Sunday, June 1, 2014

The Gentle Art of Self-Control, Lesson 5: Willingly Go through Withdrawal

It’s a real challenge to accept our thoughts, as we’ve been encouraging so far, but then to stop short of acting on them. It’s no small thing to refrain from acting when we feel compelled.

When we’ve tried to hold ourselves back from acting in the past, we may have become accustomed to doing it by trying to muster all our willpower and grit. But acceptance based coping isn’t about straining against temptation, it’s about refraining in a more mellow, Zen way. What we’re trying to pull off is forbearance, which is defined as “to politely or patiently restrain an impulse to do something.”

I’m not saying it’s going to be easy or painless, just gentler.

In fact, acceptance based coping is anything but easy. Forbearance requires a quiet courage, a willingness to experience the lonely discomfort that goes with not fulfilling addictive urges and cravings. When we politely, patiently refrain from a gratifying habit, we quickly and surely come face to face with all the feelings from which gratification has been shielding us. Instead of continuing to try to numb ourselves, we can let ourselves be willing to go through withdrawal.

Feeling a compulsion to act is like finding ourselves on a conveyor belt headed toward misery. We're starting to smell the misery already. And even taste it! Ew yuck! It feels like we're headed for more pain if we don't get busy moving in the opposite direction. Standing up to compulsion is sort of like sitting calmly on the conveyor belt in the lotus position, allowing it to carry us along. Saying, essentially, I am willing and ready to suffer discomfort rather than continue being a slave to the entire ordeal of scrambling and squirming and exerting myself to avoid it.

Plow through Suffering Instead of Piling More of it Up

One of the biggest lies of addiction is that there is a bona fide way out of legitimate suffering. Some folks have so bought into this lie that they don’t even want to consider recovery unless it can be done in a way that provides even more relief from suffering than addiction does!

Addictive patterns have been effective at bulldozing suffering away from us. However, they’ve only served to amass a pile of suffering right in front of us. We can either start plowing through more of the discomfort than we’re accustomed to facing or keep piling up more and more of it in our own way on the path that leads ahead.

I tell clients, every ounce of suffering you do now is buying you a pound of life later.

The discomfort of recovery, especially initially, occurs in part because we’ve trained our brain to expect pleasure instead of pain. We’re in withdrawal. The longer we’ve been addicted, the worse our withdrawal symptoms.

We did it to ourselves: it felt so good we overdid gratification. The brain’s pleasure system turned its own sensitivity down to compensate for the overload. Desensitized in this way, we needed more than before to have the same effect. Over time our gratification threshold kept rising until even too much was not enough.

Then we enter recovery and get better and better at choosing not to act on our urges. Our pleasure system screams, “What?! Don’t do this to me or you’ll have hell to pay!” And so we either forbear and have hell to pay now—or we succumb and add to the hell we’ll have to pay later.

Dopamine is the primary neurotransmitter of the brain’s pleasure system. Natural levels of this chemical messenger help us savor a solid golf shot and delight in the sound of our kids laughing in the next room. When addiction floods us with dopamine, the production manager in the brain says, “Whoa, way too much! Dry up some of those dopamine springs. Tighten those hinges on the flood gates.” Our dopamine response gets dampened. Then, ordinary pleasures start to seem pedestrian. Even our addiction tickles us less, and gratifications in that realm become fewer and further between.

In this state we’re like the muscleman who has busted the high striker game but keeps pounding at the slivered shards of the lever with the mallet, hoping the puck will somehow still fly up and ring the bell just (slam)… one (slam)… more (slam)… time.

Unfortunately, at that point, entering recovery is even less enjoyable than continuing to chase addictive urges. Entering recovery means going from the dilapidated dopamine carnival… to the dopamine desert.

You’re Not Alone in the Desert

When you’re going through the discomfort of withdrawal it’s very helpful to dialogue with others who are who are similarly suffering alongside you. This is just one of the many reasons people find it helpful to attend a support group.

Gene was determined not to slip back to drinking, but as he faced life without alcohol he was amazed at how harsh it all seemed. As he grumbled and moaned at the 12-step meetings he attended, Pete, the man who would later become his sponsor, just sat and listened and nodded sympathetically. Gene later told me, “When Pete and I chatted after those early meetings I could tell he really cared but he didn’t buy into any of my complaints or the perceived injustices of my life. ‘I understand,’ he’d say or ‘Wow, rough.’ But then when we were done talking he’d always say, ‘It’s going to be okay. Just keep coming.’

“The way Pete responded to me reminds me of my mom with her grandkids. She’ll listen to them whine or even full out tantrum but she won’t pamper ‘em or spank ‘em. She’ll look at ‘em with a soft smile and nod. Then when they’re ready she’ll pick ‘em up and coo for a while or rock ‘em until they fall asleep.”

“I asked Pete how he put up with me in those early days. He said ‘I wasn’t putting up with you. That wasn’t you. That was the drunk inside of you kicking and screaming as he left your body. You were only four days sober that first meeting. No one is in their right mind after four days. The way you were acting was normal.”

It’s great to be accepted exactly as we are, where we are right now, by other people who’ve been there themselves.

As he looked back at his struggle later, Gene reminded me, “I wasn’t only facing the hell of withdrawal, for the first time in my life I was facing the reality of life without a shock absorber. I’d been drinking more or less since I was in Junior High. It was always my escape, my cushion.”

Facing life was tough for Gene compared to drinking in part because hadn’t been developing the life skills and maturity other people naturally develop when they have to face reality all the time as they mature. Gene had gotten older, but because he relied on his addiction as a crutch and a shield, he hadn’t matured!

The NoFap Reddit is an online forum for people trying to kick their pornography and masturbation habit. As fellow “fapstronauts,” as they call themselves, share the tough parts of their journey, there’s always someone who’ll write back who can relate to what you’re going through. Here’s just one of thousands of examples of encouraging comments:

Hey brother, your story means a lot thanks for sharing. I, too, know the pain of ED from too much porn and masturbation. Those years severely messed up my libido. It’s not going to be easy but you can do it. Just take it one day at a time, each passing day you will care less and less about that old crap you thought you could never live without.

It’s strangely encouraging to read about how much other people struggled when they were at your point in the process. You quickly realize, “I’m not so unusual! Everyone goes through this hell!”

Suffer Like a Scientist by Chronicling Your Journey

I’m always amazed when people who have gone through immense suffering somehow manage to write about it—sometimes writing even as they go through it. Sort of like being an anthropologist in hell. Viktor Frankl described his suffering in Nazi concentration camps in Man’s Search for Meaning. Corrie ten Boom managed to pull it off, too, in The Hiding Place. More recent examples that come to mind are Ishmael Beah’s heartbreaking memoir, A Long Way Gone, about his abduction as a boy into the brutal life of a soldier in the Sierra Leone civil war and Immaculee Ilibagiza’s Left to Tell about being hunted for three months by machete-wielding killers during the Rwandan genocide.

It sounds impossible to write in the face of torture and the threat of death. But I don’t even know if I could do it at a time when I’m stressed out because I have a difficult boss. Life was rough for Lauren Weisberger during the year she worked for a relentlessly demanding editor of Vogue magazine. I probably would have shut down mentally and emotionally and tried to get through that time in my life the way a little kid closes their eyes and runs through the sprinklers. Instead, Weisberger stayed observant enough that she was able to write a novel based on her time at the magazine: The Devil Wears Prada.

Anytime we can manage to put our experience into words, we’re activating the language hemisphere of the brain. We are becoming less like a firefighter, more like a scientist. Were gathering more data, buying in less to the drama.

Your Brain Rebalanced is a forum similar to the NoFap Reddit where contributors can journal about their recovery from addiction to porn and masturbation. Many members there have discovered that they are strengthened immensely by writing about their experience even if it includes suffering, especially at the beginning. Go check out their stories and consider chronicling your own.

Remember What it’s Like on the Other Side

It’s hard to abstain from addictive gratifications. Fortunately, it not only gets easier over time, it gets more and more rewarding. My client, Kyle, has an older brother who got into recovery from his addictions years ago and provides a lot of encouragement to Kyle as he tries to stay sober.

The other day he said to Kyle, “Once you change and have a better life, you’ll do anything not to go back.” His comment reminded me of some research on sex offenders I heard about recently. Seems the best preventer of recidivism wasn’t the severity of the punishment or the length of imprisonment—it is whether or not the offender has built a better life that they’re interested in protecting against the problems of the past.

In his book, Further Along the Road Less Traveled, M. Scott Peck described the better life on the other side of addiction recovery:
As you go further into the desert—if you go far enough—you will begin to discover little patches of green, little oases that you had never seen before. And if you go still further, you may even discover some streams of living water underneath the sand, or if you go still further, you may even be able to fulfill your own ultimate destiny. 
Now if you doubt me, consider the example of a man who went on the journey far into the desert. He was the poet T. S. Eliot, who became famous early on in his career for writing poems of total aridity and despair. In the first, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." which he published in 1917 at age twenty-nine, he wrote: 
I grow old....I grow old... 
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. 
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach? 
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach. 
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. 
I do not think that they will sing to me. 
It is important to keep in mind that J. Alfred Prufrock of the poem lived -- as did T. S. Eliot -- in a world of high society, the ultimate civilized world, yet he lived in a spiritual wasteland. Not surprisingly then, five years later, Eliot published a poem called "The Waste Land." And in this poem, he actually focused on the desert. It is also a poem that has in it a great deal of aridity and despair, but for the first time in Eliot's poetry there are little patches of green, little hints of vegetation here and there, images of water, and of shadow under rocks. 
Then in his late forties and early fifties, Eliot wrote poems like "Four Quartets," the first of which opens with references to a rose garden, birds calling and children laughing. And he went on to write some of the richest and most luxuriously verdant, and mystical poetry that has ever been written, and, indeed, he is reputed to have ended his life very joyfully.
Life gets fuller, and a full life is worth suffering for. Unfortunately, the mathematics of reward for clean living are exactly the opposite of the economy of addiction. Addiction pays early then exacts its price at a painfully glacial pace and in glacial proportions. Recovery costs most at the start when it offers very little in return. This is when we have to fan the flames of hope. We must convince ourselves that, as I said earlier, for every ounce of suffering sown we’ll be reaping a pound of life in the future harvest.

Every time I read the NoFap Reddit or the forum on Your Brain Rebalanced I hear someone describe the joy of this harvest. I also hear about it several times a month in my therapy practice from clients in recovery. Some exultant experience for them to relish as they progress along the path of giving up their addictive sexual behaviors. Here’s one from today:

One and a half week in, just riding the metro to school and listening to some Compass by Lady Antebellum. I was just so happy. I started tearing up, holding them back. I felt successful. I felt enlightened. I felt that I could take on the whole world. It didn't matter anymore what people thought of me, I didn't care about that pretty girl sitting across from me. I didn't want to stare at her nice legs. I just basked in my own pool of happiness.

Often, the rewards of recovery are not much more than the everyday pleasures that are possible when you’re not living in the hell of addiction. Several more examples:

· It’s great feeling a sense of wholeness that is not reliant on an external source.

· I made a girl at Subway genuinely laugh while we talked.

· I noticed something different about me today… I have so much more energy and can think quicker and clearer than ever before.

· I have a renewed sense of life, waking up to greet the morning sun and air.

· On the bus I started talking to a girl and it wasn’t forced at all, it felt completely natural. We talked halfway across town and only quit because I got to my stop.

· It’s such a relief not to worry about of being found by somebody.

When you’re feeling down and wondering whether it’s worth the pain you’re going through, just think of what it will be like on the other side of your suffering. And remember what Winston Churchill said: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”

This Week's Challenge: Document Your Ordeal

Pick an avenue to express yourself and start writing about your experience. Write on paper, try out one of the online forums mentioned above, or use a confidential online journal app. Write about your hopes and your reasons for being in recovery, but be sure not to leave out the pain and hardships. Then be prepared to enjoy the view from further up the mountain when you look back on the experiences you're writing about today. 

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