Learning to be fully human

Have you ever felt like you were giving up your right to choose the life you want to live? When I feel this way it is usually because something is standing between me and my preferences. Each morning I have several rituals that I use to center myself and start my day as a person who is in long term recovery with a commitment to being “turned” and placed on a path that leads to life. Not just any life - but a good, decent life. A life where I do not have to sneak or hide or lie or cheat or steal.

If I had a nickel for every time I thought or someone else said to me, “It’s my life! I get to live it MY way!” I would be a wealthy woman. The problem with this kind of thinking is this: When we have this kind of attitude, what we are really doing is constructing a personality, not becoming a full and whole human. This construction project began the instant we were born. We observed how folks responded to us. We listened to what our community valued. We evaluated and compared and competed for attention, affirmation and resources we thought we needed. We have pretended, we have played games, we have turned ourselves inside to get attention, approval or resources to live a life of our own making. This is fantasy living and it is as unsatisfactory for building a decent life as cotton candy is for providing a nourishing meal.

Recovery helps us remember and reconstruct our lives. When we “turn”, we do so knowing full well that we turn to a God who has our best interests at heart, who knew us before we were born, who knows how we are created and what we are created for. He gets us better than we get ourselves.

“If you don’t go all the way with me, through thick and thin, you don’t deserve me. If your first concern is to look after yourself, you’ll never find yourself. But if you forget about yourself and look to me, you’ll find both yourself and me.”

~ Matthew 10:38-39 The Message

Working on yourself is always a good place to start

Participants of long term recovery seem to understand better than most that their problem is one of self. They learn to identify and claim the various ways their selfishness has caused problems and they are clearly working to figure out how to live differently. This is a practical way to talk about our lack of self-awareness and helps us understand better why other people get so agitated with us. Here is a quote from Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions that speaks to how selfishness can complicate our faith journey:

“Like all the remaining Steps, Step Three calls for affirmative action, for it is only by action that we can cut away the self-will which has always blocked the entry of God - or, if you like, a Higher Power - into our lives. Faith, to be sure, is necessary, but faith alone can avail nothing. We can have faith, yet keep God out of our lives. Therefore our problem now becomes just how and by what specific means shall we be able to let Him in? Step Three represents our first attempt to do this. In fact, the effectiveness of the whole A.A. program will rest upon how well and earnestly we have tried to come to ‘a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.’ “ Anonymous

Today, research helps explain WHY we act in ways that are not in our best interest. That knowledge is in danger of turning into an excuse unless we add to that information the awareness that for all intents and purposes, the world sees us as selfish and self-centered. They do not much care WHY, they want to know WHEN we are going to get our act together.

...I place before you Life and Death, Blessing and Curse. Choose life so that you and your children will live. And love God, your God, listening obediently to him, firmly embracing him.

~ Deuteronomy 30:19 The Message

The decision before us is one that will begin a lifelong process of surrendering to the will of a God we cannot see. This God has no doubt been misrepresented to us at times; other times we have closed our ears and hearts to him. I particularly appreciate words spoken by a man describing his own recovery experience. “Take all the ideas that you have about spirituality, religion, about God, about a whole bunch of stuff and just put them over here, forget them for a while.” He is asking us to get curious. An impaired brain is not conducive to curiosity, so this is part of what we will trust God to do in and through and with us. This is not easy, but neither is living as a hostage in our own brain.

You CAN deal with the things you can't deal with.

What’s your biggest fear? What do you think you absolutely cannot handle? Guess what? There may come a time when you have no choice in the matter. A day may arise when you have to handle the very thing you think you cannot deal with.

Although I am a big fan of planning, I do not think it is possible to plan but for so much disaster. So, frankly, I’ve kind of let that need to prepare for the worst case scenario. Instead, I am building a life around wellness, joy, and living true to my core values. It’s plenty of work, but it is very satisfying, and much better than toting a survival kit everywhere I go.

I am, instead, building a thriving toolbox, filled with all I need for an abundant life. One of those tools is my thought-o-meter. I use it to check myself and my thoughts out. In yesterday’s blog, I listed a few common thought no-no’s. Today and tomorrow I am going to unpack a couple that I have had to work on changing.

The work of Byron Katie is great for this, you should check her out. But I also have discovered that my lack of creativity in my thought life means that if I pay attention, I notice my self-defeating thoughts without much effort. If I pay attention!! So - you can do this!!

I have learned that I practice habits but I do not regularly evaluate them for effectiveness. I used to think I needed to walk 10,000 steps per day or I might drop dead from a heart attack any minute. Today, I understand that there is no one right way to keep our bodies healthy. 10,000 steps is awesome, but we do not have to get out the nitroglycerine if instead of walking we decide to garden or ride a bike or lift weights.

What habits in all their many forms are you overly dependent on? Are you sure they are accomplishing what you want them to? Are there other options that are equally effective? Variety is indeed the spice of life! Are you spicy enough to have a joy-filled life?

Challenge Self-Defeating Thoughts

I was really shocked to discover that my thoughts are not always true and my feelings are not always the best gauge of my life situation. I spent decades assuming that my thoughts and feelings were pointing me to my “truth”. I was wrong. Here are some common inaccurate thoughts:

* I cannot cope with ______ unless I use/do/have _________.

* When I ______, I am more creative and productive.

* My friends would not like me if they knew the real me.

* I cannot relax/sleep/function without _____.

* I know that I have missed some family functions but kids are resilient, they will get over it.

* I am not hurting anyone but myself.

* My loved ones just do not understand.

* I can stop ________ whenever I want. I plan on changing when life settles down.

It is possible that our life is unsatisfactory because we are living with unaddressed, inaccurate, and self-defeating thoughts. Compulsive thoughts create heightened anxiety and depression. It is crucial to realize that we are unaware that our thinking is distorted. We will need to look outside our mind palace for answers that are fundamentally beyond our brain’s capacity to grasp without outside intervention.

Don’t assume that you know it all.

Run to God! Run from evil!

Your body will glow with health,

your very bones will vibrate with life!

~ Proverbs 3:7-8, The Message

I like to ask myself the following question on a daily basis: what if I am wrong about _______? As I discover that I am wrong, I find new opportunities to change, seek help, and walk humbly with my God and others! Try it! It is so much easier than having to be right and strong all the time!

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?

Over-spiritualizing creates big problems

In my work people often ask me, “How do people get sober?” They are skeptical, curious, hopeless, angry, afraid.

Some even come looking for actual answers. Their question sounds more like, “HOW DO people get sober?” These people want answers. They want action steps. They want solutions.

All the different ways people show up with these questions are fine - no judgment here. But the attitude that they bring into my office impacts my answer because frankly, there are many, many ways to get sober.

One way it does not work is to super spiritual-ize the journey. I learned this years ago when a spouse came in and wanted to know how to fix his wife. He brought his Bible (this NEVER happens) and the following passage:

It’s in Christ that we find out who we are and what we are living for. Long before we first heard of Christ and got our hopes up, he had his eye on us, had designs on us for glorious living, part of the overall purpose he is working out in everything and everyone.

~ Ephesians 1:11-12 The Message

Then he raged. He spoke of his wife’s issues and her stubborn resistance to treatment. He talked about their place of esteem in the Christian community and how God did NOT want them living “like this”.

“What do you mean exactly by ‘like this’?” I asked. He went on to list all the ways he felt his wife was a disappointment. He felt cheated. He wished for a wife who loved the Lord and submitted to her husband’s authority.

Three days later he was arrested for assault and battery of his wife. A week later she was in treatment. Ten years out she works with abuse and trauma survivors; he is in and out of jail for a nasty habit of trying to beat his subsequent wives into submission with the same fervor he used on his first wife.

I believe in the message of Ephesians 1; I worry when we try to use it to control other people’s decisions. I do not believe that Ephesians 1 is talking about designs for us that give no regard to who we are and how we want to live. This is more of a divine tango than an order to march in lockstep with God. God is relational and intimate. He does NOT beat us into submission. He is not codependent. Dr. Dale Ryan often speaks of God’s patience with us. He talks about how God is not concerned that his work in our lives will extend into the next life. Our cooperation requires that we are honest about ourselves and not hide behind false spirituality. A person who beats their spouse may be spouting the words but they are not living the life. A person struggling with a Substance Use Disorder who admits their problem and seeks help is daring to hope.

Who are you? Are you admitting your stuff or pointing the finger at others?

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.

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?

Nonjudgmental self-observation

When we take a position of never admitting to wrongdoing, we look a little silly to others, don’t we?  We all make mistakes, why run from them?  One of my favorite family stories involves a fruit tossing incident that will forever bring me great joy in the remembering.


I was hosting a dinner party and my best friend’s granddaughter (she was two?  three?) wanted to help me prepare the table for serving the feast.  I had laid out a buffet on the dining room table and was in the kitchen frantically preparing the final touches of the meal.  She went into the dining room to “check on” my work.  I didn’t think too much about it when I heard a dining room chair pulled out.  I thought she was getting a good look at the food.


Then I heard her precious little voice saying over and over, “It’s ok, accidents happen!”  When I joined her in the dining room she was “tossing the fruit salad”....all over the dining room table.  It was just so precious!


But she was also quite profound.  Her little arms couldn’t bear the weight of the heavy serving utensils as she dug them into the fruit, and little fruit parts fell here and there all around the large crystal serving bowl.  And what this child knew, taught by wise parents, was that everyone makes mistakes.  Sometimes even with our best efforts at tossing a fruit salad a grape is going to go rogue and make its escape!


Since that day I have often prayed that this child will retain her memory of this truth and that she will lean into her life and live it boldly, fearlessly, and with joy because she knows that accidents happen to all of us.  How about you?  Can you give yourself a break?  Can you let yourself off the hook?  Can you start by admitting that you are human and make mistakes just like the rest of us?  Nonjudgmental observation - try it!