Events seem to be unfolding at an ever-increasing pace, with little time to rest and catch my breath. This past week I have experienced a roller coaster of ups and downs that have taxed my psychological flexibility. Between the continually rising death toll from COVID, and the on-going stress of the economic downturn, there is little relief from bad news. Continued disillusion with what has historically been coordinated action on behalf of our government to support and supply citizens has all but ceased. Family and friends are hunkering down and establishing battle lines between those who support changing the status quo and those who want to defend and resurrect a mythical time of yore. It almost seems to be heartless to be optimistic!
And yet I am.
Let me be clear. I do not hold out for some miracle that will save us from COVID. I do not hold out for some messianic intervention that will heal our racial wounds and bring us together. As a matter of fact, I see us continuing on a downward trend economically, socially, and racially for the next few years. We are too far over the cliff to stop us from falling to the bottom, but the bottom is what we must reach before we can turn things around.
In working with individuals who have substance abuse issues, this has been one of the benchmarks of recovery. While it has been debated whether interventions can ease the fall or even prevent it, it acknowledges that there comes a point where the confluence of awareness of the problem, a desire to change behavior, and a plan for implementing that change is created. What is essential, I believe for these to result in lasting change is a fourth factor that is harder to describe, but is key to successful recovery – grace. And grace is what we need at this point in our journeys.
Anne Wilson Schaef, a clinical psychologist and nationally-renown expert on addiction, wrote a seminal book back in 1987, “When Society Becomes an Addict”. Sadly, Dr. Schaef passed away earlier this year. But her legacy lives on.
In this book she points out not only how easily how many of us succumb to addictions to substances, but also how others in our family systems, and larger social systems develop co-dependence resulting in the perpetuation of the addiction throughout the family and larger community.
According to Schaef, “The Addictive System invites us to be co-dependents, to refuse to see people and things as they are. In doing so we are fundamentally disrespectful of them. It is only when people are seen as they are that they can accept and honor and take responsibility for themselves. It is only when they own who they are that they have the option of becoming something else.” (p. 41).
In When Society Becomes an Addict, she outlines just how our tendency toward co-dependence results in abdicating our personal power and how that is mirrored in our social institutions. What the addict has to do is reclaim that personal power from an honest appraisal of themselves rather than from a people-pleasing one and find healthier ways to integrate that in his or her life.
We have become addicted to our prosperity. We have become addicted to predictability. We have been blessed to live in times where, broadly speaking, most people on this planet have access to water, shelter, and some form of healthcare. Those of us who live in western, industrialized nations are particularly addicted to prosperity and predictability. Those who do not, are nonetheless, influenced by the promise that such magical substances offer.
Please do not condemn me for ignoring the suffering of so many. I cannot ignore them, because in their suffering I see my own. It is a false compromise to take the suffering of others as an excuse to ignore our own dependence on having them suffer in order for us to feel good about ourselves. I do mean to draw us from the distraction of the suffering of others to face the harsh reality of our own addictions.
We are living in a perfect storm of threat to our very survival. Our government is beyond corrupt, our infrastructure is riddled with gaps, our communities are torn asunder by racial divides and economic disparity, we are in a forced isolation due to a virus we cannot see and cannot control, and our climate is changing at a pace that may not be reversible.
On the one hand, this is not an optimal situation to implement change. As a matter of fact, many of us are stuck in “freeze” mode. To differing degrees we have our heads stuck in the sand. Those who are willing to sit and wait it out because their 401K is doing well will be very shocked when they find that their account has been emptied. Those who are waiting for the Second Coming will find themselves deflated when the man behind the curtain is revealed to be a huckster from Kansas. Those who are waiting to be told what to do, will find themselves being herded into situations that are unfamiliar and sadly, for many, ending in ignominy.
We can only ever hold ourselves to be accountable. That is the reckoning that must be faced with addiction. It is the first of the 12-Steps: We admitted we were powerless over our addiction – that our lives had become unmanageable. Once we do that, we can take action.
What action will you take today? Take stock of those things that have power over you. Are they fear-based? For example, are you afraid of going outside because of COVID? Are you afraid of not being able to pay your bills because you have been furloughed? Are you afraid for your safety because you are expecting Antifa or QAnon to take over your community?
If fear has power over you, you need to ground yourself in your present reality. Fear takes us out of the present and puts us into an imagined future that may or may not come true. Staying in the present moment, climbing the mountain one step at a time, scrupulously sticking to a routine that is healthy and supportive, just for today, will help decrease the power that fear has over you.
As Schaef instructs, “Naming our reality is essential to recovery . . . Once we name something, we own it. Once we own it, it becomes ours, as does the power we formerly relinquished to it. Once we reclaim that personal power, we can begin to recover. . . Remember, to name the system as addict is not to condemn it: it is to offer the possibility of recovery.” (p. 165).
There is no denying that our world is changing. We can embrace that change and take advantage of the momentum it brings with it, or we can stay frozen and experience the consequences of inaction. As an elder, I know that I have experience and wisdom that can make a difference in my community. I am emboldened and am now seeking opportunities to share my wisdom and experience with others. I encourage each of you to do the same.