Recovery Room: Breaking the Chaos Addiction

Welcome to the Recovery Room. On the occasional Thursday, I invite guest writers, pastors, therapists, and practitioners to step in and discuss their process of recovery--recovery from any old thing.

Today, welcome Aaron Smith of Cultural Savage. Aaron is a husband, father, nerd (self-proclaimed), and coffee chugger. He's a great writer to boot! You can find him at Cultural Savage, Bedlam Magazine, and a smattering of other places. Follow him on Twitter; you'll thank me.

And now, without further introduction, welcome Aaron to the Recovery Room.


It can leave you in shambles.

Chaos. Crisis. When life falls apart. It can leave you devastated and wrecked. When the storm clouds roll back, when the adrenaline ebbs, when life threatens to return to normal, what do you do if you have been destroyed?

Crisis comes to us all. Sometimes it’s at a doctor’s office when the diagnosis comes in. Sometimes it’s at the office when the word “downsizing” hits home. Sometimes it’s at home when the house stops being a home. Sometimes it’s in church when a silent and stone faced God leaves you breathless and lonely in prayer. Crisis comes. It comes in death, in fire, in flood, in financial troubles and more. It breaks in wearing many faces. It looks different at different times, but it comes.

Most recently, it came to my home in the form of financial troubles. We didn’t know how to pay rent. I had lost my job due to a mental health relapse (I have bipolar and the beast rears its head often), and with no income for a month, paying rent and bills seemed like a pipe dream.

In the chaos there is pressure. In the crisis there is a push, and need, a rush to find the solutions, to fix the problem, to salve the wound. In the medical field it’s called triage. Emergency room care. We are pressed from every side and must quickly relieve the pressure to avoid the chaos eating us whole.

These times can be large or small, quick or lingering. Days, weeks, months, years can be swallowed by the chaos. We learn to live with it, to live in it. We learn how to function in the chaos. We learn how to continually triage our situation as the crisis presses in on us from every angle. We get used to it. We begin to think of the chaos as our baseline, our normal. Some days we forget about it because it is just always there, always in the shadows, always at our edges, always in our lives. We become people in crisis, and the crisis becomes our lives.

Then something breaks. The flood waters recede and we begin to see olive branches budding again. There is relief. Yet we are still devastated. The chaos has passed, the crisis averted, the storm has dispersed, but the wreckage is still strewn about our lives. The pressure is gone, and maybe a weight has been lifted. How do we go on? How do we move forward without the chaos?

What I’m really asking is this: when the triage is over and the treatment needs to begin, when the time comes and we don’t have the distraction of crisis but rather must deal with the pain, how do we do this when our normal has been chaos for so long?

See, [tweetherder]you can come to rely on the crisis. Almost like an addiction I suppose.[/tweetherder] The act of triage can become a way to distract ourselves from the pain underneath the chaos. The pain of loss. The pain of rejection. The pain of fear. These and their kin lurk under the surface of the chaos and sometimes cause the crisis.

But when the crisis is over, then we have to face the hurt, the feelings, the wreckage.

I remember when my Papa died. I didn’t cry for three days. I couldn’t. I needed to be strong for my cousin who was raised by this giant of a man, and the woman he left behind, my grandma. They needed me there so they could morn. They needed me in this chaos and crisis. So, I gave them strength and denied myself the time to morn. Three days passed. Finally I was alone, and I wept for the passing of my Papa. I was ruined in those moments. I had to face my emotions after three days of walling them off.

It hurt.

I didn’t want that pain, so after weeping for a short while I slept it off. I slept until I could once again not weep for the man. I slept until I didn’t have to face the hurt, the wound he left in my side. At the funeral, I didn’t cry. Once more, I could be strong even though I didn’t need to be.

What happens when we run from the pain after the chaos has passed? Let me tell you this: to this day I hurt when I think of my Papa’s death, but I still won’t cry about it. The tears threaten to come, but I hold them off. I still deny the grief. This is my new normal.

So maybe, just maybe I need to learn something. Maybe you need to learn it too. Maybe we need to know that [tweetherder]in the wreckage it is okay to be broken by the hurt, to be staggered by the pain.[/tweetherder] Grief, loss, rejection, fear: it is good to be enveloped by these emotions in their proper place. It is good to pass through them, no matter how hard it is.

In crisis we are too pressed to feel these things, but crisis is not meant to be lived forever. It is not supposed to be a mask we hid behind. Chaos is not supposed to be a way around pain. The urgency of the terrible things will merely push off hurt. It will not get rid of the pain; it will not dispel the fear.

To recover from the chaos we have to feel what has been pushed off. There really is no other way to clean the aftermath of the storm. No matter how long the chaos has gone on, no matter how mundane the crisis has become to us, there will come a day when the dawn will burst through, and on that day we need to feel, not hide, the things that have been buried by the chaos.

I write these words to myself. I think I hide in chaos. See, I know how to function in a crisis. There have been enough of them over the past five years or so that I have become well versed in their ways. I have learned how to triage very well, but I’m not so good at the treatment, at going through the emotions under the chaos. The hurt, the fear, and the grief are things I would rather not feel. So, I often wait expectantly for the next crisis, remaining in the hyper vigilant mode where feelings are suppressed because of the urgency.

I am used to chaos, but not so good at feeling the hard things. I need to learn to feel the hard things well. I need to learn to recover from the crisis, not just wait for the next one.

Feeling the hard things well can break the cycle of chaos some of us find ourselves in. Instead of subconsciously waiting for the next tragedy to strike, we can begin to sit in peace and we can know we are loved deeply. Then and only then we can begin to rebuild something glorious out of the wreckage. Then and only then can we move past triage and on to treatment. Then and only then can we – can I – find wholeness and health and peace and resilience against the next storm. Then and only then can we truly recover from the chaos.



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And don't forget to keep you eyes out for my upcoming book from Zondervan, Coming Clean.

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