It’s the end of the year, and for recovering addicts, alcoholics, and those suffering from mental health issues, it can be a frightening time. We place on onslaught of expectations on others and ourselves as we seek perfection and immediate change via resolutions and hyped up promised to ourselves. In many ways, this can be a set up for failure, especially for the addict/alcoholic who has to do everythingallatonce. You know, who else wants to join a gym and work out every day for 3 hours with a trainer 7 days a week while also giving up meat and going vegan? What, that’s not reasonable? Sheesh. Can’t we do everything? The honest answer is no, at least not all at once.
Okay, so the New Year metaphorically represents a time of renewal and an opportunity to commit to personal change. Recovery teaches us not to place too much pressure on ourselves as we begin to make change. We are encouraged to take baby steps. In the beginning of the recovery process, the foundation we stand upon is tenuous; working steps, getting a sponsor, being of service is part of our construction process. We are building a foundation one action at a time. Mental health recovery requires us to work hard and consistently to broaden the safe, healing ground on which we stand. Resting on our laurels is simply not an option. Holiday time and end of year shenanigans make recovery work imperative; there is no reprieve.
Before you get overwhelmed with resolutions, how to deal with parties, peer pressures, and goals of perceived perfection: stop. Just stop. This isn’t an opportunity to beat yourself up or wallow in the what-ifs and I-should-haves, nor is it the opportunity to kick your feet up and rest. This is the time to take things one minute at a time.
Call your sponsor.
Take your medication—even if you feel better!!
Surround yourself with friends who are supportive of your new path.
Make plans that include having safe, sober fun.
And don’t forget to have a sober dance party.
This time of year presents the perfect time to be of service and to practice self-care. Our mental health depends on it. Embrace your new self. You are beautiful and enough, just as you are.
A history of sexual violence can create an ideal environment for a variety of mental-health issues, addiction, and alcoholism. Often, the triggering event or events are hidden in the annals of one’s mind and perceived as shameful, deep, dark secrets too horrible to share…with anyone. As a result, drugs, alcohol, and risk-taking behaviors are often seen as the primary issue when one enters treatment. Time and again, we see that this isn’t always the case; That becomes clear when we look at it in terms of statistics:
One out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime (14.8% completed rape; 2.8% attempted rape);
29% are age 12-17;
44% are under age 18;
80% are under age 30.; 12-34 are the highest risk years.
Girls ages 16-19 are 4 times more likely than the general population to be victims of rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault;
7% if girls in grades 5-8 (approx. ages 10-13) and 12% of girls in grades 9-12 (approx. ages 14-17) said they had been sexually abused;
3% of boys grades 5-8 and 5% of boys in grades 9-12 said they have been sexually abused.
As I frequently tweet Intervention, one of the things I notice on a regular basis is the consistency in which the women on the show are frequently struggling with a history of sexual violence, and are using drugs, alcohol, and promiscuity as their primary coping skill. From the outside looking in, it’s clear that the goal is to try to desensitize and anesthetize feelings of shame and guilt, et cetera; in other words, do anything and everything NOT to feel, remember, re-experience, or suffer from the emotional attachment to the event itself.
Twelve-step programs were written with specific goals in mind: to stop the alcoholic/addict from drinking and using. The steps work well in that regard, mostly because they are based on the disease model, addressing issues of alcoholism and addiction accordingly. However, the same tools provided to address addiction issues don’t always work in concert with mental-health issues, particularly those attached to sexual violence. We know the steps adequately provide an alcoholic/addict with the necessary skills needed to learn to take responsibility for and subsequently change their negative behaviors. They do so by asking the addict/alcoholic to take responsibility for their actions, face their fears, and acknowledge that they took part in creating their own demise. However, being sexually abused or raped isn’t a negative behavior to be changed but rather a causative, biting factor in things like:
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Alcohol and Drug Abuse
What then, do we do from a recovery standpoint when the predominant disease model isn’t geared to address issues of this caliber? The Big Book, the 12-step primer, was written by men addressing men’s issues, in a time when women were typically viewed as the ones affected by their spouse’s alcoholism and not as the alcoholics themselves. As more women began to come forward as alcoholics and addicts, the tools didn’t always adapt to the new issues that arose because of gender disparity, but rather, they stayed the same, assuming a one-size-fits-all mentality. In the cases of women dealing with sexual violence, being asked to take responsibility for an abuse event has the potentiality to create more or actually deepen the existing trauma, particularly if the innate issues of shame and guilt associated with it are ignored. The reality is, being victimized by sexual violence is not the fault of the victim. What does need to be addressed, however, is the anger, self-victimization, and negative behavioral byproducts occurring as a result.
We clearly have a multi-layered healing process on our hands, so first, the negative coping skills must be eliminated: Sobriety is an obvious first step and necessary component to support the healing process. Additionally, working with meditation and mind-body awareness techniques are also useful in helping one manage their anxiety, negative feelings toward oneself, and in re-building self-esteem. A therapist skilled in treating PTSD and this sort of trauma is also important, particularly since this is often a lifelong process.
It is in forgiving ourselves that we have the ability to become free.
 National Institute of Justice & Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. Prevalence, Incidence and Consequences of Violence Against Women Survey. 1998.
1998 Commonwealth Fund Survey of the Health of Adolescent Girls. 1998
Recovery needs to be safe. It needs to be a place where we can shed our layers of fear and self-loathing and learn to be good enough as we are. It needs not to be the predatory place it’s become, where young girls learning to navigate a sober path to recovery end up falling prey to older men acting out their rescue fantasies (or worse). The notion of the 13th step (the unwritten yet prevalent practice of someone with longer sobriety praying on the vulnerability of the newcomer of the opposite sex) is alive and well, making for high levels of emotional risk for those coming in, particularly when one shares something deeply personal from the podium at a mixed meeting.
When I got sober, I was a 21-year-old maniac. The concept of boundaries were foreign to me, and I was often known to place myself in unsafe situations—an unfortunate by-product of my previously self-depleting, self-deprecating life prior to recovery. But I got lucky. I had an Eskimo, who acted as my big brother, scooping me up under his wing and holding the predators at bay. I wasn’t protected forever, though. I still managed to get myself into incredible trouble, acting out left and right, because I hadn’t yet learned how to use to the tools of recovery. I hadn’t learned how to create and maintain boundaries. I hadn’t learned that emotional and physical safety was necessary for me to heal and get sober. It didn’t take long for me to discovery that these were the things that I needed to learn from the women in the rooms. Big brother or not, some things just don’t go over well.
It takes time to learn the value of sharing in a general way. New, we’re raw and often unedited. Add adolescence to the mix, and being unedited is par for the course especially with the innate desire to fit in, the need to individuate, and the added weight of navigating a path in recovery. Yes, there are a bevy of young people’s meetings, where the majority of the attendees are more relatable. What seems to be missing, however, is a wide variety of young people’s stag meetings. It’s too bad, because those are the meetings where you can share more candidly and without invariably placing yourself at risk.
So, what does one do when your world is crumbling and you need to drop down to your emotional bare bones? You can start by sharing the deeply personal, vulnerable, emotionally dangerous shares for those who have your best interests in mind: your sponsor, your therapist, or a friend close to you that has a solid foundation in recovery. Lean into the gendered sails of those who’ve walked the path before you. Trust me on this: getting sober is the easy part. It’s staying sober and safe that takes work. That’s what stags are there for.
The death of Amy Winehouse, mere months after another misfired attempt at rehab leaves
me thinking more and more about the misleading notion of a revolving door in recovery. I am reminded of the perceived invincibility we tend to have when we’re using and how deadly that assumption can be. Unfortunately, we’ve been subjected to inadvertent voyeurism as we’ve fallen witness to Winehouse’s public demise.
As part of a recovery community, we can certainly sit and proselytize about the myriad things she could have or should have done differently, but the fact remains: she was an addict, and her addiction ultimately won this round. Self-loathing, lack of self-worth, and self-sabotage are all symptomatic traits of addiction; Amy Winehouse expressed hers soulfully in her music, and I can’t begin to imagine the driving, internal heartache, which led her to continue on such a fatal path.
I worry that the hype around her death will somehow take the focus off of addiction or worse yet, romanticize the life and death of an extremely talented, yet deeply suffering young woman. It’s sad that we’ve lost another addict, but sadder still that it’s not surprising. The fact is, fame, talent and genius don’t make us invincible, nor do those qualities place us in an elite, protective capsule. Addiction doesn’t care. It never has and it never will.
While addiction is a treatable disease, it will always remain one that requires willingness on the addicts’ part. Without that, we risk ending up with dust in our eyes. Truth be told, I’m deeply saddened by the loss of Amy; not so much because she was a gifted artist with a broad future ahead of her, but because she could have been any one of us. She could have been a loved one; she could have been you; she could have been me.
The 12-step model is certainly reliable and is the standard go-to place for most people seeking recovery. It’s certainly the model we refer to first in the recovery world. However, there are times when we come across an alcoholic or addict who is deeply atheist and subsequently hits a wall when they get to Step 2: “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity.” Can AA work for them too? Most people will say that it can. Some will leave things as-is, and some will need to make some minor language changes in order to match their beliefs about spirituality. Unfortunately, there are some folks devoted to retaining the exact language that makes up the steps, so much so they are unwilling to accept even a minor change.
As reported in The Fix, a Toronto group of atheists in recovery has just run into that very thing. The group was listed in their local AA directory, they had a fairly large batch of regular attendees, and yet, some in the community still found their modifications of the steps to be a threat to AA as a whole. Apparently, the idea of a non-secular recovery group was too much and a controversy broke out. Los Angeles has its share of non-secular meetings, but to my knowledge, there hasn’t been newsworthy controversy thus far and the groups seem to be thriving.
Here’s the thing, the “only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking,” right? To me that means regardless of someone’s religious beliefs, gender or sexual orientation, they have a right to be there. When I got sober, I struggled a great deal with the God concept. Still, I was embraced by my fellow alcoholics and encouraged to find whatever worked for me. I managed to retain my viewpoint on the intangible nature of a power greater than myself whilst still developing a deep spiritual practice and strong foundation for my sobriety. The steps are viable tools for recovery for me even if I need to alter a few things. My sobriety hasn’t been negatively impacted as a result. So, why the resistance from some when it comes to change in AA? Isn’t our ultimate goal to achieve sobriety? Isn’t it a goal to untangle the addict mind and redirect it to a healthy, positive, less self-serving path? Aren’t we supposed to learn to reach out and be of service, giving back what has been so freely given to us? Why, then, would we want to close the doors on our fellow alcoholics?
With all the hubbub, I was interested in what literary changes sparked this controversy. The Fix printed two of them:
Step Two: Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
Adapted version: Came to accept and to understand that we needed strengths beyond our awareness and resources to restore us to sanity.
Step Three: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.
Adapted version: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of the AA program.
Frankly, I don’t see anything wrong with this. Those working this version are still fundamentally going to get to the same place: they will be come to believe that they cannot do this alone; they will use the power of the group to help them recover.
Whether you’re closely tied to a Judeo-Christian belief system or have roots deeply planted on a non-theistic path, recovery IS possible. The 12-step model IS effective. If you need to work the steps with some literary alterations, do so, as long as you work them.
When I think of the phrase “I’m an alcoholic,” I often think of Popeye and the fervency behind his frequently uttered catchphrase: “I yam what I yam.” When admitting to being an alcoholic, you’re taking the first step towards admission of powerlessness. It implies an understanding that in claiming that label, one is willing to look at the mind-body connection to their drinking and using. According to the 12 and 12, “Admission of powerlessness is the first step in liberation.” It is the way those of us in 12-step recovery begin to build the foundation on which our sobriety will steady itself; it is “the firm bedrock upon which happy and purposeful lives may be built.
I recently had an opportunity to do a workshop on addiction and pain with a Tibetan nun by the name of Chonyi Taylor. It proved to be a fascinating experience, particularly since there is a burgeoning movement to blend Buddhism with recovery. One of the things that really resonated with me during this workshop was the perspective she shared regarding addiction being a habit. Chonyi said, “Addiction is a mental habit in which there is no conscious control, which gives short-term pleasure and long-term harm.” Being able to look at my own addiction patterns as habits, and discovering that I can systematically break them by admitting powerlessness and renunciation, is incredibly helpful. Because, frankly, as addicts and alcoholics, we have terrible tendency toward getting stuck, reacting and responding to our triggers the same way over and over again. In essence, we have developed habits. We repeatedly meet negative experiences with the desire to get drunk or high. When we get sober, sometimes the habit of seeking numbing pleasure continues, often presenting as promiscuity, gambling, eating irresponsibly, et cetera. By admitting we’re powerless and that our lives are unmanageable, we are given our first opportunity to free ourselves from our negative, addictive, habitual behaviors.
No matter how you look at it, the message is this: we are required to admit powerlessness, renounce negative behavior(s), write moral inventories, and develop a spiritual path paved with honesty and service work. I’d rather have the opportunity deconstruct bad habits so I can build new, healthy ones, wouldn’t you?
What do they do with the hopeless, late-stage alcoholics in Minnesota? They sometimes send them to the St. Anthony Residence, which is one of five “wet-houses” in the Twin Cities area. Wet houses are residential facilities where sobriety and recovery aren’t expected. They use a “harm-reduction” model, which employs a set of strategies meant to reduce the negative effects of alcohol (homelessness, panhandling, jail, etc.). These wet houses also provide shelter, meals, and medical attention for late-stage alcoholics. Often, their modality of thought is, “It’s safer and cheaper to have these guys drinking in a controlled environment than out on the cold Minnesota streets.” And expense certainly does motivate: Rather than the state spending inordinate amounts of money on jails, detox, et cetera, they now share the $18,000 per year costs for room and board with Catholic Charities. Residents receive $89 a month for expenses (most of which is spent on alcohol). This is a clear savings for the state. In fact, research done regarding a similar program in Seattle and published in the American Medical Association in 2009, showed striking savings in their public spending:
Still, according to Bill Hockenberger, a recovering alcoholic who manages St. Anthony’s, three to five percent of the residents stop drinking. But I wonder if cost is really a good reason to give up on the 12-step model that has been clearly shown to work.
As I watched these interviews with some of these men today, I was struck by the textbook depiction of their addiction to alcohol. Deluded into thinking that all they’ll ever be is an alcoholic, they’ve literally thrown in the towel and succumbed to the disease. One resident says, “There’s no hope for a scoundrel like me.” Their descriptions of drinking and their corresponding alcoholism mirror the way it’s described in the “Doctor’s Opinion”: “The sensation is so elusive that, while they admit it is injurious, they cannot after a time differentiate the true from the false. To them, their alcoholic life seems the only normal one.” Many of these men were homeless and had been in and out of detox facilities and treatment centers–all resulting in relapse. Their “failure” at sobriety ultimately led them to their residency in a wet-house either via county recommendation or by a self-appointed application. Residing in a wet house may mean retaining the last shred of one’s dignity, and it also may represent the end of the line for the hopeless and often-times dying: the “unfortunates” as the Big Book describes them, those “constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves.”
St. Anthony’s takes men who would otherwise be homeless and panhandling and provides them with a safe place to lay their heads…and to drink. Perhaps placing an active, low-bottom drunk in an environment which actively shows them what drinking does will bring about an awareness of the disease. There are certainly those who stay in these wet houses and choose not to drink. In fact, some even get sober and leave, though I believe those to be in the minority. Even though counseling is made available, and drinking is only allowed in one area, I’m just not convinced that sobriety is attainable when recovery is looked upon with such complacency. Just because the alcoholic is hopeless doesn’t mean we have to become hopeless in our approach.
A recent NY Times article written by David Colman triggered a firestorm of responses by “challenging the second A in AA.” In fact, he disregards his own anonymity by beginning his own piece with, “I’m Dave, and I’m an alcoholic.” Colman says, “More and more, anonymity is seeming like an anachronistic vestige of the Great Depression, when A.A. got its start and when alcoholism was seen as not just a weakness but a disgrace.” He also brings up the vast range of celebrities who’ve used their recovery stories as fodder for books or albums, clearly stating their involvement in 12-step programs, and as a result, violating the 11th Tradition, which states, “Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and films.”
Now, in the early days, being an alcoholic was certainly heavily stigmatized, and admission to being an alcoholic was tantamount to social death. Alcoholism was often aligned with humiliation and shame, and public disclosure of your newfound life wasn’t always met with acceptance. In fact, anonymity was key to their survival in the public sector. Without it, many risked losing their jobs and destroying their reputation.
Colman is right when he talks about our awareness of alcoholism being much different today than it was 75 years ago when the recovery industry wasn’t even a glimmer on the horizon. At that time, Alcoholics Anonymous was merely a blip on the undercover radar. It was an opportunity for the desperate and demoralized to find shelter from the shame and indecency brought about by their alcoholism. Frankly, that’s still the case, albeit much larger and much more accessible. There is something interminably safe about not having to be anyone or anything other than your first name. When I was getting sober many moons ago, I remember sitting in meetings amongst a celebrity or two. I’ll tell you what, it’s not the movie stars and musicians we admire sitting in those cold, folding chairs. Instead, they’re just some guy or gal trying to stay sober, one day at a time. Anonymity is what’s allowed them to do that, not public disclosure.
And let’s not forget the 12th tradition, which reminds us that anonymity is our spiritual foundation:
“Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our Traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.”
You know what that means? It means not using our recovery for profit. It means that our spiritual life depends upon that. It means that when our egos get involved, we are prone to come crashing down in a fiery blaze. Disclosure is often food for the ego, which will, in time, hinder our spiritual progress. Sobriety isn’t guaranteed: Do you want to announce your relapse as publicly as you did your recovery? Most don’t. In fact, the more public you are in your sobriety, the more terrifying it is to come back. I’ve seen it too many times.
Regardless of the deluge of articles suggesting the removal of anonymity, I still believe it has extraordinary value. And while I may eradicate my personal anonymity in personal conversations or within these blogs, I do prefer its maintenance more often than not. I see how damaging it can be to AA when someone like Charlie Sheen gets up and spews venom our way. I see how damaging it is when Britney Spears or Lindsay Lohan makes their struggles with addiction public. Some of us just want to stay sober without the glitz and the glam. I don’t know about you, but my using days weren’t glamorous. Why should my sobriety be?
What happens when someone you love relapses and decides not to get sober again?
Regardless of whether that person is a parent or a close friend, it’s a challenge, to say the least. In AA, we are told “we simply do not stop drinking so long as we place dependence upon other people ahead of dependence on a higher power¹” This statement alone verifies the need to allay one’s reliance upon the static nature of the sick, and instead turn the focus on paving a new path toward healing.
In 1951, Al-Anon began using the steps, giving those married to and reared by the alcoholic, tools with which they could live by. One thing is key: Al-Anon and Alateen don’t focus or talk about the alcoholic; they instead focus on themselves and learn how they can lead a happier, freer life. Here, the lesson is not to fix the person we love, but rather how to live life fully and independent of their disease. That’s tough, especially when our expectations have taken hold: “If only they get sober, then everything will be okay.” or “I’m not the one with the problem, they are.” But when we place our focus on fixing someone else’s problems, obsess over their emotional health, and base our lives around their well-being, that IS a problem.
Alateen is a wonderful support for kids struggling with alcoholic/addict parents or siblings. When chaos is the norm, then Alateen provides tools for weathering the storm. As kids living with alcoholics and addicts know, reaffirming reality in their day-to-day lives is the norm; the steps and fellowship: however, help provide a healthy, non-threatening way to do that. At some point, we find that part of supporting someone else’s sobriety means allowing them to walk their own path, no matter how rocky that path may be. We can’t walk it for them. If that means that their sobriety is tenuous at best, then we have to learn how to step aside. I call it loving someone with boundaries. In other words, we can love you when you’re in your disease, but we won’t hold you up.
¹ BB Page 98 (Note: “God” was replaced with “higher power” in the post.)
It’s Passover, and you know what that means? It’s that time of year where it’s customary to drink four glasses of wine through dinner as part of the Passover story! It means giant family gatherings, with the myriad of wacky personalities. It also may mean some anxiety for the newcomer (or even someone with time, you never know!) For some, it’s this Passover week, for others, it might be the upcoming Easter Sunday. Either way, self-care is key. Ask for help if you need it, and have an exit plan–better to have one and not need it than to need it and not have it!
This particular holiday reminds me of my early introduction to alcohol. My family didn’t drink that often; holidays were the exception. Still, I have distinct memories of sitting at the family Passover table, with my thimble full of Manischewitz wine, thinking I was the coolest kid in the world. I remember the warmth in my belly, and the slight fuzz in my head (I would get sneaky and steal sips from other folk’s glasses). I remember thinking I was a part of the adult world, and a real part of my family. It was a childhood delusion, of course, but the memory stuck.
Wine has deep roots in some religions, for example, in Christianity it represents the blood of Christ, and in Judaism, the fruit of the vine. It’s an accepted, expected, ritualistic piece of the religious meal. But as we get sober and learn to participate in the rituals of our varying cultures, we must learn to make adjustments. No one wants to see you drunkenly opening the door for Elijah! We drink grape juice instead of wine, and we learn to adapt the rituals and meals to our sober, clean lives.
Passover is about freedom from slavery and tyranny; and like Easter, it’s reflective of Spring and new beginnings. What apropos likeness to our recovery! Here, we are offered an opportunity to begin to view our sobriety as freedom from the tyranny of drugs and alcohol. Our recovery is our new beginning and our new life. Remember what Chuck C. said: “You cannot think your way into a new way of acting, but you can act your way into a new way of thinking.” Have a safe, sober, and joyous holiday week.