Avoidance is Costly

I have spent much of my adult life running away from my pain.  Maybe more accurately is that I buried my pain alive.  Although it helped in the short term, I have paid dearly for it in the long run.

“The foundation of all mental illness is the avoidance of legitimate suffering,” according to Carl Jung, the father of analytic psychology.

His words, which I first heard about two years ago, changed my life.   They were an epiphany that powered my journey from avoidance to acceptance of my pain—a journey that has brought me a peace that transcends my trauma.

I grew up in home with a rageaholic father and an enabling mother.  Like many children who later suffer from addiction, I internalized that rage as shame.  And that shame fueled my drinking.

I became an expert at numbing out to anything I perceived as painful.  Recovery experts are aware of the close connection between mental illness and addiction.  They say that addiction is the compulsive avoidance of immediate pain.  Can you hear Jung’s words in those?

In his excellent book, Recovery 2.0, a combination of memoir and sobriety handbook, Tommy Rosen says “feelings left unprocessed are buried alive!  They will act as an energetic blockage to your happiness and health.”

He goes on to say, “Later, these energetic blockages will cause a variety of emotional and physical symptoms, which will get more and more serious unless you shift onto a path of healing.”

It’s little wonder that all addictions are progressive.  They only worsen over time.  Rosen makes the point that since the original trauma never gets dealt with, all subsequent pain gets piled on top.  “It gets to the point where you’re feeling emotions that no longer correspond to what is actually happening in the present moment.”

When I relive in my mind humiliating experiences that occurred before I got sober 10 years ago, I see the insanity of my reactions to friends, family, and colleagues.  Who was that guy who was a master of misinterpretation?

It was the effect of allowing hurts to pile on top of hurts until I wasn’t experiencing reality as it was but as I was.

As I said in an earlier blog, the ultimate addiction is to our thoughts.  This, I believe, is universal.  Everyone, regardless if you consider yourself an addict or not, is addicted to patterns of thinking that cause suffering.

Rosen’s definition of addiction is “any behavior that you continue to do despite the fact that it brings negative consequences into your life.”

It is only through awareness rather than avoidance that we can begin to understand our trauma.  And that doesn’t have to be major trauma.  It can be anything that we have turned away from or buried—any past pains or threats that we have avoided.

We can’t fix what we can’t see.  I hope that this blog and my others give you the courage to look unblinkingly at your own trauma and to drill down to the root of your present suffering. The tears you shed will water the seeds of your joy.

 

The Transformational Power of Relationships

rjhandley.com

In the previous blog I mentioned that painful experiences will repeat themselves until we drill down to the root of the problem.  Even after our 12-Step work, one of the common categories of pain that we alcoholics and addicts still experience is relationships.  Jacquelyn Small, author of Becoming Naturally Therapeutic, says, “The alcoholic is terribly deficient in the area of intimate relationships—a deficiency that is both a cause and an effect of his drinking” (63).

Both the Big Book and the 12 x 12 say that relationships bring us continuous and recurring trouble.   Why is this?  As alcoholics and addicts, we became masters at avoiding life’s essential pain.  Pain is the greatest catalyst for change. Yet, when we continually used alcohol or drugs to numb us from pain, we cheated ourselves of the spiritual and emotional power of pain to spur our growth.  Maturity is the product of facing pain, not avoiding it.

Relationship experts like Guy Finley say that our interactions with life and with others cannot be any deeper or satisfying than the understanding we have of ourselves.  I remember a fellow AA asking a sponsee who said he wanted to kill himself, “Why would you want to kill someone you don’t even know?” We laughed at this, but the truth stung each of us.  Remember all the times we used isolation to keep us feeling safe?  Unfortunately, it isolated us from understanding who we are. And if we don’t understand ourselves, how are we to understand others? It’s little wonder we are ill-equipped to sustain long-lasting relationships.

It may seem paradoxical that the very thing that creates pain—relationships—is the doorway out of our pain.   Finley says that relationships are literally a mirror.  In them we can see how we are playing in the world.  Relationships can rid us of the blind spots that have sabotaged all of our relationships. “Until we are conscious of [our issues],” Finley says, “they control our actions and reactions.” So self-awareness through relationships provides the best chance we have to grow and develop.

I encourage all of us to seek out relationships with others.  Let us use that same transformational desperation that brought us to the rooms of AA to decommission the defenses that we have employed to build walls between ourselves and others.  Let us be intrepid in our desire to connect with others on a deeper level.  And let us dare to remain vulnerable to ourselves and others even when it comes at a terrible cost to our pride.

In the next blog, I will provide more wisdom from relationship experts

 

Recurring Painful Experiences

 

One of the greatest spiritual truths I have learned after the 12 Steps is that we will repeatedly experience the same painful situations until we drill down to the root of the problem.

If you are like me, you know that we often see the small stuff we need to work on, yet we remain blind to the big stuff.

Even after eight years of AA, I had not come to terms with my unhappiness with life. I was unaware that my greatest battle was with life itself. Like some Roman gladiator armed with a mace, I swung at life believing I could stand unscathed from its inevitable pain.

Only after learning the futility of trying to control life and learning instead to surrender to it did I finally grasp the Big Book principle of accepting “life on life’s terms.” How foolish I felt not practicing this truth after my 12-step work with my sponsor and then with my sponsees. And I missed the essence of the Serenity Prayer that I had been dutifully reciting with my fellow AAs for years at the opening of meetings. “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change” is ultimately about accepting life as it is.

I realized that I had still been investing my time and energy in an attempt to fix all the externals in my life—my wife, my home, my colleagues, my friends—so that I could feel more comfortable with my everyday life. I failed to understand that the only way I was going to experience true happiness was “to have the courage to change the things I can.” What can I change? Not other people, but only myself. But how? By asking God to allow me to see the things within myself that needed to be changed.

With the same courage it took to complete my 4th Step years ago, I plunged into a “searching and fearless” inventory of all my thoughts and behaviors that repeatedly sabotaged my relationships with other people.

God is a wonderful teacher who won’t allow us to go on to the next lesson in life without learning from the lesson at hand. When we don’t learn the lesson, God keeps offering it in a different context. The entire cast of characters changes, but the same pain keeps recurring. Only when I stopped and looked deeply within to the core of each problem did I experience transcendence from the problem and the pain associated with it. In the next blog, I will focus on why relationships are so crucial for our spiritual growth and why they are so difficult for us AAs.