Vulnerability and Recovery

Because I work with people who struggle with addiction, I am particularly attuned to the ways that the public perceives people struggling with addiction and in recovery.  Too often, media portrayals of addiction dramatize or glamorize addiction in unrealistic ways.  These images contribute to a negative perception of addiction and recovery and lead to misunderstandings, fear, and stigma.

In my work, I’ve had the fortune to witness and be inspired by some of the many people who stop using alcohol or drugs each year. Based on this experience, I want to propose an alternative perspective on addiction — that most of us share a lot more experiences with folks struggling with addiction than we realize.

Think of a habit or behavior that you know is not so good for you or gets in the way of who you want to be.  This might take the form of a (more) socially approved of “addiction”.  Things like

  • chocolate,
  • shopping,
  • TV,
  • texting,
  • cell phone games

Have you ever tried to change that behavior?  Was it easy?

Have you noticed what happens when you start entertaining changing a habit?  If you are anything like me, your first thoughts might be something like “I could change if I wanted to,” and “it’s not a good time to change because…”  The truth is that changing is hard and would require being willing to experience a whole lot of difficult feelings and thoughts.

I experienced this recently when I quit eating sugar a few months ago.  For ten days I couldn’t concentrate, my emotions felt extreme and unpredictable, and my body ached in places that had not ever been injured.  I experienced triggers, urges, cravings – the whole nine yards.  I felt extremely sensitive, like a buffer between me and the difficult things that happen in my life had been removed. In the process of making this change, I encountered my own vulnerability.

In her now famous Ted Talk, Brene Brown talks about how she didn’t choose just one substance to retreat into to protect her from vulnerability, she used a failsafe combo: a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin.  Many of the behaviors that we do routinely may protect us from having to experience our own vulnerability.  But our vulnerability is a part of our humanity – and part of what connects us to each other.

My admiration for folks in recovery comes from their willingness to experience their vulnerability in order to make a change.  Recovery usually involves giving up something that, at least at some level, feels like it keeps you safe and protected. Often it requires making changes to relationships, to daily routines, and to the things we use for comfort.  As if that weren’t vulnerable enough, it sometimes means making amends to people that you harmed in the past.  In my experience, recovery requires a courage of heart that is rarely required of most of us.

Now I am aware that experiments in vulnerability, like choosing to give up sugar, TV, or your cell phone, or making other changes that disrupt our sense of safety, do not capture the experience of overcoming addiction. My intent is not to make light of the experience of addiction or recovery.  It is to suggest that making changes is hard for all of us and that we have more in common with those who struggle with addiction than we may realize.  In fact, I often think that stigma and judgements about others, including people who struggle with addiction, may be a way to distance ourselves from vulnerability. Unfortunately, this also restricts our connection to our humanity.

The truth is all of us humans experience very unpleasant sensations and feelings when we change our behavior — there is no permanent way to keep us safe from that.  We all have vulnerabilities we might prefer to avoid.  By noticing the ways in which we defend our vulnerability, we increase our empathy and humanity, and may even find a little of the courage of recovery in our own lives.

The myth of security– Embracing vulnerability, uncertainty, and ambiguity in our relationships and in our world

“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing. “– Helen Keller
Something many of us yearn for in our relationships is a sense of security. We long to feel certain and secure in our relationships, to feel like no matter what, we will not be hurt in this love.  Where there’s doubt or insecurity, we view it as a sign that something is wrong—that something needs to be fixed.

And our desire for security extends beyond our intimate relationships. On all levels, our world appears to be increasingly focused on trying to ensure we won’t be hurt. Our federal government even has an entire cabinet department dedicated to trying to help us feel secure—Department of Homeland Security.

We attempt to eradicate feelings of insecurity in the hope that if we can just feel secure—secure in ourselves, our relationships, our world around us—then we will be “safe” and happy.

But What If Trying to Feel Secure Actually Makes Us Less Secure?

Sometimes it can be useful to exercise more security in our lives: we lock our doors at night, get life insurance, or carry “bear spray” when camping in the backwoods. However, much of the time we are trying to achieve a feeling of security—a certainty that we aren’t vulnerable to hurt. But suppose our attempts to try to feel secure actually make us more alone, more insular, and more insecure?

Eve Ensler on Security

This is the argument that Eve Ensler, the Tony Award winning playwright, activist, and creator of the Vagina Monologues, makes in her TED talk on the subject of security. In her eloquent and inspiring talk, Ms. Ensler argues that our attempts to feel invulnerable and secure—personally, politically—are actually making us more insecure through the loss of connection with our shared experience. Ms. Ensler encourages people to willingly embrace difficult thoughts and feelings—including insecurity, doubt, ambiguity, and fear—in the service of living a life that is truly more connected, vibrant, and meaningful.

In a similar vein, but drawing from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, I help the people I work with in therapy accept their doubts and insecurities in the service of moving towards what’s important to them. As Ms. Ensler points out, sometimes our lives become very small and unsatisfying when we spend all our energies trying to be secure.

She says:

“Real security is not only being able to tolerate mystery, complexity, ambiguity but hungering for them and only trusting a situation when they are present…In the shared future… the end goal will be to become vulnerable, realizing the place of our connection to one another rather than becoming secure, in control, and alone.”

This has been my experience as well. I highly recommend watching Ensler’s entire talk.

Aimee Mullins on the Beauty of Adversity (and Human Cheetah Legs)

“If we want to discover the full potential in our humanity, we need to celebrate those heartbreaking strengths and those glorious disabilities that we all have…it is our humanity, and all the potential within it that makes us beautiful.” – Aimee Mullins

As a therapist, I sit face to face every day with people’s suffering. And regardless of what form that suffering takes, whether that be trauma, a psychiatric diagnosis like “depression” or “bipolar disorder,” or a physical disability, a very common experience is that people feel “broken” or “defective” in some way because of their suffering.

Enter Aimee Mullins. Ms. Mullins is an internationally renowned athlete, model, and actress. She is also someone who was born with a medical condition called fibular hemimelia which resulted in having to have both of her legs amputated when she was a year old. I came across this inspiring TED talk she gave in 2009, in which she talks about the beauty and potential that lies within our common humanity. In addition to the absolutely amazing and beautiful prosthetics she has helped design (think cheetah legs and exquisite wooden legs with handcarved vines running throughout them), I was struck by her story of adversity bringing beauty and meaning to life. Adversity is an inevitable part of life and our culture may sometimes make us feel ”broken” or “defective” because of it. But within adversity, as Amy Mullins says, we can also find “… our humanity and all the potential within it that makes us beautiful.”