Finding a Safe Place When Your World Falls Apart

By Ken Wells - 10/27/2020


Series One: Blog Sixty-Eight

What is a Safe Place to Me?
A place where my head rests
And my heart feels,
Where the mask I wear,
Falls away
A place I feel grounded,
In my chaotic life.
Where if only for a moment,
I feel happy.
A place where
the smile on my face isn’t fake.
Where I feel a part of something,
A family,
A place where I feel loved
When I need it the most.
Where nothing

But me is expected.
A place that changes
As time passes.
Where I feel strong,
But can be weak
That is my safe place

— By Jacob Ian Allen

I grew up in a family of 9 kids. My parents also raised my oldest sisters 3 kids. I was the youngest of 5 boys. I learned all about social savvy and survival navigating my relationships with my older brothers. One of my older brothers was Jimmy. He was seven years older than me. When Jimmy was in high school, he began working out with weights in the summertime to get ready for football in the Fall. Physically, he blossomed from 145lbs to 190lbs. It was impressive. He wasn’t fat. He was muscular. It paid off because his team won a championship and he was starting guard on offense. 

I was always impressed by Jimmy’s strength. In truth, I was intimidated. My brothers were always bigger and better athletes than I was. As a result, I would idolize them. I would use a lot of grit and determination to hang in there and attempt to impress them.

Jimmy liked to overpower me with his physical strength. He thought it was funny to wrestle with me and smother me with a pillow. His game was to get me to say “UNCLE” and then he would stop. It was scary as hell. For me, saying “UNCLE” was tantamount to giving up the only tidbit of power I possessed. I fought valiantly to avoid this fate. At times, I thought I would be smothered to death. There were times that it pretty nearly happened. 

He would sit on top of me, hold me down and smother me with the pillow. I would hold out just before passing out and then Jim would let me come up for air and yell for me to say “uncle”.  Instead, I would gasp for air and then stick my tongue out at him which only triggered more of this cruel game.  I remember feeling so mad and so scared!  Somehow, this combination of feelings triggered a pit bull determination to never give in —and I never did. It felt like I went to hell and back but secretly in my heart “I won”.  He would play this game of torture many times and I never gave in once. 

As a kid there were not a lot of safe places to escape. 

For me in my house, I could hide in a second floor walk in closet and the attic— sometimes. 

We lived close to the Illinois Central railroad that intersected the east central Illinois town I grew up in. I remember watching the trains go by wondering where they might be going. Chicago-north, and then New Orleans-south? I would day dream about jumping a boxcar and traveling one way or the other, watching the world go by. I created an imaginary friend who would walk with me. When I felt sad, my imaginary friend would comfort me and just hang out with me. Looking back, I think it’s amazing what little kids do just to survive incredibly difficult experiences. That was my first creation of a safe place. Throughout the years, I have constructed many others to retreat and find respite. 

For an addict, finding a safe place can be difficult and tricky. It’s illusory. Long ago, a sex addict might learn as a little kid that when everything around is unpredictable and uncertain, you learn to rely upon your own supply of medication with masturbation to soothe anxiety. It can become a sleep aid that calms fear of the unknown. For a sex addict, masturbation which is healthy for a person to engage in early psychosexual development and beyond, later morphs into destructive ways of escape to avoid intimate emotional connection with self or a significant partner, particularly when fused with props like porn and fantasy. 

For an alcoholic, unwinding and creating a safe place around a pool, a fireside, or dinner always included your drink of choice. When an addict creates neuropathways in the brain that connect to a drug of choice, it sabotages what was once safe and becomes the very place to avoid. Most addicts have more than one destructive behavior, each of which soothed and satisfied but now are no longer safe and friendly but dangerous and uncontrollable. For addicts safe places have become treacherous. So in the midst of life falling apart, like struggling through a pandemic, a collapsed economy, social/racial political unrest, wild fires and hurricanes, what does a safe place look like when you throw the junkie worm of addiction into the middle of all this? Here are common components suggested to create refuge and respite.

1. Create a time and space where you can become quiet-

Listen to your breath, the quiet activity around you- birds that sing, the electricity that hums, even the rats in your attic (maybe) that run around— just listen and breathe. Quiet your busy mind. Be calm and still. There is always plenty of time later to act. Condition yourself to take time to be quiet for just a few minutes to begin your day. Slowing down, becoming quiet is an essential part of the foundation for your safe place. When you execute this ritual every day, you create the calm necessary to sort through the broken pieces of life. In quietness you awaken your creative imagination so necessary in navigating your broken world. Remember, practice makes permanent. Whatever the situation, practicing this foundational experience each day within your heart will cultivate the poise you need to do the next right thing. 

2. Penetrate painful thoughts and experiences with presence.

By presence, it is meant to utilize the embrace of feelings of discomfort. Overcoming the urge to escape with distractions, ruminations and worried thought requires the embrace of present reality. It means to lean into anxiety, fears, resentment and hatred. This room in your safe house will not likely be your favorite place.  It is like choosing to sit in the room of your house that has been charred in ruins ravaged by fire. The burned remains smudge with blackness and dismay. Why would you choose to sit in this room to find safety? Yet, without this room, your safe house will become elusive and vanish. It will be overcome by the fret and anxiety of worried thought that will dominate and destroy your safe place. Paradoxically, only by sitting with what seems unsettling do we learn to create safety. Knowing that you can sit with the unknown of discomfort and go to the depths of uncertainty, will create safety in learning that you can compose unconditional confidence not from guaranteed results, but in the knowledge that whatever intense feeling you experience you will be able to face it. It is this experience that creates inner safety, poise and purpose to persevere. This unlikely room becomes the safe place to create meaningfulness from every painful moment. Finding meaningfulness is enough to cultivate the unconditional confidence to continue. 

3. Detach from what you cannot control and reimagine a new reality within.

Safe place creates opportunity to heal within by letting go of what you cannot control. Sort of like global warming. These days most folk agree that global warming is in progress. Folk argue about how much human causation is a factor. Yet, when we detach from what we cannot control, past actions and blame assignment, we become open to reimagining a new world of possibility in a future world. Without detaching from past actions, we remain stuck in an old house that was once safe but no longer is. Creating a new safe place within will allow you to reimagine a new reality without the domination of hurtful addictive behaviors in order to reimagine a world without the obstruction of hurtful destructive behaviors. Safe place is designed to reimagine a new reality within in the presence of external chaos and crisis.

Helen Keller once said that “the most pathetic person in the world is someone who has sight, but has no vision.”  An addict without a safe place is prone to become one who has the sight of what needs to be done, yet, without a vision to get there. A safe place provides a space for addicts to reimagine a new world without the domination of destructive behavior.

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