Monthly Archives: January 2015

Never So Simple

There’s been a lot of buzz online in the past week about addiction. An article published in the Huffington Post (“The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and It Is Not What You Think” by Johann Hari) is claiming to have reduced the causes of all addiction to cultural and social factors. The article has garnered many responses, both positive and negative. While most welcome the attention drawn to environmental factors, some worry about the dismissive attitude toward medical aspects and current methods of treatment.

I’m not going to write a long, academic rebuttal to the article, even though I do agree with some others that a certain amount of cherry-picking was done in the studies quoted. In putting forth the primary point, the author tended to pooh-pooh some facts about the genetic propensity for certain types of addiction: a concrete physical phenomenon present despite environmental factors. The author ignores the physical reality of the addicted body and brain when he claims the problem to be solely cultural and psychological.

That’s the part I don’t buy…the idea that everyone who has enough healthful connection in their life could use in moderation. There are those who can’t. There just are, and you can therapize them to death and not make moderate users out of them. Abstinence seems to be necessary for their healing. And, if these people start to experience better circumstances and closer connections, beginning to use leads rapidly to losing them.

It’s not that I don’t respect the intended spirit of the article: I do! I agree completely that lack of connection is a primary element in addictive cycles. It’s one reason recovery fellowships exist and are promoted as important in recovery: we need community, and sometimes these are the easiest places for an addict to find it. Even the spiritual quest suggested in these groups is, after all, just another type of connection. If there were other widespread and easily found networks of recovery, I’m sure many would choose them. But, for historical reasons, the 12-step fellowships are still the largest (and cheapest) option.

I agree with the article’s call to change in the USA’s attitude toward drugs and addiction…parts of the system are broken. I once met a man who has three sons, all serving 25 to life for nonviolent offenses solely related to drug possession. Broken, clearly.

But turning the article into a condemnation of all the work that’s been done–and simplifying its premise into an entire re-interpretation of addiction in general–is a mistake. It ignores the work so many professionals are doing, and the caring they put into it, and the positive changes they have made in the last decades. And it ignores the work those in recovery do for themselves.

Let’s look at just one addict out of so many I’ve seen. One day I watched this man celebrate one year clean, congratulated by his recovery friends. He was a big guy who’d had a rough life. He’d done time, had the prison tats and such. After about a month of treatment, he’d thrown himself into his local fellowship and managed to stay clean by spending a lot of time working a program.

His life’s still rough. Nobody’s fixed the cultural and economic problems that set him up to start using, or made life without using suck. You might think the chances of him staying clean forever are slim…and, statistically speaking, you might be right. But think about this, even if there’s good reason to be cynical about his long-term chances.

Think about what this year might have meant to his family. For a year, his children lived in less fear. Because he could hold a job, they had better food and clothes. Maybe they didn’t witness violence, or see the police come to their house. Maybe he, or their mother, was able to give them some attention that wasn’t divided by the drama of addiction-related chaos.

Think about what this year meant to you, as a member of his community.
For a year, this man wasn’t breaking into your house and taking your things. For a year, you weren’t in danger of being terrorized at gunpoint by him. There was one less driver under the influence sharing the road with you and your children. Your tax dollars weren’t paying to feed and supervise him in custody, or pump his stomach in the ER, or cover the costs of his court proceedings.

It matters, goddamn it. As imperfect as it is, it matters, and so do the other chunks of recovery other addicts are managing. Take the new perspectives emerging about addiction and incorporate them into a balanced view–but don’t sneer at those who are doing their best. Remember that few things about humans have only one explanation, or only one solution.

Green-Eyed Hellbeast

I envy you.

Why? Give me a minute; I’m sure I’ll think of something.

Maybe you don’t have to live with a mental health issue. Or you’re not an addict, so you can take painkillers when something hurts. Okay, I can understand envying that when things are hard. But it doesn’t stop there, oh no.

There’s so much material I can find. You’re younger than me, and have more time to do something with your life. Or you’re more attractive. 
You have more money. Or you made better decisions with the money you have. Or you live in a nicer place, or you keep wherever you do live nicer and don’t struggle with clutter and inertia.
You have a job you like or at least gives you some self-respect. Or you’re published. Or you have more friends. Or you work out. Or your relationship looks better. Or your kids cause you less anxiety.

Trust me, this deeply sick part of my psyche will find a way.

And the real problem with envy for me is its accompanying baggage. Pure and clean envy would just be desire and possible regret: I want that thing someone else has, and I have to either want it badly enough to work for it (if it’s attainable) or accept that I can’t have it (if it’s not). I might have to go through a grief process for the latter: No, I’m not as young as this person, and the age I am can’t be changed, and I have feelings about this.

But, for me, envy comes flanked by shame and resentment: two well-known assassins of spiritual values. I want something you have, and I experience shame because I blame myself for not having it–or I experience resentment toward you because I resent you for having it. Usually both. Why do I resent you for having it? It links right back to shame: by having this thing, you have somehow contributed to me feeling bad about myself. If you are higher on the cosmic scale of good stuff, it’s making me hyperaware of the fact that I feel lower–and, deep in a part of me I don’t enjoy acknowledging, I blame you.

If your life actually is sucking badly enough on enough levels that I have a hard time envying you, I’m awkward and insecure because I think you must be envying and resenting me.

This isn’t always a conscious tape playing, of course. I was hardly even aware of it until I began doing the kind of deep digging needed for living in recovery. I always thought I was a basically nice, well-intentioned person whose biggest faults were the inability to stop my compulsive behaviors.

Insert hollow laugh here.

The thought that I could have died that blind; still thinking that about myself–without ever having an opportunity to see and try to balance the darkness in me–makes me shudder. Envy isn’t the only thing that I’ve discovered and now carry around like a parrot on my shoulder, constantly squawking “Be conscious of me!” but its voice is one of the loudest. Envy poisons my soul more than I can describe. Envy separates me from other people in a way that breaks my heart to look at.

Green-eyed monster isn’t a good enough term for me. In the books I’ve read. monsters vary widely in character and some turn out not to be so bad. No, envy is my most foul of hellbeasts. It’s my Balrog. It’s my Cthulhu, waiting deep under the sea to rise and devour.

It’s uncomfortable to be made aware of a wound and feel it twinge with every movement. I am not enjoying this stage between the consciousness and the healing, especially since I expect the healing to occur in very slow stages. The only thing that gives me the courage to write honestly about it is the knowledge that I’m not alone. I can’t be the only one who suffers from this terrible malady of the spirit (one that, not to make excuses, is fed pretty robustly by our culture.) Someone, somewhere, might read my words and be inspired to look at how envy shapes their thoughts, or to feel less shame about envy’s known place in their psyche.

The Lorites

The idea for this piece comes from Anathem by Neal Stephenson. If you want a book that’s a bit of a dense read but well worth it–if you want a book that will draw you into a different and compelling world–if you want a book that will fuck your mind slowly and exquisitely–read it. There aren’t any spoilers here.

All you need to know about the Lorites is that they’re mentioned here and there in the book as an philosophical order. The guiding principle of their philosophy is simple: that there is no such thing as a new idea. Every idea that anyone in this present can conceive has been thought of before.

The Lorites are a minor sect and not given much thought by most. They have some practical use, since they have been around a long time and collected huge repositories of knowledge. If you are developing a “new” idea and want to know how badly you’re reinventing the wheel, consult the Lorites.

I am susceptible to Lorite philosophy, and not only because Lori is my first name. Having the human desire to be special, one of my negative voices is the one telling me that whatever I’m doing, writing, thinking is nothing new. Not only is it not new, but whoever’s done it before has doubtless done it better.

Writing a poem? Surely one of the thousands of past poets has captured the same essence of thought and feeling, and even though they didn’t repeat my exact sequence of words the difference isn’t big enough to make mine worth anything. Writing a speech? Someone’s done it more persuasively. Writing personal essays? I’m just reiterating basic human experiences, after all.

Dreaming of workshops, groups, work that helps others? There are so many out there more qualified and more functional–and since what I have to offer can’t be new, there’s no way my work can ever compensate for my limitations.

I imagine that the era I live in is more conducive to Lorite thought with the Internet linking the ideas of more people, present and past, than ever before. How easy it is to believe that our gifts are duplicated or surpassed by the billions out there!

Embraced in a balanced way, the Lorites can give me perspective and a healthful dose of humility. After all, to believe we’ve come up with something totally new would be to believe ourselves prophets–and a world full of nothing but prophets would be chaotic indeed.

But, of course, I don’t stop there. It becomes one of the weapons used by my addiction, or by my depression, or by my self-destructive impulses in general. It gets used to paralyze me, sap my creative energy and promote procrastination and apathy.

I’m not alone, nor does someone need to share my issues to be with me in this. For humans in general, it targets one of the deepest questions in our hearts:
“Is there really any fucking point to all this? ”
And since there are countless ways to answer this question, or to admit that we don’t know how to answer it, it’s easy to get stuck.

I certainly don’t know how. And I don’t know how to reconcile it with my growing need to create. As I sit here, right at this moment, I’m aware of stories I’m making up to comfort myself.

I tell myself that apples aren’t new–yet people enjoy the different taste of all the ways they can be prepared. It gives them pleasure, and comfort, and lets them have variety in the way they get needed nourishment.

I tell myself that quilts aren’t new–yet people enjoy the myriad ways of assembling them. It gives them pleasure, and comfort, and lets them have variety in the way they get needed warmth.

I tell myself that spiritual principles aren’t new, yet people enjoy different ways of framing and presenting them. I tell myself that emotions aren’t new, yet each of us responds more or less to the way they are expressed by artists of all kinds.

Love isn’t new.
Beauty isn’t new.
Death isn’t new.
Sex isn’t new.

I’m not new. And yet I am.

Dark and Quiet

Last night I was afraid. I was afraid because I could not sleep, and I could tell that it was one of those nights. The nights of not three, not two, but zero hours of sleep–the nights that create an altered state of consciousness for me and fill the next day with a frail and nauseated feeling.

I am less afraid of those nights than I used to be, but last night I wasn’t very aware of my progress. Anxiety and emotion both ran high, and I was resisting the urge to self-medicate with food. Staying upstairs, away from the kitchen, feels safer on a night like this–but my bedmate has a cold and was not sleeping as deeply as usual, so I went downstairs.

Many who have experienced depression know this time of night intimately. About 3:30 am, for me, is the hour when I give up on getting any sleep and become present with the quiet and the chill. Between that hour and daylight my insomniac peers and I exist in a separate world, our minds drifting sluggishly and our bodies stupid with fatigue.

I have read writings describing the worth of these dark watches when used for quiet contemplation, and I agree with them in theory…but in practice, it feels as if my mind has no juice to power any deep thoughts. The mental wandering may be a type of witnessing meditation, I suppose, but any benefits are subtle at best.

Usually, I just keep the anxiety at bay with distraction. This predawn I watched Gia, the story of a famous sister addict from the 70s. Her story is so different in its details from mine, and she died so young that we’ll never know what she might have become in recovery–yet, of course, I identify with her. Sad as the story is, watching a younger Angelina Jolie portray her made me feel less alone.

After the movie, I lay quietly on the couch and waited for the sun to come up. As the room brightened, I felt sicker and sicker physically but a bit more serene. I prayed for strength to get safely through the day and for the grace to be free of self-pity.

It reminded me of the cycle of prayer in certain monasteries. There is something called the Divine Office in certain sects of Christianity, consisting of a set of prayers done at specific times of each day and night. Six or seven times in every twenty-four hours, they pray, rising from sleep if necessary. Each time-slot has different prayers, the intent being to acknowledge the precise flavor of God’s goodness associated with the time of day. Lauds, at dawn, praising and evoking resurrection. Compline, at bedtime, preparing the soul for its journey. Matins, done in the watches of the night, contemplative and solemn.

My quiet predawn watch falls between matins and lauds, and when I think about this ritual of prayer it makes those hours feel more like a part of a process and less like a floating, disconnected island of time. If I were a Christian, I might learn some matins and lauds and try using them during this time. Maybe I’ll do it anyway, given my love of Latin and my belief in trying different things. God, even a God of a religion not mine, is hopefully kind enough to lend them to a soul in need of peace. Or perhaps I could improve my Latin and make up my own.

Today, I feel the gift that can come from a sleepless night. The gift that comes if I don’t fight, drug or eat the experience away. What is the gift? It’s quietness. It’s a pliant, unresisting walk through the day, one task at a time, thinking about little except the navigation of my limbs to do it safely. The yammering in my head is gently moved aside, guided onto a couch and covered with a blanket. Sleep, my love. Sleep until the body can follow.

We Are the Kings of Tokyo

There’s a new game my family received as a holiday gift. We’ve played it many times now; it’s called King of Tokyo.

In King of Tokyo, each player takes on the role of a monster from those old-style movies featuring some type of huge rubber thing devastating the city. You roll dice to determine damage, healing, chance to buy special abilities, and victory points, the object being to reach a given number of points or be the last monster alive.

Here’s the thing: A certain spot is defined as Tokyo, and only one monster can be occupying it at a time. That monster gets extra points each turn they remain.

If you are in Tokyo, all attacks by the monsters outside Tokyo can only damage you.

If you are in Tokyo, all attacks you roll do simultaneous damage to every monster outside the city.

It reminded me (as many things do) of the destructive nature of addiction. What it does to us, to our families, to our friends. Therapists are taught about family systems, and how different family members can take on certain roles. When one member’s behavior gets worse or better, it affects everyone.

A person active in their addiction is like the monster in Tokyo. The damage he or she does is a barrage, hitting multiple targets without discrimination. Those around the person might or might not be hostile, but their energy is probably directed into the center of the circle.

You know what else is interesting? The monster currently in Tokyo is unable to do any healing of itself, even if the dice roll would usually allow it. So it stays there, the center of the universe, growing sicker and weaker and continuing to do damage…sound familiar?

The damage of addiction, manifesting in more ways than we realize. Some of it’s obvious when it leads to violence, or legal trouble. Some of it’s obvious when we look at financial problems. But there’s so much more. The damage of neglect, total or partial. Of closed doors and half-assed participation and phoning things in. The damage of modeling toxic or despairing attitudes for children. The damage of a void where the life we could be living belongs.

So how does a monster get out of Tokyo? Is there a way, or is it trapped forever? No. Whenever the monster in Tokyo takes damage, it has the choice to flee the city and let the attacking monster take it over. If the player feels they’ve taken too much damage now and are in need of healing, they leave. If they don’t think so yet, and still think the payoff in points they are getting is worth the danger, they stay.

As addicts, we don’t tend to “flee Tokyo” if things are going well. We flee when we’ve taken damage recently, and become desperate enough to acknowledge that we need help. Or–ambivalent–we stay, not wanting to let go of those bonus points we think we need.

In recovery, especially if we make it past the earliest stages and rack up a little time, we discover that–even though we are doing it by means other than substances–trying to level Tokyo works less and less well for us. We do not thrive in the center of the universe, and the consequences of putting ourselves there show up more quickly.

The game–and the fun metaphor–came at a good time for me, as I finished floundering through the holidays and tried to begin some healing from the way December went for me. How do I get out of Tokyo, and begin to heal? How do I tear myself free of self-absorption and shame?

Ummm…why am I phrasing it as “I do this” and “I do that?” Have I forgotten it isn’t just me? Have I forgotten that I have a spirituality that can help; one I can’t do well without? Of course I’ve forgotten. That’s what I do. I forget…and then I remember. And, if I’m ready to, I look toward the path out of Tokyo–a path trampled by something bigger and more powerful than I am.