Addiction as an Ally: Part Two

Goodbye Forever?)

Yesterday I discussed how our addict self is trying to do something useful: help us through our great sorrows in life, but it does it in an unhealthy way. This means we should unequivocally reject its suggestions, but that doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate the fact that it was trying to solve a real problem.

And for as much as we might like to say goodbye to the addict-self forever, it isn’t going to just pack up and leave. Even when we are solid in our sobriety, the addiction will still be there, putting thoughts and ideas in our heads that we don’t want. We may be able to maintain some boundaries with it, but we won’t be able to block it out entirely.

At some point or another we’re going to have to figure out what our long-term relationship with our addiction is going to be. How are we going to deal with its continual calls for our attention? Is it really healthiest to pretend that a real and constant part of ourselves just doesn’t exist for the rest of our lives?

The Inner Roles)

The therapist over my addiction recovery group taught us about Internal Family Systems, which is a process where we identify the different parts that live inside of us. There is the part that is a wounded child, the part that is the protector, the part that wants to make sure you’re having a good time, and even a part that tries to manage and regulate all the others! Also, there is the addict self, the part that tries to cope with stress in the easiest, most readily available way.

In our group work, we would try to identify and distinguish these different parts and see how they each tended to get out of bounds. The manager was being a cruel taskmaster, or the protector was being abrasive to everyone nearby, or the wounded child was establishing unhealthy relationships with others in a needy search for love. And, of course, the addict was trying to get the body to do things that the other parts found deeply offensive.

Having recognized how these parts were over-stepping their bounds, it was now our job to have a little chat with them, to hear their concerns and guide them back to their proper function. And we were to do this with all of the parts, yes, even including the addict.

Listening to the addict helped me to better understand his plight. So much of his misbehavior was motivated by pure fear. He was terrified of us being abandoned and alone, he felt like it would kill us if we stayed in the lonely and depressed places that we so often found ourselves in. He saw how our negative feelings caused real pain, and he really wanted those to be taken care of. Understanding that, I realized that my addict-self still has a role to play in my well-being. To be clear, I don’t mean that acting out on my addict’s impulses has a role to play in my well-being but responding to his concerns does.

So, I gave my addict-self a new job. I told him that I was going to take the reins from now on, but I needed him to let me know when things in life were getting out of hand. He was to be the lifeguard, watching for danger in the water. When he saw a danger, he was to raise the alarm. He might have ideas about how to deal with the problem, but he doesn’t get to carry those plans out anymore. He just lets me know about the problem, and I make an intentional and healthy action to address it. As I consistently and quickly respond to the issues, he starts to learn that he can trust me in the driver’s seat.

In Practical Life)

I’ve been using a lot of metaphor, but what do I actually mean in practical life? What I mean is that some days I suddenly notice a sharp increase in the number and intensity of lustful temptations that I face. Things were pretty calm beforehand, with me only needing to check the occasional stray thought or gaze, but suddenly it seems that my triggers have been turned into overdrive!

And as I have observed myself, these sudden spikes in temptation are typically not random. They tend to occur when I am feeling rejected, or lonely, or scared, or any other powerfully negative emotion. They come when I feel like the world is starting to slip out of control, like things might take a turn that I don’t want, that I may end up in places that I don’t want to be.

These spikes in temptation might occur when the bank account is too low and I worry whether we can make ends meet. They might happen when my wife and I have a fight and I think we won’t be able to patch things together this time. They show up when I get passed up for promotion and work and believe that my efforts will never be appreciated.

This sudden increase of temptation is my addict-self sounding the alarm. Him suddenly trying to look for an escape tells me that the pressure is getting too high inside. I need to address the situation or I will drown in anxiety.

I just don’t deal with it by acting out anymore. I deal with it by poring over the financial data and coming up with a budget I can believe in, and by having the hard conversations with my wife, and by deciding whether I need to find a new job where my skills are appreciated. I don’t let the issue remain hanging over me, because my addict-self has warned me that it is too much.

And then, when I take the decisive action, the temptations fade away. Yes, the addict-self wanted to deal with the stress in a particular way, but he will quiet down as long as it was taken care of in some way.

Apply to Self)

If you’ve gained some sobriety in life and have decent stability, but you keep being aggravated by random spikes of temptation, maybe it’s worth considering whether this same pattern exists in you as well. Maybe your addict-self is trying to tell you that something in life is off, that a basic need of yours isn’t being met, that you’re pushing yourself too hard. And if so, you only ignore him at your own peril.

Certainly, I would never say that you should give in to your addiction, but there is a wisdom in becoming curious about what is behind the things the addiction is saying. I’ve developed a sort of annoyed-but-attentive relationship to my own addict-self. It’s complicated, but honestly, I think I’ve found a way that he and I can work together for my better future. Hopefully you can with yours as well.

Addiction as an Ally: Part One

Talking to the Addiction)

When I was about a year into my initial recovery process our group therapist told us to write a letter to our addiction as if it was an actual person. The next time we met we read those letters out loud, and there was a great deal of anger and hatred directed towards the addiction. Most of us made it abundantly clear how much we had been hurt by the addiction, and how much we would wish it could be hurt in return, if only it were a living thing.

Then our group therapist said something that caught me by surprise. He advised us to redo the exercise, but to tone down the hate this time. We were here to say goodbye to the addiction, not to rage against it. In fact, he said, through all his years of doing this work he had come to appreciate the intentions of the addiction, even if he didn’t condone its behavior.

I had a very hard time processing what he said in that moment, it just seemed too outlandish to accept. Over the years, though, I think I have come to understand what he was getting at. The fact is that our addictions are actually trying to help us. To be sure, they absolutely do not help us, but they are trying to. Our addictions arise due to a terrible grief or stress in our lives, and they are an attempt our instincts make to cope with that pain. Yes, they cope with the pain in a way that only causes more pain down the road, and that is why we have to stop them, but their intention to free us from our anguish isn’t in-and-of-itself evil. How true, then, is the expression that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” That quote matches the addict perfectly!

My therapist was trying to help us reach the point where our letters could say in essence, “Addiction, I see what you were trying to do, and I can even appreciate your intentions. Thank you for trying…but now I know that your methods don’t work. In fact, they only make the problem worse. Also, you have not been willing to listen to me when I tried to reason with you, so now I’m here to tell you that I’m cutting things off entirely. I’m not going to entertain your suggestions any more, and I don’t want to hear from you again. This is good-bye.”

Firm and decisive, but not hateful.

As I suggested, I wasn’t able to see this perspective at first. I had spent too long hating my addiction to give it any sort of acknowledgement whatsoever. The more I worked the program, though, the more I had to deal with the fact that my addiction was inseparably connected with my young-child self, who didn’t have the wherewithal to deal with his great sorrows in a healthy manner. I couldn’t bring myself to hate seven-year-old me for being ignorant, for being duped, for just being a child who didn’t understand. Not to say that my young-child self is entirely one-and-the-same as the addict self, but they are inextricably linked. One came about because of the other, and so much of my addictive acting out, even as a fully-grown adult, has been initiated by my childlike impulse-driven mind.

Growing Up)

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. - 1 Corinthians 13:11

Our addiction is a sign that part of us has been trapped in our childhood. We have remained little boys and girls in the area of how we deal with our emotions. Every little child becomes a worse form of him- or herself when they are overwhelmed with emotions that they cannot fully process. They become tyrants, they become liars, they become gluttons.

Ideally, the child will be guided in these moments by a kind and understanding adult. One that can show them healthy outlets for frustration, support them through overwhelming situations, and reaffirm to them their true nature. They need an adult who won’t hate them for having started to go astray, but who will love them back to being who they really are.

Often we only became addicts because we didn’t receive that sort of wise and loving care back then. Instead we were left to figure things out on our own, and the result was that we let an addiction into our lives. The addiction promised us control over our painful feelings. We probably had some instinct that what it enticed us to do was wrong, but also we were young and easily seduced by the pleasures that it offered.

Now, though, we are an adult. We have greater perspective and higher reasoning, if we choose to use it. That small child is still inside of us, and we have the chance to help it…or to aggravate it further. When we direct hate at our addict-self, we inevitably also hate the overwhelmed child that is locked up with it. What’s more, by engaging in these angry outbursts we are only giving up our mature self to lean further into our childish nature, thus ensuring that there still isn’t an adult present to help with the situation.

The true adult would have the maturity to forgive. The true adult would , forgive the child for being scared and not knowing what to do, forgive the child who having made an ignorant mistake, forgive the child for letting the addiction in. Not only would the true adult be able to forgive the child, they could even forgive their addiction.

I absolutely understand if that notion seems incredulous right now. I wasn’t able to come to terms with it at first either. I had to mature in my recovery considerably before I was able to finally say, “Addiction, I get it. I don’t approve of what you did…but I see why you thought you had to. You were wrong, and continue to be wrong, but I forgive you for that. I’m not going to hate you anymore.” I have been able to say that, and then I have parted ways with my addiction in peace.

Or, well, we sort of parted ways. As any addict in recovery knows, the boundaries we set with the addiction are tested many times over. My addiction has snuck through the back door in different guises that I wasn’t expecting. I was frustrated and didn’t know what to do. I started to have a sense that the addiction was never going to really leave. It was probably going to always be there in some capacity or another. And as I came to accept this fact, I realized that I could actually have a partnership with my addiction and still make use of it. Now I realize that might not sound like a very good thing, but I don’t mean it in the way that you’re probably thinking! Come back tomorrow and I’ll explain myself further!

The Secret to Permanent Sobriety: Part Two

The Never-Ending Journey)

In my last post I shared how addiction recovery programs and motivational mantras can help us to find sobriety for a time, but they are not a total cure for our sickness. If we are trying to find a way to fix our addiction in one great action, we will be forever disappointed. The secret to permanent sobriety is that there is no secret to permanent sobriety.

Yes, it is possible to live a life free of your addiction, but not as the result of a single grand gesture. It comes by a continual sequence of innumerable efforts. We seem to think of our recovery as a state, a place that we can reach and then stay there. But the fact is, sober living is the byproduct of a lifelong journey for personal improvement, and once we stop taking steps in that journey the sobriety will also falter. Thus, each program and each mantra is only a step that gives us a reprieve for a time, but it must be followed by another step.

The good news is that once we accept that the single grand gesture that brings permanent sobriety is a myth, then we can also accept that the daily gesture that brings a period of sobriety is real. Only by surrendering our desire for the big fix can we finally appreciate the little one. This is why the AA mantra has always been “one day at a time.”

Ongoing Programs)

And speaking of AA, the reason why twelve-step programs are able to permanently sustain an addict in his or her sobriety is because they never end. There is no graduating from a twelve-step program. You come to the meetings, you work the steps, you finish the last one…and then you start over at the beginning, and find someone to sponsor, and keep coming to the meetings.

I mentioned previously that I went to a one-time intensive recovery program, but even they did not profess to be the final cure for all that ailed us. As we finished up their program they repeatedly reiterated to us that if we hadn’t already, we needed to join some continuous recovery program to maintain our sobriety. I admit that I was lazy in making that transition. I was in a good place for the moment and I took their advice halfheartedly. I had seen for myself that I could be restored to sanity, but I guess I had to also see that I could start slipping back into insanity as well.

I have since made a commitment to myself that I will never allow myself to be inactive in my recovery work again. I will always be attending some sort of meeting and doing some sort of homework. I will always ask myself what the next step for a healthier life will be, rather than say that my life is good enough where it is.

Change Within the Ritual)

There is another seduction that we have to recognize and reject as well. After an addict accepts that a singular effort won’t keep him sober and he commits to regularly meeting with a group and doing recovery homework, he might think that he is now in the clear. He believes that he has found the recipe to a happy life, and if he repeats it over and over, it will carry him through to the end.

But this still isn’t quite true.

And the reason why it is not quite true is because we do have an enemy who actively makes war with our souls. I personally believe in the reality of the devil, and I believe that once we find a line of defense that keeps him at bay, he immediately starts concocting another method for attack.

This is how warfighting works, after all. Once an enemy has been defeated in one battle, they aren’t going to keep attacking on the same field under the same conditions. They are going to change tactics. At first they might deploy forces to a weak point. When that point is fortified, they might shift to guerilla, strike-and-run tactics. When precautions have been made against that, they might send spies into the country and stir up sedition from within.

The strategies that worked for you yesterday will not always be fit for the threats of today. You have to be prepared to change tactics just as much as your adversary does. So yes, you keep going to your recovery group and keep doing your homework, but you do that so you have a reserve of strength to respond to the ever-shifting battle.

As an example, in the beginning the addict does this work so that he can learn to overcome his immediate temptations. By the repeated effort, he gradually makes progress, and finally seems to be able to live with a constant sobriety. But now that he is living a healthier, more grounded lifestyle, he finds that the people in his home are resisting that change. His new patterns have broken their expectations of him, and even though he is clearly happier and healthier, they will exert pressure to return the relationship to more familiar places. Thus, the assault has changed from temptation to relationship. The attacks are coming from within the addict’s very own home. Now the addict must learn not only how to establish boundaries with his own behavior, but also with others. A twelve-step program and recovery homework will help him to connect to his higher power and have the strength to do this, but he is going to have to employ new practices in his life to keep up.

To Be a Warrior)

Every addict in recovery is called to fight an eternal war. Every addict is called to forever be a warrior. I realize that this probably sounds exhausting and grim, and perhaps on some days it is. But thankfully, miraculously, there really is an incredibly joy that comes out of living this sort of always-active lifestyle. In the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous they say: “There is, however, a vast amount of fun about it all. I suppose some would be shocked at our seeming worldliness and levity. But just underneath there is deadly earnestness.” Later on, they also say: “But we aren’t a glum lot. If newcomers could see no joy or fun in our existence, they wouldn’t want it. We absolutely insist on enjoying life.”

Getting started is hard. Sometimes it is hard enough that I try to put it off and look for an easier way around it. But when I finally stop wasting my time in vain pursuits, get to work, and build up just a little bit of momentum, I suddenly find that this labor becomes the most pleasant and rewarding work in all my life. Not only do I feel a sort of satisfaction and excitement about the whole thing, I am also able to look myself in the mirror with dignity and pride. I know that I’m genuinely doing my part and that God is making up for the rest.

Perhaps you are also one of those who has lapsed between programs. Perhaps you thought you were all better, and seemed to be so for a time, but now the enemy is knocking at the gate once more. Perhaps you have felt afraid that this means you will never be whole. I hope these posts have helped you to see that there is still hope for you. Not hope for a one-time cure-all, but hope for an ongoing pattern of life, one which evolves and grows with the changing times, and which keeps you healthy in the moment, from moment-to-moment. It might require a paradigm shift for you to accept these realities, but I pray that you will make that shift quickly. Once you do, you will ascend to a higher truth and sobriety than you had the first time around! A truth and a sobriety that works, and then works again and again!

Misguided Strength

A Surprising Discovery)

Early in my recovery journey I went into the mountains to attend a three-day spiritual retreat based on the writings of John Eldredge. While there, I discovered a deeper and more consistent connection with God than I had ever known before. I gained an understanding of my past and a roadmap for my future. One of my takeaways was that I needed to start writing. I came back home and started a story blog, later expanding into this spiritual blog and a novel.

My initial motivation for writing was simply to do something creative, something that I had loved in my youth but abandoned somewhere along the way. Much to my surprise, though, the act of writing also became one of my greatest tools in recovery. As I wrote consistently, I felt my desire to lust decrease to a level where I could easily turn it down. I hadn’t started writing to gain sobriety, but that was what had happened even so.

I found this a strange, if welcome, phenomenon, and I started paying close attention to my behavior and feelings. Through my self-examination I believe I found the link between my writing and sobriety. Perhaps this concept will help you on your own journey.

Energy Costs)

One thing I noticed was that my writing took real energy. Sometimes I would try writing when I was tired because I thought it would be a calm and sedentary activity, but it didn’t work. I really struggled to compose anything, and whatever I did get down was of inferior quality. I found that I did my best writing when I was still fresh and full of energy. I might not work up a sweat with my writing, but it does take real mental energy.

And this, I discovered, was the same with lust. Lust takes a story of energy, even when one is only sitting at a computer. It expends your strength and leaves you weaker than you were before. Thus, I found that my act of creativity was burning the same fuel that was used for lust. When I gave my energy to my writing, there simply wasn’t any left over for vice.

This made me consider how one of my earliest triggers for lust was being bored as a teenager. Sitting around with nothing to do had left me with pent up energy that needed some sort of outlet. At first, I had spent it in my writing, but when lust presented itself as an alternative, I moved over to that, leaving my writing behind. I was able to do one of these activities but not both, and if I didn’t want to do one then I simply needed to do the other.

The Strength of Man)

I don’t think that my situation is unique, either. As I consider men as a whole, I can’t help but notice that so many of us have problems with anger and lust, two high-energy vices. This has led me to theorize that God has given men great strength, in order that we might do a great work. But too many of us are not seeking what that great work is. We miss our calling, but we still have this great strength within us and it’s got to come out in some way.

If this is true, then one of the key things for real recovery is for a man to find what his calling is and spend his strength in it. Exactly what that calling would be is something that he must discover personally for himself. For me it was writing, but that won’t be the right calling for everyone.

One thing I am curious about is whether this phenomenon of pent up energy leading to addiction holds true for women as well. The addiction recovery groups I have been part of have been exclusively male, and obviously I am a male myself. I would defer any insights on the addiction patterns of women to someone who is more directly connected there.

But for men, at least, I think there is some real truth here. I am still evaluating this theory, and perhaps my opinions will evolve as to how energy, productivity, and addiction relate to one another, but I am at least certain that it is always good to seek one’s calling and put one’s strength into it. I am certain that doing so can only help one in their sobriety.

If you have desired sobriety for yourself, but been unable to attain it, I would recommend that you take some time to consider what calling God has for you, and how you can pour your heart and soul into fulfilling it. Join a group, work the program, and find your purpose in life. It is a wonderful way to live!

Holding Back the Tide: Part One

Slipping to the Bottom)

There is an engineering problem that is so difficult that it has become an idiom for any impossible task: pushing water uphill. All of us know that the tendency of water is to take the most immediate route downhill. It pauses when it comes to a level surface and pools up, but only until it is able to feel out another path downward.

Many times, living with an addiction can feel much like this problem of trying to keep water at the top of a hill. There are steeper edges on some side of the hill, where your temptations are strongest, and the tendency to fall is constant. Through sincerely working an addiction recovery program, one may start to shore up the steepest sides of the hill, putting up a bulwark to prevent themselves from slipping that way anymore, but what happens next? Well, if you deny water its usual route, it run along the length of the barricade until it finds whatever the next best route downward is. And this is the case with our addictive tendencies, too. Many the addict has momentarily rejoiced at having his addiction under control, only to slowly realize that he is losing control in another area of his life! One addiction is traded for another!

My Victory and Defeat)

This was the case with me when I began recovery work for my addiction to lust. I threw myself into a program with all my heart and will, determined to make any changes whatsoever until I had beaten this unacceptable behavior. And you know what? It really worked! I started accumulating some real sobriety, and it stuck! At last I felt I had solved the riddle that had stumped me for twenty years.

Then, a couple years into sobriety, I started to notice something annoying. When I had first started my campaign against lust I had started to live a more healthy lifestyle overall, resulting in me losing a good deal of weight. Now, though, the numbers on the scale were starting to go the wrong way again.

Okay, I thought, I got a little lazy with my exercise these past couple months. I just have to recommit to my routine of running and calorie counting. Things will get back into place in no time.

Except that they didn’t. Though I recommitted myself to being physically healthy (multiple times!) I just couldn’t make those changes stick. In fact, the more I tried to improve my behavior, the more I seemed to dive off the deep end instead. Now the overeating had my full attention, and I was horrified to recognize in it the same impulsive, stress-coping, habitual nature that had defined my addiction to lust.

But even realizing this fact was not enough to regain power over my appetite. Until recently, I was trying to approach my sedentary life and unhealthy diet as an addendum to the first addiction, an additional area to work on now that the main issue was under control. But this wasn’t an accurate portrayal at all. This wasn’t an addendum to the addiction, it was the full addiction itself. The same water, just pooled to a different part of the hill. I had pinned the dragon down in the cave, but it had snuck out under disguise and was razing the village once more!

You can’t keep the water in place by laying sandbags in one place. If you shore it up where it was running out, it will come spilling out of areas that were only somewhat a problem before. If you shore up those areas, then the water will start coming out of areas that weren’t a problem at all before. You have got to get the sandbags around the entire perimeter of the hill.

A Total Reformation)

Now I admit, I had allowed myself to get complacent in my recovery work. When I first started I was singularly focused on my addiction to lust, but soon learned that nothing short of an entire life restructure was going to suffice. This was why I had been able to make some headway on my physical health, as well as my social and financial health, too.

But after I finished my initial addiction recovery program I did not immediately get myself to a consistent twelve-step group. Just when I started to realize that I needed to, COVID shut down in-person meetings, and I took that as an excuse to still float adrift. By the time all the lockdowns had been lifted, I had stopped thinking about joining a group entirely. And through all of this I had maintained my singular focus on continuing sobriety from lust, but I had given up on the broader view of maintaining an entirely new lifestyle. My physical care was therefore in severe decline, as well as my social connections and my finances.

Half a year ago I started to right the ship. I joined a twelve-step group and have been attending diligently ever since, while also doing recovery homework. I have, as a result, seen the downward trends be halted, and some of them have started to turn back in the right direction. The journey seems to be slower this time than it was before, but maybe that’s just how it feels when you’re in the trenches.

Most importantly, I have become reconvinced that if I am not willing to change my entire life, then my life will not change in any significant way. I am trying to rebuild control and consistency, with the understanding that areas must be worked on. If I get my health and wellbeing back where I want them in just one area first, I won’t make the mistake of thinking that now I’m done and the other sectors of my life can be left to themselves.

Tomorrow I will discuss a little more of how I am trying to make changes in my life on a day-by-day basis. I’ll see you then.

You Get to Choose, Even When it Seems Impossible: Summary

Capable but Powerless)

I began this journey by considering the conundrum of the addict who hates his addiction but lives it even so. The addict possesses the physical capability to change his behavior, and sufficient desire to cease his behavior, yet finds himself falling into it again and again. The missing piece, as we have discussed, is that the addict lacks the mental willpower to translate his desires to his actions, at least when in the face of powerful temptation. His prefrontal cortex has been eroded, which is responsible for all his higher mental functions. When the need for another hit arises, all feelings and rationality are numbed into silence, leaving the addict a slave to his base impulses.

Many of us felt that we had plenty of character. There was a tremendous urge to cease forever. Yet we found it impossible. This is the baffling feature of alcoholism as we know it – this utter inability to leave it alone, no matter how great the necessity or the wish. - Alcoholics Anonymous: The Big Book

This conundrum has led many the addict to despair. He feels that at some point earlier in life he must have forfeited his last chance at salvation. By the time he became really serious about wanting to change, it was already too late, and now he believes that he is doomed to do the very things he despises most for the rest of his life. This demoralizes the addict, is almost certain to cause him to enter a deep depression, and can even make him suicidal.

While I would certainly never encourage any suicidal notions in any person, reaching this moment of despair does suggest that the addict has finally reached the point where he can be totally honest with himself. Because he’s right, he can’t win this battle. Only by accepting this soul-crushing defeat can he begin the path to victory.

Other Paths)

When one door closes, another opens

For most addicts, it is only the total failure of their attempts to control their lives that will finally humble them enough to hear alternative methods. Inherent in all of us is the desire to fix ourselves by ourselves, so we have to try at that for a very long time, and to absolutely ruinous results, before we will start to look outside for help. And it is in this shift outwards, though, that we can actually find the success that has eluded us for so long.

Quite probably the single method that has brought the most hopeless-case addicts to true healing has been the twelve-step program invented by the Alcoholics Anonymous organization, and this program is entirely predicated upon the notion that the addict, though powerless by himself, can find the power to overcome his addiction through the strength of God and the recovery group that he binds himself to. Relying upon others goes absolutely in the face of our desire to be autonomous and self-powerful, but, paradoxically, it is also the only thing that will ever allow us to regain out autonomy and self-power.

In the course of this study, we examined how the addict who reaches out to a fellow brother or sister when facing temptation is inviting a working rational mind to the situation. The addict who calls for help is having his mind assaulted and numbed by an active temptation, but the person that he calls probably is not. The helper can provide the calm reasoning to the distressed addict, talking them down off the ledge and back into rational ways of thinking.

We also considered how uniting together for this good purpose gives us access to Christ’s promise that “where two or more are gathered in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:20). Coming together as a group for a holy cause is one of the surest ways I know of to tap into the strength and willpower of the divine. And, in my experience, that strength and willpower is far more than enough to overcome every temptation that we might face. “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).

We also discussed personal practices that the addict can put in place to help shore up his defenses. These are in no way an alternative to calling upon the strength of our brothers and sisters and God, but an addendum to those resources.

The practices we described included recognizing and avoiding the sequence of events that typically precede our acting out. Often there are trigger events that come before the temptation, and much of our acting out can be avoided if we simply avoid the trigger event. Usually we are able to circumvent that trigger because our mind isn’t yet fogged over by temptation.

The other personal practice we discussed was finding the areas of life where our damaged prefrontal cortex and higher reasoning weren’t being entirely steamrolled by temptation. In those areas we make a conscious effort to act deliberately and conscientiously. I pointed out how when we deliberately do little things to improve our lives, even if they seem fairly inconsequential, we are exercising the regions of our brain needed to perform higher executive functions. Bit-by-bit we are increasing our willpower, mental strength, and conviction. Eventually we will have enough power to reclaim the fields taken by our addiction.

Hopelessness isn’t Hopeless)

Sometimes it isn’t the situation that is hopeless, it is the method that we are bringing to it. Each of us needs to give up on using the wrong tool so that we can start to use the right one.

If you have a genuine addiction, powering through on your own is doomed to failure, but that doesn’t mean that you are necessarily doomed to failure. After failing countless times over it is easy to become pessimistic and assume that nothing could ever work for you.

I’m here to give you the good news that this is not the case at all, though. You are not the first person to have felt this way, and you will not be the last person to find salvation even so. Leaving behind the methods that didn’t work, now embrace the methods that do. Learn to be shrewd in how you avoid temptation, build up strength of willpower through small wins, and tap into the strength of others and God.

Do these things and your mind will heal, your impulsive behaviors will fade, and self-control will return. You will become one of those of whom it has been said, “For the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves” (Doctrine and Covenants 58:28).

I have seen it in myself and in numerous others. The brain can heal itself. Hope can be restored. The numbing forces can be numbed.

As I pointed out at the start of this post, the addict in the midst of despair can find himself entertaining thoughts of suicide. He is wrong to think he has no alternative but to end his life, however he is correct that a death of some sort must occur. That death, though, is the death of the ego. Only by denying himself, putting to death his pride and isolationism, can he be reborn through the baptism of fellowship in Christ. He must immerse himself in the brotherhood and sisterhood of fellow addicts in recovery, and when he does, he will feel Christ manifesting within himself. Then his new life truly begins.

You Get to Choose, Even When it Seems Impossible: Part Five

A Pattern of Power)

I have been discussing ways that we can find the willpower to fight temptation, even when our brains have been damaged by our addictions. I have covered doing all that we can to avoid even encountering our temptations, but sooner or later they will find us even so, and then we must suddenly find strength and mental reasoning that we are incapable of providing for ourselves.

This immediately suggests that we must have a strength that is beyond our own. An external strength and reasoning that will slay the dragons that we fail to overcome by ourselves.

For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them. - Matthew 18:20

I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me - Philippians 4:13

These verses provide us a pattern for accessing just such an outer strength, a pattern that I have found most effective. In the first verse we are promised by Christ himself that when we gather together in his name, he will dwell among us. In the second verse we are told by Paul that Christ strengthens him to be able to do all things. Thus, gathering together invites Christ’s spirit, and Christ’s spirit lifts us to be able to do what we could not do on our own. This is a pattern that I have been able to make use of in my own life and I have come to value it greatly.

Group Strength)

The founders of Alcoholics Anonymous discovered that there was a special power when addicts came together as a group to lay down their burdens and encourage one another. A room full of individual failures could somehow churn out mass success. Ever since that realization, groups have sprung up all across the world and for all manner of different addiction recoveries. I, myself, regularly participate in a twelve-step group for pornography addiction, and I can attest that there really is a secret strength in numbers.

Mathematically, it doesn’t seem to make sense. As an analogy, imagine if our addiction was our debt and our resolve was our assets. Then an addict, by definition, is someone whose debt outweighs his assets, someone who is at a net negative. Now if you have ten such men, all with a net negative, and you combine them all together, what would you expect? Net negative of course! A negative plus a negative plus a negative plus a negative–and so on–can only result in a greater negative.

But, counter-intuitively, that’s just not how it works in practice. The men in my group bring all of their problems with them to the recovery group, yet somehow the group doesn’t feel weighed down by the shared burden. Instead, weight is collectively lifted up by the group and tossed aside.

The only conclusion that I can come to is that the scriptures cited above are true. When we gather together to do the holy work of refining our souls, Christ is there in our midst. We come with all our collective debts, but he has a wealth of assets, enough to compensate for all our shortcomings and more.

A Phone Call Away)

And this same strength can be called upon in moments of duress as well. We addicts have learned that we can recreate the spirit of the group with a simple phone call to another brother, right when we’re being faced by our temptation.

We might feel powerless in the face of the temptation when on our own. We might feel that we are doomed to give in. But if in that moment we can work up just enough resolve to make a phone call, then as soon as we start sharing our burden with a brother, that same unseen power starts rising within, enabling us to do the very thing we couldn’t just a few moments before.

In fact, we don’t even need to have decided to overcome our temptation when we first make the call. We can simply make the call without any commitment whether we will remain sober after we hang up or not. We only need to have the strength to dial the number, and then the strength to go the rest of the way will follow. If I can’t decide to be sober on my own, I can still decide to step out and get help. And when I chose to step out and get help, then I can decide to be sober, too.

The power that comes from reaching out to a fellow addict in the moment of temptation is twofold. On the one hand, we are currently having our mental willpower, our brain’s prefrontal cortex, overrun by our powerful temptation. Our mind isn’t working how it should, but in the fellow addict that we call there is still a properly functioning mind. Their prefrontal cortex isn’t currently being overrun like ours is. Thus, they are able to bring the higher reasoning and persuasion that our own mind cannot provide. Later, when they are the one being overrun by temptation and we are back to sure footing, then we are able to provide the same benefit to them.

The second power is, of course, the light of Christ that I have already been discussing. For when a brother reaches out to me to help, I really do feel that it is more than my own mental faculty that I am able to bring to bear on the matter. I have felt an external love and wisdom flow into me, helping me to say and share the things that will speak directly to the soul of my brother. And I have felt the exact same divine presence shared with me when I have called for help, too.

Growing Ranks)

I don’t know why the power of Christ comes to us in this way, but it just does. I have tried many times to pray in isolation for his power and I have been very disappointed in the results. On the other hand, I have never gone to a recovery group meeting without feeling Christ’s power overflowing me. I have never reached out to a brother in recovery without feeling the strength to do what I couldn’t before. It seems to me that this is just how he wants it. He wants me to reach out to others, and he gave his instructions in the verse from Matthew so that I would know that I needed to do it.

At this point I’ve discussed how we can find self-control through preventative measures, and how we can access the strength of Christ and a larger group. I have also explained how exercising our willpower in daily tasks can increase our resolve over time. This brings me to the end of all the techniques that I wanted to share with you. Tomorrow, we’ll review them all together. I’ll see you there.

You Get to Choose, Even When it Seems Impossible: Part Four

Impossible, but Temporarily So)

During the past few days, I have discussed the addict who has fallen to his temptations time and time again, yet still thinks that next time he’ll somehow pull through. I made the case that if we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that all of our desire and willpower combined are not enough to prevent us from doing the things we despair of. When we act out our addiction, our base and thoughtless impulses are bringing the whole self along for the ride, even if some of those parts are kicking and screaming against it!

I have also shared how this is in large part due to the stunted prefrontal cortex that develops in the mind of the addict. One who has given in to a harmful habit for an extended period of time literally has less mental willpower than one who has not. To adapt to this fact, we must consider techniques that will help us avoid our temptations, rather than trying to fight them head-on. But before I get into that, I do want to offer one word of encouragement in regard to facing temptation and overcoming it.

I have made the case that the addict has some situations where he will give into temptation, even if he doesn’t want to. We don’t like that fact, but it is a fact, nonetheless. I want to reiterate a fact that I shared just yesterday, though, which is that it doesn’t have to always be that way. Absolutely we can strengthen the prefrontal cortex, build up moral fortitude, break habits, and get to the point where the same temptations that would have overwhelmed us can now be rejected entirely. Many former addicts have healed their minds and their souls in just this way, and we can, too, but in order to survive long enough to do so, we will need to employ these more preventative tactics that I am about to discuss.

If and Then)

Let us suppose that at last we are able to admit that we are not in such control of ourselves as we would like to think. Let us suppose that we have accepted that given certain situations we will give in to temptation. This does not have to be a statement of hopelessness. It can instead be the first part of an if-then rule that preserves our safety.

If I cannot browse the internet late at night by myself without viewing pornography, then I will not browse the internet late at night by myself. If I cannot walk by the pub without going in for a drink, then I will not walk by the pub. If I cannot go to that restaurant without ordering the chocolate cake, then I won’t go to that restaurant anymore.

If I’m serious about my recovery, then I’m not going to put myself into the same position of failure that I have succumbed to time and time again. I’m not going to make the mistake of thinking that I’ll just defeat temptation in battle, I’m going to secure victory by preventing the battle from ever occurring.

By understanding the parameters and preconditions of our acting out, we can stop worrying about how we will face temptation and instead focus our efforts further upstream. If you’ve let it get to the point that you’re alone in your office with your hands hovering over the keyboard, or sitting on the stool talking to the barkeep, or roving your eyes over the menu, you’ve probably already lost. The time to fight was when you first started going to the place of temptation. You may currently lack the resolve to resist the tantalizing ad on your computer, the smell of the beer, the atmosphere of the restaurant, but you probably did have the resolve thirty minutes earlier to say, “I’m going to bring my laptop out into the family room where everyone can see me,” or “I’m going to see if my friends want to play golf instead,” or “I’m going to try that other restaurant today.”

This is true, because even though the prefrontal cortex of the addict brain has been diminished, it has not died completely. The addict still is capable of higher reasoning, just not when they are not in the face of great temptation. By exercising their reason at a time when the distasteful appetite is sleeping, they can avoid waking the beast entirely.

The Lever)

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

One of the most basic components of engineering is the lever. It is a simple machine whereby a relatively small force in one place can be magnified into a multiplied force somewhere else. One may not have enough strength to move a heavy rock directly, but through the magnification of a lever, their strength can end up indirectly moving the rock even so.

Does it matter if you don’t have the willpower to turn down temptation if you do have the willpower to avoid the temptation in the first place? In either case, haven’t you effectively overcome your addiction in that moment? A choice, only made indirectly made through another choice, is still your choice.

It takes some time an observation, but if you examine your life and your addiction behaviors, you will notice that there are certain situations and events that tend to be precursors to those actions. With a little thoughtful effort, you can circumvent those situations and events, and will already make great progress towards sobriety.

But of course, even this is not a complete solution. If we circumvent every opening for the addiction, soon we will experience the symptoms of withdrawal. Cravings will arise, even without our usual triggers to set them off. Sooner or later, we’ve got to deal with that matter of resolve in the face of temptation. And I’ll tell you right now, there will never be an easy win here. It is always going to be a difficult, uphill battle. But at least we’ve cornered the enemy to this one place. So next we will examine how we rely on a willpower other than our own in such moments. We’ll dive into that topic tomorrow.

You Get to Choose, Even When it Seems Impossible: Part Three

The Difficulty of Doing)

Yesterday I shared about the studies that have been done on the minds of addicts, and how the prefrontal cortex has been shown to have diminished activity in their brains. Where in a healthy brain appetite can be ruled by reason, in the addict things go the other way round.

And this is true in so very much of the addict’s life. In fact, very few addicts have only one uncontrollable behavior. They might have their primary vice, such as drugs, alcohol, pornography, excessive eating, or gambling, but they probably have shades of several others as well. Once the prefrontal cortex is damaged by one behavior, then it is stunted in how it deals with all of the others. Maybe the addict isn’t as totally helpless in these arenas as they are in their main addiction, but things are probably getting worse on those fronts, rather than better.

This might seem a depressing fact, but actually there is a nugget of hope in it. The fact that the willpower has varying degrees of efficacy in the addict’s life means that it isn’t dead entirely. If the prefrontal cortex was totally eradicated, then all areas would be overrun by wanton excess. There wouldn’t be a difference between small temptations and large, they would all have their way entirely if the opposition was a total zero.

And this is a positive fact that every addict needs to appreciate. Yes they are damaged, yes their willpower is compromised, and yes they might be losing ground, but the war isn’t over yet. Their forces are not completely in retreat. There is still some strength left in them, and if there is some strength, then it can be exercised.

Building Strength)

If you were to have the muscles completely removed from your arm, you would never be able to use it again, no matter how hard you tried. But if your muscles were only damaged and weakened, you could regain use of them through many repetitions of weight-lifting. By flexing your muscles against increasing levels of resistance, you would gain the ability to move your arm like you could before.

And it is just the same with the prefrontal cortex. The same studies that showed that this region of the brain is stunted by addiction, also showed that it can be restored again to its usual activity. Brain scans of addicts who have walked the path of recovery reveal that a once-damaged mind does heal back to its proper and powerful state.

For this healing to occur, there are two things that must occur. The first is what I have already begun to describe: the addict must exercise his self-control to make it stronger. The second is that the source of damage must be stopped. Let’s look at these criteria one at a time.

Exercise)

As I mentioned above, some parts of our lives are still active battlegrounds. We have smaller struggles where the temptation is still mild enough that our prefrontal cortex can still grapple evenly with it. This is our gym. This is where we can start exercising our mind and regaining control.

When I first began my addiction recovery journey, the counselor overseeing my group asked each of us to make specific goals every week and then follow up on how we had done with them. He told us that we should choose goals that were well within our power to achieve, but which would stretch us a little beyond our usual day-to-day behavior. He also insisted that we needed to take these goals as sacred commitments. We had spent years teaching ourselves that we couldn’t be trusted, now it was time to convince ourselves of the opposite.

Small, daily commitments often seem inconsequential in and of themselves, but so does lifting a small dumbbell repeatedly, and yet we all know that this serves a useful purpose. No one lifts the dumbbell simply for the sake of lifting the dumbbell. They do it to increase their strength and health in all the other areas of their life. They lift the dumbbell so that they can lift what matters later on. So, too, small, daily commitments that we consistently follow through on are how we do the weight-lifting of the mind.

So, take some time to identify some simple, regular practices that are not currently doing, but that you would like to implement, and make a solemn commitment to change. It might be something as simple as making your bed in the morning. Follow through on that commitment, whatever it is, over and over, until it becomes a matter of simple habit. Then choose an additional healthy practice to adopt and start working on that, too.

Just Stop)

I do realize that obtaining sobriety so that your mind can recover so that you can overcome temptation might sound like a chicken-or-the-egg paradox. How can you obtain sobriety if you don’t first have the recovered mind to overcome the temptation? It seems an impossible riddle.

Fortunately, it’s not an impossible task, it’s just not immediately apparent how it can be done. Throughout the rest of this study, we will be examining the outside-the-box thinking that helps us to do just this. For now, though, let me explain the general idea of what these techniques will accomplish.

We are physically able to deny our addictions, we just are lacking in the willpower to fight against temptation. What we need to do is bypass the need for willpower altogether. If we let the battle get to the point of mental arguments, we are going to lose. Just as how our addiction is a matter of habit, we need to build new habits that circumvent the addiction. Then it doesn’t matter if our mind is compromised, because we won’t actually be putting any thought and reasoning into the matter. We want to make our sobriety become easy and automatic, based upon an already-made decision, so that we don’t have to try and remake the decision when in the face of temptation. Starting tomorrow, we will begin to explore how we accomplish this. I’ll see you then.

You Get to Choose, Even When it Seems Impossible: Part Two

A Sudden Thoughtlessness

Yesterday I described the experience of an addict desperately wanting to stop his addiction yet finding himself diving headlong into it even so. The addict knows perfectly well that he has the physical capability to put away the needle, close the laptop, skip the dessert line, or walk past the pub, and he knows he has all the reasons in the world to do exactly that…but he just doesn’t. In the moments of anticipation, the addict remains convinced that things will be different this time. In the moment of action, though, he is proved wrong again.

How could this happen?

Most addicts throw their hands up in exasperation. They have absolutely no clue! They would love to know the answer to that question themselves! It makes just as little sense to them as it does to everyone else. In fact, it makes even less sense, because they know better than anyone that their resolve was real and true just an hour ago! They, more than anyone, know just how far they fell and how quickly.

How could you choose to do this?

The addict insists that they didn’t. But then they admit that obviously they did. Again, it makes no sense to them. They thought they had already made their choice: they would never do this thing again. But then the choice was undone, and seemingly without their permission. But how can they say it wasn’t by their permission? Whose else would it have been?

What were you thinking?

Here the addict might blink their eyes blankly. Honestly, now that they think about it, they really weren’t thinking about anything at all. At the moment they didn’t consider why they were giving in to the temptation or if they should do so…they just went ahead without any reasoning or thought process at all. Or in some cases, it might have briefly occurred to them that they had all manner of reasons not to give in, but all those thoughts felt dull and meaningless and were quickly ushered offstage.

And this is the experience that seems most puzzling, because beforehand the addict had created an airtight argument against the addiction, a series of facts and principles meant to convince himself to stay away from his vice forever. But that depth of logic and reason had abandoned him when it came to make his case. In the moment of decision, it had felt like his rational, reasonable self was addressing a brain-dead jury. Where did the addict’s mind go at the time when it mattered most?

This question might seem an aggravation to the addict, but it is actually a wonderful thing to settle upon, for this is the key to understanding the true nature of his addiction. This phenomenon is so consistent in the addict, and so prevalent across all addicts, that there really must be a reason behind it.

Playing Without a Full Deck)

Thankfully, researchers picked up on this pattern and they dedicated themselves to getting to the bottom of it. Through a series of studies, they found the answer. What they uncovered was that our addictions do not only cause emotional and spiritual damage to ourselves, but they also have a clear and measurable effect upon our very brains. The brain of the addict has been shown to have drastically reduced activity in the prefrontal cortex, as if it had been severely injured.

If you’ve never heard of this fact before, feel free to do a quick web search for “addiction and the prefrontal cortex.” You will find all manner of scientific papers on the subject, such as this one.

The idea that the brain of the addict would be different from that of a sober person might be quite alarming. Most addicts don’t feel like their minds are working differently, but the science is clear. The brain scan of a sober person is completely different from that of the addict.

And to be clear, this phenomenon of different mental activity is not limited to addicts who have been using brain-altering drugs. The research has found that even when the compulsive behavior introduces no foreign chemicals whatsoever, such as the habitual viewing of pornography, there is still a decisive erosion of the prefrontal cortex. The implication seems to be that it is the act of living our addiction itself that causes the damage to this part of the brain.

And just what is the prefrontal cortex used for? Well, it is the region of the brain from which comes all of our higher reasoning. It is what provides our rational, calculated thinking, so we don’t just operate from pure instinct and reflex. It is what allows us to set goals and sharpen our focus.

To have a damaged prefrontal cortex means to lose one’s ability to apply reasoning over appetite. It means to give up deliberate decision-making and revert instead to habitual instinct. It means to be highly susceptible to suggestion. It means to have very little mental strength in the face of great desire.

Sound familiar?

The addict is caught in a vicious cycle. Back in his past, probably long before he felt that his behavior was a real problem, he engaged in practices that eroded the part of his brain necessary for higher reasoning. By the time he became aware that he had a problem, his ability to turn down the temptation had already been severely stripped down, leading him to act out again, which only eroded his higher reasoning still further. He is caught in a downward spiral of having less and less control over his choices.

The addict is playing a game of poker, but with only half the cards he is supposed to, and in every round the addiction will call his bluff.

Is There Any Hope?)

This may sound like a terminal diagnosis. How can one exercise “mind over matter” when the physical matter of the mind has been damaged? Does this mean that the addict is doomed to a life of acting out?

Well, no. Happily, the research has also shown that the damage to the prefrontal cortex is not total, meaning it has not progressed in the addict to the point that he literally cannot make his own choices at all. Also, the research has shown that the damage is not permanent, meaning that once the addict’s brain has been stunted it does not necessarily have to remain so.

But how can the addict strengthen and repair his mind? We’ll dive into those questions tomorrow, detailing exactly what the addict needs to do to get the desired healing. I’ll see you next time as we explore these subjects.