Clarity


“Beware of the man who works hard to learn something, learns it, and finds himself no wiser than before.” —Kurt Vonnegut
When I was in college one of my first roommates was a football player from Texas. Upon being placed on academic probation, he printed off a bunch of motivational posters and taped them to the walls of our dorm room. “GO WORK OUT.” “DO YOUR HOMEWORK.” In the past, the über-successful Oprah Winfrey has alluded to a similar method for reaching her goals. Once asked about how she motivates herself to keep jogging, she responded, “I recommit to it every day of my life.” As wallpapering our lives with daily affirmations would seem to make sense in remaining focused on our intentions, would it not also seem wise to recommit every day to sobriety, in combating the daily urge to drink?

Habit reformation is crucial to recovery and motivational posters or morning affirmations or asking your Flying Monkey Ninja God for sobriety can be beneficial in turning the oil tanker around. Belief in self and belief that change can occur are both critical, but at some point, we have to ask ourselves who we are trying to convince with our posturing. “I don’t believe in miracles, I count on them.” Not to single Oprah out, but she has not exactly been the model of personal health that the braggadocious “I recommit to it every day of my life” would suggest. And as for my roommate? He was cut from the football team before later leaving the school. Incessantly assigning recovery paramount importance in life only helps if it inspires actual progress. “It works if you work it.” To reap the benefits of change, you actually have to change.

There is a simple psychological exercise that asks subjects to close their eyes, and for one minute, try to not think about a polar bear. Go ahead, try it. What happens? We think of a polar bear. It is simple and sort of silly, but as author Oliver Burkeman explains, “the fact that you’re trying so hard to do something sabotages your attempt to do it.” Millennia ago Sophocles argued similarly that the more we try to be happy, the less happy we are likely to become. In A.A. the clearly-repeated objective is to pursue abstinence from alcohol with the same determination once used in attaining it, but relentless efforts to attain a definition of wellness set within rigid parameters of a book might be what actually hinders individuals from achieving any real progress. Moving forward as such is no different than going the rest of our lives by focusing primarily on a bug on our windshield; at what point do we divert our attention from something that is really quite insignificant and recognize the vast expanse of countryside? Otherwise, at its core, “recovery” simply becomes the trading-off of one addiction for another.

There is a primary religious experience within A.A. that many people never get beyond, trapped between the discovery of something greater than their past selves and achieving something more. Instead of congregating with others drinking, skeptical of anyone who claims happiness removed from drinking, members congregate with others not drinking, skeptical of anyone who claims happiness removed from not drinking. By their own nature, The Program’s steps are not a method for quitting drinking and moving on with life. They represent a cycle that leaves people perpetually “in recovery” whether or not they are still struggling with addiction. It is a simple trade-off, an emotional cup no longer requiring alcohol that is instead filled with an ideology instilled to counteract certain relapse, replacing substance addiction with confounding rituals and a realigned sense of personal power that asterisks accountability under the guise of ideological change. The problem is not that A.A. or any other treatment method fails to lead to consistent repeated results of sobriety, but that they are even thought of as being able to provide the solution in the first place.

For a long time there was a large part of me that was scared of not drinking. This had nothing to do with casual drinking and was certainly not tied to the euphoric feelings of binge-drinking that I might miss. I did not want to give up part of who I was. There is an unstable personality within me that likes going off the rails, causing mayhem, and being unpredictable. Indulging in that behavior makes for some fun and crazy stories: Yes, I know that I have to be up for work at seven in the morning, but I’m going to keep on drinking anyway because that’s who I am. I legitimately felt this sort of lifestyle was one of the few things separating me as an individual, and I held onto it not only because of the perverted nature of addiction and habit, but because I felt it made me who I was.

When I was out with people, if there was a drink to be had, it might as well of had my name on it because drinking was what I did best. In my mind it transformed me from being an intolerable bore to someone worth hanging out with. So what if I failed to remember any of it in the morning, or if guaranteed nausea was the only thing potent enough to get me out of bed the next day? That still beat what I felt sober life was. At least the drinking motivated me to "socialize" with people. And when no one else wanted to drink with me, it also helped keep me company. I did not feel lonely when I was drunk. When I was drunk, I was satisfied with whatever I had, and whatever I had seemed like the best thing in the world.

But when I drank I could be absolutely unbearable, to both others and myself. It was easier to not remember that, so I forgot. My insecurities would bleed like sweat from my pores, forcing a hand of overcompensation to help mask my underlying insecurities. This typically resulted in an ugly mess of a person going overboard at every opportunity. When I drank I allowed myself to become the type of person who did not care at all for what those around me might be experiencing. I became someone the sober me hates. When I drank I was neglectful of personal decency. When I drank I lacked respect for others. When I drank I became consumed by paranoid delusions, accompanied by unpredictable waves of jealousy, envy, guilt, shame, regret, and remorse. When I drank, I drank to extremes – to a point where blackouts and waking up in a pool of my own urine had become the norm.

Untold thousands of dollars in legal fees, fines, and inflated bar tabs (another round, for my friends!), as well as numerous intensified health issues (immediately following my suicide attempt I was told that I might need a liver transplant due to the bottle of pills I had inhaled), and still, I did not want to quit drinking. I was functioning, sort of, but when I was drinking at least I was having a better time than when I was sober, and when that ability was taken away from me it also felt like my ability to have fun was gone. I’m not an alcoholic, I’m just addicted to having a good time. All of the pain I caused myself and others by continuing drinking was not what led me to quit. I did not quit when I hit my bottom, and I did not quit when I lost everything.

I had gone sober awhile and was beginning to get in a good pattern when I tested myself to see if anything had changed. I blacked out while drinking with friends, and kept on drinking after I woke up in the morning. The rest of the next day escaped me. I woke up the following day at a friend’s house, thankfully without having made a mess of myself. He drove me home and after collecting myself, I walked back to the grocery store to get some beer. As I was securing provisions for whatever was going to happen next, I balked at the embarrassment of hauling another bulky 24-pack case of beer through the checkout at noon on a weekday, so I only purchased some groceries. When I got home I thought about the positive momentum that had been building prior to dipping back into drinking. One month after returning to A.A. with nowhere else to go I had let it all slip away again.

When I was in the elementary school my fifth grade class took a trip to the Rocky Mountains to go skiing. In preparation for the trip, we were asked about our levels of experience so we could be divided accordingly. Some kids had learned to ski at a young age while others had never gone before. But there was one classmate who grew increasingly difficult as the two groups began to form. He proclaimed to be an expert based on the books he had checked out from the library and refused to be grouped with the beginners. “There’s an untold distance between knowing happiness and knowing about it,” writes Jennifer Senior in her New York Magazine article “Some Dark Thoughts on Happiness.” Sitting there, in my apartment, still sobering up without the case of beer chilling in my fridge, it dawned on me that what I had already learned is all I needed to move on.

Text-based resources are critical to understanding, and reading about other people’s lives continues to expand and enrich my own. But it was the ability to process what I learned and then employ it that was at the heart of the matter for me. I “learned” plenty, but was lacking action. I toiled in research, trying to find answers from recovery techniques and I kept coming back to stale white rooms with flickering fluorescent light bulbs overhead, but what spurred change was not the exact perfect combination of gathered information or some brilliant idealistic philosophical epiphany. It was making a decision about what I did not want in my life and acting on that decision.

Despite the many positives that can come from it, Alcoholics Anonymous provides a hypocritical model of treatment that does not reflect the same standards of honesty it demands of its members. The Program asks for individuals to take rigorous personal inventories of themselves without evolving to meet the demands of a developing society with changing needs. The issue is not so much that the broken 12 Step model remains the foundation for the American treatment system, the problem is that treatment of any sort is not capable of fixing people’s problems for them.

The same that can be said of A.A. can be said of all of the recovery models: They are starter kits. They provide individuals with a basic set of tools and a blueprint for how to use them, but none of them actually do the work for you. Some are deluxe models that give people room, board, and a safe practice environment to experiment with the tools, while others are one-size-fits-all versions to be learned at an individual’s own pace. Not unlike the kid who thought he could read his way through the terrain of a Black Diamond slope, I also had to understand that you cannot learn to ski from a book. Happiness, well-being, recovery – these will forever be abstract concepts or remain projections of what others make of them unless we proactively seek discovery for ourselves.

When I was at my inpatient facility I had to go to court one day, a few hours away from the center. I woke up early and did not return until late in the afternoon. When I got back to the facility, all of the other patients had gathered in one building. Some were crying while others were just sitting expressionless on couches. The previous night a young man, still a teenager, had taken his own life during a lapse in supervision. I did not know what to think then, and I do not pretend to have any answers now. We are all just trying to get to some sort of island, and however everyone best gets there is going to be up to them. A boat might work best for some, while others prefer swimming on their own. Some appear effortless in their journey. Some decide to sink.

Ask more of yourself. Prioritize real value in your life. Believe you can transcend the internal boundaries and limits of who you once were by not closing yourself off to change before you even try. Visualize yourself as the hero of your story. To quote Craig Ferguson, “We prepare for glory by failing until we don’t.” There is no one single reason why one version of myself turned left and another turned right. And what finally spurred change in my life might not have the same impact on anyone else, let alone myself at twenty-four, or that young man at eighteen. But now that I am here there is no turning back.

Prologue: Letting Go
Chapter One: Surrender
Chapter Two: One Nation Under the Influence
Chapter Three: Untreatable
Chapter Four: A Crisis of Identity
Chapter Five: All or Nothing
Chapter Six: Reconsidering A.A.
Chapter Seven: Adaptation
Chapter Eight: Clarity (current chapter)

Read Next: Five Years Later / Reflections on Believed to Be Seen

Adaptation


“How small we are when our minds develop minds of their own.” —Jennifer Senior
Some of my earliest memories are daydreams of what it would be like to be the last person on the planet. At the time I only really considered the romantic and short-sided aspects of such a wild fantasy: I could do what I wanted and not have to deal with the burdens of modern life, or at least those consistent with a young child’s imagination, which added up to little more than speeding in cars and eating junk food without consequence. A few years ago I was on a walk and the reality struck me about this dream: high-speed freeway races aside, I was actually living the life I once imagined, only it was a far cloudier reality than my daydreams had once fabricated. It finally clicked how depression had distanced me from the city I was actually walking through and transported me to a sort of parallel world where I felt like I actually was the only person alive.

I can not count how many times my parents have told me about how they did not have enough money to buy Christmas gifts when I was a baby, and how it still bothers them. Personally, not being old enough at the time to remember one way or another, it has never made much difference to me because for as long as I can recall, we have never really been “poor.” There was once a kid I knew in elementary school who had to wear plastic bags over his socks inside his boots come winter so his feet would not get wet. Sure, we had a few rough years, but by no means were we ever double-bagging body parts to stay dry. Yet for as long as I can remember I feel like I have been the poor kid lacking the correct attire to battle the elements: not financially, but emotionally.

About 7% of adults in the country share my diagnosis of major depressive disorder, and all across the world someone tries to kill themselves every three seconds or so. I am obviously not alone as this is something that millions the world over also struggle with on a daily basis. But simply getting by has become a sore spot for me; not because it is tiring, but mostly because of a strange sense of guilt that accompanies it. Amid daily tragedy, pain, and suffering are those who face it all head on, seemingly immune to incoming perils. Let me assure you of this: when a depressive can not face a world in which they are fully employed, clothed, fed, sheltered, and loved, it becomes remarkably painful to see a homeless person flash a smile or an aging waitress happily work a double-shift at an all-night diner. What do they have that I am missing? Why can’t I get my act together and work through everyday issues like everyone else does?

A massive part of recovery is actually the process of returning to physical health, in addition to seeking emotional wellness. To some degree however, its importance remains undermined by a constant focus on the emotional – or in the case of A.A., spiritual – well-being. The Big Book takes a questionable stance against actively considering the physical damage prolonged periods of alcohol abuse might have done. “A body badly burned by alcohol does not often recover overnight nor do twisted thinking and depression vanish in a twinkling. We are convinced that a spiritual mode of living is a most powerful health restorative. We, who have recovered from serious drinking, are miracles of mental health. But we have seen remarkable transformations in our bodies. Hardly one of our crowd now shows any mark of dissipation.”

Jack Trimpey’s Rational Recovery: The New Cure for Substance Addiction does not offer much more help in that regard, stating that “Psychology, philosophy, spirituality, and religion are irrelevant to recovery,” sticking to the mind-over-matter basics by also clarifying that “nutrition is irrelevant to abstinence.” Nutrition is not likely to contribute directly to whether anyone picks up a bottle any more than a “malady” is likely to force people to drink, this is true, but these conclusions are gross generalizations that paint a slanted view of the harm that has to be corrected inside a human body by alcohol addiction to encourage future wellness. This is not “nutritional therapy,” as Trimpey might have been speaking to, some sort of niche movement preaching the innate healing qualities of going-green, but merely the recognition that serious problem drinkers are by nature dealing with severe vitamin deficiencies in addition to the various aforementioned “disease” symptoms related to physical health.

Part of what gave my psych-ward experience some charm was (surprisingly) my neighbors. One of the most interesting characters went by the name of Adam – or at least his government-issued alias was “Adam” – and he explained to me how he was the son of a very important government official, sent into such facilities to harvest information and act as a spy to make sure the system was following regulations. Never once did Adam show me a glimpse that his reality reflected the same world I lived in (which at the time was sort of crazy, too, I’ll admit), but what it did reinforce was the recognition that even when you, yourself, might not think it is necessary, there still might be need for some form of treatment. While I fought to go to the hospital, then the mental ward, then the treatment center, I find it difficult to dismiss their value. Making sure the body has nutrients, exercise, and sleep in an attempt to bring it back to a foundational balance is unlikely to help the Adams of the world return to reality, but for people who are dealing solely with a chemical dependency, a focus on health remains an underused aspect of recovery that can offer tremendous benefit.

Some individuals have pre-existing issues that outweigh any ability to achieve self-actualization and find some sort of healing through personal discovery. That can’t be overlooked. And a focus on physical health is in no way meant to negate exploring psychological treatment for those who might benefit from it. However, for many it would seem important to set the body on a course of healthy action before even attempting to approach psychotherapy and medicative realms – not to replace therapy or medication, but to enhance therapy’s effectiveness and ensure that medication is prescribed when it is needed. As previously mentioned, antidepressants are often prescribed without hesitance despite being an imperfect remedy, yet how often is foundational health communicated as a significant contributor to emotional health with the same sense of urgency? Without implementing measures such as exploring basic human health in recovery, the treatment system will only integrate itself further into our already-pervasive negative prescribing culture. The point of this aim is to explore options and create dialog about treatment and medication to help curb general ignorance, not to serve as some dismissive anti-authority ploy. That is how stigma is truly defeated.

If you eat right and reintroduce vitamins, proteins, and minerals into your diet, you will feel better. Plenty of sleep and a reduction in stress both lead to a tangible decrease in depression levels, which also lends sobriety an increased positive outlook. Those who exercise regularly experience enhanced levels of enthusiasm and are equally successful in curbing depression as those who take antidepressants alone (they are also less likely to experience recurrent depression). Attention to nutrition is important not because of some far-out return to Mother Earth in re-aligning oneself with the planet, but because poor absorption of nutrition due to alcohol-related gastritis often leads to various nutritional deficiencies that will handicap the very emotional productivity sought through conventional treatment processes.

Approach recovery here as something of a giant oil tanker cruising the ocean. Considering momentum, it can take a ship miles to simply begin to turn around, let alone redirect its trajectory after having gone astray. Recovery is not immediate. Health is not instant. It can take the body six months to bounce back after severe bouts of abusive drinking. The same goes for patterns, habits, and lifestyle changes, where it can take years to build confidence before feeling comfortably “safe” from relapse. But the fact remains: The capacity to change does exist. And once the physical factors of addiction begin to stabilize, the increased stability will lend support in the battle against self-destructive emotional forces.

While recognizing that “belief” is crucial to the transformation process, belief on its own will not immediately overcome the weight of future change. What is left is often a sense of immediate defeat due to the unfathomable size of the task at hand. If a vampire has been sucking you dry for a decade, paradoxically it can feel impossible to move forward without that parasite. But change begins with the understanding that the choice to change our habits is not as difficult as the negative voice of addiction tells us it is. Psychologist Dan Gilbert uses the term “impact bias” to help explain this, determining through his research that it is human nature to misunderstand the effect of personal decisions with regard to changing habit. Impact bias is the idea that we erroneously estimate both the intensity and duration of pleasure that will result from the outcome of our decisions. Keep in mind that this is a tendency that exists regardless of the prevalence of addiction.

Take for example a few high profile studies that have revealed that blind people would be willing to pay less to regain sight than people with sight would be willing to pay to avoid going blind, and how lottery winners do not necessarily turn out to be any happier than people who have recently become paraplegic. These are definitely extreme scenarios, but they do speak to our own individual capability to synthesize happiness. We might have high hopes, and think a certain decision will be far more beneficial relative to another in the long-run, but ultimately these decisions will leave us with outcomes that are less important and less satisfying (or dissatisfying) than we imagine.

This conflict of perception contributes to a misguided understanding of outcomes, leading us to feel like we will have far less power to initiate change in our lives than we really do. Philosopher and economist Adam Smith once spoke to this same theory, adding that “The great source of misery and disorders of human life seems to arise from overrating the difference between one permanent situation and another.” No matter how much distance there is between perceived polar opposites, we are unlikely to hate alternative actions or scenarios as much as our dread leaves us feeling. Pouring that next drink is not going to make us feel as good as we think it will; the allure is anticipatory.

Aristotelian belief dictates that depression and anxiety, no matter how sinister their effects, might actually be fundamental to the human experience because of the personal insights that accompany such feelings. To some degree, the lows allow us to better appreciate the highs. When we strengthen routine by rewarding urges through means of self-medication, what we are left with is an overly-desensitized, increasingly dissatisfied self, perpetually looking for the next temporary solution to mask this happiness deficit. Brené Brown has suggested you cannot always numb the hard feelings that accompany life without also numbing other emotions such as joy, gratitude, and happiness. And without feeling such a sweeping range of emotions for so long, the anxiety from experiencing life sober has the potential to be overwhelming. Such a glass-half-full perspective notwithstanding, no matter how dark a reality depression might paint for us at times, it is vital to recognize that future burdens are often their most unbearable in our minds, and not in reality.

What then happens when we begin to break a negative spiral and see even small results? What happens when we stop diverting feelings and act with long-term emotional sensibility in mind? We stop feeling depressed and helpless. We begin to discover who it is that we really want to be. And through confronting anxiety there comes a sense of satisfaction related to individual actions reflecting personal ideals. Repetition delivers ease, and the future becomes increasingly less impossible to manage. I have been through this before, and even though it is tough, it is not impossible. Not only can possibility be redefined, but goals themselves do not have to be fixed measures of success.

If you create a goal, you risk not achieving that goal. But what happens when an effort is made to increase health or happiness, or balance internal struggles, and nothing seems to change? Expectation cannot merely get in the way of progress, but it can prompt an abrupt end to believing that our journeys bear any particular worth. Prolonged introspection only pronounces feelings of failure, which is why it is not only important to look beyond the self to gain perspective (the black sheep house) but to deny any conclusions based solely on expectation. However much we make our lives out to be a game of chess, thinking multiple moves ahead in formulating a strategy for success, it is largely as unpredictable as a game of Chutes and Ladders. No one is safe from experiencing both the ups and downs, and it is this wild unpredictability that comes as a circumstance of merely playing the game.

When I was in high school a teacher asked our class to look at our futures and think of what goals we would like to achieve. Being seventeen years old I felt life would be complete if I could see some of my favorite bands perform live and own a big-screen TV. While I vividly remember daydreaming about how great it would be to see a few concerts and bask in the luxury of a massive glowing screen, my goals have evolved slightly as my understanding of what is possible has. I do not have any particular goals I feel would complete my life now, but I am slowly accepting that the process of continually redefining where the marker of personal achievement stands is crucial to inspiring whatever needs to come next. In his 2011 Dartmouth College commencement address, Conan O’Brien spoke to this process, explaining, “It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique. It’s not easy, but if you accept your misfortune and handle it right your perceived failure can become a catalyst for profound reinvention.”

In his speech, O’Brien stressed that putting too much emphasis on a single ideal path ultimately prevented him from realizing that no moment wholly defines whether or not he succeeded or failed. In terms of treatment, this relates to what it means to be “recovered.” We cannot always plan for predictability, especially when considering human tendency to often act against self-interest. But what it means to fail does not merely boil down to an action of “relapsing.” “Whatever you think your dream is now,” O’Brien continued, “it will change.” I did not want to be sober. I wanted to learn to drink. Yet I perceived my inability to exercise moderation as failure, which numerous times over led me to giving up wholesale on the rest of my life. My definition of success was so concrete that it warped my understanding of what the positive and negatives in my life really were.

To repurpose an A.A.-ism, sometimes change happens quickly and sometimes it happens slowly. Everyone gets stuck, but just because we become momentarily trapped does not mean we have to accept reality as being confined to the constructs of our immediate imagination. What if there are hundreds of progressively satisfying goals beyond the challenge of attaining a big-screen TV or quitting drinking, but we fail to bother even attempting to explore them because we allow our perception of what life is remain confined to whatever our sheltered imaginations tell us it is?

Not accepting life as a depressed miserable existence where we are forever prisoners to our habits and addictions might not actually reveal it as a continually challenging process of exploration. But it might, too. Accepting reality for what it is only becomes overwhelming if you also accept a belief that your future will forever remain imprisoned by today’s struggles. What I eventually started to recognize was not so much that I wanted to be a normal-drinker out of some sense of civility, but that I really just wanted to experience the feelings that come with binge-drinking without having to deal with the reality of being drunk. I wanted to share in the camaraderie of throwing back a couple shots with friends when occasion struck, but hated the back-end of sobering up from multi-day benders that the shots led to. I got the lines crossed between what was possible and what was not, and because of that I felt like there was no use in trying to move out of where I was at in the first place. I felt like I was the only person on the planet, and because I could not immediately see what might motivate me to explore beyond that emotion I just assumed there was nothing else worth discovering. Figuring goals into the recovery equation eventually had less to do with setting firm boundaries around sobriety as simply opening the door for something more that I had not expected. And eventually those unpredictable motivations became more powerful than addictive allure, and the future opened up beyond the shallow immediacy of drinking or not drinking. Another world does exist.

Prologue: Letting Go
Chapter One: Surrender
Chapter Two: One Nation Under the Influence
Chapter Three: Untreatable
Chapter Four: A Crisis of Identity
Chapter Five: All or Nothing
Chapter Six: Reconsidering A.A.
Chapter Seven: Adaptation (current chapter)
Chapter Eight: Clarity

Read Next: Five Years Later / Reflections on Believed to Be Seen

Reconsidering Alcoholics Anonymous


“Some might say that even if you don’t need God, you do need faith.” —Rogers & McMillin
When I was a kid my dad would often take speaking engagements, filling in at various churches throughout the city we lived in. The thing I most took away from those all-but-forgotten Sundays is how they helped me learn to interact and relate to other people. At an early age I began to develop something of a social survival technique, which remained a crutch for many years.

Having been a judgmental and cruel little monster myself, many, if not most, kids of elementary-school age would appear to be judgmental and cruel little monsters. They might seem like outstanding young mini-citizens on the surface (especially if they are your kids), but when an outsider arrives on the scene, threatening the core of the pack, the transformation is almost instant. I am not sure at what age kids make the leap from an accepting, welcoming, and generally open-minded species, but once it happens the change is frightening. Especially when you are the outsider. No matter where we attended church, or how frequently we returned, I was constantly reminded of this in Sunday School. The groups were usually made up of kids like me, who approached it as a weekly chore, infrequently sprinkled with a minority of those genuinely interested in learning about The Bible. No matter which side I tried playing to I rarely felt like I connected with kids my age at the churches we visited, and after awhile it seemed useless to keep trying. You can play the Nice Young Man card countless times with elderly congregation members, but dimples don’t sway other kids. I showed up, played the New Kid role, and disappeared.

There are so many pieces to each of the puzzles of our lives it is tough to really identify which of the crudely stamped moments ends up affecting us the most. Typically it is not a single piece but the connection between them that begins to add up, and as the picture starts to take shape, each of the smaller pieces slowly reveal their significance. From the time when my parents were first married to when I was born, they moved a half-dozen times across two countries. This bouncing-around act, though largely done out of necessity, only evolved further in my life. I have moved around 30 times. That is one piece. The Sunday School thing might be one, too. When I was in the fourth grade I lost my best friend in a car accident; certainly that would seem a prominent piece. Shifting interests from athletics and popularity to underachievement in school, another piece. And maybe even a lack of hard-wired identity due to an unsure nationalistic allegiance, leaving me feeling a foreigner in both my native and adopted countries, another. So many pieces have been added over the years but when combined the larger picture identifying how I tend to relate to other people depicts something of a social-chameleon, capable of blending in with many while sincerely relating to few. Or at least that is how I have felt for much of my life.

My family moved after I finished elementary school, wiping the slate clean of friends and acquaintances as I entered junior high. I later pursued on-the-job training in high school, distancing myself from the people I attended classes with. After high school, we took a big leap as a family and moved from Canada to the United States. After settling somewhat, I moved to Iowa to attend college, then when I could no longer afford college I moved back (then back again the following year). I planted some roots in Minneapolis after graduating, but moved around the city’s suburbs, also frequently changing jobs. Later, I returned to Canada, where I only stayed for six months before returning to the U.S. Much of my mental health, and physical health for that matter, has revolved around simply being in the presence of other people, but for so long I have closed myself off (intentionally or not), and distanced myself from developing relationships. People do better when they are around other people, and I am one of those people. “There are many ways to destroy a person,” writes Lisa Guenther in The New York Times. “But the simplest and most devastating might be solitary confinement.” Even inmates in prisons need other people, and they are locked up with those perceived as the worst among us.

Over time I became complacent with my seclusion, only reinforcing it through secretive behavior influenced by binge-drinking. The drive to both suffocate and facilitate this inflated a sense of loneliness that remains a sore spot for me, but the last time I began to really bottom out I was overcome by a sense of shame. I recognized that suicide appeared as viable an option as it has ever been, but I knew I did not have it in me to go through with it. I was lost. I tried connecting with local mental health agencies only to be forwarded to voicemail, and reached out to a few close friends to simply say “I don’t know what to do.” On the recommendation of friends to simply get out of my apartment so I could try to get out of my head I landed at a drop-in sober house. I kept coming back not because I felt A.A. was going to miraculously save me, but because it was there for me when I had nowhere else to turn. And – statistics be damned – it helped.

My previously jaded position on Alcoholics Anonymous notwithstanding, when this breaking point hit, I had to put my feelings to the side for my own betterment. And the greatest immediate benefit of “working The Program” for me had little to do with step-by-step procedures, but actually just came in the companionship of other people who were dealing with problems similar to mine. As daunting as recovery is for those who are deep into addiction, it is only exacerbated that much further when wrapped in the context of loneliness. The basic idea of facilitating interaction is extremely valuable. Because of this, I take issue with such positions as Rational Recovery’s, which “does not recommend or suggest that [those in recovery] join 12-step groups, support groups, or get counseling, treatment, or other long-term therapy.” When I found myself in the deepest pit of despair, despite recognizing my own irrational thinking as being irrational, I was not in much of a position to turn things around on my own. I needed the help of others. And A.A. was there for me, as it is for countless others every day, serving as a readily available, cost-effective outlet for those who need it. And when you are in need of support and there is no alternative to turn to, it is hard to argue against the value of simply being in a room of other human beings when you feel so fundamentally inhuman. As the literature jokes, “When you have to go into your head, don’t go alone.”

There are plenty of negative aspects to Alcoholics Anonymous, and many people have actually had their lives hurt by those championing the very program through which they sought personal healing. It is hard to deny the cult-like similarities, and the historical legal twisting has ensured its position in the country, regardless of how statistically beneficial it might really be. In A.A., self-esteem and personal accountability are suppressed, and the prevailing concept that members should not think for themselves because it was their own thinking that drove them to despair is wildly misguided. And above all, A.A. sermonizes the “insanity” of alcoholism, without appearing to consider that at the time The Big Book was written, homemade Prohibition-era alcohol was often poisonous, known to cause death, blindness, and delirium. To drink it, you had to have a little crazy in you.

Alluding to the insanity of its members only to then prompt insane people to take a “searching and fearless moral inventory” of themselves is fundamentally contradictory, which is not to mention how unreasonable it is to ask desperate and broken people to instill blind faith in whatever power they conjure up as being something greater than themselves in the first place. As comedian Doug Stanhope says in one of his bits, “I’m a drunk. I can’t even make up a good excuse for why I pissed in the sock drawer last night. This is probably not a good time for me to be creating omnipotent deities.” The guilt and scare tactics of condemning sobriety found through alternative means as meaningless, and perpetuating the “dry drunk” myth is harmful and twisted: No, you’re not on the right track and ready to move on with your life, you’re only in denial of how truly perverse the depths of your disease are! You’re “constitutionally incapable of being honest” with yourself! Why fight and bicker and threaten in order to convince people of a program’s value if it is also deeply powerful and wise? Yes, it has its issues, but Alcoholics Anonymous has value, too.

At times it is important, and necessary, to be alone, but not when bi-products of seclusion include misplaced blame, artificially fabricated feelings of self-righteousness, or a delusional perspective on why friendship, or basic human interaction, fail to matter. When this happens the ego becomes a person’s worst enemy, and that is precisely what happened to me. I have not devalued friendship because my inherited blueprint for human relationships was so vague, but because I allowed excuses to dictate whether or not I would let myself be a friend to others. I have not moved all over the country because I was not accepted for who I was, but because I rejected the notion that whatever I found was good enough. The cyclical nature of friendship, or avoiding friendship, is such that it tends to lend itself as something of a self-fulfilling prophecy: Others are only likely to make the same effort that you do. And because I did not perceive that others were making the effort to be there for me, I did not feel obligated to make an attempt myself.

The effect other people have on us is palpable, revealing how simple interaction and community is vital to not only the human experience, but how basic social circles might impact our levels of happiness. “A 2002 study conducted at the University of Illinois by [Edward] Diener and [Martin] Seligman found that the most salient characteristics shared by the 10% of students with the highest levels of happiness and the fewest signs of depression were their strong ties to friends and family and commitment to spending time with them.” Practicing forgiveness (of self and others) and managing anger increases one’s ability to find more meaningful friendships. The way we treat others bears reflection of how we feel about ourselves. At its root-level, A.A. seeks to connect people in a fashion that breeds these sorts of positive relationships.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi uses the term “flow” when characterizing a state which captures our complete engagement: some are able to find flow deep in the midst of an engaging sermon, while others find it by competing in their favorite sport, playing a video game, or drinking (a simpler path toward finding lucid “focus” might not exist). Because of flow, or rather because of philosophical flow, it is easy to become trapped by complacent perspective without even realizing it. When a certain way of looking at the world has consumed the mind for a lengthy period of time it becomes terribly difficult to imagine that any other way could bear value. The basics behind the idea communicated when A.A. members tell newcomers to “take the cotton from your ears and put it in your mouth” speaks to this, confronting self-validating thinking with theological resistance.

There is an internal stubbornness in all of us that remains defiant to change, especially when it stands in contrast to pre-existing beliefs or habits. A beautiful aspect of A.A. is The Program’s focus on the ego and nurturing humility in the pursuit of living better. One of my favorite stories from A.A. that speaks to these clashing priorities came from a woman who explained how determined she was to defend her way of life. She had lost her job and was living in her car with her daughter, yet not only did she continue to drink, but proudly turned down help from others as if she still had things well under control. Speaking to her resistant streak, she said, “I can be on fire and still argue, ‘Don’t call the fire department – I got this covered’.”

The phrase “egomaniac with an inferiority complex” gets thrown around frequently in A.A. meetings, but for those struggling to remove themselves from the center of their universe, the ability to step outside of personal conflict and look to others in building a better self is important. Alcoholics Anonymous does this through the act of service – “sponsorship” – but A.A. hardly invented altruism as a means of self-benefit. Take Confucius who said, “He who wishes to secure the good of others has already secured his own.” This sort of thinking has been a keystone of satisfaction through the ages, which is why sponsoring newcomers is beneficial for those who have established their non-drinking in The Program, no different than how many find volunteer work so personally rewarding. If you can take focus away from your own happiness and direct it toward that of others you are likely to be better off for having done so.

When we consciously and thoughtfully put the needs of someone else ahead of our own, no matter how small the act of selflessness may be, doing so has proven to grant those completing the action a sense of not merely satisfaction, but sincere happiness. Yet when we become trapped in isolated loops of insecurity, the tendency persists to overlook others for the sake of the self; an inclination which is magnified to exponential lengths by addiction. The Big Book manipulates this message at times to serve a greater organizational purpose (“Even if he displays a certain amount of neglect and irresponsibility towards the family, it is well to let him go as far as he likes in helping other alcoholics”), but there are plenty of other sources that speak to the benefit of helping others. Take, for example, what might be my favorite religious parable:
A holy man was having a conversation with the Lord one day and said, ‘Lord, I would like to know what Heaven and Hell are like.’ The Lord led the holy man to two doors. He opened one of the doors and the holy man looked in. In the middle of the room was a large round table. In the middle of the table was a large pot of stew, which smelled delicious and made the holy man’s mouth water. The people sitting around the table were thin and sickly. They appeared to be famished. They were holding spoons with very long handles that were strapped to their arms and each found it possible to reach into the pot of stew and take a spoonful. But because the handle was longer than their arms, they could not get the spoons back into their mouths. 
The holy man shuddered at the sight of their misery and suffering. The Lord said, ‘You have seen Hell’. They went to the next room and opened the door. It was exactly the same as the first one. There was the large round table with the large pot of stew which made the holy man’s mouth water. The people were equipped with the same long-handled spoons, but here the people were well nourished and plump, laughing and talking. The holy man said, ‘I don’t understand’. ‘It’s simple,’ said the Lord. ‘It requires but one skill. You see, they have learned to feed each other, while the greedy think only of themselves.
It is a bit of a hackneyed story, but the emphasis on compassion speaks volumes for one of the main lessons to be learned from A.A. Attempting to convey words that accurately represent what individual depression feels like is highly problematic, but one of the benefits of sitting in a room full of other people who are every bit as desperate to find answers as you are, is the ability of presence to relate what words cannot. The shared experience of becoming exposed to other personal realities that are more trying than your own can instill a humility that might otherwise remain obscured. I have gone on drunken tears that lasted weeks, but I have not lost all my teeth because my drinking evolved into smoking crack which evolved into smoking crack while squatting in an abandoned warehouse space because I lost my job and house due to my drug addiction. Some have.

Is everyone in A.A. a recovered expert on alcohol addiction, fully grounded in a healthy lifestyle and capable of nurturing similar growth in the lives of others? Of course not. Yet, while the exact opposite might be true, for so long I approached those who find strength in The Program with a sense of disdain because I could not overlook the aspects of A.A. that I disagree with long enough to uncover those which might be enriching. Rather than recognizing individuality within the recovery process, I felt opening my mind to A.A. would invalidate my progress. It was easier to blow off A.A. because of its religious-leanings, painting the entire swath of members as brainwashed believers of indoctrination, than it was to admit that aspects of its process were beneficial to me. While that might speak for some members of A.A., my own ignorance actually left me playing the role of misguided believer.

The religious angle of A.A. never worked for me, but what I learned about myself in the process of lowering my defenses was that my concept of what god was, or what a god might be, was very limited, and largely tied to that of a Christian deity. My idea of god had been smeared by religious fundamentalists, and had little to do with the cosmic forces that seem to connect us. I had to question my own notions of what a higher power could be, and in that process I was introduced to various new faces of god that stand far outside of religious dogma. A.A. did not change my opinion – or make a believer of me – but it helped me remember that simply because I did not believe in something did not mean that it could not be true.

The Big Book mentions “an unsuspected inner resource” that some refer to as God. Others refer to this as their “authentic self.” I have taken to calling it my Inner Jillian Michaels, which I summon at the gym to help silence my addictive voice when I need a motivational boost. Hulkamania by any other name… One of the tendencies when exploring spirituality is to completely remove the self from the equation, but it is important to not forget there is a “higher” self within all of us. Through this process it was important for me to remember everyone has a different life history which has led them to their separate perspective of reality. And regardless of whether I practice any of its variations or not, for most of the people living on Earth today that reality is driven by the spiritual device of religion.

Religion is one of the key contributors to an individual’s general happiness (as The Daily Show‘s Jon Stewart jokes, “It’s given people hope in a world torn apart by religion”). While surrounding yourself with others who hold a similar belief system is instinctive and leads to sheltered perspectives, doing so also boosts individual psyches, supporting the filters through which life is interpreted. While stepping outside of oneself serves a purpose in personal evolution, playing to individual strengths during the treatment process can lend those in recovery some much needed inspiration. This is another reason the self-matching process has as much impact on the success of treatment as it does: Those who find power through religion (or “spirituality”) are more likely to benefit from the 12 Step process than those who are not interested in pursuing such avenues.

While Bill Wilson toyed with religious conversion throughout his contributions to The Big Book, often blurring distinction between building a support network and ideological recruiting (“Nothing will help the man who is off on a spiritual tangent so much as the wife who adopts a sane spiritual program”), there is something to be said about the power of faith in the healing process. Biographical accounts explain how Wilson was not pushing his spirituality with underhanded intentions, but that he really did believe he was chosen by God for the special mission of saving the world’s alcoholics. While The Big Book doesn’t explicitly go out of its way to represent a particular faith or denomination, it still embodies a religious program at its core; Wilson went so far as to purposefully develop 12 Steps to reflect Jesus’ 12 apostles. But missionary intention does not entirely undermine the change spirituality can have on people.

The foundation for alcohol treatment is reconditioning. Where individual cues or triggers once led to the action of drinking, and routine was rewarded by the onset of alcohol’s obvious effects, reconditioning focuses on changing personal behaviors to reconfigure the reward system. Instead of drinking, addictive urges are met by new actions, confronted by communal support or alternative personal activities to help promote change in the construction of new habits. Using binge-eating and drinking as coping mechanisms has warped my reward system. Having a bad day? A reward should be in order to help survive. A good day? A reward because I have earned it. And more times than not that reward has been destructive rather than productive. To borrow a phrase, we are all walking bundles of habit, and when cravings or urges are no longer fed by reactions offering complacent reinforcement, those habits slowly begin to change. But there still remains a missing element in the recovery equation, leading to a distinction between those who only experience lasting sobriety until struck with severe stress (a death in the family or divorce) and those whose abstinence is not similarly compromised. As irrational as it might seem, this discrepancy actually does relate to the unknown god factor.

In 2005 a collective of scientists attempted to explore the nature of this rather unquantifiable factor through research that examined the correlation between spirituality and long-term sobriety. As explained in his book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Charles Duhigg writes, “It wasn’t God that mattered, the researchers figured out. It was just belief itself that made a difference. Once people learned how to believe in something, that skill started spilling over to other parts of their lives until they started believing they could change. Belief was the ingredient that made a reworked habit loop into a permanent behavior.” It is not the willingness to explore a higher power that necessarily helps people get sober in A.A., but the ability to look beyond preconceived notions and recognize that the capacity to change does actually exist. As smug as I thought my short-lived sponsor was being when he told me that sobriety through a higher power was not something that had to be seen to be believed, but believed to be seen, he was not far off the mark.

Reconditioning behavior is vital to the development of healthier habits, but a fresh perspective is what is needed to create a lasting effect in recovery. Believing that you can live without relapsing into harmful tendencies is the difference between lasting change and succumbing to circumstance. It is not the fault of A.A. members for breeding continued reliance on a system they see hope in; they are excited about the new way of life they discovered, and are limited beyond their understanding of cause and effect that has led to their new outlook. It took me years to see that. Reconditioning alone does not lead to long term change but it can provide clarity to bring about understanding of who it is we really want to be. From there it becomes easier to recognize something more powerful than the self of yesterday to rely on for future stability: the self of today.

Prologue: Letting Go
Chapter One: Surrender
Chapter Two: One Nation Under the Influence
Chapter Three: Untreatable
Chapter Four: A Crisis of Identity
Chapter Five: All or Nothing
Chapter Six: Reconsidering A.A. (current chapter)
Chapter Seven: Adaptation
Chapter Eight: Clarity

All or Nothing


“I can resist everything except temptation.” —Oscar Wilde
There are a lot of firsts in life that I do not really remember. I do not recall exactly when I had my first kiss or my first goal playing youth hockey, and to be honest I am not sure who my first grade teacher was either. I can tell you, however, when and where it was that I took my first drink. An aimless high school student at the time, I enrolled in a work-program which allowed me to learn to cook under a provincially licensed chef as an alternative to attending classes full-time. I could go to school for part of the year and work for the other, just so long as I agreed to the most important stipulation of the contract: by law, the first 1,000 hours of my internship would be unpaid. I did not blink an eye.

To learn the ropes in the kitchen I began as a prep cook, working with a dance music fanatic named Adam and a tireless, small-statured man who spoke only broken English named Ricky Lo. While my cooking career failed to last even two years, the immersion into that environment came with an equally eye opening introduction to alluring off-hours indulgences, used to help balance the daily insanity of the workplace. It was not at a party that I had my first drink, but at the restaurant itself. One night as we closed early to give the place a much needed cleaning, free beers were passed around and a friend, knowing I had not had a drink before, offered me a Budweiser. “It’s like fruit juice,” he said, talking it down compared to the higher alcohol-content of Canadian domestics. (For the record, Budweiser does not taste like fruit juice.) I slowly learned that drinking at work, as those who have worked kitchens anywhere might to attest to, is not nearly as frowned upon as it is in some other business-casual settings. Not Kitchen Confidential-hard drinking, mind you, but the occasional nip seemed all right. For example, following a particularly tough dinner rush one night, one of the front-of-house staff members came sauntering to the back with a tray of sambuca shots for everyone as reward. I distinctly remember a feeling of great pride while the licorice-flavored liqueur hit my throat as I stood in the dish-pit. It felt good to be included.

I have always cherished the associated feeling of camaraderie that accompanies celebratory drinking – its powerful warmth in the room of a party, and its faint lingering presence in a scattered barroom. For a generally lonely and depressed person, drinking has played a significant role in helping me feel companionship even when all I felt was an illusion. The confusion, the misery, the physical withdrawal – none of that really mattered when an empty sense of loneliness would be erased within the span of a few quick drinks. In part, that is why I never wanted to quit drinking: I did not want to lose that feeling, whatever it was. So, I tried to find a balance.

For reasons that might not be considered particularly funny, my family is sort of “funny.” Growing up, my dad and his siblings had less than nothing, were not loved by their parents, and were given about as little support along the way as might have been humanly possible. The child of a terribly abusive home, he left at a young age and tried to do the best he could with what he had. It is a tragic story, his family’s, but one that lends some perspective to how those once-broken children continue to live their lives now. Staunch advocates for sobriety, both he and his sister avoid and condemn the use of alcohol as it was so fiercely abused throughout their childhood. But aside from that, balance is not a word that would describe their lifestyles. Weight problems have been an issue for both, and both have always had odd consumer habits. Ever since I can remember, my aunt has had semi-trucks and a house full of stuff that she has picked up at garage sales or auctions, for example. Growing up with nothing as children seems to have left them with some sort of void, manifesting itself in these sorts of examples. I feel like I was raised with this tendency toward all or nothing as a blueprint for how to live my life.

Early on in my teens my parents came to me and told me they would give me $1,000 if I did not drink alcohol until I was twenty-one. They have never had much money, so what they had meant a lot. It was around that time when I began working in the kitchen, and I mentioned their offer to friends at work. I felt that I wanted to honor their request, and at its most basic, I was sixteen and a grand seemed like a lot of money to me. They laughed it off. I guess I did too. I do not know what I would have done if I was in their same position, but to this day I do not fully understand abstinence-only thinking.

Teaching those coming of age the merits of safer drinking rather than proposing a wholesome abstinence-only approach seems more reasonable to me. Drinking is like sex in that kids are going to do it whether parents like it or not, so it might be beneficial to offer more (real) information and support along the way so young people can recognize their own place along the wellness spectrum. This is self-matching at its most basic. But who is to say that someone will not be the exception, that they do not have the genetic makeup or some biological predisposition which might send them immediately spiraling out of control the moment they first feel the effects of alcohol take hold? Both having had abusive drinkers in their families, that sort of what-if scenario is what my parents were hoping to avoid. I am not saying that their proposition might have had more to do with my accelerated transition toward binge drinking than my friend’s casual Bud offering did, but I am not saying that it did not, either. Life’s not that simple and it is hard to gauge the depths of a child’s rebellious impulses.

We have all heard the alcoholic folklore, about the nameless so-and-sos who enjoyed several decades of sobriety only to give themselves a break of indulgence: Maybe a little weed, maybe a couple lite beers. What’s the harm, the stories always relate. Then a little turned into a little more, and before long chaos strikes and it is back to square one. Such faceless stories remain typical in the defense of abstinent lifestyles, but what about people who just want to have a few glasses of wine with friends over dinner, who are not prone to week-long drinking-sprees? The feeling of a solid buzz can be a beautiful thing, and who is to say that past lapses will speak to future drinking patterns?

Aristotle wrote that “the happy man lives well and does well,” arguing that happiness was to be achieved by living a life of virtue and continuously searching for the “golden mean” by striving to find balance between two excesses. The Greek sage Epictetus echoed this belief, praising temperance, and preaching that an individual could experience the most satisfying of lives by abstaining from over-indulgence. And when faced with a completely sober reality that left me dissatisfied, a sort of existential philosophy boiled over within me, leaving me feeling like I had to take control over my life. It was not someone else’s responsibility to tell me what I should and should not do, but I had to become accountable for nurturing my own sense of self-control.

A blanket assertion from authority figures, claiming that abstinence was a necessity in my life, discounted both personal experience and discipline. I had tried cocaine, for example, and it did not really do much for me, so I did not bother with it. I enjoy smoking weed, but never fell into similar patterns of heavy use as I did with alcohol. Aware that moderation of food had also been an issue for me since I was young, I took to approaching alcohol as I hoped to do for eating: I recognized I had poor habits when it came to both, but understood that habit, while not easily undone, can be overcome. Overeaters cannot stop eating altogether, and confronted by my own distaste toward abstinence, I felt a harm reduction model would help build a better version of who I was to become. After all, moderation has become more socially acceptable in heavy drinking nations like Australia and the U.K., and evidence suggests that a moderation goal would be wise if there have been numerous failed attempts at abstinence in the past. In a world where A.A. has a 5% success rate and I did not want to be sober, I figured an attempt at reducing unhealthy drinking behavior seemed nothing if not downright sensible. So, I tried to approach self-monitoring of drinking just as I did eating, making sure that I was not drinking or eating at things, or over-indulging because I was lonely or bored. And for a while it worked.

In March of 2000, Audrey Kishline turned west on an eastbound interstate, and driving in a state of blackout somewhere between sixty to seventy miles per hour, she crashed her pickup truck head-on into an oncoming vehicle. She killed both the driver and his twelve-year-old daughter. Kishline’s story of recklessness could well have been my own, far more times than I would like to admit. But one detail of her story lends it a particularly tragic twist: earlier that year she had personally shed her association with Moderation Management, the organization she herself had founded, relenting that she had not been honest about her drinking and she was going to change her “recovery goal to one of abstinence rather than moderation.” “For a long time I hid my drinking,” she later explained, adding that she had developed Moderation Management with an ulterior motivation in mind. “It would legitimize my drinking.”

At the core of my treatment was what boils down to the development of positive thinking habits. While we have thousands upon thousands of thoughts every day, it was repeatedly emphasized that the onus of deciding which thoughts are given attention remains with the individual. This idea is hardly exclusive to “Health Realization,” or even recovery – the concept rings true from Buddha (“Our life is the creation of the mind”) to Dr. Seuss (“Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try!”) – but a tendency exists to shrug it off or let it be forgotten, in part, because it is so effortlessly lost in its simplicity. Case in point: even after treatment, the mere thought of not drinking remained a nervous source of anxiety.

The stress tied to actually quitting drinking manifested itself in a resignation that I did not care to quit drinking, so long as sobriety was my only alternative. I did not want to confront my own capacity to step away, and challenge myself to actually begin to emerge from a numbed existence by experiencing life’s legitimate feelings. For years, fighting through aimless drinking goals, telling myself “I will not drink alcohol again” only left me with a feeling of dread. I was aware of the serious emotional and physical issues that such pronounced anxiety indicated, yet dismissed the feelings by remaining focused on how important drinking was to me. Not only that, but acting on such a statement would distance me from any long-term personal contingency plans that I was not ready to let go of: …but if I can’t make my rent, or my friends leave me, or I lose my job, or my parents die, or my dog runs away, then it’s open season on drinking again. This emotional undercurrent reinforced my drinking, but it also left me feeling hypocritical.

When thinking is continually rewarded by behavior that acts on addictive urges, it becomes more difficult to correct negative patterns than simply positively thinking one’s way out of self-destruction. While telling myself that “I will not drink alcohol again” made me nervous, seemingly speaking to the prolonged addictive effects of drinking, it also revealed that I was not ready to deal with the uncertainty that transformative personal change might bring with it. I was not suppressing emotions, childhood angst, or past regrets by continuing my drinking, I had simply become used to regularly dealing with everyday life under the influence of alcohol, and the sheer thought of not doing so was something I had so desperately avoided despite not understanding what I was really avoiding. And because I was suspended in this confusion, my thoughts remained cyclical in catering to patterns that my behavior was establishing as normal: A few drinks were necessary in order to cope with the day that started off sloppy because of too many drinks the day before.

Psychologist Joseph Bailey speaks to this confusion with the concept of “sincere delusion.” The idea is that a deluded person fails to realize they are in charge of their lives, and in the chaos of daily living they neglect to use gained wisdom and common sense, allowing their surroundings to dictate how they react to the world around them. What then happens is the individual begins to further latch onto whatever is comfortable in their world in order to cope. This leads to a narrow and predetermined perspective of reality, he argues, offering “Mondays” as an example. When the weekend ends we often allow pre-programming to trigger an internal response, leaving us with a variety of conclusions about how Mondays are going to be rotten, even before the day begins. What happens next is that we know Mondays are going to be awful, or that treatment will not work, or that whatever your position is on something is gospel because your thoughts have been validated time and time again by the elements you have selectively surrounded yourself with. Essentially, Mondays are terrible because we allow them to be terrible, and no one can just quit drinking because of a predetermined conclusion that quitting drinking is impossible.

Of the recovery methods I invested myself in, the base-concepts of Rational Recovery made the most sense to me, particularly its emphasis on “addictive voices.” In much the same way that Health Realization aims to reinforce thought recognition, Trimpey’s program recognizes that this sincere delusion exists, asserting that the primary key to recovery comes with learning to identify and dissect the nature of our individual addictive voices.

As arrogant as the proposition sounds, the statement that Rational Recovery’s foundation “permits anyone to recover immediately and completely from addiction to alcohol or drugs” is not far from the truth: The ability to recognize and confront addictive voices respects that individuals are the observers of thoughts and feelings – both positive and negative – and ultimately possess the control to support addictive voices or deny them. I believe this to be true, but the ability to face “any idea, feeling, or behavior that supports drinking alcohol” and practice the ability to control corresponding emotions is not an immediate process. Recognizing we have control over our thoughts is far different than maintaining control over our thoughts, especially when they have gone unchecked for so long.

When the words “I will never drink alcohol again” first coursed through my mind, I remember grimacing at the unbearable thoughts that followed, emerging in high contrast to the more welcoming rhetoric of 12 Steppers who champion a “one day at a time” approach to abstinence. Initially “forever” felt too heavy to bear – it is simply not realistic to flip a switch from hopelessly dependent to comfortably sober – and the crippling internal dialog and emotions associated with pulling the rug out from under a way of life that has become second nature is not as manageable as the statement regarding addictive voice recognition makes it out to be.

However manageable “one day at a time” might seem, it leaves the door open for future use, implying that I can not control tomorrow but can only make sure that I do not drink today. Saying “forever” is a bit of a moot point, considering that in its most reduced definition the word only represents an endless succession of future right nows. When I began to consider “forever,” my addictive voice pushed back in the form of anxiety, preventing a smooth transition into sobriety by stimulating every last ounce of physical addiction in an attempt to bait the desire for gratification. Current use produces quick predictable results, while it is mentally difficult and emotionally inconvenient to change. Regardless of whether or not my intent was sobriety (or not), physical and emotional urge resisted any deviation from habit. When I began to understand this it became clear moderation was not the answer for me – it was merely an attempt to legitimize my drinking, and defend my future use, much as it was Audrey Kishline’s.

Economist George Loewenstein has established the term “empathy gap” in explaining how thought and behavior cannot be predicted when people find themselves in hot or cold states of mind. Such emotions as love, rage, and sadness all blur general conclusions made regarding happiness. “If our decision making is influenced by these transient emotional and psychological states, then we know we’re not making decisions with an eye toward future consequences.” This is a key that much of addiction recovery fails to acknowledge, rational behavior remains bounded by our emotions, often leading to self-defeating and irrational actions despite people being fully aware of consequences. “We are not dispassionate information processors,” continues Loewenstein. “If we want to believe something, we’re amazingly adept at persuading ourselves that what we want to believe is true.” In my case, this often facilitated defiant binging; whether it be a response to loneliness or sheer boredom. If the circumstances were right, I have historically sabotaged myself by eating and drinking at depression, life, despair, loneliness, boredom, happiness, celebration, and triumph. I had little choice but to fail at moderation, because the concept was never possible through the manner by which I was pursuing it.

I do not really enjoy the taste of vodka or whiskey, but was willing to overlook that for the sake of getting drunk. I enjoy the taste of many beers, but to say that I am drinking them for the sake of some preferential taste (over soda, coffee, or tea) would be a lie, regardless of how full-bodied its complex flavors might be. But the deceptive nature of the addictive thoughts in my head twisted the reality of moderation into an illusion that I would continually fail to achieve so long as I attempted to pursue it. I would buy in bulk – to save money, of course – with the intention of moderating my drinking, while simultaneously dismissing internal red-flags: this particular handle of liquor was different. No dependent drinker is buying 1.75 liters of bottom-shelf vodka with moderation in mind. Continually neglecting the reality of my using-with-a-high-probability-of-abusing not only emphasized how hot and cold states guided my behavior, but how tightly addiction had become wound to my basic emotions.

This process of self-realization through behavioral reconditioning reflects a fundamental cognitive behavioral therapy approach to addiction, but the results are not much different than what A.A. promises when The Program claims to restore alcoholics of their sanity. Instead of developing mindfulness amid conflicting internal motivations, unchecked behaviors nurture addiction and reinforce habit. When I made the decision that I did not want to be sober I acted on urges without allowing myself to recognize what the likely outcome was going to be. In removing myself from this cycle by building reflective pause between thought and action, I began to buck complacency, assessing real wants while becoming increasingly aware of when I was acting on an urge that went against those “wants.” This complacency is something everyone faces, in some form or another, but it is how we deal with it that helps define us.

It is easy to grow comfortable with life regardless of whether or not we feel we are living it well. A sense of normalcy about what we are doing and how we are doing it will develop over time no matter the subject in question. Taking the kids to football practice can be normal. Going to work every day can be normal. Sitting on the couch all night watching television can be normal. Eating an entire pizza in a single sitting can be normal. Drinking a case of beer tailgating at a football game can be normal. Familiarity dictates normalcy and when we find ourselves in patterns, no matter how healthy or destructive, complacency remains driven by it.

No matter what we are doing, it is important to be mindful of past outcomes. What might the end result of action be and does it match the result we want? If you become complacent with a high anxiety job, ask yourself if going to work every day is helping you achieve the life you want. If you become complacent with drinking a fifth of liquor every night, ask yourself if what you are doing is helping you achieve the life you want. Pause your life and play the tape forward. If you are about to make a decision, think about what has happened in the past, and what might happen if you follow the same path in the present.

Just as I have felt uncertain and nervous about not drinking ever again, I have also noticed I begin to feel anxious when things become “normal.” If it has been too long since I have shaken things up I experience an urge to interject a bit of chaos into my life. In the past this has led to self-sabotage and destructive emotional mood swings. My complacency normalized this behavior.

In any given neighborhood there is likely to be a black sheep of a house that has seen better days. Maintaining a house is similar to maintaining the self in that becoming complacent with its current state, or its appearance of normalcy, is bound to distort reality. If your house is quite literally falling apart you might not realize it until you distance yourself from the destructive environment – the appearance of normalcy remains intact when what is on the inside is all you know. The same goes for people.

Stepping outside of complacency is a risk. It says we are not perfect. It says that what we are doing might not be the utmost brilliant way to live life. But it also says we are willing to grow, to adapt, and to live better. Once the ego is recognized and we resign ourselves to our imperfections it becomes easier to see how to avoid failure by stepping outside of complacency and honestly pursuing the things we actually want. There really does come a point when we are able to step beyond the role of being some sort of confused victim of misinformation, or an inmate trapped in a self-inflicted prison. In recognizing and combating these addictive voices we actually become the aggressor, seeking out and killing the vampires in our lives.

Vampires only go where they are invited and the people and situations that are most damaging in our lives have the ability of draining us of our livelihood because we allow them to do so. Similar to those who are stuck in abusive relationships, paralyzed by the fear of walking away, comedian and philosopher Duncan Trussell relates this analogy to how we often try to convince ourselves that these blood-suckers are not really vampires – instead proposing we do not have to cut them out of our lives, or we can somehow cope or manage while their grip tightens. Vampires can be seductive and manipulating, but acknowledging them for what they are is crucial.

As author Greg Carlisle writes, “Anything that inspires addiction or obsession – substances, entertainment, beauty, secrecy – is dangerous in that it can lead to isolation, self-absorption, and disconnection.” This includes the bizarre (eating dirt), the seemingly trivial (drinking coffee), and the overtly destructive (shooting up black-tar heroin). Binge-eating is like binge-drinking in that there are ways to master moderation for each, and techniques that can be learned to help avoid triggers that spark negative behavior. But drinking had become the opposite of what it was supposed to be for me. Instead of being enjoyable, or a “social lubricant,” it evolved into a mechanism of seclusive self-destruction. Alcohol had very much become a vampire in my life, constantly preventing me from succeeding, progressing, and simply being comfortable with myself. Instead of driving me outside myself to interact with others it kept driving me further and further in, closing me off to the world while I struggled to hold onto a mistaken image of moderation that propelled carefree weekend partying into reclusive week-long benders.

Even after accepting vampires for what they are, it becomes easy to back down from removing them from our lives because of the expectation that eliminating them will end up hurting us more in the long run. And it is true: killing our vampires might leave us temporarily crushed. Crushed, perhaps, but alive, and able to move forward. Actively purging these destructive blood-suckers from our lives will ultimately lend us liberation from unnecessary misery and grant us the freedom to figure out who we want to be and what it is we really want from life. And only when recognizing that I could not be the person I wanted to be – someone I could not even imagine under a state of drunken disillusionment – did I understand not only why it was important to change, but what I was changing for.

Moderation is a good fit for many. Maintaining functioning dependencies seems to work for others. But I struggle to even function, let alone thrive, when I allow alcohol into my life. On the flipside, sobriety for its own sake has never made much sense, which is why I never genuinely pursued it the various times it was imposed upon me. The biggest change came with the realization that abstinence from alcohol is actually something of a prerequisite for pursuing the few aspirations I have in life. Drinking prevents me from making sensible decisions, it grounds my motivation, and it serves as an active participant in hindering personal progress. To move forward beyond my unsuccessful attempts at moderation, I really had to move forward.

Prologue: Letting Go
Chapter One: Surrender
Chapter Two: One Nation Under the Influence
Chapter Three: Untreatable
Chapter Four: A Crisis of Identity
Chapter Five: All or Nothing (current chapter)
Chapter Six: Reconsidering A.A.
Chapter Seven: Adaptation
Chapter Eight: Clarity

A Crisis of Identity


“Mental health should be more than the absence of mental illness.” —Martin Seligman
I woke up a few hours after I had fallen asleep, with a nauseating urge driving me toward the bathroom. I did not have feeling in my legs though, so I ended up crawling to the toilet where heaving voided some of what had become of the bottle of blue pills. All I can remember is feeling like my eyes were not working right because I did not recognize myself in the mirror. I went back to bed. My dad showed up in the morning and, realizing what was happening, pleaded with me to go to the hospital. For hours I laid in bed, refusing to move, but after a day of arguing, laughing, and crying, I finally agreed, and was admitted to the emergency room as night fell.

About two weeks passed between the time when I was admitted to the E.R. and the time I became stable enough to graduate to the facility’s mental ward. Time spent in a psychiatric ward might appear to be the darkest in someone’s life, but for me the most difficult stage of the process was actually the time leading up to the decision to put me there. Desperate for anything, I clung to the hope that I could still somehow die even though the medical physicians and psychiatric staff (not to mention my heartbroken but no less faithful family) were having none of it. In the event my round-the-clock supervision took a brief break I planned to remove the needle from my arm and cut my wrists open with it. Being in that position and feeling helpless to even end my life: That was dark. But the mental ward itself, once I became resigned to the fact that I had to be there, was not all that bad. (As far as mental wards go.)

Following further psychiatric assessment and an appearance in court it was determined on my behalf that the hospital wasn’t going to be the last stop for me. The hammer fell, a court order was motioned, and it was explained that I was to spend time at an inpatient treatment program to help treat my own dual diagnosis of alcohol dependence and major depressive disorder. I fought the transition to the next leg of my journey not because I did not think I needed it – I was very much aware that I drank too much and was depressed – but I fought it because I was none too keen on the options I was given. Unlike the hospital and subsequent psychiatric lock-down, I felt like I deserved a say in where I would land. I had familiarized myself with Alcoholics Anonymous and The Big Book, but did not feel like The Program was for me. Yet a 12 Step treatment facility was still set up as my destination.

Instead of urging me toward sobriety, the big blue bible created a wedge of separation between me and the idea that there was any actual value in what was being offered as the recovery process. After voicing my contentions I was eventually given a choice in my treatment. Presented with the option of spending more time in the hospital while waiting for a spot to open up in what was only explained as an alternative treatment program or opting out early to land in a 12 Step facility, I decided to wait. When a bed opened up I was loaded into a van and driven to my new temporary home in a remote forested setting.

The fundamental elements of this new program involved the nurturing of a process that strives to leave its participants more in tune with an understanding of how we can better react to our circumstances by becoming aware that we are creating our own experiences (and not the other way around). “Health Realization,” as it was called, placed increased emphasis on mind, consciousness, and thought using three interconnected principles: 1) our thoughts shape our experiences, guiding how we view the world; 2) personal consciousness is what makes our thoughts appear real; 3) the mind is the source of both consciousness (the ability to become aware of your life) and thought (the power to think, and thus the ability to create reality). Rounding out the philosophy was the belief that we are all born with innate health and well-being (which is sort of like The Wizard of Oz in that everything we are searching for we already have) that can be regained through the practice of embracing these aforementioned principles: We are not sick and in need of a cure, but rather we are already healthy and just have to learn to rediscover what we have lost.

Once my inpatient treatment had run its course I was informed that I would be handed over to an outpatient program, which would include living at a halfway house. I argued for another option, and with my parents serving as guardians I was allowed to move in with them while participating in three months of intensive group sessions as an alternative. While I was reinvigorated by the philosophical tone of my “alternative” treatment process, the ushering from one forced stage to the next failed to instill within me any sense of clarity or purpose to move forward. Any insight into recovery I had been given was helpful while under a facilitator’s watchful eye, but quickly became dismissed by no real life motivation to remain sober once I was on my own. A month removed from my outpatient graduation I huddled with a group of friends in a Japanese restaurant hoisting celebratory sake bombs to commemorate the night. Given my new understanding, I felt things would be different.

A primary characteristic of individuals who have made the move to pursue Alcoholics Anonymous is that they are unsure about what is going on with them – to some degree we are all just confused people seeking answers. The disease concept offers an obvious solution, but over the past century numerous authority angles have helped warp it into an associative identity crisis wrapped around a substance abuse concern: the onset of alcoholism has historically been addressed as everything from denial to underlying homosexuality to the manifestation of suppressed childhood emotions to outright character defects. While this sort of pseudo-psychoanalysis was not factored into my situation, when my treatment was up I felt uninformed as to exactly how I was supposed to reconcile this new theoretical motivation within my day-to-day life. I quickly became more conflicted about drinking than I had ever been, struggling with who I was because of it, and where I might fit in the world due to my diagnosis.

Increasingly so, it feels like America is becoming an entitlement incubator. That may be true, or that perspective might only reflect my unmet expectations. Upon being set free on my own again, the very feeling I felt I was missing out on – deserved, even – appeared everywhere around me. I was confused about my direction and what the future might hold, but more than anything I felt like I was missing out on some larger sense of happiness. No matter where I would go it seemed as though people were simply happier than me: If they did not appear to have a greater sense of direction or purpose, at least their daily lives seemed to give them some sense of satisfaction. While friends were pairing up with loving and supportive partners, pursuing fulfilling careers, and dedicating their free time to gratifying hobbies, television and other media only twisted the knife further, broadcasting some alien reality by continually exposing what I lacked.

It is easy to get caught up in ideal projections and focus not on what we are thankful for, but what we are lacking. Celebrity and glamour have become so highly valued that the idea of being famous or attractive would seem synonymous with godliness. While being pretty or popular do not equate to being happy or satisfied, it is easy to get caught up in lusting after those models of success when all else fails. This is especially true as they appear to become increasingly feasible to achieve. If you can’t be rich, you might as well be gorgeous… or on reality TV, a rather ridiculous medium horrifically mutated to represent micro-fame as the pinnacle of collective aspiration. In part, these fleeting and undependable projections of happiness impacted my own sense of inadequacy.

At war with this satisfaction-mongering is a billowing front of self-helpedness that has become far more a diversion from happiness than a guide to achieving peace of mind. Compiled with advertised promises that we too could feel satisfaction if only for a faster car, a bigger house, an expensive vacation, or flawless skin, and by the continual projection that these immediately attainable goals are being achieved by Everyone But You, feeling disillusioned, dissatisfied, unreasonably insecure, empty, powerless, and guilted into blaming ourselves for the failure of not having achieved such ideals would only seem natural.

For so long my self-esteem has been tied to what I do and not who I am, and because I did not have any sense for what I wanted it was impossible to incorporate a new lifestyle – let alone a lifestyle which was not entirely of my choosing – into such utterly conflicting surroundings. I was not only confused, but felt I was damaged goods: not only had I failed at taking my own life, but I was a clinically-diagnosed alcohol-dependent depressive on top of that. I did not understand myself, the world around me, or what was supposed to be my reprieve from addiction, and in the face of ever present billboard-happiness I remained jealous of what I thought I was missing.

In the years that followed my exit from treatment one of the main points of conflict I struggled with was overcoming the compartmentalization of recovery methodology. The treatment center I was sent to never bothered addressing A.A. or any other recovery methods, indirectly asserting itself as the lone alternative to 12-step treatment. I was clueless about what other resources might have been available, or what organizations might best suit whatever my plans for future drinking were going to be. Instead, my goal was decided for me – that I was to remain sober – and once my outpatient program was over, I was supposed to be well-equipped to meet that goal.

Such a closed-off approach to personal recovery remains consistently problematic, with methodological disagreement in both physical meetings and online forums often resulting in little more than broad-stroke condemnation. Rational Recovery, for example, is rife with condescension defiantly aimed at Alcoholics Anonymous, without checking its own arrogant undertones: by its own definition any recovery found outside of its program is irrational. By conceding that there are beneficial aspects to other treatment models, individual organizations risk the appearance of authority necessary to project their competitive (marketplace) advantage. This becomes exponentially detrimental when a program regards itself as singularly beneficial. A.A. members, for instance, are then subject to misplaced confusion when they relapse, angry at themselves because they didn’t follow the steps close enough — failed products of a perfect system.

Countless times I have felt similarly broken because of my confusion, lost because I wanted to appear normal, carrying on as a civilized citizen, socially interacting with others over drinks while remaining in control over my prevailing dependency and depression issues. There is a tremendous vulnerability that accompanies this mindset, often leaving those who experience it feeling in no position to ask questions about their recovery. Confusion about addiction does not open individuals up to gullibility, necessarily, but it certainly invites a sincere desperation that leaves any promised recovery attractive. Whether it be a judge, a doctor, or an A.A. sponsor, there is an implicit belief that those who are there to help, do so with your best interest in mind.

There has not ever really been any sort of life-affirming goal that I have been working toward, so I just took the treatment goal and adopted it as my own because, why not? University gave me something temporary in terms of purpose – working toward surviving the next exam seemed to occupy enough of my attention to just barely survive the four years that it took to graduate. But I stopped caring once the realization kicked in that there was no pot of golden purpose at the end of the reading rainbow.

I doubt that I am any more disillusioned by life than the next person, but something that I have struggled with as the reality of full-blown adulthood became increasingly concrete is my own inability to figure out just what it is that I was looking for in life. I want to be happy. Everyone does. But how? No matter how happy I should have been with my life, my job, or my family – I wasn’t, and I had no idea what might fix that. Trying to end my life did not make me happy, mind you, but at least it gave me a momentary sense of purpose – as if I were Moving On for a reason. And when that failed and recovery became my carrot on the stick, I lost direction when I felt I had tried only to be greeted by results that failed to live up to the promoted examples of how fulfilling sober living could be.

What it means to be recovered is utterly indefinable and uniquely based on an individual’s definition of well-being, but too often does happy for the sake of being happy or sober for the sake of being sober become the surviving ideal when the chaos of addiction strikes. Recognizing one’s identity is a strange task in and of itself, but a more complex challenge is distinguishing genuine identity within a limited world of projected ideals. Because I was reflecting the goals of others in my own pursuit of happiness, I failed to take time to understand what it was that I really wanted from life, and this failure to learn who I really was only brought about a false sense of who I was not.

One of the most understated aspects of Rational Recovery’s model of treatment is its emphasis on defining an actual drinking goal, requiring its participants to honestly state what their plan is regarding any future drinking. This might seem obvious, but it is critical because the decision to drink is as equally determined by the individual as the decision to not drink is. Sobriety had been the prescribed goal, but it was a goal that had been planned on my behalf that I never truly wanted for myself. The idea of a sober future was nauseating in its appearance of joyless boredom and I felt I had failed not because I could not remain sober, but because sobriety was not my plan. Years passed following my treatment before I finally hit a point where I was ready to silence the gut feeling that materialized every time I told someone that I wanted to be sober. In trying to uncover some sense of identity while dodging all these conflicting influences, I felt a lifestyle balance seemed appropriate, and recognizing my general issues with moderation – binge-eating has long been an issue for me as well – I felt I could no longer be insincere with what it was I wanted. And I did not want to be sober.

Prologue: Letting Go
Chapter One: Surrender
Chapter Two: One Nation Under the Influence
Chapter Three: Untreatable
Chapter Four: A Crisis of Identity (current chapter)
Chapter Five: All or Nothing
Chapter Six: Reconsidering A.A.
Chapter Seven: Adaptation
Chapter Eight: Clarity