Recovery ambivalence: a rich man’s son

02/02/15 3:11 PM

Wealthy, famous, powerful, and addicted

I might start off by giving the experience of a man whom I have not seen for two or three years. His experience so well illustrates the nature of the problem with which we have been dealing. This man was a rich man’s son. …

 

Well, he did a conventional amount of drinking, and that went along nicely a number of years, and then he found he began to get drunk, very much to his own consternation. …

 

I have indicated, I think, that he was a person of character, and great force of character. Therefore the question immediately arises in everyone’s mind: “Why didn’t he stop?” But he did not. … [L]ittle by little, matters got worse and he began to go from one hospital or cure to another.

 

And the very strange thing is that while this is going on, many of us seem to all outward appearances to be sound and able citizens in other matters. Our minds waver, and we wonder what in thunder is the matter.

 

This quote from Bill Wilson’s presentation at the Rockefeller dinner in 1940 introduces the second section of our “Wealthy, famous, powerful, and addicted” series: Ambivalence!

 

After previously exploring barriers to quitting drinking and drugging or entering treatment, we now turn to the next challenge: ambivalence about whether we actually want to stop using and commit to recovery.

 

Do we truly want the drug-free lifestyle, or would we rather return to substance use – although modified, “under control,” and less visible?

 

Ambivalence commonly occurs after detox, once the drugs are out of our system. We’re already feeling so much better – relieved to have dodged that bullet. But our emotions are raw, and our coping mechanisms and reliable friends are gone. Now what?

The internal tug of war

A tug of war starts with competing voices in our head, as the enormity of the task sinks in. Having money or connections heightens the challenge, providing so many options for figuring out how to get away with it, to deceive ourselves, family, and friends, and to return to our old ways of being. And the shame of falling from high places and ever regaining our standing, combined with the shame of being an addict, makes it all the more difficult to choose to face the reality of our lives.

 

Aside from this internal debate, there are many external pressures – family, social milieu, profession, business, media, etc. – that bear on us when contemplating embarking on a sober life. In the book, The Power of Habit, the author points out that we have limited amounts of energy to learn new behaviors. If we are dedicating a great deal of this energy to fending off external forces that cue using triggers or distract us from our chosen path, we don’t have enough left to win the internal battle.

Outside forces

While future blogs will explore this internal struggle, this one focuses on the many ways outside forces undermine recovery, essentially tipping our ambivalence over to the dark side. Having seen this happen over and over again, the remainder of this blog aims to support those of us exposed to these pressures.

 

From brain scan research, personal experience, and observation, we can answer Bill Wilson’s question of what in thunder is the matter with this rich man’s son: a level of external pressure that can make attaining a sober life near impossible.

 

We now know that using drugs repeatedly over time changes brain structure and function in fundamental and enduring ways that persist long after the individual stops using. Core areas of the brain are reprogrammed so that in the presence of “environmental cues,” we will want to use mood-altering substances. Even after long periods of abstinence, brain scans show that the “craving” areas of our brains light up in the presence of alcohol and drugs in ways unique to us addicts.

 

Too often parents, employers, or media all pay lip service to supporting our recovery, but their behavior belies their verbal encouragement. In reality, we are supposed to go off to treatment and then return to our normal lives – just not drinking or drugging. It’s easy for us to buy into this scenario, as we long for acceptance and try to get back into their good graces, rather than focus on the danger our old life poses to our hard-won “days” of new freedom.

 

How many times have I heard:

 

“My family/law firm/production company/business wants me back, or there will be repercussions.”

 

Or how about:

 

“If I don’t go to my family’s vacation home in Hilton Head for the annual reunion, my parents will cut me off.”

 

Sad, ignorant, and perverse, yes – but all too frequent. We are expected to pick right back up as if nothing happened. Whether self-imposed or required, premature exposure to our “craving cues” leads to relapse.

‘Do you mind if I have just one?’

How many times do friends and relatives ask that question at cocktail hour or when out to dinner? While we have no choice but to tolerate other people drinking in our presence, why drink at all around a friend or loved one in early recovery?

  • Show some respect for what we’ve been through and for the power of the disease.
  • For families where drugs and alcohol have caused so much harm to so many, set an example.

After 19 years of saying “Go right ahead,” on my birthday, I finally said, “Yes, I do mind.” It felt liberating.

Navigating the social scene

At larger family functions, where alcohol flows freely, often 30 percent or more – depending on your definition of substance dependence and how self-serving the answer is – are alcoholic. (Excluding those dependent on pills or weed.)

  • How about the great uncle spotted with a tall glass filled with vodka at the holiday party?
  • Or the cousin with pinpoint pupils toasting his father?

What’s that? Nobody wants to know. The senior leaders who can set an example or chart a different course turn a blind eye. Then they ask where you are. Sayonara – that’s what I say, but many feel we must remain and endure.

 

For those of us encouraged to maintain our social connections, friends ask us to join them, telling us they’ll make sure we only drink Pepsi. As an added bonus, we can drive them home! Or we can join them at the 19th hole or country club lunch and drink Perrier. Yeah, right. And then they wonder why we are drinking “again.”

 

Some of us also face our friends, family, and colleagues inserting themselves into our recovery program/plan.

  • How about the mother who wanted her daughter only to attend high-end AA meetings?
  • Or the producer who pressures his newly minted 28-day graduate movie star into attending the media tour, promising a sober companion?

In these instances, we are treated as commodities to save face or earn money – they don’t appreciate that this is a life and death matter.

No wonder

We are supposed to say nothing, fit in, and resume our old lives. No wonder there is so much relapse. No wonder people are convinced treatment is a failure. Do you get it? Our external environment – our social life, family, and economic pressure – works against us.  Even when we learn new responses to these “cues,” our brain unconsciously registers them. Our will to stay clean can collapse, and we succumb to our internal voice that says, “Hey, this time it will be different. This time I can handle it.”

 

I will say this to you, dear readers:

 

For families with loved ones in early recovery, gladly join in abstaining and finding enjoyable activities to engage in that do not involve going to bars and parties. Reorient your life to one that supports sobriety. Do this for several months, and for the next few years don’t drink in the presence of your loved one. Consider having at least one alcohol-free social event at family gatherings and setting time aside for a 12-step meeting.

 

For those of us with “the problem,” it really helps to have an intermediary – a savvy person who can fend off outside pressures and explain that recovery is the top priority for now. This intermediary can be the one to tell our friends and family to leave us alone, to focus on healing from our disease, and of course to vociferously object to any reprisals for putting our health first.

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