Thursday, January 26, 2012

Finding Healing Through the Twelve Steps: Recovery from the Emotional Wounds of Childhood (and from Spiritual Abuse)

Once you've realized that you've got emotional wounds left over from your childhood and where they came from, where do you go? I go to the Cross. In terms of the specific problems that arise from the particular emotional wounds that govern the way my flesh tends to act, I show myself responsible to God and others using the framework of the Twelve Steps – the only viable hope of healing that I have to offer anyone.

My Journey of Acceptance

As part of my training as a nurse, and through classes that focused on the primary health problems of adults, I spent time observing care in the clinical settings of drug and alcohol rehab facilities. At the tender age of 19 and 20, this experience taught me a some vital and very moving lessons about my own nature and myself. One day, I was in South Philadelphia observing a group therapy session with addicted teens, and as I listened to their stories, I had a very dramatic epiphany. At the end of the session, I asked the therapist if I could address the group, and he graciously complied. I explained to those teens at an inpatient detox ward that the only real difference that I could see between us was that rather than turn to drugs or alcohol to deal with my own pain, I turned to other things. I turned, primarily, to performance (through work and school) and to religion.

It felt important for me to verbalize that to the group, because I recognized that I was no different than any of them. I'd suffered feelings and family issues and disappointments and circumstances that were in some real way identical to their own. I had an important epiphany about the nature of my own development, and I think that God graciously allowed me to have that experience so that I could feel comfortable finding help later. The therapy session ended, and I was in the center of a mass of weeping and hugging from those kids, and I knew that I'd learned a very important life lesson that day. It put me in mind of the old saying from The Shadow: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” I certainly shared the same pain and what seemed to me at the time like too many uncanny common experiences with these young addicts. I had non-chemical addictions. Today, I am so grateful to God for putting that powerful and defining moment into my life, because I was quite ready and willing to admit the similarities.

Jump forward with me a bit to the weeks before my wedding. I vividly remember being told as a five year old child that my wedding was the one day in my life that I could do whatever and could have whatever I wanted. For reasons related to my own dysfunction (!), I spent a long time looking forward to that promised day, only to realize that it wasn't going to turn out as I'd always hoped. My mother waged a war of control against what seemed like my every effort and disapproved of so much, even though I paid for all of the expenses myself (and even elements of that became a struggle with her). I ended up weeping on the phone to the wife of the minister who was coming into town to perform a part of the ceremony, overwhelmed with the pain that was resulting from what I thought was supposed to be the happiest time of my life. She suggested a couple of books, and asked me if I could approach my mother to ask her for her blessing. Gary Smalley's books were quite popular at the time, and The Blessing was one of his themes. When I expressed that this was almost unthinkable, the pastor's wife and dear friend asked me if I'd ever read or would consider reading Love is a Choice. I didn't. I didn't want to think about being one of those crazies on a talk show, whining and whimpering, and I felt a great deal of disgust at the prospect of anything like that.

Jump again with me to my early twenties and my first official experience as an assistant nurse manager (so I could be on day shift with limited weekends!!!), but a job that I learned later chewed up numbers of people and spit them out, before I got there and after I left. After three weeks, I wanted to resign and melted into a puddle of brokenness in my supervisor's office, brutally aware of how limited I really was, at the end of myself and in the face of so much human need. Long story short, I went straight away to read Love is a Choice at her recommendation. Shortly thereafter, I read Stoop's transforming book, but I also learned through another book that like the majority of people who work in helping professions, more than 90% of nurses classified as “dysfunctional” (as it was associated with addiction) and also had high degrees of obsessive-compulsive disorder. I did qualify for a spot on a talk show couch at that point, and I could not deny it. Not with hard research in front of me, and especially not without discounting the precious wisdom of that pastor's wife and the powerful experiences I'd had training as a nurse. The puzzle pieces started coming together, and though difficult, I saw answers to the problems that I struggled with so desperately for so long. I didn't like the picture, but the fact that there was a workable picture filled me with hope and freed me from condemnation.

At this same time, I still felt very uncomfortable when people devalued my religious ideas, believing wrongly that their reactions made more of a statement about them that they did about me. (This is no longer the case, but I lived it then.) I was also very uncomfortable with the anti-religion bias held by many in the field of mental health, and I struggled with this material as I completed my training in nursing. Trying to figure out how my religious beliefs fit into the practical needs of patients with mental health disorders challenged that very dogmatic position that I learned while growing up in an uptight and easily intimidated quadrant of evangelical Christianity. This was, of course, compounded by my own emotional developmental deficits, the subject of this series of posts. I lived as a “victim of circumstance” by an external locus of control, gauging my worth and peace based on the opinions of others.

On my very first day working as a volunteer at a Crisis Pregnancy Center (after I left my few months at that nurse-devouring, impossible job!), the husband of the woman training me came in, and pretty much took over that day. (CPC work was my alternative to the then very active Randall Terry who was in the throws of getting thrown in jail for his abortion clinic protesting.) I sat back and watched this woman's husband talk with a couple of high school girls who wandered in after school. He was a resident, a physician, in the psychiatry program at a local hospital, and I struck up a conversation with him. I approached the topic with my discomfort in tow, and as a Christian, this man dramatically changed my outlook. When I asked how he could cope with the anti-Christian bias and the evolutionary premise in that particular area of medicine, he rocked my world. He said that he focused on the Christian message of the Twelve Steps, and from that vantage, he found a powerful place to not only make sense of things, but found a platform for Christian ministry within the profession. Here again was another puzzle piece that fit right into my picture. The Christian texts on the subject of recovery and codependency all boil down to a central message of hope based on a quote from a written prayer of Reinhold Neibuhr:

God, give us the grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed,Courage to change the things which should be changed, and the Wisdom to distinguish the difference the one from the other. 
Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time, accepting hardship as the pathway to peace. Taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is – not as I would have it. Trusting that You will make all things right, if I surrender to your will. So that I might be reasonably happy in this life, and supremely happy with you forever in the next. 

Ever hear of the duck test? If it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, and looks like one, then it's a duck. I could not deny that I was unavoidably dysfunctional, a message that my life repeated and repeated, in grace and love. Who knows what dysfunction lurks in the hearts of men? I saw or at least began to accept myself in this way, just as I think that Paul saw himself as the chief of sinners. And my work of healing was definitely not yet complete.

The Hope of All Healing

I could try to reinvent the wheel, writing a history of the development of the Twelve Steps, but I will let you do some of that exploration on your own. (I've already listed many resources.) I could also go into a defense of the Twelve Steps, because I understand that some Christians say that they are flawed because they recommend starting from where you are – coming to God as you understand Him. They are offended that in order to help people start from where they are, they refer to God as a less-defined “Higher Power.” I hear that some claim that this is blasphemy, because we should meet God where He is – that we must go to Him, addressing Him in the most appropriate way (though many who start the journey are very unacquainted with Him, even by name). Not everyone has that knowledge, so they are encouraged to start the journey honestly from where they find themselves. (I'm no longer too uptight or overly concerned with how other people put things into perspective when it comes to starting the journey in this sense. I'm too overwhelmed with my own limitations, shall we say.)

All I can tell you is that I believe and know that He pulled me out of the miry clay, and I don't think that I am at all capable of getting to Him without his loving kindness and intervention. But I believe that I know who He is, and I a responsible for myself and focus on my own approach. I do that through the approach laid out in the Bible.

That is really the core of all that I have to offer to anyone as a message of hope, when you strip away the details. God is God, and we are not. And as I understand God from my vantage, He is pretty specific about His Name, identity, and character. We must acknowledge our limitations and ascribe to God the power that is only His, and I believe that this is not fully possible without believing in and confessing faith in Jesus the Messiah. I am powerless and weak, but in Him and through His help, I become whole and strong. And I am on a lifelong journey of desire to know Him in ways most clear, starting from where I am and how I understand Him. Along the way and through that devotion, He transforms me into His image, day by day. My life has been a process of knowing Him better, developing the right opinion of Him and of all things about Him, starting from where I am. Only He can deliver us from shame and only He can fill us.

Shame of Sin

Essentially, the message of dysfunction boils down to original sin, and we must acknowledge that we are not God and that He is. All of our shame ultimately traces back to our shame that we are not like Him but desire to be. Isn't that the condition of everyone?  Doesn't that make us all "dysfunctional?"

If you happen to be reading here and are an atheist or have huge problems with God and how you fit with the concept of a “Higher Power,” you'll have to figure out how to put that into perspective. I offer what I have to encourage people, and this is the only meaning that I find remotely satisfying that helps me make sense of things in my life. I don't offer this message as one of condemnation – I offer it because it is all I have to give. Everyone has to find the glue that holds their lives together in a meaningful way, allowing them to live a meaningful life. I hope that all at least find a way to live a meaningful life, and that is the work of every individual. This is message is the fruit of mine.

As mentioned in previous posts, the National Association for Christian Recovery offers much wisdom on this topic, in addition to other resources presented here. Their site features a very user-friendly search engine, and near the bottom right hand of their home page in the right hand sidebar, they also list links to other Christian organizations (Ministry Partners) that also present the message of recovery. Between the resource list and these links, you can find more help and guidance than I could ever begin to provide. I hope that all these things will be a help to you on your journey.

The Twelve Steps of Recovery
  1. We admitted we were powerless over our separation from God—that our lives had become unmanageable. (Romans 7:18)
  2. We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. (Philippians 2:13)
  3. We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God, as we understood Him. (Romans 12:1)
  4. We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. (Lamentations 3:40)
  5. We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. (James 5:16)
  6. We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character. (James 4:10)
  7. We humbly asked him to remove our shortcomings. (I John 1:9)
  8. We made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all. (Luke 6:31)
  9. We made direct amends to such people whenever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others. (Matthew 5:23-24)
  10. We continued to take personal inventory when we were wrong and promptly admitted it. (1 Corinthians 10:12)
  11. We sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will and for the power to carry that out. (Colossians 3:16)
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to others, and to practice these principles in all our affairs. (Galatians 6:1)