Thursday, April 30, 2015

Stop Bending my Finger

For seventeen years, my principle responsibility was Director of Family Services in a substance abuse facility.  The experience shaped what I know about addiction.  Addiction can be very difficult to understand.  I want to use the next few blogs to talk about addiction.  Why would someone take a poison, hoping to make things better, when it only makes things worse?   
The word addiction comes from a Latin root meaning “to dictate?”  This makes sense. When someone becomes addicted they are owned by their addiction.  The addiction tells them what to do.  The classical definition of addiction is: “slavery to a pernicious habit, especially that of certain drugs.”  
However, I found that this information is relatively useless, when sitting across from a 10 year-old who wants to understand mommy’s behavior.  I needed something more to help the child understand.  In his/her mind, “if mommy loved me more,” she’d be able to stop.  “Why isn’t my love for mommy enough?”  
Addiction is not about logical behavior.  Continuing to put a poison in your body, expecting things to get better, is not logical.  Addiction is about feelings and emotion.  People use drugs to feel better and they work.  If you put a drug in your body, for some period of time, you may feel better, or at least you won’t feel your pain.  Addiction is about feelings and sensation, not about being rational. 
Therefore, using a kinesthetic (sensory experience) explanation captures the essence of addiction.  I use two metaphors:
“When we ask your mommy to stop using drugs, it would be as if we asked you to stop breathing.  Can you imagine what your first reaction would be?  Are you crazy?  I can’t get along without breathing.  I need breathing to live.  I couldn’t possibily stop breathing.  That’s what it’s like when we ask your mother to stop using drugs.  Inside she feels like she wouldn’t survive without using her drug.  We know that isn’t true, but that’s what it feels like to her.”
The second example actually incorporates the horror of addiction.  I tend to use this with older children:
“Imagine for a moment that I was to take your pinky and started bending it back.  Imagine that I just kept bending it and bending it.  After a while, the only thing you would be thinking about is how to stop this fool from bending your finger.  You wouldn’t be thinking about your parents or your friends or your school work.  The only thing you would be thinking about is how to stop the pain in that finger.  That’s what it is like when your parent gets up in the morning and they are addicted.  The addiction makes them uncomfortable and all they can think about is how to stop their pain.  It isn’t that they don’t love you.  They love you just as much as they ever did.  But they can’t think of anything except how to stop their pain.  The problem is that the only thing that will stop their pain, is more of the drug that caused them the pain.  They go on using, day after day, in order to keep the pain away.”
If using more of the drug is what will make the pain go away, how does anyone ever get away from the drug.  Recovery from addiction requires feeling the pain, facing the hurts you experience and you gave to others.  Recovery forces the addict to stop running away and feel their hurts.  That’s why it is avoided by so many addicts that never get recovery.  The pain caused by the addiction is not as profound as the pain they experienced in their life and family.  

Friday, April 24, 2015

Understanding Carl Whitaker

           I first met Carl Whitaker when I was an intern at Elmcrest in 1975.  I had no idea who he was, other than he was billed as the “Grandfather of Family Therapy.”  He lectured in the morning,  did a demonstration with a real family, then finished off the day talking with the audience.  As a 24 year-old student of psychotherapy I was flabbergasted.  He was the most grounded and grown up man I had ever met.  He talked about being a person with the clients.  His demonstration was amazing.  I felt totally in sync with what he was saying.  When he was done, I was surprised to find how many people didn’t understand him, agree with him, or like him.  They didn’t get Carl Whitaker.      
              Many people don’t get Carl Whitaker.  He spoke in primary process.  He talked about the family in ways that would take you there.  This meant that he spent a lot of time in the right side of your brain.  Sometimes I accused him of doing hypnosis and putting us in a trance.  But he denied knowing anything about hypnosis.  His style of talking wakes up the unconscious.  
              One time he asked me if I knew why I could do “his stuff?”  I didn’t have a clue.  I just knew that I understood him.  He said, “It’s because we don’t need them.”  He went on to talk about how we both grew up on farms.  We were isolated on the farm and we learned to be with ourselves.  I don’t know if he was accurate regarding me.  But this was a man that was at peace with himself.       
            I had monthly supervision with him for ten years.  I attended all of his conferences that were close by.  And I know that I captured him as a foster grandfather when he did a therapy session with my brother and I after my mom was murdered.  I was honored when I got a call asking me to be a moderator for Carl at his next workshop.  The job was to sit with Carl on the stage and interpret what he said for people that didn’t understand him.  I agreed with some reservations.  The idea scared me, but I agreed because any time I got to spend with Carl was special for me.    
                The night before the workshop I had a nightmare.  I dreamt that when Carl lectured, I didn’t understand anything he said and I was totally embarassed.  The feeling of fear stayed with me into the day.  I told Carl about the dream when I arrived.  We both chuckled at first.  Then he was more direct.  “No one is going to remember what happens here today.  You are going to be up there with me.  Just enjoy it.”   It was a great thing for him to say to me at that moment.  I went on the stage with the sole expectation that I would enjoy the day.  One more time I would get to work with Carl.  
               Then my worst fear came true.  I didn’t have a clue what Carl started lecturing about.  It was something he thought of at 4 A.M., that didn’t make any sense at 9 A.M.  I laughed at myself and recognized that my mind was just living out my dream.  But then when he took the break at 10, numerous senior clinicians were coming up to me asking me what the hell he was talking about.  No one else understood him either.  
               Creativity results in you having both good and bad ideas.  That morning, Carl’s creativity took over.  His thoughts that morning may have been absolutely brilliant, but I'll never know.