pain

The Rendezvous with Traumatic Relationships

READ IT TO ME: Click play to listen to this post.

Take time to think about times you felt hurt earlier in your life in ways that resurface over and again. Traumatic relationship experiences have a way of recycling throughout the course of life. For many, trauma is like being lost in the woods and walking around in a circle. It is deja vu all over again.

It is familiar for some to consistently pick emotionally unavailable people to partner with and then wonder why they cannot connect or get their emotional needs met. This pattern becomes solidified throughout life. They marry someone who is emotionally unavailable to them. They work for a dysfunctional organization, they allow that employer to use them, thinking that if I go above and beyond then I will be appreciated. Eventually, they quit both the marriage and the job and then go find another job and partner and reenact the same dysfunctional relationship without realizing what is happening. Unresolved validation and unmet developmental needs from earlier times in life are played out in unhealthy repetitive relationships throughout life. As a therapist, I listen to people who are now in their fourth marriage relationship, all with abusive addicts who are emotionally unavailable!

Here are a few suggestions for ending this destructive relationship pattern.

#1: Drain the pool of pain by scrubbing the wound. As long as you clutch past hurtful experiences you will sully your present relationship experiences with misgivings. You must scrub the wounds of past experience and drain your pool of pain. It feels like wallowing in yesterday’s misfortunes. But, it is not. Attempting to ignore or avoid the pain will take you back to wallowing in yesterday’s mud hole. By scrubbing the wound, you embrace the pain and give back the shame that was perpetrated on you by a significant person in your life. You simply grieve the loss of protection and kindness, calling out the shameful message with the decision that you will not be dominated by the accompanying mistaken belief but instead, choose to move forward and act with self-empowerment. This experience is not a one-and-done event but a chosen lifestyle. Metaphorically, putting down the stones you throw or the gun you grasp for protection is the only way to give up the storyline that creates unhealthy relationships. You will begin to heal by establishing relational boundaries that empower healthy connections with care and love in relationships.

#2: Lean into the pain. This suggestion seems far-fetched! But, think of the Chinese handcuff. I remember as a young boy sitting in church trying to work my way through another long tedious worship service. In my pocket, I had a Chinese handcuff. I took it out and began to explore. So, I put my left and right index fingers into the ends of the handcuffs. The handcuffs were cylinder in shape and made of a straw-like material that was flexible. The more I tried to pull my fingers out the tighter the cuffs held me. A surge of panic struck and I pulled harder. But, the small cuffs would tighten further. But, then when I did the opposite and leaned my fingers into the middle of the problematic cuff, the small casing slackened and I could gently and slowly work my fingers free!

With relationship challenges, often the pulling in panic only handcuffs you further and tightens the grip of fear in your life. Running from the pain only deepens and complicates matters. Trying to think your way through only thickens the mental wool that snares you. Geniuses like Einstein or Edison when befuddled and stuck would take a break or take a nap and in surrender to the problem they discovered a solution. Leaning into the pain is facing what is real and allowing it to be, without panic. Sitting with the pain provides the eventual solution. Leaning into the problem that is gripping you will allow you to work your way free.

#3: Practice Forgiveness. Many of you have experienced painful past trauma. It was indescribable. The struggle to survive and the enduring suffering will never be forgotten. Sometimes it seems that if you heal it will mean that you will allow what happened to evaporate from the memory of those who need to be held accountable for your agony. So you believe the only way is that you must commit to reliving the awful experience daily or your suffering will be for naught.

However, you do not need to define yourself by past trauma. To give up this part of your storyline, you will need to forgive those who were responsible and those who could have intervened but did not. Without forgiveness, you will remain stuck in resentment which is a cancer that grows and will dominate your existence.

Forgive means to give and to receive. You begin with receiving forgiveness. Often people wonder what I need to forgive, it was the other person who hurt me. However, it is important that you be able to identify in principle, not in like kind, how you have hurt others like you have been hurt. The one who hurt you wanted what they wanted when they wanted it, right? Think of a time that you wanted what you wanted, when you wanted it, regardless of its impact on others. Seek forgiveness for that. It might be something as obscure as forcing your way while changing from one lane to the next on the freeway. It’s not about comparing whose selfish want is greatest but just owning your own selfishness and forgiving yourself, which means not holding it against yourself. To do this you must sit with the awareness of how your hurt impacted others. This is defined as scrubbing the wound. Being able to sit with the pain of another because of your selfish behavior is necessary to create forgiveness of self. Once you do this you make a conscious choice to not hold your selfish behavior against you.

Now, for the one who hurt you. Once forgiven, you offer the same to the one who egregiously harmed you. Forgiveness does not mean you forget what happened. Rather, it means that you will not hold it against the other person but walk in the opposite direction of resentment to the freedom of thought about the past hurt. Rather than hate, you send positive loving energy to that person. You do this so you can be free from your own emotional prison. Forgiveness is a daily action before it becomes a reality of feeling. Seldom is forgiveness a one-and-done experience in life. You practice forgiving the one who hurt you every day, as it comes up.

You don’t have to engage by making friends with the person but letting go and walking away from resentment is your responsibility. When you learn to lean into the pain and scrub the wound through forgiveness you will end your rendezvous with trauma and stop building intimate relationships with emotionally unavailable people.

Euphoric Recall

Ecstatic Exhilaration or Dysphoric Discomfort? Blueprint for Relapse Prevention

READ IT TO ME: Click play to listen to this post.

Euphoric recall is a two-sided coin. The power of addiction is much deeper than being in close proximity to your drug of choice.  On any given day, euphoric recall can invade your space seemingly out of the blue. It doesn’t come from nowhere but so it seems. Fatigue and boredom can be its trigger.  Breakthrough relief after long extended effort can also trigger the recall of past exhilaration from acting out. Unstructured and unaccounted-for time is the breeding ground for the junkie worm. There is often an increase in heart rate, an inability to concentrate in the here and now, and raging obsessional powerful memories of past experiences. The euphoric recall of past acting out paralyzes all other thoughts. The experience triggers compelling ecstasy around destructive behaviors that threaten to melt the resolve of any addict in recovery.

On the other side of the coin, past memories can feel like a plague that never lets go. Like the fog that clings to the night air, the nagging memory of compulsive acting out cloaks every behavior throughout the day. It’s in the background of every activity. Memories can be exhausting and set the stage for despair. Harsh remarks from others, agonizing hopelessness, and chronic partner despondency tempt any addict to long for escape from the daily drudgery of the painful reality of carnage from past addictive behaviors.

No one escapes the elation or deflation of euphoric recall in addiction recovery. It becomes critical to accept and manage this dynamic and not ignore or minimize its presence. Listed are a few considerations to improve your recovery management.

1. Know that the charge of excitement does not mean you have crossed a line of no return. “Want to” does not equate to “got to”. 

2. Spit in the soup of your euphoric recall. An old Adlerian strategy helps in this endeavor. Think of your favorite soup served at your favorite restaurant and the maitre d spits in your soup. Do you eat it? Of course not. Do the same with your euphoric recall. Imagine it being spoiled by the reality of being discovered acting out by a partner or dear friend. Think of the hurt, unbelievable pain, and shame that would follow. Let the thought jolt you out of your intrusive destructive thought. 

3. Practice a 3-second rule. Give yourself 3 seconds to experience the euphoria and then practice radically focusing on non-acting-out behavior.

4. When oppressed and discouraged, place the shame on past destructive behaviors and keep it away from your sense of self.

5. Practice and train in bathing your heart and soul in positive, inspiring affirmations.

6. Act in the present with the vision your destiny inspires you to be. Some suggest that you “fake it till you make it”. I suggest that you practice behaviors that express your belief in yourself while ignoring feelings that tempt you to think otherwise. This requires training and religious practice. 

7. Remain hungry to learn regardless of how you feel. No matter what the circumstance you can learn from the pain of past mistakes. Therein lies the deepest of wisdom. This is the place where you can access your own brilliance and creatively develop a solution while you deepen your belief in your own destiny. 

Addicts who practice this process learn who they are in a moment of struggle. The deeper the pain and the more stressful the struggle—the more beautiful the blossom.


This new post was written by Ken Wells. In Dare to be AverageKen’s new book, you can embrace healing, peace, and self-acceptance through meaningful insights to discover purpose and fulfillment in everyday life. 

Use these icons to share this post on social media or email this post to a friend.

Your Feelings and Thoughts Do Make a Difference

READ IT TO ME: Click play to listen to this post.

Addicts are vulnerable. They don’t know how to recognize or manage feelings, particularly strong and powerful ones. What they do know is to split off from their feelings and pretend they are just fine. Once I was sitting at a wedding reception and a clergy colleague who sat next to me began talking.   He had a close friend who was also clergy and was allegedly run out of his church because of a trouble-making family who accused him of sexual abuse. What he didn’t know is that the accusatory family was mine, and I was one of the family members that was abused. I wanted to kill him on the spot. But, I didn’t. What I did was smile and become quiet. I think I excused myself to go to the bathroom. 

Addicts are pretty good with these splits. When they are hurt, numbed with shame, seething with resentment, or dominated with anger or hate, they know how to compartmentalize their feelings and pretend they are not there. They use this ability to manage and control their environment that is unsafe. The problem is that inwardly they lose themselves by failing to recognize their effect. They drown in the feelings that were triggered or go to great lengths through maladaptive behavior to avoid their emotions. Addicts learn to avoid the obvious and embrace the improbable.

They live in a constant state of vulnerability not knowing how to recognize or manage the feelings that have been buried. They are unable to draw from their own internal resources because there aren’t any. They remain in constant need of self-regulation resources. They think the resources are external.  It’s a fantasy that is never realized. Since painful, rejecting, and shaming relationships are the cause of their deficits in self, they cannot turn to others to get what they need or have never received. With few other options addicts turn to their drug of choice. Why, because the dopamine rush delivers what it promises. To get away from the hell of the pain that slaps them around. Any reason is a good reason to use. 

Drugs of choice migrate.  Addicts might find a way to shut down their use of heroin, booze, crystal, molly, or blow.  They just migrate to the next fix. It can be anything including workaholism, exercise, food disorder, rage, and even caretaking. It is common for recovering addicts to create a new cocktail for their choice of drug. It will always be that way until they get to the root cause of needing a fix. Here are a few things to consider.

1. Understand your pain. Slow your life to a pace that you go inward and embrace what hurts. Dare to embrace average. Go inside to the common places of your life and face what you feel. None of us got through our childhood unscathed. There you will find the wounds that need to be scrubbed. It hurts but you are already in pain. Why not make your hurt a healing hurt rather than wallowing in pain that never stops looking for a fix that is never enough.  You must resolve the pain and stop pretending.

2. Learn to regulate your emotions. Practice recognizing what you feel, particularly the powerful feelings of shame, resentment, anger, and hate. Learn to sit with them and experience embracing unwanted emotions and notice that you can get through them without having to numb out. You will need help. Step outside yourself and ask for that help even though it feels awkward.

3. Utilize others for support. Finding your tribe for support is important. This is a long-term problem for addicts in recovery. When in crisis, addicts surrender to a 12-step fellowship. Often, they don’t go deep in a consistent manner to live in consultation with accountability about their feelings. You will need help holding your feet to the fire about relationship issues. Addicts often focus on the fundamentals of 12-step work in order to address their drug of choice. But many miss out by not using that same support to regulate their feelings in other aspects of living. It is important to utilize your community of support around the feelings that come up in your everyday relationship life.

4. Become an observer of what you think about your own thinking and learn how to reflect on the mind of another. Learning to manage your emotions is necessary to understand your thoughts about yourself and the world around you. People tend to be insular. Life becomes a mind-numbing hamster wheel in that we just do what we do. Take time to pause and observe what you feel. Utilize contemplation. Think about your thoughts. Learn to identify and give voice to the different parts of your mind that are contradictory to other parts. Learn to sift and sort by listening and recognizing the truth that is in each thought. Then practice integrating your thought discrepancies with your own wise mind. It is necessary to transform behavior. Emotional maturity and secure attachment are capacities to reflect on your own internal emotional experience and to make sense of it. It includes being able to observe and reflect on the mind of others and connect with them. The way you read others is important. It begins with learning to manage and make sense of your own affect and thoughts.  

Managing your feelings and thoughts creates self-agency. Developing emotional management is necessary in cultivating a true sense of self. When you don’t you foster a false sense of self which blinds your awareness of feelings and thoughts. It further darkens your understanding of ways in which your behavior hurts yourself and others. 

Oh! By the way, I did circle back with the insensitive clergy colleague and insist that he listen to the gory details of sexual molestation by his clergy friend toward me and my family. Though he was stunned with silence, he heard the other side of the story. I have since wondered if that did not change the way he shared the narrative with others.

Monkey-Minded Friendships

“The truth is, everyone is going to hurt you. You just got to find the ones worth suffering for.” – Bob Marley

I was at the Tucson Zoo a few days ago with our little 4-year-old granddaughter Mo Jelly. She’s in a stage of social development where she finds a slightly older girl who might even be a stranger and then will follow her around like a puppy dog, mesmerized by the other girl’s every move. She then will try to mimic whatever the girl does. I watched this unfold at the zoo. Mo Jelly noticed another little girl. When the other little girl grabbed her mother’s hand, Mo Jelly reached out for her grandmother’s hand. Wherever the other girl went, Mo Jelly would follow. When the other girl rode the carousel, so too did Mo Jelly. The other little girl got off the carousel and gave her mother a high-five. Mo Jelly gave her mother a high-five too. It was amusing and typical to a little girl’s social development.

Mo Jelly made up a fantasy relationship about another little girl she did not know. This happens in the recovery world. People make others to be a figment of their imagination. They make up that others work a solid recovery program or have a cool personality. They put people on a pedestal and make them up to be what they are not. They are disappointed when others do not meet expectations.

I have often heard people complain that their sponsor is not responding as expected. Frequently, I hear others bemoan that their 12-step group is disappointing and less than anticipated. Just like Mo Jelly, they have made their expectations about a recovery community to be a figment of their imagination. People are simply human with flaws and disappoint others with their shortcomings. This is true of every organized group. Developing healthy relationships in a 12-step community involves the same dynamics as establishing good relationships elsewhere. Listed are observations about utilizing a recovery community to learn how to cultivate friendship and connection.

1. Friendship relationships take time to develop. This observation is familiar and well-worn. Most addicts who seek recovery do not put in the time to cultivate connection. They settle for intensity and do not do the work of intimacy. In a 12-step group there are interesting characters with personality flair. Frequently, addicts are enamored by the intensity of personality and the mantras that are shared during a meeting without internalizing the principles of recovery. This is the work of intimacy. I have listened to addicts complain about not being able to relate to 12-step meetings after attending one or two times. What they are really saying is that they are not willing to invest the time to connect. The value of a 12-step community is the space it provides to be vulnerable. Vulnerability requires time to unfold. When you invest the time you will create the deepest friendships.

2. Friends are just who they are. There is a tendency for people to idealize and make their friends what they are not. But, friends are never a perfect fit. They won’t change your life or make whatever has been wrong, all of a sudden right! You won’t like everything about your friend. They will irritate and disappoint you. They don’t entertain or make you laugh all the time. You learn to let your friends be just who they are.

3. Friendships share space. In a friendship one person cannot have all the power, make all the decisions, and dominate the space. When this is true friendships don’t last long. The relationship morphs into codependency or some other form of dysfunction. Addicts are oblivious to how much space they demand in a friendship relationship. They think their space includes other people’s space. As long as they relate to others in this way, they sabotage their potential to deepen friendships, if they have any. Friends are curious about the interests, needs, and expectations of each other. Between friends, there is mutual respect of boundaries. There is never demand, that is a one-way street. Friends are willing to share space.

4. There are cycles to friendship. There is ebb and flow to friendship relationships. There are times of much conversation and times of silence. Just being in the presence of your friend is meaningful. Friends don’t fuel chaos or turn each other’s lives upside down. They go with the flow of life issues. There are times that a friend will have an issue and need time to address a challenge and you let them have their space. Friends don’t have to be in each other’s presence 24/7 to be close. There is space and time for each to go his/her own way. True friendships are both close and distant in the course of time.

5. Deep friendships don’t personalize the issues of the other. Don Miguel Ruiz taught us not to personalize other’s behavior and actions in his acclaimed book The Four Agreements. Friends work to recognize each other’s flaws. There is an ongoing willingness to make apologies when actions or behaviors have been personalized. This is a lifelong process and deepens relationship between two friends.

Henry Nouwen framed the journey of true friendship in a beautiful description. He said “When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing, and face with us the reality of our powerlessness—that is a friend who cares.”

Monkey-minded friendships have a limited shelf life. Embracing the long journey of deepening relationships through vulnerability and perseverance creates the richest experiences in all of life.


This new post was written by Ken Wells. In Dare to be AverageKen’s new book, you can embrace healing, peace, and self-acceptance through meaningful insights to discover purpose and fulfillment in everyday life. 


Use these icons to share this post on social media or email this post to a friend.

How I Caught Alcoholism

It takes a lot for some people to realize that addiction and alcoholism are the same thing: A sleazy date finally taught me what even a wise counselor could not.

When I got to rehab in the spring of 2000, I was sure of exactly two things: that my life needed to change, and that I was in no way an alcoholic so I didn’t need to quit drinking.

Mental IllnessBut I knew how crafty and manipulative those rehab and AA types were. I knew that they were out to convince me that I was an alcoholic even though, at that point, I didn’t even like drinking.

A sober friend had taken me to a few AA meetings a year or so earlier, where her friend calmly explained that my distinction—that I was an addict and not an alcoholic—made not one bit of difference to her.

“They’re the same,” the girl said, while sighing in what I perceived to be a sanctimonious way. And boy did I argue her down—trotting out every example, defense point and anecdote I could. With more notice, I’d probably have prepared flow charts.

I was fairly certain I’d won that argument, too. I got the official word on that a few days later: The friend who’d been taking me to meetings stalled when I asked if I could go with her again—explaining that I made this girl uncomfortable. “She said you remind her too much of what she was like when she was still ‘in her disease,’” she explained. “You can’t come to meetings with us anymore.” Shortly thereafter, that friend drifted away from me.

You’d better believe that I used this as ammunition against AA and meetings and sobriety for a good while.

When things got undeniably worse, I made a deal with myself: I’d go to rehab, but wouldn’t subject myself to any of that AA stuff. AA was where they told perfectly nice drug addicts that they were also alcoholic. AA was where my incredibly logical arguments—how I didn’t drink that much and about how drinking didn’t ever motivate me to do drugs—were ignored.

I immediately recognized the enthusiasm of a sleazy guy who’s just received information that leads him to believe he will be getting laid that evening.

So when my counselor at rehab asked me if I was an alcoholic, I was prepared: “Nope. I’m a straight-up drug addict. Cocaine. And pills, too—but those aren’t for fun, they’re just to sleep or calm down or whatever.” I uncrossed my arms, sure that he would be swayed by my honesty.

“Uh huh,” he said, nodding. Now, I really liked this man. This was a man who, though I was as terrified and overwrought as ever, made me feel safe and comfortable. He was so kind and gentle, and he was the first person I’d ever heard talking about recovery in a way that didn’t make it sound awful. So when he posed his next question, I was only willing to take it into consideration because I liked him so much: “Given that you’re not an alcoholic, why don’t you take some time off of drinking?”

“Sure,” I replied. I didn’t tell him that I’d quit drinking once before and had made it 10 days—10 stressful, horrific days where I’d talked incessantly to anyone who would listen and many who wouldn’t about how I was “x” number of days off drinking. Ten days during which I’d taken plenty of painkillers and hypnotics. But things were different now. I was in rehab. I could make it longer than 10 days—and without the pills.

“Great,” he said. “How about you take off…I don’t know—a year?”

I looked at him evenly, trying to figure out if he was kidding. Who in God’s name took a year off of drinking? This thought, if I’d had the ability to absorb one, might have given me a clue about my situation. But I said nothing.

Then he asked: “Are you willing to believe that addiction and alcoholism might be the same thing?”

I thought about that. And because I liked him so much—just for him—I nodded, slowly: “I’m willing to believe that they might be the same thing.”

So the next six months progressed, with me fully admitting that I’d been a drug addict who took so much Ambien at night that I sometimes found myself driving around the next day not knowing where I was going or really who I was. An addict who stayed up for days at a time doing fat lines of cocaine by myself. I shared these stories with the people I met in rehab and then, when the rehab started taking us to AA meetings, with the people there.

I never went to NA or CA for the simple reason that I was so out of it and confused that I just went where I was taken—and the rehab took us to an AA meeting, where I met people who told me to go to another. About half the stories I heard in AA were about drinking and the other half about drugs; nobody seemed too concerned when people like me identified as addicts, not alcoholics, or talked about drugs, not alcohol. I was fine with this mash-up of addicts and alcoholics as well, since the whole time I was telling myself that I was willing to believe that addiction and alcoholism might be the same thing. In many ways, I thought I’d even convinced myself.

Then a friend from rehab relapsed, on cocaine. I grilled him for the details: Had he had a horrible time? Was it true that a head full of recovery and a body full of drugs was a terrible combination? Did he hate himself and want to die?

Nope, he told me with a smile. The night had been amazing.

Soon after that, I ran into a guy I’d dated years earlier, a guy who’d been sober for a long time. I told him I was now sober, too. He shrugged and said he wasn’t anymore: “That whole thing was bullshit.”

Somehow, these two conversations fused in my mind, and the thought occurred to me a day or two later that alcoholism and addiction were very much not the same thing—that even though I was going to AA meetings, and liking and relating to what I heard, all those people must be crazy. Because how could addiction and alcoholism be the same thing when they were two entirely different words?

I chose not to call my sponsor with this thought. I instead chose to call the guy I had a date with that night. When I got to his house, where we were planning to have a drink before going to dinner, I introduced the topic: “Remember how I told you I don’t drink because I have a drinking problem? Turns out I don’t have a problem, so I actually do drink now. Do you have any wine?”

This guy nodded like he couldn’t believe his luck, and I immediately recognized the enthusiasm of a sleazy guy who’s just received information that leads him to believe he will be getting laid that evening. But what did I care? He was just going to be my evening’s drinking buddy and he could think whatever he felt like.

He poured me a glass of wine and I took first a sip—and then a gulp. I remember feeling mystified that this innocent little beverage, this thing that tasted and felt so benign, had caused such endless discussion. My partner in crime seemed to feel similarly. “I can’t believe you thought you had a drinking problem,” he said. “You’re not drinking alcoholically at all.” We did a “Cheers” to that happy thought.

One glass led to us finishing a bottle, so he opened another, and at some point, like in some Fitzgerald novel, the dinner plans were forgotten and I was lying down, a little woozy, and he was sitting next to me, saying that he didn’t feel bad about giving me alcohol but he did feel bad about the drugs.

“The drugs?” I asked, popping up. He held out a handful of ecstasy pills. “I can’t do that—drugs were my problem” was a sentence I attempted to get out of my mouth. But I think I only said “I can’t” before popping the first pill in my mouth. Once I’d done it, it seemed silly to not go all out, so I took another. And when I couldn’t even feel that one, he suggested a third. By the end of the evening, I’d had two bottles of wine and four-and-a-half hits of X, and it turned out that being high and drunk and aware of a different way to live felt awful—like the volume on a horror movie turned up. Perhaps that’s what made it easier for me to escape the sleazy guy without giving him so much as a kiss.

Horrified and chagrined, I went back to a meeting the next day, where I explained what had happened and declared myself a newcomer. I announced that I finally understood what everyone had been saying about how alcohol was a clear gateway to drugs, which I’d never known before because I’d always done drugs all the time, without needing alcohol to ease the transition or give me the idea.

It was a good year or so later before I saw the situation a little more clearly—when I saw, specifically, that I’d always drunk alcoholically. From my very first drink, I’d been doing things I didn’t intend to do and drinking to get drunk. I’d just been surrounded by so many people who were doing the same, and my vision of my life had been so small, that it hadn’t registered. This became even more obvious when I started going to parties again, and discovered that not everyone who arrived ran straight up to the bar to start doing shots before looking around for the best bathroom to do coke. That was just what people like me had done.

A year or so after that, I saw what a good thing it had been that my experiment in alcoholism versus addiction had only lasted one night. I’m even more grateful for that today. I still know both the guy from my rehab who relapsed and the guy I’d dated who had been sober but decided that the “whole thing” was “bullshit”: They both still go to meetings where, for the past 15 years or so, one or the other is always a newcomer again.

I’m not any different to them, really. We’re all three addicts—or, if you will, alcoholics. The main difference, as I see it, is that the night I decided to experiment, I happened to have access to enough supplies to overdo it in a massive way—and I happened to do it with such a sleazy guy that I simply couldn’t avoid admitting that there was a serious problem with my behavior.

If only sleazy guys could always be put to such good use.

Is Alcoholism Genetic or Hereditary?

Is Alcoholism Genetic?

Many signs point to “yes,” but most scientists agree there isn’t a definitive answer when it comes to the connection between alcoholism and genetics. In fact, there is no one single gene that is directly responsible for alcoholism. The medical term for alcoholism is “Alcohol use disorder” (AUD). DNA determines everything from our hair color to our personality traits. It is important to understand, however, that there is a big difference between genetic diseases and hereditary diseases. Changes in genes (mutations, for example) cause medical problems while some medical problems are hereditary, which means they’re caused by problems with genes and passed on from parents.

Common Factors that Cause Alcoholism

Alcoholism GeneticGenetics are only half of the underlying reasons for alcohol use disorder. Environment accounts for the other half: social situations, peer pressure, and relationships all play significant factors in alcoholism. Still, there’s no denying that genetics play a chief role in it all. There are countless genes in a person’s DNA that might increase the risk for developing an AUD. But it’s not as simple as finding a gene that “flips” alcohol on like a light switch. Identifying these genes is like looking for a needle in a stack of needles. Each is responsible in its own small way for playing a larger role. And studies confirm this, showing that certain combinations of genes can result in alcoholism.

Ways to Avoid Alcoholism

No matter which way you look at the role genetics play in alcoholism, the children of alcoholics face an uphill battle. Research studies show that these children have 50% chance of suffering from alcoholism than kids who don’t have alcoholic parents. Which says less about alcoholism, per se, as it does the insidious biology behind addiction. Genetics don’t reveal who will and who won’t be alcoholics and addicts. Instead, we need to look at genetics as a roadmap of risks. Meaning, it’s about likelihoods and tendencies more than definites and absolutes. Genetics give us a window into what lies ahead when it comes to alcoholism and addiction, but it doesn’t condemn anyone to addiction in all the same ways it doesn’t promise salvation.

By understanding the underlying elements and factors of your genetic makeup, you can better navigate your own personal minefield and make smarter, more proactive decisions with that information. In order to avoid alcoholism, you can enjoy healthier friendships, build stronger family bonds, get relationship counseling, self-regulate your stress, and better understand all the symptoms of addiction before they begin.

Facing Fear Sober

I used to hoover cocaine and drown myself in alcohol. Plus, I was so ruled by terror I couldn’t even admit I was scared. Sobriety has changed most of that.

The reason I got sober isn’t that I thought sobriety sounded like a great idea. It was actually something I thought that only a complete loser would embrace. It was the act, I was certain, of a person with absolutely no other options.

RehabThe problem was that I was that person with no other options. And I was so depressed by my cocaine-cigarette-vodka-Ambien diet—and the cycle of trying to quit it and not being able to—that I figured anything, even sobriety, had to be better. So one morning I called my mom and told her that I was a coke addict and that I was in serious trouble. I don’t know what was different about that morning. Maybe nothing was different but I just had a moment where I wasn’t able to talk myself into continuing on the path I was on. My mom knew that something was wrong with me but something had been wrong with me for a long time. Still, the previous year, when we’d been on vacation, she happened to see how many Ambien I shook from the pill bottle into my open palm and so she tried to talk to me—in that terrified Mom voice—about what I was doing. I’d told her to stop overreacting and changed the subject.

Now, my mom is one of those mothers who would love to get both of her children back into her womb, if possible. But barring that, she’ll settle for living back in the house we grew up in. Barring that, she’ll take living in Northern California. I was living in LA. So that morning I called her, she said, “LA’s been terrible for you. Go get in your car and drive home.”

I rarely think the sentence, “I’m scared” because I internalized long ago that only weak people thought like that.

I drove there, completely despondent. If there was anything that sounded more depressing than being sober in LA, it was being sober in my hometown. But like I said, I didn’t have any options. I ended up talking to my parents and my step-dad and a therapist about what I’d been doing—telling them the whole story and not just the edited version I’d been giving them for years. I admitted that I spent entire weeks doing cocaine alone, that I didn’t have any friends anymore, that I sometimes took so much Ambien after getting wired that I worried one morning I just wouldn’t wake up. They were rightfully alarmed and agreed to help pay for rehab. Somehow I talked them into helping to pay for a rehab in LA and not in Northern California. And somehow I talked that rehab, an inpatient program, into letting me do outpatient since I didn’t want to have to quit the job I was barely hanging onto.

But this rehab, and sobriety, turned out to be nothing like I expected. The people there weren’t shuffling around in grey sweaters, lamenting their lives. They were vibrant and hilarious and very much engaged in life in a way that none of the drug addicts I’d been around had been. And they were talking about things I not only related to but had long felt and never said out loud because I’d assumed no one would understand. They talked about their negative thinking—about how they’d wake up and think life was so dismal that they couldn’t do anything but try to escape their thoughts through drugs. They talked about desperately trying to quit—about wanting to stop with everything in them—and not being able to, that decision to pick up again happening so quickly that they never even realized it was a decision. And they talked about ways of improving how they felt that had never occurred to me: about how trying to help other people gave them relief, about how it was their chronic self obsession that kept them feeling so bad. They talked about how even though they thought obsessively about themselves, they also never felt like they were enough; I learned the expression that had summarized the previous three decades of my life: “I’m the piece of crap in the center of the universe.”

If they’d been sober a while, they talked about finding happiness—and not through getting “cash and prizes,” like the job or relationship they wanted, which is what I’d always called happiness. They talked instead about not needing to get the job or relationship they wanted in order to feel good. And my ears really perked up when they talked about resentments; I had a long list of people that had wronged me and I was always eager to extract vengeance somehow. But again they said surprising things: they talked about how it was in seeing the large part they’d played in their problems with other people that they were able to forgive those other people. I did what they suggested and, really quickly, realized the strangest thing of all: I didn’t want to drink anymore. I didn’t even want to do cocaine. By just doing what these people suggested I do—which happened to radically alter my perception of every aspect of my life—it was like the part of me that craved alcohol and drugs, that had to leave town in order to escape the lure of cocaine and even then scrounged up coke wherever I was, had been removed in the same way that my tonsils had. And it was a good thing, too, because I had essentially been sleepwalking through my life—walking and talking but emotionally and spiritually and intellectually frozen in time—so I had a lot of catching up to do. Finally I could actually figure out how to live.

The first element to learning how to live, I quickly learned, was facing my fears.

As far as I understand things now, I’ve struggled with three main fears my whole life—the fear that I’m stupid, the fear that I’m doing everything wrong and the fear that I’ll lose everything I have and fail to get everything I want. But I didn’t always know that.

When I first got sober, I was told by people who’d been sober longer that I lived with “a hundred forms of fear.” I was told that fear ruled my every thought, feeling and action. I thought these people were a little dramatic; sure, I felt scared sometimes but not all that much. In many ways, I protested, I was fearless.

This was before I realized that I had a voice ruling everything I did and told me terrible things. I’m not crazy, I don’t hear voices, I just heard one and its running commentary was a brutal combination of every negative thing anyone had ever said to me my whole life. It would tell me that I was stupid, that I was doing everything wrong, that everyone who mattered to me would leave me and that I didn’t deserve what I had. It was only when I’d been sober at least five years that I even realized I was ruled by this voice—that I’d actually taken my fears and, too fearful to admit that I was scared, turned them against me. Rather than comforting myself through what scared me, I was taunting myself with these fears as if they were real and therefore not even giving myself a fighting chance.

So I started to think about the things I told myself and then present myself with this scenario: if I had a small, precious child I was caring for, would I tell her that she was an idiot and that no one would ever love her? Of course not! And if I wouldn’t do that to a fictional child, why would I do it to myself? I began to write down the incredibly cruel things I told myself and learned to differentiate between what was a real thought and what was one of my fears turned against me. The process sucked; it took years to undo. But at a certain point, that horrible voice—the voice of my fears—disappeared. It still comes back sometimes. Something will scare me—usually information that another person has something I think I should have—and the voice will turn on. But I’ve learned to recognize it and know it’s not real. I’ve also learned that my fear can take all sorts of other forms. I rarely think the sentence, “I’m scared” because I internalized long ago that only weak people thought like that. So my psyche devised an entirely counter-productive system that makes fear register as all sorts of other feelings: tired, for example. Or nauseous. Indifferent. “I just don’t feel like doing that” may, from me, mean “I’m scared to do that.”

The fact that I now know this about myself, and can therefore move through it, has changed everything for me. I feel these days like I get to walk around with someone else’s brain—the brain of someone who really, genuinely likes herself. And while I’m grateful to be rid of the obsessions I used to have to drink and do cocaine, I think I’m even happier to have shut the fear voice down.

Why You Don’t Really Hate AA

I’ve seen too many people attack the program that saved my life. But their problem isn’t AA itself; it’s some of AA’s members.

I got sober because of Alcoholics Anonymous. I believe with every pore in my body that had it not been for the program, I wouldn’t have been able to put down drugs and alcohol over 12 years ago and wouldn’t be able to live the life I do today.

For a long time, out of what I then considered respect for the 11th tradition, I didn’t publicly identify as a member. In my first novel, Party Girl (which was so autobiographical, I didn’t even bother to act coy about it), I actually switched various AA-related words to protect the program: I used “guidelines” for “steps,” and “apologies” for “amends.” And when I went on TV to promote that book or to talk about the addictions of various celebrities, I always explained ahead of time that if the story they wanted to focus on involved AA, I couldn’t go on, because AA was an anonymous program.

I said the same thing in late 2010.

And then, slowly, my perspective changed. As my years of sobriety—and talking and writing about addiction—continued, I began to realize that my desire to not mention AA had less to do with respecting the 11th tradition than with protecting AA from any more of the judgment was being heaped upon it.

From what I hear, AA is a harsh, religious, recriminating cult.

Before I came to AA, I considered it a cult for Jesus-worshipping freaks, who had nothing better to do with their time and needed something—anything—to cling to. Whatever I heard about the program (they hold hands! They pray! In unison!) I used to fuel that preconception. And that preconception kept me buying books about how AA didn’t work, while I slowly annihilated myself with years of drinking and cocaine.

There seem to be as many ways to interpret the 11th tradition as there are people in AA. Some swear that it means we should never give our last names when we talk about being sober; others say it means we’re allowed to say we’re in AA, so long as we’re not doing it in the press, or on the radio or in films. Still others preach that it means not outing someone else as a member. And there are those who insist that it means never telling anyone anywhere that we’re sober. AA-history obsessives will often tell us how necessary the 11th tradition was, back when alcoholism and addiction were considered horribly shameful; some insist that we still need to honor this tradition, while others say we should scream about our disease from the rooftops, to eradicate any left-over shame.

My own feeling is this: AA’s founders couldn’t have predicted the Internet or the world we live in now, where everything is everyone’s business. Bill and Bob didn’t know that one day anonymous online commenters would attack their program. When the traditions were written, AA was small, young and fragile. Today, it isn’t. And while many have tried to ignore, defame and destroy it since then, the fact is, they haven’t had much success.

But still, because AA doesn’t have a spokesperson, it can’t fight back or respond to the criticisms that are constantly hurled at it. So at a certain point, it seemed like it was okay—in fact, better than okay—to start being open about the program on this site, and allowing those who felt their lives improved by it to share that.

In short, I didn’t want to give people out there who were like me—that is, judgmental and alcoholic—any more reason to judge AA than they already had. Maybe, I thought, if we publicly shared how the program had saved us, we’d help open people’s minds. Whether that mission has been successful, I have absolutely no idea.

Trust me—my positive reaction to AA shocked the hell out of me at first. I honestly couldn’t believe that I didn’t encounter a bunch of glassy-eyed cultists, or tie-dyed followers of some New Age guru forcing newcomers to hand out flowers at the airport.

Well, let me clarify. I did encounter some people who lived up to my preconceptions—or were even worse—but they were not the majority. No, the overwhelming majority were the sort of people I’d been seeking my whole life: funny people, smart people, self-aware people—people who suffered from the same problems I did, but who knew how to talk about and deal with them in ways I hadn’t yet learned.

The last person I ever thought I’d be was Susie AA—the girl sitting in the front row of the meeting, or at a coffee shop highlighting her favorite passages in the Big Book. But that’s who I became. Turns out, I’d always been waiting for someone to give me rules for living beyond those my family had presented—which were mainly about going to an Ivy League school, making six figures at your first job and suing people before they sued you. Though I didn’t know it consciously at the time, I’d been seeking out information about how it was my self-obsession—well, self-obsession plus stimulants and depressants—that was making me so miserable.

I’m well aware that this is apparently not most people’s experience when they come to AA. From what I hear—mostly from anonymous commenters on The Fix—AA is not the welcoming, loving, non-judgmental solution to a miserable life that I discovered. Instead, it’s a harsh, religious, recriminating cult, filled with controlling assholes who are determined to believe that their way is the only way.

In some ways, I understand. After all, I have met, in AA, horrible, judgmental people, who are determined to believe that their way is the only way. And I’ve met, as you’d expect, people who are mentally ill.

I have been told, by a woman who was sponsoring me, that I wasn’t “really sober” because I was on anti-depressants, and asked to immediately get out of her car.

I have been ruthlessly shamed by another sponsor, because she put me on “dating restriction” for a year (not my first year of sobriety, by the way) and, nine months into it, I kissed a guy. She told me I hadn’t surrendered and “fired” me outside a meeting as I sobbed.

I have listened to women preach from podiums about how determined they are to help everyone they can—then had them not return my calls after they’ve agreed to sponsor me.

I have shared deeply personal things in meetings and had people approach me days or weeks later to give me unsolicited, offensive feedback about what I was doing that had caused me to feel the way I did.

The program is what you find in the Big Book—not the people who make up the fellowship.

I have been pulled aside by old ladies after I’ve shared and told that I was sharing “wrong.” And I’ve heard about even worse things: AA icons sleeping with newcomers, sponsors giving sponsees drugs—you name it.

But not one of these things has caused me to hate AA.

Maybe that’s because I was lucky enough to meet some genuinely, ridiculously amazing people when I first came in. Maybe it’s because I got sober in LA, where there is, arguably, less shame and more cheer about sobriety than anywhere else, so that the overall joy made it easier to overlook the sicker folk. Maybe it’s because I was so desperate when I got to AA that I couldn’t afford to think any differently.

Yes, there are assholes in AA. But you find them everywhere. And while AA, by the very nature of what brings people to the rooms, may have a higher percentage than some other places, that doesn’t make AA the asshole. If those people weren’t in AA, they would just be somewhere else, doing their best to give that somewhere else a bad name. The program is what you find in the Big Book—not the people who make up the fellowship.

Hey, you can still hate AA. But if you go there, and encounter someone who tells you that you have to get sober his way, or shames you for not doing exactly what she says, I just ask that you consider going to another meeting or reaching out to another person—to consider that this individual might be the problem. The people in AA whose lives seem to be working are, from what I can tell, those who remember that good AA’s don’t tell anyone how to do anything; who reinforce the fact that the steps are merely suggestions; who don’t say you must believe in some almighty God, but just ask you to consider that perhaps you’re not the one in charge of everything.

All of which is to say that maybe, just maybe, your hatred is misdirected. At the very least, now you can direct it toward me instead of the program. After all, I’m the one telling you that you don’t feel the way you say you do.

Making Amends Was Everything I Least Expected

I thought I knew exactly how my Ninth Step in AA would unfold. Instead, over a decade later, I’m still trying to make sense of people’s unpredictable reactions.

I heard about how sober people made amends long before I got sober. Somehow, the idea that alcoholics and addicts went around apologizing for their past misdeeds lodged itself in my psyche at a time when I had yet to say the Serenity Prayer.

Road to RecoveryThat doesn’t mean I understood the concept. For instance, if you’d asked me then if apologizing and making amends were the same thing, I’d have sworn that they were. I had no experience, yet, of making things right with someone I’d wronged—let alone making things right in a way that might stop me repeating whatever it was I’d done in the first place.

By the time I got to my Ninth Step, I’d picked up a few things. Probably the most important one was that I didn’t have to play the victim anymore. My Fourth and Fifth steps had showed me that I had played a major part in all my resentments—a realization that I found liberating. Steps Six, Seven and Eight had gotten me ready to make my amends. And while I was certainly nervous about getting started on what I then thought of as my apology tour, I was also excited.

I was promised miracles and they came—but never how or when I expected them.

I figured I’d knock out the “easy” ones first: one to Lauren and another to Peter, both former party pals. In each case I’d done something gossipy and mean-spirited but not atrocious, so I figured these amends would be simple. These people weren’t, after all, family members who were likely to make the experience traumatizing, or exes whom I dreaded to contact at all. They were just people I’d once spent a lot of time around but didn’t really have anything in common with anymore. Easy, right?

I called Lauren first (this was in the days before Caller ID or the demise of landlines):

“Lauren? Hey, it’s Anna.”

Long pause.

“Hey, Anna.”

“So listen. I’m calling because—“

“Oh, God, don’t tell me this is one of those ‘amends’ type of calls. I just—”

“Please let me—”

“Look, I heard you’re sober and that’s great. But this just isn’t something I’m up for.”

Click.

I sat there listening to the dial tone. In all the amends scenarios I’d mentally concocted, having someone—let alone the first person I reached out to—not be willing to hear what I had to say had never occurred to me. I’d read in the Big Book that we had to be willing to go to people we feared might throw us out of their offices, but I’d never read anything about how to handle the people who wouldn’t even take the call to set up the meeting. Still, what could I do—call her back, tell her it was about something else and sneak an amends in? My sponsor told me to move on, so I did.

To Peter. Who, well, never called me back. I didn’t realize he wasn’t ever planning to call me back until a week or so after I’d left a voicemail, when our mutual friend told me. “He doesn’t like to revisit the past,” the friend explained. “He said you don’t need to apologize for anything.”

This wasn’t how I’d imagined it going. I’d heard other people share about how they’d suddenly find themselves running into the very person they’d been planning to make amends to that day. Why was the opposite happening to me?

But I moved on. I had to. And I continued to find the process nothing like I expected it to be.

In general, it seemed like the people I thought weren’t going to be amenable to even meeting up welcomed me warmly. Those I thought would forgive me right away, meanwhile, were dismissive or indifferent. But one thing remained predictable: The amends that I was so terrified to make that I shook with terror or sobs at the thought were always the most rewarding of all.

Take, for instance, the ex I’d never gotten over. I called him up one evening when I was about five years sober and told him how sorry I was for destroying our relationship, for every cruel thing I’d uttered and each horrible mistake I’d made when we were together. But rather than lay into me as I expected, he said he was glad to hear from me, that it helped him make sense of his past, that he was happy I was sober and doing well. But, he added, I was blaming myself too much; he’d played just as big a part in what had gone wrong between us as I had. The conversation was more honest, painful and beautiful than any we’d had the entire time we lived together. I hung up feeling about 20 pounds lighter. I was finally free of an idea I hadn’t even realized I’d been clinging to—that I’d been a monster, and he my innocent victim.

Then there was the time I met up with a friend I’d known since I was 12 but had fallen out with in my twenties. We went on a hike and I told her how sorry I was for the way I’d behaved the last time we’d spoken, five or so years earlier. It turned out she was in a 12-step program too—so she actually made amends to me right after I made them to her. By the time we got to the bottom of the canyon, we’d re-launched our friendship—on new, healthier terms. Over a decade later, we talk nearly every day.

I was promised miracles and they came—but never how or when I expected them.

Take my financial amends. The first debt that I owed was to my college roommate, for the time I’d borrowed her car in sophomore year and then acted surprised when I saw the dent. I explained to her that I’d actually crashed into something when drunk and lied to her, and that I wanted to reimburse her for the damages. But she wouldn’t hear of it.

For my next financial amends, I decided to just go ahead and send a check. It was to a girl I’d lived with when I first moved to New York after college, a girl who’d moved out of our crappy, railroad-style place without notice one Thanksgiving weekend when I was out of town. It was a shitty thing to do, of course. But it didn’t make it right for me to charge up the phone bill in her name as high as I could, and then not respond when she asked me to reimburse her. So I tracked down her address and mailed a check and a card, apologizing for the phone bill as well as for being—well, the kind of roommate who would inspire someone to move out over Thanksgiving weekend without notice.

She sent the check back, along with a note that said, essentially, that she was doing very well, that she had a husband, five kids and a thriving career as a chiropractor, and that if I felt so bad about my behavior, then I should donate the money to a good cause since she didn’t need my charity.

Glenn was a guy who’d lock my cats away when I was out and call the landlord when I had friends from AA over, saying that he was “scared for his life” because there were “homeless alcoholics” around.

Like I said, not what I expected. But even that one allowed me to live with a little more freedom.

Some amends haven’t involved contacting people at all. Glenn, a gay guy I’d lived with the second time I’d moved to New York, when I was about seven years sober, had started off cool as could be but slowly revealed himself to be crazy—a guy who’d lock my cats away when I was out and call the landlord when I had friends from AA over, saying that he was “scared for his life” because there were “homeless alcoholics” around. (To say I’ve had bad luck with New York roommates would be an understatement.)

Though I ended up moving out and getting away from him entirely, I found myself still resenting him months later. I had done plenty wrong in our relationship, but trying to make amends to him was something I couldn’t imagine—not when he’d done things to me that I couldn’t imagine getting over. I decided to make a “living amends” by trying to be kind and gracious in my life—the opposite of how I’d been toward him at the end. But that didn’t stop me from resenting him. So, at my sponsor’s suggestion, I committed to praying for him for 90 days—specifically for him to get everything he wanted and for me to have empathy for the fact that he’d been doing the best he could. I did it for those three months, never feeling any differently about him but staying committed to the process because my sponsor kept asking me about it. I thought it was silly: I never felt any differently about Glenn.

Until the day, months after I’d stopped praying for him, that I met a guy who asked me if I knew anyone great to set him up with and I found myself answering, without thinking, “Yes! I know this amazing guy named Glenn.”

Glenn! As in: the guy I hated. Had hated, apparently.

Those days and weeks and months of asking an entity I didn’t even understand to give Glenn what he wanted had apparently granted me the empathy to see that he only hurt like that because of the pain he was in himself. And this had relieved me of my resentment, without me even realizing. It was surreal. (And no, I didn’t set the two guys up—I had no interest in ever talking to Glenn again—but the space he’d been taking up my head was cleared.)

I still do things I need to make amends for. Sometimes I make them right away and sometimes not for a long time. But I’ve found that time works in surprising ways when it comes to these things. Consider, for instance, what happened with Peter—the guy who wouldn’t call me back when I first started making my amends. Years had passed—so many years that he’d forgotten I’d ever said or done anything hurtful to him—when I ran into him one evening outside the gym. He told me that he’d just gotten an offer to sell a book of poetry, then asked if I’d be willing to look over the contract the publisher was asking him to sign.

I said I’d be happy to, and we met up a few days later, when I looked over his contract and gave him the best advice I could. Then I told him how sorry I was about the hurtful thing I’d done so many years before. I still remember how shocked his bright blue eyes looked when they jumped from the contract pages to meet mine. Then they filled with tears. Turns out, this thing I’d done that was “just” gossipy and mean-spirited had actually been something I needed to make right. And the guy who didn’t like to “revisit the past,” who’d told a friend I didn’t have to apologize for anything, ended up accepting my apology lovingly, giving me one more opportunity to chip away at the guilt and shame I didn’t want to walk around with anymore. He just hadn’t been able to do it on my time schedule.

Lauren has never surfaced. But that’s not to say that she won’t.