addiction · Uncategorized

What Doesn’t Get Better

As a person in recovery who also works as an addiction counselor, I can confidently tell those who are struggling to get sober that things will get better. The cravings will dissipate, the feeling that you’ve lost your best friend will wane, and some sense of joy and happiness will eventually find you again. Early in my own recovery it was crucial that I come to believe that the crippling fear and anxiety I experienced on a daily basis would give way to moments of relative calm and peace. The first six months after treatment I felt like my IQ had dropped twenty points. I would become tongue-tied at the drive-thru, the bank, or even answering a phone call. To hear from other recovering people that things would get better was a huge relief, but to believe it was life changing.

But there is one thing that’s never gotten any better. Losing beautiful people to the disease of addiction hurts as much today as it did twenty years ago. When I was younger I thought I had become numb to friends and family that were lost to addiction, often telling people that I was used to it. I realize this was just wishful thinking, a way I tried to cope with the severity of grief and the realization that people I cared about would continue to have their lives cut short on a regular basis. Today, I know that unacknowledged emotion feels like numbness but is in fact a form of dissociation.

Not long ago, I was processing with my own therapist about another person I counseled who had succumbed to the disease of addiction. She asked me how many people I have worked with over the years who have died from addiction or mental illness. I told her it was too many to count, but that if I had to guess it would be between 100-150. Shocked, she told me that in her twenty-five years of practice she knew of one client who had died prematurely due to a mental health crisis.

I am more skilled at dealing with grief today. I talk to people, I surround myself with people who understand addiction, I accept my feelings, I practice my spirituality. In that sense, I suppose it does get better. But each time I get a text that tells me to call NOW because it’s an emergency, the surge of fear that shoots up my spine is always the same. I’m faced with the reality that another father, mother, brother, sister, daughter, friend or companion has been lost forever.

Despite what most believe, we don’t die from addiction because of a failing. We die because the illness has overtaken us, overwhelmed us, and because we have lost the ability to fight it any longer. But for every person that is lost to the disease of addiction, I can tell you about ten people who have turned their life around in miraculous ways. I hold those people close to my heart.


20 Years Sober: The Power of US

Under the lens of 2020, a man who hasn’t had a drink of alcohol or taken an intoxicating drug in 20 years is a small story. There has been a tremendous amount of suffering in our country this year. In the past six months I have counseled people who have lost loved ones to the virus, to suicide, and of course addiction. I have spoken to people who continue to experience racism and abuse on a regular basis, as well as those who have lost their businesses and livelihood from the effects of this bizarre year. In myself, I have felt sadness, confusion, grief, anger, and most of all powerlessness. But not once have I wanted a drink, nor have I lost hope in our capacity for goodness or the belief that there is a loving force underlying everything in the universe. For a chronic alcoholic, that is nothing short of a miracle. So As I celebrate the blessings of the life I have been given in twenty years of sobriety, a piece of my heart is with all those who still suffer from a barrage of fear, confusion, and pain that has been this year.

I was once told that congratulating an alcoholic for not taking a drink is like congratulating someone for deciding to leave a burning building. True in a sense, but as anyone who has tried to get sober or change their life knows, it is far from that simple. Were it not for the hundreds of people who have helped me along this path, I would have died an alcoholic death before I reached my 30th birthday.

On October 3, 2000, two men drove 300 miles to pull me out of the apartment I was living in, a place where I was literally trying to drink myself to death. They took me to a treatment center outside of Nashville, paid for by my loving mother and father who were willing to sacrifice their money for one last chance to save a life that many had deemed hopeless. At the treatment center I was taught that I was sick, not evil; a concept that shifted the way I saw myself. There isn’t much hope for an evil person, but someone who is ill might be able to heal. There I met a Vietnam-Vet named “G”. He took me under his wing, showing by his words and actions what it meant to try to live a spiritual life, rooted in compassion, kindness, forgiveness and responsibility. He would lay the groundwork for how I would develop a relationship with a God of my understanding, the center of how I was to build my new life.

When I left the treatment center I stayed in a $85 a week halfway house with twelve other men trying to get their life together. We sat around smoking cigarettes and telling stories of our addiction, laughing at our insanity instead of crying over it. The manager of the house was tough, but fair. He’d leave a stern note on your bed if you left it unmade, not taking excuses for bad behavior or irresponsibility. He understood that the alcoholic consciousness is locked in a self-centered loop that has to be broken. If you were caught stealing, drinking, drugging, or being a general narcissitic-pain-in-the-ass, you’d find your stuff boxed up and waiting for you on the front porch when you got home from work. (he called that a boundary) My eleven month stay there there taught me how to be grateful for what I had instead of complaining about what I didn’t. It taught me about accountability, brotherhood, and the importance of telling the truth.

During that first year of sobriety I worked at a zoo flipping burgers, waited tables downtown, and washed cars at a Ford dealership for seven bucks an hour. Some weeks I barely had money to buy food, but I never starved or went without anything I really needed. Mostly that first year, I sat around with men and women of all races and backgrounds who talked about how to stay sober one day at a time. They taught me how to live by spiritual principles, how to be an adult, and that there was nothing that a drink or drug could do for me anymore except take me back to the hell that was my life before sobriety. During those times, nobody ever asked me what political party I preferred or what religion I thought was best. They told me that my code for interacting with the world was love and tolerance; no exceptions. They told me I’d never do it perfectly, but that was what I should strive for. And so I have, some days better than others.

When I reflect back on all the friends, family, and strangers who have helped me over the past two decades, I am truly in awe of how much goodness there is when I choose to put my attention where it belongs. I remember when I was about a year sober, my car broke down in the middle of a busy intersection in Nashville. As many busy people who looked and talked like me drove past without blinking, a truckload of Spanish-speaking men jumped out and helped me push it into the parking lot of a restaurant, refusing to leave until I could assure them that I had someone coming to help me. I think of all the teachers and mentors I’ve had in my career, those who were patient with me when I needed it, and honest with me when I didn’t want to hear the truth about my blind spots. I think about the twenty years I’ve spent with my beautiful wife, how she has never expected anything of me other than to be the best version of myself. I hold in reverence the keepers of our world’s wisdom traditions, those that have been so key to my happiness, well-being and my ability to help those who still suffer. Without Buddhism, I would never have understood the mind and emotions. Without Christianity I would have no idea about sacrifice and love. Without Taoism and Hinduism, the concept of surrender would have been only a theory. Were it not for the scientist who developed the anti-depressants I took after my father died, I’m not sure if I would have stayed sober through the grief that I experienced. For me, there has never been a conflict between the intellect, spirituality, science and rational thought.

Overall, I find little difference between the world twenty years ago and today. There are many good people, many fearful people, some sick people, and a few who can’t see past their own trauma and woundedness, taking it out on others to make themselves feel better. The most disturbing thing I see today is the lack of common decency we have for one another’s differences, and that somehow we have been led to believe that our opinions are our accomplishments. I was taught early on that what I said and believed was meaningless if I could not follow it up with action. It was pounded into my thick skull that I needed to focus primarily on my own internal state, rather than the state of the world. If I couldn’t do that I was likely to drink again, because that is the core of alcoholism and addiction-trying to bend reality to my desires, instead of adapting myself to meet conditions under the banner of spiritual principles.

So, a heartfelt thank you to all the seen and unseen who have helped me throughout these past twenty years, including all those I have been privileged to work with and counsel throughout they years. I look forward to the next twenty years, affirming my commitment to my family, my spirituality, my community, and those who suffer from addiction and mental illness.

Peace, Jeff Browning


A Mother’s Day Card

red dahlia flower

All good mother’s are intuitive. They anticipate when their children needs a diaper change, when it is time to feed them, and when their cries signal something more than just fussiness. At times they even appear to possess latent psychic abilities, able to feel when their children are up to something they shouldn’t be, or if they’re in some type of danger. And they understand that more than anything their children need not just love, but unconditional love; the kind of love that allows for mistakes and imperfections. Unconditional love does not hold grudges. It disciplines without shame or condemnation so that the child grows up with a secure sense of self, nurturing exploration and self-forgiveness. My mother possessed all of these qualities, who along with my father, raised myself and my brother with a strong sense of autonomy and individuality, allowing us to grow up with the ability to speak our minds without fear of being shut down or diminished.

Great mothers not only anticipate the needs of their children while they’re young, but also what qualities they’ll require for successful navigation of the world once they enter adulthood. Great mothers understand the words of the poet Kahlil Gibran:

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you, but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.

My mother taught me how to read at a young age, instilling in me a love of the written word. She was always reading herself, usually books about spirituality or religion. She showed me how to be curious about things I didn’t understand, as well as teaching me that there is more to the world than what we can perceive with our five senses. When I aged into my cynical teen years, I decided that religion and spirituality were not for me; I was more of an intellectual, having no need for the faith of my ancestors. But at twenty-seven, when my alcoholism finally crushed me, I was left with no option other than to reach out for a God unknown.  It was the faith that my mother demonstrated that enabled me to find a spirituality that would become the foundation for my recovery. Books she gave to me became vital to my early sobriety. Writers like Victor Frankl, Carl Jung, Anthony De Mello, and Thomas Merton were the teachers that altered my perception, showing me that faith and the intellect were not mutually exclusive, but worked in conjunction to form a healthy spirituality.  And when my journey took me into Buddhism and Eastern Philosophies, she never insisted that I adopt her idea of a Higher Power, giving me books on Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism.

My mother has always been an example of service and generosity. She visits the lonely and sick in nursing homes, giving of herself without expecting anything in return. She taught me that in order to find meaning in life, a person must strive for something more than one’s own desires. Again, these lessons are the essentials of not only my sobriety, but also my marriage and career as a counselor and healer.

There is a story my mother tells that I thought about often when I was trying to get sober and no longer liked the person I had become in my alcoholism. I was about seven or eight years old. The school was having some type of May-Day where the kids had races and tug of war and other games. My mom watched with the other parents as I stood around the starting line with the other kids, waiting for my turn to shine. When the race began I took off sprinting, only to come to a dead stop halfway through the contest. My mother couldn’t figure out what I was doing, watching me walk off the track into the grass where I jumped into a ditch. A few seconds later I emerged with a single red flower in my hand. Abandoning the race, I walked to my mother and handed her the flower, a big grin spreading across my face.

That was the part of myself that I lost in my addiction, the part of myself that put love, beauty and generosity above all else. And that is the part of myself that my mother helped me get back in my recovery. For that, and thousands of other things she has done for me over the years, I am eternally grateful for the mother I was gifted. Though I can’t see her this Mother’s Day because of the Corona Virus, she is still near to my heart.



The New-Old Normal

I’ve wanted to write something for a while, aware that words can only do so much. But the written word has given me comfort in my darkest times. And the last month has certainly been dark and fearful for most of us, filled with uncertainty and the dissolution of routines and activities that give us meaning and purpose. I’ve heard life since the crisis referred to as “the new normal.” The term seems accurate, but from a broader perspective, maybe not so much. It has only been in the last one hundred years that our ancestors have brought a small percentage of the earth’s population to a place where the struggle for daily survival is not at the forefront of our minds. In the year 1900, the average life expectancy in the United States was around 50 years old. That same year, 30% of deaths that occurred in the United States were children under the age of five. Today the percentage is around 1.5%. That means that when my great-grandmother was a child, a plethora of diseases and infections could have killed her at any time, the discovery of penicillin and antibiotics still a couple of decades away. I remember talking with my great-grandmother when she was in her eighties. I wish we had her generation around to tell us what the great depression was like, maybe reassure us that difficult times are nothing new, remind us that all things pass eventually.

I have always looked to secular and spiritual saints to help me cope with negative emotions and trying times, finding inspiration from those who have walked through the fire without becoming fully engulfed in the flame. One of the men who I turn to in dark times is Victor Frankl: holocaust survivor, psychiatrist, physician, writer, and reluctant optimist. Frankl observed the effects of the concentration camp on his fellow prisoners and discovered that those who survived with their dignity and humanity intact were the ones who managed to cling to their purpose. Frankl watched people slowly allow the horrors of the concentration camp strip them of their humanity, a fact which he never faulted them for, understanding that the tortures they endured could turn anyone into a self which was unrecognizable. But Frankl refused to allow the Nazi’s to determine how he would conduct himself. In his book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning,’ Frankl summed up his awakening with these words: “Everything can be taken away from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.” If Victor Frankl can make such a statement after enduring one of the greatest atrocities in human history, then I can choose the way that I deal with events like this one, or the death of a loved one, or the removal of my conveniences, or financial insecurity. “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves,” he stated. For me, this is the calling when faced with a dilemma that causes me to feel powerless and afraid.

I’ve thought a lot about our current situation and talked to many people as they try to make sense of it all. I keep coming back to my experiences working in a state prison for six months back in 2016. The anxiety, the fear, the isolation, the lack of resources, the greed. All these things were normal life for the men and employees in the prison. Everybody was afraid of everyone else, looking over their shoulders and telling people to get away from them. Survival, for the most part, was all that mattered. And in order to survive, positive emotions like compassion, humility, love, and intimacy were sacrificed or tossed away. One day I was talking to an inmate whom I had become friendly with while he attended my group therapy sessions. He’d discovered Islam while in prison and had used this spiritual path to help him find purpose and hope. He would bring me  verses from the Koran to read, while I brought him quotes from the Buddha and Thomas Merton. As we were talking on that particular day his expression suddenly became pensive and sad.

“I’ve got to tell you something that I think is important,” he told me. “If anything bad ever goes down in here, you have to understand that you are on your own.” Confused, I asked him what he meant. “Look, the prisoners in here like you-I like you. But if there’s ever a riot in here or things get crazy, nobody is going to help you. You’re on your own. In prison it’s us against them. And your not one of us.”

One week later, there was a riot in one of the pods. Inmates kidnapped three guards and stabbed them in the head, beating them almost to death. Had it not been a weekend, I easily could have been in that building. One month later I was no longer working at the prison. The environment, saturated with paranoia, violence, racism, and corruption was just too much for me. To this day, I still feel guilty for having to leave my job at the prison, feeling that I never accomplished my goal of bringing drug and alcohol treatment to a population that will probably never get it.

My fear of our current situation is this: I don’t want to fall prey to the belief that it is every man and woman for themselves. I don’t want to convince myself that a digital image of a human being is the same as looking at them face to face, soul to soul. I don’t want to think that my comfort is more important than someone’s life, nor do I want to lose touch with the truth of the human condition. Life is fraught with illness, death, uncertainty, and feelings of powerlessness. But it is also imbued with beauty, kindness, love, wonder, friendship, joy, and rich, textured experiences that create a full and happy life. For now, I’ll make the choice to stay focused on the positive.

**The disease of addiction does not take a break. Mental health is equally important as physical health and right now support groups are temporarily unable to meet. I’m still counseling during this crisis, taking new clients in my private practice and doing Telehealth sessions when appropriate.


Opening Up To Fear

Maybe I’m just more aware of it since Halloween is fast approaching, but I have noticed a lot of friends and clients dealing with fear and anxiety. It’s no secret that many people with substance abuse disorders struggle with anxiety, using drugs and alcohol to quiet their overactive nervous system which has sometimes been rewired due to various forms of trauma they have experienced. Often times family members of those struggling with addiction are the most affected by fear, as the threat of death or incarceration for a loved ones is a very real possibility. And unfortunately, sometimes the worst fears about addiction are realized. Obviously, fear is not reserved only for people or families facing addiction, it is a reality for all sentient beings. Realizing this allows me to have compassion for all who I come in contact with on a daily basis.

In my experience it is helpful to separate legitimate fear, which is calling us to action, from mind-generated fear which is causing us worry and stress,

William James, one of the father’s of modern psychiatry, said that most fear and stress is the result of a faulty belief system. To overcome fear we must be willing to change our belief system. In working with clients, some of our time together often involves the deconstructing of family beliefs around money, success, relationships, and family expectations. If there is addiction in the family system, the entire family tree may be rooted in generational fear that results from dysfunction, abuse, prejudice, secrets, and rage. We unpack these beliefs and see if they still serve a purpose or if they have become a hindrance to whatever goals they are trying to achieve.

When I got sober, I had a clear realization that the philosophy upon which I tried to build my adulthood needed to be completely obliterated before I could begin moving away from the horrifying fear of my last few years drinking. In my teens and twenties I had adopted a nihilistic view of the world that supported my addiction. If life is meaningless, I thought, then it only makes sense to pursue pleasure and self-gratification above all else. This worked fine when intoxicated, but when sober I was possessed by a paralyzing fear that I couldn’t shake without the help of alcohol. When the emotional pain of my failing life was severe enough, I became willing to let go of beliefs and opinions that no longer served me and adopt those of people who seemed to be able to face life with courage in the face of fear.

Along with a new belief system that included the view of a benign universe, I began learning meditation and was able to observe the mind’s fearful nature. Once I saw the brain as an organ and not myself, I was able to detach from fearful, mind-generated anxieties. These things, along with the ability to feel and express emotions, dramatically reduced my fears and allowed me to be at ease in my body for most of the hours in a given day.  Just verbalizing to someone when I’m afraid tells the brain and nervous system that it can relax because the fear has been acknowledged.

Here are a few of my favorite quotes about fear that I’ve heard or read about over the years. I share in the hopes that you live in more faith and less fear.

Thanks for reading. Happy Halloween.

1.) Fear is paper-thin. It takes one courageous step to walk through it.

2.) A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for. – JOHN A. SHEDD

3.) Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold. Faith alone defends. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. -HELEN KELLER

4.) Behold the birds of the sky, that they neither sow nor reap, neither do they gather into barns, and your Father who is in Heaven sustains them; behold, are you not better than they? But who of you is able to add a foot to his stature through worry? And why are you taking pains about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow without laboring or weaving. But I say to you, not even Solomon in all his glory was clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field that is today and will fall into the oven tomorrow, does he not multiply more to you, Oh ye of little faith? .-BOOK OF MATTHEW

5.) Siding only with those who agree with me is greed. Opposing those who don’t agree with me and wishing they would go away is hatred and fear. Not being able to see this mechanism is ignorance.- GUO GU, ZEN TEACHER






Advice and Optimism Regarding the Opiate Crisis

In light of National Overdose Awareness Day, which took place over the weekend, I wanted to write about some of the things I have observed and been told over the years that seem to be effective in preventing opiate and opioid deaths. I counted over fifteen clients on my caseload that have over a year in recovery from opiates, most of whom were IV heroin users. A couple of weeks ago I began asking some of them what they thought were some important pieces of their recovery, and how they have gone from being another sad statistic to happy, productive members of their families and communities.

Each of my clients who are in recovery from opiates have been admitted to at least one inpatient treatment center, most of whom required at least two or three admissions before finally becoming sober for good. They speak of relapse as sometimes being part of the process in order to realize the severity of their addiction, pointing to the financial sacrifice of their families who understood that relapsing is often part of the recovery process. Many of them also relate that staying in a treatment center for an extended period of time (usually 2-3 months) was key to finally turning the corner and beginning to see progress. The reason long term treatment is so key is that it gives the brain time to heal, allowing for better executive functioning instead of being enslaved by the addicted brain which operates from a primitive level of craving and immediacy.

Nearly all of those who are abstinent spent a period of time in a good recovery house after they discharged from treatment. The recovery house serves many purposes, but some of the most important are accountability, structure, and a living environment where the use of alcohol and drugs is prohibited. Yes, sometimes people do relapse in recovery homes, but if the ownership of the house implements a zero tolerance policy  those who relapse are quickly identified and either asked to leave or readmitted to a treatment center or detox ward. There is also the Tennessee Alliance of Recovery Homes  that sets standards and practices that ensure that supportive housing is implementing best practices.

All of my clients utilize or have utilized 12 step recovery. Some no longer attend meetings, but most do. 12 Step recovery is not the only method for sustained or early recovery, but in my experience it is the most effective for overcoming the incessant pull of addiction and teaching the recovering person how to navigate the world without the use of consciousness blunting substances. I have worked with many clients who have a strong aversion to AA or NA meetings, some who have felt they encountered a heavy-handed approach to spirituality. Most of the time these clients can work through their resistance, encouraged to find meetings that are less rigid and open to many different approaches in regard to finding a healthy way to interact with the principles of the 12 steps. Buddhist recovery groups have become widely available in the last ten years, and there is also Celebrate Recovery, which caters to those who wish to have their recovery focused around their Christian faith.

The efficacy of opiate antagonists such as Naltrexone and Vivitrol have been well documented. I have had clients tell me that these medications have been “a game-changer” in regard to reducing the cravings and obsessive thoughts associated with addiction. In the last year I have recommended these treatments to almost all clients who meet criteria for severe opiate and alcohol use disorders. Additionally, medication assisted therapies such as Suboxone can also be implemented, especially for clients who have had repeated overdoses and who have not responded to abstinence based treatment.

Finally, I will advocate for the implementing of a licensed alcohol and drug counselor or addiction trained therapist to assist in the recovery process. The importance of helping a client cultivate their strengths, reduce anxiety, and guide them to needed resources cannot be understated. UTILIZING A GOOD THERAPIST OR COUNSELOR IS AS IMPORTANT FOR FAMILY MEMBERS AS IT IS FOR THOSE WHO ARE FIGHTING THEIR ADDICTION.

In my experience, a realistic, optimistic, holistic, medically appropriate approach will eventually solve the addiction crisis that has decimated this country for not just the past ten years, but since its inception. The lethality of drugs such as heroin, fentanyl, and opioids have raised the stakes, forcing ourselves and our families to stop ignoring how our culture glorifies and glamorizes the use of alcohol and drugs.



Not long after I got sober in October 2000, they re-released the movie “The Exorcist” in theaters. Looking for things to do in my early sobriety, I went to see the movie with several friends I had made while in treatment for my addiction, a couple of whom were ultimately killed by their disease. Though I had seen the movie in the past, the plot of a young girl possessed by something destructive and evil seemed to take on new meaning for me, even though I still wasn’t convinced that things like demons or evil existed. However, coming out of nearly fourteen years of active alcoholism, I was convinced that something outside of myself had taken over my body and personality, turning myself into a creature that only vaguely resembled my old self.

About half way through the movie there is a scene where the two exorcist priests have taken a break after hours of futility, failing to remove the demon from the young girl, witnessing her doing things that could only be described as sub-human. At one point, the younger priest turns to the older and begins asking questions about this evil, confused and terrified about the what he is witnessing.

He asks the older priest imploringly:

What is the point of this evil? Why this girl?

The older priest, answers his question with this statement:

I think the point is to have us despair, so that we see ourselves as animal and ugly and reject the idea that God could possible love us.”

When I heard those words in the theater, a cold chill ran up my spine. I had found the perfect description for what the disease of addiction had done to me for the past decade.

In the last years of my alcoholism it seemed as though I had been separated from all things good in this world. My capacity to love was gone. I couldn’t sleep or eat, the ability to receive joy was destroyed, and my creativity was no more. But the most damaging part of my addiction was the way in which it obliterated my  capacity to see the beauty of the world around me, both seen and unseen. The only way to experience the above pleasures was to continue to use the drug that was causing the problem in the first place. That is what they mean when they talk about powerlessness in 12 Step Meetings.

One of the reasons  I write this blog is to generate compassion for those suffering with addiction. After working in the field for nearly twenty years, I know for sure that most people who are struggling with addiction and mental health issues do not want to be the way that they are. This is difficult to see, because it looks like they are making the choice to live the way they live, destroying their bodies and families the way they do, but in my experience this is rarely the case. Science is beginning to recognize the truth of this statement, identifying deficiencies in the addicted brain that leave some people with little choice but to try to make themselves feel better by altering their neurochemistry. As I have said for years, all addicts and alcoholics are self-medicating.

In The Exorcist, both the priests and the child’s mother must look past the horrifying behaviors she is exhibiting while possessed, remembering that underneath all the hatred and ugliness, there is a little girl trapped within the evil. The ability to gaze deeply into the depths of human beings and see the divinity within is the greatest hope for healing addiction, and probably most of human evil we encounter everyday.


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.