Category Archives: Addiction

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”

Just fix this addiction, but leave the rest of my life alone!

manpornPeople who want to recover from addiction often face the same roadblock that sabotages other kinds of emotional healing — and many kinds of physical healing:

wanting to fix one’s problem without changing one’s life

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We want to “fix” what we see as an isolated issue without getting at the real problem, which is deeper, and encompasses many facets of our lives. Not realizing how deeply rooted addiction is, we seek solutions that don’t involve drastic and multifaceted change in our lives.

People often come into the recovery process essentially asking: “Help me fix my problem, but don’t ask me to change other parts of my life. Leave the bulk of my life alone, and just take care of this addiction.” As if addiction is an isolated thing, and can be changed by small, isolated interventions!

A medical analogy

To use a medical analogy, we want to fix our addiction problem like we imagine we can fix a medical problem: taking a pill or getting a shot — without changing how we live our lives. The reality is that even with many physical problems, this won’t work. The physical intervention of medication won’t last, and if the person continues their unhealthy lifestyle, the problem (disease) will come back.

This happens in recovery from addiction all the time. And unfortunately, it also happens in recovery from physical problems too.

Take the person who has a very unhealthy diet, gets no exercise, and lives with chronic overwork and stress. They have a heart attack, and have surgery to repair a bad heart valve. They’ve “fixed” the problem, right? But you know what happens next. They go home from the hospital, continue with the same diet, no-exercise, and high-stress lifestyle, and in a matter of months they have more heart trouble.

Healing childhood trauma and heart surgery

This is the concern I have when people come to recovery who over-focus on healing from childhood trauma as the magic fix. They see the diagnosis and “healing” of this early life trauma as the equivalent to heart surgery that will fix their problem.

Please don’t misunderstand me here: I’m not trying to dismiss this important aspect of recovery. Do I believe that healing from early life trauma is essential for recovery from addiction (and also for happy living)? Absolutely. Do I think it’s sufficient for lasting recovery? Absolutely not.

Danger-Warning-1If our lives aren’t working — if we have unresolved spiritual/existential issues, if we’re in jobs that are overly stressful and/or unfulfilling, if we’re isolated and lonely, if our intimate relationships are filled with hatred, abuse, apathy, or neglect, if we’re living in perpetual financial crisis, etc., etc, — we will not find lasting recovery. I guarantee it. We will be like the guy who gets heart surgery and goes back to his old life and terrible habits. The problem will come back.

Then who can recover?

Maybe at this point you’re thinking: “Well then, I guess I can’t recover. My marriage and family life are in shambles. My spouse hates me because of the things I’ve done.” or maybe: “I can’t recover then, because I lost my job and now I’m working in a crummy job that I hate.” or “I can’t recover, because my spouse divorced me and now I’m living in a little apartment, and I’m super lonely.”

Addiction will bring all kinds of chaos and pain into our lives. Much of this chaos and pain comes into our lives as direct consequences from our behaviors. Some of this chaos and pain comes into our lives for no discernable reason other than that we live in a fallen world. Bad things will happen. We will face aspects of our lives that aren’t working.

But here is the point: Our recovery has to involve facing all these areas our lives, and working to fix the ones that aren’t working. Recovery has to involve dealing with the variety of aspects of our lives … because if we are addicted to something, it is certain that there are a variety of things in our lives that are not working. Often we don’t realize this in early recovery, because our addiction is distracting us and numbing our pain.

Gerhard Adler on magical thinking in therapy

Listen to what psychologist Gerhard Adler says about this in his book “Studies in Analytical Psychology”:

It happens only too often that the patient expects at the beginning of an analysis that the psychotherapist will, by some magical means, simply rid him of his symptoms without ever touching the rest of the structure of his life, with which he is quite satisfied. The analyst is only too often supposed to be a kind of ‘medicine man’ who will make the symptoms disappear from the outside.

The truth is that nobody can be cured unless he is prepared to accept the need for a more or less complete reorientation of his life. To put it in a nutshell: the healed person is not the original person minus a symptom, but a newly oriented person in whom, through the new orientation, the necessity for the symptom itself has disappeared.

I’ve often said in workshops and talks I give about recovery that if we are in full-blown addiction, we will not find lasting recovery unless we are willing to do a major overhaul on all the aspects of our lives. Work, church, friendships, hobbies, things we read, how we parent, what we read, where we live … everything needs to be looked at.

People hate to hear that.

I’m not saying that it all needs to be jettisoned or blown up — the “change” might be in how we function in that setting, or relationship. We may not change our job (although we might), but we will change how we think about it, and how we do it. We may not sell our home and move to a new community (although we might), but we will change aspects of our home and community life. And so on.

Are you willing to do that? Not right away. Not all at once. But to apply “rigorous honesty” (a term from the Big Book of AA) to all your life, not just your addiction?

What do I need to change?

I was speaking at a recovery conference not long ago, and one of the other speakers was a woman who had decades of sobriety from alcoholism, and now runs a treatment center for women. She put it this way:

What do we need to change if we want recovery?

Just one thing:

Everything.

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If you are struggling with sexual addiction … I invite you to take the Recovery Journey with me for the next 90 Days. The recovery journey is a 90 Day Home Study course designed to give you a deeper understanding of the inner dynamics and spiritual issues of the path towards recovery.  (There’s also a program for the partners/spouses of sexual strugglers.) Just click on the link below:

CLICK TO LEARN ABOUT THE RECOVERY JOURNEY PROGRAM

Learning from your addictive thoughts

thoughtful reflectiveSome time ago, I listened to a podcast about recovery and spirituality by Krista Tippet, on what was then called “Speaking of Faith (now it’s called “On Being“). In the interview – which unfortunately is no longer available – she talked with a Native American leader and healer about his recovery from alcoholism. He talked about the importance – in his own recovery, and with others that he works with as a healer – of what he called “listening to your addiction to find out what it has to teach you.”

My colleague Mark Laaser at Faithful and True works with a similar idea when he talks about the important spiritual question of “What are you thirsty for?” as part of recovery. The way he talks about it, this question has to do with the deep needs and longings of our soul. We get pulled into addiction in its various forms, because the feeling we get from the addictive substance or activity fills a need. It soothes something that is agitated, excites something that feels dead and empty, makes us feel valued and significant, etc., etc.

Laura Chapman recently wrote me about an article she wrote with Lance Dodes about “The Surprising Value of Addictive Thoughts.” Here’s what she says about the article:

Continue reading Learning from your addictive thoughts

Is Sex a Struggle but not an Addiction? Here’s what to do

strugglingOver the years in my work with sexual strugglers, it became clear that there is a spectrum of struggle … some people simply fight a battle with sexual temptation (and periodically lose), and others would fall into the category of sexual addicts. The line between the two is not always clear — it’s more like a spectrum, not a simple either/or — and many people struggle to honestly face the extent of their problem.

I have come to call this group of people — who fall repeatedly into sexual temptation, but don’t fit the diagnostic criteria for addiction — “sexual strugglers.” Often people in this category don’t have the patterns of emotional and sexual trauma from early life, and they don’t give evidence of other problematic addictive behaviors. But for some reason, they still struggle with behaviors around sex — often related to Internet pornography.

I believe that sexual strugglers need to focus on four things. If they keep these four things in place, they will do well. Also, at the end of this article I will give you an easy, sure-fire way to tell where you fall on this spectrum. So here we go … the four things strugglers need in order to deal with their struggle:

1. Vigilance

Sexual strugglers need to maintain an awareness of their vulnerability to sexual temptation, and realize that this will be an ongoing challenge area for them. Many people who are dealing with sexual temptation at this level try to downplay its importance, or view it as a temporary thing. They may tend to blame other people — especially their spouse — but the problem is internal, not external. If they were in a relationship with someone different, they would likely still struggle sexually.

Often sexual strugglers downplay the problem in their lives, because they are able to go for certain periods of time without falling into behaviors. But inevitably, if left unchecked, their sexual struggles will come back, and they will get into some kind of problematic behavior again if and when the circumstances allow. In other words, they can stop, but they can’t stay stopped.

The solution is a bitter pill for some people to swallow: recognize that this is an ongoing issue, and it won’t go away. We need to keep vigilant. How? Read on …

2. Boundaries

The sexual struggler needs to establish new guidelines or safeguards around his or her behavior. This is the flip side of the first principle, the need for vigilance. Sexual strugglers need to be aware of their vulnerabilities — and do something about them. They need to put filters on their computer, establish guidelines around safe conversations with members of the opposite sex, establish plans for business travel, and for time spent alone (like when their spouse goes away on a trip and they are home alone).

An important step for sexual strugglers is to look back on the times they have fallen into inappropriate sexual behaviors and pinpoint the areas of vulnerability that were in place that led up to his behavior. Then they need to decide what kind of limitations or boundaries need to be put in place. People often resist this because it creates limitations and hassles. But the alternative is more acting out, and further movement on the continuum of sexual health towards addiction.

Continue reading Is Sex a Struggle but not an Addiction? Here’s what to do

What is the Difference Between a “Slip” and a “Relapse” in Recovery

relapseI was recently asked this question: What is the Difference Between a “Slip” and a “Relapse”? by the concerned spouse of a sex addict.

This question is important for any addiction, but it’s fraught with heavy emotion in relationships where there is sex addiction, because sobriety is so important for the restoration of the relationship. Here’s what I said (with some slight editing):

  Thanks for writing. I define a slip as a short duration, one time drift into addictive behavior that the addict puts a stop to by reaching out to get help and get back on the recovery path. It’s not about what the specific behavior was (porn, masturbation, looking at a woman lustfully, engaging in sex, etc.), because different people are struggling with different behaviors to begin with.

  

A slip is different from a relapse in that a relapse indicates a shift back into the addictive pattern. Instead of seeking help after a brush with addictive behavior, the addict stays isolated and acts out again (and often multiple times, over a period of time). This person has taken him or herself off the recovery path, and is now “in relapse.”

 

Help for parents of teens who are experimenting with drugs or alcohol

substance-abuse-teensTeen drug use freaks parents out more than just about anything. Parents desperately want to keep their kids safe and healthy, and when they find out – or even suspect – that their kids are using drugs, they don’t know what to do. The two most common mistakes are the opposite extremes:

Some parents under-react, making excuses for their kids and/or denying reality. They may not be sure what’s going on, and may choose to not learn more, because they don’t want to know. They may try to pretend nothing is happening, while their child is headed down a very destructive path.

Other parents over-react. Their fear causes them to lash out, react with hysterics, and try to enforce punishments that are either too unrealistic to be followed through on (like being “grounded” for a year), or so serious and damaging that they escalate hostility and push the kids further away. Parents who over-react tend to make decisions that harm their children, damaging their relationship, and driving them into addiction, rather than steering them away from it.

There’s got to be a better way. What follows is an article by Barry Lessin, who heads up HAMS, an organization devoted to promoting the Harm Reduction approach to recovery. While I don’t necessarily advocate the Harm Reduction approach, I certainly recommend that people consider the principles behind it — especially when working with teens. The teenage years are times of exploration and experimentation. In other words, what follows is important food for thought for parents (and church staff) who might be prone to over-react.

Continue reading Help for parents of teens who are experimenting with drugs or alcohol

What addiction and recovery taught me about “believing in God”

beleiveThe Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines belief as: “A state or habit of mind in which trust or confidence is placed in some person or thing.” The experience of addiction messes this up for Christians, whether they want to admit it or not. They say that they “trust God” to help them be happy in life, and to help them overcome their addiction … but somehow this “faith” doesn’t seem to be working. Why not?

My experience of addiction and recovery has forced me to admit that professing to believe something doesn’t mean I really believe it. It has forced me to be attentive to situations where what I observe and experience in “real life” don’t fit with the set of beliefs I espouse.

Coming to believe is a process

In 12 Step language, recovery is a process where people “come to believe” in a Higher Power who can help them overcome their addiction. It’s not assumed that anybody is doing this when they start. It’s a process … and it takes time. And for people who come into this process with a set of beliefs about a “Higher Power” already established, the scary reality is that part of their problem is likely that some of those “beliefs” are inaccurate and destructive.

Religious people hate hearing this. They want to think that their spiritual life is all fine, just the way it is. Continue reading What addiction and recovery taught me about “believing in God”

Why are so many people having such a hard time growing up?

Forever-youngAddiction often rears its head among young people who are struggling to make the transition to adulthood. Because many young people have trauma and deep wounds in their lives – and often get little help learning how to deal with those challenges – they are prime candidates for the siren song of addiction. They turn to alcohol, drugs, sex, or other behaviors, instead of doing the hard work of dealing with their issues, and taking up the challenge of new life responsibilities.

In other words, they turn to addiction instead of growing up. But the reverse also happens … the struggle with addiction delays the natural process of growing up. It’s a feedback loop.

Many good writers have tackled the confusion that exists today about what it means to be a man … how a boy becomes a man. Part of the problem relates to the breakdown of families … and the loss of good role models for many young men. Part of the problem also relates to the breakdown of community … it’s not just fathers that young men need to relate to and learn from, but also other significant men. (I suspect it’s not much easier for girls trying to learn what it means to be a woman.)

Steven Foster and Meredith Little — who have led wilderness retreats for many years for teens and adults – write in their book “Vision Quest” about this struggle, and they point to another culprit: lack of meaningful rites of passage. It’s a powerful paragraph, with an indictment against our society for how many people go through life and never really grow up, and never really fully live. Listen to what they have to say:

How many Americans, regardless of age, are caught in an adolescent holding pattern, waiting for the time when they will magically become adult? In the meantime, they will dream the infantile American dream of wealth and power, addict themselves to alcohol and (legal and illegal) drugs, become enamored of the glittering surface of the material world, fall into puppy love and get married, readily dream the clever dreams manufactured for them by media and politicians, fight their own kind with rockets, lasers, and nuclear bombs, worship celluloid and stereophonic personalities, become obsessed with sex, wallow in the depths of narcissistic depression, persist in self-destructive excess, dislike having to be responsible for personal actions, fantasize as a way of facing tomorrow’s verities, try to stay forever young, ignore the eventuality of their own death, put off cleaning up their messy room in the house of the Earth, and restlessly cruise the neighborhoods of the world looking for action. These signs of cultural crisis, and many more, point to the inability of the culture itself to provide meaningful rites of passage by which Americans can initiate themselves into expanded stages of growth.

So what do you think? Do you agree?