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.

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.

Global Commission on Drug Policy: Legalization, decriminalization, and the war on drugs

A commission made up of some big names, though not really any names of addiction or drug researchers I noticed, just released a report that’s making a lot of noise throughout every news channel including NPR (see here, and here for stories) and others (see CNN). They want the debate about the current state of drug regulation expanded, and since I’ve written on the issue before, I figured it’s time for another stab at this. Continue reading “Global Commission on Drug Policy: Legalization, decriminalization, and the war on drugs”

California prisoner release – Is Sheriff Baca’s fear justified?

The notion of releasing some 40,000 California prisoners to relieve overcrowding is milling around Sacramento and now, the Supreme Court. Okay, it’s more than a notion, it’s a law, but it’s being held up for the moment, so let’s see what happens.

The prisoners being discussed would be the lowest risk inmates, and as you know from reading some past articles on here, I’m in full support of treatment instead of incarceration. But guess what?! The CA officers’ union, and many other public-safety agency’s are opposed.

Less than an hour ago, I heard LA Sheriff Lee Baca talk about not wanting “these [drug users and thieves] out on the street unsupervised under any circumstances.” The question is, is Mr. Baca’s viewpoint justified?

The law, drugs, and incarceration

Now I understand the notion that when people break the law, especially by hurting others, they need to be reprimanded. It’s how we keep people in line (to some extent) an how we keep the dangerous ones away from the rest of society. But it’s Baca’s general problem with low-risk drug users and thieves that has me worried.

First of all, more than 50% of the U.S. population has experimented with drugs (when marijuana is included). This would, technically, qualify a whole lot of Americans as “drug-users.” In fact, both this President and our last one were drug users at some point in their lives, and I’m pretty sure that a cursory examination of any law enforcement force would reveal quite a few ex-drug users. Still, less than 10% of Americans develop real drug-use problems, and that’s more likely the population Baca was referring to.

Given the fact that approximately 20% of our prison population is incarcerated for drug-related offenses alone, I think it’s time Mr. Baca reevaluated his thinking. These people did nothing wrong except for use drugs, which are illegal, therefore landing them in jail. Their danger to society is, at most, their reduced productivity.

Add to that the 10%-20% who are in jail for drug-addiction-related property-crime, and you start seeing the reason behind our prison population explosion. When it comes to this category of criminal, I see Mr. Baca’s point, to some extent – These prisoners did hurt someone, by stealing their stuff. Still, I believe that if our goal is to stop their stealing, not imprison our citizens, than drug-addiction treatment, not incarceration, is the way to go.

How do we fix the drug-use prison problem?

One of the arguments against the imminent release I heard today was the economic downturn and the fact that “even doctors can’t get a job right now, so these criminals will just go back to what they know best, committing crime.” Well guess what again?! I have a solution!!!

Let’s release the prisoners, but then increase the capacity in drug treatment facilities and other transition settings. This will create jobs, even for those lowly unemployed M.D.s, and will get a good portion of the released inmates the kind of supervision they really need, the kind that could actually turn their lives around.

Social services, job training, and education are all in dire need of funding, and they could actually make our state better by reducing crime through means aside from incarceration. This reduction in crime will save us money by allowing the legal system to focus on dangerous criminals, the ones that inflict violent crime, though I have a feeling that some of those will be helped in the process.

Just an idea, but I think it’s a good one. I’d love to hear your take on this…

Criminal health care – Why we should care.

For most people, the discussion of health care within the prison system is a philosophical one. Not for me.

Inmate health care is a disgrace

While in jail, I got to see the conditions firsthand. I saw the guy coughing his lungs out for days asking deputies to send him to the infirmary only to be laughed at. I saw him struggling to catch his breath night after night, gasping for air in between coughs, making it hard for everyone in the 200 person dorm to sleep. I saw him collapse onto the floor, blood dripping from his mouth and collecting as we all started screaming at the officers to send someone in. They did, finally, and we never saw that guy again. I hope he made it.

After many years of doing little, our government is finally recognizing that leaving inmates to die by attrition within their walled caves is inhumane. In California, there’s a plan to ease crowding and therefore relieve inmate health services to the point they can actually function. Maybe Arnold will do something worthwhile after all. Two birds.

What are prisons for?

The thing is that fiscally responsible conservatives can’t have it both ways. Incarceration is not cheap and as our prison population mushrooms it gets exponentially more expensive requiring support services, the construction of whole cities, and bigger, more secure prisons. The U.S. now has the more prisoners per capita than any other country in the world. Forget China’s human-rights violations, we’re imprisoning ourselves.

Prisons are meant to keep our most dangerous criminals away from society. They’re not meant to be the places where drug users die, or where thieves, cheaters, or dead-beat-dads, go to rot (I met them all there). At least not in my book. Addicts and heavy drug users need help, thieves most often need food or some rehab themselves, dead-beats need a good collection agency and a lien on their income. None of these things are performed in inmate housing facilities. All everyone is trying to do there is stay alive in the mess. Since when was the threat of imprisonment our national parenting device?

Why we should care

“Do onto others” is supposed to be our golden rule, right? Christians proclaim it feverishly, as do my fellow Jews, and as far as I can tell, all other religions have their own versions. Even moral atheists recognize that society functions better when people treat each other with respect. So let’s do it.

When someone is hurting so much from drug use, poverty, and discomfort that they’re willing to steal, let’s give them a hand rather than tossing them to the curb. If they do it repeatedly, let’s figure out a better way to help them. If they seem incapable of stopping, we can revisit this argument. My guess is that those initial steps will greatly reduce the frequency of crime in general. “Bad people” will forever exist in the world, evil will stick around, no doubt, but we can’t live our lives in constant fear of it, jailing anyone who seems to cross paths with it.

Anyway, that’s my opinion.

Crystal meth and cocaine, Agassi and Gasquet- The reality of drug use in our society.

AgassiAfter Andre Agassi’s recent confessions in a tell-tale book about his use of crystal meth during his playing days, Richard Gasquet, who recently made it to the Wimbledon semifinals has just tested positive for cocaine.

He says he was contaminated with the drug when he kissed a woman who was using it.  Right. Unless the woman was covered in an inch thick layer of coke, or unless Gasquet drank about a pint of her heavily intoxicated saliva, we all know that’s a lie. I’m pretty sure the committee now deliberating will come to the same conclusion.

Drug use in our society

The bottom line is that drugs are everywhere, including our star athletes, night-club hopping starlets, and big-time business executives. And in case you haven’t figured this out, they’re not going away. The best we can do is to keep researching the problem so that we can:

  1. Educate the public (educational and dissemination research).
  2. Identify risky users earlier (assessment and genetics research).
  3. Figure out the most effective ways to get them into treatment (intervention research).
  4. Discover the best methods to treat them (clinical and pharmacological research).
  5. Repeat the cycle.

That’s it! That’s all we’ve got. Recreational drug use will most likely continue forever, and I for one think that’s the wrong problem for us to be focusing on.

Interdiction – Our current solution to drug use

Limiting the drug supply, which is a big part of how our government currently deals with the problem, drives up the price of street drugs. This in turn reduces their purity (dealers have to make money) and gets in the way of recreational drug use. So far so good. But guess what?

Addicts don’t care about the cost of drugs.

Trust me, I used to sell them and use. I used to know a lot of other people who did too. Addicts are not making rational decisions based on economic realities. They’ll sell their stuff, lie cheat and steal their way to more drugs. Their brains are no longer depending on rational thinking when it comes to their drug use. That’s pretty much the definition of addiction.

Decriminalization – Our next step

I’m going to write a post soon about the notion of decriminalization. Decriminalization is different from legalization. Making drugs legal is like sanctioning their use – making citizens think the drugs are okay. For the most part, they’re not. But decriminalization would take addicts out of our prisons and give them the treatment they need. I think it’s time we faced the music and dealt with drug use problems at their core, with the people most often negatively affected by them.

California prison problems: Drug use policy gone awry

PrisonOriginally posted on Takepart:

I’ve been aware of the unjust nature of our prison system for a while, but a recent NPR story I heard in the car brought the issue front and center again. This piece is a combination summary and extension of that story.

Did you know that the US makes up 5% of the world’s population but houses 50% of the world’s prisoners? This significantly trumps even China and Russia, those evil countries whose human rights violations we keep hearing about so much.

The California prison system is a perfect example

Though it held steady throughout the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, its prison population today is 8 times larger than it was 30 years ago. The reason? California’s passage of a slew of “get tough on crime” laws including:

-Increased parole sanctions
-Minimum sentencing laws
-Tough prison sentences for non-violent drug offenders (now 32% of the prison population)
-The famous “three strikes” law

The push for these laws was strong, and as NPR reports, one of its major contributors was the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA). The CCPOA, through its political action committee, has been behind much of the toughening of CA sentencing laws. Even worse, it’s put its muscle to work fighting efforts to divert offenders from prison and reduce the prison population.

And it’s worked. Since the laws went into effect, the union grew from 2,600 officers to 45,000 officers. And the money followed: In 1980, the average officer earned $15,000 a year; today, one in every 10 officers makes more than $100,000 a year. Their average salary? About $50,000, according to Payscale.

Letting the CCPOA affect California’s crime policy is like letting health insurance companies determine what health care you’ll get. What you end up with is too little care that costs too much money.

Prison CellBut aside from giving the officers’ union a full 70% of the state’s correction budget, Californians get little in return for their $10 billion. Cheap inmate programs that have been shown, in study after study, to reduce recidivism (repeat behavior) are now getting cut. In Folsom prison, there is a Braille translation program that in 20 years has kept every inmate who has been involved in it out of prison. This year, that program got chopped in half.

The currently available substance abuse beds can barely handle 5% of the inmates that need them.  To make matters worse, the programs were instituted so poorly that even the available beds are badly managed.

The results are obvious. California has the United States’ worse recidivism rate–70%!

Arnold Schwarzenegger touts his independence from special interest, but what’s happening in California seems to say otherwise . The CCPOA is a special interest of the worst kind–their interest lies in putting us away. The better they do, the more jobs they have, but at what cost to society?

It’s time for us to take back our streets, not by putting away every criminal forever but by fixing a system that’s been broken for nearly 30 years. If we want a fix to the CA budget crisis, let us divert money from officers to teachers, both inside and outside the prison system.

It’s time for California, and indeed America, to start thinking about the end-game. Unless we want to find ourselves building more and more prisons to house a larger and larger proportion of our citizens, it’s time to tip the scale back in favor of rehabilitation, and away from incarceration.