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.

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 connecting power of play

“God enters through the wound.”

Years ago I read this quote attributed to Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology. The words have remained sacred to me, and I have applied their balm to even the most superficial of wounds.

I find it easy to confide in others about the deep wounds life opens. Yet, it’s these small, seemingly insignificant scratches that, for me, cut as deep as glacial ice.  Over time they have carved out my self-image.  These are the ones that I keep secret because I am embarrassed to show them.  But, as I have learned in recovery, it is what I keep secret that makes me suffer.

Today is no different. I have found that I have been living a lie.  It’s another one of those silly scratches that I struggle to reveal because I don’t want others to laugh and say, “Really? Is that what you’re upset about?”

Yet, silently, I am in awe how God enters the wound if we allow ourselves to acknowledge that we have, indeed, been wounded.

Just yesterday I was completing an exercise from the book The Confidence Gap by Russ Harris.  It asked what values and goals I have in four facets of my life:  love, work, health, and play.

All was going great.   I was experiencing a flood of warm, glowing feelings of how much I have grown in my ten years of sobriety and my work as a spiritual life coach.  I was really patting myself on the back.

Yep, I was feeling like the Lebron James of love, the Wayne Gretzky of work, and the Hank Aaron of health.

Then I came to writing my values and goals for play. WTH! Crap!  I felt like I was hit on the head with a bat.  I came to the realization that I am the Pete Rose of play.  I have sabotaged my career as a player, the very thing that used to bring me joy.  I tried to remember the last time I went out on the town with a friend.

I came to the startling realization–a core truth:  The reason I drank was because I believed it was the only way I could feel a connection to others.

WTH! So I am sitting here today bleeding from the epiphany that I know as much about play as Donald Trump knows about public service.  I don’t just suck at playing, I haven’t even put on the uniform for what seems like years.  I have been so busy with my career and my commitments that I’ve forgotten how to engage in play with my friends.  I knew the power of play as a child, but my career and my commitments rob me of my play time.

At least that’s the lie I have been telling myself. The truth is that I find play to be uncomfortable.   It puts me right back into the story I have been writing over the years that I am socially defective.

I think about all the amazing people I have known in the past 20 years of my adult life. Many of those I have worked with.  But I poured myself into my work-a-day world so I went numb to my own needs and to theirs, neglecting the power of play to create the connection we needed between us.

So it grieves me to admit it, but I am suddenly—and consciously—aware that the reason I haven’t been doing fun things with colleagues, friends, and other loved ones is that it surfaces my own inadequacies.

As a child, I played fearlessly. But as I entered adulthood, I just sort of gave up.  I felt—and still do at times—that I am unworthy of play.  For years, I stood on the edge of my circle of friends, envious of the joy and laugher they shared, giving my social shame the power to keep me sidelined.

Is it any wonder that I worshipped the effects of alcohol? That it did for me what I couldn’t do for myself?  Instantly, without doing any work on myself, I could suddenly connect in play with others with just a couple of drinks.

It’s easy to blame my socially-isolated parents who never modeled for me what having friends over looked like. Yet, I promised my sponsor and myself to abandon my victimhood as I did the bottle when I became sober.  I know there are things that happened to me that I am not responsible for but, as an adult, I am responsible for healing them.

God really does enter through the wound. And it’s my commitment, just as it was with my 4th Step, to fearlessly look at myself and surface my character defects that keep creating the wounds.  And, just as before, I will get on my knees and ask God for the same miracle that got me sober.  Surely, if God’s grace could free me from the power of alcohol, then that same grace can free me from the prison of my own social fears.

I acknowledge to myself that play is crucial because it is how we, as human beings, connect. It will take time and courage to tear up the story about my social defectiveness.   In The Confidence Gap, Harris says that our problem is not that we lack social skills, it’s that we become fused with the story that we lack those skills.

Today, I am making a vow to call up a friend and ask him to join me in play. It takes practice to overcome any of our perceived defects.  Harris’ words hearten me in keeping me committed to this crucial project: “The actions of confidence come first; the feelings of confidence come later.”

I thank God that he used the simple exercise in Harris’ book to reveal to me a deep truth about myself that I have been hiding from for years.

God really does enter through the wound—even the scratches—and transmutes the pain into victory.

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

Living Life in Disguise

I was amazed to recently learn just how many men struggle to connect with other men.   When asked to answer the question, “What don’t you want other people to know about you?” a surprising number of the 24 men I had joined for a weekend training stated that they had difficulty creating deep and lasting friendships with other men.

I must admit that I was one of those men. And I was also one of those men who felt a tremendous sense of relief to be reminded that I was not alone in this struggle.

It’s been just over a week since I attended what’s called the New Warriors Training Adventure hosted by the ManKind Project, an international nonprofit that seeks to empower men to become more self-aware, and in the process become more emotionally mature and more skilled in relationships at home, at work, and at play.

During that weekend, one of the most transformative of my life, I realized at a deeper level that I can survive but never thrive without connection.

I remember the show Cheers with its theme song saying, “You wanna be where you can see, our troubles are all the same. You wanna be where everybody knows your name.”  I felt a temporary connection with Sam Malone and company while watching, but it also left me feeling hollow in the absence of those connections in my real life.

It wasn’t until I entered the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous ten years ago that I began to witness the power of connection. Yes, our troubles were all the same, and we learned from the old timers in the group that you can’t save your ass and save your face at the same time.

Facing death by alcohol has the power of waking a man up to living life by honesty.

Like with my experience with AA, the ManKind Project has helped me realize that I have a choice: I can live life fully by allowing others to really see me as I am or I can live life partially by pretending to be who I am not.

I admire the spiritual teacher Ram Dass. He said as a challenge to those who live their life playing a role rather than themselves, “Are we always going to meet on the stage? Don’t we ever take off the costumes?”

When asked why he cherished working with people who were on their deathbeds, Ram Dass said that imminent death had a way of removing the mask of who we pretend to be to reveal the beauty of who we are.

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.

I was moved recently by learning the top regrets of people who are in hospice care. In the top five was the regret of not allowing others to truly know them, to experience the truth of who they are.

I’ve learned that it’s an impossibility to live our lives with any deep connection if we hide from others who we really are. We need to “get down from the stage so that we live out, not act out our lives,” says Joyce Block in her book Family Myths.

We must dare to be vulnerable if we dare to connect. In our early days together, my girlfriend expressed her frustration with trying to read me.  She said I was often opaque to her.  She asked, “So RJ, you don’t like small talk and you don’t like being emotionally intimate.  How do people connect with you?”  Ouch.

But I ask you that same question. How are men or women going to connect to you?  Are they going to connect superficially to the actor? Or are you willing to take the risk of removing your costume and descending the stage into your genuine self?

Help another person out by sharing in the comments what you have done to shed your costume.

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.

Kindly,

RJ Handley, Spiritual Life Coach