Good Grief

In my practice, I bear witness to a lot of different types of grief. Though it may be hard for some people to understand, there is a grieving period that is necessary to start the recovery process. For those dealing with substance abuse, alcohol and drugs have been a constant companion, even a best friend; always available, always reliable, and never judgmental. If you have never struggled with addiction, imagine someone walking up to you and telling you that you can no longer associate with someone you love, no matter how great the desire. Now imagine being full of shame for feeling this loss. That is something like addiction.

There are other aspects of grief that I see in my office on a regular basis. Due to the severity of the opiate crisis, many of my clients have lost friends and family to the disease of addiction. Last year, I counted eight deaths in one month related to overdose or suicide. Some were people I had known, some were friends or family of my clients. Each death represents a catastrophic loss for someone, a hole in the fabric of their universe that can never be filled.

Recently I have been observing my own grief, experienced due to the death of one of my dogs, Stella. I rescued her from the pound back in 2006, in part to help me through the loss of my father who had died the year before. She let me know very quickly that she only needed three things to be happy: Love, pillows, and treats. In a lot of ways, I don’t think human beings are much different, only we have forgotten the truth of simplicity.

Inherently, grief is the shadow of love. Without love there is no grief. When I am walking through a period of sadness, I always try to keep these thoughts with me and resist the urge to push away or repress the feelings associated with sensations of sadness and loss. As someone in recovery, I do not have the dubious luxury of numbing grief with a six pack of beer or a handful of Xanax, no matter how appealing this option might be. And today, I am grateful for the ability to feel my emotions, especially since I have seen how alcohol and drugs stifle the grieving process, lengthening the duration of mourning, often causing the mourner to become bitter, resentful, self-pitying, and spiritually confused.

In the 1940’s Thomas Merton wrote the following: “The more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt. The one who does the most to avoid suffering, is in the end the one who suffers the most.” As Merton noted, the only way to avoid grief is to reject and hide from love, an option in which I am no longer interested. So although I allow myself to feel the pain of losing my constant companion of the last thirteen years, I am also aware that there is a deep sense of joy and love just below the surface.

In this light, the experience of grief is essentially good, but I sure do miss that little black dog.

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The First Thanksgiving

Had a lot of nice things said about this post, so thought I’d share it again.

Beginner's Mind, Writers Mind

The first Thanksgiving of my recovery, I was only one month out of treatment and living in a half-way house in East Nashville, back when that side of town was more avoided than desired. The house charged $85 per week for rent, an amount I struggled to come up with earning minimum wage flipping burgers at The Nashville Zoo. My mother and father would have given me money had I asked, and often they did. But I knew that I had burdened them financially by asking them to pay for my treatment twice in two years, so I learned how to make do with the bare minimum, realizing that things I viewed as necessities were actually luxuries. For the first time in my life, when I laid my head down on a pillow in a soft, warm bed, I felt a true sense of gratitude for what so many people…

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Remembering October

It’s a strange sensation when you know you’re dying. Stranger still, when you know that it is in some ways by your own hand. That was the only thing I knew for sure during the first week of October, 2000. I knew the disease of alcoholism was killing me and that if I took another drink I’d be dead before the age of 28.

I was in rehab again for the second time in three years, brought there by two friends and mentors I’d made during my first attempt at recovery. These two men traveled from Nashville to Indiana to pull me from my self-created hell and take me back to the treatment center I’d been admitted to two years earlier. Later they both told me that they weren’t exactly confident that I’d be able to get sober again, especially after they saw how I was living in my addiction. After my live in girlfriend moved out due to my drinking and insanity, I’d locked myself up in the apartment and began an episode of binge drinking and cocaine use, only leaving the apartment when I needed to replenish my reserves of poison. I was beginning to have both visual and auditory hallucinations, often pulling my bed from its box springs and placing it against the door because I believed that there were things outside the apartment that were stalking me.

Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, writes that when alcoholics are toward the end of their disease, they will know a loneliness that few people ever experience. I knew what that loneliness was, a feeling that the world no longer wanted me in it, that I was incapable of functioning without the effects of consciousness blunting drugs, that the only choice was to either check-out or stay intoxicated round the clock until my body finally shut down. Once I got to treatment and was detoxed, the hopelessness became even worse, a false belief that I’d already tried recovery telling me that there was nothing they could offer me which could allow me any sense of peace or well-being.

In a way, I was right.

I’d grown up in a religious home, my mother was the secretary at the church and a deeply spiritual woman that tried to show me that there was more to the world than what I could perceive with my two eyes. But as I grew older and my addiction grew worse, my vision became more narrow, until I could only see the glaringly obvious intellectual and moral absurdities connected to many religious practices and sects. I’d become so cynical and angry that even the mention of the word ‘God’ would cause me to strike-out verbally against the one who uttered it.

On October 8, 2000, my fifth day in treatment, my despair became so deep, and the craving for alcohol so strong, I went back to my room and sat down on the bed and cried. I was considering leaving the treatment center and spending the last few dollars I had on a motel room and a bottle of rot-gut alcohol, just to silence the voices of my disease that wouldn’t relent with its whisperings of shame, self-hate and hopelessness. Then a second choice came into my mind, seemingly out of nowhere. With nothing left to lose, I called out to the Universe and begged divinity to help me.

In a flash, everything changed.

A deep feeling of peace enveloped me, a feeling that is beyond description, and I’m sure beyond belief for those who have not experienced it. Along with the feeling was a rush of insight about the nature of my problem: My entire life I’d been trying to achieve happiness by attempts to manipulate reality into what I thought it should be, instead of making the best out of the reality in front of me. I also realized that for most of my life I’d been a taker instead of a giver, and that this was the source of my existential angst. I saw that negative emotions and mental states preceded from my own consciousness, not from what other people had done to me. There were many other insights, some impossible to convey, but simply put, I had a deep and profound spiritual awakening that altered the entire course of my life. I’ve never had a drink or drug since.

Though my awakening gave me the hope I needed, there was a long road ahead of me. I’d spent fourteen years in my addiction, over a decade of making decisions based on what was easy instead of what was right. I spent eleven months in a recovery house, doing things like learning to make my bed and being where I said I was going to be. I worked jobs making minimum wage and learned that dignity comes from how you do your work, not from the work you do. And most importantly, I learned that the practice of spiritual principles in my life would enable me to deal with reality without the need for intoxicating substances.

Eighteen years later, the life I have is the life I want. I am still committed to helping those suffering with addiction in honor of all the family and friends who helped me along the way. As for the opioid and addiction crisis we are currently facing; it will be solved by individuals who heal, not governments that go to war.

Emotional Sobriety: Progress Not Perfection

Anyone who loves somebody in recovery from addiction, or is in recovery themselves, knows that the road to long-term sobriety doesn’t always follow a linear path. Many times before a person finally becomes abstinent from drugs and alcohol there are periods of setbacks, relapses, heartbreak, and financial struggles. For those fortunate enough to achieve remission from the disease process, it is a hard-fought battle, won with the help of parents, relatives, doctors, therapists, treatment centers, churches and support groups. Anyone who has witnessed someone pick up their anniversary chip or key tag in a 12 Step Meeting will attest to the fact that the journey to obtain lasting recovery is worth the effort.

But what happens when the initial rush of recovery wears off?

Since my first days in the world of recovery, I heard a disparaging phrase used to describe people who were abstinent from alcohol and drugs, but were still dealing with other issues which were affecting their quality of life. These so-called “dry-drunks” were sometimes banished to the fringes where many times they were forced to figure out their problems on their own. From the beginning, the term ‘dry-drunk’ left a bad taste in my mouth, probably because I know what harsh self-critics people in recovery are. And because after watching many friends die from the disease of addiction, I knew that if a person stayed sober, they at least had a chance to confront and conquer whatever demon was plaguing them. In active drug addiction there is no hope for self-correction. As I became seasoned as an alcohol and drug counselor, acquiring more knowledge about co-occurring mental disorders, process addictions, and the effects of trauma on the brain, I began to cultivate a deep sympathy for those struggling in their recovery, especially those with  years of abstinence.

As a result, I devote much of my practice to helping people move towards that elusive state of being that Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, called emotional sobriety. What is emotional sobriety? It probably depends on who you ask; but to me emotional sobriety is when a person is no longer running from their addiction, but instead are moving towards their highest purpose. It is living a life free from constant anxiety and depression, not fettered to compulsive patterns of behavior and unfulfilling or abusive relationships. It is striving towards compassion for one’s self, one’s loved ones, and even one’s enemies. Emotionally sober people live in truth, not in shame; they are not perfectionistic, but they do not shy away from the challenge of making themselves better people. Emotionally sober people make mistakes, but they don’t make excuses. They understand that sickness, death, and unpleasant feelings don’t mean that life is going badly, it means that I am a human being, with human emotions, and human frailties.’

Lastly, and maybe most importantly, emotionally sober people know that if you haven’t struggled and suffered at some point in your sobriety, then you haven’t been sober very long. They deeply understand the old spiritual aphorism that “it is better to be a living dog than a dead lion.”  To have recovered from a disease that kills millions of people every year is no small accomplishment. That the addiction manifests in other areas is just the nature of the disorder. I am always deeply moved by the courage of people who are willing to sit in my office and admit that they still have some work to do on themselves. Their humility is to be admired. They are the ones who will break patterns of dysfunction that extend back through the generations. They will be the ones to map the final frontier of emotional sobriety.

 

 

In Praise of the Divine Masculine

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It’s been nearly thirteen years since I’ve heard my father’s voice, but I still hear him whispering to me from time to time, especially when I need some reassurance or comfort. It’s been nearly thirteen years since I saw my father’s face, but he lives in my memories, those snippets of time frozen forever in a bygone century. It’s been nearly thirteen years since I felt the embrace of my father, but sometimes I can drop into my heart and feel the warmth of the love shared between a father and his son.

As a small child, usually after a long trip, I vividly recall pretending to be asleep in the backseat of the family car so that my father would have to carry me into the house and up to bed. I’d wrap my arms around his strong neck as all anxieties and fear dropped away. A boy at peace in the arms of his father. Though I have no way of knowing for sure, I think my dad always knew that I wasn’t really asleep in the backseat, but he never called me out on my game of possum. Maybe he needed it as much as I did.

Though I have no children, I like to believe that in some way I am able to guide my  clients through recovery the way that a father might, helping them navigate a new world that is often confusing and dangerous. I frequently experience great joy in the accomplishments of the guys I work with. They are good men, committed to being better men, those who will be good husbands, sons, and fathers. I am proud to be a part of the Recovery Movement, which has been giving children their father’s back for over 80 years.

Happy Father’s Day.

 

Bill Wilson: Bringing Light to The Children of The Dark.

 

Today, I thought I’d write about the spiritual writings of Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. That I feel the need to preface my piece by stating that Bill Wilson was a flawed human being, says more about our society than it does about Mr. Wilson. All human beings are flawed, unable to live up to standards set by themselves or others. But it seems that since the advent of the internet, character assassination has become a favorite pastime of bloggers, commenters, and those who project their guilt and failings onto others. I am a big proponent of truth when it comes to telling the whole story about a given situation or person. At the same time, I have always been more focused on the big picture, recognizing how easy it is to examine another’s skeleton filled closet rather than our own. Some parts of the AA book reflect the sexist views of most of America in the beginning of the 20th century, other parts seem hopelessly outdated. But Bill Wilson altered the lives of millions of people and shifted the paradigm for addiction. The ripple effect of his life and work continues to this day, giving light to the ones he described as “children of the dark.”

Dying of alcoholism at Townes Hospital in New York, Bill Wilson had a profound spiritual experience. His wife was being advised by doctors that she would have to put him in an institution, and Wilson himself seemed to have little hope of anything changing. But before he admitted to the hospital, a friend and fellow alcoholic had presented Bill with the idea of coming up with a Higher Power that made sense to him, was personal to him. These words penetrated his alcohol saturated brain and gave him a glimmer of hope that he might reach out for some force that could help him not pick up a drink. In a moment of utter despair, he cried out for help, experienced the divine, and never had a drink again. This led to him meeting the co-founder of AA, Dr. Bob. Together, along with one hundred others, they began to construct the movement that would become Alcoholics Anonymous,  leading to the publication of the book which contained the Twelve Steps, the foundation of the society and a spiritual path used by countless other suffering human beings.

Bill Wilson understood alcoholics and the personalities of those who struggle with addiction. Throughout his writings, Wilson addresses the controlling, fearful natures of these individuals, as well as their need to become grounded in something that would help calm their overactive nervous systems the way that alcohol and drugs did. Wilson also knew that those prone to addiction do not like to feel that they are having something shoved down their throat, especially religion. He devotes an entire chapter to helping ease the fears of those seeking recovery, avoiding dogmatism and fanaticism so that all who seek help could find it.

“Much to our relief, we discovered we did not need to consider another’s conception of God. Our own conception, however inadequate, was sufficient to make the approach and to effect a contact with Him. As soon as we admitted the possible existence of a Creative Intelligence, a Spirit of the Universe underlying the totality of things, we began to be possessed of a new sense of power and direction, provided we took other simple steps. We found that God does not make too hard terms with those who seek Him. To us, the Realm of Spirit is broad, roomy, all inclusive; never exclusive or forbidding to those who earnestly seek. It is open, we believe, to all men.”

While such a proclamation wouldn’t be uncommon in the times we live in, this statement made in the late 1930’s was a radical approach to spirituality, only a few years removed from the Scopes Trial and The Butler Act. Wilson knew that if he clouded the AA program in too much religiosity it would limit the number of people who would seek help for their addiction, thus leaving the sufferer to battle their demons alone.

What may be the most impactful and lasting aspects of Bill Wilson’s writings is his insistence that true spirituality must be focused on that of the individuals internal life, not the external circumstances that substance abusers believe cause them to use. Here is a quote from the AA 12×12, written when Bill Wilson was many years sober. “We thought “conditions” drove us to drink, and when we tried to correct these conditions and found that we couldn’t to our entire satisfaction, our drinking went out of hand and we became alcoholics. It never occurred to us that we needed to change ourselves to meet conditions, whatever they were.” The insistence that the person in recovery sticks to his or her own personal experience is something you can hear at any AA or NA meeting. Those with long-term sobriety know that the purpose of the beginning steps are to bring peace and understanding to oneself, while the latter steps are designed to enable the recovering person to bring compassion and service to the external world.

My favorite piece of Bill Wilson’s writing, written with the help of early AA members, is when he explains the attitudes and actions that should be taken when approaching the Third Step (Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.)  Wilson understands that the problem with most people is not their belief or lack thereof, the problem is their behavior. He compares alcoholics to actors in a play who want to be the director. Never satisfied with the script they are given, these alcoholics try to arrange the play to suit themselves. When people fail to follow their directions, they become angry, resentful, and afraid. These negative emotions lead to the desire to alter their chemistry with drugs or alcohol, which in turn lead to more negative emotions, thus the cycle of addiction continues.

The wisdom of the Twelve Steps and the writings of Bill Wilson is that they have remained relevant after nearly eighty years, continuing to help some people find recovery from a “hopeless state of mind and body.” Bill Wilson ends his study of the Twelve Steps by defining what he thinks constitutes spiritually awakened people. Once again, he focuses on behaviors instead of beliefs:

He finds himself in possession of a degree of honesty, tolerance, unselfishness, peace of mind, and love of which he had thought himself quite incapable. What he has received is a free gift, and yet usually, at least in some small part, he has made himself ready to receive it.”  

My wish and prayer for the day is that all those suffering in addiction may become ready to receive the gift of recovery.

And as always, if you feel the need to leave negative or snarky comments, please refrain. I will only delete them and feel sorry for you.

Continue reading “Bill Wilson: Bringing Light to The Children of The Dark.”

Naming the Monster

I recently read an amazing novel that I probably should have read when I was fifteen, but never did. The book, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, is one of the most psychologically brilliant novels I’ve ever read. I think it says a lot about today’s current political climate, as well as having  insights into the nature of addiction and self-hate. I’ll eschew the political opinions, and instead focus on the importance of telling the truth about the monster that lives within us all.

The protagonist, Dr. Victor Frankenstein, begins the novel by talking about the reasons he began to be possessed by the idea of cheating death and God by creating a human being from leftover body parts retrieved from corpses. As is the case with many human ills, he begins with what he believes to be noble intentions, hoping to take the sting out of death and relieve the world of this suffering forever. Similarly, those who suffer from addiction usually begin using substances for benign reasons. For some it’s to fit in socially, for others it is to medicate trauma, and for others it is simply to feel good or experience joy.

When Frankenstein looks upon the monster that his arrogance and obsession have created, he quickly becomes horrified by the creature, sending him into the cold without name, absent of compassion, and never explaining to the creature how he is related to his creator-father. By not naming the creature, Frankenstein tries to keep emotional distance from that which he finds detestable in himself. By banishing the being into the wilderness, he hopes that by ignoring his actions they will not bear fruit. When I am sitting across from someone who comes to my office because of chemical addiction, the first thing I do with them is to help them name the thing that is causing them the suffering and misery in their lives. Inevitably, the alcohol and drug addiction is the last thing they want to name, hoping against hope that it is some external pressure that is causing their unhappiness. Lately, I have seen some posts that are trying to put forth the idea that someone calling themselves an alcoholic or addict is shaming or demeaning. In my experience, nothing could be further from the truth. Naming the disease of addiction, calling out the monster, is empowering. Anyone who has ever been to a 12 step meeting knows that members who identify themselves by these labels are empowered by the knowledge that they finally understand what has been haunting them and hurting their loved ones. Diagnosis and identification are key.

For a while, Frankenstein hears nothing from his monster and tries to resume his normal life. But though he cannot see his antagonist, it is never far from him. Eventually, after the monster kills Frankenstein’s younger brother, (innocence) it seeks him out and confronts him in a cave, which is symbolic of Frankenstein’s psyche. Understandably, Frankenstein greets his creation with rage and anger, referring to him as a daemon and trying to attack and kill him. Frankenstein expects the monster to be no more than an animal, and thus is astounded when he speaks to him eloquently, with a voice that he finds familiar:

“I expected this reception,” says the monster, “All men hate the wretched and I am miserable beyond all living things. Yet you my creator detests and spurn me to whom thou art bound by ties only dissolved by the annihilation of one of us”

 

The creature then begs Dr. Frankenstein to show him compassion, telling his creator that he longs for companionship, explaining how he has been wandering in the wilderness for years, suffering in the cold, isolated from humanity. But Frankenstein refuses to take responsibility for his creation, denying the psychological shadow and naively playing the victim:

Abhorrent monster! Fiend that thou art! The tortures of hell art too mild a vengeance for your crimes.”

The monster finally convinces Frankenstein to at least listen to him, telling his creator the story of how he has suffered the last several years as he tries to figure out his relationship to life itself and why he is rejected by everyone that he meets. The monster begs Frankenstein for compassion and understanding, telling him that he only killed his younger brother to get his attention after being ignored for many, many years. The consequences of addiction are warning signs to be heeded. If individuals and families ignore the early signs of addiction (daily marijuana use, legal consequences, binge drinking, work and school problems, emotional volatility) the disease will morph into an uncontrollable force that can end in death or insanity.

Frankenstein, like most humans at one time or another, refuses to heed the monster’s warnings. In the end the monster he has created destroys the thing that Frankenstein loves the most, his wife Elizabeth. The monster strangles her on their wedding night as he promised he would, leaving Frankenstein to wander aimlessly in the icy wasteland(resentment and self-pity) until he finally dies aboard a ship, his monster visiting him on his deathbed, weeping for the loss of the thing which he destroyed. Still longing for acceptance and love.

The Opioid Epidemic is Frankenstein’s monster in complete manifestation; difficult to subdue, impossible to ignore, and deadly.  If American’s want to put a dent in the Opioid Crisis, the monster will need to be confronted in the early stages. Not everyone who binge drinks or smokes marijuana will become an opiate addict or alcoholic, but some will. Let’s at least tell the truth about it. This pervasive idea that drugs and alcohol have all of a sudden become benign is ludicrous. That we as a society scream about the opioid crisis while glorifying marijuana and alcohol use, to me seems absurd. I have seen the effects of these drugs on lifetime users, and they and their families suffer tremendously. But in the end, it is up to the individuals to identify their own monsters, within themselves and within their family systems.

The lesson of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is that if we ignore our self-created monsters they will take vengeance. Had Frankenstein greeted his creation with understanding, honesty, and compassion, the outcome might have been different. And that which he loved would not have been destroyed.