Defensiveness is not a strategy

Years ago I had the grand privilege of teaching high schoolers each Sunday morning. Man, are they smart. And funny. And irreverent. And loaded with potential. If you do not have the privilege of really digging in and spending quantity (quantity - not quality) time with this group, it may be tough to appreciate the depth of their curiosity and their capacity to ferret out BS when they see it.

I had this one kid whose attendance was sporadic, and when he was there he was not exactly dialed in. This made me curious. Mostly he looked hung over on Sundays and there were some rumors about his extracurricular activities and the possibility that he might be a bad influence on the other kids in the group.

One day while buying groceries and junk food for my kids, his dad approached me about his son’s “religious education” and chastised me for his son’s sporadic attendance and his lack of bible knowledge (as evidenced by his inability to quote scripture verses from memory). This, according to him, was a reflection of my poor teaching and my lack of commitment.

So here is the thing about this story. This dad did not go to church. At. All. At the time I was super mad. But after I paused to prepare and really thought the story through, I felt an increased responsibility to this young man. I redoubled my efforts. I did NOT ask the kid to memorize scriptures but I did a few small things to increase his awareness that we teachers saw him. Cared about him. And without saying a word to anyone else about the encounter with the dad - who I would not have even recognized except for the fact that his kid was with him (yes, he said all this in front of his son) - we upped our game.

This was super hard. I wanted to “out” the dad for being a deadbeat. I wanted to whine and complain about all my weekly efforts and this dad’s absence from the life of his kid and I wanted to shout from the rooftops, “HOW DARE HE!!” But the problem with this approach was that it would not have been helpful to the kid, and that was my priority. That was in-line with my core value of loving kids as an expression of bearing God’s image. He already had one fun house mirror of a father image, did he need me tarnishing it further? No.

I do not know where this young man is today. I do know he made his way, eventually, to seminary. This is no guarantee that he has pursued a life of faith but I am pretty sure it required continued exposure to God’s word. I know that he has had a profound influence on my life. He is the kid that opened my eyes to all the ways we judge others and make assumptions about them. He made me realize I could do more - not because I had to, but because I wanted to.

It’s okay to learn even from people who don’t have it all together and even those who stir your anger. It’s okay to find inspiration in rumors of failure or in the face of criticism. How might God be getting your attention today through weird means and mean people?

Changing habits means telling the truth

Have you ever tracked every single morsel you put in your mouth on one of those tracking apps? I have. It’s eye opening. My nutritionist does not recommend this as a daily practice. She wants me to live my life and learn to use my eyes to see what I am eating and learn how to fuel my body wisely.

I continue to learn. But because of my propensity to not pay attention to details, my forgetfulness, my outright denial about some of my habits…that app can serve as helpful accountability. So long as I tell the truth.

There it is.

The fly in the ointment.

Tell the truth. Particularly - tell MYSELF the truth.

So here we go with a question for today: Just how seriously do you take your faith journey? If you had an app on your phone that could measure such things, how are you doing?

And I am really curious about this: What criteria would you use to assess your spirituality? What actions, thoughts, feelings and core values reveal the seriousness with which you take your relationship with your Higher Power?

“[He] said to me as I was walking by, ‘God takes this more seriously than you do.’ “

~ By the Book (view the video here)

Combat spiritual blindness with accountability

My husband is colorblind; so is my son. The difference between the two is that, while my son recognizes this deficiency, my husband refused to admit his limitation for quite awhile. My husband wanted to believe that a particular favorite shirt is navy blue. It is not. It is black. No amount of his understanding it to be blue will make it blue. The shirt is black. Sometimes he happens to wear something that looks fine with the black shirt - other times he looks like he got dressed in a dark room with his eyes closed. My son, on the other hand, allows his wife to pick out his clothes. And he looks fine, all the time.

We all suffer with a side-order of blindness. It causes us to believe things that are not true and not believe a bunch of stuff that is absolutely true. When we are in this position, life spirals out of control in confusing ways. These false beliefs and denials that we hold as truth cause us to take actions that do not produce the results we want.

The ONLY way I know to change this dynamic is by making a decision that requires our own certainty to stand down AND choose to trust God.

Stop telling yourself things that aren't true

It turns out that some people habitually tell themselves things that are not true. They develop a patterned way of thinking about themselves - and the brain rewards them with a shot of dopamine for their lack of effort to wrestle with the truth.

I know a gal who is always telling me how stupid she is - and she is not stupid at all. I have a girlfriend who is always complaining about how fat she is - and of course, she is not fat at all. Moan and groan. Complain, complain.

Healthy people learn how to stop doing this nonsense and require their brains to get up off the porch and get to work. They do NOT blame themselves for everything that goes wrong in their life or rely on the distorted belief that they are ineffective and unable to do hard things. Healthy people learn how to suffer and live through hardships. They learn that life is hard without having to further confuse the lesson by pretending it should be easy.

People who struggle to cope often contribute to the problem by confusing their suffering with their worth. Do NOT confuse your suffering with your worth. Job is a really strange book in the bible; I am fascinated by all the patterns and myths it busts in the telling of the Job story. He is a good man who suffers for no clear reason. Job is a guy who can teach us that good things happen to good and bad people and bad things happen to good and bad people. Our circumstances, outcomes, and actions are no measure of our worth.

We are so used to taking the cheap hit of dopamine rather than examining our thoughts. Try to do more examining and less automatic assuming, OK?

We use our powerful God-tools for smashing warped philosophies, tearing down barriers erected against the truth of God, fitting every loose thought and emotion and impulse into the structure of life shaped by Christ.

~ 2 Corinthians 10:6, The Message

Habits can fool us

“Addicts must learn to handle cravings, attend 12-Step meetings regularly, and otherwise revamp their thinking, behavior, and lifestyle...Addiction is not an ‘acute’ (short-term) illness with a short-term solution. Like diabetes, asthma, and other chronic diseases, addiction can be controlled but never eliminated.”[1]

“I kept looking back at the other option and there was no other option.”

By the Book [2]

Maybe you think you are off the hook because you are not dependent on alcohol or drugs. Are you dependent on anyone or anything else that has its hooks in you? Habitual compulsions can have the same effect on us. They can trick us into thinking they are the solution even as they keep causing us lots of problems.

Spending more money than we have may be fun when we are buying a cute pair of shoes, but does it cause conflict in your home? Do you have debt-collectors knocking on your door? This is not a way to live!

Caring more about your sport’s team than your friends who root for other teams isn’t cool.

Distracting ourselves with binge watching, binge eating, binge exercising, binge anything may numb us temporarily from our cares and worries, but all those anxieties are just sitting on the foot of our bed waiting for us to wake up.

Eventually, we need to figure out how to not only deal with our problems, but live well in spite of them. The solutions that work for Substance Abuse often hold the key to our own peace of mind!

  1. Harold C. Urshel, III MD, (Healing the Addicted Brain, Sourcebooks Inc., 2009), pp. 23-25.

  2. at 2:12.

A few truths for early recovery

Living in a city with a large university dedicated (in part) to researching Substance Use Disorder (SUD), provides me wonderful opportunities to learn from the experts. In a recent talk, I heard a guy who researches the “brain on drugs” speak in depth about the nature of SUD and the broken reward center. Now, who is to say whether this particular bit of the brain was broken because we abused our brain with compulsive over-use of a particular substance OR whether our brain was broken before we used and because it was malfunctioning, we ended up with a compulsion we could not control? Researchers study these things and I am grateful for their hard work. Hopefully we will learn more soon.

What we do know this - most people who experiment with substances of various kinds even when they do so with gusto and in excess, do NOT end up with a Substance Use Disorder. This is a puzzler. Did the 90% of “others” not try hard enough? I do not know. Are the 10% or so who do end up with an addiction unlucky? And what about the genetic component? We know these things run in families, what is that all about? Research continues. Many questions in the field remain open for debate. But while we wait, many of us in long term recovery have learned a few things about getting sober.

These are practical truths that I am sure will one day fit into the models of recovery that research supports. Please do not miss my point. Research is awesome. But we also have a world of experience built up over decades from folks who fought the disease and survived. Here are a few practical truths that we can apply TODAY (while we wait for the research to figure other stuff out).

* We have a lot of thoughts that need to be examined for accuracy; many will need to be rejected and replaced with thoughts that are closer to reality. (SUD has a thought-disordered component that responds well to treatment if people stick with the program.)

* Our emotions are all over the place in early recovery. We were SHOCKED to discover that our feelings are real but may not reflect our current situation accurately. (We need support as we navigate recovery because it is hard and we are freaked out.)

* Our impulsivity gets us in trouble. Regardless of what our brain is doing, we all need to figure out a way to slow our roll and reduce impulsivity. (In recovery, we need adult supervision. It is not a good idea to spend time alone with our thoughts and feelings without regular reality checks with supportive mentors.)

I love research AND I love learning from folks who have clean time. Who can you go to today for support in your own journey of transformation?

Change? We fear change.

We resist change. I think it is, in large part, because we believe it is harder than we can manage. Change is hard, but we make it feel insurmountable when we expect more of ourselves than the process of recovery actually asks of us. In point of fact, believing the lie that change is too hard is pro-addiction thinking. It is the disease system trying to trick us into believing we cannot do it, so why try?

I suppose this is why I believe that spirituality is such a key ingredient for desperate folks looking for their freedom. In a spiritual program like the 12-Steps, we are NOT asked to do the heavy lifting, we are promised that God will do the hard stuff - and he is eager to do so!

So what is our part? Here is what is being asked of you:

* Believe that God has more power than you do.

* Accept that you do not have enough power or capacity to reason to solve your problems without a higher power.

* Trust that restoration is possible for you.

I’m not going to kid you, this is the first part of the solution. But boy wowser gee whiz - it is a pretty freaking big part with a lot of implications.

Answer the following:

If I believe that God has more power than I have, what changes for me in terms of my relationship with him and my actions on a daily basis?

If I accept that I do not have either the power or the capacity to solve my problems, what changes in the way I deal with my problems?

If I trust that restoration is possible for me, what’s my next right step?

A mind trick that's not a mind trick

Life threatening problems like eating disorders, depression and Substance Use Disorder need solutions that are effective - not gimmicks. It’s a Jedi mind trick to follow George Costanza’s methods for dealing with inconvenient truths - “It’s not a lie if you believe it” - is not a helpful way to live.

It is NOT normal for a 5 foot 7 inch adolescent to weigh 92 pounds; to claim health with these stats is pulling a George Costanza. Although my eating was a problem, it was not THE problem. It was the symptom. My problem was that I was dedicated to believing things that were not true. When we persistently hold onto thoughts and ideas that are not true, we are living in denial.

When the experts sat around and wrote up a definition of addiction, they all agreed that denial is a tell-tale sign that a person is suffering with a Substance Use Disorder. As hard as it is to admit, the issues we are in denial about are obvious to others. It’s like having the measles but denying the rash. Others stare at the rash or avert their eyes; we collude with the disease when we avoid mirrors to avoid noticing the spots. This is not easy work; it takes a long time to untangle beliefs and actions that spring from a place of denial.

Jesus said, “If? There are no ‘ifs’ among believers. Anything can happen.”

No sooner were the words out of his mouth than the father cried, “Then I believe. Help me with my doubts!”

Mark 9:23-24 The Message

I love these two verses in scripture. Jesus encourages the dude to believe and not doubt as an invitation. The father responds beautifully. He is not in denial. He is willing to tell Jesus the truth.

“Then I believe!” He cries. But he knows that there is also doubt and he is honest about his condition. “Help me with my doubts!”

By the time I began eating again, my brain was compromised from malnourishment; my heart was damaged; my body was weak. I was not at my best. Neither are you, dear reader. But no one expects you to be at your best right now.

In this process, from a spiritual perspective, what do you think is being asked of you? Tomorrow, we will discuss that - and you might be surprised by what you hear!!

The Costanza School of Theology

George Costanza offers us another perspective on insanity that might be helpful in our pursuit of recovery and faithful living. (Click here to view on Youtube.)

George and Jerry have been having coffee in the diner. Jerry has been dating a girl who he told a ridiculous lie to in order to project a certain image; the woman, a police officer, half-jokingly demands a polygraph. Jerry goes to George, a guy who lies constantly, for advice on beating the polygraph.

George says: “Jerry, remember one thing: it is not a lie if you believe it.”

George was wrong; just because something FEELS true to us does not make it so.

There came a moment in my illness when I, inexplicably, decided to believe that which is true. I didn’t so much know what the truth was, I just knew that I was not living truthfully with myself or others. I was in hiding. I collapsed and in that moment came closer to the truth than I had in a long, long time. I did not realize it at the time but I completed one part of the second step. I was admitting to my insanity and I knew without doubt that I needed help and restoration.

I white knuckled my recovery for a long time. I forced myself to behave differently. I began to eat more and exercise less. I relapsed regularly. My mind was obsessed with food and counting calories in and out. My behavior changed; my weight returned to a more normal range; people stopped asking me why I did not eat dinner because I started showing up for meals. But I was not in recovery.

I had not yet completed my Second Step - which asks me to believe that God is powerful and can restore me. Until I took that step, I was making the same mistake over and over again. I was trusting myself to come up with a solution.

Albert Einstein said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”

In the meeting rooms they talk about “half measures”; I was half a measure short of a full commitment to restoration. I had exceeded my capacity to save myself.

Instead of trusting in our own strength or wits to get out of it, we were forced to trust God totally—not a bad idea since he’s the God who raises the dead! And he did it, rescued us from certain doom. And he’ll do it again, rescuing us as many times as we need rescuing.

~ 2 Corinthians 1, selected verses, The Message

Fortunately, God works with half-dead people all the time. No problemo.

Denial is Not a Defect of Character

In Abraham Twerski’s book Addictive Thinking, he talks about denial and self-deception, both of which feel to me like sleepwalking. I cannot count the times in my life when I have fought knowing the truth of something only to have some event shock me into awareness. Once I am forced to face the truth I am amazed at how long I was able to pretend.

Twerski writes, “I cannot stress enough the importance of realizing that addicts are taken in by their own distorted thinking and that they are its victims. If we fail to understand this, we may feel frustrated or angry in dealing with the addict.”

Denial is a wall of limitation but it is NOT a defect of character or a shortcoming.

When someone says to me, “You are in DENIAL sister.” I hear that as a shaming condemnation.

“Maybe I am in denial, but why do you have to sound so smug?” I think. In active using and in recovery, I find some people hard to take advice from. This was especially true for me early in recovery. However, their callousness does not negate my situation. It did, however, distract me at times from paying attention to my real condition.

If I am active in my substance use, denial is a factor in my decision-making. But there is no need to shame me about that situation. Denial is a function of a hijacked brain, not a representation of my character. Sincere people often stumble as they try to help those they love. Later in the process of recovery, we will explore ways to deal with our feelings about the way others treat us. But try not to let other people’s clumsiness distract us from the seriousness of our situation.

Denial is dangerous. It keeps us from naming our problem/s, which guarantees that we are not free to find a solution. How do we get out from under this burden of self-deception?

We start acknowledging what we can. When you are asked to acknowledge things like powerlessness, unmanageability and name your Substance Use Disorder(s), please try not to judge yourself too harshly if your list is not satisfying to others. There is stuff about you that you cannot see.

BUT. And here is where it gets really, really hard: try to not immediately reject other people’s feedback, even if their delivery is awkward or even rude. If in fact you have a Substance Use Disorder, there may be people who have rejected you. Please try to give the people who have stayed a break. This is hard; no doubt they have their own issues, secrets and compulsions. Just do your best to consider what others are saying - especially if what you are hearing feels pretty repetitive!

Why so resentful?

Have you ever felt mad at the world and had no clue why?  Rigidity can do that to a person!  In many ways resentment is bred and multiplies as we continue to have unrealistic expectations of ourselves, others and the world around us.

It is taking this thought to far to say that we should have NO expectations.  But when we struggle with rigid attitudes and resentment, chances are our expectations are out of control.
When we drive we expect people to stop for red lights and go through green ones, right?  But we all know certain intersections where for whatever reason people do not live up to our expectations.  (Richmonders will know that the intersection of Robious Road and Huguenot Road fits that category.)  Experience teaches us to pause, verify and then proceed with caution through that particular intersection.  We may have an expectation that people should know better but experience teaches us that this is unrealistic.  In this situation, a resilient person knows to manage their expectations.  They are extra cautious; they plan for reality. 

For years I would experience frustration as I go through that intersection and daily watch people run red lights trying to beat the clock.  Today, after practicing my skills, I proceed with caution and manage my expectations by being honest about the way Richmonders handle that stretch of road.  No more resentment.

Denial - an often unconscious commitment to fight a losing battle with reality also creates resentment.  It may be extremely scary to face the truth about our families of origin, our marriages and especially our children with mental health issues or a substance use disorder.  But as we fight off acknowledgement, as facts present themselves that challenge our fantasy living, one symptom is resentment!

Any signs in your life that there are some realities in need of addressing?  Resilient people face these troubles head on.  Be that!