anxiety, avoidance, depression, escape, Grief

Our Culture Of Evading Pain

“Pain is inevitable.  Suffering is optional.” -Haruki Murakami

Over the years, I have often been asked about what I have observed to be common themes in my work.  While there are a few, the desire to avoid pain is one of the most prominent ones.  None of us, including myself, want to feel the empty pang in our stomachs or the heaviness in our hearts that personal suffering brings.  Evading reality has become an extremely profitable market for businesses and increasingly easier for us to accomplish. You can shop online, have alcohol delivered to your house, text a past lover, pop Xanax, eat comfort food, or escape by binging on Netflix. We have created a culture full of flippant phrases that further encourages avoidance.  Some of these phrases are: The only way to get over someone is to get under someone else, there are plenty of fish in the sea, emotions are for the weak, other people have it worse, and be thankful for what you have.  All of these imply that feeling happy is the goal we should all be aiming for in life.

The goal of being happy is contrary to reason. This way of thinking is at the heart of why so many people are dissatisfied and disconnected to others.  We need to feel heartbreak, loneliness, disappointment, and every distressing feeling we have in order to be competent emotional humans.  We do not move on from people, we learn to live without them.  We are able to feel joy when we feel the depth of grief and we learn to grieve when we sit in the messiness of it.  We need to learn to tolerate it so that it will eventually lessen or stop altogether.  When we escape with the instant band aids we have at our fingertips, we only bury the wound rather than allowing it to heal with a scar.  Scars from life are not avoidable. They serve to make us informed about ourselves, others, and the world around us.  They make us stronger than we were before.  Feeling pain is how we heal.

There is also a desire to stop others from feeling discomfort. It is frequent that parents get new puppies right after the family dog dies to protect their children from the loss.  It is important for all of us to remember that sadness is reparative.  Do not feel pity for your grieving loved ones or talk them out of it.  Hug them, sit with them, and most of all honor their pain because it is how they will reach deep-rooted contentment in their lives.

anxiety, depression, substance use

5 Myths About Drug and Alcohol Misuse 

“A theory that is wrong is considered preferable to admitting our ignorance.” – Elliot Vallenstein, Ph.D.

Here is a list of common misconceptions about treatment from my experience in working with addiction.  I wrote this in 2014 while working as a therapist at a San Diego drug and alcohol outpatient center.

Myth #1: “I have a chemical imbalance. Talking doesn’t seem helpful.

From my experience, this way of thinking actually hinders treatment progress. Not only is this an oversimplification of what occurs in the brain, but externalizing the problem allows for feelings of helplessness. For example, if a problem is due to deficits in one’s brain chemistry, then theoretically there is little someone can do to remedy the issue besides take a pill to increase serotonin levels. The idea of a “quick fix” is alluring for many reasons, but sadly it does not exist. Everything in our life alters our brain chemistry to some extent, including all forms of psychotherapy. While biological factors are undeniable, our environment shapes us just as much. This is good news because it means that we can learn how to change thinking and behavioral patterns, alter attachment styles, and learn how to cope more adaptively. In doing so, one gains self-confidence and a sense of mastery over their life. Thus, time-limited medication use combined with psychotherapy can be the most effective route to take.

Myth #2: “I’m ashamed I need help. I should be able to do this, but I guess I’m just weak.”

This one makes me cringe each time I hear it. Emotional strength is the opposite of what many of us have been taught. We all need help from others at times. Knowing when to reach out is courageous and shows great emotional strength. Hiding our emotions and keeping them stuffed inside can be quite damaging to our mental health as well as our interpersonal relationships. Doing this is akin to shaking a soda can and then opening it up. Eventually the emotions will leak out or burst in a way that is probably unhelpful. The more we understand this, the less we will need to concern ourselves with the stigma surrounding mental health. Hopefully the end result will be more people getting assistance with their suffering.

Myth #3 “I don’t understand why my child is using and/or sad. They have everything they could want. They have no reason to be unhappy.”

People often can appear to have all that they need (e.g., money, love, great family, etc.), but that does not mean they have no reason to struggle emotionally. For example, a son may not feel that he can live up to his parents’ success causing ambivalence and depression. Or despite how devoted a woman’s husband may be to her, she could unconsciously believe that she does not deserve to be loved as a result of previous experiences. No matter what someone seems to have, their distress is real and meaningful. From my experience, the more we acknowledge, validate, and try to understand another person’s pain, the better the prognosis for the person that needs help.

Myth #4 “My daughter has a unique situation. She is dual-diagnosed. She has horrible depression and anxiety on top of her drinking issues.”

It’s unfortunate that addiction and substance use are often seen as completely separate from other mental health concerns. Whether the addiction came before the mental health problem(s) or vice versa, they often go hand in hand. For instance, a college student may have always had underlying anxiety, but was not completely aware of what it was called. When he goes to college and tries marijuana for the first time, he may feel a sense of calm that he did not know he could feel before. With time he may be able to identify what makes marijuana enjoyable to him; it allows him to quell his anxiety. Treatment that addresses both the addiction and mental health problems seem to be the most efficient way to assist in maintaining recovery.

Myth #5: “Getting success rates of treatment facilities makes it clear which provider to go to.”

The definition of “success” may vary, depending upon who you ask. For some concerned significant others, the answer may be for their loved one to never use again. For others, it may be an improved quality of life for themselves and their loved ones. From a professional perspective, my definition of success is based on any improvement in emotional growth or reduction in substance use. Many times one of these leads to another. Change does not happen overnight and the more we acknowledge and praise the small steps, the closer individuals move toward the overall goal. That being said, it is understandable to get frustrated when seeing or experiencing slow movement. However, try to remember what it was like to learn cursive or memorize the times tables. Some people learn more quickly than others for various reasons and some need extra help. Be kind to yourself and your loved ones while they are in treatment. Without compassion there is often little to motivate continued change.