My Fugitive Ways

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 was taken aback by 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

Understanding Addiction as a Habit, Not a 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 benign.  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 prefrontal 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.

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.

 

Kind Regards,

RJ Handley

Five stress factors that can lead to relapse

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.  Oh, that wonderful vicarious feeling of the first drink as it melts away the stress of the day.

 

This became my routine, too, 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 see how it was my go-to stress reliever.  I didn’t look within for the source of my stress.  That 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.

 

Sober now for more than a decade, I have revamped my personal creed to Sophocles’ original: Only the examined life is worth living.  In those 10 years, I have immersed myself in the Big Book as well as other psychological and spiritual literature. By looking within rather than away, I have finally gotten to know who I am.

 

But it’s still one day at a time. Stressors are still a part of the sober life. And I am very aware that if I don’t surface the issues in my life that cause stress, that I am very likely to relapse.

 

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 stressor 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 stressors are the unpredictability of others, a lack of control, and a lack of power.

 

In my drinking days (and still to a much 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.”

 

Embrace Your Mistakes

The difference between the wise man and a fool is that a fool’s mistakes never teach him anything.

 

I believe that at the heart of this popular expression is personal responsibility.   The wise man takes personal responsibility for his mistakes; the fool blames others for his own.

 

The most powerful lessons we learn are from our own failures. The hidden power of mistakes is that they are the very ore from which wisdom is produced.  It is the alchemy of turning the base metals of error into something precious—and lasting.  We arrive at a higher level of consciousness when we take personal responsibility for our mistakes.

 

Equally important are the insights into our characters that mistakes can provide.  Mistakes, especially those that cause others pain and suffering, are like mirrors.  They reflect back to us moments when we were too self-absorbed to respond thoughtfully to others.  For example, failing to express gratitude for a friend’s help.

 

How can we change if we are unaware of our weaknesses?  We can’t fix what we can’t see.  Mistakes offer us a chance to discover our weaknesses and an opportunity to change.

 

All of us will experience lapses of awareness that lead to mistakes.  We are all flawed beings and that is a part of our shared human experience.  It is the way that we respond to mistakes that is the difference between the wise and the foolish.  It is the fool who will find a way to blame others to cover for his or her own social unconsciousness.   The wise person avoids excuses and will promptly take responsibility for his or her errors.

 

In Alcoholics Anonymous, we learn that honesty in “all our affairs” is what gets us sober.  When we look at the problems we create for ourselves and others, we see where we were at fault and we promptly admit our mistakes to those we have wronged.

 

As long as we blame others for our problems, we don’t have to change anything about ourselves.  No personal responsibility, unfortunately, means no wisdom, no growth, no emotional maturity.

 

In my life coaching practice, I have found that clients who struggle the most with personal relationships are those who are emotionally immature.   And that immaturity is because of an unwillingness to hold themselves personally accountable for their character flaws and the mistakes in judgement they cause.

 

Psychologist maintain that the average adult is really only about 14-years-old emotionally.  Many of us are really adolescents in adult bodies.  One of the greatest contributors to living in an extended adolescence is a failure to learn and grow emotionally from our mistakes.

 

And this is understandable in our current culture that places so much emphasis on self-esteem.  In her book Self-Compassion, Kristen Neff states, “People who are focused on maintaining high self-esteem will not look at themselves honestly because doing so will lower their self-esteem.  They, therefore, blame others for their own problems rather than taking responsibility for creating them.”

 

Self-esteem is dependent on forces outside ourselves.  It is based on the approval of others.  In the social media world of Facebook, people live and die according to how many “likes” they have received from a post.  Self-esteem then becomes something determined by popular vote.  This pre-occupation with building and maintaining self-esteem is not only the domain of social media but also finds a strong presence in our classrooms, our school-sponsored athletics, and in our families.

 

When we refuse to accept personal responsibility for our mistakes, we deny ourselves the opportunity to become more skillful and competent people.

 

Instead of self-esteem, Neff recommends self-compassion.   Self-compassion is internalized, and it is not about excuses but acceptance.  It is about treating ourselves as our best friend.  Unlike self-esteem, its pursuit doesn’t shy us away from our own personal responsibility   In practicing it, we hold ourselves accountable while, Neff says, reminding ourselves in moments of falling down that failure is part of the shared human experience.  We embrace our mistakes rather than looking away from them.

 

Though mistakes feel unpleasant, they offer a powerful catalyst for change, for self-awareness, and for emotional growth.  By having the courage to admit our mistakes, we open the door to learning and emotionally growing from them.  In doing so, we cultivate the capacity to respond more maturely and more skillfully in relationships with friends, family, and colleagues.  And that’s one of the beautiful things about life.  It continually offers us opportunities to move from living as the fool to thriving as the wise.

Drug-free Solutions to Chronic Pain

One truth I have learned about chronic physical pain is the more you fight it the worse it gets. Another is that traditional methods for relieving pain often ignore a crucial player:  the mind.

After experiencing only partial pain relief from my spinal fusion 10 months ago, I became convinced that there was another issue that contributing to my chronic pain.  This led me to investigate solutions other than additional surgery or the use of medications to treat this pain.

In my previous blog titled “Get Out of Your Chronic Pain and Into Your Life,” I discussed the benefits of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) in contending with pain.  In this blog, I am going to introduce you to physician Dr. John Sarno whose treatment of chronic pain was featured in a 20/20 segment.

 

As a brief recap of last week’s blog, it is our attempts to combat or avoid pain that keeps us in the trenches with our pain.  Like for many of you, pain killers only reduced my pain; they never eliminated it.  I also tried physical therapy, acupuncture, and chiropractic.  Again, the relief was only partial and temporary.   What was constant was my preoccupation with that pain.  I was thinking about it continually throughout the day.  Sadly, this preoccupation with pain made my world smaller and smaller.  I avoided physical activities that I used to enjoy and withdrew from friends and family because of the pain.

 

ACT recognizes that total elimination of pain my not be possible for some of us.  So we have a choice:  we can live on the sidelines of our life with pain, or we can commit to re-engaging our lives despite the pain.  Amazingly, though, it is this re-engagement with life that allows us to experience freedom from our pain.  To test the validity of this, think of what happens to your pain when you are laughing with friends or fully engaging in a hobby.  For me, the pain disappears because I am not focusing my attention on it.

 

Like ACT, re-engagement in your life is at the core of Dr. John Sarno’s work.  In his New York Times bestselling book, Healing Back Pain, Sarno says that chronic pain is the result of suppressed emotions.  His term for this pain, regardless of whether it manifests in the back, neck, or other parts of the body, is Tension Myositis Syndrome (TMS).  The source of this pain?  Suppression of emotions.  For those of you who experience migraines, it is clear that the pain is not something structurally wrong with your brain but that it is brought on by stress and the negative emotions it creates.  So too it is with chronic back and neck pain, according to Sarno.

 

“TMS is a sideshow designed to distract you from what is going on emotionally,” Sarno says.   Because our minds do not want to deal with painful emotions, that pain is manifested in our bodies, just like stress is manifested as intense headaches for migraine sufferers.

 

Interestingly, if you randomly picked 40 adults from the streets and gave each an MRI, you would find that many of them have structural issues with their backs—like ruptured or bulging disk. Yet, some of those people are not experiencing back pain.  In fact, orthopedic surgeons who see these supposed structural “problems” cannot determine just from the MRI whether that person is in pain.  Interestingly, too, when an MRI for a non-spine related issue reveals one of these back “problems,” the patient often experiences the sudden sensation of back pain.

 

So how can TMS cause pain?  The brain is the most complex creation in the known universe.  One of its functions is regulating oxygen levels in the body.  It provides more oxygen to the muscles when an external threat activates the fight or flight response.  Just as the brain can oxygenate the body more, it can also deprive parts of the body of oxygen.  “The direct reason for pain is mild oxygen deprivation,” Sarno says in drawing the connection between TMS and chronic pain.

 

So how do you treat TMS and the chronic physical pain it produces?   In Healing Back Pain, Sarno suggests a series of exercises that will get you in touch with the unpleasant emotions that cause TMS.  Often these emotions are in the form of anger or rage that the mind has suppressed, keeping us unaware of their presence.  Frequently, these suppressed emotions are rooted in childhood trauma, Sarno states.

 

If working through these exercises on your own doesn’t eliminate your chronic pain, Sarno recommends seeking out a therapist to guide you through them in order to  surface and release these pain-producing emotions.

 

Overall, the connection between ACT and Sarno’s work is freeing ourselves of the thoughts and emotions that create our pain and suffering. For those of you who are experiencing chronic pain, consider asking yourself this question: “Am I going to live my thoughts and emotions and the pain those create or am I going to live my life and the joy that can bring?”

 

Together, ACT and Sarno’s work can be a very effective way of treating chronic pain.   So if you are experiencing chronic pain despite surgery, pain medications, and other treatments, consider getting to know ACT and Sarno’s approach.  The 20/20 segment that features Sarno is available on YouTube.  An excellent resource for the ACT approach is the workbook Living Beyond Your Pain by Joanne Dahl and Tobias Lundren.

Get Out of Your Chronic Pain and into Your Life

Chronic pain is very discouraging.  Ten months ago I had a spinal fusion because of a back injury I suffered.  I had been in pain for two years prior to it. And now, as I’m supposed to feel the relief of full recovery, I still have back pain and nerve pain in my feet.

 

Like some of you, chronic pain has robbed me of my zest for life.  And it has left me feeling very discouraged—even hopeless.  But at 57-years-old, I am not willing to spend the next 20 years marooned by medications, living in an opioid stupor.

 

It’s time to get out of the preoccupation with pain and to get into my life.

 

Living an inspired life means making inspiring choices.  One of the most inspiring of those choices was to embrace the power of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).

 

At the core of ACT pain therapy is an essential truth:  elimination of chronic pain is not possible for some of us.  But it doesn’t have to sideline us.  In their Internet workbook called Life with Chronic Pain: An Acceptance-based Approach, Kevin E. Vowles, Ph.D.  and  John T. Sorrell, Ph.D.,  apply the core processes of ACT to pain.

 

They acknowledge that pain, thoughts and mood, and basic functioning interact in a way that contributes to increasing problems and decreasing quality of life.  As so many of us who suffer have come to realize, treatments often fail to provide us with long-term decreases in pain.

 

Trying to change our thoughts and moods also becomes problematic.   “If you wake up in a sad mood, does telling yourself, ‘Don’t be sad anymore.’ lead to any change in your mood?” ask Vowles and Sorrell, knowing, too, that trying not to think about your pain only increases its hold over you.

 

Functioning, though, may be the area where your efforts will have the most impact, according to Vowles and Sorrell.   It’s about deciding what is vitally important to you and pursing it despite pain.  I have found that if I remain on the sidelines trying to avoid anything that may incite my pain, that my pain still exists.  On the other hand, when I am actively engaged in my life, I often forget about my pain.  Consider this: when you are laughing with loved ones, what happens to your pain?  Exactly!  It disappears.  Remember, we give power to whatever we give attention to.

 

Breaking ACT Down

 

The “A” in ACT is about acceptance.  It’s about becoming comfortable with discomfort. “It is not the same as defeat, helplessness, quitting, or resigning to a life of unhappiness, struggle, or misery,” Vowles and Sorrell say.   Acceptance of chronic pain, then, is living a life driven by the things you value despite a physical issue that contributes to pain and suffering.

 

The “C” in ACT is about commitment.   By combining acceptance with commitment, you begin  living a life driven by the things you value despite a physical issue that contributes to pain and suffering.  “Values are what you want your life to stand for,” according to Vowles and Sorrel. “Values are what you want to be remembered for by loved ones and close friends after you have passed.”

 

ACT is about accepting the fact that we all face difficult challenges that we cannot control, alter, or eliminate.  It’s not about “throwing in the towel.”  We, instead, commit to a life in which we are engaged in the present moment with things we value in the here and now.  We live a life, not in the absence of pain, but knowing that there is something more important than pain.

 

I leave you with words that you can say that will help you keep your mind centered on acceptance and commitment.  It is called the Serenity Prayer:  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.

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

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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.