Q: Scott, I understand you recently celebrated 13 years in recovery. Congratulations! How did you do it?
Scott: By dealing with the underlying issues that drive addiction, mostly through mindfulness, non-dual awareness, inquiry and bodywork that focuses on trauma. That work culminated in a loss of interest in trying to escape the present moment into some future state and trying to run away from uncomfortable feelings.
Q: I understand you began in the 12 step program and then moved to mindfulness and the other things you just mentioned. When did you switch and how did that change affect your recovery?
Scott: In the beginning the 12 steps worked to keep me clean and sober. It was a struggle at first. After a year in the 12 step program, I found myself holding a handful of painkillers (my drug of choice). I was about to swallow them and probably spiral back down into full blown addiction. At that point, I threw the pills down the toilet and vowed to go deeper in my recovery. I realized that true recovery isn’t about staying clean and sober. Sure, abstinence is very important. Science tells us that it takes at least 14 months of abstinence for the brain to really heal after a history of drug and alcohol addiction. But I realized at the one year mark that recovery is really about dealing with the underlying issues that drive the addiction. Although the 12 steps talk about spiritual awakening, when I looked around the 12 step rooms and asked people with 10, 20, or 30 years, “what is a spiritual awakening and have you had one?”, the answers didn’t satisfy me. Sure, a small handful of people seemed to have had something like an awakening, but mostly what I heard were people with many years clean still seeking spiritual awakening, struggling with self-esteem issues, anxiety, unresolved trauma and process or secondary addictions to food, sex/porn, caffeine, etc.
So I set on a course to find out for myself what authentic spiritual awakening really is. That’s when I discovered mindfulness and non-dual awareness. Spiritual awakening happened. Then I began to develop the Living Inquiries and other somatic-based trauma work, to deal with unresolved trauma and self-esteem issues that lingered on after the awakening. That somatic-based work led to what I call “full recovery from addiction.”
Discovering present moment awareness as the foundation of my experience paved the way for all of my addictions, not just drugs and alcohol, to fall away. They didn’t fall away all at once. It was a process. But today, I feel so removed from that constant urge to use something to escape.
Q: You’ve recently released the book, “Natural Rest for Addiction,” through New Harbinger Publications. Does this book contain all the insights and practices you used to deal with the underlying issues?
Scott: Yes. That book contains all of it.
Q: In the Introduction to the book, you discuss the various addictions you have had through the years – painkillers/opiates, alcohol, meth, food/sugar, sex/porn, caffeine, love, tobacco, spiritual seeking, self-improvement, attention, etc. As you celebrate your 13th year of recovery, are you abstinent from all of these things now?
Scott: First of all, that list of addictions you mentioned is just the short list. I feel I’ve been addicted to just about everything a person can be addicted to. There are certain substances that I desire not to use at all including drugs, alcohol, tobacco and caffeine. I’ve lost interest in using them by dealing with the underlying issues discussed above. Some substances such as drugs, alcohol and tobacco are so highly addictive that it is best just to stay away from them completely unless one is able to moderate in a healthy way (which is rare but it does happen). I had testicular cancer three years ago along with a major surgery. I was prescribed painkillers after the surgery. I used them, of course, because the pain was extremely intense. So can I say I have remained totally clean and sober from painkillers for 13 years? No. But I took them as prescribed and quit taking them well before my doctor suggested. After that experience, I realized that although abstinence is important, life is complicated. Full recovery, as I define it, is not about the length of time one has remained abstinent. There are plenty of people who fall into the category of “dry drunk,” meaning they are abstinent but not content, at peace and emotionally, psychologically and spiritually clear. Full recovery for me is about being free of the enslavement to addictive substances and activities. For example, although I used the painkillers, the enslavement wasn’t there. Although I eat sugar sometimes, the enslavement isn’t there, and so on and so forth.
Q: Tell me about the other substances and activities to which you have been addicted and that you have discussed in various articles on www.naturalrestforaddiction.com. I’m speaking of caffeine, love, food, sugar, Internet, sex, porn, gambling. How does abstinence v moderation work with regard to these substances and activities?
Scott: Let me break them down one by one, speaking from my own experience.
I don’t use caffeine. I find it to be one of those substances for which abstinence is the best approach. Like drugs and alcohol, regular use of caffeine creates a constant up and down craving and withdrawal cycle, which creates an enslavement to it. However, a year ago I drank a cup of caffeinated coffee. Was that a relapse? Instead of thinking in terms of abstinence v relapse, a better approach is to look at the issue of enslavement. The day after I drank that caffeine, I didn’t long for more caffeine. The enslavement was not there. That’s what real recovery is about in my view. It’s about the end of enslavement, not about the number of days, months or years one has not used a substance or activity.
As for tobacco, the tobacco companies infuse these products with extremely high addictive agents. I refrain from that substance for that reason. Again, tobacco creates the up and down craving and withdrawal cycle. Best to stay away, although some can moderate tobacco use (again, I think that is rare).
As for love addiction, which I definitely suffered from, the Living Inquiries (www.livinginquiries.com) and the trauma work I developed in the last ten years untangled the knot of my story of being unlovable. I was addicted to love because of this deficiency story. It’s as if I was trying to fill that hole inside me by looking for a person or other people to love me enough to make the wound go away. But no matter what happened, no amount of love would fill the hole. As I saw through the story, “I’m unlovable,” the love addiction fell away. Does that mean I abstain from love? Ha, hardly. I feel more love today than ever. Sometimes I can walk down the street and fall in love with a total stranger and then fall out of love within seconds or minutes. The attachment is gone. The enslavement is not there. I have been with my husband for 15 years and love him immensely. But the addiction to seeking out love is gone because the real underlying issue was addressed. Love as I know it today is more unconditional and not sticky or attached.
As for food and sugar, how could anyone remain completely abstinent? We need food to survive and our brains need a certain amount of sugar each day just to function. Again, the issue is not abstinence. The point of full recovery is to end the enslavement. These days, I eat very low amounts of sugar and carbs and usually only the good kind of sugar or carbs. I do splurge a bit on Fridays. But once I cut out all those sugars and carbs, the enslavement to food and sugar was gone. And, as with all my addictions, mindfulness was the most helpful way to deal with both the cravings as well as the underlying issues driving the food and sugar addiction.
Enslavement to the Internet, sex/porn, gambling, work and other process addictions have also fallen away. I engage in those activities but the enslavement is not there. I enjoy sex but the enslavement to it is gone. When I visit Vegas, I may sit down at a slot machine for a few minutes, but the pull to stay and spend lots of money is just not there. Once again, it’s the enslavement that is gone. I can still enjoy life and its pleasures. I work quite a bit, but I cherish the times when I can just go relax and get away from work. I’m happiest when I infuse my work day with moments of just being present, or enjoying the spa or playing with my dogs. This provides balance so that I can put work down when I need to. Working in this way is much less stressful. In fact, it doesn’t feel like work at all.
Q: Not everyone can moderate the use of these substances and activities as you do. What’s the key to a healthier relationship to all these seductive things in life?
Scott: The key for me has definitely been present moment awareness, mindfulness and addressing the underlying self-esteem issues and trauma. Without that, I would still be holding back the dam, as so many in recovery do. Holding back the dam refers to the phenomenon of “not using no matter what” because you know that if you use something at all, you will fall right back into the cycle of full-blown addiction to that substance or activity. Not using no matter what can be important for the most highly addictive substances like drugs, alcohol and tobacco. But the reason people fall right back into full-blown addiction the moment they pick up some of these other substances or activities is because they haven’t dealt with the underlying issues and probably don’t experience the present moment as the foundation of their lives. When you don’t live in the present moment, your head is constantly rehashing and reliving the pain of the past and worrying about the future. It’s quite natural to want to constantly medicate those uncomfortable feelings. This is why addressing those issues is so vitally important. Trauma is the big one. From my work at the Kiloby Center for Recovery (www.kilobycenter.com), I have found that most people suffering from addiction are carrying around unresolved trauma. If there is one take away from this article it is this: deal with your trauma. Find a practitioner who specializes in somatic-based trauma work. We specialize in that at the Center and my online facilitators do also.
Q: Is it all about present moment awareness, mindfulness and dealing with these issues, or are other things helpful like medications?
Scott: Medications can definitely help. But medicine only gives you a reprieve while you are taking it. You still have to do the work on the underlying issues or else you will be enslaved to medication your entire life or you will find yourself right back in full-blown addiction as the medicine wears off or you stop taking it.
Some people suffering from mental illness need medication just to stabilize also. So medications can definitely help. It is also important to get good sleep and nutrition and to take care of yourself physically.
One particularly controversial issue in recovery is medical marijuana. There are people in recovery who have a prescription for it and it helps a particular medical condition. Are these people relapsing? Maybe, maybe not. The issue is not whether they use medical marijuana but whether they are enslaved to it, as I’ve said before.
Addiction contains so much societal shame and stigma. We need to broaden the definition of recovery to include this concept of enslavement v non-enslavement, instead of stigmatizing people who do not remain completely abstinent from all process and secondary addictions. Everyone is doing the best they can at the level of consciousness they are currently experiencing. It took me many years to find a balance where I was no longer enslaved to all these things. People come to full recovery only when they are ready.
Q: What exactly do you mean that everyone is doing the best they can at the level of consciousness they are currently experiencing?
Scott: When I was in the 12 step program, listening to people with many years clean complaining about how their lives were still miserable or watching them gorge themselves on sugar and caffeine, I knew that they were just surviving. They weren’t at a place where they could be free from enslavement to these secondary and process addictions. I had the same experience. It took me years to drop caffeine and excessive sugar, for example.
The issue I had during those early years had to do with people touting their abstinence from drugs and alcohol, as if not drinking or using drugs is the true litmus test for recovery. It is not, in my view. For example, alcohol and sugary foods share very similar compounds. Moving from alcohol to sugar addiction is more like substitution than abstinence. You are trading in one form of a substance for another very similar form of that substance. Or a person may trade drug addiction for sex addiction or shopping addiction. But enslavement is enslavement, no matter what form it takes. I wish that the recovery community would focus less on abstinence and more on dealing with the underlying issues so that substitution happens much less or not at all.
But people aren’t there until they are there. Enslavement is present as long as its present. Until the underlying issues are addressed, substitution continues happening. It’s like playing whack-a-mole at an amusement park. As soon as you whack one mole, another one pops up.
But instead of judging those people and further stigmatizing them, I think it would be better to redefine what recovery is all about. For me, it is about the end of enslavement. It’s not about whether you drink coffee. It’s about whether you are enslaved to it. It’s about whether you are substituting one addiction for another. People who are clean and sober from drugs and alcohol but who have traded those addictions for new addictions are doing the best they can to survive with a body and mind that still harbors underlying trauma and other issues that have not been resolved yet.
Q: It appears that your being 13 years in recovery is not what you are celebrating today. You seem to be celebrating full recovery, which you define as non-enslavement. Is that correct?
Scott: Today, my identity is not wrapped around the number of days, months, weeks or years that I have been in recovery or been abstinent from this or that substance or activity. I’m celebrating full recovery, which is non-enslavement, yes.
Once I started living with the present moment as the foundation of my experience and started dealing with the real underlying issues, the mental story of being an addict and a recovering addict both fell away. All that matters now is this moment. In this moment, am I enslaved to any of those things on that long list of addictions I’ve had? No. And that is something much more worthy of celebration. If anything, I am celebrating how mindfulness and awareness have dramatically shifted my experience and my understanding of recovery in this way.