S1 E2: Gene Ross on the Illusion of Avoiding Pain

Gene Ross, Director of Outpatient Services for The Meadows in Dallas, Texas, sits down with me to discuss why our attempts to avoid pain are not only unsuccessful, but can also damage our mental health and lead us to substance use.

Podcast Transcript

Gene Ross: Hi, I’m Gene Ross. I’m director of the Meadows Outpatient Center here in Dallas, Texas.

David Condos: Well, thank you so much for being with us today Gene.

Gene: Thanks for having me, David.

David: Absolutely. Let’s start with your story how you got into this world of recovery. I know you’ve been a part of it for long time.

Gene: Sure. Well, I guess I would have to start back when I first began my career with Child Protective Services. It was during that time that I learned that I didn’t know much about human behavior at all. With that experience, I can remember this was back in the late 70s, early 80s. Back then we didn’t have the understanding of addiction that we do now. Many of the families that I was working with that back then were struggling with addiction.

We just really weren’t armed with the right interventions back then. It was through my experience with Child Protective Services that I became interested in helping people who were struggling with addictions.

David: You were seeing the addiction because that’s the reason they were coming into the world of Child Protective Services.

Gene: Absolutely, and again the interventions we had back then where you go to therapy once a week and you get clean. Of course, we know now that it’s much more involved than that. It was, again, through that experience that I became interested in working in the field. After leaving Child Protective Services, I went into private practice.

During that time we had the treatment contract for Child Protective Services and we were seeing a lot of folks coming in for addiction. Then the other thing that happened during that period we were seeing a lot of folks coming in that were struggling with sex addiction. Many of them their sex addiction had led them in offending behaviors. At that point, I was asked if I would consider working with folks who were struggling with problematic sexual behavior and went through all the requisite training for that. For the next 15 years, I worked with folks who were struggling with problematic sexual behavior.

David: We were talking about this earlier. A lot of that was sex offenders people on the registry, which I think to the general public or even to people in the helping profession, that’s like that outsiders of the outsiders that are cast off in the corner. What did you learn really being in there, you said for 10 or 15 years?

Gene: 10 or 15 years. Yes. I think, of course, we recoil when we think about someone hurting a child and hurting a child sexually. I think what I learned through that experience was these were human beings too. It was evident that they had come to those behaviors through histories of their own trauma and their own horrible experiences. It was eye-opening and at the same time, I think it was an experience that taught me that we all share in what amounts to the worst in human beings and the best in human beings.

David: Yes, like that full-spectrum is in everybody and manifest in different ways. That’s interesting. You were saying a lot of it is the same as addiction, same as anything else. It comes from the past, comes from trauma and then it manifest in a certain way.

Gene: Yes.

David: Interesting. Another thing I know we were talking about earlier is how this is starting to work with addictions, how it changed your view of addiction. Well, a lot of people thought of it back then. It was a moral failure. Could you describe that journey for you?

Gene: During that period of time I think we approached addiction in– Well, it’s a choice. It’s a choice people make and they can just easily choose not to drink or not to use substances. I think naively so we just thought that people were making a choice and of course, in that context folks were losing their children. It was so hard for me to wrap my head around that. How could someone choose their substance over their child?

David: It’s a choice and that seems really bad on the surface. Yes, unthinkable.

Gene: Exactly, so there was more to it than that. Of course, as we learned more and as I learned more about addiction it was evident that that wasn’t the case at all that if given the choice people would have chosen their children.

David: As you look back and you see that journey for you to discovering that learning more about it, do you feel American culture has caught up to that? Do you feel that’s a journey that a lot of people have gone on? Is there still a lot of work left to do?

Gene: That’s a great question. I think we still have a lot of work to do. I think there’s somewhat of less stigma. I think these days I think we have a deeper understanding just in general that it’s much more than just someone choosing their addiction. I think there’s still that stigma out there. I can tell you many situations during my recent experience where people have made statements like they should have known better or they’ve chosen this path. I think there’s still that sentiment.

David: Yes, that’s something that people are still fighting.

Gene: I think so, yes.

David: I know another part of this journey for you was discovering some Buddhist principles. Could you tell us about what got you introduced to that? Why you’re interested?

Gene: I would love to talk about this David. Maybe about 10 or 15 years ago, I discovered Buddhism and I consider myself an amateur Buddhists in the sense. I think as we apply Buddhism to human behavior, it’s really easy to see how we human beings turn away from our pain and try to avoid or control our pain. The irony in that is when we do that, that’s where our suffering is. The more we try to not have pain, the more we got it.

David: Because we’re going to have pain.

Gene:It’s inevitable.

David:If you’re resisting, then that’s where the struggle–

Gene: It’s inevitable and I think our unwillingness to have pain goes way back in our evolutionary history. We’ve almost have an evolutionary mismatch today when it comes to dealing with pain. We think that we can control it, we think that we can avoid it. In the process, we lose sight of what we care about and what we’re passionate about and what gives us joy. When we’re struggling with pain, our world collapses and our responses are rigid then. Our only focus is on running away or not having and we miss so much more.

David: It distracts from the rest of my life.

Gene: It distracts from the rest of life and sometimes in that process, we even lose sight of what we care about and what’s the value to us. When we’re caught up and trying not to have our pain, we miss so much about the rest of life.

David: What was it when you first started learning about Buddhist principles? What was it that spoke to you about that specifically in this discussion?

Gene: Often my clients would be coming in and of course the first question we therapist ask people is why are you here? The answer I would get was I don’t want to be depressed anymore. As we begin to do the work, it was very clear that the whole process of trying not to have depression, increased depression. It increases our isolation, it increases our loss of joy.

David: Then you’re just thinking about it like, “I’m depressed. Why am I still depressed? I don’t want to be depressed. I’m failing and not being depressed.”

Gene: Absolutely. Those are all away moves if you will and they’re all in the service of avoiding our pain. We’re helping folks these days is we’re trying to help them make room for their pain in the service of doing what they care about.

David: How can this avoidance of pain, how does that end up affecting other areas of your life like leading to addiction, leading to other issues?

Gene:I think addiction is probably the best example of human’s avoidance of pain. When folks are depressed or they’re anxious or they’ve had trauma in their histories. Then the go-to response and naturally, so is that we’re trying to getaway. When you think about it that probably worked in our history when we were on the Serengeti being chased by saber-toothed tiger.

David: Those reasons, that that’s in our DNA.

Gene: Absolutely. Here comes the evolutionary mismatch now. In the modern world, we’re not being chased by saber-tooth tigers. We’re being chased by negative emotions, memories, body sensations that we don’t like and we try to avoid and we try to control. It’s natural that one of the unhealthy ways that people deal with that is to use substances in an effort to not have pain.

David: Yes, and so looking at it from a clinical side or a treatment side. What is a way that you can help people understand this concept, help them integrate that into their recovery, understand that and then be able to implement it and enjoy the benefits of letting go?

David: Absolutely. We’re trying to help people recognize and get that perspective, if you will, of being able to observe themselves and observe themselves moment-to-moment. Mindfulness is a very popular approach these days and really all we’re talking about with mindfulness is being able to show up in the moment with whatever is happening to us. Whether we’re in pain or not, but to show up in our actual experience. What we’re trying to help folks do is to step outside of language and cognition in the sense that now they’re observing themselves. Then so instead of saying I’m depressed, the notion is I’m noticing that I’m having a thought of depression.

There’s a whole different perspective.

David: It’s almost you’ve accomplished a goal of being self-aware of noticing what’s going on with you. It’s not a failure that I’m depressive. It’s achievement that I’m doing some of this work. I’m noticing what’s going on.

Gene: Absolutely. Now, our emotions become data, they tell us what we need to do. Rather than try to not have sad thoughts, for example, now we’re able to notice those thoughts and again to make room for those thoughts. Then turn toward what we’re passionate about, what we value, what we want our lives to stand for. That’s much more flexible than rigidly trying not to have. Always liked the example and this sounds terrible that if there was a rat in a cage and we threw a cat in there with the rat.

That rat’s sole focus is going to be finding that tiny hole in the corner to the exclusion of everything else. We think about that. In contrast, what if we dropped a food pellet in that rat’s cage? The rat is going to look around much more flexibly responding in the actual moment rather than trying to getaway. That’s really–

David: It alters your perspective. It puts the tunnel vision the blinders on that you focus on something and missing other things.

Gene: Absolutely. We miss our actual experience then which is much more fluid. We’re able to respond to in real-time in moment to moment rather than up in our mind be thoughts that are– By the way our minds are simply trying to help us. Our minds our problem-solving machines and they’re always looking for a problem to solve, always like the metaphor. We look at a sunset in a different way. We don’t look at a sunset and try to figure out, “Well, the lights refracting here and that’s why the color–” We look at a sunset in a completely different way. How do we help folks look at life as they do a sunset? That’s really what we’re trying to do to be able to have it in the moment again with whatever shows up.

David: What’s maybe a piece of advice or recovery related suggestions that’s stuck with you or something that you offer to others?

Gene: I love the whole notion that we humans are imperfect and there’s some spirituality in our imperfection. Our imperfection draws us closer together. When we share our true selves with each other, then there’s connection. I think it’s important in recovery to be able to show up just as you are and there’s a spiritual miss about being able to do that. Certainly, when folks are tied up in their addiction, they lose sight of their spirituality. I think that maybe the nub of it all in a sense.

David: What about a resource, a book something that you keep going to, again and again, something that’s really stupid test of time for you?

Gene: Two books, one is Victor Frankel’s, Man’s Search for Meaning, that book when I read that was life-changing for me. Then the other one I know my copy of it is dog-eared. I’ve read it so many times but The Spirituality of Imperfection is another one of my favorite recovery books.

David:  Now gets back to what you were just–

Gene: Absolutely.

David: Why do you think those two books meant so much they were spoke too much?

Gene: Now, again I think it comes down to just what we humans struggle with. That is being able to have our pain which is inevitable and being able to make room for that pain and letting go of the fact that we need to be perfect, that we need to always show up without our are warts. I think that’s particularly important for folks, particularly in early recovery because there’s so much shame involved with addiction and just to be able to understand that we’re not perfect. There’s one of the most famous sayings in AA is that we’re Perfectly Imperfect and I love that.

David: Recognizing that kind of change your perspective about yourself.

Gene: Absolutely.

Gene: That looking big picture now. What if there was one thing you could change about addiction treatment, about Behavioral Health Care. What might be one thing that you could do if you could flip a switch?

Gene: That’s a great question. I think access to treatment now is one of the biggest roadblocks we have now in our culture. Unfortunately, not everyone can afford treatment and can get the treatment that they need. If there was some magic way we could offer treatment to folks and it not be a financial problem for people, that would be huge.

David: Definitely, you have great treatment, but people can’t get it.

Gene: Absolutely, that hurts me more than anything now is for someone to come and they want to get help and they’re simply financially can’t afford them. That’s something I struggle with.

David: Wrap up with this one. For the general public, I know the conversation around addiction and mental health is growing becoming more part of the social conversation. What would be one thing that you wish the general public understood about this, about recovery, that whole thing?

Gene: Coming back to what we were talking about in the beginning that there’s still this stigma around addiction. That keeps so many people in their shame and keeps people from asking for help. If there was some way that we could change that dialogue and look at addiction in the same way that we do physical health issues diabetes, cancer, those sorts of things. If we could come to that place where we understand that this is just as of a health care issue that physical issues are. I think that would be huge.

David: Gene Ross is the director of outpatient services at the Meadows Outpatient Center in Dallas, Texas. You can find out more about Gene’s team and what that program offers at meadowsiopdallas.com.

To check out more episodes of this podcast and find all kinds of other resources and tools for Meadows’ behavioral health care, visit beyondtheorypodcast.com. Finally, thank you for listening. I hope you’ll join us again next time for another episode of Beyond Theory.