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. https://www.nacr.org/center-for-12-step-recovery/by-the-book-doing-the-twelve-steps/by-the-book-step-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!!

We struggle to view ourselves accurately

I am in recovery from an eating disorder. Mine took the form of starvation - commonly referred to as anorexia. Back in the day when I suffered from my condition there wasn’t much conversation about such things. Generally speaking, people thought I was self-controlled. Part of the issue was denial. People close to me did not notice (or pretended not to) that I started acting weird. I stopped showing up for dinner; I disappeared when my friends ordered in pizza. I skipped events where food was served. I over-exercised. I got really skinny, which was all the rage in terms of style. Dieting and starving and such were the norm. My grandmother even bought a contraption that was supposed to jiggle off fat. It had a wide belt and when powered up it would shake and shimmy and the user would wrap it around their body and just wait for the fat to melt away. In fairness, I am sure any veiled attempt to bring up and discuss my bizarre change in eating habits was met with resistance. I did not think I needed help; I certainly was not open to feedback. Denial complicates healing.

Denial’s common definition is “doing the same thing over and over expecting different results” (but never getting different results). My denial fit that definition and then some. Scott McBean, Co-Pastor with me at Northstar Community defines denial like this: DENIAL IS AN AGGRESSIVE PURSUIT OF FANTASY LIVING; IT IS A DECISION TO CHASE THE LIE OVER THE TRUTH. I was NOT living in reality. In reality we need nutrients; I despised ripe red juicy apples, rejected chocolate chip cookies, and refused hot, warm bread freshly baked out of my grandmother’s oven. We need to socialize and hang out with our tribe; I stopped returning my friends’ calls. We need rest; I spent my nights doing crunches and running to keep my calories in the deficit column. My heart and mind were broken and I needed rescue.

If your heart is broken, you’ll find God right there;

if you’re kicked in the gut, he’ll help you catch your breath.

Disciples so often get into trouble;

still, God is there every time.

He’s your bodyguard, shielding every bone;

not even a finger gets broken.

The wicked commit slow suicide;

they waste their lives hating the good.

God pays for each slave’s freedom;

no one who runs to him loses out.

~ Psalm 34:18-22, The Message

How might denial be complicating your life?

Change requires practice

Shifting our focus from always having to be right toward a commitment to “get it right” is one of my favorite concepts that Brene Brown hammers home in her book Dare to Lead. This compulsion to know all the answers and be right all the time is a heavy burden. Lay it down!

Getting it right is a whole different ball game. When we work to “get it right” it makes us curious - we can ask, how can I improve? It creates an atmosphere of humility. We can assume that we have more to learn. We can think of ourselves as scientists running our own customized experiments. “Getting it right” implies process. It promises improvement without demanding perfection. It provides direction when we’ve lost our way without the need to blame or defend ourselves for the confusion.

After a terrible six month stretch of sickness I found a trainer to help me get strong because I was feeling so very weak. (The bear in the woods example came to my mind often in those days.) My trainer knows more about how to customize fitness to my particular brand of weakness than I could have ever imagined. Over a year into the process, I see progress. My “get up” form is decent. I can press a 20 pound Kettlebell with each arm for multiple reps. I can hold the plank position for longer than I thought possible. I practice my deadlifts several times a week and am making decent progress with my weight progression. I am getting stronger.

But in each of the above exercises, every single week, my trainer finds something to correct and improve in terms of my form or my degree of weight difficulty. Just today we worked extensively on repositioning my arm just a few little inches during a particular exercise. Without her, I would not be this particular. But without her, I would also not be making progress.

What do you need to change? Who can help you practice changing? Today I receive comfort and joy as I surrender to the process of being a willing student and active participant in my own recovery. I could not do it without a great coach. What kind of coaching might you benefit from?

Rest battles fantasy living

Once a year Pete and I try to get away for a week or two. It’s not a vacation so much as it is a retreat. We go to the same place every year. The environment is beautiful and predictable. We rent a friend’s house and there is little access to our traditional numbing distractions. We cannot work; we cannot eat food for convenience sake (i.e. fast food that is not as healthy as other choices); we cannot get distracted with the news or sporting events or lifetime movies.

We bring nutritious foods and eat in. Exercising on paddle boards and kayaks, hiking up and down the mountain to the lake’s dock and setting up a portable gym in the basement - it’s so much fun AND offers comfort and joy that is pure gold. We read. We rest. We play games. Pete says that watching the clouds float across the sky is as close to pure peace as he ever gets. I agree.

Because of what we learned at the lake, we have begun to institute comfort and joy rituals at home too. We play board games at night after dinner. We go for a walk together. We read. We find pockets of time to rest - something we rarely gave ourselves permission for in the past. Our old way of thinking about change did not include dollops of comfort and joy. Perhaps that is why we were so frustrated by our lack of meaningful change!!

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”

~ Psalm 91:1-2 NIV

Comfort and Joy

We misidentify comfort and joy. That’s a problem. This is easy enough to understand when we think about a kid who has an opioid problem and is laying on a gurney in the ER. Shouldn’t this problem be obvious? I’ve been in more than one ER with someone revived by Naloxone whose first words are a complaint: “Hey, who ripped my favorite jeans? Don’t you dare call my parents! Is my friend here? I gotta get out of here!!”

“Whaaat? You almost died dude!” I say this because I think the using is the problem. This person, knocked into sudden withdrawal by a life-saving dose of Naloxone identifies a different problem: he thinks he needs more drugs to feel normal.

Let me step on toes a bit. Booze to take the edge off; food; binge-watching TV; scrolling through facebook - these are also a form of opioid. Although they will not kill us quickly like an opioid OD will, they do diminish our experience of living. The behaviors are not the problem; the problem is what we are hoping the behavior will accomplish. Dependencies do not offer genuine comfort and joy. They distract and numb. But we THINK they are comforting us, maybe even bringing us joy. Or else we wouldn’t choose those behaviors to depend on.

Want to change? Start by paying attention. What are your false comforts and adrenalin-laced joys?

When meetings are "too sad"

I sound like a broken record. This is a fact. Consistently I suggest to families struggling with a variety of ailments to GET HELP. What kind of help? Therapy, support groups, education, practice boundaries and spiritual disciplines. I am not only a broken record, but my song is LONG. And people do not like it.

I suppose that is why the local pill doctor is wildly popular while folks in recovery programs at various times struggle to hang in and show up.

It turns out we all tend to resist the very thing we need the most. As we resist what we need, our resentment and anxiety ratchets up. We were created to live in community, learn things, practice boundaries and spiritual disciplines. We don’t “run” so well fueled by fantasy living, denial, and resistance to change.

In AA they talk about how we all want a softer, gentler way. The softer, gentler way doesn’t build muscles, it just makes us flabby.

Let me appeal to your anxiety, foreboding joy, and competitive spirit. In a crisis, the survivors are the ones who have the skills, the muscles, and the strength of character to persevere. Our endless quest for no pain with a side order of soft and gentle is not going to serve us well. If we are with a group of people in the woods and we happen upon a bear, who survives? Certainly not the softest, slowest delectable morsel in the group. You may not need to be an Olympic athlete to get away from that bear, but you darn well better be faster than the slowest person in your party.

Meetings can indeed be sad, as I am told on occasion by those who really do not want to attend them. Attenders sometimes hear sad stories of loss, relapse, and hopelessness. But you also hear, as I did last Thursday night in our Family Education meeting, a small but sturdy chorus of voices who are able to say that their loved one is in long term recovery. The family’s presence bears witness to the family’s recovery also.

If we want transformation, we do not need to be perfect. But we do need to notice how our resentments and anxieties sometimes trip us up, causing us to resist the work that opens the door to change and transformation.

When we notice numbing behaviors, start asking: where am I resentful? What am I anxious about? Hang in with the answer. Ride the wave of discomfort.

Somebody is avoiding the truth

When my grandson does something he KNOWS is not preferred, he has a clever way of reframing the issue. Here are some samples of his work:

“SOMEBODY is going upstairs.” [Christian is only allowed to go upstairs with an adult.]

“SOMEBODY spilled their yemonade on their pants.” [Christian is practicing drinking lemonade with a straw. It’s messy. He isn’t a fan of messy.]

“SOMEBODY threw their firetruck.” [We are learning to not throw our toys.]

“SOMEBODY needs to go see Pops.” [Even though Pops is on a conference call and is off-limits.]

The list goes on.

Our response, “Which somebody?” Big pause. Bashful grin. Avoidance. The adults wait patiently for a response.

Eventually, he says, “Christian Thomas…”

Why is it important that we not chuckle over SOMEBODY? Even though, come on, it is hilarious, right?

Because this will only be funny until it is a habit he cannot break when he is 40 and his marriage is on the rocks because he cannot own his stuff. {See foreboding joy.}

Change is hard enough without having to fight our own insecurity. Making mistakes is part of the process. Some of us hate that more than others, but all of us need to make mistakes in order to learn.

We do not shame Christian over SOMEBODY; but we do give him the opportunity to get it right. That’s a skill that we all need. We need to be able to practice being teachable, learning, and trying until we get it good enough.

Has stubbornness gotten in SOMEBODY’S way lately?

Numbness and Fantasy Living

The most effective way I know of to stay the same is to either stay numb or commit to fantasy living. If we want to avoid change, these are two guaranteed ways to succeed. Numbing can be anything - too many Lifetime movie binges rather than actually participating in life is one way.

Since we are fortunate enough to have grandchildren this year, I was happy when the clan decided to go to a Christmas tree lighting in our neighborhood. They are so much fun when you watch them acted out in a Christmas movie.

In our situation, we had to wait almost an hour for a table at the restaurant where we were going to eat before walking to the tree lighting. It was bitterly cold out, and the marshmallow roast looked like risky business for a two year old (Can you say foreboding joy?). The hot chocolate stand was over-crowded and under-prepared for demand. The tree lighting itself was preceded by a series of song and dance routines - which I enjoyed, but the babies did not. Half the group left before the tree sparkled and those of us that waited were underwhelmed by the lights. If we want spectacular, the television was the way to go.

But we did not want spectacular. We wanted experience. Together. As a family. And if that’s what we wanted, then there was joy. I thoroughly enjoyed myself. We talked, we laughed, we fed a baby and listened to a toddler yell, “Where’s my cheese quesadilla?” Pete even got confused and went into the women’s restroom instead of the men’s. You cannot find that on the Hallmark Channel.

This is life on life’s terms. It’s all we have and it is more than we could hope for - so long as we are not numbing and not pretending.

How has fantasy living messed with your reality?

When has numbing caused you to under-react to a problem in search of a solution?

Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

~ 1 Corinthians 13:12 NIV