Category Archives: Alcoholics Anonymous

A Boy Named Sue and A Different Point of View on Pain

A Boy Named Sue is one of my favorite Johnny Cash songs. Most people are familiar with the tune, but for those who have never encountered Cash’s humorous song, it tells the story of a man whose father was a worthless drunk who abandoned his family. Just before leaving, the drunk cruelly named his son “Sue.” The monicker brought teasing and mockery from an early age, which forced Sue to get tough, fighting anyone who picked on him. Intent on revenge for his unfortunate name, Sue hunts down his father with murder in his heart. Eventually, Sue finds and attempts to kill his father. Before he dies, Sue’s dad explains that the name was intended to toughen his son up, because he knew he wouldn’t stick around to help him learn to be a man. Sue realizes that as much as he hates the terrible name, it has made him into the man he is. The song ends with Sue walking away with a different point of view, thankful that he learned to fight and win through his difficulty.
I relate the content of the song because, though humorous, it makes an interesting point. Over the years, I have counseled with many people who curse bad parents, lament difficult circumstances they went through at different points of their lives, or rage against God for past hurts. Often, these hard circumstances in their lives resulted in them growing resentful or carrying a grudge. In such cases, I usually point to Johnny Cash’s song. I have never met a person who went through difficulty without growing strong, learning important skills, developing a deep sense of empathy, encountering God in a meaningful way, or developing a deep and abiding spirituality. Often, these qualities remain unnoticed in the individual because they simply accept them as a part of surviving hardship. In reality, some of the best qualities in people develop from going through difficulty. Diamonds are formed with intense heat and pressure and gold is refined with intense heat that burns away impurities. Further, God often uses our areas of brokenness to minister to the needs of others with similar issues. There’s a reason Alcoholics Anonymous is so effective. It’s because God is able to us alcoholics’ past brokenness to help deliver other alcoholics from their addictions. I have spoken to all sorts of believers who have effectively ministered from their own broken past, regardless of what the brokenness in their past is.
imagesThere is an important principal in this. Comfort, a sense of meaning, and purpose for difficulty in relation to hard circumstances in our past can be discovered by recognizing God’s refining us through the pain we experienced, reflecting on the good it produced in us, and reflecting on how our experiences have shaped us into the person that we are. Doing so requires that we learn to take a different point of view in relation to our past. This can be terribly difficult, because hardship often creates bitterness, which tends to blind us to anything positive that may come of unfortunate incidents. It can also be hard because it’s easy to confuse finding positive outcomes with being glad a bad thing happened. We don’t have to be happy that tragedy has been present in our lives in order to recognize how hardship has shaped us. We can be thankful for what we have become without having joy at what made us the way we are. Learning to shift our perspective in relation to past pain can bring great comfort and release. As difficult as it is, it becomes easier to shift our perspective the further displaced we are from the events. This is often the first step toward healing.
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Addictive Thinking Errors: Miracle Thinking

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This is a rewrite of a column I wrote that was published in the mountaineer in July of this year.

“If I could just move to Florida, then I’ll be happy.” These words were spoken by a young man I was working with in a rehab program. He was a drug addict, had a list of convictions longer than my arm, his family life was a disaster, he was financially destitute, his education and job skills were non-existent; but he firmly believed that a geographical relocation was going to solve all of his personal woes. In reality, moving would change nothing. You simply cannot run far enough away to escape yourself. He was his own problem. His drug addiction was destroying his life. However, the work needed to deal with the problems he had accumulated was far more daunting than simply moving. This is an example of miracle thinking. Miracle thinking is essentially when a person comes to believe that their problems will be solved by accomplishing a simple, often unrelated task.

Miracle thinking comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes, but the common factor is that it generally doesn’t directly address or solve the presenting problem. It’s an easy option. I have spoken to people who believe that if they can just find Mr. or Mrs. Right then they’ll be content, or if they could just change jobs they’d be happy, or if they could get a new spouse they’d stop drinking. The specific form of the miracle can vary, but it usually involves externalizing blame for problems/feelings and a way out of the situation that is often unrelated and easier than dealing with the real problem. In reality, a single, depressed person who enters a new relationship may experience a flush of enjoyment, but will ultimately wind up depressed again. An alcoholic who moves to a new community will just find a new place and people to drink with.

Miracle thinking is a thinking error that is not confined to problems like chemical dependance. People use miracle thinking in relation to debt, marital difficulties, depression, weight problems, anger issues, and all sorts of other issues.

UnknownFiguring out if your solution to a problem is miracle thinking is difficult, and usually requires an outside opinion to help assess the thought. Outside feedback should come from a person who will be forward and honest enough to explain whether or not a planned solution is realistic or likely to pan out. In addition, the individual ought to have a history of making healthy choices. This sort of evaluation is especially important if an individual is dealing with an issue that is particularly difficult or if you recognize a pattern of drastic solutions that simply don’t work out.

The difficulty in self assessing thinking errors, like miracle thinking, is due largely to denial and clouded thinking that is typical among addicts. Self assessment is best accomplished by asking exactly how the solution will resolve the issue at hand. If the explanation is not likely to pan out as true, if evidence from past situations suggests that the solution is viable, or if it will not logically produce any real change; then it is likely miracle thinking. Its important to understand that miracle thinking isn’t a result of a person being crazy or broken. Instead, it comes about when a person’s thinking is clouded by strong emotions, stress, exhaustion, or mental protections of an addiction.

Regardless of whether or not miracle thinking is an issue, the practice of consulting with others for advice when dealing with major issues is a wise practice.
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The Fatal Component of Addiction is Denial

One of the more difficult to grasp concepts about addiction is denial. denialDenial is the component of addiction that is actually fatal. This seems counterintuitive, because addiction typically features all sorts of destructive patterns and practices that seem to the part of addiction that kills you, but the reality is that what kills the addict is the inability to recognize the severity of the situation.

Denial is a thinking mechanism that enables the addict to effectively lie to themselves. All sorts of terrible things happen to the addict, like health problems, legal consequences, relationships disintegrating, loss of employment, or financial problems. These are often directly connected to the addict’s behaviors. Even highly functional addicts experience problems, but deterioration is inevitable. Because their addiction demands more and more of their attention and energy, they are unable to invest in their social and work obligations. Regardless of how bad things get for the addict, denial prevents them from associating their difficulties with using or to recognize that they have developed a serious problem. It’s not intentional, but rather the product of their illness that keeps them focused on everything except the connection between addiction and their problems. Because of denial, the addict gets sicker and sicker without recognizing it. Eventually, it is the lack of recognition that prevents them from working to stop their addictive patterns and results in their death. Denial is fatal because it keeps the addict from seeking help. They anesthetize themselves against most of the pain of consequences by using and blame the rest on other causes.

Typically, denial is broken when the addict experiences so much pain as a result of their using that they wake up to the problem. This is typically referred to as “hitting the bottom.” Unfortunately, the bottom is usually so bad that it kills the addict. Sometimes an addict will swear they won’t use again after an unpleasant experience and attempt to control their using. This fails and memories of the unpleasant experience are hidden behind the denial mechanism. Typically, these moments of clarity are not all-encompassing enough to really break down denial. The first step of the Alcoholics Anonymous program is acknowledging that life has become unmanageable, that the addict cannot control their behavior and that their addiction is destroying them. This is the level of acknowledgement that is necessary for the addict to begin recovery. They have to recognize that they are really sick. If an addict gets help or joins a group of other addicts, this can often lead to them coming to the realization that they are sick, largely because the recovering addicts can typically connect with other addicts in ways that non-addicts don’t necessarily emulate well. In the early days of AA, members would go to addicts in hospitals and sanitariums and proselytize them into the program. Addicts were able to successfully engage other addicts in ways that others weren’t. They could cut through denial because they understood it from the inside.

There are other ways that denial can be broken. For example, interventions put the consequences and impact of the addict’s behavior in front of them in order to force them to face up to reality. They are told about the effects their addiction is having on their loved ones, which prevents them from avoiding the reality of the situation. Another way for breaking denial is by convincing an addict to start treatment through motivational interviewing or other therapeutic techniques, but ultimately they cannot make progress until their denial is dealt with. Facing the consequences of their actions is an important component of beginning recovery. As long as they are protected from the natural consequences of their actions, they cannot begin to wake up to the severity of the situation.
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