“To go home to my family was both painful and also very embarrassing to me. It seemed like if you were to walk in, you wouldn’t see me anywhere, because I was just a little tiny water droplet or something. That’s how powerful a hold lifelong interactions can continue to have.”
Journey of Integral Recovery podcast co-hosts, John Dupuy, Dr. Bob Weathers, and Douglas Prater, share their wisdom, experience, compassion, and humor on the subject of surviving the holidays—whether you are facing loneliness and isolation or relatives with whom there is a total disconnect and possibly a history of pain and misunderstanding.
KODAK HOLIDAYS…. NOT
John: I remember when I lived in the Bay Area, there were AA meetings going on literally 24/7 during the holidays, because this was the hardest time not to relapse. Sometimes, we’ll find ourselves really alone and sad, and of course that can be a trigger. And then the other thing would be that we actually do go home for the holidays, or family shows up at our place, and I don’t know about you, but we have some issues in my family, one or two. And that can really be hard.
You may have the proverbial conversation with everybody at Christmas dinner: Uncle Donald has a Make America Great Again! sweatshirt on, Aunt Suzy is a liberal progressive environmentalist, your father is a fundamentalist Christian, your brother is an atheist economist, and half the family roots for LSU and the other half for Alabama. So, with all of these subdivisions, you’re trying to walk a tightrope thinking, “Oh my god, I can’t believe that idiot just said that…”
There’s all that, and then assuming a lot of us are participating in our own inner work and practice at this point, a lot of stuff comes up from the past. Maybe Dad is not the person he was back then, but he did some harm and damage when you were a kid—we all have our different versions of that—and this stuff can come up very powerfully and really be painful.
At the same time, we’re being marketed Kodak holidays with beautiful children, beautiful houses, the beautiful Christmas tree, beautiful presents, the beautiful wife, the beautiful husband, and the beautiful dog—and you’re thinking, It’s really not like that around here! Given all that, I’ll end my opening with one of my favorite Ken Wilber quotes: “If you think you’re enlightened, go home for the holidays.”
I FEEL LIKE I’M SHRINKING…
Bob: I remember coming back to graduate school after spending the Christmas holidays with my family (this was 30 years ago). I tried to describe the physical feeling I had while I was on vacation to the other students in my psychology classes—it was this feeling that if you could have observed me, you would have seen my physical body shrink in direct proportion to each second of nullifying interaction, until I was just a tiny little pinhead or nub. That was the subjective experience. It made me aware that this was a lot of what I had experienced over the years with my family and just how horrible it felt.
I recently had an experience with two of the same family members that required me setting boundaries. I was very uncomfortable with those boundaries, because it meant limiting my time with them. But I’m a different human being than I was 30 years ago, and now I’m aware that I really can’t change some of these interactions other than to limit them.
Doug: Bob, what you’re saying really resonates with me, too. An image that stands out for me from the Harry Potter series is at the beginning of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, they’re inviting someone over for a nice holiday dinner, and Harry Potter says, “I’ll be up in my room, making no noise, pretending that I don’t exist.” That was the way I lived for so long. The shrinkage that you’re speaking about was very real for me. I was just so ashamed of who I was and everything I was that I couldn’t relate to my family. I did everything I could to make myself as small as possible and not be seen.
Being in a very different place in my life now, and having accepted, for the most part, who I am as a person these days, becoming more comfortable with that in my own home and with my own family is easier for me. But, when I return and visit with people, in spite of forgiveness that has happened or continues to happen, there is a trigger that returns me to that place of wanting to shrink, wanting to be small, and at the same time, not feeling comfortable sharing some of the changes and positive developments, because the memory of where I was remains so strongly. I’m sure it does in their minds as well. They haven’t seen the day-by-day progression of changes within me. Part of that could be me putting words in the mouths of their minds, as it were, but it doesn’t diminish my discomfort in any way. I think the challenge all of us face regardless of the situation is remaining mindful through that.
When I go home this holiday season, what I’m planning to do is observe myself and my own reactions with as much presence and as accurate an eye as possible as to what’s going on in my heart and my body and my mind as it happens. To observe my reactions from outside myself and not be so identified with them, so I may deal with them more rationally.
John: Awesome, Doug. Thank you.
Here are some practical things I’ve learned.
5 PRACTICAL TIPS FOR HOW TO SURVIVE THE HOLIDAYS
• Always have your own vehicle. Do not get stuck with your family without an escape hatch. (I remember when we went to some place on the Oregon coast, my older brother who is a total control freak said, “Oh, we don’t need two cars.” It was horrible. I felt trapped; I panicked; I made a mess of it; and I got really angry.)
• In times of greater stress, practice more—not less, okay? Don’t be saying, “Oh, it’s the holidays, and I’ve got so many things to do, and I need to be with family too… I don’t have time to practice!” BS! (I just say, “I’ve got to go meditate and pray, folks.” If you have a bunch of religious relatives, they’ll say, “Oh, he’s going to pray, that’s great.” But basically, I don’t care. It’s what I’ve got to do. “Oh, it’s weird Uncle John.” Actually, the young people seem to respect it.)
• Get away and do physical exercise—whether it’s running on the beach, finding a gym, playing tennis, whatever. Keep your practices firm. No excuses.
• Set it up so you have contacts you can rely on, so there is someone to call when you walk in the door and all of a sudden you feel all your neuroses: “Oh, this is what it felt like to me as a kid. No wonder I got so fucked up!” Right?
• Sometimes you have to say, “No. I can’t go.” If you’re in early recovery from alcohol, and you have a family that drenches itself in alcohol during the holidays, i.e., Aunt Suzy shows up, gives you a drink, and everybody’s drunk in the first 4 to 5 minutes, sometimes you just have to say, “No. I can’t go.” And you can be honest! “Hey, I can’t be around you guys when you’re drinking because it makes me want to drink, and I have to stop. I’m not judging you. I mean, it may be working for you, but it’s not working for me anymore. I hope you can accept that. Anyway, I love you, and I mailed the Christmas gifts.” Then they get really mad (or they may not even remember that you weren’t there because they’re drinking so much). Either way, you have to protect your sobriety and your recovery as a pearl of great price (as I think it says in the gospels). It’s really very, very precious.
I had one client who always said, “Nah, it’s going to be different this time”—and he relapsed every Christmas. It was like in the movie Titanic, “Man, I’ve got this great big ship, and I’m headed for that iceberg, and it’s going to be different this time.” Sometimes, you just have to make these decisions.
WHAT TO DO WHEN WE GO HOME?
Bob: Thanks, John. I’m really aware that when I used to join the family in drinking, to salve the discomfort, it almost always exacerbated the problem. So that has changed for me now. But then you are left with longings for intimacy as well as the memories—there in our bodies—memories of trauma, or abandonment, or whatever it is that we’ve experienced. This has really been on the front burner for me this week; it’s the month of December, and as we move towards the holidays, I’m working with individuals for whom this is a primary concern. I can really relate, because my own addictive behaviors are historically so linked to the connection—or the lack of connection—in these important relationships. Just knowing this is bound to stir up all the demons, all the skeletons in closets. How do we manage that?
I like very much what you suggested as one element of it, Doug, in terms of an awareness; I was actually practicing it as you were talking, just breathing and being aware of how that will go for me this holiday season. And John, I love your suggestions—and I’ve practiced them really awfully in the past (laughs). You’ll say, “Bob, practice more!” Then I’ll come back from a family visit and go, “Oh, that’s right! I meditate! Gosh, darn it. I forgot all about that.” It’s just crazy! I think what happens is I move into a regressed, shrunken state, and I forget my resources. It’s almost like I need to tie strings around my finger to remind me of the truth of what you’re saying, John.
WHAT ABOUT MUTUAL RECIPROCITY?
Doug: With our knowledge of Integral theory in mind, do you think that when we return to situations like this it gives us an opportunity to practice by remembering that everyone is at a different level and everyone is a different typology, and to deepen our connections by seeing into their perspective, knowing that from where each person is, they are doing the best they can at their particular level of development, for their type and their current state of mind? That we can use this as a chance to be present, to listen, and to meet them where they are? In doing so, we strengthen those relationships and our connection by getting outside of our own wishes, desires, and egos in that way.
Bob: Cognitively I know the truth of what you’re saying, Doug, and I value what you’re saying in terms of being the bigger person—literally (laughs)—being the bigger person is like holding a worldview that’s inclusive of that family member. But the problem that arises for me is that non-reciprocity is triggering. And so, even though you or I might give that to somebody who’s operating at a level that’s less developmentally complex (to be politically incorrect), it’s not going to be reciprocated. What to do with that?
John: That’s a really great question. One of the things I think we have to do on the journey of Integral Recovery is we have to make a new family if our family is pretty whacked. Don’t rely on people that you know in your heart of hearts aren’t capable of being mutually reciprocal. We have to have support. You know, when I go home, I’d really like to call you, Bob, and say, “Hey, man. Getting hard here…” or whatever.
So, when all this stuff comes up, if you work it with mindfulness, it’s a great time for growing, too, and not necessarily a dangerous relapse trigger. It can also be, “Oh my god, I’m starting to understand the dynamics as an adult, as a person who’s learned a lot, who’s been practicing for years, and I’m seeing it from a totally different perspective, so it makes me have compassion, understanding for myself, and possibly for others.”
I’m thinking about a significant male other in my family with whom (I realized in the last couple of years) I’ve never had an extended conversation that wasn’t completely about him. The more I get angry or resentful, or even tell him about it sometimes—is that even useful? It might be, but maybe not—you just have to make that judgment call. Sometimes it’s like telling a narcissist they need to listen and take another somebody else’s perspective. They say, “What?!” They don’t get it, because you or anyone else is just an object, an “other.” They may see you as good or bad, you may bore or excite them, but it’s all about them. That’s a hard thing to deal with.
Bob: So how do you deal with this nameless family member—I certainly have a nameless family member who is very similar—with whom there really isn’t any possibility of reciprocity or mutuality?
John: Well, I’m the opposite of a stalker; I’m a get-the-hell-out-of-Dodger. But there have been a few times where I’ve had to work on forgiving others in the last few years, and that’s hard. It’s a process, and it just needs work. Just be aware. Kick into talking to God in the second person and say, “Hey, Lord! I need some support here because I’m about to throw this person through the window!”—or whatever comes up. That’s kind of how I do it. I keep praying and working and doing my meditation.
Doug: I tend to be very much like you, John. I retreat, go away, and do my own thing. That works for me. I am extremely introverted, but also, in the course of my addiction, in spite of my desire to be alone most of the time, one of the most defining elements of it was my profound loneliness and the desire for a connection. So, what you were both saying about the importance of building a community, having friends, and being prepared very much resonates with me. I feel incredibly fortunate now to have the two of you, the Integral Recovery community that we’re building, and the friendships that have occurred as a result of that. I hope that people reading this will use our Facebook community to connect with one another and really check in when things are hard, and know that we are here to support one another when other people may not get it, when we need a place for refuge.
AN ANTIDOTE TO PROFOUND LONELINESS
We’ve been talking about going home to visit our families for the holidays, but one of the travesties of addiction, too, is that people can lose all of that. People who maybe have been building a family for years and years may no longer have that. What do you do when the holidays come, and the memories of the family you used to have come up, how do you begin to deal with that profound loneliness? So, this is about the opposite end of the spectrum: not how do we get away, but how do we strengthen and build new connections and deal with the loneliness inside?
John: Doug, it’s brilliant you said that. And, you can even be in a room full of family and still feel completely lonely. Or, they may be away and you are left alone.
This happened to me one Christmas when I spent the holiday with people I had never spent Christmas with before. It turned out to be a beautiful time: On Christmas Eve, we went to evening mass at a Presbyterian Church, and we sat up on the balcony. I was aligned with the cross right in the middle, and when the choir started up, I thought, I’m not going to do the Episcopalian thing and just hum the sounds… To hell with it! I’m going to sing my heart out, because it’s breaking—I just want to connect.
So, I sat up there and let my Mario Lanza voice rip. The choir was like, “Dear God, who is that?!” But they didn’t bring out the net or the rope or anything, and I was left singing my heart out. (They were very kind when I left; everybody was very sweet to me.) I found a haven in the storm of my heartbreak with friends and I still feel very connected with these folks.
Bob: That’s a beautiful story, John. Just this past Thanksgiving holiday, I brought a whole bunch of my hand drums to a family and friends get-together. At the end of the evening, we pulled them out so everybody had a drum and shaker and so on, and that was one of those experiences where I lost about a whole hour of time—everyone did! It’s our version of what you did, singing your heart out.
That’s the antidote—recovering the self that shrunk down to nothing, recovering it and letting it express itself. There are as many ways to do this as there are people on the planet. For you it was singing, and for me, it was drumming. The thing is to remember to do that!
Doug: I really love what the two of you are saying. Previously, I would have let the profound emotional charge of that loneliness overcome me and sink into an abyss—which is no way to go. But channeling it into something creative, something artistic, something bigger than myself, and expressing that is a form of connection—not necessarily with other people, but with what it is really all about.
The work we’ve done through our meditative practice to strengthen and build that relationship we express in moments like that through our singing, our drumming, whether it’s playing guitar for me, or lately, doing more composition work on the keyboard. It’s such a beautiful expression. I think we can apply this even if we don’t have a particular creative practice per se that we’re doing.
How can we take this concept, this expression, and get outside of ourselves in other ways? Is there somewhere we can go and really lean into volunteering perhaps, giving back in some way, participating with a group of people through giving our time and our energy and our spirit to something that is not our own emotional baggage, but turning that around to create something good, something true, something beautiful in the world that we can lean in on and appreciate?
And, if there are children around, we can work on trying to make it a very special memory, a special time for them. No matter how bad things get inside my head, the surest way out of it is to lean into playing with my daughter and making things more joyful for her—reading with her or singing Christmas carols with her. So, whenever that opportunity presents itself, leaning into making something special for someone else is an incredible way to get out of your own muck and raise your spirits.
Bob: I’m going to follow what you’re suggesting, Doug. Find some way to enter into that flow state that is so powerfully evoked with children. It’s really about trying to find that inside of ourselves. I think that’s what got stamped out of me as a child. I feel that what gets lost is the spontaneous self that a child is. Then I feel like a cardboard Bob…why even bother showing up?
So, what would it be like to re-contact this spontaneous child within and without? What would it be like to really allow them to open me up into that same self, inside of myself?
John: Awesome, you guys.
COMING UP: HOW TO SURVIVE NEW YEAR’S EVE
Also, you may want to check out a powerful forgiveness meditation that Dr. Bob has practiced for many years that is now a new iAwake release called The Freedom of Forgiveness, with a guided meditation led by Dr. Bob, and accompanied by brainwave entrainment music created by Douglas Prater. We would love to hear your experience with this amazing soundtrack.
This blog was crafted from the transcript of an episode of The Journey of Integral Recovery podcast, recorded December 2, 2017, hosted by John Dupuy, Dr. Bob Weathers, and Douglas Prater, by Integral Recovery and iAwake Technologies’ editor Heidi Mitchell, www.heidimitchelleditor.com.
If you’d like to watch the podcast video, click here!
John Dupuy is the founder of Integral Recovery® and his book Integral Recovery: A Revolutionary Approach to the Treatment of Alcoholism and Addiction won the 2013 USA Best Book Award. John is also CEO of iAwake Technologies and travels internationally to teach and inspire on the subjects of Integral Recovery, Integral Transformative Practice, and the use of brainwave entrainment technology to deepen one’s meditation practice and in the treatment of addiction, depression, and PTSD.
A highly regarded recovery coach, public speaker, staff trainer, business consultant, as well as author and educator, Dr. Bob Weathers holds a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, with an M.A. in religious studies. Over the course of his professional career, “Dr. Bob” has provided tens of thousands of hours of therapeutic counseling and recovery coaching, working collaboratively with his countless, satisfied clients. He has also committed the past 35 years to teaching, training, and inspiring hundreds of graduate-level mental health providers at several southern California universities. Visit Bob at www.drbobweathers.com.
Doug Prater is iAwake Technologies’ multi-talented Creative Director and the developer of Stealing Flow. He is also an author, meditator, fitness enthusiast, and musician who holds a degree in Music: Sound Recording Technology from Texas State University. Born and raised in Littleton, Colorado, Doug also spent significant periods of his life in Austin, TX, and Atlanta, GA. Always longing to return to the mountains, he now lives in the Smokey Mountains of western North Carolina.