Would I Date Me, a Person with Alcoholism?

Given what I know about addiction and, in my case, addiction to alcohol, would I date me?

If I didn’t have alcoholism, I would date me. I have enough strengths and enough awareness of weaknesses to be worth a try. Whether or not synergy resulted would be up to us, not just to me.

Fiend by Peter Stenson

But would I knowingly bring someone with addiction into my heart, mind and life? Into my family’s life? Into my community’s life?

Here’s how I see the context for asking and answering that question.

First, it’s still not common knowledge that alcohol is a drug, just a legal one. Whether one terms it a narcotic or a depressant, it joins other drugs in impacting brain structures related to mood and behavior. A person who dates a person with alcoholism is dating a person with drug addiction. Euphemistically separating out addiction to a legal drug as “alcoholism” from addiction to illegal drugs is a meaningless social construct.

And dating someone with addiction is dating someone who will be viewed by society, not as a person, but as “an alcoholic” or “an addict.”

Second, addiction simply doesn’t make sense. Use makes sense – feels great! – but why continue after negative consequences? Why would people continue to do what harms them and harms others? Continuing to do something that hurts oneself is anti-survival. Continuing to do something that hurts others is anti-social. Continuing, therefore, is unreasonable, irrational, illogical, unconscionable. Yet nearly 1 in 10 Americans has this tragically nonsensical condition in which they continue to do what results in costly harm to all involved.

And no one really knows what addiction is, what causes it, or how to treat or cure it. So the person with addiction has a confounding, mysterious condition that, ultimately, the person has to handle with great uncertainty on his or her own.

Third, the burden of addiction can carry additional baggage. Many people with addiction have a co-occurring mental illness. The majority of people with addiction have experienced trauma. So it’s possible the person one is dating has complex layers of personal and interpersonal challenges that will make a relationship even more challenging.

Fourth, relapse can happen. A person who is in recovery from addiction, either through abstinence or harm reduction, i.e. takes medication to manage addiction or consciously uses less harmful substances, might return to active use. While many people “age out” or quit on their own, a significant number of people have an acute case of addiction which makes return to use likely. I can’t speak for the likelihood of relapse for any one individual. But, in general, many people with acute addiction return to active use, even after a significant period of abstinence or harm reduction. So the severity of the person’s case of addiction may increase the odds of return to active use.

This is a sweet, hopeful statement from NIDA: ” Relapse rates (i.e., how often symptoms recur) for people with addiction and other substance use disorders are similar to relapse rates for other well-understood chronic medical illnesses such as diabetes [my link], hypertension, and asthma, which also have both physiological and behavioral components.”

Unlike with other chronic illnesses, however, the problem with relapse from addiction is that it manifests as problematic behavior and can include thoughtless, careless, or mean words and actions, physical illness and injury, ERs, legal problems, the works.

If I am thinking of dating me, then, I am thinking of bringing someone into my life who is ill-viewed by society, has an illness for which there is no cure and for which treatment is uncertain, who is likely to have other illnesses, and whose return to use could bring us all to our knees.

. . . . .

If I were considering dating me, I would say to me that that’s some heavy sh*t and I would want to know what the hell I’m doing about it all. (I do swear at times, a possible reason not to date me.)

I’m accountable to the entire world. I share openly and publicly on a blog, indexed by Google, that I’m in recovery from alcoholism. If having others know if I relapse is a protective factor – again we don’t know what does help, only what might help – then I have done that. The sacrifice of privacy has been a much harder hit than I expected. But people share with me that it helps so that helps me. There is no going back, however.

I think I may experience a tad less stigma because I’m “out” about having alcoholism. I’m not sure. People in my small town have to decide whether or not they’ll be seen with me in public because they might be suspected of being “one of them.” At least my situation does not need to be protected or kept secret. What a relief we can all talk openly about it!

People may not have caused all of their own problems, but they have to solve them anyway.
– Marsha Linehan, DBT Skills Training Manual

I make hundreds of decisions each day – and take action on them – to increase the likelihood that I will continue to be abstinent from alcohol. I avail myself of known evidence-based treatment options and monitor my progress constantly. I attend weekly counseling sessions for co-occurring anxiety, trauma and substance use disorder, and do about a billion other things that might be helpful to prevent myself from returning to active use.

I am ruthless in my pursuit of correct, curative treatment for addiction. I study, I read, I listen, I observe, I hypothesize, I experiment. I do not want addiction. I do not want it for the people I serve. Simply put, addiction creates a before and after in the brain that is not good for it. Developments in neuroscience are promising so I’m taking my 57 year-old brain on a wild ride to try to understand the findings well enough to derive items to add to my recovery to-do list.

Outside a neuroscience classroom at Virginia Tech

I engage in full frontal nudity about the realities of addiction. I do not avert my eyes from the primary dialectal truth of addiction: I want to AND I do not want to.

I have a relapse plan. In private, when they’re not coerced into forced confessions of personal choice and moral depravity by the courts, court-appointed treatment professionals, or fundamentalist recovery community members, everyone I know who has relapsed tells me, faces full of baffled terror, that they have no clue how it happened.

For me, if I relapse – and I also can’t know for sure – I believe it would be as a result of overwhelming environmental cues or this trajectory:

stress > distress > dissociation > return to use

Or both. Regardless, if I do relapse, I have a written document that describes what I think would be helpful and not helpful to assist me in becoming abstinent again. I haven’t yet asked particular people to be on my team and that will be next. My intention would be to return to abstinence, not to attempt to try a life that includes alcohol. I will become abstinent as soon as I can with the help for which I’ve asked. In assisting others, I have found this to be an unfortunate matter of days rather than hours, sometimes months or longer. To the best of my ability to understand the research, the longer I go without alcohol, the better are my chances to continue to go without it. I push myself each day to remain abstinent.

I shared publicly that I was advised to fall in love with my life. Now is a good time to share that I was also advised to fall in love, period. With a partner. The neuroscience of addiction says that love may, after all, be all we need.

. . . . .

So, given what I know about addiction and, in my case, addiction to alcohol, would I date me?

I actually date me all day and every day. Hard to believe but, even with alcoholism and everything else that’s gone down, I find myself remarkable company. And, if nothing else, honest and open to a fault.

But I would not be everyone’s cup of tea.

. . . . .

First photo and graphic by Nancy Brauer of me impersonating a meth zombie from Peter Stenson’s astounding novel Fiend. My review is here.

Second photo a selfie taken outside a neuroscience class at Virginia Tech.

You, Too?! A Conversation About Assumptions

“An ‘assumption’ is a belief that cannot be proved, but group members agree to abide by it anyway.”
– Marsha Linehan, DBT Skills Training Manual

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) – which I am studying carefully and explained a bit here – is usually offered in group settings. DBT, according to its founder, Marsha Linehan, is based on these assumptions, quoted verbatim from her DBT Skills Training Manual, except for bracketed text:

1. People are doing the best they can.

2. People want to improve.

3. People need to do better, try harder, and be more motivated to change…[W]hen progress is steady and is occurring at a realistic rate, with no let-up or episodic drop in effort, doing better, trying harder, and being more motivated are not needed.

4. People may not have caused all of their own problems, but they have to solve them anyway. [Exception is children or disabled persons who may need help from others.]

5. New behavior has to be learned in all relevant contexts.

6. All behaviors (actions, thoughts, emotions) are caused…even if people do not know what the causes are.

7. Figuring out and changing the causes of behavior is a more effective way to change than judging and blaming. Judging and blaming are easier, but anyone who wants to create change in the world has to change the chains of events that cause unwanted behaviors and events.

– excerpted from Marsha Linehan, DBT Skills Training Manual

talkingHow I feel when I read these assumptions is calmed.  Every once in awhile, my mother would say the equivalent of a couple of those assumptions. I envision myself as a child, standing before her, hearing these words, and feeling my shoulders sag with relief. I don’t feel held – she wasn’t into that – but I do feel like a safe, soothed, comforted child. Marsha Linehan is The Good Enough Mother. I feel heard, understood, acknowledged.

Here’s my personal expression of the assumptions underlying DBT and what I might say in conversation with someone who was studying DBT with me:

1. I am doing the best I can. I decide what to do based on my values, my principles, my current knowledge, and my current understanding. If others ask for, or demand, other or more from me, it’s not due to my lack of effort or caring. We may have a mismatch in values, insufficient mutual understanding, or some other disconnection. But I know with full mind and heart that I am absolutely doing the best I can.

That means you are doing the best you can, too! Oh, how much I appreciate you for this!

2. I want to improve. I can struggle, at times, with identifying what needs improving and how to improve it once I identify it. But I am not stuck. I want better for myself.

You want to improve, too?! Oh, I get teary-eyed with tenderness thinking how hard this is for you. It is for me, too!

3. My progress is steady and occurs at a realistic rate. I do not let up or drop my effort. Therefore, I do not need to do better, try harder, or be motivated. I am doing enough.

Isn’t doing better, trying harder, and being more motivated, tough?! Oh my gosh, I work so hard not to let up, not to drop my effort! It’s so tiring, isn’t it?! Has to be done, but gee, right?

4. I have to solve my own problems?! Oh, thank heavens! A bunch of ’em I didn’t cause, but they’re here anyway and mine to solve! I can appreciate suggestions, guidance, counseling, others’ experiences, blog posts, books, and research reports. I can appreciate learning about origins of problems and possible solutions. Right here, right now, if I have a problem in front of me, though, I need to – and get to! – solve it. For me, there’s huge power in acknowledging this.

I am so sorry for all the problems you have, or anyone you love has, or anyone has. Sometimes it’s hard to feel strong enough and capable enough to address problems, isn’t it?

5. I am willing to look at my current behaviors, decide which ones work for me and which ones don’t, ask for suggestions from trusted others who protect and honor the vulnerability it requires for me to ask,  to decide what contexts are important to me, and to learn new behaviors.

Marsha says to just observe, not judge, but it’s hard to look at what we’re doing and not scorn it, isn’t it? If we can see it, what’s the matter with us that we have it?! Why aren’t we doing something about it right now?! Agh! “We’re doing the best we can.” “We’re doing the best we can.” Whew.

6. “All behaviors (actions, thoughts, emotions) are caused…even if people do not know what the causes are.” Are thoughts and emotions behaviors? That’s interesting. Regardless of terms used, I have become aware that I can identify feelings, thoughts, behaviors, physical sensations and conditions, settings, the presence or absence of other beings – people, cats, dogs – and words and actions of others that are precursors to my own feelings, thoughts, words and actions. If I get really skilled at awareness, I can make a conscious choice about what happens next for me, rather than to be overpowered by what I’ve always done or what’s always happened.

This is huge, isn’t it?! To be able to do something about what’s up with us?! Radical. 

7. I can figure out and change the causes of my behavior and do it while suspending self-judgment, self-blame, other-judgment and other-blame.

Weren’t we taught that judging and blaming, scolding and shaming, reprimanding and punishing are the right ways to make ourselves be better and do better? Will we still be allowed to be Americans if we aren’t hard on ourselves? Oh, to be free to just try to figure things out and change!

. . . . .

Photo by Shawn You and Daeshaun McClintock from Maia Szalavitz’s visit to Blacksburg, Virginia.

This post is one in a series I am writing as I study dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) and attempt to apply it to my own life and to my interactions with others, whether personal or professional. Emotion dysregulation is increasingly identified as both precursor to, and after-effect of, substance use disorder (SUD). DBT is emerging as a research-backed, effective therapy for SUD. I was introduced to DBT by Dr. H. when I revealed in individual counseling sessions the extent of the trauma symptoms I was having after being without alcohol to quell them. I wrote more about her assistance at the end of this post.

Posts I have written about DBT so far:

I am also creating DBT-informed exercises for people who are members of substance use disorder (SUD) therapy groups or addictions recovery support groups. I will share as they evolve.

Here’s what I’ve studied or am studying:

Falling in Love with My Life: Check-in at 3.75 Years of Abstinence from Alcohol

I am absolutely delighted with what’s happened as a result of following the advice Maia Szalavitz gave me 8 weeks ago to fall in love with my life.

So much to love!

I love that I live in a little 1944 house in a patchwork of pastel painted walls upstairs. I have only 7 months of payments to go to own the enormous expanse of king-sized bed that feels like sleeping in an open field under the stars. My office is painted floor to ceiling in pink and I type passionately in it for hours every morning. I envision the middle floor as a kind of pretty timeshare that I visit with a bright white kitchen for making tea and a guest room decorated like my mother and grandmothers live here, too, but are just away for a bit. And, shh, don’t tell, there’s a decadent room with only a couch and, yes, a TV, to which I am philosophically opposed, but into which I sneak to watch Orange Is the New Black.

Pastel colors for cats

I love my own punkin head and how it works. Since Dr. H. essentially put on rain gear and boots, strode to the edge of the whirlpool of distress in which I was drowning, held her umbrella over dialectical behavior therapy handouts and called out directions over the maelstrom, I have come to feel such love for my mind (and weepy gratitude for her). Thank you, Virginia Tech history professors Dr. Doreen Hunter and Dr. Leslie Mellichamp taught me Hegel’s and Marx’s dialectical thinking.

I so deliciously get that what I think isn’t the whole story, nor is what I feel. Ah, each informs the other for a new synthesis of clarity and wisdom! Go punkin head! Go brain! Show me everything! Wow, such fireworks from thoughts and feelings colliding! I see judgment is the soul-killer, creates the little-death. Radical acceptance? I’m in! I can think it all and feel it all AND do nothing. I can just sit here a minute in my pastel walls and wait for wisdom to come about what to say or do next – or not. Exquisite.

I’m loving studying dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). Developed by Marsha Linehan, Ph.D. in the 1970s, it has been rigorously studied and found effective for an extensive number of acute conditions, including substance use disorder. At age 68, Marsha Linehan shared her personal story with the New York Times. I haven’t yet written about DBT and haven’t found a link that explains DBT clearly and simply enough for my purposes.  (Catch that thought / hold that feeling is my offering at this time.) So that’s why I haven’t included links. Here’s the Wikipedia entry for DBT but I laugh every time I read it – well, start to read it because I never finish – because it’s really technical and boring!

How much we need reasons!
How reasons make us feel better!
– from “Noreen” by Peter Meinke, from Scars

Loving life with one thin cat and one thick oneI love my cats. I think I love them newly and more deeply because I no longer try to blind myself to the reality that I feel for them BOTH adoration AND revulsion. The young one has such a pretty face and delicate white toes.  She presents herself on my desk in triumph when she comes in from outdoors and touches my nose with hers. AND she brings darling bloodied chipmunks into the house, both alive and dead. I don’t love that she does this and I’m not aware of feeling love for her when I sequester her in the bathroom while I try to funnel the terrified chipmunk out an open door, but I do love that I don’t have black-and-white, either-or thinking about her. She either lives the way I want her to or I won’t love her? She sleeps in a curl like a baby rosebud.

Cat curled on a big big bed

My elder cat turns up her maple syrup-colored stomach to me when I reach to pat her. Every afternoon, she jumps on the bed and looks at me to hurry up for nap time. With all the room on that giant bed, she chooses to sleep on my chest. AND she’s had a painful mouth infection that required all of her teeth to be removed. I have trouble not judging the change in her appearance as disfigurement. My poor baby can’t eat grass anymore or barber her own coat. The tip of her tongue hangs from her empty gums when I give her a good scratching. Oh my. I never would have wished this on her. She either looks the way I want her to or I won’t love her? Companion Animal Clinic rescued her from beside a dumpster and I have giggled every day since I adopted her to see her missing-its-tip tail waving like a metronome.

I love my work.

  • Writer (I love what I’m writing.)
  • Cat caregiver
  • Manager of house with Easter egg-colored walls and garden with blueberries and spinach, assisted by Lucy, Caleb, and pretty much every service provider in town
  • Assistant to 83 year-old father a.k.a. Dad wrangler (Woo-hoo, Dad!)
  • Counselor at community services agency, 15 hours per week
  • Accumulator of 2000 contact hours assisting people in need in hopes of then taking and passing the state exam in hopes of becoming a Licensed Professional Counselor (estimated to complete hours 01/18 in hopes of becoming an LPC before my 60th birthday on 12/30/18. Lots of hopes – we’ll see how it goes!)
  • Volunteer community liaison for those seeking addictions treatment in our area
  • Crusader and advocate for access to evidence-based treatment for people with addiction
  • Crusader and advocate against misinformation about addiction and addiction treatment
  • Owner of a small corporation
  • Fan of our addictions recovery mobile app New2Recovery in need of a $15K update but for which we have never found an effective business model

Assisting my dad is a good gig

I love my people. All these.

Examples of Opposite Sides That Can Both Be True

9. You can accept yourself the way you are AND still want to change. (You can accept others as they are AND still want them to change.)
11. You may have a valid reason for believing what you believe, AND you may still be wrong or incorrect.
13. The day can be sunny, AND it can rain.

– excerpts from Interpersonal Effectiveness Handout 16A, DBT Skills Training Handouts and Worksheets, by Marsha M. Linehan

I do not love alcoholism. What didn’t kill me has not made me stronger. I am not a better person for having developed alcoholism, I haven’t built character, I haven’t fill-in-the-blank with any other cruel cliché people use to minimize someone else’s hardship. However, after 3.75 years without alcohol, I do love thinking dialectically about alcoholism.

I love the feelings alcohol gives me AND, if I stay abstinent, I will never have those feelings again.

What relief and power come from acknowledging both are true! Why, thinking that way, a girl could fall in love with her life!

Falling in Love with My Life: I Love What I’m Writing

I am trying to entice Maia Szalavitz, author of New York Times bestseller Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction, into writing a sequel. I tweeted her this title: Unbroken Lives: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addictions Recovery. I follow Maia’s Twitter stream avidly to learn of her new work and she’s writing about that subject and more. (We curate much of it here). Whether she writes that book or another, the title encompasses a main theme of the posts I’m writing for my personal blog, my company’s blog, and for The Fix.

I love what I’m writing.

I love to write everywhere!

I try to post my personal story on my personal blog and to publish posts that might be more widely useful on my company’s blog. But when my personal and professional experience overlap, I can be uncertain about which goes where. For example, this post about the evidence base for SMART Recovery definitely goes on my company’s blog. I made a personal plea for people to become SMART Recovery hosts on my personal blog, but I think a version of it could go on my company’s blog as well. The do-it-yourself addictions recovery series I’m writing is a personal, political act of protest – my citizen’s declaration of a state of emergency – and definitely goes on my personal blog.

Specifically, I’m writing:

  • My own personal narrative about recovery from addiction to alcohol
  • About the results of following Maia Szalavitz’s advice to fall in love with my life (first post here)
  • For the general reader, as simply as I can, with evidence to support each point, without simplifying to the point of inaccuracy, about the complexities of addiction and its treatment
  • For academic readers, about evidence-based treatment for addiction vs. entrenched belief-based practices and their sidekick, personal experience-based advice, primarily on my company’s blog but also on my personal blog
  • Posts in the form of editorials opposing misinformation about addiction and about malpractice in addictions treatment
  • How to help loved ones with addiction
  • How to help oneself with addiction
  • How to help one’s community with addiction
  • Requests to Laurel Sindewald. When I can’t find a synthesis of what the science says about what I’m writing, I outline my needs and ask Laurel if she will write a report for our company’s blog. If the topic is a fit, Laurel scrutinizes the research literature, then uses her fine mind and beautiful writing skills to author and publish reports. I then write in and around the reports, excerpting and linking. For instance, in my post about understanding one’s own case of addiction, I linked my word “trauma” to her report on addiction and trauma and my word “sleep” to her report on addiction and sleep.
  • DBT-informed exercises for people who are members of substance use disorder (SUD) therapy groups or addictions recovery support groups. Research on dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is revealing its promise in helping people with multiple mental health issues as well as SUD.  As a former teacher, I’m an experienced distiller of large amounts of information into one-page handouts, so this is a real find of a fit for me!
  • As I gain new insights, revisions of my dating site profile. Who am I? What do I like? What do I offer? What do I seek? What have I learned from past relationships to help everyone have a better time? Pretty radical to answer these questions.
  • A book or books? I’m not sure. Could groups of these posts be brought together into books? My alcoholism recovery story? A self-help or other-help book? Falling in love with life while in recovery? I dunno.

I love writing a blog. I think it up, write it up, take a pic to go with, publish the post, done! Wake up in the morning, make tea, sit down in my pink office or stand up at my kitchen dishwasher desk, do it again!


Want to Help Our Community? Volunteer for SMART Recovery

I have high hopes for my hometown receiving the accolade of “Most Recovered Town in America.”

As we streamline the process of getting help for people with addictions in my locale, particularly for help with opioid use disorder, our next challenge will be the high risk of relapse from lack of daily, formal support for recovery.

Based on my professional and personal assessment, holding SMART Recovery meetings is the closest we can get to community-wide, evidence-based, group-based addictions recovery assistance using resources already in place.

Welcome to SMART Recovery!

If we can, as a community, host SMART Recovery meetings every day at different times all over the area, we can provide free, near-treatment-level assistance to our people with addiction challenges. We don’t need to form task forces, write grants, or lobby public officials. We just need community members to do the training and sign up as hosts with SMART Recovery, and for community organizations with buildings to offer spaces for meeting locations.

  • SMART Recovery discussion meetings are free and open to anyone in the community.
  • Volunteers hosts DO NOT have to be in recovery from addiction to serve. Any community member – from the mayor to the maki maker to the mechanic – can serve as a discussion meeting host.
  • While discussion meetings are not generally facilitated by experts or licensed professionals, meetings focus on learning skills termed “tools” and are guided by trained hosts, thus extending the therapeutic value beyond more sharing-oriented support group meetings.

On a personal note, I would benefit from more SMART Recovery hosts and meetings in our locale. I have sought group counseling for substance use disorder but it has been impossible, so far, to organize in my small town. I am honored to serve as a volunteer host for the SMART Recovery meeting on Sundays at 4:00 PM at our community services agency. But hosts don’t participate in discussion meetings. So if someone else would please train as a host to serve at the Sunday meeting or other meetings, I could attend and participate and not just give help, but receive it, too.

If you’d like to experience in-person what a SMART Recovery meeting is like, the meeting is open to all and you are welcome to attend:

Sundays, 4:00 PM, New River Valley Community Services, 700 University City Boulevard, Blacksburg, Virginia.

More about local SMART Recovery meetings and other local recovery support is here.

If you have any questions, feel free to contact me, Anne Giles, anne@annegiles.com, 540-808-6334. (If you email me and don’t receive a reply, please check your spam folder. If you don’t see a reply in your spam folder, please phone or text me and we’ll connect that way!)

Hope to see you at SMART Recovery!

Last updated: 9/28/16