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Addictions Anonymous, 3: An Incident on the Boardwalk

 article about recovering from addictions

This article belongs to Addictions Anonymous column.


I like to write about addictions and about how to live without them, but if you don't happen to have an addiction, you may be reading this for the wrong reasons.

If you're reading it when someone close to you should be reading it, someone who does practice an addiction, I wish you good luck and remind you that trying to change other people usually doesn't work when it involves addiction. It's a repair job they have to do themselves. That's why the whole idea of treating addicts as if they were patients is so misleading and confusing. It would be better to think we are trying to teach students than to cure patients.

 article about recovering from addictions
Perhaps you've given up something that was—perhaps still is—very important in your life. Your addiction is or was an object of love, maybe a love-hate object. Perhaps you're still just thinking about making that great self-sacrifice. What is it? Booze, tobacco, gambling, overeating or maybe sex in the wrong places with the wrong people? Are you sure there was or is only one addiction? If you've finally given up X, now may be the time to ask yourself what else —what Y— is still on your back, still eating out of your wallet and still keeping your self-respect in a dark shadow.

"Nothing," you say? "I'm finished and I'm clean, sober and holy as hell." Perhaps so, but I'm just a writer. Don't lie to me and don't brag to me; it's hardly necessary. Just don't lie to yourself.

What have you done lately for your family, friends and co-workers? An old joke in Alcoholics Anonymous is about Henry who introduces himself by saying, "Hi, I'm an alcoholic and Henry is my problem." Not was my problem, but is my problem. Henry's been sober for a long time and is still working on his main problem, his personality. So, if all you want to do is quit one life-eating addiction and still be the same old personality you've always been, that's your choice. It's dumb, but a choice you have every right to make.

Please don't think I'm picking on addicts about the need for life-long efforts to improve personality. A good person is never finished growing up, never finished working on self-improvement. I pick on lots of people and include myself as one in need of constant maintenance and development.

Good old Henry summarized the whole point of my writing, the point being, don't blame the love-hate thing, what I call the addictive—it cannot be changed. It doesn't have a personality of its own; it's just an inanimate thing. Look instead to the attitude and reactions of the one who has overused it, and let's change them if we can. Example: there's nothing bad, evil or sinful about the alcohol people drink. It's just the result of yeast cells eating up sugars and pooping out alcohol. Alcohol has many uses, some of them very important and helpful in human life. It is widely and effectively used in industry, medicine and research. It does good as well as harm, but alcohol itself makes no judgments. It has no will of its own. It is what it is, but you're different, you don't have to be what you were forever.

So, why blame anything or anybody? Let's fix the user who has the problem with alcohol without becoming sanctimonious prohibitionists. Let's get rid of the appetite. More accurately, let's get you to deal with the appetite.

Stay with me as we explore the wonderful, amazing and horror-filled world of addictions. Not just one addiction, all of them. Come with me now back to the days when the State governments of Nevada and New Jersey took over gambling, a move that forced the crime families out of the trade. By the way, if you don't think there's much difference between crime families and politicians you're probably on to something important.

It was windy, cold and raining late one evening as I walked the Boardwalk in Atlantic City, New Jersey. I'd left one casino to visit another and was hurrying to get out of the cold. I passed two men sharing an umbrella and I caught just a fragment of their conversation. The taller man, a fellow with a slightly pockmarked face, was telling his friend, "That's how it is, I have an addictive personality."

I assumed they were in Atlantic City to gamble, but both men were smoking and a faint odor of alcohol reached me as we dodged around each other. That scene and that small fragment of conversation have stayed in my memory for years. The idea of an addictive personality was not in fashion among professional psychologists because we had no reliable measure of such a personality, and if it could not be measured it must, therefore, not exist. Psychologists sometimes have minds that work in strange ways, and sometimes not at all. We always seem to be conscious of fads and fashions in our own profession; when something is out of fashion we simply say it is without scientific justification. When something is in style, who needs science?

However, that snippet of conversation had a ring of truth. Although many professors and colleagues have taught me so much over the years, ordinary people have been my real teachers, ordinary people with the courage to change, ordinary people who feared the prospect of painful change. The clients with whom it was my privilege to work were always right; that is, their behavior was real and always reflected an important life history that demanded understanding even if it did not fit current theoretical fads. Often, of course, they didn't know they were only doing what nature and experience had led them to do, and sometimes I had to read the truth about their lives and their problems from odd bits of behavior, random remarks and even body language. But I found again and again that if I simply took time to listen and understand how a person got to some certain point in life I found truth, I discovered the "rightness" and inevitability of the behavior that they and others saw as personal failure.

That fellow is saying something very important about himself, I thought. What he probably means is that he has more than one addiction, that he's tried unsuccessfully to stop one or more himself and felt helpless, and that his life is dominated by appetites that rage out of control.

At the time it was the late 1970s and my home was in Cleveland, Ohio. My job was running a program for problem gamblers at a Veterans Administration hospital. At the time, it was still the only such program in the world. I'd been up in the Catskill Mountains in New York State to attend, by invitation, a conclave of Gamblers Anonymous as an outside speaker. Since I was already in the east, I decided to drive down to Atlantic City and see how it was going with all the new casinos. Atlantic City has a special place in my heart since I'd spent some of my earliest years growing up there, and I'd gone back from time to time to attend conventions and watch the city go from a well-to-do resort town in the 1930s to a shabby, depressed ghost town in the 1950s and 60s. Gambling and the big casinos were supposed to bring the town back.

In spite of what professional mental health experts believe, "I have an addictive personality," contains the recognition of several important facts: some people are far more prone to addiction than others; addictions tend to appear either together or in sequence in the same person, and, in the right person, almost any pleasurable activity can become an addiction. I'd been seeing this in the people who came for help with gambling. They defined gambling as their special problem, but in almost every case they brought other addictive patterns with them.

From time to time I also worked with people who defined themselves as alcohol and drug abusers and they, too, almost always carried with them other addictions that, at the moment, seemed less damaging to them than their chief complaint. What a person complains about isn't always the basic problem; I learned that early in my clinical work. Over the years my addicted friends taught me to look underneath the big problem to find a picture of a whole life, to find the universal pattern of development that makes addictions possible. This universal pattern is what I hope to share as we go along.


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