Why spirituality offers THE solution

When suffering form the consequences of your own unhealthy habits or those of others the last thing we need to hear is someone trying to tell us that spirituality is the solution. We get too caught up in stress and pain and these feel so real that we use all of our experiences and everything we have learned to deal with them.  But ask yourself this?  Have these coping mechanisms worked for you? The obvious answer is no and this is precisely the reason that we are stuck in our unhealthy behaviour. To be more precise,  this is why this behaviour has become a habit. Continue reading “Why spirituality offers THE solution”

Attitude of Gratitude

A very efficient way to find peace and serenity in stressful or painful situations is to consciously practice gratitude.

By focussing on all the things we are blessed with we take our attention of what hurts us. It really works.

On her deathbed I asked my Mom if she had any last words she wanted to share. I could see her thinking really hard for about a minute and she said: be grateful for what you have and not what you do not. So true!

Detaching with love… let it begin with me

The phrase detach with love is one of the most common pieces of advice given to family, friends and partners of those suffering from unhealthy habits – and probably the hardest.

The reasoning behind it is simple: as long as we continue to take care of the problems for that specific individual he or she will never ‘learn’. It is often said that it I preferable for that person to hit rock bottom and finally realize that they need to change. This is easier said than done.

Especially when you know as a friend, partner or family member, that the consequences of letting go could be extremely serious, painful or even fatal.

Imagine going on a holiday with a loved one who has just come out of a nine week rehab program. Everything seems fine, but upon arrival at a faraway destination he or she relapses and turns the holiday into a disaster, including going missing and being admitted in the ER of the local hospital. What does ‘detach with love’ mean in such instances. Do you fly back home and leave the person? Do you call the police and have the person arrested for their own protection or safety?

The best advice I can give you is to follow your gut feeling. The level of crises and stress we can handle differs from person to person and from case to case. To me it is always very helpful t o apply one of the 12 step slogans: let go and let god. Things seem to have a way to sort themselves out. By letting go of the urge to control or change the situation and let things follow their course solutions often arise automatically – or miraculously if you prefer.

And last but not least: it is okay to put your own well-being first.  There is not much use in you getting a heart attack or getting in trouble yourself as a result of trying to control people, places or things, or as another 12 step slogan says: let it begin with me.

You are not alone

Over the years I have had the opportunity to determine  how widely spread addiction actually is. Let’s take a closer look at some numbers, both in my native country The Netherlands  and in the US. You will notice that you are not alone. The numbers are quite staggering.

According to the Dutch Central Bureau for Statistics at least 800.000  people have a drinking problem on a total population of 16 million. According to the National Drug Monitor and the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) 363.000 people in The Netherlands are using cannabis (marijuana, hashish). During any year some 40.000 people are suffering from eating disorders, such as Anorexia Nervosa or bulimia. An estimated 32.000 people are addicted to heroin, and sex addiction is prevalent in approximately 300.000 men and 80.000 women.  2% of the population in The Netherlands (app. 300.000 people) are ‘shopaholics’

Although some people may be affected by more than one type of addiction or compulsion, and although I expected the numbers to be high, these numbers astounded me.

In other European countries and in the United States the statistics show a similar massive prevalence of addiction and compulsive behavior.

According to a report by the USDHSS heavy drinking was reported by 5.7 percent of the US population aged 12 or older, or 12.9 million people”. Between 19,5 and 25 million Americans use illegal drugs. Sex addiction affects 18 to 24 million people, and 3 million Americans meet the criteria for pathological gambling. According to the 2003 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), an estimated 4.7 million Americans used prescription drugs non-medically and an estimated 17 million Americans suffer from compulsive shopping.

Many other forms of addiction or compulsion are not included in these statistics; as stated, these do not include addiction related physical disease, nor stress induced diseases such as strokes or heart attacks.

It is important to realize that these data do not take into account how these addictions and diseases indirectly cause suffering in the lives of spouses, children, parents, family, friends, colleagues and team members of the individuals concerned. It is generally accepted that addiction in an individual directly affects at least 4 people who are close to the addict.

We don’t need any more statistics than these to be able to determine how vast and widely spread the problem of addiction is and how it causes people to suffer in staggering numbers all over the world.Virtually all of us have to deal with addiction.

Suffering and sickness are the rule, and not the exception.  We are both on an individual level and collectively a bunch of unhappy people. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could begin to end this suffering. And doesn’t it make sense to begin by ending it in our own personal life.

Which program is right for you?

Once you have reached the point where you realize that you need help because your life has swung out of control (“you hit rock bottom”), where do you turn to?

I found that the most important thing to do is to ask for help. It does not really matter to whom you turn. You will know which advise to follow. Whether it is given by a good friend a school dean, a trusted colleague or a health care professional (counselor, psychologist, general practitioner). Ask. Elsewhere in this blog I told you that you are not the only one and many people have practical experience with addiction and help that works.

Personally I believe in a combination of some kind of group based program and individual care tailored to your own specific needs. The group aspect is useful to reinforce your awareness that indeed there are many others who experience suffering and unhappiness because of addiction in oneself, a loved one, family member or friend. You will realize that you are not abnormal. By listening to the personal stories of other group members and to their ways of dealing with addiction you will pick up very useful tips for your own good.

On an individual level I would recommend to start out by learning what you can about addiction and co-dependency. It will help you put the problem in a reliable perspective. It allowed me to take a step back and start to have a good and realistic look at the things I could do to make the changes necessary for recovery.

Mind you, this is an ongoing process. After so many years my behavior was “programmed” so deeply that I had to be vigilant to prevent myself to fall back (or relapse) into my old and unwanted behavior.

In talking to literally hundreds of addicts and co-dependents I have found that recovery also involves a change in the way you think and of what you believe in. I would call this the spiritual component of recovery.

In my opinion 12 step programs are a good option. They offer meetings, literature, sponsorship and fellowship.

Starting a new relationship? Peel off the label

In many cases recovering from living with someone suffering from an unhealthy habit leads to ending the relationship. It is quite natural that you carry feelings of disappointment, betrayal, anger and pain with you after such a rupture for quite some time. You blame that person for them and these feelings can stand in the way of engaging in new relationships. You are afraid to get hurt again. We generalize our anger and mistrust towards people we meet (“men are all the same anyhow” or “you cannot trust women. Period.”)

We have to realize that it is not the other person that generates our feelings. It is our own thought process. Fortunately we are in control of our thoughts.

A good way of using this is by consciously avoiding  judging the people you meet. I sometimes refer to this as “not sticking labels”.  This is hard because our mind is lightning fast and  incredibly  cunning in labeling people. This mechanism makes perfect sense of the problem too: if you meet someone who you really, really like and at the same time you carry all the negativity (anger, fear, frustration, distrust, etc.) with you, there is a clash between the reality of the nice feelings the person generates in you, and the negative emotions you feel at the same time. This can only lead to confusion and increases the risk of making the wrong choices.

Try to notice yourself  sticking these labels on people, places or things. And as soon as you are aware of doing it, mentally step back and consciously remove the label you were sticking. When doing so, I actually visualize this process in slow motion and picture my self removing an actual label (including the words printed on them in black capital letters) with my thumb and index finger. Just as  you would remove a label from something you bought in the store. I then in full consciousness crumple it up and throw it away in my kitchen’s garbage bin.

You will find that in doing so a calmness and a sense of relief will come over you. And you will be surprised at how it changes the way you look at people.

The beauty of this is that instead of occupying your mind’s activity with negative emotions and the additional stress and unrest it causes in you, you have now created space in your mind to take a look at yourself when engaging in new relationships and not lose yourself in emotions.  There is no more need to feel angry or to feel afraid of being rejected or disappointed.

Focus on what your soul really needs  and imagine how  this new person would fit these needs. You may be surprised at how well this works. (It does for me…) Instead of a clouded judgment this will allow you to make calm and conscious choices.

Some may argue – especially when referring to falling in love – that this takes away the spontaneity. I would suggest taking a good look at your past relationship with your addict and the unnecessary suffering it has caused. Chances are that listening to the head and not just the heart may be the path you prefer to choose in establishing new relationships. And don’t forget that most of the time the truth (or reality) is not what our emotions tell us! (see my previous posts on denial)

PS: This little technique not only works for me in affectionate relationships, e.g. with a (potential) significant other, but also with colleagues and friends. The next time you meet someone you dislike, notice yourself sticking your label(s) on them and then remove them slowly and consciously, one by one. The results can be amazing.

Healing through believing

We are all created, composed of tiny particles, so scientists say. Before we were born they already existed, and when we die, these atoms that formed us do not disappear. They live on. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. We come from all, and we return to all. We are all. We did not choose our parents, the color of our eyes, our sex, the place and the circumstances we were born in. In fact there is very little we choose, most of it simply, miraculously happens. Somehow and sometimes we still realize that we are part of creation, of this incredible engine or wheel of life. That we are one with it. Unfortunately most of the time we lose sight of this awareness, because we have become addicted to experiencing our life, we have lost ourselves to this earthly life experience. We are scared to death of losing this or having to give that up. But what are we afraid of?

Who and what are we compared to the greatness and the perfection of creation. Where does this life force that was given to us, that was instilled in us, come from. This force that is present in everything: animals, plants, water, the earth, the universe. Isn’t it amazing how seemingly  insignificant we are on a cosmic or universal scale.

And yet, on the level of  the “self”, everything we were given to experience, all the facets of this human, earthly life (pain and pleasure, love and hate, peace and war, beauty and ugliness) are  so important and overwhelming to us. It seems it is all there is and we expect and want it to be better and we want more of it. It has turned into a chase that has blinded us from our oneness with creation.

To use a biblical metaphor: in tasting of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, we have received the faculty to  experience, to know life in all its fullness, but it has separated us from paradise (perfect creation) because we cannot handle both. We have lost our way back to this original state of oneness and perfection where there is no judgment, no guilt, no shame.

I too am still struggling with the letting go of this addiction to the worldly. Of the urge to have more and better still: power, sex, status, luxury and love. Deep down I know that this is madness and yet, I participate in it. But who am I struggling with. Which part of me is writing these words. Who makes my choices. My soul or my reason, my left or my right brain hemisphere, the male or female aspects of me. Or the child. In fact, deep down I know that all of this is me.

We have become addicted to the lusts, the sensual experiences, the love this life offers us. The thought never to be able to experience this again, the fear of losing that gift lies at the root of addiction, disease and suffering. And it is a double-edged sword.

To those, who experienced terrible suffering or trauma in this life,  it is a fear of realizing that you may have to go through experiencing more of  this pain  – or worse – in your life time. This is an overwhelming fear in which death may appear to be salvation. It also causes unrealistic expectations.  How can someone who grew up in a dysfunctional family or who was the victim of abuse know what a harmonious, normal family situation is like.

The biggest fear for those who have led a life with experiences of pleasure and joy, free from suffering, is to lose life.

These two fundamental fears cause us to separate ourselves from each other, and from creation. Either because we are afraid that others may hurt us more than we already have been hurt or because we are afraid others will have or take what we want, what expect next. Both fears lead to a separation between the self and “them”, the outside world.

And yet each of us, together, we need the sun, the water the land and all that is living. The life we know would and could not be, without the rest of creation.

We have become addicted to experiencing the good things in live (whatever these may be for each of us) and we have become obsessed with fulfilling our expectations of actually experiencing them. We have them about everything. We make checklists and wish lists. We want more, ever more. It has become the purpose of our life. And when everything  on our list is fulfilled, we keep coming up with new ones. We apparently believe that we are what we have. But if we have not, do we cease to exist?

We make our choices to fulfill our expectations and we behave accordingly, in pursuit of them. And the more expectations we have, the more likely it is that some or many won’t be met. And that makes us feel unhappy, angry, afraid or frustrated.

Take a look at your life: your partner, your children, your parents, your friends, your job, your house, your car. Are they really, exactly what you expected them to be? Of course not. If even two or three of these things were exactly according to your expectations, it would be truly amazing. The fact is that our expectations have no influence whatsoever on the actual outcome in reality. Life is the experience of a succession of unexpected events.  Suffering begins when expectations are not met.

Sometimes our expectations can be so obsessive that we would rather undergo the suffering caused in pursuit of them,  than to give up our expectation of the next ultimate rush, high, kick, relationship or of any other experience we think we so badly crave. We want it  bigger, better and intenser with each additional expectation. This is not just a form of insanity; the problem is that this route inevitably leads to overdosing (and to overdoing) and to all of the negative consequences. No matter the type of the addictive or obsessive behaviour. This constant progressive form of overdosing and overdoing  to extremes is what causes addiction, and what is at the origin of obsession. The anorexic in losing yet one more pound, the bulimic in eating still more,  the alcoholic in picking up yet another bottle, the love addict in engaging in yet another relationship, the workaholic in putting in yet one more extra hour, in the obsessive compulsive cleaner, the abused child in overachieving even more,  etc. The problem is that we do not know where it ends. What is the ultimate high or the ultimate partner or the ultimate sexual experience or the ultimate body. And that is why we keep overdosing and overdoing it.

Death  is not the only possible consequence of overdosing. Depending on the obsession we suffer from (alcoholism,  addiction to drugs and substances, obsessions with food or our body),  it can lead to all kinds of diseases  (obesity, disease of the liver and the heart, deterioration of nose cartilage, malnutrition, etc.) and it causes a lot of sadness and suffering in ourselves and in others. These consequences often slowly sneak up to us. And this is probably one of the reasons why we persist and why we keep pursuing our expectations so obsessively and for such a long time: we keep on drinking, gambling,  eating, dieting, buying, cleaning, exercising, etc. We believe that we have control. Well, we don’t.

Healing from addiction or obsession is possible. In many treatment programs the first step required for recovery is “acceptance” of your powerlessness over addiction and of the unmanageability of your life. To me healing is not about this acceptance, because acceptance implies some form of admittance of guilt or of submission and confession. This is not necessary at all and in a way it is madness, since I have just made it clear that we have no control over the events in our lives, so there is no ground for feelings of guilt or sin or shame. Healing is – in stead – about awareness and consciousness. And about choices, based upon the belief in the oneness of creation.

What we believe is a matter of choice. It suffices for us to sincerely believe that we are part of and one with creation. And this is actually easy, since creation is all around us, it is alive and it is undeniable: the wind, the clouds, the water, the sun, the moon, the stars, all the life, in creatures and in atoms, our human race, everything happening around us right now in this instance.This is not a matter of acceptance either. It simply was, is and always will be.

To believe that the pursuit of the unfulfillable, uncontrollable illusions of a reality based on expectations will make us happy, is a mistake, a fallacy.

The awareness of this mistake is the basis for healing. And it does not require medicine – although with some types of addiction or obsession it may be necessary to gradually reduce the addictive substance use  or the obsessive behavior under medical supervision.

There is a difference between knowing and believing. You may know that an addiction or obsession is not good for you. But do you believe it too. Or do you believe that you can ‘have another one’, that you can handle “it” one more time, one last time, one for the road. No one but you determines what you believe. You choose.

We are what we believe and we choose and act accordingly. If we believe that our planet is in a critical situation, it is so because of what we believe. This too is undeniable. We catch the fish in the oceans, we cut the trees in the rain forests, we breed animals in stables, we grow crops, we eat chemicals, we wage war. We do all these things because we believe this is what we have to do. If I believe I am an addict I will be an addict.

These are the choices that we make and keep making.  It makes it clear to me that there is something seriously wrong with what we believe. This is why I have changed my belief and it is healing me, everyday.

Dealing with feeling

When you live with an addict you are likely to experience anger, frustration, fear, shame and guilt. These feelings may become very overwhelming. They stand in the way of a happy and peaceful life and make it hard to make calm and conscious choices. There are ways to deal with such feelings, and you have more control over them than you might expect.

Let me explain this with an example. When you are watching a nature movie on TV and you see a lion killing an antelope how does that make you feel? You may think “O, how sad. But this is how nature is.” or you may think “Why does God allow such cruelties to happen”. And you may end up feeling sad but serene, or angry and frustrated.

What really happens is that upon the  perception of the image described above, the human mind attributes thoughts (labels) to what is perceived. Thoughts such as “lion”, “antelope”, “pain”, “cruel” and so on. These labels come from our minds, either because we learned them as words for people, places and things  (lion, antelope), or because we compare and mentally imagine what we perceive to what it would do to ourselves. We imagine the pain of the lion’s claws and teeth going into the skin of the antelope (or of ourselves). We also mentally make a judgement about  what we perceive according to what we believe to be right or wrong, good or bad, etc.

However, it isn’t until we have these thoughts that emotions arise. If we could simply perceive without thinking/judging, we would not experience emotion.

The fact of seeing the addict in your live use alcohol or drugs, or behave in a certain way, is in the strictest sense not at the root of how it makes us feel. It is the thought that we attach to what we perceive that causes the emotion(s).

This is an important and helpful piece of information. It means that we have control over how we feel, by controlling our thoughts. As soon as you sense an emotion coming up, such as anger, this is a warning signal. It tells you that you can change your thoughts and thus avoid feeling bad.

A very effective way to avoid having thoughts that cause negative or depressing feelings or moods is not to judge. By not judging and accepting the addict’s behavior the way it is as it occurs (or your own behaviour for that matter) , you can control your thinking more easily. Instead of judgmental thought, you could simply describe what you are seeing without judgment. You may think “I see someone having a drink” and end the thought right there. See yourself as an observer, as a witness, and not as a participant.  You will notice that it will keep you calmer, thus allowing you to make a conscious choice in the situation. You may for instance choose to retreat or change your behaviour.

Dealing with addiction is all about controlling the way you think and withholding judgment.

PS: The “no judging” technique does not only work in dealing with unhealthy habits. You can try to apply the same technique especially with people or situations you dislike. The results may surprise you.

Selective perception: an obstacle to serenity

The reality you perceive may not be the truth. People have a tendency to interpret what they perceive through their senses, according to what they believe, according to their convictions. It is very useful to be aware of the “tricks” your mind and your thinking may play on you.

In the movie “A beautiful mind” a married mathematics professor suffers from schizophrenia. For a very long time his condition remains unnoticed by his spouse and friends. However, his delusions become so severe and undeniable, that he is admitted in a psychiatric hospital. After a long period of treatment he finally returns home. One evening he says to his wife that he saw the garbage man outside. His wife does not believe him because it is not the usual garbage day for their neighbourhood. She immediately panics and thinks he is imagining things again. Even I, as a movie spectator, could feel the tension and thought: “Oh dear, he is delusional again”. A few seconds later as she glances through the window she really sees a garbage man walking by…

I have had similar experiences with an alcoholic.  I would be convinced I heard the sound of bottles or of her drinking. Sometimes I would even accuse her,  when in fact I was wrong.

This kind of selective perception of reality poses two problems. First of all, it causes feelings of anxiety, panic, anger and frustration in yourself. Secondly it may cause you to wrongly accuse – or wrongly suspect – the addict, which can lead to very unpleasant situations, especially when an addict is in recovery.

So, before jumping to conclusions based on your beliefs, mentally take a step back. Try not to judge immediately (don’t stick labels…), take a few conscious deep breaths and then have another try in perceiving the true situation.

It would not surprise me if on many occasions you will notice that your perception was selective.

P.S.

As you practice this technique on a regular basis you will gradually start changing your beliefs and you will find more peace and serenity and your relationship with the addict will improve.

Farewell addiction

I do not like the words addiction or addict. It makes me think of commonly used labels, such as “disease”, “powerlessness”, “patient” and the need for a “higher power”. It creates a sense of unavoidable dependency and despair, taking away the incentive for an active personal involvement in working on recovery, on healing. I prefer to talk about unhealthy habits, and these include unhealthy thinking habits.

The public generally relates these words to drugs and alcohol. In the process we tend to forget so many other types of unhealthy behaviours (depression, ADHD, anorexia and bulimia nervosa, self-mutilation, sex, gambling, shopping, cleaning, etc.)

Furthermore, the word addiction stigmatises staggering numbers of people for life, causing suffering because of feelings of shame or guilt (see post “You are not alone”). Once an addict, always an addict is a regretful expression that I hear often when visiting clinics or in meetings of 12-step programs.

And lastly, the medical community is focusing on the treatment of the symptoms and not handling the root cause of these “diseases” or “disorders”. Treatment is largely based on the long-term use of medication with severe side effects, whereas it is a known fact that relapse rates remain high and placebos work surprisingly well.

It is noteworthy that over the past decades the number of mental disorders has grown from a handful (when I graduated in 1983 there were around 50) to over 300 currently included in the DSM IV, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the American Psychiatric Association.

I prefer to talk about unhealthy habits. Habits are “learned” behavior. It is obvious that depending on the nature and the duration of practicing unhealthy habits, they can cause diseases in the classical sense of the word (liver damage, respiratory problems, degeneration of brain tissue, heart disease, skin problems, etc.) that may require medical treatment, but this will not take away the habit.

I have personally experienced that unhealthy habits can be unlearned. It’s all in the mind.  And there are ways to change for the better. This website is my humble attempt to help do just that.