Ours is a culture preoccupied with disorders, diagnoses and interventions. Yet, for all the diagnosing, intervening and treating that goes on, we still encounter unspeakable tragedy, sometimes predictable, but mostly unpredictable, in the personal dramas unfolding in our communities.
Just 2 short months before Country Music singer Mindy McCready took her own life, the world was introduced to the architect of the Sandy Hook tragedy, 20-year old Adam Lanza. Ironically, while Sandy Hook breathed new life into debates about gun control, those commenting on Mindy’s suicide, which also involved the use of a gun, invariably suggested stronger therapeutic interventions would likely have rescued her from the demons that plagued her throughout much of her life.
I mention Sandy Hook only in passing. This isn’t a comparison and contrast. What is notable is that while both Mindy and Adam clearly suffered from damaged psyches, public dialogue around Sandy Hook demanded a political fix to what was perceived as a problem with guns, while the dialogue surrounding Mindy’s death focused on a clinical fix to a perceived condition of her mind. In Adam’s case, the political fixes all looked externally at the weaponry available to him. In Mindy’s case, the clinical fix looked internally at what was missing in her.
On February 17, 2013, Mindy became the latest casualty of the battle for mature self-worth. She died from a self-inflicted gunshot to the head at the age of 37, an effort that culminated several prior attempts. The AP noted Mindy was one of several cast members of celebrity shrink Dr. Drew Pinsky’s to die since appearing on “Celebrity Rehab.” Dr. Drew diagnosed Mindy with “love addiction,” a somewhat vague phenomenon that eludes consensus among mental health professionals.
Mindy’s very public life-crisis punctuated what many looking on from the outside would consider a charmed existence. Yet, despite her celebrity trappings– the fame, the adoration of her fans, and the financial security we might associate with her success– Mindy’s story points us to that deep hole into which so many of us spiral– professionals, celebrities and closer-to-the-Earth folks, alike. Many of us have some firsthand experience with that deep, dark pit where hope no longer exists. Perhaps we can identify in some personal way with Mindy’s experience of either approaching, or having reached the point where all hope is lost, where we honestly feel like we can no longer go on. But, unlike Mindy, we are still here, pressing on, having regained our bearing, or at least the determination to carry on with our lives.
The AP ran a story a couple days after her death that was significant for many reasons, not the least of which was what Mindy’s tragedy teaches us about the role of maturing hope and meaningful aspiration in our lives. The AP piece referenced statistics from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention noting the 38,364 suicides in 2010. It quoted Dr. Sharon Hirsh of the University of Chicago’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience, who reminded us that those who struggle with addictive tendencies, as Mindy did, have lower impulse control. The piece went on to suggest that perhaps stronger therapeutic interventions might have saved Mindy.
Can Love Save Me Now?
I am no longer surprised at the significant number of recovery newcomers– those in their first year of recovery– that find their “recovery soul mates” in the first 60-90 days of their recovery efforts, and who then disappear, only to return at some future point and reintroduce themselves as being in their first few days of recovery.
And who among us can blame them? Recovery is a traumatic process in which many of our most uncomfortable personal weaknesses and shortcomings are laid bare. In addition to all the other stressors acting on us as we begin the recovery journey, we must suddenly confront the ocean of moods, feelings and emotions we’ve spent considerable time and energy numbing ourselves against.
For many of us, this seems like an ideal time to seek a feel-good partner to help us cushion the blows recovery throws at us. But the temptation to test the “love cure,” invariably yields the same predictable result. In Book III of his Confessions Augustine writes:
“To Carthage I came, where there sang all around me in my ears a cauldron of unholy loves. I loved not yet, yet I loved to love…I sought what I might love, in love with loving, and safety I hated, and a way without snares.”
We seek refuge in the warmth of another’s love and affection. Perhaps this is the lure of romantic love. Yet, Augustine’s confession illustrates our predilection for investing all of ourselves in certain connections, beyond the point where the connections are healthy for us or where we lack the necessary maturity. Was it Mindy’s “love addiction” that prevented her from resisting the voice of impulse in the last moments of her life? Was it truly the voice of impulse that whispered “…suicide…” as she struggled to regain the hope she lost scarcely a year earlier after her soul-mate similarly ended his life? Was she, like Augustine, so “in love with loving” that she forgot herself completely in the intensity of her affection?
Ernest Becker explained in The Denial of Death how romantic love operates as a refuge from the deeper problems of existing as physically and intellectually vital creatures, uneasily aware we will one day cease to exist.
Becker suggested that sophisticated modern man has outgrown religion, and the result is that romantic love now occupies the role once occupied by the God of eternity in our lives. Our dependence on another, in the context of romantic love, has supplanted our loss of spiritual identity and ideology. As Becker tells it:
“…the self-glorification that [man] needed in his innermost nature he now looked for in the love partner. The love partner becomes the divine ideal within which to fulfill one’s life… All spiritual and moral needs now become focused in one individual… The point is that if the love object is divine perfection, then one’s own self is elevated by joining one’s destiny to it…”
However, since none of us can bear the burden or fullness of the Godhead, our humanity chips at the edges of our romantic vision. Our romantic linkage slowly devolves into housekeeping. And as our bodies bend, crack and wrinkle with age, our love bends, cracks and wrinkles with familiarity, boredom and routine. Our lover buckles under the weight of the impossible task we’ve assigned her or him, and the imperfections of our mate reveal the irreparable flaws of humanity. In this regard, Becker says:
“…we get back a reflection from our loved objects that is less than the grandeur and perfection that we need to nourish ourselves. We feel diminished by their human shortcomings. Our interiors feel empty or anguished, our lives valueless, when we see the inevitable pettinesses of the world expressed through the human beings in it. For this reason, too, we often attack loved ones and try to bring them down to size…”
Godhood is a daunting responsibly to foist upon another human being. With some latitude at the edges, we can see these ideas at work in Mindy’s life, as well as in some of our own life and recovery histories. When romantic love fails to sustain us, when we lose a mate, find ourselves drifting apart or backsliding into old habits, we can become immersed in that hopelessness that leads inevitably to despair and relapse. But this despondency certainly is not beyond the reach of restorative or transformative healing. Soul care obviates the need for legislative or clinical responses to timeless manifestations of the human condition.
Mending & Maturing
At a time when the message and symbolism of Scripture carried a deeper significance, St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Hebrews:
“…though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of God’s word. You need milk, not solid food…solid food is for the mature, for those who have their faculties trained by practice to distinguish good from evil.” (Heb. 5:12-14.)
Although directed to the readers of Paul’s day, the passage still points toward an inner process of spiritual maturation that we must train to achieve through practice. Reflecting on Mindy’s Pentacostal upbringing, I am reminded of the many who faithfully dedicate their time to religious activities in their congregations, yet never mature spiritually. They are born in Pampers and they matriculate in Depends! They remain spiritual infants because they lack the appropriate internal training and practice, making Paul’s words as relevant today as in his day.
Spiritual maturity is not a level to be attained. Rather, it is the passion, fueled by hope, to press forward while courageously facing down our adversities. The risk inherent in our cultural overindulgence in therapeutic interventions is that we ignore the spiritual dimension of our deepest wounds. Similarly, the risk of emphasizing theological propositions to exorcise the demons lurking in our psyches is that we ignore the neurological dimension of our wounded natures. Each risk concerns elements of the other. As the philosopher and theologian Paul Tillich noted:
“…neither the medical, nor the priestly function is bound to its vocational representatives: the minister may be a healer and the psychotherapist a priest, and each human being may be both in relation to the neighbor…the goal of both of them is helping men reach full self affirmation, to attain the courage to be…”
When we are confronted with the voice of impulse, what the science of brain and mind suggests is that the architecture of the voice is a fact of experience over which we can exert little control. The “voice” arises in a side area of the prefrontal part of our brain. This area is responsible for such things as planning, choosing and suppressing urges. It cooperates with that part of the brain that regulates emotions.
Marc N. Potenza, MD, an associate professor of psychiatry and child study at Yale University School of Medicine, tells us impulsivity involves both rapid, unplanned reactions and reduced concern for the consequences of our actions. However, the content of what the voice delivers to us, is something over which we have considerable influence. Dr. Potenza tells us we can learn to control ourselves simply by paying better attention to this voice inside our heads.
The idea we can be mindful of and transform the “voice” of our own impulsivity is a cornerstone assumption of the Recovery Coaching process. Whether viewed as a “shift in perspective” or a “change in life-narrative,” Dr. Potenza’s assurance should inspire renewed hope in those of us who struggle for the high ground of impulse control in our effort to sustain long term recovery.
We know there was infinitely more depth to Mindy’s life story than the tragic figure painted by media coverage following her death. However, her passing certainly teaches us that acting upon emotional impulsivity, rather than from a place of evolving and thoughtful maturity, can truly have life or death consequences. This is especially true for those of us in the Recovery Community, which experience has demonstrated don’t always have the best handle on our emotions.
With a nod toward training our faculties by practice to move toward maturity, here are a few strategic Soul-Care ideas you can put into practice in your Recovery Plan. They may help put the brakes on impulsive urges before such urges put the brakes on your happiness and success. At the same time, they may help you build the emotional and spiritual strength and maturity– the Recovery Capital– that can carry you through even the greatest struggles:
- Self-Care is Soul Care— Be mindful of what your feelings are telling you and have a plan for addressing your clearly negative self talk. Engage in activities that bring you enjoyment and relaxation. Prioritize exercise, getting enough rest, eating well and finding time for quiet reflection.
- Connection & Relatedness— The “I” of self always exists within the “We” of community. Emphasize the quality, rather than the number, of your relationships. I’ll trade a thousand Facebook friends, LinkedIn connections, or twitter followers for one genuine BFF any day of the week. Surround yourself with the people that genuinely care about your well-being, who challenge you to be your best, and who are not afraid to tell you when you are heading in the wrong direction. Avoid “frienemies”— or superficial “friends” who support, encourage and agree with all that you say and do, even when what you do is clearly unhealthy. Join one or more community or faith-based groups that inspire hope by involving you in the needs of others. This helps you focus your attention away from your own circumstances and builds resistance against the voice of impulse.
- Monitor GIGO— My wife has an expression, “Garbage In, Garbage Out/Good In, Good Out” (G.I.G.O.). Be mindful of what you allow yourself to become exposed to. Take long breaks from toxic people, from media coverage of horrific events, and from negativity generally. Connect with the true and the good, with the timeless wisdom and virtue that speaks to you. And when you are drawn toward something, be mindful of what in its character is speaking to you.
- Problems are Opportunities— Life must be lived on its own terms. Rarely can we avoid the highly stressful and oftentimes traumatic character of daily living. But how we interpret and respond to events is something over which we have great influence. Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% what you think about what happens to you. When confronted with trying times, remember “this too shall pass.” Focus on the strengths you have available to address the challenge and how overcoming the challenge will move you closer to the image of the very best version you hold of yourself. At bottom, challenges are opportunities to flex your mental, emotional and spiritual muscles and harvest the fruits of your efforts.
- Transitions are Facts of Life– As we grow older and evolve, certain ambitions may no longer be realistic as a result of adverse situations or other life circumstances. Strive for what is within your capabilities, reach for those things that are attainable with effort, expand your capabilities with each opportunity and be content with your results, knowing you’ve given you very best efforts.
- Progress rather than Perfection– While it is good to set extraordinary goals, it is equally good to perform everyday tasks in an extraordinary way— focusing on being complete and comprehensive. You will also find that small accomplishments build on one another in a way that allows extraordinary achievements to occur over time. Ask yourself, “what small step can I take right now that moves me toward this large goal I’ve set for myself?”
- Take Clear Actions— Similarly, Act!. Don’t worry if every step is not mapped out. Don’t worry if problems can be seen lingering on the horizon. Take clear and intentional action toward your goals understanding most perceived problems will either disappear before you encounter them and the rest you will find are quite manageable as your strengths and confidence build together over time.
- Tune Into What is Positive— Negative thinking robs you of the enjoyment of life and is generally learned behavior. It tends to attract others with similarly negative vibes and turns away those with brighter outlooks. An optimistic worldview assumes good things will come your way and attracts others with similarly positive outlooks. Surrounded by others who are hopeful about their circumstances reinforces your reservoir of hope and will carry you through trying times. Even when negative thinking overcomes you, ask yourself, “what do I know to be positive in my experience in all this?” There will be positive elements in each set of circumstances that you can make your point of reference.
- Keep Perspective— When you don’t know the future, do you fill in the blanks with the worst possible scenarios? Do you then shy away from moving forward– toward an event or situation? Even when facing very painful events, try to consider the stressful situation in a broader context, and keep a long-term view of things. See where the situation fits into the larger picture of your life and ambitions.
- Be Kind to Yourself— Have a healthy and realistic view of yourself and your abilities and limitations. Don’t overstate your strengths, gifts and talents. Also, don’t overstate your weaknesses, faults, and shortcomings. Relax your grip on self-perceptions that were given to you by others and those perceptions will relax their grip on you. Have confidence in your personal power, value and worth as a person.
- Grow Yourself— Life is a process and you are a work in progress rather than a finished product. While we languish or even stagnate in our successes, we seem to actually grow stronger in unexpected ways after struggling through adversity or loss. Challenging events grow stronger relationships, a greater sense of personal strength and purpose, and deep feelings of self-worth and value, often adding to the dimension of depth and meaning in our spirituality and love of life.
Resiliency is a critical element of maturity. The ability to live life on life’s terms and to bounce back from adversity lies at the heart of personal resiliency. Like muscle memory, this ability increases with focus and effort and requires training and practice. Behavioral strategies that can help keep you grounded as you deal with the stresses and uncertainties of living include:
- Taking initiative in dealing with your problems and meeting the challenges of daily living.
- Getting support and encouragement from those committed to your health, happiness and well-being.
- Asking for help from others when you are at an impasse and investing in yourself by working with appropriate professionals to accomplish your long term objectives.
Professional Recovery Coaching allows you to explore, evaluate and transform your life’s master narrative. As a Recovery Coach, I will walk with you in the wilderness of your life story, help you recognize the voices of impulsivity and develop change-strategies appropriate to your personal long term recovery objectives.
I thank you for visiting my site today and hope to hear from you. I can be reached through this site or you can call me at (530) 515-5198 for a FREE, NO OBLIGATION, 100% CONFIDENTIAL Recovery Coaching Session.