The Waterfall Concept; A blueprint for addiction recovery

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WaterFall05loAs our seven children were growing up, my wife and I searched for activities that would be fun and interesting for each of them, across the wide age range the seven of them spanned. Somehow, white-water rafting sounded like a good enough idea that we bought and outfitted a 14-foot raft and prepared for whitewater. After several floats on our local river—a river that did have water, but not much that was white—we went looking for some real adventure. We found ourselves launching onto the Deschutes River in central Oregon, a whitewater haven by any standards. Rapids with names like Boxcar, Oak Springs and Little Wapinita drew crowds of rafters and provided plenty of whitewater excitement. The guidebook I obtained to prepare for the trip also warned of Shearers Falls, a life-threatening Class VI waterfall that lay just after the takeout point.

I wanted no part of that waterfall. I made up my mind that we would be getting out of the water long before the pull of the falls could over-take my young, inexperienced crew. It was very difficult for me to judge where we actually were in relation to the falls, even though I had practically memorized the guidebook. I’m not sure if it was my instincts or my fear that landed us on the shore nearly a quarter mile above the standard takeout point. I didn’t mind the extra walking to get to our ride; we were safe and we survived.

There were places along our float where I didn’t fear the falls. Just below the Class IV Oak Springs rapid, we went through a huge eddy. The calm waterrafting was the signal for the start of a rather intense game of “King of the Raft.” Ultimately, we all ended up out of the boat, swimming in the river. Even though I was still worried about the falls downriver, I felt no danger in these waters. Here, the river was still or was moving upstream. The pull of the falls could have no claim on us here. This was a safe place.

In contrast, the area near the precipice of any waterfall is not a safe place. It is at that point, that the river is constricted, gaining speed and power. No individual could stand at the top of Shearers Falls—or any similar waterfall—without being pulled over into the life-threatening torrent below. Only by moving upstream can we be beyond the reach of danger. Upstream, beyond the pull of the falls, inside the waters of the eddies, is where we find our safety.

So it is with addictions. We cannot stand at the precipice of acting out, where our compulsion has its greatest power and strength, and expect our sobriety to survive. We will be pulled into the abyss, losing control, yet again, to our addictive behaviors. We must move upstream to safety. We must move our thoughts and behaviors upstream to safe waters, away from the power and pull of our addiction.

The White Book, published by Sexaholics Anonymous, recounts the statement of a long-time addict, who said: I don’t need help quitting, I have quit a thousand times! I need help STAYING QUIT! (SA 2002). Yet,even knowing the pull and power of addiction, some try to focus recovery work on how to survive while standing at the precipice of the falls(the art of white-knuckling). Instead, counselors, therapists, families— and especially addicts themselves—should be concerned with how to help struggling individuals to stay upstream, in safe waters.

Moving thoughts and behaviors upstream helps addicts “stay quit” and protects them from the addiction waterfalls. These upstream, calm waters are the Waters of Recovery. Finding them, and learning to stay in them, is healing from addiction.

civil warTrying to overcome addiction by white-knuckling is similar to Hood’s experience at Gettysburg. Confederate General John Bell Hood led an assault on Union forces through an area called Devil’s Den, hoping to take Little Round Top. The ground at Devil’s Den is populated with massive boulders, making any military maneuver very difficult.

Hood’s forces were repulsed, and Hood, himself, wounded. Lying in a field hospital, he reported to General James Longstreet, saying, “It was the worst ground I ever saw.”

As addicts, we don’t want to be fighting our addiction on bad ground. We want to find where we can be successful. Addiction is best confronted in the safe Waters of Recovery. That is the battlefield where we can obtain victory. Many addicts who are moving into sobriety continue to embrace addictive behaviors or elements of their addiction, then they wonder why recovery eludes them. They are still too close to the falls. Those addictive behaviors are like the boulders Hood encountered; if we hold on to them, our attack on our addiction becomes very, very difficult. We end up losing, yet again, to our enemy of acting out.

When we are in the Waters of Recovery, we are truly, “out of our addiction.” We are safe. We are free from the pull of the falls. We practice the thoughts and behaviors of recovery and healing. However, as life—like the river— flows, we must work to maintain our safe position. When our thoughts and behaviors cross that safe dividing line into flowing water, we again find ourselves “in our addiction” and susceptible to the building power of the waterfalls.

The Problem Addicts Have With Blindness

When we are “in our addiction,” we are blind to it. Robert Larson MD, puts it this way:

Alcoholism and all other addictions come with built in denial. Th e patient does not know that they are ill. They have no real concept of how severe the situation is and they are frequently not willing to talk about it at all (Larson 1998).

Denial makes recovery a bit difficult. In the mind of the addict who is in denial, recovery just isn’t necessary. The addict’s response when first confronted with his situation is: I DO NOT HAVE A PROBLEM! It is an emphatic response, oft en with anger and indignation that such a thing might even be proposed. The more anger and indignation a person shows, the greater the probability that he has a problem. One of the many painful frustrations for family and friends is watching someone they love, who is losing their life to addiction but seem to completely unaware of it.

The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) describes alcoholism as a cunning and baffling disease (Bill W 2001). Indeed, all addictions may be so described. Addictions steal our sense of, and contact with, reality.

Part of our blindness comes from our weaving such an intricate web of rationalizations and justifications to allow our addictive behavior that we become engulfed by the darkness of our lies of denial. Drunkenness is excused as, “Just letting off a little steam.” Smoking marijuana as, “It’s the only thing that helps me relax.” We use Meth not because we are addicts but, as we say, “I have to work two jobs and need the help staying awake.”

The truth is this: WE ARE ADDICTS. WE DO NOT REALIZE WE ARE ADDICTS, AND WE WILL DO WHATEVER WE HAVE TO DO, AND SAY WHATEVER WE HAVE TO SAY, TO CONTINUE TO BE ADDICTS.

The Parable of the Unwise Bee illustrates the addict’s dilemma. Recounted by  James E. Talmage, the parable tells the story of a bee thathoney bee flew into Talmage’s office on a warm summer day. The bee flew around the room, looking for a way out, but the insect’s efforts failed to find the partly opened window through which it had entered. Seeing the bee’s struggle, He took compassion and threw the window open wide and tried to encourage it to fly to safety. He knew that if the bee remained trapped in the room, it would die, but the harder he tried to guide the bee to the window, the angrier and more threatening it became.  Talmage says he tried even harder, until the angry bee even stung his hand, “the hand that would have guided it to freedom.” The bee persisted in its wild flight and never found its way freedom. When he returned to his office three days later, he found the bee without life, lying on the desk.

To the bee’s shortsightedness and selfish misunderstanding I was a foe, a persistent persecutor, a mortal enemy bent on its destruction; while in truth I was its friend, offering it ransom of the life it had put in forfeit through its own error, striving to redeem it, in spite of itself, from the prison-house of death and restore it to the outer air of liberty (Zodell 1973).

How then, are the blind rescued? How does recovery come to those who are blind to their own addiction and blind to the help they are offered as well? It is a process that begins with understanding.

About What Addiction Is

We don’t need a complete, clinical understanding of addiction in order to recover, but we do need to understand enough to become equipped to fight and overcome it. We need the kind of knowledge that will help demystify some of the attendant behaviors and emotions and give us valuable information about our enemy. We need to know how addiction works within us, where we are weak and where we are strong, and how to build a sustainable recovery plan.

Stephanie Brown, PhD, states:

Addiction is loss of control. Addiction is the inability to predictably and consistently stop drinking, using drugs, eating, gambling, acting out sexually or other behaviors once started. Addiction is more than a behavior. Addiction starts with an emotional attachment, or relationship if you will. An emotional bond is formed to alcohol, prescription drugs, food, gambling, etc., that becomes a compulsive attachment. He or she cannot do without it.

The object of the addiction becomes the best friend, lover, and the demon that will destroy the addict. Stated another way, addiction becomes a deep loss of self. Addiction can occur in whatever generates significant mood alteration (Brown 2006).

This means not only drugs and alcohol can be the culprits, but the self-nurturing of food, the thrill of gambling, or the arousal of sex can also initiate addiction within us. The emotional bond is formed through the conditioning process that takes place in the emotional center of our brain.

Our brain’s emotional center is charged with finding solutions to our human needs. Emotions were given to us to guide us in meeting those needs. The center is always looking for ways to comfort difficult feelings.

The healthy way to do that is in our relationships with others, where we can love and be loved, and feel importance and accomplishment. If this proves unsuccessful, some turn to counterfeit relationships that offer temporary comfort, but not fulfillment. When we chose to be comforted from difficult feelings by using our drug of choice, the emotional bond or connection between the feeling and acting out is reinforced or strengthened. The process clinicians call conditioning. When the bond is sufficiently strong, whenever the emotional center feels the need or emotion, an urge is sent out to indulge in our drug of choice.

Upon continued use and, therefore, further conditioning, the connection between our originating emotion and our form of acting out is strengthened to the point that the urge becomes a compulsion. At this point, the ante has been raised. At the compulsive stage of our use, we find that the urge to use is now stronger than our will to resist.

Our control of self, the ability to think and chose our reaction has been impaired, hijacked by the emotional center. It has gained the ability to out vote, and begins to control/overrule, the thinking part of our brain. We can no longer just say no. We have compromised our freedom to choose, and we are in trouble—big trouble.

Part of the emotional center’s purpose is to handle emergencies. If we put our hand on the hot stove, it is not the thinking part of our brain that tells us toRecovery(LowRes) move our hand, but rather, it is the emotional center. Thinking is bypassed because of the emergency nature of the situation. In such instances, the emotional center can trump the rest of the brain to protect us from danger. Our thinking brain suspends control or steps aside until the emergency has passed. This fact keeps us safe in many of life’s threatening situations. It also sets up the possibility of addiction.

If our emotional center runs amuck and begins using its trumping ability, we can indulge in our drug of choice as an attempt—albeit dysfunctional—to try to meet and satisfy the needs within us. When our conditioning reaches the level of compulsion, we have compromised the system. It no longer functions as intended.

The emotional center now uses its trumping power to overcome our thinking brain, and exerts control over our lives. Our emotional center has hijacked the system. When we feel the activating emotion, we will act out, even if we do not want to. This manifests when the addict says, “I am not going to use, I am not going to use, I am not going to use,” just before he uses. At this stage the emotional center is calling the shots and we have a compulsion and are well on our way to addiction.

Patrick Carnes, PhD, in his book, Don’t Call it Love, presents the following description of the addictive process:

At some point, excessive use becomes compulsive use. The highs become so compelling that the person loses control. Usually the loss of control means serious consequences, yet the highs remain so compelling that the addict starts to distort, ignore or lose contact with reality. The addiction now regulates the emotional life of the addict. The addict cannot act “normal” without the high. Nor can the addict deal with stressors without the maladaptive response of the addiction.

The inherent shamefulness of the addict brings on self destructive shame cycles, in which the addict’s efforts to stop seem only to intensify the failures. The brain achieves a new neuro-chemical imbalance, which can only be relieved by compulsive use. The addict ends up isolated and alienated.

Once this point is reached, addicts cannot undo all the damage even with help. Significant shifts have occurred which leave them forever vulnerable to their addiction. Compulsive use always remains an option (Carnes 1992).

Courage(LowRes)This is where others—”normies” who have never felt the power of compulsions—struggle to understand. “Why can’t you just walk away” they ask. In their lives, it has always worked. “If you keep drinking, you’re going to lose your family—In heavens name, why can’t you stop?”

It seems so simple. Pretty cut and dry. When the addict can’t walk away, judgments often are heaped on them.. ”You must be really weak; don’t you love your family? Why are you throwing your life away?”

Part of the struggle is a matter of intensity for the addict. Because of the conditioning process, urges for the normie might rate a 2.2 on the emotional Richter scale. To a normie, no big deal. For the addict, that same urge, after years of conditioning, feels like 7.5 plus. The compulsion is a major emotional event, (an emotional storm, if you will) and can not simply be ignored. An addict feels compelled to act and has little defense against it.

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