Friday, November 22, 2013

Sober is Different

Three months ago Kyle was masturbating to porn almost daily. Every time he tried to go without, the pull became almost unbearable. He said during one of our sessions, "Sex is the ultimate for me. The rest of the life pales in comparison."

He's now been sober for two months.

"When I consider doing porn, it feels a lot more hollow and pointless. Life's gotten better as I've been clean for a while. I guess I'm forming new habits.

"I've see more control and confidence in all aspects of my life. I'm studying to go back to school. I can sit down and do that more readily now. It feels like my life is moving forward. I'm more patient with the tasks I have to do at work.

"I'm more emotionally stable. It used to be such a roller coaster when I gave in after being sober for a few days, in those rare instances. I would be so low the next day, it was terrible. I was down on myself, irritable, less patient with my roommates. Most of the time I was giving in daily so it was a constant cloud that hung over me and dragged down my self-esteem."

Kyle summed up the difference he's experiencing in these words: "I'm a happy person."

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

John's Addiction Behind His Addiction

Seems a lot of people can relate to my last post. I’ll share John’s story, but first, let’s briefly review what I mean by the Addiction behind the Addiction: You have a life pattern that is commonplace and seemingly benign. But when you do too much of it, you’re more vulnerable to acting out in a way that’s more obviously problematic, more clearly an addiction.

As soon John learned about this idea, he knew right away what his ABA was: screen time. He was always turning to TV, the internet, his iPad, or smartphone.

So he started pushing the four pause buttons sometimes instead of always going straight to screens. Here’s how it went last Sunday night:

Declare the Thought: "I am so done with all of my duties and responsibilities and being around people and figuring out what they need and how I can help them. I just want to veg... escape... I want oblivion."

Face the Feeling: If I don't turn on the TV or get out my phone and check sports scores or political news I feel antsy, out of sorts."

Notice what's Now: Heaviness in my chest. My two kids youngest kids hanging near me. My daughter’s asking if she can read her chapter book to me. It’s a mystery she’s really into.

Do what’s You: I'll let her read to me. That will have more meaning to me in the long run than watching a football game I couldn’t care less about. My son snuggles up there with us and my daughter reads chapter after chapter. This is the most I've ever read with her and both of them are loving the time together.

It was 8:45 when they were done reading and John felt so relaxed he just laid there in his bed. He ended up falling asleep and slept for the next nine hours straight until it was time to get up Monday morning.

John had been exhausted!

If he had turned on the TV or his iPad instead, how well would those have restored his exhausted body and given him what he really needed? It may have felt like “down time” to him, but chances are he would have stayed up even later. In fact, sometimes at night he finds himself so tired he doesn’t even have the energy to get up and turn off the TV! 

Instead of getting more sleep and correcting the existing imbalance, his ABA would have emptied his tank further, making him even more vulnerable to relapsing with porn.

Good job, John!

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Addiction Behind the Addiction

Meredith is working to better manage her eating and her temper. But she has learned she's much more likely to lapse in one of those areas when she feels discouraged.

It may sound odd to characterize discouragement as an addiction. But it is very seductive. And certain things in her life can trigger her to relapse. She starts thinking in ways that wouldn't make much sense to her at other times when she's in her right mind. And then she behaves in ways that don't serve her well. For Meredith, discouragement might as well be an addiction. I think of it as "the addiction behind her other addictions."

The other day she was trying to organize a nice family dinner. Her fifteen year old daughter didn't come to the table until she'd been called four times. Then she rolled her eyes when Meredith asked her to pray. Then the two younger kids were being noisy and rambunctious.

She's been working with me to slow her reactions down, so she texted me later that night:

Declare the Thought: "So much for a nice dinner. Look at the state of your family. As hard as you try, you're not measuring up. God certainly doesn't approve of you."

Face the Feeling: Sad. Shame that I don't have things more together. I feel lonely and out in the cold spiritually."

Notice What's Now: "Tight in my gut. Table still a mess from dinner. Younger kids playing quietly on the iPad in the family room."

Do What's You: "I walked over and sat by the kids and watched the movie they were into. My little Pony. Asked them about it. Claire was excited to explain the personalities of a couple of the horses."

Typically, an addict will first work on their surface addiction using these steps. For Meredith this was back when she was giving in regularly to the urges to overeat or yell. For you it might be the urge to view porn, to overspend, or to drink.

Over time, however, just like Meredith, you'll then start to see other, more subtle emotional patterns or "addictions" that help set the stage for your "acting out" behaviors and overt addictions. As you track the process and put it into words, you'll notice that some thoughts and feelings keep showing up in the vicinity of your worst temptations!

How convenient: you can use the exact same 4-step sequence on those subtler underlying patterns of self-defeating thinking and feeling.

It's like recognizing the landmarks further upstream so that we can drag our boat onto the bank long before we get to the most dangerous waterfall.

Just as these four steps help us push the pause button so that we don't act out, they can help push the pause button before our emotions take too strong a hold. They often provide just enough space for us to see our inner reaction for what it is and not let it drive an outer reaction.

Later, we'll be so glad we had that four-step pause button and took the opportunity to push it.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Declare Your Thoughts

If you've ever traveled abroad you've had this experience: when you arrive at the customs checkpoint you have to declare or reveal what you're bringing into the country. It can be odd to do a mental inventory of your luggage and realize there's an item of concern or  significance. I mean, you're the one who packed the stuff; it's not like someone snuck it in there on you! And yet there's something about having to write it out on a form or say it out loud to a customs agent that heightens your awareness.

The same phenomenon occurs with our thinking. Lots of odd things we pack around in our heads never get evaluated or questioned. So it never quite occurs to us: this thought is explosive... that one is toxic and contraband... there's way too much of this one... and that one is downright dangerous. So unhelpful thoughts can just keep rattling around in there doing untold damage.

Starting today, become the customs agent of your own thinking. You don't have to charge a duty or try to confiscate anything. Just say to your mind, "What thoughts are you carrying around? You need to declare them."

Two or three times today, particularly when you feel a shift in your emotional state, text out the thought you're having to yourself or someone in your support network or write it out on a sticky note or 3x5 card.

Hanging on the wall next to the TSA checkpoint of the Salt Lake Airport there is a big display of contraband items agents have confiscated from the luggage of travelers. There are guns, knives, nunchucks, chinese throwing stars, and even a machete.

In a similar spirit, here is a display of some of the thoughts my clients have caught their minds casually carrying around:

  • "I can't get over this problem despite years of effort. Why bother even trying to stand up to temptation?"
  • "That travel magazine in the waiting room rack has a woman in an infinity pool. I should browse through it and see if there are any other beautiful women I can enjoy checking out."
  • "Shelly wants me to get up with the baby this morning even though she knows I haven't gotten much sleep. She doesn't really care about what I need. I guess if my needs are going to get met I'll have to take care of them myself."
  • "This is a pretty mainstream website. I can look at these images, no problem."
  • "My roommate goes to his night class on Thursdays so I'll have the place to myself. I can get online and do whatever I want."
  • "This still isn't working. The problems with this work project never end. And there's always some new crisis at home. God is cursing me because I'm a sinner."
  • "Can you believe the material they're comfortable putting out? I need to get a better look at just how low they've let their standards drop." 

Simply exposing these kinds of thoughts by expressing them can be very powerful. Once they're stated explicitly, we can see that they don't make much sense. They're not nearly as convincing when they're dragged into the cold light of day. Language is the realm of logic and objectivity, and putting words to our thoughts helps restore our mental clarity.

If you think it might help to declare your thoughts to someone but you're not sure who, feel free to text them to me: 801-564-7566. I'm a collector. You'll be helping me expand my display.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

How To Take Urges In Stride: A Review of George Collins' Book, Breaking the Cycle

In the war on porn addiction, George Collins is a Navy Seal and this book is his Zero Dark Thirty.

No one knows enemy terrain like George. His descriptions are so gritty one of my sexually addicted therapy clients found it hard to read. Tough to look at the grim realities of an addiction that still holds you captive.

That's one of the beauties of having George as a tour guide through the territory. He makes you look. Next stop: a prostitute describing how she really feels about sex with her customers. On a field trip with one of his clients, George pays her to be honest instead of paying her to fake pleasure. She tells it like it is. The curtain is pulled back and the trance of addiction shatters.

The heart of the book is the recovery skills we get to see in action. How do you deal with urges and cravings? George demonstrates beautifully how to catch the mind in the act as it tries to play its tricks on you. He calls this "turning on the lights in your personal amphitheater " Insist that the addictive voice put into words what it wants. As we activate the language brain we ramp up our capacity for objectivity. Rip the urge out of the realm of swirling, breathless yearnings that have remained so potent, in part because they usually never quite get articulated.

In the articulation, urges lose some of their power. Getting everything out on the table in this way--making thoughts and cravings explicit--is the beginning of the end of being ruled by the autopilot mode that characterizes addiction.

But it's only the beginning of the end. And now we get to what I love most about the book.

George's gives a blow-by-blow account of his own fight to extract himself from the jaws of addiction. That it's possible simply becomes undeniable--we watch him do it! A memoir alone would be gift enough to those similarly stuck. What makes this an even more exhilarating read is that he, better than anyone else I know of, describes exactly how he did it, providing invaluable guidance on how we, too, can do it for ourselves. Breaking the Cycle is part autobiography, part self-help book, and the two are meshed masterfully.

George models how to navigate the imperfect realm of recovery. He demos how to keep plugging along even when things seem ugly. When he's out in public with his wife and a beautiful woman catches his eye, George neither succumbs to lust nor kicks himself for being triggered. He reaches up and brushes his cheek with his hand to do a beard test. A little reminder that he is a real, mature man and chooses to look at women as amazing, real human beings rather than props to be used in a lust fantasy. He has so regularly done the beard test in response to triggers that it has become his new automatic. Sometimes his wife asks "Where is she?" before George even realizes he felt a pull or that he responded appropriately to it.

The lesson: it's not being triggered that matters--that's a part of life, take it in stride. It's how we respond that's key.

Later, as George's recovery seems to be humming along quite nicely, he finds himself back in the throes of an extremely potent craving. Once again, instead of succumbing or lamenting he stays curious and looks more closely to explore what made it so potent. He dissects it: part of it was that it's a gorgeous sunshiny day and part of it was the click of those high heels walking up the stairs. So he calls it the "Blue Sky and High Heels" moment. And we can all relate to those moments when you're going along, doing fine, and out of the blue jolted back into state where you're raring and ready to go full bore on an old, self-destructive path.

George saw that moment for what it was and put words to it. We're shown again the power of language and self-awareness. As we step back and apply language to an experience, we're no longer immersed in and entranced by the experience. The automatic workings of the mind no longer dictate our reality and we become more able to respond as we choose.

Expose the workings of the reactive mind and then choose how you'll respond.

That's the essence of being in recovery and it's a process that's illustrated again in the climactic story of the book, which brought me to tears. George is not only in recovery himself, he has become a licensed therapist and started a private practice. Look how far he's come--he's helping other people find the same freedom he enjoys! But he glances out the window of his new office and sees a young women's soccer team practicing on the field next door. "I really should bring my field glasses so that I can get a closer look," he thinks to himself.

George could have brought the field glasses to work the next day. He could have hung his head in shame, "So you're the professional who's supposed to help others? Can't even keep yourself together. A few girls playing soccer put you right back at square one!" Instead he smiled to himself about the power of the addicted mind. Then considered how he might respond.

He went to a sporting goods store and bought a box of Hacky Sacks. He delivered them in person and watched the coach pass them out to the team. As the girls took the little beanbags and started kicking them around, they escaped the dreamy realm of potential sex objects and burst into George's real life. He saw them for who they are: playful young human beings with bright eyes and braces and pimples and giggles and anxieties and hopes and dreams all their own.

George walked back to his office with no need to fight the urge to bring binoculars into the office.

Now that's a guy in recovery. And that story and his others show us that we can get there, too.

When we finish the book we realize we've gained much more than half a dozen excellent recovery tools and some dang good stories about how and when to use them. We're like the kid who found a real Swiss Army knife in the bottom of his cereal box. Having been immersed in it, some of it has rubbed off on us: George's sense of hope and his appreciation for human dignity, both our own and other peoples'.

Thanks George, for this amazing book. And thanks even more for living the courageous, loving life that enabled you to write it.