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.

Your Mind Thinks its an Expert (or Calling Dr. Rutherford)

You’ve probably noticed this already, but our minds have something to say on most topics. Some of this is pretty minor: “That iced tea looks refreshing!” In other cases our minds dole out expert opinions. We become:

  • Critics of modern art: “My three-year-old could draw that!”
  • Experts on gastronomy (i.e., food): “Why would anyone pay high prices for small portions in that fancy-pants place?”
  • Amateur meteorologists: “Looks like it’s gonna rain today.”

Most of the time, our running commentary is pretty harmless. It’s also built into us. As human beings, we seek patterns in our environment in order to understand our world and keep ourselves safe. This tendency has helped us survive.

But it can also create a lot of problems.

A common way I see this tendency go awry in my practice is when our minds become medical experts. Some degree of monitoring our health is important in deciding when to take a sick day, see a doctor, or get some rest. But sometimes our minds jump to worst case scenarios. The Internet tends to escalate these problems. Here’s an important equation to consider:

Ambiguous physical symptom + worry/anxiety + Internet search = “I might be dying!”

In researching that small brown spot that you recently noticed on your face, you’ll learn it’s probably just a harmless freckle—OR IT MIGHT BE SKIN CANCER!

Dr. Rutherford

The people with whom I work often come with clever and interesting images, metaphors, and ideas for working with their problem—far most interesting than anything I come think of—and I’ve learned a lot from clients over the years. I wanted to share one of those ideas in this post. The client gave full permission, and I changed the details to maintain confidentiality.

We had discussed his tendency to interpret physical symptoms—usually symptoms of anxiety—as signs he was dying. At one point I asked him in session, “Does your mind have a medical degree that you yourself don’t possess? It sounds like your mind thinks it’s an expert in areas that you yourself are not.”

I didn’t think much of my comments at the time, but for this individual it planted a seed.

He and his partner named his worry mind after a sketchy-looking educational institution they saw located in a retail area. For the sake of confidentiality, I’ve changed the name and key details. I’ll call the worry mind “Dr. Rutherford,” even though the actual name has a nicer ring to it. According to the client, Dr. Rutherford became certified in different specialties during one-day certification programs in areas such as:

  • Neuroscience
  • Veterinary medicine
  • Infectious Diseases
  • Relationships
  • Dentistry
  • Food allergist
  • “Sudden death prediction analyst”

Dr. Rutherford became a way to talk about excessive worry. When he’d begin to worry, his partner might say to him, “Looks like Dr. Rutherford is here,” and the two could light-heartedly laugh about it. Over time, this tendency towards worry became something funny rather than something frustrating.

He even wrote down a series of Dr. Rutherford’s sayings or mottos in order to identify when he was worrying.  Again, for the sake of confidentiality, I won’t give them word-for-word, but they reflected ideas such as, “Sure it’s rare, but if you get it, YOU’RE DEAD!”

Some concluding thoughts about the ubiquitous Dr. Rutherford

In conclusion, it’s generally pretty harmless when your mind has strong opinions about Wagnerian opera in the absence of a musicology degree. However, you might hold your mind’s views with some skepticism on topics such as interpreting vague physical symptoms or contamination risks that no one else seems worried about. That might just be your own version of Dr. Rutherford talking.

And finally, I just wanted to say thanks to the individual who gave me permission to share this fantastic idea!