Addiction is like Poison Ivy

You may know that you are allergic to poison ivy, and avoid it. Yet, you still end up with the telltale uncomfortable rash that let’s you know you were not as successfully avoiding it as you thought.

Or you may not know you are sensitive to poison ivy, and suddenly, after a lifetime of recklessly dancing through poison ivy patches that have your friends and family cringing, you end up with a wicked case of itchy, painful poison ivy and didn’t even remember coming in contact with it. (OK, yes, that was me)

Addiction is a lot like that; other people’s addictions: those of your family members, close friends or loved ones. Ouch, ouch, ouch!

The person in your life may have an addiction that is obvious and the toll it takes on everyone around them is obvious. If all of you are lucky, then the addicted person gets treatment and into recovery. They bloom, grow and change.  And if all of you are very lucky, then those affected by the addict bloom and grow and change as well.

If no one educates the family on what to expect, sometimes they get left behind. They remain confused, hurt, angry, stuck. There’s a lot of support out there for addicts who want help; not so much for the family and friends.

Sometimes the family and friends think they have not been affected by the addict’s behaviors. The addiction is not so obvious, or the family and friends have found support groups or therapy. The addict may have found abstinence but not “recovery.”  Or the addict relapses. Or…well, the list goes on.  They notice this little itch, so they scratch it. Then they look, and see that it’s not just an irritation or a bug bite, but a blistered, spreading rash. YIKES! Where the heck did that come from? I didn’t see any poison ivy..I don’t think I did anyhow. What does poison ivy look like again?

The solution is simple, although the process may not be: Family and friends of addicts must learn to take care of themselves FIRST. When they are emotionally and physically healthy, they can learn what to do next to keep their own balance and deal with the addicted person in their lives, whether the person is using or not.

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Like trying to look away from a bad accident…

We just can’t seem to help ourselves. So as I was downloading my Sunday crossword puzzle from the LA Times website, I noticed that Charlie Sheen was on the “In the News” line. I just couldn’t help myself, I had to look. He seems to think he is doing well, I guess, that he has an upcoming roast. Good for him. I’m thinking of his family. I wonder how they feel about it,what are they thinking; are they still hoping he will get help or are they just resigned to watching him continue his downward spiral.

And I wonder who is offering them support? Who is offering them help to process how they are affected by all this, and helping them take care of themselves while continuing to love him but not enable?

When I came back from my reverie, I noticed another sad but happier story, at least for now. Daniel Radcliffe, aka Harry Potter, has admitted he had a serious drinking problem, and has been committed to a sober life. for almost a year. He like it, he feels better about himself. Bravo! As a celebrity and a young person, it’s a huge step to make the commitment  to care about himself enough to get sober.  He managed to keep his drinking a secret, and his sobriety has been a private experience as well.

I hope that his family supported his transition; I hope someone has offered them support also. Even when someone we love takes the important step to get clean and sober, we still need to learn how to adjust to this. Often family members don’t know what to say; what not to say; how to be supportive with enabling or helping by doing what the recovering person should be doing for themselves. They don’t know how to express their relief, or their leftover anger and resentment.

Some treatment centers offer family programs for patients in their programs. Some even offer treatment for families who need to get a family member into treatment.  Al-anon and Nar-anon are good resources also. There are some great books on co-dependency.

When you are ready, find a therapist or a recovery coach who focuses on you, teaching you how to take care of yourself so you know what to do next. Many family members feel like they are surviving or have survived their loved one’s addiction.

You CAN learn to THRIVE not just SURVIVE a loved one’s addiction. Let’s develop your recovery plan.

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Great excuse

Maybe not. I always end up reading a few stories when I go to download the LA Times crossword puzzle on Sunday. Today I was gobsmacked. I can’t think of another word to describe the story about Charlie Sheen and morals.

Basically, the story says that there was a time when stars would be dropped by the studios if they did not abide by morals clauses, that in the day, included out of control drug use. OK, I can understand the need for balance between the studios owning a person, and good judgement.  Alcoholism and drug addiction are now classified as diseases, but there is treatment. Although there are many ways to get there, the treatment, the cure is abstinence. And that starts with mindset. Oh, and consequences.

Many recovering, abstinent and sober folks might admit that if there no consequences, they might pick up their drug of choice again. Consequences is a whole other post, an article, an e-book even.  Maybe I don’t know the whole story with Charlie Sheen, but I’ve been working with addicts and alcoholics for over 25 years, so I have an idea of the patterns and excuses.  I just heard (read) a new one: he says he was sober 5 years and bored out of his mind. He’s a partying kind of guy (paraphrasing here), so sobriety isn’t authentic.

After I picked my jaw up off the ground, I busted out laughing. I guess the public displays of the legal consequences of his drinking and drugging are authentic. Hmmm, might just be me, but I don’t think I’d want to admit that kind of spectacular behavior is my authentic self.  Just saying.

and returning to the scene of the crime several weeks later……

So it got even more spectacular, as I, and I’m guessing many of you, watched the Charlie Sheen train hurdling out of control. Really, it was like passing a bad accident: I didn’t want to look, but I just couldn’t help myself.

Then I saw a wonderful and compassionate commentary about the whole thing.  I wish I could remember the bloggers name, I’d share it in a minute. He even posted a clip from Craig Ferguson’s show about not getting on the bandwagon with Charlie Sheen jokes. The blogger also reminded readers that Charlie has a family that is suffering.  And I’m paraphrasing, but he asked readers to think how much it would mean to them to have helping, compassionate hands reaching out to them if they were in trouble.  Kind of like holding the healing space when the addict or mentally ill person is ready to accept it.

May compassion and healing guide you to be strong when you need to be and loving always.

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Psycho what?

Sometimes people ask me what I do. Often, when I say I am a therapist, they ask what kind of therapist: massage? physical? No, I tell me, psychotherapist. Ohhhhhhh, I see, they murmur, as they slowly back away from me. I think some people get hung up on the “psycho” part. And if they are saavy enough, they may ask my specialty. And when I say addictions, if I am lucky, I get a chuckle and a story; sometimes I am suddenly standing alone.

Okay, it’s not always that bad, but some folks do think that therapy is for crazy people. The politically correct term would be Mentally Ill. Mentall Illness occurs on a spectrum from mild to severe, but is not the only reason someone would seek out therapy. Problems with addictions is one reason, whether you are an addict or alcoholic looking to stop using, or a a family member who is affected by addiction in the family.  A crisis or change in life circumstances is what brings many people in to therapy, where they can talk in a safe place, and develop emotional skills to bring their life back into balance.

Stress is a big reason someone might seek out psychotherapy. Life in general can be stressful, and techniques for dealing with stress make life easier. Just listening to the news today is especially stressful, to say nothing of talking to the neighbors and finding out who lost their job this week. And wondering if you are next. Or watching prices go up. Of worrying about the future for your children. Or just the overwhelming choices we face everyday, and to fit in all that we have committed to.  What if you have a child, or spouse or good friend heading for Iraq or Afghanistan? And…..well, I am sure you can fill in the blank for yourself.

One tip for dealing with stress is to learn to breathe. No, I mean really breathe. We tend to be high chest breathers, somewhat shallow breathing. If you take yoga or meditation classes, you are introduced to breathing. You can learn to breathe deeply, more slowly, giving your body more oxygen when the blood flows. A few deep, slow breaths can clear you head, even energize you.

Don’t think you have the time?   Make the time; it’s easier than you think. How about 5 minutes at your desk, instead of jumping up for a cup of coffee at break time, take off your shoes, sit back in your chair, drop your shoulders while you close your eyes and take in a deep breath. Slowly fill your lungs, count 1 to 5. Then slowly release the breath, counting back 5 to 1. Ahhhhhhhhh. Do that a few times, then open you eyes, put your shoes back on, and get on with the day.

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Keeping it simple

That is the best way I can think to start blogging. Just setting up a blog is exciting and a little overwhelming!  So many options, so many directions, so many distractions!

So, to keep it simple, I’ll start with some basics about addiction and options and opportunities for moving into recovery.

As far a language and defintions, I will use the word addict to include those addicted to all drugs, including alcohol will strive to speak in gender neutral language.

One definition of addiction is the inabilty to stop using substances in spite of negative consequences. This can apply to self-destructive behaviors, such as gambling and overeating. The negative consequences generally continue to escalate, and the risks of continuing to use increase.

The concept of recovery also has many descriptions and definitions. Probably the simplest expectation is abstinence. A better description of recovery is the journey of getting and remaining abstinent, and is a more active experience. It is a time of enlightenment and joy, of struggle and self-acceptance. And a time when a support network is imperative.

A support network varies from person to person, but includes other sober and recovery people, family and friends. Friends and family often want to help and support, but don’t know how. They have their own recovery process, and need to learn more about addiction and recovery, the addict’s and their own.

Traditional recovery programs are 12-step based, and introduce addicts to 12-step recovery programs, such as AA and NA, to support their ongoing abstinence and recovery efforts. Other programs exist that are not 12-step based, and are often not in insurance networks; some are not in for good reasons, but others could benefit those for whom 12-step is not successful or of interest.

I fear this a somewhat heretical statement for me, as my initial training was in 12-step recovery programs. Over the years, I have seen many clients, in program and in my private practice succeed utilizing 12-step recovery programs. Others have not, for a variety of reasons. In the “old days” , these clients were told they were failures, that even if they were abstinent, they would fail if they did not embrace 12-step programs.; that they were “dry drunks.”Some did fail; other succeeded, and developed a solid pattern of abstinence, and a rewarding, successful life.

So which is the best approach? That varies from individual to individual. In my experience, the one factor that determines whether or not a person succeeds is a desire to do so. That is, that the person wants to recover. Can willpower alone do it? Maybe for some. It is more the concept of willingness, a willingness to do whatever it takes, to get on and stay on the path of recovery.


Suggested Readings:

AA and NA literature

The Tao of Sobriety by David Gregson and Jay S. Efran, PH.D.

Mindful Recovery: A Spiritual Path to Healing from Addictions by Thomas and Beverly Bien

The Thirst for Wholeness: Attachment, Addiction, and the Spiritual Path by Christina Grof

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