1. GETTING PAST THE SHAME
Sandy Wilson is a well-known author and popular speaker. Her books on shame (Released from Shame) and on family dynamics (ShameFree Parenting) have been helpful to many people in recovery. We interviewed her by phone from her home in Scottdale, AZ.
STEPS: Can you tell us something about the first time you got help for yourself?
SANDY: In my late 20s, just before I turned 30, and just 6 months after I had a hysterectomy, I plunged into a clinical depression. It had been coming on for some time and there were other struggles, the usual relational stuff. Now you have to remember that this was back decades before anyone knew anything about adult children of alcoholics. So, my mind didn’t really understand, but my body was working overtime to communicate with me. I really tore up my gastrointestinal tract and I was in and out of the hospital for all kinds of tests. Finally, my family physician referred me to a psychiatrist which just about killed me. That was the first time anyone had told me that I needed help for my emotions or my thinking.
STEPS: And what was that like for you?
SANDY: Oh, well, keep in mind that this was around 1968. I felt like I had a red flashing neon sign with letters about 12 feet high on my forehead blinking out the words "SANDY WILSON IS A FAILURE AND SHE HAS EMOTIONAL PROBLEMS AND SHE CLAIMS TO BE CHRISTIAN!!" It was . . talk about shame. Long before I even knew the word I experienced it with such intensity. The sense of humiliation, the sense of being an incredible disappointment to God. I know now that these feelings were rooted in my experience of growing up as a "hero" in an alcoholic family. My minimum daily requirement of behavior was perfection. So, you know that shame was a big part of my struggle.
STEPS: It sounds like there was a lot of spiritual shame involved.
SANDY: I felt that I was an embarrassment to the body of Christ. And an embarrassment to my mother who expected me to be perfect (at least that’s what I believed at that time.) I can remember going to the psychiatrist’s office for the first time praying fervently that North Florida would have a huge earthquake and that the floor would swallow me up. Short of that, I prayed: "PLEASE don’t let me meet anyone I know here". The thought of seeing anyone I knew. . . death seemed more inviting.
STEPS: So, it wasn’t easy?
SANDY: [laughter] No matter how subtle I am you pick up on it.
STEPS: It sounds just awful. Was it the medical problems that really forced the issue for you?
SANDY: Well, yes. But more than that, it was my desire to be a healthier parent that forced me to become a healthier person. I was sleeping away my children’s lives. I was sleeping 16, sometimes 18 hours a day. We’re talking heavy-duty clinical depression. One of the things that kind of depression does is to strip you of your concern for yourself. So, at that point it didn’t bother me that I was sleeping away my life but it bothered me greatly that I was sleeping away my children’s lives.
STEPS: It didn’t feel like God was on your side did it?
SANDY: No. It felt like God was just really sad and incredibly disappointed with me. It was sort of like God was up in heaven looking down at me with a frown – not furiously angry – but an indulgent frown, shaking his head back and forth saying "Sandy, Sandy, Sandy, I had expected so much more of you after all the gifts I gave you." Remember, my mother’s life verse for me was "to whom much has been given, much shall be expected."
STEPS: Sometimes when people take the risk of asking for help, things get complicated because the help they get is unhelpful. But it sounds like the help you got was helpful.
SANDY: Yes. To a degree. I saw a classically trained, dear, Jewish psychoanalytic psychiatrist. He had a very different world view from me in many ways. What he did do. . what God used him to do. .was to give me permission to see how some childhood experiences might have an impact on my adult life. That had never occurred to me! He knew nothing about ACA issues, no one did back then. It was decades before Claudia Black’s books or Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse’s books — let alone anything by Christian authors. But he did help me acknowledge my perfectionism and to see the connection to the unrealistic expectations of my mom. He was the first person that ever explicitly said to me the words "you don’t have to be perfect, it’s okay not to be perfect." I can still remember the day sitting in his office that this first sort of sunk in. It felt like an 18 wheeler had been sitting on my shoulder and someone got a huge crane and lifted it off my shoulder. It was just amazing! Now that doesn’t mean that I didn’t struggle with perfectionism again. I still struggle with perfectionism 28 years later. But that was the beginning of the struggle. . . before that I didn’t struggle, I just laid down helpless at the feet of the perfectionism.
STEPS: I’m still struck by the fact that in some ways your spirituality was part of the problem rather than part of the solution. It was part of the shame wasn’t it?
SANDY: Yes. But here’s what God did. Even at that time I took my spirituality very, very seriously. That’s part of why it was so incredibly painful to feel that I had let God down. God did supply me with a friend. Actually she was the Sunday School teacher of our young married class. And she had gone through some emotional struggles of her own. She was very supportive, very encouraging. She is the one who brought in the spiritual element. She was the one who reminded me that God understands, that God loves you. And that it was okay for the process to take time. It was not integrated with my therapy by any means. But this sort of unofficial lay counselor was God’s gift of love to me at that time. It brought a kind of reassurance that I desperately, desperately needed.
STEPS: So you did receive some support from your community of faith. I’m guessing that you received other kinds of responses as well.
SANDY: Well, I didn’t exactly go around proclaiming on the housetops that I was seeing a psychiatrist. I’m not the brightest person in the world but I have a keen sense of the obvious. It was obvious that I was in a church and in an era (like many places today!) where if your sins have been rolled away you are supposed to be hap, hap happy all the time. I was not too hap hap happy right then.
STEPS: Several decades after this first experience of getting help, you became a professional therapist. How do you think it effected you.
SANDY: Well, I needed a little distance on the experience before I could be genuinely grateful for it. But it’s certainly true that I became a much, much better therapist because of that experience.
STEPS: And did it make it easier for you to ask for help later?
SANDY: Oh yes. Absolutely. And to be open about it. Often when I speak today in churches I have people come up to me and say things like "Thank you for sharing some of your own struggles. It is SO refreshing, SO unusual, to hear a speaker talk candidly about their own struggles." Why is it SO refreshing? Why is it SO unusual? We are all of us in a lifelong process of change. Today I might be coming to you for help. Tomorrow it might be reversed. There is no hierarchy in the body of Christ. There is no sacred class of `Helpers’ who do not need help and a second class of unfortunates who need help. That’s just not biblical, is it? It’s unhealthy for everybody. It forces people in the `helper’ role into hiding with their own issues. It forces you to always be the strong one, the wise one and to have all the answers.
In a much more recent experience of getting help I went for some fairly intensive therapy because I was `bleeding sadness.’ I needed to grieve some very primitive `father loss.’ It was still very difficult to give myself permission to get help. But it was a very different kind of resistance than I experienced earlier. This time I knew the truth. I knew that I was human, that my ongoing struggles were just part of being human. I knew that God did not have unrealistic expectations of me. I understood so much more. But here’s where my professional role got in the way. That old inner voice said things like this: "You can’t be the person to receive help. You are the one who is busy helping others. You’ve written books about this. You’ve been enormously helpful to other people who struggle with these issues." If you get to the point where you "know" the answers, it can sometimes feel like you shouldn’t any longer need someone else to be the instrument of God’s healing in your life.
STEPS: So getting help the first time made it easier to get help later. But twenty years later there’s more work to do, and it still isn’t easy because you’re still not shame-proof.
SANDY: Exactly. Shame is still there but at a different level. It wasn’t global. This time is was more localized around my `helper’ roles. Getting help "again" can be difficult. Sometimes people who have been in recovery for quite a while feel like it’s embarrassing if they don’t have all the loose ends wrapped up. But recovery is like packaging an octopus. Just when you think you have it all wrapped up, something else wiggles out. Sometimes it’s not even something new, it’s something you’ve worked on many times before. And there’s a special frustration to that – more frustrating than something completely new that you have never dealt with before because with old issues you find yourself saying "I already know about this, I’ve been through this before, I don’t want to go back to square one again. I should be way past this". But you never really go back to square one. Every bit of grace you have experienced builds a base for the next step.
STEPS: Sandy, I’ll be able to transcribe what you’ve said but I don’t have any way of putting into words the tenderness in your voice when you talk about what it’s like to get help.
SANDY: Well I suppose that’s another of the long-term effects of working on your own issues. You develop an empathy for people in process. The shame, the embarrassment, the feelings of failure. . . they are not abstractions to me. I’ve been there and I know how it feels.
2. FINDING HELP THAT IS HELPFUL
Ron Halvorson is the president of RPI Publications and has been active in encouraging 12-step recovery in the Chrstian community for many years. He is a member of the Board of Directors of Christian Recovery International.
STEPS: My recollection of your story is that you did a lot of stuff to get help for yourself. But that most of it was just not helpful.
RON: I did a lot of crazy stuff. You name it. I did just about every 3 or 4 day workshop that was available back in the 60’s — from EST to Lifespring. Lots of short term but intensive workshops. At least half a dozen of those kinds of things. I knew something was wrong. I was separated, then divorced and I was very ill physically. Of course, because of my character defects at the time I wasn’t willing to get help even for physical problems — it was a kind of spiritual arrogance or whatever you want to call it. Finally I had pancreatitis which was a result of all the years of heavy drinking. This really shocked me. I was what you might call a functional drinker. I could get up in the morning and go to work. I never saw myself as a problem drinker. Not until it took a toll on my body. It had to be really obvious before I was willing to recognize the problem.
Actually the first real wakeup call for me was in my late thirties when I had my gall bladder removed. In addition to the medical stuff there was this deep sense of unfulfillment in my life. I thought my college education was going to fix it. I thought money was going to fix it. I thought awards and success in business were going to fix it. I tried all the standard stuff like that and kept coming up against a wall of deep emptiness. I was very, very unhappy. But I didn’t really know what was wrong. And none of the things I thought were going to make it better were any help at all.
STEPS: What was the first time that you got help that was helpful?
RON: Believe it or not, it was the first time I walked into a twelve step meeting. I had been separated and divorced from my second wife. I was in my early 40s. I was living with a friend who had burnt out in ministry and was driving a cab. He was the one who actually introduced me to the 12 steps. We would have a kind of informal 12-step meeting every morning. Over breakfast we would at least share our experience – – I didn’t have much faith or hope yet to share. It was about this time that I read an interview in the LA Times with Claudia Black. The list of characteristics of adult children of alcoholics that she presented, which are now well known, was a total shock to me. For the first time in my life someone was showing me who I was in a way that I could understand. It was like she had read the autobiography I never wrote. She named the problem so accurately.
So I found a local ACA group. There weren’t many back then, but I found one and went. How can I say it? I felt at home. I felt like I had walked into a group of people who understood the problem, who were no longer hiding from the truth and who really wanted to get better.
STEPS: What did it feel like on the way to that first meeting?
RON: I thought that if I could find out more about ACA issues, that it might help resolve some of the parts of my life that were so frustrating. And I was hopeful that the emptiness that I had experienced for so long might be addressed somehow. I had a lot of optimism. I think I was desperate after the collapse of my second marriage. I knew that I had a problem and that it was effecting many areas of my life. Certainly relationships was one such area. To hear someone who understood the problem so well suggest that there really were practical tools that might help. . . well, I was willing to give diligent attendance at 12 Step meetings a try.
STEPS: A lot of people who seek help for the first time, whether through therapy or a support group, experience a lot of shame. But it sounds like you were so sick and tired of being sick and tired that shame didn’t get in the way.
RON: I think all the consciousness raising things I did back in the 60’s actually had some positive effect. At least I knew I had a problem. So the shame was minimal for me. It was a hard fact of life for me that I came from an alcoholic home and that my life was disorganized as a result. I wasn’t running from that truth. I was ready for some help. I had been trying to transcend these problems by doing all the things that society rewards. But that hadn’t worked for me. So, I was ready to try something else.
STEPS: At that time in your life were there things about your spiritual life that either helped or that got in the way?
RON: I was in a terrible hole spiritually. I had tried all the New Age movement stuff, all the metaphysical stuff. That had been the principal focus of my spiritual journey for almost 15 years. Christian spirituality was not part of my experience at all. The 12-steps was what really helped put my struggle into a helpful spiritual context and started me on the journey towards Christian faith.
As a child I had prayed to God – to the Christian God – and I couldn’t figure out why God hadn’t taken the problems away. It was a natural transition for me from that magical view of God which we all have in childhood (a God who could instantaneously fix me and my family) to the God I found in New Age metaphysics. New Age and metaphysical paths are about magical gods and intellectualized head trips. I found nothing there about a personal relationship with God, nothing about the Spirit of God being present with us. It was just a cosmic God that was everywhere.
STEPS: So the 12 steps gave you a start on a very practical kind of spirituality – much more focused than metaphysical speculation or cosmic consciousness?
RON: Yes. It was certainly the first step in a process of learning more about God. It took years to reparent the child in me who was still expecting God to magically fix things and who was angry that God wasn’t making it all better. A second really important factor in all of this is that I was looking for someone who I could trust. I didn’t have anyone I could trust as a child. So I never learned how to trust other people or how to trust God. I was, in fact, determined not to trust anyone but myself. I was determined to maintain control over how my life was running. I was on the throne. I was in charge. This was also strongly reinforced by all the metaphysical speculation that I had spent years on – all of that encouraged me to think of myself as the center of the universe.
STEPS: When you first started going to 12 Step groups did you know that things were going to change?
RON: Yes and no. I went to ACA because I knew it would be a catalyst for change. You don’t start the journey unless you are willing to change. Change is part of the package. But it’s never real comfortable. It may mean giving up some very familiar behaviors. I didn’t consciously go about changing relationships. I just saw things beginning to happen. It became clear to me that it was inappropriate to continue certain relationships. I gave a lot of people in my life fair warning that I was on a journey of resolving some key issues from my childhood and that it might effect the way in which we relate. And it did. Absolutely. My business relationships, my personal relationships, my family relationships. It effected the way I communicated. . . it particularly effected my relationships with people who were actively abusing drugs or alcohol. I had to learn, first of all, not take their inventory for them. But I also had to learn how to set healthier boundaries for myself. I had to learn to take care of me. I drew guidelines for myself saying, for example, "I don’t want to be with you when you are using". That’s about me and my boundaries not about them and their decisions to use. I still care about the people in my life who use. But I can do things today that I couldn’t do as a child. I can take care myself in relationships like that and I can protect myself from harm.
STEPS: That’s a lot to learn. Was it active participation in 12 step meetings that helped you learn these new skills?
RON: Absolutely. I needed to live in community, in relationships with others. That’s certainly one of the things I recognized. And it wasn’t easy. If I had even a little problem I would isolate. And then I would resort to strategies which I thought would make me feel better about myself, whatever that happened to be at the time, whatever would numb the pain. So keeping myself accountable in community is the main thing I had to learn. Trusting other people, telling the truth to other people and being accountable to other people were not my strengths. As a child, lying stealing, conning, that’s what was acceptable. Healthier ways of living were definitely new to me.
For me, 12 step meetings were a safe place to practice new skills. That’s where I learned how to take care of myself. I needed to learn to put my experience into words but I was incredibly insecure about saying this stuff in the ‘real’ world. So, I needed a safe place to practice. In meetings I could get clarity about the things that I didn’t want to do anymore and I could get insights about new ways of doing things. And I could build the ego-strength or whatever you want to call it that I needed to begin trying out some new behaviors in my relationships.
3. Call God
Jim Gaffney is the Pastor of Recovery at Mariners South Coast Church in Newport Beach, California. He has been an active member of the NACR since it’s formation.
STEPS: What was it like for you to get help for the first time?
JIM: Well, my story may be a little unique in that the majority of help I got at the beginning of my recovery was from people in the church. This is, thankfully, happening more and more but this was in 1976 and it was pretty rare to find Christian fellowship in recovery back then. The person who led me to the Lord was a former girl friend who had just become a Christian and she was always saying "get into God’s word." At the time, my life was falling apart and everything was a mess. I cried out to God in the middle of a marijuana stupor with a little amphetamine buzz underneath the whole thing. I was not at all sure that God existed or that God heard prayers but God answered miraculously.
STEPS: So, your first call for help was to God.
JIM: Yes. I was raised in a very religious Irish-Catholic home. So, I had religion shoved down my throat. At that point in life I probably had 15 years of formal Catholic school education and I was very turned off to God and the things of God. I was a sarcastic anti-Catholic. I was not attending any church anywhere nor did I see any reason to do so. I was out building my own professional life and basically smoking dope on the weekends. Hidden to everyone, including the friends I was smoking dope with regularly, was the fact that I had become a closet amphetamine addict. That addiction had been building since probably freshman year in high school when I started with time-released caffeine pills. I was working as a pharmacy intern and had access to drugs left and right. So I took them. I was getting very strung out and my life was falling apart. I had recently broken up with a girlfriend and nothing seemed to be working. I had a car accident. I was behind on my rent payments. I suppose it’s a `high bottom’ story compared to some — but it was bottom for me. I knew things were a mess. And I cried out to the God of my youth. I guess I believed enough to call out to Jesus. But I had no assurance that God heard me.
STEPS: It was a pretty desperate prayer?
JIM: Oh yes. Earlier that week I’d had a really bad experience. I was sick. I’d overslept. After running on amphetamines I’d sleep for 18 hours or more. I remember crawling down the hallway saying `God, help me to get to the bathroom so that I can throw up in the bathroom rather than on myself’. I was not doing well. Of course, I hid it well. On the outside I still looked pretty good.
This ex-girlfriend of mine who was a fanatical follower of Jesus had been telling me I should `get into God’s word.’ And I was in enough pain that I decided to try it. I went over to my bookshelf and got my old Bible off the shelf. I didn’t know where to begin. I found a section called "Letters to All Christians" in the Catholic Bible and I figured that might be for me. So I started there and the first book was the book of James. It was the book of James that tore my heart out. Where it talks about `Who do you think you are that you can carry on business in this city for a while and then go here and there?. . .Don’t you realize that you are nothing more than a vapor? Without grace you can’t do any of this.’ That really spoke right to me. There was more though. The section where it says God can’t work through the anger of man. I was a very angry person.
I guess it was God’s Word working on a receptive heart. I was desperate and out of that desperation grew a receptivity and God took advantage of that. God moved right in and with some power. I had experienced powerlessness; I understood that. I had experienced unmanageability; I understood that. And. . . I guess I sort of did the first 3 steps all at once.
STEPS: After this what was it that helped you to sustain your recovery?
JIM: What happened was that I went back to the Catholic church. I didn’t know where else to go. I was raised so religiously catholic that a protestant church wasn’t even an option. Probably within six weeks of going to a traditional Catholic church I was scared away. They wanted to put me in leadership. Here I was, a six week old believer, boldly praying in some of their charismatic meetings and they were looking to me to be one of their leaders. That really scared me. I knew what shape I was in and if these people wanted me as a leader. . . it’s not a place that was going to help me. That sent me searching.
I eventually ended up with two places of safety. I found a small home church made up of people in their 20’s who were serious about God, mostly new converts and mostly people who came out of drug addiction. The second place of safety was a small church in Brooklyn that was made up of 50% Italian/Irish ex-Catholics and 50% messianic Jews. Probably 60% of these folks had also come out of some form of addiction to drugs or alcohol.
STEPS: So, you had to find a group of people who knew what addiction was like?
JIM: Definitely. For me, fortunately, I was able to find that in the context of the church. I didn’t even know to go searching for 12 step meetings. I knew nothing about AA or the 12 steps. What I found was this little church and one of the pastors there who was a former alcoholic and AA member. He got my number right away and knew what to do. He had been active in AA for many years. He had strong 12 step roots but he had been displaced from an AA meeting that he founded for talking about Jesus. He was the main person to disciple me in the early days.
STEPS: So you knew you needed help. You called to God. You then went to the spiritual resources that were most familiar to you. These resources were not helpful. So, then you searched until you found people who understood both recovery and God.
JIM: I needed both. I needed people who understood the addictive process and who also understood my growing Christian faith. I needed people who would accept me for who I was. These people understood addiction and were not going to be shaming. Both the ex-Catholics and the Jewish believers were people who had experienced a lot of shame — especially the messianic Jews. These were people who had grown up in religious Jewish Brooklyn homes and when they accepted Jesus as Messiah, often like me after drugs had destroyed their lives, they were shamed by their whole community. They understood what it was like to accept God and then immediately experience shame. What we had in common was that as long as we stayed within our family structures and did exactly what our families had said. . .we were okay. The moment we took a stance outside of what was politically correct within our families we were totally rejected. That shared experience of shame and the shared experience, for most of us, of addiction was what held us together.
STEPS: So. . .find people who don’t do shame?
JIM: It was key for me. Finding people who understand shame from personal experience and who will not reject you. I had immediately gotten rejected by the Catholic church. When I didn’t want to be a leader they didn’t want anything to do with me.
STEPS: What advice would you give to someone making a first call for help?
JIM: Well. . . there’s tons of resources now. There wasn’t anything like that when I started looking for help. Just in our area I could send you to four different churches where you could find support groups meeting 4-6 nights of the week. There was none of that back when I first got help. I think it’s always been true, however, that if you’re serious enough about getting help, you’ll find help. It doesn’t matter where you are. You will find someone else who understands. If you cry out to God with all of your heart, God will meet you. And He is going to put some other people in your path. That’s what I found. I needed to work at it, to be diligent. It wasn’t always easy — I drove 45 minutes each way to get to that little church that was so helpful to me. The key was to find people with a common experience — but also people who were ahead of me, people who were a couple of steps beyond where I was in recovery.
STEPS: So, make your first call to God?
JIM: A direct link. I cried out from the depth of my heart. God answered that call. It was not the first time I’d sort of tried to `find God.’ But it was the first time that I called out to God with all of my being, with all my heart and soul. This doesn’t mean that I understood much about God. I didn’t. In the first couple years of recovery I was very confused. I knew that some of what I had been taught . . . well, it was enough to lead me in the right direction when I really hit bottom.