The Illusion of a Safety Net

By Ken Wells - 03/03/2023


Series Three: Blog Ninety-Five

The Flying Wallendas are the most celebrated tight rope act in the world. The Wallenda family has been performing tight rope acts for over 200 years. They were the first to walk a tightrope across the Grand Canyon and the Niagara Falls. Tino Wallenda stated that they perform and practice without a safety net because the safety net can trigger you to be more careless. Plus, a net is not a guarantee of safety. “I’ve known four people in my life, either landed in a net or missed the net, and died,” he said.

Betrayal behavior is an experience that triggers the need for a safety net. Devastated by heartache, the cry for reassurance is understood. Addicts in recovery look for a magic formula to prevent relapse. The tendency is to look to others to provide the safety net just in case someone slips and falls off the wagon. The problem with safety nets is that they don’t work. I have been in recovery from addiction for 32 years and treating addicts in recovery and their partners and families for 30 years.

Support from others is necessary but not sufficient. Addicts have a tendency to look for a magic bullet that will insulate them from relapse and provide a safety net. Partners and families are vulnerable to the same illusion.

Addicts go to 12-step groups, listen to the old sages who have been sober for years and think that if they just do their lives like their role model it will protect them from ever relapsing and they won’t need to worry about potential downfalls. Addicts tell each other this as well.

Partners do the same. They attend partner support groups and listen to the harrowing stories of peers walking through the same betrayal. One person says do this or that. Sometimes it’s a polygraph upon demand. Other times it’s put a GPS on an addict’s vehicle to track whereabouts or to put a monitor on all devices. Sometimes partners tell an addict to go to this or that treatment intervention or workshop.

Recovery is not static. It is dynamic. There is no black and white answer to what works or what will provide a safety net to prevent relapse for all. What works for one won’t work for another. Any and all interventions can be necessary but not sufficient. It depends upon personal initiative and awareness. It really comes down to attitude and determination to do whatever it takes to be sober. Doing recovery with an attitude of compliance to a sponsor or a partner ultimately leaves the addict more vulnerable to relapse. This pursuit is personal and cannot be micro managed by another. I don’t know any addict who remained stuck in an attitude of compliance to another party, who ultimately experienced serenity. Peace escapes the one who lives life trying to comply to the expectations of another. Doing recovery to conform to the wishes of another ultimately leads to emptiness and is not sustainable. You may experience initial relief from the reckless life of addictive behavior but ultimately you will return to the same emptiness that triggered your addictive behavior in the first place. Recovery only happens for addict and partner when each does what they know they need to do for themselves, not because they are trying to control their environment but because they want to experience the serenity of sober living.

So if I cannot ultimately depend upon another to be a safety net then how do I create personal safety when facing the trauma that comes from addiction?

Listed are a few considerations:

  1. The Way out is to go in. Addicts not only traumatize others around them but they traumatize themselves. Outside intervention is needed to treat trauma for those in the wake of destructive behavior for both addict and partner. For sure, betrayal is devastating. Necessary interventions are assessed and triaged depending upon the impact of the betrayal wound. Not every person suffers the same impact from betrayal. Ultimately, deeper healing is experienced when addict and partner go deep inside and access their own personal resource for healing without depending upon the other to fix them by performing certain behaviors or avoiding others. The way out from fear of relapse is to go deep within and heal the heart. In the face of anxiety, fear and dread of potential relapse, it is one’s own heart that ultimately provides an invisible safety net. No matter how your partner responds to h/her recovery you can resiliently do the next right thing to preserve your dignity, respect and safety by going deep within.
  2. Construct your boundaries to care for self, not to control the behavior of another. When a child falls down steps and hurts themselves, a responsible parent constructs a barrier so that an immature child does not repeat the fateful action. However, when that child is an adult they will need to learn to implement their own barrier for protection. Sometimes during the growing up stage, a child will become bossy toward other children thinking that is their job to make sure others obey the rules and avoid a negative outcome. Eventually, the child learns that it doesn’t work to be bossy. In recovery, a similar experience is true. When doing recovery, it is critical to set boundaries to care for yourself, not to control another person. The reason is that it simply doesn’t work. If an addict adheres to boundaries solely to appease a partner, h/she will lose themselves and ultimately increase the likelihood of relapse. Sometimes a partner will accept compliance and conformity and mistake it for safety. It’s like walking on thin ice. You are safe until the ice cracks and you fall through. What you thought was a safety net was an illusion. Boundaries are for self care, not to control another’s behavior. They are not for threat either. Going inside  requires that you painstakingly and carefully determine what you will and will not live with. It cannot be what someone else tells you should be. Creating non negotiable boundaries requires agonizing consideration that is carved deeply in your own heart. Non negotiables do not come from knee-jerk reactions to mistrust, emotional pain or irritability. It comes from a deeper place of choices that you make about how you will live your life in response to addictive behavior. Once you get clear about what your non negotiables are then you live by them and let them guide your life toward healing, broken intimacy with your partner. Some addicts and partners choose to end the relationship when a non negotiable is broken. Ultimately, if you end a relationship from a deep heart decision about a broken non negotiable that had been established through deep forethought, in time you will heal deeper than if you end the relationship from reactivity or from a rebounding response. This is true for both addict and partner. Boundaries are to care for yourself, not to control someone else.
  3. Listen to the internal voices that sabotage your recovery and take ownership of the message, then respond as an adult. Trauma triggers a scared little kid inside to take the reins of responsibility and try to control the direction of life. Little kids are not capable of responding to adult trauma. Reactivity deafens the internal voice so that you don’t recognize the sabotage buried in the frenetic response to avoid fear and painful abandonment. Take a deep breath! Listen to the message that motivates your reactive response. You will learn that reactivity comes from a scared kid within. With firmness and gentleness, take the reins of response and decision making from the frightened child and pull the child close you in spirit. Don’t alienate h/her with shame and criticism. Give reassurance that the wise mind adult within has got this! When you feel dysregulated reach out to your support community for the purpose of grounding. The answer for your relapse and betrayal for both addict and partner is within you. When you want to run, don’t. Stay put and listen deeply to your frightened internal voice and determine what the message of mistaken belief is and whose voice spoke that to you earlier in life. Then reframe the message. If it tells you that you are not enough, reconstruct it with your wise mind and assert that you are enough just the way you are. You are an unrepeatable miracle of God with unlimited capability to manage your broken heart. It will take training and conditioning with much practice. However, when you pay attention to the internal voices in the presence of betrayal behavior you will find a deeper solution that will guide you without succumbing to a temptation to control your addict partner or your betrayed partner.

For the Wallenda’s the ultimate safety net was trusting their heart before they took one step. Learn what it means to go deep within. Ultimately as you mature in awareness you will discover your own invisible safety net that exists within your heart. 

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