How to Give Up Giving Up – The Lexicon of success

When I was facing eighteen years in prison for a string of felonies long enough to make an organized crime boss proud, I made a decision that would alter the course of my life forever: I was going to change.

It’s not that I had a problem making decisions for myself before that time. I had begun my drug dealing career so I could get, and do, what I wanted: play music, party with beautiful women, get high, and have enough money to get my parents off my back. It worked, too. For a 23-year-old, I was hugely successful–as long as you only measure success by glitter and gold. I had the Teflon invincibility of a rock star, and the ego to go with it.  Until the day the cops busted down my door and took me to jail.

It wasn’t automatic, but after speaking with my attorney and weighing our options, it was clear that I needed to go to rehab. Not only had I been addicted to crystal meth for over three years, but my attorney was sure that if I didn’t base my defense on my drug addiction, I’d be braiding someone’s hair in prison well into my thirties.

People think drug addicts are weak,  but maintaining an addiction is hard!  Addicts have powerful wills and incredible problem-solving skills: drop an addict in the middle of lonely road in Montana and that addict will find his drugs faster than you can find your car keys.  I just needed to channel my abilities into something that wouldn’t kill me or confine me to a life behind bars.

So I did the thing that seemed to be in my best interest, not because I admitted failure or powerlessness, but because I decided to exercise my power in a new way.  Yes, I had to change course dramatically and leave the world I had built behind, but I knew that I wasn’t about to give up on life.

It was made obvious to me, as it eventually is to most addicts, that the path I was on was no longer going to take me where I wanted. So I changed direction. Now, don’t get me wrong: powerlessness came into play quite a few times during the process of shifting course, most notably when I got kicked out of my first rehab for using. But powerlessness is not a new concept and it is not at all unique to addicts–we are all powerless over some events in life; we have all confronted moments of profound hopelessness and despair.  All we can do, no matter the situation, is make the best choice we see at the time and go with it. We won’t always get it right.  We will make mistakes.

The question, however, is how we deal with outcomes that don’t suit us–how we respond to the inevitable “failures” that are the near-universal stepping stones to success. Life is less about never making a mistake or never walking down a wrong path; it’s about what you do when those things happen. Because they will, and they have–in every success story there ever was.

We’ve all heard these stories–Abraham Lincoln continued to run for office after losing five political races in a row.  Thomas Edison conducted over 6000 experiments in two years before he developed a reliable light bulb.  J.K Rowling was rejected by twelve different publishers before finally finding a home for the Harry Potter books and a level of success beyond her wildest imaginings.

As Edison put it: “If I find 10,000 ways something won’t work, I haven’t failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.”

This simple mindset makes all the difference.  For those who will succeed, failure is not an option; it’s not part of their vocabulary.

So how can we mere mortals adopt this sort of thinking, this lexicon of success? How can we develop an unfailing belief in our ability and allow that belief to drive us forward no matter what?  Simply put, we must change our definition of failure and, in doing so, change our relationship with our struggles, our world, and ourselves.

You see, psychologists have long known that the best functioning individuals–those who seem happy and well-adjusted–don’t actually view the world realistically. They consistently overestimate their chances of success and their own performance. You might be thinking to yourself, “Shouldn’t I be striving for as objective a view of reality as I can muster?” Apparently not–not if you want a formula for success.  It may be counter-intuitive, but if the old ways haven’t worked, we don’t have much to lose in trying something different.

It’s hard to imagine a realist continuing his work after 100, 200, 500 failed attempts at creating an electric light bulb. Now imagine Edison’s 6000 such attempts and see: anyone objective would have quit, realizing that the likelihood of success seemed low. What about being defeated in five consecutive races for elected office? Would a realist muster up the courage to do all that work again, knowing the odds of failure? Imagine what our world would look like if Abraham Lincoln had believed in his defeats more than his vision and himself–we may never have seen Barack Obama take his oath.  Forget the “facts”–nobody has ever changed himself or the world by believing that what he’s seen before is as good as it’s going to get.

Successful people know there’s a chance of success, however distant or small, and they know they won’t quit until that success is in their hands.  Period.  So if true failure is really just giving up trying, there’s no way to fail if you simply keep going.  Seems like a winning recipe to me.

After I got out of jail and completed rehab, people often told me how amazed they were at my transformation.  I always told them, “I didn’t have a choice.”  But even though I believed it at the time, it wasn’t true – I had many specific behaviors to choose from: keep dealing, keep using, move, stay, get a job, go to school, and more.  And beneath those options, there was another, truly essential choice to make: to give up or not.  Not giving up meant a lot of work, a lot of struggle, and many possible “failures”.  But the alternative was simply not an option.

My first choice was to get a job, but after being rejected for a number of them, including one at a mall Apple store, due to my criminal record, I decided to go back to school.  It’s not that a Masters degree seemed more likely than a job at the mall; it’s just that I wasn’t going to take no for an answer.  I was not going to let my past mistakes determine what was possible for my future.  As we’ve seen, success doesn’t work that way.

Eleven years later, I’m sitting here writing this piece for Psychology Today, holding a Ph.D. in my hand (not literally, that would be weird), and helping others overcome. So screw Apple, screw the mall–screw all the messages we hear and the messages we give ourselves about what we can and cannot do.

Whether your struggle is depression, addiction, a personality disorder, or a difficult marriage, just remember that part of the equation of powerlessness has to do with the way you see the world. With the idea of failure removed, each setback is only a wrong turn, a corrective lesson for a fresh attempt–and not a sign of falling skies. So let yourself feel sad or disappointed if you hit a rough patch on your way, but don’t believe for a second you’re hopeless. Don’t let failure be part of your vocabulary. If we could predict success by track record, we’d all still be reading by candlelight.

New Year’s Eve without drugs or drinking alcohol?

For many people all around the world, New Year’s Eve celebrations mean a lot of partying. Often, that partying includes drinking alcohol, doing drugs, and generally engaging in one last night of “things you’ll forget about” in the year that has passed. I know the ritual and I took part in it often. Hell, the virtual symbol of NYE is the Champagne toast (talk about a trigger).

Champagne glasses are essentially the symbol of NYE celebration. No big deal for most people, trigger for addicts.Since high-school, NYE celebrations meant little more than getting so &#@$-faced that I wouldn’t be able to remember what happened the next morning. Actually that’s not true – I’ve only experienced one blackout in my life – I always remembered what I did on New Year’s Eve. From my early days of drinking as close to an entire bottle of vodka as I could along with some gravity bong hits for my CB1 and CB2 receptors to fully light up to later parties that involved acid (LSD), ecstasy (MDMA), cocaine, and finally crystal meth, it was all about excess in its rawest form.

Humans enjoy celebrations in a way that other animals simply don’t. It comes with our keen awareness of past, present, and future. It’s the way we mark special events that only have true meaning because we assigned it to them. It’s part of what makes us the most social of animals and is tightly connected to our brains and their massive supply of executive function. But none of that matters when you’re loaded on drugs or alcohol on New Year’s Eve. All that matters is that you’re having fun.

For most people, this sort of partying doesn’t cause any problems. As long as they don’t drive under the influence, getting a little messed up is just not that big a deal. Hey, getting high on drugs and alcohol has left us with some of the best art, music, and writing I can think of and out livers and kidneys can handle the stress pretty well. But for some people, that same seemingly innocent set of behaviors can lead to a far darker place.

For addicts who have become dependent on drugs or alcohol, or for those people teetering on the edge of addiction with drugs and alcohol as still fully functional crutches that make the world slightly more tolerable, that same partying can get dangerous. It can lead to memory loss and accidental death. It can lead to the destruction of property, relationships, and self-esteem. It can lead to handcuffs and metal bars that don’t go away when the effect of the drugs or alcohol wears off.

As I’ve talked about so often here, we’re still pretty bad at telling the difference between those who are simply partying hard and those who have a real problem. We can tell after the fact, looking back at how long someone struggled (hard-core addicts can spend decades struggling with addiction while the more tame abusers/addicts only last a few years) but that doesn’t do anyone much good now does it?

I’ve sat in many groups with addicts trying to plan for these holidays so that they can make it to the other end without throwing away everything they’ve worked so hard for. The temptation of shooting up, smoking a bowl, or drinking a fifth of your favorite liqueur (or 2 bottles of wine)  can be too much when everyone around you makes it seem like so much fun. Many make it through with little more than resolved anxiety and a sense of relief. But every year, a few get left behind, some to return a bit later with a little more of a war story than they had previously.

The point – Making it through the holidays

The holidays, and New Year’s Eve in particular, are a bad time to try to figure out which of these groups you belong to exactly because everyone else is being excessive too. An addict can easily cross the line and seem no different. Until the next day that is. So this holiday, do yourself a favor and hold off on any grand experiment. Take it easy, spend some time with real friends who have your best interest at heart, and make it to the next year in style. You can always test yourself another day.

Addiction stories: How I recovered from my addiction to crystal meth

By the time I was done with my addiction to crystal meth, I had racked up 4 arrests, 9 felonies, a $750,000 bail, a year in jail, and an eight year suspended sentence to go along with my 5 year probation period. Though I think education is important to keep getting the message out about addiction and drug abuse, there is no doubt that addiction stories do a great job of getting the message across, so here goes.

My crystal meth addiction story

The kid my parents knew was going nowhere, and fast. That’s why I was surprised when they came to my rescue after 3 years of barely speaking to them. My lawyer recommended that I check into a rehab facility immediately; treating my drug abuse problem was our only line of legal defense.

cocaine linesI had long known that I had an addiction problem when I first checked myself into rehab. Still, my reason for going in was my legal trouble. Within 3 months, I was using crystal meth again, but the difference was that this time, I felt bad about it. I had changed in those first three months. The daily discussions in the addiction treatment facility, my growing relationship with my parents, and a few sober months (more sobriety than I had in years) were doing their job. I relapsed as soon as I went back to work in my studio, which was a big trigger for me, but using wasn’t any fun this time.

I ended up being kicked out of that facility for providing a meth-positive urine test. My parents were irate. I felt ashamed though I began using daily immediately. My real lesson came when I dragged myself from my friend’s couch to an AA meeting one night. I walked by a homeless man who was clearly high when the realization hit me:

I was one step away from becoming like this man.

You see, when I was in the throes of my crystal meth addiction, I had money because I was selling drugs. I had a great car, a motorcycle, an apartment and my own recording studio. After my arrest though, all of that had been taken away. I just made matters worse by getting myself thrown out of what was serving as my home, leaving myself to sleep on a friend’s couch for the foreseeable future.

Something had to change.

homelessI woke up the next morning, smoked some meth, and drove straight to an outpatient drug program offered by my health insurance. I missed the check-in time for that day, but I was told to come back the next morning, which I did. I talked to a counselor, explained my situation, and was given a list of sober-living homes to check out.

As I did this, I kept going to the program’s outpatient meetings, high on crystal meth, but ready to make a change. I was going to do anything I could so as not to end up homeless, or a lifetime prisoner. I had no idea how to stop doing the one thing that had been constant in my life since the age of 15, but I was determined to find out.

When I showed up at the sober-living facility that was to be the place where I got sober, I was so high I couldn’t face the intake staff. I wore sunglasses indoors at 6 PM. My bags were searched, I was shown to my room, and the rest of my life began.

I wasn’t happy to be sober, but I was happier doing what these people told me than I was fighting the cops, the legal system, and the drugs. I had quite a few missteps, but I took my punishments without a word, knowing they were nothing compared to the suffering I’d experience if I left that place.

Overall, I have one message to those struggling with getting clean:

If you want to get past the hump of knowing you have a problem but not knowing what to do about it, the choice has to be made clear. This can’t be a game of subtle changes. No one wants to stop using if the alternative doesn’t seem a whole lot better. For most of us, that means hitting a bottom so low that I can’t be ignored. You get to make the choice of what the bottom will be for you.

You don’t have to almost die, but you might; losing a job could be enough, but if you miss that sign, the next could be the streets; losing your spouse will sometimes do it, but if not, losing your shared custody will hurt even more.

At each one of these steps, you get to make a choice – Do I want things to get worse or not?

Ask yourself that question while looking at the price you’ve paid up to now. If you’re willing to go even lower for that next hit, I say go for it. If you think you want to stop but can’t seem to really grasp just how far you’ve gone, get a friend you trust, a non-using friend, and have them tell you how they see the path your life has taken.

It’s going to take a fight to get out, but if I beat my addiction, you can beat yours.

By now, I’ve received my Ph.D. from UCLA, one of the top universities in the world. I study addiction research, and publish this addiction blog along with a Psychology Today column and a number of academic journals. I also have my mind set on changing the way our society deals with drug abuse and addiction. Given everything I’ve accomplished by now, the choice should have seemed clear before my arrest – but it wasn’t. I hope that by sharing addiction stories, including mine, we can start that process.

Antisocial personality disorder – Drug policy and court mandated addiction treatment

gavelA recent study conducted by a group at the University of Maryland found that court-mandated addiction treatment is especially helpful for those with Antisocial personality disorder (ASPD).

Using 236 men, it was found the overall success for participants without ASPD was high (85%) whether the treatment was court mandated or not. However, for those with ASPD, a whopping 94% remained in court-mandated treatment, though only 63% stayed in voluntary programs!

ASPD is relatively rare in the general population, but it’s estimated that its prevalence is relatively high (some estimate the prevalence as high as 50%) among addicts in drug treatment programs. I personally doubt that ASPD prevalence is that high even among treated addicts but it is certainly higher.

The Maryland team’s findings have two important implications for substance abusers with ASPD that should be noted:

  1. Judicial mandates offer a way to keep them in addiction treatment programs.
  2. Voluntary participants may require special interventions to keep them actively engaged in therapy.

Recently, a colleague shared with me some great insight about research into the effectiveness of mandated treatment: Mandated treatment can be effective if implemented well, which may sound simple but isn’t within a system that is used to putting down prisoners and not building them up. However, without aftercare, even the best mandated treatment loses its impact quickly. When it comes to aftercare, when trying to determine the best form of it (outpatient, residential , intensive, medical, etc.) the best thing to do is to ask the released client – if the match between the client’s desires and the treatment provided is high, the results are significantly better.

Citation:

The interactive effects of antisocial personality disorder and court-mandated status on substance abuse treatment dropout. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment 34(2):157-164, 2008

Lindsay Lohan sentenced to 90 days in jail

Well, I was hoping she’d avoid this, but maybe for Lindsay Lohan, like for me, it’s going to take a little jail-time to realize that screwing up royally isn’t as much fun as you thought it was.

Lohan violated her probation terms multiple times and apparently couldn’t get herself out of this one. She’s going to surrender at a later date and will have to enroll in a residential drug treatment program (versus an outpatient substance abuse treatment program) as soon as she’s out. It may sound harsh, but something very similar to this cleaned me up – Hopefully it’ll do the same for Lindsay Lohan.

Lindsay Lohan not drinking – cleared of false SCRAM bracelet alert

Here’s a little follow-up to last month’s post about Lindsay Lohan:

Lindsay Lohan’s SCRAM bracelet went off at an after party for the MTV Movie Awards on June 6, leading authorities to believe she had violated her probation and consumed alcohol.

Lindsay was ordered to come in at 10AM the next morning for a urine test. The results came back clean. She is still in full compliance with her probation and she continues to take court-ordered alcohol education classes. Linday’s next court hearing is scheduled for July 6th. Hopefully she can stay out of trouble until then. Violating her probation could land her up to 6 months in jail.

Addiction and the media – a stigma made in heaven

The sad truth is media outlets jump at the chance to make celebrities look bad. Celebrity addiction is usually brought up when someone gets arrested, checks into rehab, or overdoses. As a result, many people find it hard to believe that celebrities can stay sober. In the case of Lindsay Lohan, all sorts of rumors are flying around that she tampered with her SCRAM bracelet or that she paid off the testing lab.

Celebrities don’t always mess up. We just don’t get to see it when they succeed. To paint a more balanced picture of celebrity addiction, we will be featuring posts about famous individuals who have been able to overcome their addiction to drugs. Look for these in the weeks to come!

Contributing co-author: Andrew Chen

Addiction stories: Alcohol, marijuana, crime, and John’s life

The following story was shared by a young reader. I was first drawn to it because it mirrored mine to a large extent. Fortunately, John decided to pull out before he let his life go down as far as I allowed myself to go. For that, and for his courage in sharing his story, I applaud him.

John’s addiction story

My name is John and I am an alcoholic and a raging drug addict. I’m seventeen years old and only used for about 2 and a half years, but that was more than enough for my life to fall to pieces because of my addiction.

When I was fourteen I got a little drunk for the first time. I hated the way the alcohol tasted, and I hated how it made me so sick. The effects were nice, but I wished that I could get them without having the unpleasant side effects.

I found a solution to this problem at age 15 with marijuana. Within my a few months of my first time smoking, I was getting high multiple times every single day. My friends were changing rapidly because the ones who really cared didn’t approve of my heavy usage. I responded to this by getting new friends. Around this time I also became addicted to stealing in order to support my addiction and also in order to look cool by having a lot of money. My friends and I would get high and drunk and then go out at night and steal hundreds and hundreds of dollars from people’s unlocked cars.

I began selling pot at age 16. Dealing was a new experience for me. I won’t lie and say it wasn’t fun – it was, definitely. But the rush of making heaps of money and being loved by all your peers becomes an addiction in itself. I was dealing pretty heavily, for a high schooler selling pot – some days I would sell a thousand dollars worth of it at school. Afterward, I lived what I thought was a carefree and safe lifestyle; I smoked weed with friends all day, and eventually we moved onto harder drugs.

My usage increased heavily and I began using other drugs as well. I slowly began trying all the things I said I would never do, and before long, my life was absolutely governed by cocaine, alcohol, prescription medications, and lots and lots of pot. I got really into cocaine a few months into it – and then everything changed. Walls fell down; suddenly opiates weren’t anywhere near as scary to me, hence my common run-ins with Vicodin, Valium, Percocet, and Oxycontin. None of the prescription pills had the same kind of power coke had over me, though; my teeth still chatter sometimes when I start craving the rush of that manipulative white powder going up my nose. Cocaine is a pretty serious drug, and I was hooked before I even realized what was happening. This is unlike my experience with getting hooked on pot and booze; with those, I could recognize the kind of path I was going down, but I just couldn’t stop. There is a reason coke is called a “hard drug” – because you’ll fall for it. Hard. People go into with the mindset that they can handle it. Maybe some people can. I, however, am not one of those people – the second I pop a pill or blow a line, all I can think about is getting more to keep my buzz going.

Of course I also began getting into trouble with the law. February 16, 2009, I was arrested for the first time after picking up a couple ounces of weed. I met some buddies in town to smoke, but they didn’t inform me that they had vandalized a building at a school earlier. Before I knew it we were being followed by policemen. They caught up with us, encircled us in cop cars, causing a roadblock, and searched all of us. They immediately found my bag of weed and cuffed me, along with all my buddies. I played the innocent child, though, and got off with a possession charge.

The second arrest took place only four months later. I was back to my old dealing ways – by now I was suicidal, addicted to all kinds of drugs, and had no faith in other people. I got high and brought an ounce of weed with me to school, and was found by the school officer in a bathroom stall, selling a few grams to a 14 year old. I was arrested with intent to sell, endangering a minor, possession on school grounds, and possession of marijuana. Also, I was expelled from school. I began saying I was going to kill myself to gain some sympathy, at which point I was placed in a 2 week long mental ward. After that, it was off to rehab for me, where I had sex, did drugs, lied and stole.

A few days after getting out of treatment, I was using again. I remember feeling like an empty shell – I would stay up for days at a time, stealing, lying, and using people to get my drugs and liquor. My family thought I was sober at this point, and I began at a character-based boarding school in August.

I brought a lot of pot with me and resisted everything the school was trying to offer me. Once the pot ran out, I began huffing up to 2 cans of computer duster every day, along with a daily dosage of booze and a whole lot of cough medicine.

I hit bottom on November 16, 2009. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the most important day of my life – that was the day I finally decided I had had enough. I called up my mother, crying and saying I was really done this time, but she didn’t believe me (who could blame her). So I then called up an old friend who I knew was heavily involved in a 12-step group. This man is my sponsor today. We work our program together, and maintain daily contact.

At almost 90 days sober, I can honestly say I have never been so grateful and serene in my entire life. If you’re reading this and you can relate to my story, please know that there is a way out of the twisted insanity that is drug addiction and alcoholism. I should be dead right now, but I’m still here – as far as I’m concerned, that’s proof enough for me to believe in a loving Higher Power. As long as I remember to help other addicts, talk to my sponsor, work my 12 step program, and remain honest, I don’t have to drink and drug today. And to me, this is a miracle.

A little insight

John’s story mirrors that of many other addicts: Early innocent use followed by the dissolution of self-imposed rules about what one will, and won’t, engage in. Cocaine might seem scary at first, but after a lot of weed, alcohol, and some ecstasy, it might just lose that edge. As I’ve talked about in other posts, there are quite a few common personality issues that make it even less likely that a future addict will say no to increasing degrees of abuse.

Once again I want to make a point that I think it important: Drugs are the road, but not the problem per se when it comes to addiction. The vast majority of people who try drugs don’t get addicted to them – What we need to get better at is understanding the process by which those who do, develop problems. This includes earlier identification, better targeted prevention, and more effective treatment. That’s my take on all of this at least.