A remarkable new book nails what it’s like to be drowning in addiction

Drowning
Steve Topple

As ‘Dry January’ draws to a close, a new book is offering ways to help those dealing with addiction. And while it offers practical support in the form of mindfulness techniques, its real strengths are in the author’s deep understanding of the challenges facing alcoholics. Alcoholics like me.

The Canary does not endorse any of the treatments or analyses in the book. If you are experiencing problems with alcohol, your first point of contact should always be your GP. If it is a medical emergency, call 999.

A long and winding road

I’m an alcoholic who lives with mental health issues. I’ve been struggling to deal with it for over a decade. While I’ve used Class A drugs in the past, I’ve never become addicted to them. But alcohol is different. My GP considers me a “high-functioning” alcoholic; that is, I am capable of pouring two bottles of vodka down my neck and still ‘operating’.

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My addiction has led to a very turbulent life. I’ve been bankrupt, had my house repossessed, had to turn my back on a good career, been sectioned under the Mental Capacity Act, seen the breakdown of a 12-year relationship, and lost many friends along the way. As I previously wrote for The Canary, addiction is a highly complex, individualised issue. But it’s also one that unites every addict. For example, Amy Winehouse’s story and my own are wildly different. There was, however, one unifying aspect: we were both addicts trying to escape something.

It’s this unifying aspect, and a real understanding of the perilous challenges facing an addict, that shines through in Catherine G. Lucas’ new book Alcohol Recovery: The Mindful Way. And, speaking to The Canary, she says it is, in part, due to her own experiences.

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Speaking from experience 

Her father died aged just 49 from throat cancer, which was linked to the fact he was an alcoholic. And this has affected not only her work, but her own relationship with alcohol:

I’ve had a very conflicted relationship with alcohol. At times I’ve drunk very heavily myself, not realising I was doing that to numb emotional pain. I couldn’t really understand why I felt so much pain as an adolescent and in my twenties. Having an alcoholic father who was verbally and emotionally abusive was just the norm for me.

In terms of overall outlook on life, my own suffering has given me a certain amount of empathy and compassion for the suffering of others. Since embarking on my healing journey from my mid-30s onwards, I now know that we don’t have to pass wounding on down through the generations. Along the way I’ve gained a confidence that we can change the trajectory of our lives, we can turn things around. That’s essentially what I did once I learnt to meditate and started counselling and therapy. I’m now a mindfulness trainer, author and speaker as a direct result of my journey towards wholeness.

Mindful of addiction

The NHS describes mindfulness as:

Paying more attention to the present moment – to your own thoughts and feelings, and to the world around you [to] improve your mental wellbeing.

Lucas splits her book into two sections. The first part deals with how she believes mindfulness can help addicts. But she also looks at the reasons why people become addicted to a substance. And it’s this aspect of her work which is particularly strong.

Lucas says in Alcohol Recovery that:

Always, always, the drinking masks something else going on under the surface. The drinking is not the real issue, nor the real problem, though it does a very good job of pretending to be.

She goes on to discuss how childhood trauma and experiences often lead people to use alcohol as an “emotional anesthetic”. Citing the work of Dr Gabor Maté, a psychiatrist specialising in addiction, she says:

Dr Maté works in downtown Vancouver with some of the most wounded, traumatised and abused people who become addicts. His raw account of their lives, of the trajectories that lead them into using drugs and alcohol, makes the underlying emotional, psychological and mental health issues stark and clear. He is quick to point out the ‘uniformly tragic past’ of his patients…

Lost in the mire

As an alcoholic, I agree with Lucas’ conclusions. There’s an underlying reason why every addict becomes lost in the mire of their issues. It’s a feeling inside of you, a torment, a profound sadness and wrench in your gut that just cannot be tamed. I imagine that, if asked, the majority of people would say they have demons haunting them. But most people don’t have to take excessive substances to keep those demons at bay. Lucas says something similar:

I wouldn’t say the reason for people’s addiction is necessarily always psychological though. For some people it may be more spiritual. Whether it’s wounding, trauma, a sense of spiritual emptiness and longing, or being highly sensitive, there’s always something underlying the drinking. The challenge, of course, is that sometimes the cause of that pain is unconscious. And the drinking creates such drama and chaos in our lives that we can think the alcohol is the problem.

A “deeper pain”

But one of the most fascinating parts of Alcohol Recovery is Lucas’ views on what she calls the “deeper pain”. She believes that it’s not just underlying emotional, psychological or mental health issues that lead people to drink. It’s society and capitalism that is damaging us. She says in the book:

Why, as a society, are we pursuing a level of consumerism that is destroying our planet, our source of food and life, stripping the earth of her natural resources faster than she can possibly replenish herself?

She quotes Maté, who asked: “why is much of our culture geared towards enticing us away from ourselves, into externally directed activity?”. Maté answered his own question:

A sense of deficient emptiness pervades our entire culture… [the] addict is more painfully conscious of this void than most people… the rest of us find other ways of suppressing our fear of emptiness or of distracting ourselves from it.

Learning to cope

The book is exceptionally well-balanced between talking about the reasons for addiction (which doesn’t paint addicts in the often-negative light in which the media portrays them) and giving positive advice on how to manage it. The second part deals with the mindfulness techniques themselves. Lucas says that:

Mindfulness is so well suited for our journeys of recovery partly because it is a potent tool for self-management; we can use it as a self-help approach anywhere and anytime. But perhaps more importantly, it is because you can treat it as either a secular or spiritual practice.

Lucas then takes the reader through numerous techniques. From mindfulness breathing to ‘urge surfing’, all are explained in a clear, concise and unpatronising manner. As an alcoholic, the one practice that stood out to me was “Coping with obsessive, compulsive thinking”. At the root of many addicts’ problems lies self-loathing, anxiety and an inability to deal with, and ultimately control the way the world around you impacts on your state of mind. Thoughts invariably rush, out of control, around in your head. What may seem inconsequential scenarios to most people are insurmountable mountains to an addict. And this practice deals with it particularly well.

Do you ever really ‘recover’?

One area of the book I disagreed with was the use of the term ‘recovery’. I find the word dangerous, as I don’t believe there is any such thing. Once you’re an alcoholic, that’s it. It’s a life sentence. I believe you never recover; you just learn to manage your addiction on a daily basis. But Lucas disagrees. She told me:

My sense is that it depends on how we’re using the word ‘recovery’, what we mean by it. If we’re using it to mean abstaining from alcohol then, yes, it will always be a case of ‘managing the addiction’. If, however, we use the term ‘recovery’ to mean a healing journey, then I feel much more is possible.

It comes down to whether we believe we can heal our underlying mental health issues. The mainstream medical model often claims that we’re stuck with them for life, that we just have to accept the labels, the diagnosis, and take the pills. We don’t have to settle for that. We deserve so much more. Don’t get me wrong – medication has its place, especially at times of crisis. The underlying issues can be resolved, they can be healed and it takes a huge amount of work, in my experience. I cover all this in a lot more detail in my second book ‘Coping with a Mental Health Crisis: Seven Steps to Healing’.

Wonderfully accessible 

Lucas manages to condense an impressive amount of information and theory into under 90 pages. She says:

The succinctness is probably something to do with my academic background and my writing style. I’ve been told the same about the first book I wrote on psychospiritual crisis; there’s so much in it people go back and read it a second time.

Alcohol Recovery’s accessibility and ease of reading also stand out. But Lucas says she wasn’t at all sure how it would come across:

My own suffering has given me a certain amount of empathy. I’ve also seen first-hand how suddenly realising that there are real mental health issues underlying the drinking can completely turn things around for someone.

And trying to “turn things around” is the underlying reason Lucas wrote the book:

I’d like to think the book could inspire those struggling, give them hope, let them know that others have managed to cut down or cut out alcohol; that if others can, they can too. I’m particularly grateful to Ben, Brendan and Richard who’ve shared their stories so generously in order to give others that message.

Stopping running

Dealing with addiction is a slow, drawn-out and lonesome process. You often feel like you’re drowning in your addiction. That it’s dragging you under. I’m nearly seven months dry but have repeatedly been ‘wobbling’, including right at this minute. But one sentence in the book stood out to me:

When we acknowledge the extent to which we all seek to escape from the present, the extent to which we all run away from ourselves, we can have an honest and compassionate conversation about recovery… we all want to be free from pain.

It’s this feeling of “escape”, of wanting to run and hide from everything, including myself, that underscores my addiction. And in Alcohol Recovery: The Mindful Way Lucas completely ‘gets’ this. It’s her ability to really speak to the reader and her level of understanding which makes the book so compelling. For anyone struggling with a substance, Lucas’ empathy and warm writing are reasons enough to read the book.

Get Involved!

– If you, or someone you know, are living with alcoholism you can call Drinkline on 0300 123 1110 (Mon-Fri 9am-8pm, weekends 11am-4pm).

– In a medical emergency call 999.

Buy Alcohol Recovery: The Mindful Way.

Read more book reviews from The Canary.

Featured image via Flickr

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