Category Archives: For spouses & parents

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

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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The Skills of Lasting Relationships

couple-eye-contactAny form of sexual infidelity — whether related to addictive behavior or not — will destroy the intimacy of a marriage relationship. I realize that in relationships where sexual struggles are bubbling over, there’s a crisis of trust and a sense of violation that needs to be worked through before other issues can be dealt with.

Having said that, it’s also vital for couples — once they’ve moved through the crisis stage of disclosure and early recovery — to work on building the health and vitality of their relationship in general. In other words, to learn how to build their emotional connection.

It’s amazing to think about how important these relationship-building skills are to our lives, and yet how little training and teaching we get in them. For most people, the only “training” they got about how to be a good husband or wife was through watching their parents as they were growing up. Unfortunately, too many of us had poor models, and thus learned the wrong lessons.

For this reason, developing skills of healthy intimate relationships is an essential part of long term recovery. Continue reading

When someone you love is an addict

she knowsThe recovery work I do has expanded since moving to Chicago three years ago. In the past, I worked mostly with sexual strugglers and addicts. These days I’m working with a wider range of addictions, especially drugs and alcohol. But the biggest change is that now I’m working a lot more with spouses, parents, and children of addicts — both in my recovery work, and my role as a pastor.

It’s rewarding and important work, but it’s hard.

It’s always disheartening to see someone you love go down a self-destructive path. All our tendencies toward codependence kick in: we hurt and fear for them. We want to rescue them and alleviate their suffering.

We feel guilt for not doing things “right” in some way, which we mistakenly think makes us responsible somehow for their problems. We think, “If only I was a better wife, husband, father, mother, lover, friend, example, disciplinarian … then maybe they wouldn’t be having this trouble right now.”

If we’re not careful, we may start trying to do things to help that the addict should be doing for him or herself. That’s usually a sign that we’re over-stepping. When we do things for others that they can do for themselves, we’re getting in the way and disempowering them. Setting alarms, scheduling appointments, giving “reminders” … these are just a few of an almost limitless number of ways we try to be helpful.

At some point we find that we are putting more energy into someone’s recovery than they are. What do we do then?

We let go.

We don’t stop caring, but we stop pushing and prodding.

I won’t pretend that this is easy. It can only be done in a healthy way if it’s accompanied by the support of caring friends. Without friends to keep us balanced, it’s easy to get sucked into the roller coaster drama of the addicted person’s euphoria, resolutions, failures, and blame-shifting.

We also need a new way of holding the person mentally: a different way of thinking about them, of viewing them. For this, I suggest a new way of praying for them. I am adapting these from some ideas I got from Therese Stewart.

The Prayer of Releasing

What follows is a process to go through, which involves prayer, meditation, and intentional “letting go” of a person or situation that we are taking too much responsibility for. To do this, set aside some time (no less than 15 minutes), where you can concentrate.

(1) Begin by simply quieting yourself by sitting still, and breathing deeply. Whenever thoughts, worries, or “to dos” come into your mind, gently set them aside, and maintain your focus on your breathing, and “keeping a quite heart.”

(2) Call to mind the person who needs letting go. Hold this person in your attention as you breathe, and focus on “breathing in” the energy (or mindset) of compassion and love for this person, and “breathing out” any grief, pain, or anger you are carrying. Ask for God’s help to let those things go.

(3) While holding this person in your mind, softly recite some kind of reminder to yourself about the truth of God’s love for this person, and of their value to God.

(4) Next, as you continue to hold this person in your mind, “say” to them something like:

  • “[name of the person], I will care for you, but I cannot keep you from suffering.”
  • “[name of the person], I wish you happiness, but I cannot make your choices for you.”

(5) Next, release this person, and the entire situation surrounding them in your life, turning it over to God. Repeat a phrase, such as: “May the best outcome prevail” or “I turn this person over to your care” or “May Your will be done.” As you pray these phrases, you may want to open your hands, as a way of communicating with your body that you are releasing this person / situation into God’s care.

(6) End this time by praying the Serenity Prayer:  “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage the change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

While this is not a magical, instant fix, trust that it is powerful. It is the means by which we cut our unhealthy, codependent ties with someone. It is likely that, even after we go through this process, we will fall back into the old codependent patterns of thinking and relating. No worries. Just keep going back to the practice of praying and releasing, following the process above.

Things will change.

 

 

10 Things You Must Give Up to Move Forward in Recovery

movingforward

Here are 10 things you must give up if you’re going to progress in recovery:

 

#1 Letting the opinions of others control your life

It’s not what others think, it’s what you think about yourself that counts. You have to do exactly what’s best for you and your life, not what’s best for everyone else. Everybody has opinions, and many people are not shy about sharing them! But that’s all they are: opinions. These other people don’t know you and your life the way you do, and they have their own blind spots, issues, and dysfunctions. Not only that, but they have their own agendas in sharing their opinions with you, which might not match yours.

#2 The shame of past failures

Your past does not equal your future. All that matters is what you do right now. What’s done is done. You can be forgiven, and make amends if you need to (and if it is safe to do so). But too often, people simply stay stuck in guilt and shame without doing anything about it. It’s time to forgive yourself, let go of shame, and move on.

#3 Being indecisive about what you want

You will never leave where you are until you decide where you would rather be. Make a decision now to figure out what you want, and then pursue it passionately. If you are getting stuck because your dream seems too big and unrealistic, take it back a step or two and think about an intermediate goal or desire. Most people get in indecision, because they focus on things they want to do or have. If that’s happening to you, focus instead on the kind of person you want to be, and move in that direction.

#4 Procrastinating on the goals that matter to you

There are two options in life: to accept conditions as they exist, or to accept the responsibility for changing them. Recovery means taking responsibility not simply for your sobriety, but for your life. When we don’t engage with life (which is what procrastination ultimately involves) we drift and put our recovery at risk. The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is now. If you are procrastinating, chances are you are thinking too far ahead or are dealing with perfectionism. Just take things one step at a time.

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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

The power of intention in recovery

One of the key elements in getting something you want — whether that be in your business, your marriage, or your recovery — is knowing what you want. We don’t have because we don’t ask, and we don’t ask because we’re not even clear about what we want.

The video below is an excerpt of a speech by Ted Kuntz, a therapist and author of “Peace Begins with Me.” Its message is a game-changer for many of us: to get something, we need to be clear about what it is and intend to get it. This principle is often applied to business and material things … but what about things like our relationships, and even our recovery? Listen closely in the first few minutes to his description about how he works with couples, and what he tries to get them to articulate. Good stuff …

 

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?