To Live Freely: Part One

Axiomatic Truth)

There is a concept that has come up a few times in my previous series, including the last one. I have spoken to the matter in brief here and there, but now I want to consider it more fully. The concept is that living in the truth is the foundation for a full and happy life. Said another way, facing the facts as they really are is the only way to be truly free. Said a third way, only those who are willing to face the truth unflinchingly are ever truly alive.

This is a principle that is basic and fundamental to life. It is so foundational that sometimes it is difficult to really get a grasp on it. Axiomatic truths are, by definition, self-evident in their truthfulness, requiring no argument to prove them. That’s all well and good, but it means that if you then try to explain why an axiom is true you’re going to have a very hard time of it! Explanations tend to lead to circular logic, such as “living in truth is the foundation for a full life because…it just is!”

One way to come to full appreciation of these fundamental truths is to look at them in reverse. Fundamental truths are prerequisites for many other things in life, and by examining those things that are built upon foundational truth we obtain evidence that the underlying axiom really is true, for if it were not the things that we have observed could not be. We find that the fundamental truth is necessarily true, because it is necessary for it to be true for other observable things to be so.

Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.... Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them. -Matthew 7:17-18, 20

Jesus describes the same idea in these verses where he teaches that we may recognize that which was good by whether it brought about good or not. So if we want to know whether “a life founded upon the truth is joyful and free” is a true statement or not, then we merely have to look at those who live in harmony with this belief and see what sort of life they possess. I will begin my series today by doing exactly this. I will look at an example of people who are built upon this axiom, living their lives with the assumption that it is absolutely true. We may observe the reality of their lives, and infer whether they built upon a solid foundation or not.

The Happiest of People)

I have mentioned before how the addiction-recovery groups I have attended are singularly focused on living in harmony with truth. Any addict working a twelve-step program can tell you that one of its most fundamental tenets is that we take a fearless inventory of our lives, facing all of the unpleasant and difficult truths in our character. Where most people attempt to cherry-pick their best qualities and define themselves by those, addicts in recovery open the door to all of their qualities. We do not care if the description of us is pleasant, only that it is true.

And what comes about by this strict adherence to seeing things as they really are? For an answer, let me offer an anecdote that occurred to me personally. I was speaking with an ecclesiastical leader about my efforts to overcome my addictions, and my time spent in my recovery group. As soon as he heard that I was part of a twelve-step program he said to me, “you know, I’ve never been a part of such a program, but I have been a witness to its meetings and its members, and those are the most humble, most sincere people I have ever met.”

The reason why the twelve-step program has grown at such incredible rates since its inception is entirely due to the quality of the men and women one meets when they walk through the door. People see men and women who have not only gained freedom from the most terrible of vices, but who also live with a clearness and a joyfulness that simply isn’t to be found anywhere else. Furthermore, the fact that that light has remained consistent throughout the decades and continues to burn brightly in every new generation of members is a testament to the fact that the happy way of life was not due to some pre-existing condition in the first AA members, but is cultured in its members from the principles that they live by. If people had not seen throughout the years that these people had uncovered a superior way of life by their principles, then no one would have stayed and joined the crew, and it would have been a long-extinct experiment.

It was the evidence of this joyful peace that also drew me into the ranks of the twelve step program. It might seem a counter-intuitive thing to say, but I quickly recognized that I had never seen a happier, more satisfied, and more productive people, than these addicts who sincerely identified their miseries and their flaws. One would have thought that bringing out those heavy truths would have crushed them, but so far as I could see those weights, once surrendered, were being taken away, so that they could live free and unfettered. They attested that one had to truly see their shackles before they could receive the key to undo them. Though I was not then converted to the notion of living my life strictly in harmony with the truth, I was persuaded enough by what I saw to give it a try. My result has been much the same as theirs.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Even if you don’t consider yourself an addict, go and visit a few of the local meetings in your area. See for yourself what manner of men and women these are, and what sort of lives they lead. Granted, every group has its own culture and its own level of sincerity about the work, but attend a few different ones and you will quickly see that there is a clear correlation between those that genuinely face the hard truths and those that live joyful and free.

Do I Even Have an Addiction? -Part One

Is it a Problem?)

For the last year I’ve been attending a 12-step group for lust and pornography addiction. Every couple weeks we will have a new attendee who feels embarrassed about being present. Quite frequently they’ll introduce themselves with something like “Hey, so…I don’t really know if I have an ‘addiction,’ per se, but I just figured I ought to come here and see if it feels like it might be beneficial for me…”

Let’s take a closer look at one of these individuals. We’ll make up one called Pete. Now Pete knows that his behavior isn’t what he wants it to be, but he’s uncomfortable with the notion that he is chronically or perpetually enslaved to that behavior. Pete’s willing to admit that he has a “problem,” but it seems a stretch to classify it as an addiction.

When Pete thinks of the word “addict” he imagines a grizzled man sleeping on a park bench, or a nervous kid hawking his mother’s jewelry in a back alley, or a young woman selling her body for drugs. He imagines people who are ruining themselves mind, body, and soul, who are completely out-of-control, who have severed all ties to anyone that used to love them. Those are all clearly addicts, but surely Peter, who goes to church, has a family, and pays his bills couldn’t be an addict…could he?

Choice vs Compulsion)

Another key element that keeps Pete from identifying as an addict is the matter of choice. An addict is defined by his inability to choose, he his compelled to act, even to his own destruction. But while Pete doesn’t like all of the things that he does, he still feels that it is a choice when he does them. His behavior is problematic, but he doesn’t believe it is out-of-control. He does these things because he wants to do them. Granted, he doesn’t always want to do them, sometimes he very much wishes that he didn’t do them at all, but sometimes he does want to do them and that’s when he “makes the choice” to do so. He’s not saying that that’s a good thing, but he does say that he isn’t being forced against his will.

One might ask Pete that if he still retains free choice in this area, then why doesn’t he make a firm and final decision that he isn’t going back to that behavior anymore? If at all possible, try to catch Pete when he is feeling a strong desire to act out and ask him then if he is still in control.

“Yes,” Pete answers us. “I really am in control. I can choose to do this, and I can choose not to. In fact, I think I’ll make both choices here and now. I’ll choose to go ahead and do this just one more time, and then I’ll choose that I’m done for good!”

“Could you choose to be done before this last time instead of after?”

“Of course…but I don’t want to. I want to choose to do it this one time for the last time, and then be done forever.”

“You say that you do not want to choose to stop just yet. In general, are you able to choose to do things that you do not want to?”

“Yes, of course. I choose to do unpleasant things when I have to all the time. I go to work when I don’t feel like it, I help my neighbor shovel his driveway, I skip the dessert line if I’ve had too much to eat. I can choose to do things that I don’t want.”

“Then choose to do this thing that you don’t want. Choose that the last time you acted out was the last time. Choose that you won’t act out again now even though you want to.”

“I…don’t want to.”

“But you have just said that you can, even if you don’t want to. You’ve already claimed that you are in control, but what does that even mean unless you can choose in spite of what you want? That’s what control means. So choose to stop now, even though you do not want to, and that is the only way to prove that you really are in control here.”

How Pete squirms! For as unsure and out-of-place as he felt at his first twelve-step meeting, he soon starts to realize that he’s just as crazy as all the “real” addicts there. Usually by a newcomer’s third or fourth meeting he’s willing to throw in the towel and admit that his “little problem” is actually his slave driver!

A Needed Perspective)

And frankly, that’s why we need to go to a twelve-step group. It provides just this sort of well-meaning confrontation which shows us our own inconsistency. The sooner we go to group, the sooner we feel pushed to give up our pet vice. The sooner we try to give up our vice, the sooner our illusion of self-control is dismantled. It is only when we try to resist against our vices that we feel the hooks they already have in us. We only ever felt we were in control because we had never tried to make a choice that went against the script.

A New Foundation: Part Two

Weighing Down)

Yesterday I shared about the broken and divided foundation that is exposed in a marriage when a secret addiction is brought to light. Every positive experience from the past was at least somewhat predicated upon a lie. Every good and decent thing that the addict ever did is tarnished.

And not only is the past thrown into disarray, but also the present and the future. I pointed out how even the most sincere and genuine acts of kindness from the now-truthful addict can be a trigger to his wife, reminding her of all the false and manipulative overtures he made in the past. Yes, today his actions might be blameless, but they are linked in her memory to the actions that were not.

Thus, the husband trying to repair the marriage with acts of goodness is like trying to fix a crumbling building by stacking new floors on top of it. Those new floors might be sound and whole, the very finest of design, but their added weight is only going to hasten the collapse and soon the whole thing will come down, good and bad parts alike.

The addict and his wife are stuck in a situation where anything they do to try and prop up the falling structure only sets off more problem areas. Finally, they might realize that they have to stop trying to save a fundamentally ruined structure. And, counter-intuitively, that might just be the thing they need to save their marriage.

Letting Go)

I have known many couples in recovery that just admitted that their marriage had failed, stepped back from the problem, and watched it collapse at their feet. And then they started talking about how to build a new one. They realized that they could start the relationship over from scratch. They could pour a new foundation there at ground zero.

The old marriage vows were now a sham, they had been broken to the point of losing all meaning. So rather than trying to revitalize them, why not renounce them for the empty promises that they were and make all-new commitments instead? The couple’s memories are marred by the Jekyll-and-Hyde performance of the addict weaved through them all. So why not accept that those memories’ former luster has been lost and start making new ones instead?

It can be such a relief to realize that you don’t have to solve this architectural problem at all. You don’t have to marry two opposite realities together. You can instead assign all that was flawed and broken to the past and all that is hopeful and good to the future.

Some of the couples I have known that made this discovery bought new rings, had a new vow ceremony, and started counting their anniversary from the day they recommitted themselves to one another. It might sound like a strange thing to do, it certainly goes out of the normal convention, but really why not? It is an irregularity that is more congruent with life as they were experiencing it. Perhaps they didn’t realize it at the time, but so much of their confusion was because they were trying to fit stereotypes of love and marriage that didn’t fit their situation. There’s nothing to say that you can’t and shouldn’t alter the signs and symbols of love and marriage to match the one that you actually have before you.

In Due Time

Before I close off this topic, I must point that none of the couples in our recovery group took this step on day one. It would have been hugely premature to say, “let go of the past and hold on to now,” when “now” was still totally enmeshed with the “past.” Most of us addicts were still learning how to even live soberly from day-to-day, and it wouldn’t do to make new marriage vows that wre then broken a second and a third time.

It is prudent to wait until you are actually ready to live the new life before you make a solemn symbol of it. Better to not start pouring the new foundation until you have learned the fundamentals of architecture. Better to not say it is for real this time until you really mean it. And not only that you mean it right now in this moment, but you know that you will still mean it tomorrow.

Put another way, it is good to commit to the better future, but neither of you can do that until you are first ready to totally let go of the past.

A New Foundation: Part One

The Trauma in Disclosure)

I’ve spent several weeks discussing different aspects of addiction and its effects on a relationship. I’ve talked about the journeys of both the perpetrator and victim of abuse, and the anger in the spouse after she learns how the addict has been secretly acting out behind her back. Today I will continue with these themes and analyze one other aspect of addiction and relationship, that of rebuilding a marriage after the initial trauma of disclosure.

It is essential for every addict to make a full and complete disclosure to his wife. Given that he may have decades of shameful behavior hidden away, it may not be possible or prudent to list every offensive action he has done, but he should be willing to go into as thorough detail as his wife asks of him. She has the right to know all the things that he should have been telling her over all the years. At the same time, the addict must understand that this disclosure is going to cause significant trauma. She deserves to hear the truth, but it’s likely to rock her to her very core.

After such a disclosure, it is entirely possible for the wife to question whether the marriage can continue at all. Even if the husband is sincere about his desire to recover, she may feel that irreparable damage has been done. One of the most common feelings a wife will describe is that all of their marriage had been built upon a lie. Every tender and sacred moment she thought she had with her husband is now marred by the fact that he was lying through his teeth all along. It is as if the man she thought she loved in all of these memories has suddenly been replaced with a monster she never knew. Where once thinking of these times gave her joy, now they only bring sadness.

Different Views)

As for the husband, his view is totally different. Yes, he knows he lied, and probably some of the memories with his wife are also marred by the shame of living a double life, but also he knows that some of those moments were truly genuine. He didn’t fake everything. His love for his wife was real, and many of his acts of kindness to her really came from an authentic place. Indeed, it might be that genuine love for his wife is a key reason for why he is fighting this addiction now. Recovery work takes one to some very scary and painful places, but he’s willing to go there in order to save the best part of his life, including his relationship to his wife.

And the fact is, neither the husband nor the wife is wrong in their perspective. Neither one of them should feel that their view of reality is invalid because it isn’t shared by the other. The wife really has had her whole life thrown into disarray. Even if her husband says certain moments of their past were real to him, that doesn’t mean they have to be real to her still. Similarly, the husband should not be required to deny the real moments of poignancy from his past. Just because the whole marriage has been painted black in his wife’s eyes doesn’t mean that he cannot have a more nuanced view of it.

Often the result of these disparate perspectives is that the husband and the wife struggle to know how to continue building their marriage. The foundation of their love is divided and eroded, and it feels like every good thing they try to add just breaks it apart even more. For example, a kind gesture from the husband might actually be hurtful because it causes his wife to remember how kind gestures in the past were part of his manipulation. Similarly, anniversaries and milestones might feel like phony celebrations of a sham relationship, undermining the sense of accomplishment rather than building it up.

Thus, it can become very hard to sort out the real from the fake and come to a shared vision of the past. Indeed, in many cases, the couple will find that it is impossible to resolve their different perspectives. Ironically, it is by coming to accept that the marriage is broken and cannot be repaired that a couple can finally save it. I realize that might sound paradoxical, but come back tomorrow as I will explain what I mean.

Addiction and the Angry Spouse: Part Nine

The Need for Boundaries)

I have spent quite some time talking about the situation of an addict trying to move away from the past and a wife who is still wounded by it. The addict is trying to define himself by new actions, but the wife still has things to say about the old ones, creating a friction between them. I have spoken with many addicts who felt that they were trying to let go of their old identity but their wife was still trying to cast them in it.

This disparity is especially pronounced when the addict’s behavior was kept a secret from his wife. The addict would have had years to grapple with his immoral behavior, fight through his sense of identity, and ultimately conclude that he was going to live a higher way. He would have done all of this at his own pace, according to his own leisure. The wife, of course, has had an entirely different situation. All at once she has had dumped on her years of history that she never knew about. She has to process all the same questions of her husband’s identity that he had literal decades to resolve. If she is casting her husband in the role of the liar addict, it is because she is still coming to terms with the fact that he played that role for years. Many times this inner conflict will outwardly manifest in an outburst of anger. This is entirely understandable, and even inevitable.

That isn’t to say that every angry outburst can be condoned, though. I pointed out at the start of this series that there are lines which it is never okay to cross. There are words designed to break another person and make them lose faith in themselves, and these are never appropriate. Of course, it’s hard to say exactly at what point this line is crossed, because it depends on the nature of the person being berated and it depends on the intent of the speaker.

The same goes for actions that ruin the reputation of the addict. In some cases it might be proper to enlighten others to the full nature of the man they thought they knew, while at other times it is purely an act of vengeance.

Of course there are also destructive, reactionary behaviors such as having an affair or punishing the addict through his children, which are never appropriate. There can even be instances of the wife trying to inflict physical harm on her husband, which is also always unacceptable.

I could go on, but the point is that there are lines that must not be crossed, and it is up to the addict to lay those out around himself and then get away from any situation where they are trespassed over. Of course, the wife should have these lines for herself as well. There are certain behaviors that she should not tolerate, such as being lied to, and she should remove herself from the situation if those behaviors are continuing. In short, each spouse needs to have their own boundaries.

Doing the Work)

In this series I have also talked about the need for each spouse to do their own work. The best thing that the addict can do for the relationship is to sincerely work his recovery and show his wife by example that he is genuinely becoming a new person. Also, I discussed the need for him to understand the pain that is behind his wife’s anger, and do the work of recognizing and empathizing with those overwhelming emotions. As for the wife, the best thing that she can do is work with a counselor to address the storm inside her heart. She must come to terms with who her husband is, what it does and doesn’t say about herself, and what she wants to do as a result. At some point she also needs to let of her anger and hate, in order to live a life free of corrosion.

The addiction and trauma recovery program that my wife and I went to strongly encouraged each spouse not to make any life decisions for a year. They told us we needed to get to a grounded place. We each needed to find out who our authentic self was and calmly make decisions that were consistent with it. At the end of it all we wanted to make choices that we could honestly say were done in good conscience.

But as I have discussed previously, that presupposed that each of us really would do our own work. Sometimes it was hard for us to take a hands-off approach to the other’s recovery. We each had wounds and egos, and when they got bumped and bruised we each wanted to explain why the other person was always at fault for it. It was easier to blame the other than to do the hard work on our own self.

Certainly I wouldn’t expect any couple to be perfect in this regard. There will be missteps, there will be lines that get crossed and apologies that need to be made, and that goes for both the husband and the wife. There does need to be some allowance for one another not being perfect.

Let me conclude by saying that I have seen for myself that even such deeply flawed and deeply wounded persons as an addict and his wife are still able to make their way through if they sincerely try. People that seemed doomed to collapse under their pain and weakness can reveal a surprising degree of resilience when they are living honestly. With a little help from professional counseling and a lot of help from God, they can make it if they try.

NOTE: Throughout this series I refer to the addict as “he” and the injured partner as his “wife.” This is merely a convenience for maintaining consistency. It is entirely possible for the addict to be a woman and the injured partner to be her husband. It is also entirely possible for the strained relationship to be between non-romantic partners, such as with a parent and a child.

Addiction and the Angry Spouse: Part One

A Precarious Situation)

I attended an addiction recovery clinic when I decided I really wanted to be done with lust and pornography. One of the things that was so helpful about that clinic was that they did two treatments at the same time, one for the addict, and one for the spouse or partner of the addict. Given the demographics of pornography addiction, the addicts were predominantly men, and thus the partners were their girlfriends and wives.

The partners, of course, were deeply hurt by our addiction, and this is true for most other types of addiction as well. Being so closely involved to a person with any sort of compulsive, destructive behavior will always result in extensive wounding. Thus, every addict is going to have to deal with this most intimate relationship at some point of his or her recovery journey. They are going to have to take ownership of their mistakes, empathize with their spouse’s pain, make amends however they can, and accept the consequences that follow their behaviors.

The spouse also has her own issues to come to terms with. Given the secretive nature of an addiction, most likely she is only learning about this whole secret life that was going on behind her back for the first time. She has to process the betrayal, the lies, the manipulation, and has to decide between rebuilding the relationship or moving on. What’s more, the spouse has to negotiate all these matters while being flooded by intense, negative emotions. Very often this makes for periods of deep depression and angry outbursts, both of which are difficult for the recovering addict to know how to deal with.

A Strange Disconnect)

If the addict is sincere in his recovery, then these first months of sobriety probably give him a confusing, dual perspective of himself. On the one hand, this is the most honest he has ever been in his life. This is the first time ever that he can sincerely say that he is giving it his all. He is heroically facing his inner demons and doing something he is genuinely proud of. His recovery group members are recognizing his sincerity and acknowledging his bravery. They are encouraging him by pointing out that he is one of the very few in life who has found the “straight and narrow path” and committed to following it.

But then, on the other hand, the addict feels that he is an absolute dirtbag. For the first time he is really acknowledging the harm he has caused. He has shameful memories that he has avoided his whole life, but now he must face them head-on. He has natural responses of self-disgust and revulsion. The voices inside tell him that he has done too much wrong, he is irredeemable, and that he doesn’t deserve to be loved. And in many cases, that very message is being echoed by the person that used to love him best.

It is only natural that the wife whose whole conception of life has been shattered would have anger bursting out at every turn. Many addicts discover a side of their spouse that they never knew before, full of shouting, insulting, and profanity. Some spouses start throwing objects and breaking things. Some start looking for ways to hurt their husband back, physically or otherwise. The addict is trying to manage his emotions and choose sobriety over quick relief, all while enduring a constant and passionate reminder of what terrible damage he has done.

In fact, since the addict knows that he really is guilty of this terrible damage, he might feel that he has no right to question his spouse’s behavior. He has given his spouse the ultimate trump card in any argument. Any frustration or disagreement that he might express towards his spouse is immediately overcome with “well at least I didn’t do what you did!”

It is easy for a couple in this situation to subconsciously assume a new rule in life. Anything that goes wrong for the wife, no matter how unrelated it is to his past wrongs, is still the fault of the addict. Even if his acting out didn’t directly cause the new trouble, the new trouble is more painful because it has landed on a heart that was already beaten and tender. The addiction didn’t make the spouse’s uncle die, for example, but it has deprived her of the trusted shoulder to cry on now when she needs it.

Moving Forward)

So, which is it to be? Must the addict accept that he is a terrible monster and always will be? That no matter of future sobriety can make up for the wrongs already committed? That he will be an addict, and he must daily self-flagellate because of that? Or is the wife supposed to just shut up about her pain? Does her anguish just not matter because the addict is suddenly a “new man?” Does the past not even matter?

Which of these two extremes is the right way forward? Well, of course, neither.

If the right way were so simplistic it would hardly require a blog series to unpack it. The real way forward is far more nuanced and intricate, and it absolutely requires full respect to be afforded to both sides of the matter. Throughout the next several days we will examine this issue from multiple angles, hopefully coming to a conclusion that resonates with all.

NOTE: Throughout this series I refer to the addict as “he” and the injured partner as his “wife.” This is merely a convenience for maintaining consistency. It is entirely possible for the addict to be a woman and the injured partner to be her husband. It is also entirely possible for the strained relationship to be between non-romantic partners, such as with a parent and a child.

Perpetrator and Victim: Part One

The Victim)

Some justify their addiction by saying that their behavior is a victimless crime, but nothing could be further from the truth. An addiction always has a victim. Obviously, there are those that we use or betray, either directly or indirectly; then there are those who are being deprived of having our full presence and care, even if they do not know it; and finally, even if it were possible to live an addiction without either of those first two categories of victims, there is always the victim of our very own self.

For the addict to turn his attention to his victims is a very hard thing to do. It anguishes his very soul. And, frankly, it should anguish his soul. That is the right and proper consequence for one who has caused harm, and it is necessary for the addict to endure this if he is ever going to have a real change.

But this journey into the dark is not only for the addict. There is a parallel journey that the victim must pass through as well, one which involves coming to terms with his own brokenness and surrendering it. Throughout this study we will take a deep dive on the addict, his victim, and the journey of recovery that they both must follow. Let us start today by taking a closer look at the three categories of victims that I mentioned above.

Immediate Victims)

This is the category that most commonly comes to mind when we think of the word “victim.” If one is a lust addict it might a person they molest, if one is an anger addict it might be a person they strike, if one is a drug addict it might be a parent they steal money from. In short, it is anyone who is harmed as a way for us to get the twisted pleasure or satisfaction that our addiction demands.

Also, there are the victims who were not harmed by the acting out of the addiction, but by its aftermath. These include the nieces and nephews who wonder why we aren’t allowed to play with them anymore, the ex-spouse who can’t get a loan because we ruined their credit score, and the new employee who is never fully trusted because of the cynicism we inspired in our former boss.

There are also victims that do not know they are victims, such as the girls we leered down the shirt of. There are also the victims that we never directly interacted with, such as the kids who started doing drugs because they wanted to be like us. I would even make the case that there are victims who were distressed by the invisible, evil spirit that we brought in our wake.

If we’re honest with ourselves, I’m sure we’ll all be able to identify many, immediate victims of our addiction. We’ll even come to accept that there are undoubtedly many more that we have forgotten or never knew of.

Indirect Victims)

Even after all the types of victims mentioned already, there are still others. These are the victims who suffer from not getting to have our full presence in their lives. Most of the time, these people don’t even know that they’re getting a substandard version of us, and we might not even know it either. Most likely we’ve been emotionally handicapped for so long that we don’t know that it is a handicap anymore. Our loved ones say that we’re just “aloof” or “distracted,” never considering that in reality we are half brain-dead because of our addiction.

Our spouse doesn’t get the partner that they thought we were, our children don’t get the attentive parent that they deserve, and our employers don’t get the employee that they thought they hired. And as I’ve said, we don’t even realize just how much of our real self we are holding back until after we have been in recovery long enough to discover who that real self is. It is only in hindsight that we understand just how much our loved ones put up with that they shouldn’t have had to.

Cheating the world of our best self puts an undue burden on everyone else. It creates a perpetual sense of longing and dissatisfaction in others that they may never understand the source of. They don’t know how to vocalize the ways that we weren’t there for them, just the sense that we weren’t. They only ever got the shadow of us, when what they wanted was the real thing.

Victim of Self)

And, finally, there is the very first victim of them all. The one that suffers more than any other victim in almost every case. Every time we hurt another person, we also hurt ourselves. And even when we don’t hurt another person, we still also hurt ourselves.

We break our own heart, destroy our own innocence, and subject our own selves to misery. Every negative action we project outward also has a negative reaction directed inward. An addict who burns a hundred bridges deprives each of these people of only one relationship, but of himself he deprives them all. Everyone else gets a portion of the pain of our addiction, but we get all of it combined in one.

We lose our self-respect, our health, our optimism, our faith, our friendships, and our freedom. We subject ourselves to punishments that we would never accept at the hands of another person. There are plenty of addicts who may not break a single law, but whose behavior to their own self would be considered criminal if it had been done to another person. And while that addict may never end up behind real bars, inside he is prosecuted, convicted, and incarcerated still the same.

Facing the Victims)

So, as I said at the start, addiction always has a victim. It must have at least one, and frankly I have never met an addict that didn’t have hundreds. It’s a grim reality that most of us go to incredible lengths to avoid facing. But denying the existence of a reality means trying to live apart from the truth, and that only tears us apart. Sooner or later, if we ever wish to be whole, the truth has got to be faced. The victims have to be considered and the remorse has to be felt. A little bit later, confession and amends will also be necessary, but first and foremost, one has got to look at their damage unflinching.

Hitting Rock Bottom

Diving Deep)

“Hitting rock bottom” is a common phrase in addiction recovery and twelve-step programs. Addicts will include it when describing the shocking depths they descended to before they were willing to wholly commit to recovery. They lost jobs, were imprisoned, lost their families, declared bankruptcy, were excommunicated from their church, lost their physical and mental health, and perhaps even found themselves on death’s doorstep. In short, they sunk as low as they possibly could, and then, having “hit rock bottom,” they finally started to look upward.

This pattern is so common that some addicts will attest that no one will ever find real recovery until they first hit rock bottom. It’s not that everyone’s rock bottom is the same, but they claim that one must hit their personal moment of absolute devastation before they can recover. Some will even tell newcomers who haven’t suffered enough hardship from the addiction that they aren’t possibly going to get better until they first get much worse.

I absolutely disagree with such claims. I think there is a real pattern being recognized, but extrapolating that pattern to say it is an absolute rule for each and every single individual is a terrible mistake. No one should ever be told that they cannot yet begin the process of getting better.

The Power of Fear)

But as I just said, this doesn’t mean that there isn’t a real pattern occurring here. I saw it in my initial recovery group of six members. We each had our own highs and lows, but only one of us totally stopped working the program. I have to say, from the very first meeting I had my doubts about his commitment. The most obvious difference between him and the rest of us was that he was still young, unmarried, and had relatively little to lose if he didn’t get better right away.

Well, that’s not true, we all had just as much to lose, but for some of us the losses were occurring in the present, whereas for him much of the potential losses were still in the future. Since that time, I have met other young addicts who were able to stick to a program, even without their feet being held to the fire by the threat of losing marriage and family, but they are a small demographic in our ranks.

Fear of real and dramatic loss is one of the greatest motivators for change. It isn’t the only motivator, and people can achieve recovery without it, but there will always be more scared and desperate individuals in recovery than cocky and sure.

Pivot Points)

Of course, fear does not properly account for the phenomenon of getting sober after “hitting rock bottom.” Fear is an emotion that comes from potential unpleasant outcomes. Fear is always looking forward to a future experience, usually one that may or may not even occur. But “hitting rock bottom” would mean that the thing you were afraid of has already occurred. The loss has happened, the relationship has ended, the freedom has been taken. Fear has already been replaced with reality. So what else is it about these moments that might inspire real change?

Well, these are pivot points. They are moments that force a huge reality check on us. Up until these moments we might have been in denial, finding other things to blame for our problems, but huge tragedies like these usually make us take a hard look inside. We finally see ourselves as we actually are, and having gained that perspective we get to make a choice whether we will accept what we see or not. We have a chance to say to ourselves “no, I cannot tolerate this. I cannot be this way. I will do whatever it takes to change.”

Each new low presents a new chance to have that introspection and to make that commitment to change. They are stations along the railway, and at each one we have the option to change trains if we want. There is a train station when you are caught the first time. There is a train station when you lose your marriage. There is a train station when you go to jail. One might take the first exit, another the second, another the third, and another might never get off the ride at all.

Thus, “hitting rock bottom” really means the time you reach the pivot point where you finally decide enough is enough. Each person has a different point where this occurs for them, and it is based entirely on their individual personality and choice. Many of us are too stubborn to choose to change until we have suffered great loss, but as I have said already, I do know others who made a real change far sooner on their journey. It’s entirely up to you.

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.