Friends, when life gets really difficult, don’t jump to the conclusion that God isn’t on the job. Instead, be glad that you are in the very thick of what Christ experienced. This is a spiritual refining process, with glory just around the corner. (MSB)
– 1 Peter 4:12-13
If you’ve been in any of my recovery groups lately or read my posts, especially Stages of Recovery (Change), you are well aware of the concept of “The Wall.” “The Wall” is the third stage of recovery from substances of abuse. It looms after two to three months of sobriety. Many have approached “The Wall” but few have breached it.
I write that last sentence tongue-in-cheek. The term “The Wall” sounds so foreboding, like “Swim at Your Own Risk” or “Abandon hope, ye who enter here,” but the truth of the matter is “The Wall” is merely a term given to a concept. This stage could just as easily have been labeled “The Transition Point” or “The Shift,” something softer and more mundane. Yet for many “The Wall” feels exactly like a wall so it may as well be labeled as such.
Regardless of this fact, “we do well to choose our metaphors wisely” as spiritual leader Parker Palmer offers in his brief but profound book Let Your Life Speak, (p. 96). The language that we chose does more than just describe our life experiences; it determines them. If we use language like “wall,” “battle,” or “war” to describe what is essentially an emotional experience we run the risk of fomenting an internal struggle and begin to see change not as growth but as destruction.
This post isn’t about the language we use to describe our inner experiences, however. The next post will be. This post is about what is really going on within us as we approach and move past “The Wall.” My hope in these two posts is to demystify “The Wall” and if not aid you in breeching it then certainly help you in dissolving it so that it no longer exists.
Recently I was working with a client who has been addicted to sex, not to mention alcohol and drugs, for the majority of his life. Pornography was not his thing as much as anonymous sex and sex with prostitutes. This man had spent over forty years of his life managing his emotions through sexual fantasy, affairs, and booze. Fortunately, both physical and relational circumstances had cornered him to the point where he needed to change or else he would literally die. In essence, he was at rock bottom. At least I hoped he was.
I had spent six months with this man exploring his life and observing and reflecting the patterns of behavior he had developed as a means to protect himself from the messiness of human connection. In just the time I had spent with him I could see him dip in and out of defense mechanisms that would protect him from his fear of life – excessive humor, anger, hiding in his bed. The severity of each of these depended on how motivated he was to change on any given day.
But time was running out. For different reasons my client needed to leave treatment within a month. We only had this brief period to conclude the work we had started together. By his account he valued what we had achieved and wanted to get as much out of our relationship as possible. The point being, this client knew that if he were ever to change and salvage what was left of his life it was now or never.
I am a big proponent of Existential Therapy. The crux of Existential Therapy is that much of our lives are founded on illusions that we have created to protect us from harsh realities. Read the post Change, Part I and you will get a handle on some of this. Humans are wired for connection and when connection is blocked, for any reason, our unconscious creates illusions to trick us into thinking that we are connecting when in fact we are not. The younger you are when these illusions develop the stronger they may persist later in life.
The most obvious example of this, especially for our purposes, is pornography use. If we feel there is something inherently flawed about us that would prevent us from connecting with another human being – this being the very definition of shame – then our unconscious will rationalize using porn as a means of meeting the essential human need for connection. The harsh reality being, of course, that when we are using porn we are not connecting at all but are instead isolated, sitting on a cold, hard chair with our pants around our ankles masturbating to pixels representing other people having sex.
After six months of working with my client, and six months of making interpretations regarding the illusions my client had created and lived in throughout his six decades of life, I was no longer going to allow him to live in an unreality that would ultimately kill him. At his core, my client had felt unworthy of connection and as a result had compensated by unconsciously creating illusions that made him feel connected – earning large sums of money, often illegally, to impress the women with whom he would have sex; hiring prostitutes; trading drugs for sex with addicted women; and eventually drugging women in order to sleep with them.
I was blunt, never letting my client run back to the illusions he had created for himself in order to make himself feel connected, stressing the reality that these illusions had ironically cost him the very people who had genuinely cared for him in the first place including a wife, children, other family members, and friends. At one point my client looked directly at me, a rare occurrence for a man who had founded his entire existence on hiding. After a pause he implored, “If I don’t have these things, what do I have to live for?”
I could see my client was lost. I’ve seen this look before. I’ve even been there in my own life. My client was between what I term in my groups “White Knuckle Change” and “Real Change.” “White Knuckle Change” is change that doesn’t attend to the illusions we have unconsciously constructed in order to feel connected. It’s stopping the behavior without tending to the cause. Many of you may have experienced this kind of change. It’s “New Year’s Resolution Change” when you say enough is enough yet simple abstinence isn’t sufficient to make it beyond even seven days of sobriety.
“Real Change,” on the other hand, is changing behavior because you have located and dissolved the illusions that have artificially allowed you to feel connected. If the illusions are faced head on, the rest of your life changes on its own accord because your compulsive behavior has lost the purpose for which your unconscious had created it. Through honesty, the illusions no longer have any mooring and must float off into nothingness.
My client was staring straight into the face of “Real Change” and it scared the hell out of him. Why was this the case? Why have so many people come up against this moment – which is essentially “The Wall” – and returned to their old behavior again and again?
Because the essence of “Real Change” is the realization that portions, if not all, of the way you have structured your approach to life, either consciously or unconsciously, is false and something new must be born. Most people turn around at this point, thinking that the “devil” that they know is better than the “devil” that they don’t.
I knew my client was at a crucial moment in his recovery. I knew that if he were to transition from “White Knuckle Change” to “Real Change” it would require that he have an organizing principle that would act as his touchstone when life became overwhelming, when his core human need for connection felt blocked because of faulty self-beliefs and he wanted to run back to trading drugs for sex, having sex with prostitutes, and rendering women unconscious in order to take advantage of them. What was the key to the crucible that he had to enter into in order to begin leading a life free of illusions and open to the possibilities of his life as it existed?
Since a very young age my client had been deathly afraid of being vulnerable. This fear persisted throughout his life and cemented itself into the illusions he had created. His example is a profound one but we all struggle with this reality throughout our lives. We all struggle with vulnerability. We all enter this world vulnerable as hell and depending on how that vulnerability has been met – with conditional or unconditional love – will determine the severity of the illusions we have created in order to protect ourselves from the fear of disconnection.
To go from “White Knuckle Change” to “Real Change” requires that we travel through what I’m calling The Crucible of Vulnerability. To go from “White Knuckle Change” to “Real Change” requires that we are willing to risk letting go of the way we have organized our lives – usually through dishonesty and lies – in order to travel into new, uncharted territory founded on truth and honesty. This uncharted territory, this “Real Change,” by its very definition has no structure when you first enter into it. It’s a new way of living, a new way of organizing reality. To be willing to enter into “Real Change,” this new way of living requires a substantial amount of vulnerability.
A crucible is a ceramic container in which raw ore is heated to separate out valuable metals such as gold or silver. Our illusions are like raw ore. There is much of value inside them, chiefly a desire for human connection, but in order for the gold and silver of real human connection to be separated from the dross of illusions one must go through the refining process to see what is illusion and what is real, what is honesty and what is secrets and lies.
To what must we make ourselves vulnerable? Life itself. We must be willing to stand as we are and let life accept us as such. The people, institutions, or principles that value us as we are will continue to value us. Those that don’t will slough off like molted skin, especially when they realize they can’t get anything from us. This is the essence of vulnerability and what we must do on a daily basis in order to live authentic lives free of substances of abuse.
In the end, yes, we all need to learn how to be vulnerable to other people and trust that they will meet our vulnerability with love and compassion [and if they don’t we need to learn how to have boundaries with them so as to guard our hearts (Pro. 4:23)] but ultimately we must learn to be vulnerable to God. When we cling to our illusions of porn, anonymous sex, strip clubs, or prostitutes we fail to acknowledge that a Higher Power exists and that this Higher Power can do much more with our lives than we have managed to do for ourselves.
This point between “White Knuckle Change” and “Real Change,” this Crucible of Vulnerability, is where genuine faith lives. Our faith lives are not about checklists of appropriate behavior engineered by people today, 50 years ago, 500 years ago, or 2000 years ago. Our faith lives are about having the courage to let go of our dishonesty, start telling the truth about how we have structured our realities, see illusions for what they are and trust, trust, trust that God will deliver us to ourselves, our unique, one-of-a-kind selves that burn in our hearts.
I wrote in the post Fear that “we often don’t know what makes us fulfilled in life but we always know what makes us afraid.” In the end, what makes us all afraid is vulnerability. And, ironically, it is engaging in vulnerability that will ultimately lead to fulfillment. That is why pushing into our fears is the key to change. Pushing into our fears makes us vulnerable and vulnerability is what causes change.
The next time you feel triggered to engage in your illusions, your compulsive behavior with sex or otherwise, try to answer the following question – “To what am I afraid of making myself vulnerable?” The answer may surprise you. Instead of fighting the urge to use your substance of abuse – which is White Knuckle Change – head straight into your vulnerabilities. This is where Real Change lives. This is where the self that God created you to be exists.
For those looking for a recipe for this Crucible of Vulnerability, it looks like this:
- Stop engaging in your illusions, i.e. porn use, compulsive masturbation, anonymous sex, strip clubs visits, prostitutes.
- Find a safe group of men or women with whom you can be vulnerable, e.g. X3 Groups, Sex and Love Addict Anonymous, Sex Addicts Anonymous, or even Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon.
- Seek therapy.
- Start telling the truth about everything, everywhere. It’s a bit painful at first – because it exposes your shame – but eventually old behavior disappears in the light, and new behavior emerges.
- Stop living someone else’s idea of your life and start pursuing what God has put in your heart to pursue.
Good luck, and God speed…