Of course they do. The “bad habit” they want to change exists for a reason. Remove the bad habit and they’re faced with the reason. If that reason is big enough, or difficult enough, or scary enough, it’s right back to the habit. It’s just simpler that way; it’s just easier.
That’s why we carry our bad habits around with us, our addictions to drugs, alcohol, food, sex, gambling, the Internet. Unless our circumstances become dire there is no incentive to change.
Twenty years ago I read a book by science-writer John McPhee entitled The Control of Nature. In that book McPhee outlines the levee system in New Orleans and how, if the circumstances were just right, the entire city would be inundated with water. This book was written sixteen years before Hurricane Katrina hit and featured experts from the Army Corp of Engineers who knew the potential for destruction.
Humans don’t change unless we have to change. We’re very utilitarian that way. The only difference between animals and us in this regard is that we have an observing ego that allows us to witness what we are going through as we are in it. Either God has a wicked sense of humor or God has endowed us with a unique gift.
I choose to think that God has endowed us with a unique gift. The trouble is, instead of witnessing what we are going through and making sense out of it our brains often defend against the scarier aspects of our lives by indulging in drugs, alcohol, food, sex, gambling, or the Internet.
Change requires that we look at what we are going through. Change requires that we make sense out of it. And this brings me back to the point I made earlier regarding the most crucial stage of change and why people bug out when they reach it.
The Matrix Institute is a Los Angeles-based drug and alcohol treatment program endorsed by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Its program is centered on helping addicted clients work through five major stages of recovery:
1) Withdrawal Stage (Day 1 – Day 15)
2) Honeymoon Stage (Day 15 – Day 45)
3) The Wall (Day 45 – Day 120)
4) Adjustment Stage (Day 120 – Day 180)
5) Resolution Stage (Day 180 – 1 year or more)
In reading this post you may be thinking, “Sure, I have a ‘bad habit’ but I’m not a drug addict or alcoholic.” Call it what you will, but if you can’t shake a bad habit that has been dogging you for years, change is change is change. The habit developed for a reason. Whether you’re trying to overcome an addiction to heroin or pornography the self-medication is masking a deeper suffering and requires the same steps to get out of it.
While all five of these stages are important for recovery, it is primarily the third stage, “The Wall,” with which this post is concerned. “The Wall” is “The Wall” because when we strive for change we often don’t realize that our addictions aren’t about behavior modification; they are about life modification. Who wants to change their whole life, especially when one has little idea of into what it’s supposed to be changed?
The Wall is preceded by the Withdrawal and Honeymoon Stages. In the Withdrawal Stage individuals who have stopped using a substance of abuse, including pornography, neurochemically readjust. As is the case with all addictions, addicts keep using their substance of abuse not necessarily because they get that much of a rush off of it anymore but because they have become so used to a certain level of neurological stimulation that just to feel normal requires the continued use of the substance. It is in the Honeymoon Stage where men and women who have pushed through withdrawal often think to themselves, “I feel better! I can do this! Maybe I can actually be sober!”
But for many the cravings come back. Exposure to the substance of abuse or, more commonly, experiencing stressful situations, triggers a desire to return to that which “made it all go away.” If relapse doesn’t occur – which is the goal of change after all – the recovering addict enters into The Wall stage. Here it becomes evident that change requires a bit more than just rearranging the same old furniture in the same old house; it’s about getting rid of the same old furniture and maybe even getting rid of the same old house. The old life doesn’t work and change requires a new one.
The Wall is the Wall because of what is written in posts Change, Part I and Change, Part II. In addiction, the unconscious mind is caught between two perceived realities – the discomfort or shame of feeling like we have to be someone other than who we are in order to stay connected to important people from our childhood and the fear that if we psychologically free ourselves from these people we’ll disconnect, “float off,” or suffer annihilation.
In The Wall stage a choice needs to be made – either remain in a psychological prison or set ourselves free to live our own lives. The trouble is, many of us don’t know what our own lives are. We were never given the chance to explore our own abilities, talents, or emotions.
We were too busy focusing on meeting the needs of others that we didn’t learn how to meet our own needs.
A basic tenant of Christianity is that we are “born again” once we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. I believe this. But ultimately we are “born again” every single moment of our lives when we chose to trust the guidance and provision of God instead of the guidance and provision of people who require that we be someone other than who we are in order to receive their love.
Being born again means we have a new life. There is nothing new about allowing other people’s perceptions of us to dictate our emotions.
I have seen many men and women hit The Wall in their recovery. Actually, I haven’t always seen it, as a basic component of The Wall is isolation. Frequently, when men and women hit The Wall they stop coming to group meetings. They stop responding to emails. They drop out of community. I only find out later that they had returned to their addiction.
Men and women who make it through The Wall have at least one of the following things going for them: 1) The suffering caused by their past behavior is so great it’s better to move forward than to go back; 2) They have an overwhelming resource of unconditional love in their new life to off-set the conditional love of the past; or 3) They’re stuck in a physical location where they have no choice but to change.
Leaders and therapists have nothing to do with the first of these items. People have different motivations for change and different circumstances that require it. Leaders in particular have everything to do with the second item. As long as leaders have a key to a room that they can unlock and open for the creation of unconditionally loving community men and women can be “born again.” And while therapists don’t necessarily create the conditions for the last item – commonly referred to as rehab – they are instrumental in guiding recovering men and women into their new selves.
Currently I work in a residential addiction rehab. I have seen it many times. Somewhere between two and three months of sobriety clients become irritable. Without their substance of abuse, including pornography, anonymous sex, prostitutes, or masturbation, they have to feel their feelings, experience their emotions, and manage both. They are forced to deal with life on life’s terms and they can’t escape. Oh, they try. They try anything. They curse the system. They curse me. They say they are cured. They say they are better off on the outside where no one bothers them with stupid rules.
But eventually the thrashing and writhing settles down. They are no longer at war with the demons in their heads and they can start to accept them and, more importantly, let them go. They can start to sever the psychological ties between themselves and conditionally loving people of their past. They discover that it is much better to learn to simply be than to be in a constant state of siege. This is where they learn to rely on a Power Greater Than Themselves. This is where they are “born again.”
I often think, in regard to the men and women who come to addiction support groups in church settings, what it would be like for them if they were in rehab, if they couldn’t run when things got too painful, if they couldn’t rely on 21st century distractions when they had to sit with themselves, if they were required to look at their suffering when it was laid bare.
Well, I know what would happen. Their defense mechanisms, including addictions, would die the death they deserve to die and they would need to rely on a loving and gracious God, and a community that mirrors this love and grace, to make sense out of their life experience. Most importantly, they would discover that this God is faithful and that everything not only will be OK, but it will be just as it is supposed to be.
Part of what I am describing now is the Adjustment and Resolution Stages of recovery where people discover that change isn’t necessarily as scary as the unconscious thought. As it turns out, when we change we discover our true selves, not the opposite. And that’s why it is so scary to change. For people who had parents and caregivers who didn’t help them discover themselves and instead focused on their own needs over the child’s they learned that being attuned to how other people experience life is more important than being attuned to how they experience life. As we push through The Wall we discover that we don’t drift off when we psychologically let these people go, but instead discover that we can be grounded in ourselves, our true selves.
If you are reading this post and you have a “habit” you desperately want to change please remember that this is an inside job that requires outside support. Find supportive, loving community; go sober; approach “The Wall” and know that the most exciting journey you could possibly go on isn’t to the Arctic, the Amazon, or Outer Space but instead is into the freedom that exists when we detach from the expectations of others and begin to embrace our own expectations as offered to us by the God of an infinite future.