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


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.



When the Solution is Part of the Problem

In October 2016, after fifteen years working in private treatment centers, I felt pulled to bring quality alcohol and drug treatment to those who have little access to this luxury. I left a comfortable, fulfilling job, and signed on with a company that contracted with the State to provide mental health services for a prison about an hour west from my home. I knew that the job would be a huge challenge, but I had taught meditation in jails around Nashville and found the experience rewarding, especially my interactions with the inmates. To say that I was naïve about the penal and political system is an understatement. I was completely unprepared for my confrontation with the Leviathan. Ultimately I had to leave after six months, realizing that I was about to be swallowed up by the negativity, apathy, and emotional violence.

The first day on the job, I knew I was in trouble when a member of the medical department’s leadership team gave his opinion on treating the inmates and providing them education on addiction. “Once a junky always a junky,” he told me, never batting an eye. This overwhelming belief permeates different levels of political and social strata in our country, further reinforcing the belief that addiction and criminality need to be punished instead of treated. Until this attitude is altered in individuals on a mass scale, the opiate epidemic and the violence infecting our country will continue to be a mountain that will be moved only slightly by knee-jerk legislation and intimations that drug dealers should be put to death.

Once I began my therapy groups at the prison, after waiting two months to be given the needed tools to do my job, myself and fourteen felons were placed in a 10×14 storage room without windows, heat, or security. Having no training on how to deal with prison culture or how to keep myself safe, I was given a two-way radio and told if anyone attacked me to make sure I hit the panic button. (They would get there as quick as they could) During the entire winter my group room stayed at about 48 degrees, the only heat source a portable heater that I had to buy with my own money. Despite the obstacles, I quickly lost my fear of most of the inmates, finding the majority to be no different from the clients I worked with in expensive treatment centers. Most had never heard of the disease concept of addiction, even fewer had ever been told that early childhood trauma fundamentally changes brain chemistry and increases the likelihood of addiction and mental illness. And the trauma that these men told me about was severe, extensive, and pervasive in both their culture, their family of origin, and in the prison itself.  For many, this trauma, combined with the lack of hope and opportunity in their community led to gang affiliations that promised safety, a sense of purpose, and the hope for financial gain. Don’t get me wrong, I encountered some frightening people there, who I hope stay in prison for the rest of their lives, but most were men, who like myself, loved their mothers, loved their children, and longed for happiness and freedom from suffering.

Drugs were rampant in the prison. From what I observed, though most security officers and staff did their best, the prison was so grossly understaffed that officers were not equipped to safely do their job, much less confront an inmate about having contraband. I almost always smelled marijuana when I walked into the pods and some prisoners were obviously strung out from different opiates. Suboxone was the most pervasive because it was the easiest to smuggle in, but I was told that for the right price most any drug could be obtained. I was also told that if you wanted, and had the money to do so, you could stay high for the duration of your prison sentence. So when you hear about the high rate of recidivism, understand that these men are being released into society with no understanding of the addiction that contributed to their incarceration, no skills for emotional regulation, and have brains that have been hard-wired by the penal system to remain locked in the ‘fight or flight’ position.

The feeling of powerlessness I touched on a daily basis working at the prison was unlike anything I have ever experienced. It fundamentally altered my views on a great many things and deepened my understanding of what sickens and damages our psyches. I want to emphasize that just as Philip Zimbardo put forth in The Stanford Prison Experiment,  a corrupt system weakens good people and destroys vulnerable ones. This is why I have little faith that politicians, many of whom are part of this system, will find the solution to the opiate epidemic. I myself, make no claims to have the answer, but as an Alcohol and Drug Counselor, I take the treatment of addiction seriously, understanding that those who are looking for a quick fix to a complex problem will be continually disappointed. I believe deeply that all people have the ability to alter their lives in a positive way and that every human being deserves the chance to free themselves from their own suffering.

I plan on doing one more post on my experiences at the prison, but want to end by saying that if you read this and feel the need to leave snarky, negative comments, please refrain. I will only delete them. Also, I want to acknowledge that the victims of crime have every right to feel the way they feel about how criminals have punished. I have no idea what it is like to lose a loved one to murder or gun violence or a drunk driver. Also, I must admit that I have some fear about writing on my time at the prison. I heard that when I left the management staff at the prison decided to slander my name by telling lies about why I left the job. But an inmate asked me not to forget him when I left, begged me to tell the truth about what I saw while I was there. So I will, because I tell my clients that sobriety and integrity are intricately bound together. Watching the courage of the clients who come into my office increases my own courage. I don’t want to let them down.





Trauma, PTSD, and The Healing of My Best Friend



In one-hundred degree heat, he wandered onto the main campus where I was working, a black lab puppy in tow. Malnourished, thirsty, and with his fur full of knots, he would only get within twenty feet of a human being, even though you could tell he wanted someone to help him. The kind-hearted people at the treatment center (Cumberland Heights) gave the dogs food and water, eventually having to trap them both in order to get them to a veterinarian. After both the dogs had been treated, it was decided they would be moved out to Stillwater’s, a small, all men’s treatment center that myself and some colleagues were trying to get off the ground. There was a fenced in dog-run there and four dog lovers, so it seemed like the ideal place for the two dogs start acclimating to humans.

I remember the first time I saw the Husky-mix up close, he resembled a caged wolf, wild-eyed and feral, a look of abject terror when I tried to pet him. The black Lab puppy was so unaccustomed to the touch of a human being that he foamed at the mouth when I first put a hand on his fur, his body seizing and becoming catatonic. We put the dogs up in the dog-run with a climate controlled dog house, hoping they would start getting used to us before we began taking residents for the program. It was obvious that the two dogs had not only been abused at some time in their past, but also that they had been taken somewhere and dumped, forced to fend for themselves though they lacked the ability of their wolf ancestors.

Once in the dog-run, the Husky would trot along the fence-line for hours on end looking for a way out, his brain stuck in the “fight or flight” position with no way for him to turn it off. I began my relationship with him by taking some food with me into the fenced-in area, sitting in a chair with my back to him, and waiting for him to get the courage to take the treat out of my hand. It took about five or six hours until he finally came close enough to get the food, but I knew that when he did, it was the first step to his recovery.  I repeated the process every time I went to work, until finally he allowed me to touch his fur without taking off.

After about a month of  the dogs being at Stillwater’s, we realized that because of the severity of the two dog’s trauma, it would probably be best if we found homes for them where they could get the attention and nurturing they needed. I also knew that the Husky would be coming home with me. From the first time I looked in his eyes, I felt a bond with the dog that is hard to describe, though I’m sure other dog lover’s will understand what it’s like when that sense of knowingness comes over you in an almost spiritual kind of way.

So with the help of a Proverbs 12:10, a no-kill shelter, I helped get the Black Lab puppy a home with a dog-loving little girl, and took the Husky home with me. I admit I may have overestimated my ability to train the dog, as well as underestimating the extent of the dog’s trauma. I don’t think he had ever been inside a house until he was brought into mine, and for the first two or three days he did nothing but run around in circles from the kitchen, to the dining room, to the living room. I don’t think he even slept, afraid that if he let his guard down for a minute, something or somebody would hurt him again. It was hard for me to imagine what someone had done to this beautiful animal, and even harder for me to understand why.

After about a month, I began to get frustrated. I was reading books on how to train dogs and watching “The Dog Whisperer” non-stop, trying to figure out how I could help him overcome his trauma. A veterinarian told me to try crating him, but his anxiety was so bad that he would try to chew through the metal of the cage, flipping the whole kennel over and knocking holes in the plaster of the bedroom when I left him by himself. I started to think that I was incapable of reaching the dog, that I was doing him more harm than good. Finally, on a particularly bad day where he’d clawed through a screen and almost escaped out the front window, I decided that I’d had enough. I called a woman who ran a dog rescue, told her the situation, and begged her to take the dog from me. There was a long silence on the other end. I’ll never forget what she said to me.

“Jeff, I’ll take the dog from you, but I want you to ask yourself a question first: Have you ever needed someone to not give up on you? Have you ever needed someone to love you enough to stick with you through your worst times? That’s what this dog needs from you. Call me tomorrow, and if you still want me to get the dog, I will.” She hung up the phone. I looked in the eyes of that scared, hopeful Husky on the end of the leash and realized that this animal had chosen me. He wanted me to see him and not give up on him, learn how to look deeper, past his behaviors to what was underneath the trauma. I never called the woman at the dog rescue again, except to thank her for reminding me of the importance of faith and perseverance.

It took about six months of patience, love, gentle discipline, and consistency until my wife and I began to see significant changes in Jackson. Recovery, whether it be from abuse, addiction, or war, is not something that can be rushed. Eventually, Jackson’s brain began to heal and his instincts began to normalize, instead of being on high alert. Today, he is a relaxed, loving dog who likes nothing better than curling up in bed and playing with his squeak toys. He still has some separation anxiety and is leery of adult males, who were more than likely his primary abusers. He has been my constant companion over the last ten years, and when I am feeling down there is nothing more therapeutic than running a hand over his silky, black and silver fur.

I have loved dogs since I was a small child. There were times in my life due to my addiction when I was unable to keep a dog. Those times were some of the darkest, always feeling like some vital and essential part of myself was missing. In my sobriety, when I have gone to pick out a new family member, I have always headed straight for the dogs that look the most afraid, the ones huddled in the corner. Those are the animals I connect with the most, the ones who show teeth when approached, not because they are dangerous, because they don’t know what else to do.  One of my favorite spiritual teachers says that whatever we pay attention to becomes special to us. Part of the reason why we love our families and our pets is because we are willing to look at them on a deeper level, overlooking and forgiving their flaws and imperfections. True spirituality and recovery asks that we do the same with all beings. 


Resolution or Commitment

Everyone’s heard the Mark Twain quip about how easy it was for him to quit smoking: “I’ve done it dozens of times.” Twain’s tongue in cheek comment points to the difficulty  human beings have in effecting permanent change at various times in their lives. They say that 80% of people will abandon their New Year’s resolutions in less than two months. The validity of this statistic is questionable, but what is certain is that most people’s willpower is at times insufficient, despite their stubborn insistence that they pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Though I certainly do not have a magic formula turning resolutions into realities, I know that for me, I have made far more progress by approaching the New Year and each day with an attitude of commitment, rather than resolve.

While some may believe that the difference between resolve and commitment is a mere matter of semantics, in my experience the two are very different. When people make a resolution, they are making a statement of purpose, when they make a commitment they are dedicating themselves to a course of actions and attitudes. Anyone who has battled or witnessed  addiction knows that anyone faced with the consequences of their use has no problem verbalizing their intention of stopping their drug and alcohol use. Some of these declarations are made with the utmost sincerity, often with emotional fervor and zeal. But the problem is that the resolve melts away when faced with the effort that recovery requires. I knew I was an alcoholic when I was seventeen years old, but it took ten years before I was willing to commit to a course of action that would arrest the disease and eradicate the craving for alcohol. Seventeen years later, my belief in people’s ability to change is based in my own experience, as well as the experience of those I have counseled and been exposed to in the world of recovery. the

The wisdom of good 12 Step meetings is that members are asked to commit to their recovery on a daily basis, not once a year. Change must be a living, breathing part of you, not a statement written on a piece of paper. Those who are committed to their recovery continually do things like going to meetings, going to therapy, taking medications, monitoring their emotions and reactions, and striving for spiritual growth. Anyone who is looking for a quick fix will be sorely discouraged when presented with a program of action, usually offering a slew of excuses about why they don’t have time to do the things that successful recovering people make time for. It is  a true pleasure to watch the growth and change that occurs in people who are willing to meet their intentions with action. Those who do this, claim the life that they want instead of pining away for what they think they deserve.

So instead of an empty resolution, here are the things I am committing and recommitting to for 2018, knowing that I will not be perfect, just purposeful:

1.) I commit myself to my marriage and my wife, striving to be the partner to her that I promised to be on our wedding day ten years ago.

2.) I commit to my family, being there when they need me, and supporting them in their lives.

3.) I commit to showing up for my clients each day, being fully present with them and helping them along their journey for as long as they need me.

4.) I commit to my own recovery, rejecting the use of intoxicating drugs and alcohol which add to the suffering of mankind.

5.) I commit to treating all people with respect and dignity, especially those on the margins of our society.

6.) I commit to eschewing violence in all its forms, including verbal attacks, either written or spoken.

Though there are other areas where I can and will improve, these are the most important to me at the moment. Happy New Year to all friends and family, those seen or unseen, known or unknown.


The First Thanksgiving

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 on this planet dream of having. When they allowed me to make myself a cheeseburger at work, I received the food as a gift and understood for the first time why my mother always insisted we pray before we ate our dinner each night. And when I attended my recovery meetings, I understood what they meant when they said things like, “Show me a grateful alcoholic and I’ll show you a sober alcoholic.”

So on Thanksgiving of the year 2000, I woke up in the half-way house with no food, no money, and less than a quarter tank of gas in my car. My parents had invited me to drive up to Kentucky to spend the holiday with them, but with no money for gas, I thought the trip would be impossible. I remember I kept going out to my car trying determine how many gallons of fuel I likely had left, and whether or not it was enough to make it the 120 miles to my parents house. The best I could figure, I might be able to make it to the Kentucky border, but not much further. As I decided on whether or not to make the trip, I pondered how many stupid risks I’d taken in my addiction without any concern for myself or others. And I thought about this new-found faith I had been cultivating in recovery, how I was promised that if I tried to do the next right thing, a Power greater than myself would take care of me. Not that this Power was a superhero that would protect me from the world, but that I would be able to deal with reality without living in fear, and without resorting to alcohol and drugs to calm my volatile emotions.

So I made the decision that spending Thanksgiving with my parents was worth the risk of being stranded on the side of the road. The worst thing that might happen would be that I’d have to call my dad to come get me once the car finally ran out of gas, or I’d have to hitchhike the rest of the way. In true Homer Simpson fashion, I took a piece of paper and taped it to the dashboard over the fuel gauge so I wouldn’t obsess about the needle dropping lower and lower as I drove. I told my parents I was on my way and began the drive, trying to guess just where in Kentucky the car would likely stall. I don’t remember much of the drive, but I do remember that the closer I got to my parents house, the more shocked I was that I hadn’t yet run out of gas. And when I coasted into my parents driveway two hours later, the car literally running on fumes, I had the deepest sense of gratitude I had ever experienced, especially when I removed the piece of paper from the dashboard and found the needle buried deeper on ‘E’ than I thought was even possible.

To this day I have no idea how I made that trip without running out of gas. I know that it shouldn’t have been possible. Sometimes it seems ridiculous to think that a supreme being could be concerned with a First World Problem like running out of gas on the way to overeat and watch football. But I believe what the mystics say, that God is in all things, even in the minutia of day to day living, even in a son’s desire to spend Thanksgiving with his mother and father.


The Cult of Hyper-Masculinity

There is a great documentary on Netflix that I believe every person in America should watch. The movie, called the “Mask You Live In,” addresses the concept of hyper-masculinity in our culture and sheds light on the challenges that boys go through on their way to becoming men. The first time I watched the video I found myself choked up with emotion as they interviewed boys and young men, asking them to talk about some of their struggles in regard to trying to live up to the standard of masculinity that they found impossible.

These boys expressed a deep feeling of loneliness that began to affect them as they entered middle school, around the age of puberty, when the expectations begin to change in regard to what is acceptable male behavior. The boys talked about craving both male and female friendships, but feeling like they would be bullied or made fun of if they showed this vulnerable side of themselves. They also spoke about the expectations that begin to be placed on them, especially in the realm of athletics and sexuality.

I do not believe that men are inherently given to atrocious behavior when it comes to their treatment of women in the workplace, at home, or among other men. Men quickly learn from our culture that the way you get respect from other men is to become an alpha male who takes no shit, parties like a rock star, dominates other men athletically, solves problems with violence, and views women as sexual objects. Think about the archetypal heroes from modern movies, television, and video games. The primary message is that men reject in themselves that which is viewed as feminine, especially emotions such as fear, sadness, pain, compassion and empathy.

Usually, when a male client comes to my office for counseling the first time, they are so out of touch with their emotions that even asking them to identify a feeling leaves them speechless, as if you’d just asked them to interpret Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. As it states in the documentary, men are taught to “lock down their feelings” at all cost, to never let anyone see a weakness or it will be used against them. When people are cut off from their own internal lives, they cannot put themselves in the shoes of another, which results in viewing others as lacking their own vital emotions. Thus, some men believe they can treat others anyway they wish, because the victims of abuse don’t feel anything just like them.

When I was twenty-seven, I took stock of the person I was and decided that I didn’t like anything about myself. One of the things I had to address was the way that I viewed and treated women. At that time I made a conscious decision to never refer to a woman in any type of derogatory term or slur, and seventeen years later I’ve kept that promise to myself. I also decided that I needed to become more aware of how the objectification of women (especially pornography) creates a mindset that can dehumanize the vulnerable and turn some men into predators. About the same time I made this decision, I met my wife who I have been with for seventeen years. It is no coincidence that when I decided to overhaul my attitude toward women, I became capable of having a deep and meaningful relationship with the woman of my dreams, one that gives me the intimacy and closeness that I always craved.

It is my view that underneath all the bravado and persona that most men project to the world, there is a little boy who once had an open heart, a sense of innocence and wonder. The hardest part of being a man in our society, is that most of us don’t only wear a mask at Halloween, we wear one everyday. We think it keeps us safe, but it really makes us deeply unhappy, and unfortunately, sometimes dangerous.  I’m an advocate for the men that I counsel, because I see the goodness and the pain that they feel like they have to hide from a society they are afraid will reject them.

I challenge all men who read this to watch the documentary on Netflix and ask yourself if there are aspects of the deadly and abusive culture of hyper-masculinity that are familiar to you. As with most problems in our society, the solution begins with awareness, introspection, and honesty.


No Need to Argue

After my last post about the struggles that families deal with when facing addiction, I received a message on Facebook from a woman admonishing me for calling addiction a disease, insisting that people “make their choices and should live with them.” As she pleaded with me to stop calling addiction a disease, I felt a flush of anger redden my face, wanting to retaliate with a message of my own, something that would cut her to the quick and cause her to think twice before writing anything on my page again. Anyone who knows me is aware that I’m not really the type of person to cower in the corner when challenged, nor do I have a problem defending my position on an issue. Once, I took great pride in these characteristics, but lately, watching our country descend into violence and hatred over conflicting opinions, I’m not quite so proud of the argumentative part of myself.

As a result, instead of quickly unleashing a few mean-spirited words back at this person, I decided to simply block her from my Facebook page and try to realize that she has her reasons for needing to believe that addiction is a choice, the same way I have my reasons for believing it’s a disease. And no matter how much I am sure that I am right about the disease of addiction, she is just as sure about her own beliefs. After a couple of days, it occurred to me that the reason I am invested in the idea of addiction as a disease is for one reason and one reason only: I want our society to have compassion for people with substance abuse instead of scorn. The reason I want compassion for alcoholics and addicts is because I have worked with thousands of them, and know for certain that most would do anything to not be the way they are, hating themselves for how they have treated the people they love. When you have looked in the eyes of a man or woman who loathes themselves because they can’t stop going to the liquor store night after night, you understand that what you are seeing is not as simple as an act of willpower. I’ll never forget early in my career when I came upon a woman curled up in a corner with her face in her hands, crying like a child because of abandoning her daughter for more cocaine. When I bent down to ask her if she was alright, she flinched at the sound of my voice, afraid I was another person about to tell her what a horrible mother she was.

In one of my favorite books of Buddhism, a monk is teaching about cultivating compassion for all living creatures. To illustrate the point he tells his student to consider the tick. (Yes, the blood-sucking tick) “A tick” he says, “when it bites its victim, is only seeking its own happiness.”  Don’t get me wrong, I’ll still put bug repellent on my exposed skin to protect myself from the tick, but do I have to hate the tick in order to keep myself safe?  Maybe it is ridiculous to consider feeling compassionate toward a tick, a snake, or an enemy, but can I at least consider that most people who differ from my political views want happiness and security for their children and families just as I do? Or, If I think addiction is a choice, can I at least be honest about how many mistakes I’ve made in my life, considering that wanting justice for others and mercy for myself is the root of all human conflict.

All those who are in the healing arts know that what makes a good counselor or therapist is not the technique, it is the ability of the technician to look deeper at the person in front of them, to not become fixated on the symptoms, but instead look at the person beneath the anger, fear, and shame. When we are able to do this, we create an environment for healing that is not concerned with who is right or who is wrong. So, for those of you who believe addiction is a choice, I will respect that you have your reasons for believing the way you do and that you don’t want your mind changed anymore than I do. But I will say this: If addiction is a choice, then so is compassion. If I refuse to recognize the basic goodness of human beings, I am likely as misguided as those I view as flawed, defective, unenlightened, unpatriotic, sinful or just plain wrong.