Joy, by Accident

I’m stealing this line from Laura McKowen’s Instagram post. Flat out thievery. It happens — the joy, not the thievery — from time to time. Just the act of being, a sudden awareness of how good this is — this life that I’ve found on the other side of fear — the fullness of my life without booze can be surprising.

These moments of recognition come at ordinary times – walking down the street, after the rain has started or stopped, midway through an ice cream cone. These little moments of sheer joy are a fleeting treat and when I catch myself in one I nearly always smile.

For years, I strived to find happiness and failed. I looked everywhere I was told to look. Happiness will come, they said – in your job, or your wife, or your family, the new car, nice clothes, the latest gadget, and on and on and on. Always external. Always in some thing or some other. Never within.

And when I had all the things that were supposed to bring me happiness, I found myself profoundly unhappy. And I self-medicated, which only led to the darkest corner of hell I could find.

I’ve learned that when I’m unhappy, it’s usually because I’m not happy with myself. It’s usually because I’ve done something or failed to do something. Sometimes that sense of being ill at ease comes because I’ve judged myself so harshly, or have compared myself to some unrealistic ideal. Very rarely am I really unhappy with someone else – though there are times, because let’s face it, sometimes you just run into a world class asshole in life.

I’ve found that when I am happy with myself, when I accept myself for who I am, warts and all, that these moments of unexpected joy surface. Joy, by accident.

“Just Say No” Didn’t Work in the ’80s and the Slogan Won’t Work Today


“So if we can keep them from going on—and maybe by talking to youth and telling them: ‘No good, really bad for you in every way.’ But if they don’t start, it will never be a problem.” — Donald J. Trump, August 8, 2017.

As far was the public knows, this constitutes the entire White House strategy for addressing the Opioid Crisis in America.

Even if one ignores our President’s inability to speak in complete sentences, these words are those of a fool. But the fool didn’t stop there. He went on to say, “Strong law enforcement is absolutely vital to having a drug-free society. I’m confident that by working with our health-care and law-enforcement experts we will fight this deadly epidemic and the United States will win.”

Lets be honest with ourselves, “Just Say No” failed completely and utterly. During the peak of the “Just Say No” years our nation witnessed the crack epidemic, which devastated our cities.


There are so many reasons why these naive polices have failed. First and foremost is that the “Just Say No” camp fails to understand the effect of peer pressure on teens. According to this article, “psychologists used functional magnetic resonance imaging scans on 40 teenagers and adults to determine if there are differences in brain activity when adolescents are alone versus with their friends. The findings suggest that teenage peer pressure has a distinct effect on brain signals involving risk and reward [my emphasis], helping to explain why young people are more likely to misbehave and take risks when their friends are watching.”

Now, it’s well researched and documented that drugs and alcohol affect our brain’s reward center. Specifically, drugs and alcohol increase our brain’s production of dopamine. It’s thought that the reason that people need more and more of a substance as they become addicted to it is because their dopamine receptors become accustomed to the high levels of dopamine that are produced when we partake in a drug or alcoholic drink.

So, lets put these two things together. Kids have an increased level of risk taking when in the presence of friends, as a result of heightened activity in the reward centers of the adolescent brain induced by the mere presence of peers. This leaves them susceptible to trying the drink or drug in the first place. Then when they do try it, they experience the rush of dopamine that further heightens the activity of the rewards center of the brain.

Add to this that many teens who try drugs or booze are doing so in order to escape from some form of trauma whether they know it or not. I certainly was. When I first started experimenting with booze and marijuana, I was about 16 years old. I turned 16 in 1988. Between January of 1988 and the middle of 1989, I had 5 relatives die. One Uncle, 3 Grandparents, 1 Great Uncle, and my Great Grandmother. I don’t remember anything from from my Junior year of high school. It’s blackness.

Now, I’m no psychologist. I’m not a neuroscientist. But I am a recovering alcoholic and I can tell you in no uncertain terms, that the rush of the first drink was pure pleasure every damn time. And when I was in that fog of death after death after death, the promise of a short escape, the promise of relief was not only tempting, it was awesome. There was no fucking way I was going to say, “No” when I was first introduced to booze and marijuana by a friend.

I was well educated on the topic of drugs and alcohol. I’d watched my alcoholic grandfather throughout my childhood. I also knew that several of the deaths were the direct result of smoking and booze. Nonetheless, I desperately wanted the relief that came with a bit of escapist experimentation — especially because my friends were doing it.

That’s why telling kids “Just say no,” or “No good, really bad for you in every way” isn’t going to do shit to address the opioid epidemic.

So lets look at the second part of Mr. Trump’s asinine strategy: Enforcement and Incarceration.

It turns out that this hasn’t worked either and it’s well documented.

Even conservative business magazines like Fortune get this:

“Despite the logic of limiting the availability of drugs and threatening and punishing those who are involved in the drug trade and using drugs, the report card for this tough method of enforcement is bleak. We have invested more than $1 trillion during [Fortune’s link not mine] the past 45 years in the war on drugs. Yet there is essentially no evidence in support of the success of that effort.”

Why has this failed?

Because addiction is a medical problem, not a moral problem. Even in the 1930s the medical profession knew this. Dr. Silkworth who contributed to the chapter “The Doctor’s Opinion” in the book Alcoholic’s Anonymous knew that it was a medical problem not a moral problem when he wrote, “We believe, and so suggested a few years ago, that the action of alcohol on these chronic alcoholics is a manifestation of an allergy”1

And because addiction and trauma are closely linked there are often other mental health concerns at play as well.

“To complicate the landscape, approximately 40% of opioid-dependent individuals have depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder, and some have other co-occurring psychiatric disorders. Post-traumatic stress disorder and personality disorders are also present, though less frequently. Punishment is not only ineffective; it often exacerbates these mental health problems.”2

Punishment does not address the fundamental issues that an addict faces. It does not address depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder or PTSD. And neither do our incarceration centers.

When I was freshly sober, a friend on Twitter asked for sober people to write letters to one of his friends who was in a detention center after a DUI. I offered to write to this person and told my story in the letter. I fully expected that I might never hear back on the letter, but to my surprise I got an email one day and one sentence in particular struck me:

“Thank you for taking your time to write to me, I have read your letter over and over and have continued to read it daily. The support meant so much to me while I was in jail, especially since there were no meetings or AA literature to read.”

I was dumbstruck. I simply could not believe that there were no meetings or even literature made available to a person who was being held as the result of a DUI. It turns out, sadly, that this is not uncommon. According to a 2014 article in the Washington Post, while 65% of our prison population met the medical requirements for substance abuse disorder, only 11% of our prisoners were offered treatment. That’s a travesty. It is no wonder that the recidivism rate for people with substance abuse disorders exceeds 80%.

Now, the crack epidemic of the 1980s, it didn’t register on the radar of most of America, for a lot of reasons, but primarily because it never became a drug of choice across socio-economic boundaries. But today, things are different. Today, we are witnessing an opioid epidemic that affects all socio-economic classes of our society — rich, middle class, and the poor. It also touches nearly all of the other classifications we use to identify people: black, white, brown, gay, straight, trans-gender, and cis.

Not that the crack epidemic of the Reagan years wasn’t horrendous, but the opioid epidemic is even bigger. And its destroying our society.

It turns out that our “No good, really bad for you in every way” President, actually has very own bipartisan panel investigating the opioid crisis and their report makes the recommendation that he declare a national emergency.

“With approximately 142 Americans dying every day, America is enduring a death toll equal to Sept. 11 every three weeks,” the commission members wrote, referring to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “Your declaration would empower your cabinet to take bold steps and would force Congress to focus on funding and empowering the executive branch even further to deal with this loss of life.”3

In addition to this recommendation the report makes several smart recommendations including:

  • Rapidly increasing treatment capacity.
  • Mandating prescriber education initiatives.
  • Immediately establishing and funding a federal incentive to enhance access to Medication-Assisted Treatment.
  • Providing model legislation for states to allow naloxone dispensing via standing orders.
  • Requiring the prescribing of naloxone with high-risk opioid prescriptions
  • Equiping all law enforcement in the US with naloxone to save lives
  • Enforcing the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act (MHPAEA) with a standardized parity compliance tool to ensure health plans cannot impose less favorable benefits for mental health and substance use diagnoses verses physical health diagnoses.

These are good recommendations. These are recommendations that make sense and would have an immediate impact on the opioid epidemic. But president Trump hasn’t declared a national emergency and his comments aren’t about expanding treatment. Why not?

I don’t know the answer, but I suspect that he probably hasn’t read the report (it’s well known that he doesn’t read) and even if he has read the report, these recommendations don’t fit his agenda.

What can we do?

So, if you’re like me (and I don’t just mean someone in recovery), you may be wondering what you can do. Here are two recommendations.

  1. Sign this petition asking that the President follow his own commission’s recommendation and declare a national emergency.
  2. Contact your representatives make your voice heard. Tell them that you want to see the opioid crisis addressed in a meaningful way and that the president’s reiteration of the last 40 years of two failed policies isn’t the answer.

  1. A.A. World Services Inc. Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th Edition (Kindle Locations 265-266). A.A. World Services, Inc.. Kindle Edition. ↩︎
  2. ”Trump Clearly Has No Clue How to Stop the Opioid Epidemic” ( ↩︎
  3. “White House Panel Recommends Declaring National Emergency on Opioids” (

What Does It Mean To Write a Recovery Blog?

I went to bed with feelings of fear and guilt. As the rhetoric toward North Korea from the White House fired up to unprecedented levels my lizard brain went kicked into high gear last night.

I’ve been reading Ken Follett’s “Century Trilogy” and I’m on the last book Edge of Eternity which is about the Cold War period of the twentieth century. I’ve just gotten past the Cuban Missile Crisis in the book and can’t help but compare that crisis to our current crisis with North Korea. I’m not alone.

I’m not so old that I remember air raid drills, but I was old enough to watch and understand as Reagan negotiated with Gorbachev to bring about treaties leading to a much safer world in terms of the threat of nuclear war. While many credit Regan with bringing down the Soviet Union, I am quick to remember that the fall of Communism lead to a economic vacuum in Russia resulting in several wars and ultimately the installment of an insane former KBG agent as dictator.

My father worked for FEMA and we lived near enough to Site R that I remember seeing the tunnel entrances from the road in my youth. Of course, no one was supposed to know about this Underground Pentagon, but everyone in the area did in the same way that folks who live near the NSA always knew that “No Such Agency” was right off the Baltimore Washington Parkway.

All that’s to say, that I grew up aware of the fact that Nuclear War with the Soviet Union was a grim possibility. So, as the rhetoric turns more and more bellicose toward North Korea, and as our relations with the Russian Federation grow more strained, I’m worried about the safety and security of the world.

And last night, as I sat alone in my house, a scant 35 miles from Washington DC, while my wife was at dinner with friends and my son is away at sleep over camp, my mind raced with the thoughts of nuclear war. And in a moment of weakness I tweeted.

And I felt like I’d let my twitter followers down.

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to what it means to write a blog about recovery and to participate in the online recovery community. I know that my blog provides many people with inspiration because they tell me so. I know that my tweets and posts have inspired others to seek sobriety. In short, I know that I’m making a difference.

And with that knowledge comes a certain weight. A certain feeling of responsibility. Part of it is the nature of social media. Its been documented several times that we present a curated life to the world in social media.

I try not to do that.

I have written about struggles here and I’ve shared my struggles on Twitter many times. In many ways the online recovery community has been more important in my recovery than my local 12 step fellowship.

But still I worried that I’d slipped up and somehow indicated that it was acceptable to consider a drink if we’re about to die. Maybe it is and and maybe it isn’t. I mean, shit, if I’m gonna get burnt to a crisp by a nuclear bomb, I’m not sure that it matters if I have one last glass of bourbon and a final cigarette. Then again, it would likely not be very enjoyable and I’d much rather spend the last few minutes of my life holding onto the people that I love.

I don’t know what my responsibility is to the recovery community when it comes to this blog. Am I only supposed to write about my triumphs? Am I only supposed to lift people up? Do I have a duty to constantly support those who need support?

I don’t know what the answers to these questions are.

What I do know is that I’m just another guy who has a problem with booze. I’m not special. I just share my story with the world and sometimes that story is inspirational and sometimes it isn’t.

I also know that despite lying awake well past my bedtime, the sun also rose this morning. The earth continues to spin on its axis. I got up, made coffee, read the news, tweeted, kissed my wife good-bye, and started my day. This afternoon, I’m going to have lunch with my brother.

Life goes on even when our leaders are acting like children. We’re probably not about to have a nuclear holocaust.


Why Do I Stay Sober?

Yesterday, one of the #recoveryposse on Twitter asked “what’s your number one reason stay sober?” Without hesitation, my initial response was “Because I’m genuinely happy now even when things aren’t always great or don’t go my way.”

It’s a great question because the answer to it holds meaning for those who are sober as well as those who are interested in getting sober. When I was drinking, the idea that I might live without drinking was foreign. I could not conceive of a happy life without alcohol — despite the fact that I was profoundly unhappy. But when I started to explore the world of sobriety I heard people talk about what it was like to be sober, how their lives were changing for the better, how they enjoyed their days and were not bored. I heard about the gifts they’d received in their new lives and I desperately wanted those gifts.

In the end, I’d lost hope.

It wasn’t easy. When I first put down the bottle, I struggled mightily. There were days when I couldn’t think about anything other than a drink. There were times when I lost my shit — Like the time that I got angry at dinner and threw a half eaten hamburger across the kitchen before storming out to go to a meeting.

But I kept hearing messages of hope.

When I heard people talk about the richness of their sober lives, I heard hope. Hope that things could and would get better. Hope that I wouldn’t live my life in quiet desperation, waiting for that chance to come when I could take a drink with impunity. Hope that I wouldn’t always be on edge, that I wouldn’t lose my shit and throw hamburgers across the room. Hope that I would feel better. Hope that I’d have fun again. Hope that all would not be lost. Hope that I’d be happy.

Now that the moon has orbited the earth more than a few times since I gave up the bottle, hearing the answers to this question is a good reminder to me of why I must remain sober. When I hear someone say, “I need to stay sober or I’ll die,” I think to myself, “yes, yes, that’s it.” When I hear someone say, “I stay sober for my kids,” I think “Yes, that’s it too.” When I hear another say, “Because I can. Never could have imagined my life free from that prison, and I’m not throwing away that gift,” I think to myself, “That’s also it.”

There are many reasons why I stay sober. But as my friend Sean says, the biggest one is because “my life is better without alcohol.” Sometimes, it’s easy to lose sight of that. Sometimes the appeal of the sweet release of whiskey sounds good. Sometimes the idea of a cold IPA on a hot summer day sounds wonderful. But when I really stop and think about it, my life is better without those temporary releases — that’s why I stay sober.