Breathing Lessons

From Each Day A New Beginning, September 16:

“When working the steps we are never in doubt about the manner for proceeding in any situation. The steps provide the parameters that secure our growth. They help us to see where we’ve been and push us toward the goals which crowd our dreams.”

Many times in recovery meetings people refer to us all as shipwrecked human beings. I like that metaphor because it reminds me that we are all together on that ship, all part of the same human race, triumphing sometimes, often struggling, but together. We are never alone.

But there is much division around the topic of addiction. Much of the problem arises from semantics: is addiction an illness that strikes, like cancer, without permission? Or is it a moral failing? That simple question lends itself to hours of discussion; whole books have been written about it; bloggers have exhausted themselves going back and forth in the argument. I used to enthusiastically participate, certain that I was making valid points here and there.

It’s the “here and there” that finally derailed me as I was hyperventilating on this fast-moving train of rhetoric. In the final analysis, does it really matter what it is? Getting caught up in all the arguments just kept me from putting my focus where it belonged. I needed to get back to self-care. And stepping back. And taking a breath.

How we navigate our lives together on that ship is as varied as the shells in the ocean. Twelve-Step work has a lot in common with many other forms of spiritual recovery, some of them organized religions. I might well have learned many of the principles elsewhere. I happened to learn them in Al-Anon. But this recovery program doesn’t have a lock on the ideas of acceptance of things we can’t change, or on surrender to something bigger and smarter than we are. Those ideas are found in many places. I go out of my way to avoid the “R” word, but don’t we all seek peace and serenity in our troubled world?

The tools we use strive toward the same goal. When I try to keep my eye on the ball, I don’t get embroiled in discussion that leads nowhere. We need not be divided. We all pray for the same miracles, the health and wellness of ourselves and our loved ones. When I remember that, I feel as though we are all part of the same solution.

No Casseroles

NAddiction is a terrible thief, stealing Angie away from us in the night. She had her whole life ahead of her.

There’s still so much shame and stigma in this country around it. Some people think it’s caused by bad parenting. Others say it’s a moral failure. Many believe it’s a choice.

Are they kidding? Who is their right mind would choose to stick a needle in his arm and live in the gutter like a wild animal?

If my daughter had cancer, friends and family would express sympathy, put their arms around me and ask if they could help.

Not so when it’s addiction. Many people look the other way, afraid to mention it. They’re not judging, necessarily; just keeping their distance.

 It’s the modern leprosy.

The Power Of Words

From an old Facebook thread, this mother’s comment:

“I am sick of hearing addiction is a disease! It is a choice! I have been clean/sober for over 20 years. I made a choice! I chose to put a needle in my arm. I chose to get drunk because I could not handle what life gave. I chose to get clean and stay clean. Life is all about choices. I did not choose this for my daughter, she did! What I need to do is take care of me today. I choose to let her go no matter how much I love her!”

My response is this: This may be a problem of semantics, but it also involves the old chicken and egg confusion. Which came first?  I think the question “Is addiction a disease or a choice?” oversimplifies: I think it’s both a disease and a choice. The soul sickness that most addicts have—from which they seek relief via drugs, alcohol, food, gambling, etc.—is an emotional condition. Call it depression. But when addicts self-medicate with a substance, then the substance often takes over in the body, creating a craving. Then it’s physical. Then it’s addiction.

So I think the mother on FB is saying that there is choice involved: the choice to fight the disease and go into recovery. Many addicts do just that. But there may be a genetic predisposition in some people to be vulnerable to addiction. In any case, the American Medical Association has stated that addiction is a brain disease. And what people choose to do about it—or any disease—is a matter of choice.

 

Disease Or Choice?

I received these emails over a year ago:

“I am sick of hearing addiction is a disease! It is a choice! I have been clean/sober for over 20 years. I made a choice! I chose to put a needle in my arm. I chose to get drunk because I could not handle what life gave me. Then I chose to get clean and stay clean. Life is all about choices.”

And another: “Addiction is a disease. Recovery is a choice.”

I’ve entered into this debate many times, and I use this situation as an illustration:

A bunch of kids are at a party and heroin is offered. One kid experiments with it and can’t let it go. He gets hooked, looks around to get it, keeps taking it for the feeling it produces. He becomes addicted to it.

Another kid at the same party does the same thing, even likes how he feels when he takes it, but is able to heed the warnings he hears and makes a choice to walk away from it, never tries it again.

The first kid may have the addiction gene in him already and taking heroin just activated it. He didn’t choose to be an addict. He just was. But he still has a choice about recovering from his addiction.

The second kid doesn’t have the inclination toward addiction. That’s why it was easy to say no to it and walk away from heroin.

Both of these women who emailed me are right. I just think we all get bogged down in semantics.

 

On a more personal level, I see the difference in my own family. Both of my daughters have experimented with drugs. Sadly, Angie is an addict (passed down through four generations in my family).  Except for brief periods when she was in rehab, she hasn’t been able to walk away. My other daughter is not an addict and she doesn’t want to waste her life the way her sister has (Angie’s “choice”). I’m sad to be losing Angie to this terrible disease, but I’m thankful that my other daughter has been able to “choose” more wisely.

 

 

 

The Wolf You Feed

“I am sometimes at odds with my recovery groups about the nature of addiction: is it a disease or a choice? I don’t want to force my views on them. There’s a wonderful Cherokee tale told by a grandfather to his grandchildren:

‘There’s a battle inside all of us between two wolves. One wolf is jealousy, greed, dishonesty, hatred, anger and bitterness. The other wolf is love, generosity, truthfulness, selflessness, and gratitude.’

‘Who wins the battle, grandfather?’

‘The wolf you feed.’

Insist that our loved ones are choosing to be addicts, that they want to stick a needle in their arm and live in a gutter, and we feel justified in our anger and our bitterness. Keep feeding those feelings, and they will consume you. I choose to believe that my daughter is wired differently and is prone to addictive disease. That’s no surprise, since four generations in my family have all had addictive disease in varying degrees.  For whatever reason we still are unsure of, whatever life stresses beckoned her into that dark place, she became a victim of addiction.” ~excerpt from my award-winning memoir A Mother’s Story: Angie Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, by Maggie C. Romero (available on Amazon)

Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, has said: “I’ve studied alcohol, cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, marijuana and more recently obesity. There’s a pattern in compulsion. I’ve never come across a single person that was addicted that wanted to be addicted. Something has happened in their brains that has led to that process.”

Addiction Is A Disease

 

From Sharing Experience, Strength and Hope, September 5:

“I have learned that addiction is a disease. It may never go away, but with the help of my Higher Power, I can learn to accept it and then try to live with it. I once heard that addicts need special help when they were ready for recovery. Immediately, I agreed because this is what I wanted to hear, so I enabled, paid her debts, and manipulated her through her crises, thinking that this would keep her clean. What I did not realize is that I was doing this with expectations. When it did not work, I became angry.

Going to Nar-Anon meetings, I learned about the effects of manipulating and enabling. Thanks to the program, I am able to make decisions and set boundaries in my own way, and in my own time. I believe that by dealing with the suffering and challenges in my life, with dignity and courage, ultimately good will come from it, even though it may not always be apparent to me.”

“All will be revealed,” they say in one of the programs. I don’t know what will come to me in the future, but I do know that living “with dignity and courage,” something I was never able to do before I came to the rooms, has helped me to grow and expand in my understanding of the world and the people in it.

I will appreciate all that I have in my life and enjoy it, one day at a time. I will do my best to live well. I “won’t leave before the miracle happens.”

The Debate Continues

From Courage to Change, March 24:

“When I accept that alcoholism is a disease, I am forced to face the fact that I am powerless over it. Only then can I gain the freedom to focus on my own spiritual growth.

‘A family member has no more right to state, ‘If you loved me then you would not drink,’ than the right to say, ‘If you loved me you would not have tuberculosis…’ Illness is a condition, not an act.”

The NIH (National Institute on Drug Abuse) has stated: “Addiction is defined as a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences. It is considered a brain disease because drugs change the brain; they change its structure and how it works. These brain changes can be long and can lead to many harmful, often self-destructive behaviors.”

The debate continues: is it a disease or a choice? A person who has the disease, before they know it, might try a dangerous drug or alcohol and become hooked. Another person who doesn’t have addictive disease might experiment in the same way; but he can walk away.

Disease just is; you either have it or you don’t. Choice is what the addict decides to do about it: get help or not.

I have two daughters: Angie has been a drug addict for fifteen years; today she chooses to continue in her disease. I have another daughter who has also tried drugs a few times; but she walked away. She chose to live healthfully. Which one of my girls is an addict?

Accepting that addiction is a disease “has given me the freedom to focus on my own spiritual growth.” And the results in my life have been miraculous. God Bless us all who have to struggle with the painful reality of drug addiction!

Accepting Addiction As A Disease

“Learning that addiction is a disease offers us a new understanding and suggests that compassion could replace anger and hurt. We can spend our time wishing things were different but must accept the fact that we have no power over another human being. We need to care enough about ourselves to give up the struggle over which we have no control. We may have tried many things such as keeping score, pointing the finger and blaming others in order to keep from feeling so much pain. No matter how harsh reality is, we can learn to accept each new day with confidence.

Accepting addiction as an illness helps us realize we cannot waste action and energy in fighting the battle but instead we can seek recovery for ourselves.”

 

Is it a disease or a choice? I’ve entered into this debate many times. But I’ll leave the final word to the experts, one of whom, Nora Volkow, I quoted in my memoir:

“Insist that our loved ones are choosing to be addicts, that they want to stick a needle in their arm and live in a gutter, and we feel justified in our anger and our bitterness. Keep feeding those feelings, and they will consume you. I choose to believe that my daughter is wired differently and is prone to addictive disease. That’s no surprise, since four generations in my family have all had addictive disease in varying degrees. For whatever reason we still are unsure of, whatever life stresses beckoned her into that dark place, she became a victim of addiction.

Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, has said: “I’ve studied alcohol, cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, marijuana and more recently obesity. There’s a pattern in compulsion. I’ve never come across a single person that was addicted that wanted to be addicted. Something has happened in their brains that has led to that process.”

Wake Up America!

From “Thirty-One Days in Nar-Anon,” Day 29:

“Through the sharing of other members and the warmth of their friendship, I started to develop a new strength. I recognized my powerlessness, accepted drug addiction as a disease and avoided having expectations. My frustrations began to vanish. With all the knowledge I acquired through the Nar-Anon program, literature and phone support, I became more open-minded. This brought me a sense of serenity and helped me set more realistic goals for myself.”

Would we even be having this conversation if our children were suffering from diabetes? Of course not!

Addiction is a gravely misunderstood disease, shrouded in secrecy, shame and stigma. Bikies, tatooes, and skid row…oh how times have changed! But thanks to the many programs out there that are educating the public about the true nature of addiction—that it’s a brain disease—awareness is increasing and attitudes are slowly changing.

Look how in one generation the American perception of alcoholism has evolved. We had a recovered alcoholic in the White House for eight years, a man who freely admitted that he struggled with alcohol when he was younger. Alcoholism is also a form of addiction, remember, and it’s my fervent hope that Americans will start to view drug addicts with the same compassion offered to many alcoholics. When public perceptions change, so will attitudes toward our addicted children.

My daughter, Angie, is a heroin addict. If she felt less shame, would she be less isolated? I believe so. In a few other countries, and even in Seattle, WA, there are programs in place to help addicts manage their addiction. This support is specifically designed to keep the crime rate down and help addicts be more functional in their daily lives. In my memoir, I wrote about how Gabor Mate, a doctor in Vancouver, has been an advocate for addicts for many years. He has made a big difference in that city.

How I wish things were easier for Angie, that she be viewed with compassion and not judgment. But I do believe that because of our efforts to raise awareness and set up support programs, life will be easier for future generations. I take a lot of personal comfort in that.

The Courage To Change Our Attitudes

A friend just sent me this link to a show about a new way to treat addicts in Seattle—a far more humane way to deal with the growing epidemic. Addiction has come out of the shadows, and the conversation is growing. Attitudes will change over time. And the shame and stigma will eventually be replaced by more widespread compassion and an increase in more effective treatment programs.

Chasing Heroin