Falling in Love with My Life

During the 36 hours Maia Szalavitz was in town, between meetings with 6 different community groups, Maia made time to come to my little house and talk with me.

I wrote for The Fix and for my personal blog here, then here, what reading Maia Szalavitz’s Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction meant to me. Her personal story of addiction and recovery, her reporting on the science of addiction, and her call to action to change belief-based practices to evidence-based addictions treatment first stunned, then transformed me. To be able to talk personally with this catalytic woman moved me beyond words!

Anne and Maia in Blacksburg, VA

I first made contact with Maia Szalavitz on May 11 and we first met on August 2. For the weeks in between, I noodled on this: If I could ask Maia one – and only one – question, what would it be? I opened an email and started making my list. I kept refining, agonizing, re-prioritizing. Let me check… Yep, the email I finally sent her when I knew we had time to meet was almost 1800 words long, containing multiple questions with multiple parts.

Recovery from addiction to alcohol has been very, very hard for me. My challenges have been complex and I could not simplify my list further.  But the first question on the list never changed:

I love my thin cat and my thick cat“Can you empathize? Developing addiction to alcohol at 50?! Really?
WTF?! What would *you* do to help yourself?!”

With the brilliant, beautiful-brained Maia Szalavitz, the conversation went extraordinary places. Advice in the form of “you-statements” usually feels like “tough love” to me, i.e. meanness gaslit as love, but I know Maia is a fan of “love love” over “tough love.” So when she answered my question with a you-statement, I was able to hear it with my full brain and my whole heart: “You need to fall in love with your life.”

Given that one of the metaphors Maia uses to explain the science of addiction in an accessible way is “falling in love,” her advice makes perfect sense.

Jeff Proco painting pastel colorsI think Maia’s Unbroken Brain ended in flames my life-constricting belief that I was bad and wrong for having developed alcoholism. I think Maia’s advice to me to fall in love with my life has begun wrapping a warm blanket around my sore little self.

I am a person with intense feelings and high energy. While I treasure practicing self-love, of being present in the moment, of accepting what is, it feels so motionless. I have given my all to not doing the drinking thing. To be assigned something to do is balm to my entire being!

“You need to fall in love with your life.”
– Maia Szalavitz, private conversation, 8/3/16

These are the questions I’m asking myself:

  1. What do I love in my life right now?
  2. What did I used to love in my life that I might be able to bring forward to love again?
  3. What’s in the way of me loving my life?
  4. What might I love about my future life that I can get started on now?

In the 11 days since Maia gave me the advice to fall in love with my life, here are some of the answers I’ve discovered:

  1. In my life right now, I love having a thin cat and a thick one; living upstairs with walls painted in pastel colors; walking over to my dad’s house and being greeted at the door by him in his suit and tie.
  2. What did I used to love? Basketball! We don’t have a women’s league in our town, but I am working on finding women who might like to form one. And I’ll be heading over to the gym to start learning to dribble and shoot with a woman-sized basketball which they didn’t have when I last played in 1977.
  3. What’s in the way? This post-55 thickening at the waist feels like a barrier between me and my enjoyment of my physical existence. I’ve upped my activity and downed my calories to see if I can reduce it. If it won’t budge then, yay, I’ll get more practice with my acceptance skills.
  4. What might I love? I need to re-fall in love with my town. I was raised here, left, and came back in 2006 just in time to get tempest-tost with our entire community on April 16, 2007. Remarkably, This Is Where You Belong: The Art and Science of Loving Where You Live, by Melody Warnick, was just published. She uses Blacksburg as her case study for how to fall in love with a place! She talks about place attachment, which is related to human attachment – the lack of which results in emotional dysregulation, considered the primordial soup of addiction – which is, of course, related to falling in love. Ahh… Melody, like Maia, cites data. I’ve finished chapter 2 and learned that I need to walk and bike to begin to “date” my town. My bike’s been on a hook in the shed for 2 years. I dusted it off, pumped up the tires, and took a get-reacquainted spin last night.

I’ll keep writing about recovery from addiction. I’ll need to as my story evolves and I want to share what it’s like for others who cannot.  But what if I can write “falling in love with my life” reports, too?! Writing helps me love my life through thick and thin.

So Melody Warnick says there’s a Civil War cemetery in Blacksburg. How could I have lived here since 1968 and not known that?!

You know what I’d love to do right now? Go get on my bike and see if I can find it. So I think I will.

. . . . .

Jeff Proco expertly and matter-of-factly has painted my walls in three different residences a range of colors from metallic silver, to grass green, to pastel pink, to pearl white. His number is 540-357-4880 and here are more photos of his work. Jeff’s in high demand and, sorry, you’ll have to get in line behind him painting my dad’s porch. 🙂

Why I Seek Group Counseling for Addiction

So often in my conversations with others, I get upset or the other person gets upset and I don’t know why it’s happening or, in spite of my or the other person’s best intentions, how to address what’s going on well enough to reconnect in a way that feels reassuring and meaningful.

For me, having alcoholism, I have to be really, really careful about feeling upset. If I don’t find a way to ease my distress, I may again raise the glass of wine to my lips to re-experience the greatest source of solace I have ever known.

Not my favorite part of being me at 57, but as they say, it is what it is.

I made huge progress in addressing distress when I was in weekly group therapy in Tampa. I was a member of two therapy groups, first one for women, and then one for both men and women, each for several years.

Group therapy asks each person to bring his or her truest self to the process. Because we met weekly and got to know each other, group members began to recognize in me patterns of feeling, thinking and behaving that I had trouble seeing in myself – and I could do the same for them. Sometimes those patterns would emerge during group itself and the group facilitator helped us navigate interactions in ways that helped us grow in compassion and understanding. We could then use those same ways outside of group.

Group therapy calls forth our truest selves

Before I moved from Tampa back to my hometown of Blacksburg, Virginia in 2006, I made sure to have two appointments set with two professionals: an individual counselor and a personal trainer. When my first marriage ended in 2000, I developed an anxiety-based sleep disorder for which multiple treatments, including individual and group therapy, had been prescribed. In the previous year, I injured my back and had only found extreme exercise able to ease what became chronic pain. At my first individual session, I eagerly asked my counselor if I could join one of her therapy groups. She replied, “We don’t have group therapy in Blacksburg.”

How could that be possible?! Yet, every counselor in private practice I have worked with or met in Blacksburg has told me the same: they’ve tried to form groups but enough people didn’t sign up. The theory is that Blacksburg has been too small of a town. Neighbors didn’t want to do group therapy with neighbors.

Here’s a series of ironies: I finished training as an addictions counselor in Tampa, literally days before I moved back to Blacksburg in 2006. I began to develop addiction to alcohol myself in 2007, have been attempting abstinence-based recovery from alcoholism since 2012, was hired in 2014 by our community agency as a substance use disorder (SUD) counselor and, with colleagues at my agency, provide SUD group therapy, a treatment which I would welcome for myself!

If my situation became urgent, what’s a small town to do but take care of its people? I would be admitted to a therapy group at my agency but how weird would that be to have a co-worker as a counselor?! No weirder than working out at one’s gym with one’s gynecologist. But still.

With 3.5 years in recovery from addiction, I welcome group therapy with others, who, like I am, are semi-stable with regard to substance use but can find other issues troubling them. O, how I long to run by my fellow group members my desire for equanimity but my loss of it in spite of my best efforts!

Given that our town is not exempt from the challenges facing our country, and given, thanks to Facebook, we know each other’s expression of feelings and thoughts in pretty much any kind of setting or situation, surely now is the time when a group for people with substance use disorder would be embraced in Blacksburg!

This was just announced on Friday!

Group therapy for people in recovery from addictions will be offered in Blacksburg, Virginia. Dr. Stephanie Fearer of Associates in Brief Therapy, Inc. will be offering cognitive behavior group therapy for adults with substance use disorders who are in recovery. The group is semi-structured and will include education, discussion, and interaction. The group will meet for 8 weeks on Wednesdays, 12:00 PM – 1:30 PM, beginning on August 31, 2016. Members are welcome to bring their lunches if this is their lunch hour. The fee is $300, payable by check or credit card at the first session. Clients pay directly for services and ABT does not bill insurance. To reserve a place in the group, please leave a voice mail message with your name and phone number for Dr. Stephanie Fearer, 540-951-2227 (press 5). She will return your call with further information on how to register for the group.

I can’t believe this is finally happening after 10 years…

I’ve signed up! The group is capped at 6 people!

I’m so looking forward to meeting my fellow group members on August 31!

Image: iStock

What You Can Do to Help Fight Addiction

“Love, evidence & respect.”
Maia Szalavitz’s answer via Twitter to the question, “What fights addiction?”

The post has been moved and updated here.

Reading Maia Szalavitz

I estimate it took me between 15 and 20 hours over 10 days to read Maia Szalavitz’s new book, Unbroken BrainI read every word of its 288 pages, 33 pages of notes, and 14 pages of  index subjects.

A few pages in, as I wrote for The Fix, “When I read these words in Maia Szalavitz’s Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction: ‘I felt utterly stripped of safety and love. And so, what tormented me most as I shook through August of 1988 wasn’t the nausea and chills but the recurring fear that I’d never have lasting comfort or joy again,’ I stopped reading, put my face in my hands, and cried. I wasn’t alone anymore.”

Reading Unbroken Brain by Maia Szalavitz

A few more pages in, I posted on my personal Facebook page, “I am experiencing cognitive dissonance,” and linked to the term’s definition on Wikipedia: “In psychology, cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, performs an action that is contradictory to one or more beliefs, ideas, or values, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values.”

Unbroken Brain came out on April 5, 2016. I wish I could remember the exact search phrase I used to discover the book on Amazon, but on April 13, I typed in something like “how to save myself from addiction with long-term sobriety.” Once I read the book’s description, “[O]ur understanding of addiction is trapped in unfounded 20th century ideas, addiction as a crime or as a brain disease, and in equally outdated treatment,” I downloaded the book for my Kindle and began reading immediately. Finding myself desperate to underline passages desperately important to me, I ordered a hardback copy which arrived April 26.

A careful reading of Unbroken Brain

Why have I included dates? I have probed and probed for more erudite phrasing, some way to step back from this personal, personalized statement. About reading a book. One book. In 10 days. But I truly can compose no lesser or greater sentence: I have a pre-Maia and post-Maia life.

I tried very, very hard to have “good sobriety” once I became abstinent from alcohol. I tried to feel “happy, joyous, and free.” I did everything I could to help myself. But those first 3 1/3 years of abstinence were spent primarily in pain.

At essence, I hated myself for what I had done to myself by becoming addicted to alcohol. I hated myself for bringing upon myself the contempt of others. I hated myself for my inability to feel better. Wasn’t I treating myself for alcoholism by attending support groups? What was I doing wrong to keep that from working?

I felt contempt from some members of support groups for my intractable longing to drink and intractable unhappiness. Not feeling better was my fault. I was doing things right enough, but I wasn’t being right. I was selfish and prideful and egotistical because I would not subsume my identity beneath the identity of a power greater than myself.

Brené Brown defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”

“Shame and stigma are the exact opposite of what fights addiction.”
– Maia Szalavitz, letter to the New York Times, 2/3/16

How in the world did I end up so excruciatingly scorned by myself, by people close to me, by society as a whole?!

Friends and people who know of my anguish and have started reading Maia Szalavitz’s Unbroken Brain universally start their next conversations with me, “Oh, Anne. Now I understand.”

Yes. I understand now, too.

“For those moving from experience-based and belief-based addictions treatment to evidence-based treatment, i.e., for those familiar with the research on addiction, Szalavitz’s book [Unbroken Brain] is not controversial, but masterful…In her weaving of personal narrative, scholarly knowledge of the evidence, logic that feels like she has intimate knowledge of how the reader thinks best, skillful, artful writing, and sheer, awe-inspiring intellect, Szalavitz jettisons the foolish and unfounded and, from the remaining discord of what the science says, creates a treatise on addiction as concise, exquisite and moving as poetry.”
– excerpt from my piece on Unbroken Brain for The Fix

In my “post-Maia life,” as my cognitive dissonance helps me confront and make new sense of a 10-year struggle with addiction, what I understand is how deeply, profoundly and harmfully I have misunderstood addiction. Foremost among my new understandings is that support isn’t treatment. My misunderstandings have hurt me and others.

No more.

. . . . .

When I finished Unbroken Brain, I started reading everything I could by Maia Szalavitz. On May 11, I tweeted Maia Szalavitz about a possible speaking gig. And she replied.

Maia Szalavitz, author of Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction, has graciously agreed to speak in my hometown of Blacksburg, Virginia on Wednesday, August 3, 2016.

Learn more about Maia Szalavitz’s visit to Blacksburg, Virginia

Anything, Everything, Not to Take a Drink

I am one of the predictable casualties of community violence. I began to drink in Blacksburg, Virginia, during the year of the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007. When I realized I could not stop drinking, I did what was popularly believed to be the only choice in southwest Virginia in 2012: tell no one of my shame and go to a support group meeting.

First step towards addictions recovery: hug yourself
In 2016, thanks to heroic efforts by people in recovery from addiction, relentless researchers, and intrepid public officials, we know now that abruptly stopping using a substance to which one is addicted releases one – not into just a world – but into a universe of pain. That anyone with alcoholism remains abstinent in year one is nearly impossible.

If I knew then what I know now, I would have done things so differently. First, I would have hugged myself…

I cried when I read Nora Volkow’s essay in the Fall 2015 issue of Advances in Addictions & Recovery : “People suffering from addictions are not morally weak; they suffer a disease that has compromised something that the rest of us take for granted: the ability to exert will and follow through with it.”

I thought alcoholism was the final eruption of the inner pox I believed was who I truly was and had worked with all my might for a half-century to remedy. My formidable will failed me when I tried to stop drinking. I didn’t know that my first drinks were volitional but then something turned. After that, I didn’t have alcoholism. It had me.

– Excerpts from Anything, Everything, Not to Take a Drink, by Anne Giles, published by The Fix, 5/26/16

. . . . .

Thanks to Laurel Sindewald‘s editing and mastering, you can listen to this podcast of me reading aloud “Anything, Everything, Not to Take a Drink” from my podcast channel.