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Thumb-Thing Wrong: Recovery Reveals What We Never Learned

Thumb-Thing Wrong: Recovery Reveals What We Never Learned

As we know, an eating disorder can often be accompanied with other disorders. Today, we tell a story of a woman struggling with addiction in addition to her eating disorder. 

“I’m 25 days clean!,” Brenda proudly proclaims. “But I notice I am getting so irritable. Yesterday I was Miss Road Rage on the way home from work. And I almost wanted to slug somebody when I saw the office coffee pot was empty this morning. What’s going on?!”

Any unhealthy habit or addiction represents a good habit never learned, a healthy attitude or coping strategy not yet adopted. It represents insufficient self-control, some kind of delayed maturation, some missing skills.

When a child continues to suck their thumb after a certain age, we see it as immature. We expect them to learn to soothe themselves in a more grown up way, and the longer they indulge in it, the longer they don’t learn anything better.

Development on Hold

So it is with any compulsive behavior or addiction. Once we adopt these as coping mechanisms for unwanted feelings or situations, we don’t learn healthier ways. Some aspect of maturation stops at that point. That means that when we try to stop our habit, we have to restart the learning process from where we left off.

In other words, if we are 30 years old and we started our habit at age 15, then there is some part of us stuck at age 15 still. There are certain basic things we have never learned, a certain growth that has never taken place.

That’s why, without our habit, we may find ourselves whining like a teenager in stressful circumstances. We fly off the handle over an inconvenience. We have zero patience. Everyone is annoying. We want to go off and sulk somewhere. It is can be mystifying and embarrassing, but this is to be expected.As we stop our habit, we have to restart the learning process from where we left off.

Learning Skills

There is no shortcut around this, though. We still just have to learn whatever we never learned back then.

And that brings us to those skill deficits. Not only have we not learned certain kinds of self control, we also have not learned proper self care and how to manage situations. 

A​nything that serves as a drug is a substitute for good healthy habits. Think overuse of coffee as a substitute for good sleep habits. Drinking alcohol to unwind instead of learning real relaxation skills.

So the person with the unhealthy habit usually has to learn to care for themselves in some way—emotionally, mentally, physically, socially, spiritually.

To do this, we have to learn certain skills—stress release, caring for others, managing anger, recovering from hurts, forgiveness of grievances, making friends, assertiveness, conflict resolution, and so on. That may sound intimidating, but you can tackle them bit by bit and make solid progress, especially with the help of a mentor, coach or counselor.

This is why these kinds of healthy habits are things that we need to learn at the same time as we wean ourselves (oops, no pun intended!) off our unhealthy dependence on our habit. It makes our freedom and recovery truly sustainable.

Written by John R. Williams, MA LMHC, Mental Health Therapist for The Center • A Place of HOPE. John seeks to not only empower individuals to find peace and fulfillment, but also establish warm and strong relationships. Located on the Puget Sound in Edmonds, Washington, The Center creates individualized programs to treat behavioral and mental health issues, including eating disorders, addiction, depression, anxiety, and more.

Can Marriage Be Better Now Than Before a Crisis?

Can Marriage Be Better Now Than Before a Crisis?

One of my clients had had his marriage blow up in his face only months before. His pornography habit had been discovered yet again–after repeated promises of “I’m quitting now”–and his wife was so fed up she had left the house for a week. (It could just as easily been any other bad habit or addiction that had been kept secret.)

When he had contacted me, he was desperate to save his marriage and family.

Now I asked him, how would you rate things at home these days, as compared to before that phone call asking for help? On a scale of 1-100%, how much of the former warmth, closeness and romantic connection has been restored?

“More than 100%,” was his surprising answer. “Really?,” I asked. “How could that be?”

Before the crisis, he told me, his porn habit had blocked his wholehearted connection to his wife. He had been dishonest, hiding, guilt-ridden and preoccupied mentally, emotionally and sexually with hundreds of digital women. ​

His disconnection from his wife had not only left her feeling abandoned, even if she could not know why. It had also left him lonelier and emptier, and drained the relationship of vitality. 

There had been a “third party” in the marriage—as there always is when there is a compulsion or addiction—and this parasite was damaging both of them, and the marriage too.

Free to Invest

Now he was more present, involved, attuned to his wife, and both of them were reaping the benefits. (His daughter was getting more of his investment, as well, to their mutual joy.) ​

He could give of himself freely, unconstrained by secrecy and distraction. “I can just be myself,” he said, without worrying about managing his habit and the lies that conceal it. And he was thoroughly enjoying being with his best friend and lover again, enjoying that affection and intimacy that only partners sharing everything in their lives can know.

Of course, there are good reasons to find this hard to understand. Let’s compare the marriage to a bank account. Loving investments represent deposits and selfish actions represent withdrawals. Certainly, the betrayal involved in the porn habit and the deceptions was like a huge withdrawal—wiping out what had taken years to accumulate. How could that be reversed in a matter of months?

Fortunately, there had been enough “funds” accumulated in the marriage account—warm memories, goodwill, shared commitments—that this incident did not wipe them out immediately and prompt his wife to leave him. Still, he had known emotional resources were very low and if he did not shore up the account somehow and fast, he was afraid it would quickly run into the red.

Now he was saying that not only had they managed to restore the former “assets” in their marriage, but they actually increased them! 

New Priorities

This is because the crisis had caused him to reprioritize his wife and child, so that he was investing quality time on a regular basis. It had also forced them both to have frank discussions where they shared their deepest fears and concerns, and bared their hearts to each other.

I’m guessing that it probably also shook up the couple’s former pattern of over-focusing on parenting and living parallel lives. It got them back to focusing on each other (which is best for the child, too).

How did he do it? When I say he had come to me desperate, it is important to note he was also determined. He had told me how he had quit smoking before and he would do the same with this bad habit. He challenged himself and it mobilized his competitive spirit. He firmly set his intention—“No failure this time.”

He enlisted my aid. He did his recovery work. He brought his home office downstairs into the public area, so he would no longer be isolated and tempted. He would feel the presence of his wife and daughter and remind himself of who and what he really loved. 

Paying Off

And he gave his time and energy to his family. They became his stress relief, his entertainment, his excitement, to replace his unhealthy habit. And it was paying off.

Is he doing everything perfectly? No. Is he immune to a possible relapse? No. Is it guaranteed he will not have any more painful and tense moments with his wife? No. Was everything in the marriage stronger than before? No, he conceded. 

The trust is far from where it had been. He knew it will take time to rebuild that after he had broken his promises repeatedly. He has to prove himself reliable and clean for many months before she can realistically fully let down her guard.

But he has never been happier in his marriage, and they are well on their way to more than fully healing their relationship.

And I have seen other couples like his, where both the partners say that though they could never have wished for such a terrible crisis, their marriage is much improved. And they have grown immensely as individuals.

Therapist Robert Weiss expresses this hope well in the case of infidelity:

“You may not believe this, given the current state of your relationship, but in time, if you sincerely follow the [right steps], your relationship with your spouse can and will be better than ever.

“No, it will not look or feel the way it did before you cheated or while you were cheating, but that is a good thing, not a bad thing.

“​When you become an open book with your mate, behaving in trustworthy, rigorously honest ways in all facets of your life, you become much more intimate and emotionally connected.”

From “Out of the Doghouse: A Step by Step Relationship-Saving Guide for Men Caught Cheating.”

And so, it can be better than before.

Written by John R. Williams, MA LMHC, Mental Health Therapist for The Center • A Place of HOPE. John seeks to not only empower individuals to find peace and fulfillment, but also establish warm and strong relationships. Located on the Puget Sound in Edmonds, Washington, The Center creates individualized programs to treat behavioral and mental health issues, including eating disorders, addiction, depression, anxiety, and more. 

Break the Addiction Cycle

Break the Addiction Cycle

Addiction Cycle SchematicDo you ever sit reading your phone, reach for that second cookie and then sit baffled and disappointed when you discover it’s gone? You don’t remember eating it! You were acting on automatic pilot. 

Something similar is true with any bad habit or addiction. Whether it is smoking, drinking, sex, drugs or any other, when we give in to compulsions, at some point we are on automatic pilot and in a kind of trance. It can seem like it “just happened,” or as is often said about a questionable romantic liaison, “one thing just led to another.” But on closer inspection, succumbing to a bad habit has a certain repetitive pattern, called the addiction cycle. 

When we understand how temptation and indulging the habit work, it becomes less mysterious. ​With this insight into the process, we can better figure out how the pattern plays out for us and how to interrupt it before we act upon our urges.

Feelings and Triggers

To start, the stage is set for the addiction cycle by having unwanted feelings: Anxiety, anger, sadness, shame, loneliness, emptiness, etc. Or just boredom.

We may not fully recognize that these feelings are even there, let alone know where they came from. Sometimes we act on our habit to head them off before they even fully arrive. For example, some people are constantly overworking and using other tactics to run from sadness because they find it so threatening to admit.

Next, after some unwanted feelings come up, we encounter “triggers” that make us think of our habit. These triggers are sights, sounds, smells or other sensations that lead to memories of good times and comfort through our habit. Another common definition of triggers is “people, places, and things” that prompt a craving for the activity or substance.

With alcohol, this could be hearing a certain song from drinking days in college. With opioid abuse, it could be just the sight of a certain neighborhood where she meets suppliers. Likewise, with eating problems, it could simply be catching a glimpse of ourselves in the mirror. 

After the unwanted feelings and then the triggers, a person may enter into the Addiction Cycle. You can draw a circle among three elements.

  1. Fantasy

First come fantasizing and preoccupation with the pleasurable thought of engaging in the habit. ​Memories of past indulgences can run like a video in the background as you do other things. These memories, of course, have all the discomfort and bad consequences carefully edited out.

  1. Rituals

Next comes the preparatory rituals. These are the things we set up to engage in the habit.

These rituals can be simple and brief, or elaborate and take quite a long time. They can unconscious, and elements can seem unimportant until you see they are all part of the picture of getting to the goal of indulging the addiction. 

There might be the arrangements for being alone, such as staying up late. There is the collection of necessary elements, sometimes half concealed even from ourselves. The alcoholic tells himself she is “just getting wine for my tomato sauce.” The pornography addict is “just checking email.”

Surprisingly, this preparation is a huge part of the desired effect. Think of the preparatory rituals you might go through with a harmless pleasure like enjoying a favorite meal. Maybe you look for a recipe online, and then shop for the ingredients. Or you look for a good restaurant. In either case, anticipation is half the pleasure.

  1. Acting out

This leads to the third stage, surrendering to the urge, what those in recovery call “acting out.” Sometimes this can be quick, as with smoking cocaine. Sometimes it can be a long drawn out process, as with porn users who spend hours looking for the perfect image. In any event, it ends with the moment of comfort and pleasure, or at least relief. 

  1. Numbing

After indulging, the addict tends to push down any mixed feelings, any misgivings about what they have done. Any inner conflict is resolved for now: “I got relief. It’s over. No need to think anymore about it.” 

  1. Discomfort

Gradually, though, uncomfortable feelings come. Maybe it is guilt and shame over our inability to stop the habit. Or disgust over the waste of time, or betrayal of our values. The hollow sense that what we just did was empty of meaning or real satisfaction.

At the very least, the stress or other  unwanted feelings we wanted to escape inevitably come back. And so we are set up to re-triggered back into the cycle again.

The only way we can stop such a habit is to get out of the cycle before we indulge. That means we can: Disrupt the Cycle

  1. Avoid triggers. That’s why we distance ourselves from friends who encourage our habit, and a host of other tactics.
  2. Notice the unwanted feelings at the outset and doing something constructive to move out of them. This is obviously the healthiest choice and can be learned. Similarly, we can also get support to heal any underlying emotional pain that might be driving these feelings. 

Or we can notice we are triggered and reach out for contact with someone helpful or do something else until the urge goes away. Again, a great and healthy choice.

3. Notice we are preoccupied and fantasizing, and nip that in the bud. As before, this is easier if we talk to someone. 

4. Finally, and this is late, we can admit we are getting into our rituals and decide to stop. We can put on the brakes especially if we connect to someone and get pulled out of our routine.

Realistically, the best way to break the cycle is to work with someone to learn about your own behavior and strategize how to disrupt the habits. And end the secrecy by having someone hold you accountable.

Getting support for your self-control helps you regain your self-respect and freedom from an unhealthy habit or addiction. 

Written by John R. Williams, MA LMHC, Mental Health Therapist for The Center • A Place of HOPE. John seeks to not only empower individuals to find peace and fulfillment, but also establish warm and strong relationships. Located on the Puget Sound in Edmonds, Washington, The Center creates individualized programs to treat behavioral and mental health issues, including eating disorders, addiction, depression, anxiety, and more.