Saturday, December 11, 2010

Male Vulnerability and the Mask of Addiction

This week I started working with two different men and their wives. On the surface, these men appear to have very different addictions. Yet as we have talked about their development, they have similar roots.

8 years ago Raymond was able to give up marijuana when Kelly made it a condition of accepting his marriage proposal. For the first four years of their lives together, Raymond recalls, “I didn’t need pot. We were everything to each other. That connection we had as a couple was all I needed.” Then Raymond and Kelly had their first baby. He started to feel less important to her. One weekend he felt neglected, got mad at her, and stayed out late with one of his old friends. He smoked again for the first time in years. He felt too ashamed to tell Kelly. After that it sometimes felt like he needed just a little to get through a hard weekend. Before long it was an almost daily thing again.

It’s been interesting to hear Raymond be more honest with Kelly about what he wants from her, deep down: her time and attention, to know that he’s important to her, to know that she won’t give up on him as he’s trying to get clean again. This is very different from the way Raymond reacted four years ago as he started to slide back into his addiction: “She’s going to be that way? Well, I don’t need her! I’m fine. I’ll take care of myself.” He couldn’t take care of himself... he needed regular doses of THC to do that for him. It reminds me of what my colleague, Geoff Steurer says all the time: As humans, we can’t help but reach when we’re in need. The question is, what are we going to reach for: an addictive substance, or that someone who means the most to us?

Then there was the other couple. Cheryl was drawn to Alan because of the tender-hearted, big hearted guy he was. Twelve years later she was ready to divorce him because of his anger. She talked him into taking an anger management class three years ago, but it did not help. If anger was his addiction, Alan seemed to be high all the time. When they came to our office for an intensive, week-long treatment, we talked about the time when things went from good between them to bad. Alan remembered hearing from a friend something that Cheryl had told that friend’s wife. It was something that hurt him deeply; “It was like a kick in the teeth.” Cheryl had never known how hurt Alan was. She didn’t remember saying what he’d been told she said, but acknowledged that, at the time, she very well may have. “I shared too much with that friend. I should have been working things out with Brad rather than complaining to her.”

What a relief it’s been for Brad to tell Cheryl about the deep hurt he’s felt over the years, from that initial comment, and then the immense shame he feels over his reputation with her family as “a monster” as his anger has worsened over the years. “I would rather have had you cut me loose and divorce me than to feel the way I did, that I was this guy you didn’t want, who was bringing you down, making your life worse.” Cheryl never knew about these hurt, and finds Brad so much easier to approach in loving ways when he’s “soft like this. When I can see what’s really going on behind the anger.”

It’s very powerful to hear these men talk with their wives about what they really need from them and from the relationship. It’s also been interesting to watch the difference between Cheryl’s and Kelly’s responses. Cheryl’s right there, willing and able to show Brad the love and acceptance he’s been craving from her once he lets her in on what he’s feeling beneath the anger. Kelly, by contrast, is not feeling very supportive or loving right now. I’ve been impressed that Raymond’s openness and honesty with Kelly is facilitating his recovery nonetheless. Seeing this with Raymond and other clients has changed my perspective. I used to think that we had to identify our real needs and have them met in order to overcome addition. There’s more power than I realized in merely talking about how we’re feeling to the most important person in our lives and exploring with them what our feelings tell us about what we need. The greatest power seems to be in the reaching, and not necessarily in the meeting of the need. Even if our spouse can’t or won’t in turn respond in the way we’d like them to and thus “give us what we need,” we feel better for having been real them. Being seen and heard for who we really are has a healing power in and of itself.

So get real with yourself about the vulnerable feelings that you’ve been masking by going to your addiction. Then get real with your beloved by opening up about those feelings. This process will help you heal your addiction… and more importantly, it will help you heal your relationship. May God bless your efforts!

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