Category Archives: Spirituality

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”

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

Grief: The Missing Emotion

mourningPeople often turn to addiction as a means of coping with trauma and stresses in early life. This is true of all addictions, but it’s especially true of sex. People turn to addictive substances or behaviors when the trauma and stress of their lives are overwhelming. This often happens for kids when they don’t learn appropriate coping and self-care from their parents and other family members.

One essential practice we need, in order to deal with suffering, is to grieve. We tend to think of grieving as something we do in response to death, and don’t think of it in association with other struggles and losses in life. But grieving is necessary for dealing with any and all losses … and suffering almost always carries some aspect of loss. Many men I work with have to go through a time of grieving a variety of losses they experienced growing up: nurture they needed but didn’t get, broken promises, the loss of safety and security because of verbal and physical abuse, the loss of innocence because of sexual abuse, and the loss of friends and loved ones because of divorce, relocations, and death.

Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Addictive behaviors and substances are a way for us to deal with suffering and loss without having to mourn. Continue reading Grief: The Missing Emotion

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.

Continue reading 10 Things You Must Give Up to Move Forward in Recovery

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?

 

What you can learn about recovery from Diana Nyad

DianaNyadOver the weekend, when you and I were eating hamburgers from the grill and watching TV, Diana Nyad became the first person to swim from Cuba to Key West without a shark cage. What makes this even more impressive is that she is 64 years old, and this was her fifth try (her first attempt was in 1978). She swam 110 miles in 53 hours, through the Florida Straits, notorious for its strong currents, sharks and swarms of stinging jellyfish. Amazing!

You can read the NY Times article about her trip here. Also, I’ve included a video at the end of this article of her super-inspiring TED talk — from a few years ago (after an unsuccessful attempt … and prior to another unsuccessful attempt) — that talks about her motivation, and some of the personal struggles that such an undertaking involves.

When she completed her swim on Monday, here’s what she said:

“I have three messages…

One is we should never, ever give up.

Two is you never are too old to chase your dreams.

Three is it looks like a solitary sport but it takes a team.”

Never Give Up

Each of these three lessons is worth reflecting on, but I’d like to emphasize the first, especially as it relates to recovery. Never, ever give up. Anything worth doing is hard. Anything worth doing will take more time, effort, and money than you expect. Anything worth doing will likely involve setbacks and times of discouragement.

This is especially true in the process of recovery. Continue reading What you can learn about recovery from Diana Nyad

Here’s Some Help with Step 11

12-StepsI was teaching at The Bridge Recovery Community last night about Step 11 in the 12 Steps. In my prep for this talk, I came across some great information from the Hazelden website. I referenced some of this information in my talk, and people asked about it, so I thought I’d include the information here. Enjoy!

Step Eleven: Cultivating conscious contact with a Higher Power

In 1938, an alcoholic stockbroker named Bill W. wrote a prospectus for the One
Hundred Men Corporation. The name of this entity referred to the number of people who had gained sobriety through an obscure new program of recovery from alcoholism. Bill planned to make this program the subject of a book, but first he needed money to finance its publication. For this purpose he was soliciting investors.

The program that Bill championed was based on 12 suggested steps. It was also unabashedly spiritual. In fact, the One Hundred Men prospectus noted that the spiritual aspect of the program had to be so simple and so practical that one alcoholic could easily explain it to another. Bill’s yet-to-be-written book would show how.

Today there are over 25 million copies of Alcoholics Anonymous (the “Big Book”) in print. And Bill managed to distill the essence of spiritual practice into the 32 words of Step Eleven: “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.” Continue reading Here’s Some Help with Step 11