When I first worked in the hospital as a nursing assistant, they asked me if I would go to the new CARE alcohol unit they were starting. I knew it was a new adventure because nobody knew if this would even work in a hospital. I also knew nobody else volunteered for it because they were scared. I went. It worked out. So, I began my long and fruitful journey studying and working in the treatment and addiction field. Along the way, the director of a treatment program told me that, as a requirement to be in the job, I had to go to Al-Anon and have a sponsor. Since I was working with these alcoholics five days a week, eight hours a day, I would be spending more time with them than their families. If the family needed treatment, so did I. (Of course, today he couldn’t get away with that kind of direction but that Eskimo saved my personal and professional life)
Years later, I was able to introduce Dr. Anne Wilson-Schaef to a group of professionals as their main speaker (right off the plane just after she had spent months with aboriginal elders in Australia). She coined the famous process vs. substance addictions, and determined that not just individuals and families had addictive processes organizations, but also the work place. Suddenly, this addiction thing became much bigger than the alcoholism treatment I had started with.
The disease, I was told, was cunning, powerful, baffling and patient. I didn’t know how true those words were not only in my life, but in my patient’s lives. Much like the topic of cross-addiction, we were educating people that the type of drug didn’t matter. The disease could care less if it was legal or illegal; it was an equal opportunity destroyer.
Substance addictions, we were taught, were just the ones we were familiar with in treatment; drugs, alcohol and pills and/or the eating disorders of anorexia, bulimia and compulsive over-eating. But the hardest addictions to see were the ones society rewards well. Shopping, gambling, religious, work, sex and love (people) addictions were everywhere. I was also told that, over time, switches in addiction could occur because addicts weren’t adept at dealing with their feelings. Who could blame someone who was worrying about a loved one (love addiction) or worked hard (work addiction) or wanted to do a little shopping (shopping addiction)? Everything was done in secret. This pain is equal to the pain of an addict doing drugs, alcohol and pills.
But, when I heard the solution was spiritual, everything started to make sense. When addicts accepted and loved their spirit, their feelings (and what to do with them) and found a power they could do business with, I saw that the addiction process wasn’t necessary any longer. I saw that it could be truly healed as long as people in recovery were vigilant. As long as they were aware that each new thing (working, shopping, internet, man, woman, food) had the potential to become addictive. Then, they had as much chance as someone recovering from alcohol addiction who also knew to stay away from pills and drugs. If addicts undertood this spiritual thing, recovered their spirit, understood their feelings, then they could maintain their true recovery, one day at a time.
I’ve painfully experienced the truth of this, not only in my life, and the lives of my loved ones, but also in my patients and clients lives for over thirty years.
I am grateful for that Eskimo who pointed me toward the road to humility by first looking at myself through the twelve steps of Al-Anon. Eventually, with continuous mentorship, practice and grace, I have been able to recover and see how true recovery is possible. It may be that the dis-ease is cunning, powerful, baffling and patient but then my recovery is so much more cunning, baffling, powerful and patient.
Michele Downey is the founder of Michele Downey’s Recovery Life Coaching School, and the Host of the “Design for Living” Radio Show, Mondays at 10:30a & 4:30p PST