Being smart makes drug and alcohol addiction recovery harder. In the course of hundreds of hours spent with others in the recovery community, I have yet to meet a doctor, lawyer, or successful business professional whose substance abuse issue has landed them in jail. The wrinkly brown bags, park benches, shady payphones, foam cups filled with jingling coins, and cardboard signs that make up the pop culture perception of alcoholism are a far cry from the majority of reality. That is, approximately ten percent of the U.S. population with the heritable neurological disease of addiction.
Smart people use their intelligence to stay out of trouble and hide the problem, and that often works for years, or even decades before health and social consequences force them into a treatment setting. I’ve never had a consequence, therefore I don’t have a problem, they think. But the keen intellect that lands them recognition as the smartest person in the room at school and work, and occasionally gets them in trouble for seeming impatient and arrogant in small groups keeps them out of settings where a herd mentality is the status quo. You simply don’t see many physicists, neurosurgeons, investment bankers, or award-winning authors at church. Nobel laureate Winston Churchill got away with drinking from morning ‘til night his entire life, until a series of strokes led to his death. Alcoholic hypertension is a huge risk factor for strokes. It must have been stress and exhaustion, say some historians, enabling his lifestyle post mortem. Because how could such a good person be an alcoholic?
The idea programmed into us by religion from an early age that all human behavior falls into a dichotomy of good and evil is what brings many intelligent people to their knees with depression and substance abuse issues later in life. Priests, superstitiously denied marriage and sex, have their own dedicated national treatment center in Rochester, Minnesota called Guest House. As our adult personalities develop, we tire of the religious right’s cult mentality that we are bad and God doesn’t love us if don’t do X, Y, and Z every week. I heard from a Pastor this week that many people go to church because they think they will be seen by the community as a “better” person, and that in turn will be good for their business’ bottom line.
The late behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner once led a famous study that suggested that even pigeons are superstitious. The birds he studied danced around, bobbed their heads, spun in circles, and exhibited all kinds of other food seeking rituals. The miracle always happened: Food came, eventually. He related that phenomenon to superstitious human behavior. Superstition, he theorized, was actually beneficial to a population’s survival. Many human and animal rituals, such as sacrificing lambs, are clearly nonsense. But an evidence based look at other religious traditions like the kiss of peace, not eating shellfish, not eating pork, and alcohol abstinence shows that many customs arose from a public health crisis. Those traditions use God to address herd immunity to viruses, food allergies, parasites, and cirrhotic hepatitis, respectively.
As intelligent people, we don’t need God to tell us to cook our pork thoroughly, to not try shellfish for the first time in a remote area hours away from an epi-pen, and to not drink every day. But what gets us into trouble is the thought that we don’t need the emotional support of other people in conjunction with at least an abstract belief that human life isn’t pointless. At first, alcohol is a terrific thought-numbing sedative that brings us “Type-I” alcohol dependent (the non-violent variety) folks out of our shell for a while, then puts us to sleep. Predictably, though, our tolerance increases over the years, and eventually the amount we have to drink to get that affect becomes harmful to our health.
When we reach that point, recovery depends on finding something besides the chemical to relieve our uncertainty, fear, anxiety, and low self esteem. Simply put, there are only three things besides chemicals to this aim: 1.) Other people, 2.) Some sort of belief system, no matter how abstract, that we can draw upon to feel life has a purpose and that we’re something more than just deer waiting to get hit by a truck, and 3.) Physical activity. Exercise allows us to access our bodies’ natural painkillers and makes us look and feel better, increasing self esteem. That’s really it.
I know where to find numbers one and three, but like a lot of other people in my shoes, number two was and still is a tough one. Sometimes we do things just because we do them, said Dr. Q in one of our sessions. Doing things just because annoys me. I grew up asking why to everything. In some cases, knowing why isn’t helpful. Do I need to know that kissing is a mutual subconscious evaluation of the complementarity of a prospective partners’ major histocompatability complex, thus the viability of their potential offspring? Probably not. What I really need to do is just go for it when the opportunity presents itself.
The place where I attended my initial course of addiction treatment advertised itself as a non-12-step program that does not accept court ordered patients. They were clearly seeking a higher socioeconomic class of people, both in terms of education and access to health insurance or self pay.
They snuck the concept of faith into our group in a clever and very accessible way. The window of our group room had a clear rubber suction cup stuck to it. From it a crystal prism hung from a piece of nylon fishing line. Depending on the time of day, sun rays coming through the window traveled through the prism and were split into rainbow colors. As our discussions progressed, those thumbnail sized rainbows traveled the room, slowly making their way across the walls, our foreheads, chests and hands. Once and awhile someone said something profound about their life, and a cloud in the sky would just happen to move away from the sun, painting the room with rainbows. “Oh, my God, it’s the Crystals,” our counselor John said in a sort of ghost hunter meets PBS narrator sort of voice. Oooh yeahhh, Crystals, our group was quickly into it after a couple days.
One day a woman brought in a letter from the IRS that she was afraid to open. So afraid, that she had let it sit unopened on her kitchen table in Boston while she drank red wine. We discussed the letter and her fear as a group. What was the worst it could be? What was the best it could be? Even if it’s the worst possible news it could be, then what? And so forth. The suspense was killing all of us. Having had financial trouble myself, my heart was pounding. I was literally scared for her to open the envelope.
But finally she did. I don’t remember exactly what it was, but it was not nearly as bad as she had imagined it would be. We gave credit to the Crystals.
The people in my group included a successful investor from Malibu who used to manage the Air Force’s finances, a man my age with a double MBA/J.D. degree who went on to practice law, a college professor, an insurance coder, a Master’s-level librarian, and an inspector who worked at a state environmental agency. This was not a church going group. But by using a simple decoration and an ‘OMG, It’s the Crystals’ narrative, we had invented a sort of religion.
In essence, they cleverly taught us how and why religion is important and useful to religious people. We learned how to begin developing our own concept of faith, so that we have a tool to deal with the anxiety of not being able to explain or fix inevitable things that happen in life – job loss, illness, separation, death. If I can’t explain or fix this uncomfortable circumstance, then I must attribute it to all that in the universe that I can’t see and don’t know. Whatever your brand of Crystals – For Atul Gawande, it’s healing patients, for Robin Williams it’s making people laugh, and for me it’s touching people’s lives with storytelling – find them and have them. And that rainbow will eventually cross your path.
Onward and Upward, Kirk Klocke