Triggers, Messages, & Flack Jackets

This one is gonna be messy — honest and messy, like me.

The rooms of 12 Step Fellowships are triggering for me. Not in a “I’m gonna need a drink” way, but triggering none the less. They have been since day one.

A few of the things that I find triggering in 12 Step are God (regardless of who’s understanding it is), Religion, Outdated and Imprecise Language, Hypocrisy, and Dualistic Thinking.

And I know I’m not alone in this. Many other people are triggered in the rooms as well. The rooms may be triggering for many different reasons, but they are still triggering for a lot of people.

How does one recover in an environment that is triggering? How does one recover when one doesn’t feel safe?

The short answer is that often, we don’t. Often we leave. And more often than not when we leave, we fulfill that 12 Step saying that we’ll end up dead, in jail, or institutionalized.

And yet, I continue to show up because when I lean into the discomfort of the triggers I recognize that they are memories of traumatic events that happened in the past and aren’t currently happening. In other words, I’m currently safe, even in a triggering environment. And by leaning in, I get to remain connected to a group of people who help me to stay sober. For me, 12 Step has always been about the fellowship rather than the program.

I also happen to know many people who have left the rooms of AA who continue to maintain happy and healthy lives. People who continue to live their life following a moral compass, who are sober, and who are anything but “Dry Drunks.” These people are often highly emotionally intelligent. For those not familiar with this term, here’s the definition according to Google.

Emotional Intelligence
noun: emotional intelligence
the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’ve heard a lot in the Recovery community about Sobriety being more than abstinence. I’ve heard a lot about something called emotional sobriety. I personally believe that emotional sobriety and emotional intelligence are the same thing. I also believe that sobriety is not dependent upon emotional intelligence, but that a happy and healthy life actually is dependent upon the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions.

But this is a topic for another post. What I want to write about today is a dialogue that must happen. A dialogue that needs to be given space to exist within as well as outside the rooms. A dialogue that I believe can save lives.

The simple fact is that the 12 Steps have an abysmal success rate, at least as best as can be measured. Depending upon what statistic one looks at, the success rate is anywhere from 5% to 40%. The variance in the reported success rate is largely due to the anonymous nature of the program. Even if one wants to argue that the success rate is better than 40% there are still thousands of people dying every damn day because they aren’t getting the help they need.

We need to have a dialogue about multiple pathways in the recovery community as well as in society at large. We need to add professional help from the medical community and the psychiatric and mental health therapy community.  If the recommended treatment method for any other disease failed as often as the 12 Steps do, it wouldn’t be the recommended treatment. If people continued to die because antibiotics were only successful at treating bacterial infections such as Staphylococcus at the same rates that 12 Step is effective, we would be looking for alternate treatments.

This conversation needs to start in the recovery community. We need to make space for it. We need to allow it and we need to take the cotton out of our ears and stuff it in our mouths if we don’t like the conversation, because people are dying.

We need to start carrying the message that there are multiple ways to recover and that no one group knows best. We need to be open to the possibility that the way we’ve always done it may not be the best way. But most importantly, we need to talk about it.

Today, when someone expresses these concerns within a 12 Step forum, the most frequent response is that it gets shut down. We hear a lot of fear mongering. We hear a lot of reasons why it doesn’t work for everyone. We hear a lot about people needing to “want it” and willingness. And I don’t discount that.

What we don’t hear is that its okay that it doesn’t work for everyone and that there may be other ways to recover. For a group that claims “love and tolerance is our code” we can be awfully hurtful and rather intolerant when the topic of alternate paths of recovery comes up.

The fact of the matter is that we know a lot more about addiction after 84 years of study than we did in 1935. We know that addiction fundamentally changes our brains. We know that addiction is fueled by chemical reactions in our brains that have to do with dopamine and GABA receptors. We know that substances not only give us a dopamine hit, but also cause our brains to create more and more dopamine receptors. This is why we develop tolerances. And we know that when we suddenly remove the substances that gave us the dopamine hit, the brain reacts, sometimes in violent and life-threatening ways.

And yet, we continue to treat addiction with prayer and meditation. We continue to treat it with a program that is essentially a guide to living a good life. A moral compass of sorts. A program that essentially says, don’t be a dick, and when you are, admit it and do what you can to make it right.

Don’t get me wrong, that’s an important lesson for anyone. But it is not the be-all and end all of how to treat addiction. And it’s especially not effective when there are aspects of the program or the rooms that trigger people, causing them to feel unsafe and to leave. As one of my good friends in recovery says, “I can’t treat a dead person.”

So, we need to have people who are brave enough to bring up this topic. We need to also have people who are open minded enough to listen to the conversation and participate in the dialogue. I know from personal experience, that raising questions about 12 Step often leads to flack from some factions in the recovery community.

I also know that I have a flack jacket. I know that when I put something like this post out there, I need to put that flack jacket on. And I also know, that some days, I can’t bear the thought of wearing that flack jacket. So on those days, I put the jacket down and I don’t put myself in situations where I’ll need it. I am comfortable that the day will come when I can put it on and continue to raise this awareness.

Today, clearly, is a day that I’m ready to put on the flack jacket.


Stopping for Sam

If you follow me on twitter on Instagram then you know I’ve transformed myself from a relatively sedentary guy to a relatively passionate runner. In a little over a year, I’ve gone from barely being able to run for 90 seconds to running between 10 and 15 miles per week. Running has become a form of self care for me and I love it. I’m grateful that my body continues to heal from the damage I did when I was drinking.

Running is also a way for me to get out of the past and future thinking modes for which my brain is so hard wired and to get into the present. I tend to count off my footfalls in fours. I notice when my heart rate is higher than I want it to be (thanks to my watch) and I slow down and focus on my breath to bring it back into the zone that I am targeting. I notice others in the road or trail. I am delighted when I see friends in the trail, especially if they are friends from the rooms, as I did yesterday.

Because I am present and aware I notice my environment and what’s going on around me. And this is where the story of this post comes into focus.

Yesterday, I was out on a long training run, planning to run 8 miles as I train up for a 10 mile race in August. I’d been out on a tempo paced run for about an hour and a half and was closing in on the last mile when I noticed a man who I’m going to call Sam to protect his identity.

This was the longest run I’ve ever done and my motivation to complete it was very high. I wanted the little hit if dopamine that comes with the realization of a goal and a virtual trophy on Strava. I wanted to prove to myself that I could go the distance. I didn’t want to stop along my route.

Sam was underneath a picnic table which was underneath a pagoda on the side of the B&A trail in my town. He was on his back and looked to be writhing around a bit. The situation did not look good.

At first I kept running. I thought to myself, “that poor bastard is really in bad shape. Best not to engage. You’re so close to the end of your run. Keep moving.”

But then, because I’m in recovery and acutely aware of the epidemic of opioid addiction, I started to get concerned. “What if that guy is ODing? What if he needs help? If I don’t stop, who will?” I’d like to claim that the AA responsibility clause was ringing in my ears but it wasn’t. I just knew that I needed to check on Sam.

And so, about 25 yards after passing him I turned around.

I’ll be honest, I was a bit afraid of what I might be getting into. If he was ODing, I knew that I didn’t have Narcan and even if I did I’ve not been trained to administer it. I knew that I would need to dial 911 and stay for a bit. I knew that I might witness a man dying before my eyes. And I knew that if none of those things came true I could be in for a tongue lashing from a homeless drunk who didn’t want to be bothered.

I also knew that even though the trail was crowded in the glorious mid-day sun of June 2, 2019, not a single other soul was going to check on Sam.

And so, I approached cautiously. “Hey man, are you alright?” Something barely audible came out of Sam’s mouth and for a moment I was more concerned. “What’s that? Do you need help?”

“No, I’m okay,” his tired voice said. “I’m okay.”

“I saw you on the ground and wanted to make sure. I was afraid you might be ODing.”

“No,” Sam said. “I don’t do opioids — I drink a lot. Are you an EMT?”

I told Sam that I was not an EMT but that I am in long term recovery. I told him that I used to drink every day and that I’d been sober for three and a half years. I told him that there were a lot of people like us who would help him if he wanted to get better. I offered to call someone if he needed me to or to get him an ambulance.

Sam talked to me about his experiences with my old home group and mentioned a local legend from the AA community known for his drum circle meetings. I had to tell him that BR had passed about a year ago and that he’d died sober. Sam was sorry to hear this.

While Sam was clearly drunk and slurring his words he was able to hold a relatively coherent conversation and I felt that he wasn’t in immediate danger. He commented repeatedly about how I looked good and in shape and that he couldn’t believe that I used to have a problem with the drink. But I assure him that it was indeed true, that I’d worked hard to change and that he could have what I have if he wanted it.

I shook his hand and told him that he should make sure to get some water and eat something and that if I had any money with me I’d be taking him to get those things. He appreciated that.

And the I was off to complete my run. When I got to the cool down part of my workout I called my sponsor and another friend in recovery. Both told me what I already knew, that I can’t save everyone and that I’d done the right things. My sponsor reminded me that my stopping and talking might just be a little light in Sam’s world, perhaps the nudge he needs to find sobriety.

I’ll probably never know.

Later in the day, while doing errands with my son I drove by the spot just to see if Sam was still there. My son tiled me I’d missed our turn and I told him I just needed to see something. Sam wasn’t there and I don’t know what happed.

What I do know is that this small act of kindness took less that 10 minutes of my day and that if I hadn’t stopped it’s likely that no one else would have checked on Sam.

Maybe even a small act of kindness makes a difference when we live in such a disconnected world where others look past their present surroundings and ignore the plight of their fellow human beings.

Be kind to yourself and to your fellow beings. We are all just walking each other home.