Alcohol More Harmful Than Heroin

Alcohol More Harmful Than Heroin

A new study suggests alcohol is more harmful than heroin or crack

MOST people would agree that some drugs are worse than others: heroin is probably considered to be more dangerous than marijuana, for instance. Because governments formulate criminal and social policies based upon classifications of harm, a new study published by the Lancet on November 1st makes interesting reading. Researchers led by Professor David Nutt, a former chief drugs adviser to the British government, asked drug-harm experts to rank 20 drugs (legal and illegal) on 16 measures of harm to the user and to wider society, such as damage to health, drug dependency, economic costs and crime. Alcohol is the most harmful drug in Britain, scoring 72 out of a possible 100, far more damaging than heroin (55) or crack cocaine (54). It is the most harmful to others by a wide margin, and is ranked fourth behind heroin, crack, and methamphetamine (crystal meth) for harm to the individual. The authors point out that the model’s weightings, though based on judgment, were analysed and found to be stable as large changes would be needed to change the overall rankings.


We Don’t Get Here By Accident



“When I got here, my mind was like a pinball machine, but blurry.” pinball_machine_tilt_alphanumeric_display_tshir

Mark Twain On Addiction


Mark Twain and American drug “literature”

By Bruce K. Alexander

The United States has exported wondrous cultural innovations to the rest of the world. However, one of these is not its approach to drugs, which is moralistic, illogical and intrinsically violent (Alexander, 1990; Boaz, 1990, Peel, 1989; Trebach, 1987). Among the manifestations of the American way of dealing with drugs is a literature, which ranges from the blatant “fried-egg” propaganda of the popular media to a body of overblown professional writing that appears in medical, psychological, and social science journals. Both the propagandistic component and the professional component have their roots in the simultaneously moralistic and “scientific” temperance literature that began appearing in the United States at the_ beginning of the 19th century (see Benjamin Rush, 1790.1805/1947,1819; Kobler, 1973; Alexander, in preparation).

When historians look back on the last two hundred years, I think they will classify the American-inspired attempt to rid the world of alcohol and other psychoactive drugs with earlier witch-hunts and crusades. They put the American drug literature in the same category as massive Roman paeans to the virtues of corrupt emperors and endless medieval scholastic debates on the properties of angels. On the other hand, I think future historians may revere the American common sense philosophers of the same years including Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain or Will Rogers. These American giants made illuminating observations on practically everything, including drugs and addiction. Their unique genius lay in tempering intellectual brilliance with modesty and irresistible good humor. There may be far more real knowledge about drugs in American common sense philosophy than in any other source, including the professional literature that drug researchers, including myself, are labouring to produce. I will use Mark Twain (1835-1910) as my example for a commonsense philosophy today?

Mark Twain on his drug habits                                                                                   aJNns

Since Mark Twain’s research methodology may seem a bit out of place in this experimental psychology presentation, I will take a little time to work up to his strongest conclusions. I will start with a speech that he gave in 1905. This is printed in an excellent collection (l. Jeider, 1963) that presents Mark Twain as a serious essayist, although it has to concede that he was never able to suppress his sense of humor entirely. On the occasion of his 70th birthday in 1905, Mark Twain, having survived a fair portion of the Nineteenth Century, observed that it was common for people of his awesome longevity to preach about their personal habits, and that it was not uncommon for their listeners to emulate them. He thought the first part of this was fine and, indeed, preceded to hold forth on the topic of his own habits, but he urged against any emulation. He put it this way: I have achieved my seventy years in the usual way: by sticking strictly to a scheme of life which would kill anybody else, It sounds like an exaggeration, but that is really the common rule for attaining old age. When we examine the programme of any of these garrulous old people we always find that the habits which have preserved them Footnote 1. My perspective on American issues is doubtlessly colored by the fact that I am a Canadian who grew up in the United States. As a young adult, I could not reconcile myself to the actions of the American Leviathan in Vietnam. I left the United States permanently in 1970 and became a Canadian citizen in 1975. However, I haven never forgotten the special warmth and color of American culture. In view of all of this, I am perhaps unusually attuned both to harmful American policies and to redeeming American values. Footnote 2. A tip of the hat to Stanton Peele (1989, p. 39) for making me think about Mark Twain in the first place. would have decayed us … I will offer here as a sound maxim … that we can’t reach old age by another man’s road (Mark Twain 1905/1963, p. 471).

He then proceeded to describe his various habits, including very moderate consumption of alcohol, not eating lunch, and others. Of most importance to us today was his smoking. He smoked enough to induce apoplexy in today’s anti-smoking activists. In his words: I have made it a rule never to smoke more than one cigar at a time. I have no other restriction as regards smoking. I do not know just when I began to smoke, I only know that it was in my father’s lifetime and that I was discreet. He passed from this life early in 1847, when I was a shade past eleven; ever since then I have smoked publicly. As an example to others, and not that I care for moderation myself, it has always been my practice never to smoke when asleep and never to refrain when awake. It is a good practice. I mean, for me, but some of you know quite well that it wouldn’t answer for everybody that’s trying to get to be seventy … Today it is all of sixty years that I began to smoke the limit (pp.471-472). Throughout this talk, Mark Twain reiterated the point that nobody should emulate either his moderate consumption of alcohol, his immoderate consumption of tobacco, nor his total abstinence in the matter of lunch if it was bad for their own health, and that they themselves were the best judge of that. This ideas requires a few moments of digestion in the current climate surrounding tobacco and other drugs, and so I will return to Mark Twain after I have done a bit of hatchet work on the American professional drug literature.

Professional “literature”

I feel at liberty to speak frankly about the professional literature on drugs, since I am a longtime contributor to and reader of it. I also feel at liberty to characterize it as American, because it is American professional journals that set the critical standards and produce most of the bulk. American Psychological Association journals playa role although they obviously have other purposes as well. I am not sure how this body of writing first came to be called a “literature” or why it is sometimes accepted as “scientific,” since it has little in common with either literature or science as they are known in other contexts. It lacks any trace of literary appeal; it has no core scientific paradigm; and it is unfailingly soporific, even from those of us who helped write it. When I first faced these facts, I naturally accepted the articles that I had written myself. Then I met other people who shared my dismal view of the larger endeavor, with the exception of their contributions to it, but with the inclusion of my own. This created a certain dissonance in my analysis, which I hope I can now resolve. We can only understand this drug literature as a whole, because any time you hold up any part of it as well-grounded and internally consistent, several others will hold up some other part and say you’re ignoring the evidence. When they finish corning at you from all directions, this pack of sharks will turn on each other, and you may join ir1″the destruction of someone else’s work if you wish. Therefore, you can run rats, administer questionnaires, analyze variance, interpret factors, and/or concoct snappy slogans for a lifetime, but you won’t get anywhere. I’ve laboured at this myself for more than two decades, but when I survey the “literature” beyond my own decades, I see the same questions and answers endlessly argued, although the figures of speech change over the years. I also find the same uncivil tone throughout; other people’s ideas are either treated with contempt or, more likely, ignored completely. Some people want to represent this as science in progress, but it does not have the theoretical core of “normal science” as it has been described in physics (Kuhn, 1970) or biology (Mayr, 1982), nor is it built around a systematic and civil vulnerability to falsification that is often taken as the defining characteristic of science (Popper, 1959).

The temperance undertow

Why is it like this? I think that, in the field of contemporary drug research, we are seeing a lot of good thinkers and researchers thrashing around in the undertow of a cultural way of thinking that always draws them back to a particular core of ideas, no matter how strongly their observations and scholarly judgment may pull them away from this vortex. The core ideas were laid out by the 19th century American and Canadian Temperance movement and have become a part of North American culture. They have been propounded by the American government with particular intensity for the last decade-and-a half (Humphreys and Rappaport, 1993). Sociologist Harry Levine (1992) has described our wo countries, and a few others in the world as ‘temperanc~cu1tures:” I will here refer to the way of thinking about alcohol and drugs that predominates in a temperance culture as a “temperance mentality.”

Two studies of the temperance mentality

What is this temperance mentality and what gives it power over otherwise independent thinkers and researchers? I will try to answer these questions by making reference to a comparison of the nineteenth century temperance literature and the twentieth century anti-drug literature that I have just completed, and to the results of administering a “temperance questionnaire” to university students in several countries.

Comparative historical research

From Benjamin Rush’s early writings just before the beginning of the Nineteenth Century until the prohibition era in the 1920s, there was a remarkable uniformity in the temperance view of alcohol. Of course there were people who opposed this view of alcohol-the so-called “wets” -but there were more “drys” and the temperance mentality Dr. Benjamin Rush was the dominant vision for many decades. The two most fundamental temperance premises were simple and coherent: 1) alcohol use and alcohol addiction were primary causes of society’s problems including the problems of sexual promiscuity, violence, family dissolution, labour and racial unrest, insanity, illness, child abuse, atheism, addiction, and, sometimes, the downfall of civilization itself and, 2) universal abstinence would greatly reduce these problems and was achievable through certain temperance remedies. These temperance claims were stated in language that was harshly moralistic and accusatory. To many abstemious Americans and Canadians, the temperance claims about alcohol remain almost self evidently true. Nonetheless, they are a cultural manifestation, rather than a statement of objective fact. Outside North America there are many nations that consume more alcohol per capita and suffer from similar social problems, but nonetheless have never sought to blame these problems on alcohol or sought to ameliorate them by promoting abstinence (Levine, 1992).

Late in the 19th century, the temperance ideas were extended, almost unchanged, to other drugs. This has continued to the present. If you analyze, for example, Mark Gold’s famous book, BOO-Cocaine (1984), or the pronouncements of the recent The temperance mentality, with respect to both· alcohol/and illicit drugs, is being taken very seriously by a significant proportion of the population of North America. American “Drug Czars” (e.g., Martinez, 1991), or dozens of other mainstream, hard-line anti-drug works, you will find them full of ideas about heroin, marijuana, or cocaine that are virtually identical to temperance ideas about alcohol. Moreover, you will be hard-pressed to find stronger evidence for these claims about drugs than that proffered for the original temperance claims about alcohol. Further, if you consider the pronouncements of the more liberal supporters of current American drug policy, you will find a softened form of the same temperance message. Their message is similar to that of the liberal wing of the historical temperance movement which softened the tone of the extremists and backed away from the more extravagant claims and more violent forms 6f repression, but nonetheless stuck tight to the fundamental temperance premises and national campaigns to prevent all use of certain drugs. It takes a bit of demonstration to she\-\’ this, because the liberal proponents of American drug policy generally think of themselves radically shifting the emphasis, for example, from “supply reduction” to “demand reduction” and from a “justice model” to a “public health model” and so forth. A little examination of these changes, however, shows temperance thinking pretty much intact with them (Alexander, in preparation).

Temperance questionnaire

The temperance mentality, with respect to both alcohol and illicit drugs, is taken very seriously by a significant portion of the population of North America. I know this from extensive, often heated, discussions on drug issues that I have had all over Canada and the United States. Today I will try to illustrate this quantitatively by showing you some responses of university students to a Temperance Mentality Questionnaire (the TMQ) that my colleagues and I have administered in the United States, English Canada, and the· Netherlands, and which we are now preparing to administer in French Canada, Ireland, Bulgaria and Italy (Alexander, et aI., 1992; Burt et aI., in preparation). The TMQ was designed to measure adherence to the ideas espoused by the temperance movement about alcohol; and adherence to those same ideas when applied to currently illicit drugs. The test includes 50 items that we derived from Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century North American temperance literature and from historical accounts of that same ~ra. Each item on the questionnaire can be documented with quotes from these historical sources. The language of the TMQ was modernized somewhat, primarily by replacing archaic words and phrases ‘like “ardent spirits” and “drunkard” with more modern equivalents like “liquor” or “alcoholic” and by changing some of the references from alcohol to currently il~icit drugs.  Half of the fifty items on the TMQ were statements  The widespread acceptance of the temperance mentality in the United states, relative to other countries; is illustrated by the student data in Table 1.

Influence of the temperance mentality

Does the widespread acceptance of the temperance mentality influence drug policy and, more important for present purposes, does it affect the professional drug literature? It seems to me inconceivable that it would not influence drug policy. ln majority of people really believe that alcohol or the illicit drugs

Temperance mentality about alcohol
University     Reject     Neutral     Accept
Utrecht (Netherlands)     31.2%     65.5%     3.4%
Simon Fraser (Canada)     27.2%     67.1%     5.5%
Washington (Seattle, WA, USA)     15.2%     73.0%     11.8%
Cameron (Lawton, OK, USA)     7.7%     62.1%     30.2%
Temperance mentality about illicit drugs
University     Reject     Neutral     Accept
Utrecht (Netherlands)     13.2%     67.3%     19.5%
Simon Fraser (Canada)     11.0%     57.1%     31.8%
Washington (Seattle, WA USA)     3.4%     50.0%     46.6%
Cameron (Lawton, OK USA)     2.4%     28.4%     69.2%

of attitudes towards alcohol, and were derived directly from temperance literature. A typical item is:
“Abstinence from alcohol in a community is the key to social progress.” (Question No. 21.) The other half of the items were re-worded so that they referred to a currently illicit drug or drugs in general. A typical item is “Selling marijuana would be immoral, even if it were legal” (Question No. 14.) About half of the items of each type were stated in a negative form, so that a person couldn’t receive a high score on the temperance mentality just because they like to say “yes” to questionnaire items. This questionnaire has now been given to over 1,000 university students.

Multivariate statistics show clearly that the students do not respond to the temperance items independently, but as if they formed a coherent whole. That is, students either agree with most of the items, disagree with most of them or respond with a consistent neutrality (Burke et aI., in preparation). have the demonic qualities that the temperance mentality attributes to them, then temperance policy will prevail. Only the staunchest libertarians would advocate anything other than an abstinence policy for a substance that, even in small doses taken by normal people, causes incurable addiction, deforms unborn babies, induces violence, causes fatal heart attacks, and is threatening to bring about the fall of western civilization. If the claims of the temperance mentality are true, it would make no more sense to tolerate the sale of alcohol or drugs than to tolerate the sale of AIDS virus. Research seems to me no less influenceable than public policy. Governments, university boards, and research foundations established by large corporations powerfully influence research of all sorts through grant money, ethics committees, hiring policies in universities, awards, subsidies for professional publications, and so forth (Danziger, 1990). Government and many big businesses are, at this juncture of history, foursquare behind major portions of the temperance mentality as applied to illicit drugs (Alexander, in preparation), Researchers, of course, pride themselves on being irascible, independent-minded characters, but This does not make them exempt from the laws of reinforcement or natural selection, or from bureaucratic control. An illustration of the controlling influence of the temperance mentality on research comes from a study of articles submitted to a professional society on the topic of cocaine in utero. This study was conducted by researchers here in Toronto (Koren et aI., 1989). It showed clearly that articles on the effects of in utero cocaine administration were likely to be accepted if they confirmed the temperance presupposition that drugs in any quantity are harmful to unborn children and that they were unlikely to be accepted if they did not. In many cases, articles with inferior methodology by normal research standards were selected over those with better methodology, but the wrong conclusions. I can personally report many instances of the temperance mentality influencing drug research, and many other professionals can as well (e.g., Humphreys and Rappaport, 1993; Searles, 1988).

Mark Twain on temperance and liberty

Obviously, excessive temperance zealotry does not constitute proof that all temperance claims are false or that intemperance is a virtue. Again, Mark Twain is a good source o(a balanced perspective. His 70th birthday speech, cited previously, made it clear that he rejected some of the temperance claims totally. He was himself a moderate user of alcohol, and he allowed that other people might find heavier use than his to be a healthy practice in their lives. He maintained that his totally immoderate smoking had helped him to attain old age, although he acknowledged that it might have killed somebody else. Please note how far he was from temperance doctrine at this point. Within the temperance mentality, it might be admitted that Mark Twain lived beyond age 70 in spite of very heavy smoking. But Mark Twain said that he survived to old age because of his smoking. This proposition runs far beyond the simplistic temperance assumption that all drugs can be divided into the good and the bad. It suggests that people can and do make complex.· informed decisions about using and not using drugs, and that everybody should not make the same decisions. It also suggests that the effect of tobacco on longevity might be strongly affected by some of its psychological effects which are more idiosyncratic than the physical harm that it does to the cardiovascular system. In other words, in his modest way, Mark Twain was … in spite of its puffed-up jargon, the temperance mentality was, and is, pushing science toward the justification (or sometimes repudiation) of its simplistic slogans providing the impetus for a complex scientific analysis, whereas, in spite of its puffed-up jargon, the temperance mentality was, and is, pushing science toward the justification (or sometimes repudiation) of its simplistic slogans.

A balanced viewpoint

But Mark Twain did not have a totally laissez faire attitude towards drugs. This emerges clearly in an article entitled “The Temperance Crusade and Women’s Rights” (Mark Twain, 1873/1963). In this article, Mark Twain comments on a new cultural phenomenon that was sweeping the United States in 1873. Tightly organized bands of women were gathering on the sidewalks outside of saloons and praying conspicuously, around the-clock, until the saloon was forced out of business. Mark Twain noted that this activity was illegal and a nuisance. He also opined that the women were a bit credulous in attributing their success in closing bars to divine intervention. If. God was shutting down the bars, he ventured, the ladies could just as well have done their praying at home or at church. However Twain thought that, under the existing circumstances, this temperance activity was justified. He pointed out that the women involved were generally admirable, well-respected people. He also noted that many of them had husbands or sons who were squandering their time and money in the saloons to no good purpose. Finally, he noted that the women wouldn’t have to rely on divine intervention or obstructing traffic at all if they were allowed to vote for the kind of laws that would impose sensible limitations on the sale of booze. He ends his article, however, with some harsh words for the male ministers who were joining the women’s temperance efforts and building a grand metaphysical and institutional structure upon them. He suggested that such men would do better to stay in church and preach at people to obey the law.

Thus, although Mark Twain was not a temperance zealot, he was not born-again libertarian either. He apparently believed that the judgment about using drugs would be achieved by a kind of dynamic tension between people’s perceptions of their own needs and the sentiments of their families and their close society. He appeared to draw a sharp distinction between the normal human impulse to press for temperate use of drugs among one’s close relatives and the “temperance” doctrine that meant to impose abstinence on the world.
It se~IIlst01l1ethatMark Twain was miles ahead of both the’ propagandistic and professional components of today’s drug literature. But please don’t think that I have Come here to tell you that the rest of us drug researchers should give up. Rather, I think that Mark Twain’s keen, humane observations offer us a renewed inspiration for pulling ourselves away from the vortex of temperance thinking. Should pharmacologists not be investigating the question of how the same drugs that kill some people, might keep others alive, if this is truly so? Should sociologists not be exploring the possibility that local forms of social control might be helpful in dealing with drug problems even though national and international drug “wars” have clearly failed?

Finally, I hope that I do not sound anti-American. I have reached a stage in my life at which I am weary of condemning the evils of the great and terrible country of my birth. I would prefer to celebrate its unique genius. Part of its genius lies in its common sense philosophers, and it might be in them that we find the wellspring that will freshen our field of enquiry now, when it is so intellectually parched. On a larger scale, perhaps Americans do not need to turn to the English or the Dutch for enlightened alternatives to their bankrupt drug policies, but to their own rich cultural history. On the largest scale of all, perhaps a Renaissance of American common sense is not beyond contemplation.

Presented to the American Psychological Association Meeting, Toronto, Ontario on August 20, 1993


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Past and Present, submitted to Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry
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Trebach, A.S. (19~7). The Gre?t Drug War: And R?dical Proposals That Could Make America Safe Again. New York: MacMillan.

Thank you,


A Brush With Death

Losing friends and family members to the disease of addiction has taught me that this disease is serious. Escaping life and getting fucked up can be really fun and some times humorous, but those of us that have suffered the reality of loss know the final destination is not funny.

We can sit in meetings and laugh at all the stupid things we have done, but when we actually lose a loved one to this disease and they die, it gets really real. Most of us either are or know a person who is an addict. If that person never has the desire to change, then the possibility of death, insanity or imprisonment are supremely real.

When we “get it, the desire to change burns in our hearts like a tattoo made with a branding iron.

It is the only passion that can save us. Without it we stay in our sick situations: Drinking, snorting, shooting up. eating, smoking, cheating or turning a blind eye to all of the latter keeps us from attaining our true path.

To be a better more effective person is not always a desire in a person’s life. Sometimes mediocre getting by and accepting an unfinished life is all we will ever aspire to.

Our Higher Power can create miracles, but can our Higher Power give us desire?

Do we stay in the wake of a short trip to death or in a long slow eroded life and never have the desire to change?

I was given grace. I was given a burning desire to change my life and I have accepted all the circumstances of the change. I was 35 years old and maybe I had more drunks in me, but I was given the choice and I was ready that day. I took the hand of life and I made a choice to live.

I am forever grateful for that gift of desperation.

I have walked through some pretty stupid situations sober. It is not always easy to stumble around sober completely aware of being like a child learning to walk. This can be awkward when you’re a grown person.

But in the effort to grow there have been times I see how being sober can help others. We have talked a fellow addict off a ledge, poured the liquor down the sink, dragged their asses to a meeting, sat up into the wee hours with them, spent hours on the phone, using our gifts to create another and another reprieve from a brush with death.

Drama you say? Funny? This fucking disease kills.


I choose sobriety today one day at a time…

and I am forever grateful.

My Life With Drugs Rock n Roll and Addiction


By Gary Stromberg, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Gary Stromberg, who runs the PR firm The Blackbird Group, co-founded Gibson and Stromberg, a music public relations firm that operated in the 1960s and 1970s and represented The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Muhammad Ali, Barbra Streisand, Boyz II Men, Neil Diamond, Ray Charles, The Doors, Earth, Wind & Fire, Elton John, Three Dog Night and Crosby, Stills & Nash. He’s co-written several books that deal with addiction, including “The Harder They Fall.” His fourth book, “She’s Come Undone,” is due out this spring. He is active in service work to help people recover from addiction.

(CNN) — The Whitney Houston headlines last week sent a familiar shiver through me.

In the 1970s, I ran one of the leading entertainment business public relations firms. Celebrity clients were wildly indulging themselves, accountable to no one. It was money, power and prestige, with no one to say, “That’s enough.”

Drugs and alcohol were endemic. Today, the conversation revolves around prescription drugs, but back then we were into more basic mind-altering substances: pot, psychedelics, cocaine and heroin.

To be truthful, I had an amazing run before it all turned to garbage.

Gary Stromberg

Gary Stromberg

My office, on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood, was set up like a huge living room with couches, overstuffed pillows on the floor, rock star posters lining the walls and a coffee table, the centerpiece of which was a large crystal bowl, filled at all times with a generous supply of cocaine.

The house rules were “help yourself if you’re here on business — but no take-outs!” We were regularly visited by our clients, including The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, The Doors and Steppenwolf. As you could imagine, my office was a very popular place.

But 29 years ago, I stood at the precipice with a decision to make. With a career of impressive accomplishments in the rear-view mirror, I had what looked like only despair and death ahead of me. Alcoholism and drug addiction had rendered me into what the “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous refers to as “pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization.” The choice seemed simple. Choose life or death.

Do I acknowledge I have a problem, or do I continue to live in denial?

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Do I listen to my friends and family, or do I seek my own counsel?

Do I continue to deteriorate mentally and physically, or do I say, “I’ve had enough?”

Do I choose to live, or do I want to die?

If I once had a dream, I thought, it was long ago shattered. If I once had a dream, it’s floating face down in a bottle of Jack Daniels. If I once had a dream … ahh, screw it, I ain’t no Martin Luther King Jr.

Throwing in the towel and surrendering to admitting I had a serious problem should have been the obvious thing to do, given the state I was in. But at the time, change seemed impossible, unimaginable, incomprehensible and downright insane. Insane was the right word, all right, but it described my state of mind.

Alcohol and drugs are subtle foes; cunning, baffling and powerful. I seemed to be the last one to know I was in big trouble. When my high-profile career started to fall apart, it was other people’s fault. When my substantial income dried up, my business manager was to blame. When the beautiful house I so dearly loved was finally foreclosed, it was the bank that was screwing me. When she finally couldn’t take it anymore and left, I knew she was the type to do this to me. When my friends began to disappear, they were scum and didn’t deserve me. And when, at last, my only friends, my drugs and alcohol turned on me, I knew it was over.

And so a journey of unimaginable proportions began.

Not to any outward destination. No rehab, no trip to a far-off spa. I didn’t move to another city, as if a geographic change would fix it. No, I didn’t have to travel anywhere, except into the mirror, and by peeling the onion of my soul. The journey was within, to at long last discover where the real problem resided.

It was, of course, in me.

What a surprise — with the loving help and support of a 12-step program, I found the real culprit. We in recovery refer to alcoholism as a spiritual sickness. And if you look that up in the dictionary, you’ll find a photo of me. “Mr. Spiritual Sickness of 1982.”

If you ask me nicely, I might show you a picture of that lost soul that I still carry around in my wallet. Yes, I had long hair and a beard, the smug look of false confidence on my face and even the obligatory turquoise jewelry of that era. But look more closely, and you’ll see in my eyes shallow pools of emptiness, pupils like pinholes from the daily consumption of narcotics. As a friend remarked when he saw the photo, “The lights are on, but nobody’s home.”

After you shake your head in disbelief,and look up at me again wondering how this was possible and how I became such a different person, I will offer you an explanation.

I’m a recovering drug addict and alcoholic who was spared from a life of misery, incarceration and death. I’ve been spared from the life of self-centeredness that led me to care very little about others and only about myself. I’ve been spared from the countless fears of inadequacy, failure, success, intimacy and anything else that threatened my well-guarded defenses. I’ve been spared a life of darkness and shown a path into the light.

We don’t yet know why Whitney died, but we know she struggled with addiction. It’s a pity that now, Whitney will not have the option I had.

Virtue v/s Circumstance

An addict will not change by virtue. Virtue did not get us sober. An addict gets to AA by circumstance, circumstance that ripped our lives to shreds. For most of us, AA was the last house on the block.

Given the gift of desperation, we come in the rooms of AA willing to do what ever it takes to change our lives. Many of us are surprised when we find out that we are to give up the drink forever and that we are not here to learn “how to drink.”

We become willing to find a Higher Power other than our selves.

Our best thinking got us into situations that kept us in slavery to the will of others, including jail, mental institutions, unhealthy situations and just plain juggernaut behavior that was defining our lives.


We know deep in our guts when we are holding on to some thing or some one that isn’t working. We feel such relief when we finally let go and get honest with ourselves.

The truth is we are imperfect humans and we make mistakes. No one said we have to do this perfectly. The only thing we have to do perfectly is, just not drink or drug.

Many of us have grown up confusing independence with self will.

Many of us chose the path of avoidance, wanting God to take care of all our problems for us, like when we are sleeping or while getting surgery under anesthesia and waking to the surgeon telling us, “You’re healed, we got it all.”

Half measures availed us nothing. We stand at the turning point with complete abandon.

A million miles away
Your signal in the distance
To whom it may concern
I think I lost my way
Getting good at starting over
Every time that I return

I’m learning to walk again
I believe I’ve waited long enough
Where do I begin?
I’m learning to talk again
Can’t you see I’ve waited long enough
Where do I begin?

Do you remember the days
We built these paper mountains
And sat and watched them burn
I think I found my place
Can’t you feel it growing stronger
Little conquerors

I’m learning to walk again
I believe I’ve waited long enough
Where do I begin?
I’m learning to talk again
I believe I’ve waited long enough
Where do I begin?

For the very first time
Don’t you pay no mind
Set me free again
To keep alive a moment at a time
But still inside a whisper to a riot
To sacrifice but knowing to survive
The first to climb another state of mind
I’m on my knees, I’m praying for a sign
Forever, whenever
I never wanna die
I never wanna die
I never wanna die
I’m on my knees
I never wanna die
I’m dancing on my grave
I’m running through the fire
Forever, whenever
I never wanna die
I never wanna leave
I never say goodbye
Forever, whenever, forever, whenever

I’m learning to walk again
I believe I’ve waited long enough
Where do I begin?
I’m learning to talk again
Can’t you see I’ve waited long enough
Where do I begin?

I’m learning to walk again
I believe I’ve waited long enough
I’m learning to talk again
Can’t you see I’ve waited long enough

Leave Your Body Behind

Below you will find an abridged letter that a Sober Driver contributor, Razzle D. Bathbone, sent to a friend, who is desperately struggling with his addiction to alcohol. Maybe Razzle’s rant might be of use to someone. 

I’m sorry to hear that you put yourself through another tumble off of the wagon. I am not judging. I can not say that I have been there very many times myself and that’s simply because I hardly ever got ON the wagon….. at least with booze. Only one year, out of forty, I abstained. But I can relate, though, through my cocaine and speed addictions. Each time was “the last time”. But it wasn’t. Hell. Yup. A real nightmare.

All I can tell you is what I’ve learned from my own experience (validated by some great books). I’m here to tell you that I believe that I’ve found one way to beat the addiction scene. I tell you this with the best of intentions and sincere concern. I hope that you will please take it to heart and give it a hard try. Some of this you will know from your own experience. Some of it you may not. Either way try and dive in to it with devotion. This isn’t theoretical, I’m telling you from personal experience.

First off, forget every thing that you think you know about “spirituality” and “self realization”.

Just surrender and wipe it clean. Realize that all of that stuff is just another “story” that you use to define yourself. It creates a false sense of perspective and sense of control. The mind just LOVES that stuff. After all, what good is spiritual teaching if you can’t stay sober? Stay with verifiable facts and try and stay in the moment.

So, surrender to the infinite Universe and admit that you really “don’t know shit”, cuz the fact is…. we really don’t. We just think that we do and that is just another story in our head and gets us into trouble.

Second off, and this is essential, start to really learn exactly the facts about what addiction is. If we don’t really understand what it is that we are grappling with then we are just chasing our tails and end up sick, hung-over and full of remorse for our experience…. then eventually prematurely dead. (Think of your family and loved ones.) All of the stuff that you think you know (biology of belief, states of consciousness, karma, etc) is of absolutely no use if you don’t know the nitty gritty facts of what addiction is. Some people, people like us, have a genetic proclivity to be harnessed by addictions. That’s why we end up not being able to control our use, while others do. Some people can take a drug or a drink and then walk away. (I never could.) Like begets like and “we” find each other and validate each others self destruction.

We addicts are hard wired differently from other folks and the more we use, the more altered our wiring becomes. For us, drug and alcohol addiction is an organic form of mental illness! Sure experiences that we have in life influence us and we use them as rationalizations and justifications for using alcohol or drugs but that is really just another story we tell our selves to explain why we cannot control our abuse.

To quote Dr. Alan Leshner, former director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, he wrote in 2000:

“Addiction is a brain disease expressed in the form of compulsive behavior. Both developing and recovering from it depend on biology, behavior, and social context.”

And in 2006 the NIDA stated;

“Drug (and alcohol) addiction is a complex but treatable brain disease. Relapse occurs at rates similar to those for other well-characterized, chronic medical illnesses such as diabetes, hypertension, and asthma…. addiction is a chronic disease similar to other chronic diseases such as type II diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease.”

That means we aren’t bad people trying to be good. We are ill people trying to get well. I used to rant endlessly about how that was all bullshit and my addictions were all just a matter of my CHOICE and I should have that freedom. That thinking kept me in THAT story and of course I just went in circles because I had no idea what I was talking about so how could I deal with it? Knowledge IS power. Ignorance is slavery.

Bear with me here. Here is some more medical science from NIDA:

“As for drug and alcohol craving…. the intense hunger that drives addicts to seek drugs despite the strong likelihood of adverse consequences…. researchers have shown that it is related to widespread alterations in brain activity, but especially to changes in the nucleus accumbency area of the fore-brain. An important type of craving experienced by addicts, called cue-induced craving, occurs in the presence of people, places, or things* that they have previously associated with their drug taking. Brain imaging studies have shown that cue-induced craving is accompanied by heightened activity in the fore brain, the anterior cingulate, and the prefrontal cortex…. key areas for mood and memory.”

Current NIDA Director Nora Volkow MD wrote in 2003:

“Drugs and alcohol exert persistent neurobiological effects that extend beyond the mid brain centers of pleasure and reward to disrupt the function of the brain’s frontal cortex… the thinking region of the brain, where risks and benefits are weighed and decisions made.

That’s the part of the brain that tells us that it is not a good idea to put our hand in a flame. The part of the brain that can decide rationally that something is bad for us. Drug and alcohol use in addicts deteriorates the part of our brain that lets us decide right from wrong and the benefits or costs of our actions. The “cues” stimulate a part of an addict’s brain that is “broken” or hampered and decision making abilities are restricted on a cellular, organic level.

I was just gonna have a few beers and go home so how did I end up drinking a whole fifth and waking up sick on someone’s couch with cuts and bruises all over my knees? I swore I would never do this again! 
Sound familiar?

Dr. Volkow continues:

“Recent studies illustrate the similarity of addiction to some disorders that are not associated with drugs. For example, compulsive behavior and poor choices are hallmarks of obsessive-compulsive disorder and pathological gambling. These disorders, too, are characterized by disruption of the frontal brain’s capacity for reason and control.”

Once addicts start down the road of chronic drug/alcohol use we are actually changing our brain and I mean organically. Our brains are permanently altered from drug/alcohol use. At a cellular level we become, quite literally, different people. Among other things we develop chronic, acute mood disturbances and are walking around with this repercussion driving our moods and daily choices. Then our negative life experiences (often a result of our inability to make the right choices) amplify and mask this bedrock illness and often become justifications for our “fuck it all” attitude and behavior.

I now can objectively look at my own behavior (in the dim past AND right up to the moment) and I can clearly see that I suffer from depression and I am also somewhat obsessive-compulsive. If I started out with these afflictions or if I brought them about by my drug/alcohol use….. I don’t know. But I do know thatmy addictions to alcohol and drugs exacerbated these afflictions which in turn made my afflictions exacerbate my addictions. It is an endless cycle. Addiction is a mental illness and using the terms “recovered” and “cured” are the kiss of death for people like us. Yup, we’re special alright. But not alone. It isn’t just the Native Americans who are genetically disposed to let “firewater” destroy their lives.

So how can we work with this illness and stay healthy?

Remember that bit, above in those quotes, about cue-induced craving, occurring in the presence of people, places, or things*? Well, I have found that my THOUGHTS are things. They are not real things or who I really am but these “thought-things” allow us to spin mind stories, that are often VERY subtle, veryfictional and we use them to define who we think we are. We IDENTIFY with these mind stories and act them out. As the Buddha and many others have pointed out, everything starts with intention. If we ALLOW our thought-things to define who we think we are (a mental “trick” or illusion) and then we grasp on to these definitions of ourselves with INTENTION to completely IDENTIFY with them, we find ourselves locked into a role that we cannot break out of.We literally are painting ourselves into a mental corner and believing that we have no choice. In a very real sense “as you believe, so it is done unto you”, a self fulfilling straightjacket philosophy! We are NOT our thoughts! 

Now we ALL have our own very personal definitions of “who and what we are”. The the victim, the over achiever, the enabler, the failure, the success, the sex pot, the abused, the intellectual, the abuser, the dumb ass, the “touched by God”, etc (and various hybrid blends) but they ALL are just mind stories. We are the consciousness that is watching all these stories.

For example, if I define myself as a hard rockin’, pushing-the-limits kind of guy who needs to “raise hell” once in a while and the way I’ve always acted that role out (or people I’ve admired always did) was to use drugs or alcohol….  Well as soon as I notice that particular thought-thing-story starting to babble away in my head I might identify with it as real (instead of just another thought-thing) and if I do it triggers the cue-induced craving that will become my intention and it will eventually be impossible for me to do anything but act upon who I identify and define myself as. If that definition says I have to drink because that is who I am…. it’s all over but the puking. My thought-thing, taken seriously, becomes a self fulfilling intention hampering my ability to make rational judgements and choices and then the use of alcohol/drugs completely impedes and disconnects ANY ability to make responsible rationally choices and this happens WITHOUT OUR CONSCIOUS KNOWLEDGE! This doesn’t happen for all people but it does for addicts.

So the ONLY path to follow is the simple path of practicing mindfulness and trying to dispassionately witness thoughts without identifying with them and taking them seriously. It gets easier as one practices it.

The next essential thing to do is KEEP INSPIRED and learn how to practice mindfulness and DO IT. Read books and watch films on the science of mindfulness but more importantly…. DO IT. With every thought we have the opportunity to dispassionately be the “witness”. Use a 12-Step support group if that works for inspiration for you. Find people who are working on the similar path. Listen to them. But only YOU can change YOUR identification with YOUR thoughts. Thoughts are things but things of no REAL substance. Clouds drifting by. Good ones, bad ones, ones of every stripe and configuration but they are just there to be used as tools when needed. We are not our thoughts and the more one practices this mindful “noticing” the more OBVIOUS it all becomes! I find watching my breath (something one can do anywhere, any time) is a great practice that shows me that I am not my thoughts. They just whirl around “me”.

Also, have a good laugh at yourself as you see the identification cues try to induce the craving and get a hold on you. Laugh as you just let it all roll by. For people like us, letting that first flood of thoughts just fade away without attachment is as important as insulin is to a diabetic. It is that first thought process that has to be laughed at and not taken seriously. Don’t be afraid of it, that just gives it “realness”. Laugh at it. It can be fun.

I strongly urge you to read Dr Gabor Mate’s bookIn the Realm of Hungry Ghosts“. He really does a terrific job of explaining the biological aspects of addiction, along with everything else to do with addiction, and he does it with lots of expertise and compassion. Also Darren Littlejohn has a great book called “The 12-Step Buddhist – Enhance Recovery From Any Addiction”. It is full of wonderful stuff. I also recommend a lecture documentary by Robert Thurman, that Netflix has for streaming, called “Robert Thurman on Buddhism”. He is real easy to connect with! There most likely is some Robert Thurman on YouTube too and he has many books. (Check him out on Wikipedia.) Another source of sobering inspiration is Buddhist punker Noah Levine. He is on YouTube as well and has books.

We can get well. It happens all of the time….. and believe it or not…. it can actually be fun!

Lecture over. (Wink) Take care of yourself my brother.

Razzle D. Bathbone