midlifedude

Man at midlife making second half matter

Archive for the tag “addiction”

Man in the Mirror: ‘Compare In, Not Out’

In the substance abuse therapy group I co-led as an intern, the group leader would tell members to “compare in, not out” when he detected a member analyzing whose addiction was worse than another’s, assessing who among members engaged in more risky or reckless behaviors or seeking salacious details about others’ misfortunes and misadventures.

The leader’s message to the addicts was as clear as the typical pre-school teacher’s emphasizing individual responsibility and self-control to easily distracted and influenced children focused on others: “Worry about yourself.”

It’s a simple message, but one that takes discipline and introspection to implement, whether for the purpose of changing addictive behaviors or many other goals or pursuits in life in which the temptation is to compare ourselves to the status, abilities, fortune and accomplishments of others. The era of social media has compounded the phenomenon of “comparing out” through the instantaneous access we have into the windows of others’ lives – their new jobs, kids’ achievements, lively social gatherings, adventurous vacations and other things of which to be envious.

We would be more satisfied with our lives if we would “compare in, not out.” To me, “comparing in” means evaluating myself according to my assessment of my own Man in Mirror 2potential, my ability to strive for and attain goals I believe are worth pursuing, being happy with what I have at any given time rather than desiring what I don’t, and living life in a way that makes me feel positive about my actions, conduct and treatment of others, even though it will be far from perfect.

Still, living life without “comparing out” is a challenge for me, as I imagine it is for nearly everyone who hasn’t mastered some form of meditation or inner peace.

Right now, I am struggling against “comparing out” as I begin my second summer as a seasonal tennis instructor at a large beach resort tennis club, a “gig economy” interlude as I make a career transition to counseling.

Among the instructors, several of whom are year-round employees, it is apparent that I am ranked lower in the pecking order, understandably and justifiably as a seasonal staff member, similar to last summer. I know what I have to do to be successful is to conduct each clinic and private lesson to the best of my ability, stay upbeat and high-energy, engage clients in a friendly, interested and courteous manner, and work cooperatively with the staff as part of a team. But I still find it hard to resist comparing the assignments and the number of on-court teaching hours I get – which determines income — to others. Such “comparing out,” and the ruminations it causes, only makes me feel worse; on the other hand, “comparing in” when I give my all for a lesson or clinic, or assist a fellow instructor when needed, makes me feel positive.

My career transition from public relations to counseling is another area where I have to fight the lure of “comparing out” and instead “compare in,” basing my assessment on what I deem is fulfilling and achieves a sense of purpose. Though there is potential for income growth with the establishment of an independent counseling practice in the future, my first job in the profession likely will pay about half of what I was making in the public relations position I left. Eyeing the reality of my pending job search, it is challenging to avoid “comparing out” to other professionals in my age group who may be at the height of their earning potential and aren’t worried about scraping by. That’s when it’s important to “compare in” and realize I chose this path for a reason and I am fully responsible for my decision and the outcome.

“Comparing in” is difficult because it puts the onus squarely on us for our own successes and failures, our current condition in life, our decisions and behaviors, and, perhaps most importantly, the way we feel about ourselves and our own satisfaction and happiness. When we compare ourselves only to our own standards, goals, morals, ethics and beliefs, we strip away self-delusions and rationalizations and are forced to see only the “Man in the Mirror,” our only true compass.

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‘Play the Whole Tape:’ The Struggle of Addiction

Alcoholic_AAMtgThe lanky young man with the tattoos took a break from his intricately-detailed pencil-sketching to look up from his art and turned to face me after I introduced myself to the group.

“Have you ever been addicted to drugs?” he asked.

“No,” I responded.

“Ever been addicted to alcohol?”

“No,” I said again.

“What can you know?” he mumbled with disgust and turned back to focus on his artwork.

It was my first day as a co-leader of a substance abuse therapy group, an internship for my clinical mental health counseling master’s degree as I make a career transition from public relations to counseling. The group leader smoothed the edges by telling the group members they can learn different things from counselors who had addiction problems and those who haven’t. The leaders with whom I have worked had substance abuse histories and can talk the language of the streets and drug culture; I can’t.

When a member glorifies the days of using, as those in substance abuse recovery are wont to do, one leader admonishes: “Play the whole tape,” meaning remember the misery that accompanied the action, the “ripping and running.”

Later in the session, the young man apologized to me and the group for his abrasiveness, saying he had discovered just before the session that a good friend from childhood had died by drug overdose. That type of emotional volatility and chaotic, unpredictable life is common among members.

In my two months co-leading and leading this three-hour-long group session, I have learned from members and have become more comfortable guiding and interacting with them. The members provide a fascinating window on life’s struggles and many life themes: redemption, commitment, determination, acceptance, grace, hope, resilience, courage, meaning, generosity, self-centeredness, self-destruction, temptation and despair.

Group members represent a microcosm of society: male and female; fathers and mothers; black, white and Hispanic; teenagers to seniors; those from childhoods of abuse, neglect and deprivation and others from relatively stable, caring families; workers and jobless; people doggedly seeking change and others going through the motions.

Some have been homeless, shunned by family members. Many have been imprisoned, and some still are dealing with charges that could result in jail time with any transgression. Some have risked their lives to get drugs, running dangerous streets at all hours, banging on doors of drug dealers. They have lost children, jobs, health, relationships, dignity, trust and respect over their addictions. Many have been through rehab before, but reverted to previous habits, some as soon as they exited. Their emotional lives have been engulfed with fear, shame, guilt, resentment, anger and damaged self-worth.

I don’t have any particular unique or profound insight into the scourge of addictive behavior and those who come under the influence of alcohol and drugs. I only have impressions as a person and professional new and fairly oblivious to this world. My biggest takeaway is that these individuals are not addicts, but people with addictions. In our society, we tend to apply labels to people that come with proscribed traits and characteristics, effectively straight-jacketing people into circumscribed boxes.

The experience has reinforced for me that addiction does not define the group members, a lesson I also learned first-hand when a roommate suffered a relapse. In fact, addiction is not at the core of their being at all. They are so much more than “addicts.” I appreciate the regular group members I have gotten to know for their sense of humor, loyalty, caring, openness, friendliness, raw honesty, suffering and commitment.

One woman exemplified the power of passion, hope and resilience – and the difference between those who truly accept and want to beat addiction and others who may be biding time – in an activity I led challenging the members to identify their strengths. Some struggled to come up with more than two; a few others declined to offer even one when called upon to share. But this woman, for whom the phrase “to hell and back” would apply, rattled off about a dozen assets. She appears to want recovery bad; her emotional pain is palpable. She has a medical condition that might keep others away, but she refuses to miss or give up. She’s a good person who got some raw deals in life and made some regrettable choices that sent her into a downward spiral, like many of the members, and she’s developing the courage to own it all. She is recognizing her worth as a human. She expresses faith.

I’m pulling and praying for her and the others to beat their addictions and find serenity and contentment, and hope I can be a positive influence, however small, on their recovery.

 

Thoughts on Struggle, Resilience, Gratitude and Grace

Counseling has given me a new perspective on struggle, resilience, gratitude and grace, at this time of year when we may slow down enough to think about these phenomegracena.

I’m working as a therapist intern at a mental health agency in Baltimore that serves low-income clients. Many have substance abuse problems. Some have been drug dealers. Some have spent time in prison. Many have been victims of crime or domestic abuse; some have perpetrated violent crimes.

Some have been homeless or evicted with no place to go, and some are on the verge of homelessness. Some are shunned by their families. Some were criminally abused or neglected as children.

All are struggling mightily, yet they have resilience. They want better. They want to overcome. They don’t quit. The question, however, is always: How motivated are they to change? When I think about resilience I’ve had to summon to face challenges, it doesn’t compare.

Many of our clients are on the margins of society, nearly invisible. Many have dropped out of the job market. Some want to return, but it’s a struggle to re-enter. Some have become isolated or reclusive, out of distrust or fear of failure, rejection or disappointment. They want independence, but it’s a struggle to get there; many have to lean on others for help. It’s easy to see: Once you fall into a hole, the climb to emerge can be arduous.

They are grateful for people who care about them, whether a therapist, a social worker or a friend or family member who stuck by them during difficult times when others didn’t. They are grateful for sobriety, kids and grandkids, and new chances.

Our clients inhabit a world and have lived through experiences with which I had no familiarity until my counseling internships. For the clients who have let me into their worlds and taught me about the enormous challenges they both inherited and created themselves, I am grateful. They have blessed me with a real-world education that books and classes can’t approximate. I hope I am providing a certain kind of education for them in return.

As for grace, Gerald G. May, M.D. described “living into grace” in Addiction & Grace:

“Living into the mystery of grace requires encountering grace as a real gift. Grace is not earned. It is not accomplished or achieved…It is just given.

“But living into grace does not depend upon simple receptivity alone. It also requires an active attempt to live life in accord with the facts of grace [which]…are simple: grace always exists, it is always available, it is always good, and it is always victorious…

“The risk, of course, is to my addictions; if I try to live in accord with grace, then I will be relinquishing the gods I have made of my attachments…I must make conscious efforts of will; I must struggle with myself if I am going to act in accord with those facts. Living into grace requires taking risks of faith.”

As we enter a new year, I hope and pray our clients are able to recognize grace working in their lives and find the strength to take the risks of faith to live into grace.

A Different Type of Lunch Meeting

I attended my first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting on Friday, Jan. 23, 2015. But I’m not an alcoholic. Really, I’m not. I can take it or leave it. I can stop anytime. What’s the problem? I know, I know, this is what all alcoholics say. But really, I’m not. Thank God.

I attended an AA meeting for my Loyola University counseling program class on Substance Abuse and Addictive Behaviors. Though I’m not an alcoholic, I’ve experienced family alcoholism, living between the ages of 14 to 18 with my father’s live-in mate who had a drinking problem. I’ve never sought counseling or support to explore how living with an alcoholic affected my life and family relationships. The AA meeting motivated me to consider doing that.

At the AA meeting, I was stunned as I walked in the door and blown away by an incredibly humbling, uplifting, honest, heartfelt, connective and redemptive experience, all within an hour’s time while the outside world was downing a sandwich for lunch. The participants carry a heavy burden, but also hold a treasure that few experience in a lifetime – a true connection to a community that has the depth, authenticity and spirituality that few relationships possess, and that I would contend is rare even in churches and other religious gatherings.

I found an AA meeting at a church within walking distance of my workplace, so attended a “Just Before Noon” session during my lunch hour. The previous day in class, I had asked my professor how we could know if meetings listed on websites really took place as frequently as advertised, because I couldn’t believe meetings would really be taking place several weekdays per week in the middle of the day at the same place. The professor responded that online listings could be hit-or-miss. But after class, a student who had been to meetings assured me that if a meeting was listed, people would be there, and to just look for a group of people smoking outside to know it was happening.

I tried to enter the church through the front doors. Locked. A lady approached and asked what I was looking for. I responded, “a meeting,” and went to try the side door. Locked also. I was thinking my suspicions were confirmed – these meetings are probably sporadically attended, erratic and unreliable. Then the lady pointed me to an adjacent building, a house converted into a church annex.  That’s when I was stunned. The room was teeming with people, filling coffee cups, chatting and embracing like old friends. I was expecting five or six attendees max, if I was lucky, and already had been making tentative plans to find another seemingly bigger meeting – perhaps something at night — in case this one didn’t provide the fodder I would need to write a five-page reflection and theory interpretation paper.

Sixty people or more filled a room with an inner horseshoe table and outer seated audience, the 12 steps unfurled banner-style at the front. There was a lot of gray hair and wrinkles – many attendees were older and wizened. Some had spent as many years as a hard drinker as a teetotaler; one dapper man, dressed finer than all the others in a burgundy sport jacket and tie, told the group he was just two years short of spending the same amount of years as a teetotaler than as a drinker: 34.

But by no means was it strictly an over-the-hill crowd; there was a sizable contingent in their 20s, 30s and 40s. About 40 percent were women, same wide age range.

Another elder statesman celebrating his 44th year of sobriety, wearing a furry hunting hat over a mane of white hair, was introduced to cheers, came to the front of the room, and told an impromptu, 20-minute, somewhat rambling, disjointed and humorous version of his life story, including being sent away to school as a third-grader by his alcoholic mother, a top-secret job involving an Air Force base and eventually, accompanying his mother to an AA meeting, something he thought he didn’t need until he knew he needed it and couldn’t live without. He also talked about the shirt he wore, a “flannel shirt, buttoned all the way up,” which carried symbolism he learned from an AA mentor or AA tradition, but I wasn’t sure exactly what it meant. I’m guessing the flannel is for humility and hard work, rather than something like silk, and buttoned up signals no room for slacking or loosening up.

After Flannel’s powerful story, the floor was opened for anyone who felt moved to speak about their struggles, sobriety, temptations, fears, insights and triumphs. Introductions always took the form of “Hi, I’m Fred, and I’m an alcoholic” – whether sobriety had been for one month or 30 years – with the audience responding heartily, “Hi Fred!”

In 30 minutes, I heard so many stories of despair, faith, hope, grace and spirituality that I felt completely immersed, thoughts of work assignments, weekend plans and anything else falling away. There were confessions of near-suicides, slides into homelessness and self-absorbed stupors. Several confessed that they “didn’t know how to live” before becoming sober. They talked about acceptance of the self and giving up “striving for perfection” in their spiritual walk, realizing it was impossible, and surrendering to God, whatever He meant to each individual, as long as it wasn’t a bottle. They cautioned against attending AA merely “to comply on paper” – orders from the legal system – because even if compliance was checked off, they would fall. The woman sitting next to me added her own commentary to herself whenever a revelation hit a chord.

One man told about getting drunk on vodka before attending a court-mandated Mothers Against Drunk Driving meeting at a courthouse, where, to his surprise, police were present, and detected his drunkenness. He could not be charged, but a judge paraded him in front of an audience of defendants as a shameful example.

A woman professed her love for everyone she had met in the group – well, 90 percent, she clarified – and how terrified she was that she would be leaving them shortly to move to Texas, but had already found an AA group there upon a good recommendation. A large, powerful-looking man confessed his abject weakness, describing how he went to his pastor at this very church to say he was “out of control” and needed help, and how he was guided next-door.

This man gave out the “chips” at the end of the meeting, signifying various anniversaries of time for sobriety. Each person who hit a milestone earned rousing applause upon collecting their chip. The shortest length was three weeks.

I left the meeting into the winter sunshine and walked through the adjoining neighborhood, back to my regular life. It struck me how oblivious I was that this spiritual revival of sorts was happening every Friday here and hundreds of other places around the country, and how I probably encountered participants in my everyday life, like my fellow Loyola student who gave me advice in class.

As for my own experience with alcoholism, I did not know my “Surrogate Step-Mother” was an alcoholic until I had already left for college, and she called me one day to tell me about her acknowledgement and new journey and to apologize. She was a high-functioning, covert alcoholic, not a raging drunk. I knew she liked to have a glass of wine in the evening, but that’s all I knew. She could be irritable, moody, tempermental and rigid. She was an ambitious, driven, presumably hard-working professional. Who knows where and when she drank, and how clever she must have become at hiding it. To this day, I still don’t know what my father knew or suspected, or when. We’ve really never talked about it. Not long after Surrogate told me about her alcoholism, she and my father broke up. I have never seen her since.

That has left me with unresolved questions about alcoholism. This was a woman I lived with for four years during my formative adolescence, and knew several years prior. Did her alcoholism make her want to escape from everything and everyone she knew during her alcoholic life? Why did she disappear? Shame and regret? A desperate need to start anew? Did this explain the reason for all the turmoil in our cobbled-together family system, the kids vs. the “parents” bunker mentality we adopted? How did it affect my father?

It took a class assignment 30 years later to make me even think about exploring these dynamics, but now I think I will.Alcoholic_AAMtg

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