I am neither an expert on substance abuse nor a psychologist. But over the years as I have counseled, worked alongside, or been personally involved with people who have had serious issues with addiction in one form or another – food, sex, drugs (non-prescription as well as prescription), alcohol -- I have become increasingly more interested in the mechanisms of addiction.
I have also seen people addicted to maintaining certain states of mind, such as mal-contentedness, indecision, confusion, anxiety and martyrdom. A few perfected their addictive experience to such a degree they became caricatures of themselves. Others have seemed to me at times to be remarkably comfortable -- in that peculiar familiarity sort of way – with the mental burdens.
Since it is part of my nature to be interested in all things related to physical health, I have spent a great deal of time studying nutrition. I think it is infinitely amazing how our bodies work and heal. And the whole idea of using substances in a way that one knows will derail health is a most curious thing to me.
Friends, associates, family members and others who seek my guidance have shared their symptoms or diagnoses of disease or ailment. Correspondingly, over the years my medical and nutritional library has swelled. It was after my father was diagnosed with lymphoma that I had become even more committed to eat to live rather than live to eat, and tried to pour into him what I had been learning about nutrition. On my father’s deathbed he told me I knew so much about the body I should have become a doctor. With graceful wisdom and not mincing words, he then gently suggested it was still not too late for me to get on with it.
The whole idea of addiction is so counter to my core goal. The healthier my body is the happier I feel. Many years ago I discovered that the happier I feel, the more easily I am able to access my gift of clairvoyant knowledge. Since this clairvoyant experience is the best I can imagine life can offer me, (though premium chocolate is right up there) I am motivated to preserve my health and happiness. That’s part of the reason why addiction is a baffling thing to me and to many others who have looked at it up close and personal.
I have had a long friendship with journalist Bill Moyers. We met while I was a journalist with The Denver Post. Periodically I would write about Bill’s PBS programs. We recognized quickly we were kindred spirits, not just because of our love of newspapers and the power of good television, but because we also share an insatiable curiosity.
As synchronicity would have it, I was able to connect with Bill and Judith’s son, William Cope Moyers, who holds a unique and particularly significant place in the world of recovery. He is an executive with Hazelden, an alcohol and drug addiction treatment center.
William came to his work at Hazelden through his own recovery process that he wrote about in his highly acclaimed book titled "Broken."
In 1998 Bill and Judith had produced a comprehensive documentary series called "Moyers on Addiction: Close to Home" where they revealed the complex journey of addiction and recovery in America that they too had embarked upon through their son’s battle. It has been through William’s story and work in the field that I have learned so much more about recovery, one that may involve multiple relapses.
As important as this has been my understanding of the difference between alcohol abuse and dependence. Here is a simple reminder of the difference:
Four signs of alcohol abuse (and these are commonly accepted as a definition) are: role impairment (meaning at home, or work, not meeting obligations); hazardous use (like driving while intoxicated); legal problems related to alcohol use; and social or interpersonal problems due to alcohol.
Dependence is defined as having 3 or more of these in a year: tolerance (which is about an increase in the amount of alcohol being consumed in order to reach a similar effect); withdrawal symptoms or signs; drinking more than intended; attempts to cut down that are unsuccessful; excessive amounts of time that are lost due to alcohol; impaired social or work activities due to alcohol; and consumption despite physical or psychological consequences
Since addiction is most frequently a disease of the spirit, (I state it that way as there are babies born to addicted mothers who suffer the physical disease right out of the starting gate and I am not addressing that kind of addiction here) recovery involves spiritual repair.
It was author Tom Robbins who, through one of his novels, helped me understand a certain kind of mindset and soulset that I see as connected to addiction. Bernard Mickey Wrangle, Robbins’ fictional character from his book "Still Life with Woodpecker," was a wild sort who happened to really enjoy dynamite. Bernard’s illegal outlandishness can be read as great comic relief or colorfulness, that is if you don’t happen to be one who has personally suffered from similar deadly antics or cringe at bawdy sex scenes. It’s an outrageously tall tale, not for everyone in the way George Carlin wasn’t, written in a style likely never to be duplicated with any justice. Surprisingly I found much of it really funny, racy in the sort of "Fear of Flying" kind of way and I had no idea wild man Bernard would ever factor into any column I’d ever write, especially one as deadly serious as addiction.
A possible prescient literary sidenote is that Bernard -- dangerous misfit with a powerful ‘romsexual’ addiction – could have been an unintended inspiration for the first suicide bombers who carried an IOU promise for 72 post-explosive virgins. Robbins’ book was written in 1980 and eerily mirrors the current oil/economic war matrix.
In one poignant exchange in the novel, drug and alcohol abuser Bernard humorously describes himself as being an outlaw: "Me? I stand for uncertainty, insecurity, surprise, disorder, unlawfulness, bad taste, fun, and things that go bump in the night." This immediately made me think about the radical mindset, the outlaw, and how some who are suffering with addiction are like the angry Bernard. They too happen to be struggling with fitting in because in part, they aren’t so sure they want to be a member of any club that would have them as a member.
It is an irony that their behavior of abuse and dependence automatically puts them in the very large club of User.
As outlaws, some of these are people who struggle at the most basic level with simply not knowing how to grow up or even understanding the use for growing up.
It can seem that our culture has evolved into one that is determined to stave off or even avoid altogether growing up, for fear that growing up may well lead to growing old or at the least, to being boring or invisible.
That is partly how I have come to perceive the addictive mindset, this outlaw mindset and its distortions. I say distorted in that it is a mindset of ignorance or misunderstanding of the essential part of growing up – the spiritual growing up – that is necessary to acquire in order to navigate through lifelong choices and opportunity that may derail a person from being an expression of sustained happiness.
From my perspective, the addiction mindset involves a distortion of happiness because to grow up spiritually means one is aligned with freedom, to really being free. Meaning NOT being addicted to anything or being negatively attached – including misguided, outdated or limited beliefs and religious dogma.
This freedom is a spiritual repair. It is not achieved through just abstaining from using addictive drugs or alcohol or just refraining from harmful behaviors. Nor does it come by transferring one addiction and replacing it with another compulsive action, however "better" the replacement seems to be in comparison.
The spiritual repair that occurs from transcending the transfer of addiction creates a freedom and sustained happiness through a complete release from the desire for addictive substance or addictive behavior.
Some who have achieved this extraordinary level (through grace and personal effort) will describe it by saying "the desire was removed" and do not even experience any lurking shadow of temptation or despair about a future relapse.
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Compassion leads to true healing, and learning about the difference between abuse and dependence can be the point where one’s heart can begin to open and where recovery becomes possible.
That path of recovery requires letting go of things that many prefer not to let go of, like the monkey mind, or patterns and habits of living, and this includes any of the emotions that plague people or create paralysis from indecision and confusion. All of the kind of drama that makes for really great theater of the absurd only when it’s not too close to home.
For those who need to start recovery from either abuse or dependence, from substance or behavior, I encourage you to get on with it and to seek your freedom. My father’s wisdom says it is not too late.
-- Giselle M. Massi © July 2008