Can Good Come from the Opioid Crisis?

More than 150 Americans die each day from painkiller overdose. Thousands upon thousands more are at risk of death as they find that they must increase their daily dosage of painkillers to experience the same level of pain relief that they did just months before.

Some have found the euphoria that Vicodin, Oxycontin, and other painkillers provide offers a wonderful escape from the stress and anxiety of daily life without the hangover associated with binge drinking.

As a nation, we are becoming more aware of the devastation caused by the current opioid crisis. It has tragic effects in the lives of those who are addicted and in the lives of family, friends, and colleagues who are indirectly affected.

So it is with caution that I say that there may be a glimmer of hope that some good can come out of the opioid crisis. That maybe from its tragedy we as a nation will become more willing to see addiction to painkillers and addiction in general as a concern for all us.

Maybe by looking within at our own addictive tendencies that we will have the empathy necessary to desire the social and healthcare reforms that will encourage those who have been relegated to the darkness of addiction into the light of compassionate and effective treatment.

Back in early days of AA, alcoholics were considered to be morally defective and weak. “Why can’t he just stop?” was the question for those suffering from this apparent lack of willpower. Society looked away from them with disgust.

That still occurs today but to a lesser extent because we have learned that alcoholism is a disease and that willpower is not the problem. Like other diseases, it is an equal opportunity destroyer because it does not discriminate between the poor and the wealthy.

And now, the opioid crisis is forcing Americans to see that even the outwardly successful are being sucked into the vortex of addiction. It has made Americans realize that addiction can strike down one of our children as easily as the guy who lives next door in the beautiful house.

The changes I see as a result of the opioid crisis is the expansion of our collective consciousness that addiction is much more common than we once thought. That hardcore alcoholics and drug users are just on one extreme on a continuum. They represent a small percentage of the problem our nation faces with addiction—a problem that the opioid crisis has awakened us to.

Recent figures from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that nearly 42,000 Americans die each year due to opioid overdose. Excessive alcohol use claims 88,000 American lives and steals 2.5 million years of potential life lost each year. Add to that the 480,000 deaths each year from cigarettes. Those numbers speak to the tragic loss of American life due to substance addiction.

Yet, there are many more Americans whose addiction is not to substances but to behaviors. These behavioral addictions include addictions to food, gambling, and pornography. Add to those the more socially acceptable behavioral addictions like excessive working, excessive spending, excessive gaming, and excessive use of social media, and we can see even though behavioral addictions do not frequently result in death, they take a tragic toll on the quality of our lives every day.

In short, addiction is huge problem that the opioid crisis is bringing to our awareness.

For the past decade, I have devoted my life to reading the wisdom of experts in the fields of addiction, recovery, and psychology. I am convinced that at the root of all addiction is the avoidance of discomfort. Carl Jung, one of the early fathers of psychology, said that all mental illness is due to the avoidance of pain. And that avoidance makes us all a little crazy.

Our addictions—to substances or behaviors—are a way to avoid discomfort. And at the core of this discomfort is a gnawing absence at the center of our being. In his book In the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts, Dr. Gabor Mate’ talks about the “avoidance of the void” within us. That there is a hole that we are trying to fill with our drug or behavior of choice. As addicts we do what we can to avoid this black hole within.

In this light, addiction is our misguided attempt to avoid the void. And the reason that these behaviors and substances become addictive is that they seem to work—if only temporarily. “It’s hard to get enough of what almost works,” says addiction specialist Vincent Felitti, MD.

The tragedy of addiction is this: There is a void that all addicts are trying to fill with our addiction that cannot be filled by our addiction. I know this firsthand as a recovering alcoholic.

For me, that gaping hole at my core was a profound lack of connection to my true self. I have come to believe that we’re all spiritual beings having a human experience. At the core of who we are is not the brain but the soul or spirit.

As we are socially conditioned beginning at home and then in society, we become separated from who we are. This has its source in our early development as human beings. The need for food and water were contingent on us being alive, and we couldn’t survive as individuals without belonging to the tribe or otherwise we would become prey. For survival we continually compared ourselves to those in our tribe. Behaviors that prevented us from fitting in with the tribe either needed to be changed or we faced exclusion. In a real sense, either we conformed or died.

This need to conform ensures our survival, but the cost is a loss of connection to who we really are. This social conditioning allows us to unite with other human beings, but it creates separation from who we are at our cores. In this separation from our true selves, we also become separate from our relationship to the source of our being, whether we call that God, Spirit, Eternity, or Universe.

This is the void.

And it is my hope that we as a nation become compassionately aware of the connection between addiction and avoidance of the void. I hope that through the pain, suffering, and loss inflicted by the opioid crisis, that we reach out to those in our lives and encourage them with kindness to seek treatment. And that we ask those in positions of influence at our jobs and in our schools to offer programs to help those who are suffering from addiction.

There are solutions to this epidemic of addiction. Many have found it in the spirituality of a 12-Step program while others through programs like Rational Recovery.

However, if we condemn and relegate to the shadows those who most need our help, then this crisis of addiction will continue.

May we as a society offer to those who are suffering our love and acceptance not because they have changed but so that they can change.

RJ Handley, Addiction Recovery Coach.
Contact me for help at RjLifeCoaching@gmail.com.

Habit Versus Disease

There are many forms of addiction. Though drugs and alcohol are the Big Two, there are people who suffer as well from addictions that society considers more acceptable. They’re called shopaholics, workaholics, rageaholics. Others would say that the ultimate addiction is to our own negative thinking.

Whatever the addiction, we all know that they can wreak havoc in our own lives and those of our family and friends. The concepts behind Rational Recovery, a relative newcomer to the addiction scene, combined with those of Alcoholics Anonymous can be a powerful one-two punch for overcoming addiction.

As a recovering addict myself, I have been puzzled why it is that I became addicted while those around me appear free from them. In AA, I learned that my addiction is a disease. Rational Recovery, on the other hand, says that my addiction is a function of my brain’s wiring. It is, therefore, a habit, not a disease.

Although I often feel compelled to take a side in this debate, I believe that it is vitally important for me to remain open and willing to listen to both sides. This is because I have a passion and commitment to helping others overcome their addictions as I have been helped to overcome my own. I will use whatever ethical means to bring relief to the still suffering. If this means that I embrace an approach different from the one that saved me from my addiction, then I will suggest it to my clients or sponsees who I am committed to helping.

As I have learned from my Buddhist brothers and sisters, often the best solution to a problem is not choosing one side over another but choosing the door between them—the middle way.

I am convinced that if I hadn’t walked through the doors of AA a decade ago, I would be dead today. But, at the time, that was the only solution I knew. And I know through my work with addicts, that AA has saved their lives, too. Yet, there is merit in considering what Rational Recovery has to offer. After all, there may be great power and value in learning from both so that I will be better able to extend a hand and help lift addicts from the trenches of their addiction.

Just recently I read The Little Book of Big Change, by Dr. Amy Johnson. In it, Johnson explains the concepts behind Rational Recovery and provides her wisdom on the topic of habits in a very easy and entertaining way. Rather than trying to condense its 200 pages into this blog, I will present the concepts that I believe are the most helpful to addicts.

• Addictions are habits.

• You weren’t born with your habit. Your habit isn’t natural to you; it is artificial, innocently created by you as a function of the way you relate to and act on your thoughts.

• We engage in what becomes habit to help us avoid pain and make us feel better. Habits provide distractions from addressing issues within ourselves that we don’t like.

• Urges (cravings) are thoughts. Habits/addictions are created because you act on your urges.

• The difference between a person for whom a particular thought or behavior is a habit and the person for whom it is not is that the person with the habit entertains, takes seriously, and ultimately acts on some thoughts that others do not.

• Each time we obey an urge, we strengthen the brain (neural) circuitry that supports the habit.

• Neurologically, your urges live in your lower brain—the amygdala—also called the lizard brain because it is the oldest part of the brain.

• The first few times you experienced an urge and obeyed it, you strengthened the connections in your brain between your habit and positive feelings. Your lower brain saw that when it produced an urge, you acted on it and felt good, which told your brain, “This works”…So the urges continue. Each time you gave in to them, they became stronger.

• The amygdala’s chief concern is our survival. That’s why urges seem to have the power of life or death over us.

• When you mistakenly view urges as dangerous, personal, unbearable, or somehow permanent, you naturally give in to them.

• Urges are actually only a temporary experience made of nothing but conditioned thought.

• All thoughts are temporary—even urges—and they settle just like the snow settles in a snow globe if we don’t continue to shake it up.

• When we take urges seriously and very personally, we try to reason with them, debate them, and problem-solve them. We are shaking the snow globe. Our mental and emotional entanglement with these thoughts only encourages them.

• When we don’t indulge the urge, the neural connections to those urges weaken and fade on their own from disuse. This defies our programming from childhood because we have learned that problems require action—not inaction. So inaction seems very counter-intuitive, but it is what’s needed.

• The higher brain, located in the pre-frontal cortex, is the part of the brain that decides whether we are going to act on our lizard brain’s urges or not.

• We don’t make the lizard brain the villain. It is like a machine that is programmed to do its job. In that way, it is like an alarm clock. The amygdala sounds the alarm because we continually reset it by indulging its urgings.

• We don’t have to say yes to urges from the lizard brain. Our higher brains provide the free will to exercise free won’t.

• Knowing that there is no thought or urge in the world that can make you do anything is a game changer.

• When your new normal is urge-free, your habit will have no reason to exist.

After reading about Rational Recovery, I have come to believe in its truth. And I find that its concepts are actually invaluable to the treatment of addiction because Rational Recovery explains the neurological roots of addiction whereas 12 Step programs emphasize its behavioral roots.

For those of us who are addicts, we know how difficult it is to overcome addiction. For me, I needed the strength and wisdom of my Higher Power to free myself. I also needed the support of my AA brothers and sisters to remain committed to that freedom that sobriety brings. So the spiritual solution and support that AA offers combined with the deeper understanding of addiction that Rational Recovery offers are powerful tools for recovery.

If you would like to work with me one-on-one on an addiction issue, we can meet in person or on Zoom. Reach out and contact me at RjLifeCoaching@gmail.com. Walk with me and I will provide you safe passage to a place of wonder and awe beyond your addiction.

Kind Regards,

RJ Handley, Addiction Recovery Coach

My Own Solitary Confinement

I have come to realize why solitary confinement is one of the worst punishments that the criminal justice system can inflict on its prisoners.

It’s because I had lived it firsthand.

Embracing the truth of who we are is not for the meek. Oftentimes, it takes a personal crisis for us to do so. But can we really know what we want in life if we don’t know who we are? Can we really know what is meaningful to us when we are living in self-delusion? Can we ever feel the power of connection with others when we are disconnected from ourselves?

Eleven years ago, I lived in the dark and lonely abyss of my alcoholism. During those days, I suffered in my own self-imposed solitary confinement when I had decided to isolate myself. I existed in the hell of my own making, disconnected from myself, from others, and from life.

The truth is that I lived my 20s, 30s, and part of my 40s sleepwalking through life. I lived in a dream state. Because I blamed other people for all my problems, I never looked within myself for the source of my problems. I lived as a fugitive from myself by always running away from myself. Alcohol was my way of hiding.

As a stranger to myself, I had no idea who I was. I lived my life in disguise. And though I was a master at dressing myself up in my successes and accomplishments, I was just an actor playing my own part.

Things changed when the pain of my alcoholism became greater than the fear I had of looking within myself. I crawled through the doors of AA. There I found a sponsor, and I began working the steps.

It was the 4th Step that finally forced me to see who I was for the first time. It was the power of that searching and fearless inventory that allowed me to see the scared and frightened child under all the rumble of my life.

Since then, I have devoted my life to studying the masters of recovery, psychology, and spirituality. And that led me to undergo a rigorous certification program to become a spiritual life coach. Now, in my practice, I enjoy the camaraderie of working with addicts who I believe are the poets and sages of this world.

A few years ago, I read Be Here Now by spiritual author Ram Dass. He saw in his own life how he had been living life in disguise. And as a challenge to himself and others, he posed these two questions, “Are we always going to meet on this stage? Don’t we ever take off these costumes?”

When asked why he cherished working with people who were on their deathbeds, Ram Dass said that the power of death forced people to finally shed their costumes and to step off the stage into their true selves. That experience of being present to another’s truth and authenticity was what brought him back to the bedside of the dying time and again.

Today, I am so grateful that I didn’t die like so many have to my disease. I am so grateful to have stepped out of my costume and into myself. By the grace of my Higher Power, I woke up from my sleepwalking, from the self-delusion, from my own unconsciousness, from my own unawareness.

I must remain vigilant, though, about maintaining the rich connections I so often feel with friends, family, and life or otherwise I can easily slip back into my old patterns of isolation.

To those who have never suffered the devastation of addiction, it may seem ridiculous that we, who have found new life, would be grateful to our addiction for waking us up to the splendor of life—to the splendor of our true self.

Yet many of us don’t want to remove the costume because we have invested a lifetime in creating it. Others may believe that living the illusion is more exciting than living the reality of who we are.

These to me are the “still suffering” that the Big Book talks about. These are the people who are addicted to their roles and to their stories. These are the people addicted to the dream state.

It would also have seemed ridiculous in my early recovery to say these words: That as a recovering alcoholic, I have tremendous power to help others find their way out of the dream and off the stage. We all have this power. We have the power to save lives.

And it’s by sharing our experience, strength, and hope with others.

Kind Regards,
RJ Handley, Addiction Recovery Coach
If you’d like to work one-on-one with me, reach out and contact me at http://www.rjhandley.com. If you’d like to learn more about me, Google my name.

The Best Stress Busters from the Mayo Clinic

We all have stress in our lives. It’s a part of being human. And we all have ways of dealing with it. Oftentimes, it’s with alcohol or opioid use. But all stress is caused by five factors.

I remember the scenes from old TV shows and movies where the husband comes home from work and makes a beeline for the booze in one of those elegant crystal glass decanters.

Such images would cast my mind back to the early days of my alcoholic drinking when that first drink actually worked to melt away the stress of the day.

Those movie scenes became my routine as I would rush home from work and head directly for the bottle of Smirnoff vodka that I kept chilled in the freezer.

As I look back to those days when alcohol worked its magic, I can now see how looking within myself for the source of my stress would have violated my personal creed: Only the unexamined life is worth living. All I knew was alcohol rounded the edges of my stress and allowed me to stuff it away.

What I failed to understand was this avoidance pattern only intensified my stress and anxiety. What I resisted persisted. So the cycle would begin again after the next day of work. On and on. Finally, I couldn’t drink enough to silence the strident voices of my stress.

One of the books that has been a tremendous help to me is The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-free Living, by Dr. Amit Sood. It’s turned up the stage lighting on what creates stress in my life and how to cope with it. When we are able to name the source of our stress, we can tame it. This knowledge may save you from a relapse as well.

According to Sood, stress has two internal and three external components. The internal ones are fighting life and fighting change.

Although I recited the Serenity Prayer out loud in hundreds of AA meetings, it wasn’t until a few years ago that I recognized its stress-reducing power. To “accept the things I cannot change” is an approach to life that has great efficacy in disarming one of the internal stressors: fighting life.

When I can accept life as it is rather than how I think it should be, I immediately reduce my stress level. I no longer judge my daily experiences as good or bad. They are all lessons that my Higher Power engages me in for my ultimate good.

The second internal stresser is fighting change.

There is a powerful Frederica Matthews-Green quote that says, “Everyone wants to be transformed but nobody wants to change.” That was me until a few years ago. Although I had made a drastic change in my life by giving up alcohol, I was unaware of the beliefs I held onto that caused me stress and suffering.

During my morning prayer and meditation, I now often ask my Higher Power for “the courage to change the things I can.” I’ve also discovered that relationships provide a mirror for me to see what I need to change.

The three external stressers are the unpredictability of others, a lack of control, and a lack of power.

In my drinking days (and still to a lesser extent), I created movies in my head in which I would play out different scenarios for situations involving unpredictable people. Rarely did these movies sync with the actual situation. Instead, they created expectations and then stress when things didn’t work out as I envisioned. I now “accept the things I cannot change,” knowing that people will be endlessly unpredictable. And isn’t that what makes them fascinating?

The second external stressor is lack of control. That was a huge one for me. I would stress myself out by constantly trying to control the outside world so that I could be more comfortable in it. The desire is understandable. Humans have an aversion to pain. Yet, control is an illusion. In honesty, I can’t even control my own thoughts let alone another person. Giving up my attempts to control others has significantly reduced my stress levels.

Power is the last of the external stressors and is the most elusive of the five. I don’t know of anyone who has tasted power who doesn’t crave more of it. As much as we chase it, we can’t ever seem to hold on to it for long. When we try to seize it, we become like terrorists to others. People then don’t follow us out of love but out of fear. Honor the moments of your life that you have power. It is a gift from your Higher Power to be used lovingly.

What is common to relieving each of the five stressors is acceptance. It is a potent antidote to stress. And it’s central to the Serenity Prayer. When practicing acceptance, I savor each of its three flavors: acceptance of others, self-acceptance, and acceptance of the situation. Life is the highest spiritual path, and I can avoid so many of the stressors by “accepting the things I cannot change.”

If you are interested in working one-on-one with me, reach out and contact me at RjLifeCoaching@gmail.com. We can meet in person or on Zoom.

In Kindness,
RJ Handley, Addiction and Recovery Coach

A fugitive from myself

During a recent conversation with my sister, she asked me why I devote so much time to studying psychology.  “Don’t you get tired of staring at your own asshole?’ At first I bristled at the blunt crudeness of my sister.  Then I laughed and told her this:

For so much of my life I have run away from my own issues.  It started in high school when I used alcohol to separate myself from myself.  In that space, I was able to distance myself from that hurt, lonely boy that I disliked to become the carefree, outgoing person I wanted to be.  Drinking was like climbing into a superhero outfit.   The introverted, troubled Peter Parker became the valiant Spider-man.  If only temporarily.

For the next 30 years, I would use alcohol to live in a fantasy world where my problems couldn’t touch me.  The more my buried pain cried out to be heard, the more I ran away from it.  I became a fugitive from my pain.

Finally, with my business in the dumps, with my wife threatening to leave me, and with bankruptcy looming, I stopped running and I walked through the doors of AA. There I learned that I was only as sick as my secrets.  And I had many.

The Fourth Step was a miracle for me.  It forced me to face a life I had put together with bullshit and scotch tape.  Rather than running away, I ran towards my problems. I felt the power that honesty and fearlessness had in freeing me from my pain and from my lies.  Now, years later, I live a truth:  The degree of my liberation is dependent on the depth of my investigation.

I ended my reply to my sister’s question by saying, “So, no. When I am aware of what is coming out of me, I am aware of what’s inside of me.”

My Higher Power has given me the fearlessness to continue looking within.   As Carl Jung says, “Who looks outside, dreams.  Who looks inside, awakens.”  When we run away from our selves and try to avoid pain through our addictions, we are asleep to who we are.  When we embrace the Divine and open our selves to the practical tools psychology has to offer, we can finally awaken from the false realities we have been living.

And to be wide awake in reality is to be wide awake in splendor.

Kind Regards,

RJ Handley, Addiction Recovery Coach

12 ways you sabotage your recovery

I wanted to share with you a small book that has big things to say about recovery. It’s Dr. Allen Berger’s 12 Stupid Things that Mess Up Recovery.

Berger is a psychotherapist and a recovering addict. 12 Stupid Things is a profound but very accessible book that informs us of behaviors that sabotage our sustained recovery. I have also found it to be invaluable to increasing my effectiveness as a sponsor.

What I found so helpful about the book is that Berger speaks to issues that we may not be aware of but that can certainly contribute to relapse—even for those of us who have years or even decades of recovery.

These are things that can blindside us, not because we’re engaging in behaviors that we are knowingly aware are dangerous, but behaviors that we are unaware of that are dangerous.

The book also contains amusing and poignant anecdotes from Berger’s own experience with addiction and years of counseling alcoholics and drug addicts.

Here is a breakdown of the 12 behaviors that can sabotage our recovery:

1. Believing addiction to one substance is the only problem
Berger says, “Most chemical dependency counselors warn their clients that using other drugs lowers their resistance to using their drug of choice.” Addiction changes the brain so that the person who decides to take that first drink or do that line of coke is chemically different than the person who takes the second drink or does the second line of coke.

2. Believing sobriety will fix everything
“If drinking were our only problem, then once we stopped drinking, all our problems would be solved,” Berger says. The beauty of the 12 Steps is that we come to realize that we have a living problem and a drinking solution. We drank or used to numb ourselves out to those problems. Then our drug of choice became a problem on top of the existing problems that we tried to look away from.

3. Pursuing recovery with less energy than pursuing addiction
Berger says, “Recovery is without a doubt the road less traveled. It is a difficult road to follow—impossible if we are not 110 committed to the process.” He goes on to say, “As if that isn’t challenging enough, we are also faced with the reality that we need to make this commitment without a guarantee of the outcome.”

4. Being selectively honest
“We need to lance the boil and let all the puss drain. We need to discuss all of the things that we don’t want to talk about, especially our secrets—the things what we believe we would never share with anyone,” Berger says. One of the most powerful things that my sponsor said to me is that we are only as sick as our secrets. These are the shadow elements that we have hidden—even from ourselves—that still exert a strong force on our behaviors, just as we don’t see gravity but it affects all that we do.

5. Feeling special and unique
“This kind of thinking is based on the mistaken belief…that we don’t have to do what everyone else has done to develop a solid, robust recovery,” according to Berger. He draws the analogy to surgery. When we undergo a procedure, we can only hope that we respond like the average 80 percent who recover without complications. But in the twisted logic of the addict, we don’t want to see ourselves as average in our recovery. We see ourselves as special, and that has caused the relapse of the newcomer and the seasoned veteran.

6. Not making amends
When we justify our past behaviors because of the behavior of the people in our life, we fail to take responsibility for our life, our feelings, and our actions. By deflecting personal responsibility, we imperil our lasting recovery. Berger says: “To develop a strong spiritual foundation for recovery, it is essential that we accept full responsibility for our harmful and hurtful behavior and that we attempt to repair the damage that we have caused in our relationships with family, friends, and loved ones.”

7. Using the program to try to become perfect
Berger these perfectionistic traits in himself and in the addicts he has treated. It is a misguided attempt at gaining other people’s love by doing everything “perfectly”. He says, “Most of our life has been spent trying to be perfect. This has been a spurious goal. Instead we need to learn how to be more human.” He adds that he spent years using because he believed that being human was not good enough but that being imperfect was unacceptable. “This was the ultimate in self-alienation. It’s no wonder life sucked and I needed to get high.”

8. Confusing self-concern with selfishness
“Self-concern is different from selfishness. It does not exclude others; it is inclusive. Part of our self is concerned with cooperating with and pleasing others. These desires are natural and healthy, when they are balanced with our desire to be ourselves.” We need to practice standing in the center of the boat between pleasing others and being true to who we are.

9. Playing futile self-improvement games
At the heart of these games are using our new-found spirituality to avoid the character defects that continued self-discovery beyond our first 4th Step reveals. Instead, we pretend that our spirituality has allowed us to transcend our defects rather than confronting them in ourselves when they are surfaced. This is called spiritual bypassing.

10. Not getting help for relationship troubles
Relationships are the greatest challenge that any human being faces but is especially true for alcoholics and addicts. This is because we denied ourselves the very means by which all human beings mature emotionally by continually engaging our addiction. And that’s pain. Because we have avoided pain, we are all emotionally immature when we enter recovery. “Dysfunctional relationships are one of the top three causes of relapse,” according to Berger.

11. Believing that life should be easy
“Life is difficult. The sooner we are initiated into this reality, the sooner we learn how to deal with life on its terms rather than waste our time looking for the easy way.” We are continually bombarded by social media that tells us life is all lollypops and rainbows and that if it isn’t we are doing something wrong.

12. Using the program to handle everything
“No one can handle every personal issue with their program. Needing help is not an indication that something is wrong with our program,” Berger says. “The truth is quite the contrary: recognizing our need for additional help is an indication that we are working a good program.” Being defiantly self-reliant is certain to jeopardize our recovery.

What I’ve provided is a just quick introduction to Dr. Berger’s 12 Stupid Things that Mess Up Recovery. I encourage you to spend the 12 bucks to experience Berger’s wisdom for yourself. At just over a 100 pages, this book is a profound read. I’m confident that you will find Berger’s insights helpful and stabilizing to your recovery.

Contact me if you would like to work one-on-one on issues of addiction or issues in your recovery that are robbing you of your happiness such as depression, anxiety, relationships, confidence, and negative thoughts.

I’m at rjhandley.com. Google my name if you’d like to find out more about me.

Kind Regards,
RJ Handley
Spiritual Life Coach

The Secret Power of Shame

Though Bill W. was unaware of the power of shame, he was nevertheless a victim of it. No where in the first 164 pages of the Big Book is shame mentioned, but it is a pernicious presence that research has concluded is the source of our addictions and the frequent cause of relapses.

Shame is hate turned inward.  It’s the factory of our character defects.  It drives our suffering.  Yet, very few of us know this.  It’s a secret even to ourselves.  By becoming aware of our shame, we can greatly reduce the suffering it inflicts on us.

Only recently have I discovered how shame has infected my life like a virus.  It’s the furtive voice that is forever whispering its message that I am a bad person.

I grew up in a home with a rageaholic father and an enabling mother.  They rarely drank.  My dad was an emotional drunk.  What would trigger my dad into explosive rage was forever unpredictable.  Every day, the hum of the bomber circled overhead, and the threat of bombardment hung in the air like toxic gas.

As a child, I breathed in his hate.  And, like any child, I didn’t yet have the boundaries in place to deflect it.  His hate became my own self-hate, and it lodged deep within my soul as shame.  Rarely could I figure out the reason for his rage, so what my mind couldn’t grasp, my soul embraced: I deserved it.

Unfortunately, our endless capacity to adapt often has tragic consequences.  Few of us escape unscarred from the battlefield of a dysfunctional home.  My youngest sister died as a casualty of heavy smoking and drinking.  Fragments of rage and anxiety have embedded themselves into the lives of my other two sisters. And I, 10 years in recovery, find myself surveying the devastation, hobbled by shame.

Sources of Shame

Shame is universal.  Its seeds are sown in childhood.  Whenever we are powerless to deflect another’s hate—whether in the form of verbal, physical, or sexual abuse—it becomes internalized deep within as shame. “We believe we ‘should have’ been able to defend ourselves.  And because we weren’t able to do so, we feel helpless and powerless,” according to Beverly Engle, in her article “How Compassion Can Heal Shame from Childhood,” published in Psychology Today.

“This powerlessness causes us to feel humiliated—which leads to shame,” Engle says.

Shame can result from any situation that causes us to feel shunned by others. It can also be the by-product of regret, especially after hurting a loved one.  If we fail to make amends to that person, regret often converts to shame.

The Secrecy of Shame

It’s mystifying to me that after years of working the program of AA, sponsoring, and pouring myself into recovery literature, that I have remained unaware of shame’s covert operations.  But I don’t think I’m alone.  Being unaware of shame is very understandable.

For many of us, our textbook for recovery has been the Big Book (BB). However, shame is not mentioned anywhere in its first 164 pages (containing the entire AA program as Bill W. first conceived it).  For the ranks of us who are traumatized by shame, this is a critical omission.

I believe the BB is a masterpiece. Yet, as acutely attuned as Bill W. was to our malady, he was not yet aware when penning the BB that shame is the father of our character defects—resentment, selfishness, and unworthiness being its children.

We Climb to Recovery on the Rungs of Words

Words have the power of revelation.  Think of the word “resentment” as Bill W. used it, and see how much light his discussion of that word brought to the understanding of our addiction. The same can be true for the word “shame.”  Once we shine the light of awareness on it, we can identify it as the source of our character defects.  We see it for what it is, and there is great power in naming. Mark Brackett of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, says labeling our emotions is key to their treatment. “If you can name it, you can tame it.”

As addicts we know there is something at the root of our addictions.  In the hundreds of AA meetings I have attended over the years, the word “unworthiness” is frequently heard. What we call unworthiness, though, is really an expression of shame’s much deeper and darker domain. Other character defects—defensiveness, criticalness, anger, resentment, and emotional withdrawal—also bubble up from the depths of shame.

Amazingly, in the same day, shame has us toggling between feelings of inferiority and its paradoxical mask of superiority.  It creates a pervasive feeling of inadequacy that resides in the background of all we do.  It fuels our drinking.

Invariably, we cross the invisible threshold between heavy drinking and alcoholism.  Drinking then becomes a desperate coping strategy, cycling back on itself.  We drink to numb us to the pain of shame and then we feel shame because we find ourselves drunk again. On and on, over and over, day after day.

Shame Versus Guilt

Shame is often confused with guilt. Brene Brown, a professor of research at the University of Houston, makes a critical distinction: “Guilt is I did something bad.  Shame is I am something bad.”  Guilt focuses on the behavior; shame focuses on the person.  Brown’s research finds a high correlation between shame and addiction but virtually none between guilt and addiction.

Providing the first link between shame and relapse is a 2013 study published in Clinical Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.  The study, conducted by Jessica Tracy and Daniel Randles of the University of British Columbia, involved 100 middle-aged men and women from the rooms of AA with less than six months sobriety.  Tracy and Randles found that “people who feel shame may blame themselves for negative events and view their ‘bad’ behavior as an unchangeable part of who they are. Thus, shame may actually be a risk factor for certain behaviors rather than a deterrent. But this doesn’t seem to be the case for guilt.”

The study also found that “one reason that certain sobriety programs may be effective is because they encourage people to see their behaviors as something they should feel guilty, but not necessarily shameful, about.”

The amount of shame participants displayed strongly predicted not only whether they relapsed but also how many drinks they had if they did relapse.

Good News

We don’t have to remain shame sufferers.  Recent scientific breakthroughs reveal that the brain has a nearly endless capacity to rewire itself.  “Due to what we now know about the neural plasticity of the brain—the capacity of our brains to grow new neurons and new synaptic connections—we can proactively repair (and re-pair) the old shame memory with new experiences of self-empathy and self-compassion,” Engle says.

When treating shame, we must remember to be good to ourselves.  After all, shame entered us through others’ hatred.  Self-empathy and self-compassion are crucial in combatting shame.  In a 2012 TED Talk, Brene Brown said, “If you put shame in a petri dish, it needs three ingredients to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in the petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive.”

By employing the fearlessness and thoroughness that we used in our 4th Step, we can surface the pain of being hated that created our shame.  Once we become aware of the source of our shame, we can grieve the pain and suffering it has produced.  We can cry our response to the hatred, and we can cry about how unfair it is.  Finally, we come to a place of peace and give shame back to its rightful owner.

I leave you with this self-compassion exercise, courtesy of Beverly Engle, in hopes that it helps you as it helped me.

  1. Think of one of your most shaming experiences from childhood. Now think of what you wish someone had said to you right after that experience.  What would have been the most helpful and healing for you to hear at the time?  Write this statement down.
  2. Image that someone you care very much about, someone you admire, is saying those words to you now. Hear those words in your ears.  Take those words into your heart.  Notice how those words make you feel.
  3. Now say those words out loud to yourself. Take a deep breath and really take in those words.  How does hearing yourself say those words out loud make you feel?

You might receive a real sense of healing and peace from the words that you hear while doing this exercise.  Exploring shame can be a journey that requires courage and self-honesty, but the reward is recovery that goes beyond the mere absence of addiction—recovery that is a deep healing of your past and a life of real happiness and peace.

If you would like to work one-on-one with me regarding shame issues or issues related to addiction, relationships, negative habits, anxiety, or depression, please visit me at rjhandley.com.

The Secret Power of Shame was originally published in The Fix. 

A Warrior’s Tale

I engaged.  I battled. And I triumphed.  So it was with my own hero’s journey this past weekend. My family and friends say that my eyes are now warmer and that I carry myself with greater confidence.

These are the outer signs of a dramatic inner shift. They are just a few of the gifts from my 48 hours as a participant in the ManKind Project’s New Warrior Training Adventure.

The ManKind Project (MKP) is a men’s global nonprofit that hosts personal development events, challenging and transformational trainings, and sponsors local men’s groups.  It is not a religious organization or a cult but an international collection of men committed to becoming more self-aware, and in the process becoming more emotionally mature and more skilled in relationships at home, at work, and at play.

I don’t want to give away details about what happens on a NWTA weekend because entering the experience without preconceptions or mental rehearsal is part of the program.  Let me just say that the weekend brought many physical and emotional challenges to overcome. There were points during the weekend when I wanted to cut and run.  But I stayed…I stayed with the other 23 men who, like me, burned for something to bring freshness and vitality to our safe and stale lives.  We stayed because we knew that what we hungered for was more important than fear.

And we were right. The intensity of that weekend shook us awake from the sleep of society’s conditioning.  In the fires of MKP’s training, we emerged re-forged as men.  This is the efficacy of the ancient initiation ceremonies that for millennia have powered the rite of passage for boys to become men.  Tragically, they are absent in our culture except in the often sadistic initiation practices of gangs and fraternities.

But they find renewed expression in MKP.  More specifically, the weekend brought to life for each of us the hero’s journey that American Mythologist Joseph Campbell popularized.  Campbell was credited by George Lucas as the inspiration behind Star Wars.

Simply put, the hero’s journey is about departure, initiation, and return. In honoring this journey, the MKP staff empowered us to depart the work-a-day world, to awaken the warrior within, to enter the arena of our fears, and to battle our self-defeating beliefs.   As I returned from the journey, I felt transformed as I proudly proclaimed to my fellow warriors, “I stand victorious in the truth of who I am.”

Campbell said, “The cave that you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.”  For me, that treasure was coming to terms with the shame that my rageholic father burned into me as a child.  I have always felt less-than others because that shame taught me I was a bad person…that I deserved his verbal abuse.

I was not alone in living with dysfunction.  Each of us brought to the weekend wounds that have kept us sidelined to our own lives.  It was absolutely awe-inspiring to be present to the sights and sounds of these 9-5 men breaking through their barriers to cross the threshold from ordinary to extraordinary.

I have walked away from that weekend ready to engage in life with a new sense of purpose, appreciating myself for who I am, trusting myself, and believing that I can make a difference in this newly expanded arena that I now celebrate as my life.

In parting, I highly recommend the amazing YouTube video called Finding Joe that pays homage to Campbell’s hero’s journey.  If it resonates with you, then what is keeping you, my friends, from reaching out to MKP and reclaiming your inner warrior?

Finding meaning and purpose for yourself and others

We have experienced times in our lives when we have lost our sense of meaning and purpose.  For some of you, you may be experiencing that right now in your life.

Sometimes it comes from a series of setbacks or disappointments or rejections or a general sense that your life has become bland and boring.

I was there last week.  I felt like I was Tom Hanks in Cast Away, drifting about on my raft, lost in the sea of my life.  And making it worse was a sense of powerlessness to do anything about it.

Fortunately, these episodes occur with less frequency in my life, partly because of a simple activity that I have been using that gets me back in touch with what is meaningful to me.  It helps me to stop drifting aimlessly.  Instead of being tossed about by my feelings of purposelessness, it allows me to find direction and meaning.

The activity comes courtesy of Russ Harris, a practitioner of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.   It takes just a few minutes to do.

Are you ready to begin?   Let’s go!

Start by answering this question: If someone were to interview your children or sisters or brothers on national TV years from now and ask them what were your greatest qualities, what are three things you would love them to say?

Jot down these three qualities.  These are things that are deeply important to you.  I suggest writing them down on a notecard  so you can display them somewhere prominent—like above your desk in your office.  These all-important qualities will serve as visual reminders to get you back on course when you find yourself drifting.

In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), these qualities are called values.   They are like the North Star that keeps our life heading in the direction of what is meaningful to us.  Instead of being steered by our feelings that come and go and change constantly, we are navigating through our lives steered by the constance of what is most important to us.

And these values will be different depending on the part of our life where we feel we are off course.  These parts of our life are called domains.  The question I asked about what you would want a loved one to say about you relates to the domain of family.  Other domains are work, friendship, and play.

To find your North Star for any of these domains, just make a simple adjustment to the question above.  So for the domain of work, think of someone at your place of employment that you admire.  Then adjust the question: If someone were to interview this person at work, what would you love him or her to say are your three greatest qualities as an employee or boss?

Again, jot your answers down so you can display them as a reminder of what is important for you in your work domain.  Do the same for the domains of friendships and play.

Now comes the hard part.  It takes courage and honesty.  Reflect on your answers for a particular domain and ask yourself this question:  When was the last time you felt you were truly living each of these three great qualities/values?

If the answer is “It seems like ages,” that may explain why you are feeling like you are drifting in your life right now like Tom Hanks’ character in Cast Away.

But there is great hope.  It’s never too late to find your North Star, to discover the values that will provide you with purpose.  The power of such discovery will be transformational.   And it will lead to a richer, fuller, more meaningful life for you.  When others in your life are drifting, ask them these same questions to help them find the purpose and meaning you found through them.

I wish you all well on your journey to greatness.

If you would like to work one-on-one on with me concerning an issue that is robbing you of your happiness such as depression, anxiety, relationships, negative thoughts, or esteem, contact me.  I’m at rjhandley.com.  Google my name if you’d like to find out more about me.

RJ Handley, Spiritual Life Coach

How to Tell Safe from Unsafe People

Relationships are one of life’s greatest challenges.   We all struggle with them.  Even  healthy relationships can be difficult at times.

This is especially true for people who are in recovery from abuse, addiction, depression, or trauma as they begin again to reach out for companionship.  Yet healthy or safe relationships are an essential element in reconnecting and participating in life.  They can provide the healing and growth necessary for a purposeful and meaningful life.

 

Regardless of where we are in our own relationship readiness and health, we need to remain alert and cautious about the people we are letting into our lives, especially if we are just getting back on our feet.

 

In their book, Safe People, authors Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend have come up with 10 ways for you to determine if the people in your life are safe or unsafe for you.

 

  1. Unsafe people think they “have it all together” instead of admitting their weaknesses.

For a period of time, you may admire the person who seems to have it all together.  But as the relationship continues, you may come to feel weaker or inferior to this person.  You may even become dependent on this person.   As you begin to see this person’s “togetherness” as a facade, you may become angry or even hostile towards this person or grow tired of being the open and vulnerable one in the relationship. Unless this person can get real, it may be best to pull away.

 

  1. Unsafe people are religious instead of spiritual.

These are the people who use religion as a means of feeling superior to others.  They seem to have all the answers. These people may also be critical of you for the mistakes and errors of judgment that are a part of being human.  Spiritual people, on the other hand, are authentic and genuine about their own shortcomings and problems.

 

  1. Unsafe people are defensive instead of open to feedback

“All close relationships hurt, because no perfect people live on the earth,” say Cloud and Townsend. But the safe people are the ones who have a genuine desire to improve themselves.  They are open to feedback and “own” their own bad behavior. Unsafe people deny, minimize, or blame others when their own issues arise.

 

  1. Unsafe people are self-righteous instead of humble

Unsafe people will never identify with others as fellow human beings because they see themselves as above others.  Generally, they judge and condemn those they deem less worthy.  Safe people are humbly aware of their own issues and are forgiving of other people’s.

 

  1. Unsafe people only apologize instead of changing their behavior

You know these people well.  Often, they apologize for a behavior but that behavior continues to surface time and again.  They may be quick to apologize for a mistake but over time you become aware that they do so only to get back into your good graces rather than committing themselves to the change that would make the problem go away all together.  Apologies are often stated as “I’m sorry but…” rather than “I’m sorry and…”

 

  1. Unsafe people avoid their problems instead of facing them

Problems and the pain they cause us are sure signs that there is something within us that needs to change.  When we face our issues rather than avoid them, we can make those changes that make us more emotionally mature and skillful.  Unsafe people look away from their pain and problems.  As a result, they are frequently emotionally immature. And because they lack awareness of their issues, they “act out of their unconscious hurts and hurt others,” according to Cloud and Townsend.

 

  1. Unsafe people demand trust instead of earning it

Anger is often the response of unsafe people when their trustworthiness is called into question.  Regardless how that anger is expressed, the unsafe person is essentially saying, “How dare you question my integrity!”  Safe people recognize that “none of us is above questioning, and to take offense at it is prideful,” say Cloud and Townsend. Unsafe people are generally insecure and so when a behavior or action is questioned, they become defensive or confrontational.

 

  1. Unsafe people believe they are perfect instead of admitting their faults

According to Cloud and Townsend, “Unsafe people are on a mission to prove that they are perfect.  Using their work, family, abilities, or religion, they try to project an image of perfection, and their image becomes more important than the relationships they are in.”  Love, trust, and respect are the benefits you experience when you can admit and own your faults.  Unsafe people can be hurtful because they will “fight, blame, and point fingers” to maintain their delusion of perfection.

 

  1. Unsafe people blame others instead of taking responsibility

As long as they blame other people for their problems, unsafe people do not have to do anything to change themselves.  Instead, they expect all those around them to change. Denial is favorite defense mechanism for unsafe people.  They have convinced themselves that things are not their fault. When pressed to take responsibility, they often lash out.

 

  1. Unsafe people lie instead of telling the truth

Does anything more need to be said here?

 

 

What I believe are valuable about these 10 traits of unsafe people is becoming aware of them not only in other people but also in our selves.  Certainly, we can never become too safe.  When working with my life coaching clients, I value the opportunity to help them become safer people as I also increase my own awareness of what I need to work on to become safer myself.

 

I suspect that we can identify some unsafe behaviors that Cloud and Townsend may not have been aware of when they published this book.  Let’s increase each other’s awareness by sharing these examples of unsafe behaviors.  Please add those to the comment section below so we can all benefit from your observations.

If you would like to work one-on-one on with me concerning an issue that is robbing you of your happiness such as depression, anxiety, relationships, negative thoughts, or esteem, contact me.  I’m at rjhandley.com.  Google my name if you’d like to find out more about me.

RJ Handley, Spiritual Life Coach