Authors: Note: This is not what I planned on writing at this point. I had no peace in my soul and that stopped me from posting what I planned. I sat on what I wrote for over two weeks and only just now deleted it all. And for reason that is beyond me, this takes its place. This is a continuation of my story, as best asI can remember it. However, it is not a linear and chronological history. I pray that the posts I write become “our story.” By that, I mean that you recognize parts of your story as you read mine. My story is not wholly unique. Others share it — or, at least, parts of it. And countless others deny sharing it, but do anyway. Maybe we’ll meet in the middle of the narrative.
If CPR is a picture of renewed life, then coughing up water to breathe is a picture of the act of forgiveness. That sounds backward. It feels backward. I need forgiveness. I don’t need to forgive. I am the guilty party. I betrayed my Ex, my kids, my supporters, friends, family, staff, and parishioners. Yes, I did. And still I need to forgive.
Alcoholics Anonymous gets this right. Alcoholics make amends in steps eight and nine:
Step 8: Made a list of all we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.
Step 9: Made amends to those we had harmed, except when to do so would harm them or others.
Long before they get to those steps, they spend time figuring out who they need to forgive. They do that in steps four and five:
Step 4: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory.
Step 5: Admitted to ourselves, to God, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
Recovering alcoholics discover that the exact nature of their wrongs is holding grudges and withholding forgiveness. They correctly believe that God forgives us the way we forgive others. So, we need to learn to forgive to experience being forgiven. This is consistent with how Jesus taught us to pray, “And forgive our sins as we forgive the sins of those who sin against us.”
I am amazed that the evangelical church that birthed and grew me never spent much time teaching this principle. To know forgiveness, I need to forgive.
When I did my fourth step, I wrote pages and pages of resentments. For instance, I acknowledged resenting the country of France and the French. It is almost funny that France is part of my fourth step. But France isn’t alone on the list. There are many other deep and dark resentments that I didn’t / I don’t want to admit: I have Polaroid images of my mother fingering my pre-pubescent genitalia in inappropriate ways… And, I remember my Dad leaving me with her for weeks on end while he traveled to serve God, who evidently needed him more than I did. I remember my angry, depressed mother who seemed to hate my brother and me for stopping her from enjoying the life she loved — traveling and ministering beside Dad — beating me with a belt. I remember my brother brutally beating me up every day, throwing me into walls and never getting caught. I remember the betrayal of a first love and then having to listen to her friend’s cutting explanation, “She broke up with you because you were afraid to kiss her.” I remember that same girl writing me a letter whilst I was in exile in England to get away from her, asking me if I heard Journey’s new song, “Separate Ways.” I remember the betrayal of my college fiancee and my brother, as we drove away from her house for the last time, stopping the car so I could throw up because I couldn’t handle the pain …
There are so many more vivid resentments I could name. Alongside them, I have 70 mm Dolby surround sound, 3-D film of every shameful thing I’ve ever done. I remember with too much clarity the things I did that made me want to crawl into a hole and die; the times there was no place to escape. I can remember all the times I let people down, disappointing them. I remember telling lies to appear bigger, smarter, faster, stronger, more, and more lovable than I knew myself to be. I remember getting caught in those lies and shrinking down smaller than I wa before they left my mouth. I remember shrinking as small as I could get and realizing that it wasn’t small enough.
I need to forgive the Country of France, and a bunch of others. But most of all, I needed to forgive myself. There are a few reasons for that:
1. I convinced myself that I was so bad I deserved the bad things that others did to me.
2. The feelings that accompany my shame are more powerful than feelings surrounding wrongs done to me. Though I feel both. Historically, I feel shame more viscerally.
3, As hard as I try, I can’t forgive myself. There is a spiritual power that needs to be broken down for me to forgive myself.
4. Until I forgive myself, I don’t know what it looks like to forgive others.
Forgiveness is a process. It is not a linear event that I pass through and then complete. It keeps circling back like Bill Murray’s character in GroundHog Day. As I go through life, I uncover more that I need to forgive. Like taking up my cross daily, true freedom requires daily forgiving myself and my world.
There is a downside to forgiving yourself, at least there was for me. As I began to forgive myself, I started to get pissed off. When I thought I was a P.O.S. I could excuse people for treating me badly. I didn’t deserve any better than I got. After being forgiven, I started getting angry.
Now, you have to understand, my parents didn’t allow me to feel anger. The only person who could be angry in our house was Mom. The only exception was that Dad would occasionally get mad at her to hold her in line. Mom and Dad proudly boasted that they had “beaten the anger right out of me.” I don’t remember that. I don’t remember anger. I still don’t do it well. My friends told stories about throwing things or having a tantrum, and I’d get jealous because I didn’t know how to do it. My anger came out as passive aggression. While I smiled sweetly at you, I’d stab you in the back and watch you bleed out without you ever knowing it was me who got you. Or, I’d escape into my double life because it was the safest place I could find.
But, now, after learning I could forgive myself, I was feeling it. In the furrow of my sin, people felt free to wrong me. My Bishop lied to cover his butt with his wife after my Ex retold the story to them. He said he hadn’t realized in ’97 that I’d had intercourse with prostitutes, even though I went specifically to him and others to confess that sin. He knew his lie wasn’t important. My sin superceded it. So he got away with telling it.
The leadership of the church in which I grew up decided it was wholly appropriate to not only read a list of my sins from the pulpit to shame me but to demand I write an explicit letter to my prayer and financial supporters outlining those same sins to them as well. Conveniently forgetting the rest of the New Testament, they intentionally shamed me because of their interpretation of the pastoral epistles. Later, they performed an exorcism on my brother and sister-in-law’s home because I stayed there a month. When it became clear that if there were demons in the home, they undoubtedly came from my brother, no apology was ever offered or considered. The pastor discovered he could get away with saying pretty much whatever he wanted to say to and about me, and so he did. It was reported to me that he made sure a local seminary refused me admission to their counseling program. I no longer had any grounds to disagree with or stand up to him. People in the church started and repeated fantastic rumors. A missionary friend saw me in Costco and asked if I really made my Dad move out of his house so that I could live there.
The leadership of my house church community thought they knew what they were doing, and in their arrogance demanded that everything be done their way. They chose my counselor and then didn’t like things he said and so demanded that I stop seeing him and find a Christian counselor (assuming he’d agree with them). Finally, when they disagreed with both my sponsor and new Christian therapist and discovered that I would not obey them, they asked me to leave the church altogether. So I did. I became an Episcopalian.
I knew that I needed to forgive these men and women for my sake rather than theirs. I didn’t want to, though. My hatred of them felt deserved. It felt good, and it held me captive. I was unwilling to give up my right to revenge. Judging them gave me solace in my despair. Even when you are at the bottom of the barrel it helps to have people that are easy marks for contempt.
Finally, after years (and that is not an exaggeration) of prayer for willingness to take action I asked my former Bishop to meet. We had coffee, and I told him that I forgave him. He asked me what he had done, and I said it was unimportant and bringing it to light again would probably create further damage between us. I knew I needed to let it go. I needed to give up any fantasy of revenge. I had to give up the right to judge he and his wife in the same way I had given up the right to judge myself.
However, I was still unwilling to forgive the pastor who read out my sins, blocked my admission to the seminary, didn’t stop rumors, and said hateful things about and to me that were untrue. Then one day, I walked into a pastors’ prayer meeting, and he was the only one there. As I walked across the room and sat down next to him, praying as I walked. I found that I held no ill will for him. I didn’t need to harm him. He was an old man, and God had my back. I didn’t need to judge him at all.
I wish I could tell you that once I gave up the right to revenge or to judge him –or anyone else, for that matter — all my hatred went away. It didn’t. There are still moments when I want revenge on that old pastor. I have to pray them away. There are still moments that I judge the hell out of the old bishop and his wife. That fact isn’t helped by her ongoing judgment of me and continued belief that she was correct in her assessments and actions, so I continually return to my knees and ask for willingness to forgive, and then I pray a simple prayer of surrender:
“Lord, I surrender my right to be angry with ________. Save me from being angry with them. Please give them _________ (whatever I want for myself right now). May I find in you, whatever my anger is giving me. Your will not mine be done.”
I pray that prayer until I mean it, which means I repeat it a lot. Some folk aren’t easy to love! But by praying, I take the Lord seriously, seeking the welfare of my enemies. And as I obey, the Holy Spirit slowly transforms and resurrects my heart.
“Listening” to the energy in my body as I wrote these words, I am very aware that I have more work to do. Though my resentments’ power weakens the more I pray to forgive, my resentments can still keep me awake. Their power and my powerlessness require me to rely on the Holy Spirit. He has to be actively involved because my resentments are too much for me. The good news is that he is willing to get his hands dirty with me.
Just so you know, because this post brought back a lot of emotion, I will be praying the above-cited prayer a lot in the next few days. If you haven’t already, I’d encourage you to join me in it — for your resentments, not mine.
I was introduced to Rob Grayson by another friend. He reads and is touched by the same authors I am. He writes gloriously, and when I read this post, I asked if Gracefall could repost it. Please take it to heart
Last week I wrote about how it is in our collective brokenness that we find our true humanity. Today I’d like to continue exploring the idea of brokenness a little further.
First, it might be useful to unpack what we mean by “brokenness” (or, at least, what I understand it to mean).
We often think of brokenness as a place we come to either when we’re faced with the consequences of our own actions or when the actions of others, or events beyond our control, leave us wounded and in pain. This is, I think, an entirely (continue to read here)
I finished my 2nd step about the same time that my psychologist referred me to a psychiatrist to do a medication check. After the separation and divorce, Doctors prescribed Wellbutrin for me which changes patient’s moods by affecting our dopamine and norepinephrine. Wellbutrin is a unique medication as it does not fit nicely into other anti-depressant categories. While it is a second generation antidepressant, it does not address serotonin levels and so is unique in its field. There were several good reasons my psychiatric nurse practitioner prescribed it. I was obviously overweight, and Wellbutrin is an appetite suppressant as well as an anti-depressant, and it would help alleviate some of my ADHD symptoms as well.
The issue for me, however, was Wellbutrin is a sexual stimulant. As a sex addict trying to get clean, taking a sexual stimulant is probably not a good idea. It certainly wasn’t for me. When my counselor did extra reading on my case and discovered that Wellbutrin was a sexual stimulant, he was astounded that my nurse practitioner prescribed it for me and wanted to see if a psychiatrist would approach my case differently. As a lay person in the field of medications, he thought that eliminating the extra sexual stimulation, and perhaps even adding a sexual depressant could help me.
Though it is hard to find a psychiatrist who could fit me into their schedule; once I did, he agreed with my therapist and began to search for the right medication for me. It was a long process. As nearly all psychiatric providers explain. Prescribing psychiatric meds is as much art, as it is science.
My psychiatrist wanted to find a drug in the SSRI anti-depressant category. SSRi stands for “Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. SSRi’s are “Second wave” antidepressants and are generally more effective with fewer side effects than first wave anti-depressants. They work by inhibiting serotonin levels in the brain. There is an extensive list of SSRI’s to try. They all work slightly differently to achieve the same ends, and effect different people in different ways.
First, we tried Prozac. I do not remember if it didn’t work, why I didn’t like it, or why we decided to try something else, but we did. We tried Paxil which I took for nearly 2 years. it had the desired effect of creating space and slowing my mind but slowly, its effects waned. So we pivoted to Zoloft. I hated Zoloft. It made everything fuzzy. It was as if my mind was running through knee-deep, wet cement. This surprised me because most of my recovery friends were on Zoloft. Indeed, it could have been that fact that led me to urge my psychiatrist to take me off Paxil to try it. My friends referred to Zoloft as “Vitamin Z;” and it worked for them. So, I wanted to try it too. It didn’t work for me like it did for them, though.
Celexa ended up being my long-term solution. I stayed on it for over eight years. It took a few weeks to find the right dosage, but once we found it, I noticed, just like with the Paxil before it, that I had immediate freedom from compulsions of any kind.
My shrink told me that his goal was to give me a split-second gap between my thoughts and my actions. The speed on which I moved was one of my biggest strengths. It helped me get ahead. I was afraid to lose it and gave voice to those fears to both my Psychiatrist and therapist. But they convinced me that what I relied upon on as a strength and viewed as integral to my being was also killing me. My ADHD mind didn’t provide me the psychic space I needed to overcome my compulsivity. That needed to change and I needed to surrender my quick thinking if I was going to survive.
Looking back, I understand now that my early traumas led to some neural disruption and/or disconnections in my prefrontal cortex where my behavioural inhibitors and filters reside. In prescribing the SSRi’s my psychiatrist attempted to help stimulate those neural connections enabling them to give me clarity about my actions and their consequences. And while medications were not the whole answer for me, they were a major piece of my sobriety pie.
My parents and church raised me to be suspicious of medications being a reasonable response to mental and emotional issues. In their world view, the need for medication somehow diminished humanity’s moral responsibility. We blamed original sin for peoples’ poor choices and felt that people needed to take full responsibility for their actions. While we were not completely anti-psychiatry; seeing the need for people struggling with psychosis, schizophrenic disorders and the like; we frowned upon antidepressants as medications that displaced the Holy Spirit’s role in discipleship, etc…
I needed to repent of that belief. And I hope that cultural reality is shifting given all that we know about the mind/ body connection. It is surprising to me how much the suspicion of psychiatry exists in AA & NA 12-step recovery rooms. Anyone that was addicted to a mood altering substance has every right to be suspicious, and yet they also need to heed what research is revealing. While neurobiology is still in its infancy; I, for one, can hardly wait to see what advances we make as we unlock more of our mind’s secrets.
Please note that I do not want to suggest in any of this that I was not and am not entirely responsible for the choices I made before seeking medical intervention. And without medical intervention, I would not have been able to enjoy long-lasting sobriety.
Written by Alexander W. G. Seidel
Many years ago, a pastor of a prominent regional congregation was caught having moral indiscretions in another state. This pastor received significant attention for his actions, which subsequently served as the catalyst for an eventual split. A congregation of close to 10,000 people sunk below the 1,000 mark. What was notable was not the sudden exodus of attenders. It was how the elder board circled the wagons in what appeared to be damage control. Read more
I couldn’t get sober and I couldn’t take the third step.They say, if you are having a rough time working a step, it means you didn’t take the previous one. I discovered at the International Convention for my fellowship that I was primarily struggling because though I thought I had taken the second step, I’d missed it entirely. The second step simply states,
“We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”
Sitting in meetings, you’d hear an old timer explain the second step like this: The first step states, “We admitted we were powerless, and that our lives had become unmanageable.” ”
“The first step states, ‘We admitted we were powerless, and that our lives had become unmanageable.’ So, first, we came. Then, we came to. Then we came to believe.”
For many addicts, God (or a higher power) is a brand new concept and so the old timers cliche says it all: We started coming to meetings, woke up, and realized that we couldn’t recover by ourselves. When an addict gets to this point, they are ready for the second step. “If I can’t fix myself, I choose to believe that something more powerful than me can fix me.” However, for many of us religious types — especially those of us in sexual recovery — there is necessary deconstruction that needs to occur.
At my fellowship’s International Conference, as I sat in the conference room at the PDX Sheraton, the 12 step seminar leader asked us to open our spiral notebooks (that we’d all been invited to bring) so that there were two blank pages open. He asked us to reinforce the pink line that ran down the left page to create two columns on the left page. At the top of the narrow one on the left he said, “In this column, I want you to create a list of all the people that were higher powers in your life as you grew up. It will probably include your parents. It might include a brother, sister, aunt or uncle. There might be coaches, pastors, babysitters or teachers on the list. Think about all the people that had power over you and impacted you growing up. They are the higher powers in your life. Don’t be afraid to add to the list as others come to mind as you write. ” My list wasn’t very long: Mom, Dad, some pastors, some coaches, and a couple of teachers.
“The second column is harder,” he said. “At this point, you may find it easier to work across the page. For each higher power, write about times that events occurred that taught you something about what your higher power was like. Were there specific things that come to mind that they did? List both what they did and what that action taught you about what a higher power must be like.”
This column was harder for me. As you’ve already read, my Mom was an angry depressive who directed her anger at my brother and me. Meanwhile, my Dad was on the road more than he was home when I was little. I knew that there were things much more important than me to him. And so my list went on and on. The more I wrote, the more I realized how much God often resembled the people who had been my higher powers growing up.
The third column lined up with the second. Where my God always abandoned me to rescue someone else who needed saving more than me, I chose to believe something different, and I wrote it down. Where I thought God was moody, angry, and disappointed with me, I opted to believe something else, and I wrote it in the third column opposite the corresponding action from the higher powers from my youth.
In the final column, our “old timer” directed us to create either a pithy phrase (affirmation) or prayer that we could look at every day to remember who our God was. I taped one copy of my right column list to my bathroom mirror and carried the other with me in my wallet. Throughout the day, I began catching myself believing in the God of my childhood. Looking back with twenty/twenty vision, He resembled an alcoholic.
Without working this step, I’d never have come to understand how wonky my view of God was. If someone argued that I thought my God was an alcoholic, I’d have laughed in their face. Nothing was further from the truth. Or was it? Working the second step is the first example I cite where it’s obvious I needed to work the steps to find faith, Jesus, and life. Following the steps led me to Him. It was after working this step that God granted me sobriety.
For more of the story try these previous posts:
In the last post in this series, we “stick-figure” sketched the brain, identifying three regions to consider: The pre-frontal cortex, the limbic brain, and the amygdala. Also, we shook hands with “Attachment Theory,” and “Affect Regulation Theory,” while explaining the difference between right brain and the left brain functions.
In this post, I am going to build on that base, introducing mirror neurons to the discussion, and talking about how chemicals affect the brain. I will also introduce the Vagus Nerve that runs from our brain stem, through the back of our throat, our heart, our lungs, and elimination system. What I hope is that we (and by “we,” I mean the Church) will begin to understand the mind-body inter-dependence. It is a misnomer to say that our mind is our brain. It is not. Our minds are much bigger than our physical brains. Indeed, they are much larger than our nervous system. The discovery of mirror neurons has turned all of our thinking about what we knew of the mind and the soul on its head. If it hasn’t, you aren’t listening to the Spirit’s rumblings. Mirror neurons were discovered in primates in the 1980s and have been studied since then. It is only in the last ten to fifteen years however that inroads have occurred in psychological research.
Mirror neurons fire when we observe another’s person’s behavior or emotions. They reflect the other person’s experience to us as if the behavior was one’s own. They facilitate empathy and allow us to enter into the story of another. As I watch you feel or behave, I feel as if I am feeling or doing the same thing. As you feel, I feel with you. As you accomplish victory, I can feel it as if it were my victory. As you experience defeat, I feel a feeling of loss or disappointment. Now, it has to be noted that I do not feel in the same way that you feel. My memory, in concert with my mirror neurons, recognizes your feeling, determining my emotion. If I am watching you experience or act, my mirror neurons reflect your actions or experiences to my system, and I feel emotions as if I were you. Mirror neurons reside in the prefrontal cortex. When it is offline, mirror neurons are also offline, and empathy is no longer possible. This directly impacts our ability to love and move toward one another. If we are defensive, our amygdala is in control of our limbic brain we are not free to love.
Before we go any further, we have to talk about some chemicals that affect our brain and even function as a switch to give control to either the amygdala or the pre-frontal cortex. Once again, we are only scratching the surface of brain chemistry. Let me introduce you to three important chemicals that play important roles in our ability to love: Cortisol — the chemical that surrounds the amygdala determining how on edge we are; dopamine — the chemical that determines our peacefulness; and, oxytocin – the chemical that helps us feel connected to another human being. Though all of these chemicals impact the mind’s function, none of them are exclusively triggered or regulated by the brain. The Vagus Nerve plays a role in how they are produced and controlled.
The Vagus Nerve runs from the brain stem (which handles all your automatic body functions such as heart rate, body heating and cooling, hiccups and yawns, and elimination system functions) through the back of the throat through the pulmonary and cardiovascular centers and down into the intestines. It is the reason that our throats get dry, or our stomach is tied up in knots. It is the reason our heart races, we catch our breath, can’t speak, and have digestive issues. It also affects how much cortisol, dopamine, and oxytocin is created and sent to the brain to regulate or stimulate emotion.
The Vagus Nerve is not a one-directional, body-to-brain- freeway. It carries information both ways. Trauma and shame travel down the Vagus Nerve, from the brain into the body lodging there. Because of this, our bodies “remember” better than our brains. As Dr. Dan Allender says in nearly every class he teaches, “All memory is a myth.” 1 While our right, limbic brains store images, smells, sounds and feelings arising from those events, the narrative our mind holds is strictly a memory of our last thought of the event, rather than the event itself. It is our bodies that store the feelings that arise from or are inflicted directly from the experience. Because of this, our bodies hold our best memory of it, even if we cannot remember any of the narratives.
Because of this, if we hope to love people who are victims of trauma, or who are suffering from chronic shame, merely helping our clients change their thoughts will have little impact. If we are limited or focus on this modality, our attempts to love our clients well may cause harm. This is also why Evidenced Based Theories (CBT, ACT, and DBT, etc.) that are very helpful in addressing problem behaviors and addictions, as well as creating psychic space for work deeper work to be done, can retraumatize someone who is suffering from either early, chronic PTSD or chronic shame. Their thoughts are not the problem their non-verbal memory that is stored in the right limbic brain, brainstem, and the body is. To love these people well, we have to rethink how we work.
All of this has practical ramifications for loving our spouse, or our children or our neighbor or enemy. We’ll talk about that next time.
“We suffer to get well.
We surrender to win.
We die to live.
We give it away to keep it.
This counterintuitive wisdom will forever be resisted as true, denied, and avoided, until it is forced upon us—by some reality over which we are powerless—and if we are honest, we are all powerless in the presence of full Reality.”
~~Richard Rohr, Breathing Under Water
I spent a total of 35 days at Keystone. Those days created necessary space for me; they gave me gifts I needed to not only survive, but start life over again. Those 35 days may not have saved me, but they sure helped.
I returned to Portland on a Sunday and began a new job working accident claims for a major insurance company. One of my former students helped me get in the door. It was a great opportunity with an excellent company.
When I arrived home, my ex, knowing she could get away with it, changed the locks on my house and left all my clothes in one of our cars, parked in my brother’s driveway. The illegality and immorality of her choice didn’t bother anyone. Afterall, I was the bastard who cheated on her. She was able to get away with whatever she wanted, and so, she chose to exercise that freedom, seemingly, as much as possible. It is sad how my lies led to her needing to lie. Sin works like that, though. Like our forefathers, the Pharisees, our righteousness becomes the seed of our sin. My wife’s “righteousness” in our marriage allowed her to sin against the sinner — me — without remorse or a second thought.
My brother and sister-in-law let me stay in their spare bedroom for a month. That was such a gift. I had no idea what was going on beneath the surface of their seemingly happy life together. It would show itself later after the elders of our church (the one that sent me out as a missionary and then shamed me from the pulpit in their own misguided pride) embarrasesed themselves and God by attempting to exorcise the demons from my brother’s house after I left.
Much later, after my brother’s demons came to light, my “non-practicing-atheistic” sponsor pointed out that probably there were demons in my brother’s house, and that they were his not mine. At the time, however, the elders couldn’t see anything because of their anger at me. As a result, they helped destroy any hope for my brother’s marriage; much, in the same way, the elders from my house church destoyed any hope for my marriage. My brother I and I still don’t speak. Neither of us trusts the other. Psychologically, he has to stay mad at me, making up reasons to do so. Since his anger isn’t safe for me, I keep my distance. We both lost our opportunity for a relationship with the only other human who could understand what it was like to grow up in our family. My disease, and his disease combined to destroy us.
My brother I and I still don’t speak. Neither of us trusts the other. Psychologically, he has to stay mad at me, making up reasons in his mind to do so. Since his anger isn’t safe, I keep my distance. We both lost our opportunity for a relationship with the only other human who could understand what it was like to grow up in our family. My disease and his disease combined to destroy us.
Even after I left my brother’s home, Mom and Dad were incredibly gracious to me. Mom’s Alzheimer’s had already stolen much of her mind, and though at times, she was aware of parts of my story, she never felt the humiliation my choices would have visited on her only a few years earlier.
I returned to Portland from Keystone with a solid recovery plan: See Dr. Shaw each week, get to 90 meetings in 90 days, call my sponsor every day, make a lot of program phone calls, keep doing step work, join a recovery small group, spend a bunch of time with my kids, and get more involved with St Matthew’s Church. I also found an apartment near my children and made overtures to my Ex about putting our marriage back together, but thankfully, she wanted nothing to do with me.
Two weeks after starting my new job, my employer sent me to Phoenix for two weeks of training. Then two weeks after returning to Portland they sent me to Tampa for another two weeks of training. They gave me a more-than-generous stipend, room, a shared rental car, and said, “Pass your training. Have fun. Drink a lot. Don’t go to jail” Though I had created a recovery plan with my sponsor, those weeks away sent me spinning back into my addiction; more wildly, making more insane and deadly choices. Though I was still calling my sponsor every day and telling him the truth of what was happening; though I was getting to meetings when able while travelling, I could not stop my sexual behaviors. I didn’t know how to act out efficiently; and was unaware of how the sex marketplace in unfamiliar cities worked and so I blew all my money on gorgeous, wanton women who were only there to take my money and came home to Portland broke from both trips,
The first two weeks in Phoenix broke something loose in me. I became intent on obtaining sex to feed my addiction thinking that “the next one could save me.” 1In meetings I’d hear, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Since I didn’t want to be insane, I kept trying new and kinkier stuff — more gorgeous women; more, more beautiful women; found different ways to meet, discover and seduce women.
In the In the months between April 2002 and August 2002, I acted out more than I had in the previous 36 years of life. I was in active rebellion against God, my family, the Church and women in general.
Though I am not proud, nor grateful for those months, I needed them. I needed to know the emptiness of the promise I sought. I needed to discover how vapid it was. Don’t let me fool you; I found hedonistic pleasure. It was glorious. It was mindblowing, and, it was vacuous. I found all of the pleasures I desired and cashed in on promises of mind-blowing sex with stunningly beautiful women and still didn’t find what I was looking for. 2
My sponsor didn’t know what to do with me. I went to a meeting or two every day. I called him every day. I was not proud of what I was doing. He watched the life drain from me as I lost hope. Finally, in August, my city hosted my 12-step fellowship’s international convention and he asked me to attend the 12-step seminar to work the steps rather than going to the breakout sessions that sounded interesting to me. It was there that I learned how to work the second step and it was learning to work that step that eventually set me free.
Is there anything that all healthy humans want in life? In other words, is there anything that crosses social, economic, and cultural divides that is a desire or longing for all humanity? I ask because if we don’t understand for that which we all long, we will never grasp how people respond, develop, and break.
Before answering, however, let’s quickly sketch the human brain using very broad strokes (like creating a picture using google maps from 30,000 feet). For the sake of perspective in our overview the brain will have three primary regions: the amygdala — also known as the reptilian brain, the limbic brain, and the pre-frontal cortex. The Amygdala is the part of our brain that keeps us safe. Typically it employs three responses: Fight, flight, or freeze. Additionally, it has the power to override the other areas of the brain to keep us safe. If it is fully turned on, the pre-frontal cortex is either turned off completely or barely activated. In those moments, we describe people as “acting on instinct.”
The limbic brain is a catch-all region of the brain that includes: most of our emotions, our long-term memories, and our motivational and pleasure centers. It also guides our intentional muscle movements and is involved in how we learn. It comprises most of our brain mass.
The prefrontal cortex is central to our personality, our social choices, and sophisticated planning and thinking. This is the area of the brain that helps us filter our behavior while simultaneously guiding our thoughts and actions so that the are consistent with our internal goals or drives.
While the above paragraphs contain the most general of outlines and are not comprehensive or complete, they set the scene. The main characters in the story, however, are our “right and left brains.” For they process life differently. Their interaction about how to get that which everyone wants becomes the human script.
The right brain is the originator of our dreams. It is intuitive, visual, seeing the forest before seeing a singular tree. It is artistic .and non-verbal, the place of imagination, creativity, emotions, and rhythms. The right brain allows you to sing in tune or stops you from carrying a melody. The right brain is where fetuses and infants start to think learning life. It is also the place that stores trauma for not just children but also adults. It does not require words to feel or see. In many instances, words only get in the way of creative expression. It is important to note that the right brain also contains what Freud called, “the unconscious.” And finally, to recognize that it is the birthplace of shame. Shame is a critical player in this drama because, at its root, it is the feeling or sense that one is undeserving of their longings and desires; that either, they are not enough or are too much. It has devasting consequences for us physically, emotionally, and mentally.
Physically, both the right and left brain encompass the prefrontal cortex that connects them, allowing them to communicate and the limbic brain. So as you think about our left and right brains, please simultaneously remember the limbic and prefrontal cortex functions.
The left brain is analytical, logical, and verbal. It is linear, likes math, facts, and learning languages and always uses words or numerals to think. While the right brain gives birth to shame, the left brain is the uterus for our guilt. This is a primary difference between guilt and shame: Guilt always begins with words, while shame always starts with emotions to which we later give language.
The above aids us as we consider humanity’s desire(s). As a Trinitarian, I believe God created people both corporately and individually In his loving, relational image; Therefore, every human’s deepest desire is for a relationship with another. However, this desire is not innate, but rather developmental. For early on, infants have no sense of “inside/outside” or “otherness.” Those concepts are learned. There is no way infants’ minds can grasp that everything “isn’t me.” They learn that there is me and you and that we are separate and other. That is only one of the billions and trillions of things that infants learn as they grow. How they learn to be other and relate to the other will make a huge difference in how their minds develop and grow.
The child’s prefrontal cortex isn’t online at birth. It is still under construction. The connection between the right and left brain is not operational. Dr. Alan Schore argues that the development of the prefrontal cortex and children’s ability to utilize it to regulate right-brain emotions is of utmost importance developmentally. In other words, our ability to integrate our right brain with our left brain is crucial. When it does not happen early in life, feelings overwhelm the child and trauma ensues.
20th-century theorists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth developed attachment theory based on these observations. Subsequent discoveries in the 21st-century of mirror neurons have made this theory almost as accepted as gravity. Alan Schore, mentioned above, used attachment theory as a foundation to create the 21st century’s version of it, calling it, Affect Regulation Theory.
Schore theorizes that mothers lend their brains to their children, using their mirror neurons to do so, allowing their infants to cope with overwhelming emotions swirling in their right brains. When parents succeed in doing so, the infant learns over time how to “contain” their feelings, creating neural pathways between the right and left brains that regulate emotions. When parents fail, they must work to repair the rupture addressing the failure with the child, thus allowing the child to continue to process their feelings and grow. Clearly, all parents fail, in this task and children are left picking up the pieces, needing to find other ways to live safely with emotions that threaten to consume them. (To be continued)
Johnson & VanVonderen defines spiritual abuse as, “Using God as a carrot or a stick to get people to behave the way you’d like them to.”* Spiritual Abuse came naturally to me. As a junior in college, Campus Crusade for Christ tried to ask me to come on staff with them, and I did not allow them to get very far. At the “Senior Panic” I attended, I did not even know it was a recruitment event, and after I discovered what it was, it was too late. I went to my interview time in shorts and a ripped tee shirt and informed the three people who were there to interview me that they were wasting everyone’s time and that I was not going to go on staff with them. When they asked, “Why not?” I said, “Because it
I said, “Because it isn’t God’s will…” knowing that the answer would leave them nowhere to go. I was right. My college staff worker came to me soon after that, and we agreed that my ongoing involvement with Crusade would be a distraction rather than a help to them or me. So I joined InterVarsity.
In those days, IV held “Bible & Life” weekend conferences. I attended my first event as a senior. Costs were kept down by meeting at a local church, and attendees stayed with families in the community. I was placed in the Bible Studies method course — and I discovered that this old guy named Tom (he must have been in his mid-40s) was at my table. I was blown away when, on Sunday, he was the speaker for the event and man, could he preach! I discovered that he was the Area Director for Central Michigan, and he was there to “vet” me. As we left the conference, he asked for a moment of my time, “Steve, I’d like to ask you to pray about the possibility of considering joining InterVarsity staff.” I tried to formulate the word, “No,” but couldn’t. How could I possibly say no to praying about the possibility of anything.
In my unknown woundedness, I latched onto Tom as a surrogate father to me. He was more of a mentor to me. I wanted to be him. Later in my career with IV, I realized I demanded way too much of him, and though we remained close; he was the preacher at my first wedding, and I named my son after him, he felt betrayed by my move back to Oregon and we drifted apart. Though I don’t know entirely why, since I fell, he became unreachable. Sadly, and to my detriment our relationship, which I valued above nearly every other was a casualty of my sin.
I began using the phrase, “I’d like you to pray about the possibility of considering…” I discovered when I “twinned” his expression with the story of how he used it with me; students could not say no to me. If I really wanted to twist the knife, I would add, “If as you pray, God says no to you. I will not argue with him. Arguing with God is not smart.” I was developing into a great salesman for Jesus. I do not know how many people I manipulated this way. To my shame, the number is too high for me to count.
It was the fall after the Church publicly vomited my sin for the world to see; as I read Johnson & VanVonderen’s book that I saw more of the fulness of my abusiveness and recognized more fully the abusive nature of the Church system I had been raised. What killed me was that I realized that so much of what I thought was good was really evil and had driven people away from Jesus.
I use Johnson and VanVonderen’s definition of Spiritual abuse. And, I am convinced that we spiritually abuse people whenever we use God, or his written word as instruments of shame. There is no shame in the Kingdom of God.
Since nothing the church tried was working, and since I couldn’t get clean and because my wife had filed papers for divorce and asked me to move out of our house, the pastors agreed I needed more than they could offer. Perhaps, the therapists and my sponsor were right. Maybe I needed rehab. I still remember my friend Tom saying to me, “Even David had to learn through the rods of the Philistines. Perhaps that is what needs to happen with you. I don’t know, Steve. I don’t know.” Finally, the Church was acknowledging that it was in over its head.As I flew back to Philadelphia for rehab at Keystone, I listened to Mozart’s Requiem on my walkman. I put it on repeat. I checked into the facility — a giant house in Chester. Across the street, all the people in drug and alcohol rehab looked down their noses at us. Sex addicts are the scum of the earth. That house in Chester was a cocoon for me, though. It was the safest place on the planet.
When I arrived, I was shown around the three-story house, given a room, and introduced to my housemates. There was a giant white board in the kitchen with all of the resident’s names. They wrote my name at the bottom. I moved up the board as people left and others arrived. Once at the top, a decision was made about when it was best to graduate. I stayed 35 days.
Sex addiction is not limited to pastors though there were two of us there during my stay. There was also a mobster (I kid you not), a nineteen-year-old kid who also struggled with heroin, a banker, and an artist. Most of us were educated and at some level had a level of success. There was a jew, a Wiccan, and assorted Christians, as well as an atheist and agnostic. There were gays and straights and even a couple of “tri-sexuals” (“We’ll try anything”). There were people in trouble with the law, with their partners, and with their workplaces. And though, while I was there everyone was male; that is not always true.
We had group and individual therapy sessions in Art therapy, psycho-dramas, family therapy (for those whose partners participated — mine did not), and talk therapy. We faced our predatory selves. It didn’t matter what we had done. Even my friend who never “acted out” with another human being, acknowledged that he was a predator — though most the world would not understand how. In the evenings, we attended 12-step 12-tradition meetings, and eventually we were all allowed to use and talk on the payphone when it was available.
Next week we’ll go further into the details…
*D. Johnson & J. VanVonderen (1991) The subtle power of spiritual abuse. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers.