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The Relapse Roller Coaster

Every day in the life of a recovering addict embraces the roller coaster experience that addiction recovery entails. In the beginning days, there is the euphoric high that comes from knowing that there are no more lies and secrets that you need to hide. Getting honest with yourself is so difficult, but when you do there is freedom. In a liberating sense you embrace Janis Joplin’s phrase that “freedom’s just another way to say you got nothing left to lose’.

Nonetheless, on another day, or even during the same day, you can be on the edge of acting out. Your body craves its drug of choice. You can think of nothing else but thoughts of getting hammered, screwing your brains out or getting wasted. You may be with family and friends physically but in your head you are craving for a hit so bad that even those who know you best are aware that you’re gone in your head to your addiction.

There are many shades of withdrawal. None of them are pretty. For the most part it is pure hell. Then there are times in recovery when there is fear of being some place in public with your family and running into an old act out partner. It’s so riddled with feelings of anxiety and panic and can be so unnerving.

Some people look like they get traction from the very start and don’t appear to look back. But, then there’s the rest of us. At first getting sustained traction and sobriety is impossible. You keep coming back and picking up a 24 hour chip until it seems like your pockets are full. No one creates long term recovery without facing some days when you just want to quit. Many do just that. The ashen taste of never getting it figured out or knowing that you could have gone to a meeting, picked up the phone, not isolated, stayed away from your drug of choice and a myriad of other things you could’ve, should’ve and wish you had done but didn’t do them. Now, there’s this unbearable hollow emptiness and deep seated loneliness inside that dominates every corner of your messed up brain. You wonder will you ever learn and practice what you know? You tell yourself it is not rocket science. You are not mystified. You know that any choice you could have ever made would have been better than the one you made. In recovery, relapse is a reality for most. Most times you are not bewildered, trying to figure out how you fell into the hole of relapse. Most times you know you decided that you wanted what you wanted when you wanted it and decided to pay whatever price it took to get it. Now you sit in a shit hole of thought and emotional pain not wanting to face what you have to do to crawl out of the hole and stand up again. You just want to quit and disappear. Most addicts in recovery know this experience well.

Those who crawl out of the hole never feel good about it. It just beats the hell out of wallowing in the mud. There is no real infusion of inspiration and emotional warmth in standing up once you get out of the hole. For a while, that seems like an eternity, you live a different type of double life. Inside you feel like you want to withdraw into a nondescript isolated place and die. Yet, on the outside you know you have to muster the energy to do the next right thing, like going to a meeting and once again step up for yet another damn 24 hour chip! At home, it’s likely worse. Your partner feels traumatized, betrayed, isolated and discouraged. Likely, you experience their withdrawal and encounter their interrogation, mistrust and rage about your behavior. It’s so easy to surrender to the “hell with this”.  At this point, most addicts just go down the slippery slope of acting out again to get away from the intense emotional and physical pain. To avoid the pain, an addict will return to self-absorbed narcissistic behavior. The whole world is about them. To escape the riveting pain of reality through addictive demand an addict will take up all the space in the relationship room. It’s like your addiction becomes this huge exercise ball in the room and gets blown up to occupy all the space and your family gets smashed against the wall. Your addiction takes up all the room, even in your recovery. Families tiptoe around your recovery wanting to be sure everything is done to keep you sober, only to watch you fall off the wagon again.

This is the often described roller coaster recovery ride described by addicts and their families. So, how do you get off the roller coaster? How do you do the next right thing when every corner of your brain tells you to quit- that it’s too hard and that it doesn’t matter anymore? Here are a few considerations:

1. Embrace the next right thing while wallowing in the mud hole.

I get calls from addicts sitting in the middle of the mud hole of their addiction, a lot. There is nothing I can tell them that is inspirational while they sit with the mud of their addiction smeared all over themselves. They feel like shit, look like shit, smell like shit and are totally overwhelmed by their shitty behavior. The only thing that I tell them is to do the next right thing— to get up out of the mud hole. This usually means going to a meeting and telling on themselves to their recovery support, including their partner if they are in a relationship. Nothing spectacular and always intensely painful. This is true whether the acting out is habitual or has been a rare and distant experience after years of sobriety and recovery. The experience described is pretty much the same and the prescription for healing the similar for all. It’s not rocket science.

2. Take a shower and get all the mud cleaned off.

Sometimes, this is literal. Washing away all the vomit, urine and human excrement that an addict literally wallows in is an actual experience. Many times, it is a metaphor. To wash away the emotional grit and gunk that clogs an addict’s brain is a critical step toward addressing relapse. Sometimes this can be best done with a sponsor and a 12 step group. Other times, being sequestered in rehab is necessary, but not magic. The magic is when an addict turns the faucet on and washes the mud off. It requires self forgiveness which means to walk in the opposite direction of addictive behavior, once again, and to practice not holding the act out against themselves. This is hard work and will require outside support. It will require applying the lotion of gentleness and self care, particularly at a time you don’t want to.

3. Take a deep breath, get yourself dressed and stick your nose right back in where you were before you jumped in the mud hole. 

Go back to your recovery program right where you got off. In recovery, knowing what is the right thing to do becomes blocked by and mesmerized by the bewitching power of addictive behavior. You can know what to do but not have the motivation and recovery energy to do it. You will need to lean on and depend upon your recovery support to take initial steps. Do the steps where you left off. You may need to go back and address step work to strengthen recovery. However, in truth, none of us ever really go back and start all over because wherever we crawl out of the mud hole, we take all of those experiences of addiction and recovery and build on that. It’s true that you can’t solve your addiction problems by using the same kind of thinking you used to create them. So you will need to continue bathing yourself with affirmations. This can be hard work in itself. What you think about always expands. If you wallow with hangover thoughts from addictive behavior that is what will expand in your reality. Guilt will remind you that your addictive behavior hurts, you and others. Once it has served its purpose get rid of it by ignoring it. Take control of your thoughts by acting that what you would like to be is the behavior toward yourself and others you will do, independent of feelings that dominate you. You must act on the unrepeatable miracle of the universe you are regardless of painful feelings. Eventually your actions will create the feelings that will be congruent to your recovery behavior. M.Scott Peck wrote in his seminal book The Road Less Traveled that “life is difficult”. Recovery is difficult. Yet, when you think of the emotional stench of mud hole behavior, it is the only exit from the roller coaster of addiction. 

Scapegoated

A scapegoat is blamed for the wrongdoings and mistakes of other people at no fault of their own. I grew up in a family dominated by shame. My grandfather on my dad’s side died of alcoholism the year I was born. He was violent, misogynist, and racist. All of my dad’s uncles were alcoholic bullies. One died with syphilis.

Not a very pretty picture. My dad quit school in the 8th grade in order to get a job to help take care of his mother. He got religion in the holiness movement before his kids were born.

My grandfather was an SOB. He would get drunk and terrorize my grandmother and tried to kill her when he was drunk. His behavior convinced my dad to never touch alcohol. He became a teetotaler. When I was young, while watching Cubs games, he would make us turn the channel during the Hamm’s beer commercial. I loved the Hamm’s bear and was always disappointed to have to turn the channel. The shame and violence from my dad’s upbringing was channeled to the next generation through the conduit of secrecy. Dad told us very little about my grandfather or his uncles. What little we knew about my grandfather did not get air time in our family. We kept it all bundled into a secret.

By nature and property shame needs a scapegoat-someone to incriminate and smear blame. While there was plenty of shame to go around for all 8 of my siblings and me, my older brother Dave vicariously became our family scapegoat. He carried plenty of rage unceremoniously passed to him from the previous generation from my dad and his family. Underneath my dad’s pursuit of holiness, he packed a lot of rage instilled from his upbringing and two years of infantry in World War II.  While my dad was a teetotaler, Dave died from alcoholism, secretive to all of us in his family.

I learned all about violence from the countless bloody fights I either heard about or witnessed my brother Dave have. His brush with trouble was legendary. When little, he broke his arm trying to jump from the garage with an umbrella, thinking he would float down. His eye was gouged out of socket while drunk driving his MG into a concrete culvert at a high rate of speed. He was in and out of scrapes with the law throughout his life. No one asked him if he wanted to be the scapegoat. He was just subconsciously assigned. He was never religious. Unspoken, our family needed a sinner to be saved. Dave was it. When he died, my mother and I sat in his hospital room. She prayed that God would wake him from his coma so he could get saved and not go to hell. I prayed that he could know that he was loved in the hell he knew. Scapegoat was the way Dave lived and died.

Family systems create scapegoats. Not all addicts are scapegoats, but subconsciously all addicts are assigned some role to fulfill within the family structure. Nothing wrong with roles as long as you get to choose what role you want to accept. A closed family system abhors a vacuum. In these systems, family members play certain roles out of necessity to fill the vacuum. The role of the scapegoat is to symbolically and practically carry out the family’s unspoken shame. When an addict who has been a family scapegoat gets into recovery, he/she must learn to give back the shame to the previous generation or will likely transmit its properties through addiction into the next generation. Giving it back, means taking action with emotional conversation with parents, sometimes present when possible or not, identifying the hurtful role of scapegoating. It will require ongoing placing the shame to the one who gave it and to the hurtful behavior experienced. It is necessary to create a source for validation with or without parental engagement. Ongoing affirmative thoughts and actions will need to be embraced throughout lifetime. Addicts who were scapegoated and do this work, experience the freedom from the misbeliefs and dregs of their addiction.

Social systems can also create scapegoats. Currently, in our country, we are ravaged with the experience of racism toward minorities of all kind. African Americans are the lightning rod for good reason. Not only because of unrecognized police brutality resulting in the death of George Floyd and many others like him, but because of scapegoating. Historically, our society has scapegoated Native Americans and African Americans from early on. History shows that our forefathers have stolen the land from Native Americans and have built wealth on the backs of African Americans through slavery. Years of scapegoating through domination in forms of lynching, economic inequality, redlining, disproportionate incarceration, etc have fueled racism institutionally for generations. This has been written about by countless minority and majority writers. Today’s protests against police brutality can be transformative. Many wonder what more can a citizen do to heal themselves and our land? From my recovery from addiction I offer these considerations:

1. Recognize the role you have been assigned by your family of origin and society.

The role of scapegoating is never helpful and always destructive. If you were a scapegoat to your family, you will need to give back the shame to your parents and their legacy through some of the measures already discussed. If you were not the family scapegoat, it is helpful for you to recognize the role that was assigned to you and to understand what that role was about. Further, it would be healing to listen to the one who was scapegoated to learn what their life has been about.

The same is true societally. To those of us who have privilege (white America), it will be helpful to listen to those who have been scapegoated. This is not only true about police brutality but, also, regarding the historical scapegoating that has fueled the dynamic of institutional racism toward all minorities in our country.

Parents in their role as power brokers often fail to recognize their responsibility in the setup of the scapegoat role in their family system. A reason is because of the invested power and privilege experienced in their position. As a result, they are often blind to it.

In society, those with white privilege become blind to the inequality that exists toward minorities because they have only lived unrecognized privilege. Blindness to privilege is an obvious result. It will be necessary to recognize and better understand the role you play in your family of origin and the one you hold in society.

2. Listen to your heart by researching the historical system that influenced you.

Many people have said “I had a perfect childhood”. When I hear this I am never sure what a perfect childhood means. Usually, upon reflection, it is recognized that none of us have escaped our childhoods unscathed from hurt, disappointment and loss. By researching the history of your family of origin, you begin to understand the way shame is passed from one generation to the next and the role that you were assigned in your family system. Only when the painful past is real can it be addressed in the here and now. This is a healing way to listen to your heart.

It can be also helpful toward understanding those who have been scapegoated in our society. When researching our forefathers, it is important to examine both the amazing attributes and sacrifices made and the ways in which our forefathers have scapegoated minorities for material gain and empowerment.

Regarding family of origin work, many are reticent to look at the ugly side, fearing to “air dirty laundry”. Short of this, we remain blind to our family dysfunction that fuels toxic roles like scapegoating which can fuel addictive behavior. The same is true regarding our country’s history. Being willing to research the ugly in our forefathers can be helpful to listen to the heart of those who are scapegoated in the here and now.

3. Taking back your power will require you to stalk the shame that dominates.

Getting free from addiction means facing the toxic role unceremoniously assigned by your family of origin. It will demand that you give back the shame you have carried in your role to your family of origin. You do this by declaring “NO MORE”. You remove the shame from your sense of self to those who gave it to you and the behaviors that were hurtful. Often you will need a skilled therapist and sponsor to walk with and validate you in this journey.

Societally, stalking the shame of scapegoating will require validating those who have been oppressed and a commitment toward redistribution of equality and privilege to those have less by those of us who have had more. To this end the question is “Will those who have more be willing to have less so that those who have been scapegoated and oppressed can have more”. The answer to this critical question is a crucible toward family and societal healing.  

Paralyzed

Addiction can be like paralysis. How many stories do I hear where addicts swear with great resolution that they have finally hit bottom, only to fall off the wagon again. The junkie worm with its beguile and cajole paralyzes the most earnest intent and renders the addict powerless to addictive response.  People forget that addiction is bewitching with its magic spell. Painfully, addicts are ones who forget the most. Millions find themselves paralyzed and impotent to the powers of addiction this very hour.

My mom knew paralysis of a different kind. She was cut from a different cloth, a different type of cat. She was second born in a tribe of 5. Having burned her sister to death in a tragic accident at age 9, she lived the rest of her life paralyzed with this harrowing memory penetrating and dominating her life experience with paralysis. Her mother thought it to be her fault, not my mom’s responsibility. Yet, no one bothered to explain to my mom it was an accident. Privately, she buried deep inside her heart the blame. Both died believing that each was responsible. My mom’s motivation to attune for the catastrophe was relentless throughout her life. She became a great baseball player in an attempt to restore her mother’s approval. She became a zealot in the Christian holiness movement and spent the rest of her life trying to save the lost with unstoppable acts in service to the poor. Forever gathering food and clothing for the poor, her life was one of unrelenting acts of kindness inherently seeking grace from God for her tragic sin as a little girl. There were few holidays that we did not share with poor folk. Many Christmas Eve nights I had to share my bed with some poor kid who otherwise didn’t have one. It wasn’t exactly like we were rich. My mom and dad raised 12 kids. She spent 50 years being the janitor at our church among other cleaning jobs around town. Her last days of life were spent paralyzed with Alzheimer’s. During her last days on earth, she looked at my sister with sadness in her eyes and said “I burned my sister to death” which occurred 90 years before.

Trauma has a way of paralyzing all of us toward inaction about healing. Trauma reenactment, trauma bonding and trauma shame are common experiences for those who struggle their entire lives from their own unresolved traumatic quandary. Albert Einstein touched on trauma when he said “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” Yet, it is not really insanity, it is trauma repetition. The insanity is what happened to you. You just keep trying to do the same thing over again, acting on the delusion that you will get it right this time, only to fall off the wagon again in your addiction. Physical reactions, unnerving memory recollections, intense anger outbursts, and flashback experiences all point to paralyzing trauma that seems insane. No wonder you are dominated with a desire to numb out with addiction.

When my mom was 94 years of age she was walking down a sidewalk with my sister complaining that she must have pulled a muscle in her groin. My sister reminded her that she had broken her pelvis and her response was “when did I do that? – you can’t let pain get you down” and kept walking. Her response was a mixture of a lot of Alzheimer with her classic stubbornness to stuff down her deepest pain like she had throughout her entire life. It has been my experience while working with addicts that most do exactly what my mom did— push down their deepest pain with avoidance and keep walking. On the surface it looks good- brave and courageous. Yet, inside there is a hole in the soul of every addict that ultimately is filled with the paralysis of addictive numbing out.

Every addict chooses to embrace the improbable-(I’m fine, can do this on my own, etc) in order to ignore the obvious (my life has gone to shit). It takes guts and backbone to embrace the obvious and address the paralysis of trauma in addiction response. Here are a few considerations:

To address the obvious you must be willing to face the shit.  

Addicts are great at building rationale as to why they must do what they do and cannot stop. Even though it is destructive and painful, it is familiar. Addicts hang on to the familiar like it was their last dollar. It doesn’t work but “by God I’m gonna do it anyway”. Addicts revel in how much alcohol they can handle and how much craziness they can put up with. Just before my mom turned 90, she was at my dad’s grave, digging out some weeds with a trowel. She suffered from osteoporosis. In digging she jammed her fist and dislocated her middle finger grotesquely into the back of her hand. She took her finger jammed it back in place, finished her weeding and then drove herself to the ER to get a splint for her finger. Tough she was. Yet, throughout her life she was unwilling to stop and embrace the shit of shame that chased her like wolves through the woods, running from trauma shame with a never ending pursuit toward caring for her world. Why? because the childhood trauma was too scary — too painful. It takes a courage of a different kind to face the pain of traumatic abuse. It is my experience that addicts may find sobriety but not deep peace and serenity without marshaling the courage to face the shit of trauma in life.

To move away from paralysis in addictive behavior you must be willing to read the tea leaves. 

Have you ever caught yourself going over the top in responding to something that happened in your life? You ever wonder why you got so worked up? Colleague Marilyn Murray suggests that in the context of life on a Likert scale from one to ten (one being low and ten-high), most of life’s happenings require a normal response of four or five. When you find yourself responding to a situation at a nine that normally merits a five, likely, the extra four on the scale has nothing to do with the current issue at hand. It suggests that the current situation triggered a traumatic response to a historical experience that has been left unresolved. Addicts can utilize this response as an indicator in knowing where to look for unsolved trauma. The same is true regarding under response. My mom’s tough guy response to a dislocated finger was an index to emotional trauma she chose to remain paralyzed to her entire life. Overcoming addictive paralysis requires a deep courage to read the tea leaves in order to embrace the obvious.

Addressing the paralysis of the obvious requires that you scrub the wound that is found in the improbable.  

You will have to stop walking around the dead dog in the living room. Overcoming paralysis means that you must immerse yourself into the world of reality. You have to smell the stench of odor from the “dead dog” that you have been avoiding through denial. Waking up to reality from denial, is like waking up a foot that has gone to sleep. At first it can be unbelievably painful to face what is real. Then, astonishingly, you have to scrub the deceit of the improbable with the truth of the obvious. It is like scrubbing the back of someone suffering extreme road rash after an accident. It will hurt like hell, yet, it is the only way to get at the infectious misbelief about your life of trauma. Unless this infectious belief is scrubbed clean you will remain paralyzed. My mother has lore and legend about being a tough cookie. Yet, she never chose to scrub the trauma wounds of her childhood. She died never knowing her childhood wounds were never her fault. Running from her shame through religious endeavor created a portal for that shameful paralysis to be passed on to the next generation. It takes courage to face the obvious and let go of the paralysis of addictive behavior.

Anger

Anger can be a problem, but it has tremendous potential, too. It’s just figuring out what to do with it.”—  Sean Penn

Being angry was never OK when I was a kid. People who were would be condemned. Most of the time angry folks were identified as trouble makers where I grew up. My brother Jimmy was an angry sort. We always said he had a temper. He was a really good baseball player. My dad always said that he would have been a big leaguer except for his temper. I doubt it. Yet, he was good. I remember when he struck out he would cuss out the umpire for a called strike and they would argue before he was thrown out of the game. He would take his bat and break it in two over his muscled thigh. This was before Bo Jackson was on the scene and made that behavior famous. I tried it once. It really hurt my leg and didn’t even come close to breaking the bat.

In church, preachers would give sermons against being angry. It was definitely considered a major sin. “Don’t let the sun go down on your wrath” was a biblical reference that was preached to death.

As a young impressionable boy, I learned a lot from listening and watching others in and out of church deal with anger. The middle to late 60’s resembled what is currently going on in our country. People were angry and riots were many. I grew up in the Midwest. Folks didn’t think they were racist and would get mad if anyone explored the issue with skepticism. Civil rights leaders were considered trouble makers because they were mad at injustice, persecution and white domination. I learned their anger was not OK.

There were so many reasons given that it was not ok to be angry. In the church I grew up in it was called “carnality”. This is a word not often used in today’s world. It is referenced in the Bible to describe someone who refuses to be subject to the law of God. In my church, I remember folks who were angry were people who were defined as full of carnality. As a little kid, I interpreted the meaning as if you were angry, you were probably full of carnality and likely would go to hell. The conclusion was don’t be angry.

Yet, I was angry as a kid growing up about a lot of things. I grew up with four older brothers who were pretty violent. I witnessed a lot of knock down/drag out bloody fights. I watched anger humiliate and dominate others in ways that I will never forget. I learned to be afraid of anger

I also learned to numb out with anger. My older brother David was an angry sort, too. He told me one time that when he went into a rage it wouldn’t hurt when he got hit. I watched him fight once when in a fight a guy wrapped a chain around his head with blood spurting everywhere. He went nuts and threw the guy on the ground and pummeled him into submission. Though it was scary to me, I learned that anger could be used to numb out fear and every other feeling I knew.

No one ever told me what to do with my anger. I was warned about it. It was judge and condemned. The only thing that was ever suggested is that I needed God to rid me of this awful curse which meant I went to the altar of our church countless times to get rid of my carnality (my anger) but it never worked.

I remember as a young boy needing to make a decision about my anger. I was afraid of and sickened by my older brother’s barbaric attempts to dominate others in fighting. I chose to stuff my anger. I turned it inward. As a young boy I made an unconscious pact to be depressed. At least, no one would know that I was steaming with anger inside. I remember cutting myself with a razor blade and it felt good. I remember sinking into a deep depression with remnants that exist to this very day. Somehow beating myself up over mistakes made or missed opportunities became an acceptable behavior that actually sabotaged ever managing my anger effectively.

Even in therapy, strategies often emphasized how to get rid or eliminate anger. It was like if you beat the hell out of a sack of pillows and worked up a big sweat, you were doing the right thing with anger. So I did. One therapist I did this with told me I was the angriest person she has ever worked with in terms of beating up a sack of pillows. I broke 2 of her tennis racquets beating up her pillows. While it felt good, I walked away never really knowing what to do with the anger that remained or how to manage anger effectively. What I do know is that today a lot of people are angry across our country for a lot of reasons. Here are a few things that are making sense to me about managing anger:

It helps to recognize my anger like all powerful emotion is simply an energy form that must be directed in healthy ways.

It has been helpful to understand that my anger is not a sign of immaturity or an indication of a lack of spirituality. It is an expression of being human. It is a healthy response to injustice, misunderstanding and trauma. In the presence of personal or community turmoil and tension and stress, it is a beginning to recognize that in and of itself anger is not to be judged or condemned. When I feel oppressed and injured by another’s words or behavior, anger is an appropriate human response. It is not a feeling to be ashamed of or to run from. It is an energy form to be appropriately expressed.

Recognizing who or what you are angry about is critical to the management of anger response.

Have you ever been angry at someone or something but you cannot figure out just what it is that you are angry about? In order to manage what you feel, it is important to recognize what is triggering the emotion. One of the great complexities of our culture when examining the mass shootings across America that have been committed by so many young white men is “what are these young men so angry about?” The answer to the “why” of anger is crucial individually and collectively in order to effectively manage anger. When you don’t identify the source of anger it will remain misplaced.

Shifting the focus of anger from person to issue is required in effective anger management.

When you recognize the misunderstanding, injustice or traumatic occurrence that the person or situation represents, you can move the energy of anger from the person to the issue. The impact of causation can be addressed. When you fix your anger on the person, you are more likely to remain stuck without addressing the issue that is triggering the emotional pain. In effect, you are vulnerable to focus on the symptom and not consider the systemic causation regarding the pain you feel. So, if you come from an alcoholic or other addiction family, you will need to shift from the anger toward the alcoholic who is creating the chaos, to understanding the dysfunctional family system that contributes to the alcoholic’s behavior in order to address your anger about alcoholism. It is true about our anger toward what is happening collectively in our country. In order to utilize your anger about tension and stress constructively, it will be critical to shift the anger from the person and carefully examine systemic root causation toward what it is that creates injustice, inequality and traumatic experience. This requires personal and collective maturity. Uncovering systemic causes for experiences that trigger anger are not easy to uncover. It demands the creative energy that appropriately directed anger provides toward creative solution. You can get pissed about the experience of unfair treatment and vomit your response in ways that are not hurtful or offensive. Just don’t throw up in the lap of someone else. Figure out your designated bathroom and vomit there. Then, direct the energy of the anger you feel to creative recognition of cause and effect about what you are angry about. Maturity and lifelong practice are the only ways I know toward mastering this adult response. When you are upset, individually or collectively about the world around you, redirect your anger from person to the issue at hand.

Re-directed anger from person to issue creates the positive energy that inspires creative healing and solution for every human problem.

You will need your anger to say “NO MORE!” People say it all the time. However, tragically, many misdirect their anger energy toward destructive actions. Anger has motivated me to go deep within and embrace the pain, the fear and hopelessness of life’s situation. In that place, I have been able to resource my own brilliance that has helped me to transform my anger from what I hate to what I love. It is in this place that I believe you and our society can and will only find the creative solution and resource to address the individual and systemic solutions to the issues of injustice and inequality that ignite rage and anger. May God help us to maturely do the work that appropriately directed anger requires. It has been the only solution I have experienced toward healing addiction and may it heal our land.

Step 2- The Step That Creates Humility in the Presence of Willful Self Destruction

“Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

“It belongs to the imperfection of everything human that man can only attain his desire by passing through its opposite” — Soren Kierkegaard

In 12 step addiction recovery, the phrase “self will run riot” is catalogued and documented in our first step focus about the out of control and unmanaged behavior that dominated our lives.  Step 2 is an invite to step back, take a deep breath and examine the carnage that you created through the eyes of your spirit.

In recovery, spirituality is a very difficult concept to embrace. It asks of you to consider opposites. So, in order to win it encourages you to lose; to be in control, spirituality asks that you let go; to know is to humbly embrace what you don’t know. At times, it seems like trying to nail jelly to a tree. You talk about your spiritual experience in a support community. At the time, it seems so meaningful and then later it seems so difficult to makes sense from what was then helpful. The worthwhile dialogue gets fuzzy in your head. Wisdom and learning can be this way.

Examining what I needs to be relinquished in order to gain sobriety and serenity requires introspection and deep honesty with self. Letting go of what I cannot control demands courage and integrity to the values that go deeper than the grip of what I am afraid to lose. Embracing what you do not know requires that you be willing to sit with uncertainty and the insecurity that comes from things around you being impermanent. There are no cookbook recipes or formulas that are universal for you or anyone else to do life. You have to figure it out yourself. Kurtz and Ketcham in their book The Spirituality of Imperfection compared spirituality to the mortar that holds a fireplace together. The metaphor invokes that you consider what it is that you are truly counting on to hold your life together? Upon reflection, as a Christian, I knew the appropriate response would be Jesus. Yet, spirituality required me to go deeper with honesty. Careful examination revealed that what I really depended upon when cornered by life’s demands, is that I would work my ass off. Then I would dress it up with religious words. Nothing wrong with working hard. Nonetheless, spirituality beckoned me to be honest with self. This is the heart of spirituality.

Spirituality can be unnerving.

Some identify their spirituality with a relationship with God. Others think it to be Jesus. Some even re-work the steps and put Jesus name in many of the steps. Others think spirituality centers around Buddha, Allah, Jehovah, the Great Spirit, Pachamama, Mother Nature, higher power, higher self, unknown creative force, life force energy of the universe, even the tree in the back yard. Annie Parisse said “one man’s cult is another man’s religion”. Spirituality wraps around and through all of these concepts. Even, the word itself is limited. It is just a vocabulary word which does rankle some. Atheists do not believe in God and many are bothered by the very word spirituality. Surely, with the thousands of words in our vocabulary, there can be another word to embrace this dynamic. Spirituality does require vulnerability- looking at yourself from the inside/out. It implores you to become emotionally naked to yourself and amazingly expands when you share this with others. Why others? Others mirror back to you your own bullshit. Seeing your own bullshit in others becomes an invite to a deeper, clearer spirituality within.

Spirituality is found in the wound of human failure.

Entangled with the wound is the powerful shackle of shame that wraps itself around the spirit like an infectious worm. Defeat and desolation from addictive act become compost for cultivating humility, a cardinal component of spirituality. It is by fertilizing Step 2 and nourishing spirit that later in Step 9 we make amends from the compassion for others spawned from Step 2. Spirituality is the ingredient that forms an antibiotic for conceit and arrogance. It combats self-sufficiency, self-centeredness and the pride that denies need which is the root of all our struggles. In a strange turn of events, the Step 2 process takes the broken condition of addiction and connects it to every other human tribulation. We are all one. Through this epiphany, we look to a greater spiritual dynamic to address the limiting “crack” so common to us all. I have often queried addicts about which part of their destructive behavior is the most difficult to face- the consequences, the realness of a loved one’s painful screams, etc. Once identified, I suggest this to be the place to set up shop and cultivate spirituality— in the wound. It is in the scrubbing of shame (the wound) in this most painful place that spirituality is fostered and nourished.

Spirituality is about oneness and unity.

It is about a relationship between equals. It is about recognizing the shared life force within all living things. We are one: Catholic, Jew, Pentecostal, fundamentalist, atheist, animal and plant—we are all one. Differences for sure. Yet, connected with like-kindness so often obscured. Spirituality creates compassion for yourself in the midst of destructive behavior which cultivates compassion for the weakness of others. You become one with every “sinner”.  So the victim of destructive addictive behavior is one with the perpetrator because we are all one in common shared weakness. Essentially, we all offend and this common thread of paradox creates spirituality. Spirituality become a necessary ingredient for accountability. If we all offend, not just the addict, then it stands to reason that holding each other accountable is necessary to create safety in community. It becomes the glue that holds the parts of recovery together.

Spirituality is a pilgrimage, not a destination.

It always encompasses the terrain of personal struggle and failure. Spirituality does not travel the same line that a crow flies. It takes a very circuitous journey. It includes winding, up and down, backtracking, getting lost, crisscrossed paths and starting all over. Spirituality looks like a picture of a labyrinth that a kindergartener has scribbled all over. Spirituality finds meaningfulness in the experiences of each day versus the amount of growth or “distance” gained. Joseph Campbell states “When you’re on a journey, and the end keeps getting further and further away, then you realize that the real end is the journey”. In recovery, it is not the days counted as “success” or those experienced as “failure” but rather it is the journey that we take that is underscored as being spiritual, not the desired destination.

Spirituality is about community.

St. John of the Cross, a mystic, said that the soul who exists outside of community is like a lone coal away from the fire which soon grows cold. You are a social creature that needs connection for spirituality to thrive. Spirituality helps to adapt and to learn flexibility. You will learn to hold fast to what is in the “now” for you never know where your spirituality might take you. In your recovery life, you will notice that it is not a pilgrimage that marches straight ahead because we always have many twists and turns, ups and downs. Those who seek to do it perfectly either fail miserably or become so wound tight that eventually they explode. Learning to accept your own recovery failure and get up and keep going is the perspective that anchors spirituality. How far you have come pales in comparison to how far you have yet to go. Spirituality gives birth to hope when you face the unknown in that you know that you are not alone in this struggle or in facing your human failure. Your struggle is exactly what someone else will need to do the next right thing and their failure is exactly what you will need to give you hope in knowing that you are not alone. This is reality spirituality.

In truth, spirituality does not lead to all the answers. It helps to embrace and engage the questions with genuine honesty. It promotes a beginner’s mind and will help you to become teachable. Step 2 fosters spirituality through the embrace of paradox in the contest of every day common places of life.

Obscurity: Midnight Moments of Humanity that Matter

“Sometimes you think that what you are doing is just a drop in the Ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop” — Mother Teresa

My oldest sister was diagnosed with COVID-19 this week. She is one who has underlying issues that will make her struggle difficult. It will be a miracle if she makes it through this medical challenge. In a nursing home, the pandemic spread to her through a roommate. People warehoused in nursing homes are mostly forgotten in our society. Their condition at best is categorized with statistical numbers. Most of the world does not want to know that these people are someone’s loved one. The importance of those sequestered to a nursing center is reduced to obscurity. Many people think that people in nursing homes are waiting to die anyway. Better they go away than others. Quietly one wonders “Aren’t those places pathetic”? When was the last time you made the rounds to visit old friends in a nursing home? Probably not lately.

The truth is that what is currently happening throughout America in nursing centers is tragic. We learn to reference other people’s tragedy by grouping individuals in categories. Like in war time, civilians who were innocently maimed or blown apart were identified as casualties. So we reference individuals in nursing centers with the terms like “that population”. When I think of the term population I always think of the sign outside my hometown which identified the number of people who lived there. That sign has not changed in the past 50 years. Just a raw statistic of people numbers. As a professional counselor, we often talk about the population that we work with. Yet, the folks in that “population” breathe my air, have the same heartaches, insecurities, anxieties and addictions that I do. Who they is, is who I am.

Individuals are not obscure statistics.

Regarding the current pandemic, one Facebook post emphasized “22,000,000+ deaths worldwide so far this year, 311,162 from the COVID Virus—Time to get back to work!” with several “likes”. Often when facing colossal struggles with costly solutions, people tend to reduce those who suffer to mere statistics.

Upon reflection, a great underlying fear of every addict is that of obscurity. How many times have I listened to an addict before, during or after acting out lament the fear of being invisible, uncared for and forgotten? The other side of an act out is always profound emptiness and unquenchable loneliness. I liken many who are sequestered in detox to those currently isolated in a hospital room with COVID. It’s such a scary place to be—fighting for your life without anyone by your side.

We all want to know that we matter to someone, somewhere. Many addicts talk about living a life where they think of themselves as on the “outside of the window looking in” throughout their entire lives. Wrestling with obscurity is not only for those working through pandemic or addiction crisis. Coming to terms with obscurity is a reality that confronts everybody. Some people discard the concern with comments like “well, when I am dead and buried, I won’t be worried about my legacy or whether or not you remember me.” While true, it has been my experience that as the shadow of time and age, or crisis bring the grim reaper closer to reality, the edge of anxiety and vulnerability to mortality frequently makes obscurity an ominous cloud. Do I really matter? Will I be remembered? These are existential fears that are common threads to many, particularly addicts. Here are a few considerations for us all:

The ultimate meaning and impact of our lives will most likely take place in the generations that follow our existence.

Like the sequoia tree that takes hundreds of years to develop and grow to its mammoth size, so too, the fruit and meaningfulness of your life’s choices, convictions and cause may mature with my children and their children’s lives in the next generation. Never underestimate the power of right choice as an endowment of influence to a future generation. That choice can be a blessing bestowed many years past your life experience.

Refuse to settle for low expectations about what you are capable of creating.

Obscurity can underwhelm and undermine the significance of your right choice. Develop a candle flame that burns brightly regardless of what goes on around you.

Don’t allow self-sabotage to cripple you from believing deeply in yourself.

Addicts overcome cyclical acting out behavior when they advance with quiet confidence by passionately believing they can create the behavior that they see in their heart.

Don’t let anyone define you.

Most of the beliefs that dominate our adult experience were cemented in our thoughts in early childhood. Addicts carry mistaken beliefs that trigger destructive behavior. By replacing these mistaken beliefs with positive affirmations, you can underscore what you have decided to believe and act upon in your life. This will require daily disciplined conditioning.

Develop a mindset to get out of your comfort zone.

Cultivating meaningfulness in obscurity will require that you be willing to practice getting out of your comfort zone. In moments of obscurity, addicts believe that they cannot get their needs met and resort to feeling entitled to overcoming obscurity through addiction.  Obscure moments are places in life that you can either lose or find yourself. Making choices toward healthy behavior will require that you get outside your comfort zone, and take action to realize the person you believe you were destined to become.

Personal significance is determined on the inside as you experience the carnage of human tragedy on the outside. Facing addiction and pandemic one day at a time, may we all embrace Mother Teresa’s admonition to “touch the dying, the poor, the lonely, the unwanted, the addicted according to the graces we have received and let us not be ashamed or slow to do the humble work”. Amen

Water and Ice— Two Symbols of Emotional Wisdom

Many twelve step groups allow for a feelings check, frequently at the beginning of a meeting. Many people struggle to identify and embrace feelings. Sometimes, a group member will struggle and share a thought while attempting to express a feeling. An example might be “I feel like I am in a pretty good place today”. We use phrases “I feel like” or “I feel that” to express our emotions that keep us stuck in our heads. It is easy to gloss over a feelings check and to move toward listening to others share or prepare your mind for what you want to say.

However, the feelings check is a crucial exercise in support groups. It creates an opportunity to settle in on what you are really feeling. It challenges you to sit and listen to what the feeling has to say to you. The spirituality of Step 2 asks that you humbly listen to the voice of God as you understand God. The concept of God is wide and varied within the framework of 12 step community. It includes God as a personal entity to those who do not believe in a God and seek to access their higher self and those who understand God to be an unknown creativity energy manifested in the universe.

I have found help in accessing the phrase the “voice of God” as a metaphor toward connecting with higher power. Some people testify they have literally heard a voice from God. Some people feel moved with impressions when they read sacred literature. Others sense the direction of a kind of higher power in the collective wisdom that is accumulated in a support group. There are many sources of wisdom that people have experienced.

One of the repeatedly overlooked sources of wisdom are revelations that come through the experience of feelings. Many world religions emphasize the value of feelings toward cultivating intimacy and gaining wisdom. It has been my experience that every emotion is leavened with insight, understanding and enlightenment. The challenge is to slow down and lean into the message that each feeling brings. For example, I have experienced lifelong depression, usually low grade and chronic but at times it has spiked to a major illness in my life. Rather than to simply treat with an antidepressant which at times was needed, I have learned to listen to the wisdom from the “voice of God” (a metaphor) in the experience of feeling depressed in order to gain insight regarding what has been out of balance in my life, where to self-parent or reach out for help. Many times medication is needed to treat depression but often sitting with depression to gain its acumen is overlooked.

Most addicts can be triggered to act out when disconnected from their feelings. This familiar practice becomes the breeding ground for incongruence and double life living. Unwilling to sit with emotional discomfort, an addict can choose to say one thing and then do another. As a recovering addict, you have to teach yourself to stay with unwanted and uncomfortable feelings in order to meet the legitimate needs that exists underneath the craving for addiction act out. In this way, an addict can learn to transform what seems to be a curse (the craving) into a blessing (awareness of legitimate need). It becomes an invite to personal emotional intimacy in your life.  The challenge is to stay with the feeling to gain crucial insight and understanding. The only way to open your heart when it is closed is to sit with the discomfort of an unwanted feeling.

Pema Chodron describes this concept with the metaphor of water and ice. The metaphor of free flowing water can be an analogy of open heart and open mind. On the other hand, ice is a metaphor of getting stuck with a closed heart and unwanted feelings. When stuck you can become over reactive, out of control, even into a rage or rant and overwhelmed by other powerful feelings like shame and fear. The way through to wisdom is to become very intimate with the ice. It is important to sit with it and to know it well so that you can gain insight and know what to do to care for yourself. It wouldn’t be helpful to throw the ice cube away. When you bring the warmth of open-mindedness, the ice begins to melt. To illustrate, take an ice cube and place it in the palm of one hand while covering it with the other. The human warmth of your body will melt the ice into flowing water until the ice is completely melted. This has been my experience with sitting with unwanted emotions. Sending kindness and warmth to myself has always been what I needed when facing emotional discomfort. It overcomes addictive craving. You will recognize that to do this you will need the help of your support community.

Here are four suggestions to make open-hearted kindness (flowing water) from unwanted feelings and difficult circumstances (ice):

Practice sitting with the discomfort of unwanted feelings.

The only way to learn that you can get through a difficult experience is to stay the course and work through it. You may need to reach out to your support. In your recovery, it can be like teaching your dog to “stay” when it so much wants to chase the cat. You simply work to condition yourself to stay with the emotional discomfort. Gradually, you will increase your staying power and in time the wisdom of self-care will dawn in the horizon.

Be your own best friend when you lean into unwanted feelings.

In the midst of discomfort be kind, even gentle with yourself. Befriend not just the good parts of who you are but you’re whole self, warts, addiction and all. Treat yourself like your own child that you have always loved, even though at times their behavior is a struggle.

Integrate/Don’t segregate:

Close-minded living segregates and isolates. It promotes intolerance, disrespect and antagonism within self and toward others. Segregation advocates the desire to ditch your addict”, even to hate that part of yourself. It expresses itself with self-criticism and judgmentalism toward others. Integration promotes acceptance of self, patience, forbearance, humility and generosity. We learn to become unconditionally friendly toward ourselves. In the framework of that generosity, we learn to listen to our unwanted feelings and cravings. We learn to respond with healing self-care.

Learning to cultivate wisdom from your feelings requires that you fuel perspective and vision for self and others.

Cultivating skills to sleuth wisdom from unwanted feelings is a lifelong pursuit. It challenges the systemic fantasy of “embracing the improbable and ignoring the obvious” that has been so ingrained in many of us from families of dysfunction. For most, the progression happens slowly and subtly. Yet, this valued skillset is not only for you but a legacy for the generations that come after you. At times, this journey may seem lost. Nonetheless, those who stay the course will transform intimacy disability to deep connection with self and others. Each time an addict listens to the wisdom imbued in an unwanted feeling, it opens the door to lessen the grip of addiction not only within but toward future progeny in the generations to come. 

For the Addict: Integrity is More Important than Sobriety

“Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance

 Hard won sobriety is a treasure. The stories of addicts who fail to achieve this illusive paradise are replete. For some, sobriety has been inaccessible. In support groups addicts take chips to mark sobriety by the hours, days, months and years. Permanence of sobriety can never be taken for granted. The struggle for attaining a sober life is painful. Sometimes it seems like trying to nail jelly to a tree. You work so hard to avoid the junkie worm, yet the immediate reward seems to be dominated with discomfort, emotional and physical pain. Others talk about serenity but in the early stages of sobriety it feels more like misery, not serenity. It isn’t any wonder why addicts who achieve the hard fought victory of sobriety cherish the experience.

All that being said, I would suggest that what is more important than hard earned sobriety is integrity. Integrity is the adherence to moral and ethical principles. It is the quality created within that promotes honesty and provides cohesion and coherence without corruption and with virtue. Another way of saying it is that integrity is a forerunner to hard earned sobriety.

Oprah Winfrey says that “real integrity is doing the right thing, knowing that nobody’s going to know whether you did it or not.”

There is integrity in failure. Integrity in failure is what helps an addict get up again and stop wallowing in the mud of acting out. It is what comes forth when an addict chooses to ask for help in the presence of overwhelming defeat. It is the stuff inside that creates the step to do the next right thing when everything within cries out “just quit”. When defeat and disapproval surrounds and engulfs, it is integrity to be true to yourself that is sacred. This is what Emerson means when he writes about the sacredness of the integrity of your own mind.

Integrity is what transforms failure into meaningfulness in addiction recovery. Every addict knows what it feels like to wake up with the ashen taste in your mouth and a hollow pit in your stomach that comes at some level from the experience of relapse failure. It is integrity that is required for you take yourself by the nap of the neck and stick your nose back into the mix of recovery solution. It’s not about waiting till you feel like doing something, or when you get a good sponsor or when your partner finally supports you in the way you think you deserve. It’s the integrity of determining that you will be true to your heart no matter what. It’s the only thing that matters.

Sometimes I hear recovering addicts lament that if only I lived in Phoenix, Dallas, or Nashville—some mecca for recovery, then I would feel like I could get some good traction and remain sober. Nonetheless, it is integrity that makes the difference, not location. Descriptions of this type are only fantasies. These figment of imaginations remind me of people who say they live in the Bible belt which seems almost everywhere, except New York City and California. Through integrity, recovery is hammered out wherever you live in whatever situation is real to you.

Integrity is a requisite in order to uncover the underlying mistaken beliefs that fuel addiction behavior. Giving yourself the permission to be a mistake making person is necessary in order to determine that you are the person that will take meaningful wisdom from every mistake and move forward in recovery. An addict’s integrity is the propellant that pursues this wisdom and insight.

Integrity fosters habit so necessary in recovery. When I was a kid, my mom would tell me, “If you are too sick to go to school, you are too sick to get out of bed, watch TV, and listen to your transistor radio or read sports magazines.” While I did sneak sports magazines and my transistor radio into my classrooms, I seldom missed attending classes because of sickness. Upon reflection, I think my mother was over the top with her emphasis upon school attendance. Later, I applied that while it is important to stay home when you are sick, my mom’s attitude toward school attendance taught me the integrity to do what was right even when you didn’t feel up to it. Translating life experience into recovery knowledge is necessary toward building integrity in recovery. It becomes a key part of the foundation for sobriety.

Working the twelve steps is so helpful toward establishing sobriety. However, drawing from your life experience is also a great resource. You can develop and deepen the integrity of your addiction recovery experience by drawing from other aspects of your life that you managed to do well and translate that skill into your recovery life. For example, you can borrow from your life experience of doing the next right thing no matter what you feel in your professional life and translate that into doing the next right thing in your recovery life, when you feel like giving up. There are a myriad of skillsets that you can borrow from your everyday life to do recovery tasks. Integrity provides the link to integrate these skills.

Integrity is necessary in order to promote honesty in recovery. Dishonesty and secrecy are the breeding ground for addictive act out. It is my belief that everyone is hypocritical, incongruent and inconsistent about some aspect of their life. People embrace what they believe, feel something different and can say and do something different than all of that, even so. To avoid insincere idealized living, integrity gives birth to accountability, so necessary in addiction recovery. An addict needs accountability which only has teeth from the integrity to tell on yourself and become responsible to another addict.

Integrity is the foundation for telling on yourself. Many addicts who attend 12 step meetings hide in the numbers and fail to open their heart and truthfully admit where they are in any one moment. In order to effectively tell your recovery group the last thing you want them to know about you as the first thing you share, you have to cultivate the integrity of living with an open heart in safe places. Support groups are designed to be safe. Yet, they never become safe unless an addict cultivates the integrity of telling on themselves. Integrity is the foundation that sobriety is built on. Even in the presence of addiction failure, integrity is the quality that produces the resilience to get back up one more time and move forward. Emerson was spot on when he endorsed that “nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind”.  —KW

The Intimidation of a Guru Mentality

“We are the leaders we have been looking and waiting for”— Grace Lee Boggs-Detroit

Grace Lee wrote this in the last book of her life, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century when she was 98. The content of her book expressed challenge, conviction and an implemented visionary action plan that brought forth a phoenix of hope from the ashes of industrialized ruins in her Detroit community. She was a brilliant mind who lived a simple life with a philosophical approach to inspire those who were intimidated by the bourgeoisie of her community. She refused to be idolized. As an intellectual leader, guiding light and tutor, she was a guru. From the perspective of an idealized sacrosanct luminary she was not. She was not one to put others on a pedestal. There is a common mentality today to pedestalize anyone who is an inspired teacher, leader or achiever. Today we like to say he/she is the “greatest on the planet” regarding whatever the expertise we are wanting to laud. Such an odd thing to say. Most people cannot even identify all the countries on our planet, let alone what experts are doing in those countries to ever come close to validate such a far reaching statement. Yet, we like to lionize personalities and embellish accomplishments.

I remember when one of my sons who played college baseball would tell me all the trash and intimidation talk that was engaged in the dugout during practice. It was all about sexual exploits that often never happened, how much alcohol so and so could drink and then how fast an opposing pitcher could throw a baseball. There would be this talk about how some pitcher they played against would dominate everyone they faced. There seems to be a human need for fable and folklore in the presence of frailty and failure.

This certainly is true in recovery circles. When you go to twelve step meetings there is often the lore about one of the old timers who attends the group who knows all the recovery shibboleths and black and white answers that everyone looks to and references as the perceived “guru” of the group. At the coffee pot you might hear things like “I wonder what old so and so would say if he heard that crock of shit”. The recovery guru is made up to be the standard bearer that in time no one can really emulate because he/she becomes idolized and put on a pedestal.

I am now old enough to be one of those old geezers in recovery. I have been working the 12 steps for 30 years now. So I have long term sobriety. I know professionals like me in the recovery field and others who are not professionals but who have been attending 12 step meetings as long as I have. I have never met a “guru” in the world of recovery or any other aspect of life that deserves to be put on a pedestal. I would assure you that if you knew the weaknesses in my life, that at some point I would disappoint you and you would figure out that I would not belong on a pedestal. This will be true of any “guru” you have ever heard about.

To some degree, I believe that there is a tendency for many to make a kind of guru out of people in life in order to escape the responsibility of fulfilling one’s own destiny, whether that be sobriety or any other achievement. It can be easier to look to others and embellish who they are or what they have achieved than to lean into our own insecurity and doubt and create what we need to do to experience sobriety and deepen serenity in life.

When people are dominated by their own fears and insecurity there is a tendency to strike out with judgments and categorizations that are not accurate. Certainly, prejudice, xenophobia and biases come from this place in our hearts. We also idealize others and surrender to intimidation from this place.

I have attended countless 12 step meetings. There are times that I have observed “newbies” with a gazed look in meetings signaling “there is no way in hell I could possibly live a sober life”. They look and act intimidated. This is par for the course. Intimidation is a feeling. In recovery and in other aspects of life, you learn to feel intimidated and do what’s necessary to remain sober anyway. People get stuck with intimidation when they need to designate a group guru. It has been my experience that “there ain’t no guru”— you’re it!

As a therapist, at times I have heard a client remark that they have gone to many support groups and different therapists and that they were willing to pay “boo-coo” bucks for the very best therapist in the world. This has always puzzled me as if somehow we know who the best therapist in the world is or if we pay more for therapy, we always get better. I respond with “why do you need the best therapist in the world, you’re not the best client— why not just go back and do what you wouldn’t do that the last person told you to do to become sober?”

Sometimes around me I hear other addicts complain that what they need is a “kick-ass” sponsor or a “kick-ass” therapist. There can be truth in this remark when we talk about building strong accountability. However, I have learned the value of being my own “kick ass” whatever, when needing to hold my feet to the fire of sobriety or any other desired behavior or accomplishment.

Guru is a beautiful word when referencing the concept of teaching. I learn from you and you learn from me. Even though I have been in recovery for 30 years, I gain important wisdom from “newbies”. When that stops, personal growth becomes stymied.

Sobriety is not rocket science. If you only knew my academic history, you would join me in saying thank God for that! What it does require is that each of us courageously face that which is intimidating and take the next right step no matter what. Folks who do this become their own guru. For me Grace Lee Boggs has always been right- we are the leaders we have been looking and waiting for.

Mother Work

We come from fallible parents who were kids once, who decided to have kids and who had to learn how to be parents. Faults are made and damage is done, whether it’s conscious or not. Everyone’s got their own ‘stuff,’ their own issues, and their own anger at Mom and Dad. That is what family is. Family is almost naturally dysfunctional.”  – Chris Pine

Sunday is Mother’s Day. I miss my mom. This will be the third Mother’s Day without her. She said goodbye when she was 99. It was time. My mom was an enigma. She was on a traveling baseball team when she and my dad married. She was in the middle of a road trip and they did not spend their first night together until two weeks later when she got off the road. She accidentally burned her little sister to death when they both were playing with matches and she spent the rest of her days trying to make up for it. Early on it was excelling in baseball. Later she became a Christian zealot, trying to save the world and take care of the poor. Physically, she was the toughest person I ever knew. She raised 12 kids.  Two different times stoves blew up in her face and gave her third degree burns. One time she put her own dislocated finger back in place by herself.  She had osteoporosis and shrunk from 5’5” to 4’10” by the time she died. After she reached her 85th birthday until she died at 99, she broke her back in 7 places, her pelvis, screwed up her knee and broke her ribs— none of which kept her down for the count. She was an inspiration in many ways.

That being said, she shared many shortcomings and dysfunctional behaviors. I don’t ever remember my mother hugging me. She had been sexually abused as a kid and wasn’t much for touch. She was pretty judgmental. Often she would make comments like “you act like that and call yourself a Christian”. She and my dad raised all of us in a cult, denying abuses and defending offending pastors. The abuses of our church were off the charts. She turned her head and would say “you can’t take your eyes off God”- meaning to minimize the reality of abuse.

The temptation is to minimize the detrimental qualities and make a legend of her good qualities. The truth is she is both.

Everyone has the challenge to take their mother off the pedestal. For some that’s not a problem because their moms were distant, deplorable and disconnected.  Others are uncomfortable to recognize their mother’s shortcomings thinking that it is important to protect her from criticism.  So there is a lot of energy spent defending her memory or minimizing the negative impact of her behavior. 

The essence of addiction recovery is about emotionally growing up to be an empowered adult. Numbing out with addiction is a strategy to avoid present discomfort and long term pain that comes from not getting basic developmental needs met from both parents. When our parents meet our basic needs we can know that we are loved. Yet, the only way we know we matter is when our parents spend sufficient amounts of time with us on our terms, not theirs. When this does not happen, we look outside ourselves to find whatever it is that will get their attention. All too often we become human doings, abandoning our being. Developmentally, we become like a chunk of Swiss cheese with the holes in us. We reach outside ourselves with a cocktail of experiences throughout our lives, including addiction to fill in those holes in order to know that we matter. Yet, like a little kid who cannot get enough sugar, as an addict I can never get enough of what I really don’t want.  I want more and more. I live never satisfied. The filling I seek can only be filled from the inside, not from the outside in.

Many addicts have problematic relationships of unfulfilled expectations with their mothers.  While Mother’s Day is a day of celebration, subconsciously many addicts hope to work out their unmet needs from mother through a significant relationship with other authoritative figure in their life. It could be a spouse, friend or professional relationship. However, it has been my experience that an addict will remain intimacy disabled in adult relationships until they address their unmet needs in their primary relationship with mother.

Here are some suggestions to consider:

Be honest and willing to take mother off the pedestal.  Children idealize their parents.  When little, parents are giants in every sense of the word. It is normal to fixate on an ideal distorted concept about who mother is in childhood. Our parents are the source of our early concept of God. However, as we mature it is necessary to take mother off the ideal pedestal of perception and look at her as vulnerable human being she really is. Recognizing mother’s flaws does not mean you disrespect her or do not love her. It does mean that you see her for who she really is in all of her weaknesses and flaws as well as her strengths. This does not just naturally happen. It will required purposeful effort to separate yourself from the ideal to the real perception of who your mom really is to you. When desires to protect, excuse, minimize or dismiss mother’s hurtful behavior when you were a child well up, it may be a sign that you still have your mother on the pedestal.  This subtle fixation on an ideal mother can contribute to a subconscious desire to work out in your current relationships what was never addressed with your mother. When I am fixated on an idealized view of mother it will keep me stuck and intimacy disabled in current relationships in the present moment.

1. Grieve the loss of what could have been, never was and can no longer be. 

Grieving is an untrained skill set in our culture. Yet, without this healing act, we tend to remain stuck trying to recreate an unreal past.  No parent is without flaw or fault. Everyone was shortchanged in some way or another from our parents because they were shortchanged in their childhood. You do not get the change back by dismissing what was never addressed in your childhood. It is also nonproductive to become stuck in blaming your mother for what she did not provide. It is healing to grieve. When you don’t embrace the deep feeling of grief about your childhood loss with mother, subconsciously you will try to play that out in your significant adult relationships. The little kid in you will take the power in relationships and make unrealistic demands. Effectively, it is a little kid trying to negotiate an adult relationship. It never works.

2. Stop carrying mother’s shame and give it back to her.

Generational shame is passed from one generation to the next through the conduit of secrecy. Secrets are what is hidden and includes what everyone knows but no one talks about. Giving mother back her shame is critical mother work.  You begin to do this by recognizing what hurts and talking about it in safe quarters. At first, you will feel awkward, guilty and think you are making a big deal over nothing. Yet you will begin to release the shame that binds you when you identify the reality of mother’s behavior that hurt you and talk about it with someone who will validate you.

3. See the strength and weaknesses of mother and celebrate the humanity in her and in you. 

Mature adults have the capacity to look at relationships as they really are.  Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. No parent always does the best they can 24/7, 365 for 18 years straight! There are times your parents simply blew it. Maturity can recognize the humanity in it all. There is no need to glaze over or minimize mother’s glaring weaknesses and shortfalls. To do so, does not take away from her tremendous strengths and attributes. Each are stand alone realities. When you can separate from  your childhood  views of mother and see her for who she really was or is,  you become positioned to not only celebrate her true self but to take those realities in your adulthood and create a special connection with the one you love and are committed to in the present moment.  Happy mother’s day Mom. My guess is somewhere out there, you are probably getting ready to play a doubleheader!

© Psychological Counseling Services