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'90s FAMILY : Finding Strength to Will Yourself Back in Control : Human nature isn't perfect. But it can be improved upon. At Recovery Inc., members learn new ways of thinking and how to rein in troubling impulses. They also learn that it's all up to them.

August 03, 1994|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Human nature, as Katharine Hepburn imperiously informed Humphrey Bogart in "The African Queen," is what we are meant to rise above. But how, many ask these days, do we rise above the disturbing, unbidden impulses to strike or degrade someone we love?

The answer, it would seem, is "with difficulty and determination."

Those who have succeeded say it takes much more than a timeout and counting to 10. Or reading a chapter in a book. Or even understanding what went wrong in your own childhood.

Robert Holcomb, 60, of Los Angeles, said his life changed dramatically in two years with a combination of approaches, relying heavily on new ways of thinking he learned and practiced in a free, self-help program called Recovery Inc.

Group members call it "will training."

Holcomb, a retired instrument technician, said he never hit his wife but often felt like it. Small arguments such as how to do laundry would escalate until the couple were fighting about who was going to be the boss, he said.

"I'd take out my temper by hitting the wall or putting my fist through the screen. I'd raise my voice and yell and bring her to the point she'd be in tears and go into another room and sulk."

His wife, Jo-Ann, said he never trusted her and restricted her activities. She never knew when he would lose his temper, but it was mostly over little things.

Holcomb had been seeing psychiatrists most of his life for depression, rooted in childhood abuse. When he changed jobs, his new insurance company required him to enroll in a self-help group if he wanted to continue psychotherapy. He chose Recovery Inc., founded in 1937 and based on principles of psychiatrist Abraham A. Low. Now there are about 1,000 weekly meetings across the United States.

In meetings, members learn Low's philosophy and share how they apply it in their lives.

Holcomb said he found out that "I was being perfectionistic, which is counterproductive to having peace in the family and peace in myself.

"By the same token, everyone around me has to be perfect too. You end up isolated when you're like that. Nobody likes you. You're always finding fault. You end up only lonely."

He said he learned to lower his standards. He said he now accepts himself as average and has stopped trying to measure up to his media role models of manhood: a combination of John Wayne, Rambo and the Robert Young character of "Father Knows Best."

Holcomb said that when he starts to get worked up, he now wills himself to think, "This is distressing, but not dangerous," or "People do things that annoy us, but not to annoy us."

His wife said he is a different person. "He doesn't have that dominating need. He trusts me. . . . He's the person I saw 29 years ago."

Members say that in will training, they learn to control thoughts and impulses, and to be suspicious of feelings they cannot control.

"Feelings lie and deceive. They tell of danger when there is no danger," said Randy Walburger, 48, of Los Angeles, who has been going to Recovery meetings for six years. "Your brain can only have one thought at a time. If it is one of danger, then your life is going to reflect that thinking. If your thoughts are of resentment and judgment, your life will reflect that."

Walburger, who has had a lifelong problem with anger, said he is now happily married to his third wife. He has also been helped by Prozac-like medication. But through the group practice, he learned to stop judging others, he said.

"No one does it for you. You do it," he said. "There's no professional to tell you you're not doing it right. And no cult leader. There's no religion involved. And we don't have to say we're powerless and only God can help us out.

"Only we can help us out."

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