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”

Some recent statistics about internet pornography

I’ve been working on a chapter for the second edition of the book “The Christian Handbook of Abuse, Addiction, and Difficult Behaviour.” This book was published in the UK by Mayhew Publishing, and unfortunately has had zero traction in the US or on amazon.com. Apparently it must be selling in the UK, because they want to release a second edition. Go figure! The first edition came out in 2008, and the publisher wanted updated statistics for each of the chapters.

So I did some checking. I don’t think it should be a surprise to anyone that Internet porn use continues to explode in growth. I confess that I was even a little surprised at how much it’s been growing. Obviously, porn use is growing along with the growth of the Internet, but did you know that porn now occupies a significantly larger percentage of web traffic than it did just 10 years ago?

Here’s some quotes from the chapter I’m sending:

Just how prevalent is Internet pornography use? Survey data and Internet use statistics show changing patterns in the past two decades, but high rates of pornography usage have continued. In fact, not only has porn use increased on par with the growth of the Internet, it has grown faster than the Internet and is now a larger part of internet traffic. The previous edition of this book cited data from internet service providers (ISPs) showing that 20% of web traffic was porn related. More recent data shows that currently that number has grown to 30% (source).

In 2013, Google research showed that porn sites get more traffic than Netflix, Amazon, and Twitter  combined (source). In the UK, as of 2013, porn websites were being accessed more than all social networks combined, and more than all shopping websites combined (source).

 

In the USA:
64% of American men view porn at least monthly, and the percentage of Christian men is nearly the same as the culture at large
79% of men ages 18-30 view porn at least monthly.
67% of men ages 31-49 view porn at least monthly.
55% of married men view porn at least monthly.
(Digital Journal, August 14, 2014)

 

In the UK:
70% of UK teens say porn is seen as normal by their peers at school.
46% of teens said sexting is a part of everyday life for teenagers.
2/3 of girls and nearly 50% of boys said growing up would be easier if porn was harder to access.
(DailyMail, UK, August 19, 2014)
75% of Christian men view porn at least monthly.
41% of Christian men admit to being addicted to pornography.
30% of church leaders view porn regularly
(The Way, UK, January 20, 2015)

In Ireland:
83% of men and 56% of women have viewed porn.
25% of these watch it weekly.
36% who are not in a relationship view porn weekly.
(Irish News, January 17, 2015)

 

In Australia:
70% of Australian men view porn online (according to research from University of Sydney, but other surveys show the number as high as 90%).
80% of 15 to 17 year olds have had multiple exposures to hard core porn.
(Newcastle Herald, September 12, 2014)

In South Africa:
67% of men view porn several times a week
(New24.com, South Africa, March 19, 2015)

In Trinidad:
79% of men watch porn
52% of women watch porn
Trinidad has one of the highest per capita rate of searches for porn on Google
(Trinidad Express, October 18, 2014)

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 The Skills of Lasting Relationships

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

Three Great Articles to Read

A Man Reads A NewspaperI’ve come across several articles lately that I think are so good, I’m encouraging everybody I know to read them. Here they are, with a bit of commentary by me

🙂

10 Things I’d Say About Sex if I Had No Filter

I really like Sheila Gregoire. She’s a Christian, and writes very openly and honestly about sexual issues from a female standpoint. (She’s also a writing and media powerhouse! She’s got a very active blog that every female partner of an addict who reads my blog should be reading.) She encourages women to experience healthy intimacy … in other words, she’s no prude … but at the same time, she’s written quite a bit about the struggles of women whose husbands have been unfaithful and/or sexually addicted. I like this article for its honesty and realism about the joys and challenges of establishing and maintaining a joyful sex life over time in a marriage.

http://tolovehonorandvacuum.com/2015/03/top-10-things-id-say-about-sex-if-i-had-no-filter/

An Overview of the ACE Test

I have often talked about the roots of addiction being about unresolved early life trauma. Anything as complex as addiction can never be reduced to a single issue, but certainly, this is important! When I talk about this topic, people often fixate on abuse … especially sexual abuse. I like this approach better than just talking about abuse. ACE is an acronym for “adverse childhood experiences.” The problem isn’t just abuse in its various forms, it’s also often neglect in its various forms. And beyond that, the challenges of early life are not always just things that happen in the home. What’s so interesting about the ACE test, and study that is being done about it, is the evidence that is piling up that ACE’s lead not just to psychological challenges (like addiction and depression) but also physical illness.

http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2015/03/02/387007941/take-the-ace-quiz-and-learn-what-it-does-and-doesnt-mean

Having a “Sex Positive” Mindset While Also Recognizing Sex Can be an Addiction

This is not a lengthy discussion, but at least it raises the issue. Alexandra Katehakis, whose work I appreciate, writes this article on the Psychology Today blog, addressing the critique that people who suggest treating sex addiction are just puritanical moralists on a crusade.

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/sex-lies-trauma/201411/sex-addiction-sex-positive-concept

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

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.

 

 

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

finding intimacy and freedom from pornography and sex addiction