WARNING: THIS ARTICLE MIGHT MAKE YOU QUIT VAPING

This is not the first time I’ve written an article like this but I pray it is the last. 

I quit vaping cold turkey 30 days ago but who’s counting? I was ripping through 4 Juul pods every day and a half.  I had some chest pain but I brushed that off.  I had some headaches, dry mouth, sore throat but whatever, right?  In terms of nicotine, 4 Juul pods is equivalent to 80 cigarettes. 80!!!  That’s like 4 packs of cigarettes every 36 hours.  Ummmm….no.  This had to stop.  I treated myself like a child.  “You put the bead up your nose?  Okay, no more beads.  You blew it.”

People with mental illness smoke more than the general population. People in recovery smoke more than the general population.  There’s a high comorbidity of mental illness and substance abuse.  I’m not going to bore you with the stats.  Nicotine is addictive and we like addictive stuff. The WHY of people in recovery smoking is not that hard to figure out. 

I think I started smoking in my first rehab at 24 which is pretty common. Everybody smoked there. From then, it was an on and off relationship.  I could go months or years but once something really stressful hit me like a break up or a parent’s illness, back to smokes I’d go. “Well, at least I’m not using,” was my usual rationalization.  And as my smoking or vaping continued, my head would tell me “I need SOMETHING.  I’m sober off everything else. It’s not fair!”

This last vaping relapse began in the fall of 2019 when my father got cancer.  I felt I needed something to take the edge off. However, he recovered and I continued to vape. Why? Because I’m an addict. Because I like nicotine. Because I like stimulants.  Because I like the ritual of putting something to my mouth.  I think the stupid vape smoke is sexy. Does it really matter?

When Covid hit I thought to myself “Well vaping during a respiratory illness pandemic is super stupid” but then I found some article about people who smoked have lower rates of infection.  Yay. Plus it’s a pandemic, I rationalized.  I’m lonely and stressed and scared and it’s okay to vape.   But here’s the real deal:  we don’t know the long term effects of vaping.  A respiratory therapist once told me that people who vape will end up with intractable pneumonia and this was pre-COVID.  What we do know is that people who vape have higher levels of heavy metals in their urine.  Maybe it’s safer than smoking but it’s not totally safe. I think we all that not vaping is the safest of all.  Just recently Stanford came out with a study that young people who vaped were 5-7 times more likely to be infected by Covid.  And I am not young!  The country is so concerned with the preliminary findings from studies that lawmakers are urging the FDA to clear e-cigs from the market during the pandemic.  

So here I am avoiding everybody, sheltering in place, wearing an N95 mask everywhere, donning latex gloves, spraying down my groceries with alcohol, washing my hands and using hand sanitizer like an OCD germaphobe, only to be vaping? It’s so classically alcoholic/addict it’s almost laughable.  I’m the vegan who shoots heroin. Or the alcoholic who still takes their vitamins. Or the meth addict who only eats organic. 

Looking at the bigger picture, what’s frightening is that Bill Wilson (founder of AA) Dr. Marie Nyswander (co-developer of methadone maintenance), Mrs. Marty  Mann (founder of the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence, Senator Harold Hughes (founder of the Society of  Americans in Recovery and sponsor of landmark alcoholism treatment legislation as well as some key players in the founding of Narcotics Anonymous ALL died of smoking-related disorders, namely emphysema, and cancer.  Here’s the ugly bottom line, smoking is the major cause of death among people in recovery

I didn’t survive shooting cocaine, smoking meth, 12 grand mal seizures, and multiple suicide attempts to die from the goddamn Juul.  Also, it’s expensive as hell at $38/4 pack of pods.  And once I found myself digging empty cartridges out of the trash to get that one last hit, I thought, “Well isn’t this fucking familiar?”  Not to mention the frantic jonesing jaunts at 8 am to 7-11 because I ran out of Juul pods.  This was my moment of clarity:  I remember one morning, waking up and being excited to vape.  Like that’s what I was waking up for?  Jesus….Get a life, Amy.

I knew I couldn’t just titrate down.  If I could I wouldn’t be vaping four fucking pods every day and a half. I would just have to bite the bullet.  Sure I could do the patch but even with that eventually, I’d have that one uncomfortable week or two when I was off the patch completely.  (I’ve done this many times before.)  Because of my epilepsy, quitting smoking meds like Chantix wasn’t an option.  Chantix works because unlike nicotine which fully activates the nicotine receptor, Chantix only partially activates the nicotine receptor.  So when Chantix binds to the nicotine receptor you still get some dopamine but not a big pulse of dopamine and a crash like you normally would when/if smoking or vaping. 

I posted all over social media that I was quitting so I would be accountable. I received an enormous amount of support and also some warnings: nicotine was harder to kick than booze or heroin. I also inspired some other people to quit.  Terrific. Now I couldn’t pick up and let all those people down.  I was a goddamn inspiration for not Juuling anymore.   

When I went to the 7-11 to buy some yerba mate, the guy said, “That’s it?”, his hand drifting to the tobacco section. And I said, “Yes I quit.” And even though he was making a nice chunk of change off my addiction, he said, “Good for you.  I hear it’s really hard to stop.” You’re telling me, brother…

The first three days I was bedbound with nausea and a pounding headache. Imagine getting skull-fucked with a Samurai sword. It wasn’t a migraine, but very close. I was ill. It’s happened every time I’ve quit vaping. I don’t know what’s in that stuff but the detox really sucks. It’s very different from quitting smoking where I just feel really really irritable.  Once the physical part passed, I just cried continuously for the next few days.  I wasn’t even depressed.  I was just sad as hell. And then around day 11 the rage struck.  And wow was that terrifying.  From leaving very… umm… “spirited” messages for my unemployment caseworker to writing angry emails to my gynecologist on “MyChart” to arguing with people on Facebook who AGREED with me, I  had just one gear and it was pure fury. 

Some people say when you quit nicotine all the rage and feelings that you tamped down with smoking or vaping come back up. That seems a little woo woo to me.  I know enough science to realize that I had just pulled out the dopamine rug from under myself.  So I reached out, in tears of course, to my good old friend Dr. Howard Wetsman

“For the most part, people with addiction don’t give up nicotine first. In fact, during early abstinence-based treatment, smoking or vaping usually increases to make up for the loss of outside dopamine stimulation from whatever was just stopped. Usually, nicotine is the last to go, but sometimes it’s overeating. Either way, when we face that last ‘drug’, with nothing else to support what is perhaps a genetic low dopamine tone, we are left with nothing. Withdrawal is a big deal, but in my experience, it is the symptoms of untreated low dopamine tone that are far worse and longer-lasting than the few days of withdrawal. Unfortunately, doctors don’t realize this, and the whole thing is called withdrawal. It isn’t, and it’s preventable. When you fully treat addiction, smoking goes away by itself.”

It truly felt like being newly sober again: raw, with nothing to hold onto, emotional, reactive.  I knew I was crazy but there was nothing I could do about it.  My brain was having a tantrum.  And all the while a voice in my head whispered, “You don’t have to do this.  You can go get a vape and this will all go away instantly.”

I just told myself it was NOT an option.  It was not on the table. Feelings had an end.  Urges would pass.  Distract yourself.  Exercise.  Help somebody.  All the stuff I tell people who are in their first days of sobriety.  It was incredibly hard, I’m not gonna lie.  In some ways, it was worse than getting clean and I don’t know why.  Because the repercussions aren’t as severe and immediate? Because I’m not going to get arrested?  Because it’s still sort of socially acceptable? Because it’s the last thing to go? You don’t even get high. It can be a little mood-altering but it’s certainly not mind-altering. You just have to do it to keep yourself from going into withdrawal. I was tired of being winded over a set of 10 squats.  I was tired of being a slave to this thing.  I guess I’m over the hump but do I miss it?   Oh yes.  I miss the glow of the green light in my bedroom as it charges. It was like my nightlight.  I miss my pacifier.  I miss the hand to the mouth ritual.  I miss the lift.  But now I have a new ritual, giving the finger to addiction. 

Why We’re Turning to Food, Shopping, and Nicotine During COVID-19

As you probably heard Covid-19 is a bitch: illness, death, worldwide fear, financial insecurity (or downright poverty) and for the recovery community, relapse.

So while the entire “normie” population is guzzling booze, smoking pot, watching porn and playing video games like never before, what are those who are remaining in recovery turning to? Food, shopping and nicotine.

“Elena” who has 8 years sober found that the more things shut down and the scarier the pandemic became, she didn’t have a desire to drink or use but she did see her addiction manifest in the form of food and “retail therapy”. Sheltering in place with her elderly parents and a 13-year-old to entertain 24-7, she began stress eating, mostly carbs, and within 6 weeks had put on nearly 10 pounds. On one trip to Target, she dropped $700. “What it revealed to me is that my coping mechanisms still needed work,” she confessed. That may be so but is anybody really well equipped for what we’re going through?

“Cory” who has 12 years sober, had been a smoker since she was 16. She had 2 years off of cigarettes but when COVID hit that went out the window. She’s a news reporter and the stress and long hours covering the pandemic got to her. “I was stressed out and alone a lot so I convinced myself it was okay. No one was there to see me smoke. It felt awful and I smoked more than ever. I chew the nicotine gum like mad now, off the smokes for 40 days so I’m still a nicotine addict.”

I know a guy with just barely 90 days sober who started vaping, never been a smoker in his life. I know another dude with 25 years sober, quarantined with his two teenagers, who’s put on weight. Sure there’s an argument to be made that we’re less active but we’re also eating more. Fact.

These are just a few examples. You only need to pop onto social media or into a sobriety recovery group to hear the chorus of “me too’s”.

Personally, after weeks of waking up on the verge of panic attacks and having vivid nightmares, I too, at 7 years slipped up. I haven’t gained weight because when I’m stressed out, I stop eating (thanks eating disorder) but I did start vaping again. What a great idea when there’s a deadly respiratory virus that’s taken 100,000 people down!

But before we beat ourselves up for acting a little destructively, let me give you some science on what’s happening in our addict brains during this time.

Dr. Howard Wetsman, @addictiondocMD addictionologist, psychiatrist and former founder of Townsend Treatment Center explained it to me this way: “When primates, and that includes us, are isolated, the receptors that see dopamine in the reward center start to go away. So we can’t see our own dopamine. Our response is to try to increase dopamine release any way we can. If we’re in recovery and don’t want to ‘use,’ the most common way is to find something we don’t include in our abstinence that will release dopamine and start to use it. Things like sex, nicotine, spending, overeating, all fit the bill for some people. The better answer, of course, is to find a way to help others, even from a distance. That will increase your dopamine receptors and let you feel your own dopamine.”

I do a lot of service and volunteer work and you do get a “helper’s high” but when I can hug somebody, anybody, and see people face to face instead of their little head in a tiny box like the fucking Brady Brunch, I seem to be able to hold it together better. But without human touch and I’m not even talking about sex, the dopamine of service isn’t cutting it right now.

Joe Schrank,  clinical social worker, interventionist, sober 23 years had this to say: “I think this is an incredibly hard time for everybody, especially people with addictive behaviors. The one thing that really helps us is human connection. It is a universal truth, whether it’s church, 12 step meetings, whatever your flavor. It helps. The one thing that people in recovery don’t have a problem doing is isolating. So when you’re told to do that, we’re going to see a spike in relapses. We also see a spike in relapses when people interact with family. And now we have people quarantining with family so…. We are in unprecedented times. If you’re shopping more, eating more, smoking more and it doesn’t tip into self-destruction, give yourself a break. You might have eaten an entire bag of Oreos, but at least you didn’t play beer pong with your college-age son. We need to adapt our recovery right now. We’re all going to be fatter. There’s no question. I think the whole idea of perfection in recovery is a crazy idea to have to uphold. It’s too much pressure and especially now. Can you release enough pressure on the valve to keep you from spinning out of control? Then great do it. I think it’s okay to give yourself some latitude in your recovery right now that you might not at other times.”

So I write all of this to let you know you are not alone. If you’re staying sober during this terrifying and lonely time, you’re a fucking rockstar, even if you’re smoking, fatter, or have a maxed-out credit card. The important thing to remember is that truthful four-word cliché: “this too shall pass”.

Despite Social Distancing, COVID-19 Is Bringing Us Together

Despite the social distancing, the masks, the contagion paranoia, COVID-19 has brought people together. 

I’ve gotten random texts from people I barely know or old comedy comrades I haven’t spoken to in years asking if I was okay.  The big theme of multiple online memes has been contacting exes. Social distancing, what a perfect excuse! I’ve been pretty good about not doing that, knowing that my motives wouldn’t be clean, the underlying themes would be either “I hope you have it, you asshole”  or “Are you still alive and do you ever miss me?”

What COVID-19 has brought back to me aside from my mild agoraphobia and aggressive napping, is my high school posse.  Prior to this I had shunned every high school reunion, refused every monthly dinner with “the girls” because…well…I felt ashamed.  Despite writing “fuck shame” in every book I sign, I refused to attend the dinners for fear they would judge me. I believed the gap between their upper middle class lives chock full of PTA meetings and marital anniversaries (or whatever I imagined normalcy to look like) and mine of 24/7 recovery, a criminal record and a tour of rehabs worthy of Ozzy Osbourne, would just be too much to bridge.

My old best friend urged me to join their weekly Zoom meet up.  “Nobody’s lives are as perfect as you’d think and everybody knows somebody who’s struggled with alcoholism or addiction.  They’d be thrilled to see you. They love you, Amy.”

Might be a nice change from online meetings?  And it would be another rare chance to see a group of people without masks.  What did I have to lose?

I logged into the meeting and after making a few bad jokes about my past, I broke down and cried. “I am so sorry I’ve been MIA all these years, guys.  I was embarrassed about what you would think of me.” 

There was a chorus of : “You’re sober”, “It’s amazing”, “We don’t care”, “We love you”, “You wrote a book and you’re helping people”, blah, blah blah.  To be honest, I had a hard time taking it in.

Once we’d caught each other up on our lives, we took a drive down memory lane.  Thanks to a dozen or so seizures and years of drug use, I couldn’t remember every teacher or boy’s name but they could.  We laughed as we recounted juvenile and poignant moments from 13-17 years old: getting our periods, early crushes, first concerts, getting kicked out of classes.

Ironically, the dynamic was the same among us as it had been 30 plus years before: there was the joker (yours truly),  the airhead, the organizer, the hippy, the cynic, the athlete and Sheila. Everything had changed yet nothing had changed.  It was strange and soothing. During this period when everything is different and terrifying and ambiguous, I found reconnecting with my teenage friends to be surprisingly grounding. It was familiar, taking me back to a time when I was innocent and all my dreams were possible; reminding me of the person I was before I was an addict, the person I STILL am.  As a recovery advocate and an addiction writer, my whole life is recovery and my “story”. I wear the label proudly and loudly and that’s great. It is important to remember where I come from but it was refreshing to also remember that I can connect with people apart from and outside of my addiction.

I asked Joe Schrank, social worker, recovery advocate, interventionist and person in long term recovery  (www.denialends.com) his thoughts. “Well first off, I think it’s hard to be a professional self-improver.  Part of recovery is rejoining the social milieu whether it’s family, coworkers or old friends and not being the outsider.  We don’t always have to be the freak.” 

“Part of the problem with somebody who’s been in multiple rehabs is that becomes their identity.  It’s like a prison. They become institutionalized. They can’t get their mind around who they are outside of that.  You’re the defective person. You’re a mentally ill person.” 

That hit me hard. It took years for me to shake off those labels and the ducking of responsibility and coddling from others that came with them.

“It’s hard to honor who you are as a recovering person and plug into systems where they really don’t want to hear it,” Schrank said.

When I pressed him for why he thought I had found so much solace in this reunion, he said, “I think everybody is looking for their favorite flannel shirt right now.  Everybody is looking for something familiar and know, something comforting, during this time of uncertainty.” What he said next validated my own instincts on why this reunion felt so sweet during the pandemic. “You’re trying to plug into a time of life when things were funnier or simpler and maybe you just have to put that other persona on the shelf to get that.”  

I asked my old high school buddies how they felt about my return.  One friend said, “I was very touched that you shared those feelings with us and felt awful.  I hadn’t realized how difficult it would have been for you to come on Zoom and join us.”

Another said, “I was pretty blown away by how vulnerable you got.  It softened the call. I haven’t been part of the group for a while so it created some space for me to feel nervous or unsure about how people would accept me too.  So I felt really grateful that you set the precedent.”

And finally, another friend said, “We’re all fulfilling our destinies.  You were always funny and a great writer and that’s what you’re doing now.  Who cares where you got your material!”

Good point, buddy. Who cares?

 

The Strange Phenomenon of Zoombombing and How It’s Affecting the Recovery Community

Zoombombing is a new phenomenon that began during the 2020 COVID-19 lockdown as zoom traffic increased.

My sponsor was slated to speak at the first Zoom meeting of a Saturday night 12 step group.  The secretary had never done a Zoom meeting before and was understandably nervous. As people logged on 10 minutes early, she familiarized herself with the controls, muting and unmuting members. Once 300 people joined, she closed the meeting.  But as she was getting ready to introduce my sponsor, the entire meeting heard a voice making homophobic and racist epithets. As the secretary panicked and tried to mute the sound, the voice said, “Dumb bitch thinks she has control of the meeting”.  A banner came up that read everybody was muted but the voice kept going on about the secretary’s “tits” and continuing with the horrific insults. Members got upset, yelling “Get out of here”, “Peoples’ lives are at stake”, “Why are you doing this?”.   My sponsor then called the secretary on her cell phone. “They have gained access to the host controls,“she said frantically, so he suggested she terminate the meeting.

Unfortunately, this is not the only episode I’ve recently heard about.  As schools, work, recovery groups, and churches have gone online during the COVID-19 epidemic, “zoombombing” has become widespread — the flashing of pornographic images, people pouring booze over themselves and threatening to light themselves on fire, trolls spewing foul things to attendees in the chatbox.

It’s a whole new virtual world.  But just as people are learning the technology to connect and work in quarantine, they’re having to figure out how to safeguard their meetings as well, by bringing in tech people, not publicly publishing zoom id’s, creating passwords, etc.  (There are numerous articles online about how to protect your zoom event from crashers like this one about how to protect your 12 step meeting from online trolls  or how to keep uninvited guests out of your zoom meeting and I’m no techie so I’m not going to cover that here.)

Granted there have always been online trolls (Twitter is one of their more favorite spots) but who are these people and what’s their motivation?

I asked applied science writer Amy Alkon, author of the “science-help” book, “Unf*ckology: A Field Guide to Living with Guts and Confidence,” for insight.  Alkon explains that “There’s likely a combo platter of dark-side personality traits in people who Zoombomb 12-Step meetings. Narcissism is certainly one of them. It’s reflected in egotism, a lack of empathy, and grandiosity — an inflated sense of self that can lead to ugly, anything goes behavior.”  She added that another part of this this is something called “everyday sadism” which is basically “getting pleasure from causing others pain”. 

Okay but why now?  Because they’re bored or lonely or miserable or scared?  That might be part of it but there’s a simpler answer according to Alkon.  “Opportunity just opened up. Zoom became newsworthy and countless businesses and recovery groups and schools started using it to replace in-office or in-person meetings.”

“They’re the same rotten people as ever, “ she continued.  “A new medium just opened up for their rottenness. It’s kind of like how there were no car thieves before the invention of the automobile.”

I feel that this new phenomenon is especially unfortunate for recovery meetings.  As meetings buckle down with one-time links to register or passwords that are given out via text or FB messenger, people who are new to sobriety or new to a meeting don’t have the “in”.  I received a message on Twitter from a sober woman asking me for the passwords to different LA meetings which I, unfortunately, didn’t have. Thankfully most meetings are not doing this, becoming secretive or going underground.  Access to recovery shouldn’t be a result of special networking or knowing the secret password like some VIP back room of a NY nightclub.

My sponsor told me something that Father Larry Kowalski, a sober Catholic priest and circuit speaker had said:  “There is no time at which my defenses are lower, I’m more unguarded and more open than when I’m in an AA meeting.”  The same goes for Smart Recovery or Refuge Recovery or your church or temple. These are the places where you’re supposed to feel safe to pour your heart out, be vulnerable.  Granted there are assholes in physical meetings too but they can be kicked out or shut up more easily. And I think it’s safe to say that people will behave in ways online, conveniently hiding behind a screen, that they wouldn’t have the nerve to do in person.  I mean that’s the upside of sex chat rooms, right? Anonymity. But that’s also what we’re supposed to have in recovery. Now people who aren’t public about their sobriety have to worry about some yahoo taking a screenshot and publishing it.

My sponsor then told me of a story of a lesbian black woman, living in the South who thought of these meetings as her “home”.  In a series of her regular meetings, zoombombers came in and shouted homophobic and racist slurs, probably insults she’d heard her whole life. She took it personally and felt unsafe, not realizing that this was happening in Zoom meetings all over the world. And she relapsed.  Was this the reason or was she ready to relapse and this traumatic experience gave her license? We’ll never know. And does it even matter?

In the end, Zoom like any tool can be used for good or evil. And we can’t control other people, only our reactions.  So don’t give these goons power over your schoolwork, business or recovery. Sure it’s disrespectful and means but it’s sad and pathetic that this is how some people they get their kicks.  I think COVID-19 and Zoom trolls have something to teach us: go where the love is, protect yourself and most importantly we need to stick together…even if it’s currently 6 feet apart. 

 

When A Friend Relapses

Over 25 years in and out treatment centers and programs, I’ve had a lot of friends relapse. Sometimes I think I handled it well. Other times I probably handled it badly.

I’ve relapsed a lot myself and I know what was helpful to me and what wasn’t. I hesitate to use the terms “right” or “wrong” because I think every situation is different as well as every relationship.  Tough love isn’t always the answer but sometimes it is. Again if we knew what worked we wouldn’t be in this addiction epidemic in the first place. So here are my thoughts and I could absolutely be wrong. 

1) Don’t give them money directly

If you’re going to pay their rent, pay the landlord directly. If you’re going to buy them gas, buy it for them at the gas station. If you’re going to buy them something to eat, go grocery shopping with them. I once gave my friend who had been in a very long severe relapse on crystal meth money for “gas” and then found out that my other friend had also given him money for “gas” within the same 20 minutes.  So obviously it wasn’t for gas unless he was going on a goddamn road trip. I felt conned and angry and stupid.

2) Have boundaries

I once spent an hour and a half on the phone with a friend who had relapsed on booze only to find out she remembered none of it the next day.  That felt like an enormous waste of time and energy. How helpful can you really be if they don’t remember anything? So…you can ask them to call you when they’re not high or drunk.  People are not really able to listen when they’re blasted, and it can be triggering for you as a sober person to talk to somebody who’s loaded. Also, it’s pretty devastating to watch/hear somebody slowly kill themselves.  So know that it’s okay to take space. Just make sure you take that space with kindness and give them a heads up that you need a break but you’re not abandoning them.

3) Be loving and compassionate

Relapse is very isolating.  The very root of addiction is loneliness.  When I’ve relapsed, I’ve noticed people scatter. Alcoholism is not contagious. Recently a friend relapsed and everybody in our circle stopped talking to him except for me. I knew he felt shame. I knew he was out of control. I also knew that somebody had to be that life preserver on a rope to pull him back to the shores of sobriety eventually. If we believe addiction is a disease, then why do we treat people who relapse with such disdain and judgment? Try to be the safe place an addict/an alcoholic can come to when they’re ready for help.

4) Don’t force them into treatment

My parents did this to me and although it probably saved my life at the time, it never resulted in long term sobriety. When my friend was in an amphetamine psychosis, I urged (aggressively) for him to go into treatment. It was terrifying to see him sweating profusely, eyes like black saucers, paranoid, hearing music that wasn’t playing and voices of people that didn’t exist. I made multiple calls to find a place that took his insurance. I drove him there. And he bailed 2 days later. I was so pissed and I also knew I’d done too much. But he’s still sober so maybe it created some shift or jumpstarted his sobriety somehow? Maybe it’s just a coincidence. We’ll never know.  

5) Protect your own sobriety

If you’re going to go over to the friend’s house to dump drugs, alcohol and/or paraphernalia, consider bringing somebody with you for support. I didn’t do that recently and I was fine but looking back it was a risky move.  You never know what could set you off. Seeing your drug of choice can be provocative at the least. 

6) Don’t do the work for them

I had another friend who wanted to go into treatment and sober living. I called and set up appointments and he never showed up to any of them. It’s fine to network and get them the names of some places and phone numbers but unless they’re severely impaired by their drug/alcohol use, they should do the calling. It shows an agency. It shows motivation. It shows they want it and you aren’t left with resentment.

7) It’s okay to check on them

When friends have relapsed, sometimes I’ll just call and say, ”Hope you’re okay. I love you and I’m here for you when you’re ready.” Don’t expect them to pick up and don’t expect a callback. When I was in a relapse, the last thing I wanted to do was talk to sober people! But knowing that people cared and were thinking of me meant a lot when I was spinning out with a head that told me I was an epic failure, unloved and would never get sober again.

8) Be prepared for denial

Even if you know they’ve relapsed, be prepared for them to deny it. It’s unfortunate that we do that but our natural fear of judgment and the shame around our loss of sobriety makes it super common. Do not push. Don’t argue that you know. It will just make them more defensive and drive them away more. You might just say, “There were just some things that made me concerned. If I overreacted, my bad.” And then just leave it. The key is to keep connected and make sure they feel safe to confess the truth when they’re ready.

In the end, unfortunately, you can’t really save anybody. But you can be a point of contact for sobriety when they’re ready. And that alone can be a game-changer.

 

Ready to Date After Sex Addiction? Amy Dresner Tells You How

Author, Amy Dresner, has been very open with the world about her past with sex addiction. She is now in recovery and is here to share her experience.

It’s sort of public knowledge (thanks to my book “My Fair Junkie” and a few articles on TheFix.com) that I’m a recovering sex addict. (And no it didn’t get me a ton of dates but neither did it bring on a slew of creepy messages either. Thankfully.) Sex is still so laden with shame and Puritanism in America that being a sex addict, let alone a female sex addict, is highly stigmatized.  There are some doctors and sex therapists who don’t believe sex addiction is real. Well, I’m here to tell you it felt horrifying real to me. And I’ve done my time in SLAA and SCA and SAA and there are rooms full of people who can attest that it’s compulsive, all-consuming, mortifying and ruining their fucking lives.

What was my sex addiction like?  It was mostly having sex with a slew of Tinder randos without protection, without even knowing their last names.  A few regulars in my stable were old comedy buddies which made it a little less horrible. I’d be shaking with anticipation on the way to the hookup and crying with shame and degradation on the way home. This continued for 2 or 3 years. There was no intimacy. It was a dope deal for me: I came to get my “fix”. I’m still not sure if it was about the validation of being wanted or the fleeting high of a risky rendezvous but it certainly wasn’t about sex or them.

I finally hit a truly horrific bottom and like that…just stopped. Was I cured? No.  Had I dealt with the issues? Absolutely not. My sex addiction soon morphed into codependency and love addiction once I fell in love and got into a relationship. Looking back, I think I masked my latent sex addiction tendencies with this guy as having a “really high sex drive”, feeling rejected when he didn’t want to fuck and demanding sex if the drought went on too long. And no I never cheated.

“For addicts, extremism is a far easier road than moderation. And I know many a sex addict who has retreated into what’s called “sexual anorexia” as a way of coping. Celibacy is easier than trying to navigate the minefield of sex/dating/relationships.”

When that boyfriend dumped me in early 2017, I completely shut down. I was beyond broken-hearted. I didn’t masturbate. I didn’t date. I didn’t have sex. It’s been over 2 and a half years now and I’m still celibate. For addicts, extremism is a far easier road than moderation. And I know many a sex addict who has retreated into what’s called “sexual anorexia” as a way of coping. Celibacy is easier than trying to navigate the minefield of sex/dating/relationships. And after being in love which is really the special sauce, hookups had no appeal for me anymore. If anything they scared me. I’d become very clear that I am not one of those people who can sleep with somebody and not become attached.  And attachment hurts. So fuck all of that. I’d just hang out with my cat and watch Netflix.

However, I recently had an eye-opening experience. I went on a coffee date at 12:30 in the afternoon in a mini-mall. I mean how much more pedestrian and unsexy can you get, right? Surely nothing would happen. I mean nothing could happen. WRONG.

I was so turned on by this individual and that I could barely sit on my stool and it was obvious from my constant shifting.

“Are you alright over there? “ he asked me.

And then it started:  me being provocative, touching his leg, collapsing with laughter into his chest and then…kill me…confessing that I was a squirter.  Or used to be.

“It’s been a long time so dust could come out of there now, I have no idea,” I joked, trying to undo the incredibly inappropriate revelation.

In the parking lot, I made a pass at him and things began to get hot and heavy.  It was now 2:30 in the afternoon and we were in a crowded parking lot but none of that mattered. I quickly felt myself getting out of control and to my surprise, said, “I gotta go” and jumped into my car.  Two seconds later, he slid in the passenger side. He touched the groin of my faded black jeans and I immediately exploded all over the car.

“I told you I was attracted to you!” I said half irritated.  I was angry and surprised and embarrassed. I felt like my body had betrayed me. Squirting is quite a magic trick if you’ve never seen it. If you’re into it, it can be arousing. If you’re not, it’s just fucking weird and gross.

Something inside me had been triggered by this event and I could feel it. I tried to be cool for a month or two and then the old behavior started. I have an entire bank of naked pics on my phone from when I was an active sex addict. So when I didn’t get the response I wanted at the fast rate I needed, I pulled out the big guns.  The problem is these pics work. I was invited to his house within an hour. But he quickly informed me that he wanted to take it slow and get to know me. Ugh. “Sure,” I lied. “No problem. Good idea. Let’s take our time.”

“For some people addicted to sex, it’s the orgasm that’s the reward. In other people, it’s the person that’s the reward. In still others, it’s the tension before the act,” Wetsman explained.

We hung out and kissed a bit but it wasn’t enough for me. The monster had been awakened.

“Put your tongue in my mouth!” I heard myself demand.

“Relax,” he cooed. “It will all happen”.

As he walked me to my car, out of my mouth popped, “Just get in the car and quickly jack me off.” I still cringe when I think about it. Always the lady. Fuck. He wasn’t fazed but I became acutely aware that the “MORE” in me had now taken the reigns.

I called my sponsor the next day. “I’ve never gotten to know somebody before I had sex with them,” to which he aptly replied, “That’s nothing to brag about, sweetheart.”

I spoke with an addictionologist/psychiatrist and former owner of Townsend Treatment Center Dr. Howard Wetsman  https://www.youtube.com/c/EndingAddiction  to get some insight.  “If you have an addiction, you have certain things that work for you.  For some people, it‘s cocaine. For others it’s Oreos. For you, it’s sex and love…and meth and coke and booze and nicotine.”

 “If you have normal dopamine, sex is a normal reward, like looking at a sunset, getting closer to your lover. You might get a dopamine rush from an orgasm followed by some oxytocin but you won’t get a spike-like you experience. Of course, after the spike is the crash where you’re scrambling for more dopamine.”

He explained that a lot of people smoke after sex because they’re using the nicotine to mute the dopamine crash. Interesting right? And I just thought it looked cool in European movies.

“For some people addicted to sex, it’s the orgasm that’s the reward. In other people, it’s the person that’s the reward. In still others, it’s the tension before the act,” Wetsman explained.

“If you have normal dopamine, sex is a normal reward, like looking at a sunset, getting closer to your lover. You might get a dopamine rush from an orgasm followed by some oxytocin but you won’t get a spike-like you experience. Of course, after the spike is the crash where you’re scrambling for more dopamine.”

I needed to ask myself, “What is happening in my brain that I am seeing people as sources of dopamine instead of people? This guy had quickly morphed from being a guy I wanted to get to know into a syringe for me.  He became an object and I’m sure he could feel it. No matter how much I actually liked him, my neediness was bleeding through. He had/was something I wanted and needed.

When you have a dopamine spike, your brain latches onto the details of that experience, person, etc. Your brain, like a squirrel, knows where the nuts are hiding and demands that you go there. That’s where the reward is.  But every addict will tell you, you never get as high as the first time. And what we call “obsession” is actually biochemical attachment.

What do I do when my body is acting in a way I don’t want it to act?  Turned on? Triggered by a house I used to smoke crack in? Telling me I have to eat all of the potato chips?  I need to recognize that I’m having a body thing. It’s not about the booze, or the guys or the drugs or the food. It’s about the dopamine. The solution is getting right with yourself and doing things on a daily basis to keep from becoming vulnerable to this mid-brain biology.

The first of these is to not feel shame about your sex addiction because shame automatically lowers your dopamine tone and sets you up to relapse and act out. So fuck shame and let’s talk about this stuff.  In the end, sex addiction isn’t about sex. Just like drug addiction isn’t about drugs. It’s about the illness of addiction that centers around reward and there’s nothing embarrassing or shameful about that.

 

Can Sobriety Be Both a Health Trend and a Matter of Life or Death?

Months ago I innocently tweeted: “I’m all down with the new sobriety/sober movement but please let’s not forget among the mocktails, the trendiness and the tees with cutesy slogans that for many of us, sobriety wasn’t a health trend, lifestyle choice or a socio-political statement but a matter of life and death.”

I got dozens of shares and “Amens!” and an equal amount of people coming after me with flaming pitchforks accusing me of “gatekeeping sobriety” or sarcastically consoling me that “sorry being sober wasn’t punk rock anymore.”

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the “New Sobriety,” it is a new trend to not drink, to be sober but not because you’re alcoholic necessarily. It was born out of “Dry January” and alcohol-free events with the precept of exploring your relationship with alcohol. It’s primarily intended for people in “grey area drinking,” not full blown alcoholics but people who might send some stupid texts, occasionally regret how much they drank, or not be as fully functional as they’d like the morning after.

If you want to take a break from drinking to see if you can be social without liquid courage or not be hung over for your 7 am spin class, I fully support that. And if you can stay stopped because of that, fantastic. I am not at all saying that you need to wrap your car around a pole or have your parents remortgage their house to send you to treatment half a dozen times before you realize that your life is infinitely better without getting loaded.

But all the coverage of the New Sobriety in Time, New York Times, NPR, etc is missing an important piece of the story: if you CAN NOT do a full month without drinking or if your life gets exponentially better when you stop drinking… you might actually be an alcoholic. And sorry but there ain’t nothing trendy or cool about that. And “alcoholic” and “alcoholism”, the words that really need to be de-stigmatized, are being left out of this conversation and frankly, the whole movement.

“I’ll be honest, when you’re an alcoholic this “New Sobriety” feels a bit like people choosing to be gluten-free because it reduces inflammation or whatever when you actually have to thanks to your Celiac disease.”

Granted, I’m a recovering black out drunk and IV drug addict so a “Dry January” was pretty implausible unless I was locked up in a rehab or a psych ward. For us alcoholics, the idea of “moderation,” the myth that we can stop or start at will, is an ethereal dream that takes many of us out of recovery and keeps us experimenting over and over again till we hit rock bottom or die.

I’ll be honest, when you’re an alcoholic this “New Sobriety” feels a bit like people choosing to be gluten-free because it reduces inflammation or whatever when you actually have to thanks to your Celiac disease. And the popularity of this idea that you can just CHOOSE not to drink undermines the current science that for many people there’s a genetic component to their alcoholism, an anomaly in the reward system of the brain that makes that choice…well, pretty much impossible.

If sobriety being trendy makes 16 year olds think it’s cool to stay sober instead of getting wasted on the weekends, well, awesome. Will sobriety being “trendy” dissuade a real alcoholic in the throes of addiction? Not in my experience. Never in my drinking or using career did I think having a seizure from cocaine on an airplane was “cool” or drinking Four Loko at 9 am was “stylish”. Nor did I care.

“This new sobriety, a casual “checking out not drinking”, is a much easier pill to swallow than the extreme “you’re an alcoholic” with its eternal abstinence that many of us had to choke down.”

Sober influencers behind this New Sobriety call not drinking “rebellious” and “radical” in a culture that basically centers around and worships alcohol. However the idea of being sober as a “fuck you” to the establishment is not new.  It has actually been around since the early 80’s when the Straight edge movement, a subculture of abstainers, emerged in the hardcore punk scene.

With this new movement, has come a new verbiage available for problem drinkers that wasn’t available for many of us when we got sober.  This new sobriety, a casual “checking out not drinking”, is a much easier pill to swallow than the extreme “you’re an alcoholic” with its eternal abstinence that many of us had to choke down.  It’s infinitely more appealing and could possibly sober up more people than Alcoholics Anonymous ever will. However I think it’s important that this movement not stigmatize the language and ways that many of us had to embrace in order to pull ourselves out of the mire of…ummm…overconsumption — despite how wrong or antiquated they might seem to you now.

Chris Marshall, the creator of Sansbar  http://thesansbar.com/, an alcohol-free bar in Austin, with continual pop ups in St. Louis, Kansas City and Western Mass. has been in recovery for 12 years.  The inspiration to create an alcohol-free environment like Sansbar came from his work as an addiction counselor. He noticed clients struggling to find a safe place to socialize in early sobriety without booze aside from 12 step meetings and diners.  He’s thrilled that this new movement has taken off but told me on the phone, “My only gripe is that there are actual risks to abruptly stopping alcohol use and I wish we would talk more about that. Anyone detoxing from alcohol or benzodiazepines should seek medical support. It scares me that I don’t see that advice more across the sobriety spectrum.”

“Many of us started off as “grey area drinkers” only to find ourselves in the black a few years later”

He’s right.  There are only two drugs from which withdrawal can actually kill you and booze is one of them.  If you’re a heavy drinker and you stop suddenly, you can have grand mal seizures and die. But nobody is talking about that.  They’re just talking about how much weight they lost or how much better their skin is or how they don’t go home with strangers anymore. And I get it, trends don’t like to look at the ugly parts and alcoholism is killing 88,000 people a year, a number even higher than the opioid epidemic.

One might argue this movement is not for “alcoholics”.  But many of us started off as “grey area drinkers” only to find ourselves in the black a few years later.  I’d argue that this movement has given us an international platform for discourse on the dangerous glamorization of drinking as well as the chance to smash the stigma surrounding alcohol abuse, addiction, sobriety AND recovery.  Let’s take this opportunity and make it inclusive, discussing the entire spectrum of alcohol use (or alcohol use disorder, as the case may be). As Marshall poignantly told me, “A movement is only as strong as its ability to include us all”.

Amy Dresner, author of ‘My Fair Junkie,’ Talks Family, Sex Addiction, And Coping Tools

Amy Dresner’s ‘My Fair Junkie: A Memoir of Getting Dirty and Staying Clean‘ is the addiction memoir everyone’s talking about.

In My Fair Junkie, Amy recounts the grim places addiction to drugs, alcohol, and sex took her. I snagged some of Amy’s time to ask her what small victories she celebrates today at 5 years sober, how her family feels about the memoir, and more…

Writing About Addiction

Kali: Hi Amy, and thanks so much for agreeing to answer some questions from me and the rest of the Workit World. I stayed up late every night until I finished your book, My Fair Junkie: A Memoir Of Getting Dirty and Staying Clean. I’m going to ask you the first thing I’m sure everyone asks you: how hard was it to write about some the lowest points in your addiction?

Amy: It was very difficult to write about those moments because I wanted to bring the reader into the addict’s mind, no matter how insane it seemed, so I had to put myself back into that active addict headspace. Of course, at the times I write about, none of what I did seemed nuts to me then. It was all necessary, survival and the demonic possession that is addiction. I needed to take breaks because writing about some of those points was so depressing and uncomfortable. So yes, it was painful, but moreover puzzling. I just don’t recognize that person now.  I know it was me and I remember it all vividly, but in some way I feel so far removed from that woman, that it was almost like writing about a stranger. But perhaps that’s a protective mechanism on my part, the detachment.

Did you have to warn your family members and friends before the book came out? Or did they already know what to expect?

I’ve been chronicling a lot of my ups and downs on theFix.com over the past 6 years and I was never somebody who kept my using a secret, so yes, they all knew what to expect. Saying that, some friends have chosen not to read the book because they love me too much to hear about my self-destruction in such exquisite detail. I specifically told my father not to read the parts about drug use or sex addiction or my suicide attempts. He lived through all of that stuff once, he doesn’t need to be re-traumatized. My mother is a sober alcoholic and I think identifies more and read the whole thing.

Amy On Sex Addiction

You struggled not only with addiction to substances, but also sex addiction. There’s a real advocacy movement around drug and alcohol addiction, but process addictions (like sex addiction and gambling) are often overlooked. Do you think we need to be talking about them more?

“Sex addiction was more shameful and more painful than any of the drug use.”

I can only speak for myself but the sex addiction was more shameful and more painful than any of the drug use. For me, personally, my sex addiction is part of my general “addictive nature”. I consider it an arm of my alcoholism. It’s just me searching for a new way to check out, another route to dopamine. And I’m not alone in this. Many people when they get sober struggle with compulsive behavior around food, gambling and sex. I definitely think we should be talking about process addictions more. They can also be extremely destructive just in ways that are less blatant and immediate than drug addiction.

What advice do you have for young women struggling with sex addiction?

Check out SLAA and SAA. They really work for a lot of people. I just didn’t connect to those programs. Aside from escape, I was looking for love and validation in my sex addiction and you certainly don’t find that in the beds of strangers! I’d advise them to read about it. Get support. Don’t beat yourself up. And know that you can come out the other end. It’s not a life sentence. There are some doctors now saying sex addiction doesn’t really exist but I will tell you it felt pretty real and compulsive to me but hey, I’m not a doctor.

Talking 12-step Programs

In the book, 12-step programs seemed as harmful to you as they did helpful. What is your relation to 12-step today? What would you tell people considering 12-step?  

I disagree with that and I apologize if it came off that way. I was very angry when I first got into the program and I was bothered by the fundamentalism and the remnants of the program’s Christian roots in some of the language and prayers. I think 12 step is great. The tools are gleaned from many religions and psychologies and are very effective. I took issue in my book with the fellowship which can get very complicated (with power hierarchies and sexual predatory behavior) when you take a bunch of sick broken alcoholics and put them in a room together.

I’m in a 12 step program now. I’m in AA. I don’t adhere to the 11th tradition. I think it’s outdated and actually does more harm than good by keeping the program shrouded in secrecy and perpetuating the mythology that it’s some cult. I have a sponsor, sponsees and I secretary a meeting. The steps worked better than any therapy I’ve ever been in and I’ve been in them all. AA is really like free group Cognitive Behavioral Therapy if you remove the spiritual element. The program saved my life and made me into a person that I actually like and am proud to be.

To people considering it, I’d say check it out. There are a lot of different types of meetings. See if one feels right for you. Keep an open mind. Some people go to their first 12 step meeting and are like “Ahh I’m home”. Others find it a little creepy at first. If it doesn’t feel like a fit after you’ve checked out a few meetings, there are other programs like Smart Recovery or Refuge Recovery. And of course, if you’re not open to being completely abstinent, there are harm reduction therapies/programs.

The Gifts of Recovery

You just celebrated 5 years. Congratulations! What has been the most surprising thing about recovery for you?

I would have to say that things that I was convinced were “just me,” characteristics I was sure I’d be stuck with forever, have fallen away. And also I’ve been able to accomplish things I only dreamt of before: writing a book, being a good employee, being a good friend or partner.

How important was it for you to separate yourself from the “hot mess” identity you created for yourself when drinking and using? In addiction, we can begin to identify with these stereotypes (hot party girl, mom who drinks to relax, chill stoner guy) that society seems to perpetuate. Was it difficult to find yourself away from drugs, alcohol, and sex?

“People took care of me and tried to fix me…. until they didn’t anymore.”

Not really. I’ve had periods of long-term sobriety before but still always considered myself broken on some level. I think the key problem is that I was getting perks by being this broken person who couldn’t get it together. And by that I mean I was freed of any responsibility for myself and my life. People took care of me and tried to fix me…. until they didn’t anymore. But this time around I dropped that “I’m broken” story.

I agree that those “labels” can be excuses and self-fulfilling prophecies and I used them for a long time to explain away my behavior. “What do you expect? I’m a…..” Saying that, being clean and successful still feels new and unfamiliar as I was such a fuck up for so many years. That “hot mess” identity is part of my past and I have to honor that. That’s the part of me that people who are still struggling with addiction can identify with. But not being that person does take some adjusting. Even when you change dramatically, after 20 years of a lifestyle or behavior, you’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Your book is called My Fair Junkie: A Memoir of Getting Dirty and Staying Clean. There’s a big push in the medical field to move away from phrases like ‘clean’ and ‘junkie,’ but you refer to yourself as a junkie in the book. What does the term mean to you?

Well I don’t think “My Fair Girl with Substance Use Disorder” would have sold very many books! The book is not PC and neither am I. That’s why most people love it and some find it sort of brash or offensive. The book is VERY raw and I never had any shame or denial about being a drug addict. I think at some points I even had a weird reverse pride about it. We addicts have a tendency to glamorize the darkness. To me, a junkie is a “fiend” and I was a fiend… for everything. And also the “clean” in the subtitle doesn’t just relate to being clean from drugs but clean after washing all the street soot off you after community labor.

You have to understand that although I support recovery, I’m not an official “recovery advocate” per se. I’m not trying to start a movement. I’m just a recovering addict and a writer. I appreciate changing the vernacular to reduce stigma but I think that’s going to take a very long time. I was a junkie. Why not own it? I’m not into candy-coating anything. That’s not my style. I mean has using the term “African American” really reduced racism or just put a PC veil on it? I think we change people’s thinking by showing the plethora of different people with addiction and coming out of the closet with our recovery. In meetings people say “I have 5 days clean” so I was just using the real vocabulary of the addiction/recovery world. Also I come from a comedy background where you use the most funny, shocking and effective words. Same with editorial writing. There’s a saying, “If it bleeds, it leads.” My book wasn’t meant to be a recovery manual. It is just a gruesomely honest addiction memoir and from the feedback I’m getting, that’s why it’s helping people. Because I don’t tip toe around things or get preachy, precious or self-pitying.

In the Workit program, we celebrate Workit wins. These are small victories that may not seem like a big deal to the outside world, but keep you on the right track. What Workit wins have you had recently?

I started meditating again regularly and it’s made a huge difference in my happiness and mood stability. I’ve been better about keeping my house clean. I finally took care of my taxes. I make sure that I thank people and show my appreciation.

“Creativity is key. And I don’t abandon myself anymore or expect other people to fix me.”

Sobriety is a hell of a lot better than drug addiction, but it’s no cake walk. Being sober means navigating through life’s tough stuff with tools that work better than drugs or alcohol. What tools are vital to your recovery today?  

The usual stuff. I work a program: meetings, steps, etc. I stay connected and close to my support group. I do breathwork. I make sure I’m of service in and out of the rooms. I don’t run away from my feelings, no matter how uncomfortable they are and I try not to let them dictate my actions. I say “no” and enforce my boundaries. I try to stay grateful and keep things in perspective. Much of that is staying in the present and knowing that everything, good and bad, passes. But most of all I stay busy and creative. Creativity is key. And I don’t abandon myself anymore or expect other people to fix me. I’m able and resilient. I know that now.

My Fair Junkie is available now! Buy it on Amazon or at your local bookstore. Find Amy on Twitter and Instagram @AmyDresner or visit her website at www.amydresner.com.