How memory works — and how memories can be “healed”

Coming to terms with memories of past trauma is a core challenge for many people
— and especially for people in recovery. The more I learn about how the brain works, the more hopeful I am about the prospect of healing in this critical area of life.

Bessel Van der Kolk is medical director of the Trauma Center at the Justice Resource Institute in Brookline, Massachusetts. In a really helpful interview with Krista Tippet in the On Being radio show, he makes the intriguing observation that, while most of our memories change over time (the details get fuzzy, the meanings we make of them change), for some reason, intense traumatic memories stay fixed.

By the way, if you doubt that memories change, just get together with your siblings some time, and start reminiscing about your experiences when you were kids. You will likely notice how differently your siblings remember things that happened than you do. It’s not that they have the same memory as you, but from a different vantage point … they often remember the same “event” very differently, with different details. It might even seem that there were two different events that happened, like you existed in parallel universes.

Over time their memory of that event changed, as did yours. The memories just changed in different directions. It’s likely that if you had captured the event on video camera in its entirety, you’d find that it happened differently than the “exact memory” either of you had.

Why do our memories change … and what does this mean?

Why is this? Why is it that our memories change? And why is it that traumatic memories don’t? And what can we do to “heal from” — or at least come to terms with — these traumatic memories?

This is important because unresolved early life trauma is often a key piece of the addiction puzzle. Many people develop the habit of reaching for what becomes an “addictive” substance or behavior as a way of coping with pain that stems from early trauma. As life goes on, experiences trigger that old pain, and we in turn keep reaching for that old addictive substance or behavior as a way to cope with the pain. Dealing with that unresolved trauma is essential if lasting recovery is going to happen.

Recent brain research offers some interesting insights about memory that may help us understand how healing happens. The most significant is this: Our brains are not computers that file “memories” away in a certain place on a hard drive.

Our brains do not retrieve memories …

our brains reconstruct memories.

They do this by taking fragments of data that we might think of as impressions, sights, sounds, smells, and feelings that are located in various parts of our “brain” (note that neurons are not always located in our head) and then pulling them together to create a memory.

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Some recent statistics about internet pornography

I’ve been working on a chapter for the second edition of the book “The Christian Handbook of Abuse, Addiction, and Difficult Behaviour.” This book was published in the UK by Mayhew Publishing, and unfortunately has had zero traction in the US or on Apparently it must be selling in the UK, because they want to release a second edition. Go figure! The first edition came out in 2008, and the publisher wanted updated statistics for each of the chapters.

So I did some checking. I don’t think it should be a surprise to anyone that Internet porn use continues to explode in growth. I confess that I was even a little surprised at how much it’s been growing. Obviously, porn use is growing along with the growth of the Internet, but did you know that porn now occupies a significantly larger percentage of web traffic than it did just 10 years ago?

Here’s some quotes from the chapter I’m sending:

Just how prevalent is Internet pornography use? Survey data and Internet use statistics show changing patterns in the past two decades, but high rates of pornography usage have continued. In fact, not only has porn use increased on par with the growth of the Internet, it has grown faster than the Internet and is now a larger part of internet traffic. The previous edition of this book cited data from internet service providers (ISPs) showing that 20% of web traffic was porn related. More recent data shows that currently that number has grown to 30% (source).

In 2013, Google research showed that porn sites get more traffic than Netflix, Amazon, and Twitter  combined (source). In the UK, as of 2013, porn websites were being accessed more than all social networks combined, and more than all shopping websites combined (source).


In the USA:
64% of American men view porn at least monthly, and the percentage of Christian men is nearly the same as the culture at large
79% of men ages 18-30 view porn at least monthly.
67% of men ages 31-49 view porn at least monthly.
55% of married men view porn at least monthly.
(Digital Journal, August 14, 2014)


In the UK:
70% of UK teens say porn is seen as normal by their peers at school.
46% of teens said sexting is a part of everyday life for teenagers.
2/3 of girls and nearly 50% of boys said growing up would be easier if porn was harder to access.
(DailyMail, UK, August 19, 2014)
75% of Christian men view porn at least monthly.
41% of Christian men admit to being addicted to pornography.
30% of church leaders view porn regularly
(The Way, UK, January 20, 2015)

In Ireland:
83% of men and 56% of women have viewed porn.
25% of these watch it weekly.
36% who are not in a relationship view porn weekly.
(Irish News, January 17, 2015)


In Australia:
70% of Australian men view porn online (according to research from University of Sydney, but other surveys show the number as high as 90%).
80% of 15 to 17 year olds have had multiple exposures to hard core porn.
(Newcastle Herald, September 12, 2014)

In South Africa:
67% of men view porn several times a week
(, South Africa, March 19, 2015)

In Trinidad:
79% of men watch porn
52% of women watch porn
Trinidad has one of the highest per capita rate of searches for porn on Google
(Trinidad Express, October 18, 2014)

Just fix this addiction, but leave the rest of my life alone!

manpornPeople who want to recover from addiction often face the same roadblock that sabotages other kinds of emotional healing — and many kinds of physical healing:

wanting to fix one’s problem without changing one’s life


We want to “fix” what we see as an isolated issue without getting at the real problem, which is deeper, and encompasses many facets of our lives. Not realizing how deeply rooted addiction is, we seek solutions that don’t involve drastic and multifaceted change in our lives.

People often come into the recovery process essentially asking: “Help me fix my problem, but don’t ask me to change other parts of my life. Leave the bulk of my life alone, and just take care of this addiction.” As if addiction is an isolated thing, and can be changed by small, isolated interventions!

A medical analogy

To use a medical analogy, we want to fix our addiction problem like we imagine we can fix a medical problem: taking a pill or getting a shot — without changing how we live our lives. The reality is that even with many physical problems, this won’t work. The physical intervention of medication won’t last, and if the person continues their unhealthy lifestyle, the problem (disease) will come back.

This happens in recovery from addiction all the time. And unfortunately, it also happens in recovery from physical problems too.

Take the person who has a very unhealthy diet, gets no exercise, and lives with chronic overwork and stress. They have a heart attack, and have surgery to repair a bad heart valve. They’ve “fixed” the problem, right? But you know what happens next. They go home from the hospital, continue with the same diet, no-exercise, and high-stress lifestyle, and in a matter of months they have more heart trouble.

Healing childhood trauma and heart surgery

This is the concern I have when people come to recovery who over-focus on healing from childhood trauma as the magic fix. They see the diagnosis and “healing” of this early life trauma as the equivalent to heart surgery that will fix their problem.

Please don’t misunderstand me here: I’m not trying to dismiss this important aspect of recovery. Do I believe that healing from early life trauma is essential for recovery from addiction (and also for happy living)? Absolutely. Do I think it’s sufficient for lasting recovery? Absolutely not.

Danger-Warning-1If our lives aren’t working — if we have unresolved spiritual/existential issues, if we’re in jobs that are overly stressful and/or unfulfilling, if we’re isolated and lonely, if our intimate relationships are filled with hatred, abuse, apathy, or neglect, if we’re living in perpetual financial crisis, etc., etc, — we will not find lasting recovery. I guarantee it. We will be like the guy who gets heart surgery and goes back to his old life and terrible habits. The problem will come back.

Then who can recover?

Maybe at this point you’re thinking: “Well then, I guess I can’t recover. My marriage and family life are in shambles. My spouse hates me because of the things I’ve done.” or maybe: “I can’t recover then, because I lost my job and now I’m working in a crummy job that I hate.” or “I can’t recover, because my spouse divorced me and now I’m living in a little apartment, and I’m super lonely.”

Addiction will bring all kinds of chaos and pain into our lives. Much of this chaos and pain comes into our lives as direct consequences from our behaviors. Some of this chaos and pain comes into our lives for no discernable reason other than that we live in a fallen world. Bad things will happen. We will face aspects of our lives that aren’t working.

But here is the point: Our recovery has to involve facing all these areas our lives, and working to fix the ones that aren’t working. Recovery has to involve dealing with the variety of aspects of our lives … because if we are addicted to something, it is certain that there are a variety of things in our lives that are not working. Often we don’t realize this in early recovery, because our addiction is distracting us and numbing our pain.

Gerhard Adler on magical thinking in therapy

Listen to what psychologist Gerhard Adler says about this in his book “Studies in Analytical Psychology”:

It happens only too often that the patient expects at the beginning of an analysis that the psychotherapist will, by some magical means, simply rid him of his symptoms without ever touching the rest of the structure of his life, with which he is quite satisfied. The analyst is only too often supposed to be a kind of ‘medicine man’ who will make the symptoms disappear from the outside.

The truth is that nobody can be cured unless he is prepared to accept the need for a more or less complete reorientation of his life. To put it in a nutshell: the healed person is not the original person minus a symptom, but a newly oriented person in whom, through the new orientation, the necessity for the symptom itself has disappeared.

I’ve often said in workshops and talks I give about recovery that if we are in full-blown addiction, we will not find lasting recovery unless we are willing to do a major overhaul on all the aspects of our lives. Work, church, friendships, hobbies, things we read, how we parent, what we read, where we live … everything needs to be looked at.

People hate to hear that.

I’m not saying that it all needs to be jettisoned or blown up — the “change” might be in how we function in that setting, or relationship. We may not change our job (although we might), but we will change how we think about it, and how we do it. We may not sell our home and move to a new community (although we might), but we will change aspects of our home and community life. And so on.

Are you willing to do that? Not right away. Not all at once. But to apply “rigorous honesty” (a term from the Big Book of AA) to all your life, not just your addiction?

What do I need to change?

I was speaking at a recovery conference not long ago, and one of the other speakers was a woman who had decades of sobriety from alcoholism, and now runs a treatment center for women. She put it this way:

What do we need to change if we want recovery?

Just one thing:



If you are struggling with sexual addiction … I invite you to take the Recovery Journey with me for the next 90 Days. The recovery journey is a 90 Day Home Study course designed to give you a deeper understanding of the inner dynamics and spiritual issues of the path towards recovery.  (There’s also a program for the partners/spouses of sexual strugglers.) Just click on the link below:


The Skills of Lasting Relationships

couple-eye-contactAny form of sexual infidelity — whether related to addictive behavior or not — will destroy the intimacy of a marriage relationship. I realize that in relationships where sexual struggles are bubbling over, there’s a crisis of trust and a sense of violation that needs to be worked through before other issues can be dealt with.

Having said that, it’s also vital for couples — once they’ve moved through the crisis stage of disclosure and early recovery — to work on building the health and vitality of their relationship in general. In other words, to learn how to build their emotional connection.

It’s amazing to think about how important these relationship-building skills are to our lives, and yet how little training and teaching we get in them. For most people, the only “training” they got about how to be a good husband or wife was through watching their parents as they were growing up. Unfortunately, too many of us had poor models, and thus learned the wrong lessons.

For this reason, developing skills of healthy intimate relationships is an essential part of long term recovery. Continue reading

Learning from your addictive thoughts

thoughtful reflectiveSome time ago, I listened to a podcast about recovery and spirituality by Krista Tippet, on what was then called “Speaking of Faith (now it’s called “On Being“). In the interview – which unfortunately is no longer available – she talked with a Native American leader and healer about his recovery from alcoholism. He talked about the importance – in his own recovery, and with others that he works with as a healer – of what he called “listening to your addiction to find out what it has to teach you.”

My colleague Mark Laaser at Faithful and True works with a similar idea when he talks about the important spiritual question of “What are you thirsty for?” as part of recovery. The way he talks about it, this question has to do with the deep needs and longings of our soul. We get pulled into addiction in its various forms, because the feeling we get from the addictive substance or activity fills a need. It soothes something that is agitated, excites something that feels dead and empty, makes us feel valued and significant, etc., etc.

Laura Chapman recently wrote me about an article she wrote with Lance Dodes about “The Surprising Value of Addictive Thoughts.” Here’s what she says about the article:

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Three Great Articles to Read

A Man Reads A NewspaperI’ve come across several articles lately that I think are so good, I’m encouraging everybody I know to read them. Here they are, with a bit of commentary by me


10 Things I’d Say About Sex if I Had No Filter

I really like Sheila Gregoire. She’s a Christian, and writes very openly and honestly about sexual issues from a female standpoint. (She’s also a writing and media powerhouse! She’s got a very active blog that every female partner of an addict who reads my blog should be reading.) She encourages women to experience healthy intimacy … in other words, she’s no prude … but at the same time, she’s written quite a bit about the struggles of women whose husbands have been unfaithful and/or sexually addicted. I like this article for its honesty and realism about the joys and challenges of establishing and maintaining a joyful sex life over time in a marriage.

An Overview of the ACE Test

I have often talked about the roots of addiction being about unresolved early life trauma. Anything as complex as addiction can never be reduced to a single issue, but certainly, this is important! When I talk about this topic, people often fixate on abuse … especially sexual abuse. I like this approach better than just talking about abuse. ACE is an acronym for “adverse childhood experiences.” The problem isn’t just abuse in its various forms, it’s also often neglect in its various forms. And beyond that, the challenges of early life are not always just things that happen in the home. What’s so interesting about the ACE test, and study that is being done about it, is the evidence that is piling up that ACE’s lead not just to psychological challenges (like addiction and depression) but also physical illness.

Having a “Sex Positive” Mindset While Also Recognizing Sex Can be an Addiction

This is not a lengthy discussion, but at least it raises the issue. Alexandra Katehakis, whose work I appreciate, writes this article on the Psychology Today blog, addressing the critique that people who suggest treating sex addiction are just puritanical moralists on a crusade.

Grief: The Missing Emotion

mourningPeople often turn to addiction as a means of coping with trauma and stresses in early life. This is true of all addictions, but it’s especially true of sex. People turn to addictive substances or behaviors when the trauma and stress of their lives are overwhelming. This often happens for kids when they don’t learn appropriate coping and self-care from their parents and other family members.

One essential practice we need, in order to deal with suffering, is to grieve. We tend to think of grieving as something we do in response to death, and don’t think of it in association with other struggles and losses in life. But grieving is necessary for dealing with any and all losses … and suffering almost always carries some aspect of loss. Many men I work with have to go through a time of grieving a variety of losses they experienced growing up: nurture they needed but didn’t get, broken promises, the loss of safety and security because of verbal and physical abuse, the loss of innocence because of sexual abuse, and the loss of friends and loved ones because of divorce, relocations, and death.

Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Addictive behaviors and substances are a way for us to deal with suffering and loss without having to mourn. Continue reading

she knows

When someone you love is an addict

she knowsThe recovery work I do has expanded since moving to Chicago three years ago. In the past, I worked mostly with sexual strugglers and addicts. These days I’m working with a wider range of addictions, especially drugs and alcohol. But the biggest change is that now I’m working a lot more with spouses, parents, and children of addicts — both in my recovery work, and my role as a pastor.

It’s rewarding and important work, but it’s hard.

It’s always disheartening to see someone you love go down a self-destructive path. All our tendencies toward codependence kick in: we hurt and fear for them. We want to rescue them and alleviate their suffering.

We feel guilt for not doing things “right” in some way, which we mistakenly think makes us responsible somehow for their problems. We think, “If only I was a better wife, husband, father, mother, lover, friend, example, disciplinarian … then maybe they wouldn’t be having this trouble right now.”

If we’re not careful, we may start trying to do things to help that the addict should be doing for him or herself. That’s usually a sign that we’re over-stepping. When we do things for others that they can do for themselves, we’re getting in the way and disempowering them. Setting alarms, scheduling appointments, giving “reminders” … these are just a few of an almost limitless number of ways we try to be helpful.

At some point we find that we are putting more energy into someone’s recovery than they are. What do we do then?

We let go.

We don’t stop caring, but we stop pushing and prodding.

I won’t pretend that this is easy. It can only be done in a healthy way if it’s accompanied by the support of caring friends. Without friends to keep us balanced, it’s easy to get sucked into the roller coaster drama of the addicted person’s euphoria, resolutions, failures, and blame-shifting.

We also need a new way of holding the person mentally: a different way of thinking about them, of viewing them. For this, I suggest a new way of praying for them. I am adapting these from some ideas I got from Therese Stewart.

The Prayer of Releasing

What follows is a process to go through, which involves prayer, meditation, and intentional “letting go” of a person or situation that we are taking too much responsibility for. To do this, set aside some time (no less than 15 minutes), where you can concentrate.

(1) Begin by simply quieting yourself by sitting still, and breathing deeply. Whenever thoughts, worries, or “to dos” come into your mind, gently set them aside, and maintain your focus on your breathing, and “keeping a quite heart.”

(2) Call to mind the person who needs letting go. Hold this person in your attention as you breathe, and focus on “breathing in” the energy (or mindset) of compassion and love for this person, and “breathing out” any grief, pain, or anger you are carrying. Ask for God’s help to let those things go.

(3) While holding this person in your mind, softly recite some kind of reminder to yourself about the truth of God’s love for this person, and of their value to God.

(4) Next, as you continue to hold this person in your mind, “say” to them something like:

  • “[name of the person], I will care for you, but I cannot keep you from suffering.”
  • “[name of the person], I wish you happiness, but I cannot make your choices for you.”

(5) Next, release this person, and the entire situation surrounding them in your life, turning it over to God. Repeat a phrase, such as: “May the best outcome prevail” or “I turn this person over to your care” or “May Your will be done.” As you pray these phrases, you may want to open your hands, as a way of communicating with your body that you are releasing this person / situation into God’s care.

(6) End this time by praying the Serenity Prayer:  “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage the change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

While this is not a magical, instant fix, trust that it is powerful. It is the means by which we cut our unhealthy, codependent ties with someone. It is likely that, even after we go through this process, we will fall back into the old codependent patterns of thinking and relating. No worries. Just keep going back to the practice of praying and releasing, following the process above.

Things will change.