The Habit of Substance Use

Once my brother came clean it about his Substance Use Disorder, it became apparent that ALL of us were suffering with dependencies that were creating one unmanageable crisis after another. A dependency, or a compulsion, is a coping strategy that we use to calm, numb, or benefit ourselves in ways that we use to excess. We are in “excess” when our behaviors begin to have consequences. Too restless, irritable and discontent to get out of bed in the morning and go to work? I may be using sleeping in EXCESS to cope with my depression, hangover, or have a disturbed sleep cycle - a host of possibilities but all related to this one true thing: our “excess” is disrupting our life.

My brother’s cocaine addiction, unlike my own eating disorder, caused him to break out in handcuffs, lose jobs, and generally manage to infuriate anyone who tried to maintain a relationship with him. He lied, he cheated, he stole. I lied in ways that were equally damaging but a teeny tiny bit less obvious than his dramatic crash and burns. In fact, his own propensity to get into massive amounts of trouble served to mask the dysfunction of our family system in general and in particular our individual issues.

The crisis created by my brother’s treatment for drug addiction provided an opportunity for our family to take time to assess the dynamics at play in our family system. Problems that seemed obvious to others about our family were revelations to us. Secrets were exposed. My eating disorder was named. The rigid roles that each family member played, the enabling, the lying, a lot of these realities rose to our collective consciousness. (Again, this was not everyone’s perspective.) Suddenly, what we thought of as normal shifted. We realized how unmanageable our lives were - the conflicts, the financial strain of dealing with my brother’s issues, the unhealthy ways my parents coped with their stress, the resentments we held against one another but never discussed. We were taught that all of this was related to the disease of addiction. It was a multi-generational problem. Both the affliction and the maladaptive coping skills associated with addiction were passed down through our family tree much like the family silver and a few pieces of good jewelry. When we take our first step the focus rightfully belongs on our own particular brand of compulsivity. But it is also helpful to realize that when one family member suffers from Substance Use Disorder, the entire family system is also suffering various forms of sickness marked by denial, unmanageability, powerlessness and resistance to solving problems.

But I need something more! For if I know the law but still can’t keep it, and if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help! I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time. Romans 7:17-20 The Message

Banishment

Over the hours that this team sweated large and small stuff related to the recovery ministry woes they faced, they had to face a hard truth:  relationships are conditional.  Yes, yes, love is unconditional.  But healthy relationships have conditions.  This doesn’t sit well with our desires to be merciful and gracious.  Mainly I think because we have failed to fully develop our own deep and wide understanding of the concepts of grace and mercy.  But also because let’s face it - love is yummy.  Limits are sometimes challenging to accept. One afternoon we looked at two passages of scripture that dealt with banishment: 2 Samuel 14:14 and Deuteronomy 30:4.  We also hopped over to Jeremiah 29 and considered what God asked the Israelites to do while living as slaves in Babylon.  (Lest we forget, they were experiencing a GIANT timeout/banishment as a result of their own stubborn resistance to God.)  Here’s what we noticed:

 

  1.  No wonder Paul was ragging on the Corinthians!  They were proud of the "restoration" but missing the point of what restoration truly is.  Yes, God is ALWAYS finding ways for banished people to find their way back home.  Banishment isn’t intended to be punishment so much as it is a tool for restoration.  True restoration could not happen for the Corinthians without a "time out" to show the community that they were valuable enough to protect.  
  2. Banishment is sometimes necessary.  In this church's situation, they had to at least determine (see how they are progressing through the stages of change?!?) if it was the tool they needed to use in their particular situation.
  3. Even in the midst of suffering, God’s people are given a way to move through the suffering.  They accomplish this by keeping a rigorous eye on thriving.  Thriving is described in Jeremiah 29 as suffering AND continuing the work of building community.  Sometimes building community means protecting community.  

 

Part of our contemplation as a working team involved calming down and remembering our core values; next, we made a conscious choice to live by them.  This required us to practice making amends.  The guy who muttered the “too much estrogen” comment had to make amends not only to the female he poked, but he had to deal with the larger issue of gender bias.  The team then had to identify how their core values would change the way they were processing.  This took FOREVER!  They worked for several meetings just on how to have crucial conversations without decreasing safety in the room.  They had to learn about active listening.  Look, it’s possible to get really old and never acquire these skills.  But this team was willing and ready to learn.  This posture of humility helped them when the time came to analyze the failure of the staff person that caused all this mess to begin with.  Having had their own shortcomings exposed at times during this process, they were a gentler, kinder crew when they got back to tackling the original issue at hand. Are there skills that you lack that you need to go acquire before you can expect to see the fruits of your transformational labors?

What's our part?

Everyone has heard that there is sexual immorality among you.  This is a type of immorality that isn’t even heard of among the Gentiles - a man is having sex with his father’s wife!  And you’re proud of yourselves instead of being so upset that the one who did this thing is expelled from your community.  1 Corinthians 5:1-2

 

After much rumination and no small amount of people whipping out their seminary teachings, we finally got around to this:  and you’re proud of yourselves instead of being so upset that the one who did this thing is expelled from your community.

 

Here’s what we noticed:

  1. Paul was presuming that the sexual immorality was bad, but he was finding problems in places other than this guy’s bedroom.
  2. Paul is pointing out an attitude problem of those who weren't being appropriately discerning about protecting the community.  They were proud of themselves for keeping someone in the community who was putting the community at risk.  Yes, it's good to seek restoration wherever possible, but we also must be discerning about the well-being of the entire group.  
  3. Paul was inviting the Corinthian church (and we could invite the same of ourselves) to pause and contemplate. 

Here are some things we might contemplate when considering banishment:

  1. Are we more worried about our reputation or the restoration of one who needs restoring?
  2. Is our discussion centered around our core values?  Or are we driven by a fear to protect something - our ministry success?  What’s our motivation driving our thinking on this subject?
  3. What core values are we in danger of violating as we wrestle through this problem if we aren’t careful?
  4. How do we sort through and resolve our competing core values?  Which of our many core values are pertinent in this particular situation?
  5. What wounds/blind spots/prides/prejudices are in play in this room that need acknowledgement?

 

There were more noticings and contemplations, but this provides a general framework for the discussion.  These questions became so intriguing, so challenging, so engaging, that even the Senior Pastor tucked away his ipad and leaned forward into the discussion.  Here’s a wild and crazy idea I want to posit for your pondering:  It is possible, when we sidestep shame, to get very invigorated by the prospect of leaning into change and inviting God to transform us.  It’s exciting!  It’s in keeping with the humanity within us that bears the very image of God.  I’d invite you to consider that shame may be hindering your own enthusiasm for your own work of recovery. 

Eventually we have to DO something!

Over lunch during the holidays my adult children were discussing a philosopher’s perspective on options.  I was too busy chasing around a 15 month old to hear all the details but evidently there is a philosopher who has posited that limited choices are better for us than feeling like we can do anything we want just because we want it.  It seems too many options freeze us from actually acting on them AND they increase anxiety (Note from the editor:  We were discussing Jean-Paul Sartre- here's a fun Youtube video that talks about what we were talking about:  Click here to view).

 

Pro's and con's were bantered about but I think the philosopher was onto something.  At the pre-contemplation and contemplation stages of change the sky is kind of the limit.  Daydreaming is encouraged.  Pursue all options!  But once we move into the stage of determination, choices must be made in order to move forward into the action stage of change. 

 

A couple times a week I attend an hour long killer fit camp where my favorite instructor in all the world demands in a nice tone that I do things that I am pretty sure will kill me.  It turns out she is better at assessing my abilities than I am.  I’ve worked hard to be consistent in attendance, but I also have a life and that means I am not there 100% of the time. 

 

But if I am going to survive, even thrive, in my training - I have to *&%(^%$ show up!  My trainer, my training team...no one can do the one thing that I must do:  show up.  I do not have to show up with enthusiasm or happy thoughts.  I can show up sore and tired and cranky but show up I must.  I am blessed with an instructor who does not shame us when we show up 80% of the time because she understands how change works and shame is NEVER part of good change theory.

 

However, she has taught us that showing up consistently is kind of a requirement if we want the best of her.  In other words, as good as she is, she cannot give us her best if we are not showing up to receive what she has to offer.

 

Here’s what I’ve learned from watching people and listening to mentors:

Show up. When we work on a team our presence counts not only for ourselves but others. Some things are ours to do, when we don’t do what is ours to do it might mean that someone else doesn’t get to do their thing.

 

For today - show up.  Practicing showing up.  See what happens.

Disappointing Sincerity

I have studied people all my life, not in a creepy way, but with a lot of curiosity and interest.  As a result of wasting so much time people gazing, I have accrued a cache of information about people and myself.  One thing I’ve learned about myself is how little I understand people!

 

When I was young, I used to think that sincerity was the key to an abundant life.  It’s not.  Sincerity has very little correlation with mastering change or receiving the gift of transformation.  I learned this from working with guys from a treatment facility in our community.  The newbies that come through the program show up after detox with the same wild variations in disposition and personality that the rest of the human population possesses.  Some are sincere about getting sober, others are surly and resent the program.  It is completely impossible to pick out which guys will run the distance and which ones will relapse.

 

Sincerity disappoints me more often than not. 

 

But what has worked for people is this more elusive component of change called determinationDetermination is a nice, sturdy word,  but don’t let that fool you.  A person can practice determination with as much creative expression as an artist. 

 

There was this guy who started attending our church while in treatment.  He was not peppy.  He was pitiful.  At 65 years of age he had not been sober in a sustained way since he was 10 years old.  He had no expectations that the program would work, but it was winter and we were in the middle of a particularly cold spell and he was court ordered to attend a program and this was the only one he could afford (free).  He didn’t like the 12-steps or the program director.  He didn’t make friends easily and he was kind of a whiner.  He was constantly living with consequences for misconduct.  But he kept at it.  Today he works a full-time job, owns a home, returns to the treatment facility to volunteer multiple times a week and has acquired a small but faithful bunch of buddies who encourage and support one another in sobriety.  At a public speaking engagement recently he said, “I never even considered that I could one day not live under a bridge.”  He was NOT determined to live a big dream or dare to be great - the world knocked all that out of him at an early age.  But in desperation he followed instructions one day and then two and three until he had amassed a boat load of days - he determined to simply do what it took to stay in a building that also happened to have a recovery program experience.  Determination.  One step at a time.  What do you need to determine to do?

Habits

I am a big fan of habits.  I habitually brush my teeth.  This is a good thing.  I have tons of habitual behaviors that I do without thinking; they keep my brain from overheating with exertion; habits can be our friend.

 

However, habits can also be our enemy.  I developed a habit of putting this really delicious, silky smooth and loaded with sugar creamer in my coffee.  Yum!  Once I developed the habit of having it, I did not enjoy coffee without it.  It was only when I was given information that inspired me to decrease my sugar intake that the lovely little treat that I so enjoyed became my enemy.  Because I was habituated to it, it had the power to knock my numbers out of alignment before I had even had breakfast, much less eaten three meals and a snack! 

 

Lately I’ve been re-evaluating my habits.  I’ve decided that I want to keep the ones that support my core values but relinquish some that are inconsistent with my values.  Coffee with a creamer that doesn’t fit my nutritional objectives has to go.  I will miss her.

 

When I began my journey of eating realignment, I needed education, accountability, support and incentives.  Habits don’t just disappear when we wish them gone!  I understand that we do better with change when we replace habits, plan for change, and develop a patience for taking steady next right steps toward our goal.  Grandiose thinking and change are not great partners. 

 

For today, consider what you would like to change in your world.  Tomorrow we will consider change and how it works.

 

Reaching out for help

I know folks who rotate in and out of recovery.  They are often the more opinionated among us with regards to what it means to work a decent program.  Here’s what I would suggest as an alternative perspective.

 

 

If you’ve tried the same things, done it the same way, and have failed to get any different results - maybe change something.

 

This may require some stretch.

 

When my mom died I was shaken and distraught.  I was depressed.  I was sick for months - literally, not just figuratively.  After several months I began to regain some health and I used that energy to reach out.

 

I have developed a cadre of resources over the years to support my recovery but my toolbox felt rusty and unsatisfying so I chose instead to pick up a new tool.  I added to my resources by getting a personal trainer and she helped reshape my philosophy of both exercise and nutrition.

 

It turns out that shaking things up can be good for us.  

 

What old habits do you keep returning to in the hopes that you will get new and different results?  What other healthy, new methods might you explore?