On September 12, 2001, the day after the infamous 9/11, I came to the reality of the personal hell I had created. The falling of the Twin Towers in New York City and the close of the stock market helped me awaken to the realization that I was going to lose the last of my father’s inheritance, $450,000 in all.
After living for six years in an adulterous affair, I knew I would be excommunicated from my church. I had lived much of my life in fantasy. I lied to myself and everyone around me, trying to pretend I was something other than a mere mortal.
I thought I had a direct pipeline to God, but, in reality, I was possessed by an evil spirit that had for many years convinced me that I was above the law of God. Prior to that, I had lived a lifetime with an inferiority complex on the edge of the commandments of God.
On the outside, I pretended to be a superior being, but on the inside I was a shell, a hollow nothing. I was pretending to be righteous, but was actually living my own brand of religion. I was in a fog, thinking I was talking directly to God, when I wasn’t.
On that day, 9/12/11, I sat in my Lexus, which I knew would soon be gone, having a conversation with the voice in my head. I asked a very pertinent question that I should have asked years before. “If you are God, like you said you are, and I have been doing what you told me to do, why am in such as mess?”
It responded, “I am not God.”
“Who are you, then?” I asked.
“Who do you think I am?” it retorted.
“Why did you do this to me?” I again inquired.
“This is what I do. You have been had,” it gloated. “You will never get away from me, never get out of this hole. I will destroy you.”
I was dumbfounded. I had believed a lie!
“Now that I know who you are, I will never consciously listen to you again,” I cried. “I may have been had, but I will not be had knowingly.”
After confessing to my precious wife the exact nature of my transgressions, she realized that she couldn’t live with my adultery, lying and arrogant deceit. She packed my bags and set them outside. I moved into a motel with everything I could fit into an old Dodge van. Our children were grown and gone, and we divorced. Pain became my teacher.
I was confused. I had no feelings at all for the other woman in my life, but I had become addicted to sex. It made me sick, like having eaten too much chocolate cake. I had reached for something easy and comfortable, something lazy and selfish, and now I regretted it.
The pain of my guilt was overwhelming. I was racked with torment for my sins. I felt so flat, so broken, so foolish that I would never be worthy of any other human interaction. I felt utterly doomed. Not only did I want to die, I wanted my mind to cease to exist so I would no longer have any memory of the horror I had created for myself and my family. I faced a crisis of hope.
I spent over two years in almost total depression. The jeering voice in my head reminded me daily how stupid I was for believing the lies. My anger was directed inward. I felt ashamed of my very self. I actually helped the de-motivator to do its job of destroying me.
“I’ve not just screwed up,” I said to myself, “I am a screw-up.” In this way, I felt sorry for myself and became my own worst enemy.
I envisioned several means of suicide, and I might have followed through and done it, except for a realization that came upon me. If I tried to go to sleep to this life, I would just wake up miserable somewhere else without the ability do anything to change my situation. The only thing I could imagine that was worse than the hell I was in was to be in that hell forever.
I knew I had to live and change my life. I left the community where I had raised my children, doing so at the invitation of the religious congregation I had been attending. I moved 1,000 miles away to the area of my nativity. I moved in with one of my married daughters, who had developed an especially compassionate soul. Because of her own experience with pain, she found room in her heart for her disastrous father.
I found a menial job at a local retail outlet and tried to get some semblance of life back. I started attending 12-Step Addiction Recovery meetings, and the process rejuvenated my body and spirit.
In my course of study, I read Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Franco, who survived the holocaust in Poland during World War II. With all of his family gone, he asked himself, “What is the point of living?”
Then, he turned a corner. Even in the concentration camp, he realized that he still had freedom of thought. He made the commitment not to allow the Nazis to control his thinking or make him bitter, and that became the purpose of his existence. The key to survival is what we think about the circumstance in which we find ourselves.
I looked at my own experience. What could I learn from it? A light went on in my head, and I saw that I had been beating up on myself. Eventually, I realized that there is nothing that happens to me that is not in my own best interest, should I choose to see it that way.
When I was a four years old, someone told me that I was trash. Although it was a lie, I believed it. No matter what I tried to accomplish in the ensuing years to prove that I was worth something, deep in my core, I didn’t believe I was worthy of being loved.
Something similar happened in the Garden of Eden. After being deceived by Satan, our first parents attached a destructive meaning to their experience. They believed the lie and internalized it—“You are naked, flawed, something to be ashamed of, and you should be afraid to talk to God about it.”
In reality, the only way to clear up the deception is to talk to God about it! Our worth in the Creator’s eyes never changes. He loves us unconditionally, like we love our own little children, no matter whether they make messes or perform well.
Addiction is fueled by flawed core beliefs. As I came to understand this, I began developing a new story about myself. Old story: I am a worthless piece of human flesh and will never be any different. If anyone really knew me, they wouldn’t want anything to do with me. I must therefore hide my true self.
New story: My life is not worthless, just out of control. I need divine intervention to restore my sanity. I make a conscious decision to turn my life and my will over to that divine intelligence. I choose to consciously decide what I will think and make a habit of choosing the thoughts that govern how I will act.
Where I had heard a voice tell me, “You are worthless,” I also knew that I had heard a voice tell me, “You are a child of God.” Which of these voices was true? What would a loving Father say to me? I believed the peaceful, benevolent voice.
I acknowledged the painful feeling of being so flawed that I was unworthy, but I was willing to change. I was willing to remember my Savior and keep his commandments. In my mind and out loud, I repeated to myself, again and again, virtuous thoughts, sayings and scriptures. These thoughts drove my behavior, filled up my mind and left no room for negativity. Finally, it broke the shame cycle.
I declared a new me! I erased the old story in my mind and gave myself a new one. At this point, magic started to happen. I felt hope and peace, and my life began to turn around. I learned more from my own addiction experience than I did from getting a doctorate. My professional life improved, and I found a position as a licensed therapist.
The next miracle was making friends in addiction recovery group I initiated. These men got to know me, and they not only lifted me, they loved me. I experienced real love, perhaps for the first time in my life. To be loved in the face of your own reality and still be accepted is the real thing. It made me want to be a better man.
This band of brothers still meets with me every Sunday morning at six o’clock in the morning. I go fishing with these guys, play scrabble and share my heart and soul with them. They are the returning prodigals around whom God has wrapped his arms in a warm embrace and welcomed back into his fold. These people are my friends, and I love them because they loved me first.
One of the most poignant lessons of my life is realizing that I can change my story. By changing my story, I not only created a new ending, I created a new beginning!
NOTE: Dr. Steven Bunnell retired after 38 years as a licensed clinical social worker. He continues helping people overcome their addictions by recreating the story they tell themselves.