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Secular Addiction Recovery Part One: Just A Little Endorphin Deficiency

I seem to have somehow found myself in the business of publicly discussing highly stigmatized aspects of my identity, history and experiences, displaying them on the internet for anyone to see. I reconcile the associated risks and feelings of unease by reminding myself that if everyone were stealth, there would be no one left to speak about us, our lives, to advocate from a position of direct understanding and shared oppression. There would be no one left to demonstrate, through simple, visible being, that we do exist and share this world with the rest of you, and that we are, like anyone, complex, multi-faceted, individual, fallible, struggling, confused, suffering, thinking, hoping, feeling, participating, speaking human beings. Though it can spare an individual a great deal of hassle, cultural invisibility has never done any good for a minority group, collectively.

But so long as I’m doing this, so long as I’m being a voice, presence and advocate, why restrict myself to only one aspect of who I am? Why only one particular stigmatized and hated group to which I belong? Why not go for broke?

The thing is, I’m a recovering heroin addict.

I go to the pharmacy once a day for a supervised dose of methadone. It’s mixed with tang and tastes like citrus grandma. If I accidentally miss a dose, I get so sick I can barely drag myself back for the next one. When going without long sleeves, I wear concealer over my track scars.

Since I first began doing the skeptic blogging thing I’ve been batting around the idea of writing on the subject of secular addiction recovery. 12 Step Organizations, which are by far the most mainstream, popular and accepted path to recovery (though their efficacy relative to alternatives is usually grossly overstated), have overt religious overtones and many, many cult-like characteristics (some will insist it’s merely “spiritual”, via the usual distinctions). At the very least, 12 Step encourages a religious mindset and attitude, and posit this approach as the only reliable means to get clean. As such, the question of how to deal with addiction while remaining true to one’s secular or atheist philosophy is an extremely important issue for a great many atheists and skeptics, and an issue with very very real consequences.

That level of importance was very intimidating to me and held me back from approaching the subject until now. How can I possibly do this issue the justice it deserves? Am I really up to this? Can I offer people anything of real value and substance, provide answers that can genuinely help someone navigate the difficult questions of dealing with addiction from a secular perspective? Or am I only going to clutter things up, confuse the issue? Am I being presumptuous in assuming I have anything to useful to say?

In a way, I am. I can’t offer anyone any real concrete answers on how to overcome an addiction, and I’m very much not qualified or entitled to claim I can. That’s a highly individual process, and sadly one that we ultimately can only negotiate for ourselves (though counselors, support groups and qualified care providers can certainly assist in that process).

But what I’ve realized is that rather than trying provide any such answers, or attempting to tackle the entirety of the issue in a single post, making some kind of definitive statement summarizing The Issue Of Secular Addiction Recovery, I can incorporate the themes into my writing, say a few things here and there, offer my own perspectives and experiences, offer a few pieces of information, a few resources… break it into little pieces. Several posts, over a period of time.

I can start by describing my own story, experiences and struggles… specifically today, my negative experiences with 12 Step Organizations and how my skepticism and associated mindsets were able to help me through my own recovery . Or at least try to tell the story. It’s kind of hard to get right.

One of the saddest and most terrifying elements of the religious component of 12 Step Groups is how it preys on people who are in a position of extreme vulnerability and desperation. Addiction is one of the worst illnesses a person can have to deal with. It can strip you of everything, even take away your you. It can walk you as close to death as a human being can come. And by the time you want to quit, you really want to quit, but it seems hopelessly difficult. Like a cancer patient seeking psychic surgery, you are ready to believe anything if it will offer you a chance for escape, or even just a way to make the way out just a little bit less hopeless.

That scares me. It really, really does.

When I was trying to kick, I wanted so badly to believe in a God that could help me. Not even just a Christian God, really… just any “higher power” like N/A described to whom I could divest myself of responsibility and that would take care of me, give me the strength to make it. But I just couldn’t. I couldn’t just take a leap of faith. I don’t know… maybe it’s a part of me that’s fundamentally broken. Maybe it’s a part of me that’s fundamentally right. I just was not able to trust those statements or offers of salvation. Everything about them put me on guard.

My actual direct personal experiences with 12 Step Groups didn’t help, either. My first encounter with them ended up leaving an extremely bad taste in my mouth. At the time, I had recently attempted to take my own life, and ended up in Vancouver General Hospital’s psychiatric unit. After a week in the scary, soul-destroying, high-security, intensely boring assessment unit, I was deemed relatively stable and taken to the Brief Intervention Unit. In the BIU, one was permitted to take short ten minute cigarette breaks. Trouble was, I had no cigarettes. I needed to get to my bank and then to a shop where I could buy some, but for such a trip I’d need a chaperone.

During that time I was in the beginning phase of a relapse into my heroin use, so the doctors had been encouraging me (very, very strongly) to hook up with 12 Step through their volunteer who “worked with” the patients there. Scare quotes because I later came to regard what he did there as nothing more than a recruitment drive. Terrifying again in that they were preying on people at their most vulnerable. People who had just attempted suicide. Offering them salvation…

So it was arranged that the 12 Step Volunteer would be my chaperone to pick up some cigarettes. I made it very, very explicit, however, that I was atheist and decidedly NOT interested in 12 Step. I stated that I was open to any other addiction recovery programs (provided they were secular in nature), but 12 Step was off the table. They agreed, that’s fine, he’d just be a chaperone and maybe discuss options and alternatives.

I spent the whole day excited for it… finally got to change out of the hospital pajamas and into my actual clothes. Was overjoyed at the prospect of going outside again, and enjoying the sunlight and Spring air. When the appointed time came around, he didn’t show, and a replacement showed up instead. He offered to chaperone me instead. So I signed out, and we began walking down the hall, and he lead me around the corner to a room where he began arranging chairs in a circle.

After a few confused moment, I became curious as to what was going on, asked what’s up, and reminded him I only had a limited amount of time before I had to be back. “Oh, we have to have our meeting first” … “what meeting?” … “Alcholics Anonymous” … “Um… I explicitly stated that I was not going to be attending any 12 Step meetings, and was told that this was merely a chaperone trip so I could pick up some cash and some cigarettes, and get outside for an hour or so” … “Yeah, we can do that, but first we have to have the meeting” … “I said 12 Step was off the table. I’m an atheist. I’m not interested” … “You should see what it’s like first before you go ahead and dismiss it. I’ve seen your type, think you know everything.” … “I’ll wait outside” … “No meeting, no trip, no cigarettes”… “Oh? Well fine then” (thanks for the trip all the way down the hallway, asshole)

So I left. It was very, very hard to do so, as even leaving aside the issue of my nicotine addiction this was to have been my first trip outside in eight days, and I had to sacrifice it. But my principles were my principles, and I knew damn well when I was being manipulated. In this case, blatantly manipulated. Like, outright presented-an-ultimatum manipulated. The kind of story you tell kids to demonstrate how emotional manipulation is a kind of fucked-up thing to do to someone. He was actively using another addiction, and my position of vulnerability and dependence, to coerce me into attending an organization I had explicitly stated my religious objection to.

Later meetings with the man who was the original intended chaperone did not exactly elicit an apology. Just more tactics. More manipulations. Somehow I ended up tricked into allowing him to give me a ride home when I was finally discharged from hospital. That resulted in further ridiculous, barely-concealed sneaky attempts to get me into the organization. “I need to stop here at the AA office, totally without warning, to pick up some literature. Do you want to come in, or do you want to just wait here locked in the car without AC and the windows up?”. And there was rather a lot of uncomfortable, non-consensual touching, too.

And so many mustaches. What is up with AA and mustaches?

By the end of it, I was completely disgusted by their behaviour and their tactics, and about a thousand times more convinced of the cult-like aspects of 12 Step than I had been before.

Though despite all that a part of me still kind of wanted to be able to believe in it, and the salvation they offered. After that incident, my relapse continued. And it was absolutely fueled in part by my nihilism, my existential position… feelings of hopelessness, abstraction, being sort of pointlessly thrown into a chaotic and incomprehensible world without any definitive sense of meaning or purpose. I felt that I should simply take my happiness where I could find it. To me, it seemed that attaining a semblance of comfort and joy and security through a needle was considerably more honest and efficient than joining religions, going to the gym, developing hobbies, dancing at clubs, having relationships, baking cupcakes, winning contests, raising families or all the other more complex means by which people got more or less the exact same chemicals to bind to the same receptors in their brains. Seemed.

Though in certain ways my skepticism and commitment to understanding the world around me did ultimately help me through addiction when the time came that I chose to get clean. Mainly in allowing me to understand the addiction for what it really was. There was the initial process of actually confronting the issue… that I was addicted to a chemical substance, that my brain was no longer creating a sufficient amount of its own analogue chemicals and I’d become dependent on an external source. That the associated risks to my health that early death was almost an inevitability. That I needed to deal with this if I were to continue to live. And that, in turn, required dealing with the underlying issues I had initially been trying to suppress.

I voraciously read up on the neurology of addiction, on the processes in my brain such as my compromised executive functions and rewired reward systems. I read about how environmental triggers in early childhood development can cause the brain to not develop the proper structures of providing its own endorphin or dopamine responses in appropriate situations. I came to understand that what I was primarily dealing with was an endorphin deficiency. I noticed that while the first time I ever took an opiate, it was like I had found a missing piece of myself, but that cocaine, amphetamine and numerous other drugs had never held any appeal or hold on me whatsoever, indicating that there was a specific neurochemical problem creating a specific pattern of skewed behaviours.

I learned to apply the self-questioning of skepticism to the cognitive processes of the addiction. Like knowing that what I want to believe, or what intuitively seems to be true, is not always what is true, I also began developing other processes of second-guessing and hesitation. That’s something I’ve always regarded as a keystone of skepticism… intellectual hesitation. A pause. A moment to reconsider. In this case, I learned to second-guess my impulses and sense of “need”. Hesitate and reconsider whether the “need” I was feeling was truly a need or a passing chemical impulse.

It was all a matter of acknowledging the cognitive process of the addiction and understanding it, learning to work with it and cope with it. Much like coping with my various human failings and irrationalities in general, like understanding the processes of pareidolia, for example, I could name it, know it, recognize the cognitive distortions when they appeared, learn to work around it and live with it. I learned to avoid triggers. To find other means of self-comfort, other strategies of dealing with anxiety and depression, actually address my internal difficulties rather than suppress or avoid them, find other ways of meeting the needs I had met through heroin. I came to understand that all strategies of medication carried both pros and cons, and I could weigh the merits of a functional methadone dependency against the risks of a dysfunctional heroin addiction.

Most people don’t become addicts, and the drugs don’t create the addict or contain the addiction. Just like most people can eat without developing eating disorders, most people can play video games without becoming hardcore forget-to-eat 24/7 gamers, and most people can drink alcohol without becoming alcoholics, most people (as counter-intuitive as it may sound) can try cocaine or heroin without becoming addicted to them. The junkie in me was already there long before I found the drugs, and she’ll always be there, no matter how long I continue to stay clean. It’s a neurological thing, something that is just there. Just my little endorphin deficiency. That can come across as an excuse or a shirking of responsibility, but knowing that this is simply an element of who I am helps with shedding the feelings of shame and self-hatred that often fueled the addiction. And most importantly, I found, at least for me, that understanding addiction, without turning to illusions or spirituality, and looking at it honestly, as just a brain making itself worse by trying to make itself better, that gave me what I needed to adapt and move forward.

My point is that addiction can be dealt with in ways that are perfectly in keeping with a skeptical and secular mindset, and can be dealt with without turning to illusions or spirituality for comfort, without needing to turn responsibility over to a higher power. Instead one can confront the addiction through looking at it truthfully, and looking at oneself truthfully… with a non-judgmental intellectual curiosity, and openness to what the situation truly is.

I didn’t need a higher power. But by maintaining my intellectual honesty and skepticism, I was able to divest the addiction of its power and level the playing field. It was simply another aspect of this strange and beautiful and chaotic life, universe, everything. In magical thinking, in superstition and intuitions and the liminal space where “higher powers” live, I could easily have continued regarding myself as flawed and shameful, continued believing my addiction was a moral failing and myself undeserving of life. I could easily have believed myself incapable of getting clean or that I wasn’t worth the effort. I could have constructed elaborate cognitive distortions to maintain the pattern of behaviour. I would have.

Fuck fighting cognitive distortions with “healthier” cognitive distortions. Fight them with honesty.

And fuck anyone who offers the one truth path to salvation.

Note: If you are dealing with an addiction and are seeking a secular support organization, I would personally recommend SMART. It’s modeled after cognitive-behavioural therapy, a process not unlike the individual one I described here. Check them out at their website:

http://www.smartrecovery.org/

I’ll provide more information on SMART and other alternatives to 12 Step in future posts.

Please bear in mind that I am not a qualified addiction counselor or healthcare professional, and the views and opinions expressed on my blog should NOT be taken as a substitute for actual counseling and assistance. While I recommend that people take care when making choices about how to guide their recovery, I also do recommend that you seek help in your process. Addiction is an illness, and like any illness, requires care and insight from qualified professionals.