Shelley's Corner: A Series on Emotional Trauma, Addiction, and Healing
Dr. Shelley Uram is a Harvard trained, triple board-certified psychiatrist and a Distinguished Fellow of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. As a Meadows' Senior Fellow, Dr. Uram conducts patient lectures and provides ongoing training and consultation to the treatment staff at The Meadows.
I was having lunch with some friends the other day, and one of them asked why we can be so clear about knowing what’s important to us, yet have a very hard time carrying it out in real life. The examples she was talking about revolved around her wanting to be less reactive and more loving towards her husband, and to have greater ease and kindness with the people who “drive me crazy” in everyday life. She described knowing full well that her life would be so much easier and more pleasant if she was more accepting and loving of others, but this is much easier said than done.
There is SO MUCH I can say about this!!!
First, let’s go back to our earliest beginnings…when we were just three months old.
Up to that point, as infants, we were living and aware on a moment-to-moment basis. We had no real judgments. If we were cold or hungry or wet, we would react to the discomfort, but once we felt better, all was fine again. We pretty much flowed with whatever was happening.
At about three months of age, something very dramatic shifts. A part of our brain has now grown and matured enough that we have this dawning awareness that there is a “me!” Until that time, as we were flowing with whoever and whatever was around us, we did not understand that a separate “me” exists.
One of the reasons this presents such a huge shift in our world is that our survival brain now starts to work like crazy now, and wants to keep this new-found little person safe. We begin to have much more frequent fight/flight/freeze responses to the people and situations around us.
Unfortunately, these very powerful fight/flight/responses become attached to multiple situations and people, and remain locked into our brains for many years to come. These survival responses work by “firing” or “triggering” whenever we are reminded of the original situation. This all happens outside of our conscious awareness, so we don’t have much control over it.
The net effect of this over the years is that by the time we are adults, we can experience a large gulf between how we WANT to be, with how we actually ARE. That is, the very essence of us values being a certain kind of person, but our habits and ingrained patterns, usually derived from early life conditioning, behave entirely differently.
The deepest root of these ingrained patterns is usually from these early life fight/flight/freeze responses that became attached to how we adapted to our early stresses and strains.
Thanks for sharing this time with me,
© Shelley Uram 2014
Written by Claudia Black, Ph.D., Senior Fellow of The Meadows
“It is true that as long as we live we may keep repeating the patterns established in childhood. It is true that the present is powerfully shaped by the past. But it is also true that insight at any age keeps us from singing the same sad songs again.”
To be able to put the past behind and not repeat those same sad songs, one needs to take four primary steps.
The purpose in exploring the past is not to assign blame but to acknowledge reality and grieve one’s pain. In other words, people have to admit to themselves the truth of what happened, rather than hide or keep secret the hurt and wounds that occurred. There is no doubt denial became a skill that served one well as a child in a survival mode. Unfortunately denial, which begins as a defense, becomes a skill that interferes with how people live their life today. When someone lets go of denial and acknowledges the past, grieves the pain that is associated with the losses, it is an opportunity to put the past into perspective.
As people move from the process of breaking their denial and grieving their pain, they need to move into the next step. (Yes, C comes before B ☺)
Connect the past to the present means asking “How does this past pain and loss influence who I am today?” “How does the past affect who I am as a parent, in the workplace, in a relationship, how I feel about myself?” The cause and effect connections discovered between past losses and present day life offers a focus for recovery. It allows one to become more centered in the here and now. This clarity will identify the areas for further healing.
Challenging internalized beliefs means asking, “What beliefs have I internalized from my growing up years? Are they helpful or hurtful to me today? What beliefs would support me in living a healthier life?” So often people internalize beliefs such as, “It is not okay to say No,” or “Other people’s needs are more important than my own,” or “The world owes me and I am entitled.” “People will take advantage of you every chance they can.” If these beliefs are getting in the way of how someone wants to live their life, they need to take responsibility for them. They need to not only be willing to recognize how that belief is sabotaging their healing, but to create new beliefs in their place.
Learning new skills means asking, “What did I not learn that would help me today?” E.g., How to set limits, how to perceive options, to ask for help. Some of the skills learned during childhood were often skills and behaviors that were developmentally premature and/or learned from a basis of fear or shame. When the latter occurs there is a tendency to feel like an imposter. Developing skills is what ultimately gives people greater choices in their lives, and it is in addressing the feelings and beliefs associated with any skill that enhances greater confidence in their behavioral change.
These four steps are not always linear, but they all need to be incorporated into whatever the specific issue is that is being addressed. If someone only does the affective work, the healing has the potential to become a blaming process. If someone only does the cognitive work, the person has the potential to continue to present a false sense of self. If someone only does the behavioral work, one can demonstrate great skill in a contained setting but not demonstrate the ability to follow through on that skill in the real world. Hence the need for the ABCs, or shall I say the ACBs.
Specializing in trauma treatment, The Meadows works with clients from a bottom-up, top-down perspective. Trauma therapies such as SE, SP, EMDR, and mindful practices are integrated throughout the program. Cognitive behavioral therapy is integrated throughout the clinical work.
By Michelle Rogerson, M.S., CPT (Certified Personal Trainer), Challenge Course Level II & Course Manager, Wellness Coordinator at The Meadows
(Name has been changed for anonymity)
Suspended 25 feet above ground, Becky looks down and tells me she can’t climb any higher. Becky is wearing a bright blue harness around her waist and legs that compliments her blue eyes and brown hair. The harness is connected to the belay rope to keep her safe as she climbs a giant ladder dangling from a log suspended 35 feet up. She’s only 5’3” tall, so each rung of Giant Ladder seems like an almost inconceivable long reach. While the motto at the Challenge Course is, “Challenge by choice,” I can tell that it isn’t heights or a fear of falling that is holding Becky back, it’s her own crushing self-doubt. I sincerely ask Becky if she would be willing to let me help her climb up to the next ladder rung.
She cautiously agrees, and on the count of 3, I drop to my knees, pulling the belay rope down as Becky pulls her self up. It’s a success! However, I see the excitement in Becky’s eyes quickly fill with self-doubt once again as she sees that there’s still one more rung to go. I challenge Becky to keep going. She doubts her abilities, but I assure her that we can work as a team again to make it to the top. On the count of 3, I pull down as she pulls up. Another victory! Becky triumphantly stands and as a signal of her accomplishment, touches the final green log overhead with both hands from 35 feet up.
Soon after, I lower Becky back to the solid ground, unhook the rope from her harness, and congratulate her on her success! She is thrilled and excited, yet at the same time she also feels like she was a burden. That’s when I genuinely thank her for letting me help her. With tears in her eyes, Becky wraps her arms around me in a warm hug and thanks me for helping her climb all the way to the top. It is out here at the Challenge Course that Becky has been able to experience for herself that she is a strong and capable woman in many ways. She is also able to witness the joy that others feel when allowed the opportunity to help others.
Every week I get to witness our patients participate in meaningful experiences on the Challenge Course. Patients are able to learn healthy risk taking, trust, boundaries, and even to have fun in recovery. They can face their fears by climbing a 35 foot pole to a wavering rope bridge, or jump out into midair for a trapeze bar suspended 20 feet above ground. Sometimes it’s something as simple, yet as complex, as asking for help that will make all the difference in their success. I have the opportunity to help reinforce the skills and tools that they’re learning in treatment and hopefully add a little bit of excitement and adrenaline at the same time.
Not every experience out on the course is tearful and overwhelmingly emotional. For most people, climbing 40 feet up in the air and then standing on the edge of the zip line platform becomes quite unnerving. But as you take the first step off, that butterfly-rush hits your stomach (and a scream may even leave your lips); but after that, it’s all smiles. It’s definitely a unique experience at the Challenge Course each day. Who knows, you just might learn something about yourself.
A horse does not care what you’re feeling as long as you’re honestly feeling it. There are no “bad” feelings where horses are concerned. There are just safe and unsafe situations.
~~ A. Taylor
The longer you’re around a horse program of any kind you are bound to hear the phrase “A horse does not lie”. A horse’s natural behavior is to always express in its body language what is going on in its brain. There is no deceit in horses. It simply does not exist in them. Being completely authentic is what helps them to survive.
Although we have domesticated the horse they still carry those basic needs for safety and survival. Once a horse notices danger, it responds quickly and purposefully to communicate to the herd. At that point they can flee to safety. The herd relies on its many members for safety and a level of obscurity in a large group. There is no place in the herd for deceit, manipulation or selfishness. Those things would equate to a breakdown in the safety system, ultimately resulting in less horses and eventually no horses.
In Equine Therapy we bring people face to face with authenticity. A horse may not be able to read your mind, but your body shares all the information a horse needs. Hiding a feeling or pretending you’re not having a feeling is not authentic. In the horse’s world that is not honest. The horse will put that in the “unsafe” category. Not honest\unsafe to a horse is the same as a predator pretending to be something it’s not. A lion will hide behind bushes or try to blend into tall grass. A bear will stay down wind and try to blend into the landscape until it can make a run at the herd.
If our insides do not match our outsides we are not authentic. Trying to hide feelings is like trying to put one over on the horse. The amazing thing about that is your horse probably knew you were having a bad day the moment you stepped out of the car. In working with a horse we are able to see exactly how not being authentic affects our relationship with ourselves and the relationships in our lives. They will simply reflect back to us what our body says to them, honest\safe OR not honest\ unsafe.
Their forgiving nature and eagerness for relationship make them a perfect fit for us to practice being more authentic. It does not always come easily, yet they are eager every day to be that mirror of truth. The more aware of what you feel and how you feel it, the closer your relationship with the horse will be.
They say that sexual addiction is baffling and may be perhaps the toughest addiction to recover from because of all the triggers in society that may set up a person to succumb to urges and cravings. What I know for sure is sexual addiction recovery starts with total honesty and it is that rigorous honesty that keeps a person living one day at a time and being filled with gratitude. These two elements are essential in breaking the denial and maintaining the foundation for good recovery.
What is equally interesting is that these two life skills are also in the formula for happiness. Marci Shimoff in her book Happy For No Reason found that there were three traits in happy people that were a part of daily functioning.
· Staying in the moment
These three qualities were essential in a person's ability to be happy and make life better. I find these same traits are critical in an addicts recovery. The slogan "One day at a time" keeps sex addicts focused on living in the moment and not ruminating in the past and not fearing about the future. When a sex addict focuses on today they are less likely to become overwhelmed with their sadness about their past or their anxieties about what lies before them. The process of living in the future assists an addict with looking at the present moment which is much more manageable and attainable. It keeps the fear factor down and assists them in realizing that they can only control what happens in the present day.
Having gratitude is a life skill that keeps addicts focused on what is working in one's life. Think about it. Are you more likely to feel better about what is working in your life or what might be your current struggle? Did you know that what you appreciates ....appreciates? In other words, when you focus on what is working in your life you are less likely to get bogged down with what seems to be the insurmountable barriers that will keep you having a negative attitude. Recovering addicts manifest the attitude of gratitude because they know that when they are working on recovery; their life is authentic and transparent. Choosing to live in honesty and gratitude brings about freedom that builds self esteem and confidence. Most addicts remember what it was like to hate their impulses, their behaviors and their addiction so recovery means liberation which increases gratitude. No matter where you are in your recovery right now...are you able to list 50 things that you are grateful for? My speculation would be that you are more likely to list gratitude moments as your recovery grows stronger because you appreciate life more because you can appreciate your own personality strengths and accomplishments.
The third factor in happiness and in recovery is being able to reframe your journey.
Reframing is the life skill that allows you to look at your life and ask yourself how did you become stronger and what did you have to learn from it. It takes you out of the victim role and allows you to feel empowered by the lessons that you have learned. This is imperative for the addict who feels much shame about their sexual behaviors and falls into the "I hate myself” and “I can find nothing redeeming from this horrid, despicable behavior.” Well the truth of the matter is that your addiction has taught you how to change your life and live it more authentically! Recovery is a lifelong process of living and when you use your reframing skill you are able to recognize what life has taught you and how far you have come in becoming a genuine person.
You are only as sick as your secrets and you are choosing to no longer live in the chronic lies, deceit and secrecy of addiction. It frees you up to be the person you were meant to be and when this occurs ... you are much more likely to live up to your potential.
So stand up for yourself and live these three life skills and thank your addiction for teaching you about true recovery. You are going to live an awesome life in recovery because the real you is going to show up!
Carol Juergensen Sheets, LCSW, PCC, CSAT, is currently in private practice in Indianapolis, IN. She speaks nationally on mental health issues and is featured in several local magazines. She currently has an internet radio show on www.blogtalkradio.com/sexhelpwithcarolthecoach and does regular television segments focusing on life skills to improve one’s potential. You can read her blogs at www.carolthecoach.com. To contact Carol about sexual addiction: www.sexhelpwithcarolthecoach.