Thank you, Mr. Carlson

Dear Mr. Carlson,

Woo-hoo, what a fine book you have written! I listened to Kiff VandenHeuvel read it to me in an Audible version in a voice not unlike yours – a wonderful mix of “Can you believe this?!” and “Get this!” – and had the proverbial can’t-put-it-down-experience.

Nicholas Carlson, author of  Marissa Mayer and the Fight to Save YahooI was so absolutely touched and awed that you sent me a personal copy of Marissa Mayer and the Fight to Save Yahoo!, inscribed it, and, heavens, mentioned me in the Acknowledgements! I admit I was puzzled why you thanked me for teaching you “the five-paragraph essay.”

Wow, to quote David Letterman, did you ever “blow the roof off the dump” of the five-paragraph essay! But I get what you meant – you introduced this topic with an uppercut, then extended the essay, point after compelling point, selecting just the right points in just the right order to build anticipation and suspense. Nothing clever is coming to me with which to replace “page-turner” for listening to an audiobook, but I was completely absorbed and engaged the entire ride, literally cringing as the conclusion was heading my way. Sheesh! What an experience!

Interestingly enough, I took a sabbatical from teaching from 1999 to 2001 to write a novel, didn’t complete it, but got involved in the dot-com economy in Tampa, started a small business – showing up in the top ten Yahoo! search results for “web site development,” believe it or not – joined and left a startup. Crazy times.

I read and studied publications to which you referred, followed the careers of the Internet economy leaders you mentioned, and puzzled and puzzled over how Yahoo! made money. They were hot, they were sexy, but who was paying them to do what? It was mysterious. But it was a young man’s time to be hot and sexy, and I experienced my early-40s female questions dismissed with, “You just don’t get it,” and I believed them.

I appreciated this TechCrunch reporter noticing that your book has messages for startups. I thought the same, but in the other direction. I founded two more startups, one in 2008, one with partners in 2012. On page 319, you write, “The company hasn’t found its purpose since – the thing it can do that no one else can.” You mention in several places Yahoo!’s declining user base. You cite Marissa Mayer’s contempt for 700 users of a mobile app.

I think if an aspiring startup founder read Marissa Mayer and the Fight to Save Yahoo! now, she might realize she needed to give herself a fixed time, then ask, “Does your number of users tell you that your idea solves a problem no one else can?” If the answer is “no,” she should bail. I did not know to ask that question, or was too desperately or arrogantly blind to its existence. Your book tells the story of losses in the millions and billions. Mine is in the tens of thousands for me, for my former husband, for my family. Embarrassing and sad.

And that’s the hallmark of fine writing – we both love and learn. I was completely “in” the story, occasionally coming “out,” to think, “Ooh, nice,” with a teacher’s praise for a student’s fine phrasing, then I was back “in,” deliciously groaning as the plot thickened. But I also began to groan, not so deliciously, as I had insights about my own story.

Ooh, and the risk with sources! Daring! Iconoclastic! I love it!

What’s it like for a former middle school writing teacher to have her student write a book? FANTASTIC! WOW!

And I’m giggling. I remember your father telling me when you were still in middle school, only semi-facetiously, that he was sending his sons to our school to learn to be doctors and lawyers, not writers!

And the dedication of the book to your mother makes perfect sense to me. Such an exciting, incisive mind!

And now I’m choking up. How you honor me, our school, your family with such deep thinking, hard synthesis, and masterful expression. I am so proud of you.

I have wonderful memories of you as a young man – bright, earnest, questing. I was always amazed and awed by the regard you and your brothers have for each other. Unprecedented. As the middle son, you had lots of choices about which way to go.  I saw you choose the courageous path – honesty, integrity, kindness. I haven’t seen you in years, but I still see these honorable traits in you in your book.

Thank you, Mr. Carlson.

. . . . .

Nicholas Carlson is the author of  Marissa Mayer and the Fight to Save Yahoo! I had the joy and privilege of being his middle school teacher at Tampa Preparatory School. My eighth grade history teacher, Mrs. Charlotte Pauley Sellers, called us by our last names and I felt so seen and valued as “Miss Giles” that I passed that practice forward as a teacher. The author has always been “Mr. Carlson” to me. I stole the image from his Facebook page without permission. I’m guessing it’s okay. I’ll take it down if it’s not. I wish I were still a teacher. But not having to attempt to do the right thing all the time is pretty nice.

Hi, Dimity! Hi, Mark! Hi, Mr. Carlson and Mr. Carlson! He did great, didn’t he?!

New to Addictions Recovery? You Will Feel Better

Today, I have been abstinent from alcohol for 26 months and 3 weeks, a total of 812 days.

I wish I had been told on day one that I would feel better.

. . . . .

You will feel better.

Here’s why.

The Problem

You have 1) tough thoughts and 2) tough feelings. They wear you out, hold you down, beat you down, tear you up. It makes perfect sense that you take action not to have them. Whatever actions you have taken that have become problematic for you – drinking, using drugs, gambling, eating, cutting, serial relationships, etc. – their primary purpose is to help you handle tough thoughts and tough feelings.

What you don’t have are skills to handle tough thoughts and feelings without taking those problematic actions. You’re not bad or wrong. There are reasons. For now, all you need to know, though, is that you don’t have those skills. Yet. They can be learned. Therein lies hope.

But add the intensity of the distressed thoughts and feelings that come with abstinence, and this moment, right here, right now, feels unbearable. And so does the next one. And the next one.

You can see why learning to handle thoughts and feelings is now your top priority. You’ll drink or use or do again if you don’t.

Thoughts and feelings are tough to handle when abstinent

The Solution

Set up each day to help you handle tough thoughts and tough feelings. Put aside everything else and focus all your attention on how to help yourself tolerate, live with, accept, fight against, breathe in, stumble through and survive tough thoughts and tough feelings.

So let’s see if you’ve got this. You’re going to be pummeled by massive, excruciating thoughts and feelings at the same time as you’ll only just be learning a tiny bit about how to ease their impact. It’s crazy. Yet, this is exactly what needs to be done.

You can see why few are able to do it alone. If it were easier to do alone, you would already being it doing it. You’re going to need help from others, not because you’re a weak, shameful loser, but because you’re simply new to this. You need coaching and time to learn.

And get this: you can’t do it alone, but you’re the one who has to do it. It’s crazy. But it’s got to be done.

Get Started

Prior to every action you think of taking or every word you’re about to speak, ask yourself, “Is this helping me handle thoughts and feelings in a healthy way?” If it’s not, don’t do it. If you’re not sure, run it by someone who’s been abstinent or in addictions recovery longer than you have. Much of what you think to do and say in early recovery will not be helpful because it’s intertwined with former, problematic ways of handling thoughts and feelings. Again, you’re not bad and wrong. You just haven’t learned better or other ways yet. That’s to be expected.

As you help yourself handle thoughts and feelings, the intense distress you feel during early abstinence will decrease over time.

Although it seems impossible now, you will feel better.

. . . . .

I am working on a book manuscript. Other posts in the book manuscript series:

The most popular post on this blog so far: Abstinence Is Not a Choice

I am writing a first-person narrative of my own recovery story in this category.

5 A’s of Good Lovin’

We feel loved when we receive from others and from ourselves:

  • Attention - listening; observing and noticing others’ feelings and our own
  • Acceptance – of others and ourselves just as we are
  • Appreciation - of theirs and our own gifts, limits, longings, and shared human condition
  • Affection - shown through speaking, holding and touching in respectful ways
  • Allowing from others and ourselves the freedom to live in accord with our deepest needs and wishes without attempting to control.

Loving ourselves and othersAdapted with respect and gratitude from the writings of David Richo, including How to Be an Adult in Relationships: The Five Keys to Mindful Loving and When the Past Is Present: Healing the Emotional Wounds that Sabotage our Relationships.

Why Attend Addictions Recovery Support Groups?

If it were possible to run two experiments on a life where a person with addictions became abstinent and spent a year trying to stay that way solo, then was taken back in time and run through that year again but this time attended support group meetings, I’d put my money on more relapses in experiment one vs. experiment two.

Oh, the suffering in experiment one! It feels inhumane to even think of it.

I wish on day one of my abstinence from out-of-control drinking that I had been sent a link to web page like this one. Or even been given the text on a printed handout.

. . . . .

Support Your Recovery by Attending Support Groups

Benefits of attending a recovery support groupIn support of your recovery, we ask you to attend daily support group meetings for a year.

It’s not because support groups are “a good thing.”

Research yields mixed results on the success of support groups in helping people get and stay abstinent from the substance – drugs, alcohol – or the process – over-eating, under-eating, gambling, spending, etc. – that plagues them. Recent research on  one support group reports 1 in 15 stay abstinent.

Nonetheless, we think attending support groups increases the odds of you achieving your recovery goals.

“[Support group] effectiveness may not be due to its specific content or process. Rather, its chief strength may lie in its ability to provide free, long-term, easy access and exposure to recovery-related common therapeutic elements, the dose of which, can be adaptively self-regulated according to perceived need.”
– John Francis Kelly, Molly Magill, and Robert Lauren Stout, How do people recover…?

Yes, but I don’t like it.

Some people challenged with addictions say they attended a few meetings of a support group and didn’t like it.

Sure, support groups may not be for everyone. But try to answer this question: “Can you name some things you do like?”

You probably can’t. You’re not alone. Most people in early recovery don’t like much. They can’t. They have anhedonia, essentially the inability to feel pleasure – to feel good or to feel better – a darkly troubling downside of abstinence. It makes sense you might not like a support group, since you probably don’t like how your hamburger was cooked, how that guy was driving, what you see in the mirror, what you’ve done with your life, etc.

Yes, but I don’t get it.

Some people attend support groups and say they don’t understand what’s going on. Very gently, we want to let you know that your thinking is impaired from abstinence and will be for awhile, although you will improve. You’re going to have trouble understanding much of anything and all you need to understand, for now, is that it’s normal. Easy does it.

Yes, but I want to do this on my own.

Most people have tried the solo route of attempting to abstain on their own. After resolving to quit, or being released from detox or a treatment program, they think, “I’m clean and sober now. I’ve got it this time.” However, hour after hour of alone time begins again. Solo didn’t work before and it’s very unlikely to work again.

The first year of abstinence is the toughest and we want to encourage you to care for yourself and your recovery every day.

And one year is a rough estimate of how long anhedonia can last, although research is mixed. If you don’t “like” support groups after a year, then your cognitive functioning will have improved, your anhedonia might be lifting a bit, and your powers of discernment will be in much better shape. By then, you may be able to know whether or not you truly “like” something. If it’s not your cup of tea after a year, by all means, stop going.

It doesn’t matter whether you attend AA, NA, PP or ZZ. It doesn’t matter what group you attend – it just matters that you do attend.

  • Being with people who want to stay abstinent increases your ability to stay abstinent. (Source)
  • Participating in support groups and building a social network of abstinent people in your life helps you stay abstinent. (Source) (additional Source added 3/18/15)
  • Attending support group meetings helps you change “people, places and things.” (Source)
  • People with addiction challenges have trouble believing they can stop. They lack what’s termed “self-efficacy.” Research suggests that those who attend support group meetings grow in self-efficacy. (Source)
  • Research suggests that people who attend support group meetings can stay abstinent longer than those who don’t. (Source)
  • Group attendance offers “close, but not too close,” i.e. being in a group with others begins to heal the isolation of addiction but provides space for the self to heal as well. (Source)

“Despite all our efforts to give, guide, and support, each of us is ultimately alone when it comes to our life, recovery and growth. This is the inevitable plight of the human condition… The primary conflict for us all, the addicted as well as the nonaddicted, is to belong and be connected to something larger than ourselves without losing ourselves… Can I be close and truly intimate without losing myself, or will my need for independence come at a cost of alienation and isolation?”
– David Richo, When the Past is Present

You may find what you hear in support meetings moving and motivating or unusual and confusing. Practice that essential recovery skill of self-calming if you find yourself hearing something you don’t like or don’t agree with. Here are ways to help you make support group meetings helpful to you.

Yes, but I don’t agree with what they say.

That’s okay. You don’t have to. The benefit is from being there.

Remember that it’s not the content of the meeting that’s most important – it’s spending time with people who want to stay abstinent. Discuss any questions and concerns you have with people at the meetings with whom you can relate and with other people in your recovery support network.

Keep looking for ways to make this free and daily source of support for your recovery work for you.

You may hear at meetings, “Take what you like and leave the rest.” By all means. Customize a recovery program that helps you with your recovery goals.

. . . . .

When I realized I had a drinking problem, the only help at the time was a support group meeting and that’s where I went. With the help of a huge team, personal experience, and intensive study, I’ve learned that addictions recovery requires an entire addictions recovery system. Attending support groups is part of that system. I am working on a book manuscript attempting to describe the addictions recovery system I wish had been available to me on day one of my abstinence from alcohol. So, so, so many variables…

I thought my job at a support group was to learn the material, just as if I had been in a class. I fought to understand. And I fought with how to be close enough to people to receive the benefits of connection, but far enough to feel safe. If only I had known I just needed to be there. All I had to do was just rest a minute in the company of people also trying to stay abstinent. Any other benefits that might come my way would be icing on an already fine cake.

Except sugar is a no-no in a recovery support diet. So many variables…

I am grateful to Laurel Sindewald for contributing to the research for this post.

The opinions expressed here are mine and do not necessarily reflect the positions of my associates, employers, clients or relatives.

The content of this post is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical or professional advice. Consult a qualified health care professional for personalized medical and professional advice.

Further reading:

How to Make 12-Step Recovery Groups Work for You

How to Make 12-Step Recovery Meetings Work for You

Whether you live in a rural area like mine where 12-step recovery is often the only addictions care in town, or you’re court-mandated to attend 12-step recovery meetings (questionably against your constitutional rights, but it can happen), if you’ve got an addiction problem, you’ll be encouraged (or cajoled) to attend a 12-step recovery meeting.

For addictions recovery, 12-step recovery isn’t enough. This physician estimates only 1 in 15 people who enter one particular program will stay abstinent. Freeing ourselves from addictions requires each of us to custom design our own recovery.

How to benefit from support groups

I offer 2 caveats and 11 suggestions in hopes they may prove of value in helping you receive from 12-step meetings what you personally need for your recovery.

Caveats follow.

Caveat 1: A meeting is not a treatment.

While the focus of 12-step recovery meetings varies tremendously (Wikipedia lists several dozen), 12-step recovery is not a treatment for addiction. In fact, maddeningly, there’s actually no consensus on how to successfully treat addictions. (Middle chapters of this book offer the most current, thoughtful, thorough and informed critical analysis of addictions research I’ve seen.)

Caveat 2: A meeting is a gathering.

Simply put, 12-step recovery meetings are gatherings of people with similar problems who are trying to solve them.

A meeting is a very human event. That means much of what happens there is complex, intangible, and beyond words. Researchers have attempted to quantify what people really get from being together.* For me, sometimes the only eloquence I can muster after a meeting is, “I feel better.”

Suggestions follow.

Accept that you, and you alone, are your own 24/7/365 addictions caregiver.

Addiction is an all-day, every-day condition that requires around-the-clock care. Most of us don’t have the dollars to hire someone to be with us every minute to monitor our abstinence (or harm reduction) or give us a chance to sleep. Attendance at 12-step recovery meetings is free, fills up some of those hours we need care, and lets us join a group vigil so we can take a break from being the only one on watch.

Focus on yourself.

Become aware. Since our addictive behavior tends to occur when we’re unconscious of what’s really going on with us, sitting still for awhile is a chance to become aware of  what we’re feeling, thinking and sensing.

Practice self-management. Becoming aware of what we’re feeling and thinking can be distressing. Many of us are working hard on becoming aware of that distress and managing our feelings and thoughts to ease it. Alone, this can be very difficult. We can use the calm company of others in which to practice self-calming.

Bask in order.

Many of us have lived many of our days in chaos. We were out of control and so were the people around us. Exceptions exist, of course, because people have good days and bad days, but at most 12-step recovery meetings, the same things are done in the same order and everybody does what they’re supposed to do. Stability helps us heal from addictions. Some people do go on and on or say the same things over and over again, day after day. Ah, the blessed, peaceful, healing predictability of it all!

Speak and be heard – without interruption.

If you care to share at a 12-step recovery meeting, that will probably be the only time that day in which you will not be interrupted. Whether with family, a work crew, a committee, or in line waiting at the grocery story, we’re rarely given a chance to complete a thought, much less a sentence. Group norms at most meetings allow people to take turns speaking with silent listening, no interruption, and no correction, criticism or judgment. Freud’s patient coined the phrase “talk therapy,” but she wasn’t the first to understand that we discover understanding through speaking. Enjoy the novelty of uninterrupted self-discovery.

Sing along.

What one hears read aloud at meetings can be difficult to comprehend. If it doesn’t make sense, just let it be like a song on the radio where you can’t quite make out the words. Enjoy the pleasant voice reading, or respect the person who doesn’t read well but is giving it a go. If you find yourself starting to know some of the words, perhaps imagine yourself at a campfire singing Kumbaya or at a football game singing The Star Spangled Banner and join in. Some words may still not make any sense either, or may not be in accord with your beliefs, but there’s something about saying words together – pretty much any old words will do – that makes us feel less alone, that eases, if only a tad, the isolation of addiction.

Talk with, and listen to, people who get it.

As well-meaning as our non-addicted family members, friends and co-workers might be, they just don’t understand what it’s like to not be able to stop. What a relief it is to walk into a room full of people to whom one does not have to explain or justify one’s behavior. They know why you did it. They know why you still might be doing it. They did it, too.

Do what works for you individually.

Notice my suggestions do not include, “Get a sponsor,” “Work The Steps,” “Make conscious contact with your Higher Power,” or “Do service work.” Each of those may be useful and meaningful for specific individuals. For addicts as a group, however, it’s being and talking with people who are intentionally trying to change, rather than us being desperately alone, that has the most impact on our recovery from addictions.*

Accept the paradoxes.

It’s hell to recover alone, often impossible. It can be more possible to recover in the company of others. But we have to individualize our recovery programs. What is said to work for the group as a whole may not work at all for the individual. And the very people whom we depend upon to help us recover will, at times, make us feel crazy enough to drink or use. Sound familiar? Yeah, it’s life.

Be open.

Where else can you go where every single person in the room is single-mindedly wishing you well? You might not like everyone in the room and you might not like everything you hear. But no one, not one person, wants you to drink or use or do what you’re trying not to do again. Listen for practical tips from people who’ve been there and done that. And take in what is inexplicably moving, touching, inspiring and uplifting about being with kind-mindedness for an hour.

Take what you like and leave the rest.

That’s a standard 12-step recovery slogan but it’s the place to begin and end. Consider what you hear at a 12-step meetings to be a buffet meal of possibilities. Some ideas will seem tasty; some will seem distasteful. Serve yourself with what sounds good, maybe try a few spoonfuls of something new on the side, and don’t force down anything you distrust. Let no one tell you what to put on your plate. We’re trying to free ourselves, after all.

. . . . .

*If you’re interested in research on the social network effects of 12-step recovery for addictions, these articles may be of interest. Titles are abbreviated and/or excerpted, and the most recent are listed first. Thanks to Laurel Sindewald for her research assistance.

The opinions expressed here are mine and do not necessarily reflect the positions of my associates, employers, clients or relatives.

The content of this post is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical or professional advice. Consult a qualified health care professional for personalized medical and professional advice.

Further reading:

Why Attend Addictions Recovery Support Groups?