Learning what you don't know won't hurt you

My friends and I talked about the researcher’s findings as they related to our brain. Some of the data was daunting. A few of us wondered if recovery was even possible in light of these findings!! Then we added up our sober time. We had hundreds of years of sustained sobriety between us. People do recover. There is hope. Research is great but the healing power of God is amazing!!

The world is unprincipled. It’s dog-eat-dog out there! The world doesn’t fight fair. But we don’t live or fight our battles that way—never have and never will. The tools of our trade aren’t for marketing or manipulation, but they are for demolishing that entire massively corrupt culture. 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. Our tools are ready at hand for clearing the ground of every obstruction and building lives of obedience into maturity.

~ 2 Corinthians 10:3-6 The Message

God heals. Are we willing to use our powerful God-tools so that we can fit every loose thought and emotion and impulse into the structure of life shaped by Christ?

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?

Wednesday Meditation Moment

It often helps to have words to guide our meditation. Use the Serenity Prayer as a spiritual practice today. Take time to breathe and receive from God at the end of each line.

God grant me the serenity

To accept the things I cannot change,

The courage to change the things I can,

And the wisdom to know the difference.

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?

Spiritual Blind Spots

In recovery I discovered that there were lots of things about God that people had conveniently forgotten to teach me OR I had failed to hear. It could easily be the latter. My parents were not spiritual people; my grandparents were the only religious influence I had growing up - and it is a lot to ask the church to cram all knowledge a kid needs about God into summer visits. But it was enough. It made me hungry for more.

As an adult, I worked a heavy duty spiritual program. Over the course of years of study I realized that many of my beliefs were off-target. I received the highlight reel of faith in bits and pieces. But much like families of origin - it is really hard to recognize that our families and our faith experiences often leave big gaps in knowledge, much less wisdom. We have a difficult time knowing what we do not know.

This is why it is important to talk through what we have been told, what we perhaps interpreted as truth that we just got confused, and how these beliefs are messing with our abundant living.

Have you ever laid out your beliefs and examined them for accuracy? Have you ever considered that if life and faith are not being wrestled with and confronted and then lived out in real time - maybe it is time to step up our commitment to our spirituality?

Running for my life

In the bible we find an amazing book of poetry that speaks to people living through impossible situations without much support. Early in my recovery I could not read the psalms; they triggered me. I felt irritable, restless and discontent when I read them.

I thought they were a bunch of baloney.

Then one day I was reading about David. My childhood had taught me about David, the giant slayer, but my summer-go-to-grandma’s church Sunday School teachers had definitely skipped over the chapters where King David became an adulterer, a murderer (by proxy), and a pretty unimpressive father. This fuller version of David’s life story completely opened the psalms up to me - since he is attributed with writing many of them. Today I love the psalms. They do not “should” and “ought” me with demands for perfect trust. Today, I read them with more context and a touch of imagination. When I read Psalm 23, I think of David running for his life, chased by his many enemies. I can see his arms pumping, his legs churning, his breath coming in deep and uneven gasps as he cries out, daring to hope but not quite believing, that what he is praying is true. He is disciplining himself to believe in a God who loves him in spite of his world offering little evidence that God does love him OR that he, David, deserves it. Got the picture? Now listen in…

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall lack nothing.

He makes me lie down in green pastures,

He leads me beside quiet waters,

He restores my soul...

~ Psalm 23:1-3, NIV

David is a guy who was a “man after God’s own heart” before and after the Bathsheba scandal. When confronted with his sins by Nathan, he confessed and received forgiveness. He did horrible things in his life; he loved God well and true for much of his life also. Complicated. Human. Loved by God.

How about you? Have you the spiritual bandwidth to live with such a complicated reality for David? For yourself? For others?

Banishing Shame

In 2019 Danielle Collins stormed onto the women’s tennis scene at the Australian Open. Having never won a match in a major, she made it to the semi-finals where she lost to P. Kvitová in two sets. Commentators did not know what to make of her brash confidence. When asked about her strategy of play against her next opponent, she replied, “I will just keep on playing awesome tennis!”

Fellow tennis geeks spoke with me in conspiratorial tones... “I am not sure I like her. I think she might be a little ‘too much’.”

Reporters said that her fellow tennis stars were ambivalent about her brash personality. Did she fit in? Was she worthy? Maybe not they implied. She learned to play tennis on public courts not in pricey private clubs. She is a college graduate from the University of Virginia (a rarity among tennis professionals). She readily admits that her game was not good enough to enter the tour earlier and she credits her college coaches with improving her game. Her teammates say that the Danielle Collins of the Australian Open 2019 is the exact girl they have known all along. She’s a force to be reckoned with. She would have LOVED to be a phenom at 14 but she admitted she needed help to improve and took herself off to college to get what she needed.

This gal could walk around with massive doses of shame - how can we ever know about another person’s self assessment? But her actions and words indicate that she believes in herself and she shows no interest in asking any of us to do that work for her.

Shame “all shucks” us. It demands that we take no credit for our strengths and beats us up for our weaknesses. Danielle’s story at a minimum shows us that if we are honest about what we need and willing to ask for help in getting it, good things, unexpected things - can happen.

The Impact of Family Drama

Over the course of our lifetime all four siblings in my family have had an opportunity to explore the wreckage of our past. Each of us have reached various conclusions about our family system of origin - not all of them are in sync. Most of us experienced seismic changes in our understanding of our childhoods as a result of self-reflection. One of my brothers believed that our childhood was one adventure after another - he had to wrestle with his idealism. It was not all fun and games but he had forgotten chunks of life at our house.

I experienced my childhood as traumatic in ways that defined me and encoded all my memories as such. But when we found some old family movies that recorded happier times, I had to rethink my perspective. I remembered these times once they showed up on film. I realized that my memories were skewed; I needed to re-remember. It was NOT all trauma.

The only reason any of us entered therapy, treatment and/or recovery was because we were forced to admit that our adulting was not working. We were wrecking things all on our own without any help from others - thank you very much. It took intervention and outside resources for us to stop the insanity of living with great certainty and few insights about our lives. We had grown up but not through our past. The baggage of our youth was cluttering up the floor of our adulthood and we kept tripping over it. Something had to give! Recovery asks us to believe that God has the power to restore us to sanity - we can learn how to stop thinking, feeling and doing the same things over and over that keeping resulting in negative results.

My family and I did not end up with the same assessments of our collective growing up experiences. But each of us did what we have both the right and responsibility to do: We are living our lives in the way we believe best fits our core values. It is not easy; it is not without conflict. But it is what families do!

Meditation Moment- Salutation of the Dawn

Blessed with the experience of others who have walked this path of recovery we often find common ground in prayers, poems and meditations that have been helpful to others. Their experience can guide us. This poem is an adaptation of a poem “Salutation of the Dawn”, author unknown:

Look to this day! [Pause and observe the day you are in.]

For it is life, the very life of life. [Offer a prayer of thanksgiving for your precious life.]

In its brief course [Acknowledge that you have much to learn.]

Lie all the verities and realities of your existence: [Life offers many experiences; focus on one gratitude.]

The bliss of growth; [Thank God for your restoration.]

The glory of action; [Commit to do one next right step today.]

The splendor of achievement; [Ponder one right thing you did yesterday and give thanks.]

For yesterday is but a dream, [Commit to letting go.]

And tomorrow is only a vision; [Choose to not fret about future events.]

But today, well lived, makes every yesterday [Consider your day and choose to embrace it.]

a dream of happiness, [Happiness is possible. Look for it.]

And every tomorrow a vision of hope. [Find one thing to appreciate about your future.]

Finding a Way Through Suffering

My friend and I met for coffee to discuss an upsetting event. She made a mistake that could have resulted in tragedy but did not. However, the incident did point out a shortcoming or two of hers that resulted in experiencing some painful consequences.

She was distraught. She was ashamed of her mistake; she was angry that her efforts to correct her error did not result in the immediate suspension of her consequences; she was thrown into recovery chaos. As an experienced practitioner of the 12 Step way, she had some awesome tools and the wisdom to use them.

“I realized that I kept saying to myself - God is punishing me for being a stupid, stupid, little girl.” These are lies and she knew it, but her mind kept repeating the thought.

Upon reflection, with the support of her team, she investigated and could not find definitive support for these habitual thoughts. She made a mistake and it was hers to own. She is not stupid - in fact, she is quite brilliant and that is objectively provable. She is neither little or a girl. She is a grown up woman. She is not immune from natural consequences.

As she reviewed her thoughts and feelings, she found a way through her suffering. She believed that restoration was possible which got her curious. How might restoration work? Her experience helped her figure that out. She rejected her habitual way of lamenting and replaced that with different thoughts - I am a woman who made a mistake; I am capable of changing; I can take responsibility for my part in this and trust that God will restore me in the process. Energized with this more hopeful perspective, she got busy and did a host of things in a sincere effort to right her past wrongs.

They cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress. He brought them out of darkness and the deepest gloom and broke away their chains. Let them give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for me, for he breaks down gates of bronze and cuts through bars of iron.

~ Psalm 107:13-16 NIV

My friend rocks.

Meditation Moment- Set Aside Prayer

Within mutual aid societies there is a popular prayer called the “set aside” prayer. Start of your day with this:

“Dear God, please help me to set aside everything I think I know about my beliefs, God and myself, so I may have an open mind and a new experience. Please help me to see the truth about God’s power, my insanity and the promise for my restoration.”

Figuring Out How God Works

I was once in a car accident, hit by a young man who was driving on a suspended license for a plethora of citations as a result of his bad driving. What did he say as he exited his smashed vehicle? “Why does God keep doing this stuff to me?”

In contrast to George Costanza’s and this young man’s opinion of God, there are others who believe that God is only in the good things (as defined by us). Have you ever seen a player on the losing end of a Super Bowl matchup saying, “I just want to thank my Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ for this loss?” No. Because big game winners profess belief that God is in our big wins. No mention of him in the losses - unless you are George Costanza. Or that kid who totaled my car.

What we are asked to “come to believe” in the second step of the Twelve Steps - and one reason I love them - is that God is powerful. We are not asked to figure out how God works in every situation. Our distortions about how we believe God uses his power may complicate our acceptance of his power.

Can we start there? God is powerful.

Finding God in the Good and Bad Things

The classic television series Seinfield has a character named George Costanza who has a few things to say about believing in God and telling ourselves the truth. (You can find this segment on youtube by going to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LOCKuyFFWo4.)

Says George, “God would never let me be successful. He would kill me first. He will never let me be anything.”

Female listener incredulously responds, “I thought you didn’t believe in God!”

George, “I do for the bad things.” I think many of us DO believe in God only for the bad things. The second step invites us to reconsider our beliefs. Does a thorough study of the God of George’s understanding support his belief that God is only in the “bad things” (as defined by George)? Only George can say; but George owes it to himself to fact check himself.

What do you believe God for?

Meditation Moment- Ezekiel 11:19 NIV

I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh.

Ezekiel 11:19 NIV

Take a few minutes and imagine that God is patiently waiting to remove your heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh. The flesh feels more - more joy, more pain. But it also fits perfectly and connects your body, mind and spirit.

Fighting Gravity

My granddaughter does not believe in gravity. She sits in her high chair, leans over and stares at the ground. She drops her pacifier over the edge of her chair. Her weary parents eventually tire of the game of retrieval. Sadly, neither one of them possess the labrador gene that carries with it a love for fetching. On the umpteenth toss her parental units allow the pacifier to succumb to gravity. She looks startled; she frowns; she wails. She stares at both the object of her affection and her parents as if they have betrayed her. Why won’t her pacifier return to her? She WANTS it! Shouldn’t that be enough?

No. Because despite her passionate desire to be able to both drop her pacifier and have it return to her on a whim, her desires violate the law of gravity. She is a baby and she is learning how the world works. Aren’t we all?

Where do you think all these appalling wars and quarrels come from? Do you think they just happen? Think again. They come about because you want your own way, and fight for it deep inside yourselves. You lust for what you don’t have and are willing to kill to get it. You want what isn’t yours and will risk violence to get your hands on it.

You wouldn’t think of just asking God for it, would you? And why not? Because you know you’d be asking for what you have no right to. You’re spoiled children, each wanting your own way.

You’re cheating on God. If all you want is your own way, flirting with the world every chance you get, you end up enemies of God and his way. And do you suppose God doesn’t care? The proverb has it that “he’s a fiercely jealous lover.” And what he gives in love is far better than anything else you’ll find. It’s common knowledge that “God goes against the willful proud; God gives grace to the willing humble.”

So let God work his will in you. Yell a loud no to the Devil and watch him scamper. Say a quiet yes to God and he’ll be there in no time. Quit dabbling in sin. Purify your inner life. Quit playing the field. Hit bottom, and cry your eyes out. The fun and games are over. Get serious, really serious. Get down on your knees before the Master; it’s the only way you’ll get on your feet. James 4:1-10 The Message

In what ways have you been fighting gravity?