Friday, March 8, 2013

How to Heal Feelings of Despair and Shame

Sex addicts experience deep emotional and spiritual despair. They believe there is no hope, that life will never get better, and that, if there is a God, he doesn't care. Many despairing addicts consider suicide.

Although despair seems to be a negative emotion, it can lead to positive change. Despair forces addicts to face the facts - that their efforts are never effective, they need other people, and they need God. When this happens, feelings of despair can actually lead to surrender to God. If you love and care for an addict, resist the temptation to rush in and alleviate the addict's despair with quick or simplistic solutions. God may be at work in the despair to bring about lasting change in the addict's life.

As sex addicts begin to recover from addictive behavior, they slowly recover from despair as well. When in despair, hearing testimonies of other recovering addicts is especially encouraging. 9 Addicts gain self-confidence as they learn to control sexual behavior, rituals, and fantasies. They grow stronger by admitting their addiction and testifying to their recovery. This gradual process of encouragement and self-affirmation diminishes feelings of despair and also begins to heal the addict's sense of shame.

Like despair, shame is not all bad. Shame points us to our own unworthiness and our need for God. Abuse victims, however, often assume an identity of shame and feel completely worthless.

To deal with unhealthy shame, sex addicts must delve into any trauma and wounds they have experienced. I strongly recommend group therapy in addition to individual counseling because many addicts learn about their own abuse by watching other addicts deal with theirs. They may have repressed memories of abuse because they are so painful. Observing others accept and deal with their abuse helps addicts feel safe enough to let their own memories return to consciousness.

Painful memories come back as the addict is ready to deal with them. I believe God is in control of this process and does not give addicts more to cope with than they are prepared to handle. It is always wise for addicts to pray that God, through the Holy Spirit, will show them what they need to heal from in God's own perfect timing.

It may take years for a sex addict to recall and deal with memories of abuse. If the abuse is more severe, it will take longer. It is not uncommon for some memories of abuse to surface right away and for others to come later. One female addict, for example, recalled childhood incest with her father only after eighteen months of counseling. Because she was in a community where she felt safe, her mind allowed her to remember this extremely significant abuse.

Sex addicts may be discouraged that this process takes so long and is so painful. However, the intensity of the experiences diminishes over time and periods of joy and peace increase. As they recover from their addiction, tell others what they have done, learn to share who they really are, and make amends, addicts find healing from their sense of shame. After they have been angry about wounds, they learn to find peace in forgiving those who harmed them, just as they have asked forgiveness from those they have harmed.

Only God can truly heal the sense of shame. Christ died not only to take away our sins, but also to vanquish our shame. Through him we will find freedom from shame, despair, and addiction. The ultimate way to heal from shame and wounds is to find meaning in them.

Every time I share my pain with others and they are able to share their pain with me, it connects us to each other. Whenever this happens, my pain feels lighter. My shame and wounds are also my opportunity to participate in the pain that all people experience. And this is what Christ did - he came to earth and shared our pain. Jesus knew doubt, anxiety, betrayal, pain and abandonment. As I understand that God, in Christ, shares in my pain, it becomes lighter and easier to bear. Addicts on the ultimate healing journey do not ask that the pain of the past be taken away. It is their chance to experience true fellowship with Christ and with others.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Developing a Vision

Author’s Note: Recovery from sex addiction is not just about stopping fantasies, it is about replacing those fantasies with a vision.

Sex addicts must develop a vision. A vision is a clear idea of God's calling, plan, and purpose for one's life. It is a picture of where we want to go with our lives. If we don't know where we are going, we can't get there. The Bible says that people without vision perish (Proverbs 29:18).

When the addicts develop a sense of their true calling, their vision, they have a much easier time staying sober. Everything they do falls in line with achieving higher

Here are examples of vision statements for sex addicts:              
  • I seek to serve my spouse and not hurt her anymore.
  • I want to share the message of hope and sobriety with other men who still struggle. 
  • I want my children to be raised in a safer home that I was.
  • I hope to be able to repay all the money I spent on my addiction.
  • I seek to make amends to those I've harmed.

This is not an exhaustive list. Notice that these vision statements help strengthen your resolve to stay sober. In my own experience, the vision of no longer hurting my wife kept me from acting out countless times.
Vision statements become the foundation of outlining specific strategies. Marvin's vision was to share his mes¬sage of hope with others. He approached his pastor and asked if there were other men the pastor knew who struggled with sexual addiction. Marvin arranged meetings with these men and told his story. Later, these men planned a workshop at their church and brought in a speaker to address sexual purity. After the workshop, over fifty men signed up to be in a support group to stay sexually pure. Marvin's vision led to a dynamic ministry at his church. While he was pursuing it, it gave him the conviction and strength to stay sober so he could continue to be a witness to others.

Having a vision creates energy because it aligns us with God's purposes and enables us to find our true giftedness.

Living out our vision may even include using the pain of past experiences to reach out, witness to, and help others. Paul says God is the Father of all compassion and comfort, "who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble" (2 Corinthians 1:4). Even those who have lost careers because of addiction may find that recovery opens the door to God's larger plan. In the early days of my recovery, if anyone had told me I would one day speak, teach, write and counsel others all over the world, I would have thought they were completely crazy. These are the kinds of doors God opens when we seek his will in our lives.

I have described how fantasy is an attempt to meet needs and heal wounds by imagining false solutions. Vision, on the other hand, is imagining God's plan for our lives and finding that in so doing, we legitimately meet our own needs and heal our wounds.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Evolution of Your Story, by Greg Miller, M.Div., D.Min.

A foundational principle of recovery and emotional healing is the process of discovering your story.  For each of us, there is a journey which is helpful and necessary to complete.  There are stages of this journey through which we all must move.

Telling your story – reporting.  The first step in this process is to put words to your experience and tell your story. I have often heard people say, as they begin to tell their story, they realize that they have never really shared the details of their experience before. It is powerful to begin to share one’s secrets, including the painful parts of his/her story that have shaped and formed who they are.

Embracing your story – owning.  The next step in the process is to own your story.  When we first begin to tell our story, we can sound like a reporter who is detached from the events.  Somewhere in the process, we are no longer just using words to communicate our story and we begin to recognize that the events being shared are ours. This is a significant step in healing, because in order to steward our story, we must first own it as ours. Stewardship begins with ownership. Stewardship is the process of understanding something’s value and managing it accordingly.

Feeling your story - connecting to the emotions.  As we begin to own our story, it opens the door to feel our story. With each of our childhood experiences there is an emotional component, and yet for many people, it was not safe nor encouraged to express those feelings at the time.  The emotions are still within us, and in many cases, leak out in our current life.  When we allow ourselves to feel the power of our story, we can begin to fully live in the present, and not be held hostage by the past.

Integrating your story – accepting grace.  What finally happens on this journey is that we are able to integrate all parts of our story – the good and bad, the painful and comforting, the desperate and the hopeful.  For many of us there are parts of our story that we wish did not exist and ever happened. Many times there are harsh judgments and shame associated with our own experiences.  When we begin to integrate our story, we recognizes that it is all parts of our story that shape and form us, and when we look at our story and lives through the lens of grace, we become a gentle observer and we can live in truth.

The Power of “And” Many of us have been living in a world of “either … or.”  We get stuck into thinking that something or someone must be either all good or all bad.  An aspect of recovery and emotional health is accepting that in each of us there is the capacity for both good and bad.  When we expect or need for someone to be all of something, life becomes disappointing and lonely.  Life is not like the movies where the villain is easily identified. 

We discover that those we love have the capacity to hurt us, and yet, we still can see the goodness of who God has created them to be.  As we do the work of integrating all parts of our story, and we come to see the truth of who we are, we are then able to see the complexity in others.  We begin no longer to need the contrast of black and white, we are able to embrace and celebrate the beauty of the gray that is in us all, which leads us to discover the power of “And.”

Greg Miller, M.Div., D.Min.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Are You Ready for Change?

Have you ever wanted to change something in your life? You may have wanted to start a new and healthy behavior or to stop an old and unhealthy one. Maybe you have wanted to start exercising or to stop watching so much TV. Or has it been more serious, such as wanting to start a deeper spiritual time of prayer and Bible study or to stop a destructive addiction? Have you been starting or stopping but frustrated because you have been unable to sustain the change? The apostle Paul puts it this way in Romans 7:19, "For what I do is not the good I want to do; no the evil I do not want to do - this I keep on doing."

I have had to start and stop many behaviors in my life. As a recovering addict, I have experienced many addictions I have needed to stop - sinful sex, nicotine, caffeine, and food. I have also needed to start healthy behaviors - exercising, eating healthy, maintaining my male friendships, and practicing spiritual disciplines. In this book, I would like to share with you the seven principles of accountability I have learned that have continually helped me with those changes.

Change is a process and often takes longer than we think. For many of us it is a lifetime journey. To achieve true change, a person must be accountable to others to make that change. I would therefore like to share with you what true accountability is all about. Over the years, I have seen many people struggle with addiction because they don't fully understand the foundation of accountability.

There are two sources of these seven principles. The first source comes from the wisdom found in most addiction recovery programs. In essence, whether these programs are secular or Christian, they have built their core structure on the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Here is a short history of AA. In 1935, Bill Wilson was on a business trip to Ohio. After years of struggle with alcoholism, he had finally found sobriety through a rather remarkable spiritual experience while hospitalized. Now, at a hotel in Ohio, he found it hard to pass by the hotel bar and not go in. So Bill W. (as he is known by millions) called every local pastor and priest until one finally told him to go talk to the town drunk, Dr. Bob Smith. Dr. Bob had not yet been able to stop his drinking. When they met one fateful night, Bill asked Bob to help him by simply listening to his struggles. Bill W. was not there to preach at him. He was there desperate and needy. As they talked throughout the night, the essence of what was to become the twelve steps program was formed. That first AA meeting has led to thousands of meetings around the world and millions of lives saved from the ravages of alcoholism.

Each in their own way, Bill W. and Dr. Bob, had been influenced by Christian principles. Those of us who have really strived to "work" the steps and who are Christian, know that they are totally consistent with our theological understanding of who God is and what the Bible teaches. As you read and seek to digest what I have to teach you in this book, you find the twelve steps are a strongly influential source.

The second source, which will really provide the structure of this book, is from two Old Testament sources. First, the book of Nehemiah, at least the first six chapters, contains the truths of the seven principles of highly accountable men. Second, the story of the exodus of the Jewish people our of the land of Egypt will illustrate the core essence of how people change.

As you read this, let me offer you several words of encouragement and instruction. Those of us who have tried to change a behavior and often failed are full of shame. Shame is a very biblical emotion and in a healthy way can remind us that we need God in our lives. Shame can also be a very deadly emotion when it becomes the feeling that we are bad and worthless persons, perhaps even that we are a mistake. When any of us experience difficulty in changing, we feel a confirmation that we will never get it right. Ultimately, shame leads many of us to believe that not even God can love us.

Nothing can be further from the truth. The Bible is clear. We are "fearfully and wonderfully made" (Ps.139:14), God loves us so much that he sent his only Son to save us (John 3:16), and there is no sin that can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:39).

In truth, you can change. The first part of accountability will be to find those around you who might remind you of God's truth. Let me be the first: "You are a wonderful child of God and change is possible."

Friday, January 18, 2013

Avoiding Triggers

In the opening chapter of my bookTaking Every Thought Captive, I teach one of the strategies that I first learned from my recovery back in 1987. This strategy is meant to help you guard against unwanted thoughts before they happen... Avoiding Triggers.

A trigger is stimulus that causes a thought. If you avoid the trigger, you therefore avoid the thought. The first step to use this strategy is to understand what a trigger is and what particular triggers you struggle with. Basically, a trigger is anything that goes from your five senses to your brain. You hear them, see them, smell them, taste them, or physically feel them. The other day someone told me that one of the local electronic stores was having a sale. I heard this and immediately started thinking about that new computer I "need" to buy, but can't afford. My thought was of the computer. To avoid it would have required not talking to my friend, or, as part of my accountability program, to have asked him to never mention anything to me about electronics sales.

One of the men I am working with told me today that he was watching a football game and an ad for lingerie came on. It triggered a thought of sexuality in his brain, and the temptation was to go and find more explicit pictures of women on the Internet. To avoid this kind of trigger, he would need to not watch the game or, at least, not watch any of the commercials. Many people tell me they can be at the mall and the sight of attractive people triggers sexual longing. To avoid this, they would either have to avoid going to the mall or, while there, look down or look away. One common strategy for avoiding visual triggers is to "bounce" your eyes. That means if you see something that is visually stimulating, you must bounce your head or your eyes away from it. The men I work with who struggle with sexual thoughts may seek to avoid places where people are more provocatively dressed, like a beach or swimming pool. Members of Gamblers Anonymous routinely get rid of all credit cards and only carry a small amount of cash in their wallets.

Even in Old Testament times the writer of Proverbs wars about avoiding the trigger of adulteress: "Now then, my sons, listen to me; do not turn aside from what I say. Keep to a path far from her, do not go near the door of her house, lest you give your best strength to others and your years to one who is cruel" (5:7-9).

One of the most common sexual triggers today comes from TV, magazines, or the Internet. If these kinds of triggers are problems for you, you may need to avoid reading magazines, watching TV, or surfing the Internet.

If thoughts of eating food are your problem, you may be triggered by the sight or taste of food. If I'm in the mall and walk by the cinemas and smell the popcorn, I'm going to want to eat popcorn because the thought of it is in my head. While in the mall, the perfume section of the department store may trigger me into thoughts of an old girlfriend. Driving down the highway I may see the billboard for the lottery jackpot and my thoughts turn to gambling. Are you getting the idea?

Triggers are always based on your life experience. My popcorn trigger is based on years of pleasant times at the movies, all associated with eating popcorn. Food triggers are usually associated with pleasant times in the past, such as times spent with family or connecting with friends. Sexual triggers can be associated with past sexual experiences. Gambling triggers are always associated with that time that actually won a jackpot. For alcoholics, times of drinking are sometimes associated with fellowship. Remember the TV series Cheers? It was a bar and the place "where everybody knows your name."

Let's be realistic; if we are to avoid all triggers, we would have to lead the life of a monk or a hermit. This is not very realistic, and I believe my wife would object to that. So avoidance is not the final solution. In the early stages of learning how to take every thought captive, however, there will be obvious stimuli that we may choose to aggressively avoid. 

You can't avoid all triggers forever. They happen. One of my sayings is, "Triggers are the gift that keeps on giving."

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Process of Change

The healing journey is a process of changing old addictive and destructive behaviors into new and healthy ones. It has several stages. I often talk to people who want to be healed in a hurry. They are discouraged at how long the journey takes. But a life that took a lifetime to destroy may take a lifetime to rebuild. Don't be disheartened. Some positive and joyful changes do occur immediately, but enduring and life-transforming change has its ups and downs and is a long journey.

It is helpful to understand the process of change as we embark on the healing journey. Old behavior is sinful and destructive. It is the old status quo. Old behavior is how we have coped and survived since we were children. Like sexual addiction, even though it may be killing us, it is what we know. 

Awareness happens when we identify a behavior we need to change. Perhaps someone challenges us or we read about healthy behavior. Or we surrender our lives to Christ and realize we much change our sinful ways. Every sex addict encounters countless times when he or she is aware of the need to change, but, old behavior is so familiar and so strong the addict keeps going back to it. 

Steve had been looking at pornography and masturbating since he was in middle school. He had also been sexual with several girls in high school. In college, he continued his pattern until he met Jean and fell in love. Jean was a Christian and wanted to follow biblical values about sex. Steve went along because he loved her so much. He found himself masturbating more but thought that would stop when he and Jean got married. Steve became a Christian and accepted that he too needed to embrace sexual purity as his goal. Despite this awareness and his love of Jean, he couldn't stop looking at pornography and masturbating. After getting married and having a normal sexual life with Jean, he was shocked and despondent at his inability to stop. 

Chaos occurs when we become willing to change and make real efforts to do so. Since this is new ground, we don't know how to act or what to do. The old behaviors are gone, but we haven't learned new ones yet. Chaos is confusing, frightening, and painful.
Steve finally stopped his sinful sexual behaviors. He was proud of himself for that, but he also became more anxious and depressed. He was confused by this because he thought finding moral "victory" would eliminate his behaviors. 

In the next stage of change, we practice new awareness, new skills, new relationships, and new spirituality. We keep doing what pastors, counselors, and wiser people tell us to do.
Steve kept going to support group meetings and to therapy. He and Jean also worked hard on new experiences with emotional and spiritual intimacy. It was difficult and there were often setbacks, but Steve held onto his vision of sexual purity. 

Ultimately, we practice long enough that new choices become new behaviors, the new status quo. We also add other new behaviors along the way that impact our faith, our relationships, and all of our actions. Each time we seek to change, we experience a great deal of anxiety and pain. However, as we mature and develop, this anxiety diminishes each time we make healthy changes. This is the journey of healing. 

I like to think of the process of change in the context of the epic Old Testament journey that led the Jewish people out of captivity in Egypt and into the Promised Land. 

(from Healing The Wounds of Sexual Addiction by Dr. Mark Laaser ~ Process of Change based on the theories of Virginia Satir)