Tuesday, January 26, 2016

"Unbroken Brain": A New, Forward-Thinking Book on Addiction

(Note: This book review also appears on The Huffington Post Books site under the same title.)

As a recovery advocate and the father of someone in long-term recovery, I've read more books about addiction than I can count. When my son first started struggling with drugs, I made a vow to educate myself as much as I possibly could. Knowledge is power, and I wanted to know everything about addiction. I still do. So I read about it. A lot. And I can honestly say that Maia Szalavitz's Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction is one of the best books I've ever read on the subject.

Maia Szalavitz is a fabulous writer who has penned a wonderful, very forward-thinking book about addiction. She introduces us to some new theories about addiction, several of which may have people re-examining the way they've thought about one of the most prevalent and deadliest problems in America today.

Szalavitz sets out to show that addiction isn't a choice or moral failing. "But it's not a chronic, progressive brain disease like Alzheimer's, either," she notes. "Instead, addiction is a developmental disorder--a problem involving timing and learning, more similar to autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and dyslexia than it is to mumps or cancer." Yes, Szalavitz is blazing new trails here.

The author contends that "addiction doesn't just happen to people because they come across a particular chemical and begin taking it regularly. It is learned and has a history rooted in their individual, social, and cultural development." She adds that the addicted brain is not "broken," as many other researchers and writers have suggested. Instead, she says, the addicted brain has "simply undergone a different course of development....addiction is what you might call a wiring difference, not necessarily a destruction of tissue."

Looking at addiction as a learning disorder may seem strange to some, but Szalavitz states that doing so "allows us to answer many previously perplexing questions." And in Unbroken Brain, Szalavitz--who is 25+ years in recovery from cocaine and heroin addiction herself--tells us how learning is a part of every aspect of addiction, oftentimes drawing upon her personal experience to illustrate her points.

There are so many interesting and thought-provoking topics covered in this book. From the problems associated with waiting for someone to hit "rock bottom" to the myth of the addictive personality; and from the issues surrounding 12-step programs to why harm reduction isn't a bad thing. ("Harm reduction recognizes [the] social and learned components of addiction. It 'meets people where they're at,' and it teaches them how to improve their lives, whether or not they want to become abstinent." Amen to that.)

If you or someone you love has been touched by addiction, or if you're just interested in this fascinating subject, I cannot recommend Unbroken Brain highly enough. This book contains a wealth of information, but Maia Szalavitz presents it in an organized manner while writing in a clear and understandable voice. Trust me: You will not be bombarded with a bunch of scientific language that you don't understand. 

Szalavitz writes in the introduction, "Only by learning what addiction is--and is not--can we begin to find better ways of overcoming it. And only by understanding addicted people as individuals and treating them with compassion can we learn better and far more effective ways to reduce the harm associated with drugs." That is definitely the approach we should be taking with addiction. Hopefully, Maia Szalavitz's innovative new book will be the catalyst for some positive change.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Death Terrifies Me

(Note: This blog post also appears on The Huffington Post's blog site as "Death Terrifies Me: Too Many Questions, and Not Enough Answers.")

Death terrifies me.

I'm sure it's because I'm getting older, but recently I've started thinking more and more about death. I'm 54 years old as I type this, which is, I'm reasonably sure, several years beyond the halfway point of my life. (I think it's a pretty safe bet that I'm not going to live to be 108.) And while death has never been a comfortable subject for me, lately that discomfort has intensified.

There are so many triggers in my world these days that make me stop and think about just how damn old I am. Business executives look like they're teenagers. Star athletes are younger than my kids. Records I used to listen to as a high school student are turning 40. Etc.

Over the summer, my wife and I had to buy a new washer and dryer. Not to sound morbid or anything, but I started wondering: Is this the last washer and dryer I'll ever buy? The same thing went through my head when we bought a new mattress, too. All of a sudden I'm doing a lot of math in my head, and all of the story problems contain the number 54.

"Dean bought a new washing machine when he was 54. If the average lifespan of a washing machine is 14 years, will Dean ever have to buy another washing machine? Show your work."

I can't help it. That’s how I think. I know that age is just a number, and 54 isn't really that old (is it??). I mean, in my head I still feel like I’m 18, and I feel pretty damn good physically, too. So why worry?

I worry because death is the ultimate unknown for me. Nobody knows what happens when we die, and that uncertainty scares me. When you die, do you stop feeling everything? Or does your soul live on, allowing you to observe and feel stuff going on in the mortal world? Do you really go off to heaven or hell, depending on what kind of life you lived? Or do you reincarnate and come back to earth as a cat or some kid who's just being born?

Too many questions. Not enough answers.

I also worry about how my two boys will fare when their aging parents are dead and gone. I know that since my own father passed away almost three years ago, I find myself missing him more than I ever thought I would. My dad and I didn't even get along for most of my life, and I still miss him. I oftentimes wish I could call him and ask him questions when I have to fix something with the tools he left me. And when some crazy play happens in a football game I'm watching on TV, I still kind of expect the phone to ring and my dad to be on the other end asking me, “Did you see that?!” Because that's what he did.

Last month, I had to be put under general anesthesia when I went into the hospital for a procedure on my heart. Twenty years ago, I wouldn't have thought twice about it. But now? I have to admit, there was a voice in my head telling me, "Hey, some people go under and never come out of it. Good luck." (On the other hand, maybe that wonderful feeling you have while being put to sleep by the anesthesiologist is exactly what death feels like. How awesome would that be?)

So I've decided I’m going to start reading some books about death. I'm going to start with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's seminal book, On Death and Dying, and move on from there. I hope to read scientific books, spiritual books, and even books by or about people who saw the white light and maybe had a talk with God before returning to life.

What I hope to accomplish is simple: I want to become more comfortable with the idea of death. I want to get to a point where I'm (reasonably) okay with dying. Obviously, I don't want to rush things, but as I get closer and closer to that day, I don't want to be terrified. I want to be able to accept it.

I've wanted to write about my fear of death for quite some time. I wasn't planning on doing it today, but this morning I woke up and saw a post my oldest son--who has been struggling lately--made on Facebook last night. It was a video for John Mayer's song "Stop This Train," and it included the lyrics. One of the verses goes:

"Don’t know how else to say it
I don't want to see my parents go
One generation's length away
From fighting life out on my own."

When I read those words, I knew I had to write this blog post today.

My father was the first person I ever watched die. I was at his bedside when he took his last breath at age 86. My mother may be one of the healthiest people on this planet, but she’s almost 85 now. And my wife's parents are in their "sunset years," too. Yes, death is inevitable, which makes it hard not to think about it. I just don’t want to be scared when I do.

"Life is pleasant. Death is peaceful. It's the transition that's troublesome." --Isaac Asimov 
(Note: “Stop This Train” lyrics © 2006 by John Mayer/SONY/ATV Music Publishing LLC)

Thursday, January 7, 2016

A Great Quote from Anne Lamott

While finishing up Anne Lamott's Some Assembly Required: A Journal of My Son's First Son yesterday, I came across this line that I absolutely loved. I just wanted to share it with you all.

"Laughter lifts the phonograph needle out of the scratches on my heart's album."

Sometimes laughter truly is the best medicine, people. Never forget that.


Monday, January 4, 2016

My Goal for 2016: Celebrate Enoughness

(Note: This blog post also appears on The Huffington Post's blog site under the same title: "My Goal for 2016: Celebrate Enoughness.")

Today is the fourth day of 2016 and my youngest son's 20th birthday. How can that even be possible?? Damn. The older I get the faster time seems to go. It's so weird how that happens.

Christmas is the benchmark for me. When you're a kid, Christmas seems like it takes forever and a day to arrive. But when you're in your mid-50s, like I am, you'd swear that somebody changed Christmas into a holiday that occurs once every three or four months.

No one can tell me that these trips around the sun aren't getting shorter and shorter.

With the dawn of the new year, many people make resolutions they hope to stick to for the next 365 days. But resolutions are absolutes. With a resolution, you either succeed or fail. That's a lot of pressure to put on yourself, so, as I mentioned in my first blog post of 2014, I prefer to set goals instead.

By definition, a goal is something you strive for; not an absolute. You choose something you want to do or accomplish and you take steps to get there. If you don't reach your goal, chances are you'll at least have made significant steps toward getting there. "Progress, not perfection" is perfectly acceptable in this instance.

In 2015, I set one goal for myself: Find a job I'm passionate about. And while I didn't achieve that goal, I feel like I did make some progress. Although it's not a full-time job, I landed a freelance gig with a company in the addiction/recovery field, and it's allowing me to do work that I'm passionate about: helping others who are struggling. Not only that, but I get to write, too, which makes it even better.

It's now been more than two years since I've been employed full-time, but I can't really complain about how things are. Sure, it would be nice to have a little more money to pay the bills with--that Affordable Care Act health insurance isn't really all that affordable--but my family is getting by, and that's way better than a lot of other families are doing. So I am grateful. (Hey, at least I'm alive for 2016, right?)

This morning, while I was perusing things in my Facebook newsfeed, I came across a great piece from Brain Pickings entitled "16 Elevating Resolutions for 2016 Inspired by Some of Humanity's Greatest Minds." The resolutions were inspired by folks like Søren Kierkegaard, Susan Sontag, John Steinbeck, and Friedrich Nietzsche, and all of them were extremely thought-provoking. (Example: "Choose understanding over judgment," inspired by Anne Truitt.)

But waaaaay down at the end of the Brain Pickings list was the one resolution that resonated the most with me. And it just so happens to be the one inspired by one of my family's favorite authors--Kurt Vonnegut.

"Celebrate enoughness."

That resolution was inspired by a short remembrance Vonnegut had written about his late friend, author Joseph Heller. Originally published in The New Yorker, it later appeared in John C. Bogle’s book Enough: True Measures of Money, Business, and Life. Here it is:
True story, Word of Honor:
Joseph Heller, an important and funny writer
now dead
and I were at a party given by a billionaire
on Shelter Island.
I said, "Joe, how does it make you feel
to know that our host only yesterday
may have made more money
than your novel 'Catch-22'
has earned in its entire history?"
And Joe said, "I've got something he can never have."
And I said, "What on earth could that be, Joe?"
And Joe said, "The knowledge that I've got enough."
Not bad! Rest in peace!
That, my friends, is a badass story. And you know what? I, too, have "the knowledge that I've got enough." Of course, this crazy thing called life can always change. It's entirely possible that six months from now, I could find myself in dire straits. (Let's hope not!) But today? I have enough.

So I've decided that this will be my one and only goal/resolution for 2016:

1. Celebrate enoughness.

Today's society is too damn materialistic. So many people spend too much time focusing on what they don't have, instead of appreciating all the things they do have. The Dalai Lama once said, "When you are discontent, you always want more, more, more. Your desire can never be satisfied. But when you practice contentment, you can say to yourself, 'Oh yes--I already have everything that I really need.'"

I may not have an HDTV, a new car, a full-time job, fancy clothes, or an overflowing bank account, but I don't really care. Because I am rich in so many other ways, and I already have everything that I really need. I am content. And I have enough. And I'm going to be grateful for that every single day of 2016.

I invite you to take a good, hard look at your own life and realize just how wonderful it is. Maybe you can celebrate enoughness along with me.


"Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for." --Epicurus

Kurt Vonnegut got it right when he wrote "Old Dean."