TRANSCRIPTS

Break the Chains

 

FROM HARVARD TO HELL AND BACK

 

"Break the Chains”

 Broadcast

 

Host:               Gwen Carden 

Guests:            Dr. Sylvester Sviokla

                               

 

Gwen:             Dr. Sylvester Sviokla, known by most people as Dr. Skip, earned accolades and riches as a successful, driven and brilliant graduate of Harvard Medical School.  He eventually became a physician to some of the biggest rock bands in the world, including Bon Jovi and Def Leppard.  For years he reveled in wealth and glamour, he jet set across the U.S., he belonged to the finest country clubs and he lived in a California mansion.  But then he became addicted to Vicodin and to alcohol.  That led to the disintegration to his cushy, extravagant life and he found himself stripped of his license to practice medicine, broke, homeless, shunned by his beloved wife and four children and working in a sandwich shop, a job from which he got fired.

 

                        At one point he was taking 150 Vicodin a day, yes I said that right, a day.  And he was drinking massive amounts of alcohol.  After finally getting sober and enduring many years of battling the bureaucracy in California in a fruitless bid to get his medical practice back, he moved to Rhode Island and there they did eventually reinstate his license.  And he now works in the addiction medicine field as Director of Medical Assisted Recovery in Warwick, Rhode Island.

 

                        We’re going to spend the entire hour with Dr. Skip and he’s going to detail his journey from “Harvard to Hell and Back”, which also happens to be the title of his new book.  Welcome to the show, Dr. Skip.

 

Dr. Skip:         Thank you, Gwen, thank you very much for having me.

 

Gwen:             Let me begin by asking you this question; why did you write this book?

 

Dr. Skip:         Two main reasons; first, there are many faces of addiction and some of the ones are more commonly thought of than others and I certainly didn’t have the most common faces of addiction.  But in the end, addiction to alcohol and/or drugs or both leads just about all of us to either death or darn close.  And I just wanted to show that I’m just one of many faces of addiction who was able to carry it off until he was 52, but that didn’t make me any different from the final fall. 

 

And the second and probably more important reason I wanted to write the book was, although I didn’t realize it at the time, once I finally got on top of the addiction, I don’t think I’m ever cured of it naturally, but now some 13 years later I find that there is enormous joy in recovery.  Something which I don’t think people who are struggling to stop really understand.  It doesn’t look like being normal is very much fun when you’re trying to beat the addiction and everybody is down on you that knows you and loves you.  But bottom line is, when you finally let go and get better, you actually experience more joy than you ever did at your highest moments.

 

Gwen:             That is a wonderful message and I hope that people who need to hear that are listening today.  Let’s move forward a little bit, I’d like you to tell listeners about your early background; I read in your book, those were pretty heady days where fame and fortune befell you and what seemed like almost a magical fashion.  What was it like?

 

Dr. Skip:         I was very fortunate; I was born from a middle-class family in Brockton, Massachusetts, a working town.  And my family was wonderful; I never saw drinking or drugs in the family.  My grandparents who were immigrants on my father’s side were hard working and had more money than most people in the little ghetto in which we lived.  But we were basically middle-class. 

 

                        I happened to be fortunate in that I loved school and I started to do very well in school.  I was a big guy, I had a silly name, Sylvester; I got teased a lot and I used to get beaten up by older, smaller kids and I couldn’t understand why.  I guess it was because I was being a smart aleck in school.  I really all the way through grammar school, it was very easy for me to go to school.  And the reason I mention that is football became a very important part to me when I got to high school. 

 

I had done very well in Brockton; I graduated at the top of my class and then went onto, Boston College High School, which is a Jesuit high school in Boston.  It was a bit challenging but that became a very easy target for me.  I also wanted to play football and the combination of getting pretty much all A’s through high school and becoming the co-captain of the football team and playing pretty well, allowed me a chance to visit a lot of Ivy League schools.  And I essentially applied to a bunch of them and even a couple of schools outside the Ivy League that were eager for me to play football for them and eventually ended up getting into Harvard.

 

I chose Harvard, went there, again I had to start my football career all over again.  But by the end of the time at Harvard College, not only was I doing very very well in studies, but I had become a pretty good member of the football team.  I actually my last year garnered one vote for the Heisman Trophy; now anybody who knows about the Heisman Trophy vote as the best college football player in America knows that the winner gets thousands of votes and I got one-third place vote.  But bottom line, I did get it.  That was a very kind sportswriter.

 

I also was not drafted by the NFL, but I got a letter asking me to try out for the Chicago Bears and if I made the team they were going to sign me with a $5,000 bonus.  And to put it in perspective, that was a time when the famous, Joe Namath had made a $400,000 bonus.  So I wasn’t a great football player, but I was good enough to at least be asked to try out for the NFL.

 

At the same time, because of a lot of accomplishments in college, I was accepted into Harvard Medical School; I decided to go to Harvard Medical School instead of going and trying out for the NFL.  I’m not sure that was the right decision at the time, I never would have made the team but it would have been fun to have been flattened by some really good pros.

 

But in any event, I went to medical school and for the first time in my life I didn’t really grasp the situation.  I was one child among 99 other adults; I didn’t realize that until mid-way through my first year of Harvard Medical School, I had been accepted, I certainly had done well enough in terms of all the studies and all the preparation for it, but that all came easily to me.  I went to Harvard Medical School and they began a pass/fail system that year.  And my first sort of immature, and I think immaturity and addiction can go hand and hand and we can talk about that later if we have time. 

 

But basically I continued to try to lead a pretty leisurely lifestyle and I got all the way through my first year at the Medical School at Harvard, thinking I was doing okay, but since they weren’t putting grades on exams, I had no idea how badly I was doing.  It was also the summer when the Boston Red Sox had a guy named, Carl Yastrzemski and they were trying to win the pennant.  Fenway Park is very close to Harvard Medical School; I used to leave my anatomy class with serious students and go watch the Red Sox.  I took the thing too lightly. 

 

I did fall in love with the most beautiful woman I had ever met and decided to marry her at the end of that first year.  And the day before I was leaving to go home to get married, I got a call from the Dean who called me over to his office and said, ‘Well, Skip, I’ve got some bad news for you, I don’t know what you’re doing tomorrow’ and I said, ‘Well, I’m getting married’ and he said ‘Well, you didn’t pass your first year’.  And so for the first time in my life I was really handed a reality sandwich.  And he said, ‘Well, we should have told you, perhaps been in more contact with you during the year, but you must have known you weren’t doing well’.  I said, ‘Yes, I didn’t think I was doing very well, but I didn’t think I had failed’.  And he said, ‘Why don’t you go and have a good wedding if you can and come back and see us after your honeymoon and we’re going to test you and see if you can stay here’. 

 

The real first evidence of my addiction I think popped up there.  Like any good incipient addict, I went home and was pretty sick to my stomach and thought, ‘What am I going to do with this horrible news?’  And my poor wife who had thought she was marrying a prize, I couldn’t very well tell her.  And so I did what all good addicts do and that’s lie.  I ignored it, didn’t mention it, went down to Rhode Island, married my wife and took off for a 10 day honeymoon, which needless to say wasn’t as good as it might have been.  The whole time I was at the honeymoon I thought, ‘Well, I’ll tell her tomorrow’…

 

Gwen:             And tomorrow never came.

 

Dr. Skip:         Tomorrow never came, certainly not for three of four months.  So I flew back, we got back in at Boston. I told my wife that I was going to go do some research at the Medical School in between my first and second year and I spent that first week back from the honeymoon being examined by a whole flock of doctors, trying to see whether or not I was crazy or whatever the problem was.  Of course I lied about doing any drinking or drugging.  And at that point I really sort of did do sporadic drinking and occasional drugging, if there was some amphetamine around to study or something like that.  But it hadn’t controlled my life yet, except of course my immaturity and my lack of study had really set me back.  This was the first time in my life I had really failed at anything and I was lost. 

 

After weeks of pretty much day long exams I got called back in the office and I was told that I guess I was smart enough to stay.  I had scored highly enough that they weren’t going to just bounce me.  But there was a very good medical school in North Carolina that would accept me as a second year student, along with some special tutoring if I wanted to go down to North Carolina.  I immediately took umbrage at that and thought, ‘Heck, I can do the medical school again’ and I repeated my first year. 

 

The bottom line is, I started to study, I got better and I fell in love with surgery.  All of a sudden I grew up in a hurry in terms of my career and I started acting much more like an adult, although I will say that I occasionally drank.  And I would occasionally deal with what some college students would do and smoke a little marijuana, take a little amphetamine.  But bottom line, I got much more serious, fell in love with surgery, wanted to be the world’s greatest gall bladder surgeon.  I loved the right upper quadrant where your gall bladder is hidden under your liver.  If I thought if I could take those out for the rest of my life, I didn’t even care if I got paid. 

 

And I developed a second passion after football and that was operating on the abdomen.  It wasn’t quite as sexy as the neurosurgery, or cardiac surgery, but bottom line is I loved it. 

 

I went on, decided to leave the Boston area, went to California and began a surgery residency, which was wonderful.  I never had so much fun in my life.  I was well into my senior residency year when the operating room had become a real haven for me, life was good, I had gotten back on track and I loved doing what I was doing.  When I had an accident on my right hand and I’m right handed, and suddenly after many hours of surgery and many months in a cast, my right hand didn’t function that well in the operating room.  And that accident by the way had nothing to do with drinking or drugging, it was just an accident where a bowl exploded and cut my right wrist and right hand. 

 

And although the Department of Surgery at UCSD where I was told me they would keep me in doing research while I rehabbed my hand.  After nine months of rehab, I decided to try to go back into surgery.  It was a foreign place to me now, I was afraid to go in there.  I got my first change in careers, I got a chance to go to Los Angeles, my hand was good enough to do emergency room work and I started a 25 year emergency room career, which wasn’t as much fun as surgery, but which offered me a second chance.  Because the operating room had become a very scary place to me, where I had been previously very good at surgery and now I was afraid to be in there.

 

Emergency medicine turned out to be interesting, wonderful in a lot of ways.  And also began my slow downfall, with lots of money, lots of time off, I developed habits where I would go to the finest bars, hung out in Beverly Hills bars and restaurants that are well known and began to drink too much.  Would occasionally indulge in getting some opioids or some amphetamines, and although I could control it, I thought it slowly started to grab at me. 

 

So at that point I met a man who was the half owner of The Roxy and The Whiskey and The Rainbow, which are big nightclubs on the Sunset Strip and began a medical career of taking care of a lot of rock-n-roll stars.  And over the next 10/15 years, I took care of some of the greatest, at least rock-n-roll stars in the ‘70’s, ‘80’s and early ‘90’s.  Life seemed to be good; I had a home in La Jolla, California, moved down there, had wonderful cars, had four beautiful, wonderful children, all accomplished.  Life seemed good on the outside, but alcohol and drugs were slowly eating away at me. 

 

My career actually was doing pretty well, I had other doctors working for me, life seemed good on the outside.  But obviously something was wrong, I ballooned up to over 400 pounds and ended up having in the early ’90’s one of the early gastric bypass surgeries.  That I really think, I was supposed to stop drinking after that surgery, I did try to cut down, I found that I couldn’t, I started to really get into trouble.  And then with a side issue of a little pain, I got hooked on Vicodin.  And the combination of Vicodin and Vodka eventually took me all the way down.

 

Gwen:             Let’s stop right there for a moment, unfortunately we have to take a break.

 

(Break)

 

Gwen:             Dr. Skip, right before the break you mentioned that you had ballooned up to 400 pounds and had gastric bypass surgery and that had some definite influence on what happened to you next in terms of your addiction.  I’d love for you to continue a little bit with that part of your story.

 

Dr. Skip:         Sure, terrific.  Of note, it looks as though gastric bypass surgery, which is becoming more common, is really affecting a whole lot of people.  I have contracts with the nursing board, the medical board here in Rhode Island.  And one of the things that I do now when I get people in here is ask them when they had their gastric bypass surgery and they look at me amazed.  The number of people who are succumbing to addictions later in their life after gastric bypass is on the way up, but anyway, I’m living proof of that.

 

                        I was not supposed to drink at all, I had lied to the psychiatrist who interviewed me prior to the surgery at Scripps Clinic and then I said that I would be able to not have anything to drink afterwards.  Bottom line is, previous to the surgery I could easily hold down six, seven or eight double-vodkas.  And very very few people even knew that I drank; I certainly did not act drunk, I never had a DUI, although God knows there were many nights…by the Grace of God. 

 

But in any event, after the surgery, I tried to drink again and I started to drink two or three doubles was the limit and sometimes that amount of drinking would put me in a blackout.  There were some post-op complications a little bit after the surgery; I was stabbed in the sciatic nerve by a nurse who was giving me an injection of antibiotics that gave me a pretty severe pain down my leg.  And had gotten back on Vicodin, which I had successfully gotten off of right after the surgery, and when I got the taste for that over the ensuing months after my doctors wouldn’t give me anymore and I didn’t want to ask new doctors, I began to write my own prescriptions for it. 

 

And because I had good relationships with a lot of medical staff and nurses, I had this elaborate plan, again I was already deep into the addiction at this point where I would send nurses and other people who would help me go get prescriptions in a false name and bring it back to me. 

 

The bottom line is I had developed the tolerance to get up to 150 Vicodin a day.  And the reason I know I was taking 150 a day for the last 40 days was the District of Attorney of San Diego told me.  They had started to follow; they had been tipped off by some pharmacist and they kept an eye out.  And I had been writing prescriptions in other names and then having them come back and I would give them money to go buy it, come back and bring it to me. 

 

And I remember that when I was driving home one day while I was at that terrible rate, I drove by my house in La Jolla, California; it wasn’t quite a mansion, but it was a beautiful home near the water in La Jolla.  It was certainly a mansion compared to what I live in now.  And I saw three people standing at the door with my wife; I can’t remember if they were exactly in black, but metaphorically they sure were.  I was hoping they were Jehovah Witnesses or somebody selling something, but they were in fact the Medical Board of California. 

 

I could tell by the pained look on my wife’s face that something was up; she looked beyond them, looked at me, I stepped on the gas and took off.  And I though while the jig is up now, and I went and hid in the best hotel in La Jolla, California; it didn’t take my wife long, a couple days to find me, I locked myself in a room, ordered the finest booze and the finest food and tried to wean myself off those 150 Vicodin a day.  I probably had 100 left in my pocket and I tried to do that by drinking.

 

I was clearly a mess, I was disgusting. My wife finally found me.  Actually called one of the psychiatrists that had dealt with me before, who I had been lying to right along.  Had him come in and try to coax me out of the room and he went out screaming, ‘I can’t help him’.  Finally my wife with the help of some of my kids got me home and I had to face the music.  The Medical Board immediately suspended my license, eventually revoked it and told me I could reapply after a couple of years.

 

And then the criminal authorities came in and I could have went to jail, we were able to plea bargain down to fraudulent prescription writing, but I was scared to death I was going to go to jail.  I wasn’t afraid of much, but I didn’t think jail was a good thing to do when you’re 52 years old, or at any time for that matter.  And my will fell apart; I had to sell my beautiful home in California, the IRS came and took it away because although I was making about a half-a-million-dollars a year, I was probably spending about a million.  And I hadn’t paid my taxes in a couple of years.  And I had wrecked my life because I was able to fake my prosperity for so long.

 

I didn’t drink or drug for about three months and then I fell into a second cycle of addiction where I resumed drinking.  And we had to leave our home in California, I had to go mooch off some of my children, who were kind enough to let us do that, my wife had to go back to work.  We eventually ended up in Manhattan Beach, California, living in a very cheap, one bedroom apartment over a big yoga studio, where it was very hot normally and in California it was even hotter.  It was a horrible place.  My wife was working hard just to pay that little rent.  We had lost everything and I was essentially homeless. 

 

Technically, I could come into the house, but I was ashamed to come home, she was working hard after not working for 30 years and I was still drinking, running away, hiding, sleeping on the beach.  I was a total, disgusting wreck.  I looked like every classic picture of an alcohol dependent person; I looked bad, I smelled bad, I just wanted to die.  I took up residence on the roof of that apartment that we lived in and I would occasionally look over the edge and look down and think, ‘I’d really like to end it all, but if I jump off this three story roof I’m just going to make matters worse’.  So I’d go back to sitting on the roof and drinking.

 

I began sort of my salvation started creeping in when I would go to AA meetings and I would sit in the back of the room, they were very kind.  As long as I shut my mouth and sat in the back of the room, I could watch and listen to people talk and I would think over and over again, ‘God, I’m just like these people’.  And I couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t stop, but I knew I was just like those people. 

 

Well as my life really degenerated, as I got to sleeping probably 30 minutes a day, I looked and smelled like every horrible alcoholic and I know the misery.  And I just wanted to die, but I was so deep into the alcoholism that when I would pass out, I might sleep for 30 or 40 minutes and then wake up and then have to face another whole day ahead of me.  I thought this was hopeless.  And I kept thinking, ‘I’ve got to be able to figure this out, after all, I’m a smart guy’, even though the evidence was all the contrary. 

 

And I was staring at this bottle of Popov Vodka on the roof, it was about half empty, it might still be up there in fact.  And I was trying hard to figure out, ‘How can I control this?’ ‘What can I do?’ ‘How do I stop?’  When all of a sudden I had an insight; a lot of people insists it was a spiritual moment, I personally think it was, but I’m not so spiritually certain that I would project that.  Maybe it was just I finally got as smart as I thought I was. 

 

But suddenly, I had what I thought was an MC Escher moment; MC Escher does these wonderful prints where; ‘Are the stairs heading up or down?’  ‘Are the birds flying left or right?’ ‘Are they blackbirds on a white background or are they white birds on a black background?’  You’re looking at a print which has the same amount of information in it, but suddenly you see the opposite side, you can see it one of two ways.  And at that moment, something in my brain clicked and it was as simple as, ‘Gee, you know what, I’m not like those alcoholics, I’m one of them’. 

 

Now that sounds ridiculously simple and I do think that getting sober sometimes is too simple for smart people.  And I suddenly went, ‘Wow, I’ve got this, I know a whole bunch of alcoholics who are happy and living a life and what do they have in common, they don’t drink anymore, they stopped trying to control it’. 

 

So at that moment, December 1st, 2000, the urge to drink left me, I knew I was in for a pretty bad detox, I climbed down off the roof, went and said to my wife, ‘Can I come inside tonight, I think I’m done?’  She said, ‘I’ve heard that before’ I said, ‘You’re just going to have to wait, I really think this is it, but I’m going to have to prove it to you’.  And I haven’t had a drink since that day. 

 

The detox was bad, the climb back to get my license was horrendous, California was very punitive and they had a right to be.  It just seemed they kept moving the goal post.  After I got sober and did everything I was supposed to do, they made it very difficult.  And so then we decided to move back to Rhode Island.  I was able to come back.  I still had to do everything I had left California with to get my license back in order for Rhode Island to honor me, but they didn’t keep changing the rules and I was able to get my license back. 

 

Then decided that I had a second chance in life at changing my career and again for the second time in my life there was a new career beckoning in emergency medicine that had bailed me out the first time when I left surgery and now addiction medicine was a brand new specialty.  And I thought, ‘Look, I’m an addict by experience, I might as well be an addict by training too’.  And so I studied hard, when I got my license back, became board certified in addiction medicine and now I love helping people getting better, hopefully before they are 52 years of age the way it took me.

 

So that’s how it all went down and now for the last decade or so I’ve been able to help a lot of folks.  We use Suboxone in a recovery-base mode here to help people off opiate addiction.  And here in my office we have contracts with most of the professional boards in the state of Rhode Island and we help a lot of professional people get back in, monitor them, and life is good again.

 

I had been leading a horrible, horrible existence, a double-life when I was taking drugs and alcohol and now honesty started to flip my life and by-God it’s a heck of a lot better.  To be honest was something that never occurred to me until I got recovery.

 

(Break)

 

Gwen:             Dr. Skip, when I was reading your book over the weekend, I could not put it down.  There were so many gritty details and just trying to imagine going from being so wealthy and living such a high life, to the depths to which you sank were just, it was really hard to put down.

 

                        I would like it if you could tell listeners just a little bit more about that really horrible time in your life.  Because I think it serves to show the wonderful contrast that we’ll talk a little bit later to what your life is today.

 

Dr. Skip:         Sure, I initially was insulted, I don’t know how I dared to be insulted, but was insulted when they took my license away.  And like a lot of the patients I treat today, my first thought was, ‘Well the heck with this, I don’t want to be a doctor anymore anyway’, which was really my withdrawal talking.  And I thought, ‘Well anyone will want a guy with a couple of Harvard degrees’; somehow I managed to be arrogant even then.   I thought, ‘I’ve lost everything but I’m going to go and get a job because after all, I’m smarter than anybody’.

 

                        Well I found that even though I tried to clean up a little bit before I started to drink again and I went and looked for many kinds of jobs.  I never got a call back for the first time in my life; no one would even give me the time of day.  I tried to get sales jobs, I tried to get administrative jobs, I tried to get any job that I could and no one wanted me. 

 

                        That’s when my wife realized that we were going to have no income.  When the IRS forced the sale of our house, I had really run through all of our savings and I had credit card bills of $10,000, $20,000, $30,000 a month.  So we really were broke and that’s when we had to move in with one of my kids.  And we were up in the Los Angeles area, I tried job after job. 

 

My first job was a guy in AA, because I started to go to AA off and on, who came up to me after a meeting and I had spoken a little bit about my state and he said, ‘Maybe I’m insulting you, but would you like to have a job chopping cilantro and onions in the kitchen of my restaurant, I’ll have to pay you minimum wage, but you’ll have something’.  And I was so grateful, I absolutely wept.  I had never thought that I would want to take a job; I went to work with this guy for a little while, I did work hard but frankly, the young guys next to me were a heck of a lot better at chopping than I was.  And eventually he had to let me go.

 

Then a little bit later I had the audacity to apply for a job as a manager in a sandwich shop, Quiznos sandwich shop.  And I was trying to control my drinking at that point and I was able to do okay for a couple of weeks, but then I started to drink before I went to work in the morning.  And one day I went in, it was all overwhelming and I just left the place, locked it up.  And when the owner tried to find me, he did get in touch with me a couple of days later and actually said, ‘Look, straighten yourself out, I’ll give you a second shot and I failed the second time at the Quiznos. 

 

I was distraught and devastated; my wife working as a teacher’s aide, struggling, we could barely afford any food and we certainly had no luxuries.  And any money that I could find that I would steal from her or from the liquor store, I would be stealing bottles; I can’t tell you how many cold, freezing nights I slept on the beach or on a public toilet on the beaches of Southern California.  So life was really horrible at that time.  Tramping around, my family would come and look for me; I must have put them through the tortures of hell.  If I would see them I would run away and they would try to find me, but I had a lot of good hiding places.

 

That is so different from when I got to recovery that it blows my mind.  When I came back to Rhode Island, there were not a large number of people looking to hire me, but when I went to a couple of recovery places and said, ‘Look, I need to get my license back before I can become board certified in addiction medicine, so will you teach me recovery from the counseling side’?  I’m an old ear doc, used to seeing things, fixing them and sending people out.  Recovery is certainly a long term business and all of a sudden, doors opened to me. 

 

I found that the joy of my first job paid me $24,000 a year and again, I was ecstatic.  And this time, because I was sober, I was able to keep it. 

 

Gwen:             What were you doing in that job?

 

Dr. Skip:         I was an intake coordinator for a place called, Meadows Edge, it’s a recovery center not unlike my own now that’s down the road from me in Rhode Island.  The owner of that was a physician who hired me and he said, ‘Now listen, if I hire you and teach you all about addiction, will you go out and become my competition?’  And I looked at him and I said, ‘Well honestly, that would be great, I hope to be able to do that well’.  And he hired me anyway.

 

                        And so I was in Rhode Island for about a year-and-a-half before I actually got my license back and then I had to get my DEA back.  All that time I was learning from all the counselors about how to treat addiction.  Because doctors are relatively new to addiction treatment and there’s a pretty big clash amongst some doctors who always want to be at the top of the pyramid, rather than part of the working team.  And doctors need to understand where they are in addiction.  If you are board certified addiction medicine, it doesn’t mean you know anything about counseling, it just means that you know about medicine of addiction. 

 

So I saw from the inside that no longer could I be the big boss the way I was of all the emergency rooms I worked at.  But that I had to be part of a team because most of the people working in recovery either were in recovery themselves or had been trained in a more counseling bent.  And now this new addition of doctors who generally think they know it all, although I had been humbled sufficiently and I thought I knew it all.  I was able to assume a better place. 

 

And so as I did learn about addiction and work with a bunch of counselors and work with a psychologist, who used to do some assessment of people for their psychiatric needs in this clinic, I suddenly saw that I was really just a cog in the wheel.  Perhaps the hub of all the cogs because ultimately, a doctor who was running the clinic is ultimately responsible, but without the input from my counselors and from the psychologist who worked for us, I would be at sea because I didn’t know it as well as they did, certainly from the counseling side.

 

Gwen:             So how are you staying sober during this period?  What was keeping you straight?

 

Dr. Skip:         I had a five year contract with the medical board.  I had already been sober for three or four years by the time I got back to Rhode Island.  I had done that just because quite frankly, never had the urge after that moment on the roof, but I was going to AA meetings.  When I got back to Rhode Island, I didn’t go to quite as many, but I had to go to a doctors meeting of all doctors in recovery led by a psychiatrist.  I had to submit to random urine screens; eight a month for the first year, six a month for the next three years, and four a month for the last year and I always had to show up and they were always clean. 

 

                        I had to see a counselor who was a master of a guy, in good recovery.  And so my week was filled with a group meeting with doctors, occasional AA meetings, and urine screens to monitor me and my counselor, a guy name Donald Coach, who to this day I see some 13 years into my recovery.  I remember the first time the Medical Board of Rhode Island said, ‘You’re going to have to get a counselor’ and they picked this fellow.  I guess I had gotten a little less humble and I said, ‘I need a psychiatrist, I don’t need a social worker’.  And they said, ‘This is who you’re going to go see, we like him and we hope you like him’. 

 

                        I went to see him and I said, ‘Donald, I’m sorry, but I really think I need a psychiatrist’.  He laughed and he said, ‘Well, I guess you’re stuck with me’.  And now years after my contract is up, I see him once a week because as a guy who is sober a lot more years than I am, I can sit down and get a whole raft of recovery information from him every week.  He’s really been the thing that I’ve stayed with the longest.

 

                        My practice now allows me to see people who are coming in, still using, relapsing and it serves as a constant reminder of how happy I am to be clean.  How happy I am to put my head on a pillow at night and go to sleep.  And all the wonderful aspects of recovery that people don’t even know about when they’re using.

 

Gwen:             Let me ask you this; what was it like trying to repair the relationship that you had destroyed with your wife and your children?

 

Dr. Skip:         Well my children were standoffish, they were helpful.  Interestingly enough, I’m sure they were very angry with me, but they never showed it to me so much.  They unfortunately took it out on my wife because she was the stronger one of the two of us; she is not a drinker or a drugger by any means.  She had been the strong person in the relationship.  She certainly had gotten tired of me and now in retrospect, she said she was getting near the end of her rope and had I not walked in that night, we probably didn’t have much longer to go, we now have been married for 45 years.  She’s really the hero in my story, she saved my life.

 

                        But it was interesting, the first couple of days I didn’t drink, I just laid low, was always where I said I would be, didn’t disappear into the street anymore.  She would go off to work; I would do what I could to make a little supper when she came home, or be a dutiful spouse.  And I used to walk up to her and just plant a kiss on her cheek or neck.  At first she was repulsed by me, I don’t blame her because we had long ago stopped being intimate as I turned into a disgusting individual I was at the time, certainly acting in a disgusting way.  She would flinch when I would come over and my whole point in doing that was just to get close enough to put a kiss on her neck or cheek so that she could smell me. 

 

I know that sounds crude, but I had been for so long thinking I could have a little sip of vodka in the morning and then go around all day trying to cover your mouth and act as though you hadn’t been drinking that I just wanted her to know that I wasn’t hiding anything anymore.  If you smell any alcohol on me, then leave me.  But right now all I would do was go up and do that and slowly I began to do the things people in recovery do; I told the truth, I met my commitments.  These are things that for years I hadn‘t done, but I could always lure the money and the good times over it and now the simple things were magical. 

 

And as my counselor tells me today after 45 years, ‘neither one of us is getting out of this alive’.  So occasionally I will go home….I must say that she doesn’t doubt that I’m sober anymore but I’ve got a few years yet to repay her and she reminds me every now and then.  But we’re doing wonderfully well.  We’ve had eight grandchildren we love, we travel to see them and she’s been wonderful.

 

(Break)

 

Gwen:             Dr. Skip, we are in the last part of our hour, I’d like to know, is there anything you would like to finish telling us about your own story?  And then I would appreciate very much if you could share some of the knowledge that you’ve learned, both for your own personal experience and your profession that might help other people who are going through addiction challenges.

 

Dr. Skip:         Yes, I can.  I think that just the beginning of my joy started in California when my first grandchild was born.  Each of my four children who are all doing well now certainly saw me impaired and saw me disgusting/disgusted.  And they will each report now how it wasn’t quite as bad as I try to make it out, and they’re being kind.  But the bottom line is they all suffered somewhat, well quite a bit from my addiction. 

 

                        When my first grandson was born, which is after I got sober, I remember by then people were happy I wasn’t drinking anymore, but when I would come to see Liam, my first born grandson and I love all of eight of them as I love Liam, but Liam happened to be in the right place at the right time.  I would go over and I would volunteer to take care of Liam and since I wasn’t drinking anymore, people were happy to have me do that.  And besides, nobody really wanted to see me come over, they were glad I wasn’t drinking anymore, but I wasn’t getting work, I wasn’t getting my license back.  Yeah, they were glad I was alive, but I wasn’t a heck of a lot of fun; I couldn’t even take them out for a hamburger.

 

                        Liam didn’t realize that and Liam had never seen me impaired and Liam was only about 10 or 11 months old when I started to become the regular babysitter for him.  So the only thing I could do was let my family go out and have fun without me.  And literally God love him, when ‘Pop’ was coming over, would sometimes stand in the window of their home in Redondo Beach, California and when I would pull up he would actually do pirouettes.  He would go round and round and say, ‘Yaaaa, Papa is here!’  And at that moment, nobody else wanted to see me but Liam. 

 

And now that he is eleven years old, he and I have an ongoing relationship and I invite him to come see me and talk about this.  And he’s a little young perhaps, but we have been talking about addiction and drinking for quite a while.  It’s funny because as he got older and as he noticed that I never drank, he started giving his parents hell for drinking and they are social drinkers.  And I had to pull him aside and say, ‘Wait a minute, wait a minute, it’s okay for them to drink, that’s not the reason I don’t drink’.   And I’ll never forget the look on my daughter’s face, ‘my son is not telling me not to drink because you don’t drink’. 

 

Gwen:             You’ve had an amazing, amazing life.  Is there anything in these last five minutes that we have on the show that you would like to share with other people that you have learned from both your experience and perhaps from your professional career?

 

Dr. Skip:         Yes, I think one of the key things that I learned by experience is surrender, end this war against drugs and alcohol.  Well known to people in 12 step programs, but surrender, which can scare so many people away, is really the key to victory in this illness.  It’s the only surrender that isn’t really a cease fire; you actually begin to heal and get better. 

 

The attempt to try to control the use is something that we all do on our way down into the descent of our addiction.  And we think we don’t really have to stop, we just have to stop a little bit or try to control it and I certainly did that for the last year of my active life.  And it was that moment which made me realize, I wasn’t like those alcoholics, I was one of them.  In retrospect looking at it that was really surrender to the power of the alcohol; I thought, ‘I just have to stop doing it, I’ve got to stop trying’. 

 

And then everything became clear; if I had one question to ask a new patient to try to determine whether or not they understood recovery, I would simply say, ‘discuss surrender’.  There are so many people who can talk the talk about surrender because they’ve been in and out of rehab, in and out of treatment, they will give you the right words, but there is something magical, at least in my experience of talking to people who have surrendered where they light up and you really can’t shut them up about surrender.  Because like me, they have in one form or another by their own way actually seen the light and decided, ‘you know what, I can live life without the drug, I can live life without the alcohol’.  And it’s just wonderful.

 

I really think that that’s surrender is the only surrender that wins the war.  Now granted, it doesn’t stop you from relapsing, but it certainly gets you over the hump and gets you starting to get better.  And fill your life with all the good things that have been gone for so long because you’ve driven them all away.  So I really think not trying to control the illness, accepting the fact that the drugs and alcohol are going to win and that you’re not, I hope that we can somehow, sometime, some talk some people into surrendering a little bit earlier.  And if they would just try a little surrender, I think it will grab them and help them the way it helped me. 

 

I don’t think it can be too stupid to get sober, but I sure as hell think you can be too smart.  And frankly the next little handbook that I’m writing is going to be entitled, “Too Simple for Smart People”, because I do know and since I deal with a lot of professionals now who are still fighting addiction, I want to shake them and I do actually say to them, ‘look, will you just let go of all this stuff’. 

 

The wonderful paradox of this illness is that if you give up, you will win and I think that’s the main message that I want.  Plus the joy of the growth that you do when you feel, whether it’s with religion with some people, or family for others, or a combination of all of the things you threw away, brings you a joy, which I don’t think people understand is lying out there.

 

When we’re using and trying to stop and I have certainly checked with many of my colleagues on this who are in recovery, somehow we begin to think that being normal is just boring.  I’m sure that’s do to our impaired thinking while we are using.  We think, ‘why do I want to go through all this pain and anguish to look like that normal couple walking over there; family, children, smiling, car, home, that’s so boring’.  And many many people, we think our dopamine, which is the main culprit I think in this illness medically, certainly one of the big ones, our dopamine is special, we don’t want to be normal, normal is boring, why the hell should I stop this, as bad as this is, I don’t want to be boring.  Well I don’t want to be normal. 

 

Well I’m here to say that normal is wonderful and I never even knew what normal was until I got into recovery, because my idea of what normal was was living high and living fast, because everything came easy to me and because I made a lot of bad decisions.  It’s a medical illness for sure.  There are aspects of the brain chemistry that make people, it’s a medical illness but dammit, it’s a medical illness that we make a lot of bad decisions on before we climb down that ladder into hell.

 

I’m for taking responsibility, but when you finally do and when you finally ‘surrender’ in this war, life is so good you can’t stand it.

 

Gwen:             And I think people when they are intelligent sometimes are less likely to surrender because they think as you did, that those are those other people, I know better, I can figure this out on my own’.  So being intelligent can be a plus or definitely a minus when it comes to sobriety.

 

Dr. Skip:         Yes, and I’m afraid my arrogance got in the way for so long, I was so blinded by it that I hope people can take a little lesson from the caulky, jerk doctor who lost it all, even though it looked like he was doing fine.

 

Gwen:             Well you certainly are honest and I’ll tell you, anyone who reads your book will find it a very heartwarming story that you tell because of your honesty.  I think many of us don’t look at ourselves in quite that way, and yet that seems to be the real key to truly becoming happy and becoming their authentic self.

 

Dr. Skip:         Well Gwen, thank you, you’ve been very kind to have me on, I really appreciate it.  It’s always an honor to be able to talk about this awful illness.  I thank you very much.

 

Gwen:             I appreciate very much too, as I say, you’re very candid and your story if very compelling. And I love a happy ending so that’s always better as well.

 

Dr. Skip, can you let our listeners know how they can learn more about you and your book?

 

Dr. Skip:         Well they can go on my website, which is www.medicalassistedrecovery.com  and they can of course get it on Amazon, they can get it on iTunes; any number of electronic outlets will have it.  Barnes & Noble’s carries it.  But going to my website www.medicalassistedrecovery.com which is the name of my clinic; we have blogs, videos and a whole bunch of stuff.  I would encourage people to contact me on the website, I would be more than happy to talk to anybody at any time about their addiction.

 

Gwen:             Great and the book is called, “From Harvard to Hell and Back.”

 

Dr. Skip:         I had a great co-author by the way, Kerry Zukus, he’s written 45 books and he helped make that story readable.

 

Gwen:             Yes, he did.  The very first page just grabbed me and the rest of the book did not disappoint. 

 

 

 

ACROBADDICT

 

Host:               Gwen Carden 

Guest:             Joe Putignano

 

                       

 

Gwen:             Gymnast, Joe Putignano was on his way to Olympic glory when for a decade his weakness for drugs took him down the darkest of dark paths into the depths of hell.  In a matter of a few years he went from a driven but depressed young teenage boy to a mere shadow of himself.  Joe tempted death repeatedly with reckless behavior and total disregard for his life or for the feelings of those who cared for him. 

 

                        Even as he somehow managed to bounce back time and again after living in a homeless shelter, nearly dying and eventually getting himself together enough to be cast in a Broadway show, he continued to stick needles into his battered body.  After obtaining sobriety, Joe went on to become Cirque du Soleil’s ‘Crystal Man’ in the Las Vegas show, ‘Totem’. 

 

No one, least of all Joe could explain how he is alive today, seven years after getting clean.  Now Joe has chronicled his astounding life in his new book, “Accrobadicct” and Joe is here to talk to us about it and I can’t wait because his is one of the most compelling, riveting books I have ever read.  It was hard to put down but at times I would have to put it down because it was so intense, but then I would have to pick it back up because I wanted to know what was going to happen next and it was a real rollercoaster read.   

 

Welcome to the show, Joe.

 

Joe:                 Thank you, Gwen, thanks for having me.

 

Gwen:             I’m delighted.  Joe, let’s start by talking a little bit about your early life as a child before illicit drugs came into it.  How did you discover gymnastics? 

 

Joe:                 I was watching the 1984 Olympic and I believe it was Mary Lou Retton or Bart Conner, one of them and it was that one time in my life where I truly believe God came into the room and said, ‘This is what you’re going to do for the rest of your life’.  And I immediately pulled the cushions off the couch and I was trying to flip and mimic exactly what I saw on television.  And my brothers and sisters, ‘You’re going to hurt yourself, stop’!  It was interesting because I couldn’t stop, I knew somewhere inside of me that this is what I was going to do. 

 

And at first I wasn’t very good at it and I did fall many times but I kept trying it and I got better and better and better.  And it was really interesting because when I did something that I didn’t think I could do, like a backflip or something, it filled me with this euphoric sense of accomplishment.  And then I wanted more of it and more of it and that started off on my deep passion and love for gymnastics.

 

Gwen:             And you began competing and doing pretty well in competitions as a child didn’t you?

 

Joe:                 Yes, it all happened very quickly.  So it was interesting because it was kind of all I knew.  At a very early age, I would say 8 or 9, once I showed my parents they couldn’t believe it.  They owned a restaurant and they didn’t get home until very late at night and I remember waiting up for them, it was 2:00 o’clock in the morning to show them what I could do.  And the next day they put me in gymnastics class and then that week I was put on the pre-team.  And then I did well there and immediately started competing and it changed my entire life from the beginning. 

 

Because my childhood wasn’t like those who I knew, other kids at school you know they always talked about sitcoms or video games they were playing, but what I knew was to go to school, come home and go to gymnastics.  And I did start to compete very early, I loved it.  I mean I didn’t like competing so much but I did love practicing because of that sense of freedom that most people find within athletics. 

 

And then when I was 11 years old I went to the Olympic Training Center and that was the time I knew that I was doing pretty good in the sport.  It was like I may have a future in this, a big future if I continue on this path.  And I did return again to the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs when I was 13.

 

Gwen:             So you had dreams of being in the Olympics and you also had a good chance of being in the Olympics with your gifts and your talents.

 

Joe:                 Yeah, I would say athletics again, is difficult to judge because it takes an entire lifetime to get to this one position, which for a gymnast is the Olympics.  It’s the greatest achievement.  And injuries can happen and all this stuff and early on for me I did have an enormous roadblock, terrible terrible asthma.  And it’s weird because it was very seasonal for me and I don’t know if anybody out there is suffering with asthma, but definitely I’m a fall.  And I’m from the east coast so when the trees would start to die I couldn’t breathe.  And my parents thought it was stress and stress may have contributed to my asthma but it was ending me up in the hospital, not just for an emergency room visit but for long periods of time. 

 

And as a gymnast you can’t really take time off.  And not only laying in a hospital bed but they’re putting me on prednisone, which is a steroid, which kind of bloats the body.  Actually a really useful medication but it’s really terrible on the body.

 

So I would get out of shape so quickly.  I remember every time I left the hospital, I would go back to the gym and I would literally have to fight to get back into shape.  But I was determined, but I had done it so many times it became normal.  Breathing in athletics, its primary, you have to breathe.  So to have my lungs not working properly was an extremely challenging thing to go through.

 

Gwen:             It’s interesting though that early experience with having your body be in bad shape and fighting its way back kind of became a pattern, which we’ll talk about a little bit later on.  But it was kind of even teaching at a very early age that the body can come back eventually, but it does of course it will always have its limits.

 

                        What was going on though within your home, because that’s really a crucial part of this story that’s going to unravel during the course of the hour?  In addition to all the practicing and the successes you were having the illness you were fighting, what else was happening in your family that maybe was a little bit of a challenge for you?

 

Joe:                 My parents owned a restaurant, a bar actually outside of Boston.  And because they owned it they had to be there all the time and my sister was the bartender and my brother was the chef, my other older sister was a cocktail waitress.  So all my adult interaction was around alcohol and after gymnastics class I would sit at the bar and do my homework at a very very early age because it was rush hour; my class would get out at 8:30 and the restaurant was jammed packed so my mom couldn’t bring me home.  And so I would sit there at the bar. 

 

I liked it when I was younger because I felt like a celebrity, the customers knew me, but the older I got the more I could see how bad alcohol was.  And as this was happening my parents started to drink a lot, you know they started to participate in their own restaurant and they had very very bad drinking problems.  I didn’t notice this until a little bit later until I noticed that everything was evolving around alcohol.  And it made me hate it. 

 

I swore to myself I would never drink.  My mom had DUI’s, I believe my dad did as well but I’m not positive, my brother at 17 years old got in a horrible drunk driving accident where he had to have the jaws of life get him out.  He was in the Intensive Care Unit and they had to reconstruct his face because of the accident.  So all of these terrible things were happening around alcohol; the parties, the restaurant, alcohol moved back into the home and there were parties all the time, which meant there were police. 

 

I hated it, I mean I just wanted…it’s very difficult and I’m sure anybody who is listening and who has parents who are alcoholics, I’m not saying my parents didn’t love me because alcoholism is the kind of disease that people who have it, they don’t know they have it.  So my parents did love me, but when they’re drunk and they’re giving you this love it’s very confusing as a child.  Because the concept of love is off a bit, so you start to disbelieve the people around you.  They were so moody; you didn’t know if they were going to wake up hung over or angry or confused. 

 

The alcoholism definitely broke my family and by the time I think I was 13, my brothers and sisters had moved out and my mother and father separated.  So I lived alone with my mom and I watched her really drink excessively to try to fill the broken pieces of her heart.  She was still in love with my dad and it was very confusing because they both worked in the same restaurant.  So when I was doing my homework I would see my father at one end of the bar and my mother at the other end of the bar.  He was focused on his drink and my mother was focused on him.  My mother and I never spoke about this but we know, I mean she knew I knew but I couldn’t ask because it would have opened up a wound that as a child I didn’t think she wanted to put upon me.

 

Gwen:             So you have the alcoholism in your home and you have the tremendous successes in your gymnastics.  But also your social life was hard for you because from what I read in your book you just didn’t feel that you fit in.  Was that also in this mix that was going to ultimately have a bad outcome?

 

Joe:                 Yeah, being an athlete all my time was focused on gymnastics so I didn’t have the same relationships with kids at school.  And I definitely felt like an outsider, like an alien.  It’s funny, gymnastics isn’t a popular sport, it’s very difficult, I was teased endlessly for it, which was interesting because I could do more than the other kids.  Like football and soccer were popular but I was excelling in my sport on an individual level, but when I would go to school I wouldn’t get the same kind of recognition, instead I got made fun of and it definitely isolated me. 

 

Yeah, it broke me.  And then when I would go home with this emotion to kind of seek parental advice or care I was getting that alcoholism instead.  So my only solution was to go to gymnastics, which definitely became what I like to call, ‘my church’ even though I’m not very religious because it was a safe place where I felt like I was doing what I was intended to do.  And that was really my own salvation I had at the time.

 

Gwen:             Right, because socially at school you were not accepted.  I believe you were short in stature and the asthma had affected your voice in such a way that it wasn’t as deep; as boys voices deepened, yours did not.   The kids had no appreciation for the fact that gymnastics takes even more strength and skill than any jock on the field would ever be exhibiting.  Gymnastics grounded you in a way that nothing else seemed to be grounding you.  Is that correct?

 

Joe:                 Yes, I was definitely the shortest one in the class with a very squeaky voice.  Yeah, it was difficult.  I know most people in retrospect look back at their childhood and can say it was a difficult childhood, which is great because it teaches us many things on a spiritual level.  But as we go through it, we can kind of see the difficulties we had in order to create coping mechanisms later on in life, which as an adult we tend to suffer from.  And in my case this is definitely what happened.

 

                        I’d like to say I don’t blame anybody for what I did because I made the choices.  But there are contributions in our life which teach us coping mechanisms and not every coping mechanism is a positive one.

 

Gwen:             Right, exactly. 

 

Joe:                 It was a perfect storm for me.

 

Gwen:             It sure was.

 

(Break)

 

Gwen:             Before the break, Joe you were telling us about your early years when you began honing your gymnastic talents and also about some of the external factors that were becoming a perfect storm for you to ultimately become a drug abuser.

 

                        So let’s move into a little bit about how drugs entered your life and maybe what they did for you that made them feel like maybe they were okay for you.

 

Joe:                 Yes, it was very interesting because as I was talking about before, I did suffer from asthma.  And it’s very unusual for me because I was an athlete and I was trying to breath and I would go to the emergency room and they would give me medicine and then I could breathe.  And it was like day and night, I was suffering on the inside, I couldn’t breathe, everything hurt, and then after the medicine I was fine.  I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is amazing’!  I love to talk about that because that kind of explains later on when I had my first drink how I felt on an emotional and psychological level. 

 

I think I was like 15 or 16 and as I said earlier, I hated alcohol, I saw the damage it did throughout my entire family.  The other kids at school started to drink and because my parents were at the restaurant I had a lot of freedom.  And we actually had a lot of booze in the house because they were getting free booze all the time and they would bring it home. 

 

So I would have a few of my friends over and they would drink and I would clean up after them.  And it didn’t seem when they were doing it, it didn’t seem bad, it just would seem like they would have a few drinks or a few beers and they were laughing.  I wanted to laugh too, I wanted to be a part of this, but I knew it was going to affect my gymnastics because I had seen other kids on the gymnastics team who started drinking, their athletics declined.

 

I love to talk about the pressure of athletics because in a sport like gymnastics you are judged for what you do.  You get a score and everyone can see your scores and this crazed kind of mindset of perfectionism.  Because if you don’t get, and back then it was a perfect 10, than that means there’s something wrong, you did something wrong, you did something wrong and everyone can see this.  That kind of perfectionism started to bleed into every facet of my life.  And I was putting myself under a tremendous amount of pressure to be the best, to be perfect, because ultimately you get a better score, which means you’ve avoided shame, which is an impossible feat.  Nobody is perfect, it’s impossible, so basically you’re setting yourself up for this huge failure. 

 

But psychologically I did not know that and I had my first drink and it was exactly like the asthma medication, it was the most beautiful moment at that point in my life because that perfectionism melted.  I didn’t have to be the best, I didn’t care what my parents were doing, my friends liked me more and we had fun.  If Joe didn’t have to be the gymnast, he could just be human.  It was such a relief, like I still when I hear other alcoholics describe this moment, their first drink, I can relate on such a level, it always gets me excited because, ‘Yes, I’m human and I’m here’.  We often say, ‘We’ve arrived’. 

 

I drank and this became a solution in the same way that when I couldn’t breathe, I took my inhaler, so when things got too tough, I had a drink.  And back then it was just fun, high school kids experiment, I think there’s nothing wrong with it, its natural, we all did it.  I started to do it a little bit more though; I noticed I was the first person to pick up a beer and the last person to put it down.  And I still had gymnastics class on the weekend, it wasn’t affecting that at first so I kind of felt like I was getting away with something.  I also didn’t want to tell my parents or my brother, who was a huge drinker who always wanted me to drink because they knew how much I hated alcohol and I didn’t want them knowing I actually liked something they liked.  As children we try to go against our parents and I didn’t want them to know that they were on to something, like I could actually appreciate something they were doing.

 

However, this is very important, I believe because my whole life I had seen how alcohol can spiral out of control that I had the best knowledge to prevent alcoholic drinking, to prevent things from going bad because I had seen it all.  I mean you don’t get a better learning experience than that, I grew up in a bar.

 

Gwen:             It isn’t funny, but it is interesting the irony of it.

 

Joe:                 Completely.  So I wasn’t going to become an alcoholic, I knew exactly what not to do, all of the alcoholic clichés we tell ourselves, don’t drink in the morning, don’t drink alone, I love that one.  My brother came to me once and he said, and he was very young, he’s like, ‘you’re not an alcoholic if you can go without drinking for seven days’.  It’s funny when we hear misinformation because we believe it and so when I heard that I was like, ‘Oh, well if I can go for seven days then I don’t have a problem’.  Most people can go seven days at first, before the addiction gets progressive.  So I had all this misinformation around me.  Because I saw how bad they were I was keeping it at arm’s length thinking, ‘I’ll never be as bad as them, I won’t be as bad as them’. 

 

                        But what did happen is pot came into the mix.  Again, I saw my friends smoking pot, it wasn’t like refer madness, it wasn’t like the way I was taught in health class, that you’re going to smoke weed and you’re going to jump out a building. 

 

Gwen:             Right.

 

Joe:                 I always get upset when I share scare tactics like that because it’s not how it was. I like to be informed actually how it is.  And what happened was I laughed and food tasted better, it seemed harmless.  And it was that kind of harmless fun in the beginning and it made me look at the stuff they were teaching me in health class and I said, ‘This isn’t how you guys were explaining it, I wonder if the other drugs are different then, I wonder if they’re exaggerating about cocaine and acid and things like that’.  Although I’m never going to try it, I mean to me the line was drawn in the sand; you can drink on the weekends, you can smoke pot sometimes, but gymnastics comes first because this is what saved you.

 

                        It’s very important because in my book I know I talk about how I feel like drugs saved my life.  And I know what a strange statement that is but those who are addicted might agree.  I was so depressed from the perfectionism, from being an outsider that they gave me hope to carry on.  And I feel like without that kind of shift in consciousness, that kind of moment of euphoria, I may have tried to kill myself at that age.

 

Gwen:             As a teenager?

 

Joe:                 As a teenager, yes.  It’s interesting, I heard someone speak once and they said, ‘If you drive through America you see a lot of liquor stores and a lot of churches because they both give people hope’.   Yes, and that’s true, that maybe today isn’t good but when I do this thing I believe that I’m free and tomorrow could be better.  And that is exactly what it did for me and so in one way I believe they did save my life at the time. 

 

Gwen:             And you did move on to other drugs like ecstasy, at what point did it start escalating beyond say on the weekends, when did it start getting to be a problem?

 

Joe:                 I definitely started drinking alcohol pretty quickly, all those rules that I had I stepped over.  And it was that 90’s rave era and I went to my first rave, it was probably 1996 and I took my first ecstasy and it was like heaven crashed into the earth.  It changed my entire life.  And a rave is very very opposite of what you would expect from a gymnastics competition.  So this was like, ‘Oh my God, this culture is amazing’ and from that moment that became, drug seeking became the new gymnastics for me and that became the top of the list. 

 

And it happened so fast for me I cannot even express it.  It was like one day this was what was important to me and the next, this was. So I chased that culture for a long time and it was within that element I started doing acid and K and crystal and ecstasy all thinking it was recreational in face.  But it wasn’t because it started to affect my life very quickly; I was missing gymnastics class and you know, changing my behavior because chemicals do change our perception and our behavior and I started to getting moody and fighting with my parents. 

 

I was pierced from head to toe, which was a huge problem competing because you get deductions for having body piercings.  But I didn’t care; I was starting to get that almost antagonistic childhood rebellion.  Like I’m going to change the world and this is what I stand for now, not respecting anything around me.  And really I believed I was finding myself.  So my mother, who was like, ‘I don’t know what’s happening to you’ and my response was, ‘I’m finding myself, leave me alone, this is what’s important to me’. 

 

And yet things really started to spiral out of control and at that time I was 16, 17 and I knew I wasn’t going to the Olympics, I knew I missed my chance.  There’s a moment in every athletes life where we have to accept reality; I did good in nationals but I knew it was over and that opened the door, it was like ‘Okay, now for the rest of my life, every day I will wake up a failure’ because I had one goal, one dream and it’s never going to happen.  And when you do, for me I went on an extremely long road to destroy my life.

 

(Break)

 

Gwen:             Joe, before the break you were describing how you began drinking alcohol and you experimented with some drugs at raves.  At one point in your life though your drug taking got really serious and in part you mentioned before having to do with the fact that you realized you weren’t going to the Olympics, it had been your only dream and you were kind of a lost soul.  Let’s talk a little bit about when life and drug addiction got really tough.

 

Joe:                 For me it got tough quickly.  I did go to college and I competed on the men’s gymnastics team.  And I originally went to college because it was a place to live, I did not want to get an education, I just wanted to get out of my mother’s house because two addicts can’t really live under the same roof peacefully.  And I met a cocaine dealer and eventually started doing lots of coke.  It’s funny, as an addict we always find them.  And it really got bad very quickly, it was the kind of addiction where I didn’t want to get out of bed without it, it’s kind of the same way I am with coffee now. 

 

                        Yes, it’s interesting because I didn’t have any energy unless I had coke and I was only a freshman.  But I was going back and forth to Boston and all these rave kids, we started taking benzo’s, it was very big where I was from; we were taking klonopin, valium and xanax, lots of them, which makes you very tired.  So of course you need more coke.  So that was my introduction to benzo’s and I loved them because they make you feel calm and peaceful and everything is okay, which was really what was missing from my life. 

 

And my cocaine use got really bad and I started to talk with a counselor at the college because I realized, I wasn’t going to any classes, I had all F’s and the gymnastics team, which I was getting grants for, they were started to get really worried about me.  I mean everybody knew my usage, it was pretty public.

 

Gwen:             So you were on the gymnastics team at your college and using all these drugs pretty regularly?

 

Joe:                 Yes, oh yes, I was missing practice and you live on campus and so everybody knows each other’s life style, it’s a small private college.  She asked if I wanted to go to a rehab and said I could try it out.  Well yeah, this has been ongoing for a long time, ‘Yes, I would like to try it’.  And that was my first attempt at any sort of recovery.

 

                        What I found out in the rehab is that I really didn’t have a problem because I wasn’t ready to put the drugs down.  And it was very interesting because I remember I left against medical advice on the fourth day and the counselor told me, ‘You will be back here someday as a heroin addict’ and was like, oh my God, that’s the worst thing you could ever say to somebody.  But I left on the fourth day and the college did not like this so they kicked me out and said you have to finish treatment if we’re going to allow you back in.

 

                        So I went into another treatment and I found a psychiatrist and the psychiatrist ended up putting me on tons of medication and I knew what I was doing at this point, I became very manipulative.  I was basically guiding her into give me benzo’s and I succeeded.  I knew exactly what I was doing and she started giving me klonopins and now I know I’m an addict and I’m getting a prescription for these with a refill.  And I manipulated this woman down to getting the highest milligram, free from the state.

 

And I was taking oh my gosh, I was taking about 10 as soon as I would wake up, getting more from people from Boston, and I started to have seizures without the medication.  I was blacking out all the time; I was on campus, so this was in public so I was getting in trouble, there were cops.  So eventually I got kicked out of college, lost my scholarship grant and everything.  I couldn’t go back home.  Every time I had gone back home during the college breaks my mom would call the cops on me because I became violent.  I mean this was a dramatic jump from where I was. 

 

Then I was homeless and I had to sleep outside in the park near the school.  I also would stay on drug dealers couches; I always, always stayed too long.  You know I could tell and they would be like, ‘Okay, it’s time for you to go’.  And I lost all my friends at that time because my behavior was so unpredictable.  And during that time I traveled the country, I kept getting more and more pills.  I kept calling the psychiatrist and telling her all of the addictive things; people stole them, and this and this and this.  And then something terrible happened. 

 

So I had been doing this for about a year-and-a-half, my parents didn’t know if I was alive anymore, I would call collect, I was in homeless shelters, everything to make it work because it was still a solution. And then one time I ended up back at home in Boston and I did my usual, I had all my pills and I saw a doctor because I wanted more and he gave me painkillers. 

 

And that night I took all my pills, I took the painkillers; I was told and this was in the book that somebody found me and they dropped me off at home and my mom found me and I was foaming at the mouth.  And apparently my heart stopped and so they had to resuscitate me and put me in the ambulance and I woke up in another rehab.  This had been my fourth rehab.  The doctor told me that my heart stopped twice and I had a cardiac death, which still wasn’t enough to make me stop.  It kind of made me feel like I had beat death, like I was unstoppable.  The kind of feeling all of us had in our twenties.

 

This went on for so long, my entire life fell apart.  Like I wanted to die but I was afraid to die, so that addiction is that place between life and death.

 

Gwen:             So when did heroin come into your life?

 

Joe:                 Heroin didn’t come in until a little bit later.  I actually learned if every time I took a pill something bad was going to happen, so I was like, ‘I have to stop taking these pills. And I was trying to get clean, like I was making attempts; I was going to 12-step meetings. 

 

I moved to New York City and I got a job as a waiter and I noticed he had a peculiar behavior.  Oh, that’s painkiller behavior, I know it; he was itchy and he was nodding out.  And I was right, he had heroin and I had been warned so many times from people not to do heroin.  But warnings mean nothing to a person like me and I started sniffing heroin recreationally.  And I know that is an oxymoron because there is no such thing as recreational heroin use. 

 

We’d like to think it but it was very textbook; for two years I sniffed it and on the second year I started shooting it.  That drug, and I know this is important now because heroin is really on the rise again, which is kind of shocking to me.  But he did everything for me that I ever wanted.  Like the pain I felt inside, the depression, the anxiety, the regret, it was gone, I felt loved, I felt like God was holding me.  So I was never, ever, ever going to live a life without it.  I didn’t want a life, I didn’t want a job, I didn’t want love because I had heroin, like why do I need anything else.

 

Gwen:             So did you lose jobs, did you lose friends, did you lose places to live, was your health going downhill?

 

Joe:                 Yes, every horrible addict thing you can think of happened.  I lost friends from heroin.  It’s weird, it’s not a party drug, you know so it wasn’t like the ‘70’s that I hear about, I wasn’t there but you know where there were 10 people shooting dope in a room, it was very lonely.  It was either me and one other person or just me.  But I really did look…I was skinny, I had track marks.  I managed to keep jobs; I got very lucky in life where people would see the innocence in me, I look very young for my age, I always have.  And I do look like the boy from next door, very honest, and I used that, this was a huge manipulation for me because were like, ‘Joe, no, he’s not an addict, look at him!’  And I was very kind.  So I managed to keep jobs but I definitely had to manipulate.

 

                        Eventually I started working at “The New York Times”, which is incredible I know, incredible because of someone like me basically.  And again, I did have some moments of intelligence; I had some moments of being normal.  I always like to tell people, addicts don’t commit to a lifestyle of crime on purpose; we are always trying to better ourselves.  I would have moments where I would like, ‘Get it together, you’re going to use four times a day, you’re going to take your medicine, but you can’t look high, you have to go to work, you’re going to achieve something, you can fix this’. 

 

Gwen:             Despite all of this and what you were doing to your body, you ended up being in a show at the Metropolitan Opera, on Broadway and this whole time you’re still shooting up, is that right?

 

Joe:                 Right, yes.  It was extremely difficult, but I believe all my training in gymnastics sort of guided me on this unusual path.  Because I was so good at using the body mechanics, it was like second nature that no matter how high I was I was able to go out there on stage and perform and nobody knew.  And I was able to handle the withdrawal because it was just like doing gymnastics; that injury, that sickness, that kind of really difficult athletic pain.  It just seemed so familiar, so it was like wow this is just another level of gymnastics. 

 

And it was very sad because I didn’t even know as a gymnast you could perform and I left “The New York Times”, they actually sent me to rehab, which was wonderful.  I got a little bit of sobriety and I started doing gymnastics and being a performer and I did end up on Broadway.  I had two years clean and this Broadway job was righting that wrong that regret, that Olympic failure.  It was kind of second best and the show was closing, it was a Bob Dylan show and I was bad, I didn’t have coping skills.  I remember shooting up in the Broadway theatre bathroom to, “Knocking on Heaven’s Door.”

 

Gwen:             Kind of ironic!

 

Joe:                 Everyone once and awhile our life has perfect synchronicity to the music around us and that was that moment where it was like, wow.

 

(Break)

 

Gwen:             When we broke a few minutes ago, Joe was talking about the day or the night that he was shooting up in the bathroom of a Broadway theatre after he had learned that the show was closing.  Obviously, since Joe has written a book, he’s talking with me today, he’s gotten clean, his life is a whole lot better.  And as I mentioned at the top of the show he was actually a featured performer in Cirque du Soleil. 

 

                        Joe, would you take a few minutes to tell us how you turned your life around and a little bit about what life is like for you today?

 

Joe:                 Yes, that time I did get high at the Broadway job, it lasted about a week and that was the last time I used.  I had two years clean before that so I knew what sobriety was like I just didn’t have really good coping skills.  And the obsession never left me; I was going to 12-step meetings every day.  And everyone was telling me that the obsession will leave you, but it hadn’t. 

 

So when I did relapse, I realized something important that I actually liked being sober better because well A. I felt better because heroin made me sick all of the time and B. I started to get things back in my life that I really admired and appreciated.  So I went back to 12-step meetings and I did what so many people who relapsed have to do, it is courageous, so if you’re out there still struggling and I completely understand. 

 

And as I said, I have one day clean and I got back on the horse and worked so hard at staying clean.  I made it my focus, I went to meetings, I did my step work.  And life did get better again, not wonderful, but better.  And I continued to perform.  It was really incredible because I got to work with Cirque du Soleil and as you were saying, I was, ‘The Crystal Man’, it was a character I got to develop with the Director, Robert Lapage. 

 

It was really wonderful because the show is about evolution and we did tie my sobriety into it as this spark of light, this change that comes down as spiritual evolution.  So every night I got to wear this costume of 5,000 glass mirrors and I got to think of my sobriety.  And to offer that kind of hope that those of us in recovery, or those of us that have been touched by addicts or changed by them try to inspire others to never give up, to keep going.  Because that is really what my character embodied. 

 

So it was really wonderful and I did that show for 3 ½ years; unfortunately I did get injured pretty badly, which I have had two shoulder surgeries on.  And coming up actually soon on CNN with Dr. Sanjay Gupta, we are doing a show on sobriety and surgery because I’m a heroin addict and I can’t take pain killers.  And I know many people in recovery can and they do take them and they’re okay, but for someone like me, if you read my book you’ll see if I have one opiate, that obsession that I spoke about before, it does return for me and I’m powerless.  And the obsession for myself is gone. 

 

It’s been very interesting, I did write my book, “Accrobadicct” while I was on tour with Cirque du Soleil and had been able to talk about heroin addiction and recovery.  I’ve been very lucky with it because I got to do Anderson Cooper and Dr. Sanjay and a lot of really extraordinary things to kind of give that message out to recovering addicts, that it’s possible.  Because I know when you’re in that addiction it feels hopeless, absolutely hopeless. 

 

So my message is seriously, don’t give up, no matter how many times you fail, keep trying!

 

Gwen:             Because you tried and failed and tried and failed and tried and failed, I mean this went on.  The heroin addiction was how many years?

 

Joe:                 About 10 years, about 10 years give or take.

 

Gwen:             So you made a lot of attempts and the fact that you continued trying says something about your will to live.  But I also find it interesting and you just mentioned it a minute ago about the obsession does get better.  If you could elaborate just a little bit on that for people because that I would think would give people hope, that I’m not always going to feel this compelled.

 

Joe:                 Yes, it’s very interesting, if you’re in active addiction there’s much like there’s a demon inside of you, which I do describe in my book.  It’s like you’re being possessed and you cannot see any other way out because it’s inside of you.  But over time your brain mechanics will rewire themselves, you’ll have different pleasure, but that takes time in order to do that.  It’s like muscle memory.  So over time you will forget what that felt like and the obsession will get lifted. 

 

Unfortunately, it does take a long time, but it does happen, so you have to allow it.  And just imagine what your life will feel like when you’re free from that demon.  It’s definitely extraordinary.  And it doesn’t mean that life is going to be roses, life is always going to be life, but you are free from that obsession, which is really astounding.

 

Gwen:             And I think you also mentioned a few minutes ago about that pretty bad shoulder injury.  Is your career in gymnastics over because of that and if so, what’s ahead for you?

 

Joe:                 Sadly we just found out last week from the surgeon, it is over; I won’t be able to go back to athletics like I was.  Like I just said, life isn’t always roses; we have to deal with upsets and stuff, so I’m going to go back to school to be a PA, a physician’s assistant.  And I still am going to perform, just not acrobatically.  And I am writing a second book, which is not recovery related, it is more of a fiction.

 

                        So things still happen, you know life will still go on.  And I know many people who are performers who do get injured that can go on.  It is heartbreaking for me on a sober aspect because gymnastics is kind of what saved me in a way. But I have enough recovery now that if it’s taken away from me, I have enough tools that I will be able to stay sober without it.

 

Gwen:             Joe, we’re coming to the end of our show, can you tell listeners quickly how they can get a copy of your book, “Accrobadicct”?

 

Joe:                 Yes, you can get it on Amazon, through eBook Kindle, or hard copy you can get it at Barnes & Noble and I believe any local bookstore should have it in the addiction section.  If you just Google it online or even go in and ask for it.

 

 

 

Gwen:             And people are going to find out when they read your book what an amazing writer you are too and I know you wrote that book yourself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                       

 

 

 

 

    

 

 

 
 

Host:               Gwen Carden 

Guest:             Joe Putignano

 

                       

 

Gwen:             Gymnast, Joe Putignano was on his way to Olympic glory when for a decade his weakness for drugs took him down the darkest of dark paths into the depths of hell.  In a matter of a few years he went from a driven but depressed young teenage boy to a mere shadow of himself.  Joe tempted death repeatedly with reckless behavior and total disregard for his life or for the feelings of those who cared for him. 

 

                        Even as he somehow managed to bounce back time and again after living in a homeless shelter, nearly dying and eventually getting himself together enough to be cast in a Broadway show, he continued to stick needles into his battered body.  After obtaining sobriety, Joe went on to become Cirque du Soleil’s ‘Crystal Man’ in the Las Vegas show, ‘Totem’. 

 

No one, least of all Joe could explain how he is alive today, seven years after getting clean.  Now Joe has chronicled his astounding life in his new book, “Accrobadicct” and Joe is here to talk to us about it and I can’t wait because his is one of the most compelling, riveting books I have ever read.  It was hard to put down but at times I would have to put it down because it was so intense, but then I would have to pick it back up because I wanted to know what was going to happen next and it was a real rollercoaster read.   

 

Welcome to the show, Joe.

 

Joe:                 Thank you, Gwen, thanks for having me.

 

Gwen:             I’m delighted.  Joe, let’s start by talking a little bit about your early life as a child before illicit drugs came into it.  How did you discover gymnastics? 

 

Joe:                 I was watching the 1984 Olympic and I believe it was Mary Lou Retton or Bart Conner, one of them and it was that one time in my life where I truly believe God came into the room and said, ‘This is what you’re going to do for the rest of your life’.  And I immediately pulled the cushions off the couch and I was trying to flip and mimic exactly what I saw on television.  And my brothers and sisters, ‘You’re going to hurt yourself, stop’!  It was interesting because I couldn’t stop, I knew somewhere inside of me that this is what I was going to do. 

 

And at first I wasn’t very good at it and I did fall many times but I kept trying it and I got better and better and better.  And it was really interesting because when I did something that I didn’t think I could do, like a backflip or something, it filled me with this euphoric sense of accomplishment.  And then I wanted more of it and more of it and that started off on my deep passion and love for gymnastics.

 

Gwen:             And you began competing and doing pretty well in competitions as a child didn’t you?

 

Joe:                 Yes, it all happened very quickly.  So it was interesting because it was kind of all I knew.  At a very early age, I would say 8 or 9, once I showed my parents they couldn’t believe it.  They owned a restaurant and they didn’t get home until very late at night and I remember waiting up for them, it was 2:00 o’clock in the morning to show them what I could do.  And the next day they put me in gymnastics class and then that week I was put on the pre-team.  And then I did well there and immediately started competing and it changed my entire life from the beginning. 

 

Because my childhood wasn’t like those who I knew, other kids at school you know they always talked about sitcoms or video games they were playing, but what I knew was to go to school, come home and go to gymnastics.  And I did start to compete very early, I loved it.  I mean I didn’t like competing so much but I did love practicing because of that sense of freedom that most people find within athletics. 

 

And then when I was 11 years old I went to the Olympic Training Center and that was the time I knew that I was doing pretty good in the sport.  It was like I may have a future in this, a big future if I continue on this path.  And I did return again to the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs when I was 13.

 

Gwen:             So you had dreams of being in the Olympics and you also had a good chance of being in the Olympics with your gifts and your talents.

 

Joe:                 Yeah, I would say athletics again, is difficult to judge because it takes an entire lifetime to get to this one position, which for a gymnast is the Olympics.  It’s the greatest achievement.  And injuries can happen and all this stuff and early on for me I did have an enormous roadblock, terrible terrible asthma.  And it’s weird because it was very seasonal for me and I don’t know if anybody out there is suffering with asthma, but definitely I’m a fall.  And I’m from the east coast so when the trees would start to die I couldn’t breathe.  And my parents thought it was stress and stress may have contributed to my asthma but it was ending me up in the hospital, not just for an emergency room visit but for long periods of time. 

 

And as a gymnast you can’t really take time off.  And not only laying in a hospital bed but they’re putting me on prednisone, which is a steroid, which kind of bloats the body.  Actually a really useful medication but it’s really terrible on the body.

 

So I would get out of shape so quickly.  I remember every time I left the hospital, I would go back to the gym and I would literally have to fight to get back into shape.  But I was determined, but I had done it so many times it became normal.  Breathing in athletics, its primary, you have to breathe.  So to have my lungs not working properly was an extremely challenging thing to go through.

 

Gwen:             It’s interesting though that early experience with having your body be in bad shape and fighting its way back kind of became a pattern, which we’ll talk about a little bit later on.  But it was kind of even teaching at a very early age that the body can come back eventually, but it does of course it will always have its limits.

 

                        What was going on though within your home, because that’s really a crucial part of this story that’s going to unravel during the course of the hour?  In addition to all the practicing and the successes you were having the illness you were fighting, what else was happening in your family that maybe was a little bit of a challenge for you?

 

Joe:                 My parents owned a restaurant, a bar actually outside of Boston.  And because they owned it they had to be there all the time and my sister was the bartender and my brother was the chef, my other older sister was a cocktail waitress.  So all my adult interaction was around alcohol and after gymnastics class I would sit at the bar and do my homework at a very very early age because it was rush hour; my class would get out at 8:30 and the restaurant was jammed packed so my mom couldn’t bring me home.  And so I would sit there at the bar. 

 

I liked it when I was younger because I felt like a celebrity, the customers knew me, but the older I got the more I could see how bad alcohol was.  And as this was happening my parents started to drink a lot, you know they started to participate in their own restaurant and they had very very bad drinking problems.  I didn’t notice this until a little bit later until I noticed that everything was evolving around alcohol.  And it made me hate it. 

 

I swore to myself I would never drink.  My mom had DUI’s, I believe my dad did as well but I’m not positive, my brother at 17 years old got in a horrible drunk driving accident where he had to have the jaws of life get him out.  He was in the Intensive Care Unit and they had to reconstruct his face because of the accident.  So all of these terrible things were happening around alcohol; the parties, the restaurant, alcohol moved back into the home and there were parties all the time, which meant there were police. 

 

I hated it, I mean I just wanted…it’s very difficult and I’m sure anybody who is listening and who has parents who are alcoholics, I’m not saying my parents didn’t love me because alcoholism is the kind of disease that people who have it, they don’t know they have it.  So my parents did love me, but when they’re drunk and they’re giving you this love it’s very confusing as a child.  Because the concept of love is off a bit, so you start to disbelieve the people around you.  They were so moody; you didn’t know if they were going to wake up hung over or angry or confused. 

 

The alcoholism definitely broke my family and by the time I think I was 13, my brothers and sisters had moved out and my mother and father separated.  So I lived alone with my mom and I watched her really drink excessively to try to fill the broken pieces of her heart.  She was still in love with my dad and it was very confusing because they both worked in the same restaurant.  So when I was doing my homework I would see my father at one end of the bar and my mother at the other end of the bar.  He was focused on his drink and my mother was focused on him.  My mother and I never spoke about this but we know, I mean she knew I knew but I couldn’t ask because it would have opened up a wound that as a child I didn’t think she wanted to put upon me.

 

Gwen:             So you have the alcoholism in your home and you have the tremendous successes in your gymnastics.  But also your social life was hard for you because from what I read in your book you just didn’t feel that you fit in.  Was that also in this mix that was going to ultimately have a bad outcome?

 

Joe:                 Yeah, being an athlete all my time was focused on gymnastics so I didn’t have the same relationships with kids at school.  And I definitely felt like an outsider, like an alien.  It’s funny, gymnastics isn’t a popular sport, it’s very difficult, I was teased endlessly for it, which was interesting because I could do more than the other kids.  Like football and soccer were popular but I was excelling in my sport on an individual level, but when I would go to school I wouldn’t get the same kind of recognition, instead I got made fun of and it definitely isolated me. 

 

Yeah, it broke me.  And then when I would go home with this emotion to kind of seek parental advice or care I was getting that alcoholism instead.  So my only solution was to go to gymnastics, which definitely became what I like to call, ‘my church’ even though I’m not very religious because it was a safe place where I felt like I was doing what I was intended to do.  And that was really my own salvation I had at the time.

 

Gwen:             Right, because socially at school you were not accepted.  I believe you were short in stature and the asthma had affected your voice in such a way that it wasn’t as deep; as boys voices deepened, yours did not.   The kids had no appreciation for the fact that gymnastics takes even more strength and skill than any jock on the field would ever be exhibiting.  Gymnastics grounded you in a way that nothing else seemed to be grounding you.  Is that correct?

 

Joe:                 Yes, I was definitely the shortest one in the class with a very squeaky voice.  Yeah, it was difficult.  I know most people in retrospect look back at their childhood and can say it was a difficult childhood, which is great because it teaches us many things on a spiritual level.  But as we go through it, we can kind of see the difficulties we had in order to create coping mechanisms later on in life, which as an adult we tend to suffer from.  And in my case this is definitely what happened.

 

                        I’d like to say I don’t blame anybody for what I did because I made the choices.  But there are contributions in our life which teach us coping mechanisms and not every coping mechanism is a positive one.

 

Gwen:             Right, exactly. 

 

Joe:                 It was a perfect storm for me.

 

Gwen:             It sure was.

 

(Break)

 

Gwen:             Before the break, Joe you were telling us about your early years when you began honing your gymnastic talents and also about some of the external factors that were becoming a perfect storm for you to ultimately become a drug abuser.

 

                        So let’s move into a little bit about how drugs entered your life and maybe what they did for you that made them feel like maybe they were okay for you.

 

Joe:                 Yes, it was very interesting because as I was talking about before, I did suffer from asthma.  And it’s very unusual for me because I was an athlete and I was trying to breath and I would go to the emergency room and they would give me medicine and then I could breathe.  And it was like day and night, I was suffering on the inside, I couldn’t breathe, everything hurt, and then after the medicine I was fine.  I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is amazing’!  I love to talk about that because that kind of explains later on when I had my first drink how I felt on an emotional and psychological level. 

 

I think I was like 15 or 16 and as I said earlier, I hated alcohol, I saw the damage it did throughout my entire family.  The other kids at school started to drink and because my parents were at the restaurant I had a lot of freedom.  And we actually had a lot of booze in the house because they were getting free booze all the time and they would bring it home. 

 

So I would have a few of my friends over and they would drink and I would clean up after them.  And it didn’t seem when they were doing it, it didn’t seem bad, it just would seem like they would have a few drinks or a few beers and they were laughing.  I wanted to laugh too, I wanted to be a part of this, but I knew it was going to affect my gymnastics because I had seen other kids on the gymnastics team who started drinking, their athletics declined.

 

I love to talk about the pressure of athletics because in a sport like gymnastics you are judged for what you do.  You get a score and everyone can see your scores and this crazed kind of mindset of perfectionism.  Because if you don’t get, and back then it was a perfect 10, than that means there’s something wrong, you did something wrong, you did something wrong and everyone can see this.  That kind of perfectionism started to bleed into every facet of my life.  And I was putting myself under a tremendous amount of pressure to be the best, to be perfect, because ultimately you get a better score, which means you’ve avoided shame, which is an impossible feat.  Nobody is perfect, it’s impossible, so basically you’re setting yourself up for this huge failure. 

 

But psychologically I did not know that and I had my first drink and it was exactly like the asthma medication, it was the most beautiful moment at that point in my life because that perfectionism melted.  I didn’t have to be the best, I didn’t care what my parents were doing, my friends liked me more and we had fun.  If Joe didn’t have to be the gymnast, he could just be human.  It was such a relief, like I still when I hear other alcoholics describe this moment, their first drink, I can relate on such a level, it always gets me excited because, ‘Yes, I’m human and I’m here’.  We often say, ‘We’ve arrived’. 

 

I drank and this became a solution in the same way that when I couldn’t breathe, I took my inhaler, so when things got too tough, I had a drink.  And back then it was just fun, high school kids experiment, I think there’s nothing wrong with it, its natural, we all did it.  I started to do it a little bit more though; I noticed I was the first person to pick up a beer and the last person to put it down.  And I still had gymnastics class on the weekend, it wasn’t affecting that at first so I kind of felt like I was getting away with something.  I also didn’t want to tell my parents or my brother, who was a huge drinker who always wanted me to drink because they knew how much I hated alcohol and I didn’t want them knowing I actually liked something they liked.  As children we try to go against our parents and I didn’t want them to know that they were on to something, like I could actually appreciate something they were doing.

 

However, this is very important, I believe because my whole life I had seen how alcohol can spiral out of control that I had the best knowledge to prevent alcoholic drinking, to prevent things from going bad because I had seen it all.  I mean you don’t get a better learning experience than that, I grew up in a bar.

 

Gwen:             It isn’t funny, but it is interesting the irony of it.

 

Joe:                 Completely.  So I wasn’t going to become an alcoholic, I knew exactly what not to do, all of the alcoholic clichés we tell ourselves, don’t drink in the morning, don’t drink alone, I love that one.  My brother came to me once and he said, and he was very young, he’s like, ‘you’re not an alcoholic if you can go without drinking for seven days’.  It’s funny when we hear misinformation because we believe it and so when I heard that I was like, ‘Oh, well if I can go for seven days then I don’t have a problem’.  Most people can go seven days at first, before the addiction gets progressive.  So I had all this misinformation around me.  Because I saw how bad they were I was keeping it at arm’s length thinking, ‘I’ll never be as bad as them, I won’t be as bad as them’. 

 

                        But what did happen is pot came into the mix.  Again, I saw my friends smoking pot, it wasn’t like refer madness, it wasn’t like the way I was taught in health class, that you’re going to smoke weed and you’re going to jump out a building. 

 

Gwen:             Right.

 

Joe:                 I always get upset when I share scare tactics like that because it’s not how it was. I like to be informed actually how it is.  And what happened was I laughed and food tasted better, it seemed harmless.  And it was that kind of harmless fun in the beginning and it made me look at the stuff they were teaching me in health class and I said, ‘This isn’t how you guys were explaining it, I wonder if the other drugs are different then, I wonder if they’re exaggerating about cocaine and acid and things like that’.  Although I’m never going to try it, I mean to me the line was drawn in the sand; you can drink on the weekends, you can smoke pot sometimes, but gymnastics comes first because this is what saved you.

 

                        It’s very important because in my book I know I talk about how I feel like drugs saved my life.  And I know what a strange statement that is but those who are addicted might agree.  I was so depressed from the perfectionism, from being an outsider that they gave me hope to carry on.  And I feel like without that kind of shift in consciousness, that kind of moment of euphoria, I may have tried to kill myself at that age.

 

Gwen:             As a teenager?

 

Joe:                 As a teenager, yes.  It’s interesting, I heard someone speak once and they said, ‘If you drive through America you see a lot of liquor stores and a lot of churches because they both give people hope’.   Yes, and that’s true, that maybe today isn’t good but when I do this thing I believe that I’m free and tomorrow could be better.  And that is exactly what it did for me and so in one way I believe they did save my life at the time. 

 

Gwen:             And you did move on to other drugs like ecstasy, at what point did it start escalating beyond say on the weekends, when did it start getting to be a problem?

 

Joe:                 I definitely started drinking alcohol pretty quickly, all those rules that I had I stepped over.  And it was that 90’s rave era and I went to my first rave, it was probably 1996 and I took my first ecstasy and it was like heaven crashed into the earth.  It changed my entire life.  And a rave is very very opposite of what you would expect from a gymnastics competition.  So this was like, ‘Oh my God, this culture is amazing’ and from that moment that became, drug seeking became the new gymnastics for me and that became the top of the list. 

 

And it happened so fast for me I cannot even express it.  It was like one day this was what was important to me and the next, this was. So I chased that culture for a long time and it was within that element I started doing acid and K and crystal and ecstasy all thinking it was recreational in face.  But it wasn’t because it started to affect my life very quickly; I was missing gymnastics class and you know, changing my behavior because chemicals do change our perception and our behavior and I started to getting moody and fighting with my parents. 

 

I was pierced from head to toe, which was a huge problem competing because you get deductions for having body piercings.  But I didn’t care; I was starting to get that almost antagonistic childhood rebellion.  Like I’m going to change the world and this is what I stand for now, not respecting anything around me.  And really I believed I was finding myself.  So my mother, who was like, ‘I don’t know what’s happening to you’ and my response was, ‘I’m finding myself, leave me alone, this is what’s important to me’. 

 

And yet things really started to spiral out of control and at that time I was 16, 17 and I knew I wasn’t going to the Olympics, I knew I missed my chance.  There’s a moment in every athletes life where we have to accept reality; I did good in nationals but I knew it was over and that opened the door, it was like ‘Okay, now for the rest of my life, every day I will wake up a failure’ because I had one goal, one dream and it’s never going to happen.  And when you do, for me I went on an extremely long road to destroy my life.

 

(Break)

 

Gwen:             Joe, before the break you were describing how you began drinking alcohol and you experimented with some drugs at raves.  At one point in your life though your drug taking got really serious and in part you mentioned before having to do with the fact that you realized you weren’t going to the Olympics, it had been your only dream and you were kind of a lost soul.  Let’s talk a little bit about when life and drug addiction got really tough.

 

Joe:                 For me it got tough quickly.  I did go to college and I competed on the men’s gymnastics team.  And I originally went to college because it was a place to live, I did not want to get an education, I just wanted to get out of my mother’s house because two addicts can’t really live under the same roof peacefully.  And I met a cocaine dealer and eventually started doing lots of coke.  It’s funny, as an addict we always find them.  And it really got bad very quickly, it was the kind of addiction where I didn’t want to get out of bed without it, it’s kind of the same way I am with coffee now. 

 

                        Yes, it’s interesting because I didn’t have any energy unless I had coke and I was only a freshman.  But I was going back and forth to Boston and all these rave kids, we started taking benzo’s, it was very big where I was from; we were taking klonopin, valium and xanax, lots of them, which makes you very tired.  So of course you need more coke.  So that was my introduction to benzo’s and I loved them because they make you feel calm and peaceful and everything is okay, which was really what was missing from my life. 

 

And my cocaine use got really bad and I started to talk with a counselor at the college because I realized, I wasn’t going to any classes, I had all F’s and the gymnastics team, which I was getting grants for, they were started to get really worried about me.  I mean everybody knew my usage, it was pretty public.

 

Gwen:             So you were on the gymnastics team at your college and using all these drugs pretty regularly?

 

Joe:                 Yes, oh yes, I was missing practice and you live on campus and so everybody knows each other’s life style, it’s a small private college.  She asked if I wanted to go to a rehab and said I could try it out.  Well yeah, this has been ongoing for a long time, ‘Yes, I would like to try it’.  And that was my first attempt at any sort of recovery.

 

                        What I found out in the rehab is that I really didn’t have a problem because I wasn’t ready to put the drugs down.  And it was very interesting because I remember I left against medical advice on the fourth day and the counselor told me, ‘You will be back here someday as a heroin addict’ and was like, oh my God, that’s the worst thing you could ever say to somebody.  But I left on the fourth day and the college did not like this so they kicked me out and said you have to finish treatment if we’re going to allow you back in.

 

                        So I went into another treatment and I found a psychiatrist and the psychiatrist ended up putting me on tons of medication and I knew what I was doing at this point, I became very manipulative.  I was basically guiding her into give me benzo’s and I succeeded.  I knew exactly what I was doing and she started giving me klonopins and now I know I’m an addict and I’m getting a prescription for these with a refill.  And I manipulated this woman down to getting the highest milligram, free from the state.

 

And I was taking oh my gosh, I was taking about 10 as soon as I would wake up, getting more from people from Boston, and I started to have seizures without the medication.  I was blacking out all the time; I was on campus, so this was in public so I was getting in trouble, there were cops.  So eventually I got kicked out of college, lost my scholarship grant and everything.  I couldn’t go back home.  Every time I had gone back home during the college breaks my mom would call the cops on me because I became violent.  I mean this was a dramatic jump from where I was. 

 

Then I was homeless and I had to sleep outside in the park near the school.  I also would stay on drug dealers couches; I always, always stayed too long.  You know I could tell and they would be like, ‘Okay, it’s time for you to go’.  And I lost all my friends at that time because my behavior was so unpredictable.  And during that time I traveled the country, I kept getting more and more pills.  I kept calling the psychiatrist and telling her all of the addictive things; people stole them, and this and this and this.  And then something terrible happened. 

 

So I had been doing this for about a year-and-a-half, my parents didn’t know if I was alive anymore, I would call collect, I was in homeless shelters, everything to make it work because it was still a solution. And then one time I ended up back at home in Boston and I did my usual, I had all my pills and I saw a doctor because I wanted more and he gave me painkillers. 

 

And that night I took all my pills, I took the painkillers; I was told and this was in the book that somebody found me and they dropped me off at home and my mom found me and I was foaming at the mouth.  And apparently my heart stopped and so they had to resuscitate me and put me in the ambulance and I woke up in another rehab.  This had been my fourth rehab.  The doctor told me that my heart stopped twice and I had a cardiac death, which still wasn’t enough to make me stop.  It kind of made me feel like I had beat death, like I was unstoppable.  The kind of feeling all of us had in our twenties.

 

This went on for so long, my entire life fell apart.  Like I wanted to die but I was afraid to die, so that addiction is that place between life and death.

 

Gwen:             So when did heroin come into your life?

 

Joe:                 Heroin didn’t come in until a little bit later.  I actually learned if every time I took a pill something bad was going to happen, so I was like, ‘I have to stop taking these pills. And I was trying to get clean, like I was making attempts; I was going to 12-step meetings. 

 

I moved to New York City and I got a job as a waiter and I noticed he had a peculiar behavior.  Oh, that’s painkiller behavior, I know it; he was itchy and he was nodding out.  And I was right, he had heroin and I had been warned so many times from people not to do heroin.  But warnings mean nothing to a person like me and I started sniffing heroin recreationally.  And I know that is an oxymoron because there is no such thing as recreational heroin use. 

 

We’d like to think it but it was very textbook; for two years I sniffed it and on the second year I started shooting it.  That drug, and I know this is important now because heroin is really on the rise again, which is kind of shocking to me.  But he did everything for me that I ever wanted.  Like the pain I felt inside, the depression, the anxiety, the regret, it was gone, I felt loved, I felt like God was holding me.  So I was never, ever, ever going to live a life without it.  I didn’t want a life, I didn’t want a job, I didn’t want love because I had heroin, like why do I need anything else.

 

Gwen:             So did you lose jobs, did you lose friends, did you lose places to live, was your health going downhill?

 

Joe:                 Yes, every horrible addict thing you can think of happened.  I lost friends from heroin.  It’s weird, it’s not a party drug, you know so it wasn’t like the ‘70’s that I hear about, I wasn’t there but you know where there were 10 people shooting dope in a room, it was very lonely.  It was either me and one other person or just me.  But I really did look…I was skinny, I had track marks.  I managed to keep jobs; I got very lucky in life where people would see the innocence in me, I look very young for my age, I always have.  And I do look like the boy from next door, very honest, and I used that, this was a huge manipulation for me because were like, ‘Joe, no, he’s not an addict, look at him!’  And I was very kind.  So I managed to keep jobs but I definitely had to manipulate.

 

                        Eventually I started working at “The New York Times”, which is incredible I know, incredible because of someone like me basically.  And again, I did have some moments of intelligence; I had some moments of being normal.  I always like to tell people, addicts don’t commit to a lifestyle of crime on purpose; we are always trying to better ourselves.  I would have moments where I would like, ‘Get it together, you’re going to use four times a day, you’re going to take your medicine, but you can’t look high, you have to go to work, you’re going to achieve something, you can fix this’. 

 

Gwen:             Despite all of this and what you were doing to your body, you ended up being in a show at the Metropolitan Opera, on Broadway and this whole time you’re still shooting up, is that right?

 

Joe:                 Right, yes.  It was extremely difficult, but I believe all my training in gymnastics sort of guided me on this unusual path.  Because I was so good at using the body mechanics, it was like second nature that no matter how high I was I was able to go out there on stage and perform and nobody knew.  And I was able to handle the withdrawal because it was just like doing gymnastics; that injury, that sickness, that kind of really difficult athletic pain.  It just seemed so familiar, so it was like wow this is just another level of gymnastics. 

 

And it was very sad because I didn’t even know as a gymnast you could perform and I left “The New York Times”, they actually sent me to rehab, which was wonderful.  I got a little bit of sobriety and I started doing gymnastics and being a performer and I did end up on Broadway.  I had two years clean and this Broadway job was righting that wrong that regret, that Olympic failure.  It was kind of second best and the show was closing, it was a Bob Dylan show and I was bad, I didn’t have coping skills.  I remember shooting up in the Broadway theatre bathroom to, “Knocking on Heaven’s Door.”

 

Gwen:             Kind of ironic!

 

Joe:                 Everyone once and awhile our life has perfect synchronicity to the music around us and that was that moment where it was like, wow.

 

(Break)

 

Gwen:             When we broke a few minutes ago, Joe was talking about the day or the night that he was shooting up in the bathroom of a Broadway theatre after he had learned that the show was closing.  Obviously, since Joe has written a book, he’s talking with me today, he’s gotten clean, his life is a whole lot better.  And as I mentioned at the top of the show he was actually a featured performer in Cirque du Soleil. 

 

                        Joe, would you take a few minutes to tell us how you turned your life around and a little bit about what life is like for you today?

 

Joe:                 Yes, that time I did get high at the Broadway job, it lasted about a week and that was the last time I used.  I had two years clean before that so I knew what sobriety was like I just didn’t have really good coping skills.  And the obsession never left me; I was going to 12-step meetings every day.  And everyone was telling me that the obsession will leave you, but it hadn’t. 

 

So when I did relapse, I realized something important that I actually liked being sober better because well A. I felt better because heroin made me sick all of the time and B. I started to get things back in my life that I really admired and appreciated.  So I went back to 12-step meetings and I did what so many people who relapsed have to do, it is courageous, so if you’re out there still struggling and I completely understand. 

 

And as I said, I have one day clean and I got back on the horse and worked so hard at staying clean.  I made it my focus, I went to meetings, I did my step work.  And life did get better again, not wonderful, but better.  And I continued to perform.  It was really incredible because I got to work with Cirque du Soleil and as you were saying, I was, ‘The Crystal Man’, it was a character I got to develop with the Director, Robert Lapage. 

 

It was really wonderful because the show is about evolution and we did tie my sobriety into it as this spark of light, this change that comes down as spiritual evolution.  So every night I got to wear this costume of 5,000 glass mirrors and I got to think of my sobriety.  And to offer that kind of hope that those of us in recovery, or those of us that have been touched by addicts or changed by them try to inspire others to never give up, to keep going.  Because that is really what my character embodied. 

 

So it was really wonderful and I did that show for 3 ½ years; unfortunately I did get injured pretty badly, which I have had two shoulder surgeries on.  And coming up actually soon on CNN with Dr. Sanjay Gupta, we are doing a show on sobriety and surgery because I’m a heroin addict and I can’t take pain killers.  And I know many people in recovery can and they do take them and they’re okay, but for someone like me, if you read my book you’ll see if I have one opiate, that obsession that I spoke about before, it does return for me and I’m powerless.  And the obsession for myself is gone. 

 

It’s been very interesting, I did write my book, “Accrobadicct” while I was on tour with Cirque du Soleil and had been able to talk about heroin addiction and recovery.  I’ve been very lucky with it because I got to do Anderson Cooper and Dr. Sanjay and a lot of really extraordinary things to kind of give that message out to recovering addicts, that it’s possible.  Because I know when you’re in that addiction it feels hopeless, absolutely hopeless. 

 

So my message is seriously, don’t give up, no matter how many times you fail, keep trying!

 

Gwen:             Because you tried and failed and tried and failed and tried and failed, I mean this went on.  The heroin addiction was how many years?

 

Joe:                 About 10 years, about 10 years give or take.

 

Gwen:             So you made a lot of attempts and the fact that you continued trying says something about your will to live.  But I also find it interesting and you just mentioned it a minute ago about the obsession does get better.  If you could elaborate just a little bit on that for people because that I would think would give people hope, that I’m not always going to feel this compelled.

 

Joe:                 Yes, it’s very interesting, if you’re in active addiction there’s much like there’s a demon inside of you, which I do describe in my book.  It’s like you’re being possessed and you cannot see any other way out because it’s inside of you.  But over time your brain mechanics will rewire themselves, you’ll have different pleasure, but that takes time in order to do that.  It’s like muscle memory.  So over time you will forget what that felt like and the obsession will get lifted. 

 

Unfortunately, it does take a long time, but it does happen, so you have to allow it.  And just imagine what your life will feel like when you’re free from that demon.  It’s definitely extraordinary.  And it doesn’t mean that life is going to be roses, life is always going to be life, but you are free from that obsession, which is really astounding.

 

Gwen:             And I think you also mentioned a few minutes ago about that pretty bad shoulder injury.  Is your career in gymnastics over because of that and if so, what’s ahead for you?

 

Joe:                 Sadly we just found out last week from the surgeon, it is over; I won’t be able to go back to athletics like I was.  Like I just said, life isn’t always roses; we have to deal with upsets and stuff, so I’m going to go back to school to be a PA, a physician’s assistant.  And I still am going to perform, just not acrobatically.  And I am writing a second book, which is not recovery related, it is more of a fiction.

 

                        So things still happen, you know life will still go on.  And I know many people who are performers who do get injured that can go on.  It is heartbreaking for me on a sober aspect because gymnastics is kind of what saved me in a way. But I have enough recovery now that if it’s taken away from me, I have enough tools that I will be able to stay sober without it.

 

Gwen:             Joe, we’re coming to the end of our show, can you tell listeners quickly how they can get a copy of your book, “Accrobadicct”?

 

Joe:                 Yes, you can get it on Amazon, through eBook Kindle, or hard copy you can get it at Barnes & Noble and I believe any local bookstore should have it in the addiction section.  If you just Google it online or even go in and ask for it.

 

Gwen:             And people are going to find out when they read your book what an amazing writer you are too and I know you wrote that book yourself.

 

 

 

THE JOEY SONG

 

 

Host:               Gwen Carden 

Guest:             Sandy Swenson          

 

                       

 

Gwen:             Like millions of mothers before her, Sandy Swenson gazed with wonder into the eyes of her newborn son, Joey.  As he gazed back, she tried to imagine the bright exciting future that her little boy would have; would he be a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher?  How many grandchildren would his future wife give to her?  How many ways would this wonderful bundle of joy make a difference in the world? 

 

Sandy imagined so much about her little boy, but the one thing she never imagined was that he would grow up to be a drug addict.  He would become someone who despite all the love that she and his father could give him would wreak havoc on his life and on hers until she discovered that she had the power to find her own recovery, even if Joey didn’t.  

 

For many years, Sandy clung to her dreams believing if she just loved Joey a little bit more or stood by his side one more time as he twisted in the wind of his lies, misdeeds and crimes, if she gave him one more chance, and one more, and well maybe just one more chance somehow everything would be okay. 

 

But when it wasn’t and Sandy finally realized that she could do nothing more to save, Joey, she let go and she moved on with her life and then she wrote about it, all of it.  In her forthcoming, heart wrenching book, “The Joey Song: A Mother’s Story of Her Son’s Addiction.”  Sandy is here today to tell that story, welcome to the show, Sandy.

 

Sandy:             Hi, Gwen, thank you so much for having me here.

 

Gwen:             Well it’s a delight.  I want to start by asking you this question; what prompted you to write the book?

 

Sandy:             Well I started as a suggestion of a friend to write a journal, which turned out to be the best thing I did because instead of roaming the house every night trying to piece together the lies, to piece them together with the next lie, I could put everything down on paper and set it aside and not have to carry it with me all day, every day. 

 

Then as time went on it occurred to me that I wanted to write the book that I wish I could have found when I started out on this journey.  And the book that I wished that everybody that loved Joey and loved me could also read as we went through this journey.  I wanted to write a book that was brutally honest yet inspiring, a book that would help others to feel understood and less alone.

 

Gwen:             It certainly does that, it’s very hard to put it down and your writing is beautiful.  I know you were not a professional writer until now but you certainly join those ranks.  Just briefly, where is Joey today and how old is he?

 

Sandy:             Joey is currently in Florida, he has been in Florida since 2008 when he left his last addiction treatment there.  He is 26, soon to be 27. 

 

Gwen:             Now your book is titled, “The Joey’s Song”, where did that title come from?

 

Sandy:             “The Joey’s Song” is something that I used to sing to Joey when he was little and it has very poignant meaning.  I wonder if I could read an excerpt from the book that brings us to the point which explains how I came to titling the book, “The Joey’s Song.”

 

Gwen:             Absolutely, I’d love to hear it.

 

Sandy:                         “Today, Joey returns to the place where his life began, but he’s returning on a stretcher.  Cruising down the coastal highway in a four-door sedan at 50 mph, Joey slammed into an SUV, a line of mailboxes and a stone wall.  No break marks before bouncing into oncoming traffic.”

 

“He arrives here in an ambulance but he was unresponsive with enough alcohol in his bloodstream to kill him, if his internal injuries don’t kill him first.  Twenty years, five months and six days ago, Joey tumbled into my world at this very hospital, we greeted each other this baby and me, but we already knew each other, we already knew life’s most quiet love.  He nestled in where he belonged close to the heart he’s heard for 9-months and into the arms who’s most important purpose was now to protect, care for and love.”

 

“I can’t hold Joey this time, he’s too wrecked all over, too battered, bruised and scraped.  I’m afraid of hurting him, but my longing to touch Joey is greater than my fear.  I find a same small spot on his blood crusted forehead where it seemed a safe place soft kiss; I hold onto his cold hand, he is so pale, so gray, so still.  The only sound is the (5:24 inaudible) beeps and gurgles, the sucking and tickling of life’s juices through a tangle of tubes and the chemical attachments.  And the whimpering, to think the whimpering is me.” 

 

“Joey fills the entire bed; his 6 foot length of his body sags down the elevated slope, his legs all crumpled in a (5:24 inaudible) on the bottom, his hospital gown reveals there’s more bone than meat.  Joey’s hands and feet, like a puppies paws don’t fit the rest of him.  But Joey is not as thin as the last time I saw him, several months ago, back when I told him it hurt more for me to hang on than to let go.  Back when I told him I was done trying to help him until he was ready.  This is not what I thought ‘ready’ would look like.”

 

“Joey does not move, not the tiniest bit other than the mechanical expansion of his chest.  He doesn’t know I’m here, but still, I talk.  I want to reach the part of him imprisoned for so many years.  Maybe I can slip past the (6:22 inaudible) warden of addiction and touch, Joey while he’s unconscious.  I tell Joey I love him bigger than the moon, that I flew here as quickly as I could and that his dad’s plane will land soon.”

 

“Joey, you were in a car accident, no one else was injured.” (And then I lie), “Things will be better now.”

 

“I cannot breathe, I pray for more time.  Sitting at his side I pat Joey’s stiffened bloodied hair, golden locks I’ve washed a thousand times between bubbles and boats.  I no longer see the addict my son has become, a person I no longer know at all.  Instead I see my little boy, (7:08 inaudible) in his innocence, transposed over this wounded, lifeless man face.  I see the glow of his smooth cheeks peeping out from rumpled covers as I stand over his small bed late at night.  I sob escapes me as I remember the little boy, with a sticky giggle who one long ago day asked me to sing him his special song.”

 

“Mommy, will you sing me, ‘The Joey Song’?” “Hmmmmm, ‘The Joey Song’?  As Joey wriggled onto my lap, his blue eyes searched my face and I silently willed the song to come to mind.” 

 

“Oh, ‘The Joey Song’; my heart warmed, the countless renditions, Joey had heard my crooning as a love song, a love song about him.  And so I held my little fellow tight and sang the song that had tender new meanings, the song that was so much more wonderful sung his way.”

 

“I’ve got that, Joey, Joey, Joey, Joey, down in my heart, down in my heart, down in my heart.  I’ve got that, Joey, Joey, Joey, Joey, down in my heart, down in my heart today.”

 

“That’s enough of the old song now, I lean close to Joey’s ear and sing, a dampened cookie whisper I sing, ‘The Joey Song’, hoping to reach something deep within this lost child of mine, hoping to stir up memories of love, real love.  A love so much better than the love he has for the things that feed his addiction.  I want to take Joey back to a time before all the pain, I sing softly; I don’t want the addict to hear.”

 

“I ache for Joey to believe what can’t be seen.  These recent years have been a test of the strength of my heart, but the strength of my love has never wavered, not even under pressure of the mind bending contortion imposed by his addiction.”

 

“Joey, can you hear me?  This love that kept me from helping you to hurt yourself any longer, this love that kept vigil while I waited for you to hit a bottom that wasn’t dead.  It is love that brought me here now.”

 

“Joey doesn’t know that I’m here, he doesn’t move.  Never could I have imagined an illness so cruel; with its insidious ways, nasty grin, addiction not only snuffed out my child’s emerging light, it broke bonds and hearts all over the world.  Addiction is a destroyer of everything.”

 

Gwen:             That gives me goose bumps.  And that is just a small sampling of the passion and the poignancy with which you have written every single page in your book.

 

                        Tell us about Joey as a little boy.

 

Sandy:             He was my firstborn son; blonde haired, blue eyed, very smart, handsome, everybody loved him, scholarships to college, Eagle Scout, just a really wonderful child. 

 

Gwen:             What was the first sign that he was using drugs?

 

Sandy:             Well, there were probably many many signs that he was using drugs that we did not see.  The first sign that he was using drugs that we recognized didn’t come really until he was already an addict.  When he first started displaying troubled behaviors, we thought they were just teenage behaviors.  And then when he was becoming dangerously thin and volatile and moody, we were living in India at the time and we attributed the weight loss to having lived in India. 

 

Eventually I took him back to the United States for several months for treatment for an eating disorder, which turns out wasn’t exactly an eating disorder.  It was discovered later that he was actually already an addict at that time and had tried to stop using drugs and he had just sort of transferred over temporarily to an eating disorder.  And then he was back to addiction.  But he fooled not only us but also the doctors.

 

Gwen:             And he was how old when this occurred?

 

Sandy:            He was 16.

 

Gwen:             And how long do you think he had been in addiction?

 

Sandy:             I think that he had probably been an addict for about a year.  They say that you don’t see the signs of addiction until the late stages.  And they also say that some people become addicts faster than others.  So I believed that my son is one of those, he became an addict very quickly.  I know from what he told us later, that he had smoked pot when he was in junior-high and that he had drank alcohol when he was in junior-high. I suspect that when he became a junior in high school was when he became an addict.

 

Gwen:             Is this while you were in India?

 

Sandy:             We were in India when he was a junior and a senior in high school.

 

Gwen:             So he got much more involved in drugs once he was in India.  Were they more readily available there? 

 

Sandy:             Well, yes, they were very readily available.  They had little tuk tuk’s that would drive around apparently, and the kids knew which ones they could just get drugs from.  But I was completely unaware of that the whole entire time that we lived in India I had no idea that Joey was doing drugs.  I knew he was drinking some, I had no idea he was doing drugs.

 

                        He was an Eagle Scout, he was working in orphanages, he was getting scholarships for college, this just didn’t fit with the boy that could possibly be doing drugs.  It never even crossed my mind.

 

Gwen:             You found out when he went for the eating disorder, is that when you realized he was doing drugs?  Or did that come after he had the eating disorder treatment?

 

Sandy:             That came long after the eating disorder treatment.  Then he came back to India, I stayed with him for four months over in the U.S. and then returned to India.  He graduated from high school, we moved back to the United States as a family and we thought the eating disorder was behind us.  And he went off to college and that’s when things started to really crumble apart. 

 

                        Back then he was arrested on his way driving to college because he was speeding and he had some drugs in the car.  And then right after college started, he had a suicide attempt.  And then we all decided it would be best if he didn’t go to college and then he came back and lived with us for a while.  And then we had him right there under our roof and witnessed his downward spiral. But he didn’t live with us for long.

 

(Break)

 

Gwen:             Sandy, before the break you talked about the family moving back from India and very quickly thereafter you said that Joey moved out.  What did he start doing with his life?  How did it start unraveling?

 

Sandy:             When he came back to live with us it was with the intention of him returning to college and he needed to do some things to get his life in order before he could go.  Suddenly he didn’t like house rules and he didn’t like any rules at all actually, so he stopped seeing the doctor and he stopped doing absolutely everything that we had requested of him.  And he decided he would just rather move out than follow rules.

 

                        So he did that, he got an apartment, he started working at a restaurant, which is pretty much what he’s done ever since is just working in restaurants or bars.  And his life just started to crumble.  And we still at that point, even though he had tried to commit suicide and even though he had been arrested on his way out to college, we had no idea he was an addict, we just thought we had a kid who was in trouble.  And we were trying to sort it out from afar, he didn’t live that far, he lived the next town over. 

 

But his behavior changed dramatically to become very volatile and mean and his appearance changed to a Mohawk and piercings and tattoos, which was all very different for him.  A boy who had been very close to his family was now impossible to get ahold of and he missed holidays and months would pass without us seeing him.

 

 He was arrested numerous times, overdoses, most of which I knew about because I was a, not proud of it but did it anyway, was that I was a Facebook stalker.  I knew his password and I followed everything he did online.  And so I knew when he was arrested and I knew when was overdosing.  So then I would try to track him down and find out what was happening and try to steer him to health and he didn’t want any of that.  So it was always when a big crisis, when he was actually arrested or had to go to court or something like that when we were able to even try to do anything.  We worked with the judge very closely, trying to get him into addiction treatment as opposed to jail.

 

Gwen:             Do you know what drugs he was taking at that point?

 

Sandy:             We knew he was smoking pot; pot was definitely where everything started and ends with him.  Because even after rehab, many rehabs he would always continue to say that he will never quit smoking pot, he might quit everything else, but never quit smoking pot.  So it started with pot and drinking but then it progressed and cocaine was very big for him then and mushrooms were very big for him then.  He was abusing I believe it was Benadryl.  Those are the things he was using at that time.

 

                        Since then he’s progressed to using absolutely everything.  But at the time that’s what he was using.

 

Gwen:             And what was this doing to your family?  You have a younger son as well, so that had to have some pretty serious impacts on the whole family’s life.

 

Sandy:             Oh it did because honestly during that whole time for years, from 2004 until 2008 I would say that even though I was always there as an at home mom, I wasn’t there for my younger son, Rick.  I was completely and totally consumed with trying to figure out what was happening with Joey and trying to fix what was happening with Joey. 

 

So Ricky; when I went to the eating disorder in India and left him for four months, and when we moved to a new house I left him on his first day of school in a new city to go save Joey from having tried to commit suicide.  On Ricky’s 16th birthday I was somewhere at a rehab in a family program.  And when Ricky graduated from high school, his brother was down the street in jail.  It was constant, it was constant, us, me in particular just consumed with Joey and his issues. 

 

We would talk to Rick about all of Joey’s issues; we were very open and honest so he knew what was happening.  We explained to him that we loved both of our children equally, but right now Joey actively needs a different sort of love and that his time would come too.  But it could not have been easy for Rick, it could not have been easy. 

 

But he has graduated with college, he has never one issue with drugs or alcohol or the law or any really.  And he’s turned into a fine young man and only he can take the credit because his dad and I made a lot of mistakes with him because of our attention to Joey’s addiction.

 

Gwen:             Do you feel that you were enabling, Joey?  I know you state in your book, you talk about your own recovery; what exactly were you recovering from?

 

Sandy:             Well I’m recovering from my sons addiction, I’m recovering my own recovery in letting go of the addiction that was destroying me and my family.  I had taken it on as though I could fix it.  It wasn’t until I realized that this is not my problem to fix, only Joey can do what he needs to do to survive and only I can do my part of doing what I as a mother who loves an addicted child needs to do to survive. 

 

                        And I also knew that as a mother, if I didn’t do what I needed, my whole family was going to be destroyed by addiction.  So I definitely enabled my son, we all enable our children.  And I think those of us who love an addict enable our children to the extreme because every maternal instinct is telling us to help our children.  And that line between helping and hurting becomes very fuzzy and very confusing.  And it takes a long time to figure out the difference between the two.

 

Gwen:             Is there anything that you look back on that you think was maybe the biggest mistake of all in terms of your role on this situation?

 

Sandy:             Oh my goodness, we made so many mistakes, it would be hard to say which the biggest mistake of them all.

 

Gwen:             Well let me ask you this, is it something that you carry around guilt about, or are you able to forgive yourself, or are you able to understand that it happened the way it did because you were doing the best that you could?

 

Sandy:             Oh, I don’t feel any guilt and I think that’s one of the reasons that I wrote my book and I think that’s one of the reasons that my book might speak to other mothers like me is that I don’t feel any guilt because I understand that addiction is a disease.  There’s nothing that I could do to cause my sons addiction.  Now I did plenty of things wrong, but every parent does things wrong.  And if imperfecting parenting was the cause of addiction, everybody would be an addict. 

 

Gwen:             Right, and I was asking that question not because I feel like you did anything outside of the norm, but I know other people are doing some of the things that you did and they’re probably feeling guilt and shame about it.  And I thought it would be important to explain why that is unproductive and really not even the way it should be.

 

Sandy:             Right, right, because it is absolutely unproductive.  If we can come to understand addiction as a disease, we know that we can’t cause somebody else to have a disease.  We also know that we can’t cause that person to get over the disease.  We can support them as they do their own work, no matter what that disease might be.  We can’t force anybody to take their medication or do their therapy or whatever their regime is that they must do.  We can support them and encourage them and be their biggest cheerleader, but we cannot fix it for them and we did not cause it to happen either. 

 

                        I think a lot of people get confused with the notion that addiction is not just a matter of using, it’s when using goes from valiance into disease.  And that is a distinction that any person can cause.

 

(Break)

 

Gwen:             Sandy, in your book you detail numerous times where you decided that you had to just walk away from this.  And like many things, it is a process for many people, as opposed to just being, ‘I’m just going to do it and that’s the end of it’.  Tell listeners a little bit about some of the events that happened in which you started to realize you had to walk away from Joey and start pursuing your own life and kind of how that all evolved.

 

Sandy:             Oh my goodness there was so many and it was such a process.  It took years, it took years of the process of letting go to actually be letting go.  I wouldn’t say that I’ve ever walked away from him, I like to think of it as letting go, which is letting go of the enabling, which is letting go of the things that I was doing to help him which were in fact hurting him. 

 

I also like to think that in my book I clarify because I think it is misunderstood, people look at letting go as walking away or turning ones back on their child.  And I believe that I’ve done absolutely the opposite of that with Joey.  That I have instead put down the foundation of a very very solid love for my son to stand on, not the addict.  And I think the whole curve in learning about enabling is to be able to make that distinction.  That when we’re looking in the face of our child, who are we looking at?  Is it the child or is it the addict?  And which one is it that we’re helping?  Is it the child or the addict?

 

And it took many many years and many many incidences of him being in jail and overdosed and horrible behavior and horrible words came out of his mouth.  And with each one I would say that I was done enabling him.  And one time we were in court and after we had been there, his dad and I to support him with one of his many arrests.  And afterwards we went down where he was being booked or something and he told us that we had interfered, because we were trying to help him, and that we were nothing to him but sperm donors.  And that was the first time that I absolutely, positively told myself that I am done helping the addict. 

 

But probably within two days I was helping the addict again, just in different ways.  It took me a long time to understand that I cannot help the addict just some of the time, only in some ways, only when somebody is not looking.  I had to absolutely stop helping the addict in all ways, at all times and that was a process that took years, just years.

 

But the last time that happened was in 2008, after the third rehab, after a car accident where he was almost dead, after a month in prison, after so many overdoses and so many things had happened. And when he was kicked out of the last rehab I was finally, that was the third time I had been in a family program and this is the time that I actually really understood what it was they had been saying all along is that, actually helping to kill my child by the things I’m doing to help him. 

 

When I understood that, truly understood it and that I was going to not care if my child hated me, because actually it would be the addict.  What I really cared about was that my child knew I loved him enough to do the things that I needed to do, even if it didn’t look like what we think love should look like in a normal mother/child relationship. 

 

Then they tell me that recovery can happen even if it does not happen with the child, it can happen within the family.  Now that’s not what we had thought was going to happen every time he had gone to addiction treatment; we had always thought that he would get better.  We never thought that we were the ones that would have to learn how to recover from his addiction.

 

But sadly addiction is a horrible disease and just because we go through emotions, the treatment, addiction is a horrible disease.  And it devastates families and not all of those stories are going to have a happy ending or even an ending at all as is in the case with us.  It’s just an ongoing story with no closure.  And if we can’t find a way to survive that, than not only are we shredding the family, but we really aren’t providing a good strong foundation for our beloved addict, to find his recovery either.

 

Gwen:             That’s interesting, so you had to reframe.  I had not heard that but that makes total sense, you had to reframe how you were seeing your family being as opposed to you just reached the point where you knew you couldn’t help him anymore.  So by reframing and saying, ‘I can help us and we can help ourselves’ then that must have relieved some of the pressure, not the heartbreak but certainly the pressure.

 

Sandy:             Oh absolutely, absolutely.  I mean absolutely.  Addiction was destroying one person, we had done all we could to help that person.  We realized that you can’t fix another person but we can take responsibility for our end and we will not let addiction destroy our family any further.  And we will tell him that we love him and we will keep his place warm and he knows that we love him.  But we cannot do this for him. When they say, ‘Letting go with love’ this is what they mean.

 

Gwen:             And you were actually able to let go with love and not basically relapse into the enabling behaviors?

 

Sandy:             Not anymore, I can say that in all honesty.  Not anymore.  Now I can say that it took a long time, but not anymore.  I would say that for two years, at least, that I have not enabled my son at all.  We have very careful interactions, I go to see him once a year, he’s down in Florida, I go down there to find him and hopefully see him, it doesn’t always work out.  But when it does we keep it at a time that works for him, we keep it where things are not too long where things can turn south.  So it has to be careful. 

 

If we’re together too long it would allow the opportunity possibly for manipulations and enabling’s to all start to rear their head.  But no, the important thing that he knows is I will not enable him, the addict, because I love my son and I tell him that.  And there was a time where that made him angry and now I think we’ve just come to a place where we both value the opportunity to get together and make a new memory because neither of us knows when we might have the opportunity to make another one.  And I think that Joey shows up at most of those meetings, not usually the addict.

 

Gwen:             And do you think that Joey showing up and not the addict has to do in large part with the fact that you did let go?  That there’s no longer this battle of wills going on between you?

 

Sandy:             I absolutely believe that.  I believe that once it was perfectly clear to him, as long as there’s a crumb, a little corner, a little something that he can work away at in order to manipulate, he will.  Any addict will.  So when it was absolutely clear that there was no manipulation to be had here, he tried for a while, he was mad for a while and then it stopped, it just stopped.  It was no longer part of our relationship at all. 

 

So yes, I do believe that once he knew the manipulation, the enabling door was slammed shut tight, that the love door was still wide open, it really changed everything.

 

Gwen:             But it has not impacted his sobriety, apparently he is still in active addiction, is that correct? 

 

Sandy:             I believe he is, I don’t ask him about his addiction when I see him.  I read the signs from his life because what I see shouts much more loudly than what I hear.  So everything that he might say I take with a grain of salt and I just observe his life.  My behaviors, which are the not enabling, would not necessarily make him become sober, but it’s not going to make it any easier for him to remain an addict.  So again, his behaviors are completely in his control, but we do have a way even though he’s an addict, to connect and he knows that he’s loved and he knows that he has quite a crew here with their arms wide open, hoping for him to make his way back.

 

Gwen:             Now once you made this major shift, how did it change the quality of your life in that of your family members?

 

Sandy:             Well it changed a lot of things because for years seriously I was consumed, consumed, consumed with fixing Joey and it freed my mind, heart and soul to be able to give back now to the rest of my family.  So that was huge.  And now I just didn’t have enough room in my brain to focus on anything else and now I did.  That was probably the biggest part of that.

 

Gwen:             I believe you got more involved in your community and there were also things that you’ve been able to support your other son in that you might not have had time for before.

 

Sandy:             Absolutely, absolutely.  And my younger son by then had gone off to college so we had some catching up to do.  I did start to do work in the community because I wasn’t able to do anything any longer to help my son, other than love him, I still had a maternal need to do something with all the love I had for him.  I started to work with youth in a group home, teaching them how to cook. 

 

My belief is that if I’m out there working with these young men, his mother at this time for whatever reason is unable to do something for them, somebody somewhere will be likely someday to do something for my son in a way that I can’t do for him.  So that helped me very much in order to have somewhere to put the care and love that I have for my son.

 

(Break)

 

Gwen:             Sandy, I know that parents of addicted children or really just not parents but even family members of addicts are very often subjected to manipulations, things which appeal to the kinder, more compassionate sides of those who really don’t understand addiction, the whole addiction scenario.  What are some things that you would advise people to be aware of that are almost always signs that you’re being manipulated by an addict?

 

Sandy:             Well there is a saying that, ‘Addicts are master manipulators for a reason’ and they really are.  It seems that there is no boundary to the manipulations.  And the addict, of course is trying to do everything it can to get what it wants and it will plow over everybody in its way.  So money of course is huge, I can’t tell you how many times I feel for loaning Joey money and it was always for a good reason.  And if I hadn’t done it I would have just felt horrible because he wouldn’t have had a roof over his head or food in his mouth or something like that. 

 

It wasn’t until much later of course that I realized that most of that was not true, that he would just do whatever it took; pull all the heart strings in order to get what it was that the addict needed.  So money, food, we did come to a point where Joey was asking for money because he was hungry and I remember his dad telling him, ‘Joey, you will never be hungry, if you’re hungry you come to our house, if you’re hungry call and we’ll go out to eat, but we’ll never again give you money’.  So Joey was just mad because of course, it wasn’t about being hungry, it was about trying to sway us into giving him money so he could go buy his drugs or whatever.

 

Gwen:             So if they say, ‘I need rent money’, you pay the rent, you don’t give them the money so they can go use it on drugs, I think that was one thing you learned.

 

Sandy:             Well actually I wouldn’t even give him the money; I wouldn’t even pay the rent either actually.  I would have done that at the beginning, I would have done that in the early on years, I would have thought, ‘That’s not enabling, I won’t give him the money for the rent directly, I would just pay the rent myself’.  But then now I realize even that is enabling because if he can’t pay his rent, he needs to suffer those consequences as well, so no, I wouldn’t even pay his rent.

 

Gwen:             Parents are going to say, ‘But I can’t bear to think that my child is going hungry or might be sleeping on the streets, I have to do this!’  What’s wrong with that?

 

Sandy:             My child has slept on the streets, my child has absolutely been homeless.  Could I have brought him home?  Could I have brought him in our bedroom, locked the door, put food under the door, kept him safe, a roof over his head, food for him?  Is he learning how to cope with life?  Who is keeping him sober, me or him?  If he gets out, if he escapes; has he learned anything?  No.  I do believe it is a horrible, impossible situation for a family to be in, to have to make these decisions, but I also believe that an addict will not hit bottom laying on a bed of roses.  I believe that an addict will hit bottom skating around on thin ice.

 

Gwen:             So the sooner you can allow this person to skate on thin ice the better, is that part of the way that you’re thinking has now changed?

 

Gwen:             That is, I would say that’s true.  I would say that if we make it easy for the addict to remain an addict, the more time the addict has to consume the child.  So yes, the sooner it is that we are not helping them to have the things that make life comfortable and easy for the addict, the sooner the child may decide this is the time to try to get help.

 

Gwen:             So this is a way to mentally prepare for turning their back on the addict.  And I like the way you make the distinction between the child and the addict and you call the addict, ‘the it’, and that’s a very powerful and good way to look at this.  By turning your back on ‘it’ on the ‘addict’ is it easier to do that if you can view it in the less personal way.

 

Sandy:             I truly believe it is the addict, that the addict has consumed the body of the child.  There’s no longer the child that we knew.  Anybody who loves an addict knows that the person behind that face isn’t the child speaking anymore.  And if we can remember that the child is in there and that is the one that we want to honor, and that is the one we want to support, and that is the one we want to live, to survive another day.  Now the addict does make it much easier for me to not enable. 

 

Again, though I would like to clarify that I don’t look at that as turning my back, I don’t believe that letting go is not the same as turning ones back on an addict.  It is simply stopping the behaviors, letting go of the behaviors that enable the addict to continue to consume the mind, body and soul of the child.  That is not turning ones back on the child, Joey knows with every ounce of his being that we love him and we would never turn our back on him.  That what we are doing is supporting him and not the addict.

 

Gwen:             And do you think this is the best way that a parent can mentally prepare him or herself for letting go is to actually see it as two entities?

 

Sandy:             Oh I don’t know if that’s the best way, that’s the way I’ve been able to cope with it.  That’s the best way that I can cope with it is to know that within my child’s body is he exists and the addict exists.  And my behaviors can support one or the other, and that is how I have been able to let go and that is how I can wake up every day and put one foot in front of the other.

 

Gwen:             Do you still have the hope and the dream that Joey will get clean and sober and come back into your lives as a whole person?

 

Sandy:             I believe that as long as he’s alive, there’s hope.  And I believe with any disease that can be treated as addiction can be, I believe that it’s within Joey’s power to get well.  So I always have hope.  Hope hurts, I’ve learned very much the hard way that hope hurts, but I do always have hope as long as he’s still alive.

 

Gwen:             Has he read your book do you know?

 

Sandy:             Yes, he actually has, he read it one time several years ago, he read the first bit of the manuscript and he was on the run from one side of Florida from trouble to more trouble on the other side.  And he read it on his iPhone, I don’t know if it was an iPhone but a phone on the bus and was actually after that was when the manipulation in our relationship changed.  He told me that he had no idea of everything that was going on behind him and I think that he read about my absolute conviction in no longer enabling him.  And possibly all the hurt and trauma that went on touched him, but the manipulation absolutely stopped after that, our relationship is just a different thing since he read the manuscript.

 

Gwen:             Very very interesting.  We just have about one more minute; is there anything that you would like to add for people listening to the show right now who are maybe going through the same battle that I haven’t asked you about?

 

Sandy:             I would say if you think there’s a problem there probably is.  And to not be concerned if the addict hates you because the addict is not the one that matters.  And even if you’re overreacting, it’s always better to take the loving action of trying to address the addiction, rather than being afraid of making a mistake or hoping that it will go away.

 

Gwen:             Sandy, before we close I would like you tell listeners how and when they can get a copy of your book and also how they can reach you, I know you have a very popular blog as well as the book.

 

Sandy:             The book, “The Joey’s Song” will be published by Central Recovery Press in September.  And my blog is at www.sandyswenson.com

 

Gwen:             Very good, thank you so much for your time.  It was very very fascinating and heart-warming and heart-breaking story all at the same time.

 

 

 

 

STUPID THINGS PEOPLE DO IN RECOVERY

 

Moderator:      Gwen Carden

Guest:             Allen Berger  

 

 

 

Gwen:             Have you ever done anything stupid?  Something that left you scratching your head and asking yourself, ‘what in the heck was I thinking’!  Maybe it took an hour, or a week, or a month, or even a year or two to realize what you had done.  But sooner or later when you’ve made a bad decision, you’re going to figure it out and you’re going to have to clean up the mess.

 

                        Stupid decisions aren’t fun for anyone, but they can be disastrous for people in recovery.  And that’s why our guest today, psychotherapist Dr. Allen Berger wrote a book called, “12 Stupid Things That Mess Up Recovery.”  On the heels of that book her wrote, “12 Smart Things to Do When the Booze and Drugs Are Gone.”  Dr. Berger has counseled thousands of addicts and is himself in recovery and that makes him very well qualified to talk to us today about some of the most common mistakes he’s seen people in recovery make.  He’ll also describe some of the boldest, healthiest ones he’s compiled over the years practiced by people who decided to grow up and take responsibility for their emotions and their actions.

 

                        Also these books are a lot of fun to read.  They have a lot of anecdotes, they’re chalk full of wisdom and guidance on all kinds of productive ways to look at ourselves and manage our lives. 

 

                        Welcome to the show, Dr. Berger.

 

Dr. Berger:      Well thank you, Gwen; it’s a pleasure to be here with you.  And I’m smiling over here thinking about how many stupid things I’ve done today, I think I lost track somewhere after ten or something like that.

 

Gwen:             Oh, so you’re not perfect either huh, even with everything you know?

 

Dr. Berger:      Oh no.

 

Dr. Gwen:       That’s comforting.  Dr. Berger, why don’t you start by telling listeners a little bit about yourself.

 

Dr. Berger:      I’d love to do that.  My journey started right after I came back from the Vietnam War.  I entered the Marine Corp when I was 17 years old; I had a serious alcohol problem, I was a teenage alcoholic; blackouts, dropped out of high school because of my drinking.  I was in serious trouble and I was thinking, what can I do, how can I turn things around?  And I decided that if I joined the Marine Corp that that would maybe have a positive impact on my life. So at 17 years old I needed my mother’s permission, I was able to join the Marine Corp. 

 

At 18 years old I was in Vietnam.  And now what was an alcoholic problem became an alcohol and problem with drugs other than alcohol. So I came back from Vietnam an addict, I was in serious trouble.  I was wanting to get out of the Marine Corp because I was just partying all the time and I knew eventually that was going to be a lot of trouble. So when I was in the Marine Corp I probably would end up in the brig or something. 

 

So through serendipity I ended up getting in trouble, or thinking I was in trouble and ended up being put into this program that was three days old.  And in fact I was the third Marine admitted in this program on the third day of the program’s inception.  So three is my lucky number, I love the number.  And the program saved my life.  I mean they had no idea what they were doing, this was back now in 1971.  So this whole recovery stuff was still very very limited, especially in the Marine Corp.  They had a policy, a zero tolerance policy for drug addicts, so if you had a problem you were shipped out of the Corp.  You were thrown in the brig and discharged.

 

So this was a new experiment for them.  They didn’t know what they were doing, but they knew they didn’t know what they were doing and they turned to the 12 step community in the town of Kailua that was right next to our base, I was on the island of Oahu and I was at the Kaneohe Marine Corp Air station.  So they turned to Kailua and there happened to be a group of young people there and on Tuesday nights, two of the young people from that group would come out and share with us and talk about recovery.  And that’s when my life changed. 

 

This young man named, Tom came out and he told his story; so here this hippy, right on the island that was living on the beaches in Hawaii when he got clean and sober was there sharing with all of these Marine Corp Vietnam Vets.  It was kind of a real weird juxtaposition right, the guy that probably protested the war with the guys that were fighting over there in the war. 

 

But Tom’s message was so authentic, was so real, was so genuine, Gwen that it moved me.  I was struck because I had never been that honest with anybody in my whole life and here Tom was, sharing from the deepest and darkest parts of his being and seemed to be free from himself.  And I wanted that, I mean I wanted that so badly.  Because the only time I felt that kind of freedom from myself was when I was actually drinking or getting high. 

 

And I went up to Tom afterwards and I said, ‘you know Tom, how did that happen, how did you get to this place that you’re at?’  And he said, ‘I’m a member of this 12 step fellowship and I work these 12 steps in my life, practice these principals and if you’re interested I can be your guide’.  And back in 1971, it was the summer of 1971, Tom became my sponsor and he remains my sponsor today.  So last year I celebrated over 42 years of being clean and sober.

 

Gwen:             Congratulations!  That is amazing!  At some point you got very highly educated, you certainly got extremely well known in this whole field of addiction.  But I have a feeling maybe you did a stupid thing or two in between as well, did you not?

 

Dr. Berger:      Oh, many many of them.  The question you’re saying about, I went and got my education; my recovery ended up being based on a couple different pillars.  And one of them was right after I got clean and sober I got excited about the possibilities of a new life.   And I got turned on to recover and I tell people this all the time, Gwen; it’s not the fear of what’s going to happen to you that’s going to keep you clean and sober.  Because us addicts, we get in trouble all the time and it doesn’t stop us, it really doesn’t.  It may stop us temporarily, but it’s not a long term fix in any way. 

 

But if you get excited, if you get interested in yourself and interested in a new way of life, that’s stable, that kind of motivation, well call it a ‘growth motivation’ is very strong and that woke up in me.  That was awakened when I heard Tom share.  And then the next thing that happened, after 60 days clean and sober they didn’t have any counselors, they asked me to come on board.

 

So now I started to sit and talk with other people and now a desire to help people awakened in me.  And that was the second thing that happened; I got so excited about the possibility of spending the rest of my life in being in service and helping people. 

 

Then the third thing is in doing that I said, you know it would be great if I could do this, if I could become a clinical psychologist and I was a high school dropout.  So it was a daunting goal at that point in my life, but I took my first class, it was oceanography and the island of Oahu is a wonderful place to take an oceanography class.

 

Gwen:             I bet!

 

Dr. Berger:      And I got excited about education.  So it was those three things that really carried my recovery and really helped me sink a strong foundation into my life about recovery.  And I went back to school in 1987, I graduated from the University of California, Davis was Ph.D. in clinical psychology. 

 

Gwen:             That is really amazing and look what you’ve gone on to do with your life.

 

Dr. Berger:      That’s the miracle of this recovery for me is I’ve gotten a chance to share this with so many other people and to share my thoughts and my ideas.  And “12 Stupid Things”, the book you’re talking about has become very very popular, it’s remaining in the top ten on amazon.  It’s sold you know probably now it’s closer to 60,000 copies, it’s really popular because it speaks to people. 

 

See, what I realized that I needed to do in sharing this, and this was an important thing in my recovery, Gwen is that I was always afraid of admitting what was true about me.  I had these ideas of who I should be for me to be okay, and that concept of who I should be never included admitting anything was wrong with me.  Especially that I did stupid things.

 

But what I found was is that as soon as I was able to admit these things and start facing some of these things, my life would change.  And that was the power of paradox that I discovered in the program; as soon as I own what I’m doing and what’s really happening, now some new possibilities open up for me.  But without owning it, that never happens.  So if I try to be someone that I’m not I can never change.  And that becomes such an important part of this process of recovery. 

 

Gwen:             Well, I would like very much to get into some of the stupid things that mess up recovery.  What is your number one favorite stupid thing that you hear people in recovery talking about doing time and time again?

 

Dr. Berger:      Well, the one thing that stands out in my practice a lot, you know things I hear from other people that are in the field and that are in recovery is believing that if you’re let say you’re an alcoholic, that my problem is only with alcohol.  And therefore I can go ahead and smoke some marijuana, or take some Xanax, or use some other kinds of drugs and I’m going to be okay. 

 

                        And the reverse is also true; I’ve heard people that have drug problems say, ‘oh, I was addicted to heroin, but I think this drinking thing is going to be okay, I can do some drinking, I can smoke some marijuana’.  And what I know to be true is that the brain doesn’t distinguish between the drug you’re using.  The research that we have today, Gwen about this being a brain disease, and it’s not the only way to understand it but it’s a good way to understand it.  The brain changes, you’ve changed it, its irreversible, you’re not going to be able to use like a normal person and that’s the other stupid thing people do, they say, ‘I just wish I could be normal and use like someone else’.  And when they do that, they set themselves up for relapse. 

 

Gwen:             Is that because they have the expectation that if they just try hard enough that they probably can use like other people?

 

Dr. Berger:      That is exactly it, that’s right on!  They have this idea that somehow if I try harder, if I only drink this, or if I only use that, if I try to control it this way or that way, that the results are going to be different.  But what do we say, the definition of insanity is, ‘trying the same thing’ and you hear a lot of people say, ‘and expecting the same results or different results’.  What I say is that we don’t expect different results, we expect better results. 

 

When somebody tries to manage and control their use of drugs, regardless of what kind of drugs it is, it’s going to result in a disaster.  A total disaster and I’ve seen it so many times.  And it’s like I said remember, people don’t change until they accept who they are and saying that, ‘I am powerless, there is something different about me, I have an allergy, I cannot and do not react and respond to the use of drugs like other people’.  When somebody can really admit that and accept that, then their life begins to change.

 

Gwen:             That’s a good thing to know and I do hear that among people who do come in to see me, I’m a therapist at a treatment center and they will say to me just exactly what you said, ‘I used heroin, but I’ve never had any problem with alcohol and when I leave her I’ll just stay off the heroin but I know I can go out and drink with my friends’. 

 

                        That is definitely a stupid, I guess a stupid thing that could mess up your recovery big time.

 

Dr. Berger:      Big time and it may not happen right away.  This isn’t the kind of thing that if I drank once I would be out of control.  But what we know, eventually you’re going to end up out of control and that’s the problem with this is that we cannot predict when you’re going to lose that control.

 

Gwen:             So if you have an addiction problem, all substances need to be off the table, period?

 

Dr. Berger:      That’s your best bet; your best bet is total abstinence, that’s your best bet.  That ensures that you give yourself the best chance.  And when we think about this, think about this, what a crazy idea it is is that I’ve got a problem and that somehow I want to play Russian roulette and control this problem.  Now if somebody played Russian roulette, you say that there’s something wrong with them that they want to play Russian roulette.  Why take the risk that when you rotate that chamber on the gun that the bullet is going to blow your head off this time, the bullet is going to be chambered.

 

Gwen:             When you put it like that, I think that really makes a whole lot of sense.

 

(Break)

 

Gwen:             We talked about one of the most common stupid things that you talked about in your book.  How about number two, Dr. Berger, what would you say is also pretty much in the top of that list?

 

Dr. Berger:      Well I think the second one has to do with really what motivated me to write my second and third books and it has to do with making amends to people we’ve hurt.  And one of the things that people avoid when they go into recovery is going back and facing the people that they’ve really damaged and that they’ve hurt.  And I understand that, it’s hard to go face people that you’ve ripped off, you’ve stolen from, you betrayed.  But without that step in place, without going back and being willing to take responsibility for what you’ve done and take responsibility to try to make that person whole, you’re never going to have real peace of mind and you can never have emotional sobriety. 

 

And we’ll get into what that is in a minute, but it’s really the gateway into that whole area of what in  psychotherapy, Gwen and you know this, is that we’re talking about is as emotional self-regulation; is how can I stay balanced?  How can I regulate myself, modulate the emotions I have so that overall I’m able to stay balanced in my life.  Well, if you’re in recovery and you haven’t made amends then you’re never going to be able to find that kind of peace of mind.  You know we are wired in such a way is that we need to take care of unfinished business.  And the alcoholic and addict has years and years of unfinished, incomplete business that they need to finish when they’re in recovery.

 

Now one of the things that makes this hard is a lot of us that are addicts have totally, are pain phobic right, we run from it, that’s a big reason that we used.  So we’re having to exercise a muscle in recovery that we’ve never developed, and that’s the ability to have a meaningful endurance around our discomfort and pain and to be able to face these things so that we can start to grow up. 

 

So when somebody doesn’t do this, I think it’s also a setup for relapse, they’re heading for relapse because they’re not going to have that strong foundation in their recovery and they’re going to end up having a lot of what Fred Holmquist from Hazelton calls, ‘sober suffering’.  And that sober suffering oftentimes leads back to drinking and using again.

 

Gwen:             So but making amends actually empowers the person to move ahead in their sobriety?

 

Dr. Berger:      Yes, it is an empowering activity, it’s an empowering event.  And it’s such a powerful thing to see that you know what, I just don’t have to continue to beat myself up over these things.  There’s a way I can come to peace with myself and with others for the things that I’ve done wrong.

 

Gwen:             So when you’re not making amends then you’re pretty much staying stuck in a place where it’s not good for you to be stuck in.

 

Dr. Berger:      You’re right on; you’re avoiding, you’re doing what you did before, you’re giving way too much power to the worst part of you, the part that is avoiding.  And you’re not empowering the part of you that is so much better than that part and that’s the part of you that wants to grow up and to face these things and to learn from them and to take responsibility.

 

Gwen:             Very good.  What’s another common, stupid thing that you cover in your book?  

 

Dr. Berger:      I think sometimes there’s an attitude for people that are in the 12 step community to think that they can address all of the problems they have with the 12 steps.  And I think that can really set people up.  Sponsors are wonderful people, like I shared with you my sponsor, Tom made such a difference in my life, he saved my life several times.  But he’s not a marriage counselor, he’s not a psychotherapist, and as good intentioned and as meaning as he is he’s got limitations in terms of what he was able to help me with. 

 

And I think a lot of people that get stuck and are struggling with something, like let’s say even stuck and struggling with making amends and having a hard time working through that resistance.  Boy that would be a good candidate to go into therapy and to get some help to understand the resistance that they’re experiencing and to get some support in working it through.  See that’s a level of sophistication that a sponsor is not going to be able to bring to someone.

 

                        Or let’s say somebody that gets sober and their partner is having a difficult time trusting them again.  And they are having a difficult time of letting go of some of the things that’s happened, even despite that the person has made amends.  Well that couple are great candidates to go into couple’s therapy with someone who understands addictions and to help start to learn a dialogue that can create a better connection between the two of them and hopefully can foster some forgiveness.

 

                        So therapy for me was so important in my recovery at every stage of the game, Gwen.  And I just see that there’s a lot of people that think, ‘well, the 12 steps should be able to help me with everything’.  And I think that that can be a stupid thing that can really limit you and set up you.  Because look, the top three reasons for relapse are someone’s having an emotional problem, they have dysphoria and they don’t know how to get a handle on their emotions.  They feel bad and so pretty soon all they think about is going back to using because they have too much anxiety or too much depression. 

 

                        The second reason is that people have relationship problems and they don’t know what to do to turn the trouble around.  And then the third thing is chronic pain.  All three of those things, you can get so much help if you turn to the right professional.

 

Gwen:             And is there a sign or a point at which you can identify that hey, this is really not enough for me, this is a great foundation, I have a lot of support, but I need to look outside for additional help.  How do you sense when that’s not enough?

 

Dr. Berger:      Well if you’re applying your principles that you’re learning in your program to the problem and you’re not seeing any kind of progress, I think within a month I would tell people. That quickly probably to say, ‘hey, it’s probably not going to happen and go and get some help’.  Look, what’s the downside of getting help?  Maybe you learn a few more things than you need, there’s no downside, right?  So go out there, do it sooner than later is what I would tell everybody.  But after a month, if you’re really really working on it and you’re still stuck, go out and get some additional help.

 

Gwen:             And for most people will addictions, there are often called, ‘co-occurring disorders’, in other words there already was depression or there already was anxiety or trauma or other kinds of disorders that were in place that may have even contributed to the addiction.  So those are not going to go away just because you are now sober.

 

Dr. Berger:      That’s right.  Look, our life was not on a great trajectory before, that’s the way I say it to people.  Our life was not on a great trajectory before the addiction, before the onset of the addiction, so there’s no question that we all struggle with learning how to live in this life. 

 

Scott Peck’s book, wasn’t that great, “The Road Less Traveled.”  We all struggle with problems and very few people go to get the help, but that’s where we can really grow is by turning to people who have some ability to help us.  And there’s some very good healers out there, there are some very good therapists, there are some very good people that are sensitive to what’s happening in recovery and can also help you find some better ways to deal with what’s going on.

 

Gwen:             And when you don’t deal with those issues as you mentioned, then you’re much more likely to relapse because you just can’t handle everything that’s going on outside of those rooms and outside of your program.

 

Dr. Berger:      That’s right on, that’s exactly it, that’s exactly the point.

 

Gwen:             Let’s go into another stupid theme, we may have to break before we’ve completely discussing it.  But what would be another stupid thing that people really identify with in your book?

 

Dr. Berger:      Well I think the next thing is and we’ve been kind of talking about it, but believing that all you need to do is put the plug in the drug, or stop drinking and using.  And that you’re okay once you just get the drug, whether its alcohol or other drugs out of your life, and that really is such a limiting belief.  As we’re talking about, you know alcoholism, drug addiction, I think they’re a symptom of some other underlying conditions, right, that somebody’s struggling with.  There’s some basic flaw in our character that needs to be addressed. 

 

And what people don’t realize is that in the steps, the steps just talk about drinking and the first step, after that all steps are directed at helping people identify their basic flaw and trying to correct that.  So somehow thinking that all I have to do is stop drinking and my life is going to be okay is really stupid, it’s so stupid.  Because there’s so much more and that’s the kind of thing, sometimes stupid things aren’t that they’re just going to cause you problems, but that they cut you off from other possibilities, they cut you off from something that can be nourishing to you. 

 

And that’s what this one is, is there are so many possibilities, there can be so much growth, you can expand your consciousness so much in recovery, which is what’s kept me excited about it.  Look, I’m at over 42 years now and I think I have as much excitement and zest and zeal for this subject as I did over 42 years ago.  And that’s because I continue to learn and grow in this process.  And where else do you experience that you know, it’s such an amazing thing to be involved in this process that continues to unfold. 

 

And so I think it can be very very limiting to people to just think that, you know once I put the plug in the jug, my problem is solved.

 

(Break)

 

Gwen:             Before we go onto the smart things, Dr. Berger, how about giving us one more stupid thing that a lot of us can probably resonate with?

 

Dr. Berger:      Well this is one that haunted me a lot in my life, so it’s very personal and it’s the belief that life should be easy.  That somehow I developed this attitude that somehow life was just supposed to work out for you and I laugh about it now, but I tortured myself terribly with this.  So that whenever difficulty would come my way instead of embracing it because it is what it is, I would get upset about it; I’d start to have a pity party, invite you over so we could all join my pity party and sit around and go, ‘whoa is me’. 

 

                        But what I realize and it was interesting how this happened, Gwen, part of my recovery has been understanding what it means to be a man and the journey I’ve been on as a man.  So whenever I had an opportunity to participate in the men’s movement and some of the things that were being discussed in there I took advantage of it.  And one of the things I did probably over 20 years ago now is I went to a weekend that initiated men into manhood.  And it was phenomenal! 

 

I think of myself as spiritual, I’m not religious, but the leader of this weekend was a Roman Catholic priest by the name of Father Richard Rohr.  Father Richard Rohr does a lot of these kinds of weekends where he’s initiated men into manhood.  And I had heard him speak before on men and spirituality, I learned a tremendous amount and I was very eager to go through this experience.  So we go through this and I’ll tell you a quick story about how it opened up, is that you were supposed to bring three t-shirts; two white t-shirts, no logos on it, and one black t-shirt.  You can’t have a t-shirt that said, ‘men rule’ or something like that, just white, just plain generic Hanes t-shirts.

 

The day we started you showed up with your white t-shirt and you brought your black t-shirt.  And Richard went on and this is how every session started, he would go on and talk about the false self and how men develop such a false self, he called it the ‘imperial self’ because it feels like it has to be in control and know everything and all this other stuff.  And as he was going through this, two monks were walking around the room and they were holding this mirror and they were asking each man to project their false self into this mirror. 

 

So he’s going on talking, the monks are moving around the room, there was about 170 men in this room, it was like a big Viking hall.  And they took the mirror into the center of the room and leaned it up against this big column that was an oak tree I’m sure at one point.  And then at some signal this one monk threw red pain on it, the other monk picked up a hammer and smashed the mirror and then we all tore off our t-shirts, our white t-shirts.  And you could see what a great visual image that is isn’t it; 170 guys, mirrors shattering, paint flying all over it and 170 guys ripping off their shirt.

 

So this was the beginning of the weekend because that white shirt was our false self.  And we put on a black shirt in order to grieve it.  Because he talked about it and I really saw that in my life is that so much of my identity was in this concept of who I thought I should be.  It wasn’t in who I was, there wasn’t a lot of room for who I was and who I thought I should be, which is unfortunate.  It makes it hard to live your life when there’s no room for you in it.  But that’s what I did to myself, right.

 

So at the end of this weekend we go through these rituals all the time and then we’d spend three hours sitting alone and meditating and writing and reflecting, it was a very powerful weekend.  At the end of the weekend you were supposed to draw a circle, a 10 foot diameter circle and sit in it and he handed you an envelope.  And after three hours you were supposed to open the envelope, but before you opened it you had to think about, what were the four things that stood out over this weekend? 

 

And so I sat there thinking about what this really meant to me and the first thing that came to me is I had this belief that life should be easy.  And that was the first thing Richard wanted us to realize, is that life was not easy, there was going to be a lot of challenges.  And if I have the expectation that it should be easy, that when trouble hits then all I can do is get upset about it, instead of digging into the experience and seeing the lesson that I need to learn that’s inherent in the experience. 

 

Gwen:             And maybe going and using to make yourself feel better?

 

Dr. Berger:      You got it!  That’s all that I would do, I would try to use to deal with what was going on in life.  And here I was learning that you know, I didn’t need to feel better, I wasn’t going to break up just because I was in some pain and uncomfortable.  And if I held still and really showed up for the lesson, I could learn and I could grow. 

 

                        So to me, this believing that life should be easy is such a stupid thing that keeps us from realizing who we are and that we’re much more than that idea says we are.  Does that make sense?

 

Gwen:             Yes it does, it absolutely does.  Let’s move into the “12 Smart Things to Do When the Booze and Drugs are Gone.”  I have a hard time saying that without tripping over that, I wouldn’t want to say that three times fast.

 

Dr. Berger:      Because I did the “Stupid Things”, we had to balance the equation out in some way and we couldn’t just leave the stupid things dangling out there without giving people some smart things.  So really the title of the book, I would have rather it been something like, “Emotional Sobriety: What it is and How to get it in Your Life.”  I mean I think that’s a better title and probably easier to say at the same time. 

 

But that’s what the book is about, it’s really about this whole topic that’s so important because we go back to what I said, one of the stupid things was believing that putting the jug or the plug in the jug is enough. Well emotional sobriety is the next step in recovery.  Earnie Larsen described this as Stage II Recovery; in Stage II Recovery we’re learning how to have healthy relationships.  In order to have a healthy relationship I need to learn how to take care of myself when I’m in a relationship with you.  I need to learn how to soothe myself, I need to learn how to lick my wounds, I need to learn how to stay balanced, I need to learn how to be thoughtful in my responses to you rather than just react to you.

 

So this whole thing of emotional sobriety has to do with keeping balance.  And the way I say it is that emotional sobriety is about being connected to someone you care about and being able to keep a sense of yourself and not get lost in the connection.  Now that sounds like such a basic, easy thing to do, but you and I know, Gwen in the work we do, people have so much trouble not getting lost in their relationships.  And that’s what this emotional sobriety thing is all about, it’s allowing you to hold onto yourself, keeping your shape and not getting lost in the relationship and not getting lost in what other people think about you.

 

Gwen:             I think that really the crux of this “12 Smart Things” is how to be a grownup, how to truly be a grownup. 

 

Dr. Berger:      That’s a great way to say, I think that fits because a big part of this emotional sobriety comes when we realize how emotionally immature we are and that we have to grow up.  And that we have to start to deal with relationships as an adult.  I remember this one great book that this guy wrote, I can’t remember the name of the author now but it was, “How to be an Adult in a Relationship” and I love the title because I never was.

 

Gwen:             I want to know, are you now?

 

Dr. Berger:      Sometimes, if you ask my wife she’ll still say, ‘sometimes he can still be a pissy baby’.  But I’m a lot less of a pissy baby today than I was 20 years ago.

 

Gwen:             So what is another good smart thing that you want people to know?

 

Dr. Berger:      Well I think the first thing is, is its very important when you get upset to be able to look inside yourself and understand what’s really going on.  So the first thing I talk about is the first smart thing to do is to learn how to take an emotional inventory, which means to learn how to unpack your response to someone when you’re upset. 

 

                        See what we learn in recovery is that every time that I’m disturbed, that I’m upset, there’s something wrong with me.  It’s not that you’re difficult, it’s not that you’re a problem, it’s not that you’re being unkind or whatever it is, if I’m upset with you there’s something going on with me that I need to understand. 

 

So in “12 Smart Things” one of the things I did was I took this letter that Bill Wilson wrote and I would encourage all of your listeners to look it up.  It’s available on a PDF on the internet, if you just type in ‘Bill Wilson’s letter’ and do a Google search, it’s going to show up for you.  And I would encourage them to read it because Bill Wilson after 21 years, this is the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, he wrote this letter, well first of all let me set it up.  He got a letter from someone who was depressed and said, ‘Bill, how can I apply the steps that I’m learning in terms of dealing with my alcoholism to deal with my depression’?  

 

And Bill as most people know who struggled with depression his whole life and not only did he get a lot of spiritual direction and help from people in the spiritual community and the religious community, but he also turned to therapy.  And in fact the psychiatrist that he talked a lot to was Harry Tebow, which is the first psychiatrist that befriended Alcoholics Anonymous.  And Dr. Tebow helped Bill understand a lot of that what was going on with him in terms of what was underlying his depression.

 

So Bill wrote this letter, it was published two years later in the Grapevine called, “Emotional Sobriety: The Next Frontier” is the way that it was titled in the Grapevine.  And in this letter Bill talks about the insights that he developed into himself about what happened that caused his depression.  And what he realized is that he made, well the first thing he realized is that his self-esteem was dependent on everybody else.  That if everybody approved of Bill, went along with what he wanted, you know accommodated his need, then he was okay. 

 

But as soon as people didn’t respond to him in the way that he thought they should or that he wanted them to, he would fight, he would try to get his way.  And when they didn’t cooperate he felt defeated and became depressed.

 

Gwen:             So the very thing he feared the most become the reality.

 

Dr. Berger:      You got it!  Isn’t that so true, right, anything that we resist, persist doesn’t it?  So he shared all these insights and he realized is that what was going on is that every time that he was upset, whether it was a big thing or a little thing, that underneath that upset was some unhealthy demand and the unhealthy dependence that spawned that demand. 

 

                        So what does that mean?  So what Bill said is that he realized that when people didn’t go along with what he wanted, that he had a demand that was unconscious, but his demand was, ‘you have to go along with what I say and if you don’t go along with what I say, it means that you don’t love me or you don’t care about me’. 

 

                        And so he has all of these claims on his relationships that made it very very difficult for him to keep his balance.  Because if my emotional wellbeing depends on what you’re doing and how you’re being with me, then I’m not in control of my life, you have the control. 

 

Gwen:             And that’s a very dangerous thing to do.

 

(Break) 

 

Gwen:             Before the break we were talking about some of the smart things to do when the booze and drugs are gone.  So Dr. Berger, can you give us a couple of more before we have to close the show?

 

Dr. Berger:      Yeah, let me take our listeners through the inventory real quick, let me take them through that so they can see how to do it themselves.  So the first thing what I ask people to do with this inventory and I can send you the PDF of this, Gwen if you want to make it available on your page so people can just download it as a PDF file.

 

Gwen:             That would be great.

 

Dr. Berger:      Yeah, so I’ll send that to you after the show.  But here’s what they do; in the first column they write down what upset them and I’ll just give you a quick example from my practice.  So this guy had about six months of sobriety, he came home from the meeting, he had a token, right they give out a six month token, he showed it to his wife and says, ‘hey honey, I’ve got six months’ and his wife looked up at him from the couch, I guess she was watching “Bones” or something, and she said, ‘so what’. 

 

He was crushed, he was crushed.  He goes upstairs and he’s pouting, slams the door to the room and now he starts fantasizing, ‘well I’ll show her, I’ll go out and drink’.  And then he goes, ‘well that would be stupid because that kind of confirms that she’s still upset with me, I’ll just not talk to her for several days’.  So he withdraws from her.

 

                        So that’s what he did, that was his response and there are three kinds of responses that people typically have, either we withdraw, we become people pleasers, or we try to control the other person.  So he took to withdrawal, he emotionally withdrew from her.  And then it went to the next column is what was the demand that he was making?  Well his demand, and this is part of the story I didn’t say, he wanted her to be excited about his six months of recovery regardless of the fact that this had been the third time that he had gotten six months, Gwen.

 

                        So she was sitting there, she didn’t want to set herself up and jump on the bandwagon again, because she was afraid she was going to get hurt.  So she was sitting there saying, ‘I’m from Missouri, this is the show me state, you’ve got to show me what you’re going to do this time, I’m not going to get jump up and down and celebrate.

 

                        So then in the next column what you write down is what was your unhealthy dependence; and it was that his recovery was based on her validating it.  So his good feelings about his recovery was based on the fact that she had to feel good about it and she wasn’t at a place yet where she had worked through the feelings that she had. 

 

So when people can do this inventory and start to see their demands and the unhealthy dependence, then they have a chance to unhook themselves. And that’s the fifth column; what do you need to do to unhook yourself, to unhook other people from your demands to be able to stay centered?  And what he needed to do was to remind himself that he’s doing his recovery for his sake because he has this problem and he wants to turn this around.  Not to get her to validate it.

 

So it’s very important, if you want to do a smart thing in your recovery, understand your emotions, understand what’s causing your reactions, understand your basic flaw so you can start working with it and start doing something about it.

 

Gwen:             And can you get someone to help you with that?  Sometimes we can’t always identify so clearly.

 

Dr. Berger:      You’re right on, Gwen.  So sometimes you need to go to a therapist to help you identify, some sponsors can do it.  I think if people pick up my book, that “12 Smart Things”, they can get some guidance in reading the book.  Because I give several different examples in there throughout in terms of those demands that we place on other people.

 

Gwen:             Okay, sounds like great advice.  We probably have time for one or two smart things, so go for it.

 

Dr. Berger:      Alright, well listen, I think this one is very important is that what happens is, if I don’t pressure myself to change, meaning if I don’t take responsibility for who I am and more importantly, for who I’m not, and pressure myself to start growing up what happens is I force all those other people around me to start pressuring me to be different. 

 

                        So one of the smartest things that somebody can do in their recovery is start to get honest with themselves about who they’re not.  And where they have struggle, and where they have problems, and to start pressuring themselves to make that change instead of being pressured by other people.  And as soon as people start taking that responsibility, Gwen, a funny thing happens, all those people in their life that were pressuring them before stops pressuring them because now they’re taking responsibility for what they need to do. They’re taking responsibility for growing up in their lives and they no longer are being pressured by those people.

 

Gwen:             But it can take the other people awhile to figure that out I would think, or is it a quick change?

 

Dr. Berger:      You know I think it’s pretty fast; when somebody starts to say, ‘look, you’re right, I see the point you’re making about me and I’m going to take responsibility for that’.  And if somebody follows through and starts to do that, I think that response can be pretty quick.

 

Gwen:             Well that’s good, so we all like instant gratification when possible, instant gratification with a benefit to you is a pretty good package.

 

Dr. Berger:      Very good package.

 

Gwen:             Great, so what else?

 

Dr. Berger:      Alright, one other one; stop taking things personally.  I had the good fortune to be trained and mentored by Dr. Walter Kempler, who was a pioneer in family therapy, in Gestalt family therapy, so I’m a Gestalt therapist.  And one of the things that Walter said and resonated so deeply to me was that, ‘in order to be more personal, you have to stop taking things personally’. I mean what a brilliant observation he made, ‘in order to be more personal, you have to stop taking things personally’. 

 

And that’s at the heart of this problem; you see when I take everything you’re doing personally, then I get knocked off balance because I think you’re doing what you’re doing because of your feelings towards me.  And when I stop to really think about it and when I get to know you better, then I start to see that you do what you do because of who you are, not because of your feelings towards me. 

 

And I can’t tell you the amount of freedom and space that creates in relationships when people get it.  So it’s another way, because remember, all of these ways that I’m talking about right now, these smart things are ways to help keep yourself centered.  And you can get really centered very quick when you stop taking things personally.

 

Gwen:             Well, I see people every day on the roads who take it very personally if somebody cuts them off, I mean that’s not really relationships but people get themselves all worked up over that.

 

Dr. Berger:      That’s right and in California you get shot at.  It’s crazy, isn’t it?  It’s like how dare you drive your vehicle in a way when you’re not aware of me. 

 

Gwen:             So is it kind of a narcissistic way of looking at yourself?

 

Dr. Berger:      There’s definitely a narcissistic component to this whole thing isn’t there?

 

Gwen:             Yes, yes, but it gives you some peace, it gives you an ability I think if you’re not taking things personally.  I like what you said, ‘it’s not really about me, it’s about you’, then you can feel maybe a little kinder towards the person who may have done or said something that didn’t feel very good.

 

Dr. Berger:      What a great point you’re making because if I take it personally I’m not going to have compassion towards you.  I’m going to try to stop you from doing what you’re doing, or make you feel bad about it, or whatever maneuver that I have to try to deal with it.  But if I see it as something that you’re doing, then I can be available to have compassion for you.  That’s a great point, Gwen.

 

Gwen:             Well thank you, you’re just so good at helping me recognize my own self-esteem.  I was going to say giving me self-esteem, but I knew you would call me on that one.

 

Dr. Berger:      That emotional dependency, right.

 

Gwen:             That’s right, I have to be careful when I talk to people like you, I have to choose my words carefully.

 

                        Well, that’s all we have time for today and it’s been a fascinating discussion with lots of food for thought.  I do want to thank you, Dr. Allen Berger for taking time out of your busy day to be on “Break the Chains.”  You jumped absolutely jumped through a lot of hoops to be here so I do appreciate that. 

 

                        You can order the two books that we talked about today, plus other great books that Dr. Berger has authored on a variety of topics from Amazon, which is where he said the best prices are.  But also go and take a look at his website as well, where he has audio CD’s and a lot of really good other reference materials.  His website is www.abphd.com 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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DRUGS AND THE BRAIN

 

 

 

Host:               Gwen Carden 

Guest:             Dr. Michael Kuhar

                       

 

Gwen:             It’s a pretty sure bet that every person who has ever become addicted to a psychoactive substance has asked him or herself at one time or another, why me?  How is it that some people can use the same substance that I’m addicted to and never have a problem?  How can my friend, Susan go to a cocktail party and have one glass of wine and she’s fine?  But I go to that same party and I have a glass of wine and I want ten!

 

                        Well for many years it was believed that substance abusers were simply morally bankrupt, or had poor willpower, or well maybe they just wanted to be degenerate.  But thanks to a lot of research over the years, we now know that addiction has nothing to do with morals or willpower, or any other sort of character flaw.  Instead it has everything to do with the brain and the environment that addicts live in. 

 

                        To help clarify some of the mysteries of addiction I’ve invited to the show today, Dr. Michael Kuhar.  Dr. Kuhar is author of a fascinating and informative book called, “The Addicted Brain; Why We Abuse Drugs, Alcohol and Nicotine.”  Dr. Kuhar has way too many titles to repeat here so I’m just going to mention a couple of them; he is a professor at Emory University’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta, and he is former chief of the Neuroscience Branch at the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

 

                        Welcome to the show, Dr. Kuhar.

 

Dr. Kuhar:       Well thank you for having me, it’s a pleasure to be here.

 

Gwen:             Well it’s a pleasure on my end as well.  I want to start by asking the question I posed at the top of the show; how is it that some people can use a substance, sometimes repeatedly, and they don’t get addicted and yet another person winds up in addictions clutches with very little exposure to that substance?

 

Dr. Kuhar:       Well that’s the $10 Million dollar question; we don’t really know exactly why some people are so vulnerable.  Most people can walk away from drugs, but not everybody does.  And so some people seem much more vulnerable to drug use and drug abuse than others.  We have some ideas, some sort of things about the brain and things about personalities that will tell us who is more likely to be addicted.  But it’s not an equation, we don’t know enough to be able to write an equation.  For example, we can only say if someone has more risk factors than another person, but we can’t say for sure who will become an addict or drug abuser.

 

Gwen:             What are some of the risk factors?

 

Dr. Kuhar:       Well as you might guess, heredity is a risk factor; if your parents or siblings or other relatives abuse drugs than the chances are, the odds are that you will abuse drugs as well.  But notice that I stressed ‘odds’ because genetics are not a certainty in the drug addiction field.  No single gene causes drug addiction.  Detailed studies say that genetics influence your likelihood of becoming an addict by about 50%, so genetics only make up half of it.  You can’t really say that the reason I take drugs is because my parents did, that just doesn’t hold up under scientific scrutiny.  But your genes do seem to matter. 

 

                        The other major factor of course is environment, the availability of drugs.  If drugs weren’t available then there wouldn’t be any addicts.  So availability of drugs is a big deal, an important risk factor. 

 

                        Also if you compare groups of addicts with groups of non-addicts you can see certain differences between them.  For example, the addicts will rate higher on tests of thrill seeking and impulsiveness.  And so maybe that’s not surprising.  Also, if you look at addicts and non-addicts, you’ll find that non-addicts have stronger family ties; they probably go to schools where there’s a lot of advertising about the evils of drugs, information on drugs.  They are good academically; they have a lot of fun in areas that don’t have the involvement of drugs.

 

So there are a lot of things that tend to make people at higher risk for drug use.  And of course the group that we worry about most, Gwen is the children.  People who are hooked on drugs very often started taking drugs very young.  And so we try to focus prevention and treatment on children so that it’s not a lifelong problem.  I mean it’s sort of a sad thing that one wrong move as a child or young person can create endless trouble and misery in your life, that’s a very sad but nevertheless seems to be true situation.

 

Gwen:             Do you mean just one try, trying a substance one time is that what you are referring to when someone is 12 or 13 years old?

 

Dr. Kuhar:       Well again, it varies, drug abuse is complex.  But some people really get set on taking drugs after one drug use.  Now you may not become dependent and addicted after one use, but you may want the drug psychologically for a number of reasons after a single use. 

 

Gwen:             Right, but you were referring to one misfortune or unfortunate thing that someone would do that could set a course for their lifetime.  Were you referring particularly to young people that we were talking about, that it’s doing something to the brain at that point and time that can completely set them off in the wrong direction?

 

Dr. Kuhar:       Yes, yes I was, right.  The brain is the organ of behavior and everything you feel has something to do with a reaction in the brain.

 

Gwen:             So is there any way that a person can predict if they are any more at risk for drug abuse than say their friend?  Statistically, I know you were saying you can look at the environment and in a deeper sense, genetics.  But if you are just an individual, do you have any way of knowing how much you are endangering yourself if you do go there?

 

Dr. Kuhar:       Yeah, I think you do.  For example, if many people in your family use drugs, than it’s likely that you have some genetic predisposition.  And if you do than I think it’s very smart of you to look at your other risk factors, your personality factors, your environment.  And sometimes talking with a professional is the best way to do that, they know what the risk factors are, they can help you identify them and they can help you manage them so that your chances of becoming involved in drugs is less.

 

                        And the other thing, you know when you talk about risk factors you have to talk about protective factors.  Certain behaviors, or certain kinds of personality traits are protective and you can cultivate them.  Like for example, being good academically, doing sports, having strong family relationships.  If you’re a parent monitoring your child or children is a good protective factor and so forth.  So we want to reduce risk factors and enhance protective factors.

 

Gwen:             You mentioned something a minute ago, something that was interesting, you used more of a scientific term but I’m going to use an unscientific term.  If someone is what we call an, ‘adrenaline junky’ from what I understand is a pretty big risk factor because what’s going on in their mind, ‘I can handle it, I like risk, I like the thrill of just doing something I’m not supposed to do’.  What’s going on psychologically with people who are those risk-takers?

 

Dr. Kuhar:       Well I think adrenaline junky refers to people who like thrills; they are thrill seekers, somewhat impulsive and those things, the thrill-seeking and impulsiveness, those things are risk factors for drug use.

 

                        Some people are very adventurous, have a good time trying new things and that’s the positive side of being open.  The negative side is that you might try and become open to the wrong things, namely drugs and that could get you in trouble.

 

Gwen:             But someone listening to this who is a risk-taker is probably not going to pay attention to this because they are going to figure, I can handle it.  So it’s probably more up to the people who love that person to keep them a little bit under their thumb if they can.  It would seem to me like someone wouldn’t even worry about it if they are a big risk-taker.

 

Dr. Kuhar:       That is definitely true.  One of the personality traits or one of the attitudes that you find in drug users is a confidence that they can stop at any time.  And some can, but not everyone does.  So this sort of having a blind spot about drug use and its dangers is probably true in a lot of cases of people who are taking drugs.  Some people realize that they are in the clutches of a terrible thing and they know that they’ve got a problem and that they can’t stop.  But a lot of people don’t know that and in fact don’t realize the trouble they are in as you said.

 

Gwen:             I do hear a lot of times people will say, ‘Well I was self-medicating’ and they might not necessarily be risk-takers but, ‘I started on drugs because I had social anxiety and it made me feel like I belonged’.  Or, ‘I was really depressed and it allowed me to get out and do things and be out in the real world’.  Are these common factors in the backgrounds of drug addicts?

 

Dr. Kuhar:       Absolutely, I think you’re touching on something that’s really important.  Many, big fractions of drug users have what we call a ‘comorbid diagnosis’.  In other words, they have other problems.  You mentioned anxiety; people might take alcohol to reduce social anxiety.  People might take alcohol to reduce stress; stress is a major problem among drug users.  So having other problems is often a factor in drug use, self-medication.  And the answer to that is that you have to get help to solve the other problem in a way that doesn’t involve addicting drugs.  Very often you need professionals for that.  People who go into treatment programs or treatment programs are often geared to help people solve these other comorbid problems so that their drug use won’t be as important to them.

 

                        When I use the word ‘comorbid’ I mean that there is maybe two or more coexisting problems that someone has.  And the idea is that having the problems together can make each one worse.  So if you’re depressed, it can make your drug taking worse.  Some people might take cocaine because they experience depression and when you withdraw from cocaine, depression is one of the major withdrawal symptoms. 

 

                        So these comorbid or coexisting problems get bound up and they can become entangled and they tend to make each other worse.  So it’s very important to find ways, healthy ways to deal with health problems.

 

(Break)

 

Gwen:             Dr. Kuhar, I would like to get into a little bit more of the nitty gritty about the interaction that drugs have on the brain.  You say in your book that the brain is set up for drugs, what does that mean?

 

Dr. Kuhar:       Well, we’re going to be talking about the key thing, or a key thing, because the brain is the organ of behavior and whenever we have a problematic behavior we have to look at the brain.  First let me talk a little bit about how the brain works. 

 

                        The brain has, as people know, composed of nerve cells called neurons.  And these neurons hook up into circuits so that if you stimulate one circuit you might move your arm, or if you stimulate another circuit you might blink, or something like that.  The circuits in the brain composed of chains of neurons, chains of nerve cells control the body, control our thoughts and actions.

 

                        The way these chains work is that the neurons in a chain communicate with each other through chemical messages called, ‘neurotransmitters’.  And dopamine is a very well-known neurotransmitter.  So every thought you have, every time you feel something or think something a neurotransmitter has been released in this chain, or several neurotransmitters have been released in these circuits.  So chemical signaling and electrical impulses are the two ways that the brain functions and works. 

 

Now the key thing about drugs is that they alter the way neurotransmitters work.  Drugs, certain drugs for example, might cause an elevation of dopamine levels in the brain so that the circuits that use dopamine are working in a different way.  So neurotransmitters and chemical signaling is a normal way to go about things, it is life sustaining.  But when drugs get into the brain they can drastically alter the way neurotransmitters work.  They can drastically alter the communication between neurons and they can drastically alter the way these circuits function.  And because of that, it’s not surprising that drugs can change your behavior, make you feel very differently and make you want to take the substances again and again.

 

Is that clear, did that help?

 

Gwen:             Yes.  People will tell you that they are taking these drugs because it makes them feel so good, so wonderful, so euphoric.  How is that that our brains normally aren’t helping us feel that good and that euphoric and yet when you take a substance all of a sudden, at least for a little while people feel like they’re just in heaven?

 

Dr. Kuhar:       Okay, this is the next question.  So we have these neurotransmitters that make brain circuits work, they’re like the gasoline that makes your car engine run, so they’re very important.

 

                        Now I’m going to say that the brain is a survival organ.  Now maybe you haven’t heard that, but it probably isn’t surprising that the brain has evolved to help us survive.  For example, the brain has circuits that make us feel good when we eat something when hungry, when we drink when we’re thirsty, or when we’re engaged in sexual activity.  All of those things contribute to our well-being and our survival.

 

                        So the brain doesn’t just sit there to help us twittle our thumbs, the brain is there to give us abilities that help us survive.  Now when you think of the brain as a survival organ, you get a different perspective on it and how does the brain reward us for doing something that is pro-survival?  Well it makes us feel good.  So making us feel good is an important tool that the brain has, or has evolved to ensure the survival of our persons and of our species. 

 

                        Now I mentioned earlier that drugs get into the brain and majorly distort ordinary chemical signaling, or the process of neurotransmission.  They majorly distort it so that we have extraordinarily good feelings, we feel wonderful, the drugs make us feel high, feel very good.  So we want to do it again and again because we like to feel good.  There’s a technical word for it it’s called, ‘reinforcement’.  The brain is set up to make you want to repeat things that feel good and when you take a drug it makes you feel good and you want to do that again and again and again. 

 

The problem is that with repeated drug taking, drugs distort brain function so much that the brain changes with repeated drug taking and when drugs repeatedly batter the brain.  And I chose that word ‘batter’ because they hammer at ordinary chemical signaling, they change it.  And the brain responds.  The brain is a wonderful organ, its plastic.  The obvious example of plasticity of it being plastic is learning something.  We can learn many things and that’s because the brain is plastic and can incorporate and encode our activities.

 

Gwen:             By plastic you mean it grows, it changes, it doesn’t stay the same.

 

Dr. Kuhar:       Exactly, it doesn’t stay the same, it alters, it changes, it grows.  And when we repeatedly take drugs the brain being plastic will change and it’s going to adapt in such a way that it’s going to make you want to take those drugs again and again and again.  That kind of understanding is something that’s evolved over the last 20 to 25 years and it has been a very very important discovery and understanding. 

 

                        The brain relies on chemical signaling to work and that’s in place that makes the brain work.  Because of that the brain is set up for drugs, because drugs get into the brain and alter chemical signaling.  If it weren’t there the drugs wouldn’t have anything to do, but because of the way the brain is made, the way it functions, the way it has evolved, it is vulnerable to these substances that distort normal processes in the brain.

 

Gwen:             When you take a drug that makes you feel good, is it causing more dopamine to be released and then the dopamine doesn’t get taken back up?  What is it that makes it so compelling and then you wanting more and more and more?

 

Dr. Kuhar:       Well many drugs through various mechanisms increase dopamine levels in the brain. 

 

Gwen:             And that’s the feel good chemical, dopamine, that’s one of them.

 

Dr. Kuhar:       That is one of the feel good chemicals in a way.  Now that’s oversimplifying the situation and dopamine does not equal feeling good, maybe dopamine is related to paying attention to things, to new stimuli.  But in any case, dopamine is clearly related to becoming involved in drugs.  And some drugs, many drugs cause an increase in dopamine levels.

 

Gwen:             And what does that do then to the plasticity of the brain?  How does all this extra dopamine now lead us down a dangerous path?

 

Dr. Kuhar:       Dopamine is there to function as a chemical signal, so its levels are going up and down and up and down, it’s being released and stored and released and taken back up and so forth.  Now drugs hammer that process, they create high levels of dopamine that last for long periods of time and that doesn’t happen normally.  Now that is such a striking and powerful effect that the brain has to adapt, the brain is plastic, it’s going to adapt, it’s going to change to compensate for these very high levels, long lasting high levels of dopamine.  And those changes, and those changes underlie, those changes in the brain underlie our changes in behavior. 

 

And I don’t think we said this, but the definition of addiction is, ‘taking and seeking drugs in spite of negative consequences’, you can’t stop very easily.  So if there are negative consequences you would think you would stop, but you can’t stop because your brain has changed.  The executor of our behavior, the thing directing our behavior is different, so we have different behavior.

 

Gwen:             So basically like you’ve trained your brain to expect these higher levels of dopamine and to expect the changes that are being forced upon it to keep going, so now it’s basically saying, ‘feed me, feed me, feed me’, it’s almost like a puppy or something that’s hungry that won’t leave you alone.

 

Dr. Kuhar:       I think that’s an excellent way to think of it.  The brain adapts to where it thinks that these high levels of dopamine are normal.  And then when you stop taking the drug your brain says, ‘hey, wait a minute, something’s different, I need more dopamine’ because I’ve evolved and changed, I’m plastic and I’ve changed to expect more dopamine.

 

Gwen:             But by then is the brain producing less of its own dopamine, so that’s part of where the craving comes in and you’ve got to get it from somewhere?

 

Dr. Kuhar:       Well the brain might be making more dopamine or less dopamine depending on what the drugs are doing.  But the drugs have changed the brain so that the brain is now set up expecting a different kind of situation, different levels of dopamine.  If you stop taking the drug the brain is aware that it’s not getting the same level of neurotransmitter than it was before.

 

(Break)

 

Gwen:             Dr. Kuhar, in your book you mentioned a lot of interesting research that’s been done on animals or with animals regarding drugs, which relate to humans at your job at Emory University’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center, of course a lot of that is going on.  I was wondering if you could just tell listeners two or three of the animal studies or what we’ve learned from animals that you think would give us a little bit more insight into our own brains.

 

Dr. Kuhar:       Sure, let me start by saying that animal studies are very important in drug addiction because it isn’t ethical to give human beings drugs to study them, you might make them an addict.  For that reason we carry out animal studies.  Now animals are protected in these studies, there are committees that have oversight in the way animals are used and so forth.  And drug researchers for example here at Emory, we all have pets and we all love animals, we are simply trying to study a very deadly disease.

 

                        Now one of the most important things that was found about drugs and animals sometime I think in the 1970’s when it was discovered that animals will take drugs just like humans.  They will seek and take almost the same drugs that humans abuse and become addicted to.  While we forget this mostly, this was a major finding because it showed us that animals have the same kind of brains, the same kind of nervous system, the same kinds of vulnerabilities that people do.  So drug taking is not a personal, moral failure, rather it is the result of our physiology that we share with animals.

 

Gwen:             And that became indisputable when that was observed then you could not say, these animals were just morally bankrupt, it was the proof.

 

Dr. Kuhar:       Correct, exactly it shifted the emphasis from a moral issue to a physiologic medical issue.  And you know you can see that animals will self-administer these drugs, you can see the power of these substances.  Animals will self-administer and look and take these drugs and they will give up eating, they will give up grooming the other animals.  It can take over their lives. 

 

                        So animal studies have both changed our view of what it’s about, of what drug addiction is about and it’s shown us about the power of drugs.  A wonderful thing has been that we can use animals now to determine if a new medicine might be addicting.  If animals will go after the drugs like they do cocaine then the FDA or the drug companies need to be careful because that substance might be addicting and they might have to be very careful about the way they make it available or use it.

 

Gwen:             When you’re talking about animals, what types of animals?

 

Dr. Kuhar:       These are mice, rats, monkeys, mammals mainly that are used.  But a big thing about animal research is that it has led to the identification of new medications for drug addicts.  For example, there is a drug called, ‘naltrexone’, which is given to alcoholics and it seems to reduce the craving or the rate of intake of alcohol in alcoholics.  That was discovered in animal studies. 

 

Animal studies are just very important for identifying new medicines, new medications, new strategies to treat addicts.  And this is a big ongoing effort, it has been successful, there are many new ideas and new medications in the pipeline that are continually being tested and studied.  And we are going to have many new possible medications for human addicts in the future because of the possibility of using animals.

 

Gwen:             I want to move on to another topic here since our time is flying as usual, but why is drug abuse chronic?  Why are people who are trying to quit riddled with episodes of relapse?  They want to stop, they try to stop, they do stop and then they relapse and then they get right back into the cycle.  What is going on in the brain or the psyche that makes it so darn hard?

 

Dr. Kuhar:       We have found out many things about the brain of addicts.  For one thing we mentioned that the brain has changed; now you can do brain scans in addicts and you can see that the brain has changed from the brain scan.  And here’s the thing, if you stop taking the drug, the brain gradually returns to normal, but the return is very very slow.  It can take months to years it looks like for the brains to return to normal and there’s variability in that, some return more quickly than others.

 

                        Now why does the brain return so slowly?  Now that is something that we’re not entirely sure of, but it is clear that that’s what happens.  So if anybody wants to stop using drugs, they have to have a plan that is going to be enforced for a long time, for years.  And the changes that the brain, or that drugs create in the brain usually takes some time, it takes repeated drug taking to make these big changes and they reverse very very slowly.  That’s the finding that’s important.  We know that we have to be vigilant for years really.  Some people really go through this, get off of drugs, aren’t involved in drug taking at all after some time.

 

Because the way the brain has changed, because it’s changed for so long and because people don’t realize that, they don’t realize that their brain is healed for years maybe or certainly months because they don’t realize.  And they may not be on guard as much as they should be and they relapse.  So that seems to be the way it is. 

 

You can think of drug abuse as one of many chronic relapsing disorders; for example, atherosclerosis…

 

Gwen:             …which is hardening of the arteries.

 

Dr. Kuhar:       Hardening of the arteries.  And so certainly you have to stop your fat intake, you have to increase your exercise.  And so drug abuse is like that, you have to stop something, you have to introduce new behaviors, you might have to take medications and you can’t deny that you weren’t involved in causing it.  You know what I mean?  Because the guy having the hardening of the arteries might be eating too much pizza or potato chips or whatever, and the person taking drugs is involved with taking those substances.

 

                        So the drugs affect parts of the brain involved in survival, very powerful drives.  Over millions and millions of years, the pro-survival drives in the brain have evolved and have become powerful.  They are powerful because they have to be, the survival of the species is all important.  So the drive to feel good, to get ourselves to feel good, these things are extremely powerful drives.  It’s not surprising that people will relapse and go back to drugs because they are very powerful, they have altered parts of the brain that are very important for motivation, for behavior and so forth.

 

Gwen:             Well you see people all the time, I work in a rehab center and you see people all the time who leave, they’ve been through their 30-days and their just so sure that they’ve got it.  They know things, it’s not that they haven’t done the work, but there is something else that like a month later, two months later, five months later, there’s a stressor in their life and everything that they know goes out the window because there’s something so strongly motivating them to go back to where they were before they became abstinent.  So is this again, the brain just not being well yet and the power just being too strong of the dysfunction that’s been created in the brain?

 

Dr. Kuhar:       Yes, I think that that’s part of it, the brain remembers, remembers how to get to feel good.  So when something happens the brain says, ‘hey, try a drug’ and you do.  I mentioned that part of treatment is that you have to find healthy ways to deal with stress, non-drug ways to deal with stress, that’s part of treatment, that’s part of taking care of yourself.  So that’s what has to be done.

 

                        But the brain is vulnerable.  You’ve heard the expression, ‘once you learn how to ride a bike you never forget’, well if you had to ride a bike, you would ride a bike.  So certain things the brain learns and it doesn’t easily forget, so it doesn’t easily forget the feeling good and the ability to apparently cope with stress, it doesn’t forget those things that drugs can produce help or apparent help.

 

                        So yes, it’s because the brain has changed and it’s not just that the brain has changed, but the parts of the brain that are changed are the parts that are very powerful, that drive our behavior and emotions.

 

Gwen:             And it seems to overwhelm reason and logic and knowledge, it’s something that’s far stronger than most people can reason away, they can’t reason it away.

 

Dr. Kuhar:       Right, when you think of being really hungry or being involved in sexual activity, these things can be very hard to control.  You might say that you want to, but it’s very easy not to.

 

Gwen:             And it’s easy to slip back in.  I heard Dr. Sanjay Gupta, he was talking about drug addiction and he said like even with cigarettes, you cannot smoke for 10 years and you have one cigarette and all of a sudden you’re right back where you started.  Whereas if you smoked two or three times, you don’t have an addiction, your brain doesn’t have any real attachment to that.  But even after many years, it’s just so easy to slip right back into it.

 

Dr. Kuhar:       Some people have that vulnerability, fortunately not everyone does, but some people have that vulnerability where a queue or a reminder can put them right back into craving drugs and taking drugs, yes.  This is why it’s so important for everyone to understand themselves, to understand their vulnerabilities and to be able to manage them.  That’s part of treatment, that’s part of getting along in life.

 

(Break)

 

Gwen:             Dr. Kuhar, we have so many questions we’re not going to get to but here’s one that I definitely do want to get to; how is it that drugs are so powerful that they can sometimes turn a normal, honest person into a liar, a thief, or maybe sometimes even worse?

 

Dr. Kuhar:       Yes, it’s sort of horrifying to see what drugs can do to some people’s behavior.  The best answer that we can give right now is that everybody’s brain is different, we’re all different.  We all have different genetics, except for maybe identical twins.  And some people’s brains are more vulnerable than others.  Different parts of the brain do different things; some parts help you see, some parts help you move, some parts make you feel good when you do certain things.  The parts that make you feel good or that create actions to make you feel good and take care of yourself, those parts are very very powerful.  And drugs hook into those particular parts. 

 

That’s our current idea of why drugs take over people’s lives in spite of horrifying consequences. 

 

Gwen:             In other words, the desire to feel good can overwhelm and overcome any part of logic that might be coming out of the executive part of the brain where you normally reason and think.

 

Dr. Kuhar:       That’s right.  And the other thing is is that the frontal cortex, which is sort of your executive and tells you to avoid things with a bad outcome, drugs actually can reduce and screw up the function of the frontal cortex.  So drugs will change parts of the brain not only to make you feel good, but drugs change the part of the brain that involves executive judgment and good judgment.  So it’s a deadly disease and a terrible spiral.  If you have bad judgment, you take drugs, drugs make you have more bad judgment, more bad judgment makes you take more drugs, etc., etc.  It’s a terrible cycle.

 

                        The brain is really diseased; not only are the feel good parts of the brain dominating, but the good judgment parts of the brain have been changed.

 

Gwen:             And when you say the feel good parts are dominating, that gets back to the survival aspect, right, it’s a more primitive part of the brain that’s pretty much taking over.

 

Dr. Kuhar:       Right, its subcortical, it’s not something that the brain thinks about.  These are powerful urges that are subcortical, that are there in old species.  And that is the current view of many of us researchers right now, that that’s what’s going on.

 

Gwen:             It is interesting too something you just mentioned and I’d like you to elaborate a little bit on, how the judgment part of the brain you call the executive part, how is it that that gets so damaged by the drugs?

 

Dr. Kuhar:       Well again, it’s the neurotransmitters.  The neurotransmitters in the frontal cortex, or prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain involved with in judgment and avoiding risky and bad behaviors.  The neurotransmitters are battered by drugs and therefore when the neurotransmitters are changed when their affect is altered for a long period of time when those changes are so enduring that the brain adapts, the brain changes in response to this high powerful input of drugs. 

 

And one of the consequences of these changes is that the prefrontal cortex, the judgment part of the brain doesn’t work as well.  You can see this in rats.  If you do brain scans of alcoholics, of chronic alcoholics, one of the findings in at least some of the studies has been that their frontal cortex has shrunk, it has reduced in size.  Now you might say was that there before the alcohol or after the alcohol, the idea and the feeling is that it’s a consequence of taking alcohol.  That you have brain shrinkage and brain damage. 

 

And so this disease, when you begin to understand everything behind it and its consequences you can see how it turns some people into liars, thief’s, betrayers, etc.  For those who are vulnerable who don’t get away from drugs, it’s a serious, serious illness.

 

Gwen:             Well can that get better?  Can people get their good judgment back and can their brain respond and grow back once it has shrunk?

 

Dr. Kuhar:       Well I think of this as a continuum; some people never take drugs, no interest, some people take drugs and walk away, no problem, some people take drugs and have difficulty walking away, some people don’t walk away.  There is this continuum.  And in my opinion the brain does cure itself and people can be cured with the right kind of work and persistent effort.  The brain scans show that the brain function is improving, it’s not back to normal necessarily but it is healing.

 

                        Studies have shown that the most successful people are the people who have stayed in treatment the longest, cumulatively.  Some studies show that you have to be in treatment like three months at least to begin to get some benefit of treatment.  To begin to get some control over the drug problem.  So this is a long-term process and thank goodness we have begun to realize that; 20, 30 years ago, I’m not sure that that was really understood as well as it is now.

 

Gwen:             So most insurance companies if you are lucky will pay for 30-days.  I suppose there are some that pay for 90-days.  So you’re saying 90-days is really the ideal minimum to be in treatment?

 

Dr. Kuhar:       Well I’m saying that studies show that a cumulative total of 90-days in treatment you begin to get the benefits of treatment.  So if you’re going to go into treatment you have to be involved in one way or another for at least 90-days.  A 30-day treatment program certainly can help, but everybody knows that you’re not cured after 30-days.  This isn’t appendix surgery you know, where it’s gone, this is something very very different.

 

                        You can go into a treatment program for 30-days but the expectation is that treatment in some way, okay, treatment in some form is going to continue for a much longer period of time. 

 

Gwen:             And that can help for….

 

Dr. Kuhar:       That can help for years.

 

Gwen:             Believe it or not that is just about all we have time for today.  I want to thank our guest, Dr. Michael Kuhar for bringing us up to date on the very latest information that we have about how drugs affect the brain.  Dr. Kuhar, could you tell listeners where they can get your book and then maybe anything else that I haven’t asked you that you would like to mention before we go?

 

Dr. Kuhar:       Sure, I can do that, I’m happy to do that.  The book is called, “The Addicted Brain” and it can be gotten at your neighborhood bookstore or at one of the internet sites like Amazon, it’s available.  Also on June 23rd there will be an internet course on the addicted brain, which I’m teaching, it’s free.  It’s a seven week course that you take at your own pace and you have to go to a website called www.coursera.com and you go that site and you can find the course, “The Addicted Brain.”

 

Gwen:             Very good, is that a series of hour long programs or what is that format?

 

Dr. Kuhar:       It is a seven week course where there is five to ten minute lectures each day.  And they are very short, very brief lectures that cover kind of what you and I talked about today, it shows some images and so forth.

 

 

 

 

 

The Hidden Rewards of Making Amends

 

 

Host:               Gwen Carden 

Guests:            Dr. Allen Berger

                       

      

 

Gwen:             Have you ever noticed that many of the most important things that you’ve ever done in your life were among the most difficult things you’ve ever done?  Have you ever looked back at something monumental and realized that had you not pushed your comfort zone you never would have come so far?  Well for many people in recovery one of the most difficult things that they’ll ever do is make amends to the people they’ve hurt.  After all it can be terrifying, humiliating and downright unpleasant. 

 

However, once the amends are made, if they’re done the right way for the right reasons, lives often change dramatically, both for those who were hurt and for the addict who was courageous enough to face what they had done. 

 

Today’s guest, author and psychotherapist, Dr. Allen Berger knows a lot about making amends from both a personal and a professional perspective.  Dr. Berger has been in recovery now for 42 years and he will tell you that he harmed people he cared about while mirrored in addiction.  Later after getting sober he became a psychotherapist.  He developed a large practice treating addicts whom he guided through making amends and now he’s written a new book called, “12 Hidden Rewards of Making Amends.”

 

In his book, Dr. Berger takes an intimate, passionate and honest look at why making amends is not only critical but absolutely essential for anyone wanting to decrease their chances of relapse and increase their chances for a happy, balanced life.  And of course as the book title indicates, some of the positive effects in making amends are things one might not even expect.

 

Welcome to the show, Dr. Berger.

 

Dr. Berger:      Well thank you, Gwen and what a wonderful introduction.  I just love how you summarized the whole process and it’s so right on; I mean everything you are saying is so true about this process.  And I’m excited that we get to explore it today.

 

Gwen:             Well me too.   Let’s start by telling listeners a little bit about your background.

 

Dr. Berger:      Well I’m very fortunate; I am a former U.S. Marine, I was in the Marine Corp from ’69 to ’72.  And in 1970 to 1971 I served in Vietnam.  I went into the Marine Corp with an alcohol problem; I came back from Vietnam with a very very serious drug and alcohol problem. 

 

And I was fortunate, I can’t tell you how serendipitous this was, but I was the third Marine admitted into this treatment program at the Kaneohe Marine Corp Air Station on the island of Oahu in Hawaii.  And that program saved my life; I was young, very young at that time.  After 42 years, I’m not very young anymore, but I was 19 years old. 

 

There was something when I was introduced to the program that really really woke up something inside of me that made me interested in myself again, Gwen and in life.  And it was a very powerful experience I heard this man share that was so open and honest and authentic and I said, ‘Wow, that’s really speaking to something deep down inside’.  And it was that moment that my desire, something woke up inside of me, a desire to once again to try to self-actualize, to realize my potential in life.  And I started pursuing my recovery and I took it very very seriously. 

 

I was a high school dropout going into the Marine Corp, after I became sober and I was in this treatment program, they didn’t have any counselors, they asked me to come on board.  And in addition to getting excited about being in recovery, I got very excited about working with other people.  And then I started going back to school and I got excited about being in school. 

 

The recovery really helped me recover my passion for life, my desire to realize as much as I could about myself and about this experience that we’re having while we’re on this planet.  And so I’ve been pursuing that for the last 42 years and I’m still very excited about it today.

 

Gwen:             And I think you throughout this process, you ended up having to make some amends as well. So you did the hard work that came along with being able to bring yourself to the point where you are today.

 

Dr. Berger:      That’s very true; I’d like to share.  One of those amends, I had to make many, but I was kind of fortunate, at 19 years old I drank and used for about 7 ½ years, but in that 7 ½ years I did a tremendous amount of damage. So I could only imagine what happened had I continued on for another 7 years.  I mean the amount of wreckage that we leave behind us is really significant.

 

                        I dropped out of high school at 16 and actually I got a job working for this fellow that took me under his wing; I was like the son he never had and he was very good to me.  He was paying me a real decent salary, he was talking to me that about that if I stayed with the business, he would be turning the business over to me.  So he really really believed in me a lot. 

 

And my alcohol use, I was drinking almost every night at that point and time.  And I wasn’t making that much money, probably minimum wage, back then was about $4 or $5 an hour.  I was maybe making $5 an hour and I was spending more money on alcohol during the week than I was making.  So I was always trying to figure out other ways that I could get money; I would steal money from my mother at that point and time, but she didn’t have a lot of money. 

 

So the company that I worked for, it was a tube distributor and he would sell these tubes to these companies and he would get a real nice price; some of them were worth thousands of dollars.  So I decided one night that I would fill an order of these tubes and I would put it outside in the dumpster and come back that night and take these tubes with the thought that eventually I would sell them. 

 

Gwen:             These were for electronics?

 

Dr. Berger:      Yeah, it was the electronic tubes you know back before we had all these transistors, they actually had these vacuum tubes that operated like transistors do.  So I filled this order, I put them out back, I came back that night and picked them up before I started drinking and I put them downstairs in my basement.  But I had no plan on how to sell these things, I wasn’t thinking through anything, my judgment was impaired, my values were impaired, my morality was impaired.  I just stole these things and they sat in my garage and I had no idea what to do with them.

 

                        So one of the things when I got clean and sober back in 1971, my sponsor says, ‘You’ve got to work the steps’.  Well two of the steps are involved with making amends; Step #8 says; ‘We make a list of all people we’ve harmed, become willing make amends to them’ and then Step #9 says, ‘Make direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others’.  So I knew I had to start cleaning up the wreckage of my past. 

 

And I was in Hawaii still in 1972, I was discharged from the Marine Corp, went back home, started going to school, continuing to go to meetings, and now I had my list of people I had to make amends.  Well he was one of the people that was close to the top of the list, Gwen, because I know I had really really hurt him.  He didn’t know that I had stolen those tubes, but I knew I had done it and he was somebody I needed to go back and make amends to. 

 

Let me tell you the story real quick; so I show up one day, I call him a week ahead of time and say, ‘Hey, I’d love to come over, let’s go to lunch, I’d like to catch up’ and he said, ‘I’d love to take you out to lunch’.  So I drive over to his office, I’ve got a little orange Volkswagen Beetle, I’ve got the tubes in the backseat and I go in and he takes me out to lunch and he’s telling me how proud he is of me.  Oh my goodness….

 

Gwen:             I see it getting worse by the minute.

 

Dr. Berger:      Oh it was, you can understand the feeling can’t you?

 

Gwen:             Yes

 

Dr. Berger:      I was so ashamed of myself, oh God.  And so then I start rationalizing, I go, ‘Well, if the steps say that if it injured them, if it would hurt them, I shouldn’t do it’.  I was looking for a way out, so I didn’t do it.  I never mentioned it, the tubes were in my car, I left and felt terrible that I didn’t do it.  But I felt like I rationalized it, you know that God, I didn’t want to hurt him.  So I get in my car and I’m driving home, I call my sponsor, Tom up and I say, ‘Hey Tom, this is what went on and I think I made the right choice because it would have really upset him’. 

 

He said, ‘You weren’t concerned about upsetting him, you were concerned that he would be upset with you, that’s an important difference’.  And I go, ‘What?’  And he goes, ‘Yeah, you were concerned that he wasn’t going to think about you in the light that he had been thinking about you.  And this step is not about you maintaining a false reputation with people; that you need to own who you are and what you did to him, regardless of how he’s going to feel towards you’.  

 

And I’ll tell you, that sobered me up, Gwen.  That was a very different way of thinking about this whole amends process.  That it was for me to reclaim my integrity, not for me to be liked, not for me to get forgiveness from anyone, but it was to learn to do things because they’re the right things to do.  Not because it’s going to manipulate somebody else to do what I want them to do.

 

Gwen:             Right, and the tubes are still staring you in the face and you are looking at them I would imagine, going back and forth, okay what now?

 

Dr. Berger:      They talked to me, they would talk to me from the back seat, ‘We’re still here’.  So he said, ‘This is what you’re going to do, Allen, you’re going to call him again and you’re going to say to him, ‘Look, I need to just talk to you, we’re not going to go to lunch, I just need to come in the office, I need a half-an-hour of your time’ and this time I want you to walk in with the tubes in your arms.  Don’t leave them in the car, you take them in with you’. 

 

                        So I was committed to my recovery, I had to swallow all of my false pride, I called him back and I said, ‘Oscar, can I come in and talk to you?’   And he said, ‘Yes, please do’.  And I came in and I put the tubes on his desk, he looked at them, he looked at me and then I shared with him what I had done.  I told him about the real mission I was on to take responsibility and whatever he thought was the appropriate reaction to this, I was willing to accept.  If he felt that he had to call the police and report me for stealing these things, I was ready to face it because I was wrong.  If he wanted me to come and work for him and put in some time without being paid, I was willing to do whatever I had to do to repair this damage that I had done to him.

 

                        And he was a very magnanimous man, he says, ‘Look, I’m even more proud of you now for coming in like this’, he was a wonderful guy.  He said, ‘I don’t need you to do anything, what I would like you to do is take the tubes and go sell them and if you can make a few bucks to help you out, go ahead’. 

 

Gwen:             Wow, what a guy, my goodness.

 

Dr. Berger:      But look, it didn’t matter, it was wonderful that he reacted that way but it didn’t matter.  Whatever way he reacted that’s what he had to do and I was ready to deal with that.  And that’s the part of this making amends is that it brings us back to doing things for the right reason, Gwen, which is such an important thing in recovery so that people don’t get lost and to continue in trying to manipulate other people so that you feel okay. 

 

You know the more that I need to control and regulate other people in order for me to feel okay, the more I’m not going to feel okay, because then life has to go according to my wishes, my plan and my specifications all the time.  And life isn’t going to do that, life isn’t here to do what I want it to do.   Life does what it does and I need to find a way to fit into life instead of trying to make everybody to fit into my plan.

 

Gwen:             What did it do for you when you actually finally carried through the deed, how did it affect you? 

 

Dr. Berger:      I reclaimed my integrity; I walked out of there feeling so much better about myself that I had really cleaned up a very very big piece of wreckage from my past.  And I felt what I would call, ‘authentic pride’, I had done something for the right reason and the intrinsic value of that, that intrinsic reward was phenomenal.  And it humbled me tremendously, but in a very good sense because now I was being more grounded in myself and in life and that grounding gave me a very very good feeling.  It really started to open the door to emotional sobriety for me.

 

(Break)

 

Gwen:             I’d like to move in now a little bit to some of the content in your book.  One of the things that jumped out at me as I was reading it was you were talking about the paradox of making amends; what is that exactly?

 

Dr. Berger:      The paradoxical theory of change states this Gwen, is that when I try to be something that I’m not, I’m never going to be able to change.  So in order for me to create change in my life I need to own who I am and what I’m doing.  And as soon as I own that, now a new possibility can present itself to me.  But without owning what’s really going on and if I try to jump over that, so let’s say I don’t own that I was a thief when I go to Oscar like I talked about before the break.  If I don’t own that then I can never not be a thief, it’s always going to be a part of me, but as soon as I’m able to say, ‘Look, I stole from you and that wasn’t right’ and I own the fact that I was a thief, now I have a chance of becoming someone else. 

 

And it’s such a powerful powerful process and this paradox is so evident in so many different ways in recovery.  Like, what’s the first step of Alcoholics Anonymous; we admit we’re powerless, that our lives had become unmanageable, right?  Well wow, how is that admitting you are powerless and your life is unmanageable going to make you change, because as soon as you own it, something new is possible?  But when we play games with ourselves and try not to own it and void who we really are, then no change is ever possible.  And that’s why you see so many people when they’re out there with their disease and they continue to try to find ways to control something they can’t control, nothing ever changes because they don’t want to own what they’re doing. 

 

And so it was very important for me in my recovery to own a lot of these different parts of me that I was so ashamed of; I had a very good upbringing, my parents were very ethical people and moral people, but as I continued to use, my moral structure changed.  And now I was willing to violate my own personal values to ensure that I could continue to drink or use drugs later on in my life.  And I had to go back and reclaim that, own that that’s who I had become in order now to get back to the self that I truly am, is a person that doesn’t feel good about stealing something from someone else.  That’s not who I am, I don’t feel good being that person.  But can I be that person?  Oh yeah, and I needed to own that in order to get some freedom from it.

 

Gwen:             And then from that point on you would never again be a thief because the consequences, just the personal psychological consequences were so rough that why would you ever want to be a thief again after having to go through all of that.

 

Dr. Berger:      Well I wish it was that black and white for me.  But you know what I discovered later on, I did a steal a few things, let me tell you what I realized; I stole a few books from a professor that I was a lab assistant to and there was a part of me that was angry.  This is what I discovered later on and I had to own this too, it’s like when my father died that gave me a reason to be mad at the world and it was almost like, ‘I’m going to take what I want from this world because the world has taken something from me and I’m not going to care what it does to you’. 

 

That was a very very deep wound that I had inside and I had to face that later on.  So that was the next thing I had to face is that even though that some of that feeling was based in something other than just the using, later on it showed up as taking these books, because I felt like somehow I was entitled to do this because I had such a bad deal in life and so I had to face another part of me.  So it’s just very interesting; it’s almost like you’re peeling back the onion, isn’t it?  Once I dealt with one thing in my life I realized there were some other things that needed to be dealt with.

 

Gwen:             So how did you deal with stealing the books?

 

Dr. Berger:      Well I own that, I went back to the doctor I had worked with and I said, ‘I took the book on (inaudible) and analysis or something like that, whatever it was, a probability thing and I put it back and we were cool at that particular time.

 

                        So there is this process of continuing to make amends and when we’re wrong we promptly admit it.

 

Gwen:             So it’s not a one-time thing where you make the one list and if you continue to harm people, which we all can do sometimes accidentally, as long as you address it then that’s going to have a lot better outcome for you than if you continue to ignore it, just like you did earlier when you were drinking or using.

 

Dr. Berger:      Exactly, yes, that’s exactly the process that we’re involved in is that recovery is a process, it’s not an event, and it’s not like you do this stuff and everything is cleaned up.  But what you do is you get engaged in a process and the goal of this process is to make progress in your life.  And I was even surprised at myself when I took the book back at that particular time, but I did take it, I was able to see what I had done.  Now that I’m talking about it, I don’t know if I just brought it back and put it back on the shelf or whatever it was, but I knew it was wrong and I knew I had to clean it up.  And it wasn’t okay for me to do what I was doing.

 

                        So it’s a very interesting process that starts inside of us.  But you know, I can tell you today I didn’t steal anything from anybody, I wasn’t a thief today.  I don’t do that in my life anymore, I can’t tell you the last time that I did something or I took something that wasn’t mine, you know, it’s just not a part of who I am anymore.  But that took a while to unfold, right, for me to get past some of these habits that I had and some of this pent up anger and entitlement I had that I needed to work through.

 

Gwen:             Well maybe one of the lessons of that little anecdote is to understand that nobody is perfect; we might fall back into old habits, even though we’re trying not to and you just get back on the horse and do what you know you need to do and sooner or later you’re going to get it.

 

Dr. Berger:      I love that, Gwen.  There is so much room I think for us when we have that attitude towards ourselves and it’s such a good point.  And look, that’s not easy because there’s a part of me that wants to do everything perfectly.  And so I get down on myself on those particular times, but if I can come back to the position you’re talking about, which I’m coming back to a lot more now in my life than before, I can have that freedom to just face myself and support myself and to be able to stand with myself as I am at that moment.

 

Gwen:             Let me ask you this question; it’s such a hard thing to do to tell someone that you’ve done something that harmed them, how and the world do you motivate yourself to do it?  How do you get past anything that’s holding you back?

 

Dr. Berger:      This is I think, such an important question that you’re raising right now.  And the answer to this I think comes from this kind of a concept; the first thing is is that only the best in us can see the worst in us.  So when I’m seeing something that’s really rotten about my behavior, something I’m ashamed of, I need to understand that the best in me is being that.  Now, that doesn’t take away some of the pain about seeing that I’m not the person that I wish I was, but it does feel good that I’m able to be that honest with myself. 

 

                        To see in recovery this concept of honesty, self-honesty becomes such an important part.  They even talk about it that there are people, this is with Alcoholics Anonymous, that you can have grave emotional problems.  But those people too can recover if they have the capacity to be honest with themselves.  So this capacity is to see ourselves as we are, not as we’d like ourselves to be, but as we really are and as we truly are becomes such an important part of the foundation of recovery.  And so that is a requirement for us to get well and to start to enter into recovery from this devastating illness called alcoholism, or drug addiction, or whatever label you want to put on it.

 

Gwen:             Can you motivate yourself?  I understand that’s theoretical and absolutely everybody needs to be aware of that; are there some things that you can do to get motivated, perhaps like speaking with other people who have done it, getting your sponsor to back you up?  What exactly can get you out of your neutrality?

 

Dr. Berger:      Let me say it another way; what could I do, or what can I do to support myself to take this difficult step?  This is a very important issue in terms of recovery, is how do we learn to support ourselves to do the right thing when we’ve spent so much of our life doing the wrong thing, even though we knew it was wrong?  So it’s about how do we switch now right, and stand on a different foundation?  And where does that support come from?  And you put your finger on one thing, is when I see that there are other people who have done things very similar to me, I no longer have to be as harsh in my judgments of myself.  I can realize that you know what, we human beings are messed up, none of us are doing this very well. 

 

You know, you and I can look in the world today and just see examples of this all over the place; the lack of integrity, the dishonesty, all that stuff.  It doesn’t make it okay, but it does make it a part of the experience we’re having, it’s part of what reality is.  And when I can start to face reality, the reality of myself and what I had done in fear that other people were facing it, well you’re right, there was a support that came from that.  I could see that I’m a part of this fellowship and a part of our fellowship is facing these things and dealing with them.  And here are these other people; they’re not judging me, which helped me to not judge myself so harshly.  Because if I would have kept judging myself (inaudible) ashamed, I wouldn’t haven’t even talked about it, Gwen, I wouldn’t have even owned those things.  So you’re right, we need to find that support.

 

The other thing is I really was willing to go to any lengths to get well.  I knew that recovery held an incredible promise to me.  And I always believed that when people get excited about the possibilities that they can have in recovery, that’s a better motivation than being afraid of what’s going to happen if they drink or use again.  I’ve never seen that work very well.  But I knew that I was heading on a path that could create a life that I probably could hardly even dream of having, but I saw the possibilities and the potential, and I was willing to commit myself to doing whatever I needed to do to reach it.  And this is one of the things that my sponsor was telling me that I needed to do.

 

Gwen:             Well and I always feel that you’re coming from a position of greater power when you’re going toward something that you want, rather than just going away from something that you don’t want.  So if you’re looking toward your future and you know that this is one of those steps that you have to take to move you to your future, then it perhaps can give you a little bit more courage to step up and take the actions that you need to take.

 

Dr. Berger:      What a great way to say it, I’m right with you.  You’re moving towards something you want and that’s more powerful than moving away from something.  That’s right on, that’s right on.

 

Gwen:             What are some good rules of thumb for making amends?

 

Dr. Berger:      Well should we do that right after break?  Is it almost time again for another one of those commercials?

 

Gwen:             Yeah, why don’t we do that; I love it when my experts help me out here.  Let’s do that actually and that would be great.

 

(Break)

 

Gwen:             Before the break I had asked you a question about what some of the good rules of thumb are for making amends and I would love to hear what those are.

 

Dr. Berger:      Well I think the first step in this whole process is to get really clear what you need to make amends for.  And to be really clear on the purpose of making amends, it’s to clean up our side of the street, not to get forgiveness, not for any other reason but because we need to do it.  So that’s the first thing is to make sure that you’re ready to do it for that reason.

 

                        The second thing is to be clear in terms of what has the damage been in terms of what you’ve done, because a lot of times we don’t know how to sort that out.  You know, I’ll end up taking responsibility for some things I’m not responsible for, or I won’t be taking responsibility for some things that I think that I am responsible for that somebody else can see more clearly than me. 

 

So my first piece of advice to someone is, sit down with someone you trust, whether it’s your sponsor, whether it’s a therapist you’re working with, whether its clergy, or someone that’s been working the steps in the program that you respect how they’ve been working it.  Write down who you’ve hurt and what you think you’ve done and have that conversation so you can get really clear. 

 

I think the things that are hardest to make amends for, Gwen are what I call, ‘the spiritual wounds that we’ve created in other people’.  You know, when we’ve played with somebody’s mind.  And there’s a term called, ‘gas lighting’, when you turn reality around on the person and make them seem crazy when they tell you what they think you’re doing.  And of course, I didn’t want to own those things so I would try to turn things around, I gas lighted my mom a lot.  She would say, ‘You’ve been drinking’ and I’d be lying to her saying, ‘No, I don’t, why are you always critical of me’ and try to make her feel bad for confronting me on what I was doing.  So I call those more spiritual wounds because they really really play with the persons mind and their sense of reality.

 

And so we just got to get clear about the nature of the injury that we’ve caused and then we’ve got to sit down and come up with a way of talking to the person about it.  And the first step is usually to explain the purpose.  Now, I also want people to be cognizant of times when are more appropriate to make amends to someone and times when not.  If somebody is in a crisis right now in their life and dealing with a lot of other things, it’s not time for us to go in and ask them to spend some time to deal with what we did to them.  But if somebody’s life is you know, moving along okay, there seems to be no immediate crisis that would be a good time to approach them.

 

So what we’re learning in recovery is to have to some sensitivity to the other person and an awareness of who that other person is.  Because a lot of what we did, a lot of what I did when I was in my addiction is I wasn’t concerned about you, I was just concerned about what you could do for me.  So you were an ‘it’ to me, you weren’t a person.  And now in recovery our relationships need to be more subjectively-based, you need to be that person in my life and your and I, and so I our relationship becomes more I devote.

 

So those are some of the general guidelines that they really need to explain, ‘Look, I’m here to make amends to you for what I’ve done to hurt you; here are the things that I recall that I’ve done and here’s what I think the damage has been and I’m willing to do whatever I can do to try to make you whole again.  And if there’s something that I forget or that I have forgotten as we talk about this, that I forget to talk to you about, I am definitely open for you to share with me other things that I’ve done to you that have hurt you and I plan to take responsibility for those as well’. 

 

So we need to lay that out to someone, Gwen in terms of what the purpose is and then we pull out that sheet of paper and we start to go through the amends that we have to make about how we’ve hurt the other person, what we think we’ve done to them, how sorry we are for it.  And we need to ask them the question, what can I do to repair you in this thing?  What can I do to take responsibility for this?  What can I do to restore some social justice to the situation?

 

Gwen:             Now is it a mistake to expect a specific outcome; for example, the person will be so moved by my doing this that they’re going to instantly forgive me.  Is that setting you up for disappointment?

 

Dr. Berger:      That’s a total setup; if I go into an amend with any expectations whatsoever, other than to expect myself to be as honest and open and as authentic and real as I can, then I’m setting myself up.  Because you know, we need to be and we’re encouraged to do this is to do this because it’s the right thing to do.  And this is where these steps become the gateway to emotional sobriety.  You see in emotional sobriety you end up doing what’s right because it’s the right thing to do, not because you’re going to get approval or validation or forgiveness from someone else, but because you’re going to be able to approve of yourself.  You’re going to be able to validate yourself and you’re going to be able to forgive yourself that you were this person.

 

Gwen:             So the other person’s reaction is not as important as the fact that you are doing it for yourself?

 

Dr. Berger:      Yes, that’s very true.  What we say is the other persons reaction is their reaction, they have every right to it.  Some people may be able to forgive you; I was very fortunate, Oscar was a very generous magnanimous man.  But let’s say that he was so wounded that he needed to strike out, or even felt like the injustice required him to call the police.  Well I was ready to assume responsibility for this and accept any consequence that was forthcoming.  And that’s the part of this is that we are willing to take 100% responsibility to restore the wholeness of that other person and whatever that may mean, and whatever that other person requires of us.

 

Gwen:             That takes a certain level I would think of emotional sophistication to be able to lay yourself bare like that and just say, whatever happens happens and I’m going to be alright.  How did you prepare for that?

 

Dr. Berger:      Well look, I’ve got to tell you, Gwen, I don’t think it had anything to do with who I was.  I had a wonderful sponsor and Tom had made many amends himself and had learned a lot about it through his own experience.  And he was guiding me through the process and he was helping me learn these things because it was a very different way of being than I had been, the way I had functioned up to that point and time.  You know I had done things to get other people to do things, I was very manipulative.  I didn’t know how to stand to do the right thing because it was the right thing to do; I did the right thing if it was going to get me something. 

 

I mean I had life pretty backwards.  And one way of thinking about recovery is like turning that around and starting to learn how to grow up and to stand on your own two feet.  So I think it’s so important to have a good guide through this process.  And a good therapist too can be very very helpful, as you know therapy is a lot about helping people to learn how to be accountable and to grow and to deal with these kinds of situations.

 

Gwen:             And I think the very act of making the amends moves you along in your growing up process.  Having done it, now you’ve grown up a little bit too, so again, that’s stepping out of your comfort zone, doing it and then you’ve moved yourself into a little bit better spot.

 

Dr. Berger:      Yes, yes, yes, yes.  And listen there are times when it’s not appropriate to make amends.  Let’s say I did something to someone, let’s say the example that they even use is in the big book of Alcoholics Anonymous, let’s say that I was inappropriate with my friend’s wife and she was open to my overtures and we had an affair.  And they have never talked about it.  I have no right to go to my friend and say, ‘I’m sorry for what I did to you’ and then open up that can of worms in his marriage.

 

                        So here’s the other principle that we’re learning is that and I think it’s a spiritual law, that I can’t get better at somebody else’s expense.  So that the other person is as important as I am.  So I have no right to go ahead and to resolve my guilt by now setting a bomb off in somebody else’s life.  So this is the other thing that I think is very important here, that this step is really about learning how to not only respect ourselves but to have true respect for other people.  And without these things and we’ll talk about that I know next at some point, is one of the hidden rewards of this is that we can now really become worthy of trust because up until this point and time, we’re not. 

 

When I don’t have a sensitivity to you and who you are, you can never trust me because I’m not going to act in anyway respectful of you and what your needs are.  I’m only going to act according to what I need.  And when a relationship is that one-sided, you can never have trust in somebody that’s not trustworthy.

 

Gwen:             And the paradox of course is that once you become trustworthy….

 

Dr. Berger:      Once I know how unworthy of trust I am, I start to become trustworthy.

 

Gwen:             Thank you!  That was in my brain but it wasn’t coming out.

 

Dr. Berger:      But that’s it see, that’s the paradox.  As soon as I could own, excuse my French, but what a shit I was, I started to become less of a shit to people.  And see that became a very important part of this whole process for me is to be able to own these things.  And when someone owns this side of them, the worst in them, and is willing to take responsibility, you can start trusting that person.  But the person that tells you, ‘I’m gonna keep doing better’ and you believing them, you’re not a trusting person, you’re foolish if you believe someone that doesn’t own this other side.

 

(Break)

 

Gwen:             Okay Dr. Berger, let’s talk more specifically about hidden rewards, which is of course the main content of your book.  What are some of the rewards that people might be surprised to hear that they’re going to get when they make amends?

 

Dr. Berger:      Well the first one that I talk about in the book is this learning how to stay in close contact with our experience.  So let me try to unpack that a little bit, because it’s a concept that may not make sense at first, but I think your listeners will totally get it once we go into it a little bit.

 

                        When research has been done about is there any such thing as an alcoholic or addict personality, they don’t really find anything that really discriminates.  So if you’re introverted, you might become an alcoholic or an addict if you’re extroverted.  If you have this scale on the MMPI or that, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, they haven’t found any patterns. But this is what stands out across the literature are that addicts and alcoholics don’t learn from their experience.

 

                        So we’ve got to ask ourselves that; why is that, what aren’t we learning from our experience?  And the reason is is we want to distance ourselves from what we’re doing because we don’t’ want to see the truth.  We don’t really want to see what’s going on in our lives and so we don’t look at a lot of things.  In psychology we call this, ‘the process of selective inattention’; in attend, I don’t pay attention to certain things that I don’t like.  And there are a lot of things that I didn’t like about myself that I didn’t want to look at.  They were still there, I couldn’t totally get away from them, but I sure wasn’t going to focus on them in any way.

 

                        Well in recovery, we start to recover our ability to use our awareness to help ourselves become the person we want to be.  Before we were using our awareness it was hijacked by the illness that supported our addiction, so we wouldn’t look at what we didn’t want to see.  Now in recovery, I can use my awareness to see who I really am, to be more connected to reality so I can learn to better deal with life on life’s terms.

 

                        So if I’m staying in close contact with my experience, my experience is going to teach me everything I need to learn on how to better take care of myself.

 

Gwen:             When you refer to your experience, are you including the things that you do, such as making amends?

 

Dr. Berger:      Yes, exactly.  Now let me go back to what I’m talking about.  So if I go back and start to look at how I really hurt you and I start to pay attention to that and stay in close contact, even though that makes me feel terrible about myself, I start to see that I wasn’t the person that I felt good about being and I can start to see how I hurt you.  I can then use that information to support myself in going to you to make amends.  When I’m sitting there and I’m making amends to you and if I see you tearing up, I can sit there and say, ‘Gwen, I can see what I’m saying really brings up a lot of hurt in you, I’d really like for you to tell me about that because I’m here to try to address this and see what I can do to help resolve this between us’. 

 

                        So I can use my experience and my awareness of what’s happening to better able to deal with the situation and to be the person I want to be.  I want to be that compassionate, loving person.  I want to try to make you whole and take responsibility for what I did to hurt you.  So if I use my awareness and I really show up to this process and stay connected to it, that situation is going to tell me everything I need to know to be able to make a good amends.

 

Gwen:             What is another hidden reward that maybe would be really surprising to people?

 

Dr. Berger:      Another one that I think that would surprise people is that it is about valuing the process of being.  You see, one of the things that happens is is that when we get into our addiction, we become addicted to more and more is about having; I’ve got to have this, I’ve got to have that, I’ve got to have more drugs, I’ve got to have more approval, I’ve got to have more sex, I’ve got to have more money.  Whatever, ‘the more’ is, we think that more is somehow going to fulfill us and it never does.  We come to realize that there was never enough of what I thought I needed and that’s the insatiable nature of addiction. 

 

                        So what we realize, or what I realized in my recovery is that it wasn’t about having more, it was learning how to be.  Instead of learning how to have, it was learning how to be and when I looked back, nobody taught me how to be in this world.

 

Gwen:             Why is that better to be than to have?  What’s the benefit?

 

Dr. Berger:      For me it was better to be because being was within, I could determine that.  Having was something that I had to manipulate to get, but being, I could be in control the way that I talked to you.  I can be in control of the way of the kind of relationship I encouraged myself to have with you.  I can be in control of the way I’m reacting to you if I pay attention to this.  So by focusing on being, I’m focusing on developing my character.  I’m not focused on having things and having to have success and all these other things and focus on trying to be the best person I can be.  Aiming at developing the best possible attitude I can have towards myself, towards you, towards my problem. 

 

So when I focus on being, I open up, I empower myself in a way that I could never empower myself when I was focused on having.  There was so much that was out of my control, right?  Whether you liked me or not wasn’t in my hands, it was how you felt.  I tried to manipulate you to do that but ultimately I can’t control that; having success, or even failure, those are temporary things, you can have success or you can have failure. But I could always be honest, that didn’t have to depend on what was happening in the situation.  I could always try to have the best possible attitude, so that’s the importance of this focusing on being.

 

Gwen:             It sounds like it’s a lot more peaceful way to live also, where you’re just being who you are as you say, to have to acquire to meet some sort of standard that the world sets up for you to have.  But instead truly being who you are.

 

Dr. Berger:      That’s such a good point; whenever I try to live up to a concept of who I thought I should be, I was attempting to do the impossible.  I’m not a concept, I’m a person.  When I try to actualize myself, I was doing something that was possible.  And see that’s I guess a good way of describing the difference between this isn’t it, is being is doing the possible, and trying to be someone I’m not, trying to live up to what I think I should be, is doing the impossible.

 

Gwen:             I like that!  That really really lays that out very clear and plain language.  We have time for maybe one more; what would be another hidden reward you would like to share with people?

 

Dr. Berger:      Well another hidden reward is to learning to be of value.  See it’s a very very deep desire inside of each and every one of us to be of value, to make a difference in a positive way.  We want to be significant in some way and being of value is the most positive and healthiest way to be significant.  But when our addiction takes over, we’re no longer worried about being of value, we are worried about what we get and what we can’t.  We become so self-centered and selfish and that’s how I became.  And the whole part of me that wanted to be of value was neglected; I totally abandoned that part of myself.

 

Gwen:             How does making an amend, how does that change that whole scenario?

 

Dr. Berger:      Well guess who is one of the people I need to make amends to?  Well, myself.  It’s not just what I’ve done to hurt other people, but it’s how I’ve also hurt myself.   And this is where now we talk about another important part of the process of making amends, is including yourself on that list of people.  I didn’t protect myself, I didn’t honor myself, I didn’t really care for myself, I didn’t set up healthy boundaries for myself.   I let myself do things that were very toxic, that were very hurtful not only to other people but to myself.

 

And so this learning to be of value starts with myself; if I don’t know how to be of value to myself and to make sure that I do what’s nourishing to me instead of doing things that are toxic to me, then I could never have a better relationship with you.  The more I learn how to nourish myself, the more nourishing I can be in a relationship with other people.

 

Gwen:             So by honoring yourself you honor other people.

 

Dr. Berger:      Yes, it’s so true.  So the golden rule is really, we do to others what we do to ourselves; if I’m not honoring myself, I can’t honor you. 

 

Gwen:             Well that’s all we have time for today.  I want to thank our guest, Dr. Allen Berger for fitting us into his very tight schedule to be on “Break the Chains.”  Dr. Berger, please let our listeners know how they can learn more about you and your books.

 

Dr. Berger:      Well you can go to Hazelton’s website, their bookstore and just type my name in, Allen Berger and you’ll find the three books I have written for Hazelton.  You can go to my website where I have some books and some audio CD’s on this topic and others, that’s www.abphd.com  so that’s two sources you can do.  You can go on Amazon, my books are available on Amazon, if you just type my name in you’ll be able to see all the books that I’ve written that are available on Amazon.

 

Gwen:             And you’ve written a lot, you’ve been very busy.

 

Dr. Berger:      Yes, and we’ve got a couple more in the pipelines that we’re working on.  We’re going to be doing, “12 More Stupid Things that Mess Up Recovery.”   The first book I wrote for Hazelton was, “12 Stupid Things” and that’s become a best-seller; it stayed on the top 20 best-seller list on Amazon since it’s been published, so it’s been on there almost five years now, six years almost.

 

 

 

 

                       

                       

 

 

 

 

    

 

 
 

 

RECOVERY RESIDENCES

 

Host:               Gwen Carden 

Guest:             Chris Edrington

                       

 

                       

Gwen:             For many people who are working to remain abstinent, living in a structured monitored situation can provide an additional safety net between rehab and going back home. Recovery residences, which are sometimes known as halfway houses or sober living and a few other names can really be a God send for addicts whose sobriety is likely to be threatened if they return to their old environment; the triggers, the family drama, all the bad old memories and certainly people that they probably should never see or talk to again.

 

But like anything else not all recovery residences are the same. Some operate to a very high standard and closely monitor residents and appropriately support them, while others don’t follow best practices.  And they can become another conduit for people who aren’t serious about their sobriety to meet other like minded or fragile or easily derailed people.

 

                        What should you know and what do you need to consider when deciding on a recovery residence for you or for someone you love? What are some of the red flags that should send you running down the street, suitcase in hand before you ever even ring that door bell?

 

                        We are going to get answers to those questions and to many others in today’s episode of, “Break the Chains” with our guest, Chris Edrington. He’s our expert and for years Chris had struggled with heroin addiction. He eventually became a resident in a sober house in Los Angeles where he was first exposed to the recovery residence model. And in 2001 he opened a sober living home in Minnesota and that eventually grew into his current business, which is St. Paul Sober Living. It compasses 12 properties in Minnesota and Colorado. Chris is vice-president of the Minnesota Association of Sober Homes, which he helped found and he’s on the board of the National Alliance of Recovery Residences. Chris has been sober for 15 years by the way; welcome Chris.

 

Chris:              Hi there.

 

Gwen:             So good to have you on the call today.

 

Chris:              Thanks for having me.

 

Gwen:             Yea, 15 years, I tried to remember even what fashion’s I was wearing 15 years ago. I think the world has changed a lot in 15 years.

 

Chris:              Yea.

 

Gwen:             Anyway, let’s get right into the most basic question I have here and that is; what is a recovery residence?

 

Chris:              Well, it’s somewhat of a newer term that’s been tossed around in my view, but in a general sense it’s anything that’s less than treatment. It’s a structured living environment based on recovery which houses, obviously, I am sure several people and not just a couple. It’s distinct from primary treatment, especially like a hospital setting or some primary care facility that’s off in the suburbs or way outside of the urban area. I think recovery residences, most of them are within a residential area.

 

Gwen:             Is it an umbrella term which encompasses things like halfway houses and sober houses?

 

Chris:              Yes, halfway house is really, the correction really sort of owns that term in my opinion. It’s more of their side of halfway back to society sort of connotation, which I’ve never really like in terms of addiction because I don’t think any of us are halfway or three quarters of the way anywhere. We are all trying to do something and we just start where we are.

 

But yes, and from the NARR or the National Alliance of Recovery Residence viewpoint there are essentially, in a general sense, 4 levels with beneath treatment. That could in terms of what most people are aware of, that can be anything from a very loosely operated sober house where people just live together and there’s a rule about no using, to a structured transitional living or extended care program, or what used to be called a halfway house.

 

Gwen:             So what would levels 1, 2, 3 and 4 just specifically be, just briefly about each one?

 

Chris:              You can see them on the NARR website, www.NARR.org I believe it is. But in a general sense level 1 would be a sober living, a purely sober living with no clinical services whatsoever, some oversight and not a whole lot of structure. Then level 2 would probably be a similar environment but with much more strict rules, probably a live-in manager, house meetings every week and that kind of thing.

 

And then level 3 would probably start to introduce some sort of services like maybe there’s a case manager, or maybe there’s some food that’s brought in or maybe there is some connection to an outpatient where they’re living in this residence but they are taken to the outpatient service on a daily basis or something.

 

And then a level 4 would be all the way up to, what looks like treatment  or extended care or halfway house or after treatment, something like that.

 

Gwen:             Is that a question that you would ask a potential recovery residence, what level they are, I mean is everybody going to even know the answer to that question?

 

Chris:              Well, you see I think that’s what’s coming. I think NARR is a very new organization. And I think that given the general attitude and the general idea of how to treat people in recovery and what works is to extend the connection to services and extend, treatment is not really the right word, but to extend the process. In other words, don’t just go to one month of services in a building where they throw tons of services at you for 30 days and then plop you out the door. Rather spend the whole year getting the services that you need and it would probably tier down in terms of intensity.

 

In other words, you could go to treatment for a month, and then maybe to an extended care, and then maybe to a sober living level or recovery residence level 3, or 2, 3, 4, or maybe down to a level 1 before you get your own apartment. That’s a much better overall program, an overall process in terms of staying connected to some kind of service and being involved in your recovery and still essentially being treated for a longer period of time. That could be a 9 month course right there.

 

Gwen:             So it’s just stepping down, that would be ideal. You get into the level 4 where there is a tremendous amount of structure oversight support and then you move down the line. Level 1 is if your functioning really well in level 1 then you may be ready to be out on your own.

 

Chris:              Exactly. Those different levels of programs, they exist out there, it isn’t that every recovery residence is all out there with a big number 1, 2, 3, or 4 on their front door, but this is the overall idea of I think what’s coming.

 

Gwen:             And that’s ideal really for someone to not just as you said, to leave treatment and all of a sudden and they are out in the big bad world. If they’re gradually stepping down, that is a good course that will ensure, or maybe not ensure but at least help to ensure continued sobriety.

 

Chris:              People do much better when they stay connected and they stay involved in their recovery in receiving help as the level’s progress down over a period of several months to a year in the beginning.

 

Gwen:             I think that is a really important point to make, because a lot of times people will come out of a 30 day program and their attitude is, ‘oh I’ve got this now. I don’t really need it, I can handle this’ because they just haven’t really been back in the world sober in such a long time or abstinent, that they don’t realize what kind of challenges they’re going to be facing. And then they get out there and they find out, ‘whoa, I can’t handle this.’

 

Chris:              Exactly, I use that line all the time. I speak at Hazelton and other treatment centers often and I’ve even said to the group, ‘how many people have been here in this treatment center before?’, whatever treatment center I’m at and they’ll raise their hand and I’ll say, ‘how many people that when they left here last time thought to themselves, I got this’ and they raised their hand sort of sheepishly because they are back.

 

So that’s a good way to put it, I mean it’s sad that that’s the case, most people don’t do well who go directly back to whatever their surroundings were and in my experience people do much better when they stay in the system longer.

 

Gwen:             And recovery is a process and once people understand that they can, it’s really like protecting yourself, getting yourself in an environment where you do have plenty of support and structure until you’re ready. Sometimes as we know it takes more than one try, as you say for people that you’ve talked to in rehab centers to understand.

 

What would you say is the role of the sober community in the early recovery process?

 

Chris:              I think it’s crucial, for years what St. Paul’s Sober Living has done is, we’ve focused in our sober living operation on just that, on that name itself, we are ‘Sober Living’ were not sober housing.

 

The shift came for me and our homes, some years ago when I realized that the people who were making it were the people who were part of the community and that can come from so many different levels. Where ever you find your niche and your way into this community, if you keep trying and you keep trying to enter into it different ways you will find your niche and your comfort zone. I’m enormously and I should say I make a lot of noise about the sober community when I talk at treatment centers and when I talk to my residents and my staff and even parents. I say this is all about the community.

 

When you talk to, let’s say for example, a 24-year-old kid who’s got two years sobriety and you see him at a meeting getting recognition say for two years, that means he started at 22 and he is 24 and he’s got two years. When he stands up there to talk about, here’s what I did and here I’ve got my two years, he invariably will talk about the other people, the relationships and what he’s been doing in the community. That’s what you hear from people who are engaged in this thing, what’s working for me.

 

And they’ll talk about different elements, like the relationships with people or I’m better at having a job, I am a better son, I am a better brother. It all comes out of the community because you have to be around people, watching them have success and see other people making decisions that don’t work out.  Just like anything else, the culture of recovery is where things really start to penetrate and you start to wrap your heart around this thing of being in recovery, as opposed to just being, you can’t be in treatment forever.

 

The community, this is our thing and this is where our little part of the process is what we do. And I love talking about it obviously.

 

Gwen:             So the recovery residence you see as a huge component of being in the sober community?

 

Chris:              Yes, I think that you should be involved in the community as soon as you possibly can. Obviously in the beginning if you’ve come off of an enormous run, we refer to as people being out on a run, using drugs or doing whatever, some of those are really awful. Some people come from horrid situations, have been in horrible situations for many many weeks or months and they come out and they need to go to treatment. And its triage, get some sleep and food and some support and get healthy before they can wrap their head around being sober. But as soon as you’re ready, I think you should be part of the community as soon as you can.

 

Gwen:             Does a good recovery residence make available those opportunities or encourage them or actually create them?

 

Chris:              Exactly yes, say for example; bringing in people from the community to speak at the treatment center or meet the residents of the house. Or having a public AA meeting in the building where you get to meet people who are out there doing it. The conversation with a good sponsor or a good counselor is always about, what it this going to look like? What’s it going to look like when you get out of here? Because most of those structured care places are 90 days tops.

 

Eventually you’ve got to live somewhere, I really like the idea the goal should be sober living, not just sober housing.

 

Gwen:             And that would be a characteristic I would think of a good recovery residence then where the community, the sober community activities is encouraged or maybe even required. Do your homes require this?

 

Chris:              Yes, in our houses we’re always asking you, where are you making connections and what are you doing with your time? In our particular program it’s a very scheduled driven program. It comes from an idea of ‘where are you most of your week’? In early sobriety I used to tell, and I still do my own sponsee or my residents, I am a lot more interested in where you are than where your head is, especially in the early weeks and months of recovery. Because if you’re in the right place, you’re getting the right messages and you’re at least in the right area of the game, because your head will catch up.

 

Gwen:             So a good recovery residence is going to make sure that you are exposed to that community.

 

Chris:              Provide you opportunities like take you out to meetings and get you involved. Bring people in to speak and as you progress down in recovery residence to less structured environment the more the community becomes a big part of it. And if you’ve done it correctly you’ve got a bunch of people around you that you are spending time with in the community and that becomes your structure.

 

Gwen:             Excellent. We are going to move into a little discussion about the different types of recovery residences, not specifically levels as we were talking about a minute ago, but some options that are available in different areas that have to do with sexual orientation, parenting, that kind of thing.

 

Chris, tell us just a little bit about the options that your company has for people.

 

Chris:              St. Paul’s Sober Living has a dozen houses in Minnesota and Colorado. In St. Paul we have 5 houses for men, 3 houses for women; they are very very distinct that we don’t mix genders in our houses. We have a house in Minneapolis, in the uptown area for the LGBT community and it’s a primarily gay men’s house but it is open to LGBT and we let, generally the group decide. We do a process of interviewing anyway, so if you want to enter the house you have to sit down with the current residents and interview. They can decide.

 

Gwen:             You said that you do not mix genders, why is that?

 

Chris:              Because it creates problems; there is nothing more in terms of a deterrent of your focus like a relationship in early recovery. I know that everyone hears about that, stay out of a relationship for the first year. The reality of it is is that there’s hopefully a fire that’s burning in you that you want to make some changes. Like you have learned about your disease; you know you’ve had consequences, you have showed up to treatment, you’re in this thing and you are like, you know I know there’s a problem and I want to make some changes and I want to fix some things. That fire gets snuffed out the minute you get into a relationship because it almost replaces it, it gives you a sense of comfort and that fire goes down and then you start to half do the program and you get nothing from half measures. You’ve got to be all into this thing so, that to me is the general reason to stay out of relationships.

 

When you are in the process of doing this in early recovery, it’s uncomfortable and people are quick to look for quick comfort. And there’s nothing like having another person thinks that you hung the moon and to make you suddenly feel better about yourself.

 

Gwen:             And distract you from your sobriety.

 

Chris:              Yes, incredibly distracting. I’ve had residents sitting here in my office and I look right at them and I say, ‘you know, what’s her name or what’s his name’? They will say, ‘what do you mean?’ We will say, ‘well we lost you weeks ago, so who is it? We lost your focus and we can see it.’

 

One of the things we do too in the houses regularly at the house meeting in particular and in general sense all the time is we’re asking the other members of the house; how’s he doing? How’s she doing? And they will tell you, they will say, ‘she’s great or he’s great or you know what, I am not sure what’s going on because she’s not around as much as she just to be, or he isn’t’. That’s sort of the first sign, like; where are you? One of our biggest rules is that you’ve to be here and engaged with us as a group, this is your group of people and you got to be here with us day to day.

 

Gwen:             And I would assume at the level 3 or 4 those questions would be more frequently asked then somebody in a level 1 where they are pretty much on their own, or does a good recovery residence keep an eye on that thing regardless of their level?

 

Chris:              Yes, I would say that from Level 4 down to 3 they are definitely separated. Because they might be in the same building in a Level 4 and 3 because that might be more of a structured transitional living or extended care program with counselors and a clinical team. They’ll definitely keep them separated in the same building and not even sharing the same cafeteria in some instances.

 

When you get down to sober living, when you come out of what still has elements of a clinical program an you’re into a regular sober house or a strictly run sober house, and I know there’s a few out there and there aren’t  many but I wouldn’t be a fan of mixing genders period at all at that level.

 

Gwen:             One of the things that challenges women in getting help for addictions is that often times they have children, they have domestic responsibilities and it’s hard for them to even get into rehab if they don’t have someone to take care of their children. What about if they do need to get into a recovery residence and they have children, are there residences that accommodate that?

 

Chris:              There are, they are very few of them that I am aware of, there used to be one here in Minnesota and I don’t believe it still goes on. I think Hazelton actually owned if for awhile. I get asked this at least once a year, ‘when are you going to do women and children’? To be honest with you, I wish I could and I would love to do it because it is a big barrier to entry for a lot of people.

 

It has some logistic problems in terms of our model; in other words if we took our sober houses that 4, 5, 6 bedrooms and 8 or 10 people living there we would probably have to bring that down to maybe 4 in order to accommodate the children. The whole model gets sort of messed up in terms of the functionality of the house.

 

One of the critical things about a sober living house is critical mass, in other words, a sober house with only 4 residents is difficult to create community just by the virtue of the fact that you can come home from work and no one will be home. If you live with 10 people it’s almost always the case that somebody is there. When you walk into the door they are going to see you and you can’t walk in the back door and up to your room and not be seen.

 

But I would love to get into that model; I’ve looked into it a few times over the years here. There are not enough of them and like I said, I get asked all the time about women and children sober living.

 

Gwen:             Well, this field is so quickly evolving now and it probably will be addressing specific needs, such as women’s issues more in the future then it has in the past.

 

Chris:              I agree, I think it’s coming for sure.

 

Gwen:             What would you say are the qualities of a good recovery residence? My question is, a lot of times people don’t have transportation, they don’t have support from home, they don’t have good living skills, what types of things can one expect from a recovery residence?

 

Chris:              Well, I think that when you are leaving treatment, say you are leaving a primary treatment center, your counselor is essentially making in a sense an assessment or some team of counselors about what you need to do next. So there is a treatment plan, there is an aftercare plan for you. For some people it might be as simple as, you’ve been to treatment a bunch of times and you know what to do and we are sending you to a sober house because you’ve done the treatment so many times that we are not sending you to another extended care. Or you are brand new and have never done this and you really need a little bit more than a month and you can extend here at primary, some big primary centers will extend you for 3 months.

 

They will typically send you out the door having rated you and say, ‘this is what you need next’. We often, and as a matter of fact about two-and-a-half years ago we developed a new program here at St. Paul Sober Living and we call it the, Plus Program. And it’s a super-sober house, it has a case manager, it has a lot of transportation assistance and medication management and money management. We’ve developed it because we were getting people out of treatment centers who were not ready for sober living. It was too loose, it was too self-directed, and anything from grocery shopping to spending money to making it to meetings to getting girlfriends and boyfriends.

 

We would lose these guys or these girls in two weekends because they couldn’t follow the rules or many many reasons. So we developed this new program where we would try to catch those hot spots. We put certain things in place like medication management and money management and transportation to say your therapist and your outpatient so that we know you are making it. And then after that you transition down to a less structured sober house; in our case there are 3 levels, you eventually in the 3rd level you are in what is essentially traditional sober living.

 

Gwen:             So you need to ask a lot of questions pertaining to your particular situation and find something where you’re going to get the support that you need. I don’t know whether sometimes a sober house will say, ‘oh yes we’ll take you to work’ but then there not really set up with good transportation.

 

Chris:              Really that meant that one of your roommates will probably drive you if you ask them nicely.

 

Gwen:             Okay.

 

Chris:              It’s really a level of care; a lot of parents need to get educated about, what is really this level of care that my son is going to? Is it a sober house; is it more than a sober house?

 

The old version of the sober house, the old archaic version for a lot of people was, ‘good luck, here’s a bed, here’s a pillow, here’s a dresser, go to meetings and don’t drink and pay your rent and good luck’. In my opinion, those days are over. There’s a different community, there’s a lot of younger people coming through treatment and they’re living a very very dangerous lifestyle. Some of these young kids who are going through the pills and then on to heroin, they’re super dangerous, not to be dramatic but these are the kids that are overdosing in their parents basements. These are the ones that I’m seeing more and more and more and they need a lot more help after treatment to get prepared to enter the community. They can’t stay in structured care forever.

 

When a parent is looking for the next level, take what the counselor says and get online and do your own research and figure out, oh, this place offers this and this place offers this. There are a lot of transitional living places and extended cares that are beautiful places, but they are nowhere near the sober community. They have wonderful cafeterias and wonderful treatment counselors and fantastic high quality extended care treatment, but they are not anywhere near the community so they’re going to eventually leave there. Eventually you’ve got to be in the community and establish yourself there.

 

Gwen:             Good, that is really good information.

 

You referred several times to parents, I am imagining you hear from a lot of parents who are looking for these residences because we have the heroin epidemic and most of the people are young people. I was wondering what you would say if a parent came to you and said, ‘Chris what are the questions that I need to ask before I put my child into a recovery residence, what absolutely do I need the answers too, what would those questions be?

 

Chris:              I would say the first thing you would want to do is take the list of options that your counselor gave you or gave your child and research them online. Say for example it’s some sober house in California or a transitional living or extended care in Ohio, look up and call them and ask them questions. I would ask them questions like, ‘is this a place where they are going to meetings on their own, or involved in the sober community’? ‘Is it mostly self-directed or what is the level or over-sight’? ‘Is there somebody in the house, is somebody drug testing my kid’? Is somebody going to know if he’s taking his medications or not’?

 

This is a lot of important stuff to understand. Most of the reputable places will belong to some kind of an association. They’ll be some sort of state organization, like in Minnesota there is MASH, Minnesota Association of Sober Homes. More like an extended care in Minnesota may not necessarily be part of MASH and they would have oversight by some other entity.

 

My first questions would be, ‘what is the level of oversight, what is the level of structure and tell me what are those things’? There is a live in manager, there’s a strict curfew, there is drug testing every so often; when I hear about drug testing at sober houses and they say random only, that generally means they test when somebody says, ‘oh hey we better test this guy’. In my opinion that is way too late. I think you should test consistently every week, every month, every two weeks and don’t tell them when and just do it all the time and they get used to it.

 

Gwen:             That’s interesting, ‘we do random drug testing’, to me I would think, gee that’s good, they’re never going to know. I didn’t realize though what the code is for that, so that’s good to know.

 

Chris:              Random generally means whenever I think about it. I’m not a big fan of it. I do push a little harder on some of the other sober houses that are still in an older model of hands off, we’re quite a bit stricter and we test a lot.

 

Then I would ask questions like, ‘what happens if my kid is asked to leave, what actually are the reasons for discharge, what am I to expect’? ‘Are you going to drive him to a hotel, are you going to stick him out on the sidewalk with his bags and let him stand there until he gets a ride’? ‘Give me a day in the life of the place’.

 

Now obviously the best case scenario is, go look. Go walk in the door of the house and go meet the residents and go meet the manager, obviously we can’t always do that. These days parents are poking around a lot more than they used too, and we invite it.

 

Gwen:             Are there ways that you can check up on the reputation of a recovery residence?

 

Chris:              Yes, you can check to see if they are part of a state alliance or association like MASH or like GARR, which is Georgia or FARR, which is Florida and they’re coming up, there’s lots of them coming up. There’s a big sober living network in Los Angeles run by some guys who really know what they’re talking about with sober living and all the levels underneath the umbrella of NARR.

 

Get online and start to poke around and find out what you can. If you call the house or the place where your son is going to go or your daughter is going to go and nobody returns your call or nobody is answering your call, then I would go somewhere else. Just like any other service there are certain elements that I’m always talking to my staff about, like look, Mom’s want to know, they want to know what’s going on with their kid and they want to know what the status is. We need to be there and tell them, and we need to know what we’re talking about. In other words, I tell my staff all the time, I don’t want to get a call from a parent and our answer is ‘I don’t know I haven’t seen your kid in 4 days’.

 

Gwen:             What about privacy?

 

Chris:              You mean like the anonymity thing?

 

Gwen:             Right.

 

Chris:              To me that is a giant pain. I think it’s just annoying, it’s an archaic vision of, ‘oh my God my neighbors are going to find out I don’t drink’. I get it that people have rights too, and that is understandable and you can do whatever you want with your name and I wouldn’t broadcast that you were in one of my houses, we don’t do that. Sometimes that’s over the top you know, if a parent calls, I am going to tell you what I know about your daughter. I am going to tell you and our residents know if you test with us and you test positive we’re going to call your parents immediately.

 

Gwen:             Even though they are over 18?

 

Chris:              Oh yea, and you’ve signed a document that says that.

 

Gwen:             Oh, okay.

 

Chris:              Yea, I’ve had adults throw a fit and say, ‘you can’t tell my parents’, I’m like, ‘why not? This is a deadly disease, why wouldn’t I? What are they going to say if something happens to you and I didn’t tell them?’ That’s crazy; I mean I think that whole anonymity thing gets a little bit blown out of proportion. I respect the old tenants of AA, but a sober living house is not AA; AA exists completely separately. Sometimes people get a little bit, where the lines get sort of blurry there.

 

I think that this is a very very deadly progressive disease and we take it very seriously. I don’t pull any punches when it comes to telling the truth about what’s going on and being transparent with families about what is going on.

 

Gwen:             And that would be a good thing to hear from anyone running a recovery residence they they’re considering.

 

You mentioned a few minutes ago that if you should call the recovery residence and nobody answers that that’s not a good sign. What are some other red flags, things that really should tell you to go away and keep looking?

 

Chris:              One, that there not testing, maybe that its coed, that accessibility to meetings is too cumbersome and you really can’t get there. It should be so easy to get to meetings from the sober house. I am talking mostly about sober living because when you’re talking about recovery residence under the NARR umbrella have these 4 levels, but there are a lot of different versions of what somebody would call a recovery residence.

 

Anything that is a structured licensed facility with clinicians is going to be following HIPPA and all kinds of other structured laws and state guidelines. If you call up their going to say, ‘I can’t confirm or deny that that person lives here’ and they are going to be following a lot of state guidelines.

 

But, once you get down to levels 1 and 2 and maybe even 3 in some cases, these are typically sober living houses, these even though they are under the umbrella of recovery residence, which is essentially the new term, they’re not going to have oversight by a state organization, they’re going to run by the individuals that are the operators.

 

Gwen:             So what would definitely be a turnoff? You said in addition to not regularly drug testing, to not answering the phone, to not making sure people get to meetings or geographically close to where meetings are occurring. Is there anything else?

 

Chris:              I guess I would say the most profound one I can come up with is if you called say after your brother or sister or son or daughter was in this sober house for let’s say a month, and you called and said, ‘I want to talk to the manager, tell me about my son, tell me what’s going on with him’. He should be able to tell you or she should be able to tell you, ‘oh yea, you know, he’s working at the drug store or he’s working at the hardware store or he’s on the soft ball team’. ‘Oh yea I know Mike, or I know July, she does this or she works there’, they should be able to tell you.

 

There should be some consistent exposure to each other. It’s a big part of what we do in our house meetings is; everybody should know what’s going on with each other and I don’t ever want to hear, like I said earlier, I don’t know, I never see her, I don’t know I never see him. That’s a bad sign; accountably comes from transparency and involvement right?

 

If you’re involved and we know you’re here, I am always asking my residents, ‘is this guy committed, is he getting connected’? ‘Oh yea man, he’s one of us, he’s with us all the time, he’s in the gang’. It’s like a horrible comparison to the old fraternity, but my brother was in a fraternity in Bolder at the University of Colorado and those guys were ridiculous about the unity of the group and the priority of the house and you live and die for your fraternity. But I like that concept in the sober house; I love the unity of the guys. Unity is our big push.

 

Gwen:             Very good. Sometimes the houses are run by, I think it’s called peer-to-peer, so it would be someone who is in recovery who’s just opened a house and sometimes I think they’re higher levels of people who are running those houses. Can you talk about that distinction and there might be pluses or minuses with each one.

 

Chris:              Yea, if somebody were to call me and say, ‘I’m going to open a sober house, will you help me’? And I get it all the time, I would say, ‘how long have you been sober and who’s going to run this thing’? If you say, ‘I have been sober for six months’, I will say, ‘I’m sorry, I’m not going to help you’.

 

                        Generally the owner of the property is one in recovery and wants to be part of this and has the means to do it. Or, there’s an owner and then there’s an operator or maybe just a real estate owner, but then there’s an operator within that that has all the right intentions and wants to do it right. I’ve helped many people get started with it and I’ve helped several who did it really really well and followed everything I suggested. Then I’ve gotten like I said those calls where, ‘hey man, I just got out of treatment I think I can do this. I’m going to open one with my Dad’s money’, usually doesn’t ever come off, but sometimes it does and they don’t last.

 

Gwen:             I think it would be good to find out then who owns the residence and who’s operating it and what is their background, what is their experience. Do they have any degrees? Do they have any training in addictions? I think somebody who just thinks it would be a good idea for some extra income and I know there are those places, that’s probably not going to be the best place, that’s going to be the most professional.

 

Chris:              And again, were probably talking about sober housing and sober living, not a structured extended care because you don’t get out of treatment and then open an extended care treatment center.

 

In the organization like MASH, and the state associations that themselves are a member of NARR, we do things in other words, like in MASH we do manager training twice a year, in October and May and I usually actually run it because I’m on the board, I’m the vice-president. So all the managers from the different sober houses that are new and that have never done it come every year, October and May and they sit and listen. I tell them things like, ‘here’s when you should test and here’s how you do this and here’s how you do that’.

 

There are certain things that MASH requires so an owner and an operator might be different. Somebody’s got to have some time and know what they are doing or we wouldn’t allow them to join.

 

Gwen:             I would like to know from the other side of that Chris, who is appropriate for recovery residence and who maybe isn’t?

 

Chris:              Well, I think obviously the counselor from your primary treatment center is going to determine that. But then again there are people who come into recovery residences, and that obviously includes sober houses from say, the street so to speak. In other words, like earlier we were talking about people who come out of treatment and say, ‘I got this’. Then they go home and it doesn’t work and within a month they face plant. They stop going to meetings, they stop doing everything and they’re looking to, ‘okay, I’ll do it now, I don’t want to go all the way back to treatment, what can I do? Can I backup the continuum less than all the way backup’?

 

And that’s where we come in, ‘okay, now I’ll go to the transitional living or now I’ll go to the extended care or sober house’. If you haven’t been out there too long then we’ll talk to you and we’ll look at you. Primarily there is an assessment made by your counselor leaving treatment about level of care, what you need and where you need to go.

 

                        I will take a hard look at just about anybody, especially if you’ve been to primary treatment within the last 6 months, then I’ll take a look at you. I really want to know what you’ve been doing in the last few weeks and months. because if you’ve been out there really trying, then I think I can probably help you with the community in the structure of the recovery residence or sober house. If you’ve been out there just using and not really trying to get sober and you’ve just been out there face down in the ditch, then you probably need to go to treatment first.

 

Gwen:             Well, there are people who go to a recovery residence and they bring in drugs and they get kicked out, or they break some other kind of a rule and they get kicked out. Is this something that you’re going to take a hard look at?

 

Chris:              Yea, we get calls all the time from someone who’s been kicked out of a different one. I hopefully get information from the other staff at the other place will call us and say, ‘here’s why we kicked him out, here’s what happened’. Because the resident will tell you anything, ‘oh they kicked me out because I was late one night’ and the reality of it is, ‘they kicked you out because your never home and you were never engaged and you just didn’t care and everybody knew it’.

 

                        When I interview you, I am going to say, ‘tell me about your commitment to this, tell me you’ve been doing? I can tell if you’re committed to this by what you’ve been doing over the last few months’. As you can understand, the consequences start to build on these behaviors even if you’re not using, if your just half doing this thing in the community. It’s pretty brutal; life doesn’t show up for people who are half doing this thing. You don’t necessarily have to relapse to have not much of a life. You know what I mean?

 

Gwen:             Is it the responsibility of the recovery residence staff to make sure that the person they’re bringing in is clean, is not a criminal? How much can you expect, how much screening can you expect for the other residents.

 

Chris:              If we did a back ground check like say they would do for an apartment or a job at a big corporation, we wouldn’t have any residents. Because they have credit problems, unlawful detainers, and horrible rental histories, and horrible job performance, and horrible financial issues, some criminal stuff but it usually not that bad.

 

                        The most important thing in my mind is judging commitment and motivation to be clean and sober. What I often tell people is you should be running a program in your sober house or recovery residence where people are knocking on the doors saying, ‘I need to do what you guys are doing here, that’s what I need, I need this’. ‘My counselor told me I should have done it last time, my friends are all telling me that I should do it now and I need this’.

 

I’ve got a girl who’s been calling me that last couple of weeks who’s been struggling out there and she was told to do a sober house several months ago and she didn’t do it. It’s like trying to go up the down escalator, she keeps trying to get up and she’s getting nowhere. Every time she calls she is more and more willing to do what we’re asking her to do. Eventually I think she’s going to come in and if she survives then she’ll do it.

 

Gwen:             If I’m sending my child to a recovery residence I want to make sure that if someone is in there that does start using or does get into trouble with the law that they’re not going to just keep being invited back and being invited back and creating a poor environment. I would think that’s one thing you would want to know.

 

Chris:              I think that that is a big issue, there’s a zero tolerance in most of these programs. When someone else is using in the house, the first question I have from the staff is, ‘did it involve anybody else’? ‘Did they go off and use and then come home and we knew they were high or did they bring it into the house and involve others’?

 

I’ll tell you this, I got a little bit of flack from some of my reference years ago when I started not throwing people away for minor infractions of the rules. Say for example, I’ve had a kid, he’s in a sober house, he’s doing great for 3, 4, 5 months, goes home for Christmas, hooks up with his old buddies and the joint comes around and he hits it once and he’s like, ‘oh my God, what did I do’ and he calls and tells on himself. Or he comes home and says, ‘you guys, I can’t believe I did this, it scared me to death, I did this’. I’m not throwing that kid away; I am going to try to keep him. And if the first question I’m going to say is to the rest of the group,

‘do you guys want to keep him’? ‘Do you think he’s telling the truth’? And if they say, ‘yea, he just made a dumb error’, then I’m probably going to keep him.

 

In the beginning years ago, I’ve been doing this for years now; obviously I don’t want to say that you know, we let people relapse, it’s a slippery slope. We make very conscientious comprehensive decisions because we can, because we have the oversight because we know the intricacies of the group. And we’ve made decisions like that in the past, but I think that zero tolerance policy is absolutely where to start from.

 

Gwen:             It sounds like there’s some democracy involved in a well run home.

 

Chris:              There you go, absolutely. It’s really healthy to put as much democracy in it as you can.

 

Gwen:             How much does it cost to be in one of these residences? I know it can vary with level of care and location and that kind of thing but I am sure people would want to get some idea whether it’s even affordable for them in their situation.

 

Chris:              The bare bone sober house with a live-in manager or maybe not in a lot of hands-off sort of model is probably somewhere in the neighborhood of $400 to $500 to $600 a month in the mid-west and probably $900 to $1,000 on the west coast. The east coast is sort of all over the place, but in my opinion you don’t get much for that.

 

And I also don’t agree necessarily of paying $2,000 a month because you get your own room and it has a deck and it’s on the beach, those things don’t attribute to the sobriety part. Then you get all the way up to an extended care program that could be $7,000 to $12,000 a month. But those are essentially treatment or treatment like. When you get down there, the reality of it is that you either are paying your own way or you’re not. I often tell parents who have probably paid a lot of money out for different treatments for their kids and they’re tired of paying for stuff and I say, ‘why don’t you get him in the door and pay for three months and then you pay half for three months but we will hold him or her accountable to start to contribute to their own as much as they can from their work and their own money’.

 

Gwen:             I hope that you’re now much better informed about what to look for when choosing a recovery residence. 

 

And I want to thank our guest, Chris Edrington for taking time out of his busy day to be on this show.  Chris, would you please tell listeners how they can contact you and find out more about your business and everything that you’re doing in this field?

 

Chris:              Sure, you can go online to www.stpaulssoberliving.com or you can call us at 651-636-7775.  We’ll be glad to help you and we’d also help you find another place if we’re not appropriate.  We have a lot of resources about different levels of care all over the country and I go to conferences every year and I know just about all of them.  So if you’re looking to place your loved one and you need some assistance, we would be glad to help.

 

 

 

 

 

THE OPIATE EPIDEMIC

 

 

 

Host:  Gwen Carden                          

Guest: Tricia Abney

            Dan Duncan   

            "Adam"

 

 

Gwen:             Let me ask you a guestion, how many Americans do you think are addicted to opiates?  Legal ones like prescription painkillers and illegal ones like heroin. If you guessed two million, you are right. Two million people on any given day in this country are misusing or abusing opiates.  In any society when two million people are being harmed by something daily, that’s an epidemic.

 

                        Today’s guest on Break the Chains know quite a lot about the opiate epidemic.  Our guest author, Tricia Abney was herself addicted to opiates for years and she paid dearly for it.  She’s going to tell us a little bit about her background and then she’ll fill us in on just what opiates are and why they have become such a problem. She details that and much more in her new book “Opiate Addiction; The Painkiller Epidemic, Heroin Addiction and the Way Out” available on Amazon, oh and by the way her pen name is Tate Adams.

 

And we’ll also be talking to Dan Duncan, and Dan is the Associate Executive Director for the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse in the St. Louis area.  And he is been with the council since 1995 and has worked in the substance abuse field for the past 30 years.  He oversees the largest Alcohol and Drug Resource Center in metropolitan St. Louis and he will be talking with us about that and the heroin problem later.

 

                        Hi Tricia, hi Dan.

 

Tricia:             Hi Gwen.

 

Dan:                Good morning.

 

Gwen:             Hi, Tricia, let’s start by having you tell our audience a little about how you became addicted to opiates and how your addiction nearly ruined your life.

 

Tricia:             Sure, thank you so much for having me, I think what you are doing is amazing and the more ways that we can get awareness out about addition the better.  And you know, as far as my story goes, I actually started drinking in my mid-teens and it started with alcohol and I don’t think my story is very unique and I always suffered from feelings of not really fitting in and alcohol provided that for me.  I was able to drink and party and get that sort of social lubricant and control it for the most part. 

 

Until my early twenties and you know, when I was in my early 20’s I was living in Florida and I got a prescription for a painkiller and I had minor neck pain and migraines.  When I took that painkiller and it was Vicodin and I got that feeling that I got when I first had my first taste of alcohol.  It was that feeling of relief and it was you know this warm feeling that I just absolutely loved it.

 

                        I believe that I started abusing those pills from the very first time I got them, I got them from a doctor and I started using more than what was prescribed.  Taking more pills then I was suppose to at one time and taking them more often then I was supposed to.  It didn’t take too long before I started what we call ‘doctor shopping’ to get more of them.  I would go to more doctors and you know, either tell them the same story or make up new stories in order to get more prescriptions for these pills.  And you know, at some point that became very time consuming and very expensive. 

 

                        I remember I was sitting in a doctor’s office one day; you know there would be some days when I could go to three or four doctors a day if I timed it right and get a lot of prescriptions.  And I was sitting in a doctor’s office one day and I looked over and he walked out of the room and he had left his prescription pad sitting there on the table.  The addict wheel started turning in my head and while he was gone I took about half off that prescription pad and I shoved it in my pocket.  That started my career in forging prescriptions; prescription fraud. 

 

I started writing my own prescriptions for these things, which are felonies in case anybody doesn’t know that.  It didn’t take too long before I started getting arrested for that stuff.  I was getting arrested and at the time I had a small child and the very first time I was arrested for prescription fraud my son was six months old and he was in the back seat of the car.  I did not think I had a problem; I was in such denial about the whole thing.  I had been hooked on these things for a few years by then and it just kept escalating. 

 

I got to the point where I was getting arrested probably about every six months and getting sent to rehabs and I just refused to acknowledge that there was any problem.  My losses just continued to pile up and they just kept getting worse and worse and worse.  That’s just the way addiction works and you know I got to the point where I had six plus arrests and I had been to six rehabs and in the end I was looking at going to prison and losing custody of my son.  In the end there he was three years old when I finally, you know snapped my head up that was what it took for me.

 

I had really lost everything, I lost my job, my home, my house, my car and I was looking at losing my freedom and my child.  That is what it took for me to, to get my attention you know it doesn’t have to be that way but that’s what it took for me.  I went into that last rehab and I was finally willing to pay attention and do what they suggested and get clean and sober and that was over twelve years ago. 

 

My son is almost sixteen years old now and he has no memory of any of that.  I never spent another day in jail; I did not go to prison.  You know, I didn’t lose anything else, life got so much better and I can tell you that life clean and sober is just so much easier and more fulfilling then the day to day life of active addiction.  It was exhausting, it feels hopeless and it doesn’t have to be that way.

 

Gwen:             So, nearly losing your son was the wakeup call that you finally got?

 

Tricia:             That was it and you know it doesn’t have to go that far for anybody but that was where it went for me.

 

Gwen:             Wow, well you have gone on to be a very successful person in the marketing field and you’ve also written several books.  And of course as I said at the top of the hour you have a new book out called “The Opiate Addiction” and tell us a little bit about opiates, some people listening to this might say, well I’ve heard what opiates are but I don’t know really what they are, can you give us an overview?

 

Tricia:             Sure, opiates by definition, they can actually be one of two things and in the end there the same thing though.  By definition they’re considered to be the natural alkaloids found in the resin of the opium poppy plant.  However, some include the semi-synthetic substances that are directly derived from the opium poppy as well.  They can be either natural or synthetic, natural opiates include Opium, Morphine and Codeine.  Other substances that are manmade we call opioids and these are most used to treat chronic pain and these include Vicodin, Oxycodone, Demerol, Dilaudid, they’re all highly addictive.  In the end we refer to them all as opiates and in the end they’re really all the same.

 

Gwen:             So opiates have been around I guess for centuries, have they not?

 

Tricia:             They have, and it’s actually a very interesting history.  I have a whole chapter about it in my book.  They’re in the forefront of the news now so we think it’s a new thing and it’s a huge problem and it is a huge problem but they’ve been around for thousands of years.  The first opiates were believed to have been cultivated and used during the Neolithic period, which was the new Stone Age and the first written reference to the poppy, which is the plant that is used to produce opium was dated around 4000BC and Homer even speaks of its effects in the Odyssey.  So you’ll find images of poppies in Egyptian pictography and Roman sculptures.  You’ll see opiate use and abuse depicted and often glamorized in texts and art work dating back centuries, through China, Europe, early U.S. history through the Civil War; it’s actually very interesting.

 

Gwen:             Wow, and opiates do of course have some benefits, they’ve been used by medical doctors of course for many years.

 

Tricia:             Oh absolutely, they’ve been first discovered for uses as pain relief and to use for surgeries and like I said, that during the Civil War.  And you know even when heroin was first discovered they decided that that was going to be a cure for Morphine addiction and they started sending it out in the mail.  You know, it’s a very interesting history but yes, there are benefits to them of course.

 

Gwen:             That was one of the most interesting things that I read in your book was that whole chapter about the history and how ancient it really is.  And how humans discovered the benefits and the effects of it long long long before anything in that we think of as modern day. 

 

Tricia let me ask you this guestion; what is it that makes opiates so addictive?

 

Tricia:             One of, that’s really interesting because you know, from a personal perspective what I find is that most or many people are looking for or appreciate an escape from reality, or whatever it is that they feel is pulling them down in life.  It might be that they don’t feel they fit in, aren’t being treated fairly, it doesn’t really matter what it is, you know they just appreciate that escape. 

 

And opiates what they do is they briefly stimulate the higher centers of the brain and they give the user an immediate rush of pleasure.  The effects on the central nervous system also, they give you a deep feeling of happiness.  So you might feel at peace with the world, you forget about pain, depression, you might even forget that you were hungry.  It’s just a naturally irresistible feeling to someone that has been searching for some sort of relief, and not just physical relief, emotional relief.

 

Gwen:             So are they, there’s something about them though that makes them highly addictive for certain people.  Certain people can take a pain pill if they have a medical procedure and when the pain’s gone they don’t think about the pill, whereas other people are not that lucky.  What is it that can make it so addictive?

 

Tricia:             That gets into, you know, whether addiction, some people are more prone to being, or more prone to addiction or not, a lot of times that’s arguable whether it is environmental, whether it’s genetic and there’s studies that talk about both things.  Actually addiction does not run in my family and the moment that I first took a drink and first took you know, an opiate into my system I feel that I was immediately addicted.  As far as whether its genetics or whether it’s environmental and upbringing or not, I think that it does play a role. But I think it’s different for everybody really.

 

Gwen:             Let me ask you this Tricia, why do you think that there’s been an increase of opiate addiction in this country?

 

Tricia:             That’s actually the easiest guestion to answer so far; its availability.  At one point in time not too long ago there we so many opiates prescribed in this country it was crazy.  In fact, still today, the U.S. consumes 80% of the world’s pain medication while only having 5% of the world’s population.  You said it at the beginning of the show, federal statistics show upwards of 2 million people in the group of opiate addiction.  Every 19 minutes someone dies from a prescription painkiller overdose. 

 

So, you know, as to why the market was flooded with pain meds, that’s an entirely different issue.  Retail prescriptions for opiate painkillers have tripled in the past 20 years.  So that tells us that rising sales and addictions were driven by something and that something was the massive effort to shape medical opinion and practice.  That effort was actually bank rolled by some of the companies that, you know, it wasn’t really figured out until a little while later, it should have been obvious at the beginning.  But bank rolled by Perdu Pharma the maker of Oxycontin and other such drug manufacturers and they bank rolled these studies that reported minimal risk of addiction and those studies were accepted by the nation’s medical journals and even the FDA.

 

Gwen:             So, there’s just been just a lack of knowledge of how severe this problem can be from the prescription medications that we are only now coming to realize.

 

Tricia:             And this information.

 

Gwen:             And this information.  Are prescription pain pills considered to be a gateway drug to heroin?

 

Tricia:             Without a doubt they are.  I think it could have been foreseen, but probably not avoided and this is due almost entirely to the crackdown in recent years in prescription opiate abuse.  While many painkiller addicts start out thinking of heroin as a low class drug that they would never touch, the reality is if they’re already addicted to a form of it, you know, with new regulations and law enforcement making access to prescription drugs much more difficult, users are being driven to another kind of opiate that is cheaper, is more powerful and you know; unfortunately it’s much more destructive. 

 

So these drugs, you know heroin is flooding the market and this really isn’t my segment but you know, I’ll finish the guestion with this, when we think of a painkiller addict now, a lot of times we think of a housewife, a professional, a suburban teenager, or even the occasional retiree where we can take that mental picture and now apply it to heroin addiction.

 

Gwen:             Wow, that’s really compelling information.  Well speaking about heroin, this is where Dan Duncan comes in.  Dan is Associate Executive Director for the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse in the St. Louis area and briefly Dan, tell us what the council does.

 

Dan:                Well, Gwen we’re a science based organization that deals with substance abuse issues originally primarily and still in terms of advocacy.  But over the years we’ve evolved into becoming an education agency that educates the public.  And specifically in prevention we have a heavy emphasis in prevention, trying to help the youth avoid these problems to begin with.  We don’t do treatment, but we do assessment referral so where the place a lot of people will turn to get help when they don’t know what to do or where to turn.

 

Gwen:             Well I know one of the things the council did was to create a really compelling campaign to educate young people about heroin and its dangers.  As part of that campaign you produced a couple of radio spots that feature parents who have lost their children to heroin.  It’s called “The Not Even Once” campaign and I would like it if we could play for our listeners two of those public service announcements that you produced.

 

Dan:                Okay, my name is Tom; nearly three years ago my wife and I learned our son Michael was using heroin.  We were stunned.  We learned he had used Marijuana in middle school, drank in high school in college abused prescription painkillers, then heroin.  He tried gallantly to beat this insidious addiction but last October, Michael died of an overdose.  This is a message to parents; be aware of what’s going on in terms of our kids being exposed to and using prescription painkillers and yes, even heroin. 

 

Talk with your kids seriously about this and communicate thoroughly how dangerous these drugs are.  Be as involved in their lives as you possibly can be.  I hope this message will help other families and other youth avoid the kind of tragedy we have experienced.  Please check out www.not-even-once.com  Thank you; a message from the Missouri Division of Alcohol and Drug Abuse and the National council on Alcoholism and drug abuse in the St. Louis area.

                       

My name is Terry and my wife Pam and I have a message that we’d like to                         share with parents.

 

Pam:                A year ago we lost our son Andrew to a drug overdose.

 

Terry:              Andrew was a terrific kid; he was a scholar, athlete who played football in high school and college.  After suffering an injury, Andrew was prescribed powerful painkillers which he became addicted to and he eventually used heroin. 

 

Pam:                Andrew’s addiction continued to get worse and despite his sincere efforts to recover from it, he overdosed and died.

 

Terry:              Our message is simple, if a kid like Andrew can get involved with a drug like heroin, any kid can.

 

Pam:                It took his soul and it eventually took his life, we want parents to be aware there is currently an epidemic of prescription drug and heroin use by youth; and it’s lethal.

 

Terry:              Again, if it can happen to our child it can happen to your child, please check out www.not-even-once.com  A message from the Missouri Division of Alcohol and Drug Abuse and the National Council on Alcoholism and drug abuse in the St. Louis area.

 

Gwen:             Wow, Dan I get goose bumps every time I hear those ads.  We think heroin is a problem someplace else, but how wide spread is heroin problem, particularly among the youth of America?

 

Dan:                Well, Gwen we know that heroin use rose by 75% just between 2007 and 2011 and it continues to increase from then until now.  We know that deaths involving prescription pills, primarily painkillers, quadrupled between 1999 and 2010 and that continues. 

 

So, unfortunately it’s becoming increasingly prevalent in the St. Louis area.  I think we just happen too, because of our geographical proximity we happen to suffer from this earlier than a lot of other parts of the country, in Chicago, even before us.  But there is no doubt from everything I see here and read that this is a growing spreading problem throughout the country.

 

Gwen:             So, is it specific to age, gender, race, socioeconomic group?

 

Dan:                Well, you know, as you mentioned earlier I’ve worked in the field for 30 years and of course heroin is nothing new to me.  I’ve seen it, treated it for years, but it was always pretty much confined to the really lower socioeconomic wrongs of society.  By in large, very small percentage of society used a drug like heroin. 

 

What we have seen happen, and Tricia mentioned it, it’s become now a suburban issue.  In terms of what’s happened to use an overused phrase, it was like a perfect storm of a couple different things converging at once.  One was certainly the prescription painkiller issue that Tricia well described.  The other was really the Mexican drug cartels figuring out that if they could bring, you know, heroin from essentially South America into the United States in a powdered form at a more pure form, a stronger form of heroin cheaply, that there was this willing marketplace and it was essentially suburban youth.

 

                        So that’s what we’ve seen in the St. Louis area, we started noticing an increase in calls coming into our call center around 2006, 2007.  My counselors’ kept telling me, we’re getting more calls about heroin and that just increased.  We also noticed there were more and more about teenagers, which we never seen before; white, black and otherwise.  And we also noticed that parents didn’t seem to know much about this.  You mentioned, you know, the need for education and awareness.  They just would just ask us guestions like; what are opiates, or what is heroin, is it the same thing as methamphetamine?  And it became apparent to us that it wasn’t just the youth that suffered from, you know, a generation gap of not understanding or not knowing anything about this drug but also their parents.

 

                        So that’s why we created the www.not-even-once.com awareness program to try and start, you know, if nothing else raise that awareness so that both youth and their parents and adults alike had an understanding of what’s going on.  And that it would wake them from an apathy that might tell them or let them think that their school or their kids were somehow immune from this because in fact, they are not.  To this day we are seeing, you know, heroin use all over St. Louis, St Louis County in high schools where just a few years ago it would have been unheard of.

 

Gwen:             Yes and I think that we all do have that idea that well, it’s just somebody who is homeless, who’s living in a bad part of town, who doesn’t have anything going for them and they’re the ones who get drawn into this.  But in fact what you are describing or saying is that a lot of people, particularly young people, but also I am thinking from what I am reading older people as well who are getting involved in this you would never imagine.  And I know that some of it has to do with the price of the pain pills; can you talk a little bit about that?

 

Dan:                Yeah, the painkillers on the street are pretty expensive; we hear everything from $30.00 to $65.00 per pill.  And yet in St. Louis area somebody can buy a button, what they call a button, which is a cap full of heroin for $10.00.  You know, here before it was always a matter of another factor that has to be thrown in here is the needle.  Years ago, when most heroin that came into most big cities was an inferior form of what they call, black tar heroin that has to be melted down using a spoon and inject with a needle. 

 

That needle was a mental barrier for a lot of people; they don’t want to cross that line.  It makes it an icky dirty drug.  But when it became available in this powdered form, as I say with greater purity, it had a different feel to it.  So less stigmatize if you will, and for some kids who had already maybe snorted something like Cocaine or tried other drugs in a powder form this became more acceptable. 

 

The thing about prescription painkillers, I have to note, and Tricia again, explained it well is when these drug, this new class, we’ve had Demerol and Dilaudid and those drugs for a few decades now.  But when the Vicodin, Oxycodone/Hydrocodone drugs became readily available in the early 90’s they were initially as I understood it really developed to help people in extreme pain, such as people that were terminally ill with cancer.  But the medical field started using pain as another vital sign to check for.

 

Once they started doing that we started seeing the prescriptions written for these new painkillers, this whole class of painkillers just going up exponentially.  And so we have seen, and when we first started dealing with this epidemic it really exploded here in about 2010.  When we first started dealing with it we really didn’t realize just how much the prescription painkillers had to do with feeding the heroin problem.

 

We’ve come to realize it; it’s almost 100%, I mean when we see youth we have lost, Gwen, 1900 people in the greater St. Louis, mostly young people in the last six and a half years.  And that’s definitely an epidemic; I mean we’ve never seen anything close to this before. 

 

The parents you heard in those spots, those are the kind of people that we’ve been meeting.  It’s been tragic, it’s been heartbreaking dealing with parents who’ve lost their kids.  But this whole issue of prescription painkillers is an issue that I think the medical field has some responsibility for it to back away and not write these prescriptions for everything for everybody because in essence, that’s kind of what’s happened.

 

Gwen:             Dan, you’ve got the floor.

 

Dan:                I just wanted to make the point; I want people to understand that, you know, the solution lies only in part with the medical field taking a good hard look at how many prescriptions are being written because it’s phenomenal how many are being written.  That’s only part of the solution, we have to look at; Tricia mentioned the availability of the drug.  She’s right; but the other factor of course is the demand.  What’s going on in our culture and in our country that we have such a demand?  And we do indeed have a demand.  And our youth have a demand and this is where we have failed our kids I think largely in terms of not addressing that demand and how do you do that.  That’s why we put together this awareness campaign.  We went out and did radio spots and display ads and town halls, raising the awareness.  But of course, that’s not going to be enough.

 

                        We also have to get into places where the kids are, primarily schools.  Do more and better prevention.  We have to have treatment available for people so that, you know; ideally the earlier you can intervene with opiate addiction the better that person is going to have a chance to recover. 

 

As Tricia can tell you, anybody that has been down this road, the further you get into it, this drug heroin has an unbelievable grip on individuals.  And, you know, one of the things that makes it different from other drugs is the physiological addiction is so strong that people get sick when they don’t use the drug.  And they know that all they have to do is score and use and all the sickness goes away.

 

                        We have to have more and better treatment for youth and adults.  We need parents to be aware and on top of this and know more about this than their kids do.  Be talking to their kids from an early age, be very involved in their lives, I mean the best prevention starts at home with parents, no doubt about it. 

 

But we have a responsibility as a nation I think to our youth to do a better job in educating them and being there for them and helping them understand what the risks are with this particular drug.  That would include prescription painkillers because they should be isolated only for use when absolutely necessary in my opinion.

 

Gwen:             If you suspect that someone in your family might have a heroin addiction problem, what are some of the signs?  What do you look for in your teenager or your loved one?

 

Dan:                Well for all addiction it’s usually going to be matter of some type of a change in behavior and affect, friendships and grades and dress.  I tell parents all the time, trust your gut.  If you suspect something’s going on, if you suspect drug use, don’t ignore that because too often I talk to parents and I hear the same story over and over again.  They look back and they can clearly see all the symptoms that were there that they pretty much dismissed.  Because naturally, we want to trust our kids and parents think oh, no, not my kid, they wouldn’t do that, yeah, very possibly your kid, very possibly.   And kids will sometimes fool you; sometimes it will be the captain of the football team that’s making straight A’s who is using these drugs.  They can get away with it for awhile.  By the time you become aware of what’s going on, they’re pretty far into it.

 

                        So, you look for overall, I think when it comes to opiates, lethargy, nodding off, sniffling, you know, the classic signs have always been, long sleeve shirts in the summer but that’s less the case now because they are snorting it, at least initially.  So, they’re not necessarily hiding needle track marks.  But you will see things missing around the house usually because as their habit grows their need to buy the drug, even though it’s cheap, their tolerance grows and they need to buy more.  And their ability to get the money to buy the drugs initially which was relatively easy for a lot of suburban youth will eventually become more difficult. 

 

They’ll run out of options and so they start, and I’m generalizing here, but they will start stealing, taking things from the house and selling them.  Taking a check out of the middle of the check book and cashing a check.  Things like that, so when you notice changes that don’t seem right, then you’re going to have to take some kind of action and start having some talks and taking a harder look, because something’s going on.

 

Gwen:             So trust your gut.  That’s the best advice I’ve ever gotten just about anything in life.

 

Dan:                Well, you know, I always tell people it’s kind of like the Reagan thing with Glasnost, you want to trust your kinds, yes trust, but verify.  Check things out.

 

Gwen:             Now we just have a few more minutes here and there may be some people listening who are addicted to heroin or other forms of opiates and they’re wondering what in the world can I do?  You mentioned Dan, just a moment ago that a lot of time people are using at a certain point just so that they don’t feel bad.  So briefly, what are some of the treatment options and Tricia, you can weigh in on this as well?

 

Dan:                Well, you know, with heroin specifically, or opiates, because of the physiological the strength, the physical addiction, most people that are going to recover are going to need a medical detox.  Sure there are those people that go through weeks of what’s called ‘cold turkey’ and they sweat it out at home and they’re sick as a dog for days.  Sometimes more than days, weeks, but getting a medical detoxification can really help.  There are new drugs available, medication assisted treatment, like Suboxone, like Naltrexone or Vivatrol, which is an injectable form of Naltrexone, which are really helping.  

 

But I want to tell people out there that, you know, sometimes they can get Suboxone on the street.  These drugs are not the magic bullet, the silver bullet, the cure; they’re an adjunct assist to treatment but they do and can make a difference.

 

                        I really urge people to get treatment, to get help, take action; it gets worse.  Tricia said it well, you know, you don’t have to live like this.  And with opiate addiction specifically, it kills, it’s lethal.  You’ll get away with it for a while but like what we’re seeing is this growing strength of heroin coming into the St. Louis area the way these overdoses are occurring, is they’ll get you know, 8% heroin one day and 39% or 84% purity the next day and they overdose and die.  It just stops your respiration, it stops your heart and you’re dead.

 

Gwen:             Don’t try to do it to yourself.

 

Dan:                No, I wouldn’t advise it, I mean you can do it but it’s very difficult but why do it that way.  And yes, I don’t know about other states, I know in Missouri we have waiting lists.  It’s difficult because the system is over encumbered, they can’t handle the demand so you have to get on a waiting lists.  But usually it’s not that long and you know if you get on a waiting list today, maybe two or three weeks from now you will be in treatment.  I always tell people, be willing to go to any lengths to get well.  It will pay off for you in dividends; Tricia is living proof of that.  Recovery is possible for anybody who is addicted, it’s not easy, it’s hard, but it’s a lot easier than going down the path of addiction and where it takes you.

 

Gwen:             Tricia, would you like to add anything?

 

Tricia:             Yea, absolutely.  You know I agree with Dan 100% as far as the Suboxone and Buprenorphine and you know, I’ve used all of those at some point or another, either for maintenance or for detox and I agree they are great tools for detox, I don’t agree they’re great tools for maintenance.  But, you know, they’re very very powerful drugs and they have very long half-lives, which make them quite dangerous and they are also subject to abuse.  But I think they’re very useful for detox and they do have their place.

 

Gwen:             We can make it a little easier, if it’s medically supervised use of these..

 

Tricia:             Absolutely.

 

Gwen:             Can make it easier so you’re not sitting there dreading saying, I don’t think I can do this because I’m just going to be too sick.

 

Tricia:             Absolutely, and you know as far as getting clean, it’s possible for anybody. And getting clean isn’t, a fraction as difficult as it is as the day-to-day life of active addiction.  It’s so exhausting to do that, to go through every day of having to figure out how you’re going to get the drugs, getting the money to get the drugs, going to get the drugs, using the drugs and then figuring out how to get more.  It’s just a merry-go-round and the legal consequences, the financial consequences, the family, all of that. 

 

And you know, getting clean and sober is just so much easier, we call it ‘the easier, softer way’ because it really really is.  You know you can have a life beyond your wildest dreams and I found that to be true in my case.

 

Gwen:             So, just seek some help and do what you are advised to do so that you can get through it.  It’s kind of a short term commitment of pain and discomfort for a very large pay off at the end.

 

Tricia:             That’s exactly what it is.

 

Gwen:             I wanted to end the show on a high note.  We are being joined today by Adam who agreed to come on the show to remind everybody that life can and often does get better for heroin addicts.  And Adam is 36, lives in the Midwest, he has a successful career in IT and is a father of an adorable little boy; 14 years ago however, Adam could not have imagined the life he enjoys today because he was addicted to heroin.  He will tell us in a minute how heroin consumed every waking moment of his life, whether he was thinking about using it, trying to find it, trying to get high, getting the money he needed to buy it, or hiding it from everybody he knew.

 

                        Welcome to the show, Adam.

 

Adam:             Thank you.

 

Gwen:             So, would you please tell our listeners briefly how you became addicted to heroin.

 

Adam:             Yeah, like you said, a long time ago, it was actually on New Year’s Eve, somebody that I knew offered it to me and I tried it.  I actually spent about two hours after I did it throwing up in the bathroom.  I thought it was terrible, but then I tried it again about a month later and then tried it again about a week or two later after that.  Then it snowballed into an everyday thing, very quickly.  It turned, it changed my entire life.  Within a couple of months that was all that I did, all that I cared about. 

 

I worked at a job where my boss was a alcoholic so I was, anytime I showed up and looked out of it or you know, whatever, my boss would just assume that I’d had a rough night and just kind of joke about it.  I actually worked at night at a bank monitoring all their ATM’s making sure all the ATM’s were working so I was there by myself at night.  I would be sitting at my desk monitoring ATM’s and shooting up at the same time.  It was, I sort of had an environment that allowed me to get away with that for awhile.

 

Gwen:             How long did that go on?

 

Adam:             That went on for about a year, and then I got laid off from that job.  I had some trouble finding another job.  But I did find another job; I just had to hide it a little bit better.  But I was running out of money, I ended up selling some of my stuff.  I stole a little bit here and there, I started selling heroin a little bit.  I would just buy more than what I would use and sell off a little bit of it to help pay for that.  But that didn’t work very long because I would just use it instead of selling it.

 

Gwen:             So you went downhill really fast.

 

Adam:             Oh yeah, I mean it doesn’t take long and I mean, I used to go out and I used to drink and smoke and do all sorts of the more party drugs I guess and then after I started doing heroin I didn’t want anything else.  I mean my entire focus was on heroin.

 

Gwen:             Did you get to the point where you were just trying to not get sick, you were using just to maintain?

 

Adam:             Oh yeah, I mean, you know after awhile your constantly chasing that high, that euphoria, that numbness.  And it takes more and more to do that and you know when you go past the time where you’re normally shooting up, you start feeling that.  It’s a horrible feeling.  So there was definitely, you know you just are trying to maintain, you are wanting to get high and wanting to feel bad but then it starts to be; I just want to get some so I’m not sick.  That sickness, that withdrawal is brutal.  I mean that is one of the most horrible things.

 

Gwen:             What is that like?

 

Adam:             Um, for me it was, I felt sick to my stomach, I was nauseous, I felt like everything, all my joints and my nerves and my bones and my hair just felt like it was sort of on fire.  Like I was tense and just, I don’t know, it’s really hard to describe, but it is terrible.

 

Gwen:             As my father would say, it would be non-habit forming after awhile.

 

Adam:             Yeah, right, well it’s so bad to where you will do just about anything to stop it.  I mean it is just a terrible thing to go through, which is why it’s really hard to quit because when you start feeling that you just want to stop.

 

Gwen:             Right, we just have a couple of minutes, the time has just flown by.  But I wanted to hear from you just very briefly, how you finally made up your mind to get clean and how that impacted the life that you have today?

 

Adam:             Okay, I had actually overdosed a couple of times and that was never a, you know, a moment of clarity for me.  That was just, oh well maybe I should do less next time.  You know, but there was one morning where I woke up and I couldn’t get the needle in my arm fast enough and I threw up.  At that point I just, that was it for me.  I had had enough, but that was my moment where I just wanted it to stop.  I actually went over to my parents house and I talked to my Dad and I told him I was doing heroin and he asked me if I wanted to stop.  He didn’t freak out, he didn’t scream, he just asked me if I wanted to stop.  I said yes, and he turned around, got on the phone and got me into rehab.

 

Gwen:             Wow and having family support like that is so helpful for people in recovery.

 

Adam:             Yeah.

 

Gwen:             Unfortunately, we don’t have a whole lot of time but I do want to say that you went on to, you did as I believe you told me, you did remain clean and sober once you got out of rehab, is that correct?

 

Adam:             Yeah, I was clean, I actually after about six months I started drinking and drinking pretty heavily.  I ended up getting a DWI.  And then at that point after about I guess six months of that with the help of my girlfriend at the time, just got rid of all of that, quit doing all of it.

 

Gwen:             The happy ending is that you eventually married, you have a little boy, you have a very successful career.  You’ve been clean and sober for 14 years, oh 12 years.

 

Adam:             Yup.

 

Gwen:             And, is there life after heroin addiction?

 

Adam:             Absolutely, I mean I never thought I would make it past 25.  I was fully expecting to just, at some point I’m just not going to make it.  So to be where I am in my life and to see my son grow up is amazing.  It’s really good to be here, to know where I came from.  And it’s very much possible.

 

Gwen:             Well, that’s a wonderful story and I appreciate you sharing it with us, Adam.  And unfortunately that’s all we have time for today.  It’s been a fascinating discussion and hope that you’ve learned something that you didn’t know and maybe something you can even use.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

 

RESTART YOUR RECOVERY

 

 

Host:               Gwen Carden 

Guests:            Trisha Abney

                      

 

Gwen:             Sometimes the best of intentions fall by the wayside; we eat that piece of chocolate cake we swore we weren’t going to touch, or we buy that pair of fabulous shoes that are great for our feet, but they’re not so good for our wallet.  But when the intention of staying in recovery starts to fall by the wayside, that can be far more dangerous than a fatter waste line or a skinnier wallet.  And it’s not uncommon for folks working the program to become complacent over time.  They can let sobriety fall from number one on the priority list to somewhere on the priority list, but definitely not on the top.  And it can be a serious event to fall off the beam if it leads to a loss of sobriety.

 

                        But the good news is it doesn’t have to go that far.  If you find yourself working the program with less enthusiasm or commitment than you once did, or not at all, or depression is setting in, or you’re experiencing any kind of negative feelings or any kind of resistance that’s keeping you from your highest good, you’re going to want to stay tuned in to this entire hour. 

 

We’re going to be talking to author, Trisha Abney about the warning signs of falling off the beam and ways to get back on it.  She’s also going to tell us her own story, including falling off the beam and this is detailed in her new book, “Restart Your Recovery: 12 Things You Can Do to Get Back on the Beam.”  The book is available on Amazon and her pen name is, Taite Adams.

 

Welcome to the show, Trisha!

 

Trisha:             Thanks Gwen thanks so much for having me on.  I think what you’re doing with your show is amazing and the more ways we can get awareness out about addiction the better.

 

Gwen:             I really appreciate those words.  How many books have you written pertaining to addiction and recovery?

 

Trisha:             I have five books, recovery related book.  My first book is called, “Kick Start Your Recovery” and it’s really geared towards anyone that hasn’t even set foot in a room of say, Alcoholics Anonymous or NA or anything like that, to give them an overview of recovery and what to expect. 

 

                        I have a book called, “Opiate Addiction” that is actually my bestselling book.  There is this one, “Restart Your Recovery.”  I have a book called, “Who is Molly” that talks about the drug, molly.  I think that was all five.

 

Gwen:             Well I love how in the author area you say that, ‘you traded in the high cost of low living for a much more peaceful and rewarding life’; tell us about your life before it was peaceful and rewarding?

 

Trisha:             Absolutely.  I don’t think my story is super unique; I started drinking in my mid-teens, I always felt that I kind of didn’t fit in.  And I drank and partied and that made me feel like I fit in to an extent and I controlled it for the most part.  But then in my early twenties I found prescription medications and I really really loved those.  And I got addicted to prescription pain pills, so that sort of set up a probably three or four year pretty quickly downward spiral for me.  Where I was doctor shopping and then committed a lot of prescription fraud where I started getting arrested and getting into a lot of trouble. 

 

And at the end there I was taking more than 30 prescription painkillers a day to support my habit.  And I’ve been arrested more than six times and been to about six rehabs.  And I was looking at going to prison in the end and loosing custody of my son at the time and he was three years old when I got sober.  I finally to the point where I had really just about lost everything, including my freedom, where I finally was willing to follow some directions and I was afraid that it was too late. 

 

Luckily it wasn’t, and I went to that last rehab and I did get clean and sober and that was over 12 years ago and my son is 16 years old now.  And I can tell you that sobriety is wonderful and life clean and sober is so much easier and more fulfilling than the life of a daily active addiction.  It was exhausting; I felt hopeless and I’ve learned that it just doesn’t have to be that way. 

 

Gwen:             Well you worked the program for a while, but you also had a period where it was kind of less on the top of the list than it had been.  Could you tell us just really briefly about that and then I want to get into some of the more nitty gritty of what is in your book?

 

Trisha:             Absolutely.  As far as moving away from recovery programs, that’s something that I definitely have experience with.  I talk a lot about it in the book, “Restart Your Recovery.”  The term, SLIP stands for, ‘sobriety loses its priority’ and unless staying clean and sober and working a program remains at the top of the list, you know there’s the danger of that happening and that’s exactly what happened to me at about six years sober. 

 

I was laid off from my corporate job and I took that opportunity to start my own business and I made that my priority for the next four years.  I cut out all of my recovery service commitments, I stopped working with sponsor, I cut my meetings down to just one meeting per week.  And as far as I was concerned sobriety was still a priority for me, but it wasn’t the most important thing to me.  And as a result my program really suffered, my state of mind suffered, my overall health suffered. 

 

At the end of those four years, I looked around and you know I had not picked up a drink or a drug, but I realized that I wasn’t happy and that I was really on a pretty dangerous road.  And I decided to make some changes and that was where I decided that I needed to take some real action to get what we say, ‘to get back on the beam’. 

 

Gwen:             So you were slipping but you caught yourself before you fell off.

 

Trisha:             Right and I think it was helpful that I was still going to one meeting a week.  They say, ‘we go to meetings to see what happens to people that don’t go to meetings’ and I was seeing that, still seeing that at least on a weekly basis.  I was seeing what was happening to people that were going back out and coming back and telling me that it wasn’t working and that it was still pretty bad out there.  So I knew that I did not want to pick up a drink, but I also knew that I wasn’t happy.

 

Gwen:             Well some folks listening today might in fact be in the process of slipping; what are the primary signs of relapse?

 

Trisha:             Well you know it’s interesting because it certainly is not uncommon for people in recovery to have different states of emotional sobriety and have a different reference to being on the beam in their recovery.  A funny but true saying that I hear quite often is, ‘alcoholics are people who find something that works and then stop doing it’ and I find that this is true.  Why we stop doing this I don’t know. 

 

                        But as far as the warning signs go to simplify it, there’s a simple explanation and there’s a more complex one.  But to simplify it, getting sober is a process and so is relapse.  And we get sober in three stages; we get sober first physically, where we stop drinking and we stop doing drugs and putting those things in our bodies.  And then the second stage of that is the emotional mental where we start feeling better, start thinking better, our thoughts become clearer.  And then the third phase of that, you know hopefully through going to meetings, working the steps and those sorts of things is spiritual.  And there’s this spiritual recovery where we start to rely on a higher power. 

 

And then when we lose our sobriety, the process is actually reversed and the first thing that goes out the window generally is this spiritual aspect of our recovery.  We stop prayer and medication, we stop relying on a higher power and we take control of everything again, you know, we start running our own show. 

 

Next comes the mental/emotional breakdown where things start to fall apart; anger, resentment, negative thinking and those sorts of behaviors return.  And then finally the last thing is the physical where eventually we pick up again.  And then to look at it in a more complex term, there’s actually a relapse continuum that is 11 steps, I think they should have made it 12, that are warning signs or steps that typically lead up to relapse and that was developed back in 1982.  Those are a bit more detailed and you can take a look at those and see if you fall on that relapse continuum at all.  A lot of us can see that maybe we’re somewhere along there; we have a change in attitude, maybe denial has returned, maybe behavioral changes, social breakdown where we’re not going to meetings anymore, loss of control.  And then the final part of that is relapse.

 

Gwen:             Let’s go through a couple of those in a little bit more detail; when you say, ‘a change in attitude’, what would that look like for most people?

 

Trisha:             Sure, a change in attitude might be sort of like a shift in priorities where you decide that recovery isn’t as important as it used to be.  When I did my four year sort of hiatus from recovery, I can absolutely relate to things like that.  I saw myself in a lot of these.  Recovery might be still a priority, but when I got sober I was told that recovery needed to be the most important thing or I was probably going to lose it, so it’s that sort of thing.

 

Gwen:             Just looking at this list here that’s in your book, you mentioned elevated stress that is also a warning sign?

 

Trisha:             Sure, alcoholics and addicts, we’re very susceptible to I guess blowing things out of proportion is one way to put it.  And you know, giving things more value than they need as far as stress goes.  Recovery teaches us to take things one day at a time and one situation at a time.  If I’m not doing that, everything is just a huge mountain.  It’s the end of the world basically.  And if I’m looking at everything like that there’s probably an issue.

 

Gwen:             When you referred to even a broken shoelace; if something that’s really minor is causing great stress, than this is a sign that you may not be in as strong of a position as you should be mentally.

 

Trisha:             Well absolutely, you know it could be things like road rage; it could be anything like that.  Those are the things, just minor things that are setting me off once again that when I was working a really strong recovery program maybe aren’t anymore.

 

Gwen:             And reactivation of denial; that is something that when you say reactivation, that implies that denial has been a big factor in the first place.

 

Trisha:             I think for any alcoholic or addict, denial is a big part of the disease.  And as far as reactivation of denial goes, it comes back to, ‘well, maybe I’m really not an alcoholic’ or ‘maybe that whole thing when it happened 5 or 10 years ago when I had to go to rehab, maybe that was kind of all blown out of proportion, maybe I really don’t have a problem, maybe I was forced into that because of circumstances and I’m really not an addict’.  So that’s really denial coming back into play, thinking that I’ll be able to control this once again.

 

Gwen:             And recurrence of post-acute withdrawal symptoms, tell me a little bit about that as a warning sign?

 

Trisha:             That’s interesting because that’s a little bit of a controversial topic is post-acute withdrawal symptoms; anxiety, memory loss, sleep problems, things like that.  These are withdrawal symptoms that can occur many many many months after you’ve stopped drinking or using.  And it’s suggested that they can even come back years later.  You know I think even some of it is possibly suggestive that all of a sudden you do have sleep problems again, or anxiety comes back.  So definitely we can call those post-acute withdrawal symptoms, sure.

 

Gwen:             And again, if these are recurring you need more support, you need more than ever to be in that network, as opposed to withdrawing from all of that because you are having these challenges.

 

Trisha:             Of course, and this is a continuum, so the more I’m withdrawing, the worse these symptoms are going to keep getting.

 

Gwen:             Trisha, I’m wondering if we could move on to a few more of those; one of them in your book is, ‘behavior change’, what is that specifically?

 

Trisha:             Absolutely, in early sobriety we generally develop some healthier habits that replace some of the addictive behavior and that might be things like healthy eating, maybe exercising, things like that.  And a lot of times you know those will go out the window and I can certainly relate to that because I did exactly that.  I stopped following a healthy diet, I stopped exercising altogether and that’s exactly what they are talking about here.

 

Gwen:             Social breakdown; what is that going to look like for most people?

 

Trisha:             Isolation, stop hanging around sober friends, maybe withdrawing even from family members.  We hear sometimes people that stop going to meetings because they find that they dislike AA or NA, or that they get stupid, or they get sick of it.  If you look at this you’ll see that this is about halfway down on the continuum.  There’s a lot going on before you get to this social breakdown, before we get sick of AA or we stop hanging around with sober people.  So there’s something going on before that happens, but that’s really what they’re talking about here.

 

Gwen:             Okay, what about loss of structure?

 

Trisha:             Most people in recovery get into a daily routine.  It might be a daily schedule as far as meetings goes; as far as work and calling a sponsor, meeting with sober people and a lot of that might go out the window if they’re talking about loss of structure.

 

Gwen:             So if you’re finding that these things are just not that important to you anymore, you need to pay attention to that obviously.

 

Trisha:             Absolutely.

 

Gwen:             Loss of judgment, what is that all about?

 

Trisha:             It might be having trouble making decisions or making unhealthy decisions once again.  One of the things I learned in recovery was over the years I’ve learned to make a lot of decisions on my own, but I also talk to people when I’m making decisions and still check with people.  And when we get to this point we’re usually pretty isolated again, so we’re not checking with people when we’re making decisions.  And we’ve taking back control, so we’re managing our feelings and our emotions on our own.  And probably get angry, confused pretty easily.  So don’t very good judgment by this time.

 

Gwen:             What about loss of control?

 

Trisha:             That kind of goes along with loss of judgment; not making good choices and cutting off people who are going to help you.  Feeling like you’re unable to manage your life anymore and getting to the point again where you think that you can drink or use socially and that you’ll be able to control it.

 

Gwen:             And that’s a really really dangerous thought pattern.

 

Trisha:             Oh sure.

 

Gwen:             And loss of options; what does that mean specifically for relapse?

 

Trisha:             Again, it’s those emotions again, its feeling angry, resentful, frustrated, despair.  You might feel that there’s only three ways out; maybe suicide, it might be insanity, or it might be self-medication with alcohol and drugs, that those are your only options.  So that’s what it’s talking about when its loss of options.  Because you cut yourself off from meetings and from that support that you had before.

 

Gwen:             Right, so anything that had given you hope and strength and support in the past is not there and then you fall back into that little tiny box that you can’t see your way out of.

 

Trisha:             Exactly.

 

Gwen:             And then relapse is the last one, so we were talking about signs of relapse and finally when you get into it, how do you know that you really have relapsed?

 

Trisha:             Well it’s essentially when you pick up that drink or drug.  A lot of times it’s with the intention of controlling it and we find pretty quickly that that’s not going to happen.  Losing control very quickly and all of those problems that we had right before we originally got sober come rushing back.  Things with relationships, money, physical health, you know all of those things come back so quickly and we realize we have to get sober again, get sober or the other options; jails, institutions and death.  That’s where it ends up.

 

Gwen:             It doesn’t sound like a whole lot of fun prospects, so you want to definitely be stopping yourself before you get to that point.

 

Trisha:             Correct.

 

Gwen:             Let’s talk about the positive things of what we can do if people listening to this have recognized any of these symptoms, I assume even any one of them can lead to kind of a cascading to others.  What do they need to do to get back on that beam, to get back into the right mindset and the right activities and that kind of thing so that they really don’t ultimately end up in relapse?

 

Trisha:             Sure, one of the most important thing is and it’s kind of a depressing list, and the most important thing to take away from that is that it’s a process and it can be stopped at any time.  And if you’re able to recognize what’s going on and you’re willing to make a change, that you can stop that at any time and I saw myself in a lot of those, pain is a great motivator. So really the first thing on my list as far as the 12 things you can do to get back on the beam is to go back to meetings.  One of the things that I hear time and time again about people that lose their sobriety, or even have emotional sobriety issues is that they stop going to meetings and it’s so common.  I believe 100% that we need other people in order to recover and stay recovered from this disease.  And when we get away from that, pride creeps back in and it’s a really tough thing to go back and admit that you need those people after all. 

 

What we find though is that they don’t care, they care that you’ve been gone, but they don’t care that you’ve walked back in the door and that you’re ashamed is the thing.  And that they’re thrilled to see you again and they want to help.  And they’re thrilled that you’re safe and that you want to try something different.  And a lot of them will be just as happy to share with you their stories of life away from meetings and what that did for them, which was usually very little.

 

Gwen:             Yes, and I do hear this a lot from people who say, ‘I relapsed and I was just too embarrassed to go back’ because they’re feeling like they’re going to be judged.  And yet probably the vast majority of people in those rooms have had their own relapses and have had the courage to come back and say, ‘yes, I relapsed’.  So that can actually be empowering, you don’t have to walk in there and think that people are going to be saying, ‘what were you thinking’.

 

Trisha:             No, not at all and that doesn’t happen.

 

Gwen:             So what would be something else that would be a really good empowering step to take?

 

Trisha:             Another great thing to do is to get a service commitment.  Let’s assume that you’re going back to meetings and getting involved in the program again, and getting a service commitment.  We hear in the rooms all the time that we have to give it away in order to keep it, and I believe this to be true.  And there are few actions that we can take like this that will give you that overwhelming sense of peace and belonging like service work will. 

 

Service work is done and you do it without any hope of reward or praise and helping someone else in recovery.  And it doesn’t have to be something formal, you don’t have to have a formal job, there are so many different things you can do.  And there are actual studies that prove that this is beneficial to people in recovery.  Helping other people in recovery is one of the most effective ways to stay motivated, it reminds you where you’ve come from and what you would be going back to if you ever relapsed.  And as alcoholics, we have a tendency to be very self-absorbed and by thinking about and helping other people, this allows us to take the focus off of ourselves and to get a change in perspective.  Helping others also helps to continue to build self-esteem and feel like we’re giving something back to society.

 

Gwen:             Yes and I think too that when we set ourselves up as any kind of an example than that gives us more motivation if other people are depending on us or looking up at us, or are just simply being in our presence, it gives us motivation to continue doing the positive behavior.  I thought of this once I became a parent; I had to examine some of the things that I was doing because I wanted to be a really good example for my children.  And I changed a couple of lifestyle things that I would not have wanted to return to simply because now somebody was looking up to me and I was serving as an example, or an inspiration or whatever.

 

So I suppose that’s the psychology of this to a certain extent.

 

Trisha:             Absolutely, and if you’re unsure of where to start with service work all you need to do is ask because there are so many things from making coffee, being a greeter, to some of the more formal positions at a group level, all the way up to an area level.

 

Gwen:             Now is this something that people specifically do with a home group?  Is that where you need to find a home group and find a job?

 

Trisha:             It’s always suggested that you get a home group because those are people that will get to know you and become invested in you and sort of notice when you’re not around, so that’s a great way to get a service commitment.  But there are service positions that you can do at the district level, at the area level.  There are all kinds of things you can do on committees; you can give rides to people.  And there are positions that are always vacant because they are such in need.

 

(Break)

 

Gwen:             We were talking today to author, Trisha Abney about ways to restart your recovery.  We were going down this list of 12, which she covers in her book; one of them that I think is really super important is reworking the steps, so talk to us a little bit about that, Trisha.

 

Trisha:             Sure, I say rework the steps with the assumption that if you have any time in recovery that you’ve done this before.  And this may not necessarily be the case, in fact I know some people with years in recovery that have never worked the steps.  And I also know several people who have years in the program yet didn’t work the steps until they were in the program for quite some time, maybe five years or more.  Why this occurs is different for every person and there are probably a lot of people that can relate to that.  But some people are able to maintain abstinence from alcohol and drugs with the help of meetings and the fellowship. 

 

But when I got sober, I was told that the same person that walked through the doors would drink again and I believe that to be true.  So I took all the suggestions, which included getting a sponsor and working the steps.  And I have actually worked the steps with a sponsor several times since and am in the process of doing it again right now and I highly recommend it to anyone who is making a new start in recovery. 

 

                        The recovery program of Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, or any other 12 step fellowship itself is the 12 steps.  What working the 12 steps does is allows us to take a look at our role our ego and pride has played in our lives, particularly with our addictions and our actions and that’s something that’s really important.  And not necessarily something that we do one time when we first walk through the doors; the personal reflection that takes place and confession actually helps to establish new levels of self-awareness and helps to overcome any shame that nearly all of us have, whether we’re initially aware of it or not.

 

Scientists believe that this process may actually help to rewire the brain and the prefrontal cortex is reinvigorated in doing this, which I find really interesting.  Our sense of self is impacted profoundly by the process of making amends, which I found to be true for myself.  And that also serves to alleviate feelings of guilt and limit stressors that could trigger relapse. 

 

And finally there is a renewed spiritual connection that takes place through this entire process.  So I may have had this great spiritual awakening when I first came into recovery and worked the steps, and that’s great, but if I got away from that it’s a great idea to do this again to get that renewed spiritual connection that you get through doing step work.  This is really difficult to measure, but there’s no doubt that there’s an element, a byproduct, that this is an element and a byproduct of working the steps is having that spiritual connection and that spiritual awakening.

 

Gwen:             So you’re really kind of recharging your commitment by working the steps and also a lot of life has happened if you have done them in the past, so you may be somewhat more enlightened, or you may have a different approach to it because time has passed.  So there’s nothing whatsoever to be lost by reworking it and everything to be gained by reworking it.

 

Trisha:             Oh absolutely, I believe that.  I don’t believe anybody has ever been harmed by working the steps.  You know a big part of this also is using your sponsor, I put this under the same; one of the things you can do to get back on the beam is using your sponsor.  Because we don’t work the steps alone and it’s by design that we do this with someone else in the program, preferably a sponsor and we don’t do these things in isolation, it’s a ‘we’ program.

 

                        It kind of goes back to the same thing of going back to meetings, there’s that sense of pride or guilt and shame about having that sponsor that we haven’t called in either months, or maybe even years.  And it would be a mistake to think for one second that you’re the first person that’s ever done this; that’s had a sponsor that they’ve stopped calling, or you know that thinks that they’ve probably fallen off the face of the earth.  And pride wants to keep us in isolation and doesn’t want us to pick up that phone and make contact with another person, particularly someone that’s going to help us.

 

                        So the reality is, if you do have a sponsor and have neglected that relationship, they probably would be thrilled to hear from and hear that you’re alright.  This is one of the first stops you should make when you’re reestablishing your program, is to give them a call or talk to them after a meeting and let them know what you’re doing.  Unfortunately sometimes sponsors/sponsee relationships change.  And you know maybe you’re living in a different place, maybe your sponsor has moved, maybe they’re just not around anymore for some other reason, and maybe they’ve passed away.  These are all great reasons to get a different sponsor; they are all valid reasons to get a new sponsor, so you may need to get a new sponsor, but it’s important to have a sponsor when you’re doing all of this.

 

Gwen:             Right, that’s one little element you can’t leave out.  It would be like making a meatloaf and forgetting to put the meat in it. 

 

                        How about working with newcomers, now what does that do for helping us get back on the beam?

 

Trisha:             Newcomers are just so important to any 12 step program and working with newcomers should be an essential part of a well-rounded recovery program.  And I don’t know if you ever heard, ‘the newcomer is the most important person in the room’ and we hear that a lot.  Sharing our experience, strength and hope with those new in the program enables them to identify with us and this is where we find our common ground in recovery.  It allows us to be able to move forward and work together.  It is one of the basic ways that this program was founded and has grown.  Especially if you are newly sober, to have someone come up to you that has more sobriety and to share their experiences with you, it’s just an invaluable thing.  So to be able to do that, it’s a gift. 

 

It’s impossible to be self-centered I was told, when working on behalf of others.  And I think that as alcoholics and addicts, we can be incredibly self-centered people, thinking about ourselves and our own troubles a lot.  It really gets us out of ourselves.  And sponsoring other people is really important.  I know a lot of people are worried about whether they are going to be a good sponsor or not and one of the things that I’ve found and I’ve been told is that if I’ve had a good sponsor in the past, then I already know how to be a good sponsor. 

 

Gwen:             And this is kind of tied in in my way of thinking to committing to doing service.  I mean this is obviously a service thing and again, you’re setting an example, you’re being a leader of sorts, you’re teaching someone else what you in fact need to learn or to reinforce within yourself.  So it’s really a powerful, powerful action to take.

 

Trisha:             Yes, sponsoring other people and helping newcomers in anyway is absolutely being of service to the program.

 

Gwen:             Now one of the points that you suggest is getting involved in the fellowship; what does that mean exactly and why is that so important?

 

Trisha:             Well I think many people get confused or bogged down between the difference in the 12 step program and the fellowship, the program of Alcoholics Anonymous, and it could be NA or any other 12 step program.  For example, it’s everything between the covers of the big book or the basic text, or the 12 and 12, which explains how we use and apply the 12 steps for our lives, yet the program itself can’t exist without the fellowship, which are the active and participating members of the groups who share their experience, strength and hope with each other. 

 

                        The fellowship happens during meetings, yet it’s not just during meetings, it’s also happening when any two or more of us gather to share our experience, strength and hope.  So this could be before the meeting hanging out, it could be after the meeting, it could be dinner, it could be a game of golf, it could be at the beach.  And you know I heard this in the very beginning when I first got sober that I needed to get involved with the fellowship.  And there’s so much more available out there than just going to meetings and I found that; the getting involved in the fellowship.  It doesn’t really take a lot of effort and the rewards are just massive.

 

Gwen:             And I think too if you’re starting to feel isolated and alone and like you’re the only one, which is an easy mindset to get back into, having this kind of support, having things to do, having sober fun, all of those things can kind of reawaken you and remind you that there is a whole world out there that’s just maybe not attending a meeting and going home and feeling bad about yourself.

 

Trisha:             Sure, and as far as the fellowship goes, I consider myself to be a loner even still.  I was raised as an only child and became accustomed and very comfortable to being alone.  And I still find it at times to be against my nature to be in groups or to be at large gatherings.  I was told I needed to get into the middle of the program, to meet people, start hanging out and so I did this in the beginning, I didn’t like it but I did it.  And it started to get easier over time and I showed up early to meetings and got to know people.  I started going out to dinner afterwards and I met people who like to do things together on the weekends like go to the beach and go camping. 

 

Then I moved to this other area, which wasn’t too far, but I didn’t get into the middle of the program here.   I did my isolation thing, my loner thing and sobriety wasn’t the number one priority for me.  And so when I restarted my recovery I had to do that, I had to start getting involved in the fellowship again.  I started go out to dinner, I started going to the beach and getting to know people and getting involved with people in the program. 

 

It’s a really really valuable thing; these are the people that I see and talk to outside of meetings every day and that I’ve allowed to get to know me.  I know they would be there for me should I need them and they are.  And they know the same of me and that’s what the fellowship is all about.  There are just so many opportunities to do things with other people and it’s something that I highly recommend. 

 

Gwen:             And there will be different types of people that you’ll meet, for example if you’re kind of an introverted person, you can maybe meet somebody that likes to just do things with small groups.  And if you’re an extravert, you can find people that love parties and I’m sure that you have different options.  But obviously, you have to show up at least to find some little group or some friend that you’re going to really click with.  And the only way you can do that is by being there.

 

Trisha:             Correct.

 

Gwen:             One of the things that I think is very important that you cover in your book is using the telephone, or as you call it, ‘telephone therapy 101’.   Tell us about that, Trisha.

 

Trisha:             Sure, if you’ve been to enough meetings then you probably know about the telephone numbers, if you haven’t then you’ll learn about it pretty quick.  And in a lot of meetings when a newcomer, even someone that just moves to town raises their hand and says that they’re new, a phone list will start to go around and people will put their names and numbers on that list so that you can call them for support.  It really goes back to the roots of AA where Bill W. used that payphone in the lobby of the Mayflower Hotel and Dr. Bob was actually one of the leading advocates of telephone therapy. 

 

So why do we use these telephone numbers?  And there are several reasons; one is to gradually rebuild your social circle with other people in recovery, as opposed to drug dealers and people who use and drink, including people that can act as a support system in a time of need.  The other reason is really that we get into the habit of calling people, maybe when things are going just okay, just doing it on a regular basis every day so that we’re already in that habit and its not such a big deal to call someone when there’s a real need present. 

 

So as far as restarting your recovery, maybe some of those numbers you have are stale.  In my case I was in an area that I hadn’t really lived in or had a support system before, so I raised my hand and said I needed some numbers and I got them and I started using them.

 

Gwen:             And that’s sometimes the hardest thing to pick up the phone and punch in those numbers.  It takes a little courage, but I guess you can do it if you really want to. 

 

Trisha:             Sure.

 

Gwen:             Now prayer and meditation is something that you referenced when people were starting to teeter on that beam that spirituality goes away, it’s like the last thing that you get to empower you and kind of the first thing that goes away.  Talk a little bit more about the importance of prayer and meditation.

 

Trisha:             Sure.  If you’ve ever heard the saying, ‘if you’re too busy to pray, you’re too busy’.  The first thing that goes out the window when we move away from our recovery program and start down the road to relapse is spirituality.  We take our will back, start running the show again and profess that we’ve got this.  As our emotional bottom has likely made it clear that you need to make some changes; pretending to be in control wasn’t working.  Again, turning our back on spiritual principles leads to you know, I call it a, ‘virtual hornets’ nest of unmanageability’ in nearly every area of living; it could be career, finances, relationships, and just general peace of mind. 

 

                        So at this point we begin to see that once again we’re powerless over not just drugs and alcohol, you know especially if we haven’t picked up again, but that our lives are just unmanageable again.  And again, as a reminder 12 step programs like AA are not religious in nature, but they are spiritual, as members are able to form their own conception of a higher power as they see fit.  And you know the essence of that is learning to rely on a higher power and coming to realize that I’m not it and that’s really the key.  So prayer and meditation have been found to have great physical benefits, as well as emotional and mental benefits. 

 

People who pray and meditate tend to be happier, are more resilient and resourceful in the face of problems.  Clinical studies have shown this that they are more relaxed, have stronger immune systems, are less likely to be sick and are able to recover from illnesses, and that includes alcoholism.  So you know, why we get away from that again, I don’t know but it’s one of the things that is recommended that we get back to. 

 

Gwen:             People say, ‘Yeah, that all sounds well and good but I’m not sure that I have faith anymore, I try to meditate and my mind goes to a million places.  What can the person do who is struggling with even being able to incorporate that?  Maybe they’re going through the motions, but they’re just not feeling it.

 

Trisha:             Sure, and like they say, ‘trying to pray is praying’.  And there are a lot of things we can do; we can attend spiritual retreats, there are other meetings of spiritual pursuits that can be done that are in addition to a recovery program, not instead of a recovery program.  To broaden spiritual horizons, things like joining a church.  A lot of people in recovery I know that are very active in The Unity Church, probably because it’s very inclusive and makes everybody feel welcome.  I’ve attended it in a couple of different cities. 

 

There are a lot of people in recovery that are active in Emmet Fox meetings that study the Sermon on the Mount and that can really help with spiritual growth.  Meditation meetings have become very popular in some 12 step rooms.  There are also some local meetings for a course in miracles that a lot of 12 step people attend as well.

 

Gwen:             I think we have time for just one more and I’d like to talk about getting outside help and the fallacy that some people have that everything that they need can be inside those rooms.  So could you elaborate on that a little bit?

 

Trisha:             Sure, there’s a lot of confusion and debate in recovery when it comes to outside issues.  And whether or not it’s okay to ask for and pursue help with other things like medication.  I can’t imagine anyone myself included, who walked into a 12 step room or a treatment center with the only problem being that they had drank too much.  There’s always underlying causes and conditions they got as to a particular point and time, or a bottom.  And some of us use many different things to excess; maybe its alcohol, drugs, food, people.

 

                        Also others have additional psychiatric diagnoses that have contributed to their disease and they also play a role in our recovery process.  You know they don’t just contribute to the disease, they contribute to the recovery as well.  And all of these are valid things to take a good look at and they may require outside help and probably do.  There are people in recovery that may make a choice to go to a treatment center, even if they haven’t picked up again and that’s okay too, it does happen.  It might cost you some money, but nobody’s ever been harmed by going to a treatment center either.

 

                        There are things that we call, ‘co-occurring disorders’, they change what they call it every couple of years.  But the percentages are very daunting when it comes to this; about 16% of the U.S. population suffers from substance abuse problems.  But in people with mental health disorders, that number is almost twice as high; 47% of schizophrenics and 56% of people with bipolar disorders have a substance abuse disorder.  So there’s other things that need to be managed with outside help, not just with a 12 step program.

 

Gwen:             That’s all we have time for today, that’s fascinating and I wish I could have asked you a little bit more about that.  But I hope that if people listening today are teetering on the beam and are not sure where to land, that they now have some inspiration that will help find their way a little bit. 

 

                        I want to thank you, Trisha, pen name, Taite Adams for taking time out of your busy day to be on the show.  Trisha, could you please tell our listeners how they can get in touch with you, buy your book and learn more about the important writing that you’ve done?

 

Trisha:             Sure, you can go to my website www.taiteadams.com or just go to Amazon and you can put in the name, ‘Taite Adams’ and you’ll be able to find the books. 

 

Gwen:             Great, because you have a lot of good information on that website as well. 

                        You can also read about Trisha on my talk zone show page under ‘guest listings’.