Dealing with the Rendezvous of Painful Memories

By Ken Wells - 05/10/2022


Series Three: Blog Twenty-Nine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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