Guinevere Gets Sober

Recovery news, reviews and stories, by Jennifer Matesa.

Tag: spirituality (page 1 of 4)

Jewish Wisdom About Addiction.

Rabbi Danny Schiff.

Rabbi Danny Schiff.

I hardly ever cross a bridge in this city of 950 million bridges, but I went to the suburbs to hear a rabbi talk about addiction. Danny Schiff, who splits his time between Pittsburgh and Jerusalem, is the scholar in charge of adult education for the Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh.

As a middle-aged woman who was raised strict Catholic (but let that go more than 30 years ago), I found his remarks refreshing in their recasting of some of the Bible figures I’d grown up with. For example, Schiff said Noah was the world’s first addict.

Noah giving directions for the ark. (Wine not pictured.)

Noah giving orders for the ark. (Wine not in picture.)

Whoa. I either never learned or had forgotten this, but Schiff said that when Noah gets God’s directive to build a sealed boat fit for one pair of every animal on earth so He can go ahead with his plan to demolish the planet (only a male god would think this is an awesome solution to anything, imo), apparently Noah has the same instincts many of us would have had: he runs to the cellar to pick out a few bottles of vino.

And then, Schiff said, “he has shame about what he does when he drinks.”

Think “blackout.”

“Noah had a problem with life,” Schiff said. “He underwent an enormous life-transition.” Well, hell yeah: imagine living conditions inside a sealed boat with the planet’s largest animals doing what they do best.

But then he said: “Something about Noah’s life made the wine seem like the only solution.” Bingo. And addiction does not automatically make people morally bad, he said: Noah is described as “the most righteous man of his generation.”

Schiff has never counseled anyone with addiction, and he doesn’t have addiction in his family. He said Jews have no standard set of texts about addiction the way they do with other problems of life. The problem of addiction, he said, is “at once as old as time, and also has been outside Jewish conversation.”

We have denied that Jews could be involved in addiction. We say, “Jews know how to moderate drinking—just take a little Kiddush wine.” We have Purim—the one time in the year that we’re allowed to overindulge. But we have as many alcoholics as any other group in society.

Addiction, Schiff said, can be seen as a kind of “physical reductionism,” or materialism: we rely on a physical substance to solve problems whose structures are essentially spiritual. He said although most people identify 12-step organizations as Christian, when read through the Jewish lens of “teshuvah” or “return,” “the twelve steps read like a process of how to return my life to God.”

Another stunning statement:

Jews introduced the world to the idea of a personal god who cares about humans.

Wow. I don’t even know how to fact-check that idea, but it’s pretty powerful, simply considering how old the spiritual practice of Judaism is. (That would be more than five millennia.)

To illustrate the idea of “teshuvah,” which he said most Jews misunderstand as “repentance” but which really means a spiritual “return,” he quoted a verse from Genesis:

Behold, I am with you, and I will not leave you until you have returned from whence you came.

The Bible’s various phrasings have God promising to bring the Jewish people back to their land. But the way Schiff interpreted this verse is different: it can be read as God promising to accompany humans on their life’s paths, and not leaving us until we’ve returned to our mysterious origins.

These words draped a little veil of comfort around me. As long-time readers of this blog may remember, I have a little tiny problem with the God-thing. That problem has grown in the last three years or so. When my marriage broke down, I fired God’s ass, and I had security escort Him the hell out of the building. I’ve fired God before, and then rehired God (with more or less lengthy probationary periods). But firing God is pretty unhealthy for me. The first time I fired God was in 1999, the year my mother died at age 58, and that was the beginning of my descent into uncontrollable pill-popping.

The fact that Schiff was so naïve about addiction actually helped him see the problem in the terms he’d see any problem. In that way, he normalized it: it’s a problem, like any of life’s other problems, and we can use the same principles with it that we’d use to think about any problem.

For example, he said:

Ultimately, if you think you’re in control of your life, you are delusional.

He stole this line from “Kung-Fu Panda.” 🙂 One of my best friends quite often quotes Master Oogway’s lecture to Shifu: “You have to let go of the illusion of control.”

Nota bene: you don’t have to let go of control. You have to let go of your illusion (or, as Schiff would say, your delusion).

So Noah went home and got fucked up, but he followed orders and built the ark.

“We are required to get on with life,” Schiff said.

Life is to be lived, not saved.

What Do You Worship?

David Foster Wallace.

I’m on a DFW kick. David Foster Wallace.

Discovered several of his pieces I hadn’t known about before. Including a short story called “Suicide as a Sort of Present,” which demonstrates to shocking effect his deep grasp of Alice Miller’s theories of fucked-up narcissistic mothering on children. Best to hear him read it himself. Only takes five minutes.

And then there’s this beautiful address called “This Is Water” that he gave to the 2005 graduates of Kenyon College, an excerpt of which was published in the Wall Street Journal just after his death.

Did you know that David Foster Wallace had been to rehab? Several times. He got sober in the early 1990s in upstate New York, where he met Mary Karr in the “rooms.” They dated for a while. I don’t think the word “dated” is really the most accurate term, but it’s the term that Wikipedia uses to describe their relationship. Read her most recent book, Lit, a memoir of her alcoholism and recovery, for her story about their 13th-stepping, including a stellar row in which Wallace destroys her coffee table.

After rehab Wallace switched from pot to cigarettes; eventually, because he was also something of an athlete and liked to run, he gave up smoking to protect his lung capacity and started sucking on smokeless tobacco, a habit he tried to quit several times. Like many addicts, he never managed to quit nicotine. He’d come to class (he was a professor of English) lugging a stack of books, a towel, a tennis racquet, and a coffee can into which he spat the juice while he was teaching.

Throughout Wallace’s writings readers can find references not only to suicide (a spooky reality: it even crops up in his address to the graduates) but also to his efforts to understand how to control one’s own mind—in other words, his attempts at mindfulness—as well as his comprehension of the divine. “God.” The “universe.” Whatever. It’s interesting to hear this prodigiously smart guy talk about how atheism doesn’t exist, how we all worship something.

Here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it J.C. or allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble truths or some intangible set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.

One thing I love about Wallace (apart from his beautiful voice; not all men have beautiful voices but Wallace had one; reading his words and hearing him speak them are two different experiences, and I encourage you to take the time to click on the links above and below that will let you enjoy his voice) is his commitment to investigating the most commonplace aspects of life and finding their extraordinary qualities. It’s not the epiphanies and huge achievements and Life’s Great Orgasms that Wallace thinks offer the most important truths. The ordinary parts of our days—the grocery shopping, the endless standing in line, the fighting traffic—are the moments when we are most “ourselves,” when we bang into our intractable questions and problems. It’s in those moments, Wallace basically says, that we can learn life’s most valuable lessons.

It’s also, he says, in the interactions with the people we love. Sitting down to dinner with them, negotiating who will buy the food, who will cook, who will wipe the crumbs from the table; what to talk about, how to fight, how to resolve conflict—all that stuff most of us think of as life’s detritus. For godsake—another trip to the supermarket, another dinner to cook, another set of dishes to wash, how can I survive under the burden of all this mundane crap?—is usually how my thoughts run, anyway.

Wallace’s point is, we can choose how we think about our ordinary experience, and what meanings we assign to our experience. “Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life,” he tells the kids,

you will be totally hosed.

Exercising that choice is Real Freedom.

What his essay made me realize is, in the end, my choice is Mine. It’s not about finding someone else who can endorse it for me. I get to choose my thoughts, and as Wallace notes, that’s real freedom. (Not having loads of money, or drugs, or attention, or sex, or beauty, or power.)

It’s Real Sobriety. He never used that word, but for me that’s what he means. My addiction was slavery, and my sobriety is freedom.

I think Wallace believed in community, in its most basic sense—from the Latin communis, the word means sharing: time, space, resources. Ourselves. Living with other people. I suspect Wallace was a tough person to live with, but apparently he was never happier than when he moved in with his wife. It supposedly goes against current trends (a recent Time magazine story, on “the 10 ideas that will change our worlds,” reports as the Top World-Changing Idea the trend that increasing numbers of Americans are choosing to live alone… Awesome!! Let’s measure the health effects in 15 years time). His address to the younguns comes straight from his experience of living in community.

Life is a tough thing, man. It’s a hard place to spend decades of time. And it’s even harder to do it all by oneself. I spoke at my local women’s shelter yesterday and heard stories of women being forced to have sex when they were kids, women who’d seen their sons shot up, women who don’t know how to protect their kids from the real-life physical and psychic shit that goes down in their worlds every day. “Mama,” one woman’s 11-year-old daughter asked her about her future boyfriends, “when they hit me, do I call you or Daddy?” I was speaking with my friend Lucy, and we told the women that nobody gets sober alone and nobody gets away from an abusive bastard alone (I know this from experience)—and, frankly, nobody does life alone.

Tempting to isolate, though, because then we don’t have to negotiate anything with anyone. We can, as Wallace notes, be “the lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms. … This freedom has much to recommend it,” he says.

But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.

What would happen, I wondered, if instead of paying so much attention to having enough money or achievement or security, I worshipped more consistently that real freedom?

A life experiment to try.

My choice to try it is part of the real freedom. Hmm.


Questions: Can We Stop Being Addicts? Can We Become Addicted to Religion?

An old friend emailed me the other day asking some questions about his alcohol use when we were in our 20s. (That means 25 years ago—seems like another life)

I still don’t know what I think about addiction . . . All I know is that at one time I was compelled to overdrink, and now I am not. I have been on lithium for 7 years, and that has erased all my compulsions. My abusive drinking, I know, was driven by a desperation to end suffering. Now, I am not suffering, and so I do not abuse alcohol. Does this mean I WAS an addict, but now am not? Or does this mean that my mental illness mimicked symptoms of addiction? And what of my mother, who prays and goes to church compulsively? Are some addictions benign, or even helpful?

My friend used to be a binge-drinker. He drank anything, but wine was his thing: he’d buy a bottle of wine and drink the whole thing in an hour or so. We were drinking buddies, and for a while we were roommates, and we always kept a case of beer in the kitchen (Rolling Rock was everywhere at that time—remember Rolling Rock? we’d buy “ponies,” pre-chilled, thinking it would help us drink less, and then we’d drink at least twice as many 7-ounce ponies as we’d normally drink of the 12-ounce longnecks).

I just spent the past five or ten minutes trying to draft sentences to describe how we would “go out” (i.e., drink)—20-something kids both raised in strict old-country Catholic families, finally finding something that looked to us like freedom but which just turned into more hassle and pain. Blah blah blah. … Long story short: what happened was, I quit drinking after I was prescribed painkillers; and my friend quit drinking after he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was prescribed medication.

Any parallels here? I don’t know.

I’ve read Robert Whitaker’s wonderful book, Anatomy of an Epidemic, about how mental illness is over-diagnosed in this country, and also overmedicated with drugs that don’t have proven long-term track records. Case in point: I know a person who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, ADHD, anxiety, and depression, and the psychiatrist has prescribed 13 different psych meds. God only knows what kinds of unknown and unstudied inter-reactions they’re producing. This person has put on probably 50 pounds, cannot leave the house, and spends most of the day in tears. And since this “case” has been slotted into these medically-coded categories, the (underpaid, community-based) caseworkers won’t listen to the patient’s appeals to be tapered off some of these drugs.

As for my friend, it seems to me that his diagnosis of bipolar disorder and the treatment he’s received for it has brought him some peace and the ability to live a productive life.

So, was he once an alcoholic?

Does that classification judgment matter as much as the way he’s living today? I wonder. Met today with the medical director of a big rehab. He acknowledged that bipolar is over-diagnosed these days but said that, among people with true bipolar disorder, 60-80 percent have co-occurring problems with substances or compulsive behaviors.

Adam and God's hands in the Sistine Chapel

Adam stretches his finger toward “God,” on the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling.

And as for religious addiction. I could write several chapters about my experiences with this one. I expect I will have to write those chapters, if I’m ever going to be free of the “God” that grows like bindweed around my life, choking it as I’m trying my best to grow it and learn to care for it.

There’s not exactly a plethora of information out there about religious addiction, but some time ago I came across an interesting paper about it in a journal called Pastoral Psychology. The author calls religious addiction “destructive soul work,” says it can “free the believer” from other behaviors/chemicals via substitution (just as workaholism can—because both are more socially acceptable than drugs, alcohol or sex addictions), and postulates that religious addicts try “to avoid pain and overcome shame by becoming involved in a belief system which offers security through its rigidity and absolute values.” She writes:

The God that religious addicts experience is reflected in their behaviors and attitudes. Religious addicts often feel that God sees them as dirty and sinful—so they sometimes make others feel dirty and sinful. Religious addicts feel like victims of God’s whims—so they victimize and abuse others. Religious addiction cannot exist in a vacuum; nearly every religious addict abuses someone.

Yeah, well. <sigh> There are so many stories I could tell behind this idea. The story about finding my cat dead on the road one Sunday morning at 16 and being forced to go to Mass instead of stay home and take care of myself. (Then feeling ashamed because, despite my mother’s nudges and glares, I couldn’t stop crying at Mass) The story of my mother asking what I’d told the priest in the confessional—and then telling me what SHE’D told the priest. Lots of other stories; and to write them would mean I’d have to talk about the ways my family dealt with sex and money, both of which they considered filthy commodities, the one to be traded, the other to be withheld for manipulative purposes—and I’ll leave you to wonder, in my family, which one was which.

My parents held paramount the notion that rules were more important than relationships, and even when I came into “the rooms” during my detox I had a strong compulsion to Do Everything Right so I could Get Saved. (And Catholicism—the religion of my family of origin—doesn’t even talk a whole lot about “salvation.” But in my experience it talks a whole lot about doing things right and not thinking for oneself.) A big part of my focus these days is accepting the fact that I can think for myself—not just that I’m able to, but that I ought to, that I have some sort of permission to do so from a power greater than myself, which quite often is my community in “the rooms,” including all these virtual rooms—and that I own my own life, and that this is actually the way my world is supposed to work.

And I’m trying to treat myself with more care and gentleness… Difficult, because this was not the example ingrained into me. I can do this with other people, it’s just so much harder with myself. Someone asked me the other day: “What if you could treat yourself the way your son’s mother would treat him?” Huh.

This song is for my old friend. Thanks for your questions, darlin.


ASAM Definition of Addiction: How Is Addiction a Family Disease?

Wrote a piece for late last night about the American Society for Addiction Medicine’s statement that addiction is a primary, organic illness of the neurological system that distorts addicts’ thinking and drives them into obsession and compulsive use of substances or behaviors.

The physicians I talked to were happy about this development because it meant that addiction, as a problem they treat, is one step closer to being classified as a medical disease whose treatment can be paid for by insurers. Insurers often refuse to pay for treatment for conditions that could be seen as resulting from the patient’s own poor choices. ASAM’s statement makes clear their position that addicts have no choice about their illness.

When I woke around 6 this morning I started to wonder: if addiction is an illness inside the addict’s neurological system, then how can we “adult children of alcoholics” consider ourselves to be affected by addiction? I’ve heard people in Al-Anon meetings say, “I’m the same as the alcoholic—I just don’t drink.” (I can tell you: for my mother, that was true. She WAS a dry-drunk.)

I often think to myself that I have to try as hard as I can in recovery—not just for myself, but also for my son. I don’t, of course, want him to wind up an addict. But is that one of those “things I cannot change”?

The ASAM statement talks about how addiction is largely an illness of twisted thinking and feeling. The neurological dysfunction affects areas of the brain that mediate memory, emotional response to circumstances, pleasure, aggression (anger), and fear. In speaking with Mark Publicker, a garrulous and very interesting doctor who directs the largest rehab in Maine, I listened to him talk about how addiction twists the circuitry evolved to sustain our life on earth. Survival, in other words.

“We’re really talking about the circuitry that provides reward for engaging in behaviors that promote survival,” he said. “Our brains are designed to give us reward and pleasure for eating food, nurturing children, having sex.”

“Huh,” I said, “that’s not too different from what the Big Book says.”

He paused a second, then asked me to explain.

“Well, the Big Book talks about how alcoholism is about excessive engagement in survival behaviors—ambition, sexuality, personal relationships, the things that make you feel secure in the world,” I said. “And how recovery is about looking at our behaviors in those areas and learning to modulate them.”

“I don’t think there’s daylight between AA’s concept of addiction and the neurobiological explanation,” he said. “It’s one of the things I find interesting: Bill Wilson really intuited a lot of what we understand through the science about addiction today.”

Well, my friend Big Daddy might amend that to add that Lois Wilson provided a lot of the “intuition” behind Bill W.’s writing. (“He cheats her of credit every chance he gets,” Big Daddy sometimes says.)

I tend to agree. I’m fond of Lois; she was the driving force behind Al-Anon, the organization that saved my life in the beginning of my recovery. (I was daydreaming about offing myself when I started going to meetings in 1999; when I got a home group that loved me, these thoughts would be countered gently by the idea that, if I did indeed top myself, the folks my home group—my HP at the time—would think this was a bad decision, and that I might have other options.) Apparently Lois gave Bill a lot of ideas that he took credit for himself.

One of the ideas that Lois had was that alcoholism affects other people, not just the alcoholic. She knew that living with Bill had distorted her own thoughts and feelings, her own perception of reality, maybe as much as alcoholism had distorted Bill’s. In other words, she knew she was also sick.

ASAM’s definition of addiction talks about other factors that can lead to the appearance of addiction. These include:

  • Disruptions of healthy social supports
  • Relationship problems
  • Exposure to trauma or overwhelming stress that incapacitates a person’s ability to cope
  • Distortion in meaning, purpose, and values that guide attitudes, thinking and behavior [BINGO]
  • Distortions in a person’s connection with self, others, and with the transcendent (“referred to as God by many, the Higher Power by 12-steps groups, or higher consciousness by others,” the statement says)

So, yeah: alcoholism can run in families not just because of the genetics (which the statement says accounts for about half the chance a person can become an addict), but also because of the (you should pardon my French) shitty social skills that run in addictive families: poor parenting; isolation from friendships; childhood physical, emotional, and sexual abuse; the child making the crappy parent the higher power (which I did for many years, and still tend to do); and freaky, perverted experiences with religion. For example, being taught that God is a (male) judge who hands down decrees from the bench, who bangs his gavel at you every chance He gets.

LOTS of people in The Rooms for addiction and alcoholism are also children of alcoholic and addictive families. Our perceptions of and ideas about the world are severely distorted not just because of The Drinking or The Using, but also because of all the twisted behaviors and thinking that go along with the use, behaviors we observed and absorbed when we were young and our neurology was still forming.

The 12 steps teach us ways to unravel and iron out that twisted thinking, Publicker said. 

And if they work for alcoholics and addicts, why shouldn’t they work for anyone else?

“I have to tell you, as a non-recovering person, I have a lot of envy for recovering people,” Publicker said. “Look—I’m 61 years old. I live in a small town outside Portland, in a house where I can’t see any other houses. I don’t have any natural circumstances where I’m going to develop any intimate friendships. I can’t just go next door and knock and ask somebody to be my friend.

“And the research shows that nurturing intimate friendships correlates with happiness. My patients in recovery have these lovely supportive friendships. They can see everybody every day. It provides a tremendous reward for them.”

“Neurologically, as well as socially and spiritually,” I said.

“Of course,” he said, “because the body and mind ARE one—they can’t be separated.”

Every Detox Fail You? Try the Thai Buddhist Detox

Thamkrabok Thai Buddhist monastery, where addicts and alcoholics get sober according to Buddhist teachings.

For those in search of them, there are detox and recovery choices other than the 12 steps and drug-maintenance. For example, the Beeb is reporting results from a UK nonprofit that show that 95 percent addicts who go to a Thai Buddhist monastery stay clean after treatment.

East-West Detox, a Berkshire nonprofit organization (or “charity” in British-speak), helps British people who want addiction treatment to go to Thamkrabok, a monastery about two hours’ drive north of Bangkok. After the charity’s National Health Service (NHS) funding was cut in 2007, they commissioned Queen’s University in Belfast and London’s Brunel University to study its effectiveness over the following three years.

The report, released recently, states that 95 percent of those who receive the four-week Thamkrabok treatment stay drug-free, compared with 38 percent of NHS patients in UK detox centers, and recommends the NHS reinstate funding, though the Berkshire NHS trust says it currently has no plans to do so.

Thamkrabok’s treatment involves drinking a secret herbal formula and then sticking a finger down the throat and forcing yourself to vomit. Addicts in treatment receive other herbal remedies—to help, for example, with sleep—and they’re taught to meditate, chant, and contribute to the work of the monastery. Those receiving treatment are asked to make a solemn vow, called a “sajja,” stating that they “really want to stop using drugs/alcohol” and that they’re attending of their own volition.

The Thamkrabok website itself says it “does not offer miracle cures” and cautions readers to take any success-rate claims with a grain of salt. However, it makes this claim for itself:

What can be said, without any doubt, is that ALL ex-addicts who keep their SAJJA—with honesty and integrity—remain 100 percent drug free.

One of the BBC pieces tells the story of Sarah, a former heroin addict and mother of a young child, who had been prescribed methadone and Subutex (buprenorphine) to help wean her off heroin, but she “just found herself stuck on them.” Since coming back from Thamkrabok in 2004, she has remained free of her addiction.

I also follow a blog by Paul Garrigan, an Irishman who got sober from alcoholism in 2006 at Thamkrabok. Check out his blog for more information about this Buddhist-oriented way of staying sober.

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