“We can find happiness and self-confidence with alcohol. But we don’t get to keep them. Having those things takes work for some of us”
Here’s another excerpt from my book. We need to keep our eye on the ball when it comes to addiction. Debates and arguments can be both helpful and hurtful. It’s important to keep that in mind when we talk about addiction.
“Albert Einstein is quoted as saying, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” I think we need to do that more when it comes to alcoholism and addiction. There’s just too much debate and downright argument among people in the field, which can confuse those who need help and even prevent them from getting it.
Although more experts now call both alcoholism and addiction complex brain diseases and present scientific evidence for their claims, others disagree and have valid reasons for their own assertions. There’s also debate on how to best treat individuals who reach a point where they can no longer stop using a substance on their own. They go from using to abusing a drug or drugs and eventually find themselves addicted, which is why I’ve included alcoholism with addiction. Alcohol, like any other psychoactive drug, legal or illegal, can become quite a problem for some people, and while other drugs are perceived to be more addictive and cause greater problems, alcohol is reported to be the most commonly abused addictive substance today.
That said, marijuana, often viewed as a less harmful drug than others and one that rarely causes addiction, is currently reported to be the second most commonly abused drug in the United States. And prescription drugs currently rank as the third category. Opioids, better known as painkillers, stand out as the most addictive and problematic drug of the group to date. When not taken as prescribed, these drugs have similar effects as heroin and are just as dangerous. Current reports show that the number of prescriptions written for painkillers has greatly increased over the years, and opioid abuse, including heroin, is reported to have reached epidemic proportions. I could go on with sadder statistics, like the high rate of overdoses caused by this epidemic, or talk more about the complexities of addiction, including behavioral addictions like gambling. But statics change, and my goal here is to do what Albert Einstein said. Here goes.
Obviously, not everyone who abuses a substance becomes addicted. If everyone did, almost everyone who likes to “party,” as we said back in my day, could develop what some professionals call a substance-use disorder. There are, however, common risk factors for becoming addicted, which include genetics, our family history, age (the earlier we use a drug, the greater chance we have of becoming addicted), family and social environment, a bad childhood, sexual and physical abuse, other traumas, and those we hang around with. And then there is the type of drug being used; some are more addictive than others.
Despite these known risk factors and scientific studies done to help us better understand addiction, we still don’t know exactly why some people become addicted and some don’t. What we do know is that there are varying levels of addiction affecting a lot more people than we previously suspected. These include people from all walks of life who don’t face the dire consequences we see and hear about in the media. So, while it’s gravely important to help those who are destroying their lives, their families, and their health (or, sadly, already have), there’s a larger group of people who need help too. There are those, like me at one time, who don’t fit the stereotype but still have trouble quitting on their own. Getting help through AA or Narcotics Anonymous (NA) usually isn’t a welcome option for them—no help really is. Many don’t believe they have addiction problems, even when experiencing troubles. They can miss work and family events due to hangovers, have their share of arguments with loved ones when drunk, and even receive DUIs during drinking adventures—although people are prosecuted for driving under the influence of other drugs as well. They just convince themselves that next time will be different. Of course, some of them (like me, again) may simply be used to living a lifestyle where drinking is what you do and shit happens sometimes when you drink too much.
It may be hard to understand why people keep drinking in light of personal troubles, and perhaps it’s even harder when an illegal substance is their drug of choice, but many of them have become good at justifying their continual usage and believe their own excuses not to quit. I find that one of the most common justifications for not quitting comes from the comparison these folks often make between themselves and the stereotypes I mentioned. They simply don’t feel they’re anything like the “real” alcoholics and addicts the media seems to focus so much on. They haven’t lost everything. They don’t steal or do other terrible things to obtain drugs. And few experience withdrawal when not using their drug of choice—although some report that they keep using prescription painkillers because of withdrawal symptoms.
However, what is quite common between them and the stereotypes they sometimes show disdain for is that they either deny they have a problem or rarely stop using even when they know they do. Science explains why these things can be common among people who abuse drugs, but again, in keeping with the idea of making things simple, I’ll sum it up like this: long-term drug use affects different parts of the brain, including those responsible for reasoning, decision-making, and behavior, and most drugs of abuse target the brains reward system. Basically, when a person uses an addictive substance it floods the system with a naturally occurring chemical called dopamine, which results in feelings of pleasure, and while this is why most people like drugs, some of us fall in love with the euphoria we feel. It may even seem like we’ve found a new friend, but eventually, that friend lets us down. Our drug of choice no longer provides us with the same feeling it once did, so we use more of it but still find ourselves unable to be happy and unable to quit.
I can certainly relate to this situation. As you know, I was blind to the fact that I had a problem and definitely found it hard to quit. As you also know, my drinking was a way to escape the fears and insecurities I felt. In fact, sometimes just planning to go out and get drunk helped with my fears and temporarily made me feel better. I know that drinking temporarily helped me feel better about myself, which is why I believe a lot of people use drugs to begin with. They can be confident in many areas of their lives and have a high sense of self-esteem, but they still aren’t as happy as they want to be in life or with themselves. This is why I sometimes ask people who want my help, “Why do you need a drug to be happy?”
Thankfully, I got the help I needed to figure that out, but sadly, this isn’t the case for a lot of people. The successful businessman or businesswoman, the politician, the schoolteacher, and other confident types you would never suspect of having a drug problem in fact do, but they are too ashamed to seek the help they need.”
We don’t get to choose our parents—the moms and dads who are supposed to guide us and love us. And some of us wind up with parents who clearly should never have had children. But, if we can, we should find a way to forgive them. I did this by understanding that my mom and dad never had the skills they needed to be better parents, and I focused more on what they did right—like let me know I was loved. I also encouraged my own kids to do this, and as a result, they too know they were greatly loved as children and always will be.
Still, like most parents, I wish I could go back in time and make up for the things I didn’t do right, especially when it comes to my son. My work with teenagers taught me what I didn’t know how to do as a father with a young boy (and later a young man), but he survived with his mother’s help and loves me today. My wife may not have been able to fully make up for my lack of parenting and neglect, but the job she did raising our children was quite remarkable, considering I could be like a child myself at times—although my immaturity did help in some situations.
My humor and antics made my kids laugh and helped cushion the blow of having a father who drank. But that doesn’t change the fact that, like me, they sometimes had to make the best of their family situation while growing up. But I’m living proof that it’s possible to become a better parent and make up for what we didn’t do right when our children were young. And I promise to continue doing this until my last breath.
Some people don’t like using the word “sick” when describing someone with an addiction. I get it. Just like the words alcoholic and addict, saying someone is sick can add to the shame and stigma associated with addiction, and prevent a person from getting the help they need.
But was I sick? Yes.
Although I didn’t drink every day and I seemed to be doing well in life, I wasn’t. I had fears and insecurities, not of the normal variety, that made me emotionally sick.
As a result, I was overly jealous of people and an extremely jealous husband. I felt like I needed to prove myself at almost every turn—believing deep down that I didn’t stack up to others. And I tried to be something I wasn’t, often acting out in arrogant and egotistical ways, in an attempt to feel better about myself.
I was also spiritually sick.
I should have been a better person than I was. A better friend. A more loving husband. And certainly a more loving and caring father.
Not that I was a bad person. I tried not to do things that I knew I shouldn’t, and I actually did some good things in my drinking days. But I just couldn’t sustain a better way of living. Sooner or later my fears would overwhelm me. My insecurities would become too great. And I would turn to the only thing that I thought could help me with how I was feeling. Even when riddled with guilt, I could not stop drinking for a long period of time, and I would return to the behaviors that actually made me feel worse about myself.
Eventually I got help and began living a different way, but I was still emotionally and spiritually sick in the beginning. But as I remained sober, my brain healed. And as I kept trying to be a better person than I was before, I was no longer sick.
I had changed the things about myself that needed to be changed. The thoughts and behaviors that didn’t make me a bad person, but along with my drinking, kept me emotionally and spiritually “sick” and prevented me from becoming the person I always wanted to be.
The word obsess comes from the Latin word obsidere, one meaning of which is “to besiege.” Being someone who has, at times, obsessed over something, I can say that if we’re not careful, thoughts can besiege our minds, take us out of the present moment, and rob us of any enjoyment we might otherwise experience. In my drinking days, I often obsessed about one thing or another, and depending on what it was, I could find myself filled with such emotions as resentment, anger, self-pity, or anxiety. This was always wasted time on my part; I never looked for solutions if there was a problem. And nothing I obsessed over was ever as bad as I originally thought it was. But mostly, I simply could not stop thinking about something once it became ingrained in my thought processes.
Fortunately, I learned how to turn these types of thoughts around, so to speak. Whatever it was I started to obsess about, with practice, I was able to keep it to a minimum and eventually stop thinking about it altogether. The practice I speak of was to literally redirect my thoughts to something else, something fun, or telling myself how pointless it was to keep thinking about it. And I often talked to someone about whatever I was obsessing over. It took time to break free of obsessive thinking, but it was never as bad as the days when all I could think about was getting drunk. That obsessiveness almost always led to the same conclusion: my mind besieged with worry, distress, and often hopelessness after a night out drinking.
I celebrated 21 years of continuous sobriety this month. I went from calling myself a high bottom alcoholic, to a recovered alcoholic, and at some point I called myself a self-proclaimed alcoholic. But eventually it no longer mattered what I called myself. The bottom line is that I was a problem drinker who needed to be something I wasn’t, full of fears and insecurities that made me unhappy, and I was often quite lonely and sad.
Thankfully that all changed after waking up hung over on April 27th, 1996, sick to my stomach and afraid that the argument I started with my wife the night before had cost me my family. Fortunately, it somehow didn’t, and the rest is history as they say. But I’ll add that it was hard and scary along the way at times.
I didn’t drink every day, and I was far from the stereotypes one sees in movies and on TV, bottoming out and losing everything. But I had bottomed out emotionally and spiritually, and at the time I only knew of one place I could go to get help—Alcoholics Anonymous.
I wrote about my experience there in my book, and how the Twelve Steps helped me to love myself and be happy in life. And I wrote about some of the answers I found outside the rooms of AA that helped me find even greater happiness. But this post isn’t about AA or my book. It’s about the two answers I didn’t find.
It frightens me some days that there may not be something after we die. And I’m still not sure what my true purpose is in life.
Yes I have a book and a blog. Yes I help people with substance use problems. And yes I currently work helping people with mental illnesses. But I have to wonder why my prayers of being able to financially support myself while writing more books and helping more people haven’t been answered?
One might say that vanity has something to do with it. If I get a swelled head and begin to think I’m more important than what I am, I could end up drinking again, right? But I’ve ruled this out. A lot of things have contributed to my growth and my happiness, and I know drinking would rob me of that. Plus I have never been more humble in my life. I don’t have a lot of money, an expensive car, or a big home. And I’m aware that I still have a lot more growing to do, both spiritually and as a person.
So what is it then? Why haven’t I achieved my dream yet? No god? Not my purpose to help the many people suffering from what has become better known as a chronic, progressive disease of the brain? Maybe I’m just not qualified? Maybe a book and blog doesn’t make me an expert on addiction and helping others? And if there is a god of some kind. Maybe I’m not supposed to be famous or well-known in the field of addiction?
I’m not sure if the answer as to whether or not there’s a god will ever be answered. And I can only hope that the term “when preparation meets opportunity” becomes a reality for me. But I can honestly say that there have been some signs that I’m on the right path in life.
I celebrated 21 years of continuous sobriety this month. I went from calling myself an alcoholic, to a recovered alcoholic, and at some point a self-proclaimed alcoholic. But it no longer matters what I call myself. I don’t need to be something I’m not, and I’ve learned how to overcome my fears and insecurities. I’m no longer lonely. And although I feel sad on some days, finally being happy with who I am sustains me during those times and the sadness never lasts.
So I guess I’ll simply keep trying to believe that something created life and the universe for a reason and that we do have a purpose while we’re here. And not worry about the answers.
If my sobriety has taught me anything, it’s that we can create our own happiness, and that living in the present moment is one of the best ways to achieve it.
The definitions listed below are why I think most people’s troubles come from insecurity, and not ego like many spiritual gurus state.
1. uncertainty or anxiety about oneself; lack of confidence
1. A person’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance.
2. The part of the mind that mediates between the conscious and the unconscious and is responsible for reality testing and a sense of personal identity.
3. An overly high opinion of oneself.
The third definition of ego comes from insecurity. But it is a false sense of ego used to overlook our fears and insecurities and help us feel better about ourselves.
I should know. I had a false ego all through my life—even into my early sobriety. It was in my sobriety, however, that I was able to become more self-confident and grow to love myself. I also found greater happiness in life. Especially after finally becoming happy with who I was.
It is those things that I want for others. It’s why I do what I do to help people. I enjoy helping others. It makes me feel good about myself, and gives me a sense of achievement.
Not because of ego. And not because of insecurity. But because of who I’ve become.