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Posted by on in Alcoholism


Next week I will celebrate 36 years of sobriety. As I approach the eve of my anniversary I am reminded of the model of recovery that has made this milestone possible.  When I got sober my grandparents (both of whom survived Auschwitz) asked me to develop a mission statement that would guide my sobriety which I would like to share with you: staying sober is the single most important thing in my life, and if anything jeopardizes my recovery, it's eliminated.  This kind of commitment and absolute focus has supported me to remain sober through hardship and loss, through sadness and despair.  Absolutely nothing else is as important as staying sober.

I am grateful I found a homegroup where I feel comfortable and feel like my contributions are valued. In the last two years I've seen an increase in membership and a significant amount of relapse.  While relapse can be part of recovery, it certainly doesn't have to be a part of your story. A casual review of the people who have relapsed in the last year demonstrates a startling pattern: every single person that relapsed gave a detailed version of their relapse, and without question they placed more importance on other aspects of their life versus the need to stay sober. 

I have mentioned the following concepts in another article I wrote for this site, but I believe it's worthy of restating them here: I attach a tremendous amount of emotional pain to the thought of using and a tremendous amount of pleasure to the thought of remaining chemical free.  Not only do I stay sober because I made a commitment to my grandmother (pleasure) I do not use chemicals because it creates more problems than it solves (pain).  I was able to quit as the people I knew who used drugs and alcohol had different goals than I did.  I wanted more from my life than I was currently getting.  I no longer saw drug use as fun, and everything I wanted in my life conflicted with using alcohol and drugs. I did not want to be asleep on my life.  Anything I wanted in my life and the relationships I created are vastly more important than any chemical I would use or alcohol I would drink.

Oftentimes I hear people suggest they don't like the program because all they hear is pain.  I don't see pain when I attend meetings, rather, I see possibility.  I am reminded of Ivan Denisovich, the protagonist in the novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a story about a prisoner in a stalinist labor camp in the 1950s. The story offers a stark parallel to an AA member trying to stay sober.  Ivan does whatever he needs to do to make it through the day so he can eat.  He endures hardship and trouble as he understands the reward for existing one more day. He exists because he knows that staying alive and pursuing freedom is its own reward.  The protagonist in this story also draws a parallel to Viktor Frankl, a survivor of the Holocaust and the author of Man's Search for Meaning.  Frankl' noted that we must endure, and that suffering will, with a proper attitude, bring light.  He recounted that the will to survive (a man's attitude) and not the conditions of a particular camp, generally determined if this same man survived.  Frankl' believed that possibility is the natural outgrowth of pain.


Posted by on in Alcoholism

I want to start out by saying, “You can get sober.” Period. Whether it is through 12-step programs, psychotherapy, coaching, psychiatry, exercise, nutrition, Reiki, whatever, I’ve heard it all. And while I once was a proud, Big Book-thumping alcoholic, I’ve heard enough stories of recovery to prove that there is no one-way to beat addiction. For me, a spiritual path has been vital to long-lasting recovery from alcohol and other substances, but I recognize some prefer a more rational approach. What I tell clients now is that as long as you’re honest about what is working and what is not, then there is a great amount of freedom available in recovery.

What is most up for me right now around my recovery is the question of selfishness and self-centeredness as it pertains to addiction. When I first got sober and was participating heavily in 12-step work, it was clear to me that my actions were hurtful to others. I acted selfishly and irresponsibly in nearly every aspect of my life as I pursued substance abuse by any means necessary. There was no debate when I was told that I needed to acknowledge my selfish behavior if I was to find a relationship to a Higher Power—one necessary to heal my obsession around substances.

But now I’ve been sober for about as long as I was drinking. My life is much different than it once was. And while I trust I can never drink moderately, I do wonder, is this tendency toward self-centeredness really something I need to buy into anymore? Upon contemplation, my answer today is no. I honestly and humbly do not believe myself to be any more selfish or self-centered than my fellows, and I honor this truth as a testament to the power of recovery, not some denial of my condition. I can get frustrated at times when I’m in meetings and hear others talk about the steps as a way of dealing with a stagnant, permanent condition. Just because we are addicts, doesn’t mean we need to struggle with life the same way we did when we initially got sober.

I guess what I’m saying is, let some space come into your experience. You don’t have to stay stuck. Allow a orientation to manifest in your thoughts and actions. You don’t have to be the same selfish person that got sober. You’re not obligated to tirelessly and repetitively slave over step work in order to overcome moral failings. You can be transformed. The twelfth step states that we have had a spiritual awakening. Renewal through the twelve steps is possible—mind, body, and soul. You are not the addict or alcoholic you once were, and you don’t have to ever be again. From this viewpoint, while we may always be alcoholics, we no longer have to identify with our selfish, self-centered actions of old. We can embrace an entirely new life, free of guilt and shame, open to fresh ways of being in the world.

Chris Cole is the best-selling author of The Body of Chris: A Memoir of Obsession, Addiction, and Madness. He works as a life coach for people in recovery. Follow Chris and his work at

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Posted by on in Alcoholism

 Nine Candid Thoughts About Substance Abuse Treatment and the 12 Steps

I am 24 years sober today, and of those years, 20 of them have been working in the substance abuse/behavioral health field. I’ve gathered a random sampling of thoughts on treatment and AA. If you agree with all of them, then I have either bored or failed you. Check them out:

1. Cliche to say, but treatment works. It saves lives and ripples to save families. You will hear all sorts of stats, sometimes as low as only 1 in 10 who participate in substance abuse treatment will stay sober for a whole year after discharge, but there are other stats that state almost 50% of those in treatment at any given time will be sober ten years later. It just may take a few attempts for it to stick into long lasting recovery.

Also, ‘treatment’ is such a broad term describing such different levels of interventions. The question is what type of treatment works best, and when. I’ve always felt that inpatient or residential treatment squeezes folks a bit harder to get to some necessary truths and insight. (For when you squeeze an Orange, you get Orange Juice, because that's what’s inside. Well, when you squeeze an addict, you get what’s inside as well.) Inpatient treatment can do this squeezing best in a safe situation and stop a relapse in the early days so that long term recovery can take roots.  Yet less restrictive modalities such as day treatment programs and intensive outpatient give the therapist and client real life scenarios to process and do not offer the fantasy scenario of living 24 hours in a therapeutic environment. In general, the world out there wants you go get high, so go fight it, (with friends at your side) and come back to report.

2. Treatment doesn't work, for some folks, at least in a traditional 12-step model. I believe that substance abuse treatment has cast too wide a net, and that there are many patients in substance abuse specific treatment who are actually primarily personality disorder or other diagnoses that are ill-served by giving them traditional CD treatment. For these folks, using drugs or drinking is just one of many symptoms that often include other anti-social traits.

I am not talking about the bipolar or depression diagnosed client where the two disorders feed off of each other and make both set of symptoms worse. I am referring to some axis 2 personality disorders or affective disorders. We throw them into the mix and treat them the same, and it’s a set up for failure for both client and clinician. Asking a client with narcissistic personality disorder to get humble and ask for help is cruel and unusual punishment for all involved. An untreated borderline personality diagnosed patient with acute symptoms sits at a first step table and nobody gains. What happens is, many of the social arenas provided in treatment, including groups and 12 step support meetings, are actually just another stage for the narcissist or anti-social personality disorder member to practice their pathology. This is especially prevalent as cluster B personality disorder traits, who end up in the criminal justice system, are mandated chemical dependency treatment.

3. There are too many recovering addicts treating other addicts. Okay, maybe I contributed to the problem, but I find that when folks become ‘experts’ and well-versed at AA or NA, they tend to expect others to work a program or get sober exactly as they did. These are the folks who do way too much self-disclosure, and every moment is an aa/na meeting, and they have a slogan for every situation. Treatment center staff who gain a masters degree only as an excuse to further their own personal agenda, which is pushing their own way of treatment onto others. Ironically, these therapists are often the most popular and heralded at treatment centers, but maybe not the most effective. They often have a fervent desire to spread their recovery gains to others, and you can’t deny the enthusiasm, but many times it could stay at the tables rather than inside facilities.

4. AA and NA itself is not treatment
Let me explain. The focus of treatment needs to be on clinical issues such as negative, self-destructive thoughts, inability to manage emotions or self-soothe without substances. (just as an example, for there are tons others.) Treatment is facing cognitive distortions, behavioral patterns, and cognitive reframing to find hope amidst despair, as well as identifying concrete and tangible behavioral changes and skills. Treatment should not be a boiler plate of writing out ones first step, listing 3 examples of powerlessness, writing an autobiography, getting a sponsor, identifying a higher power, watching a Father Martin video, etc... These things are essential, I believe, but they are a supplemental. Too often, the steps are seen as the only form of therapy.

5. AA and NA saves lives and understands addicts better than any Counseling theory.


Posted by on in Alcoholism

man-on-bed sponsorship AASponsorship is an extremely important part of the Twelve Step programs, both for the newcomer and the sponsor. As the A.A. pamphlet, Questions and Answers on Sponsorship says about the newcomer, "Sponsorship gives the newcomer an understanding, sympathetic friend when one is needed the most. Sponsorship also provides the bridge enabling the new person to meet other alcoholics - in a home group and in other groups visited."

The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous points out the importance of sponsorship for the sponsor on page 89, "Practical experience shows that nothing will so much sure insure immunity from drinking as intensive work with other alcoholics." Sponsorship is an integral part of the program for both sponsors and sponsees.

Picking a Sponsor

When picking a sponsor, there are many things that people consider: time, involvement, gender, age, similarities and more.

The Pamphlet on sponsorship reminds us, "An old A.A. saying suggests, 'Stick with the winners.' It's only reasonable to seek a sharing of experience with a member who seems to be using the A.A. program successfully in everyday life." When picking a sponsor, this is a very important issue to consider. Is the person we would like to sponsor us using the program wisely? A most beneficial sponsor will work the program in all aspects of his or her life, and be able to offer experience on how the program can work for us.

Often, newcomers look for a sponsor that shares a similar story and have similar hobbies. Although finding a sponsor who you can relate to may be beneficial, it is absolutely not necessary. The aforementioned pamphlet points out, "Often, a newcomer feels most at ease with a sponsor of similar background and interests. However, many A.A.s say they were greatly helped by sponsors totally unlike themselves. Maybe that's because their attention was then focused on the most important things that any sponsor and newcomer have in common: alcoholics and recovery in A.A." Having a sponsor with a different background may force us to really look at the similarities.


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