Series Three: Blog Forty-Four

“Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try—

No Hell below us—

Above us only Sky—

You may say I’m a dreamer

But I’m not the only one

I hope someday you’ll join us

And the world will be as one”—-

John Lennon

Spirituality is an important quest in addiction recovery whether you seek healing through a 12-step program or otherwise. Some people say that spirituality is the quality of being concerned with the human spirit as opposed to material or physical things. Recovery requires tuning into your spirit in the presence of chaos in your physical existence.

I grew up understanding that spirituality had everything to do with an individual relationship with God. Since I was a Christian, God always included Jesus. This complex journey led me through a labyrinth of contradiction that required more possibility than one world religion or all of them combined provided. Did I really believe that everyone had to accept Jesus to go to heaven? Did I really believe that there was one sacred book or was there many that God wrote or inspired others to compose? Did I really believe that spirituality required a religious reference? Could someone experience spirituality through mathematics, astronomy or many other sciences? Why did science and spirituality need to be so juxtaposed? Why does spirituality demand that someone create a concept of God, traditional or otherwise? Could the principles of 12-step recovery be helpful without identifying a known Higher Power? Black and white answers to these questions and many more did not satisfy or create a space of inner peace for me and many others who journeyed through their own labyrinth.

Many people have concluded that spirituality is obtuse to the experience of life no matter how you define it. If you are atheist does that mean you cannot be spiritual? Could there be a better word to describe the non-material aspects of human existence? We do have a vast vocabulary. Why insist on one or a few words to describe human adventure? Some people prefer “life force”, “energy” and other words to replace the word spirituality to describe their life experience. I am resolved that the spiritual journey in life can be described in a myriad of ways. For me, spirituality includes many paths that involves a vast vocabulary to describe its meaningfulness.

Here are a few forethoughts about spirituality to reflect along the journey of addiction recovery.

Connection: I contend that humanity is social. One of the basic needs that exists is the longing to connect with another in some way. I have a neighbor who is reclusive. Many times he will not acknowledge or say hello when I notice him in his yard. Yet, he does have a network of connecting that is important to him. It just doesn’t include me! Spirituality embraces the desire to matter and to connect with another human being. Isolation destroys recovery for addicts. People who pull away from the connectivity of a 12-step group replace the energy with a relationship to a drug of choice. Vulnerability is the conduit for connection in a 12-step recovery group. Sharing the raw and rugged reality of your relationship with addiction is met with acceptance. It is matched with other stories who share the same reality. Like magic, when this occurs you come back. When it doesn’t happen you go back to your addiction. Human connection is critical to the development of a spirituality that heals addictive behavior.

Paradox: The story of recovery always includes paradox. Who would have thought so and so would have become a disciple in a 12-step group? This remark is hallmark throughout 12-step community. There are so many paradoxes in recovery living, such as “to win you must learn how to lose”, “to be in control you must learn to let go”, “to connect you must first detach” etc. Spirituality is a journey of paradox. For many years I conducted a spirituality group. Often, I would pose a speculation of thought that if spirituality was only to be found in the wound, life imperfection, or failure, then which part of your wound or imperfection is most difficult for you to embrace? The question is designed to help identify the experiences of life that you try to avoid. The suggestion is that the painful experiences that you try avoid is likely the very place you might find “God” or cultivate your spirituality.  Frequently, folks didn’t get it. Why would you want to find God there? You mean the painful reality in the wound of infidelity, abusive behavior, or hatred and resentment toward another are places to cultivate spirituality? Isn’t there a better place like a church or a retreat with a spiritual guru or something? The idea that where you have perpetrated pain and suffering for another is antithetical to where most would set up shop to cultivate spirituality. It seems so counterintuitive. Yet, spirituality requires these moments of brokenness to cultivate humility and to connect with remorse. Spiritual enlightenment and transformation occurs when you stalk these moments of shameful behavior. Learning to love yourself in the presence of shame is the workshop of cultivating spirituality.

Tolerance: Tolerance is not just putting up with another person’s differences or idiosyncrasies. It means to care and identify with someone who is different and disagreeable. Tolerance multiplies appreciation for the rich diversity that exists on the earth and promotes deep understanding that all our struggles are the same. It is possible to connect to the same fears and the same sorrows. Most folks are doing the best they can to make life work out. In his book, His Holiness, the Dalai Lama made this appeal to the world, “On some days I think it would be better if there were no religions. All religions and all scriptures harbor potential for violence. This is why we need secular ethics beyond all religions. It is more important for schools to have classes on ethics other than religion. Why? Because it’s more important to be aware of our commonalities than to constantly emphasize what divides us.” This spirit points to the common threads of everyday living that connects humanity. Tolerance moves beyond connection with others whom we share commonality. Connecting through weakness brings people together and is often where we find our bond and common beginnings. Tolerance toward others begins with tolerance within self. It is bedrock to deepening spirituality in the recovery process. Sit with Presence. Society points a finger of disapproval to addicts as numbed and checked out from reality. Yet, most everyone wants to be checked out from discomfort. It’s human nature. During the past few years there has been a revival in the use of psychedelics toward healing mental illness. Psilocybin’s, designer drugs, and other hallucinogens offer encouraging results when utilized by trained therapists in a controlled environment. Michael Pollan in his book, How to Change Your Mind, chronicles the encouraging advances made in offering relief to those tortured with mental illness. Alongside these discoveries it is important to promote the value of sitting in the reality of the present moment and uncovering one’s own brilliance in the average experience of daily living. Rather than pursuing spirituality through the spectacular or through an hallucinogen, there is a way of connecting to what is, without a mind-altering drug experience. It is its paradoxical nature to take what most would want to escape and make the miracle of heaven in the present moment simply by embracing its reality.

The Shame that Binds You

Series Three: Blog Forty-three

I recently visited relatives who live in a small farm community in the Midwest. I was privileged to be invited to a small community coffee. The town’s population was 40. Everyone was pretty much related to each other. It was held in a nondescript farm office. They made the coffee but you bring your own cup. I borrowed one from my relative. There were three other men plus me.

In the beginning everyone was quiet and I stared at the bulletin board and the walls around me. Then, one of the guys began talking about Jerry. He had recently died from a stroke in his old age. These are guys who grew up with each other and interacted for decades. Jerry was single. He was a mama’s boy whose mother had chased away the only two girls who showed interest.  He was described as an eccentric individual with a peculiar pattern of obsessive compulsive behavior. He loved making beer bread on Saturday mornings. For years one of the men attending the coffee would take a bottle of beer to him on Friday so that he could make the bread. Jerry refused to be seen purchasing beer at the grocery. He lived an uneventful life. Jerry went through a midlife crisis.  He broke out and bought a bicycle and started drinking Mountain Dew.

His most neurotic behavior involved the 20 chickens that he raised. Jerry did not eat eggs. He generously distributed them to his neighbors. You became a regular recipient if you engaged conversation and gossip with him. On his basement wall he maintained a detailed account of every egg he ever delivered for 46 years! The record included date, name and the amount of eggs delivered. He delivered 13,646 dozen eggs to those who would gossip with him. Jerry liked to refer to himself as “we”. He would often say to himself “I don’t know why we do this?” However, he continued the count until he got too old to deliver the eggs.

People act obsessive compulsively to reduce fear and anxiety of not being in control. Most addicts can relate to Jerry even though they don’t raise chickens or keep fastidious records of their kind acts to others. They share with Jerry the anxiety and fear of not being in control.

Addicts carry the shame of their parents. This is triggered when a child is put in a position of needing to respond as an adult. There is a myriad of ways that this can happen. Sometimes kids carry their parents’ rage. If you ask them in adulthood what their parents were so angry about, they won’t be able to tell you. Yet, they have adopted a similar anger response to things in life that their parents expressed.

Sometimes generational shame is expressed through depression nourished by mistaken beliefs such as “life is overwhelming and I cannot cope”. During the present moment they won’t be able to tell you why they feel so discouraged. Likely they won’t be aware that they are carrying generational shame through depression.

Roles that children play can also express carried shame. Family roles can be healthy when they are chosen and not assigned. When a child becomes a scapegoat, the family clown or hero, they fill a need that is left unmet by parents who have the responsibility to meet those family needs. Kids make up where they fit into the family. Doing so promotes validation through approval from their parents. Frequently, children lose their sense of self-awareness through identifying with their family roles. They discover their value in what they do rather than who they are. Yet, they can never do enough to fulfill the need for being validated for who they are. This is how children get set up to carry their parents’ shame.

If you are a rager as an adult and don’t know why, it is often because you are carrying your parents’ rage. Dad or mom got the kids’ attention when their needs were expressed through rage. A child absorbs this energy and exercises the same behavior to get the same results. They learn to carry their parents shame by becoming a tough S.O.B. when things don’t work out the way they want. They learn to explode in order to provide the same or opposite results when things did not work out for their parents.

When you trace the feelings that keep you stuck, it will often lead back to shame that has been carried by your mother or father or other significant caregiver. At first it will be confusing, but when you peel back the mistaken beliefs that shroud the dominant feeling, it will lead to a discovery of the shame source that kept your parents stuck. Examine the mistaken belief that energizes your unwanted feelings. Once you uncover it, explore how this same mistaken belief dominated your parents when you were young. This will help you understand what keeps you stuck now.

Generational shame is carried through powerful feelings like, depression, anger, sadness, fear, loneliness etc. It is shrouded in mistaken beliefs that trigger behavior which keep the shame intact. Compulsive behaviors, i.e. addiction and family dysfunction, are fueled by generational shame bound by mistaken beliefs. Even Jerry’s OCD behaviors about counting the eggs he distributed are tied to generational shame. His fear of abandonment and loneliness fueled his generous behavior which was tied to an elusive need for control driven by the generational shame that he carried.

< What are the feelings that keep you stuck?

< What mistaken beliefs shroud the feelings you feel stuck with?

< Trace how your parents may have been stuck in the same feelings with the same mistaken beliefs. This will be the pathway of understanding to how generational shame is passed to you from the previous generation.

The Art of Quieting Your Mind When Distracted

Series Three: Blog Forty-two

The journey in addiction recovery teaches that healing is not a one and done experience. Effectively, we apply the wisdom gained from early experiences in recovery and use it to rebuild healthy behavior and intimacy in relationships. Along the way it is easy to become distracted and derailed from principles of sound recovery. For addicts there are times that your mind races out of control. It might involve a craving for a drug of choice or an unbridled rumination about over control toward someone or some situation. Whatever the thoughts, your monkey brain creates an inner critic that rules. This negative imaging takes you away from centered living.

Self-parenting is a required skill set necessary for addicts to deepen their recovery from sobriety and into the experience of serenity. Getting at root causation for addiction is a journey into family of origin. In this exploration, an addict learns to identify and understand unresolved family-of-origin issues that trigger current addictive behavior. The recovery assignment is to address unmet developmental needs by giving back carried shame to parental caregivers. This process involves a lot of grieving. Treatment helps to accelerate this process. Addicts in recovery learn that the practice of grief is a lifelong journey. Throughout the ups and downs of everyday living, there are many resets and redos in practicing self-parenting.

Here are some suggestions to consider:

Create a still mind away from the daily fray of recovery living through mindful meditation: Mindfulness requires a beginner’s mind. When your mind is empty, it is ready for anything and open to everything. A beginner’s mind is open to numerous possibilities while the expert is open to only a few. Quieting your mind depends upon the skill of meditation. When you meditate you focus on your breath as it rises and falls. When your mind wanders, you simply notice the distraction and bring yourself back to the breath. As you practice, little by little, you will begin to discriminate the raw sensory events from your reaction to them. Eventually, you will experience a gradual stillness within.

Make a list of grievances that painfully distract you from the present: Nothing changes until it is real. (Fritz Perls) Nagging discomfort shows up in many ways. It can be physical and emotional. Physical pain is a way for the body to tell you what is out of balance. It is an alert system signaling that something is out of balance and needs to be addressed. Listen to what your body has to say! Emotionally you feel up and down. Sometimes joyful and sometimes depressed. Listen to your emotions. They will tell you what is out of balance. Upon listening, make a list of issues present and past that trigger emotional pain and anger. It doesn’t matter if on the list is an issue you have previously addressed. If it still causes pain it needs to show up on your list. The list is a way of concretizing what is going on inside of you.

Create a safe spot: You may have completed significant anger work toward a caregiver’s neglect and abandonment. However, as time goes by more anger work is needed. To do this work, you must establish a safe space. Grief work involving anger expression is seldom one and done. It is a lifelong process. Create a place that you can visit old wounds that trigger anger. It can be helpful to have a friend with you who will serve as a fair witness. Direct the anger by focusing on the person who hurt you. Share unedited anger expressions toward the person. Allow the anger to flow and just be there with your feelings. Then, redirect your anger to the issue of abandonment, neglect and unmet need that was so hurtful. Then, redirect your energy of anger toward what you want to create. This is the point where you transform your anger from a negative expression to creating a positive outcome for you. Invest the energy to establish a boundary, and a commitment to love yourself with healthy self-parenting and self-esteem. These steps are not meant to be assembly lined. It is simple but each step will take time. Take whatever time you need.  You do this as many times throughout your life whenever you are aware of the need to grieve. Sometimes people use a tennis racket and a pillow in a garbage bag to express anger. Other times it has been a punching bag, heavy exercise with venting, a long run, or twisting a towel with verbal expression. It can include journaling, writing an article, poetry or music expression. There are many ways to express your anger. Beneath the anger are feelings of sadness, disappointment, regret etc. It is important that you treat each feeling with thoroughness in recognition. Allow yourself to be vulnerable without judgment. There is no room for an inner critical voice to invade this process.  Your safe spot is very important. It can be a physical place.  It is important that you are able to take your safe spot to a mental space that you can access in your mind’s eye because you will not always be able to connect with your physical space. Quieting your mind requires that you periodically will need to take time to work through feelings of grief throughout your lifetime.

Visualize yourself caring for your vulnerable self with kindness and sensitivity. Feeling the raw feelings of hurt, resentment, anger and disappointment is hard work. Keeping the inner critical voice out of the process is even harder work. You will improve through ongoing training and practice. It will be necessary after doing your emotional work that you visualize yourself as one who is capable of expressing feelings. Affirmation and visualization practices is often overlooked by addicts in recovery. It is important to affirm and nurture the work that you do in your safe spot. Affirmations are a powerful antibody to the mistaken beliefs that shame triggers. Visualization is a pre-meditated energizing force that propels transformation of distraction into quieting your mind in recovery.

Working with What is Real in Relationships

Series Three: Blog Thirty-Nine

Power comes from being centered and clear. This is where answers, insights, and lessons will come to the surface of awareness.”

Relationships can be fickle. The more you open your heart and invite someone to be close, the greater likelihood you might encounter conflict that could have been avoided had you chosen to not to be vulnerable. For reasons beyond your control, friendships waver, jobs don’t work out, people suddenly die, and marriages fall apart. There are times that life seems to close in like a vice grip. During these times you feel lonely, isolated and question your ability to make solid decisions. You feel vulnerable to compare what you don’t have to what other’s do have. There are times you must face issues that those around your refuse to acknowledge. You are afraid of other’s judgment. You are sensitive and aware of how much you want other people to accept and approve of your decisions and behavior.

Sometimes you fear other people’s judgment about your behavior. Your fear of their judgment is a way of carrying their shame. You understand their concern around your behavior and you don’t want to disappoint them because you love them very much. However, your awareness takes you to a different place and decision. Your fear of their disapproval is really a way for you to carry their fear of life. This is the way shame is passed from one generation to the next or from one person to another. There is no visible sign but rather it is a relational and transactional experience.

There are times we need to endure and get through rough spots in relationships. There are other times we need to recognize it is time to let go. There are considerations designed to bring you to the center of your soul when the road of life creates unexpected twists and turns.

  1. Calm yourself.  Find a space of acceptance to what is around you. When your relationship gets stuck in a difficult place, embrace what you like and don’t like about where you are at. Feel what you feel. The key is to not to overreact to your feelings. It is critical to finding your way through difficulty. Leaning into discomfort is a way of connecting to the Divine of life.
  2. When relationships are damaged, they require slowing the pace of life, even stopping to address your broken spirit. When you hurt from someone else’s actions you desperately want to know why and seek immediate answers. Reaching desperate for an answer will not help. when you are wounded you need rest to gain healing. The wound needs to rest in order to heal. don’t pick at the sore spot in your relationship. Don’t rub it in the dirt of other people’s opinions. Just sit with what hurts for a season of time so that the wound can heal.
  3. Relax, release and let go. Life can be like fighting against gravity when trying to control someone else’s behavioral response. It’s impossible to control someone else. This is a simple profound truth that some people pound their head against a brick wall before they embrace its reality. Let others be who they are. Tensed or relaxed, like freeway traffic you cannot change the situation. Practice working with rather than against. It will yield daily strength. When you try to control the impossible you exhaust your powers of healing. Learn ways to unwind. Relax your mind and your body. Visualize and meditate. Take a relaxing bath in hot water. Take a walk on the beach. Listen to Buddhist meditation music, get a therapeutic massage, listen to inspiring music, drink hot tea, take in a good movie, practice deep conscious breathing and on and on.  Everyone has their own way. Make a list of what works for you.

The only person that keeps you on the treadmill is you. Create quietness in your mind. Notice the life force in all living things that surround you. Allow your own brilliance to speak to you about your next step toward healing brokenness in your relationship. You will find wisdom to take the next step when you still the noise of your chattering mind and listen to your heart by tuning in to your body and your feelings. This is the way cement your next steps and create meaningfulness in relationships.

What Makes a Community Gel

Series Three: Blog Forty

I recently finished reading a fascinating book entitled The Life of Hidden Trees by Peter Wohlleben. He spent considerable time discussing the growth and development of the beech tree. He shared that the beech like many other trees thrive in community with other beech trees. Apparently, a beech tree deplores the oak tree and will expel it from its community. While the Oak can grow strong separate from the forest, it will not become a mighty Oak but will live out a wimpish short life in a grove of beech trees.

In community trees thrive and look out for each other. When a disease approaches or a destructive insect enters the tree community warning is sent out through a complicated network of mitochondria. Trees then produce a chemical reaction to ward off the dangerous intrusion. Beeches and other varieties of trees survive longest within a community or a grove that cultivates compatibility.

Recovery among addicts is like a grove of trees. Addicts flourish in an environment with other addicts. There is a kind of “mitochondria” that ignites connection from one addict to another. When one group member shares open brokenness, it triggers an energy within the room for others to be vulnerable in like kind.

Last week while driving to the airport with a group of guys someone asked me if I would share how things have been going in my recovery life. I shared about the loss of my brother who had passed away recently and some complicated heartbreaking experiences within my family of origin. Sadness and tears overcame me as I shared. While I struggled to compose myself to continue sharing, automatically all three men in the car reached out and put their hands on my shoulder and knee while one said I’m so sorry for all that has happened. Even as I think of that moment while writing this blog, tears well up. The “mitochondria” that existed among the men in that car provided support for me in that moment. This is the magic of group consciousness and vulnerability in recovery groups.

The network of connection within the context of a recovery community is fragile and requires ongoing tending and cultivation. Its growth and development are dependent upon every individual that steps into the confines of a recovery room. It doesn’t matter how smart you are about recovery principles. To the point, in a recovery room those who are smart are ones who realize how dumb they are about recovery. They are the ones who testify that their best laid plans and thoughts got them where they are with out-of-control addictive behavior. When two addicts gather and humbly share their common shared brokenness, the mitochondria (connection) in that moment is incredibly palpable. It’s what Bill W refers to when craving is overwhelming. He says in that moment he only needs another alcoholic to tell his story to and listen to that alcoholic tell theirs. It’s the connection with common brokenness shared that helps the community grow and remain vital.

Accountability is necessary in recovery community. Like other communities, when addicts gather there is a tendency to gravitate to sharing life from your head and not your heart. Most addicts learn to manage chaos by relying on their capacity to control things with their head. Group accountability holds your feet to the fire to share from your heart. It’s not how much you know but sharing from the struggle in your heart that moves others to do the same.

Groups that cultivate accountability are sensitive to members who are quiet or whose shares are guarded. When one shares looking down at the floor without making contact, group conscious is concerned about the overwhelm of shame. In groups that do feedback, other members share their experience of shame and how they learn to manage shame. When feedback is not available in group, it is helpful for members to reach out after group and share their story of fear and shame and how they learned to manage these powerful emotions.

Rote disconnected shares stifle the chemistry (mitochondria) within a group. Broken open hearted shares followed up with coffees or car chats in the parking lot cultivate community connection. Phone calls and text chains throughout the week fuel the power of healing in community. Consultation activates the need for support and follow through. Most addicts live maverick lives. Addicts act out in isolation. Recovery requires the insulation that comes from ongoing consultation with a community of recovering addicts. Particularly during the onset of recovery, if you are not consulting and depending upon group conscience and individual guidance, the odds of relapse is great. The power of community will enable you to overcome the attack of craving in the same way a grove of beech trees ward off the intrusion of disease and destructive insects.

St. John of the Cross once said that “the virtuous soul that is alone becomes like a long lone burning coal. It will grow colder rather than hotter”. Just as the beech tree requires a grove to thrive and live a long life, so too does an addict require the connection with a vital community of common shared brokenness.

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.

© Psychological Counseling Services