Category Archives: Addiction

The epidemic of our time that leads to alienation and fuels addiction

Carl Hammerschlag is a psychiatrist who worked with Native Americans in the Southwest, and taught psychiatry at the University of Arizona School of Medicine for 20 years. He wrote a book called “The Theft of the Spirit,” which is mostly a memoir about his experiences during those years, and the things he learned.

One chapter was especially interesting and challenging, with the intriguing, but unfortunate title: “On BS.” (He spells the word out, but I’m going to refrain. If you need a hint, it’s something bulls do.) He says he can’t think of a better word to describe this phenomenon, which has taken over in our world today: the epidemic of spin, denial, image, and half-truth, which not only keeps us alienated from each other, but also from ourselves. Listen:

“BS has become a prominent ritual in our culture. It’s when people say things they don’t mean; it’s also when people mean things they don’t say. BS is the basic problem that keeps us from being emotionally healthy. Most of us pride ourselves on our ability to recognize it and therefore avoid being taken in by it, which is why we’re so surprised when we become captivated by our own. …

“What we say is often not what we believe and vice versa — and this goes for presidents, judges, NASA engineers, doctors, and religious leaders. All of the institutions that once sustained us have become less credible. We are being deluged by BS and growing so used to it that we choose not to see that the Emperor has no clothes.

“In public and private life, we’ve become more expert at denying what we really feel to be true than in acknowledging it. If we do it long enough it becomes difficult to distinguish what’s real from what’s make-believe. Then the BS becomes a Belief System and that’s how we get into trouble.

“In such an overwhelming barrage of stories told to make the teller look good, the search for truth easily gets lost. In a world obsessed with public relations and image, BS can run our lives.

“So what is the truth? The truth is always closer to what we feel in our hearts than what we know in our heads. The body knows more than the mind chooses to acknowledge. If you ignore what you feel long enough it’ll kill you.”

Continue reading The epidemic of our time that leads to alienation and fuels addiction

Why being “normal” is a ticket to depression, disease, and addiction

Every day I am becoming more aware that our cultural environment is damaging to our well-being. “Going with the flow” — being “normal” — in our world today will take us to a place where we are physically unhealthy, massively stressed-out, spiritually cynical and disengaged, depressed, and addicted to something or other.

I was reminded of this when I came across an editorial in The Guardian (a UK Newspaper). Author George Monbiot takes a look at what’s happening in our world, and points to the system itself — our way of living — as the heart of the problem:

“What greater indictment of a system could there be than an epidemic of mental illness? Yet plagues of anxiety, stress, depression, social phobia, eating disorders, self-harm and loneliness now strike people down all over the world…

“There are plenty of secondary reasons for this distress, but it seems to me that the underlying cause is everywhere the same: human beings, the ultrasocial mammals, whose brains are wired to respond to other people, are being peeled apart. Economic and technological change play a major role, but so does ideology. Though our wellbeing is inextricably linked to the lives of others, everywhere we are told that we will prosper through competitive self-interest and extreme individualism.”

This social isolation is built into the systems we’ve created. So many things in our society emphasize competition, rather than collaboration and community:

“The education system becomes more brutally competitive by the year. Employment is a fight to the near-death with a multitude of other desperate people chasing ever fewer jobs. The modern overseers of the poor ascribe individual blame to economic circumstance. Endless competitions on television feed impossible aspirations as real opportunities contract.

“Consumerism fills the social void. But far from curing the disease of isolation, it intensifies social comparison to the point at which, having consumed all else, we start to prey upon ourselves. Social media brings us together and drives us apart, allowing us precisely to quantify our social standing, and to see that other people have more friends and followers than we do.”

We’ve heard this before: life in western society today is stressful and competitive. The word that keeps coming up, as a summary of the source of so much of what ails us, is isolation. Continue reading Why being “normal” is a ticket to depression, disease, and addiction

Dealing With Emotions and Recovery from Sexual Addiction

emotionsOne core insight in my recovery — and spiritual renewal — was this: It’s essential to acknowledge and deal with our emotions. Denying them (by telling yourself “I shouldn’t feel that”) or stuffing them is a recipe for depression, hidden resentment, spiritual bypassing, and burnout. An important part of the recovery experience for me was developing a deeper awareness of what is happening in my heart, and acknowledging what I’m feeling, instead of trying to make myself feel something else.

In the past few years, I’ve come to view emotions with an added nuance. While still valuing them, and finding it important to deal with them, I have come to recognize how fleeting they are. They are like waves that wash over the shore, and then dissipate, only to be followed up by another wave. Like the writer of Psalms says: “Weeping may last through the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5). They are important, we must tend to them, but we are not at their mercy.

I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard people say — when struggling to come to terms with something painful — “I don’t want to think/talk about it (because) I’m afraid if I open up that door I’m going to start crying and never stop.” But doing this work — of looking within and dealing with what is there — is essential for their recovery and ongoing emotional and spiritual well-being. It can be done safely and helpfully with the guidance of a skilled counselor.

For most of us, the struggle with our emotions from day to day is more mundane. It has to do with anxiety, sadness, insecurity, shame, or fear that we don’t want to deal with. So instead, we distract ourselves with busyness and frenetic activity, or numb ourselves out with chemicals or addictive behaviors.

Jesus once said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). I often think that addictive substances and behaviors are ways we try to escape from having to mourn. And of course the problem is that if we don’t mourn, we don’t find comfort. We find distraction, and often, addiction.

One of the skills learned in long term recovery is the ability to ride the waves of emotion, and live with a sense of inner peace, even amidst the swirls of elation, fear, anger, sadness, etc. This takes time, and part of the spiritual journey is cooperating with God to bring healing, wisdom, and inner resources to enable me to do this.

The celebrated Sufi poet Rumi has a famous poem about the importance of welcoming this variety of experiences into our lives. There’s great wisdom in this, because often these emotions have something important to teach us. Even the negative ones. Listen to what Rumi has to say:

Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every day a new arrival

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight. …

Be grateful for whatever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from Beyond.

– Rumi (translated by Coleman Barks)






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Ending Denial and Facing the Grind of Addiction

aa-wreckedlifeEveryone agrees that whatever addiction you have, it starts out fun. Whether it’s the great taste and comfort of food, the mellowness or rush from a drug, or the excitement and stimulation of something like gambling or sex … there’s a reason we turn to it, and come back to it again and again. It’s exciting, it satiates a desire, and it feels good.

But at some point — usually much earlier than we realize — it turns on us.

Instead of controlling it, it controls us. We find ourselves going back to it even though we promised ourselves we wouldn’t, and the limits we set keep getting violated.

One of my favorite books this year is “Out of the Wreck I Rise,” by Niel Steinberg and Sara Bader. It is essentially a compendium of quotations by literary figures about addiction and recovery. Some are long, some are short … almost all of them are really really good. Not only that, Steinberg and Bader’s writing — which comes in the form of extended introductions for each topical chapter — is interesting and helpful too. Listen to what they have to say about our denial in addiction, and the crucial step of realizing it’s out of control and no longer “fun”:

Fierce denial is common, and so a jarring incident, or, more likely a series of escalating incidents, is usually required before change is contemplated. Those confronting their addiction begin by addressing the crisis and, only then, are forced to understand the routine that led to it. The beginning of a new life is the gradual realization — the honesty emphasized in AA — that there is a sameness to addiction, a dreariness, a drudgery. It is the identical thing happening over and over again, every day, with only one avenue of escape, one possibility of change, an option that, viewed by a person sunk in the routine of dependence, at first seems incredible, unimaginable, ridiculous.

That first step — whether taken on your own or pushed to it by somebody else — is recognizing that you aren’t doing this of your own will. It’s a compulsion. You don’t think using your substance is fun because it’s fun to be constantly scourged with the need for drink or drugs (or sex). You think it’s fun because it’s what you do all the time and you’re secretly terrified at the thought of not doing it, of enduring the awful hunger you suffer when you stop even briefly. It’s like a bad job that you keep telling yourself you must like, because you go there every day and it’s all you’ve got.

Addiction is not a bad choice. It’s an obsession: grinding, dictatorial, relentless. The great thing about recovery is that you don’t have to succumb to your addiction every day. You don’t have to spend your life doing this.

Recovery skill: being comfortable in your own skin

11Cool_calm_and_collectedIn order to build an ongoing recovery, we need to establish and maintain emotional and spiritual well-being. If we are constantly experiencing life as a roller coaster, overwhelmed by the stresses and frustrations, we’re going to relapse. It’s as simple as that.

So the task of recovery is really three-fold. The first two are the ones that get the most attention, but the third is essential for the long haul:

  1. Do whatever you can to establish your sobriety. Stop using, so you can think and feel clearly, and work on what is driving the behavior.
  2. Do what you can to minimize the damage of your addiction, including coming to terms with the wreckage in relationships, vocation, and possibly physical health. For many people who’ve had a “bottoming out” crash, this is a huge task … for some fortunate few, there isn’t a lot of damage to undo in their external life, only internal.
  3. Do the work of increasing your resilience, finding healthy ways of coping with stress and nurturing yourself, and establishing a spiritual life that is honest and really works for you (ie. establishing emotional and spiritual well-being).

Unless we can start building a life for ourselves that works, a life that’s not dominated by constant stress, depression, and sense of deprivation, our resolve to live “clean and sober” won’t be enough to resist the pull of our old behavior. This is why we always say, “will power is not enough.” We need the steps, we need the group, we need inner healing … and we also need create a new life for ourselves that is full and rich enough that we don’t need to use in order to “manage” or be happy.

One of the facets of this is the capacity to be comfortable in our own skin. That is, to be comfortable with who we are; not filled with shame and self-loathing, and not desperately needing other people’s admiration or approval. Other people experience this as us having a sense of calm self-confidence, a self-assurance that is different — and much more attractive — than the narcissistic braggadocio that is sometimes mistaken for self-confidence.

The excerpt below come from the daily meditation book “The Promise of a New Day,” by Karen Casey and Martha Vanceburg. It talks about how we deal with other people, and it paints a picture of what life can be like in recovery, as we grow in our capacity to be comfortable in our own skin:

Equality is a state of mind. When we value our own self-worth, we are comfortable with the achievements and the well-being of our friends and associates. The symptoms of a punctured ego occur when we criticize others and make demands we don’t want to fulfill ourselves.

Most of us experience wavering self-confidence on occasion. It may haunt us when a big task faces us. Or it may visit us when we least expect it. It’s a facet of the human condition to sometimes lack self-assurance. At times we need to remember that life is purposeful, and the events involving us are by design.

Almost daily we’ll face situations we fear are more than we can handle, and we’ll hope to pass the task off to another. It’s well for us to remember that we’re never given a task for which we’re not prepared. Nor should we pass on to others those activities we need to experience personally if our growth is to be complete.

I must do my own growing today. If I ask others to do what I should do, I’ll not fulfill my part of life’s bargain.

What about pastors in recovery?

RecoveryAnyone living in our culture today is vulnerable to addiction — including pastors. And anyone struggling with addiction needs recovery — including pastors. But recovery is hard for pastors; harder than it needs to be.

Recovery is hard for pastors for many reasons. Because of their position as spiritual leaders, pastors have a hard time admitting to problems in their lives, and reaching out for help. This is partly the result of pride, but it’s also the result of the system we have created in the church today. Pastors aren’t stupid: they realize that being too open about their problems — or open to the wrong people — could get them fired.

So they don’t get the help they need. And more often than not, when they do seek help, they do so in secret, and their fear and shame about discovery often hamper their recovery efforts.

Leadership Journal recently published a great article by Amy Simpson on Pastors in Recovery. She did a lot of research for this article, including reaching out to me, and I’m grateful to be included in the article. There is a lot of good stuff in this article!

Here are some good quotes:

Once an addiction is acknowledged and treated, another danger is naiveté. For churches that don’t understand the disease of addiction, it’s too easy to believe a course of treatment has cured the problem and everything can go “back to normal.”

There’s a tension between ministry expectations and what is necessary for ongoing recovery. “In ministry there’s so much pressure to smooth over one’s life story. But what recovery and what Christianity require are rigorous honesty.” It’s not easy for pastors to be honest about who they really are when their churches ask them to be something other than human.

Addiction lends itself to easy judgment, but it is not merely a moral issue. In fact, (Dale) Ryan says, addictions often start with a perfectionistic desire to do and be better. Seminaries are full of addicts in training, he claims, because seminaries are full of idealistic perfectionists. “Perfectionism leads to compulsive behaviors, and they don’t present themselves as problems initially because you get rewarded for them.”

Once again, here is link to the full article.

Gratitude: Take This Action Now to Speed Your Recovery

gratitude1“In our daily lives, we must see that it is not happiness that makes us grateful, but the gratefulness that makes us happy.” – Albert Clarke

Thanksgiving Day, 2015

As light is to darkness, so gratitude is to addiction. Gratitude chases away addiction. It’s hard for addiction to thrive in the presence of gratitude. While gratitude is not a magic cure-all, it functions like a deep breath of fresh air to the soul.

Whether or not you are reading this during the Thanksgiving Holiday, my invitation/challenge is the same: some time today or tomorrow (it seems to work best in early morning or later at night), sit down with your journal and write down ten to fifteen things you are grateful for. Be specific. I have more to say about this task, but before we get to that, listen to what Alan Cohen has to say about this:

“Gratitude, like faith, is a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it grows, and the more power you have to use it on your behalf. If you do not practice gratefulness, its benefaction will go unnoticed, and your capacity to draw on its gifts will be diminished. To be grateful is to find blessings in everything. This is the most powerful attitude to adopt, for there are blessings in everything.” – Alan Cohen

As you think about the ten to fifteen things you are grateful for, be sure to list one or two things that have been hard … things that you would not have considered blessings at first. I will guess that you have had a few “blessings in disguise” this year. What are they? By thinking about the unfolding of your life in these terms, new perspectives can emerge that can really help your happiness — and your recovery.

gratitude2

“If you concentrate on finding whatever is good in every situation, you will discover that your life will suddenly be filled with gratitude, a feeling that nurtures the soul.” – Harold Kushner

“Everything has its wonders, even darkness and silence, and I learn, whatever state I may be in, therein to be content.” – Helen Keller

I love that last quote by Helen Keller! Practicing gratitude, even in the midst of the difficult things in our lives, strengthens us. It helps us to learn contentment, a state of being that addiction robs us of.

So get out your pen and paper (or computer), and make the list. Maybe set a goal for making a list like this once a week, or several times a week. There was a time I did this every night. I did this for a period of several months. It was really helpful, but I found that doing it every night diminished its power. I think it works better if we do gratitude lists once a week or every few days. If you haven’t been doing this regularly … please start! It will change your life.

“Gratitude is a form of wisdom. It is patient, loving, hopeful, and rigorously honest. It denies nothing, and it overlooks nothing. It looks reality full in the face and says, ‘This is true, this is me, this is my situation, and I have the opportunity to build from here. This is my starting point, and I will succeed.” – Phil Humbert

 

 

 

How memory works — and how memories can be “healed”

memories
Coming to terms with memories of past trauma is a core challenge for many people
— and especially for people in recovery. The more I learn about how the brain works, the more hopeful I am about the prospect of healing in this critical area of life.

Bessel Van der Kolk is medical director of the Trauma Center at the Justice Resource Institute in Brookline, Massachusetts. In a really helpful interview with Krista Tippet in the On Being radio show, he makes the intriguing observation that, while most of our memories change over time (the details get fuzzy, the meanings we make of them change), for some reason, intense traumatic memories stay fixed.

By the way, if you doubt that memories change, just get together with your siblings some time, and start reminiscing about your experiences when you were kids. You will likely notice how differently your siblings remember things that happened than you do. It’s not that they have the same memory as you, but from a different vantage point … they often remember the same “event” very differently, with different details. It might even seem that there were two different events that happened, like you existed in parallel universes.

Over time their memory of that event changed, as did yours. The memories just changed in different directions. It’s likely that if you had captured the event on video camera in its entirety, you’d find that it happened differently than the “exact memory” either of you had.

Why do our memories change … and what does this mean?

Why is this? Why is it that our memories change? And why is it that traumatic memories don’t? And what can we do to “heal from” — or at least come to terms with — these traumatic memories?

This is important because unresolved early life trauma is often a key piece of the addiction puzzle. Many people develop the habit of reaching for what becomes an “addictive” substance or behavior as a way of coping with pain that stems from early trauma. As life goes on, experiences trigger that old pain, and we in turn keep reaching for that old addictive substance or behavior as a way to cope with the pain. Dealing with that unresolved trauma is essential if lasting recovery is going to happen.

Recent brain research offers some interesting insights about memory that may help us understand how healing happens. The most significant is this: Our brains are not computers that file “memories” away in a certain place on a hard drive.

Our brains do not retrieve memories …

our brains reconstruct memories.

They do this by taking fragments of data that we might think of as impressions, sights, sounds, smells, and feelings that are located in various parts of our “brain” (note that neurons are not always located in our head) and then pulling them together to create a memory.

Continue reading How memory works — and how memories can be “healed”