has helped me throughout my years of recovery. I have always been willing to look back for understanding. It helps to recognize what the intensity is all about and how to bring myself back to center.
  • Insulate, don’t isolate. Entering the corridor of past abuse without support is shortsighted and will usually result in self-sabotage behaviors. It is human to sometimes forget this truth. That said, when isolation is recognized, reaching out and driving down a stake for connection is a solid strategy to avoid further sliding toward acting out.
  • Just be honest about your lapse behavior. Even if relapse occurs, it is important to say it straight without minimization to others in your recovery program. It drains shame, solidifies stability, and re-connects your sobbing hurting child with healthy self-nurture and care from others.
  • Don’t wallow in vulnerability. When you do not utilize your recovery tools, it is easy to wallow in guilt and self-blame. You are likely to say, “I know better than to travel into a high-risk situation and not recognize the need for self-care—what’s wrong with me?” Just answer the question. “There is nothing wrong with me. I am human and do make mistakes. I am the kind of person who, when I make mistakes, I bring myself back to center and take something meaningful with me from the mistake and move forward. This is my destiny”. This was an appropriate response to my lapse and mistake in visiting my brother. Wallowing in the pain of the mistake or the experience as a victim is like trying to beat yourself up to a better place. It does not ever work.

Painful memories will be triggered. Sometimes like the box of chocolates. You never know what you are goanna get on a given day. Yet, anchoring yourself in your humanity with humility will bring you back to the center of recovery. 

A Healing Philosophy of the Polygraph

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Series Three: Blog Twenty-Eight

During the early part of the 20th century a number of individuals intersected with separate research development that aided the creation of the first polygraph used in 1921. It has evolved and has been modified many times to its present use in deception detection. Today there is a variety of traditional analogue and modern digitized polygraph models that can be used.

The quality of polygraph research has improved considerably over the past three decades.  Its value is likely to increase as research continues to improve and address its current shortcomings. While it may not be possible to improve the polygraph to the level where it can truly be thought of as ‘The Lie Detector’, it does appear to hold the potential of becoming one of the most effective tools for the purpose of aiding in the detection of deception.

Therapeutically, a polygraph can be useful. Throughout the years as a therapist, a pretest sexual history interview has always yielded more sexual behavior history than I have been able to unearth in my own exploration. It is a support to an addict in recovery.  A sexual history polygraph supporting that what has been shared by an addict to a therapist is complete and truthful is a form of validation.

Further, I have used a polygraph with an addict who tends to piecemeal addict behavior in disclosure. This behavior is agonizing torture to an addict partner and family. The partner and family wonder with anxiety “when will the next shoe drop”.  The polygraph process circumvents the dribbling out of addict behavior in the disclosure process.

At times it has been helpful to utilize maintenance polygraph as an accountability tool for an addict. It gives reassurance to a partner who has experienced broken trust, particularly with an addict who has continued to lie and relapse in addict behavior.

At times an addict can distress on a question that they have not lied about but they did not reveal the entire truth around. For example, Joe who came to see me was on probation for cocaine abuse. During his maintenance polygraph he was asked a relevant question, “During the past 6 months of his probation had he used cocaine. He said “no” but distressed on the question. Upon review, during the past 6 months he disclosed that he attended a family gathering on Good Friday. He walked to the backyard patio and immediately noticed that many were smoking pot. He knew he needed to leave and that his probation terms would not allow him to stay.  He was polite and said hello to family members, excused himself and left. However, he did not disclose this information to his therapist, probation officer or the polygrapher. Therefore, when asked the question about cocaine use he distressed. Upon thorough discussion, the question was reviewed again and he was non-distressed when answering “No”. The polygraph was helpful to unearth behaviors that were compartmentalized. Compartmentalization is a common struggle for addicts in early recovery.

That said, it is my experience that polygraphs can be abused during recovery. Here are some considerations when employing a polygraph in an addict’s recovery.

  • Addict history polygraph. An addict history polygraph is extensive. Most addicts are poly-addicted or compulsive about more than one behavior. It is helpful to do an extensive history that traces each addictive behavior. An addict needs to recognize the cocktail of life experience that is used to numb out the pain. Addicts need to know not so much “why the addiction?” but “why the pain?” It is helpful to understand the magnitude of the pain by tracing the history of numbing out what hurts thru compulsive/addictive behaviors. After a therapist has completed an addict history interview, a polygrapher will do a more thorough pre-test interview that most often goes much deeper and excavates even more detail before relevant questions are designed or given. Remember, an addict in recovery has learned to ignore the obvious and embrace the improbable. Telling the truth with thorough detail is not a 90 degree turn for an addict. Details that have been compartmentalized or hidden take time to unearth.
  • Maintenance polygraphs can be utilized to provide partner safety and accountability for an addict. That said, I have concern that this use of polygraphy can be abused. It has proven helpful for addicts who continue to lie or withhold information about addict behavior to submit to a maintenance polygraph about behaviors that are minimized, withheld or blatantly lied about. The problems that I have noticed is when an addict partner will declare they need a polygraph to feel safe in the relationship. This may be true. But, it also may be an attempt to manipulate what they cannot control. What would be better is the partner utilizing their own tools for centering and caring with the help of a support group. Obviously, in order for a polygraph to be most helpful in this case, consultation with a seasoned addiction specialist is necessary. I don’t support partner’s demanding that an addict submit to a polygraph without consultation with a proven professional addict therapist. Standardization with the science of polygraphy is still evolving. It cannot be applied like a home test for COVID. There are many considerations beyond the skill and perception of a partner whose trust has been broken. Some couples have relied on a quarterly, semiannual or annual polygraph for years. To those who do I would ask how long do you want to rely on a machine to build trust with your addict partner? Do you want to sleep with a polygraph between you and your partner? There is no one right answer. It takes courage to answer questions like these. Please consult with a therapist before engaging polygraphy!
  • The alchemy of a polygraph requires training and experience.  It is unwise to mix and match different issues when utilizing polygraphy to get at the truth. When you mix and match issues like sexual fidelity with money management or ask vague questions over a long period of time, the reliability of the polygraph examination suffers. A trained experienced polygrapher knows this. However, it has been my experience that some ignore this concern and ask relevant questions that are not so relevant. Make sure your polygrapher is relevantly trained.
  • Polygraphy requires an environment that treats the examinee with dignity and respect. It is intimidating to have wires attached to your body to measure physiological responses to questions that are asked. It is important that a polygrapher treat each examinee with dignity and respect. It has been my experience that many polygraphers that I have engaged do not. Some treat examinees very unprofessional, condemnatory and rude. Don’t ever use a polygrapher who is condescending and bad mannered. Only use polygraphers who will treat you with professionalism.

Polygraphy can be very helpful tool in healing when used by those who have been trained to administer and utilize it as a healing strategy in therapy.

Confessions and Memories

Series Three: Blog Twenty-Seven

What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it.” ― Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I am sitting in front of the home I grew up in my hometown. Memories flood my mind like a rolodex that won’t stop turning. The memories are very real. The current reality makes me question whether or not the past could have ever been true. The house I grew up on 17th street is dilapidated. It needs painting and a major overhaul. Our neighbors, Mr. Hill and the Selbys, are long since dead and gone. Their homes are an absolute disaster. Selby’s house used to be the nicest on the block. Mr. Hill was forever doing upgrades to his house. He was always painting the gutters, the trim or something. Now his home is in such disarray and decay it is hard to believe anyone actually lives in the house. Both his and the Selbys’ house should be demolished. Someone should follow suit with the home I grew up as well. As I assess the current existence of decay of my home, the memories just keep flooding in.

Things I remember:

…. I remember throwing a rubber ball against the wooden steps playing a make believe baseball game with my favorite team, the Chicago Cubs, in mind. I threw the ball so many times against the steps that the wood broke and began to collapse.

…. I remember the bare spots in our front yard that formed first, second, and third base from playing baseball with my brother and my friends in the neighborhood.

…. I remember the upstairs window my older brothers would hang me out by my ankles, threatening to let me drop, just for the hell of it.

…. I remember the early days when we had to walk across town to go to church because we didn’t have a car.

…. I remember the boredom that came with Sunday church. Three hours in the morning and another 2 hours at night. It ruined watching the start of NFL games in the Fall and major league baseball on Sunday afternoons in the Summer.

It’s amazing how things that happened over 50 years ago can be so real in the here and now! Sometimes the bad memories wake me up to be relived anew. They roll around in my mind like a dryer that never turns off. Experiential therapies have been helpful.  Hypnosis, EMDR, regressive therapy, somatic experience, guided meditation and music have all eased the compulsion of thought. Yet, the experiences that I have absorbed from home to church and everywhere in between are part of my blood and bone. Misbeliefs, abuse, theological brainwashing, patriarchal domination no longer rule or control my behavior. However, they are forever etched in my psychological DNA and color my ever-day experience. I have learned to sit in a room experiencing life in the present while being aware of the cycle of past experiences that constantly spin and roll in the background of my mind.

Here are some things I have learned from nostalgia:

Nostalgia helps me to embrace feelings. Going home to the place I grew up in reminded me to come home to myself. Yearning for yesterday once more produces feelings of loneliness, emptiness, and wondering what might have been if things then were different. Living in feelings of the past can trigger a desire to focus on the future and never really be present in the here and now. However, I have learned to shift the experience of nostalgic feelings as a reminder to come home to my present mind where loneliness can disappear. Sitting with past nostalgia is an invitation to enter the suffering of present struggles in the friendly safe confines of your own heart. Home is your island of self within which you can practice being gentle and kind. You do not need to fix or change anything—just be.

Memories are best managed through mindful meditation. You may feel discomfort from the vacuum that exists within you. There is a tendency to fill the vacuum with activity and attempts to connect to others through electronic devices. Yet, being busy to connect will not make you less lonely. You can be surrounded by people and immersed in activity yet experience intense loneliness. Meditation slows your life so that you can notice what you feel inside.

Sitting is a revolution that connects nostalgia to the present moment. When you are not in good relationship with your romantic partner, family, friends and the world around you, practice sitting. Bring relaxation to your body by noticing the in breath and out breathe. Observe your feelings without trying to change them. Notice your thoughts and let them be as they are. Recognize your true self as the sky and your feelings and thoughts like the clouds. They will come and go but your true self remains the sky. It will bring calmness and connection to yourself.

Memories point to the reality that the way out is in. Memories have taught me that when my mind races about past abusive experiences or current suffering, the best way to work through unwanted thought is to go inward. Your body is your home. Your body is your feet, your lungs etc. Slow down your busyness to notice your lungs through the in breath and out breath. Notice what your body is feeling or experiencing. You won’t be able to connect with others if you cannot connect with yourself. So embrace your feelings with tenderness. You will find yourself when you feel lost not by going outside yourself but by going within.

Memories managed effectively produce inspiration for you and others who are connected to you. Going home to yourself will allow you to work through nostalgia and accept life as it is. It will help you to be present moment by moment. In this way nostalgic memories will not dominate you. You will engage freedom from past experiences. As you provide your own warmth and safety you will be an inspiration to those who are connected to you. Your experience of inner calm and connection will inspire others to go within. You will help others to find sanctuary and warmth in their own “home”. The illusion of nostalgia is resolved when you practice sitting with your feelings past and present. Coming home to yourself merges past feelings to present realities of experience and fosters a refuge of safety and warm connection.

“I’ve Already Done My Work”

Series Three: Blog Twenty-Five

When I was a 9th grade boy I got a summer job detasseling corn. Detasseling corn is removing the immature pollen—the tassel—from the tops of the corn and placing it on the ground. It is a form of pollination control, employed to cross-breed two varieties of corn. Every corn plant has both male and female parts. Removing the tassels from all the plants of one variety leaves the grain that is growing on those plants to be fertilized by the tassels of the other, resulting in a hybrid.

Today most of the tassels are removed by machine. However, when I was a kid it was done manually. Kids from my home town would be hired and bussed to farms north of town. We would work all day detasseling and then bussed back home. If you were lucky you were able to ride on a detasseling machine which allowed you to pull the tassels off corn plants without having to walk through the rows of corn. It was much easier to ride than walk. When you walked the rows it was hot. Early in the morning corn plants gathered dew from the night before. If it rained the night before you would get soaking wet and the rows were a muddy mess.  The sunshine increased the humidity and it was suffocating. 

I never got a job on the machine. I always had to work with a crew of walkers. One guy on our crew named Chuck would always end his day by 9am. Everyone else worked until 5pm. Chuck would say “I’ve done my work, now it’s your turn”. He figured he had enough of detasseling and simply waited in the bus for everyone else to do their work. There were thousands of acres of corn that needed to be detasseled, but Chuck thought he had done his work. He was just waiting on the rest of us to do our work so he could go home. Sometimes he would impatiently prod us to hurry up so he could go home. Chuck really believed that he had done his work!.

As a therapist treating addiction, I hear this refrain all too often. I hear it from addicts who tell me they don’t need to do counseling or go to a 12-step group because they have “done all their work” even though they are mystified as to why they relapsed. I hear it from partners of addicts who don’t want to go to therapy or join a support group. They tell me they previously went to therapy and have done their work. Now their addict partner is the identified patient. It’s like they are waiting for Bozo Bill or Screwed Up Sally to get their act together and everything will be just fine! I wonder if they ever met Chuck from my detasseling days.

As a therapist, I approach treatment from a systemic point of view. Like the mobile over the baby’s crib, when you strike one butterfly, all the butterflies respond in movement. So it is in treating family dysfunction and addictive behavior. When one acts out there is a response by everyone in the family system and all need to be treated.

Addictive families want to ignore the obvious and embrace the improbable. If Bozo Bill will just stop acting out, the rest of us in this family will be just fine! Even though his wife is depressed and acting out by binging on food and the kids are enmeshed with mom, getting high on drugs with their friends.

A partner to a sex addict often thinks that the addict is the problem. The idea is to send the addict away and get h/her fixed with therapy. The partner is devastated from betrayal but doesn’t want to do therapy because the addict is the problem. Really? It’s sort of like a pedestrian being run over by a car while crossing the street.  Paramedics are rushed to the scene and pick up the driver and rush him to the emergency room because he doesn’t know how to drive and needs help! The partner has a broken heart and needs therapeutic care for healing, but argues  they are fine.  It is common to hear a partner say “just fix Bozo Bill. I  already did my work in the past”!

Don’t get caught becoming like my detasseling buddy Chuck. Here are some considerations for healing.

  1. The work in building healthy relationships never ends. There never is a time that addressing issues on your side of the street is over. That said, the work you will need to do is not about taking responsibility for your partner’s addiction or actions. That’s not about you. However, there is need to gain support toward healing the painful aftermath and carnage created by your partner’s acting out. There is work to be done in addressing your contribution to intimacy problems in the relationship. You didn’t cause the addictive behavior, but you do make a contribution to intimacy distance. Focus on your self-care and your responses in the relationship. There’s always work to be done.
  2. Don’t assign or become the “Identified Patient”. The relationship work that needs to be done requires work by both parties. There is no “Identified Patient”.  It is like the analogy of the three legs to a stool. Two legs represent the two individuals’ issues and the third leg represents couples issues. Without each issue being seriously addressed, the relationship will remain hobbled.
  3. Sometimes when a partner in a relationship says they have done all their work, it is a way to avoid having to face the question of whether they want to be in the relationship at all. Many times partners focus on fixing the addict with recovery and therapy to avoid facing the decision to leave the relationship. When all the attention is placed on the addict in recovery, a partner sidesteps their own unhappiness and the fear of disrupting family dynamics with a separation or divorce.
  4. It requires work to face painful decisions. Taking care of yourself in addiction and in partnership requires making painful choices. Setting boundaries requires following through with consequences when a boundary is not honored. In order to have a secure relationship, you will need to let go of what you cannot control. This is always difficult. It engages recovery work. Surrender is never one and done. When your relationship is stuck in a painful, destructive place, there is always work to be done by both parties. When you truly have done all of your relational work, you will be at the end of your life. You will be dead. Don’t allow yourself to be disillusioned by my childhood buddy, Chuck. There’s always work for you to do in building a healthy relationship.
© Psychological Counseling Services