You might have listened to the previous talk and thought, “Oh. He just inferred we can easily rewrite the script- that if we don’t like the story we’re living, we can just sprinkle in some new characters, change the scenery, add a few power-ups, and then move forward.”
No so fast. You can’t create a script overnight. Not a good one, anyway.
Here’s what I mean…
Every few months someone asks me, “How long does it take to write a book?”
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“How many hours? Or days? Or what do you do? Do you just sit down and start until it’s done, or…”
When I studied writing as an English Major at Samford University, I learned Jack Kerouac famously hammered out On the Road, a novel which defined a generation, in three weeks on a continuous reel of paper. That approach generally doesn’t leave space for reflection, for editing, and for course corrections- three things life requires that hacked-out novels might not.
I usually tell people, “It takes what it takes.”
Then, “I work best when I can jump into the project and stay in it, kinda getting lost inside the words and pages…”
Re-scripting your story, your life, is much the same. Unwriting old rules and thinking patterns, determining what responses are needed as opposed to those which are no longer needed… adjusting your soul-memory… none of those are instant “fixes.”
Let me pull back the curtain, share with you a piece of my story, and highlight what I mean. This is about to get raw.
“What are you seeing about yourself? Let’s label it. Not to limit you and box you in but to get a starting point. Truth is freedom. If we can define where we’ve been we can always navigate from there to where you’re designed to be.”
Sitting in my attic office I was speaking with a life coach via Zoom. For the previous few weeks we had walked through the hurtful parts of my story. Like you and I discussed in the previous chapter, some of those parts were the results of things that had been done to me; many of those parts were the results of my own actions. Either way, though, I was responsible to take stock of where I was, own my story, and step forward responsibly. We were beginning to look at what moving forward looked like.
I answered him quickly. I began pushing through the list of things I was seeing about myself immediately. Words that usually scared me rolled readily from my tongue.
After a few moments, I concluded, “I don’t know of anything else. I’ve laid it all out there. I can’t think of anything I’ve omitted.”
“Addiction,” he offered. “You haven’t mentioned the word addiction. I would like you to explore that. Maybe- just maybe- you need to look at yourself in the mirror and add this one, too: I am an addict.”
When he mentioned addiction, I began to see everything about my story through a new lenses. You see, I understand what addiction looks like. No, I hadn’t see it in myself. I’d seen this one clearly in others.
For almost a decade I worked with addicts- the kind you conjure in your head when you hear the word addiction. The people hooked on heroine, LSD, marijuana, and other drugs. Alcoholics. Chain smokers.
It’s easy to look at them as say, “Oh, yeah. That is an addict.”
I watched person after person- or, let’s just label it like it is, addict after addict- walk through the door of various transitional housing facilities and shelters where I worked for almost a decade. Residents generally moved through the first 30-day phase of the programs without any incidents. They found gainful employment. They reconnected with families who became confident enough in their progress to begin visiting them the 1st and 3rd Sundays of the month. They began laughing and smiling and speaking about the future in hope-filled ways.
Then- many times on the very night they received their first paycheck- they threw it all away for a night of some combo of sex, drugs, and alcohol. It’s almost as if they became a completely different person- a person seeking to sabotage their hopes and dreams rather than fulfill them. It was as if they had their own unwritten rules that subconsciously tossed them into that bad-outcome script, no matter how hard they fought for the good-outcome version.
I worked in the field long enough to watch the same people recycle themselves through different programs. Like a revolving door or a merry-go-round, it was a predicable loop we could chart:
It was surreal. I listened many of their stories firsthand, the very hour they wandered through our front doors.
“What brings you here?” I often asked.
“Wow! Things have got to change. And this time they will. I must jump off this roller coaster.” Many then told me about the seemingly endless rinse-and-repeat spin cycle they were on…
For sure, many of them did change. Their lives were transformed.
But many of them didn’t. Their lives weren’t altered in the least. Eventually, four or five years down the road, some of that second group came back to our program- many times forgetting they had ever been there before.
That cycle could continue almost indefinitely- especially with so many residential recovery centers in our city. When it did, it always baffled me.
Why would the couple living on the family wing of that rehab program I ran for 7 years, choose to get high again? They knew a failed drug test would most likely mean they would lose custody of their kids for good and that at least one of them might very well go to jail.
Why would this man who finally held a steady job, guaranteed on-time transportation to and from work each day, and a forced savings program which insured he would graduate our program with $5,000- $7,000 in the bank for future expenses to begin his life anew just toss it away to live on someone’s couch- just so he could “drink one or two beers” every night after work?
I watched the cycle of devastation claim person after person. For years, I tried to figure out why they acted like they did, why some internal switch flipped and they suddenly began acting… dangerously.
I decided the issues weren’t practical at all (i.e., “If I could just explain to them on paper or rationalize with them, illuminating the path forward.”).
I decided the some of the issues probably centered around internal rules people created (i.e., “I’m not worthy of success or meaningful progress”).
I decided some the issues were cover-ups for hidden pain, that they were coping mechanisms to block out the sound of “fireworks” or “backfiring engines” or some sort of other present thing being misperceived in light of the past.
In other words, the issues were deep.
I used to think addiction was a “fruit,” that it was simply bad choice people made. Turns out, it’s not.
We could teach people about relationships, purpose, emotional health, or any other thing we saw manifest in life. We could instruct them on the healthy version of those things, but those are all fruits. That is, they’re all symptoms (read: results) of our hearts being attached to the right place.
When our hearts are whole, relationships work. And we find purpose. And we’re emotionally stable. And we don’t self-sabotage. And we have enough. (Think back to the thermostat-thermometer analogy in an earlier talk.)
I assumed addiction was simply one of those bad fruits people needed to be taught about. If they only knew better, they could do better. Or so it seemed.
Addiction is a root issue, though. Not a fruit issue. To kill it, you’ve got to destroy the roots, not just keep plucking off bad fruit. Unless the stuff inside changes, the fruit always returns.
It might take a few weeks (read: first paycheck) or it might take a few years (example: recycle yourself back to the same rehab you’ve already been doing, not even remembering you've already been there), but the fruit always returns. To change the fruit, you’ve got to deal with the root.
Now, I also assumed addiction centers mainly around substance abuse. Or porn.
But addiction, a root, connects to other soil as well. Addiction happens when we attach our hearts- for whatever reason- to the wrong place. And when we do that, bad fruit always emerges. In order to see meaningful fruit grow in a consistent way, we’ve got to attach the heart to the right place.
All that said, I’d seen addiction firsthand. I watched amazing stories of redemption and recovery unfold right before my eyes, and I watched people choose lives of sheer hell. I even wrote the 12-step curriculum we used at The Village. I shot an entire video series for it.
Though I never made the connection between what I taught and what I lived before hearing the label addict during the Zoom counseling session, I suddenly saw something new. I could see the same patterns in my own life. My heart had been attached to the wrong things.
When I look back at my life through the lenses of addiction, things complete sense:
I’ve mentioned it before… for years I wondered if I might end up somewhere like those addicts, walking those halls, attending those classes, getting shuttled to and from work every day, having a chance to see my kids every 14 days in 2-4 hour time blocks or while on a weekend pass as I spent the rest of my time working on the deeper issues- issues at the time I couldn’t even fathom were there.
“Go to some meetings for addicts,” my coach told me. “Get online and see what’s out there in your area for things like you’ve struggled with.”
It’s amazing what you can do with a label when you’re not afraid to confront the hard truth. In looking at my story, I consistently chased two things:
On the first count, it was the ministry and the perceived success of it that fueled my ego, providing me so much of the personal validation I craved. And, It was “acceptable” to work long hours- because it was “the Lord’s work.” I could always rationalize that life and death issues- eternity and souls- were at stake.
One of my friends, as he resigned from our ministry years ago, told me, “I can’t work here anymore.” He added, without being asked, “You do the right things, but you often do them in the wrong way. It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it.”
Short-cuts. Long hours. Insane schedules. Control. Bull-dozing people so I could finish my latest project.
That summarized the first point above perfectly. I was doing great work, but I managed it like an addict.
On the second count, I had to come to terms with the fact that I desperately wanted my wife to respect me, to think I was valuable, to believe there was greatness inside of me. I lied and covered up to avoid arguments with her I knew we’d have if I owned my un-success, my failures, or my inability to provide something she wanted. I continued my charades, in large part, to create a sense of security and even abundance for her. I wrongly looked to her for the years of validation which (in my mind) I never received. As a result, when she was pleased with me, I was ecstatic- on Cloud 9. When she was displeased, I was depressed.
As a result, I did everything I could to keep her pleased with me- even if it was a fake “pleased.”
In some sense, all men want to please their wives. I’m convinced that women have no idea how much shame they inflict on their men with eye rolls, bickering, and verbal reminders that he doesn’t measure up. Though I felt the tension that’s common to most men, I went too far in trying to impress my woman.
Those were my “highs,” they brought me a sense of value and purpose and meaning. They were a means of escape. They covered the hurts of the past and filled my emotional tank.
All that said, I attended a Celebrate Recovery meeting.
As I left that first evening, one of the leaders handed me a small book to take home and read. I flipped through it while grilling out one evening, then finished reading it as a sat post-dinner on our front porch.
I learned that 2/3 of the participants in CR actually don’t have a substance or chemical addiction. Most of them are just seeking total wholeness, to see radical grace infuse their life in a way that nothing else in the world can. Notably, most of the issues are related to emotional wholeness- that one area I was beginning to learn is a significant one we often overlook.
Although that’s not the impression we have of addiction, that’s the reality. Many of us attach our hearts to the wrong things (in large part, because of past hurts and pains we’re seeking to soothe). We live from undisclosed hidden rules- in an effort to avoid pain. We cover that pain with addictions, false-fillers which can never eliminate the void. The result is bad fruit, bad fruit which returns perennially.
I can’t begin to tell you how many times I “killed” bad fruit in my life. “This is it,” I repeatedly told myself. Then, to use the language from the title of this short book, “I’m finally free.”
But I wasn’t. Not for long.
Often, seemingly out of nowhere, bad fruit returned. When it did, it often grew back stronger and bigger, making it even more difficult to pluck off the next time.
Maybe you’ve been there, too, experiencing the same thing.
At some point, it made me think, “Dang. Maybe I’m just a bad tree. Because good trees bear food fruit and bad trees bear bad fruit. So if bad fruit keeps returning…” I even read verses in the Bible where Jesus explained that it’s seemingly impossible for good trees to produce bad fruit (see Matthew 7:17-20).
What did that make me?
(In the end, I looked out the attic window and across my backyard. I decided that Jesus must have been speaking in generalities. The best tree at my house occasionally produced a “bad apple.” And the most dis-eased tree occasionally exhibited a good one. He looked at the overall trajectory, the thing the tree is known by- not the occasional outlier. As his little brother later wrote in James 3:2, “We all stumble.”)
Anyway, the CR leader who gave me the book also directed me to an info table where they kept a dozen or more “green sheets.” Each one detailed a specific addiction issue- that is, an incorrect heart attachment. Those pages contained info on everything from codependency to alcoholism to having been raised in a dysfunctional family to eating disorders to mental health issues to just about anything else you could brainstorm. Each sheet listed both symptoms and possible solutions. And every solution required going beneath the surface, heading right into the dirt, and digging deep.
After (just being honest), cussing under my breath, things became ultra-clear to me. Though most of us never get diagnosed, we all struggle with our demons, it seems. Some of them are just more acceptable, and bit more sanitized, more mainstream, and therefore less noticeable than others. Though my addictions were acceptable by most standards, they were as equally deadly as their less sanitized counterparts.
I walked out the room, my stack of green sheets in hand, realizing I had a long road ahead of me. By my own estimation, I had 95-100% of the symptoms on several of the “hurts, habits, and hangups” referenced by CR.
But I wasn’t afraid. I wasn’t afraid if anyone knew. I wasn’t afraid that owning the label- even all of the labels- might negate my worth as a person- or even diminish the calling God placed on my life. I’m confident His love is unconditional. And I’m certain His acceptance, His gifts, and His calling are irrevocable- even if other people’s approval of me is (Romans 11:29).
If He could work around Noah’s drunkenness, Abraham’s pimping his wife (twice), Jacob’s ongoing deception, Moses’ anger-management issues, David’s adultery, Peter’s denials, Paul’s murders… then He could certainly work with my “green sheets.”
That meant I just needed to work on my heart- to continue doing the tough work of the soul, the “inside job” of uncovering the facets of the Imago Dei, the image of God, that were already tucked inside of me. As I did more of that, more of the fruit I wanted would naturally emerge.
During that long season when I began pulling these ideas together I texted my kids’ mom.
“I missed a lot chasing my empty dreams,” I typed. “There’s nothing- or very little- to show for all of that time away, all of those missed moments, all of those sacrificed seasons…”
In the same way that those addicts have very little to show for all of their addicting behaviors, I had little to show for mine.
“You have no idea,” she replied.
The irony is that I forfeited the very relationships which add the most value to my life by chasing things I hoped would fill my life with meaning and purpose.
I remembered something I’d read in my Enneagram book. I reached for the shelf and grabbed it:
The relationships of spiritually unevolved Threes suffer because they’re almost all workaholics. They have so many projects remaining and so many goals to achieve they can’t give their undivided attention to people they love.
That was one of my “sins of choice,” workaholism. I remembered-
Why? Because my heart had been attached to the wrong things.
As The Road Back to You says-
… they all believe in the same lie: you’re only as loved as your latest success.
Or, you could flip it: “You’re as unloved as your latest catastrophe or failure.”
I had a lot of those failures. And, in large part that’s why I covered them. And it’s why I rarely asked for help. Admitting I couldn’t make something work was akin to confessing that something was wrong with me, that I wasn’t worthy of love.
I was addicted to finding my value, my self-worth, in externals. So, I did the things addicts do. Instead of connecting to the right thing, I connected to the wrong things. Again, an addiction is anything that wrongfully takes the place of primacy in our hearts.
That night via text, our kids’ mom affirmed that she had needed me, that our children desperately needed me. That they just wanted to be with their Daddy. That they would go to work with me just to be near me- even when it meant the only time and attention they received was during the car ride back and forth. That they approached me when I left early or came back late because they craved my affirmation.
That’s what addiction does. That is, it’s what happens when anything takes the place of primacy in our hearts- that special spot reserved uniquely for the Creator. Our hearts remain restless until He alone resides there. (And, even after that, let's be honest, life still feels shaken sometimes, right?)
What does this have to do with emotional pain?
Well, most of us- because of those 3 Facts and the one about avoiding pain- dodge emotional pain. That is, we’re not immune to the things that create the trauma; but we like to avoid feeling it.
So, we cover it. We cling to other things.
We fill the holes that emotional wounds create with things that don’t sting, with externals that feel good. Money, sex, and drugs… yes. But we also fill that void with things that aren’t “sin” issues, things that are actually right and good and even noble.
(And even sex and money are noble with the right expressions, right?)
In other words, we dodge doing the tough work of the soul, walking through the dark night until we see the sun, once again rise on our lives. After all, it’s much easier to plug a fluorescent into the wall.
I know. Those are all clichés. Seems kind of unfair to pen them like that, because they’re stereotypes. The reality is that people come in all shapes and sizes, and we choose are emotional fillers in our own unique ways.
Plus, let’s be honest. Some of those activities I just listed are bold, world-changing endeavors. We need more of them. But we need the those activities we enjoy in conjunction with the deep work of the heart, the hard work of digging the roots and renovating the self from the inside out. Apart from that, they’re unhealthy attachments filling a void that can’t be filled by an external.
That’s where I had gone. Somewhere along the path, I tethered my heart to the wrong things. Or to the right things in the wrong way.
It was time for me to discover who I really was. To go back to the bottom. To find myself overwhelmed by grace. To rewrite the story. And to let it take as long as it takes.
And that requires, as we’ll see in the next talk, that meant slowing down. Way down.
Access the full video course on grace-based addiction + recovery at www.TheNextBestStep.info- totally free.
Take the PTSD Self-Check at https://www.jenkins.tv/PTSD
Claim Your Freedom- the book- (5.5x8.5, 264 pages)- https://amzn.to/2xwQcEY
Referenced the previous talk- "Live Inside-Out, Not Outside-In" (Claim Your Freedom #2)- at https://www.Jenkins.tv/blog/insideout
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