An Allergy and a Mental Obsession
From The Privileged Addict, pp.83-91 (Copyright, 2012):
"I did nothing for the first three days up North but chain smoke cigarettes. The staff refused to treat me until some of the fog burned off. Finally, after ripping apart my perception of conventional recovery and mainstream AA, I was offered a solution that really works. They began reading the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous to me like I was a child, or rather, a student. They taught me that I could recover completely… and for good. I don’t have to live forever ‘in recovery.’ There is hope for me and for every addict in the world.
The beginning of the Big Book contains a letter from Dr. William D. Silkworth, who repeatedly treated AA’s co-founder, Bill Wilson, at Charles B. Towns hospital in New York. Towns Hospital was once a giant in the field of drug and alcohol addiction. But the doctor admits to the public and concedes to himself that he cannot help most chronic alcoholics and drug addicts despite a slew of medical and pharmaceutical options. He admits that advances in science and clinical treatment cannot effect change the way this spiritual program can. Inherent in his argument is the idea that “moral psychology” must be administered to cause sufficient change in the hopeless drunk. Man-made remedies often fail to change an addict into a better person. He is filthy from negative and destructive behaviors, thoughts and words. He is a caldron of mental illness and spiritual decay. He may have to grow from deep within to fully recover. He may have to live by moral principles. He may need something that isn’t tangible.
So addiction isn’t my fundamental problem. The problem is spiritual. To be less abstract, it’s a life problem. Addicts refuse to live life on life’s terms. They refuse to grow up and walk through pain that everybody feels. They feel entitled to remain in their comfort zones even if doing so comes at the expense of others. They refuse to do things that push them outside of themselves. And so if my illness is spiritual in nature, then so must be my solution.
Two fellow losers and I sat in an old, grungy room armed with a podium and chalkboard. The staffer looked at us. Time to smash a 1st Step into our brains.
“Okay, you’ve achieved physical sobriety. Now what? What are you going to do?”
We shrugged our shoulders.
“Now what?” he says? I have absolutely no idea.
“Okay, so you have two problems besides the underlying soul sickness. One is physical; the other is mental. Physically, you’re screwed. Your body is damaged goods.”
Great, that’s nice.
“You have an allergy to drugs and alcohol.”
Here’s the allergy: I put a drug into my body and bang! Something happens. I snap when a drug, any drug, enters my bloodstream and saturates my brain. It takes hold of every atom of my being. I experience what the doctor who wrote to Alcoholics Anonymous refers to as the “phenomenon of craving” - a biological craving that supersedes any desire to stop. Nothing matters except more. The idea of having two shots of booze and stopping is absolute torture. Why even start unless there is enough to get obliterated and pass out? My wife has a sip of wine and puts the glass down. What the hell is that all about? I just don’t get it. I hurl mine down, then hers, then yours, then the rest of the bottle in the fridge, then I break into Pa’s house at two in the morning to steal his booze, and on and on until I’m out cold, in jail, or dead.
It’s not your typical allergy where you break out into hives, fever, anaphylactic shock. Nope. I break out into ease and comfort. All of the sudden I feel normal. All of the sudden my mind slows down and I can handle life, go to work, listen to you tell me about your day. So I break out into more. Sober, I can’t handle anything. You talk to me and all I hear is “blah, blah, blah…” If anything does pass through my mind, it’s when are you going to shut up so I can go get jammed?
But the real crux of my problem was what the Big Book referred to as a mental obsession. One staffer defined it as “recurring thoughts or ideas that don’t respond to ration or reason.” You can simply define this as insanity. I’m going along, everything is okay, no problem whatsoever… then I’m in your bathroom and I see some painkillers and not even a thought passes through my head. I reach out, grab the bottle and throw ‘em down. No conversations with my better half. No debating. Like a gun firing, it’s all or none. In those moments, the mind goes blank and ‘choice’ is no longer an ability that I carry. In those moments, everything I know about my tragic history just disappears. In those moments, insane thoughts seem reasonable and normal.
Well, it’s okay ‘cause I’m just doing Percocet and not OxyContin.
Then: Well I’m still okay because I’m only doing OxyContin and not heroin.
Then: I’m definitely okay because I’m not shooting heroin, I’m just sniffing it.
Finally: I know I’m okay because I’m not homeless, toothless, and rotting away in some crack house.
Yes I know that I shouldn’t blow heroin, yes I know it’s wrong and I’ll ruin everything, but I don’t care. And even if I do care and I don’t want to lose my wife, job, family, savings… I go do it anyway. Put a drug in front of me and I turn into a dumpster, consuming everything in sight. I can’t stop. Nothing can stop me. You can’t stop me. Mom can’t stop me. Doctors can’t stop me. Pills can’t stop me. Wayne Dyer and Deepak Chopra can’t stop me. Nothing human or man-made can stop me. I’m basically screwed.
Over the years, of course, counselors told me that I relapse because of triggers. Let’s be clear: There is no such thing as a trigger. Nothing has to happen to make me want to use. I want to use all of the time. In other words, everything is a trigger. Breathing is a trigger.
A trigger is just a flimsy excuse. It could be anything. It’s 2:00 in the afternoon - I need to get high. Just took a shower - I need to get high. I’m happy - need to get high. I’m angry – need to get high. It’s partly cloudy - good reason to get high. It’s partly sunny - good reason. I woke up - definitely a good reason. Existing, you see, is the only trigger I need.
Counselors are one thing, but the PhDs always loved to dig in and find THE REASON.
“Charlie, there must be a reason why you use. What is it, son? Is it the depression? Your family? Abuse? Were you hurt in some way? Are you angry?”
Doctors, counselors, social workers, families, spouses, and non-addicts will go on trying to understand why we use the way we do, despite the consequences. Let me save everybody the trouble: There is no reason why addicts use and alcoholics drink. It’s not because I’m angry, sad, anxious, depressed, shy, emotionally withdrawn, or feel so alone. It’s not because I have ADHD, or bipolar disorder, or major depression, or some personality disorder. It’s not because of my parents or my “crazy” family.
It’s not because I was abused by babysitters who stuck me in an inch of cold water, or who called me a child of Satan for pissing outside, or who physically assaulted me, or who made me brush my teeth every time I ate a marshmallow, or who left me home alone, or who stole my money to abandon me and go out with their boyfriend. It’s not because the cool kid pissed on my head when I wanted to hang out with his group of friends. It’s not because I was jumped and attacked three times in Vermont during college. It’s not because my Dad is an isolated and depressed alcoholic who didn’t hang out with me much. It’s not because he was prone to fits of rage and dragged my sister around the house. It’s not because of my genes or any predisposition to alcoholism or depression. Even if that were scientifically true, which it now appears to be, I’d never have set it off in the first place had I not drunk over and over and over. Nothing in this world is responsible for me becoming a drug addict and an alcoholic besides myself. And I put a hell of a lot of time and effort into my achievement.
The best advice addiction specialists and modern AA has to offer is to tell addicts and alcoholics to avoid people, places and things that make them want to use. Fantastic. Now I have to stay away from everything and everyone and I’m completely miserable. What a life! If that were my fate, I’d have to spend all of my time planning how to get from my house to work.
Hmm… I can’t go down this street because my buddy lives there and I got high there once, but I also can’t go down that street because one of my dealers lives there. Hmm… I can’t go this way because there’s a liquor store on the corner, and hmm… I can’t go that way because I had a really good time using at that park one day. Gee, I guess I can’t go anywhere. I guess the only way I’ll be able stay sober is if I lock myself up in a cage and never go anywhere!
But guess what? That’s not the kind of solution I’m looking for. How about being a free man no matter where I go?
That is precisely the reason why I wrote this book. For fifteen years, I have tried everything I could think of to get better and have failed. Why? Why do roughly one in thirty addicts actually stay sober after conventional forms of treatment? That is one horrible statistic.
The first problem was listening to other people. Especially anyone who was not a recovered addict. Take therapy for example, a treatment method that allows me to continue doing absolutely nothing. Sure I gain insights about myself, but do I walk out of the door and apply what I’ve learned? Dad blew tens of thousands of sweat-earned dollars sending me to top of the line psychologists and psychiatrists. Poor guy. It may sound silly, but the reason it failed is because all we did was talk. Sorry, talking is not a solution. Addicts talk enough, in and out of therapy. I realize that talking is the therapeutic method, but it’s virtually useless for someone whose primary concern in life is obtaining drugs and getting high. I left my fifty-five minute sessions totally unequipped and with no instructions other than to show up the following week. How am I supposed to apply psychology without the tools or the power to do so?
Next up, we have the self-help book method. I was a walking self-help book, with shelves that ranged from Buddhist meditation to healing the child within, from Christian mysticism to Ayurvedic remedies for depression, from creative visualization for my psychic scars to embracing the dark night of the soul. But will the books alone change me, or fix me, or make God present in my life?
How many times did I sit in bed at night reading an old sage’s insights about not judging the thoughts in my mind and think, Yes, that’s it! I just discovered the sword by which to conquer all of my depression and addiction forever, only to wake up the next morning completely miserable and stuck in the same muddy pit of self-pity, frustration, and emptiness. Were all the books wrong? Of course not. It’s more like I didn’t so much as move an inch when it came to applying this stuff. Plus I’m not a Buddhist, or a born-again Christian, or a whatever. I’m a drug addict. I need a solution for drug addiction.
What about Methadone maintenance? Doesn’t that at least keep me off the streets? What a tragedy. Still chained to addiction, there is no difference between Charlie on heroin and Charlie on Methadone. I’m jammed either way, so what happens really?
How about some elaborate combination of psychotropic medications? Okay, how about I just put up a brick wall between me and getting better, a wall between me and God? There is no spiritual experience on drugs. Given the effects to my biochemistry, ingesting psychotropic drugs made it increasingly more difficult to heal or to be honest. What good is it to be blocked, numbed, and less than clear? Medications fueled my reluctance to do the hard work, let alone do it with purity, clarity, or thoroughness. Nope, meds weren’t powerful enough to expel this obsession. Besides, unless I take them forever, once I stop, I’m right back to where I started - insane and untreated.
I also tried exercise routines. I got sober, went for a run, felt the endorphin rush, and thought I found the solution. I’ll just go to the gym everyday! Okay fine, but what happens if I can’t go one day? And oh yeah, I forgot that I’m still destitute inside. Soon I sink back into depression. Then I relapse again.
I tried eating organic food, eating vegetarian, eating vegan. I tried St. John’s wart and a homeopathy called Lycopodium for the hole in my aura. I tried Outward Bound and being outside doing things that I love such as hiking and rock-climbing. I tried playing and composing music, writing poems and stories. I tried acting in theatre. I tried socializing more. I tried socializing less. I moved to Vermont. I moved back. I drove across the country. I drove back. I moved into Boston and got a job. I tried girlfriends. Maybe falling in love will get me better? But I relapse no matter what I try. Every imaginable remedy I have tried and failed.
There is a fundamental problem with conventional treatment strategies: The thinking is backwards. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) professes to identify the faulty belief, change the belief, and act accordingly. Can we really expect an addict to change his faulty beliefs as he is? Do mental exercises really have the power to change the thinking of an addicted lunatic?
Sometimes he must act his way into right thinking rather than try to think his way into right action. Crazy can’t think straight, but there’s fuel in action, and eventually the mind follows.
That idea isn’t my own, as is the case with so many others. My sponsor is the one who worded it so beautifully, so for the record, he said to a group of people one night, 'If I can’t think my way into right action… then I must act my way into right thinking.'" - The Privileged Addict, pp.83-91