The Piece of Advice that Stopped Me From Relapsing

I’ve mentioned several times that I’ve never relapsed. I’m very proud of that fact, although I think it speaks to my self-centered stubbornness more than anything else. It’s nice that personality trait has finally paid off. I also think my obsessive nature toward statistics constantly reminds me that I’d be into my 50s before I’d have a streak this long again if I relapsed today.

That’s not to say it’s always been easy. There were nights in that first year when I was awake at home after everybody had gone to bed and it wouldn’t have been hard to grab one of the laptops or a tablet and start surfing the Internet. I could have had as many drinks as I wanted, too. The lure toward drinking was always stronger during the day, with porn taking over after dark.

I was given a piece of advice from my favorite counselor at my rehabs (who I’ll tell a longer story about tomorrow, as promised earlier this week) and it was so simple, but it’s been the thing that saved me with drinking quite a few times and porn more than once.

Bob’s advice? Get up and go sit over there.

That’s all. That’s it. Get up and go sit over there.

People will dismiss this as too simple. It’s not.

I never actually tried this until the day I was going to my second rehab in Texas in the late spring of 2015. My wife dropped me off at the airport in Portland, Maine, around 11 in the morning. Portland’s airport isn’t big, but it’s got a couple small restaurants and shops.

As I checked in and found my gate, I found myself facing the Shipyard Brewing Company’s airport brewpub. Here in Maine, Shipyard is probably the most famous craft brewery.

Suddenly, it dawned on me. I had not been in an airport alcohol-free, much less sober, in probably 20 years. I didn’t realize it, but flying was one of my triggers. Apparently the fear of hurtling like a dart into a side of a mountain in a giant tin tube was something I needed relief from.

At this point, I’d been alcohol-free since April 1, 2014, so I was about 14 months sober. It was 14 months more than I’d been since I was 15 or 16 years old, but dammit, I was in an airport and despite my bail conditions forbidding me from drinking, nobody in the airport was about to give me a breathalyzer.

I walked over to the bar, not sure what I was going to do. Aside from the airport thing, I was nervous about heading off to sex/porn rehab and knew the beer could calm my nerves.

As I stood in front of the bar, just far enough back that the bartender wouldn’t ask me what I wanted, I remembered the advice from Bob: Get up and go sit over there.

I had a moment of clarity and realized I needed to get out of there. I walked about five gates down to a newsstand and picked up a Rolling Stone magazine and Gatorade. I headed back to my gate and sat down with the magazine and drink.

About a third of the way into the cover story about Ronda Rousey, I looked up at the brewpub again. Like a siren luring a sailor to his death on the rocks, I thought about a red bull and tequila on the rocks…and how that wouldn’t hurt anybody.

The craving for beer was gone. I wanted my hard liquor. If I went for beer, I’d have two or three. If I went for the hard stuff, I’d only have one. That was better, right? My addict mind was hard at work trying to justify getting a drink.

I put the magazine down and stood up. The only way that I was going to get through this was to listen to Bob’s advice again. I got up and I went to sit over there. In this case, one gate over, so I could still hear the announcements.

Unfortunately, I could still see the brewpub, so I did it again. I got up and I went to sit over there. This time, over there was three gates away, far enough that I couldn’t see the brewpub and in front of a departures board so I could follow what was happening at my gate.

I didn’t drink that day. I didn’t drink any other day. I haven’t had to follow Bob’s advice for several years at this point, but that day it saved me. That was the closest call I ever had to relapsing.

Get up and go sit over there. Do it as many times as you need to until the craving passes. Get up and go sit in your car and let it take you somewhere else. Get up and go sit at the mall and people watch. Get up and go sit on your front steps. Just get up and go sit at a friend or family member’s home.

Just get up and go sit over there.

Hey, Non-Addicts: Want To Better Understand What Addiction and Recovery Feels Like? Try This!

Just about every addict will inevitably be asked what it feels like to be an addict. For the non-addict, understanding the pull of a substance or behavior is mystifying. Further, the idea of stopping something seems easy to them, but in addiction it’s not. Recovery is tough. While I can’t make you feel exactly what it’s like to be addicted to pornography, or what the recovery has been like for me, I think I have a two-day model that can help get some kind of a handle on addiction and recovery for the non-addict.

Day One

You’ll probably want two days off in a row from school or work to run this experiment. Do not let anybody know you are doing this experiment as it could taint the experience.

The first thing that you’re going to do in the morning is to take your cell phone and turn the volume of the ringer and all of your alerts for texting, social media, etc. to the maximum level. Make it loud! Do not look through your phone. Just turn the volume all the way up.

Then, take a Post-It Note and put it on the face of your phone so you can’t see the screen. You could tape a piece of paper to it as well. The point is to not see the screen, but not make it difficult if you decide you want to see it.

Keep your phone next to you all day. Don’t put it in the other room. Don’t put it in a drawer.

Do not use the phone. The phone is the drug or the addictive behavior. You may not call or text or Tweet or Snapchat or whatever. You may not use the phone.

Every call…every chime…every bell…every whistle that comes from someone else; you must ignore them. No excuses. No “good reasons” to interrupt the experiment…NONE!

You may not borrow another person’s phone, nor try to skate your way around the rules. If you feel like you’re bending or going around the rules, you are. Do not participate in any activity that you would normally use your phone for.

That’s it. Sound easy? For some it may be, but I think for the vast majority willing to try it’s going to be much, much harder than you think.

If you use your phone during the day, you fail. You succumbed. Welcome to the world of the addict.

Day Two

Keep your phone in the same state as Day One. The rules to your phone apply exactly the same as they did yesterday.

Today, though, you can figure out a way to do the things you normally do on your phone…you just can’t use your phone.

If you’re going somewhere and don’t know the way, you can’t use Google Maps. You’ll have to use a real map, or get on another computer and print out a map or write down directions.

If you need to talk to somebody on the phone, find a landline. Find somebody else’s cell phone. Go to the gas station and see if they laugh and ask you “What’s a pay phone?” when you ask to use one.

Need to keep up with social media? Facebook started only for desktop computers. Use that, or a tablet. Like to read books on your phone? Pick up a real book. They’re not that heavy. Want your news? Watch TV like we did in the 1990s.

Today’s exercise is about doing everything you would on your phone, just finding out a different way to do it. Were you able to get through today or did you find it too frustrating and resorted to using your phone? That’s tantamount to a relapse.

Results

Day One should be difficult if you’re like most people who don’t realize just how tethered to their cell phone they really are. I think anyone under 30 or 35 will really have some issues as they’ve been raised in a world where the cell phone is almost an extension of the hand.

The reason I say not to tell people you’re embarking on this experiment is because you want completely normal conditions. You need to get the calls, texts, etc., that you’d normally get. After all, the addict lives in the normal, real world. They can’t tell people not to bother them for two days.

I think most will find it easy at first to leave their phone alone, but by that second phone call, or third text, or fifth snapchat chime, it’s going to feel really rough. You’ll wonder if it’s something important, even though you know it’s a 99.9% chance it’s not. You’re going to want to rip that Post-It Note off the phone to see what you’re missing. There’s a whole world living in that phone that you can’t touch.

That’s the feeling for the addict. There’s a whole world in our addiction that we feel like we have to get our hands on. For those of you who cave and look at your phone, which I think will be most, that relief you feel when you finally give in is the relief the addict feels when they give in to their addiction. You know it’s wrong, you know you lost the battle of wills, and sure there is some guilt and shame, but you just feel so much better.

Day Two is about developing the tools and problem-solving skills to still live your life as richly as possible, but without your cell phone. This is what the addict has to learn to do in recovery. We have to develop a set of tools and skills to cope with the real world without the crutch of our addiction. Some of us use to quell anxiety and stress. Some use to forget trauma. Some just want to escape everything. Now, we have to figure out how to get relief and live life on life’s terms in the real world without our addictive behavior.

Every time you pick up your phone on Day One, you’re active in your addiction. Every time you pick up your phone instead of figuring out another way to do things in Day Two, you’re relapsing.

If anybody reading this is bold enough to try this experiment, I’d love to hear about your results and find out if you better understand what addiction is all about come the morning of Day Three.

If You’re Not Willing to Ask For Help, You’re Not Going to Overcome Addiction

I think there are three basic steps in achieving recovery: 1) Admitting to yourself have a problem, 2) Asking a professional for help, 3) Following through with treatment. I think the second step is the toughest part for most people and where recovery either happens, or doesn’t.

I don’t think admitting you have an addiction problem is difficult. Sure, it’s the first step, and I can only speak for myself, but even with mild denials I provided my brain, I always knew something was different and abnormal with my pornography use and alcohol consumption compared to most people. When I reached the critical point, it was clear something was wrong, even if I had no idea exactly what was going on with me.

Treatment comes in all forms and sizes, but if you follow through with it, you’ll achieve some level of recovery. I have met plenty of people who think they are the special one who can’t recover, but in reality, I have only met one person I ever thought to myself, “I don’t know if they’re constitutionally capable of long-term recovery.” Thankfully, I was wrong. They have been sober for 5 years now. I’ll tell that story in a few days. My point here is that if you are committed to recovery, you will recover. It’s not a complex recipe.

As some of you know, I have a side hustle giving specific one-on-one advice to addicts and/or their loved ones. It’s featured in the ad on the side of the homepage of the website, and you can access it HERE.

I always tell people that it’s a big step they asked me for help, but at the end of the day, I’m not a professional. I’m somebody who can be the first person they talk to who isn’t going to judge and will create a safe space. I can be the person who lets them know what the next several steps could/should be. Talking to me is like easing your toe into the water. It’s asking for help, but the sugar-free, “light” version.

One of the reasons I started this consulting/advisement service is because I know just how hard it is to ask for help. I usually work with someone for 3-6 major interactions (phone calls/skype/email) and it’s all about getting them to recognize they need real help. They can practice telling their story with me and I can get them ready for a therapist or a 12-step meeting. If I can remove any of the fear, it’s not as big a leap to getting the help.

The biggest pushback I get is not in somebody feeling that they don’t have a problem, but feeling that their problem doesn’t rise to the level of needing professional help, or being too proud to take that leap and becoming the kind of person who “has to get help.”

I try to kill both of these birds with one stone. I tell them that if their doctor referred them to cardiologist because of a heart issue, they wouldn’t compare themselves to other heart patients, they’d just go. If you need glasses, you go to the eye doctor. You don’t worry about people with better or worse vision. If you see an oncologist and they give you one year to live, you don’t stop seeing them because they give some people only three months.

I also try to address their pride. I have to admit, I’ve never been a prideful person. It probably has to do with my imposter syndrome. I’ve worn so many masks, pride doesn’t phase me all that much. I think it’s just another mask I never wore. But I’ll point out the fact that Pride, much like Lust, is one of the seven deadly sins. Also, I’ve never heard of anybody on their death bed complain that they didn’t have enough pride or were glad they didn’t ask people for help. The deathbed is for regret and never getting professional help will be a huge regret.

So why do the naysayers point to inpatient rehabs and 12-step groups as having historically low success rates? Having been to a couple, I can tell you that those who are forced to go, either by their family or the law, never actually asked for the help. You can’t skip to step three without step two. I’d guess between 50% and 75% of the people at both my rehabs didn’t want to be there. And if you’re at an AA or NA meeting, watch how many people only show up once or twice — likely pushed by family — or need to have their “court card” signed by the leader at the end of the meeting. A judge told them to be there. They aren’t there because they are seeking help.

As far as the self-imposed stigma of being one of “those people” who are in the minority of asking for professional help, you’re actually in the minority if you aren’t wiling. According to a 2018 study by the Barna Group, 42% of American adults have seen a counselor at some point, 13% are in active therapy and 36% haven’t seen a therapist but are open to it. Not being willing to see a therapist actually makes you one of the few, not many.

You know you have a problem. If you want it bad enough, you can get through the treatment. You just have to be willing to ask for the help. Don’t let fear hold you up.

Reflecting on the Differences Between My Two Stays in Rehab

Telling friends, family and co-workers I was heading off to inpatient rehab for sexual addiction elicited quite a different response than when I told them a year earlier that I was entering a facility for my alcoholism. When I admitted the bottle was my demon, I was treated as a hero and got plenty of pats on the back; when it was my sexual issues, people looked at me like they’d just smelled cow manure.

People knew I was a drunk, or at least had issues around alcohol. I took great strides to hide the true extent of the problem, but few seemed surprised when they learned I was getting help. I think that lack of surprise may have helped convince me that there was a problem. On the other hand, my pornography addiction was hidden, played out online in the middle of the night through websites and chat rooms, away from my “real life.” Nobody knew.

Finding a facility for alcoholism was easy. It was more a matter of deciding where in the country I wanted to be and what was within my price range. I went with Spencer Recovery Centers in Palm Springs, California.

Pornography addiction isn’t as easy. There are plenty of facilities that list “sexual issues” as one of their areas of treatment, but after preliminary questioning of their intake coordinators, most admit they don’t have the programming or expertise to treat actual sexual addiction. Once my alcoholism was reined in, it was clear just how much the porn addiction had taken over my life and that I needed treatment exclusive to the condition. After an exhaustive search, I had a list of only 8-10 reputable, accredited facilities with multiple CSATs (Certified Sexual Addiction Therapist) on staff.

I was told when searching for a rehab center for alcoholism that I had terrible insurance, yet my carrier allowed me to stay a total of 70 days, only having to pick-up 15% of the price once my deductible was met. Between rehab stints (about 10 months), my wife got a job with a larger company resulting in better health insurance for our family. The facility I ended up choosing just outside Dallas, was ecstatic with the insurance I had since it was one of the few carriers that took sex/porn addiction seriously. I don’t know if this was the typical pitch addicts need to be leery of when talking to intake coordinators, but as it turns out, there is no “sexual addiction” designation when it comes to insurance.

I was technically admitted to Sante Center for Healing with “chronic impulsivity disorder” with a secondary diagnosis of bipolar disorder, which I’d been dealing with for almost 15 years and was already well-documented by the insurance company. Three weeks into my stay there, I was called to the rehab’s business office, which was never a good sign, and told my insurance company had dropped me completely. The other four weeks were all out-of-pocket, an almost unfathomable increase from the 10% of the overall cost I was already picking up. My life savings disappeared.

The facility in California catered to drug addicts and alcoholics. Many of the younger addicts, most of whom have hopefully come to recognize they also have drinking problems, often dismissed those of us who were exclusively alcoholic.

“The reason I never graduated to heroin,” I would explain when alcoholism was laughed at as a problem, “is because alcohol did what I needed it to. I’m lucky in that I didn’t have to use hard drugs to get relief, but keep in mind, when we get out of here, my drug of choice is at every 7-11. My drug of choice is on almost every restaurant menu, and my drug of choice is socially acceptable.” Sometimes this explanation was understood, often it fell on deaf ears.

At my second treatment facility in Texas, which housed around 40 patients, most were seeking help for drugs and alcohol, but about 10 of us were there for sex/porn addiction and a half-dozen were struggling with eating disorders. Once again, those with chemical dependency issues questioned why the rest of us were there.

“It’s easy to understand the goal of your addiction because I’m an alcoholic, too,” was how I’d launch into the explanation. “Stop using X. X can be heroin, X can be whiskey, X can be meth, but the goal is to stop. There is no healthy use for a chemical addict. You can’t tell one of these eating disorder girls that they need to stop eating. You can’t tell me to no longer be a sexual being. It’s part of our DNA and managing it in a healthy way is the goal, not complete abstinence.” Sometimes this explanation was understood, often it fell on deaf ears.

Having spent seven weeks around-the-clock with so many admitted sex/porn addicts, it was clear there is far more shame associated with the addiction than among those suffering with chemical dependency. This has also rung true for me post-treatment in attending 12-step meetings. If there’s an addiction that trades in shame more than sex/porn, I apologize for not knowing about it.

It’s not fair to compare the actual treatment of the two facilities, nor to make sweeping generalizations of all alcohol or sexual addiction rehabs. The California center favored a group dynamic and 12-step meetings off campus, while the Texas facility featured a heavy dose of one-on-one counseling and took a more holistic approach to recovery.

Alcoholism and sex addiction are very different maladies, each with their own host of issues and problems, but they are also similar in their brain chemistry and destruction. I would not have been able to address my negative sexual behavior had I not got the alcoholism under control first. I don’t know if that means one addiction was worse than the other, or which that would be, but I’m grateful I was able to experience inpatient care for both. It’s a shame attempting to overcome one addiction puts me on a pedestal and the other causes recoiling and disgusted faces, but I’ll take all of the adulation and all of the scorn if it continues to result in the healthy road of recovery I currently enjoy.

I know there are thousands of people who have defeated their addictions without inpatient rehab stays, but I also know that mine were absolutely invaluable and I can’t imagine being where I am today without them.

 

 

Of All The People In The World To Teach Me A Valuable Recovery Lesson…

I think there are many components to successful addiction recovery, and that’s why so many people fail. One that many people gloss over, despite the fact it’s preached in 12-step groups, is being available and of service to others. I believe both the kindness of fellow addicts, coupled with my efforts to educate about porn addiction have helped me immensely.

Addicts are selfish. We lie and we take, take, take. To become a selfless person who gives is a massive paradigm shift. This is one of the reasons I tell people that inpatient rehab is important and valuable. While it does keep you away from your drug or bad behavior, it also creates an environment where inner change can happen, and be practiced before returning to the real world.

Early in my recovery, shortly after I returned to freelance journalism, I had an encounter with a recovering alcoholic and drug addict that really stuck with me.

I wrote an article for a recovery website about the history of substance abuse in professional wrestling, tracing the arc of the hard-partying, painkiller-abusing 1970s and ’80s to the radically different modern day with frequent drug testing and much cleaner lifestyles.

One of the reasons I love being a writer is because it allows me access to people I otherwise would never get to talk with, and this was one such time. As a kid, I loved wrestling, but I wasn’t into the guys like Hulk Hogan or Randy Savage who yelled into the microphone. I preferred guys who could talk great smack without raising their voices like Rowdy Roddy Piper, Nick Bockwinkel and especially Jake “The Snake” Roberts.

Roberts has been a poster boy for recovery in wrestling. Among the hardest partiers, it’s amazing he’s still alive. Having essentially spent all of his money on drugs, he was living in squalor in Georgia until seven or eight years ago when fellow wrestler “Diamond” Dallas Page rescued him and put him on a lifestyle regimen that changed things. This journey can be traced in the film “The Resurrection of Jake The Snake” which is a fantastic documentary.

Roberts seemed like a perfect interview subject and while it took a little bit of effort, I was able to connect with him. I admitted to being a huge fan as a kid, as I always do when I interview anybody I admire. It just seems phony for me to pretend I didn’t know his vast body of work.

We talked his recovery for about 20 minutes, and I mentioned that I was very new to recovery. At the time, I was only about three months out of my first rehab and it would be another six before I went to the sex/porn rehab in Texas. I was just really focusing on alcohol at the time.

“You’re taking notes so you got yourself a pen and paper there, right?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Write down this number,” he told me, giving me a telephone number with a Georgia area code. “That’s my personal cell number. If you ever find yourself struggling. If you’re at the grocery store and you think you’re going to buy beer or if you’re at a bar and you’re having a bad day. Whenever you need to, just call me and we’ll work through it. I don’t care if it’s the middle of the night.”

“Wow,” I said. “That’s a really nice thing to do. Thank you.”

“We gotta stick together if we’re gonna beat this disease,” he said.

A few minutes later, we said our goodbyes.

I never called him. The few times I felt skittish, I was able to get through the moment on my own. Despite still feeling the occasional craving to this day, I’ve never come what I’d say is close to relapsing.

In truth, I would have felt incredibly weird calling him. I know a former wrestler means nothing to 99% of the population, but he had a big impact on me as a kid. His character was the loner who did what he needed to do to survive to the next day. And as it turned out, the real guy was a lot like me, too. Calling on him to help would have been like a football fan calling Joe Montana or a basketball fan calling Michael Jordan. How do you seek help from people you’ve put on pedestals for decades?

Roberts’ kindness and reaching out really touched me. It sticks with me to this day. Somebody who I view as a superstar, but knew the same challenges of recovery as I did, wanted me to know he was there for me if I stumbled. The “bad guy” who once threw a snake at Andre the Giant wanted to help me if I needed it.

Thankfully, I didn’t need the help, but he did teach me a valuable lesson that day.