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Relapse in Long Term Recovery

Unconsciously, I thought I had it licked. I honestly didn’t realize it, but unconsciously I started believing I had won the battle and was back in control. So, after many years in recovery, I had a relapse. Here’s how it happened: I have a migraine condition, which at one time was really bad, and I took Fioricet as part of the treatment of each migraine. After a while, I needed two to really kill the pain. Then, at some point I started realizing that the barbiturate in Fioricet helped sedate and calm me down (I suffer with generalized anxiety disorder). So, I started taking the drug to “treat” my ongoing, near-constant state of low-level anxiety. Then I started taking more. And more. I truly believed that I was in control – that I could safely use (abuse) this drug without anybody noticing and without consequences.

I was badly mistaken. This behavior almost destroyed my marriage. My wife confronted me and told me it was either her or my addiction, but not both. So, I had to surrender completely, and re-enter recovery somewhat like a newcomer. I had had a relapse, without fully grasping it.

This devastated me. Relapsing was a threat to my identity as somebody with long-term recovery, someone to be looked up to as exemplary. I was filled with shame. What are the lessons?

First: Long-term recovery is a trap as much as a blessing. Having long-term recovery lulled me into a false sense of security.

Complacency: With this false sense of security, I began to become complacent in my recovery. I didn’t go to as many meetings, I didn’t call people like I used to, I got sick and tired of all the cross-talk in meetings and so I didn’t go. I let up on Step work. This was all very, very gradual in nature and I didn’t notice any of it at the time. It just added up.

Time has no meaning: I realized that I don’t “have” X number of years. Those days and years are totally gone; they don’t exist anymore. The ONLY thing I truly have is TODAY. We are given a DAILY reprieve, based on our spiritual condition for THAT DAY ALONE.

Pride: Having long-term recovery gave me a sense of elevated status in the rooms. Let’s face it: we look up to people with time. They are our idols. This is a mistake, a very bad mistake. The rooms are supposed to be a fellowship of equals, and everybody, I mean everybody, has clay feet. And – all we actually have is TODAY.

Control: I began to be affected by the illusion of control. My long-term recovery gave me an unconscious belief that “I have this all together” now and that I’m back in control of my life. Mind you, this was all unconscious. This is why I needed to stay in touch with people in program, to keep me “right-sized” and to remind me that I don’t control anything, least of all my addiction.

Identity: Without realizing it, I began to identify with my recovery. My identity became rooted in how much time I had in recovery. This was, and remains, a mistake. My identity comes from being a child of God, period. It has nothing to do with “time”. It’s also a mistake because if you lose that time, then a huge chunk of your identity collapses and you are filled with guilt and shame, which makes it all the much more difficult to come back into recovery and into the rooms.

Perfectionism and Shame: Two Sides of One Coin

Barn and Clouds

Somewhere along my journey of recovery, I learned something very important: perfectionism and shame are two different manifestations of the same inner problem. They are two sides of a single coin.

Shame is an extremely deep-seated, unconscious, all-pervading belief and perception that you are completely worthless, utterly unworthy, totally unlovable, and undeserving of anything good in life. Shame is not the same as guilt. Guilt is a bad feeling caused by knowing or thinking that you have done something bad or wrong. It is about your behavior. Shame is completely different. It has nothing to do with your behavior or anything you’ve done. Shame is rooted in your very identity, your sense of who and what you ARE, not what you’ve done.

Shame is a hundred times more toxic and corrosive than guilt. It is ten times more difficult to get rid of, and a hundred times more painful to openly and consciously FEEL. Feeling guilt is a walk in the park compared to feelings of shame. When someone “falls into the well of shame”, it is the most horrible feeling in the world. It is so excruciating to feel that it can lead people to commit suicide. It is totally dark, black, filled with sheer despair, and feels like it will never, ever end. It feels like one is the most worthless, horrible, ugly piece of crap in the whole world, like a black mark that can’t be erased or redeemed. It is a constant, nagging sense of never being “good enough”. It makes people isolate and hide from other people, because they don’t want anybody to see or know them, because they believe they are such ugly, horrible pieces of garbage.

Shame is “installed” in little children by shaming, blaming parents and caregivers, and also by certain fundamentalist, shame-based religions which teach that human beings are worthless, evil sinners in the eyes of God.

Because shame is so overwhelmingly powerful and deeply painful to feel, children cope with it by burying it deep in the dark basement of the unconscious psyche. It is “split off” from the conscious mind, because the conscious mind of children is completely unequipped to deal with it directly. Because of this, shame becomes a deeply buried, unconscious, ticking time bomb for adults. Most people have absolutely no idea that it is there — i.e. that they are shame-based and unconsciously driven by their hidden shame.

But make no mistake: even if they are entirely unaware of it, shame-based people are powerfully driven by their buried shame. It manifests in several behaviors, all of which are attempts at escaping, covering-over, or getting-rid of shame. And none of them work. Or rather, they work for a few moments, hours or days. Then they stop working, the old shame returns, and the cycle begins anew.

A very common defense against shame is the drive for perfection. Perfectionism is characterized by striving for flawlessness and an unattainable ideal, and setting excessively high performance standards, accompanied by overly critical evaluations of self and others. Underneath perfectionism is the mostly unconscious belief that perfection and flawlessness is the only thing that is acceptable and worthy; anything less than perfection deserves only condemnation and shame. Failing is equated with being worthless. Underneath perfectionism is the belief than “I will be okay and worthy of love ONLY when I attain perfection – in all things. Anything less than perfection means that I am miserable, awful, terrible and worthless.” There is no middle ground. This is black and white, all or nothing thinking. It is a central characteristic of shame.

Perfectionism is different from a healthy, balanced pursuit of self-improvement. I found the following list of differences between them on the University of Texas Counseling and Mental Health Center (CMHC) web site very helpful:

Perfectionism:

  • Setting standards beyond reach and reason
  • Never being satisfied by anything less than perfection
  • Becoming depressed when faced with failure or disappointment
  • Being preoccupied with fears of failure and disapproval
  • Seeing mistakes as evidence of unworthiness
  • Becoming overly defensive when criticized

Healthy Striving:

  • Setting standards that are high but within reach
  • Enjoying process as well as outcome
  • Bouncing back quickly from failure or disappointment
  • Keeping normal anxiety and fear of failure within bounds
  • Seeing mistakes as opportunities for growth and learning
  • Reacting positively to helpful criticism

A healthy desire to grow and improve is not compulsive, driven, overheated or out of proportion. It is simply a balanced desire to mature and grow as a human being. Perfectionism is none of these things. It is a burning, utterly driven compulsion to escape one’s humanness. To be human is to be inescapably imperfect, flawed and incomplete. We are not machines. This imperfection is the root of our compassion, caring, desire to help and to love. But for a shame-based person, this imperfection is not viewed in this light. It is viewed as a contemptible weakness – something to be loathed and eradicated.

Reducing or eliminating shame cannot be done through a conscious, self-willed attempt at suppressing it or pushing it away. Its psychic roots are way too deep and pervasive. Rather, the only thing that works is, paradoxically, accepting it – i.e. making it conscious, allowing ourselves to feel it, and coming to realize, through self-acceptance, that we are simply human beings with ineradicable failings and shortcomings, like every other human being on earth. That is to say, coming to realize that our shame is unearned, and it is over literally nothing. There is nothing wrong with us – except perhaps being vulnerable, imperfect human beings. And this realization becomes the root of self-compassion, and compassion for other people.

Learning to Trust Ourselves

BRUCE-MCCANDLESS-SPACE-WALK-cropped & resized

Here’s a paradox for you: Success in early recovery depends heavily upon our ability to trust others (e.g. a sponsor, a therapist, our network/support system), but success in long-term recovery depends heavily upon our ability to trust ourselves! Let’s look harder at this paradox.

I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve heard this refrain in the rooms of recovery: “My best thinking got me drunk (or high)!” The message is clear: “You can’t depend on your own thoughts, beliefs, attitudes and actions to recover from addiction. You need our help to recover from addiction!” There is some truth in this – at least in early recovery. I know that when I came into recovery, I was a mess, mentally and emotionally. I could barely string together a coherent thought. I was severely dysfunctional, riddled with false, crazy ideas, attitudes and behaviors. So yeah, I needed a whole lotta help. My best thinking pretty much stunk. I’m sure I’m not alone in this regard.

So in early recovery, we do need to learn to trust others (safe others). We need to put together a trustworthy recovery team: a sponsor, a network or support system of other people in recovery, maybe a good therapist, potentially a good recovery coach, maybe a clergy-type person. We truly NEED the input of other people who are farther down the road of recovery, people who can guide, support and coach us at a time when we are basically clueless.

But here’s the deal when it comes to long-term recovery: eventually, we need to stop being, and behaving, like children and mature and grow up. I don’t mean to offend anyone, but if you’ve got twenty or more years of recovery and you’re still asking your sponsor to tell you what to do or how to live your life, you may have a problem. At some point, we need to take full responsibility for ourselves and for our lives. That’s what it means to be an adult. Hiding behind the stock phrase “my sponsor told me to do it” just won’t cut it anymore. After enough time in recovery has elapsed, that phrase is nothing more than an abdication of responsibility, which reveals a desire to hide behind a supposedly “wiser” person. The problem is: who’s telling the sponsor what to do? What makes him or her an authority? How do we know that their advice is any better than our own perceptions and intuitions? Telling others “my sponsor told me to do it” does NOT take us off the hook for being responsible for our own choices.

So how do we learn to trust ourselves? The short answer is: practice, practice, practice. Practice listening to our heart: the “still, small voice” within. Practice trusting our gut, our intuition. Practice learning to discriminate between our authentic inner voice and the snares and traps of our ego. Also, as we work on our core issues – our self-sabotaging beliefs, attitudes and behaviors – we become more and more healthy, and our inner impulses become less and less contaminated with old, unconscious, dysfunctional “stuff” that short-circuits our success. Our inner impulses gradually become freed from our “stuff” and thus more and more trustworthy. As we grow in this manner, we become less and less dependent on other people to tell us what to do and how to think. We begin to enter into emotional and spiritual maturity.

Of course, that doesn’t entirely free us from errors and ego. That’s why we continue to need some kind of support system in our recovery. We can run things by other people and get a reality check or feedback if we choose. But using a support system in this way is a far cry from turning to ONE person (usually a sponsor) and asking them to tell us what to do. No; in later recovery we become full, complete, autonomous adults who take responsibility for our choices and actions. We don’t hide behind a “guru” of some sort.

Learning how to trust ourselves is an imperative for long-term recovery.

Vulnerability: The True Source of Strength

Gathering flowers in gathering storm-resized 700

Vulnerability gets a bad rap in our culture; in my experience, it seems to be despised. In our culture, we seem to love the tough, hard, mean, sneering attitude. Vulnerability is perceived as weakness. The cultural message is clear: Be STRONG. Vulnerability is for losers. You can’t hurt ME!

Why is this? How did this happen? Among many recovering people, at least, the answer is reasonably clear.

Many people in recovery were raised in abusive environments. Survival as a child in an abusive environment requires shutting down: i.e. dissociating from our emotions. If a child consciously felt the full brunt of the abuse suffered, he or she would completely disintegrate emotionally or become psychotic. The child’s vulnerable psyche is protected by the defense of dissociation: excruciatingly painful feelings are ‘split off’ and pushed way, way down into the unconscious mind. As this defense becomes a habitual response for survival in a chronically abusive environment, the child effectively turns into stone: apparently unfeeling, flat, distant, sometimes cold and hard. This response is also widespread in disenfranchised, impoverished communities plagued with gang violence and gang attitudes. It is the way of survival in a harsh, punitive, abusive, violent environment.

Turning to stone does help one survive in a dangerous environment. But there is a huge problem: being a stone is a serious impediment to recovery from alcoholism/addiction, to living a fulfilling life, and especially to establishing and maintaining loving, healthy, intimate relationships. Let me explain:

Addiction is, to a significant degree, a result of chronic self-medication: i.e. using alcohol, drugs or other addictive behaviors as a way to anesthetize deep-down psychic pain. We become addicts because we need to dull the pain that’s buried deep down inside – the pain of our abusive childhoods. The pain doesn’t go away, so we need to anesthetize it over and over again, chronically, over a long period of time. Often, the result is addiction. And, just because we enter into some kind of recovery process, this buried pain doesn’t go away. On the contrary, it just sits there, unchanging and unmedicated.

There are several unconscious strategies that some people in recovery utilize to keep this pain squelched, or at least to stay one step ahead of it. That is, to remain “strong” / invulnerable. These include developing secondary compulsions/ addictions such as gambling, sex addiction, compulsive shopping, compulsive Internet use, and other process addictions. Some recovering people compulsively utilize certain recovery tools as temporary “get high” methods. These include the compulsive use of prayer and meditation, which is called “spiritual bypassing” by author Robert Augustus Masters. Another is compulsive Twelfth Step work, which might include sponsoring dozens of people in recovery, speaking in rehabs and detoxes nearly every night of the week, becoming a circuit speaker, constantly leading Step workshops, and other approaches. The keyword here is compulsive, meaning out-of-balance, extreme over-use of these short-term feel-good strategies as a way to “paper over” hidden, buried, unconscious pain and as a means to “feel good all the time.”

These strategies do work – for awhile. Then, at some point, like all compulsions/ addictions, they stop working. We hit a bottom with them. No matter how tough and stony we try to remain on the outside, on the inside we remain vulnerable, hurting puppies. And eventually, this buried pain must surface. It may take a year; it may take twenty or thirty years. It must be addressed, or it could lead to relapse into active addiction, or possibly even suicide. We must turn inward and face our demons. It’s not optional. And this means becoming VULNERABLE. It means becoming REAL.

Being tough, hard, mean, and sneering are NOT STRENGTH. They are DEFENSES. They are heavy-duty, thick-walled fortresses. They are protections against the possibility of being hurt. That’s all they are. And if you think about it, what is hidden away, deep in the inner sanctum of a fortress? Something WEAK, that’s what. Being tough, hard, mean and sneering – i.e. being invulnerable – is a cover over hidden weakness. And what is that weakness? It is the unwillingness to FEEL. It is the fear of feeling painful emotions. It is the belief that if I feel my feelings, I will be destroyed, or decimated, or, worst of all, LOSE CONTROL. It is the intense, obsessive need to be in control, to be dominant, at all times.

And that, my friends, is a weakness. If someone is actually a strong person, THEY DON’T NEED A FORTRESS! It takes real, true inner strength to allow oneself to honestly FEEL. It takes real, true inner strength to allow oneself to be VULNERABLE. Vulnerability is simply the human condition. And BEING vulnerable – embracing our humanity – is a sign of powerful inner strength. Being hard and stony is a sign of inner weakness; it is absolutely NOT strength.

The ability to create and maintain healthy intimate relationships depends in large part on our willingness to be and remain vulnerable – to put down our defenses, walls and masks, and allow the other person IN. If we remain invulnerable, we keep the other person OUT. And that is why many intimate relationships do not last. We refuse to let down our walls because we are afraid of being hurt. The other person feels shut out and eventually leaves because their emotional need for intimacy is not being met. And then, we feel hurt. Our refusal to allow ourselves to be hurt virtually guarantees that we will be hurt!

The Care of God?

Gorgeous lotus blossoms

The “care” of God? Are you kidding me??? For many years in recovery, I had extremely serious trouble with trusting a Higher Power. My life did NOT get better quickly. It took many, many years in recovery before my life began to take on even a semblance of “normalcy.” For many years in recovery, my life was filled with chaos, depression and extreme anxiety. It’s NOT because I wasn’t “working the steps”. No. It was because of the incredible depth and breadth of the damage and trauma I suffered growing up in a severely dysfunctional, shaming, violent family atmosphere. That created a LOT of damage, and it took many, many years of CONSTANT working of the steps, plus deep psychotherapy, plus many years of attendance at Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACoA) and Codependents Anonymous (CoDA) meetings for my life to begin to turn around straighten out.

During those many years of profound pain, chaos, anxiety and shame in recovery, it felt like there was no Higher Power in my life. I could NOT see the evidence of it! My life remained very, very HARD, even terror-filled, and I could NOT see ANY evidence of the supposed “care” of God. In fact, I felt totally abandoned by God. It seemed to me that God was on vacation, maybe laying on the beach smoking cigars or something. Maybe He was answering YOUR prayers, but He certainly wasn’t answering MINE. I actually began to HATE God. I was filled with RAGE at God, for not being in my life; at least not in any way that I could discern.

It took me a VERY LONG TIME to begin to understand what was actually going on: How can I even begin to trust myself to the “care” of God when I’m wracked through and through with a thousand different self-sabotaging behaviors that ruin my life over and over and over and over and over! How can I even begin to perceive that God is a loving and caring God when I’m constantly on the balls of my ass because of all these self-sabotaging beliefs, attitudes and behaviors that destroy my life?? Where is there even room for God to show care and love when 99% of my actions are shot-through with self-sabotage?

My long-term unmanageability in recovery ensured that my OUTER life – the externals of my life – indeed remained in a state of more-or-less chaos, so it was extremely difficult to discern the love and care of any Higher Power, when I focused on those externals as evidence. What took me so long to realize was that this was NOT the fault of GOD. My life difficulties were because of ME – because of the incredibly vast repertoire of self-sabotaging behaviors I was saddled with, and because of the incredibly poor insight I had into who I really am. Not in terms of assigning fault or blame, but in terms of the fact that, wherever these behaviors stemmed from, I HAD them, and I was responsible for doing something about them. I simply could NOT have a “normal” life until I dealt with them, and dealt with them pretty thoroughly.

Then, a bit later, I began to realize that if I focused on my INTERNAL life, on my emotional, psychological, and spiritual life, there was PLENTY of evidence of a loving and caring Higher Power in my life. I came into recovery a totally broken and shattered man. I lived in a state of constant panic attack – my anxiety was constant and at psychotic levels. I lived in a state of constant suicidal depression, and had been that way for years. I was totally alone and isolated – I had no friends and had none for years. I had zero social skills. My level of emotional maturity was that of an eight year old. I loathed myself and hated my life. I lived in a state of constant terror and with a deep, deep, deep black dread. My stomach was in a constant knot, and had been that way for probably twenty years or more. I was an atheist and felt nothing but despair. The only reason I didn’t commit suicide was that I was too afraid to do it. But it was only a matter of time till the horrific pain became just too much to bear.

When I came into recovery, without my realizing it particularly, resources for positive growth and change began to come into my life. Sponsors, friends, meetings, Steps, books, counselors and therapists, all came to me when I really needed them the most. I’m not going to give a blow-by-blow account of my recovery, because that would be a book in itself. 30 years is a long time.

At any rate, slowly, slowly, slowly I began to get better, and I continued to get better. My external life circumstances didn’t get better for quite a long time, but I got better. Gradually, my psychotic anxiety drifted away. My clinical depression gradually lifted. My isolation and loneliness ended. The knot in my stomach disappeared. After many years, my deep dread began to abate. My despair gradually gave way to hope and gratitude. I learned how to relate to people, how to make friends, and how to relate to the opposite sex. My atheism gave way to a spirituality that suits me.

Very gradually, I began to mature emotionally and spiritually. While I’ll never be so-called “normal”, I feel balanced, even, calm and content 99% of the time. I learned how to love unconditionally and eventually got married. Our relationship is not perfect, but it is 1,000% healthier than any male-female relationship I ever had prior to recovery. My deep shame is gone, which I thought would never happen. I discovered who I really am inside; I came to accept myself as I am and to care about myself; and my self-esteem improved immeasurably. I went back to school and got my PhD. I changed careers to suit my authentic self. I am a healthy, strong man instead of a shattered little boy.

I underwent an unbelievable degree of internal change. Who I am today bears no relation at all to who I was when I entered recovery. I can safely say it’s a miracle. THAT is my most powerful evidence for the love and care of my Higher Power.

Going It Alone in Spiritual Matters is Dangerous

Path 11-resized

My work is all about helping people in recovery to discover and tune in to their true, authentic self, and to pay attention to it and its wisdom, guidance, desires and direction for their lives. It is a glorious thing, after many wasted or just plain difficult years, to finally get in touch with our real self and to take it seriously. Some call this inner, authentic self their Higher Self. Whatever the name, it is the identity that was created in us by our Higher Power. While I celebrate finding this Self, I also want to address a caution, based on a certain phenomenon I’ve witnessed several times over the years. It’s a new kind of trap.

Let me start with a pertinent quote by Bill Wilson from the AA Twelve and Twelve (pg. 60): “Going it alone in spiritual matters is dangerous. How many times have we heard well-intentioned people claim the guidance of God when it was plain that they were mistaken? Lacking both practice and humility, they had deluded themselves and so were able to justify the most arrant nonsense on the ground that this was what God had told them. People of very high spiritual development almost always insist on checking with friends or spiritual advisers the guidance they feel they have received from God.”

I bring this up because I’ve known quite a few individuals over the years that have discovered their inner/authentic “Higher Self” – the spark of God within – only to make the mistake of identifying whatever ideas coming up from their psyche as the genuine Voice of God.

There is a woman I used to know in recovery, who has since moved away, who was a very nice person, with good recovery, and who was working very, very hard on herself and on discovering and living her true self. As time went by, she discovered who she was at deeper and deeper levels, and eventually made a dramatic career change based on her self-discovery. She became a sort of a coach. Not exactly a coach, but maybe a life guide, based on helping people tune into their intuition. Interesting stuff.

The problem is that, as she became more and more sure of herself and the value of what she was doing, she stopped listening to anybody else. She became utterly convinced that her intuitive voice, the voice of her authentic deep self, was deeply and clearly attuned to the voice of God. She began to absolutely and totally believe anything and everything that she “intuited” because it was, in her estimation, “God talking to her.” Effectively, she became her own Higher Power.

As a result, she became, well, sort of a little “batty” – you know, crazy. She got this sort of glazed look in her eyes that you see so often in people who are “off”. Over several years, her belief system became more and more ungrounded and more and more attuned to every little New Age idea floating by. Her advice to people became more and more disconnected from earthly realities and more attuned to the stars. Her new “life guide” business eventually folded, and she moved away, and I have not seen or heard from her since. I hope she’s doing well, but to be honest, if she’s still convinced she’s her own Higher Power, I would tend to doubt it.

The challenge, as I see it, is discernment. It is discerning the difference between authentic guidance from the inner Self and junk from the ego. And that’s a HARD thing to do. That’s why we continue to need to be in relation to other people solidly in recovery, so we can bounce ideas off them and have them help us to discern the wheat from the chaff. The problem is that we continue to remain stubbornly human and absolutely imperfect. In this life, we will NEVER perfect the ability to unerringly recognize authentic inner guidance from all kinds of tempting junk thrown at us by our ego.

Humility must remain our firm foundation. It’s good to be in community with fellow voyagers on the road of recovery. If they are also on a firm foundation, they can help us to stay true to ourselves without straying over the line into ungrounded craziness.

Moving Past Fundamentalism in Recovery

Gigantic rock and the sea

Several years ago I was at a meeting of Adult Children of Alcoholics. There was a new guy at the meeting, and he was clearly in his mid-to-upper-70’s, and I had never seen anyone of his age at an ACoA meeting before, so I was intrigued. After the meeting I went up to him and introduced myself. We had one of the most interesting and illuminating conversations in my life – no joke.

I asked him “So what brings you to ACoA?” His story was amazing. And – I swear to God – this is the straight-up truth. Turns out this guy had over 40 years in AA! He told me that he spent the last 40 years in AA as a “Big Book Thumper” – he said that he loudly trumpeted to one and all that “all you need is the Big Book” for 40 long years; that he traveled the AA speaker circuit to present his gospel of the AA Big Book; that he had hundreds of sponsees over the years; that he gave many, many private AA Big Book Step workshops where he taught hundreds of people the Steps according to the Big Book. He admitted that he openly slammed people in AA meetings who shared about any other kinds of recovery, such as Adult Children of Alcoholics or other Twelve Step fellowships.

Then he told me that several months prior, he had a very serious mental collapse and became deeply suicidal, and that he landed in a local mental health hospital, where he spent around two months or so. In this hospital, he came to realize that for all those 40 years, he was using the Big Book of AA as a shield or defense; that he was effectively running as fast as he could to stay one step ahead of a mountain of deeply buried unresolved emotions resulting from a difficult and traumatic childhood that continually threatened to erupt. He told me that his AA Big Book thing finally unraveled and stopped working for him, and that he then had his big breakdown. He told me that in the mental hospital, he finally stopped running and turned to face his internal “trauma” demons, and that the staff told him to get his butt into ACoA and psychotherapy. And there he was.

What can we learn from this man’s startling story? The answer, bluntly, is that fundamentalism in recovery is an extremely serious block to emotional and spiritual growth, and a very dangerous impediment to achieving long-term recovery. What do I mean by “fundamentalism?” Let’s start with the following description taken from Fundamentalism: A Psychological Problem, by Robert J. Burrowes:

“What is a fundamentalist? A fundamentalist is usually considered to be a person who adheres strictly to a doctrine, viewpoint or set of principles that are considered original and ‘pure.’ …For the fundamentalist, many of their beliefs and the behaviors that arise from them will, at least in theory, be derivative of their fundamental doctrine. For the fundamentalist, there is no room to consider views that are at variance with their accepted doctrine, and contrary views will usually either be dismissed out-of-hand or resisted with considerable vigor and, often, violence.”

“Psychologically, a fundamentalist is a person with an intense fear of being ‘wrong’; that is, an intense fear of being judged to hold the wrong’ view or to engage in the ‘wrong’ behavior. This intense fear of being wrong develops during childhood when one or both parents, and probably teachers, dogmatically refuse to listen to the child, thus denying it the chance to develop its own views and moral code (based on its own experience), while also terrorizing (by threatening and using violence) the child into believing/adopting a particular set of values and beliefs, and behaving in a particular manner. It is the intensity of their fear of being judged ‘wrong’, and the violence they will suffer if they are so judged, that makes the child hold, with phenomenal tenacity, to the ‘approved doctrine’ with which they are presented. It is this intense fear of being wrong that marks out the fundamentalist from the person who is open-minded and/or conscientious.”

(Back to me) Furthermore, people who are attracted to highly structured, rigid, and controlled fundamentalist doctrines, philosophies, or principles generally have chaotic interiors and do not have a good, solid interior sense of who they are – i.e. their true identity. Fundamentalism provides them with external structures, fixed answers, and a socially-conferred identity (i.e. membership in the group). These serve as a compensation or substitution for their own internal lacks.

They are also filled with fear and insecurity. They are terrified that if they “color outside the lines” something terrible will happen to them. They believe that if they stay tightly inside the box, they will be safe. Fundamentalist religions assuage this fear and insecurity with ready-made, absolutely-sure “answers.” Down underneath of fundamentalism is fear of loss of control, and annihilation anxiety – terror that everything will fall completely apart, that they will no longer know who they are, and even of death itself. For fundamentalists, rigidly-held, fixed beliefs serve as a bulwark against (perceived) forces of chaos and death. For such people, personal freedom is highly anxiety provoking. In effect, fundamentalism serves as a “security blanket” for highly fearful and anxious people.

How does this relate to recovery from alcoholism/addiction? It relates quite strongly. Over the last nearly 30 years of recovery, I have repeatedly noticed how many people in recovery are fundamentalists. A pertinent example is the large number of people in recovery who flatly refuse to even consider using any other recovery tools but the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous or the basic text of Narcotics Anonymous. How many thousands of times have I heard the admonition “All you need is the Big Book!”? I happen to love the AA Big Book. I also love the Narcotics Anonymous basic text. Both of them are incredibly helpful and useful in gaining and maintaining recovery. Those basic texts are not the problem.

The problem is the rigidity with which the texts are approached, as well as the steadfast refusal to consider additional, augmenting recovery processes and principles. The steadfast rigidity and the stridency of tone are the giveaways. They strongly indicate that this person is in denial of something within them; something that they absolutely do NOT want to look at. They strongly indicate that their recovery process is more of a shield than they would care to admit. They also strongly indicate that sometime down the road, they are most likely heading for deep trouble.

Long-term recovery ultimately demands intellectual, philosophical, psychological and emotional flexibility. Disciplines and practices that helped at one phase of recovery become insufficient at another phase. The refusal to grow, change and evolve is spiritual disease, not spiritual virtue.

Inner Precedes Outer

Earth_-_Scenic_Wallpaper

This blog post is about how outer success in life most often must follow the inner work of healing and emotional and spiritual growth.

I’d like to start with a little story – a true one. I coach a guy whom I’ll call Bill (not his real name). Bill has 25+ years of recovery, so he knows his way around recovery. In fact, this guy is pretty much an expert with respect to the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, if you’re into those. He is extremely dedicated to recovery, in every way, shape and form, and does excellent work with helping new people find their way in recovery.

However, his story is also a case study in how “doing the work” – i.e. dealing with the emotional conflicts and problems lying deeply buried in the unconscious mind – is just absolutely critical in terms of our ability to successfully construct a healthy, functional and fulfilling life for ourselves. Bill has spent in the neighborhood of 20 years going through multiple cycles of building a new life for himself, including marriages and new careers, only for it all to fall completely apart, leaving him down and out. His last foray into building a new life for himself ended up with Bill spending a month or two in a mental hospital, becoming homeless, and eventually ending up living in a subsidized housing complex at the government’s expense. It hasn’t been pretty. In fact, much of it has been just awful.

I have known Bill for around 20 years, and over the years I have begged, pleaded and harped at him to take his family-of-origin issues more seriously. I always got the polite “Yeah, yeah, yeah, you’re right” coupled with zero willingness to actually do it. His belief – no, his defense – has been that doing that deep inner feeling work is “for wimps” (his words, not mine!); that “all you need is the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous”; that his latest religious foray will fix everything; and a dozen other “good” reasons not to do it. He just wanted to go about building a good life for himself – career, spouse, cash and prizes – and strongly believed he could muscle his way into them.

And, he was right (partly). He did in fact construct the “good life” around himself – multiple times! The problem was that in every case, the whole thing inevitably unraveled, crashed and burned into cinders. In every case, his unconscious, dysfunctional, self-sabotaging behavior patterns, learned in childhood, did him in. His relationships at work and at home were steeped in unhealthy, codependent patterns of behavior. His deeply buried rage eventually erupted at work and/or home, deeply undermining those relationships, and his career. Because he had little idea who he really was, he also kept making career choices that were alien to his true inner self. This was another contributing factor to the ongoing problem with “things falling apart.”

This last time, however, was finally enough. Landing in the mental hospital with suicidal depression, becoming homeless, and then living on disability income in government housing, finally got through to him. It was at this point that Bill decided that looking deeply within was an imperative, not a “nice” thing to do. As he told me at that point, “I finally realized that this stuff was going to kill me just as much if not more than my addiction!” It was at this point that he realized it was truly “do or die”.

So Bill started taking his childhood trauma issues seriously. Bill was raised by parents who were both alcoholics and who were both in the Marine Corps. His upbringing was, in a word, savage. There was nothing but violence, abuse, abandonment, shaming and control. Bill was a sensitive, artistic, intelligent boy who was remade by his parents into their own image: tough, hard, macho, confrontational, raging and violent. His mother abused him sexually and his father savagely beat him routinely. He was thrown out of the house at the age of 16 because of some minor violation. He rapidly got involved in sex, alcohol, drugs and criminality. I won’t detail the rest of his “drunkalogue”. Suffice it to say he eventually bottomed out and found recovery.

That’s when his series of (mis)adventures with “success” and failure began. He “worked the Steps” of AA according to the Big Book for around 20 years of recovery. They kept him clean for sure, but they didn’t touch the underlying, unconscious childhood trauma, and its effects in the present day, that kept sabotaging his life in recovery, over and over again. Bill finally realized that this was the case, and decided to branch out. He began attending Adult Children of Alcoholics meetings, AlAnon meetings, and got himself into therapy. That was five years ago.

The good news is that Bill’s inner work has proved to be completely transformational. It’s incredible to witness the depth and breadth of the changes he has undergone. 90% of his anger and rage are gone. He learned to stand up to both his father and his mother. His codependent tendencies have greatly subsided. 99% of the time, he is calm and centered. He has become the healthiest member of his family!

At this point, Bill is in the early stages of embarking on another foray into building a new life for himself. This time, I believe that he will finally succeed.

 

Remembering = Re-Membering

Meadow

This blog entry is about childhood emotional trauma as a primary driver of active addiction, and about the healing process needed to sustain long-term recovery.

Over the last 29 years, I have met thousands of people in recovery, and I have not met a single one of them who was not in need of some measure of deep healing. People do not become alcoholics/addicts by accident. At root, addiction is self-medication. It is an attempt to numb the pain deep down inside. My observation, both of myself and of many, many other recovering people, is that long-term recovery is not secure until this deep inner pain is directly addressed and deep inner healing takes place.

First, I will describe what happens to a child’s fragile psyche (mind/heart/soul/spirit) when raised in an abusive, dangerous and/or violent setting. Then, I will try to describe the reverse of that process – i.e. how healing happens when we are adults and are in recovery.

To grow up healthy and whole, children need to be raised in an atmosphere of unconditional love, respect, gentleness, kindness, understanding, mirroring and support, in addition to being subject to appropriate and healthy boundaries. Children are just not built to weather being raised in an atmosphere of conditional love, judgment, constant criticism, shaming, blaming and/or violence. Their psyches are too vulnerable and fragile to survive intact in such an environment. They simply do not possess the inner resources needed to process the overwhelming, extremely powerful negative emotions associated with traumatization.

So, how do children survive growing up in such environments? In a word, they “dissociate.” The following (edited) definition is taken from the Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders (http://www.minddisorders.com/Del-Fi/Dissociation-and-dissociative-disorders.html):

“Dissociation is a mechanism that allows the mind to separate or compartmentalize certain memories or thoughts [or feelings] from normal [waking] consciousness. … Moderate or severe forms of dissociation are caused by such traumatic experiences as childhood abuse. … Traumatic memories are not processed or integrated into a person’s ongoing life in the same fashion as normal memories. Instead they are dissociated, or “split off” [i.e. repressed, or “pushed down” into the unconscious], and may erupt into consciousness from time to time without warning. They may resurface spontaneously or be triggered by objects or events in the person’s environment. The affected person cannot control or “edit” these memories. Over a period of time, these two sets of memories, the normal and the traumatic, may coexist as parallel sets without being combined or blended.”

What all this means is that when we grow up in traumatic conditions, our original, inborn wholeness as a human being is shattered into a million pieces and many pieces of our original wholeness become lost to us, buried deeply in the unconscious mind. A huge chunk of our heart, mind, and soul basically vanishes. This process allows us to survive in a literally unbearable situation.

To survive, we bury large parts of ourselves and our experiences. But, the kicker is that they don’t go away; they don’t vanish. Way down deep in the hidden recesses of our psyche lays a buried, gargantuan load of profound pain, grief, rage, shame, terror and hurt. And this load of extremely powerful negative emotion can come back to haunt – or even ambush – us, especially during later stages of recovery.

It is not uncommon for people in long-term recovery to find themselves, despite their best efforts at “working a good program”, to become depressed, or to find themselves becoming “lost” in life, or to find themselves strangely full of untraceable anger and rage, or to “hit a wall” in their career, or suffer a plunge to their self-esteem, or have severe relationship/intimacy problems, or other significant and highly challenging problem. Even more problematic and scary is that such problems do not go away, even in the face of doing yet another AA Big Book Fourth Step, or in the face of heavily increased work with newcomers, or in the face of a stepped-up prayer and meditation practice.

Not always, but quite often this is a sign that deep inner healing is the next stage in our recovery journey. Even Bill Wilson, the co-founder of AA, did not escape this problem, and neither did many of the original “old-timer” members of AA. Here’s some evidence: The following edited passage is taken from the AA pamphlet “Emotional Sobriety: The Next Frontier”, authored by AA co-founder Bill Wilson:

“Many oldsters who have put our AA “booze cure” to severe but successful tests still find they often lack emotional sobriety. … Since AA began, I’ve taken immense wallops … because of my failure to grow up, emotionally and spiritually. … Even then, as we hew away, peace and joy may still elude us. That’s the place so many of us AA oldsters have come to. And it’s a hell of a spot, literally. How shall our unconscious — from which so many of our fears, compulsions and phony aspirations still stream — be brought into line with what we actually believe, know and want! How to convince our dumb, raging and hidden “Mr. Hyde” [i.e. our unconscious] becomes our main task.”

Bill Wilson himself did not receive the full measure of inner healing, primarily because (I would guess) he did not make the connection between his early childhood trauma and his later problems with deep depression and acting out sexually, among other demons he faced (in recovery). Also, at that time there was very little understanding of the Adult-Child syndrome; i.e. of how abused children, and children raised in alcoholic households, grow up emotionally stunted and in many ways remain children trapped in adult bodies.

But now we do understand. Most of these problems that are encountered in long-term recovery can be traced back to childhood abuse. And they can be traced back directly to the mountain of unprocessed “stuff” (emotional baggage) buried deep in the unconscious. And all of this buried affect and experience cannot be dealt with by another Big Book Fourth Step. Period. I know this statement will likely raise the hackles of the “keep it simple” and the “all you need is the Big Book” recovery crowds. I’m sorry about that, I really am, but it can’t be helped. Because the truth is the truth, and I’m telling it right now.

There is only one way out, and that way is THROUGH. “Trace It and Face it.” “Face Everything and Recover.” Healing will occur ONLY through turning and facing the inner demons we buried as children. That means doing a “deep dive” into our unconscious well of pain, shame, rage, terror, grief and hurt, and making it all conscious. This can happen in several ways: 1) through working with a psychotherapist who is trained to work with survivors of childhood abuse and trauma; 2) by attending Twelve Step fellowships such as ACA (Adult Children of Alcoholics) and CoDA (Codependents Anonymous) and SLAA (Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous), and a few others that welcome such deep exploration and sharing of unexpressed pain, and are set up in a way that makes it safe to do so; and 3) through assiduously working with a sponsor who has already “been there and done that.”

Additionally, a recovery coach who has “been there and done that” can provide invaluable insight and support to you as you make this journey into the dark nether worlds of your unconscious, unexpressed pain in service of creating a better life for yourself.

While sometimes scary and often painful, the recovery/healing process is not complicated: it consists of REMEMBERING all the junk you stuffed under the rug all those years ago. And by “remembering”, I DON’T mean just intellectually or cognitively. I mean EMOTIONALLY. I mean remembering, and FEELING, in the here and now, all of the painful feelings packed away in your unconscious. In order to fully recover, you must eventually consciously FEEL everything you could not safely feel when you were a kid. Now, as an adult, with a solid foundation in recovery, you DO have the inner resources to do this remembering and feeling work without breaking down. You DO have the strength to do it. What you may need is the WILLINGNESS and the COURAGE to do it. And, some help.

Remembering is, quite literally, a re-membering: i.e. a gathering-in and reattaching (reintegration) of all the split-off, repressed, fragmented pieces, or inner ‘members’ of the originally whole psyche. Remembering and processing the unprocessed is how we once again become whole people, and also how we become our authentic selves. All of the pieces of who we truly are gradually come together into our conscious psychic wholeness, and as this happens, our authentic, original identity comes more and more into view.

As we continue doing this inner work, the pain, shame, rage, terror and grief gradually subside and are replaced with inner peace and serenity, self-acceptance, self-compassion and compassion for others, and a deep, irreplaceable satisfaction with finally knowing who we really are.

Feeling and Revealing

Colorado Birch Trees

“To feel is perhaps the most terrifying thing in this society.” – Cecil Taylor

Cecil Taylor is a jazz pianist who just happens to also be a bona fide, all-around genius. This blog post isn’t about him or about jazz or about music, but it IS about FEELING. That’s why I opened with this quote: it is a profound insight that cuts right to the core of our innermost self. It’s also an uncomfortable truth we simply don’t like to confront. But let’s face it: for the most part, we HATE to feel, particularly when those feelings are difficult or painful.

Let’s enumerate a few of the myriad ways we utilize to not be real and to suppress and deny our true feelings: drug addiction, alcoholism, sex addiction, food addictions, shopping addiction, gambling addiction, pornography addiction, television addiction, interactive media addiction, a compulsive need for never-ending achievements, a compulsive need for ever-increasing amounts of power, status and wealth, a compulsive need to flaunt that wealth, power and status, a compulsive need to look good and ‘in control,’ a compulsive need to be ‘happy’ or ‘positive’ all the time, putting on a false front (trying to manage impressions), not being fully honest with significant others, trying to ‘manage’ (i.e. suppress) our emotions through compulsive use of ‘positive’ affirmations, and many more.

When we enter recovery, we find a bunch of new – but much more subtle and insidious – ways of suppressing our feelings. This is probably going to offend a few people in recovery, but the truth is the truth and needs to be exposed. Here it is: it is quite possible to utilize certain tools or disciplines or common practices of recovery programs in ways that are covertly dysfunctional and actually perpetuate the underlying addictive process. And, lots of people do it. It may, and will, appear to a great many people in recovery that these people ‘have a great program’ or really ‘have their act together’, and they may attract lots of sponsees, but all is not as it seems.

One of the most common is the compulsive need to come off as “having your act together.” The key word here is COMPULSIVE. It is perfectly okay to share how life has gotten better and how much you’ve grown through recovery. That’s NOT what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is COMPULSIVELY doing this – i.e. NEVER, EVER being open, honest and vulnerable about times when life is difficult, when you’re having a hard time, when an issue is kicking your butt – i.e. when your act is NOT together. This is problematic because it is dishonest, because it is hiding, and because it is an attempt to deny, control and suppress difficult and painful feelings. It may LOOK like ‘great’ recovery from the outside, it may make you very well-regarded in the rooms, but the rock-bottom truth is that this is NOT recovery. It is dishonesty, plain and simple. It is hiding and pretending and wearing a mask.

Another method of suppressing, denying and controlling your feelings is compulsive Twelfth Step work. I see this all the time. Again, I am NOT talking about having a normal, manageable, small group of sponsees, and doing SOME service work like sharing at rehabs and detoxes and such. Again, the key word here is COMPULSIVE. There are too many people in recovery who sponsor twenty or thirty people, who constantly offer private Step workshops, and who run from rehab to rehab every single night of the week. They do constant, compulsive Twelfth Step work as a substitute for the challenging work of building an actual, full, balanced, healthy life, and also as a method to suppress, deny, and control any painful and difficult feelings that may be present way down deep. Again, it may look really good from the outside, and these individuals may be widely admired and attract lots of sponsees, but it is NOT recovery. Paradoxically, it is actually avoidance of recovery. It is using the tools of recovery as just another addictive “feel good” strategy.

Another widespread method of avoiding difficult feelings is the compulsive utilization of spiritual practices in an attempt to ALWAYS feel good or ‘be happy.’ Again, the key word is COMPULSIVE. Spirituality is a rock-bottom human need that goes right to the core of who we are. So again, I am NOT counseling against spirituality. Such a criticism would fall wide of the mark. I myself need my spirituality like I need food and water and sunlight. So what am I talking about here?

There is a book out right now titled “Spiritual Bypassing: When Spirituality Disconnects Us from What Really Matters,” by Robert Augustus Masters that addresses this issue directly. Here’s a quote from a brief summary of the book taken from the Amazon.com web site:

“Spiritual bypassing—the use of spiritual beliefs to avoid dealing with painful feelings, unresolved wounds, and developmental needs—is so pervasive that it goes largely unnoticed. The spiritual ideals of any tradition, whether Christian commandments or Buddhist precepts, can provide easy justification for practitioners to duck uncomfortable feelings in favor of more seemingly enlightened activity. When split off from fundamental psychological needs, such actions often do much more harm than good.”

I see this often in the rooms of recovery. For instance, I knew a woman in program who appeared to be one of the most spiritual people I’ve ever met. Her face ALWAYS beamed with apparent joy and serenity. She regularly shared how she meditated for two to three hours daily. Her sharing was ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS heavily and overtly ‘spiritual’ in nature. She was an extremely attractive person to many people, many of whom would go to her with their problems, and she sponsored an exceedingly large number of people. She became a bit of a revered guru. The problem was that she was a fake. She simply wasn’t real. She NEVER revealed her true, inner self, and she NEVER, EVER shared about any of her life problems or her difficult feelings. She pretended (mostly to herself) that she simply didn’t have any.

The problem was that a very small number of people knew the actual truth of her life, and the truth was that she had LOTS of problems. Her family life was quite unbalanced and dysfunctional. She was chronically under-employed, and her work was unfulfilling. She used spirituality compulsively in an attempt to ‘ride over the top’ of her problems and to avoid having to feel the painful feelings that were the truth of her actual life.

Here’s one of the most insidious and pernicious problems I’ve noticed: being an “Old-Timer.” This may not be true in your experience, but in my experience it is extraordinarily rare for anyone with a great deal of time in recovery to remain real, honest, and vulnerable in their sharing. They nearly all fall prey to the dangerous trap of the unwritten, but very real, beliefs in the rooms of recovery that if you have time, you’re ‘supposed’ to no longer have significant life difficulties, that you’re ‘supposed’ to be a case study in serenity, that you’re ‘supposed’ to be a fount of wisdom and share it all the time, and just generally be a constantly loving and benign presence in the rooms.

I say that this is dangerous because it’s a load of crap. The truth is that we NEVER STOP being human, which means being broken and imperfect and frequently bereft of insight or wisdom into our problems. We NEVER stop having painful and difficult situations and painful and difficult feelings, as long as we live. And it seems like the unwritten rule for old-timers is to cover that up and pretend that they’re “over it.” This is just another way of avoiding “feeling and revealing”, which is the very heart of recovery.

The root of the problem I’m addressing in this blog post is the paradoxical use of recovery tools and spiritual practices ADDICTIVELY – i.e. not as a method of uncovering and revealing our true feelings and authentic selves, but rather as a way to NOT do that – as a way to compulsively feel good – ALL THE TIME. In such cases, our ‘program’ ISN’T the solution. Rather, it is a continuation of the PROBLEM.

Recovery is NOT supposed to be ‘pretty’. It is not a popularity contest; it’s not about amassing the largest number of followers, or gaining a reputation for knowing the tools inside and out, or anything like that. Recovery is supposed to be about becoming REAL. It is about “feeling and revealing.” It is about radical honesty – with ourselves and with others – always and forever.