I Am Learning by Carmen Riley
I am learning the endless joys of sobriety
The multiple ways in which to calm my fears and mend my broken spirit
The multiple ways to call back my power.
I learn trust
Take refuge against the spiraling vortex of my past
I am learning…
Learning to spread my wings
Embrace my many passions
Engage the marvels of life
Embrace the inner sanctum of my spiritual being
I am learning…
Learning the dauntless job of taking care of me…
…And that too
–whatever ‘that’ may come to be
I am learning.
Resurrecting the Spirit
Long ago, the Elders of Indigenous Nations warned the people of the coming of ‘light skins.’ The light skins will bring with them ‘Four Mind Changers,’ the Elders said, all of which the people should avoid. One of the Mind Changers was a bottle of liquid; once consumed, the effects so powerful, the Elders referred to it as a ‘spirit within the liquid.’ This Liquid was called many things. Some called it alcohol. The Elders called it, “Spirits.”
My history with alcohol begins decades back. Not as a teen, but as a social drinker in college. Back then, my habit consisted of an occasional cocktail with friends, rarely followed by a second; often times, going month’s in-between without.
Over the years, the consistency and amount that I drank began to increase. I don’t remember exactly at what point I began watching the clock in anticipation of Happy Hour, or sat with friends, joking that it was 5:00 o’clock somewhere, as we kicked back in the early afternoon to enjoy a drink or two.
Eventually, another celebration would present itself. A birthday or Saturday afternoon gathering. Back then, I was still at a point, where making the decision to dry out for a while wasn’t a problem.
Years passed–never giving it a thought that somewhere along the way, I’d transitioned from a Social Drinker to a Functioning Alcoholic–always capable of taking care of business, and never missing a day of work.
There came a time when I began to experience blackouts, and a time where nothing else in life took precedence over the anticipation of that first drink of the day.
Spiritually, I flat-lined–emotionally incapable of connecting to anything aside from booze. There’s a reason the Indigenous Elders call alcohol, “Spirits.”
So many times, I looked towards the front doors of UUCM while passing. And just as many times, promised myself to return on Sunday. But alas—Sunday morning arrived, and instead of getting dressed for church, I stood at my kitchen counter in sweats, spiking my coffee with Rum.
Eventually, I found my way into Chapa de, and connected with a doctor who thought it wise for me to give my liver a little rest. She persisted, without seeming to nag, until I finally agreed to make an appointment with the Chapa de addictions nurse–Katie.
I was beginning to wear down by the time I cautiously followed her through her office door. Even though my liver felt like a balled-up knot each time I took a drink, the prospect of withdrawals scared me more than death. Rehab and AA weren’t options for me, and I knew enough, to know that quitting cold-turkey was far too dangerous for an alcoholic to attempt alone.
With the aid of medication, and the promise of support under Katie’s watchful eye—over a period of months, I found myself safely transitioning from Addiction to Sobriety. No seizures. Nausea. No hallucinations or pain. Most importantly—no desire to drink.
At last, no longer did I wake up in the morning, focused on how to pass the next eight hours, until I could begin my evening by mixing my first drink.
Eventually, creative interests from the past began to re-surface. I discovered new interests, and found myself entering the front door of UUCM, with no idea what to expect. Afraid of judgement–instead I found acceptance and support. Instead of religious dogma—freedom to follow my heart, and explore my spirituality, wherever it might lead.
I will never be totally free from addiction. Not in this lifetime! That’s not the way addiction works! Already—one year, two months and two weeks into Sobriety, I’ve been tested numerous times.
Do I pour a glass of wine, or go for the ice tea? Do I savor the essence of a fermented piece of fruit? — even as I knowingly reach for another?—fully aware that I’m genetically hardwired to easily fall victim to the faintest temptation of alcohol.
Only those who have suffered addiction, can truly understand the inner joy of spitting out the forbidden fruit.
To this congregation—and to all my close friends who have come from it. To Reverend Kevin. My doctor. Most importantly, Katie Bell.
Resurrecting the Spirit – Reflections on Addiction by Gail Johnson Vaughan (10-22-17)
With deep appreciation to Dr. Pam Peeke for her lucid description of the neurobiology of addiction[i]
Reading from Dr Pam Peeke’s book The Hunger Fix:
We all have one
At least one.
A darling. A best friend. A helper, a life raft.
An entrenched habit that’s so comfortable, it feels like a hug or an island of calm.
A fix starts simply enough. You think about doing something that you like to do – drink a mojito or check your cell phone, or get it on with your sweetie, and that thought lights up an entire dopamine-driven reward pathway in your brain.
You feel a rush of pleasure. You start thinking about when and how you are going to do that thing:
Is it happy hour yet?
Can I sneak a peek at my email during this meeting?
Will he or she be around tonight? When are we going to connect?
Your brain becomes consumed by the drive to satisfy that urge. You try, but you just can’t get it out of our head. You give in.
And then, as soon as you satisfy the raging hunger, bingo: you feel another rush. Your brain says, “Yeah! This is amazing. Bring it on. I want more.”
You need your fix.
I’ve been up here before you many times before, sometimes doing reflections on personal challenges and how I’ve overcome them. It’s not been uncommon for some of you to comment on how much courage that must have taken. Truth be known, it really didn’t take much courage at all because they were all issues that I’d resolved and grown from.
Today is different. I will be inviting you into to something in me that is raw and current. My inner addict is freaking out knowing that sharing openly with you will empower me toward breaking the hunger fix cycle. Did you notice me having to go up and light the votive candle so Carmen could light the chalice? And did you notice me having to run out while the choir was singing to get water for our joys and sorrows… yep, I need your understanding and support as I share this morning.
You would have loved my mother Bea Durley, warm, intelligent, dry-witted, the go-to person for her church and KVIE TV where she was a fulltime volunteer, so respected for her civic involvement that when she died at age 76 the Sacramento Bee announced her death as news, not a paid obituary.
It was her addictions that killed her. Her genetics passed the susceptibility to addiction on to me, and I passed them on to my daughter. My mom’s addictions? Nicotine and food.
If this were an OA meeting – that’s Overeater’s Anonymous – I’d have started this reflection with “My name is Gail and I’m a food addict”. I’ve told some of you that already; it may surprise others of you. Perhaps you think I’m using a loose definition of addict.
Here’s how neuroscience defines addiction: “behaviors that a person consistently engages in despite significant negative consequences”. [ii]
The negative consequences for my mother was undiagnosed heart disease and an untimely death. We’d all been together that night in 1993. I’d done an event on the Capitol Steps in Sacramento to draw attention to the thousands of foster children growing up without families. Many of my extended family were there. I remember seeing her walk up the sidewalk as I spoke from the podium with two large TV cameras a foot from my face. She engaged happily at the legislative reception and family dinner that followed. That was the last time I saw her alive. She went back to her house, taped the news, went to bed, and never woke up. The autopsy said long-term arterial sclerosis and hypertension. She had been significantly overweight for years, a closeted compulsive eater, and was a lifelong smoker.
I’m not overweight, mostly because I’m too vain to let my addiction show so publicly, and I’ve never smoked, but I’ve struggled with food addiction since I was a pudgy little girl. As Dr. Pam Peeke describes, “the mere mention of food … will trigger [me] to obsess about it, or crave it.” [iii] If I see certain foods in my fruit bowl or in grocery stores I have to tie myself to the mast to keep from eating large quantities of them. Usually, but not always, they are sweet things. It’s been years since I’ve allowed cookies and cakes and ice cream in my house…. Or if my husband wants them I’ve asked him to keep them somewhere I can’t find them. That’s a little tricky with ice cream so we came to an agreement that he will eat whatever he brings home before he goes to bed or wash the remainder down the sink.
There are some “healthy” sweets that I no longer bring into the house. Raisins is one. I mean, a handful is fine, and maybe two handfuls, but a bowl, half a bag, a whole bag? The next will be bananas… but I haven’t built the resolve to do that and still “abuse” bananas and other fruit – especially when I’m under stress. Stress is an ongoing characteristic of my job, especially right now. On Friday coming home from a stressful meeting in Sacramento I stopped at Trader Joe’s to get food for my family. I bought 4 bananas thinking that would be a manageable amount – I could discipline myself to do one a day. Instead I ate all four as I drove home. If I’d had ten I probably would have eaten them too. Managing my addiction is hard work and it wears down my spirit.
Food addiction is real. Science has finally proved that it is every bit as powerful and painful as one to cocaine, heroin, alcohol, or nicotine. And every bit as hard to break as a compulsive gambling problem, compulsive video gaming, or a compulsive need for sex. [iv]
It helped me a lot to understand the biology of addiction. All of these substances and experiences trigger a release of dopamine, a brain chemical that makes us feel a burst of pleasure and satisfaction. While one may have enjoyed these experiences guilt-free at one point, [for many] your body and brain hunger for them… to help them cope, … and to try to “fix” their unpleasant feelings. Even when you know consciously that this fleeting “high” of pleasure and satisfaction can’t fix the root of the problem – you can’t resist the temptation of scoring just one more “hit” before you resolve to buckle down. Repeat this pattern enough times, and any of these “False Fixes” becomes the problem in itself.[v]
So that beckoning lure keeps popping up in my mind… does the clock tell me it’s been enough time since my last food that I can eat again even though I’m not hungry? And when I do go down to the house to get lunch, can I convince myself to stop eating once I start?
Please indulge me with a quick over-simplified neurobiology of addiction, explained so well in Dr. Peeke’s book. Science tells us that “repeated exposure to all of these substances and experiences has the power to physically alter the neural structure and chemistry of our brains. “[vi]
The addiction develops like this Think of a river during a flood. The water charges over the banks, taking down trees and housed along the way. Continued dopamine flooding in the brain works the same way. The pathway between the ventral tegmental and the nucleus accumbens areas of the brain flood with dopamine again and again. The brain thinks it has “too much” dopamine – so the brain attempts to compensate for this overabundance by battening down the hatches, decreasing the total number of dopamine receptors to less the amount of dopamine your brain absorbs. This “down regulation” decimates the receptors in a variety of brain regions, particularly your limbic system, the site of motivation and emotions.
After this down regulation, my brain demands I eat greater and greater amounts of the same foods to elicit the same dopamine “rush”. You have an insatiable false hunger for more and more. But the sad irony is, the more you feed the craving with False Fixes, the less satisfaction you feel – because each time you flood the brain, additional receptors are wiped out. And the relentless false hunger persists.[vii]
Here’s the really nasty part.
“As these receptors disappear, the abilities of other parts of your brain to communicate with each other also take a hit…. The prefrontal cortex – the grown-up responsible part of your brain that gets you to work on time and brushes your teeth and pulls your hand back from the dessert tray – gets [suppressed]. Double whammy: not only do you have to eat more food to experience normal pleasure, but you also have a tougher time stopping once you do eat. Your “inner addict” shouts [“it’s just a banana.”] [viii]
Your prefrontal cortex saying “yes, but you just had one” gets shouted and smacked down and “the communication channel with the prefrontal cortex gets weaker and weaker.”[ix]
Addicts, food addicts and all others may spend much of our time thinking about food and “withdrawing from other people in embarrassment to ‘do’ their food in private.”[x] I sometimes go through an entire day strategizing about my next food fix. To make it worse, I feel ashamed of these thoughts and feelings.
Recovery from food addiction can be complicated. Hard-core drug addicts actually have it easier than people who struggle on their own with food addiction. Why? because drugs, alcohol, and nicotine are not needed for survival. Once you are clean, you never touch the substance again. You are abstinent for the rest of your life…
The harsh reality with food addiction is that abstinence from all food is not an option. I have to walk among my “drug” everyday of my life.[xi]
They line the grocery store aisles when I go to buy healthy food for my family, they are fed to me at lunch meetings, family and friends bring them to my house. I cannot escape them, even at UUCM, which is why you usually don’t see me sharing snacks after the service. . It’s hard work and it wears down my spirit.
I want you to know that about me so you can support the resurrection of my spirit and my recovery by understanding if I say “no thank you” when you offer me something delicious, it’s not about you, it’s about me. Trust me to know my triggers. And by all means, accept my invitation to give me “the look” if you see me reaching for that beckoning baked thing at our social hour. Thank you.
[i] Peeke, P. (2012), The Hunger Fix; The Three-Stage Detox and Recovery Plan For Overeating and Food Addiction. New York, NY: Rodale Inc.
[ii] Polk, T.A. (2015), Lecture 12: Junk Food, Porn, Video Games – Addictions?; The Addictive Brain. Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company
[iii] Peeke, (2012), pg xii.
[iv] Peeke, (2012), pg xiii.
[v] Peeke, (2012), pg xiii.
[vi] Peeke, (2012), pg xiv.
[vii] Peeke, (2012), pg 8.
[viii] Peeke, (2012), pg 9.
[ix] Peeke, (2012), pg 9.
[x] Peeke, (2012), pg 10.
[xi] Peeke, (2012), pg xvii.
Resurrecting the Spirit
Rev. Kevin Tarsa
I am wondering:
For how many people in this room has someone’s deep addiction been a powerful and painful reality in your life? Whether in the past or now?
(I invite us to hold each other in that awareness.)
And of those people you are holding in your mind’s eye and in your heart, the people suffering under an addiction, how many of them found a way, eventually, beyond the suffering of addiction?
(I invite us to hold each other in that awareness, too.)
I appreciate Carmen’s and Gail’s courage and willingness, and the courage that I know others of you have offered here over the years in sharing your stories and your hard-won insight and wisdom regarding addiction.
Though I have known and lost acquaintances and congregants to alcohol and drug addictions, watched families orient their lives around a person’s unquenchable need, and named in several memorial services the deceased person’s struggle with addiction, deep addiction has largely remained at a distance from my immediate, personal life.
I am not an expert in the ways of addiction, but for my own more socially acceptable turns to sugar, or binge TV watching, for which the physical dangers of use or withdrawal do not possess the intensity of alcohol or heroine or opioid use.
I would lift up, from what Carmen and Gail have said, that there appears to be an important spiritual component to addiction and to recovery, as well as an important physical component to addiction and to recovery, that the two are connected and that environment and support of a community like this one matter.
When Carmen courageously told me of her journey to sobriety, she shared in both her words and the sound of her voice, her desire to offer a message of hope to others, and I hope that you hear in her experience a message of hope for you or for someone you love.
When Carmen shared her experience of finding her spirit and her spirituality again in the midst of finding release from the hold of a powerful addiction, I remembered a story I’d read about one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous and psychologist, Carl Jung. I found one telling of that story in a 2000 sermon by Mark Worth entitled “Thirsting for Wholeness.”
In the story, as it is told, a man struggling with alcoholism had been seeing Jung for a time but making no progress,
“Jung said to him, “You’re wasting your time with me. I don’t know how to help you. I can’t help you.” And the man asked, “Is there no hope for me then? Is there nothing you can suggest?”
And Jung said, “The only thing I can suggest is that you might seek a religious conversion. I’ve heard reports of a few people who underwent religious conversions and stopped drinking. It makes a kind of sense to me.”
[So the man sought a religious conversion, which he found about 6 years later, and he stopped drinking. The man then introduced the idea to an alcoholic friend who also had a religious conversion, and who stopped drinking. And that friend told his alcoholic friend, Bill W.]
And Bill W, …along with his friend, Dr. Bob S., decided that the way to fight alcoholism was through a religious conversion and in the company of other alcoholics, who shared “their experience, strength and hope” with one another so that they could stay sober and save each other’s lives. Together Bill W. and Dr. Bob S. founded Alcoholics Anonymous in Akron, Ohio in 1935.
[Years, later Bill W. wrote to Jung of what had come of that first patient. JUNG is said to have replied that it was] perhaps no accident that we have traditionally referred to alcoholic drinks as spirits. Perhaps, [he suggested,] alcoholics were people who had a greater thirst for the spirit than others, and perhaps alcoholism was … a spiritual condition.”
Indeed addiction does appear to be a spiritual condition at the consequence end, if not necessarily the cause end, deadening the spirit, as Carmen shared. And a spiritual conversion need not mean conversion to a particular belief in God. Spiritual conversions of many sorts arrive when someone finally reaches an end, rock bottom, when a person surrenders somehow to the need for help, whether that help will come from other people, from a new treatment, from God or the divine or something beyond oneself, however named…..
We know, as we’ve been reminded today by both Carmen and Gail, that addiction is a powerfully physical condition. A neuro-chemical reality. And an addictive substance isn’t the only influence on that neuro-chemical reality.
Some of us will remember the Drug-Free America public service announcements on Television in the 70s. One of those commercials was based on studies in which a lone rat in a cage is offered two sources of water. In one source the water is pure. The other water has had heroin or cocaine added. Almost all the rats choose the drug-laced water and drink until it kills them. The voice-over in the add explains:
“Only one drug is so addictive, nine out of ten laboratory rats will use it. And use it. And use it. Until dead. It’s called cocaine. And it can do the same thing to you.”
It’s the style of ad reappearing in areas plagued by the current opioid epidemic in our nation, the epidemic in which people are using, and using and using until… (see on PBS – “America Addicted”)
From a colleague, Amanda Aikman, I was reminded of that ad and learned of the work of Bruce Alexander. As Rev. Aikman tells it:
“But a Psychology professor named Bruce Alexander noticed something odd about this experiment. The rat is put in the cage all alone. It has nothing to do but take the drugs. What would happen, he wondered, if we tried this differently?
So Professor Alexander built what he called Rat Park – a lush cage where the rats would have colored balls and the best rat-food and tunnels to scamper down and plenty of friends: everything a rat could want. What, Alexander wanted to know, will happen then?
In Rat Park, all the rats tried both water bottles, …but…
the rats [living in the rich environment of] Rat Park … mostly shunned the [drugged water], consuming less than a quarter of the drugs the isolated rats used. None of [the Rat Park rats] died.
While all the rats who were [alone in a stark cage] … became heavy users, none of the rats who had a [sustaining] environment did.
[Alexander had read that] 20 percent of soldiers in Vietnam had developed addictions to heroin overseas, but 95 percent of them were able to [stop] when they came home.
Professor Alexander then took this test further. He reran the early experiments, where the rats were left alone, and became compulsive users of the drug. He let them use the drug for fifty-seven days … Then he took them out of isolation, and placed them in Rat Park.
He wanted to know, if you fall into that state of addiction, is your brain hijacked forever, so you can’t recover? Do the drugs take you over? What happened is — again — striking. The rats seemed to have a few [symptoms] of withdrawal, but they soon stopped their heavy use, and [returned to more typical behavior.]
The … cage with interesting activities, a variety of food, and plenty of social interaction — saved them.
Professor Alexander argued that this is a challenge to both the view that addiction is a moral failing, and …the view that addiction is a disease taking place in a chemically hijacked brain. [He argues that addiction is [in part] an adaptation…[to our environment, to our cage.]”
(From “The Real Cause of Addiction” a Sermon by Rev. Amanda L. Aikman, South Fraser Unitarian Congregation, February 28, 2016)
The country Portugal proved him right after about 16-17 years ago, when 1 percent of the country’s population was addicted to heroin. Instead of arresting and jailing addicts, Portugal decriminalized all drugs and invested in establishing housing, jobs and clinics for addicts. Addicts connected with fellow victims and were gradually re-introduced to society with a new reason to live.
The result was a 50 percent decrease in the use of intravenous drugs in the country.
What I want to suggest today, as the non-expert regarding addiction, as we consider both the spiritual and physical natures of addiction and of finding a path beyond addiction, is that physical and social environments matter when it comes to addiction. Not as simple cause and effect, or as the only factor, or the sole solution, but as one potentially important factor in a complex set of layers.
What I want to suggest today, is that we, as a community, find ways to support religious conversion – UU style – i.e. to help each other find our deep grounding in whatever sources are powerful enough to sustain our spirits and find our bearings when we find it difficult to do so on our own.
What I want to suggest today is that we create here the kind of rich and supportive social and spiritual environment that might allow us to BE the difference for one another and for the new people who enter this community.
The thing is, religious conversion and social environment are connected. Although religious conversions have a reputation of being intensely personal and internal, they are never completely personal. Our sense of our place in the scheme of things is shaped constantly by our interactions, engagement and relationships with the people and ideas around us. Religious stories not-with-standing, religious conversions don’t really come out of nowhere.
This is why AA works for so many people, I expect, and why spending time in the program, with others, matters.
This is the nature of religious community too, to link these two things, our sense of ourselves in the order of things and in our community. Here too, time in the community, with others, digging into what matters, makes a difference.
I’m not suggesting that this is all that someone who is addicted or in recovery needs. Professional and peer support will be important. If you are looking for direct mutual support in facing an addiction, I bring your attention to the Speed Bumps group that Carmen as begun. It is not a 12-step group, but a place to share and find support.
AND let us know, all of us, that the sum total of this religious community’s environment, patterns, people, behaviors, beliefs and reigning ideas matter as well – whether or not we are facing an addiction.
Here may we learn how to share deeply our “experience, strength and hope” with one another” and so perhaps “save each other’s lives.”
So may we be.