Monthly Archives: May 2018

Trained Monkeys

It goes something like this: You’re browsing YouTube looking for clips of kitty-cats for your grandchild, catching up on the latest clips from late night or realty contest television, or trying to find instructions for how to actually operate your newest whatever when, all of the sudden, the video link you click on hits a dead end. Instead of laughing through Fallon’s lip-sync battle with JGL or Emma Watson, you’ve been hit by – you’ve been struck by – a 500 Internal Server Error.

The error message apologizes that something has not gone according to plan and goes on to inform you that “a team of highly trained monkeys has been dispatched to deal with this situation.” You chuckle at the cute message, curse your luck, and keep trying to access that one clip of cats responding to errant cucumbers until YouTube gets their act together or you get ticked off and move on to something else.

While the idea of monkeys operating behind the scenes at Google to fix server issues at YouTube is a fun distraction when the site goes down while you’re trying to watch a video that will help you assemble your kid’s new bike at two in the morning on Christmas Day, it nonetheless plays into the ‘everything’s better with monkeys’ trope. And whether it means to or not, this television (and general visual media) trope serves as a reminder that monkeys can be trained.

Look no further than the other side of the world where the Chinese army has enlisted monkeys (you can’t make this stuff up) to work on at least one air force base in Beijing. Apparently, migratory birds have been incredibly problematic in the area, and the monkeys have been an odd, yet effective, last resort for destroying nests and scaring off birds. They work on command, walk on a leash, and only need an apple slice as an award for a job well done. Talk about low maintenance – just as long, of course, as you don’t mind cleaning up after your soldiers and dealing with their often unpredictable temperaments.

Of course, trained monkeys are also a key feature of that classic Americana production known as the circus. Under the shining lights of the big top, generations of circus goers have oohed and aahed in amazement as monkeys, elephants, lions, tigers, horses, seals, and many other animals have performed anthropomorphic tricks at the beck and call of their trainers. Of course, it’s come to light that the treatment of these animals has at times been far less than optimal, but the ability of the animals and trainers working together has resulted in some fantastic showmanship.

Those animals (we’ll stick with monkeys as a representative of the trained animal community) have spent countless hours under the direct supervision of what was most likely one human trainer. For better or worse, the monkeys have formed a bond with that trainer. They will respond to the visual and vocal cues of that individual. If someone else were to step in and try to run the show, chances are that he/she would fail miserable. Now, things may or may not go well were the monkeys simply left to their own devices, but that depends on how well they were trained and how well they know their routine.

Point being, the relationship which is established between a trainer and her monkeys forms a special bond. On some level, the give and take of relationship exists there. Even if the roots of the relationship rely on a system of punishments or rewards, there’s a certain level of trust which is necessary for those monkeys to be trained and to perform on command.

You or I would likely not walk into a circus tent and attempt to work with the monkeys, so why do we feel comfortable doing so when it comes to other peoples’ lives? I’m not comparing humans to trained monkeys, per se; however, it does seem to me that we often have trouble establishing and enforcing proper boundaries in our lives.

Attributed to being a Polish proverb is this phrase you may have heard before: “Not My Circus, Not My Monkeys.” I find myself saying it, out loud, on a fairly regular basis.

What does it mean? Well, let’s take that another route. What does it NOT mean? It does not mean that I am, in any way, shirking my responsibility. It does not mean that I am being a bad friend or colleague. It does not mean that I am calling anyone a monkey. It does not mean that I am dismissing the fact that there is a situation at hand which needs to be dealt with; I’m just not the right person to deal with it.

Just because someone has come to you – just because they want your help – does not mean that it’s appropriate for you to jump right in to start putting out fires. If it is your circus, if it is your monkeys, that’s a different story, but it’s not your responsibility to fix everyone or save everyone or jump into every sinking ship to try to bail the water out before it goes under.

Put simply, the phrase is a way to say that whatever situation has presented itself to you is not your problem. This is a way of saying that I am not the ringmaster here. I am not going to attempt to repair something that wasn’t mine in the first place. Besides, I have plenty of my own things to worry about.

I think this is especially true in situations where people want to be bailed out or find someone else to handle their problem. However you look at it, the phrase has great potential in serving as a reminder that I don’t have to get caught up in someone else’s drama. Regardless of whether they’re trying to suck me in or I’m overstepping my bounds and inserting myself into their junk, this idiom may be the way out.

Certified health coach Karen Ann Kennedy has come up with a great list of questions to help us figure out whether a situation truly requires our knowledge and expertise. She says, “When you find yourself getting sucked in to another person’s circus, stop and ask yourself this:

  1. Does this situation really involve me?
  2. If the situation doesn’t really involve me, what is my motivation for getting involved?
  3. What will it cost me to get involved? We’re talking time, money, stress, etc.
  4. Can I really bring something to the table that will help all parties get to a better resolution?
  5. What will happen if I decline to participate in this situation?”

She goes on to say that the bottom line is this: “If getting involved causes you to lose your peace of mind, step away. I guarantee you there are other ringleaders out there who would be happy to jump in and take your place.”

It’s okay to say no. Take the hard pass. If you need permission, you have it. Let people figure out their own junk. Chances are good that if a third party is actually needed and you don’t jump in, someone else will. Don’t feel bad about it. There’s more than enough on your plate already. Focus on your circus, your monkeys.

Ask [God] in your morning meditation what you can do each day for the man who is still sick. The answers will come, if your own house is in order. But obviously you cannot transmit something you haven’t got. See to it that your relationship with [God] is right, and great events will come to pass for you and countless others.

Big Book p.164

As for what’s going on over there – not my circus, not my monkeys.

– Alex Walker
Nie mój cyrk, nie moje małpy 

5 Common Misconceptions About Recovery

How much do people outside of the recovery community really know about what happens within the confines of programs and rehabs and therapy and meetings? Most of us are only exposed to perceptions of recovery which are displayed in media, unless someone in our circle of influence has personally dealt with addiction recovery. That means we’re faced with typified caricatures  in television and film or the latest tabloidization surrounding the Hollywood elite. While many myths abound regarding addiction and recovery, we’re taking this opportunity to dispel a few. If you have thoughts, questions, concerns, or ideas, we’d love to hear from you.

1) No one will understand me.
We have a tendency to believe, for some reason, that we are unique. Clearly it is an impossibility that anyone has experienced what I have experienced it the way I have experienced it. No other person has been through the same circumstances I have. In the program, we refer to this notion as being terminally unique. It’s called ‘terminal’ because, just like terminal cancer, this type of thinking will kill us. It keeps us sick. It convinces us that nobody understands, keeps us in denial, and pushes us right back into the outstretched arms of our addiction.

Typically presenting in completely dichotomous fashions, we tend to believe that others cannot help us because their circumstances are so vastly different than ours. This ‘all or nothing’ taking it to the extreme thinking is typical of addicts. We tend to either see ourselves as superior to others or inferior to them.

Superiority says that “I never went to jail, lost my home, lived under a bridge, etc. I’m a high-functioning alcoholic and successful businesswoman. What could I possibly learn from ‘those people?'” Inferiority, on the others hands says, “They’ve never been to jail, lost their home, lived under a bridge, etc. How could they possibly understand my situation or help me?”

The reality is that, for those of us in the rooms, our stories are the same. Seventy-five to eighty percent of our stories are universal. We have the same struggles. Our situations and circumstances may not be the same, but our problems are. Our brokenness and pain unite us in ways that nothing else can. And the healing that comes from walking the journey will only be heightened by the friendships we form along the way.

2) Substance abuse treatment is a quick fix for addiction.
First of all, I want to be clear that there isn’t necessarily a right or wrong way to recover so long as the method you choose works. I’m personally going to advocate for a Christian, 12-step model of recovery and aside from that promote 12-step models in general because of their religious nature, but other methods exist. If you need to explore them, please do so.

Likewise, there are different treatment centers and options available. Where you go might depend on your financial circumstances ans insurance situation, but real help can be found regardless of your present financial situation. Having said that, a highfalutin, luxury treatment center and a no-nonsense, free to you, work program treatment facility can both work for you, as could anything in between. The key to a successful treatment program is not the facility or the staff but you. Your willingness to learn, grow, and work will, more than anything else, determine your level of success or failure in treatment.

Treatment is not a quick fix for addiction and my not be a fix at all. Twenty-eight days is an insufficient amount of time to achieve sobriety. Sixty days is an insufficient time to achieve sobriety. Am I saying that you should spend 90 days or 6 months or a year or more in treatment. Yeah, maybe. Inpatient treatment is one option, and plenty of people need dedicated inpatient treatment for a longer period of time. There’s also intensive outpatient treatment and halfway houses and Oxford houses and sober living facilities and meetings, meetings, meetings.

Treatment is not the end all be all; it’s not even the end. Treatment is the beginning. That piece of paper they give you at the end for “completion” or “graduation” is nothing more than a sheet of paper. Treatment is the beginning. Treatment is an opportunity. Treatment is a great place to get clean short term and begin the journey into long-term sobriety.

It’s also important to understand that going to treatment, or sending someone to treatment, is not a guarantee that someone is going to be “successful” in achieving sobriety. Some people need to go back multiple times. Some people need to try other options. Some people die. This is the world we live in every day.

3) Addicts have to hit rock bottom before they can recover.
In a lot of ways, this goes back to media portrayals of addiction and the need to define a term. A lot of us are just confused about what it means to hit rock bottom. Rock bottom does not mean one thing which can be unilaterally applied to all addicts. Rock bottom is personal. Rock bottom is the place where and individual finally comes to the conclusion that he/she is sick and tired of being sick and tired. But that point is going to be different for everyone.

Popular depictions of rock bottom display people who have nothing to live for. These people have lost everything, and it took them realizing that to take the necessary steps to get help. While that’s true for some people, others have different bottom moments. Some people only hit rock bottom in a manner that leaves them six feet under. Others arrive at bottom after losing very little but simply realizing that they’re in trouble.

One struggle of popular portrayals of bottom is that these stereotypes actually lead some people deeper into their addiction. Some addicts won’t accept that they have a problem or that they need help because they feel like they haven’t suffered enough. Ultimately, it does seem that addicts tend to hit rock bottom before they recovery; rock bottom is just a different place for different people.

4) Relapse is a normal part of recovery.
Unfortunately, this myth is one that we as a recovery community have taken to perpetuating. We give this advice readily to newcomers not because we see it as an easier, softer way but because for many, relapse is a reality. But relapse doesn’t have to be part of recovery. What some people hear when we tell them that relapse is normal is that they now have permission to relapse because that’s just part of the process.

The truth is that some people relapse early in the program and go on to enjoy long-term sobriety, whereas others somehow manage to find and maintain sobriety without relapse being a stop along the journey.

In the same vein, relapse is not the end of the world. It’s nothing more than an opportunity to learn from a mistake and move on. Don’t see every relapse as a chance to deconstruct everything that led up to it; instead, use it to once again admit your powerlessness and remember how important it is to stay away form that first drink just for today. The potential for growth is not found in falling but rather in getting back up.

5) Recovery is boring.
How could I ever have fun sober? Well, have you tried it? Maybe you haven’t, or maybe you don’t remember the last time you were operating without your addiction or compulsion of choice. Let me ask you a better question. Are you having fun now? Do you actually enjoy your life as it is, or are you too busy chasing the next high to know what’s happening around you?

If the primary goal of recovery is sobriety, we aren’t supposed to merely achieve and maintain sobriety but rather meant to enjoy sobriety. The amount of free time recovery uncovers which used to be consumed with chasing the next high and acting out is full of endless possibilities. Try new things. Figure out what your passionate about. Explore the potential opportunities presented by friends and family and program people and life in general. In recover it’s almost like there are suddenly more hours in a day.

There’s also this idea that I’ll never be able to go out with people anymore. I can’t be around alcohol anymore. Certain people, places and things are simply off limits. While that may be helpful for a while, and it is important to avoid anything that might be a stumbling block; we don’t actually have to give up going places where liquor is served or stop hanging out with people who do drink. Remember that it’s not our surroundings or circumstances which cause us to act out but something internal.

As such, it is the recommendation of AA “not to avoid a place where there is drinking, if we have a legitimate reason for being there” (Big Book, 101-102). The Big Book goes on to say that before entering into a scenario which might be somehow questionable we should ask ourselves this question: “Have I any good social, business, or personal reason for gong to this place?” Our social lives don’t have to be crippled by the errors of our past as long as we have a firm spiritual foundation and are capable of sussing out our motivations before entering new, different, or murky waters.

– Alex Walker