Outwardly Successful -Inwardly Tortured

By Ken Wells - 03/03/2021


Blog Two: Series Eight

Sylvia Plath is an American poet who was well on her way to becoming one of the most celebrated young poets in the world. Her productivity was extraordinary. In December she finished a poetry collection that her publisher told her should win the Pulitzer Prize. However, she struggled with depression and during a severe winter in 1962, she succumbed to the depths of the deep dark days of winter and depression. Triggered by the loss of her husband to another woman, Plath took towels, dishcloths, and tape and sealed the kitchen door. She turned on the gas in her kitchen stove, placed her head inside the oven, and took her own life while her children slept in their nearby bedrooms. 

Plath was plagued by her own demons that so many outwardly successful people struggle with while being inwardly tortured. The list of celebrities who know this battle is long. The index of those who have succumbed to their own demons as did Sylvia Plath grows each year. Many addicts know how to function in their professional lives but inwardly are tortured. Addicts can become great over- performers. Many addicts who have been great athletes have learned to perform with great pressure and pain under the spotlight, but collapse to the domination of painkillers and other addictive vices in their private world. 

Gabor Matè defines addiction as a complex psychological/physiological process that manifests in any behavior that a person enjoys — they find short-term relief but experience negative long-term consequences and do not give up because they cannot. So there’s craving and pleasure in the short term, negative consequences in the long term, and the inability to give it up.  Addiction can be more than alcohol. It can also be related to drugs, sex, gambling, exercise, work, relationships or whatever. 

Matè is acclaimed to ask the question why the pain rather than why the addiction?  It is important to know what happened to you that triggered you to become prone to addictive behavior. How did you become so sensitive and reactive to your environment that you needed to escape and numb out with an addictive response? Some think that they were genetically predisposed. Yet, the predisposition does not predetermine an addictive response. 

As children, we become sensitive to what does and does not happen in our developmental lives. It’s what goes on inside a child’s life that determines the impact of traumatic experience. Many times it’s what doesn’t happen versus something dramatic that does occur. Children learn they matter when parents spend sufficient amounts of time with them on their terms. When this does not happen it creates a hole (like Swiss cheese) in their psychological development. They learn to try to fill the hole from the outside in. It never works.  As adults they utilize defense mechanisms acquired when they were helpless children. In relationships, they continue reliving the past in experiences and responses and cannot connect to the present. When someone steps on your foot in a crowded public space, they usually apologize and everything is fine. However, if someone steps on your foot and you have a severe ingrown toenail, you let out a whelp. When someone unknowingly does something that hurts your feelings and you find yourself reacting to their behavior at a 9 on a scale of 1 to 10 when a usual response might be a 5, the extra is likely not about what happened in the moment but what you might be carrying which was acquired many years ago when you were a helpless child. Addictive response to stress and emotional pain can usually be traced back to when you were a helpless child. As a child when you cannot escape or fight back in the presence of painful experience, you usually shut down and dissociate. You will carry the pain throughout your life unless you consciously work to release it. You can mask the pain with performance and dissociation. This does not change for an addict until the wound from childhood is healed. 

Consequently, many great performers are very sensitive people. Sensitivity not only magnifies the pain but it also magnifies creativity. Often times, creative people feel the most pain, which leads to destructive behavior like addictions. Many people who perform well are deeply troubled on the inside because the human brain is shaped by the environment. We now know that the circuitry of the brain depends upon human environment during early childhood in life.

When addicts face the pain and torture within there is a need to address the trauma. The 12-step community does not do a good job addressing trauma. So what is an addict to do?

Drain the pool of pain and scrub the wound

This is always about attachment wounding as a child. It is not about finding fault or blame. Perfect childhoods are non-existent. Draining the pool of pain is as much about addressing what didn’t happen (nurturing/touch/parents’ spending sufficient time on a child’s terms/etc) and what traumatic experiences did occur. Trauma is not what happened to you rather it’s your response to it. Scrubbing the wound is about grieving what could have been and should have been but never was or no longer is. It is difficult for an addict to drain a pool they don’t see or scrub a wound that they are numb to. In other words, addicts are disconnected from their authentic self which is basically the capacity to feel their own feelings. They have long since numbed out and lost themselves. Draining the pool of pain normally requires that an addict take time to become sequestered from all the activity that numbs them out. This is why inpatient treatment can be helpful. Not just to complete the Twelve Steps, but rather to grieve the losses and scrub the wounds of trauma through deep grieving. Anger processing, EMDR, Gestalt work, somatic experiencing, yoga, motor-sensory integration techniques, meditation and other experiential modalities are all helpful to reconnect with self and to begin listening to your gut as an addict.

Integrate and put healing experience into the practice of life

It won’t be enough to sequester your healing experience. Re-entry into everyday life involvement requires that you integrate your participation in healing where the rubber meets the road in your life. You will need to apply your healing tools to relationships that have been difficult in the past in environments that have been toxic. You may learn that you will need to separate yourself from certain toxic settings. You will need to work carefully with your therapist, spirit guide, and sponsor to sort and sift the way of integrating your life-healing skills to everyday practice.

Empowerment is all about you

The beautiful thing about inward healing is that it does not require anything from anyone outside of you to insure you are getting better. It’s all up to you. The greatest roadblock to healing is when you wait on someone to understand, change their behavior, or approve of you before you can improve. It is a misbelief. Also, waiting to feel better so that you can improve is delusional. Transformation is only about empowered self-choice to act in a way different from your tortured past. It is not contingent upon other’s agreeing with you or feeling a certain way, or even about you no longer having mistaken beliefs that have paralyzed you in the past. It is solely about you acting upon a positive belief that you are worthy. It requires a willingness to embrace your own sense of self by facing all of your feelings in the here and now.

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