Steal This Recovery

When I was a teenager, an older teenager in the neighborhood gave me a copy of Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book. Decades later, I continue to feel both affronted and enchanted by the dialectic of opposites both being true: a book that uses the convention of sentences to foment revolution is for sale, but directs readers to steal it.

I have been abstinent from alcohol for four years and eight months. That’s just over 1700 five o’clocks that have passed without me participating in happy hour.

Enjoy your movie with a glass of ethanol

Here is my status report:

  • My subjective experience is that I felt better while I was drinking.
  • The chemically-induced euphoria and sedation of alcohol are heightened states I have been unable to experience again naturally and organically.
  • I would prefer not to abstain from alcohol but to drink it as desired or needed.
  • I miss belonging to a majority culture, i.e. Americans who drink.
  • I miss being able to pay attention to my surroundings and the people in it without having my brain’s sensitivity to environmental cues overpower my attention and draw it the alcohol that is nearly ever-present in my town.
  • I have done everything I can think of, and has been suggested to me, to be able to say that my life is better without alcohol, but it is not.

That a beverage has achieved such importance in my life is appalling to me. Especially a beverage containing ethanol, a known neurotoxin, for which there may be no safe level of consumption.

On the ten-year anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death by suicide, psychologist Alan Marlatt wrote, “Do not attempt to take away a person’s main means of trying to cope with pain and suffering until you have another effective coping strategy in place.”

That’s the down side of things. And that’s why we’re seeing suicides among pain patients cut off from pain medications. Ruggedly individualistic Americans don’t want to believe it, but there truly are unbearable things from which one cannot rescue oneself.

The upside matters, too. Humans feel feelings, think thoughts, and have experiences that result in fluctuating inner states. Ups and downs are normal. If a person experiences a substance as a remarkably efficient and effective lift from a down state, and repeatedly practices that method because it works better than others, the over-learning of addiction can occur. If that person is cut off from the substance, the person can become suspended in a down state with no hope of escape. Feeling unremitting, helpless despair is an unbearable, inhuman, inhumane state.

I appreciate the estimated 4-46% of people who recover from addiction spontaneously, the people who attribute their abstinence to 12-step recovery, and the small number of people who recover through rehab. In my personal experience, and in my work with others with substance use disorders – this is my opinion, not a report on the data – I see a subset of people with substance use disorders for whom life is not perceived as qualitatively better without the substance. I am a member of that subset.

What I learned from writing a memoir is that it’s no wonder I developed alcoholism and it just won’t give.

Resisting that reality, attempting to reverse that reality with beliefs – my own and others’ – wishing that reality weren’t true, pretending that reality didn’t exist, purveying the fake news that I am “fine” – these mythologies increased my suffering.

People have told me that if they had my level of on-going distress, they couldn’t stand it. I’m certainly not a fan of it.

What of my distress is due to residual brain impairments from having developed addiction to alcohol, a.k.a. feeling compelled to persist with drinking despite harmful consequences (falling down stairs, and imperiling myself and others while driving under the influence), fallout from what happened before I developed alcoholism, the u-curve in happiness at midlife, unexpectedly different life circumstances, brain challenges with developing addiction at 50 rather than at 20, the possibility that long-term anhedonia in some people with substance use disorders is also a brain thing? I don’t know.

While I appreciate dialectical behavior therapy’s concept of radical acceptance, I think, at least for the subset of people with substance use disorders for whom life is not experienced as better without the substance, the level of acceptance required to do without, to make do, to settle for less, to tolerate downness, requires an extreme, Steal This Book, post-apocalypticrevolutionary type of acceptance.

The kind of acceptance that lives with the possibility that things will never get better. 

That substance use disorders are disorders of the organ of the brain and, therefore, medical conditions for which medical care, including medications, is first-line treatment, is not widely known, understood, accepted – even allowed – by society at large, the health care industry, the addiction treatment industry, lawmakers, people with substance use disorders, or their partners, families or communities.

That not results in malpractice. From a volunteer survivor who advises people attending support groups, to a lawmaker whose bill creates wait lists for life-saving medications, to a treatment provider who admonishes a person for being unready for change, to a researcher who attempts, one more time, to prove that addiction is a personal problem – anyone who attributes addiction to the person, not to the person’s brain, in my opinion, is engaging in life-endangering malpractice.

In my personal experience, people’s beliefs about addiction, and about people who have addiction, and their refusal to look at the evidence, just won’t give.

At the end of the film, A Beautiful Mind, the main character, who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, sees the entities who have plagued him, but does not engage with them.

In her DBT Training Manual, Marsha Linehan writes, “People may not have caused all their own problems, but they have to solve them anyway.”

I have had to steal the reality of my inner experience away from those who would deny it or fault me for it.

For me, moving from radical acceptance to revolutionary acceptance means:

  • My life is more than half over.
  • I need to protect myself from harm from those with good intentions or claims of expertise but who lack knowledge and understanding.
  • More disinformation about addiction exists than information and I need to practice ruthless discernment about what I let into my life.
  • I am the one who must seek and discover what the research says is effective, implement it for myself, and see if it’s effective for me.
  • I need to forgive myself for entrusting my recovery to others.
  • I need to forgive myself for developing alcoholism in the first place.
  • Some things just won’t give.
  • No matter what I say or what I do, someone, somewhere will disapprove or disagree.
  • Even as diminished as my life has become from alcoholism, even as problematic as my inner experience has become, I love it all, I want to have it all, and I want to keep it all, for as long as I can.

I’m stealing my recovery from addiction to alcohol back from those who would want to direct it. I am not a fan of stealing. But this is my life, my one life. It is precious to me.


  1. A thought-provoking post. I am also rebuilding my life – examining each piece and trying to find and accept the truth of it without avoiding, romanticizing, or catastrophizing. I, too, have found that there are many individuals, groups, organizations, and media outlets that judge, criticize, direct, and/or provide false information to people who are in pain. Limiting exposure to them is both difficult and important. I’m currently reading “The Body Keeps Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma.” It affirms what you describe. “Feeling better” isn’t a matter of willpower when your brain’s structure and chemistry has been hijacked – whether by genetics, trauma, or addiction. There is power in knowing that, and I’ll take all the power I can get – even when I have to steal back from those who would take it away.

  2. Reminds me of a book title i came across earlier today called, The Lie That Tells a Truth: a Guide to Writing Fiction and Is Life Like This? Intriguing but painfully frustrating trying to figure understand and hold coexisting ciontradictions at the same time. The idea sounds sexy but when i think about it i want to scream and drop a few “f bomb’s” feeling 😍😶