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Episode 10

Resilience

October 30th, 2020

Announcer: Welcome to Addiction and the Family, “Episode 10: Resilience.”

Casey Arrillaga: How has addiction affected your family?

Female Speaker: It robbed me of my father.

Female Speaker: Addiction's affected my family in absolutely every way.

Male Speaker: It has caused a lot of turmoil.

Female Speaker: It goes back to what I understand is at least three generations.

Female Speaker: It robbed my daughter of her mother. It robbed my mother of her daughter.

Female Speaker: Addiction has made our family quite challenging.

Male Speaker: Addiction has affected my family tremendously.

Male Speaker: It's affected my relationship with my sister where I wouldn't – I'd go for months without talking to her. It's a very difficult thing for everybody involved. It doesn't just affect the one individual. It's a disease that affects the whole family.

Male Speaker: Addiction is spread not only genetically through some of my relatives and I assume ancestors.

Female Speaker: It's generational.

Female Speaker: I think of him every day.

Casey Arrillaga: Welcome to Addiction in the Family, a podcast by and for family members of anyone with an addiction. My name is Casey Arrillaga, and I'm a social worker and addiction counselor at both Windmill Wellness Ranch and InMindOut Emotional Wellness Centers in Texas. I've led hundreds of family workshops, but I've also lived the experience of being family to addiction as both a child and adult. My wife, Kira, and I were in our addictions together for over a decade and now have been in recovery together for almost 20 years. Join us as we offer experience, strength, and realistic hope about how you and your family can find recovery together.

Kira Arrillaga: Hi, this is Kira. In this episode, we will be exploring the vital human trait of resilience and we’ll look at what role resilience plays in recovery from the devastating effects of addiction, both for those afflicted with the illness and for those who love them. We will look at the idea of bouncing up rather than just bouncing back, hear examples of resilience, learn how to recognize it in yourself and those you love, and learn how to build and grow resilience. All this after a short break to hear from one of our sponsors.

[Commercial]

Welcome back. What is resilience? Simply put, it is the ability to recover from adversity, or as some people in recovery say, to get back up one more time than you fall down. It should be pretty obvious that this is a big deal if you’re dealing with addiction since the road to recovery is not a straight line or a smooth path. I found that when I dig into the story of anyone who “just quit one day”, I usually find that they actually try to stop many times, whether by making the decision over and over again, or by actually getting rid of all the alcohol or other drugs or dating or gambling apps or junk food or whatever else only to go back and resupply themselves all over again. Similarly, many family members can tell me about their firmly made commitments to stop enabling or to not tolerate intolerable behavior. When I hear such stories, what strikes me is that they got up and reached again for health and happiness, no matter how many times it had been, no matter how hard it looked, they gave it another shot. That’s resilience.

While the strength of resilience has long been recognized as a core human trait, the idea has gotten more attention in the first part of the 21st century thanks in large measure to the work of Dr. Martin Seligman considered by many to be the founder of the modern field of positive psychology. Right around the turn of the century, Dr. Seligman was the head of the American Psychological Association. He put out a call to his colleagues to join him in putting energy and resources into studying human happiness and how it can be improved. This may sound like an obvious idea, but most psychological theory focused on human unhappiness under the assumption that all we need to do is remove unhappiness and then happiness will naturally take its place. This is somewhat akin to trying to get physically fit by only removing unhealthy eating habits. As much as this is a good idea, simply eliminating junk food will not build muscle mass in the same way removing unhappiness will not create happiness. That, it turns out, takes separate effort. Beyond going research that resulted from Dr. Seligman’s call to action has taught us a lot about how to build hope, self-esteem, and connection to others. It turns out that this is a great recipe for resilience.

Casey Arrillaga: Before we go any further, I have to give a shoutout to another important pioneer in the field and that is Dr. Jason Powers. Dr. Powers studied directly under Dr. Seligman with one goal in mind, to bring the principles and techniques of positive psychology to bear on addiction recovery in hopes of creating better outcomes. Dr. Powers was in turn my mentor in this. While we no longer work directly together, I use the things he taught me all the time in helping people with addiction and their family members to live happier lives in recovery. Dr. Powers has his own podcast called Positive Recovery MD, like medical doctor, and he is one of the founders of the Positive Recovery Treatment Centers. It is with great pleasure that we welcome Dr. Powers to Addiction and the Family.

First off, before we jump into a bunch of questions and stuff, I just want to thank you for doing the work you do, both on the global level for bringing the ideas and techniques of positive psychology into addiction recovery, and on a personal level for training me and helping me to use these things in my own work in recovery.

Dr. Jason Powers: Yeah, man. Dude, right back at you.

Casey Arrillaga: I was writing the script for this episode and I was like, wait, I wish I had a Dr. Powers button that I could hit and you’d be right there. I thought, oh, yeah, they call that a telephone.

Dr. Jason Powers: That’s awesome.

Casey Arrillaga: We’re doing an episode on resilience. I guess I’ll start out by asking you how does the field of positive psychology view resilience?

Dr. Jason Powers: Positive psychology views resilience as an integral part of living the good life or being happy because things don’t always go your way. In fact, I would say that most of the time, resilience is the skill that helps equanimity more than the wellbeing advancers that they study. It’s as much of a background as strength does.

Casey Arrillaga: I wonder what does research say about resilience?

Dr. Jason Powers: There’s some people that seem to fall apart when adversity strikes and other people seem to have this magical potion or innate ability. The good news is that those people don’t have something that their born with that the rest of us can’t learn and those that seemingly fall apart or become dysregulated or out of whack when things don’t go their way, they can learn these tools. They’re really just tools. It began with the work of Albert Ellis and cognitive behavioral therapy. It’s like Aristotle is a footnote to all philosophy and cognitive behavioral therapy is the footnote to psychiatry and psychology.

Casey Arrillaga: Talking about that with cognitive behavior therapy, where does resilience come in there?

Dr. Jason Powers: Right, so cognitive behavioral therapy basically is looking at your thoughts and your behaviors and being able to alter one or the other. There’s a great saying in the 12-step fellowships that’s informal but it’s said all over the world. You can’t think your way into a better way of acting but you can act your way into a better way of feeling or thinking. I’ve heard it both ways. Basically, cognitive behavioral therapy enables your resilience by allowing us to pause and see the errors of our thinking and then reassign thoughts and beliefs to events that happened so that we don’t act out and become beholden to whatever emotion is whirling around.

Casey Arrillaga: Making it more specific around recovery, and on this podcast especially, we’re looking at recovery as being something for people with addiction but also for family members. What role would you say resilience plays in recovery?

Dr. Jason Powers: I would say that resilience is synonymous informally with emotional recovery or emotional sobriety is the term that’s more often thrown around. I think it’s important to note that addiction is a family disease. Somebody in the family system is happy to see their loved one get treatment but they themselves don’t get educated or address any misinformation that they might be acting on, then resilience will allow them to find help. What that might look like operationally is for families we all go through addiction together. Resilience is, for the one person that might be going to AA or whatever their recovery avenue is, that’s great. They’re going to be mentored and they might have to see a therapist to help them with their thoughts and behaviors, but I think resilience will help the family system as a whole because there’s a difference and adapting to the new system will require changing thoughts, beliefs, and so forth.

Kira Arrillaga: We’ll hear more of Casey’s interview with Dr. Powers in just a bit, but first, we want to look a little more at the role resilience plays in recovery. The basic reason we say resilience is so important in recovery is because recovery is hard. This is just as true for family members as it is for anyone trying to overcome addiction. In some ways, family members have a more difficult time of it because there’s even less of a sense of control over what is happening. This means that family members have to draw on their own natural and developed strengths in order to understand the ups and downs of both someone else’s recovery and their own. Without resilience, it would be easy for everyone involved to just give up and give in to the misery of addiction. Instead, resilience allows people to get up one more time, try something they haven’t tried yet, come at familiar problems with renewed energy, and find more strength in themselves than they ever knew they had.

I’ve seen family members shake their heads and people with addiction feel loads of shame because they have ben to so many treatment centers. Instead of looking down on such people, I see those who are always willing to give it one more shot. Someone pointed out to me recently that the only reason someone can be considered a chronic relapser is because they keep trying. After all, you can’t be considered to have relapsed if you weren’t trying to get sober. Relapsing over and over again means you were trying to get sober over and over again. Doing what I do, I get to see people find their miracle. Sometimes they and their family members want to give us the credit because we happen to be the treatment center where they finally get it, but I know better than to let my head get too big around this. As much as I’ve been proud of our efforts at every treatment center I’ve had the privilege to work at and I really love the team I work now, I also know that the person with the addiction undoubtedly gained something with each treatment stay before they got to us.

Whether it was a little more knowledge or a profound insight, they were able to take all those lessons and moments of growth and all the pain in between and meld them together into breakthrough experience. Without that person having the resilience to keep on trying, that moment would never have come. As we’ll hear in just a moment, resilience is not just an individual trait but something that can apply just as much to an entire family system.

Casey Arrillaga: Actually, that touches on something that you had mentioned earlier, some individuals seem to just naturally display more resilience. In the same way, some families naturally display more resilience. One bit of research I was reading just this morning talked about this how some families show more resilience, but just as you said earlier, what I think so exciting is that just because maybe naturally your family system doesn’t outwardly display as much resilience doesn’t mean that they can’t learn it.

Dr. Jason Powers: Yeah, that’s awesome. Did the study talk about any cultural differences?

Casey Arrillaga: One thing that came up is that so much research focuses on risk factors rather than resilience factors but I’m finding in the more recent studies more and more are starting to look at resilience factors instead. This applies to drug addiction but also internet, food addiction, just to name a couple. I read a really great article this morning that went into the neurobiology and epigenetics of resilience. For those that aren’t familiar with that term, epigenetics means the way our genes, our potential or our tendency actually expresses. Just because you have a gene for something doesn’t mean it’s going to happen or not happen but environmental factors will affect that. It’s looking at the epigenetics of resilience as well as addiction. The basic conclusion was that so much biological research is focused on finding a magic bullet medication for addiction.

The author said we might do better to look at how to enhance people’s lives and environments, teaching them better resilience skills and see improved outcomes. The author suggests we should spend more time looking at people who are showing resilience in high risk environments and figure out what are they doing right so that some of these things can be taught to those who struggle more individually and generationally through families that have problems with addiction. I’d love to hear your thoughts on that.

Dr. Jason Powers: Yeah, while you’re talking, I’m thinking it reminds me of – what was that study? That rat city –

Casey Arrillaga: Rat park.

Dr. Jason Powers: Rat park and your take on it when I brought that up to you, you had the most brilliant insight. I’ve since used it but those rats weren’t abandoned. They weren’t bullied. They weren’t ostracized. They weren’t shamed. They didn’t have trauma. Epigenetics basically is what we do changes the expression of our genes. We’re not hardwired. If you go into a system where you have a history of those things, like trauma, abuse, being bullied, and all that or a genetic predisposition, then you’re going to have changes. You’re going to have functional structural changes, both the hippocampus, the part of the brain that controls figuring out where you are and then the midbrain areas where trauma resides, if you have a really bad experience, then you react more strongly, you spook easy. There’s almost very little you can do long-term to change that but you can change the gene expressions so that it’s quieter to some degree.

There’s this movement to insert electrodes, there were these tiny studies where they thought they could cure addiction by eliminating that part of the brain [15:56] I know. That organ is so complex. We don’t even understand 1% of it and here we are trying to [16:02] with it. It reminds me back when we were doing frontal lobotomy thinking that that would cure it. Giving people tools like how to be a better friend so you’re more magnetic and you get that best resource, which is other people. You may not really know how to respond when people share good news or how to be a good listener or other thing so that you give people tools to change what’s around them. Hopefully, moving forward, we’ll be able to discovery new things, like instead of inserting electrodes to the brain, what’s the best kind of living situation? What are the best apps to use? What are the ones to avoid? Also just as important.

Casey Arrillaga: Parenting skills, the author of this research talked about that. They noticed this in animal studies. At first, they just thought it was genetic. Some rats were genetically better parents. Of course, our society being what it is and some of the research they found, they were focusing on the rat mothers, but then they found this also applies for the rat fathers. Dads, we’re not off the hook nor are we powerless. They found that these things were getting passed down but then they found that they could swap where rats with the better mothering skills were helping to raise the rats that genetically shouldn’t have as good parenting skills and they were able to pick up and improve their parenting skills intergenerationally.

The author was saying, first of all, we don’t want to overgeneralize rat studies because we’re not rats, like some of us, but we can look and say, similarly, if we look at high risk situations, places where we know there’s a lot of addiction, inner city, stuff like that, let’s look at the families that are doing really well, that are not falling into intergenerational patterns around addiction, and find out what can we learn, and from what we learn, what can we teach. Imagine a world where the first wave going in is not law enforcement to say, okay, we need to arrest a bunch of people. I know that’s a really hard job. I’m not bagging on law enforcement in the least. God bless them for going in and doing that job. It’s been suggested a lot of times, I may be a little biased as a social worker here, but what if we’re sending social workers in there at the same time? What if we are helping to build community support? What if we are looking at interventions where the first line of defense is to say let’s help you feel better about your life, and just like you were saying, respond better to things that are happening around you so that you’re not reaching for that quick fix.

It’s funny. The author and you both mentioned this idea. There’s no magic bullet cure. Everybody wants a magic bullet cure. That’s what addiction is. When I was in my addiction, I was looking for a magic bullet cure. Let me just do something so that I feel better and don’t feel so stressed. Somebody says if you drink this, smoke this, do this, look at that, be with that person, if you do all those things, instant cure. I’m like, perfect, there you go. We solved the problem. You mentioned the hippocampus, if I’m not mistaken, memory formation. I started forming these memories saying never forget. I found the perfect solution. I’m going to give a quick shoutout to one of your books, When the Servant Becomes the Master. That’s exactly what happens. This thing that is a magic bullet cure turns out to be a long-term horror. We have this opportunity instead to say, okay, what’s a long-term cure look like? Maybe it involves teaching resilience.

Dr. Jason Powers: Dude, that would be awesome. The thing about how animals learn how to parent from surrogates, this is a really informal way of saying the same thing, but what we tell people all the time early in recovery is allow others’ frontal lobes to be your surrogate while yours is healing.

Casey Arrillaga: I love that.

Dr. Jason Powers: Another great wisdom I heard and it makes a lot of sense, just allow others’ insight to be processed with your own while your brain is healing.

Casey Arrillaga: Yeah, now that you say that, allowing that surrogate frontal lobe in the tradition of 12-step recovery, you turn to a sponsor or other people in the group that have more experience and say, I’m pretty sure my first thought is a little off here. It’s one of the slogans you hear in 12-step recovery is think, think, think. At one point, I’m like, “Isn’t thinking what got me in trouble?” Someone said, “No, it means think three times before you jump in or maybe get three opinions from people who are more experienced.” Of course, again, this applies just as much to family members because family members can get stuck out there doing the same thing over and over again hoping for a different result even though they’ve never gotten one. There’s the opportunity to go into some of the family fellowships, like SMART Recovery family and friends or Al Anon or Families Anonymous and talk to some people that are farther down the path who can say, hey, I used to think that way and I found this works better for me.

Dr. Jason Powers: Yeah, exactly.

Casey Arrillaga: We’re such a social and tribal animal that relying on social support is very healing for our brain and for mental health.

Dr. Jason Powers: That’s the greatest resource for everything, for both building resilience and enhancing joy.

Kira Arrillaga: Resilience is often described in terms of bouncing back or returning to a previous state after undergoing stress, but some in the positive psychology field say we can do better than that. Instead of bouncing back, we look at bouncing up. This involves not just getting back to your previous state but instead seeing where you can grow from adversity. Casey and Dr. Powers talked about this a little bit.

Casey Arrillaga: One of the ideas that you taught me was the idea of bouncing up so not just bouncing back. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Dr. Jason Powers: Yeah, absolutely. That’s in the context of a traumatic event, like, again, another awesome Caseyism is when I say post traumatic, what do you hear? People say post traumatic stress disorder because everybody has heard of that. When bad things happen, most of the time people have post traumatic growth which is bouncing up. It doesn’t really get as much press. There’s more reports of post traumatic growth than there are post traumatic stress disorder. I wouldn’t throw my kids in war-torn Kasava during the wars and go, all right, you’ll thank me later. It just doesn’t work that way. We don’t like when those things happen but people get through those and they don’t just get back to where they were but they have a deeper appreciation of little things. Their sense of self is enriched. There’s more meaning and purpose in life. There’s a lot of things that happen. That’s where the bouncing up happens.

Casey Arrillaga: Addiction is going to be traumatic. I’d say a lot of people go into addictive behavior because they have past traumas, but I’ve said to my clients for years now, if you had zero trauma going into your addiction, you’ll have plenty coming out the other side. That’s true for family members, too. Families get totally traumatized, individually and as a system. Being able to recognize that there’s an opportunity to come out of here not just the same because I’ve heard so many family members say, oh, I just want my old so and so back. I’m like, we’re going to do better than that because there’s an opportunity in recovery to come out better than what you started and better than what you would have been if you never had to deal with the addiction in the first place.

Dr. Jason Powers: Exactly.

Kira Arrillaga: It is important to note that many people do not move straight from trauma to bouncing up. If someone experiences PTSD or other trauma reactions, including addiction, depression, anxiety, etc., it doesn’t mean they aren’t as strong or that they’re somehow less than. The difference is often a combination of genetic and environmental factors that nobody chooses for themselves, which is to say that it’s as much luck as anything else. The ability to resiliently bounce up can be taught and practiced, however. Those of us who find that post traumatic growth and bouncing up do not come as easily or naturally, some of the things that can help are getting professional assistance, especially counseling techniques such as EMDR and internal family systems therapy and support groups for people who have gone through similar experiences.

Some people find that recovery fellowships have played an important role in helping them to bounce up. Casey and I both needed a lot of time and help to deal with our traumas but we’ve both learned and now teach how to not only survive trauma but to learn and grow from it. Our lives are dramatically better than they once were thanks in part to the fact that we continue to work on our recovery from the effects of trauma, often with help from others. This is an important idea for family members to understand since many of them have said they want to get past the addiction, treating it like a bump in the road. Such sentiments are very understandable but to live a functional and happy life, the person with the addiction will have to keep working on their recovery to come out better than how they went in. That is the route to bouncing up.

Luckily, recovery offers many opportunities to do this, not only for the person with the addiction but also for the family members. Living with addiction can be traumatic and family members have an equal opportunity for growth in the face of this adversity. Family members might learn to accept more support, let go more, or develop a deeper spiritual relationship. Such things may start as ways to survive the addiction but they also present mechanisms by which the family can come out better than it started. These positive coping skills may be continued long after recovery is stabilized. When we return, Casey and Dr. Powers will talk about recognizing and building resilience.

[Commercial]

Let’s return to the interview.

Casey Arrillaga: What are some ways that people seeking recovery, including family members, can recognize resilience in themselves?

Dr. Jason Powers: Think about hard things you’ve been through, challenges, not just trauma, but how have you dealt with setbacks, how have you dealt with hardships. The big trauma is easy to recognize and you may or may not have gotten through them, but if you can look for little wins in your path, then you see that there’s been resilience in action. Nothing is too small because when we teach people resilience and we have them look at their thinking errors, we ask them just think of something small that happened that created unwanted emotions or actions. It could be that my wife spilled orange juice on the floor in the kitchen and it got all over the dog. I remember somebody using that as an example.

Casey Arrillaga: I think I remember that story.

Dr. Jason Powers: Look for little things that cause irritation, annoyance, just something didn’t go your way, and how did you deal with it. There’s going to be a lot of examples where we didn’t deal with it the way we wanted but there’s going to be examples that we were able to compartmentalize it or whatever. Those little things are resilience. We down play little wins too much. If you think I’m not resilient, I’d say au contraire. I would bet with some investigation you’d find it.

Casey Arrillaga: What do you recommend for people who are looking to build their own resilience?

Dr. Jason Powers: If you want to build your own resilience, work with somebody that could help guide you. It’s hard to self-direct when we’re not aware of our blind spots and our cognitive thinking distortion and that type of thing. There are books. I learned a whole lot from just the book Authentic Happiness by Seligman because he goes over how to do the ABCs, which is [28:46], thoughts or beliefs, and then emotions or actions. That really helped me but I do have a lot of background in that so I was able to do it. You might be able to do it on your own and that’s a great start.

Casey Arrillaga: I was going to give a shoutout for the book Hardware and Happiness by Rick Hanson also. I got a lot out of that one.

Dr. Jason Powers: Hardware and Happiness, yeah.

Casey Arrillaga: Yeah, Hardware and Happiness had a lot of concrete positive psychology suggestions about how to create greater happiness and through that I think greater resilience. My last question for you, what is your best moment of resilience?

Dr. Jason Powers: Oh, wow. It’d have to be when I was in rehab and I thought my life was completely over. I mean, I was completely devastated. I spent the last two thirds of when I was in active addiction avoiding getting caught. I didn’t want awareness. I didn’t want other people to know I had it. Just hiding it, but of course, it was repressing and it was getting more difficult to do so, but coming out and people knowing that I was – the worst thing in the world, I thought, was devastating. I thought my life was over. My wife and I were separated at the time. Everything was gone. I was hopeless, helpless, not suicidal but just in this pit. There was a lot of ways that I got out of it. That was the most resilience I showed because everything was [30:10] and just crawling back out of the pit slowly and being patient and allowing myself to be imperfect doing it and showing others my work and all and accepting myself. I think that’s got to be the greatest resilience victory ever.

Casey Arrillaga: That’s beautiful. Thank you so much. Before we close up, take a moment and plug things. Where can people find you, follow you more on your work?

Dr. Jason Powers: Oh, cool. Yeah, so there’s a podcast that I’m hosting called Positive Recovery MD which you can find where you find podcasts. I’ve worked at Positive Recovery Center so if you just go to Positive Recovery MD or Positive Recovery MD podcast, either of those, you’ll be able to find where I work and the work we do and that type of thing.

Casey Arrillaga: Absolutely, and for the listeners out there, in case it wasn’t clear, it’s MD at the end, like medical doctor, like Dr. Powers is. It has been fantastic and love to have you back again. Love to stay in contact because it’s so good to talk to you.

Dr. Jason Powers: All right, man. Talk to you later. Bye, Casey.

Casey Arrillaga: It is always such a pleasure talking to Dr. Powers. After we recorded this episode, Dr. Powers graciously invited Kira and me to be on his podcast at positiverecoverymd.com. Every episode is worth checking out. Kira and I are on Episode 30 with Dr. Powers and Julie Denofa, two great people to talk about for positive psychology and recovery.

Thanks for being with us through another episode of Addiction and the Family. As they say in many recovery meetings, take what you liked and leave the rest. Go out and explore the possibilities for recovery in your life and give your loved ones the space and dignity to make their own choices.

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Kira Arrillaga: Addiction and the Family is produced, written, and engineered by Kira and Casey Arrillaga, with music by Casey.