Last year Dr. Dennis Charney, a resilience researcher and dean of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, was leaving a deli when he was shot by a disgruntled former employee. Dr. Charney spent five days in intensive care and faced a challenging recovery.
There are triggers and then there are roadblocks. I personally don’t know which are more damaging to me seeing that my triggers often become paralyzing moments indecision. Or worse. Naturally a trigger is something that sparks another action. Obviously in the world of addiction recovery, the word, ‘trigger,’ almost always has a negative connotation; a trigger often leads an addict down the wrong path.
A roadblock–an impenetrable thing standing in the way. In the world of coaching, self-help, and life-affirmation, a roadblock is often something negative that is then turned on it’s axis into something to be surmounted, something that can be overcome. Watch any Tony Robbins video of him helping someone with a life-altering roadblock in the way, and within minutes, whether you believe it contrived or not, the person has not only identified the roadblock, they’ve blown it to smithereens and are continuing on their journey.
What happens when your triggers are the roadblocks themselves? If you are someone like me with a well-developed sense of self-righteousness, my “I’ll show you” super-hero-powers can blow away almost all roadblocks in my way. My “I’ll show you” tied to my grandiosity tied to a sometimes over-zealous belief in a synchronistic, “The Secret” way of life can perform miracles or at least feats often seen by others as mind boggling. I’m not saying this is healthy. It’s not. It’s what can get me into trouble.
I may see a roadblock, feel that drive and power squeezing up from my solar plexis which finds its way into a stubbornly clenched jaw, and then I trip over a trigger. A familiar place. A person. A smell that triggers a memory. I can quickly crash into a heap of self-destructive behaviors, the road block long ago surmounted, opportunity sitting there in front of me waiting to be taken, but I am suddenly too focused on hurting myself to take another step.
My triggers are dangerous. My triggers are many. My triggers spark actions that involve blood, cuts, deprivation, purging, and on and on. It’s an old traditional exercise, but today I again write out my triggers so that I can honor their power and learn that the power I have to overcome roadblocks is the same power than can successfully deal with a trigger. Easier said than done, but like anything worth doing, it’s worth practicing and doing again and again.
If you’ve been in rehab, you’ve probably been asked (required) to write letters one of which is usually to your drug of choice. Venting, getting it all out, committing thoughts to paper, emotions in ink, has its obvious therapeutic value. I’m not a therapist; don’t ask me what the value is. I am someone who has written letters to my drug of choice, to people who have hurt me, and to people I’ve hurt. I’ve kept some of those letters, sent others, and burned some in the hope that in each process I would somehow heal or exorcise, set boundaries, ask forgiveness, or move on.
Writing letters is great. But it can be a one-sided venture. All our relationships, with people, things, drugs, illnesses, or traumas are made up of multiple parties, each with voice and motivation, with history and backstory. Each has a response to our letters whether or not we want to acknowledge the existence of the other side let alone allow that other side to respond, whether we allow ourselves to listen and to hear that other side and their response. Thinking I could step out of rehab having written a letter to a former drug dealer or to my father or to my drug of choice and with the hope that I had somehow dealt with those relationships was naïve and probably a little misguided. The act of writing those letters, instead of being an end result, instead of them marking the culmination of days in treatment program or the end of a step, could instead have been introduced as a tool which needs material with which it can effectively build something. A hammer does nothing but destruction unless hitting a nail in order to create. A letter does nothing without a response. We can feel good about purging, getting rid of build up energy, but we never really get rid of energy. Science proves energy just changes form.
Why a one-sided letter? Wouldn’t a conversation be better? Not a real one…yet. How about a dialogue? How about a back and forth? How about writing something and then letting the other party reply—because that’s what’s going to happen in the real world. You’re not just going to happily drop off a letter and walk away. You are going to get a response and you should be ready for it. As people in recovery, we have to train ourselves towards healing, towards healthy living and away from injury, loss and pain. If we are not prepared for the response our new healthy behaviors are going to get from the rest of the world, we will be in dangerous waters. It’s why I relapsed within a week of leaving a 90-day treatment program. Within a month of my second rehab? We don’t allow enough time to practice being in the world, the real world, within the safely of our treatment programs.
We need to invest time in playing out what the other people in our relationships are going to say back to us when we step back into the real world with newly formed patterns of behavior. This is where the idea of creative dramatics can come into play. Where role-playing, by yourself, with your relationships, can better prepare you to deal with the realities facing you on your journey. I needed to learn how to be the other person, think like the other person, investigate their motivations and then to subsequently reply to the new healthy me in a way that fits with what might actually happen in real life. Do we really expect our using friends to simply step back and let us turn over a new leaf? Do we really expect cancer cells to wave the white flag? All of the things from which we are trying to recover have a life of their own, and like anything in life, survival it’s natural objective. We need to anticipate the response, hear it, and practice our reply to it. Our traumas are not going to let us go so easily; that ingrained pattern of self-hatred, that fear of men, that moment you want to take back from childhood isn’t going to go away. The voice in your head that has spent 40 years telling you you are worthless isn’t going to suddenly offer you flowers in apology for the torment. The voice is going to be there until you learn how to talk to it. Until you learn to anticipate it’s next sentence, until you learn to see right through its vitriol and realize its source isn’t the nugget of kryptonite against which you thought you were powerless for all that time.
Exercise: Role-play with Yourself
- Start with something easy. Who was the last person with whom you got angry? Anger is no less threatening to our natural state than anything else from which we have to recover. Who was it? What was it? What led up to the moment of anger?
Using 5 different post-it notes or small scraps of paper, write out five different sentences you could say to this person, place, thing that created this anger in you remembering you are trying to move towards healing.
- Cross over and give your person, place, thing a voice. Write out 5 different things (one on per post-it or scrap of paper) they could say in response to having you directly address your anger with them. It doesn’t matter what you’ve said; the other person/thing has it’s own perspective, may not hear you, may not want to listen, etc.
- Fold up the post-its in two piles, your pile and their pile.
- Pick one from yours, read it, then pick one from theirs and respond.
- Write out at least 5 more back and forth exchanges built off of this start as though you were writing a script for a play.
This is nothing profound. It’s simply practice preparing you for what could be a completely unexpected response from the other side. That response could be the difference between taking a step forward or two steps back.