Turning Over Old Rocks


My father was a bad drunk. Not abusive or angry, just an out-of-control, no-holds-barred narcisstic drunk. He had 3 marriages, a bunch of kids, went to jail a few times, lost jobs, wrecked cars, screwed all the housewives in the neighborhood, broke his promises, alienated his children. Pretty much made a mess of the whole thing.

He was finally able to get sober when he was around 52. After a particularly harrowing series of events he landed on my doorstep and asked me how I had quit drinking. I gave him a book called “Living Sober” and put him on a plane back home.He never drank again.

I was happy for him, and proud. I had been able to get sober myself at a young age, due in part to his horrifying example. So I had him to thank for that. But mostly I was proud and relieved. I didn't want him to die the kind of tragic early death he seemed destined for. Sober, his life improved dramatically.

Dad took to AA like a duck to water. He went to meetings, sponsored guys, went to retreats. He even became a delegate to the state convention. He had business cards printed up with a little coffee cup on them. His wife went to Alanon. He had an AA slogan to answer any situation. (That part was annoying.)

His biggest problem seemed to be that he was getting fat. He was now consuming massive quantities of ice cream with the same gusto he used to attack Jim Beam whiskey.

We lived a few hundred miles apart, and saw each other infrequently. When I did visit, I would ask him about his program, his step work etc. His answers were always evasive and seemed designed to shut me up. At first I thought he may not be comfortable with the role reversal of the situation. I had been sober much longer, and, as regards recovery, it was truly a case of the child being father to the man. My father didn't take too well to that idea.

At some point I realized that I had been waiting. I had expected that, in accordance with his 12-Step program , he had been reviewing his past, making an inventory of his life, and would be making amends to people he had harmed through his addictive behavior. These are essential parts of the 12-Step process. So I asked him directly about this aspect of his recovery program. His response was clear: "My problem was I drank too much. I took care of that problem. I don't drink anymore. I am not about to turn over old rocks to see what's under there."

I talked a little about how much better his life could be if he worked on these things, the underlying causes of addiction, but he wasn't buying it. He had heard it all before. It wasn't for him.

Dad lived for another 25 years after that conversation. I continued to visit, but not often, usually when he was having some health crisis or another. It became increasingly difficult to be with him. He seemed to me just a shadow of a man. When he was drinking he was a huge presence, a dynamic personality. Now he seemed small, giving out no energy, just kind of existing. His wife treated him like a boarder, or a kind of overgrown child with developmental problems. It made me sad to be there.

When he was in the hospital, dying of Congestive Heart Failure, he asked to be taken home. His doctors had told him he had only a short time to live and he wanted to die at home. His wife refused. She wouldn't allow him to come home. So, instead, he was taken to a nursing home where he died 2 days later.

Carl Jung taught us that spiritual healing comes from acknowledging and embracing our shadow, our dark side. We repress it or ignore it at our own peril. If we live in fear of what is under those old rocks, and how we will feel when we confront them, then we are stuck in a kind of half-light, a twilight existence which holds the energy of a full and rich life, but restrains it and eventually smothers it.

It takes a great deal of courage to do this, to take a “moral inventory”, to make amends, and clean up the wreckage of the past, to grieve our losses. It is painful and difficult. The payoff is substantial, but it takes a leap of faith to believe that. The big fear is that a thorough scrutiny of the past will reveal that we truly are loathsome human beings. So it is best to not even look, safer to keep all those rocks in place, right where they are.

Recovery if full of ironies, and this is a big one. The more we look at our troublesome behavior, the clearer it becomes that we are not essentially “bad”. If that were the case, we wouldn't be trying to heal and change. Addicts are not bad people trying to become good. They are damaged people attempting to heal from the past, and stop a cycle of self-destruction.

Most addicts in recovery are much stronger and more resilient than they believe. They have vast inner resources that belie the negative core beliefs they typically carry around.

The 12-Step programs hold out the possibility of a life that is "Happy, Joyous and Free." That's what Bill Wilson wrote in 1939. It's still true today.

That's what is under those rocks, Happiness, Joy and Freedom. 

Just don't call it cuddling.

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Women have sex when they feel loved. Men feel loved when they have sex. Or, so I've been told. Treating sexually compulsive men, I'm often treated to a discourse on the biological reasons men need to have sex with multiple partners. It's the women's fault if they can't understand this, and accept it. It's the way we have evolved, to spread our seed far and wide, thus ensuring the continuation of the species.

Women are different. From an evolutionary perspective, a man will have sex with pretty much any woman who is young and healthy enough to have a child. A woman, on the other hand, needs some information about a man. Is he skilled enough to be able to hunt successfully, strong enough to defend his catch from others, generous enough to share the kill, caring enough to protect a woman and child?

It's more complicated for women.

The researchers Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam analyzed mountains of data gleaned from internet searches. Their book, A Billion Wicked Thoughts, offers a clear picture of the differences between male and female sexuality. They sum it up like this: Men have the power of “Or”. Women have the power of “And”. A man will think; Cute butt. OK. Or, nice breasts, OK. Or, she looks sweet. OK. Or simply she's available and willing. OK. A woman needs more. Cute butt, and strong arms, and kind face, and likes my kid, and asks how my day went, and he treats his mother well, and he looks me in the eye...

Evolution is a good place to look when trying to understand aspects of human behavior, but you have to look at the whole picture. Neanderthals died out around 45,000 years ago while inhabiting the same areas of Northern Europe as Homo Sapiens. Why did Neanderthals go extinct and Homo Sapiens (That's us.) survive? There are a number of theories about this; superior weaponry, domestication of wolves, differing ability to survive severe climate change and others. The consensus is that it was not one thing, but rather a combination of things that gave us the advantage we needed to survive. Among those things are community, language, culture, ritual and other more “civilized” traits. If we had not developed these higher conceptions, we would likely not be around today.

Our modern image of the Neanderthal is a brute who will whack a woman on the head with a club to have sex with her. This might be a good strategy, short-term, to get laid, but it does not work too well for sustaining relationships or species survival for that matter. Darwin's original “survival of the fittest” notion had to be revised to accommodate the distinct advantages derived from community, sharing, communicating and cooperation. These “softer” attributes of our society are the very things that gave us a comparative advantage back in the day. They are the same qualities which allow us today to have successful lives and fulfilling relationships.

This is obviously more of a stretch for men than for women. It flies in the face of our societal delusions around our gender roles. It challenges our male dominance. But our own personal goals as well as the greater good, are better served by us men adopting these more “feminine” attributes of our culture – community, cooperation, music, art and touch - non-sexual touch of course. Hugging is good. Plenty of data on that. So is hand-holding and good clean massage. Lying skin-to-skin calms our autonomic nervous system. It's very healthful. Just don't call it cuddling.

Treating Methadone Addicts with Heroin


Last week my colleague, Bill Owen, and I gave a presentation at the annual conference of the CCAPP, (The CaliforniaConsortium of Addiction Programs and Professionals.) The topic of our talk was: Sex and Pornography Addiction in early Substance Use Recovery.

Newly sober addicts tend to rediscover sex, and enjoy it in a way they never had while they were using.

Here's an anecdote about Wynn C, an early AA member:

Wynn stood on our front steps one bright Christmas morning enthusiastically kissing a different handsome AA swain as others crowded past them, pushing inside to a party, where they would drink tomato juice and laugh like banshees, delirious with joy. They had found God (as they understood Him), and as long as they stayed away from booze and aspirin, they were okay; they were in the clear. They weren't ashamed of sex; they gloried in it.
"MY NAME IS BILL", Carolyn See, The Washington Post, February 27, 2004, page C02.

Bill Wilson himself , according to many accounts, struggled with inappropriate sexual behavior.

Treating methadone addicts with heroin.

As the AA office staff expanded in the 1940s, Bill seemed to take an active part in its recruitment efforts. One longtime AA member told me that at first she didn't know why in 1946 Bill hired her and another young woman AA member. "Neither of us could type or take dictation," she told me. Then, one night soon after they were hired, Bill took both women to an AA meeting. He sat between them and, all during the meeting, he had a hand on one leg of each of the women.
Bill W., A Biography of Alcoholics Anonymous Co-Founder Bill Wilson, Francis Hartigan, page172.

Back then they couldn't identify what we have come to know as the “Whackamole” problem in addiction. Put down one drug and you'll find another to take its place. Those early AA meetings, in addition to being hook-up central, were so filled with cigarette smoke, it was hard to see. The focus then was on the substance, not the underlying condition. Many sober addicts took to gambling, sky diving, spiritualism, religiosity, overeating, compulsive exercise, workaholism... Anything to self-soothe and feel OK. Addiction is a disease of escape. Take away his drug of choice, and he'll quickly find another. A good addict will always find a way to escape.

Now, some 80 years after AA began, we have a lot of information we did not have then. For starters, we have the cases of the millions of people who have been able to tame their addictions through the 12-Step process. We also have numerous therapeutic techniques that were developed in the intervening years. We have some understanding that some are genetically predisposed to addiction, and well documented evidence that childhood trauma and neglect play a part in the development of addictions.

We also have increased understanding of how the brain operates. The neurochemistry of the brain, it turns out, is a key component in addiction. Substance addictions and process addictions are merely different ways of manipulating this chemistry to effect a change in mood. Behavioral addictions and substance use can actually carve new neural pathways over time, so the brain ends up in a new “normal” state, dependent on the addiction to remain regulated. To the brain, it doesn't matter if you're using porn or cocaine. To the pleasure centers of the brain, it's all the same.

The good news is that this process can be reversed. The brain chemistry, over time, can essentially reset itself. New neural pathways can form, allowing the addicted individual to feel OK without the need to alter their mood artificially. This is what recovery is, a new “normal”, which is what the old normal should have been, but was hijacked along the way.

Terence Gorski, known in addiction treatment as the Relapse Prevention Guru, puts it this way:

Sobriety = Abstinence from addictive drugs +

Abstinence from compulsive behaviors +

Improvements in bio/psycho/social health.

In 1958 Bill Wilson wrote that “Emotional Sobriety” was the next frontier. He was referring to what Gorski put into words years later.

People don't like the term Sex Addiction. Some say it's not a real addiction. Some say that it is just an excuse for bad behavior. They come up with all kinds of names for it: Sexual Compulsivity, Compulsive Sexual Behavior, Impulse Control Disorder, Hypersexuality, Out-of-control Sexuality, Problematic Sexual Behavior, Intimacy Disorder, Sexual Disorder (Not otherwise specified)

But when you look at the characteristics: preoccupation, tolerance, withdrawal, cravings, denial, continuance despite negative consequences, what you see is addiction, pure and simple. Pat Carnes defines addiction as “A pathological relationship with a mood altering experience.”

The relationship is pathological when choice is gone. The sex addict does not choose his behavior any more than a heroin addict chooses to shoot up. The choice is gone. The compulsion is in charge.

Sure, sex in recovery can be great, but an addicted person always needs to examine why you're doing it. If it is primarily to escape or run from feelings, then it's important to look at that. Replacing one addiction with another can bring the whole recovery process to a grinding halt, and have you scratching your head, wondering what went wrong.

What Are Friends For?

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Las Vegas is the friendliest place in the world. It's like Disneyland, which is the happiest place in the world. At Disneyland, there's no trash, no crime, no poverty, no war. Everything is perfect. You are surrounded by plastic figurines meant to resemble various creatures, mice, dogs etc. all with huge fixed smiles on their sculpted faces. Nothing fazes these guys. The world could be blowing up around them, and they're still smiling. Happy to the end.

In Las Vegas you are surrounded by sexy, beautiful people. And they all want you. Everyone is smiling. They want to give you drinks. They want to give you free hotel rooms, free drugs. And they all want to have sex with you. When you are in Las Vegas it is clear you are the hottest man or woman alive. All those smiles and hellos. Man, these women are really into me. I must be better looking than I thought. I can have my pick of any one of those hot bodies. And best of all, it doesn't really count. It has no impact on your life back home, on your wife or children or finances. What happens there, stays there. There are no entries in your karmic tally. That's a beautiful thing. Right?

Las Vegas is Disneyland for the addicted set.

A young woman with a fierce cocaine addiction manages to get into rehab and puts together a couple of months of clean time. She has a good recovery plan; goes to CA meetings, and has a group of friends who are supportive. She feels pretty safe.

Her friends plan a weekend in Vegas and are persuading her to go along. She demurs. This frightens her. Her sobriety is new and fragile. She has a dealer in Vegas. She does not want to go there.

All her sober instincts tell her to stay home. But her friends persuade her it will be OK. They will be there with her. They know her problem, and will take care of her. They are her friends and will not let her down. She relents, and agrees to go. We all know how this story ends.

This young woman did manage to get clean again, but it took her 5 more years of suffering. In sobriety we need to protect ourselves from our friends as well as from our enemies. If a friend suggests to you something you know is wrong, and says, “It'll be OK” the best answer I can think of is to say “What the fuck do you know about it”?

Often what masquerades as friendship is really narcissism, or the attempt of one addict to normalize his behavior by involving another.

Our consumerist society breeds these “friendship traps.” We are surrounded by distorted images of reality. Our screens are often just funhouse mirrors. Turn on TV and you will see endless groups of deliriously happy, impossibly attractive young people experiencing the kind of love and kinship we all long for. Everything is perfect in their lives. They feel wonderful and they always will. You too can feel like this if you drink the right soda, drive the right car, or vote for the right politician. There was a beer campaign some years back which featured a group of men bonding around various activities and beer. The tag line was “It doesn't get any better than this.” Really? I suppose that's true if you discount an intimate love relationship, having children, doing service, creative achievement, business success and a few other things.

Recovery involves loss, and loss creates grief. That is one reason it can be so hard. We need to experience and grieve our losses. As we recover from addiction we become gradually more invested in reality and less captivated by fantasy. In the fantasy department, the big Kahuna is the belief that we can achieve this kind of perfect love and acceptance from the outside, from others or from circumstances, when it truly has to begin inside, with self love and self acceptance.

In the friendship department, the biggest loss often is that of our best friend, our addiction. It hurts to say goodbye. But like any relationship ending, it gets easier over time, and there does come a day when we can look back at the addiction with some fondness, but mostly enormous relief and gratitude that we do not have to do that anymore.//

The Second Look

David walks into a restaurant, looks around and spots an attractive woman across the room. She is sitting at a table with a man. She looks up toward David, and their eyes lock for an instant. They both look away. A few seconds pass, and he turns to look at her again. As he is turning she lowers her coffee cup and looks straight back at him. This time the gaze lasts a few seconds before they each slowly turn away.

His heart races. His eyes light up. He smiles at the hostess, takes a deep breath, and floats to his table. He doesn't walk. He floats. A moment ago he walked into this restaurant just another guy on his lunch hour, but now he is King of the World.

This is the moment a sex and love addict lives for, The Second Look. It lights up his brain like a spike in the arm, like a dry martini, a line of cocaine. It says “You are a sexy guy, a worthwhile person, clearly someone of wit, intelligence, passion and erudition; someone who could make me happy, give me beautiful babies, maybe the answer to all my prayers. Maybe you are the ONE.”

Or it could mean “You are a hot guy. I would love to jump on you right now.” Either way it works for David. It gets the spark plugs in his brain firing.

Never mind that he doesn't know the first thing about this woman. He can project onto her whatever he likes to bring this fantasy to life. The fact that she is with another man is not a deterrent. In fact it is a bonus. She not only thinks I am hot, but it is clear she can see that I am superior to that guy she's sitting with. I'm a winner. He's a loser.

For some sex addicts actual, or even virtual sex, is optional. More central to their mood alteration is the validation, the feeling that they are desirable and desired. We see this often with “emotional affairs”, a relationship with a colleague or client. The person, a man or a woman, replaces the primary partner bestowing affection, understanding and tenderness, stopping short of any actual sexual involvement. That keeps it legit, or so the belief goes. Truth is, men and women who do this are robbing their partners of a large chunk of themselves. They share their true feelings with the other, then come home and watch television.

It is complicated, of course. We all like to receive validation and attention from others. And no one gets all their needs met by one person. But for those afflicted with this disorder it is not simply a momentary blip of pleasure at being appreciated by another. It is necessary for their very survival. It is a deep need to be seen and accepted.

The thing that makes sex and love addictions so easy to deny is this characteristic. It is not one or more behaviors that define the addiction, but rather it is the compulsive nature of the behavior. Alcoholics regularly associate with people who drink more and worse than they do. It allows them to say “Well I'm not as bad as that guy.” With sex addicts it is easy to say “At least I don't...Fill in the blanks: Affairs, strip clubs, escorts, massage parlors, dating sites, Tinder hook-ups, office intrigues, sexting masturbation, pornography...Endless ways to medicate yourself with sexual arousal.

The place to look is not at the behaviors, but at what surrounds the activity. Does it create shame? Is it secret, requiring a double life? Have you tried unsuccessfully to stop or moderate it? Do you make promises to yourself, and then break them? Do you continue the behavior in spite of negative consequences? These are some of the indicators there is a sexual compulsion at work. These compulsions can be helped. The first step is recognizing they exist.//

Tic Tacs

Lunch time recently I was in a liquor store , buying a sandwich, not liquor. In front of me in the check out line is a big, red-faced guy. I can see he's a heavy drinker; easy to spot; red faced, puffy, defocussed eyes, capillaries. I look down at the counter in front of him. He is buying 2 one-liter bottles of bourbon and a small box of Tic Tacs.

It strikes me that this is a perfect illustration of the kind of insane thinking and denial of reality that infects the life of the active addict.

The visual strikes me as very funny, two huge bottles of liquor and a little tiny box of mints. My first instinct is to laugh, the way folks do at AA meetings when someone tells a particularly bizarre drinking story. And I do laugh, but silently and to myself. Then some compassion kicks in. This is not an AA meeting.It is not an anecdote from someone's lurid past. This is happening in the present, and this man is suffering.

Granted, I don't know this for a fact. He could be buying the whiskey for a party, and the Tic Tacs for his teenage daughter. But he's not buying any chips and dip to go along with the booze. My initial impression is likely the truth. He has a belief that a few mints will mask the odor of massive quantities of bourbon whiskey. He needs to believe this. He needs to drink, and he needs to hide it from his boss, his wife, his kids, law enforcement and pretty near everyone else. So he has a solution, a little box of Tic Tacs.

It is well known in addiction counseling that an addict will likely do the minimum possible and hope to achieve the maximum result. Once an addict reaches a point where his life is intolerable he usually has just one goal: How do I get well without giving up my addiction?

This is easy to understand. The addiction is his best friend. In many cases it is his only friend. From his perspective, it is the only thing keeping him going. To imagine a life without that friend is terrifying. This is the addictive cycle; the only antidote the addict has for the pain of his existence is the very thing that is making that pain intolerable.

To move from this hopeless place requires a shift, a small change in perspective. It doesn't require the room to fill with light, or a stunning new understanding of life, but only a faint glimmer of hope, a wisp, a notion, a momentary failure of the defensive system that allows in the thought that there may be another way to feel OK, just possibly. Without any real belief or confidence, if he can say, “Well shit, I guess I could give it a try.” This is the beginning of recovery for many addicts.

My hope for this man is that one day he can recount this story with some sober friends, conjuring up the image of the two large bottles of booze and the tiny plastic box of Tic Tacs, and laugh at himself for the way he behaved back in the day, when he was drinking. And his friends will laugh along with him.//

Where's The Happy, Joyous and Free at?

Recovery from addiction is the road from a life of incomprehensible demoralization to one that is happy joyous and free. Those words come from the big book of AA, written in 1939, “Happy, joyous and free.” Wow! Who wouldn't want that?

But it is not easy, and it is not quick. It is difficult and painful, and many addicts never get there. Never even get close. To swipe a phrase from politics, “Recovery ain’t beanbag.”

When I got sober way back in the day, they would say that all the answers are in the literature. The solution to every problem was in the steps. What step are you working on? Help a drunk. Speak at a hospital. Talk to a newcomer. Make the coffee. Pick up ashtrays. (In those days everyone smoked in the meetings.) There were guys who would quote the big book chapter and verse right down to the page numbers.

This was the way we all got sober. It worked and it was brilliant, as far as it went. A bunch of falling-down drunks leading sober useful lives, that was something.

We also used to say. “I don’t know how I became an alcoholic. I just am one.” How or why is not important. There were Irish drunks whose entire family could qualify for the program. There were Jewish drunks, the first in their family, and all kinds of others with great reasons to be or not to be alcoholic. It didn’t matter. We didn't choose alcoholism. Alcoholism chose us.

Before Alcoholics Anonymous there was little hope for those suffering from alcoholism. There were pretty much only three possible outcomes, death, institutionalization, or for those few who could manage it, a kind of miserable “white knuckle” sobriety, that we refer to now as a “dry drunk.”

So AA literally saved the lives of millions of people, beginning with Bill Wilson and Bob Smith when they met in Akron, Ohio in 1935.

Bill Wilson died in 1971, sober 36 years. The cause of his death was addiction. He was a chain smoker. There is also ample evidence that he was a sex addict. His sexual activity created serious problems for his personal life as well as for AA. But it was the cigarettes that killed him.

Had he lived, Bill W would have seen a tremendous shift in the recovery movement just a few years later. Here are just a few:

  • 12-Step groups began forming for Adult Children of Alcoholics. Using the basics of Family System Theory, these groups helped people understand the commonalities of their experiences, often unburdening themselves from misplaced shame and guilt.
  • Intake counselors at treatment centers began to probe deeper, looking into childhood issues. Many of them, notably Pia Mellody at The Meadows, noted that virtually all those admitting for alcohol and drug addictions had experienced childhood traume, neglect or abuse.
  • John Bradshaw, Patrick Carnes and others began writing about the effects of “toxic shame” and distorted core beliefs on personality development.

It turns out that it is, indeed, important to try to identify where addictions begin. We can't always know. Some precipitating factors go back generations, and whatever causality was there is now lost. But to the degree we can know, that awareness is extremely useful. If you know what caused a condition, it is a lot easier to find the proper tools to fix it. Working on boundaries, mindfulness, trauma resolution, anger expression, acceptance, grieving losses etc. This is the work of recovery today.

It is essential that we acknowledge our “addictiveness” to be able to reach the true potential of a sober life. An alcoholic who just puts the “plug in the jug” will almost surely find some other addictive or compulsive outlet, unless he works on the underlying issues.

Addictions migrate. Addicts and alcoholics who are chemically sober will frequently turn to sex, gambling, over-eating, adrenaline rushes, rage, overwork etc. Anything that can serve to get the pleasure chemicals flowing in the brain.

Addicts in recovery today are fortunate to have the benefit of all the recent learning in the mental health field. There are now methods, systems and tools to help us get free of all our addictions. For those willing and able to do the work the “Happy, joyous and free” place is a lot closer now than it ever was.//

This article first appeared in the LASoberCoach blog.

© Tim 2015