Sunday, March 3, 2019

taking down and restoring walls

Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity
~Step 2, 12 Steps

The first obstacle to recovery is defensive denial. It's like a wall. Life is being smashed by a wrecking ball but the addict refuses to see any evidence of crumbling.  As he keeps using, the wrecking ball keeps pounding. Eventually, the addict can no longer deny the health issues, unpaid bills, and lost relationships. The debts he owes are mounting.  Still he refuses to quit.  Instead he begins to bargain, vowing to use less or only "recreationally", trying to trick himself into believing that he and the addiction can find a way to cohabit even though little holes in his wall are showing up everywhere. Progressively, without his consent, the wall between him and the truth breaks down. As in the third stage of grief, now there is rage at the undeniable reality that he cannot continue in this way without severe consequences. Something's gotta give.

As the wall collapses and the addict is exposed, if he hasn't died or ended up in jail, he is forced to surrender.  By accepting the reality of his demise, and with a true willingness to reclaim his life and integrity, the addict begins the process of recovery.  He seeks to be restored, if not to the exact person he was prior to his addiction, then to sanity.  He begins to walk away, free.

Those around the addict have their own recovery to undergo.  It is similar to his process, and equally hard, but goes sort of in reverse; reversing the 5 Stages of Grief.  They entered into relationship taking the addict at face value, as a real person, expecting availability and reciprocity; unprotected.  But, like Pinocchio, his promises were wooden and his heart hard. They tolerated unacceptable behaviour, and ended up a mere shadow of their former selves, a puddle of emotions.  Whereas the addict's wall hid the truth, they lacked one. They were vulnerable and exposed. What now lies in store for them, in their process of recovery, is rebuilding that wall, unbreaking the cup that held them, to restore their integrity and sanity. It is the reverse of the addict's process and begins with non-acceptance, moving through sadness and anger to ripen into the courage to make an ultimatum: they will partner again with the addict on only one condition, that he "proves himself brave, truthful and unselfish... and becomes a real boy."*.  The co-addict detaches by building a wall. This is their freedom.

*Blue Fairy; Pinocchio

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Good Grief

Afterward Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth
~ Job 3:1

Look up grief on the internet and you'll likely find images of some sad, little faces with a solitary tear, or maybe a black and white photo of some contemplative-looking person standing at the end of a pier looking out to sea.  They are such peaceful images, reminding me of the beginning of the serenity prayer: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change..."

When you're grieving a terminal illness or relationship, don't you just long to float away on the calm waters of serenity?  Me neither!

It's more like those stories you hear of someone drowning and hypothermic who, after a few gulps of water, gets a sense of inner bloating, is swallowed up and sinks into oblivion. They fought like hell first.

Acceptance, the destination of grieving, is not so much a state of mind as the fruit of one of the most challenging, gut-wrenching, heart-rending and ugly processes I know; and the cost is huge, nothing short of everything.  All your hopes and dreams, your visions of a future, throw in idealism and optimism while you're at it, and don't forget about hope and your will to live.  All of it.  Are you serene yet?

I remember when I was a kid and I had to get a "booster shot".  For some strange reason, and in a manner which was entirely out of character at the time, I decided to run.  The doors being locked, I ended up running from the nurse and her poised needle, back and forth between her and the walls, around in circles like a moth in a jar until I finally rushed into the arms of my bewildered mother, wrapping myself around her, crying, "I don't want to!"  My mother hugged me, then quietly and reassuringly answered back, "Patti, it's done."  At first I thought I was being liberated from the proposed torture but then I realized in fact the nurse had already jabbed me while I was in the throes of making a scene. It was a miracle.

Good grieving is more like that I think. Crying and flailing about risking humiliation as you flap around helplessly like a caught and gutted fish until you come, mercifully, to rest.  It's pretty good from there.

God grant me the courage.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

clean slate

~ Give not that which is holy unto dogs nor cast your pearls before swine
(Matthew 7:6)

Body, speech and mind... these are precious resources that, once spent or defiled, are not easily redeemed.

Why not protect them better?

My advice, boys and girls, is to keep yourselves clean, and keep away from others who are not, or who are not using prophylactics to protect you from themselves. Demand that your partners show you their CVs.  They should test positive for NVC**, and negative for STDs and dependencies because, once you've been infected, it may be too late to press "refresh".

Clean mouth
Clean nethers
Clean mind

Nobody can protect you better than yourself.  Keep your slate clean.

** Non Violent Communication

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

ambivalence and recovery

A lot of people think addiction has to do with choice.  A lot of people think it's a matter of will. That has not been my experience.  I don't find it has anything to do with strength.
~Matthew Perry

I was relieved on the weekend to be at a conference that made room for ambivalence in recovery.  The conference was on eating disorders but what the speaker said could just as easily have applied to addictions. In fact, he used an addiction treatment model to present the stages of preparedness for recovery, and relapse was part of that model.

You see, recovery is not a straight line.  It's not a matter of will and people do not decide to get better.  They may hit a "rock bottom" where they say "enough" and decide to do something about it, and this is surely a defining moment in their lives; but getting better (recovery) progresses in stages over time, often two steps forward one step back, hand-in-hand with... ambivalence.

I know when I quit smoking I was a totally unwilling candidate.  I not only didn't want to quit, I didn't believe I could.  If it hadn't been for the support of my children on day two (!), urging me to keep going, I would have thrown in the towel.  I did not quit for me, like all the books say you're supposed to.  I quit for them.  Only later, much later in fact, when I had got enough distance from the self-defeating patterns of my addiction, did I stay quit for me.

So what does this have to do with ambivalence?

I think that we need something outside of ourselves to hold us to our path, kind of like the cable holding a streetcar to a power line.  I don't mean an external authority or judge forcing us against our wills ("failure is the enemy of success"!), but something stronger than my runaway urges.  And that something stronger, I think, is compassion, the very compassion I am lacking for myself when in the grips of my addiction or other self-defeating behaviour.

There is a scene I love from Nashville where Rayna sings a song to her alcoholic lover on his birthday.  Various other people in the show are struggling with runaway addictions.  Here is the song.  The lyrics are amazing:

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

the sins of the father

He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished; He visits the iniqiuity of the fathers upon their children to the third and fourth generation
~ Numbers 14:18

June is PTSD awareness month.

We are all probably already familiar with the acronym PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) used frequently in conjunction with the well-known traumatic impact of war.  It used to be called shell shock and is now also associated with men who have witnessed or survived violence in the line of duty; police officers and fire fighters, for example.

But did you know that women are twice as likely as men to experience PTSD?  Sexual violence accounts for some, but not all, of it.  Most is due to the Tragic Trickling Down Effect (TTDE?) of trauma in families; the sins of the father are visited upon their sons, but also (and especially) upon their wives and daughters. This is called intergenerational transmission.  Traumatized people traumatize others.  Most often women and children.

Yes.  There is a connection between PTSD and family violence.

It's not that hard to understand.  When oppressed by violence we want to fight back.  When we can't, all that fight gets bottled up inside.  When triggered by some mundane situation causing frustration, it bubbles up and explodes as anger and aggression... Who gets the brunt of those urges do you think?

It is a fact that the risk of being violated increases proportionately to your social status and power.  If you are a female handicapped minor (or elder) of color, your chances of being abused are much higher than that of a white able-bodied adult male.

It is easier to take your angries out on someone less powerful than you.  Sick but true.

Since we are raising awareness this month, we should talk about C-PTSD, which is the more complex response to long-term trauma not limited to crime or war. C-PTSD results from being exploitated in a relationship where there is a discrepancy in power, between parents and children, or men and women.  When a person is chronically bullied, abused or abandoned by a parent or loved one on whom he or she is emotionally dependent, the victim (or "survivor") displays many of the symptoms that a war vet, police officer or fire fighter would, while also frequently being affected at the level of one's identity and self-esteem, one's core sense of self.  Again, war and crime aside, the weaker members of society are most affected by C-PTSD, and the perpetrators most often men.

This month, while raising awareness of the impact of violence on soldiers and others who have voluntarily stood in the line of fire, let's not forget the less heroic survivors of the same insidious dynamics of human suffering: the less powerful who, daily, without choosing it, are victims of violence everywhere-- women, minorities, children, the handcapped and the elderly.

The test of civilization is the way it cares for its helpless members
 ~Pearl S. Buck

Friday, May 4, 2018

love, love me do

Abandon hope, ye who enter here
~Dante, Inferno

The other day an old friend broke down while talking about his alcoholic parents. They'd been dead for several years but the grieving, he said, was bad today.

He had loved them faithfully despite their wretched characters and abusive behaviours, over many years, in fact his whole life.  He never stopped loving them or hoping they would get sober.  He felt compassion for the good people he knew they had been behind the disease consuming them, and he forgave them.

But today he grieved.  Deep, gut-wrenching grief.  He had waited his whole life for his love to be reciprocated.  It never was.  His parents couldn't.  They were under the influence of a substance they loved more than him.

As the loved ones of addicts, we can be patient and wait in love but, if we attach to recovery, or expect our love to be returned one day, we may end up living a life of hope that ends in bitter disappointment.  Better not to hope and just accept things as they are, with a guarded heart, investing more only when our loved ones are available to love us back.

Here is a famous passage from T.S. Eliot's East Coker that says it well:

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

Eliot's poem points to the light in the darkness of a waiting heart.  Eric Berne would second that, for he claims that, in unrequited love, the person who loves is the lucky one, even if she gets nothing in return.  I'm not sure how lucky she is but, yes, there is certainly a light shining in every loving heart, and warmth and promise in that.  Not so the unloving heart that expires without reciprocating!  Tragic as my friend's loss may be, that his parents' love was unavailable because of their addiction is, by far, worse.

Monday, April 9, 2018


Many of us whose loved ones struggle with an addiction get so caught up in what's going on for them that we forget about ourselves.  We put their needs first, and think and talk obsessively about them, what they may be doing, thinking or feeling...

As our own needs are progressively eclipsed by our loved ones' addiction, we find ourselves riding the emotional roller coaster with them, becoming just as unstable as they are.

Talk about folie à deux!

When we come to therapy, to Alanon-- or to our senses-- we are urged to "get a life!" and take care of ourselves.  We start thinking and talking about ourselves.  We learn to identify and respect our own needs.  We draw some long-overdue boundaries.  We start to recover our sanity.

But here's the thing:

The disease of addiction is so insidious and our involvement with the addict so irresistible that, even when we begin to make new choices, we may still weigh the pros and cons in terms of how it will impact our loved one's addiction!

How many times are the changes we make in recovery really motivated by the desire to influence the addict?  Are we secretly hoping to force him to "hit rock bottom" so he or she will seek help and get fixed?  That is not making choices for ourselves.

Addiction is a sneaky devil.  What a pity it would be, after all our work to extricate ourselves from the insanity of the disease, to let it slip in the back door...