Navigating Through the Roots of Addiction

By Ken Wells - 07/29/2022


Series Three: Blog Forty-Eight

When I was a little kid Christmas morning was mixed with high anticipation, disappointment, dread and a ton of anxiety. I could not wait for my mom to declare from the bottom of the stairway that Santa Claus had come. I had been anxiously waiting for this clarion call for what seemed like an eternity. Quickly, I would race down the stairs in my pajamas to see the bright, glittering packages stacked around the Christmas tree with sparkling lights all around. We had 9 kids, so the entire living room would be full of wrapped presents. I remember the smile on my mom’s face. It is one of my favorite childhood memories.

Every family has their own ritual about how to open presents. In our home, it was total chaos. All the presents were handed out at once by my mom. You could not open one present until everyone had receive all of their gifts. Then it was mass bedlam with bows and paper flying everywhere as everyone opened their presents all at once. There was so much upheaval that the underwear and socks that grandma gave usually settled at the bottom of the pile of boxes and paper and would be at risk being unnoticed and thrown out with the Christmas wrapping paper. This was my fond memory of anticipation about Christmas as a kid.

On the other side, there was the hell and anxiety. The older kids in our family were less enthusiastic about all the chaos that the younger kids made about the gifts. My older brother Dave didn’t want to get out of bed. He would likely be hung over from drinking with his friends the night before. My dad would make him get up and come downstairs to sit around the tree. That always triggered unwanted conflict. My other older brother, Jim was our family scrooge. He seemed to always be in a foul mood complaining about all the noise, that his gifts were not nice enough and just all around being very unpleasant. Dave would make fun and pick at Jim for being such a Debbie Downer. This exchange quickly triggered a fierce physical fist fight between the two. My dad would jump in the middle of this intense quarrel with his heavy artillery approach that included a lot of harsh language, tears and some cussing on my brother’s part. This always threw cold water on all the excitement. My mom would begin to cry and say “Why can’t we have a happy Christmas like all the other families on our block?” I am not sure how she knew how the other Christmas mornings were going for others in the block but I knew that the excitement for ours had come to a screeching halt. After a season of silence, I would wander to the kitchen table where my dad cracked walnuts, pecans and Brazil nuts with a brick. We quietly sorted the meat from the crushed shells and ate them in silence. This memory was an annual ritual on Christmas morning at my house.

As an addict, I never learned how to identify my feelings, how to self regulate or establish boundaries around the feeling of others. I just absorbed everyone else’s feelings in our family. As the Christmas morning began, I was not just excited for me but for everybody. Then when things soured I absorbed my mom’s sadness and tears. I was confused about Dave’s lack of excitement and wanted to fix him by helping him open his present. I hated that Jim was such a Scrooge. I tried to cheer him. Then I was so frightened and would go under the radar when my dad came in to quash the skirmish between my older brothers. So much violence in a space where a moment ago there was so much excitement! Twenty minutes later when I quietly sat next to my dad cracking nuts in the kitchen, there were all kinds of feelings racing inside that I did not know how to identify or regulate. Upon reflection, thank God as a little kid I learned to masturbate to quell the unidentified feelings racing inside. I would go insane trying to figure out how to cope with the crazy dysfunction of my family system throughout my childhood. Dysregulated emotional expression became the root of sexual addiction that later flourished in my adult life. 

The 12-step community became a safe container and secure base to explore my feelings. Therapy helped me to understand my fragmented self and to incorporate healthy reparenting skills. My support community allowed me to practice expressing my feelings toward self-empowerment. The combination of therapy and support helped me to learn to regulate my impulses and gain clarity about what was going on inside.

My multiple addictions became an organizing principle in my life that gave me a reason to face each day.  Over time I was able to replace my addiction with a meaningful secure base of support through the 12-step community. It helped to reduce my anxiety and I learned to create calm in my life with the help of therapy and other support.

I learned that in my childhood there were a lot of bad viruses verbally, sexually, through violence, religious and intellectual abuse that was put into my hard drive of experience and thinking. I had to relearn how to think about my own thinking. As an adult I am learning to become an observer of my thoughts.  Training and practice taught me to assert the wisdom from my empowered adult when stuck in my young adolescent emotional self. I have learned to take the reins from the immature child and empower my mature wise mind. This is a process that excludes perfection and will be ongoing throughout my life.

The 12-step community has been a safe place to address my addiction to chaos, emotional pain, abandonment and rejection. It has helped me to work through my distorted sense of responsibility and my tendency to take things personally. It has provided a laboratory to sort through mistrust of others from alienation. I have been able to unravel self-defeating behaviors and learn to be assertive and not aggressive with my anger.

Utilizing 12-step recovery with therapeutic guidance I have learned to develop a real self. Like a geode, the 12-step community and therapy has helped me to remove the outside and see what is inside and what coalesces in order to understand what blocks my ability to deepen intimacy. I have learned how codependency and traumatic experience are siblings that have undermined my ability to create closeness with others. I learned to “fake it to make it” as a way of building a bridge to my true self. The 12-step process combined with therapeutic intervention has taught me to make sense of my internal experience while reflecting on the mind of another. It has fostered individuation. I am able to have my own thoughts without giving into the urge to have the same thoughts and feelings of another who I would like acceptance from.

Therapy and the 12-step community has helped me to do the necessary work around symptomatic addiction and to get the runaway train going down the track stopped. Both have helped me to unearth rooted causation from my family of origin and address the wounds that bound me. Both have supported the development of my spirituality which helps to make meaningfulness from a crazy dysfunctional past and utilize my personal brilliance to navigate the present dysfunction of our current culture.

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