Saturday, April 29, 2006

A bag of onions

If I've heard it once, I've heard it a hundred times. The onion analogy. People in recovery talk about how it's like peeling an onion. The reason this is said so much is because it's true! When I first went into recovery and attended my first meeting, I thought it was about stopping my one addictive behavior. After all, that's why you go to recovery, right? To stop drinking, drugging, gambling, fantasizing, overeating, etc., etc. That's what I thought. Stop the obviously bad behavior and all will be right with the world.

What I found out, though, is that recovery is much more complex than that. Then I discovered that life is much more complex than I ever imagined. There are layers to everything. As I began to "peel" the layers of my addiction there was a dizzying array of issues, traumas, mistakes and behaviors that were all knotted up in me. The way I'd dealt with these through my life were affected by and affected my addiction. What I've come to realize is that the roots of my addiction have woven themselves very deep into who I am. Finding those roots and pulling them out is a lot like delicate brain surgery. You want to remove all of the tumor, but you don't want to lose any vital functions in the process.

There are things about me that are really worth keeping. As I've traveled the road of recovery there are times I've been afraid that the "me" I've always known will be destroyed in this process. What if my charm or people skills or leadership ability are all just manifestations of my addiction. What if recovery fundamentally changes the person I always thought myself to be? These are not questions to be taken lightly. There are certainly things about me that have turned out to be much more driven by addictive need than anything else. Realizing this has been very hard for me. But, as I keep peeling it becomes more and more apparent that by letting go of those things, even the ones I really liked, I'm making the best choice.

Life seems to be a never ending process of getting to know myself and those around me better and better. There are great surprises and discoveries yet to be made inside and outside of me. When I was fully engaged in my addiction this awareness was dim at best. Addiction sees life as a fixed point on a map. Once I've arrived, I'm there. It's no more complex than that. I'm married, what else is there to do? I'm employed and that's the way it is. Don't dig down too deep or reveal too much of yourself because you'll just get into trouble. That's the protectionist mantra of the addicted mind.

Well life isn't a fixed point on a map. It's a continuous line stretching to infinity. Better yet, it's an onion. A whole bag full of onions. My marriage, my job, my thought life, my friendships, my relationship with God, my relationships with my children are all onions in the bag. Truly understanding that and being willing to dive in and start peeling is all part of recovering life.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Squidoo Lens

Squidoo is something relatively new on the internet landscape. It's so new that the bugs are still being worked out a bit. But Squidoo is cool. You build what they call a "lens" because it allows you to share how you see the world on a variety of topics. You can create as many lenses as you want. I haven't said much about this on my blog because I haven't been able to edit my lens since I created it. But yesterday it was up and running. I'm very excited to invite you to go to my Squidoo lens on recovery. It has a lot of links and resources that I hope will be helpfu. While this blog is about my personal experience of recovery, the lens has a broader range of tools for everyone. If you see something you think I should tell others about, let me know and I'll add the information to the lens.

Monday, April 24, 2006


One of the ways my addiction has manifested is in extreme overconfidence. I've probably already written about this, but I'm working through the 12 steps with a men's group and some recent questions from the book brought this up again. I'm still not sure where it started, but I hated to be corrected or told anything. I'm pretty sure it started as a defense mechanism but grew into a complete obsession with presenting myself as knowing everything about everything. Here's a story...

In seventh grade I was on the basketball team. Not that I enjoyed basketball or was any good at it. I think I participated in sports mostly to impress my stepfather who couldn't have cared less anyway. But, I digress. You're not expected to be a pro ballplayer at age 12 and I wasn't anywhere close. I made some sort of mistake in practice one day and Coach Schwanke came over to correct my bad form. Before he could even get anything out of his mouth I said, "I know." To this he replied, "what do you know?" Since I didn't really know anything, I proceeded to make stuff up hoping to sound like I knew and avoid the embarrassment of not knowing everything. The coach called me on it and, to add insult to injury, made me dribble the ball 'round and 'round the court for all the remaining practice time.

It would have been good to pay attention to that lesson. No one knows everything and it's okay to accept the coaching and help of someone who can help me. Had that been learned in seventh grade I might have avoided some of the pain I've experienced in life. There would, of course, have been different pain. It's an unrealistic expectation that life will be pain, mistake and struggle free.

In the movie "Being There", a 1979 tour de force for Peter Sellers, Chance the Gardener is hailed as a genius. People make all sorts of claims about his abilities. At the end of the movie a group of powerful men are planning to make him the next President of the United States. The problem is, Chance is an imbecile who spent his entire life inside a wealthy man's house in Washington, D.C. All he knows is how to manage a garden because that's all he ever did. People see him as an expert on everything when, in reality, he's an expert in just one thing. The charming thing about Chance is that he doesn't buy the hype...he isn't even aware of the hype because he's such a simpleton. The lesson for me is that, people can say whatever they want about me, but it's dangerous when I start to believe the press releases. Worse is when I'm the one publishing the press releases. I'm no expert, I'm just a guy working one day at a time recovering life.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Come to think of it...

It's been a while since I last posted. I've been travelling and that's always dangerous. The travel itself isn't dangerous. I drove nice rental cars and stayed in decent hotels. The hard part about travel is that it breaks up routines. One of the biggest keys to my recovery is being careful not to spend too much time with my biggest Addiction thrives in isolation. When I'm by myself for too long a stretch of time my addiction addled brain starts to play tricks on me. The focus that comes with journaling, prayer and regular meetings is crucial to maintaining health in the most vital arena, my thought life.

Human beings are unique in all of God's creation for a lot of reasons. One is our ability to think about how we think. It's this ability that created an entire profession, psychiatry. Counselors and psychologists are successful only inasmuch as they are able to help us think about how we think. What is it I tell myself when I lose an account at work? I could tell myself that I'm a loser who lacks any real skill. I could tell myself that I don't deserve the job I have and if anyone finds out how imcompetent I am I won't be there for long. From that thought process would grow fear and paranoia about being "found out." On the other hand, I could tell myself that I'm amazing at the job I do and the lost account is just something that happens to someone who brings in as much business as I do. You're bound to lose every now and again. It's just the rhythm of life. Same event, two ways to think about it. My thought life is the key and for too many years I let the addict hold that key in his grubby, selfish little hands.

Addiction is driven, in part, by fear and self-loathing. My thought life was poisoned by a need to be accepted and acceptable. I set standards impossible for any human being to keep then judged myself by those standards. This caused me to hide and erect elaborate false fronts to protect myself from being found out. Behind the facade I was acting out addictively to smother the pain of not being real with people, convinced that the real me would repulse "normal" folks.

One of the greatest gifts of recovery was to sit in a meeting and find out that everyone was just as messed-up as I am. In fact, some even more than me and some less. Bottom line I wasn't going to be ostracized from society for being normal. All these years I'd been suffering from a corrupted thought life. I had adopted an unrealistic view of how I was supposed to behave and didn't allow myself to be human. I rejected my natural emotional range labeling some emotions as unacceptable. Instead of learning how to deal with being human, I immersed myself in addictive behavior that numbed the pain and crippled me.

I'm much healthier now but the damage done by years of polluted thought still makes relying on my own thinking dangerous. I need to be sharing my thoughts on a regular basis with other people. With my counselor, in my 12 step group, with a sponsor and as opportunities present themselves. I used to bristle at the idea of talking to anyone about what I was thinking...good or bad. Another sign of addiction, I've found, is the utter arrogance of thinking that I always know best in every situation. I didn't even realize how bad it was until recently. Through recovery I've become very comfortable with saying, "I don't know." It can be about anything, big or small. A while ago I happened to say that in answer to a question my wife asked. She laughed joyously and thanked me for that simple answer. Apparently, in my active addiction I'd never claimed not to know things. I needed to be the expert on everything and in so doing had become tiresome to my wife and probably a lot of other people, too. I don't want to be tiresome anymore but I'm okay if I am now and then! I want a thought life that is whole and healthy. That means sharing and truly valuing the thoughts of others who are pursuing the recovered life.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Slaying the Enemy

I mentioned in the last post about holding grudges and how the addiction wants me to blame others for the struggles in my life. My therapist told me about an exercise called "Slaying the Enemy" this week. Apparently it involves getting together with a few men and going into a Native American sweat lodge. Once inside you name your enemy. Then each person in turn says something glowing and complimentary about that enemy. You repeat this process several times and, by the time its over, your enemy is slain. How can you hold a grudge against someone when you shift focus from how terrible they are and begin to think about them in a positive light?

I've been thinking about this since our session. It occurs to me that this sort of approach has been advocated by someone else. As a Christian I've wrestled with Jesus' instruction to "love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you." Just like the exercise in the sweat lodge, when I include those who have hurt me in my prayer time something changes in me. And, no, my prayers are not for them to suffer some tragedy or contract some terminal disease. Enlisting God as my personal hammer of justice is a manifestation of addiction not health. I pray good things for them.

Early in my recovery I would share in meetings how angry I was at someone whose actions had really wounded me. I don't remember being fixated on this person, but I certainly gave her a lot of credit for the pain I was suffering. My sponsor at the time gave me a real shock. He said I should pray for her. Wanting to become healthier I told him I could probably do that. He pushed the point. "Pray that she would be blessed and get all the desires of her heart," he told me. I remember being shocked. Why in the world would I go so far as to pray blessings on a person who had made my life so miserable?

Come to find out, that's the point. If my life is miserable I need to deal with what I've done to make it so. As long as I assign responsibility to others for my condition I will never find peace. Pointing fingers and laying blame are not healthy for me. It's okay to recognize the behaviors of other people that have caused me pain, I think. But I need uncover why those actions caused the pain. It's important for me to understand my role in receiving their actions as painful. This is hard work because it requires me to think about how I think about myself, about others and about the world. As I get down to that level it's amazing how deeply my addiction and addictive thought patterns are woven into my brain.

Whether I pray, "slay" or bless those who have hurt me the healing that results is ultimately mine. I must let go of the pain I've held so long if I'm to continue recovering life.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

A tricky thing

Addiction is like a ravenous animal. It needs to be fed. When I was a kid we lived on a farm for a stretch of time. One of my jobs was to raise a few pigs. I fed them "pig chow" but I also fed them our "wet" garbage. Things like watermelon rinds and banana peels, etc. They ate everything. Addiction is like that. It's not just the surface behavior (drinking, drugs, sex, eating...) that is addictive. For me, addiction ate compliments, applause and recognition. It fed on self-loathing, fear and anxiety. I've come to believe that one of the major supports propping up addiction is unforgiveness, an inability to forgive myself or others. I raised carrying a grudge to near professional levels. And if I was hard on others, I was twice as hard on myself.

Once, while out on the road, a church sign caught my eye. It had these words, "Forgiveness: Giving up all hope of a better past." I'll never forget it. That simple quote nailed it. My addiction wants me to believe that I can somehow undo the things I've done and that have been done to me. In making me believe this the addiction keeps me focused on the past and filled with grief, remorse, self-pity and self-loathing. Not to mention revenge fantasies, bitterness and anger. Always looking back makes looking ahead impossible. Always trying to excuse, explain or cover-up my past makes it almost certain that I won't engage with people in the present. Becoming preoccupied with some real or imagined hurt has me always looking for compensation, even from those who had nothing to do with the original offense. A famous cliche for those in recovery is "One day at a time." It means that, for true health, today is all I can deal with. As soon as I become preoccupied with what happened yesterday or last week or twenty years ago the addiction has an open door to resume control of my life.

Giving up all hope of a better past is vital to my success. I must deal with my past realistically. I can't candy coat the life I've lived. Stuff happens, and it happens to everybody. Pretending like it doesn't is not only unhealthy, it's dangerous. Being honest with myself first, then with others, about who I really am is scary. It's also necessary if I truly want to live the recovered life.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Going AND doing

There's an old saying among church people, "Going to church doesn't make you a Christian any more than being in a garage makes you a car." I would like to offer a modification of that. "Going to meetings doesn't mean you're in recovery any more than going to a bar means your an alcoholic."

To say it more clearly, going to a bar doesn't mean you're an alcoholic and going to 12 step meetings doesn't mean you're in recovery. Addiction is a disease that resides in me regardless of where I go with it. I've been to 12 step meetings and met people who thought being there was enough. They didn't want to share or, if they did, it was all theory, esoteric bull**** or a diatribe against all those people who made their life miserable. In order for me to recover I have to be dead honest about my addiction. It is crucial to my sobriety that I confront my behavior and the consequences of it from the position that I am solely responsible for the place I'm in. I'm sad for people who come to meetings and spend their valuable time pointing fingers at other people or hiding behind theories. Recovery is about looking at yourself and no one else. For me it's about identifying all the ways my disease has messed up my life and then dealing, in a healthy way, with how my disease caused pain in other people's lives.

Recovery and therapy are similar in this regard. I have to be ready to be stripped bare in the process. I go willing to expose all my hurts, habits and hang-ups that make a healthy life impossible. I drag all the stuff my addict hid in the dark out into the harsh light of meetings and therapy sessions. This diffuses the power of it all and gives me a fighting chance at living a recovered life. But, like I said, I'm sad for those who think going to meetings is enough without doing any of the hard work at the meeting that will actually help. Truth is, you may be able to make an addict go to meetings but no one can make another person healthy.