Note: This article was originally published in the Summer 2004 edition of Cutting Edge, the online newsletter of The Meadows.
Denial is not a River in Egypt
By Robert Fulton, MA, LISAC, Administrator, The Meadows
One of the wittiest adages we hear in 12-Step recovery is “Denial is not a river in Egypt.” It is so witty, in fact, that many recovering people repeat it without asking themselves the absolutely important question, “If denial isn’t a river in Egypt, what is it?”
The answer seems too obvious for further inspection. Denial is about denying that I had a psychological problem. Most often, I denied that I was an alcoholic or an anorexic or that I was a sex addict. But now that I have admitted to myself and to another person that I am any one of those things, I am no longer in denial. I am back in control.
Sadly, intellectual admission often leaves the deeper denial in place – intact and poisonous. The alcoholic awakens every morning swearing not to have another drink and, by 5 p.m., heads to the bar. The anorexic, who has planned three healthy meals, looks at herself in the mirror, sees a fat woman, and decides not to eat. The sex addict at the SA 12-Step program shares the agony of his addiction and, after the meeting, hits on the attractive newcomer.
In recovery, behavior cannot be the driving force. Intellect and affect are the driving forces that determine my behavior. As an addict, I behaviorally shut off my affect and distort my intellect, so that I maintain the behavior that protects me from the awful confrontation with my childhood shame.
Denial of affect involves disassociating from those feelings that our primary caregivers taught us to regard as shameful. Our caregivers taught us to dishonor our feelings, because to honor them and to communicate was to be punished and to be shamed. We learned to separate self from the emotions generated by the truth of what we witnessed. In order to avoid the worth destroying poison of carried shame, we were forced to deny the feelings we had when we witnessed an emotional event in the family.
In order to medicate the pain of having abandoned our authentic self, we find ways to medicate the dissonance – we deny the truth of what we think; we submerge and camouflage the truth of what we feel. The self that emerges from the pain of denial becomes, in most adults, the only kind of “maturity” to which they have access.
We deny on an intellectual level, and we deny on an affective level. We deny intellectually by telling ourselves that two plus two is five. We were empowered to do that, or conditioned to do that, when we were growing up – and two plus two never added up to four in Mommy and Daddy’s household. Our father was a falling-down alcoholic. We said to Mommy, “Daddy’s drunk out on the lawn. He’s passed out. He looks like he’s dead. I’m scared.” And she said to us, “Don’t worry about it; he’s fine.”
The kid knows that the fear of his father’s drunken abandonment is real, but to have that truth, that reality, denied by his mother is to have his reality denied. The child then wonders what’s wrong with himself. Mind you, he doesn’t ask what’s wrong with his father or his mother. They are the ones acting shamefully, yet it is he who feels ashamed – he is carrying their shame. Because the kid’s real fear of the father’s death is being made illegitimate by the lies of the mother, the child himself is now experiencing a death of self – of his own emotional reality and his access to it. He is not allowed to feel the fear of losing his father.
This is the most damaging kind of shame-based denial, because it attacks the child’s very authenticity. He has learned that to have the terrifying emotions attendant upon Daddy’s drunkenness is not all right. Disassociation from self becomes habitual. Denial of self is honored in the dysfunctional family system.
When the child is older and he witnesses a shameful act, the kind of disassociation he experiences will be covered up with a more sophisticated form of social camouflage than when he was 5. For example, he may think that his father’s shameful drunkenness will disgrace the family in the eyes of the neighbors. The primary lie that Daddy is not drunk is justified by the need to remain socially acceptable. The young adult now needs a defense system that not only deflects his father’s shame, but protects his own social self as well. Such denial is often called loyalty and is praised as being politic. He is often told that his cover-up makes him a good citizen.
The child who has viewed his father’s shameful drunkenness may fear that his father will stop loving him should the father became aware that his son sees him as a failed father. In Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel fresco The Drunkenness of Noah, Noah’s two sons come into the tent and see him drunk, and they experience intense shame. They identify with their father’s unexpressed shame at having abandoned his children and given up power in regard to his sons. The intended Biblical lesson is that to see someone in his nakedness is to obtain power over them. Rarely has the Bible been so psychologically deluded. It is not the children who have power over the parent; it is the shameless parent who holds power over the children through the mechanism of carried shame, setting off a career of adapted wounded-child codependence.
So denial, better than alcohol, is the best dysfunctional medication for shame. However, denial cannot salve one against that sense of hopelessness and despair that is engendered when one loses connection to self. It is then that we feel the need to buddy up to an addictive process that will give a false sense of power, that will eliminate the fear in a moment, that yields that one-up posturing of denial and grandiosity.
When dealing with these disconnects, one is driven back not only to the newborn-to-age 5 feelings of shame but to the adapted state of ages 5 to 17 as well. The early shame sets the stage for the acting out, through which each individual learns to dramatize brilliantly his dysfunctional avoidance of emotional truth. It is an artistic way of keeping from connecting to oneself and avoiding the agony of re-experiencing the death of our truth.
There is a Catch-22 in this artistic denial, no matter what relief it seems to give us. Even when we manage to get in touch with our honest feelings, if we do not have the tools to survive the encounter, we cycle right back into the wound of abandonment or of shame.
Feelings then seem to us a trigger to an unhealable vulnerability. They become something that we need to stay away from, which is why one of the first things a good clinician does (once a patient is reasonably stable) is to urge the patient to drop into his honest feelings, and to let him know that it is okay, that he is okay. He needs the security to feel that accessing his affect will not kill him.
This is actually what happens in the Survivors Workshop. People begin to express their affective authenticity, and they are not shamed – they are honored. And they begin to honor themselves. I often remember what I always said in group: that we have to learn to honor our feelings, which is to hold them – and ourselves – in high regard. Our feelings are our windows of insight into the depth of who we are. But all of that is for naught under the guise of affective denial when, in a defended posture, we compulsively seek to offset the initial wound of being defective, of being unworthy.
In reactivity to the carried shame of abusive childhoods, there are those who acquiesced and expressed their shame, pain, fear and anger in neurotic, seditious ways. Then there are those who rebelliously fought for some kind of voice, but who lacked the tools for connection. In either case, the trauma disconnects one from oneself.
The aim of treatment is to allow me to reconnect to me for the first time as the beneficent parent, the loving parent who needs to be nurtured for who and what I am. At the same time, I learn to present my authenticity and accept the vulnerability that my truth may meet within the world, even if the world shuns me. You may be sad, but you will have the joy and power and value of not disconnecting from the self. You do not rise above and go one-up; acceptance of one’s imperfect perfection is a soaring disengagement from that which is destructive.
People taking the first steps to deal with the trauma of carried shame will choose submission rather than surrender. This submission is often an intellectual admission that there is a problem. But unless the submission is also a surrender to the will, this apparent surrender of dignity will leave a bad taste; it will feel dissonant. It will be sensed as a false admission, one made to keep the depth of the real problem at a distance. The feeling of true surrender is internal peace. Only I will know. But I know I have surrendered when I feel that peace.
The concept of denial and surrender being in that same crucible is vitally important, because denial is a form of false security through control. If, by admitting we are addicted, we seek clarity for the sake of control, it is only to give ourselves the illusion of safety. We remain terrified of letting go of control, because if we let go of this charade, we are going to be left in the abysmal pit of carried shame. So our whole life has been to orchestrate this nonsense. We know it to be nonsense, but we don’t know anything other, so we medicate the nonsense.
In recovery, however, I am now invited to go to a place of powerlessness, and that is a miraculous paradox, because it is only there that I can be empowered. The first thing that has to happen is for you to acknowledge that change is impossible without help. When I surrender, I learn to trust another to give me that help, to help me get on the path to recovery. The recovering individual, once the path becomes a reality, takes the path and continues to go forward.
When somebody gets into recovery, and they begin to date again, it is like being back at 14 or 15, even though she is 40 or 50, because it is a whole new experience. There is the similar excitement and fear and passion – it is a whole new way of relating. It is not a state of authenticity and acceptance of self within memory. Because it is new, it is innocent. In recovery, we experience “innocence.”
And so the healthy lineage allows for the delight, the life, the joy, the possibility and the joy-pain – ever new, ever going forward. Healthy, functional shame, not the sickness of carried shame, is what fuels the joy and the richness, because it reminds me of my authentic self; it puts me back on the path, back on line. As you move in a new venture, it is all new and, therefore, a delight.
And you may find that you have overstepped and then feel ashamed of a behavior because it was all new, but it is now functional shame that allows you to become more intimate, to feel more deeply. I am imperfect, and I make mistakes. My mistakes may cause me pain, and they will. But they don’t make me bad. They only make me human. And that, I don’t have to deny.
The Meadows is proud to announce that its commitment to healthy vegetarian and vegan meal options has been recognized by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
Our treatment center was recently named of the top five vegetarian-friendly rehab centers, and received a framed certificate of appreciation and congratulatory letter from PETA, which is hanging in our dining room.
Praised for menu offerings such as veggie burgers, vegetarian casseroles, and organic produce, The Meadows is mindful that its patients and guests often have personal or philosophical dietary requirements.
According to Tracy Reiman, PETA’s Executive Vice President, “a healthy, humane vegetarian diet can heal the body, mind, and soul.”
For more information, please see PETA’s Top Five Vegetarian-Friendly Rehab Centers on the PETA Files blog.
The Meadows is pleased to announce Claudia Black and Maureen Canning will be presenting at the Process Addictions Conference in Las Vegas on April 22-24, 2009.
Claudia Black will be discussing “Deceived: Facing Sexual Betrayal, Lies and Secrets” as well as “Barriers to Recovery: Anger, Secrets & Family Enabling Clinical Strategies.”
Maureen Canning will be presenting “Lust, Anger, Love: Understanding Sexual Addiction and the Road to Healthy Intimacy.”
In recent years there has been an explosion of knowledge about how experience shapes biology and the formation of the self. Within the disciplines of psychiatry and psychology, the study of trauma has probably been the most helpful in understanding the relationship between the emotional, cognitive, social and biological forces that shape human development. Trauma research has revealed new insights about how extreme experiences can profoundly impact memory, affect regulation, biological stress modulation, and interpersonal relatedness. These findings, along with a range of new therapy approaches, have led to new and unexpected ways to help traumatized individuals.
Coming on Friday November 21st to Universal City, California and Monday December 8th to West Palm Beach Florida, Bessel A. van der Kolk, MD, Clinical Consultant for The Meadows and Mellody House will present a lecture titled Trauma, Attachment, and the Body.
This lecture will present current research findings about post-traumatic responses at different developmental levels and in various domains, and will explore the treatment implications of these findings.
For more information on these and other lectures, please visit the events area on the Meadows website.
This article is an excerpt from Maureen’s newly released book, Lust, Anger, Love: Understanding Sexual Addiction and the Road to Healthy Intimacy. For more details, visit themeadows.org.
Sex is one of the most powerful forces in the human condition. It can drive individuals to the pinnacle of emotional and physical ecstasy or, conversely, spiral other people into depths of despair and anguish. The power of sexual energy and expression exists because our sexuality is tied, or connected, to the core of who we are; it is our essence, our life force, our creativity, and our passion.
A sense of self means an inner knowing, a clarity of our true nature or authenticity. In healthy sexual expression, there is desire, connection, and a sense of well-being. The act of expressing one’s self sexually results in a positive, life-enhancing experience; it is an expression of love, an exchange of mutual pleasuring and respect that leads to an intimate connection.
The sexual compulsive person may think this is what he or she is experiencing. However, the opposite is true. Sex for the addict is about intensity, danger, power, and control. It is about emotional numbing, conquering, and getting high. Sex becomes a commodity to be manipulated, a means to a selfdefeating end. Sex and love become a game to play, an avoidance, a push/pull, or a hunger so powerful that the addict will risk everything to reach that sexual high.
No risk or consequence has stopped the addict: disease, financial ruin, lost relationships, legal injunctions, career setbacks, or self-respect. The addict is caught in an intoxicating dance that has induced a delusional reality.
This is the cycle of sex addiction, and it is deadly—not always in physical form, but most assuredly in emotional experience. This “soul” death is temporarily allayed when the addict is on the “hunt” for sex or, at the other extreme, is avoiding sex at all costs. At either end of the spectrum, the addict feels in control and powerful. This is the high, a chemical release that is as addicting as any drug. When these chemicals—or the high— are induced, euphoria washes over the addict, creating the illusion of complete immunity to the realities of his or her internal ache.
Sexual addiction is not a moral issue; it is a coping mechanism born out of the addict’s wounding. The types of wounding can be as diverse as the addicts themselves. Not all addicts are aware of their “wounding,” as abuse or trauma is often covert. When a person is wounded or traumatized, he or she must learn to cope, often without understanding or support. In order to cope or escape their painful realities, addicts may use drugs, alcohol, food, shopping, staying busy, controlling others, or work. Sex addicts escape through sex.
The second half of this book excerpt is available in the September issue of The Cutting Edge.
The Meadows is proud to present the “Pioneers in Recovery” Annual Symposium, including presentations by Pia Mellody; Claudia Black, PhD, MSW; Maureen Canning, MA, LMFT; John Bradshaw, MA; Bessel A. van der Kolk, MD; and Peter A. Levine, PhD. This dynamic event will feature the insights of the speakers as they share their philosophies, treatment techniques, and skills regarding such issues as trauma, addictions, relationships, healthy sexuality, codependence, spirituality, and family systems.
Marriott Plano Dallas
at Legacy Town Center
7120 Dallas Parkway
Plano, TX 750240
Wednesday, Oct. 22 – Special Evening Presentation by John Bradshaw, 6:00 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.
Thursday, Oct. 23 – 8:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.
Friday, Oct. 24 – 8:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.
For more details or to register online, please visit our event page on TheMeadows.org!
I come from a family of worriers, and I’ve done a lot of worrying in my life. I now do it less than ever, but there was a time when I thought I was a “worry addict.” Of course, a feeling of any kind can be “addictive” – we can use one feeling or mood to alter another. That’s how I once used worry. When I obsessed about fearful possibilities or regarded things as more threatening than they were, I didn’t have to feel my loneliness or anger, which was far more frightening than worry. So worry was a way for me to stay in my head and not have to feel my feelings.
Worry begins in childhood, modeled for us by our parents. They nag at us with an endless stream of anxious reminders: “Sit up straight.” “Don’t hold your fork that way.” “Be careful.” Don’t talk to strangers when you leave the house.” Some of these admonitions are good and necessary, but when they’re delivered chronically and inappropriately, they create a sense of terror in a child. And it’s now recognized that these early impressions can have long-term effects.
A New York Times article describing experiments at the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder stated that a single catastrophic experience occurring when one feels helpless is sufficient to change brain chemistry. The article suggested that it’s as if a rheostat that controls adrenaline release is turned up, creating a surge. In my work, we call this hyper-vigilance, and I believe it can be traced to early childhood fear and terror.
Imagine the impact on a 3-year-old who hears a normally quiet and gentle parent raise his or her voice for the first time. We have probably all been through that. We all undoubtedly carry some ill effects from the experience of having been tiny and powerless in the first six years of our lives – and those ill effects sometimes manifest themselves as worry, depending on the level of anxiety that our parents projected at the time.
The ways we choose to worry are usually the ways we learned from observing our parents. In “awfulizing,” one form of thought distortion, we see the hole and never the doughnut. Most of us are quite unlike the optimistic little boy in the famous story that is supposed to teach us to count our blessings. According to the tale, the child got nothing but donkey dung for Christmas. “I got a donkey,” he is supposed to have exclaimed, “but he got away!” This story has always irritated me, because it’s about somebody who looks on the bright side. This is an attitude I was never fortunate enough to have.
“Catastrophizing” is another species of worry. It is characterized by the mind rushing to the worst possible scenarios. I think of the passage in Carlos Castaneda’s Journey to Ixtlan in which Yaqui sorcerer Don Juan says, “We either make ourselves miserable, or we make ourselves strong. The amount of work is the same.”
Compulsive worrying takes a tremendous toll on the body because it forces us to live in a constant state of alertness, prepared to fight or run. So it’s important to do something about it. One technique I’ve used is to replace insecure thoughts with secure thoughts. I might ask myself, “What is the best thing that could happen from this experience?” This forces me to think in positive ways. Or I might ask myself to look at occasions in the past that worried me but that had happy outcomes. The most effective tool I’ve used against worry is a slogan that comes from AA: One day at a time. Many years ago, I didn’t know how to live one day at a time. Part of my mind was always in next Thursday, next month, next year. I was always out there in the future, “awfulizing.”
People who aren’t troubled by addictions find it hard to imagine what it’s like to be overcome by worry. They say, “Plan, stupid. Then you don’t have to worry.” But that’s not how it worked with me. My concerns for the future were often so great that they impaired my ability to function in the present. You could say that my hyper-vigilance wore me out physically, while my “awfulizing” drove me to the distraction of alcohol – anything to quiet my fears for just a little while. When I found my way into AA and started to work the 12 Steps, a dedicated daily effort to live in the now finally restored me to sanity. Today I live today. I give my best attention to what I am able to do right now, and I tell myself that I’ll deal with tomorrow when it gets here. And the remarkable thing is that it works. -
- Written by John Bradshaw, MA and featured in the September edition of The Meadows’ Cutting Edge, a Publication for Professionals.
Welcome to Addiction Recovery Reality, the official blogging voice for The Meadows treatment center, a multidisorder inpatient facility based in Wickenberg, Arizona.
The purpose of this blog is to open a window into our world. The Meadows specializes in the treatment of addictions, compulsive behaviors, and anxiety and mood disorders. We also actively participate in the larger addiction community; our senior fellows are recognized worldwide as academics, authors, lecturers and trainers.
This blog will enable us to share more information about the latest trends, resources, articles, announcements, lectures, book releases and workshops. Many entires will be published by The Meadows’ professional staff, but we’re also looking to highlight some ”best of breed” materials from the outside world.
Please stay tuned for our opening posts!