Friday, June 28, 2013

Let's Talk About Relapse - Day 8 - Triggers: The Good News!

On the previous blog, we discussed the big myth of relapse - relapse is the result of a lack of willpower or of a half-hearted commitment. Instead, we learnaed that it is the consequence of not attending to our triggers - all kinds!  I shared that triggers are a symptom which send us warning signs that something does not feel right. Triggers lead directly back to our layers of shame, and in many cases, to the inner core of our shame. I explained how what we are feeling in the present (the trigger) is taking us to past painful emotions, feelings, and experiences, and we are reliving them.

Whether the trigger is physical (craving, nausea, nervousness); psychological (painful memories, flashbacks,); emotional (depression, anxiety, anger); behavioral ( old habits or patterns, unhealthy reactions or interactions); environmental (toxic friends, places - people - things that are reminders of unhealthy and/or enticing situations); or cognitive (toxic thinking, negative self-talk, the on-going mental battle between truth and lies) - triggers are relentless.

Unlocking  & Understanding Our Triggers!

I will say this one more time - we  need to identify our triggers; we must address how our triggers are making us feel; then we must be courageous and work hard at understanding why we are feeling that way; and finally we must address and attend to those underlying causes and heal those wounds (seeking professional help or guidance if needed). And once we have worked through our triggers and continue to work on them, we can embrace some good news!

Although triggers can and will catapult us back into previous unhealthy patterns of behaving, thinking, and feeling, they can also serve to teach us more about ourselves and how to move forward in our recovery in healing and healthy ways. 

Let's take a look at a couple of ways in which triggers can really guide us and help us!

1.  If we have worked through a trigger (a craving, a flashback, a toxic thought) but it keeps coming back, we need to stop - go back - and work on it some more! Don't ignore it, minimize it, or push it aside!  Pay attention to what the trigger is telling you and take care of it! For example:

  • Do you need more healing in this area?
  • Do you need to set better or stronger boundaries around this person, place, or thing?
  • Do you need to reassess and readjust your expectations of yourself and others.
  • Could you use some additional support?  Attend a meeting? Call a sponsor or therapist? 

Each and every day, take a reading on your Trigger Thermometer!

2. This next strategy is really important.  I call it the 'trigger thermometer exercise', and there are several steps to this 'trigger teaching tool'.
  •  Imagine that there is a 'trigger thermometer' within your being. Each and every day (or even throughout the day), take a reading on how you are feeling - your levels of sensitivity, or vulnerability, or of strength in your recovering. 
  • After taking an honest inventory, make a mental note of your level. Are you feeling strong -  feeling ok - feeling at risk
  • If you are in a place of strength, you understand that your triggers 'may' have a  minimal impact on you. Of course, it depends on the trigger and its relationship to you.  If you are feeling ok or at risk, you immediately communicate to yourself that your triggers can and will impact you more severely; and in fact, they could redirect you into relapse. 
  • Next, by knowing what is going on with your levels of strength or of sensitivity, you have the knowledge and the power to make healthy choices about what to do, where to go, and when and how to go about your day. You are taking care of you!    

When I have suggested this strategy with clients, sometimes they say, 'Holli,  I feel so silly or weak that I need to do this. I think I'll be fine just knowing and thinking about my triggers".  What I share with them is my truth as I wrote in Mountain Air. I share it with compassion but also as a challenge...

"In recovery, there is no room for complacency - or for the over-reliance on one's current levels of trust and growth.  Outside forces do not rest - neither must the workings of recovery."

It is important to mention that even with this deliberate work on utilizing our triggers and our trigger thermometer as sources of teaching, denial is a nasty companion that is always at play. We will address denial more thoroughly in future blogs; but for now, know that denial will do its best to negate or blur our honest assessment of current levels of growth and strength.

We will continue with more good news about triggers next time.  For now, do your work. Start today. Continue taking care of areas that are easily triggered and that signal unfinished healing. And continue moving forward...

...allowing the awareness and knowledge of your triggers to guide 

and direct you in your recovering.   

Homework: Keep identifying and writing down your triggers - all of them! Continue to connect them to their sources (and work through those injuries if needed). Then, implement the 'trigger thermometer' exercise today! Experience what good news this is!

Friday, June 21, 2013

Let's Talk About Relapse - Day 7 - The Big Myth of Relapse

I believe that there are a  number of myths that surround relapse! I want to share what I call the big myth with you as it relates to recovery from relapse.

One of the reasons that I spent a great deal of time on several previous blogs discussing shame is because of its critical role in not only triggering a relapse episode but also in sustaining one. I discussed how paramount it is to unravel and release the layers of outer shame (embarrassment, humiliation, guilt, self-blame,etc.) in order to begin to embrace recovery again.  And, I guided you through the tender territory of the inner core of shame which must be accessed and addressed in order to sustain recovery from relapse.

 This is important for those in recovery from relapse and also those who want to support us in healing ways because contrary to a common myth, relapse is not the result of a lack of willpower.

So many times, either as a therapist or in my personal life, I often heard others say, "Why doesn't she just try harder?" Or, "If he just puts his mind to it, I know he could quit."  Or even better, "She really doesn't want to get well." What I have to say next is very important.  There are a myriad of physical, psychological,  emotional, behavioral, environmental, and cognitive triggers that come into play with relapse. If we have been working a recovery program, or are in therapy, or have knowledge of the recovering process, we are probably aware of our triggers. However, even then, many of us do not realize their relationship to relapse, and therefore, have no reason to give them concern.  If we have not had recovering experiences,we are most likely not aware of our triggers and how they are impacting our decisions and our choices. Also, when we are triggered, many times denial kicks in, minimizing or mitigating unpleasant feelings or emotions, and we move through the trigger without dealing with the causal issues. 

Here is the critical point.
Triggers are a symptom. Triggers send us warning signs - something doesn't feel right. Something stings; it hurts; it's painful; it's uncomfortable; it needs to stop.  We feel angry, frightened, vulnerable, unsafe; we want the feeling to go away - we want to run away from it, now.  

Triggers lead directly back to our layers of shame, and in  many cases, to the core of our shame. What is happening in the present (the trigger) is taking us to past painful emotions, feelings, experiences and we are reliving them.

We are immediately re-injured, and we will do anything - including falling back into unhealthy self-soothing behaviors to alleviate the pain and assuage the shame. This is why it is absolutely paramount to address our underlying issues - to peel away the layers of shame and get at the core of deeply embedded injuries or injustices. And, as I have shared with you, it is non-negotiable; we must be courageous and vulnerable - we must embrace healing from our past betrayals. By not doing so, we will be re-triggered continually, and we will be concurrently at risk for relapse.

Triggers will almost always continue to be a part of our lives; however, the encouraging news is that they need not serve us solely in detrimental ways. Instead, triggers can remind us that we may have unfinished healing that needs additional attention. And even after working through core issues of causation, triggers can help us to be cognizant of our levels of healing so that we can be pro-active in protecting ourselves from unhealthy environments and in planning ahead when navigating through them. Triggers can teach us how to honor ourselves, our pasts, and our current healing truths. I will address this more next time...for now, remember...

 Triggers remind us that we can let go of one big myth -
 relapse is the consequence of a lack of willpower.
We can rest in that truth. 

Homework: Continue to work on your releasing of shame. Journal or meditate  - use whatever means works for you. But continue this practice. Then, begin thinking about and writing down your triggers - people, places, things, thoughts, feelings, etc.- and describe how each trigger affects you, your decisions, and your actions. Take your time on this.  If you feel ready, next to each trigger, connect it back to its source. Take comfort in knowing that understanding causation leads to making healthier decisions and choices.  Take care of yourself as you do this.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

My Dad - Why I Said, "I Love You", First

As this Father’s Day approaches, I have been thinking about my dad. He is 84 and because the past six months have been rough on his health, this Father’s Day seems extra meaningful. Living over 700 miles apart, we stay connected almost daily through emails and weekly phone calls.  Our relationship over the past 30 years has evolved into one of mutual love, respect, and admiration. Aside from my husband and daughter, I am more authentic with my dad than anyone else. As a child, I never thought this could have happened. It is all because I said, “I love you’, first.

Growing up in a family of four sisters in the 50’s and 60’s, with young parents doing all that they could to keep ‘food on the table’ and ‘clothes on our backs’, I felt rather invisible. As the second daughter, I was the typical people-pleaser and peace-maker in a sometimes conflicted and chaotic household. My dad worked hard as a music teacher while taking on other related jobs to bring in additional income: teaching private lessons, playing ‘gigs’ with various swing and jazz bands, and composing or arranging pieces for an established publisher. My mom put in long hours at a local hospital after becoming a registered nurse. Their absence in my life and my sisters’ was deeply felt.

All throughout those formative years, I did not feel close to my dad. In fact, I often felt like a stranger in our own house. I didn’t feel wanted and I didn’t feel like I was ever good enough. It wasn’t so much what was said as what wasn’t said. With years invested into academic and musical achievement, I desperately craved his affirmation, approval, and even acknowledgement.  None was given.  As a shy, introverted, and extremely sensitive young girl, I wanted my dad’s support, nurturing, and compassion. I remember only criticism, condemnation, and a cold distance between us. Although there were sporadic moments of laughter and mutual teasing in our family, love was not physically shown nor was it spoken. By the time I left for college, I was deeply angry at him and was determined to stay as far away emotionally and physically as possible. For nearly a dozen years, I did just that.

In my late twenties, I moved back to my hometown after accepting a much needed teaching job. For several years, I lived nearby my parents. However, I maintained an emotional distance, especially with my dad. My childhood wound of anger festered within me and it grew into a resentment that filled my being. I didn’t expect anything to change. I didn’t expect my dad to change. And, I certainly wasn’t going to make any motions at improving our dynamic! After all, I owed my dad nothing. He owed me!

Several years passed. I met and married my husband, Dan.  One night after dinner and after one of our many tear-filled conversations about my dad, Dan made a crazy suggestion. Because Dan knew how much I wanted and needed my dad’s love, he challenged me to tell my dad I loved him, first!  I thought Dan was nuts!  A healthy discussion ensued that lasted several days, possibly even weeks. And after an incredible amount of soul searching as well as realizing I had nothing to lose, a plan was devised and put into action.

After finishing a Sunday evening dinner at my parent’s house, Dan and I helped clean and then gathered up our belongings. I said a quick goodbye to my mom while following Dan to the front door. My dad was right behind me. Dan stepped onto the front porch and squeezed my hand, giving me the reassurance I needed. Turning to face my dad and say my goodbye, I put one hand on each of his arms, looked him straight in his eyes, and with my voice and body quivering, I shakily and softly spoke, “I love you."

Without knowing what to do next, I witnessed my dad slump to the side, catching his weight against the baby grand piano that was nestled against the wall next to the front door. He face was drained of all color; he was speechless; he looked paralyzed. My eyes were filling with hot tears and I too felt weak. I turned quickly, closed the door behind me, and ran to the car. Dan grabbed me and held me tight. He whispered, “You did good. You won’t regret this…I promise you."

Over the next weeks and months, every time I talked with my dad, either in person or on the phone, I always ended the conversation with, ‘I love you’. The silences on his end became less pregnant, and I, to my amazement, began to heal.  The infectious wound of anger within was cauterized by the first searing incision of ‘I love you’ and with each voicing came the additional removal of years of hurt and pain. By the passing of eight months, I felt like a different person – whole and happy. It no longer mattered to me what my dad said or didn’t say. I had given myself the gift I needed – when I said I loved him, I let go of all that had wronged me. When I said I loved him, I made it right for me. And yet sadly, a part of me wished of my dad that he would be able to do the same for himself.

A few days later, I was talking with my dad on the phone, arranging a pick up time from school for my daughter. Before I hung up, I concluded with my usual, “I love you, Dad.” And without hesitation, but with such speed that I almost missed it, my dad brusquely added, “I love you too, sweets”, and then he immediately hung up! I stood still in the kitchen but everything seemed to be swirling around me. I felt dizzy- almost faint – just like he had. I called to Dan and he came running! I shouted, “He did it – my dad said it – he told me – I love you”. Dan held me in his arms, saying nothing. My body relaxed and my mind calmed as I absorbed the magnitude of it all. Our relationship would never be the same.

Almost 30 years exactly have passed since my dad and I began our mutual exchange of love.  It would take pages and pages to share all that has happened – all that has healed and grown.  It is enough to say as this Father’s Day approaches that I have no regrets with my dad. I am at peace with him as he is with me. I am so blessed and thankful that I said, ”I love you”, first.
Spring 2012 - My dad working his crossword puzzle out in our backyard...


Thursday, June 13, 2013

Let's Talk About Relapse - Day 6 - More on the Core of Shame

There has been quite a response to the last blog - Digging Deep into the Core of Shame! Although I am not surprised, I believe that it is tragic that we don't talk about this more. And so, I am going to spend a little more time on the core of shame and it relationship to relapse.

First of all, I want to make clear that not everyone has deeply embedded injuries or injustices associated with their shame in relapse. At the same time, I believe that anyone who relapses has struggles with what I refer to as the outer layers of shame that were discussed in Days 3 and 4 of "Let's Talk About Relapse". And, it is critical to work through those outer layers as well.

As I begin to address the core of shame and its relationship to denial in relapse, please remember to take care of yourself.  This is sensitive territory and it can bring up feelings, emotions, reactions, and behaviors that may feel uncomfortable or unsafe. Keep a pulse on your level of response.

Denial, especially with regards to the topic of relapse, is typically viewed as a destructive defense mechanism. I do not disagree. At the same time, there are occasions when denial serves as a protector  - waiting for the right time, place, and person to help individuals navigate through their inner core of shame and the violations within.  As a therapist, I witnessed this time and time again.  And I, like many other professionals in my field, have the tender task of helping clients in their time of awareness and readiness to access that buried pain, root it out, and release the shame.

I recall one client who struggled for years with an eating disorder, relapsing time and time again. Denial served as her protector as she guardedly disclosed issues of low self-esteem and low self-worth. In the safety of our sessions together and as she learned to trust our process in therapy, slowly she begain to unravel the bundle of scar tissue within.  At her core were years of physical and psychological abuse by both parents; then, additional issues of abandonment when at a very yong age, she suddenly lost her mother. Rooting out the core of shame she carried with her and releasing its hold on her did not resolve this client's eating disorder (as there are many other complex and complimentary interventions in this treatment). However, it did revive her in a way that brought healing to her years of buried trauma along with healthy management of present triggers which led to her continual struggles with relapse.  

What is important here is this:  Denial is a defense mechanism. It keeps us from facing ourselves and our truth. It is really hard to break through it. However, if we keep relapsing and we continue to find ourselves in a pool of shame, I believe we must muster up the courage to look inside - to conduct a fearless inventory and to face the brokenness within.  As I write in Mountain Air: Relapsing and Finding the Way Back...One Breath at a Time, I compare the process of examining the cracks within our inner beings to assessing the fissures within the soil:

"Fissure in the Soil" - Chapter 5
"Trusting in my healing experiences, I thought about my underlying condition as well. Yes, I knew my inner soil was was light and porous, but it was also strong.  I had experienced trauma, and I had tenderly and courageously treated that wound years ago. But was there more that I was not seeing or sensing? Was my inner fissure composed of sharp fragments of forgotten pain that were getting pushed deeper into my being against the weight of betrayal's boulders? What I ready to start removing the heavy rocks lodged in my deepening crevice? Was I willing to face what I might find?

Whatever I would decide, I knew the process would not be easy; I knew the emotional costs would be high. Exploring causation and arresting relapse always is. Most importantly, I knew that by embracing recovering, I must interrupt and disrupt the natural flow of denial. It was time to remove this mask of relapse; it was time to let go of its hold on my being." (Chapter 5 - "Fissure in the Soil")

Is it time for you? Are you ready to remove the mask of denial and face what you might find?

 If so, seek out professional guidance or therapy. Turn to your recovery programs and processes. Trust in the individuals who have invested in you and in your well being. 

Friday, June 7, 2013

Let's Talk About Relapse - Day 5 - Digging Deep into the Core of Shame

Naming our pain, I believe, is a critical step in the process of recovering. We have been talking about relapse and the destructive accompanying role that shame plays as it takes residence within us.  Without recognizing shame's presence as well as its paralyzing hold on  us, we cannot effectively begin to practice its release.

Peeling Away The Bark (and the Shame)  - Chapter 7

The past couple of blogs have addressed the process of peeling away the shame - of releasing it and letting it go. We have talked about how this release needs to be a mindful and purposeful practice - letting go its invasion into your being as often as needed - whenever it is needed.  Continue with this throughout your recovering journey.

Today, we are going to tread into some tender territory. So, be prepared that what I say may feel  uncomfortable or unsettling.  You may find yourself feeling angry, or you may not understand your level of emotional reactivity.  Please do whatever you need to do to take care of yourself - except of course, do not return to an unhealthy behavior.

I believe that many of us have deeply embedded injuries or injustices within our inner being which have not been tended to and thus become triggers for relapse. We may have some level of awareness of them; we may have strong denial forces around them; or we may have no conscious memory of them at all.  However, if we have not worked through these injuries in healing ways, I believe we carry around with us an 'inner core of shame'. It might present itself in subtle ways such as being insecure, as having low self-esteem, or as being an introvert or shy; on the other  hand,  it may present itself more boldly. Such indications may be a history of unhealthy relationships,a pattern of irresponsible or abusive behaviors, or individuals may struggle inter personally and socially with narcissistic, borderline, or histrionic personalities. The range of personal struggle with its damaging consequences, all in an effort to mitigate the core of shame and lessen the pain within, is vast.

It is my personal as well as my professional belief that with professional counseling or therapy and if an individual is in a place of readiness, that it is imperative to root our the core of shame that dwells within. I believe that without doing so, we allow our betrayers (whoever and whatever they may be) to win out...and to continue to erode our spirit and soul. I believe we hold our healing hostage to them.

Bark Beetles  Digging Deep Within The Core of the Tree - Chapter 6
As I write in Mountain Air,  I compare the invasion of shame deep within us to a forest infested by bark beetles, and I describe the necessary removal of both for survival: 

"If a tree was suspect to infection, the surgeon would precisely and gingerly peel away the bark just enough to expose the larvae developing underneath. All bark that was concealing the betrayers must be removed; neglecting any hidden enemies would endanger the entire tree and its neighbors. By peeling away the bark, the larvae become exposed to unfavorable conditions which caused them to dehydrate, starve, and eventually die. With the enemy completely eradicated, the tree was freed from the strangulation  within and its nutrients once again flowed without interruption. Now there was hope for its renewal."

Continue releasing the layers of shame...  Gently ponder the idea of an inner core of shame. Consider seeking professional guidance... Gift yourself with the hope of renewal.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Let's Talk About Relapse! Day 4 - Keep Peeling Away The Shame"

It's been a few days since we were talking about peeling away the shame of relapse.  I hope you  had the opportunity to read my previous post - the interview with Cathy Taughinbaugh - "Relapse: Finding the Way One Breath at a Time".  If not, please go back and read it now!  We talked about the relationship between shame, denial, and relapse - important stuff!!

Now, getting back to peeling away the layers of shame. Did you do your homework?  Did you start naming your layers - guilt, self-blame, self-hatred, embarrassment? Did you work on releasing each one, slowly and a little at a time? Did you find a process that works for you - writing or journaling, meditating, visualization, praying, etc.? If so, great - keep going!  If not, get started today -now. Let's talk about how.

One of the reasons individuals don't succeed when starting any new kind of behavior, or program, or change in lifestyle is that they don't start small. They bite off too much at once, feel over-whelmed, and then give up! So, look over your daily and weekly schedule. When is a good time to work on this exercise?  Morning, mid-day, evening?  Set aside 10 minutes (or more if possible), every day (or at least every other day), and begin. Add more time as you feel successful in what you are doing.

Another excellent way to incorporate 'releasing' or 'letting go' of negative thought patterns is to blend it into another established pattern of behavior.  For example, I walk for an hour at least every other day (more if the weather is good).  During my walks up in the mountains where I live, I practice my 'letting go' of any negative feelings or emotions. It feels amazing - walking, breathing, releasing...  And remember, at the same time as we are letting go of shame, we are also 'forgiving ourselves'. Practice this...say it...mean it.

By forgiving ourselves, we are reminding ourselves that we are human - that we make mistakes.  At the same time, we loosen the grip that shame has on us so that we can free ourselves to learn from our choices and make healthier decisions ahead.

Keep going.  Keep practicing this internal cleansing. Keep your healing a priority.

Next time, we'll dig a little deeper into the issue of shame...and continue to free ourselves in the process.

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