The Wisdom To Know The Difference

If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably well acquainted with the hopelessness of depression, the gripping fear of anxiety, the shame and guilt of addiction or trauma, or the heartbreaking helplessness of being witness to a loved one who is caught in one or more of these struggles.  You know suffering and pain.  You have direct experience with being stuck.  

You’ve probably tried everything you can think of to make things better, and if you’re like most of us, you’ve even continued to try many things after they have failed over and over again.  At times, in our desperation to feel better, we struggle against this suffering and pain to find that it’s so much like quicksand.  The more we struggle, the deeper and faster we sink.  The harder we try, the worse it gets.

We have a natural tendency to expect that the process of recovery will make us feel better.
That’s the point, right?  We’re working hard in our therapy, possibly attending various support groups or meetings, endlessly talking about our problems, and to what end? How can we tell if all these efforts are working?  We should be feeling better, shouldn’t we?

An alternative perspective on this is that through recovery we may be getting better at feeling, but not necessarily “feeling better.”  At least not right away.

There’s a natural tendency for us to want to make a quantum leap once we become ready to make the important changes in our lives.  We may have begun to resolve our ambivalence about taking action towards feeling better and it would be nice if someone would just tell us what to do. How do we get out of this quicksand?

One approach is to let go of the struggle - to slow down, take a breath, step back from our thoughts and feelings, and notice them for what they are.  Not what they say they are. And, to notice what our thoughts and feelings are trying to get us to do.  This is the practice of getting better at feeling.

Our minds produce thoughts and feelings that tend to be desperately focused on avoiding pain and discomfort.  Just as the fear of drowning in quicksand would cause us to struggle and sink faster, our minds are working hard to find relief from our pain in a way that just tends to increase it.

What if, instead, we made some room for this discomfort? Became willing to have it.  Allowed what’s already there to be there.  Began to view this pain as a natural and valuable part of our human experience that is evidence or testimony to what we deeply care about.  Family, feeling a sense of belonging, loving others and feeling loved, protecting people that matter to us, in our own small way making the world a better place.  We can’t live a life that reflects these values without also feeling the stinging pain of loneliness, disconnection, and disappointment.  To be fully alive is to feel this sort of pain, and maybe even to honor it.

When we make room for this type of pain, we can often transform it into something that signifies to us that we’re fully engaged in deliberately living a life guided by our values.  Our desire to feel good can give way to a different type of positive experience which is much harder to put into words.  This is an experience of being the people we want to be in the face of pain.  Being people with courage who are less focused on reducing or eliminating pain, than we are focused on being who we want to be in the world and perhaps taking our pain along for the ride. 

Consider the Serenity Prayer:

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And, the wisdom to know the difference.

We may not be able to change what it is to have the thoughts and feelings that make us human, and to care so much about who and what we value, but we can ask for the serenity to accept those things.  

We can also acknowledge, in a self-compassionate and non-judgmental way for the courage required to live life on life’s terms, and to take responsibility to change what is within our control -primarily ourselves.

And finally, to be a person that can on occasion be wise enough to recognize that we can’t control our thoughts and feelings, but we can control our choices and our actions in order to create the conditions for a transcendent experience that is far greater and more rewarding than the absence of pain, or merely just feeling good.

- John Armando

The Day That Turns Your Life Around

An amazing coach and mentor of mine shared with me his story – beginning with the day that turned his life around.  His experience was so meaningful and powerful that his life was never the same.  He went on to live a dynamic, healthy, and successful life.  His work impacted so many.  And he became, in my opinion, a wise old man.  As I write this, I am approaching my 44th birthday.  I should be grown up by now but I am not.  However, whenever I do grow UP – my hope is that I will have grown IN to the example he set.

At the end of my struggle – I was in very bad shape – physically, psychologically, and emotionally.  Here’s how bad:  I was experiencing hallucinations, seizures, and I was in real danger of having a heart-attack.  Oddly enough – what made the situation MOST painful was that my condition rendered me incapable of doing things which I value deeply: Reading, Writing, Speaking – and how these three things, for me, fuel each-other and make me feel like a dynamic and whole human-being.  I could not hold a pen, hold a book, or speak a meaningful sentence.  If there is a “hell” for me to arrive at – that was it.  I’ve been there.  And my condition lasted for several days.

Then magic happened – and magic doesn’t happen every day.  If magic happened every day – we probably wouldn’t call it magic.  It would just be another day.  After several days in serious danger – I awoke from my “hell”.  I was able to hold a pen and write again.  I was able to hold a book, read, and have the words make sense.  And I was able to speak again.  I was able to begin experiencing again the wholesome, enlightened, and dynamic feelings that these things bring to my life.  This is the day that turned my life around.  I had never been so grateful in my life.  I’m not sure I’ve been as grateful for anything since that day.

I shared this story with the coach/mentor I mentioned above when I was still in the early stages of recovering.  He said to me simply, “Peter….I’ve only known you for a short period but I am convinced that for things to change for you - - you’ve got to change.  If you want more than you’ve currently got – you have to BECOME more than you currently are.  And unless you become more than you are - - you’ll always have what you’ve currently got.”  Simple words from a wise old man.

You never know when or how the day that turns your life around will arrive.  The mystery of what coaxes the day’s arrival into your life is simply that: a mystery.  It could be an experience, a song, the lyrics, confrontation with an enemy, a conversation with a friend who levels with you and your life is never the same.

What is NOT a mystery is this: it’s possible to have a day that turns your life around.  Wherever you are and no matter your struggle – if you are open and become truly grateful – you too can have a day that turns your life around.  I hope you have one – you’ll never be the same.

- Peter Brizick

Addiction is a Family Disease and Recovery is a Family Process

In the midst of an opiate epidemic, I feel a sincere obligation as a leader in the field to offer solutions that might improve outcomes and save lives.  Addiction is a very complex illness and there is no simple solution. As a parent myself, I am even more inspired to offer solutions that will prevent tragedy. The traditional unilateral models of treatment are no longer the solution to this deadly illness and are failing us time and time again.  Addiction is a multisystematic problem requiring a multisystematic solution.  There is no magic wand or quick fix.  We recognize that addiction is a family disease but treatment is focused on the individual engaging in addictive behaviors.  This phenomena creates an unrealistic expectation that if the individual goes to treatment that the family members will feel better. Subsequent to admitting a loved one into treatment,  countless family members have said to me "I thought I would feel better after, he/she was admitted into treatment, but I don't feel better..why don't I feel better?"  I typically respond with a lot of empathy and compassion followed by a dose of reality. "Unfortunately, as result of having a loved one with a substance abuse disorder you have experienced a significant trauma and trauma causes feelings of immense anxiety and agitation.  Your amgydala is in a state of hyperarousal causing reactivity and irrational thinking"...."In order to feel better you need to be engaged in treatment yourself to process these emotions, you also have a recovery process".    I also tell them that engaging in treatment themselves will increase the likelihood of their loved one recovering significantly.  A family cannot be healthy unless all the members of the family are healthy.  If an individual completes treatment and returns to the same family dynamic the odds of maintaining sobriety  are very much against them.  Addiction is a family disease and recovery is a family process.  The outcomes we see when families are engaged in treatment are drastically better.  Recovery is a parallel process but not a linear process and relapse is often part of this process. When families are engaged in treatment they learn to recognize warning signs, establish boundaries and set limits increasing the likelihood of re-engaging the loved one in treatment and decreasing the likelihood of tragedy.  Treating the whole family is essential to improving outcomes and saving lives.  As a parent, I can only imagine the horror of having a child struggling with addiction and although this isn't my current reality, it very well could be one day and I fully recognize the impact that this would have on my family.  Addiction destroys families and recovery restores them.

- Sarah Espenshade  

Stomach Aches and Monsters In the Closet

If I had a dollar for every time my daughter had a stomach ache before school…..Well, I’m not sure I would actually be able to afford much of anything in today’s economy but you get the gist.

I have a 7 year old, she is amazing and wonderful with this remarkable gift of making me nuts.  While my work within the last few years was primarily adults, my passion, my home base was/is working with kids.  I have been interacting with children be it in an academic setting or therapeutic setting for over 20 years. Professionally, I know kids.  I have only been a mother for 7 years, well 7 years and 8 months if you ask my daughter.

The end of last school year my daughter was waking up with stomach aches, Monday through Friday mornings.  I was working full time, up at 6 out the door by 7:30.  “Go..go…go” was our morning mantra. I would usually pick her up around 6pm praying the after school program had assisted in her homework to alleviate the evening tantrum and tears with respect to “ this is sooooo hard I can't do it”.   Imagine my sadness (actually embarrassment) in finding out that in fact she couldn’t do the homework, because she couldn’t read. Here I was a master’s level, licensed clinician specializing in working with kids, having missed this. I was a failure as a mother, I was questioning my skills as a therapist.  My kid was struggling, her stomach aches were the body’s way of telling her, telling me, she was worrying. Every day she was worrying about having to walk into school and feel like she ‘wasn’t smart enough’. And I missed it.

Many steps later, she is now in an appropriate educational setting with an IEP and an amazing art therapist.   I have adjusted life so that I am more present for her. I let go of the guilt of what I missed and focus now on being present for what is.   We talk about her stomach aches, because while she still gets them, they are not nearly to the extent of last year. We talk about when her heart is sad or if her mind is worrying it may result in her stomach hurting.  We talk about the fact that it is okay to be sad, to have worry. Sometimes life is scary, or sad or frustrating. We are allowed to have feelings. I remind her of how smart she is, that she learns differently than other kids.  And I remind myself that when they discharged us from the hospital there was no training manual for how to raise a kid. I also remind myself that the hundreds of text books I read don’t measure up to the wonder and uniqueness of my little one.  And I remind myself when she wakes me at 3:00 in the morning and tells me there are monsters, that she is afraid of the dark. I remind myself that sometimes the best intervention is a string of lights in her window. I am going to have to slow down and ask what is going on, but sometimes I am simply going to have to check the closet and plug in the lights.