Last year Dr. Dennis Charney, a resilience researcher and dean of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, was leaving a deli when he was shot by a disgruntled former employee. Dr. Charney spent five days in intensive care and faced a challenging recovery.
It’s the age old question: I’m on antidepressants; can I still drink?
1. In one major study, 25% of gay men admitted to using the drug at least once. So if you know 4 gay men, one’s probably used and might still be using today. 2. Meth can be instantly addictive, like crack.
So damn important….just happy I’ve found a holistic approach that doesn’t discount each branch of recovery. Read this…..
Here’s what gets me upset: regardless of the program, therapy, rehabilitation program, or self-help book off the shelf at B&N, attempting to tame an addiction without a thorough investigation into one’s mental health by a professional (not a therapist, not a sponsor, not a general practitioner, but someone with the specific credentials to understand mental health “disorders” and the drugs that can possibly help), is like teaching braille to someone with complete hearing loss. It might open up a new world of sensory exploration for your fingers, offer an insight and language with which to communicate with a specific group of people who share a different physical problem than your own, but it does not address the bigger issue of not being able to hear. And lumping all mental health disorders into one massive category and allowing non-professionals to diagnose and prescribe, even via a casual personal story, is no less harmful than saying addiction to alcohol is the same as every other addiction whether it be sex, bath salts, binging/purging, meth, heroin, and on and on.
Too often, addiction is a symptom, not the problem, but in the hands of the wrong people, that claim can be turned on its head and used as some form of sick proof one is “in denial” or that their ego is fighting against the fact they are really just a ‘bozo on the bus’ and not being honest with themselves about their true condition, a condition through which adherence to a few simple steps can bring freedom, serenity, and joy.
Somewhere along the way, it became cool to be a part of a larger program of recovery; that’s great. Actors step forward and claim their seat. Writers do the same. Politicians even. But it seems that with this new esteem has come the bashing of psych-meds, medications that not only save lives but that treat the problem, not the symptom. I could run through the list of diagnoses I have been given by various professionals throughout my adult life, could tell story after story of how I fooled some professionals into giving me the exact diagnosis I wanted to hear at the time, and more tales of unsolicited advice from people who insisted they knew what I was going through because they, too, shared the label, “Addict.” Or they were a family member of an addict or a whole family of addicts. Often, these people are the ones out there shouting the loudest in a well-intentioned attempt to bring relief to others. Often their shouts just confuse the issue for those of us suffering from something other than our addictions.
Lithium. What does that word bring to mind? To me it’s looney-bins, ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” Francis Farmer (or rather Jessica Lang), and on and on. So unfair, so off-target, such a stereotype from an old generation of labeling. I don’t know a thing about Lithium outside of what I just read in the below article. Not a thing.
But I do know about Wellbutrin, Effexor, Zoloft, and Prozac. In the first three, up until last December, I held my hopes for some relief along with a heavy dose of therapy and 12-step. Why the first three and not Prozac? Because of magazine ads, commercials on TV, suggestions from friends, and stories in ‘the rooms.’ These were the newer, cooler, if you will, medications that could and would bring relief.
A week before the end of a 90-stay in my first rehab, 90 days after having tried to shoot an 8-ball of meth into my arms with a 4 year-old rusty veterinarian’s needle previously used on our cat, 11 weeks after telling one of my rehab counselors I wanted to die to which she replied, “Oh Spencer, leave the drama for the stage,” 5 days before leaving that rehab, my other counselor said, “You don’t need that Effexor. Just stop taking it.” Literally. I was advised to go cold turkey days before heading home. What happened after isn’t the point; the point is this person wasn’t qualified to discuss psych meds, a psych med that had been prescribed by a physicians assistant the previous year.
I stayed off that med and all others until 5 years later Wellbutrin and Zoloft were prescribed by that Harvard trained psychiatric nurse. They worked as well as they could while I secretly kept my truth: I was raiding the needle-exchange closet of all the used needles dropped off by the meth users in town, sometimes scraping the residue out of those needles and using the clean needles on the shelf above, but at other times, just filling the used needle up with water, shaking the left over crystals together with the client’s blood and shooting it into my veins. At work. Yes, I hit a major bottom, nearly killed myself by going septic, and eventually went away to the PRIDE institute. There, the doctor, a pediatrician, gave me her diagnosis and psychiatric recommendation. A pediatrician.
A few more years later, last fall, when I finally accepted I couldn’t stop thinking about killing myself, I finally admitted to my therapist these fears (they had become not just ideations but a fear I would succeed), and I saw a psychiatrist for the first time in my life. There was an initial diagnosis, multiple visits to ensure ‘bi-polar’ was not appropriate, and a thorough discussion of my med history and my current two meds (Wellbutrin and Zoloft). We eventually landed on my needing to stop Zoloft and to add Prozac. Prozac? Isn’t that so 80’s? Wasn’t that the catch-all drug of a generation of self diagnosed depressives? Wasn’t it a joke? I had to check my biases, my baggage, my history in order to hear what he was saying and to realize he was the one with the expertise who could possibly give me my life back.
He did. As did Prozac. You see, I’m on the obsessive compulsive spectrum which I never really knew. My binging, purging, love of sticking needles into my arm, self-mutilation, and addictions were as much a part of obsessive compulsion and they were in what I thought was an inability to stop (addiction.) Suddenly (weeks later), instead of a tiny unexpected thought creeping into my head creating a chorus that would scream, “DO IT (‘it’ being whatever desire was hitting me at the moment), I heard the initial voice and could stop other voices from joining it. Instead of crying on the way to get drugs, hating myself because I couldn’t stop, I could now see my thought process. Where before I had no control over where those thoughts went, now my thinking was under my own reigns. My obsession wasn’t in control That is a big difference in the mind of a depressed, self-destructive addict.
I write this because I cannot emphasis enough how important it is to seek professional help, to question the baggage of all those non-professionals offering help, and to make sure you cover all your bases. If you were recovering from a car crash, you wouldn’t just have your bones reset; your medical team (TEAM) would cover all the basis. Putting all our eggs in one basket only makes for a big helping of raw, scrabbled eggs.
After reading a startling honest and fresh blog entry by Leslie L. Smith this morning, (Why A.S.S. Is About So Much More Than Guilt), I was unwittingly startled into an acceptance I am in a period where the forces at work in my life are joining together to take me beyond the troubles of the last decade and to help me solve a major creative problem: what to do with about 30 short stories I wrote two winters ago. I used to facilitate a health enhancement course called the L.I.F.E. program (Learning Immune Function Enhancement) at the AIDS Support Group of Cape Cod. It was a perfect fit: my background was not only in teaching, I was HIV+, with an AIDS diagnosis, and currently working in the Prevention and Education arm of the agency. One requirement of our MA grant was to provide some sort of health curriculum to agency clients. The only downside was that I never had the opportunity to actually take the course. I was relatively newly positive (about 5 years) and hadn’t had much opportunity to process with other HIV+ men.
You see, I’ve been saying I used HIV. That’s my survivor’s guilt. I’ve been saying that in a path of self-destructive behavior, I was ‘chasing’ HIV. And in a way, I was. This piece isn’t about that, so I’m going to stop right there. What this piece is about and what Leslie’s blog piece helped me see, is that all those stories are somehow based on my HIV. I have struggled trying to figure out where to take them, how to join them, how to tie them together so that I can move on to something else. Because I haven’t given my chance to step back from the story I have been telling for the past 10 years, that I used HIV, I’ve been anchored in one spot unable to unfurl my sails and let myself glide to a new destination. I have been stuck in my story, with my 30 short stories, unable to to move on. Reading this article helped see that I need to look at these past 10 years as a THEN, not a NOW. As soon as I read that today, it all came together. The outline, the order, the themes of a collection of short stories. I felt the anchor lift as I egged the boat forward over it, felt it give way, and I am now pulling for my life. Afloat, gliding, sailing on.
From iheartintelligence.com, an amazing list which I shared with my loved one this morning. We’ll celebrate 10 years together next week, and this….even after all the struggles, therapies, meds, ups and downs of those years….has possibly given us a foundation of understanding we’ve been missing. There is a huge difference is how we process things. I kept saying to him this morning, “I get that you know our differences, but you will never understand what it’s like to have gone through….blah, blah, blah.” He was getting frustrated by that language. Of course he understands, he kept offering. Eventually it came down to making the distinction between understanding my history versus understand how my mind processes life. THAT, he will never understand, but this list given to him after our talk this morning, shed light in a whole new way. Powerful stuff.
We all have our stuff, our baggage, our beliefs, our insights, our history, our hopes and…..drum roll….our path. I’ve always known about my path, have always sought to find my secure footing on it, and have often strayed, lost faith my path ever existed, and subsequently succumbed to filling my life with distractions, often negative and dangerous ones, in the hope they would fool me into thinking I was happy and living a meaningful, purposeful life. Those distractions were, and continue to be, a part of my path, part of who I am. In those distractions, I have built identity, forged meaning. Both of those verbs, ‘build’ and ‘forge’ are creative actions.
Just like various treatments, medications, therapies, books, people, experiences that helped me bushwack a path to individuation, a path I am making very public, this is MY path. So when I write things with which you have issues, please understand that those issues are what make you and I different. I am not better or worse for those differences. You are not better or worse for those issues. If you feel a need to defend your beliefs because you think I am attacking those beliefs, I apologize. My path as a teacher, counselor and coach and through my recent creative online writing is to offer as many opportunities and perspectives around recovery (all recovery, not just addiction) as possible–these are the things that have built my identity. Forged my meaning. A creative process.
I have a graduate degree in teaching English, my partner is one of the most educated (Harvard/Oxford) people I know who has dedicated his life to teaching English, language. My first partner, a brilliant award winning poet, has dedicated his life to using language and to forging meaning. I understand the power of language, and it is something I will always hone in on. Language is life. Andrew Solomon, one of the most respected writers of our time, winner of the National Book Award for Nonfiction for this 2001 book, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, in the following TED Talk says everything I will spend the rest of my life trying to say and does so in 20 minutes. It is one of the most profoundly moving talks I have ever experienced. Language is life. It is wrought with personal, group, cultural, spiritual, positive and negative meanings. If we do not challenge language, challenge and then forge meaning, we will have no personal identity outside the realm of group consciousness and group identity. And that sometimes means challenging the lexicon of our belief systems.
Solomon ends with the concept I wrote on the back of my business card and stuck in my wallet after I watched the video the first time: “Forge Meaning, Build Identity.”
That’s all I am trying to do. If I can help someone out along their path via what I write or post, then that is great. But what I am offering is creative: some based on fact (as scientific as the fact that mixing blue and red will make purple), some based on creative preference (as in, singing more so than painting soothes my soul), some based on what works better for me (as in, I am a much better watercolorist than I am an oil painter.) I have chosen the word “creative” to use across my websites because while you may come across things that do not resonate with you (I don’t like that song, that painting, that poem, that rendering), I’m not looking for you to try to challenge my creative process or my recovery/re(DIS)covery process.
Facebook used to be a place of forging meaning and building identity for me. I realized recently that unless I learn to make Facebook work for me once again, FACEBOOK will be forging my meaning and building my identity. I must make the necessary changes to make sure I retain control, power of choice, and positivity. Thus I will only be posting my encompassart.com and inrediscovery.com posts on my Facebook page, ENCOMPASS ART, not my personal page. My personal page will be that, personal expression for my own joy. Yy other page will be for expressing myself creatively in the process I call Re(dis)covery. If you want to follow the stuff I’ve been posting, “like” my Encompass Art page. Otherwise, on this journey our paths might not cross as often has they have been recently.
Family and friends, do not get wrapped up in your own emotions regarding my websites. Just as if you were watching a movie or reading a book that is too disturbing, too close to home, too anything which makes you uncomfortable, change the channel or put the book down. Do not try to tell me my setting in this story should be here instead of there, my watercolors are over-worked and muddy, the song is too high for my vocal range, I’d sound better if I found someone to accompany me while singing, that shirt makes me look fat. You wouldn’t do that would you? Then use that same filter when it comes to making comments. I am not looking for sympathy, disagreement, judgement, constructive criticism, and on and on. This is a creative offering, not a discussion. If I want that, I’ll ask for it. Until then, respect my creative journey.
I don’t ever remember feeling like I belonged. To my family, to the 7am AA meeting, to the agency staff, to this theatrical production, to that group of friends. To the porn world. To the teaching profession. To my disease. To my addictions. To my trauma. After working through several therapists I finally sought out a specialist, a Harvard psychiatric nurse, who helped me onto the path of recognizing the hand I had been dealt was wrought with trauma. Yet I continued to talk about my story as though it were just that, a story. I never felt like I even belonged to my own story. In my detachment from my life, from my story, came that uncanny ability to compartmentalize, to act like I belonged when necessary, to prove a point or for survival, but to also quickly tear away one mask in exchange for another when a situation, relationship, scenario required it. How I could strut and fret my hours on the stage, the stage being every waking minute of my life. The first proscenium my bedroom where I was likely sent when in trouble but to which I ultimately sought refuge from a bully of a father and life I could not longer control with childish charm. When the adventure of living in South Africa ended and Buffalo and parental marriage problems fell on us in blizzard proportions, I started living other lives because I could no longer bear to live my own.
Why does this matter all these decades later? Because even after an additional psychiatrist and various treatments and psych-meds were added to my entourage of therapies, I still feel the same as that little kid. I don’t want to live the life I am living. Sometimes the only life I want to live is the one I am reading about in a book. That’s where I have gotten to closest to belonging. In books. The Hardy Boys created an adventure out of 3 years in South Africa. At 6 I started and didn’t stop reading until we returned to the States; somehow the brothers lost their appeal when I was no longer exploring caves with my mother, finding scorpions under rocks or hunting pregnant Pit Vipers whose babies ended up in a jar offering to my 3rd grade science teacher (unappreciated). Then came the grocery store horror books, Stephen King, The Amityville Horror, anything that proved there was a way of living and dying more gruesome than the one I felt I was experiencing. Then came classics, Richard Bach, the Joseph Campbell collection, Jung, and eventually a game I played when going into book stores: the next book I needed to read was already calling my name. I just needed to find it. My life became bearable because of books. Those of you who know me might question how this could be: I’m a happy sorta guy; give good energy, care deeply about people, am a go-getter, dream-maker, goal setter, etc. etc. I learned how to become those things in the books I read, and not being willing to come to terms with my true self, I’ve worn these masks all my life.
So I have minor propensity towards being depressed. See? I’m already rewriting a story I am hoping will be closer to truth than it’s been. I’m an addict and I’ve got some serious depression going on. But luckily I have begun to find a balance somewhere between hanging from the nearest tree limb and knowing I can conquer the world, fulfill my destiny, and forever be happy. It’s a daily struggle to belong to my life. There are so many patterns of behavior ingrained in my head that I am often at a loss as to how I end up where I end up at the end of the day. When these patterns start to emerge, I typically try to pick up a book and just forget who I am. It works for a little while. Sometimes longer than a little while. Unfortunately, somewhere along the line I have connected reading books to wanting to write books, wanting to give others the peace I find within pages, to offer an escape from their own lives into the comfort of a life not their own. And wanting to do something desperately which one cannot find the strength, perseverance or determination to do, pretty much sums up this torturous life journey towards grandiosity that inevitably spills me onto the macadam scrapped, bruised, and bleeding. A cycle of depression, balance, optimism, grandiosity, back to hopelessness.
I need to learn how to live my life. When I turned the page of a seemingly innocuous novel I am reading, Amherst by William Nichloson, about the love affair between Emily Dickinson’s married brother and another married woman and about the 21 century writer desirous of capturing the story in a screenplay, I stumbled upon a minor character who, in her suicidal depressive state, is talked into walking through her death by an older mentor. He tells her to describe it, to walk through it, and then to talk about all the issues and traumas of her life and what has happened to them now that she is dead. A simple exercise. With simple intention. To prove that we can die anytime we want to, symbolically, and in doing so, we can eliminate all those haunting issues. If they can disappear with one’s last breathe, why can’t they disappear with a breath that far precedes the last?
Before anyone gets up in arms, let me reassure you there have been years of therapists, professional medical doctors, medications, programs and therapies in my process. I have worked through, starting at a very early age of introspection, why I am the way I am. And I have been stuck in this life the entire time. Haunted by my patterns, by issues, my every cell of memory. This isn’t a “born-again” experience, an attempt to recreate myself in the image of someone else. I want all the pieces of me, I want to BE ME and all the wonderful/fucked up things that means. I want to live this life. Somehow on p. 131 of the book I am reading I have been given a gift, a tool, a suggestion I’ve never heard before. There are plenty of people who have suicidal ideations. I am not the only one. I happen to find a deep spiritual meaning in death, and don’t suggest anyone with thoughts of suicide to “play through” an act of self-destruction. But what I am going to do is try this myself: I might set aside some time to do a meditation (because that is what this is) using creative imagery (creative recovery, right?) to help me eliminate that which I no longer want to carry. I have been defined by those moments, but I know longer want those moments to rule my life and prevent me from living my life. I want to belong to my life; there is no longer room both that which is killing me and that which is begging for life. Will it work? I don’t know. I’m going to give it a try. And in the meantime, I’ll continue to live, heal, grow, and perhaps hide, in these pages before me.
There are triggers and then there are roadblocks. I personally don’t know which are more damaging to me seeing that my triggers often become paralyzing moments indecision. Or worse. Naturally a trigger is something that sparks another action. Obviously in the world of addiction recovery, the word, ‘trigger,’ almost always has a negative connotation; a trigger often leads an addict down the wrong path.
A roadblock–an impenetrable thing standing in the way. In the world of coaching, self-help, and life-affirmation, a roadblock is often something negative that is then turned on it’s axis into something to be surmounted, something that can be overcome. Watch any Tony Robbins video of him helping someone with a life-altering roadblock in the way, and within minutes, whether you believe it contrived or not, the person has not only identified the roadblock, they’ve blown it to smithereens and are continuing on their journey.
What happens when your triggers are the roadblocks themselves? If you are someone like me with a well-developed sense of self-righteousness, my “I’ll show you” super-hero-powers can blow away almost all roadblocks in my way. My “I’ll show you” tied to my grandiosity tied to a sometimes over-zealous belief in a synchronistic, “The Secret” way of life can perform miracles or at least feats often seen by others as mind boggling. I’m not saying this is healthy. It’s not. It’s what can get me into trouble.
I may see a roadblock, feel that drive and power squeezing up from my solar plexis which finds its way into a stubbornly clenched jaw, and then I trip over a trigger. A familiar place. A person. A smell that triggers a memory. I can quickly crash into a heap of self-destructive behaviors, the road block long ago surmounted, opportunity sitting there in front of me waiting to be taken, but I am suddenly too focused on hurting myself to take another step.
My triggers are dangerous. My triggers are many. My triggers spark actions that involve blood, cuts, deprivation, purging, and on and on. It’s an old traditional exercise, but today I again write out my triggers so that I can honor their power and learn that the power I have to overcome roadblocks is the same power than can successfully deal with a trigger. Easier said than done, but like anything worth doing, it’s worth practicing and doing again and again.
Johann Hari has been getting a lot of attention recently, a lot of traction out of a premise he hopes will help the world understand addiction a little better, namely:
This attention long overdue, desperately needed, and essential to the world of recovery. It makes sense, is founded on a bit of research, and is likely welcome to so many who have struggled with conventional treatment programs. He’s also a journalist, so he knows how to write, how to offer evidence, to logically explain his premise. Whether he’s hit a bull’s eye or not isn’t really the issue; if he’s hit on THE truth or a partial truth, the continued discourse and need to look beyond what we currently have in place to help those suffering is the only way we can hope to help that one person who hasn’t been served by that current, somewhat sparse, menu of treatments.
Personally, I believe what he is saying makes sense in a very over simplified way. The evidence and research he offers regarding rats and Vietnam have been used to support his point, but it wouldn’t take much to throw a wrench in his argument. If it was all so simple, AA and other 12-step programs would have a 100% success rate because they are founded on community and connection. Problem is, current data shows the success rate is about 10%. Of course just writing that could spark the ire of 12-step supporters (and I again have to say I consider myself ‘in the program’ precisely because I get that connection from the rooms.)
I think the most important thing in watching and keeping an open mind here is that he’s onto something. Something, not everything. It just happens to be a small piece of the puzzle. I am still more convinced that addiction is multifaceted, having different pieces which if you are unfortunate enough to have all of them makes treatment very difficult. If I went back to Pleasure Unwoven, that documentary on addiction which points out 5 different levels of addiction
I could easily go through the various forms of treatment program and explain how each level either ‘fits’ into a specific treatment or not.
For example: someone who has suffered trauma as a child is not going to be saved by the 12-step program. Period. Those who think that are doing severe damage to those people who have trauma and who come into the program as their sole treatment plan. Without professional therapeutic help, trauma simply gets locked away to emerge later.
Another example: there are some people who don’t believe in psycho-pharmacology as a legitimate form of treatment. Perhaps psych-meds are over prescribed by too many general practitioners who don’t hold an expertise in the field. I personally have spent decades fighting an issue with my brain chemistry which until recently wasn’t successfully dealt with until I saw a professional psychiatrist. Because I self-medicated heavily on an over-the-counter cold medicine (DXM) for 15 years, monthly for a week at a time, nearly 1/4 of those 15 years I spent tripping….yeah, like LSD tripping. I learned how to curb my behavior to mask being high, and successful taught my brain that it no longer needed to create happy chemicals. Just like in the researched effects of long-term ecstasy use, there can be irreparable damage. ‘Connection’ isn’t going to cut it for me. Considering the early age at which kids are starting to use heavy drugs, there will be significant damage done to brain chemistry. All the connection in the world, all the meetings in the world are not going to fix that sort of neurological damage.
I happen to have all 5 levels listed above making me a quintuple threat. Treating all five of these levels is the best form of treatment so a one-size-fit-all philosophy, approach, program, belief is likely to fall short.
Again, the more information out there the better. What I am so happy about is that these sorts of articles are being offered via social media—making that connection which tells us we are not alone and it’s actually okay to step away from the pack and to create our own program of recovery. That’s what I am calling, “Re(DIS)covery!”
This summer I promised I wouldn’t commit to any theater projects. I need a chance at a summer without the additional stress of line-learning and production development. I live in a season town, so while every year our enclave goes from its charming 3000 off-season population to upwards of 40, 50 , to 80K visitors in a 3 mile long, 1/4 mile wide stretch, I’m never quite prepared for the transition from low to high, slow to busy, quiet to crowded. The past two summers I had the opportunity to do two amazing productions. The Normal Heart and Venus in Fur. Intense emotional and demanding roles. All the time I spent during those two summers getting reading for the productions is now my own. I am not filling it. I am leaving it to simply exist.
Just like any dis-ease, the disease of being busy can be chronic. This society breeds multitasking and places value in the competition for “Who is the Busiest” Award. While I believe it’s probably harder for families with children, I think we’re all under an unfair pressure to fill every waking second with activity. Gone are the days of porch sitting, watching clouds roll by while we lay on our backs in the tall grass, visiting neighbors simply because we enjoy their company and not because we need something from them. So my project this summer was to see if I could manage not to start showing the symptoms of the disease of business. Don’t get me wrong, I can pack a lot into a day. Being woken by the cats at 5am and having a whole stretch of day until I start working at 2pm means I have a lot of my time on my hands. There are the regular things which fill the time: eating, exercising, cleaning. I read about a book a week. But there are a lot of minutes where I feel myself falling into the need to be busy. I always have project or two going; my websites are definitely taking a lot more time than I thought.
There are all these little signs, those symptoms of discomfort which come not from being too busy but from having time on my hands. Old voices pop into my head, “DO SOMETHING!” “Don’t be Lazy,” “You don’t deserve this much free time.” Those are the voices which will take me right back to my old patterns, right back into the disease of busyness. Before I know it, I’ll start a few paintings thinking I could sell them over the summer, I’ll sit at the piano and make plans for that musical I have in my head, there’s the collection of short stories in draft form just sitting here, there’s my play that I haven’t sent out, there’s a bookcase to be built (when all else fails, I build bookcases.) All these things become tasks to accomplish rather than being acts of creation inspired by authenticity. Too often they are inspired by the fact I haven’t gotten enough attention recently on Facebook.
I’m not really saying anything very profound here other to say that I am experimenting this summer. Can I get through it, work my regular job, doing my regular activities without getting infected by the busyness bug? So far so good, but I did check to see if I have any pine boards laying around in my basement yesterday.
A Facebook friend posted the following article yesterday, These Stereotypes Are A Far Greater Threat To Veterans Than Any Fireworks, regarding the use of fireworks as a celebratory practice and the effect those fireworks could actually have on our veterans, the very people we often attempt to celebrate on national holidays like the 4th of July. The interesting thing is, I didn’t give it a very thorough read and walked away believing it said one thing when in fact it said the very opposite. This read comes after having finished a book, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, a recent finalist for the National Book Award, and having been dumbfounded by its intense portrayal of our country’s cluelessness when it comes to understanding our veterans.
You know that concept of a paradigm shift? Of a sudden earthquake-size refocusing of your perspective which throws you off keel and then back onto a steady, more knowledgeable and sympathetic footing? I’m using ‘sympathetic,’ not ’empathetic,’ here because it’s the precise difference between those two words and perhaps the over use of both which seem to be the issue in both the book above and in the article. And perhaps in the whole realm of recovery.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about war. I went directly from “Billy Lynn” to the recent winner of the Booker Man Prize, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan, at times an utterly disturbing journey into a Japanese POW camp with its accompany horrors, horrors we only got a small taste of in the movie version of Unbroken. With a generation of veterans who fought in WWII getting smaller and smaller, the visualizations (the root of empathy and sympathy) we will make out of the actual events of World War II will become more and more stylized, Hollywood-ized, and we, as an audience will become further and further disconnected to the reality of the actual experience. Through the news media coverage of live warfare and because of Hollywood movies and TV shows, many of us think we understand war. We think we know what it was like or is like, and then presume to empathize with our fellow citizens who have actually fought in or are fighting in wars. The problems is: it’s a BIG PRESUMPTION. We know nothing. Nothing. So what we think is empathy, often displayed in flag-waving, firework-shooting, support, is often just a masquerade that makes us feel good because we imagine what it must be like or have been like, to be in a war.
What we’re feeling, unless we’ve actually been there, is sympathy. You likely know the difference between empathy and sympathy. Here’s a great chart differentiation and description of the difference below:
Empathy is the ability to experience the feelings of another person. It goes beyond sympathy, which is caring and understanding for the suffering of others. Both words are used similarly and often interchangeably (incorrectly so) but differ subtly in their emotional meaning.
Ok, so what does reading about war, criticizing non-veteran’s desire to honor veterans, noting the difference between empathy and sympathy have to do with reading and recovery? One of the biggest reasons I often find more recovery growth coming out of reading than I do out of meetings is because often, as is true with our obsession to “comment”on EVERYTHING we read from Facebook posts to blog posts to news articles, and to collect ‘comments’ and ‘likes’ as a gauge of our worth, is that as soon as we comment, often we stop thinking. We draw a line in the sand. We agree or disagree. We ‘relate’ or sympathize. In the rooms we listen, hug people after they share, offer nuggets of program wisdom in an attempt to reassure the sharer or storyteller he or she is not alone, perhaps hand a suggestion or two over, welcome the newcomer, say, “we’re all just bozos on the bus,” “I’ve been there,” “I know what you’re feeling,” and on and on. In the rooms, a “conspiracy of experience” exists which is, if one is looking to feel better through a shared experience, exactly what you’ll get.
There is nothing wrong with any of that except the notion that a person’s personal experience, her personal journey, her life is a unique and utterly un-sharable experience that cannot create empathy in another person unless the other person truly has experienced exactly the same life. It might create sympathy, and it is in that sympathy we wish to swim. Sharing in a public realm with an expectation of timely reaction from others provide something: a reaction. We are a society of reactors. We react. We don’t process or allow ourselves time to process and instead jump into the sympathy pool hoping to splash around with the others swimming in that same pool.
Reading on the other hand is an utterly solitary moment of individuation, it is the basis for the creation of empathy for yourself. Yes, we react to a book, and then we live with that reaction. We might write review or share a reading experience with another, but we are not in this attempt to empathize with the actual writer. We don’t attempt to disprove the writer’s experience by tracking down the writer through their publishing house (well, maybe you do), by logging onto a blog and blasting them for their perspective (well, maybe you do), or publicly reacting to a passage read from a book like we do in the rooms (planning the whole time before your share what you are going to share.)
Being forced to sit with ones reaction is the process of evolution. It’s a process of empathizing with yourself as you connect to who you are through the words of others. It’s a process of rediscovery. Finding out who you are without allowing your automatic gut reaction to get the best of you, without severing the thought process with your emotional reaction, without drawing that line in the sand, without coating someone else’s experience with program platitudes, without arguing a point in a comment section because you’re uncomfortable with how an experience made you feel, is allowing growth and healing to occur at exponential levels. It’s creating empathy for your own life experience.
I am having a hard time finishing “The Narrow Road….” because I am reading thoughts that are my own. I’m in shock over what the words are helping me rediscover about myself. About who I am. I’m looking in a mirror I never expected to find in a book about World War II. And I sure as hell have not been to war. I am not empathizing or even sympathizing with the POW experience–I am changing as I read because the words are forcing me to think, and think, and think some more about who I am. About the choices I have made, the lies I have told, the relationships I have had. I can’t stop the process by writing a comment, or writing this blog, or comforting the nearest veteran because my reaction will not receive it’s own reaction. It’s why there is no comment section on this website. I cannot react and subsequently in that process of reacting, comfort myself into a false sense of security and identity via other people’s reactions to my reactions. My reaction just is. I am creating identity in this process. By not reacting externally with the expectation of a response, I am rediscovering myself internally.
I offer this not to further disparage programs or meetings, but to simply say that for me they cannot be the end all, be all of recovery. They are beautiful, but they are, a conspiracy of experience. The conspiracy is in sharing a language handed down by others; words have meaning, intention, and can help or harm. Each of us carry our lives into every word that exists in order to help us create identity. Words like “rigorous honesty” and “character defect” are loaded with personal baggage and can do more harm than good if the language in this conspiracy of experience is touted as “The Word,” repeated as “The Word,” and offered as “The Word.”
Personally speaking, I must use my own language of experience to process my life, and in that process I will lead to discovery, to rediscovery. It’s an individual process, just like the act of reading a book, that cannot be done solely relying on the help of others. If I am not reading, I am not evolving. If I am not reading, I am not recovering. If I am not reading, I am not rediscovering. Pow! Fireworks.
SCIENCE and 12-Step NEED NOT BE MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE. There. I said it.
I often end up separated from the pack, “the pack” being any group of people who share a recovery experience, or in this case a program, who readily throw out the, “hey, whatever works for you, man,” quip when someone suggests alternatives to their chosen path of recovery but who also tends to be blatantly one-sided in their own convictions as to what is actually ‘THE WAY” (I picture Saturday Night Live, Dana Carvey doing The Church Lady, saying….’Well, isn’t that special…..” to anyone not sharing her dogma )
I believe a holistic approach is the only approach. Some 12-step here, some CBT there, therapy, exercise, medication if necessary, diet, and on and on. Just like most people I can be easily swayed by a well-founded argument or by a touching, emotional story. I can go from a blog post sharing an article which says addiction isn’t a disease to this blog post sharing a video which states convincingly the opposite. And that’s the point. Unless you are willing to open up to other possibilities, you will be limited in life. That’s a simple concept that has reaches far beyond the recovery community.
We must, as people trying to heal, stop closing the door to science when science steps forward with empirical evidence. And we also can’t let hope and faith (I am quickly taken to the anti-vaccination movement) say that we can heal without science. At least look at the data. Look at the research. Listen to the people who have spent their lives trying to find answers instead of blindly holding faith that your journey to recovery rests in 12 simple, albeit painful and exhausting, steps written in the 30’s, to the exclusion of everything else.
Got you mad yet?
It’s a beautifully produced piece using the new science of addiction (by a doctor who did the research.) It was a life changing experience for me because it helped validate what I have always known–there is not just one answer to this problem. It says there are 5 levels to addiction:
You’ll need to explore yourself what these levels actually mean via the DVD, but even with a quick glance you might understand how each level works in you. At the end, he talks about the benefit of 12-step programs. Watching was life changing because I could assimilate the content of the DVD with what I was experiencing at that time for the first time: intense 12-step. But the 12-step also had me in creative therapy, individual mental health therapy, group therapy, exercise, etc. etc.
Do you ever wonder why we feel so good upon leaving a treatment center? It’s because, no matter what the treatment is, it’s likely surrounded by a holistic mandatory menu of alternative treatments. When we leave treatment and get back to life, we’re often left alone and isolated within one channel of recovery. And it’s not enough. Or maybe it is. If so, there’s no real reason you’d be reading this. Otherwise, if you are reading it, you may be questioning and asking yourself if there isn’t actually more you can do.
Watch the clips, buy the video (if you are the person I loaned my copy to, please return it!). Here’s a review by Cold Creek Behavioral Health—a NON-12 Step program based on CBT. If the DVD gets both 12-step and Non-12 step treatment center approval, it might be good enough for you.
A psychologist and former addict insists that the illness model for addiction is wrong, and dangerously so……
As I’ve already written in my disclaimer and in previous posts, I wanted to create a site that publicly explored a variety of treatments for various addictive disorders but that wasn’t exclusively about addiction. Why? Well, because clearly addiction, based on the most recent science, isn’t such a black and white issue. It’s not about doing this program over that program. It’s about taking back your life by examining your whole life, everything about you, clearing out the clutter, exploring the wounds, figuring out ways to stay healthy, etc. The addiction world does not own the term, “Recovery.” Addiction recovery is such a small piece (albeit an enormous one for those suffering) of the realm of recovery.
I have watched people focusing so exclusively on staying ‘clean’ that they are incapable of living. Oh, they go to meetings, they eat, they sleep. They stay clean. They believe in something greater than themselves, but don’t ask them to get any exercise. Don’t ask them to see a therapist to finally deal with a childhood of trauma. Don’t ask them to explore their hopes, dreams, and potential for the future. Just stay in the day and get through it. That is great, it works for many people. It worked for me.
But I’ve never been someone who just wanted to get through the day. I am driven by something deeper, and while I can only hope to try to explain this on the journey of rediscovery I am taking so publicly through this journal, and while many ‘friends’ may scoff and say, “EGO, EGO, EGO…bad, bad, bad,” I can’t live a life simply being an addict in recovery. The creative piece in me needs to evolve, needs to rediscover what it is like to have the wonder of the child, needs to focus this internal drive, narrow that purpose and bungee jump off that bridge knowing there’s a chance the rope will snap. If I don’t do those things, I’m not living. I’m just pretending. I’m just getting by. I’m a cracked humpy dumpy shell spilling potential on the curb and letting it wash away in the gutter.
The first experience I had in truly examining who I was at a level where some fundamental changes were allowed to occur was in my first stint in rehab 8 years ago. 90 days north of Montreal in a converted monastery in the middle of the woods….in winter. You’ll hear more about that later, but right now I just want to introduce the concept of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). For me, recovery must include some form of therapy. My family, my friends, my colleagues were not therapists. I wasn’t a therapist. I couldn’t expect to deal with my addiction without understanding it’s roots. And while I know now the science of addiction distinguishes at least 5 roots of addiction, genetics being just one, it is so often assumed that addiction is this lone feature, this isolated condition that can be dealt with by itself.
Not everyone will see a therapist. For some reason there is still an incredibly debilitating stigma associated with seeing professional help. But that doesn’t mean you can’t explore therapeutic concepts by yourself without jokingly maligning that process as being “New Age Self Help.” It’s self-help alright, and it is necessary and an integral part of the healing process.
CBT is based on this concept of untwisting your thinking. Let’s face it: our thinking is messed up. Our emotions are based on our thinking and if our thinking is messed up, the basis for our emotions isn’t necessarily real. Our emotions may not actually be real. Huh? I’m not going to go too far here except to direct you to look up CBT. To go to the website of David D. Burns, M.D. We used The Feeling Good Handbook at that Canadian rehab, and while it’s not perfect, it was the start of a more healthy form of introspection.
I’ll explore more of this later, but for now, if you have’t started exploring, go ahead and try. Can’t rediscover if you don’t explore.
(photo is from Dr. Burn’s website–gotta love a Dr. who likes cats.)
You go to sleep telling yourself that tomorrow will be different. You’re going to start tomorrow clean, maybe read a book, mediate, perhaps go to a meeting to get some human connection. A couple cups of coffee later, you’re suddenly pinched by a little urge. It’s nothing mind-shattering, no unbearable feeling of being out-of-control, of knowing you are about to break down and fall back into old patterns. It’s just a pinch, a reality check that this is going to be a lot harder than you thought. Thankfully, you have to go to work which, truth be told, holds its own chances for relapse. It’s everywhere at work, everyone is using, everyone seems just fine with their patterns of use. How are you going to get through a work day without it? Are you going to tell your colleagues? Are you going to ask them for help even though the thought of that is so embarrassing you think giving up would be easier.
It’s not even 10 o’clock and you’ve thrown in the towel. You tell yourself you did pretty well. You lasted 4 hours. But now you have to go online. You have to check in to Facebook, Twitter, and the half dozen other sites which give your day it’s structure, and dare you admit it, it’s meaning.
Look, I don’t make light of being addicted. Being addicted to technology is nothing like being addicted to the purest form of mind-bending chemicals which are not available on the internet. You won’t end up chewing off some homeless man’s face while your on it. But you might end up chewing out someone who has a different point of view, a different way of life, a different thought process.
You have choices of how you use technology. Don’t let it run your life. Don’t let it be your life. If you want to preach, start a blog. That’s what I’m doing. And guess what? You can’t comment on anything I’m writing! Why? Because it’s that sort of back and forth banter on social media that, while sometimes creating lovely and lively discussions, drives me crazy. I’ve spent the time and money to start this website and a few others, so I get to set the rules. So do you! Use your social media filters, keep your boundaries intact, don’t engage with people who bring you down. Rediscover who you are occasionally by disengaging.
A Great Read:
My senior year after discovering I was gay, I was taken to a psychiatrist by my upset parents. The psychiatrist spent 10 minutes with me while my divorced parents waited outside. Then he brought them in and said, “Your son is completely well-adjusted. There is no problem here.”
I was already a really good actor at that point although my attempts at acting on stage were often stiff and not-yet developed. Off-stage I could convince anyone of anything. My first survival mechanism came into play very early on when I had to pretend I was not hurt, not crying, not pouting, not being a baby, not playing with my sister’s toys, that I didn’t have to go to the bathroom…again. Unfortunately, I learned well how to separate from what I was feeling, and eventually, when that became harder and harder, I started to use drugs, alcohol, and self-harm to help me in that journey of compartmentalization.
I love this video. But I also know I could have used some help after my first suicide attempt at 12. Perhaps childhood is not a mental disorder, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t hard as hell sometimes, and worthy of professional intervention.
You’ve heard it time and time again, “unless you’ve walked a mile in my shoes….” followed by either a Hallmark-esque ending or a twist of that traditional ending that points out just how un-unique was all actually are.
Sometimes I have gotten frustrated by what feels like an outright war on the ego in various recovery programs. The fact is, most recovery programs have expanded beyond traditional one-category support groups (Alcoholics only) to embrace all sorts of addictions. And with those additional categories come stories, symptoms, conditions, traumas that are absolutely individual. My story as a bullied, molested, gay, depressed, hooked on DXM, Alcohol, Meth, bath-salts, research chemicals, sex-addict, sex-worker is more than slightly different than the story of the alcoholic. It’s not ego, it’s a fact. And hell, ego is as important to my recovery program as my program. Without it, I wouldn’t be alive.
So it’s important to open our minds, open our hearts, widen our perspective on what makes others tick. What makes them who they are. Most often we cannot empathize, but we can at least try to open our eyes.
If we can look at our own past through a lens of complete honesty, why can we not look at our program through the same lens?
Its faith-based 12-step program dominates treatment in the United States. But researchers have debunked central tenets of AA doctrine and found dozens of other treatments more effective.