What if I don’t want to share in my recovery group?

What if I don’t want to share in my recovery group?

Most of know the relief that comes from sharing our story with other people. There are many explanations for why sharing can be therapeutic. One psychological mechanism that may be behind the relief we feel when sharing is what psychologists call, “systematic desensitization.”

Systematic desensitization is a process by which we become comfortable with what used to scare us. For many of us, what scares us is the fear of social rejection that might happen if people really knew the gritty details of our stories.

By telling our stories, a little bit at a time, we slowly become desensitized to the fear of rejection. Each time we tell the story in a safe environment, we are disproving our worst-case scenarios. Our fear spikes as we share, and then we are relieved to be accepted. It’s as if our brain says, “Huh? Turns out the group didn’t hate me and tell me to never come back. Maybe I am not so bad.”

Whether through desensitization or some other mechanism, telling our story is often helpful for a few reasons. First, it helps us stop beating ourselves up with unnecessary self-loathing. After all, if others in the group don’t hate and scorn me, maybe I can lighten up on myself. Second, by becoming less fearful about our secrets, we can turn our attention to fixing what is wrong instead of wasting time on covering up. We’re only as sick as our secrets, I’ve heard it said.

But sharing isn’t always therapeutic and it can make things worse.  How is it not always therapeutic? The idea that sharing fixes things gained a lot of popularity in the 60s and 70s, when therapists often encouraged clients to let go of their “hang ups” and express themselves. This terrible advice led to more couples separating as a result of marital therapy. Turns out it’s not a good idea for spouses to let the other have it with thoughts that they had been “holding in.”

Another myth about sharing is that “letting off steam” is healthy. But, “letting it out” doesn’t reduce the pressure. In fact, grumbling and complaining about perceived injustices doesn’t decrease anger. It throws more wood on the fire and stokes it.

Finally, if you share something and don’t feel accepted you might wish you hadn’t shared. The same can be said of sharing something and becoming so emotionally dysregulated and anxious that you can’t believe you are being accepted. To understand how this could happen, imagine that you are speaking in front of a group and become incredibly anxious. The group might have liked what you have to say, but you are so focused on your dry mouth and churning stomach that you miss how everyone is smiling and paying attention. 

What can you do to maximize the therapeutic benefit of sharing and minimize the risk?

·         Just listen. Going to a group and listening to others can increase your empathy for them, and you might learn to be more kind to yourself at the same time. Also, hearing other’s stories and watching them be accepted might be the first step in your own journey of systematic desensitization.

·         Share a little by little. By doing so, you keep your emotions at a manageable level and you can accurately gage how the group is going to react when share some more.

·         Share with a trusted friend instead of with the group. This probably feels less risky. And the give and take involved in a one-on-one conversation allows your friend to reassure you and comfort you in a way that a group can’t.

·         Speak in generalities. You don’t have to say everything. Even hinting at what is going on might help you obtain some benefits from the group. You could say something like, “I am struggling with temptation,” or “I have some interpersonal problems.”

What’s the bible got to say about sharing?

God speaks to us through his law and he confirms that we have every reason to feel guilty, afraid, and ashamed. Reading his word reminds us that we deserve rejection. Knowing this can make us fearful to share. We think, “if we are that bad, maybe it is better to keep our secrets buried.”

But we also learn that Jesus was rejected and despised on our behalf.

He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. Isaiah 53:3

Jesus is one person you can share everything with. He knows what it is like to be rejected. So he is uniquely empathetic to our experiences of shame and rejection.

Jesus does not reject you. He took his desire to accept you all the way to the cross. He was not spared one bit of the pain and agony you deserved for the secrets you have.

Jesus, the beloved son of God, received all of that suffering and rejection so that we could become accepted. The father cast him out so we could be brought into the family of God. He was cut off so we could become children and heirs.

Not sure if you want to share in group? That’s ok. But don’t miss out on the soul-cleansing, heart-healing love of Jesus. Rest in Jesus and his care.

The Rocky Foundation of Rock Bottom

Case study. Joel had been addicted to Methamphetamine for a couple of years when his parents invited him to be a groundskeeper at a camp they were running for the summer. Joel was done with Meth. He knew it was killing him and he wanted a way out. He’d tried quitting unsuccessfully multiple times. The offer from his parents to get away for the summer seemed like a lifeline. Joel realized he would be far away from his using buddies and the triggers to use. He could detox and recover in nature. And he could keep himself busy with the groundskeeper duties.

 He took the offer. And amazingly, he quit and has stayed sober for over 16 years.

How can it be? Joel’s story sounds incredible. Most people assume that addicts only quit after a jarring event called hitting Rock Bottom. Yet Joel’s story is not unique.

Tom was physically dependent on alcohol, consuming several six packs a night while quietly dissociating from family life on the living room couch. His wife nagged him for years, but he didn’t want to listen. He can’t remember why or how, but he finally decided to listen to his wife. The time to quit had come and he called a national hotline. He told the person at the hotline how much he drank every day and asked them what he would experience if went cold turkey. They told him he would get shaky, and they were right.

But he followed their advice and quit--staying sober for 2 decades now.

Statistics on alcohol and drug abuse suggest that most people quit without a dramatic shock to the system. For example, most veterans who were addicted to opioids while in Vietnam, did not continue to use heroin in when they returned to the United states. So, it was a positive event--coming home from war--that led to them quitting. And studies show that about 3 quarters of people who are dependent on alcohol quit on their own, many after a brief conversation with their doctor. Click Here. Click here.

Rock Bottom. The concept of rock bottom has been a mainstay of the recovery movement since it began in the 1930’s. Its proponents say that only a rock bottom experience can shake off the cloak of self-deception and allow the addict to surrender to the need for help. Without such an experience, the power of addiction is too strong. The addicts’ ego won’t accept the truth that they are addicted and need help.

Rock bottom experiences definitely do exist. For a percentage of alcoholics and addicts, a rock bottom experience can be the deciding factor in choosing to start treatment. The words of Jeremiah 17:9 come to mind when thinking about Rock Bottom: “the heart is deceitful above all things, and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” Based on this verse, it does seem like something drastic has to happen to cut through the heart’ defenses and get a person ready to quit.

But you don’t have to wait for rock bottom. Stories like Joel and Tom’s remind us that each person’s path to recovery is unique. There is no one size-fits-all approach to recovery. In fact, there are some reasons not wait for rock bottom if you don’t have to.

Holding fast to the idea of a rock bottom can be too pessimistic. If so many people quit on their own, why place limits on what God can do? He can use natural means to help people quit. And he can provide supernatural support, too. Allow him to be God. Believe that anyone can quit at any time in the progression of an addiction.

The idea of rock bottom can become an excuse to keep using. Too many times professionals attempt to comfort a person struggling to quit by suggesting that they just haven’t hit rock bottom yet. Although this strategy may seem kind and non-judgmental, it can cause people to give up. “Ah, I really want to quit, but I must not have hit rock bottom yet.”

If rock bottom exists, it doesn’t mean that quitting will suddenly become easy. Quitting is hard no matter what.  Rock Bottom experiences don’t make cravings disappear and they don’t give you will-power made of steel. So, don’t wait for something devastating to happen because you think a Rock Bottom experience will give you motivation and power to quit. Get help at the first sign of an addiction.

Don’t allow the idea of rock bottom to prevent you from encouraging a loved one. It can feel vaguely wise and virtuous to wait for a loved one to experience a come-to-Jesus moment. After all, it is impossible to control another person’s behavior. Trying to do the impossible can wear us down and make us feel like we are losing our minds. But keep in mind the words from 1 Corinthians 13, “love never fails.” It’s never a bad time to tell some one that you love them. Never a bad time to be hopeful about their recovery. Don’t suppress your thoughts. Express your concerns and your hopes.

What is the alternative? The science on behavior change is clear. People move along a pretty standard set of steps whenever they make any kind of change. These steps, called the stages of change, are pretty universal. The authors of the stages of change recognize that the most common feeling we all have about any change is ambivalence. Ambivalence simply means that we have reasons for wanting to quit and reasons for not wanting to quit. 

 In a future article I will talk about how ignoring ambivalence when talking to an alcoholic or addict can actually increase their use.  But for now, just be encouraged that if you really take the time to listen, the defenses will come down and you will hear that even the most “resistant” person has some ambivalence. In a moment of clarity, they have reasons to keep using, and they have reasons to quit.

Warnings and caveats. Although many people who quit using substances never experience a single rock bottom experience, that doesn't mean they don't happen. They do. They are real. I am also not suggesting that because many people quit on their own, you should quit on your own. It is still a good idea to get professional help. In fact, there are medical risks to stopping some substances cold-turkey. Tell your primary care physician what is going and see if you need medical oversight while quitting.

Also, there is solid scientific evidence that having social support and declaring your intentions publicly can aid you making a change. So, getting connected to a community of people who have made the same choice to quit that you have is a fantastic idea.

Finally, quitting and recovery are two very different things. To really live as God intended, it's not enough to just quit. You need a new heart, new hobbies, and new habits. You need to GROW! Formal treatment, or informal 12-step or other recovery groups can help you grow. 

If you or someone you know are considering quitting, here are some great resources to help you make a decision:







You're Asking Too Much

DANCE  like nobody's watching
LOVE  like you've never been hurt
SING like nobody's listening
LIVE like it's heaven on earth

Personal Gripe. You may have seen a sign or knickknack with words like this at work, in a store, or maybe even in your own home. Of course there is nothing wrong with having a sign of this type. It can serve as a reminder to focus on what is important, and to forget about petty worries and concerns. Thinking less about yourself IS a great way to enjoy God's creation and gift of life.


But, what about the times you feel overwhelmed and discouraged? Would you give this advice to the man whose drinking just caused him to lose another job? Is it helpful encouragement to the parents bailing a son or daughter out of jail? What about to the town in the grips of an opiate or meth epidemic? Does it soothe? Does it comfort? Is it a remedy to the pain that addiction can cause?


Nope. It falls flat.


Even most cheerful of encouragements can become a burden to the one who cannot act on the encouragement because of a limitation, or a difficult life circumstance. 


If "dancing like nobody is watching" seems too tall an order, seek Jesus. Jesus offers us rest and restoration. He welcomes us to himself. And he heals and strengthens us. 


He'll never pile us up with burdens we can't bear. He himself will bear our burdens.  


If you are going through something difficult, and try as you might you can't dance, sing, and live like this sign demands--don't worry. All Jesus requires is that you rest in him.


Lessons from Relapse Prevention

Be killing sin or sin will be killing you! – John Owen

This is the one part of this article that is about theology. When God wants to accomplish his goals, he sometimes uses natural means. Like when we pray that God give us today our daily bread: God doesn’t cause bread to supernaturally appear in our cupboards. He graciously provides bread for us through the farmer, the miller, the baker, and the grocer. These are natural means. It’s still God doing the providing; but, the means are natural.

The same is true for those of us who ask for healing from substance abuse and dependence. God often grants healing. And he more often than not, He does it through natural means. One of the natural means for healing is called relapse prevention. Relapse prevention has helped many people get and stay sober. It can also be applied to any behavior we want to change.

What is relapse prevention? If you want to develop a relapse prevention plan, there are three parts that most plans contain.

  • One: Assessment. Ask yourself, what are the conditions that cause you to relapse? Who are the people? What are the places? What are the times of day? What are the emotions? What are the circumstances? Basically, what is anything that might become a trigger to using again? 
  • Two: Develop a plan to help you avoid triggers. If your drug dealer is on your way home, drive home a different way. If payday is Miller Time, make sure your money goes to direct deposit and that you have a friend to support you through the evening. Do fights with family members lead to relapse? Then learn some conflict resolution skills and if that doesn’t work call your sponsor, not your using buddies after a fight.
  • Three: learn ways to manage cravings. If you tried to avoid the triggers but couldn’t, there are some techniques that can help you get through the craving. [Most cravings last about 10 minutes]. Phone a friend. Pray for 15 minutes. Go to a meeting. Attend a religious service. Exercise. Use a thought stopping technique. Try to surf through your craving.

What works for one person, may sound silly or ineffective to another. You choose what works for you.

Here are a few resources on the web to help you develop your own relapse prevention plan. However, if you planning on going cold turkey, talk to a professional substance abuse counselor, or see your doctor first. They may recommend supervised detox first.

Even if your doctor or therapist give you the greenlight to quit on your own, why wouldn’t you seek professional help when you are putting together a relapse prevention plan? God gave us natural means so we would use them!

St Joseph’s I will not Relapse booklet. This booklet is easy to read and easy to use. It contains helpful checklists of triggers. It also addresses self-talk that can lead to using. It’s straight forward, and has a good amount of detail, without getting overly complicated. http://blog.stjosephinstitute.com/i-will-not-relapse/

Smart Recovery change plan. Doesn’t get much simpler than this. It’s a one-pager, suitable for hanging on a bathroom mirror or refrigerator. However, it has some powerful science backing it up. It combines Cognitive Behavioral Therapy techniques with a little Motivational Interviewing. Both CBT and MI are evidence-based interventions. SmartRecoveryPlan.

The website for Smart Recovery has a treasure trove of information. https://www.smartrecovery.org/

The DIY relapse prevention worksheet. Another one-pager. Super simple. No instructions required. DIY Plan.

The Anxiety BC relapse prevention worksheet. This is designed specifically for relapsing into anxiety. But tips 5-7 are priceless for anyone trying to avoid any type of relapse. https://www.anxietybc.com/sites/default/files/RelapsePrevention.pdf

As an added bonus, here are 10 techniques to deal with cravings. http://www.peggyferguson.com/userfiles/10846/file/articles2/Top%2010%20Craving%20Mgmt%20Tools.pdf

Does the Church Get it?

“They [the church] just don’t get it” – An Alcoholic in recovery for 20 years
“I’ve felt more comfort and understanding from non-Christian support groups; I wanted to get that same feeling from the church, but I just didn’t.” –The mother of child addicted to opiates.
“I felt so ashamed I couldn’t tell anyone, especially not people at church.” – A husband whose wife caught him watching pornography.
“Being around Church people just made my skin crawl. I felt their disapproval in my stomach.” – A young adult with diagnosed with anxiety and alcohol dependence.


How can it be that the body of Christ is so inept at reaching those hurting and damaged by addiction? It’s a confounding question. The followers of Christ, those who have experienced his unmerited grace, should be the front-runners when it comes to loving the sick and sinful.

Yet in my conversations with christians around the country, it is clear that the church is failing more often than not. My conversations convince me that we are failing because we are confused about addiction.

Addiction is a complex and thorny issue. The bible clearly labels drunkenness as a sin [Proverbs 23:29-35; Ephesians 5:18; 1 Corinthians 5:11]. And by analogy, other addictions would also appear to be sins.

Most addicts and alcoholics admit what they are doing is wrong. They recognize they need to change. The majority of addicts aren't in denial about this. They know all too well the personal cost of their addiction

Yet this sin is also a medical issue—profound changes in the brain and body accompany addiction. Those changes weaken a person’s ability to control impulses related to using substances and can create cravings unknown to those who have not been addicted to a substance.

Brain chemistry, genetics, and stress in early childhood also seem to be implicated in substance abuse.  The interplay of these factors is not clearly understood and scientists disagree to what extent each can be responsible for increasing the risk of developing a substance abuse disorder. .

Social isolation is a factor in addiction, as well. A vicious cycle can ensue with addiction. As an addiction progresses, the individual is pulled away from healthy relationships and activities and devotes more time and energy into the addiction. This can lead to isolation,  depression, and anxiety. Perversely, drugs offer a relief from this depression and anxiety. But the use of drugs and alcohol to relieve negative feelings simply pulls a person more deeply into isolation.  

Addiction also seems to be a sociological issue. Prevention research shows that risk and protective factors for addiction exist in the individual, the family, the school, the neighborhood, and the community. Policies and laws also affect substance use. Policies and laws can provide a context in which addiction thrives or is weakened. Economics plays a factor, too. Lower prices on the street, or increased supply, can play a role in the increase of substance abuse in communities.

When the church ignores the many interdependent influences that contribute to addiction, they are failing to provide true love and compassion. They are like the doctor who prescribes the same medicine to all their patients, regardless of the symptoms. Or maybe the church is like a builder who fixes a leaky roof by giving the home owner more buckets to collect the water.

To appropriately love people affected by addiction, the church is going to have to learn to listen better. We need to learn from the sufferer how much of their addiction is a spiritual, a medical, a mental health, or a sociological disease. 

Truly understanding addiction, will also change what we do to help addicts. If addiction is more than a moral failing, we need to do more than wag our finger at the addict. Instead, we need to be salt and light in every aspect of society that is involved in addiction. The implications of this are many, but could include the following:

  •  Creating a Christ-infused church culture where sins, weaknesses, failings, hurts, shames, and guilt are shared safely.
  •  Linking addicts to mentors and friends who support and care for them without judgement.
  •  Supporting job-training efforts
  •  Impacting laws and policies that affect addiction
  •  Providing financial support to doctors and therapists that treat addiction.

Addiction is big. It’s causes, like the roots of a pernicious tree, extend far and wide. It’s not enough to blame the individual; it’s our world that is sin-sick and broken. Knowing this should help us relate to those with addictions with more compassion and understanding.

Here are three great resources for understanding more about addiction:




Don't Mindlessly Accept Mindfulness

Watch out for mindfulness. Mindfulness is a form of meditation that is all the rage in psychology right now. If you’ve been to a rehab or seen a counselor in the last year, you’ve probably been introduced to mindfulness.

The central tenant of mindfulness is that our thoughts cause suffering. For example, you are driving to a class that your probation officer requires you to attend. You have the thought that you might be late. You begin to imagine all the consequences you will suffer if you are late: go back to jail, not see your kids while you are in jail, face the judgment and wrath of family. . .

It turns out you make it just in time, or you were late, but your probation officer decided not to violate your probation. But, you’ve suffered intense agony while worrying and fretting about being late.

Mindfulness practitioners would say the suffering you experienced while fretting about being late was causes by thinking and thoughts. The solution? Learn to let go of thoughts, to disconnect from them, and to question whether the thoughts are useful at this time. Be present. Be mindful.

There is probably nothing wrong with learning to take some of your thoughts with a grain of salt. Most of the worries we stress out about never actually come to pass. So, it can be a form of wisdom to avoid taking your thoughts about the future or past too seriously.

But, there are two things to keep in mind when thinking about mindfulness.

1)      The bible doesn’t tell us to disconnect from our thoughts and worries; it urges us to bring them to Jesus. Our solution to worry isn’t to dismiss our thoughts; our solution to worry is an historical event: Jesus’ perfect life, death, and resurrection.

Jesus solved every sin and situation we will face. To get comfort from this event, we don’t need to withdraw from our thoughts. Instead, we need to communicate our thoughts to Jesus. Jesus himself is kind and compassionate and will listen and comfort us with his word.


2)      Mindfulness is nothing new. It’s works righteousness. For example, I’ve heard mindfulness experts extol the virtues and benefits of mindfulness, and in the next heartbeat say, “but it’s a lot of work. It takes time to develop these skills.” In fact, the experts in mindfulness who have been studied by scientists are generally Buddhist monks who devote hours a day to the “discipline” of mindfulness.

So, the “salvation” offered by mindfulness is greater for those who have the intelligence, time, and diligence to work hard at it. It is no salvation at all to people with difficulty in concentration, or whose minds are impacted by illness or exhaustion.

Fortunately, our salvation comes to us through faith. Addicts, the mentally ill, CEOs, children, rich, poor. . . they are all given the unearned gift of salvation.

When trouble comes, it may be soothing to drift away from the thoughts that harass us. But we have something better than mere detachment. We have God. He is our refuge and our strength. He is an ever-present help in trouble.

He hears us. He listens. He helps. You can rest in Jesus and his promises.