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of addiction is trapped in unfounded 20th century ideas, addiction as a crime or as a brain disease, and in equally outdated treatment,” I downloaded the book for my Kindle and began reading immediately.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.

We’re Reading Unbroken Brain by Maia Szalavitz in Blacksburg, VA

In Blacksburg, Virginia, we’ve been reading Maia Szalavitz’s latest book, Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addictionsince it was released two months ago on April 6, 2016.

We’re ready to meet and talk!Unbroken Brain by Maia Szalavitz

We’ll gather for a community book discussion of Unbroken Brain on Wednesday, June 22, 2016 at 7:00 PM in the Community Room at Blacksburg Library, 200 Miller Street, in Blacksburg, Virginia.

The event is free and open to the public!

We invite you to prepare for a lively discussion by considering these questions.

If you’ll sign up on the Facebook event page, we’ll know how many chairs to set up!

If you have any questions, feel free to contact Anne Giles, 540-808-6334,

To learn more about author Maia Szalavitz:

Unbroken Brain – Reading Group Discussion Questions

Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction, by Maia Szalavitz, St. Martin’s Press, April 6, 2016

Unbroken Brain by Maia SzalavitzUnbroken Brain braids together three narratives: Maia Szalavitz’s personal story, what the science reports about addiction, and a call to action to change belief-based addictions treatment to evidence-based treatment.

Questions for discussion:

  1. What could you relate to in Maia’s personal story?
  2. What have you believed to be true about addiction? Has Unbroken Brain challenged your beliefs about addiction? If so, in what ways?
  3. The subtitle of Unbroken Brain is “a revolutionary new way of understanding addiction.” Do you have a new understanding of addiction as a result of reading Unbroken Brain? If so, what are the highlights of what you now understand?
  4. What do you still not understand about addiction? If you could speak with the author, what three questions would you ask her that seem unanswered to you in Unbroken Brain?
  5. If your life, or the lives of loved ones or of those you know, has been touched by addiction, does Unbroken Brain help you better understand what happened? If so, how?
  6. What concepts in Unbroken Brain did you find most challenging? Please select three to discuss.
  7. What concepts in Unbroken Brain did you find most relieving or satisfying? Please select three to discuss.
  8. Has your idea of drugs and drug use changed after reading Unbroken Brain? If so, how?
  9. Did anything in Unbroken Brain shock or surprise you? If so, what?
  10. After reading Unbroken Brain, how would you describe addiction to someone who doesn’t understand it?
  11. Do you feel called to take action after reading Unbroken Brain? If so, what would that be?
  12. What discussion question do you wish had been on this list? Please write it here and consider sharing it with the group: _________________________________________

To learn more about author Maia Szalavitz:

The Reading Group Discussion Questions for Unbroken Brain were written by Anne Giles and Laurel Sindewald.

Last updated 6/18/16

Why I Will Lie to You If I Drink Again

Before, I had three physical needs to stay alive: air, water, and food. My existence would signal me when doing without was putting me at risk. Inhale deeply, splash water from the tap into a glass, peel the wrapper on a Larabar, and I was restored to stability.

Now, as a result of having alcohol use disorder, I have four needs: air, water, food, and alcohol. For me, not drinking alcohol is like – all day, every day – taking shallow breaths through parched, cracked lips, faint with hunger. My existence is alarmed by this constant lack, warning me that we simply must drink alcohol to save this life. Yesterday marked 3 and 5/12 years I have denied myself alcohol.

My dad

I expect to deny myself alcohol again today. I’m not excited about it. Doing without a need offers a marginal, partial, unstable life.

I heard a treatment professional say, “Addicts lie. That’s what they do.” In her book Unbroken Brain, Maia Szalavitz recounts the bitter joke, “How do you know when an addict is lying? When his lips are moving.”

If I drink a glass of chilled sauvignon blanc at 5:00 PM today, if you call me at 5:30 PM and ask me if I am still drinking I will say, “No.”

But I will still be drinking because that’s what addiction is, as Szalavitz succinctly puts it: “compulsive behavior that persists despite negative consequences.” During several of the last times I drank, I fell, usually down the stairs. The odds are good if I drink again, I will fall again. This house has two staircases with which to offer me negative consequences. But I will have bought two bottles of wine to drink, not one.

I will lie to you.

I will lie to you because I am afraid that, if I don’t, you will come over and take away my lungs full of air, my moistened lips, my satiated belly, my quivering, grateful relief at finally being free from constant deprivation. My marginal, partial, unstable life will feel full, whole, and safe. And, for me, I will feel loved like I would if my mother, gone four years, were back here with me. I so long to talk with her about everything that’s so very hard.

Who wouldn’t lie to protect that?

I have beloved people in my life with addiction and they have told me appalling, heartbreaking lies, lies that caused me to doubt myself, to doubt beliefs I hold dear, to take actions I hoped would be helpful that ended up in near ruin for me and for them. That what they persisted in doing tortured me repeatedly and mercilessly was the hardest blow. Were they, in fact, monstrous?

My father turned 83 years old a few days ago. Just over a year ago, I moved into a house on the next street to be nearby to help in case he needs it. If I took a drink today, and the additional drinks that would inevitably follow, I would be actively ill with alcoholism again and my father would be devastated. He did absolutely nothing to cause my drinking, he would not be at fault or to blame, he would not be responsible, and he wouldn’t deserve it, not at all. He would agonize that I didn’t love him enough, that he wasn’t lovable enough, that he hadn’t loved me enough.

If I drank today, it would be monstrous.

I cannot promise I will not take a drink today. I will do my best. But I cannot guarantee it.

I have a health condition – not a moral or spiritual failing – for which I did not receive immediate health care. It’s a health condition that under-sensitizes me to pleasure, over-sensitizes me to pain, impairs my decision-making ability, and confounds my ability to make a plan and follow through with it. The exact qualities that I need to help myself – see what needs to be done, tough it out, and do it – are impaired by the very condition itself. I live a no-win, double bind.

I am uncertain how reversible advanced addiction is with late intervention. We shall see.

I wouldn’t wish what I have, or what this does to loved ones, on anyone.

Over 2 million American are estimated to have opioid use disorder. But over 18 million Americans are estimated to have alcohol use disorder. If the first number qualifies as a crisis, the second qualifies as an apocalypse.

Whatever addiction is plaguing them, let’s get people like I am effective help right now.

Right now.