Painful Lessons

I’m beginning to believe that pain might be good for me.

I’ve always tried to avoid or reduce pain. Get rid of it. Maybe that’s a futile effort.

I believe life is supposed to be hard and painful because it’s an effective teacher. It gives me opportunity to choose and learn. Until recently though, I hadn’t considered that maybe the pain isn’t always supposed to be soothed right away. What if it’s good for me to feel it?

Over the past year and a half, pain has entered my life in new forms. My former wife chose to divorce me after nearly ten years of marriage. My time with my children was reduced from daily to most weekends. My proximity to family went from two miles to nearly eight hundred miles. Relationships with in-laws changed in an instant, not because we wanted them to but because they had to. People who I thought were my friends ignored me in hallways at church or didn’t return phone calls. I moved to a new home in a new community in a new state. My depression returned in full force and stronger than ever. Thoughts of suicide. Wrecked finances.

Ten years of relationships, dreams, and hard work. All shattered, all because of this thing I call addiction. All because I chose to be selfish and self-medicate.

I miss my children every moment I’m not with them. I miss my old friendships and former family members. I miss my former wife, sometimes more than I can bear. I miss the surges of joy that accompanied tender moments with my spouse and children. I miss looking forward to finishing college and finally having more time with my family in the evenings. I miss being on the verge of financial security and the peace of mind that brings. I miss looking forward to so many things. Missing is painful.

Yesterday the pain of missing was unbearable. I spent nearly eight hours in prayerful meditation, reading, writing, running, and talking to friends, family, and brothers in recovery. At the end of the day, after struggling to find rest, I chose to self-medicate with masturbation. No pornography, thankfully. But still a step backwards.

I can see now that I felt frustrated that the pain wasn’t stopping. Certainly the grace of God lightened my load during the day, otherwise I would have turned to my addiction much sooner. I was alone all day. It would have been easy. But after all was said and done, I wanted the pain to be gone completely, not just lessened. I wanted to be free of it. I was tired of missing my former wife, my children, and my former life.

Of course, acting out only provided temporary and fake relief. Today I feel the pain of missing, along with the pain of acting out.

Life is already painful without any effort from me. I’m learning that some fears and pain don’t require (or deserve) my attention today. They are usually rooted in the future and can wait, so I give them to God because holding on to them leads me to my addiction. Others need my attention now and I can do something about them now, so I do that thing now because putting it off leads me to my addiction. And others, despite my complete inability to change them (such as the hurtful actions of others, or my missing people), demand my attention and consume my focus. Those are the really dangerous ones. They impact my well-being right now, and I am powerless over them.

I’ve learned the core of every one of my fears is the fear of more pain than what I’m experiencing right now. This distracts me from the present, which often looks like damaging, dampening, or delaying my connections with the people around me. It’s sad and tragic because real connection would actually ease the pain.

If I let them, my weaknesses and addiction will have me so wrapped up in self-medication for my pain that I can’t experience any pain at all. Not in the moment, anyway. Not as long as I have my drug of choice. Sounds kinda nice, doesn’t it? Seriously! Who wouldn’t want a pain-free life? The Great Lie is that my drug will always work and that putting off pain won’t make things worse, or that “this will be the last time.”

Maybe another great lie is that the pain should go away, even in recovery?

I’m learning to face my pain. I have to get comfortable with it—not by myself but with my God and my support network of friends and fellow addicts seeking recovery. This invariably leads to moments of vulnerability, which gives me a connection with those people. With a real connection I’m able to understand my pain, accept what I cannot do about it, and find courage to do what I can.

Sometimes the pain remains after connecting with people and doing what I can to address it, and I’m beginning to think that’s OK. I don’t like it but I wonder if lingering pain might be normal. Maybe sometimes all I can do is connect with my support people and my God so that the burden becomes bearable. Not removed, but bearable. Then I can move forward with some comfort in believing it won’t last forever.

I have this idea in my mind that recovery will give me a supernatural medical kit filled with an assortment of instant pain relievers. I’ve been approaching recovery with an expectation that when I work the 12 Steps I will learn salves for any and all pain. Missing my former wife? No problem! Just work steps 10 through 12 and the painful missing will stop.

I think this is an erroneous way of thinking and a false concept of what real recovery actually looks like.

Besides, how would that be any different from how I viewed my addiction? I chose my addiction because I wanted instant relief from pain. Why should I expect the same from recovery? Feels off to me. Seems wrong. I think I transferred my expectations and stinking thinking from my addiction to my recovery.

I think perhaps pain is an opportunity. It reminds me what I’ve learned. It gives me a reason to ask for help and connect with my loved ones. I don’t think loving relationships would mean as much if I never needed others the way I do when I’m in pain. In that sense, I think pain gives life to my relationships in a way nothing else can, but only when I choose to turn to those people instead of turning inward for the solution.

The addicted life is one of pain, filled with isolation and despair. Maybe the recovered life is still one of pain, but filled with people, hope, and peace.

Maybe some day I’ll welcome pain. I wonder if this time period will turn out to be my “rock bottom” of pain. I hope so. I think that’s up to me. Today I choose surrender and connection.

A New Way of Living

Since my last post I’ve been working Steps 1, 2, and 3 with a sponsor. He’s teaching me how to work the steps thoroughly and completely. I’ve worked all twelve steps before, and doing so gave me nine months of sobriety, but this time I feel I’m receiving sobriety and recovery. I’d like to share a few things I’m learning.

Number one, I cannot do this alone. Absolutely impossible. It’s not a self-help program. As a brother in my Sexaholics Anonymous (SA) group puts it, my “stinking thinking” got me into this mess; it’s not going to get me out. I have to change my way of thinking, my way of life. I can’t do that without my God and I can’t do it without a support network of brothers seeking the same change. For myself, I’ve learned I can’t do it without a sponsor—someone who’s worked the steps and has found recovery and sobriety. The hard-earned wisdom he offers is irreplaceable, and I find myself hungry for it. We talk daily. I talk with my God numerous times daily. I talk with my loved ones daily. I cannot recover sanity without these connections.

I’ve also learned that the last time I worked these steps I left out an essential part that must change: Me. In my first attempt I was trying to remove the compulsion to lust. I’ve learned that’s a good thing, yes, but woefully incomplete. The SA White Book states the following:

“If we are content with ourselves, simply minus the compulsion, there can be no recovery. Recovery is more than mere sobriety.”

Sexaholics Anonymous, p. 87

I’m learning that my character weaknesses need to change. My pride (what I think others think of me), selfishness, impatience, my desire to be right—I cannot keep these defects and be free of my addiction. Character defects are stubborn things (have you ever tried to change who you are before?). I’m not implying that one has to achieve character perfection in order to receive recovery and achieve lasting sobriety. What I’m learning is that I cannot hold on to them like a favorite darling toy and expect to change into the kind of person who can learn a new way of life.

This isn’t a new principle. I’ve heard it my whole life in my Christian upbringing. Jesus Christ says, “Come unto me and offer me your whole heart as a sacrifice” (paraphrased). He doesn’t say, “Come unto me and offer me everything except the parts of you that you don’t want to give up yet.” I’m learning that my willingness to surrender my pride, selfishness, impatience, etc. is a necessary prerequisite to freedom from my addiction. Because underneath my addiction is a sick way of thinking and a host of weaknesses which, if I don’t surrender them, will pull me back into my addiction no matter what I do to distance myself from the obsession.

No wonder Step 4 is to make a searching and fearless moral inventory of myself, Step 5 is to admit to God, myself, and another person the exact nature of my wrongs, Step 6 is to become ready to have God remove all my defects of character, and Step 7 is to humbly ask Him to remove my shortcomings. Ether 12:27, anyone?

“And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.”

Jesus Christ. Ether 12:27, Book of Mormon.

The last time I worked the 12 Steps and relapsed after nine months of sobriety, I was disheartened to say the least. I questioned whether the Steps would work for me. Turned out I hadn’t worked them correctly. I didn’t understand that a moral inventory (step 4) needed to include learning about myself. I thought it was a way to dump all my trauma, heartache, and regrets onto paper, to get it all out and off my chest so that I could move forward from it all. I think that’s part of it, to be sure. But I missed the part that would help me learn and change.

With this realization regarding my need to give up my character defects, I’ve also learned an incredible and life-altering truth. I’d learned in my first pass through the 12 Steps that I don’t have to whiteknuckle my way to sobriety with sheer willpower and grit. That’s impossible and inevitably leads to failure. Now I’ve learned that the same principle applies to my character weaknesses! I think a real life experience may illustrate this best.

A couple weeks ago my daughters and I were cooped up in our home on a Saturday. It was cold and rainy outside, one of the girls was sick, and I was feeling low after a challenging week. The girls were starting to talk with whiny voices and I could feel my patience waning thin, so I took a second to breathe. That helped. Five minutes later, the whining hadn’t ceased, and I felt my fuse was about to run out, so again I took a second to breathe and relax my muscles. That helped. This repeated for about twenty minutes until I could feel myself about to explode. My willpower was spent. Then I felt the Lord quietly encourage me, and I asked Him to help me because I didn’t want to yell at my children. Instantly I felt relief, the tension lifted, and I was able to enjoy that time with my children. Breathing helps, for sure, but I’m an idiot if I think I can handle life on my own (hey, there’s some of that “stinking thinking” that got me into my addiction!). I need more goodness and more patience than I currently possess, and I cannot obtain those core changes with deep breaths and more oxygen. And that’s OK! God doesn’t expect me to whiteknuckle my way to patience with sheer willpower and grit. Now when I feel impatience growing inside me, I take a deep breath and I say a sincere prayer to offer up my impatience and ask for patience to replace it. That’s tough when I want to be angry, but the result of surrendering my weaknesses makes life so much easier.

Since then I’ve been seeing additional ways to apply this principle of surrender and it really is life-altering. I don’t have to do anything alone. Christ invites me to “look unto [Him] in every thought.” That includes finding a solution to a tough software bug for my employer, navigating precarious situations in important relationships, finding room for medical expenses in a tight budget, figuring out my new role as a non-spouse co-parent, and coping with threats. It includes things I cannot control and choices other people make. I don’t have to carry any of it by myself, and God doesn’t expect me to.

For me a core part of my new way of life is what’s known as the Serenity Prayer:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference. Thy will, not mine, be done.”

St Francis of Assisi

I feel confident in the 12 Steps of Recovery and in God’s ability to restore me to sanity.

Journey before Destination

living

“Life before death. Journey before destination,” Sil whispered. … “I like that.”

“Why?” Caladin asked.

“… Because,” she replied, as if that were explanation enough. “I know you want to give up, but you can’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because you can’t.”

“I can’t do it again,” he thought, squeezing his eyes shut.

What was hope, except another opportunity for failure? How many times could a man fall before he no longer stood back up?

“I can’t save them, Sil,” Caladin whispered, anguished.

“Are you certain?”

“I’ve failed every time before.”

“And so you’ll fail this time, too?”

“Yes.”

She fell silent. “Well then,” she eventually said. “Let’s say that you’re right.”

“So why fight? I told myself that I would try one last time, but I failed before I began! There’s no saving them!”

“Doesn’t the fight itself mean anything?”

“Not if you’re destined to die.” He hung his head.

He realized what was happening to him—this melancholy, this sense of despair. He’d become the wretch, not caring; but also not despairing. It seemed better not to feel at all, rather than feel pain.

“I’m going to fail them,” Caladin thought, squeezing his eyes shut. “Why try?”

Wasn’t he a fool to keep grasping as he did?

The Wretch seemed to be standing before him. He meant release. Apathy.

Did he really want to go back to that? It was a false refuge. Being that man hadn’t protected him. It had only led him deeper and deeper until taking his own life had seemed the better way.

Life before death. Journey before destination.

Doesn’t the fight itself mean anything?

– Excerpts from Brandon Sanderson’s “The Way of Kings”

I pray I never forget to wave my white flag

This video speaks for itself. I remember watching it for the first time almost one year ago. My heart ached. I remember lamenting, “I want to stop more than anything. Why can’t I stop?! What’s wrong with me?”

I just watched the video again. Instead of heartache I feel gratitude for my God’s mercy and grace. I know I was lost and He found me.

I noticed something at the end of the video that I didn’t catch before and that a friend in recovery mentioned in a group meeting a few weeks ago. The video references a website: combatingpornography.org. If you go to that website you’ll notice that it redirects you to overcomingpornography.org.

I agree with my recovery brother. This is significant! It has made all the difference in my recovery—ALL the difference.

When I fight against my addiction I lose. I will always lose. I’m addicted! I literally don’t have the ability to stop myself from acting out. (If you disagree, I invite you to prayerfully reconsider and learn more about addiction from both church leaders—A.K.A. prophets and apostles—and empirical evidence.)

I remember acknowledging my addiction without admitting defeat. This led me to countless oaths and relapses. I thought I was going insane. I think I was! I thought I had to fight it out and win, but I couldn’t.

The irony of an addict fighting addiction.

I think Satan uses my desire to be free against me. I’m certain he does when I let him. It goes something like this:

Me: “I can do this!”

Satan: “No, you can’t.” <— ** Truth mixed with lies! Deception alert! **

Me: “Yes, I can! I won’t give up.”

Satan: “You can’t do it. You’ll never beat this.” <— ** Deception alert! **

The truth is I can’t, but here’s the part that the devil leaves out: I can’t on my own; I can with God!

Of course, Satan doesn’t want me to think about calling upon God when I feel discouraged. He would rather I focus on my inner drive and make this fight my own. Of course he would! So long as he can keep me fighting solo, he knows he’ll win. I know from personal experience that he’ll win unless I call upon my God for grace in times of need, even and especially when I don’t think I deserve it.

So I’m an advocate of waving my white flag when temptation or cravings hit. Oh, it definitely wounds my pride… thankfully! It goes something like this:

“Father in Heaven, I acknowledge that part of me wants to indulge. I can’t do this on my own. I’m powerless. Please give me grace to overcome this. Please save me!”

Then I ask Him what He wants me to do, and I do it. Sometimes He asks me to call a recovery friend. Other times He asks me to apologize and make amends to my wife for the dumb thing I said earlier that day. The specifics vary, but trusting Him always works.

I like to think of waving my white flag as a three-step process.

(1) I admit my powerlessness.

(2) I plead to my God for grace and to know what to do.

(3) I do it.

My white flag comes in handy for more problems than just triggers or cravings. I also wave it when I feel overwhelmed, stressed, or lonely. I can even wave it when I’m stuck on a homework problem. I’m still learning to wave it when I feel inadequate or angry, but I’m learning.

Waving my white flag by admitting my powerlessness, praying to my God, and obeying His will lets Him fight my battles for me. I’ve found that He is eager to do this! He did it for the Israelites countless times in the Old Testament. Why wouldn’t He do the same for me?

The truth is, He already did.

I see no shame in admitting defeat, not when I immediately and sincerely reach out to God. This has become the foundation of my recovery.

“Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16, NT, Holy Bible).

Which way is easier?

The following excerpt is from one of my favorite talks. Elder Lawrence E. Corbridge of the Seventy gave it. It’s titled, “The Way.” (Read the full talk here.)

There is only one way to happiness and fulfillment. He is the Way. Every other way, any other way, whatever other way, is foolishness.

…We can either follow the Lord and be endowed with His power and have peace, light, strength, knowledge, confidence, love, and joy, or we can go some other way, any other way, whatever other way, and go it alone—without His support, without His power, without guidance, in darkness, turmoil, doubt, grief, and despair. And I ask, which way is easier?

…There is only one way to happiness and fulfillment. Jesus Christ is the Way.

…One of the most popular and attractive philosophies of men is to live life your own way, do your own thing, be yourself, don’t let others tell you what to do. But the Lord said, “I am the way.” He said, “Follow me.” He said, “What manner of men ought ye to be? Verily I say unto you, even as I am.”

Don’t think you can’t. We might think we can’t really follow Him because the standard of His life is so astonishingly high as to seem unreachable. We might think it is too hard, too high, too much, beyond our capacity, at least for now. Don’t ever believe that. While the standard of the Lord is the highest, don’t ever think it is only reachable by a select few who are most able.

In this singular instance life’s experience misleads us. In life we learn that the highest achievements in any human endeavor are always the most difficult and, therefore, achievable only by a select few who are most able. The higher the standard, the fewer can reach it.

But that is not the case here because, unlike every other experience in this life, this is not a human endeavor. It is, rather, the work of God. It is God’s work and it is His “glory … to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” There is nothing else like it. Not anywhere. Not ever.

No institution, plan, program, or system ever conceived by men has access to the redeeming and transforming power of the Atonement of Jesus Christ and the gift of the Holy Ghost. Therefore, while the Lord’s invitation to follow Him is the highest of all, it is also achievable by everyone, not because we are able, but because He is, and because He can make us able too. “We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind [everyone, living and dead] may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel.”

The Lord’s way is not hard. Life is hard, not the gospel. “There is an opposition in all things,” everywhere, for everyone. Life is hard for all of us, but life is also simple. We have only two choices. We can either follow the Lord and be endowed with His power and have peace, light, strength, knowledge, confidence, love, and joy, or we can go some other way, any other way, whatever other way, and go it alone—without His support, without His power, without guidance, in darkness, turmoil, doubt, grief, and despair. And I ask, which way is easier?

He said, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

“Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; … and ye shall find rest unto your souls.

“For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Life is hard, but life is simple. Get on the path and never, ever give up. You never give up. You just keep on going. You don’t quit, and you will make it.

There is only one way to happiness and fulfillment. Jesus Christ is the Way. Every other way, any other way, whatever other way is foolishness.

I’m hungry

In a previous post, I likened my addictions to hot water. Interestingly enough, the longer I stand in a hot shower, the more my body becomes accustomed to the heat, and the less hot water I have available for use.

Eventually the hot water will run out. Addiction is like this for me.

Another metaphor:

I’m invited to a great feast. The host has laid out everything I could possibly want to eat. I eat till I’m stuffed.

A few hours later, I’m hungry again. I return to the table and eat till I’m full. I feel better. I notice that I ate more this time.

Thirty minutes later I repeat my previous actions, only this time I have to eat even more before I feel satisfied. The food still tastes great, so I’m glad to eat more!

After some time I realize that I can’t get full anymore. I’m always hungry… always eating and never satisfied. But the food still tastes good.

What happened? It’s the same food, same menu, same table.

I look around and see others eating quite happily. They’re having a good time. Some of them look full and satisfied. Why can’t I still enjoy the food and have a good time?

I grab a pile of food and sit in a corner to eat and think. Next to me are seated other eaters with their own piles of food. They’re all skinny even though they’ve clearly been eating copious amounts of food. I notice I’m skinny, too.

I look around the room, peering into the darker corners of the great hall. I see men and women of all ages. They each sit alone, isolated and emaciated. They look horrible. They look miserable, but they’re still eating.

I’m still hungry but I can’t get enough food.

I get up to inquire about the food. Something must be wrong with it.

The host must have noticed my concerned expression because suddenly he’s at my side.

“What can I do for you?” he asks.

“The food isn’t filling anymore. Something’s wrong with it,” I reported.

“Oh, is that so? You’re probably thirsty. What you need is something to drink.”

“Of course! I must be thirsty. I am thirsty!”

“Here, let me show you to our open bar. You may have water if you like, but the drinks are much more satisfying…”

Over the past twenty years I’ve learned the truth. I learned it the hard way, but now I know. Now I know where to find real food for my soul—not the counterfeit stuff that the world offers me.

Jesus Christ had this to say about the water offered by the world:

“Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again. But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.

“I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.”

I now enjoy more peace than ever before. My soul finds satisfaction and health from my Higher Power daily. He is the bread and water of life for my soul, and when I partake, I am filled with His Spirit.

My Savior vs. My Train

TRAIN_TRACKS

 

 

Matt over at EmbracingPowerlessness.com wrote another great blog post that got the squeaky hamster wheel in my head turning. He shares some hard truths about why we addicts don’t want to get sober. He employs an insightful analogy about the lust train of addiction and the stoic addict who vainly tries to stop it head-on. The Lord has taught me some beautiful principles as I’ve pondered Matt’s words and testimony, and I’d like to share some of them with you.

“Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I know because I’ve done it thousands of times” (Mark Twain).

Continue reading

Patiently running my race

I’m going to start my Step 4 inventory tomorrow (again). I’m feeling mixed levels of excitement and fear. I’m doing my best to trust the Lord in this. I believe He wants me to do it, so I’ve decided that I won’t let my fears stop me from moving forward. Easier said than done, obviously, but I feel good about it.

The 12-step recovery guidebook counsels me to be patient with myself as I work this step. Patient? I want to get this done as quickly as possible! I’m told I also need to be thorough in order for this inventory to be helpful. So, patience… yeah. Until a few weeks ago I still wanted an immediate recovery.

Heavenly Father reminded me recently of one of my high school cross country races. I can’t recall every turn and hill in the course, but I still remember vividly the emotions and adrenaline of that day.

I remember the cold air searing my lungs with every breath. I remember my coach kindly yelling reminders to relax my shoulders. I remember running through muddy stream crossings and charging up slippery grass hills. I remember feeling confident as I passed other runners on the course. I remember feeling discouraged when other runners passed me (I felt discouraged more often than I felt confident :-)  ). I also remember thinking to myself, “I should’ve worn an extra layer of clothing.”

Perhaps more clearly than any other memory of that run, I remember two things. Here’s the first one: as a relatively inexperienced runner, I quickly learned that I wasn’t running against everyone else on that course; I was running against myself. My brain was the one telling me to slow down, not the boy running next to me. My body was the one screaming for rest, not the spectators on the sidelines. Running can be a constant battle within myself between what I want now and what I’ll actually want later.

I’m sure you’re picking up on the metaphor.

By the end of the race, everyone’s body was approaching exhaustion. Well, mine was at least. At what turned out to be the final bend in the course, we exited a clump of trees and entered a red- and yellow-flagged straightaway to the finish line. Once the trees and foliage no longer obstructed our view, we saw that the straightaway went nearly straight up a grass-covered hill. Did I mention it was wet? The course was still soaked from the previous night’s rainfall. I didn’t much like the race organizers at that moment.

An interesting thing happened. Some runners continued with their same pace at a slightly quicker cadence (similar to how one might shift to a lower gear while riding a bicycle up a hill). Other runners took off at a full sprint up the hill. Some attempted to follow them. Others began plodding up the hill.

Guess who ended up literally collapsing from utter muscle exhaustion. Nearly without exception, they were runners who sprinted up the hill. Who do you think made it to the finish line without falling over or crawling on their hands and knees (I’m not kidding)? Some of them were the plodders, a select few were the sprinters, and most were those who knew to shift their running gear, so to speak, and pace themselves up the hill. Which one was I? Well, I’m not telling. It has nothing to do with the metaphor. Haha.

I remember people sliding and falling and crawling up that muddy hill. Most of those sprinters who were initially so full of energy and spirit were literally falling over. It was an incredible sight. I think most of us who were running behind them were surprised to feel discouragement instead of motivation to win upon watching them fall.

By the end of that race I thought I was going to pass out. I nearly did. I did manage to learn my second lesson though: I need to learn to run slowly when I want to run fast. Now, as I look back on that race, I describe that lesson using slightly different words: I need to learn to run patiently.

In case you were wondering, I didn’t win (not even close), but my team members congratulated me anyway. I think my peers were proud of me because they could see not only pain but satisfaction on my face. I was pleased that I didn’t give up. I knew I had given it everything I had, and that was a great feeling.

This scripture has always been one of my favorites. I like to think that the Apostle Paul enjoyed running, too.

“Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God” (The Holy Bible, New Testament, Hebrews 12:1-2).