From Coping to Freedom
For the first ten years of my involvement in urban ministry, I mainly worked with children in the city. As I developed these relationships, I sometimes found out disturbing details about a kid’s family situation or life circumstance. Over time, I would often think, How could that mother say that? or Why did that dad do that? Then, when I moved to Oakland, CA, I started working as a counselor at a drug recovery program for women. It was there that I heard the “other side” of the story.
Many of the women in the program were mothers who had had disturbing childhoods themselves. The women shared about traumatic situations they had been through and ways that they were wounded. I came to realize that the struggles people experience in the city were a lot more complicated than I had first anticipated.
COPING THROUGH ADDICTION
In this series of seeking Sabbath Rest in a 24/7 City it is important not only to look at our city, our life, and our pain as we have over the last three months, but also to take a look at our own struggles. Out of our personal struggles we develop coping mechanisms that can keep us from being able to rest. One way we can learn more about facing our struggles is to look through the lens of addiction.
For a long time I was uncomfortable with the label of addiction. That was what “other people” dealt with, not me. I’m in control, I can handle myself, I am an example and a role model are statements I would make to myself. But then I found the language and models of addiction helpful as I tried to understand more about why I struggle. Why “what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do,” 1 as Paul would say.
Often our first assumption when we are talking about addiction is to think of drugs and alcohol. But the term for addiction can be broadened beyond addictive substances to other forms of addictive behavior as well. This could include our sexuality, eating disorders, workaholism, video games, and even being addicted to others (or co-dependency).
In their book, Healing Addiction: An Integrated Pharmacopsychosocial Approach to Treatment, authors Peter Martin, Bennett Alan Weinberg and Bonnie Bealer define addiction as:
“a persistent, repetitive, and often irresistible self-destructive activity that, at least in the beginning, is perceived as rewarding by individuals, but that robs them of time, resources, or the motivation to do the things that are part of a balanced life and may well have been part of their lives before becoming addicted.” 2
For the purpose of this article I am defining addiction as the coping mechanisms we use to keep us from facing ourselves and God.
The more I have learned about addiction, the more I have been able to recognize that a person’s struggles are not only related to their individual decisions, but are also deeply rooted in systemic and generational issues. The philosophy of the recovery program where I worked as a counselor was that drug use can be a type of band-aid to cover over deep wounds. As counselors, we were encouraged to look beyond the addictive behavior itself to see what was going on underneath the addiction. Similarly, as urban youth workers, it’s important for us to be aware of the dynamics underlying some of our own struggles.
FACTORS CONTRIBUTING TO OUR STRUGGLES
Every one of us is unique. We have different personalities, sensitivities, quirks, passions, triggers, and things that make us tick. Some of these distinctions are ingrained in us from birth, while others are formed as we develop. When some of our foundational development experiences are filled with hurt, we experience wounds that require us to develop ways to cope. While these coping mechanisms can get us through a moment or period of time, they can also keep us from addressing the deeper hurts. Coping mechanisms can also keep us from healthily connecting with others, including God. Two factors involved in creating coping mechanisms are our ability to self-regulate and to our ability to attach to others.
A significant period in our early individual development is from 0 to 3 years old. During this time there is a shift from being completely dependent on our parents to being able to self-regulate. Self-regulation means we can do basic things like walk, eat, and go to the bathroom on our own. It also means that we can ask for help, can feel our emotions, and safely take risks and explore. In essence, to develop the ability to self-regulate is to develop self-control.
When we don’t develop the ability to self-regulate, we tend to need something outside of ourselves in order to calm down. We can’t do it on our own. Some of our coping mechanisms have the appearance of being helpful (i.e. pouring ourselves into work, always taking care of others, or staying busy) while others we can recognize as unhelpful (drugs, eating disorders, compulsive sexuality).
Another factor connected to developing coping mechanisms is the degree to which we as children are able to trust the adults who influence us in our early years. 3 In the 1950’s, John Bowlby, studying two-year-olds left in the hospital by their parents, developed the theory of attachment. The hospitals at this time in London had highly restrictive visiting hours for parents, meaning parents were only allowed to visit with their children an average of a few hours per week. 4 Bowlby watched as the children would first protest, then experience despair, and finally would develop a coping mechanism of relational detachment. 5 When the parents returned, the children wouldn’t get excited. In the mind of the children, the parents, who had represented protection and safety, had abandoned them. The children therefore determined they had to take care of themselves and could no longer depend on others. 6
The same type of dynamic exists today. If we experienced abandonment when we were children, we often try to stay in control and not let others close. We have a hard time developing trust.
When these two tasks of early childhood-our ability to self-regulate and to our ability to attach to others-are short-circuited, they can become sources of our coping mechanisms in adulthood. Many of our addictive struggles are rooted in the way we search for soothing in external comforts or our need to stay in control and not be hurt by others. 7
ADDRESSING OUR STRUGGLES
Addiction in the urban community is often underestimated and trivialized or accepted as “normal”. While it may be comforting to look around and see others with similar struggles, it does not minimize the negative effects that our struggles have on us.
Our deep need to protect ourselves and to be in control can take up much of our energy and affect our ability to minister to others. Especially when we are in ministry, sometimes it feels like everything will fall apart if we stop using our coping mechanisms. When we try to appear in control and confident but internally we feel in disarray, we cannot fully be present to others. Sometimes we get caught up in caring for others simply because we believe it is how we address our own needs. 8 These are ways that our coping mechanisms cover up our need to face ourselves, and keep us from fully experiencing rest.
One morning in Oakland, I was walking to work at the recovery program when one of the dealers on the corner asked me where I was going. I strategically told him I was “going to work,” not sure how he would respond if I told him I was a counselor at a drug recovery program. But he pressed, and I told him. He smiled and teased me by saying, “Awww, whatya tell’m, ‘just say no’?” We bantered back and forth, and then he said, “No, really, what do you tell them?” I said that I don’t tell people anything. If they want recovery, I can walk with them, and if they don’t, I won’t. He seemed pleased with my response and said, “I think I have some people I can send your way.”
Focusing on addressing our own issues requires a commitment on our part. While some of us may need professional support, and all of us need a community to journey with, 9 no one can make us deal with our struggles. It is a process of acknowledging and developing awareness, establishing a support system, and learning about our unique triggers.
I personally have a very well-established set of unhealthy coping mechanisms I’ve been using my whole life. It’s always been with an implicit understanding that this is what I need to do “or else.” I never really cared to discover what the “or else” was referring to. A few years ago when I began a healing journey, I felt like I had two options. One option was to go on with my life as I had been, using my coping mechanisms. The only catch with this option is that I would now be aware that I was using coping mechanisms, and it would also mean I could never fully relax and be myself or be intimate with others. The other “or else” option was dark, unfamiliar, and completely unpredictable. To go that road felt as if I was choosing certain death. I had never related to Jesus’ painful prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane more. 10
I took the counterintuitive, dark, and scary road. I have felt incredible pain from accepting the things that have been too unbearable to think about and the situations that I have felt deeply ashamed by. But I have also felt incredible freedom that comes from honesty and loving acceptance. For example, I discovered support when I began speaking to my family members about things that we never talked about before. In addition, I have been less defensive because I have started identifying the ways I can push away the people trying to care for me.
I never thought it was possible, but I have discovered that I don’t have to rely on the coping mechanisms I have always known. They do not define me. While this is certainly a lifelong journey, as I have turned around to face myself and face God, I have experienced the “new creation” described in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “...the old has gone, the new has come!” The work of addressing my coping mechanisms has been hard and at times exhausting, but it is also what has enabled me to truly relax and enter into a Sabbath rest.
GOING DEEPER: Family System Dynamics
Another factor that affects us in our struggles with addiction is our family dynamics. Each family is different. As a kid, whenever I would use the strategy of comparing my mom to my friends’ parents to convince her to let me do something, she would say, “Other people, in other families, do other things.” As much as I came to hate that phrase, it was true-no two families are the same.
Within a family, boundaries may range from being very rigid to very loose. 11 A family member feels safe when the boundaries are dynamic enough to be rigid when they need to be rigid, and loose when they need to be loose. Unfortunately it is easier for a family to fall into one end or another of the spectrum. When family members feel too protected, this can lead to frail boundaries. When family members feel too unprotected, this can lead to impenetrable boundaries. An inability to set appropriate boundaries leaves a person at a severe relational disadvantage when they enter into the world. It is often characteristic of those who struggle with addiction to have a difficult time setting boundaries. The kids we work with often press in on us and challenge our ability to set appropriate boundaries, which is one of the many reasons it is important to set and maintain boundaries.
Every family also has a set of rules. These include both stated agreements and silent rules that everyone internally knows, though they are never discussed. Three silent rules that can stifle family members and keep them from trusting the family system are:
- Don’t talk.
- Don’t feel.
- Don’t take responsibility (In other words, blaming, justifying, and lying are all allowed.)
These three silent rules often appear in families with addiction.
Finally, all families develop roles for their members. There are explicit roles like mother, son, and sister, but there are many implicit roles as well. These are roles like hero, scapegoat, and mascot. In healthy families, these roles are intended to be interchangeable and shared by all the family members. In families with addiction, these roles get permanently assigned to particular members. When this happens, it limits the growth of the family member and the family as a whole.
Our families are the places where we have the opportunity to learn about ourselves and to be intimate with others. To do this, we need to feel safe and cared for. Boundaries, rules, and roles, when modeled to us in healthy ways, can help us feel care and safety. When children don’t learn these things in a family system, they then must go into the world without the tools they need to express themselves and connect with others. Naturally, this can lead them to struggle as adults.
Our churches or youth ministries often function just like a family system. How are we to know how to help our teenagers through their individual development, or help our young people develop attachments, or model appropriate boundaries, rules, and roles if we never learned these things ourselves? While it may be appropriate to lament these disadvantages, if we are able to focus on addressing those areas now, we can model this developmental process for any of our youth who also did not learn them.