“Holiday Recipes for Relapse & Recovery” by Forest Benedict, MA, SATP-C, LifeSTAR of the Central Valley

Helpful reminders as we celebrate another holiday.

LifeSTAR Central Valley Blog

The holidays can be a challenging time for all of us, especially those in recovery. An increase in sugary, fatty foods, plus a decrease in structure, combined with a mixture of family chaos, can quickly become a recipe for relapse. Despite the many challenges of sustaining recovery in this season, there are essential strategies that will help you maintain momentum and enjoy the peace and joy that may be possible throughout the holidays. Here are 5 ingredients that will not only help you avoid relapse but also lead you through a more enjoyable holiday experience that moves your recovery progress forward.

                                                             Recipe for Recovery

  1. Remain committed. Remember, while you may be on vacation from your work responsibilities, you are not on vacation from your values or your recovery work. Maintain your “Dailies” and self-care, so that you can stay on track emotionally, mentally, physically, and…

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Spiritual Detox

“Behold, I am making all things new.” – Revelation 21:5

My child, I am doing a healing work in you. Let the warmth of my healing seep into your bones. Let the toxins of shame and resentment and sin excrete through your pores. Let the detoxing begin, as my waters flush out the grime that has clung to your soul through these years. Let me flush your system. Then, let me start afresh.

“Competing Comforts: Sin vs God” by Forest Benedict, MA, SATP-C

The other day when I was out doing my early morning workout, I had an unexpected visitor. As I sweated through a pushup routine back behind the abandoned baseball field, I was surprised by the immediate presence of a squirrel-size, red-haired dog. As I reached out to pet the dog, I found him to be friendly, yet scared. Lacking tags or a nearby owner, I wondered if he might come home with me, at least temporarily. I picked up the little dog and held him securely in my arms, his tiny frame shivering with anxiety. He trusted me enough to carry him, yet continued to shake. I held him near my chest, whispering words of comfort to him.

Thankfully, walking in the right direction led to his caretaker finding him. As I left the experience, that picture lingered in my mind. I thought about how we so often quake with panic and how God truly is waiting and wanting to pick us up and hold us until the quivering fades. I wonder if that’s what God envisioned when he inspired 1 John 4:18, sharing the reassuring words “perfect love drives out fear”. I imagine God reminding us that his perfect love embraces us as our trembling dissolves. Psalm 32:10 echoes the similar sentiment that “the Lord’s unfailing love surrounds the one who trusts in him”.

Yet, even though many of us believe God is love and He cares, we so often run to other forms of comfort when we are unstable within. Like Peter, we are so quick to deny the One we serve when the pressure mounts. We experience a range of uncomfortable emotions and look for stability in any number of addictive distractions. Yet, how many times have we realized after our escape into sin that what we’ve done is reject the One we love. As Peter did when the rooster crowed, we too may awaken from our rebellious escapades and weep bitterly (Luke 22:62). We return to God afterwards, but what opportunity for comfort did we miss that will never be recovered?

The Great Competition

With all of this in mind, I want to offer an alternate perspective on sin. In the work I do as a therapist, particularly in the area of addiction, the model that guides my work is attachment theory. In working with couples, I’ve learned it is impossible for them to foster deep connection when an addiction is active in the relationship because the addiction becomes a “competing” attachment. Relating to sexual addiction, Reid & Woolley (2006) explain this concept this way:

“Hypersexual behavior typically robs the relationship of the emotional energy of at least one partner. The deception, guilt, and shame that accompany hypersexuality distract from accessibility and responsiveness. Additionally, the attention devoted to the hypersexual behavior reduces commitment and time that could have been devoted to the relationship. Hypersexual behavior can become a type of competing attachment in which the person engages in hypersexual behavior to be soothed or feel safe or important rather than finding safety, soothing, and validation in the primary relationship.”

Can you see how sin is a competing attachment with our active relationship with God? Wherever we go for comfort in times of anguish is where we connect. When we connect with sin through an experience that numbs our inner turmoil, we no longer need God for that and we miss opportunities of meaningful connection. When we look to sin to provide “safety, soothing, and validation”, how can we experience those from God? It is not that God is withholding them from us, it’s that we are choosing to get those needs met from somewhere else. This weakens our attachments with both God and others whom we love. Sadly, when we look to food, pornography, drugs, alcohol, and other addictive substances or experiences, we find ourselves spent and thirsty, never satisfied. That is the tragedy of sin.

No wonder the Scriptures speak of God’s jealousy. In choosing sin, we actively disown God, to our own destruction. Like the committed Lover who wants to embrace us in our pain, God’s heart breaks as we choose another. We miss the peace and security of being held. And God misses being the One who holds us. His perfect love does not calm our fears because we do not choose to let it.

God’s Refuge 

One day as I sat with God, he brought me through some powerfully vivid imagery that deeply reflected this concept of sin being a competing attachment. I sensed God saying to me:

“Do not run for cover in another shelter. The sin shelter feels safe and warm but is full of darkness and shame. The sugar shelter takes the edge off your pain but it will crash down on you quickly. Only my shelter is stable and protects you from the pounding rain outside. Trust that I am available. My ears are open. I have a warm fire waiting for you. I have a hot cup of tea, to bring comfort. My presence is available, my ears and arms are open. Let me wrap you in my blanket of love. Let me rock you and hold you, whispering into your ear, “it’s going to be okay. Daddy is here.” Don’t leave this shelter. Stay in My arms. Trust my arms. Listen only to my voice. Evil surrounds this shelter, chanting its lies. But tune them out. Tune out the voice that calls you away from me, that siren song. Let me envelop you with the warmth of my love. I am enough, my grace is enough. I do not hold you to the guilt of your sin. I am just so grateful you are here with me.”

Doesn’t that picture communicate volumes about God’s availability and desire to connect with us? Similarly, this attitude toward us is reflected in Jesus’ invitation: “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). God wants to be our rock, our refuge. The band All Sons & Daughters describe it this way:

“Lay Your peace
Like a blanket over me
And as I lay down to sleep
I will rest in You”

How would our lives change if we believed God related to us in this way? If we truly experienced God as our refuge when our circumstances grew dark, would that reality change our everyday lives? As we all recover from the trauma and sin that have plagued our lives, may we trust that God doesn’t just care from a distance but his love wraps around us like a warm blanket. And He will hold us steadfastly in those moments when fear permeates our souls. All we need do is turn to Him.

As long as we’re alive, we have an open invitation to rest in God. As we understand more fully the competition that is at work in our hearts and for our hearts, may be choose today to rest in God, allowing Him to soothe our weary souls.

“Steady My Heart”

Even when it hurts
Even when it’s hard
Even when it all just falls apart
I will run to You
‘Cause I know that You are
Lover of my soul
Healer of my scars
You steady my heart
And I will run to You
And find refuge in Your arms
And I will sing to You
‘Cause of everything You are

I’m not gonna worry
I know that you’ve got me
Right inside the palm of your hand

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=velIcnS-Agw

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Dr Kelly McGonigal – The Willpower Instinct

This is one of my favorite videos about change. Dr Kelly McGonigal (Standford) shares the science behind willpower. Learn simple interventions that help people maintain their goals. Learn how self-care (exercise, healthy eating, etc) strengthens your ability to make significant changes. Topics include addiction, self-compassion, & self-control. This is a great introduction to Kelly McGonigal (http://kellymcgonigal.com/) – who has excellent resources that are science based and promote change & recovery. Enjoy!

“The Procrastination Pit” by Forest Benedict, MA, SATP-C

Last night my family and I went out to celebrate a major milestone; the completion of a project that was years in the making. The nature of this so called “project” was unique. It was birthed four years ago, when I made one choice to procrastinate on a simple work-related task. As time ticked on, I made other seemingly small choices, adding to the increasing debt of future obligation. Repeated decisions to save for tomorrow the responsibilities of today dug me deeper into the soil of shame. Before long, I peered up from a dark, depressing procrastination pit. The climb out felt impossible, like I planted myself deep in my own grave.

If you haven’t experienced this kind of self-induced suffocation, the above description may sound over-exaggerated. Those of us with impossibly high standards are particularly vulnerable to falling down this rabbit hole. Throughout my life I have diligently held myself accountable for my choices. Sometimes it was integrity driven, but often it was shame-based perfectionism. As a child, this mentality led me to put myself in “time out”. Somewhere along the way I crafted the perception that turning myself in was necessary and all else was secretive. So when I found myself drifting away from perceived expectations with this recent project, my self-criticism increased, as if I assigned myself back to the adult time-out chair.

This shameful status left me immobilized. At times I would begin the long climb up the steep sides of that hole in the ground, only to hear remarks of “not good enough” ricocheting around those dismal caverns. Little did I know the echo’s origin was my own throat. Thoughts like “how could anyone get this far behind” were the chains restraining my feet from progressing forward. One time I pushed through an old report only to lose it in a computer failure. That felt like crashing back down against the cold earth. It was emotionally painful.

Was this unbearable load I created the result of laziness or something else? Like the many addicts I work with, I wonder if some of it was the result of low frustration tolerance. Addiction can be fed by this mindset when someone chooses to avoid uncomfortable feelings at all costs, escaping into a substance or experience instead. When I think back to those days when my project was undone, even the thought of looking at it was uncomfortable. It reminded me of the seemingly intolerable feeling that the circumstances were out of my control.  So, procrastination became increasingly addicting. Why camp out in those agonizing feelings when I could mindlessly check Facebook or otherwise distract myself? How could I ever start moving forward unless I chose to either endure the difficult feelings or change my viewpoint on the entire effort?

Thankfully, I wasn’t destined to die in that pit. What felt impossible actually wasn’t. I’d like to share how that liberating change came about, for the benefit of those who find themselves in similar “pits” and challenges. These steps can help anyone who is battling deep shame, whether induced by procrastination, addiction, or something else. There were 6 “ladders” that made my ascent achievable. Here’s what they were:

1. Honesty

As I look back on my situation, one of the things that paralyzed me was the unspoken fear of facing my superiors. I knew I was not meeting their expectations and that added internal pressure to my situation. This lack of accountability made the procrastination habit easier to maintain but increased the feeling of shame. What would they think if they knew the truth? As a perfectionist, I did everything to avoid risking being perceived as weak.

Finally, I decided to tell others what I was experiencing and it made all the difference. On New Year’s Eve of 2013, one of the milestones I recorded was coming “clean” about my procrastination project. Despite my fears to the contrary, when I was honest about my situation, I was not condemned but was instead supported. Steps were recommended by others. A family member even offered financial support to help me make the time and hire an accountability Coach.

Honesty also decreased my shame. Telling others and having them communicate the message of “I’ve been there too” was extremely helpful. It decreased the belief that I was uniquely broken. Shame researcher Brene Brown writes about this dynamic:

“Shame derives its power from being unspeakable.  That’s why it loves perfectionists – it’s so easy to keep us quiet. If we cultivate enough awareness about shame to name it and speak to it, we’ve basically cut it off at the knees.  Shame hates having words wrapped around it.  If we speak shame, it begins to whither.”  Brene Brown, “Daring Greatly

Had I attempted to remain in a state of secrecy and isolation, trying to accomplish this task on my own, I imagine I would be clawing at the walls of that hole to this day. Being honest about my poor choices and the reality of my situation was humbling yet freeing. It helped me get the support I needed, which motivated me to start the “impossible” and continue until the task was accomplished.

2. Taking Responsibility

Catching myself with a victim mentality is always sobering. That was the truth of this situation as well. I was acting like a victim to my circumstances. While there were unlimited possibilities of what could be done, I chose to believe I was helpless. For example, I kept telling myself that I did not have time to do this project because my life was too busy. In reality, when I summoned the courage to move forward, time became irrelevant. I made the time! Focusing on the enormity of the situation instead of taking the next step was disabling. Accepting responsibility for where I was and where I was heading was liberating. Instead of saying “I can’t do anything”, the question became “what can I do?” But getting there was a process.

3. Counting the cost

Another reason that beginning my project was so difficult was because I had no idea how long it would take. My imagination created a terrifying enemy that left me paralyzed. The truth was much different. It turned out that my estimate of how long it would take was larger than reality. But I had no way of knowing what the reality was unless I surveyed the damage and predicted how long getting on track would take. Much like looking in the closet to see if the monster is inside, this step was scary. But once I calculated the number of hours I had ahead of me, I was relieved because I knew what to expect. Taking action meant my progress was measurable and visible. That was motivating.

With my new knowledge, I created weekly goals and documented the time I worked on my project. As I gradually subtracted those hours worked from my total estimated time, the finish line became more visible. I began more quickly climbing that ladder. The hope of finishing was materializing.

4. Recruiting Accountability

I found it helpful to hire a “coach” that would help me set realistic goals and report back about my progress. I also kept my superior updated about my progress. It was helpful for those close to me to know what I was committed to because as I made progress I had a team of people who celebrated with me. If I attempted this feat alone, I would’ve lost out on enjoying the support of my community. With their encouragement, I had a team cheering me on, which was so helpful.

5. Creating rewards

Another ladder out of the pit was setting up clear rewards. This helped me have something to look forward to beyond just finishing the project. I made sure they were rewards I would really look forward to as well as the resources to buy/accomplish them. Another form of reward I utilized was listening to music. In The Willpower Instinct, Dr Kelly McGonigal writes about pairing difficult projects with experiences that create dopamine, such as listening to enjoyable music. This technique helped the mundane tasks required for progress feel more pleasurable. Plowing through paperwork to the tune of my favorite movie soundtracks transformed the mundane into the pleasant.

6. Self-compassion

http://www.pinterest.com/pin/445293481879285369/

One of the most powerful tools I’ve learned about for combating shame is self-compassion. I have a theory that shame is 100% self-criticism. Self-compassion is the opposite of self-criticism and also the antidote. Growing up with a critical parent likely contributed to me internalizing that critical voice. However I acquired it, it certainly increased my tendency to procrastinate.

In her amazing audio course called The Neuroscience of Change, Dr McGonigal explains how self-compassion helps people make significant changes in their life. She writes about how people who are self-compassionate are “less likely to procrastinate…because if you’re very hard on yourself and you know that if you fail or if you don’t live up to your standards, you’re going to be mean to yourself and you’re going to be stressed out, anxious, and ashamed, it can be very difficult to get started. People who are more self-compassionate don’t have to worry that if they don’t do as well as they would like or if they struggle when they try, they don’t have to worry that they are going to have that punishment experience afterwards, so it’s a lot easier to get started.”

Dr McGonigal introduces the powerful tool called a “Self-Compassion Letter”. The path of self-compassion does not come easy for me but using this letter has helped me in times when I have felt unproductive, fighting the emerging shame head-on. The letter includes self-empathy, a common humanity message, self-kindness, and self-guidance. In the two letters I did that were related to my productivity, I reminded myself of the following things, related to the Common Humanity message:

“What you’re experiencing is entirely human. We all feel behind and like we’re not progressing. We all have times of slow progress and wish it could be faster. We all have days when we are less focused. These are all human experiences. It is also common to feel unproductive and to be hard on yourself – we all fall into those mindsets, especially when some of them have been with us for a long time.”

“Common Humanity” helps us realize we are not uniquely flawed, as shame would have us believe. Learning to speak to ourselves in self-compassionate ways disarms the shame that leaves us feeling helpless and hopeless. I highly recommend this ladder out of the procrastination pit. It disarms the shame, helping us begin to move forward again.

Concluding Thoughts

Now that this massive project has ended, I am realizing that my everyday choices affect my tomorrow. If I am not careful, I could fall back into the procrastination pit again or dig a new one. Fortunately, I now have the knowledge and tools to climb out more quickly. It is my hope that this new awareness will help me maintain a responsible attitude that will lead to a freer and more meaningful life. May this be your experience as well, as you ascend out of seemingly insurmountable circumstances, emerging into the light of day.

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“The Discomfort of Discipline” by Forest Benedict

Missteps are part of being human. We all make mistakes, choosing things that go against our own values and goals. Often we interpret these choices as “failures” and find it difficult to begin again. Even when we know we’ve left our path, why do we so often continue resisting changes we know will get us back on track and bless our life?

I wonder if part of our resistance to change is not wanting to endure the discomfort of discipline. We so often choose immediate gratification over long-term gain. The temporal over the eternal. Pleasure in this moment over purpose that endures. Like Esau (Genesis 25:34), who traded a bowl of soup when he was hungry for his inheritance, we too are so quick to relinquish the blessing of faithfulness for a momentary sense of relief.

For all of us, old habits and addictions die hard. Consistency and commitment will be essential as we rewire our brains to believe that the new behavior is natural. Nobody does this perfectly, so learning to start again as fast as possible will prove to be an essential skill. Faithfulness doesn’t mean we never fail but are willing to start again (and again), continuing to strive for the goals that bring meaning to our lives.

Think about it: What would God say to you after a misstep? After a “big failure”? Would he be mad or mean or harsh? Would he invite you back with open arms? I believe his words to us would be both compassionate and challenging. As if He’s reminding us, “I love you, I accept you, now are you ready to trust me?”

I wonder if God would remind us of something like this:

“Discipline is not easy and there will be a season of doing new things you don’t always want to do. But you can choose them anyway. Expect that uncomfortable time, when doing the right thing is hard and unnatural, to be part of this process of change.

Do you trust Me enough to do My will? Do you trust Me enough to listen to My voice and know that what I tell you to do comes from a loving place and will bring you life?

Do what is unnatural today, do what is right. Even when it feels awkward, do the things that will bring you life. Resist the urge to escape into what is easiest, into what brings the most pleasure in the moment. You will experience greater pleasure through obedience to Me.

Trust in me, despite your own understanding. Keep reminding yourself to trust in Me. That’s where you’ll find life and peace. Trusting in me.”

May we accept God’s compassion and learn to be compassionate with ourselves. May we learn from our missteps as they teach us how to walk on our path. May we endure discomfort now for the greater reward to come. May we all learn to trust God more as we move forward in the difficult yet rewarding work we were created to do.

“Trust God from the bottom of your heart;
don’t try to figure out everything on your own.
Listen for God’s voice in everything you do, everywhere you go;
he’s the one who will keep you on track.
Don’t assume that you know it all.
Run to God! Run from evil!
Your body will glow with health,
your very bones will vibrate with life!
Honor God with everything you own;
give him the first and the best.
Your barns will burst,
your wine vats will brim over.
But don’t, dear friend, resent God’s discipline;
don’t sulk under his loving correction.
It’s the child he loves that God corrects;
a father’s delight is behind all this.” (Proverbs 3:5-12, The Message)

“For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” (Hebrews 12:11)

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)

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Lust Poll

To some, lust may be considered a victimless choice. My theory is that although it may appear harmless, objectifying people through lust impacts them, us, and humanity negatively. I am using the term “lust” to mean “unwanted sexual desire expressed through intentionally looking at others for a period of time”. Please share your experience through the following poll. It is my hope that this poll will increase understanding, empathy, and connection for those who read it. Thanks for answering this question honestly, based on your experience.