IF THE SHOE FITS…

As a child I would occasionally come across my father’s work shoes next to the closet. I’d put my small feet in his black Florshiems and try to walk up and down the hall without stepping out of the loafers, imagining what it would be like when I was as big and powerful as my dad. My father worked for the railroad. I figured anyone who could be in charge of those massive machines had to be superhuman, or at the very least tough as nails. Sometimes, on a Sunday, he’d take me and my brother out to the rail yard and lift us up into the engine of a train, letting us blow the horn while he moved the train down the tracks a few hundred yards. I didn’t really know what other fathers did for a living, but I knew father was a Trainmaster for the L & N railroad. And I always knew my father loved me and my brother, there was never any doubt about that.

The transition from viewing my father as superhero to human being was difficult for me, as I think it is for most people. When I became a teenager I began to notice the flaws in the world, as my wide-eyed innocence disappeared and was replaced by cynicism and rebellion. I removed my father from his pedestal and decided that he worked too much, drank too much, and wasn’t all that great at communicating. At the same time, my own addiction was beginning to progress, distorting my perception of reality and causing me to begin withdrawing from my family. By the time I was in my mid-twenties, my relationship with my father was strained, mostly due to my own addiction and my inability to support myself financially, burdening he and my mother by always asking them to bail me out or pick up the pieces.

It wasn’t until I got sober at twenty-seven that my perspective began to shift again in regards to my father. Once I started doing my own internal work I began to realize that my father’s faults paled in comparison to my own, and that there were many people in the world who would have given anything to have the kind of father I had. I also realized that luxuries like introspection and therapy weren’t ideas that he ever really had an opportunity to indulge in; for my father and my ancestors, suppressing emotions wasn’t a conscience choice, it was a means of survival. Eventually, I let go of my petty resentments against my father and made a decision to love him for the person he was, not who I thought he should have been. I believe that lesson has enabled me to be a good husband, a good counselor, and a decent human being.

It’s been nearly twelve years since my father died. While I wish I would have had more time with him, I know that I am blessed for the example he set for me and my brother. Prentice Browning taught me how to work, how to laugh, how to treat people with respect, and how to get up when you get knocked down. He loved baseball, food, dogs, a good time, and he loved his family most of all.

I don’t have any children, so I shy away from parenting advice. However, I will remind all the father’s of one thing: When your not looking, there may be a little boy or girl who puts on your shoes and walks around the house, hoping they can be just like you one day. Be mindful of the steps you take, they’re watching everything you do.

 

 

 

Eight Decades of Addressing the Spiritual Malady

June 10th, 1935 is generally considered to be the birthdate of the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous and the 12 Step Movement. Like many things in our society, there seems to be little middle ground when it comes to AA. There are people who credit the organization with saving their life and family, and there are those who consider the group archaic, a remnant from a less enlightened age, replete with unscientific ideas about addiction and psychiatry. Regardless of one’s opinion, there is no debate that the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous began to shift public opinion on how alcoholics were viewed. This shift was the idea that alcoholics were sick people who needed treatment, not bad people who needed punished. There is still a long way to go, but I am grateful that there are places where alcoholics and drug addicts can go where they are treated with compassion instead of scorn. In honor of AA’s birthday, I thought I’d write a little bit about the founder of AA, Bill Wilson, and his correspondence with Carl Jung, who he considered a co-founder along with himself. Though we are closing in on a century since the first Twelve Step meeting, I believe there is deep wisdom in the insights of these two men.

In Wilson’s letter to Jung, he recounts a friend of his who had been psychoanalyzed by Jung years earlier in attempt to cure his alcoholism. Wilson credits Jung not for his skill as a therapist, but for his humility in telling the man after several relapses that his skills as an analyst could do nothing for his alcoholism, and that without a spiritual conversion or the help of a community of like-minded individuals, he was hopeless. Jung states: “I am strongly convinced that the evil principle prevailing in the world leads the unrecognized spiritual need into perdition if it is not counteracted by either religious insight or by the protective wall of community.” I believe when Jung is using the word religion in the letter, he is speaking of the word in the classic sense-religion as observance of the sacred, not theological dogma.

In the fifteen years that I have worked with those in grips of chemical addiction, I have seen how the disease strips them of their most sacred relationships. They become indifferent to the holiness of their children, their bodies, even life itself.  The effectiveness and power of the Twelve Steps is that it asks a recovering person to reengage with the sacred through a series of actions and attitudes. In these movements, now taken with a clear, sober mind, and the help of the community of recovering members, one must acknowledge what has been lost in the fire of addiction, then either reclaim it or mourn it.

Jung goes on to tell Bill Wilson that he believes an alcoholic’s craving for alcohol is the “thirst of our being for wholeness.” From my perspective, this too is one of the gifts of internalizing the Twelve Steps, a uniting of what had previously been divided. From the outside it sometimes looks as if a person in their addiction has no regret about the things they have done while intoxicated. In my experience, the opposite is true, no matter how much it is hidden by ego, anger, or denial. Most of the people I have worked with are deeply divided people who are tortured by who they once were and who they have become in their addiction. Whatever the method for treating addiction is employed, this chasm must be crossed for healing to begin.

Often when a man or woman finally reaches out for help, they say that it is a feeling of emptiness that pushes them toward change. People in recovery also talk about feeling as if there was a hole inside them that needed to be filled. Bill Wilson writes in the forward of one of AA’s text books that, “AA’s twelve steps are a group of principles, spiritual in their nature, which if practiced as a way of life can expel the obsession to drink and enable the sufferer to become happily and usefully whole.” Over and over the language of both those in addiction and recovery points to a deep existential longing that is as old as humanity itself. For millions of people, Twelve Step recovery has been an answer to the question of addiction and purpose. For that reason alone, Alcoholics Anonymous is worthy of the admiration that is mostly given to the organization.

Personally, I owe a debt of gratitude to men like Bill Wilson and Carl Jung who both believed that intellect and spirit were not just compatible, but inseparable. Additionally, I think these two attributes will be what eventually lead us out of the majority of human conflicts.

LESSONS LEARNED FROM 1,120 HOURS SPENT IN A TENNESSEE PRISON

Thursday was my last day at work in a Tennessee prison where I attempted to bring drug and alcohol treatment to the inmates there. Those who know me are aware that the experience was less than positive, though I don’t regret my time spent there in the least. To be honest, I haven’t decided what to do with the information I have about the state of our country’s prison system, so for now I’m only going to try to shed light on what I observed in regards to the disease of addiction and those who lack access to treatment.

It might be surprising to know that I didn’t encounter any monsters in the prison, though I’m sure if myself or one of my loved ones were victims of the inmates’ crimes, I might have a different perspective. What I did see over and over, were men who had once been children, and in many ways still were. These men told about growing up in places where extreme violence, crippling poverty, and rampant addiction were the norm.  Very few of these men blamed the environment they grew up in for their crimes, even fewer understood that roughly seventy percent of the crimes committed are due to the distribution of drugs or because of impaired judgment due to intoxication. (Yes, even marijuana) And as is nearly always the case with addiction, what receives most of the blame from those in addiction is rarely the addiction itself. One of the hallmarks of the disease is that it blinds the person to the obvious, warping their thinking so that drugs and alcohol are the last thing pointed towards when it comes to putting a finger on why their life is in shambles.

When assessing someone with a drug and alcohol problem, one of the first things you try to find out is what age the man or woman was when they first began using. In the fifteen years I worked in treatment centers, where most of the clients were white and upper-middle class, the answer was usually fourteen or fifteen. In prison, the age of first use was generally around nine or ten. That age difference is significant because it tells me that instead of experimenting with drugs and alcohol with their peers in high school, these children were first intoxicated in their own home or neighborhood. It also tells me that the still-developing brains and psyches of these people are being affected so severely, we can only guess at the amount of damage incurred. What type of adult would think it a good idea to give a nine year old child heroin or marijuana? In my experience, it is the addict or alcoholic who encountered the same type of abuse while growing up, and who without treatment or education, views this behavior as normal. I have no doubt that there are families in America who have the disease of addiction running unchecked through their family tree for hundreds of years, each branch weakened by violence, dysfunction, and trauma. Are there individuals who are resilient enough to rise above their circumstances and transcend their environment? Yes. Is it reasonable to expect everyone to do this, insisting that they pull themselves up by their bootstraps? No.

I’m not educated enough on the prison system to know whether or not you can punish criminality out of a felon, but I do know that you can’t punish the disease of addiction out of an addict. Consequences may be helpful for pushing an alcoholic toward sobriety, but what changes the consciousness of a man or woman is education, awareness, love, forgiveness, and support.

Last thing: I learned a lot about myself while working at the prison the last six months. I realized that throughout my career I have taken too much credit for what I do, while underestimating how much of my success has been due to the support and understanding of co-workers, mentors, and friends. My mother always told me growing up that no man is an island. Whenever I try to go it alone, I pay a high price for my arrogance.

A Few Words About the Dis-ease of Addiction

“We have come to believe it an illness – involves those about us in a way no other human sickness can. If a person has cancer all are sorry for him and no one is angry or hurt. But not so with the alcoholic illness, for with it there goes annihilation of all the things worth while in life. It engulfs all whose lives touch the sufferer’s. It brings misunderstanding, fierce resentment, financial insecurity, disgusted friends and employers, warped lives of blameless children, sad wives and parents – anyone can increase the list.”     -Alcoholics Anonymous, There is a Solution.

Though written some nearly 80 years ago, these words from the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous are as true today as when Bill Wilson penned them. For my first blog entry I wanted to take some time to write about why I believe the disease model is so critical for both those suffering from the disease of addiction, and those who love them.  The disease model is the first step in cultivating compassion for fellow travelers on the path, as well as forgiveness for oneself for being unable to cultivate the will-power to overcome addiction.

One of the biggest arguments I have heard from clients and their family members over the years is that embracing  the disease model of  addiction means that they are abdicating responsibility for their actions and consequences while intoxicated. In truth, the exact opposite is true. When a man or woman embraces the disease model of addiction there is a huge amount of responsibility that the addict is asked to shoulder. The sufferer must acknowledge that they have the duty to treat their disease on a daily basis, or else. Treating the disease means taking certain actions such as going to support group meetings, engaging in therapy, doing internal work to address erratic emotions,  and making amends to those who they have harmed through selfish actions or neglect.  They are taught that failing to do so will result in an eventual return to their addiction, or at the very least unhappiness.

I am reminded of the belief that some westerners have in regards to Buddhism’s first Noble Truth, “Life is suffering.” This statement seems pessimistic and fatalistic if taken on it’s own. A person could justify a life of harming or being indifferent to others by claiming that life is suffering anyway, so what does it matter? Similarly, a person could use the disease model  of addiction to deny responsibility for their actions, but this not what the finger is pointing at.  Fortunately, the Buddha did not stop with one pithy statement about the nature of things, and the disease model of addiction does not stop with a fatal diagnosis. As with many things we encounter, the despair of hopelessness precedes the arrival of hope.

Before I was introduced to the disease model of addiction, I had been leading a life of quiet desperation, always wondering what was different about me, but never finding a shoe that fit. That type of loneliness has been the nail in the coffin for many addicts who feel as if they are horrible people who deserve to live in misery.