Families Matter/Family Matters
Spring 2019 Blog
I have been a Star Trek geek for as long as I can remember. This infatuation even rubbed off on my son who designed the current World Tour stage for the multi-award- winning mega-band Muse to be shaped like a Klingon Bird of Prey. I never quite understood my fascination with all things alien, watching the new Star Trek Discovery series week after week in tears. Really?? Crying over a TV show, and a sci-fi show no less?? Well, after some 50 years of dedication and fanaticism, I think I figured it out:
To borrow a phrase: it’s the future, stupid. The past is finished, complete, even if I do mine it reasonably often, still attempting to understand things as they unfolded oh so long ago. There is wisdom that has come from that exercise as well as some futility. But it’s the future that really does it for me, makes me weak-in-the-knees excited & emotional all at once, like the old roller coaster The Big Dipper in Santa Cruz does every time I ride her. And the relationships, the dedication, the incredible sacrifice and love emanating through every episode brings my heart into my throat with regularity. That all makes me desire to keep going – which some days is a monumental feat I will admit briefly – as I see real possibility for us all, the Human Race. And besides, if a Vulcan can ask for forgiveness (Sarek, in Part 1 of the second season’s finale) who am I to not give such a gift to myself and my families: both the one of chance and the one of choice? It appears this is the work of my future, the work of ‘Change to Come’.
And so we’re onto Change for this month’s blog. And here’s where I’ll begin…
Change is about leaving what we know behind, jumping into the abyss of the unknown just as a starship jumps into warp drive. Never knowing what’s on the other side should be exhilarating for me (Remember? Rollercoaster lover?) and yet it’s always filled me with fear & uneasiness. I’m still here though, alive - as are many others who shouldn’t be - and that’s all due to this thing called Change and those who have ridden this wave with us all.
“Most people never get a chance to learn what’s in their own hearts. If we figure it out it’s often not what we expected, or even what we would have chosen for ourselves.”
---Capt. Christopher Pike, 2019; Star Trek Discovery, episode 13
What’s in my heart? I wondered when hearing this line of dialogue. As so many others have too, I have studied several religions at various points in my life. My first exposure was as a child when I was baptized in the Congregational church of my maternal grandparents, and then as a grade school-age youngster in my family’s home (in Midland, MI) at the United Church of Christ (UCC) which they helped to build. I am proud of the heritage of the UCC as a church of social justice and inclusivity. Even at the height of my drug use, my minister refused my mother’s request that I not be allowed to attend nor teach at the church. He believed in me and the idea that Change could only happen in a place of love & inclusion. He also preached that God was not something outside of ourselves but rather inside of each and every living thing. Finally, he told us that our church was about ‘accepting the unacceptable’ of society (that belief is partly what drew me early on to helping problem drug users ironically). I also recall as a teen wishing to become Catholic as I saw many of my drug using friends able to attend confession each week which they believed absolved them of their “bad behavior” as well as allowed them to repeat it the following week. To me, it simply appeared that Change for them was easy - and I was jealous.
In the pagan Wiccan traditions, every season brings Change of a new variety. As we leave April and head into May, the Wiccan calendar moves to celebrate the festival of Beltane. This date is also known more commonly as May Day. It is a time for birth and renewal: pastel colored eggs to signify fertility; a Maypole around which songs are sung while long ribbons twirl while celebrants dance around the phallic symbol of the pole, and rituals around fertility, crop blessings, and romance abound. After a long hard Winter, Spring brought promise to our ancient people’s here; a promise from someone, somewhere, that they had not been abandoned nor forgotten.
I see Change as a promise to us too: a promise that no matter what, nothing will ever remain the same; all will be well; don’t worry, be happy! Within addiction, this is ultimately the challenge as there often seems little to be happy about when things turn bad. When I was using drugs problematically, I see now that a good part of my reasoning was to keep things the same, status quo. That provided me with ritual, some strange stability, and again ironically, a sense that I always knew what to expect. As a person with a history of trauma, I yearned for something to keep me centered, something expected. It’s also what kept me in violent/abusive relationships. I recall saying out loud finally that I understood that “to know something – even something violent – was better than leaping into the unknown.” Some people believe that those of us who remain in these violent relationships do so because they’re comfortable, that we become comfortable with the abuse. I disagree. I say we become familiar with it and that’s the point: it is better to stay with what we know v be so terrified that Change could be worse. That’s how frightened we often are of Change. IT is the enemy. It is the same with addiction: fear of Change can keep us from trying something new.
And this leads me to the topic of families and the people they love who problematically use drugs. We all resist change to some degree. To some degree we would rather stay in the status quo, in the familiar, than take a risk into the unknown – “to go where no one has gone before” – or perhaps we’d simply prefer that someone else makes the Change and not us. But this isn’t how Change works!
Recently a post from my dear friend and colleague Andrew Tatarsky (Board member at FSDP) came through my Facebook feed, which Andy had reposted from a colleague apparently having a conversation with Dr. Gabor Mate, the renowned trauma & addiction expert and author. Much like my beloved Star Trek it, too, has left me in tears each time I read it. I hesitate to repost this dialogue here for fear of offending people reading this blog. But I am going to take that chance and hope you will hear the hope and joy and see the “Way Out” - as our Brit neighbors wittily call an exit - as I unexpectedly did after reading it. Bring the hankies. Here goes:
"We weren’t quite finished yet. I wanted to know about family members who are dealing with addiction. What can they do for a loved one who’s caught in the grips of active addiction? Because when people are that deep in addiction, they’ve lost themselves—they’re gone in a way. I know I was. I know there was nothing my family could have done no matter how much they wanted to.”
Gabor didn’t agree with me. “You don’t know that. What you do know is what they tried didn’t work, but you don’t know that there’s nothing they could have done. In one sense, you are 100 percent right: There’s nothing they can directly do to change your mind. There’s nothing they can directly do to change your mental status. There’s no way that they can talk to you, advise you, control you, beg you, accuse you. That does not mean there’s nothing they could have done. Imagine if your family had come and said, ‘Chris, here’s how it is. We recognize that your addiction is not your primary problem. Your primary problem is that you’re in a lot of pain. And that pain is not yours alone. That pain has been carried in our family for generations. And we’re as much a part of that pain as you are. You’re just the one who’s soothing it with that behavior. In fact, you’re the one whose behavior shows us how much pain there is in our family. Thank you for showing that to us. So we’re going to start working on you, because we realize that we’re as much a part of it as you are. We’re going to take on the task of healing ourselves. We invite you to be there if you feel like it. And if you’re not ready, sweetheart, then just do what you need to do right now.”
“Families also have to decide, can I have this person in my life, or can I not? If I want them in my life, there must be certain rules, like they can’t steal from me and so on, but if I can have them in my life, I must accept them exactly as they are, exactly where they’re at, and 100 percent accept that right now they’re using because they feel they need to. I’m not going to nag them, cajole them, advise them. I’m not going to say a thing that they didn’t ask me about. I’m just going to accept that this is who they are and I’m just going to love them. That’s a rational decision to make. It’s equally rational to say, ‘You know what? It’s too painful for me. I can’t handle it. I can’t stand to see you do this to yourself. It’s too stressful. I can’t be with that, so I’m sorry, I love you very much, but I can’t be with you.’ That’s legitimate, too.”
“What is completely nonsensical—and unfortunately the pitfall for most families—is to try to be in the addict’s life and try to change them all the time. That’s the one thing you cannot do. So either accept or lovingly distance yourself, but don’t try to stay in there with the intent of altering the other person. To the addict, that signals only one thing: ‘They don’t love me the way I am.’ That’s my advice to families. I do believe that addiction in a person can be a healthy wake-up call for them and for everyone in their lives.” — Dr. Gabor Maté, Dead Set On Livin
Change, especially when we look at addiction(s), sure isn’t linear; not even close. In fact, even the theorists behind the Stages of Change now use a spiral model rather than their traditional wheel. Me? I’ve always seen Change more like a pinball machine, and I’m no wizard: you know, one minute you’re over here, the next down there, and a moment later, ding, ding, ding! It’s unknowable, it’s exciting, and it’s scary as hell. That’s the Change I know…and I am finally just beginning to like Change rather than fear and respect it like an overbearing & abusive parent. Bottom line: it always happens whether I like it or not!
If I may, this seems like a good point to insert briefly the 7 Stages of Change (SOC) as they apply to any Change you might want to make, and of course I will provide you with references for more on them if you wish (apologies to anyone in the know here. Feel free to skip this next part): precontemplation, contemplation, preparation or determination, action, maintenance, termination & relapse/recycle. In a nutshell, here’s the definition and task of each stage (please keep in mind that these stages aren’t linear; remember - pinball!!)
Precontemplation: When my behavior is in this stage it means I can’t see it as a problem so I’m unlikely to see a need for change (think the old idea of denial). Perhaps my family, friends, or employer is seeing a problem in my behavior. So here the main task is to increase my awareness of the need to change – to help me/someone recognize that the cons of not changing are greater than the pros of change.
Contemplation: This is the stage of thinking (insert Rodin’s The Thinker). I see my behavior as being a possible problem but I’m not ready to commit to making a change. Ambivalence lives here. Think of this stage as “well, maybe I should make this change but…”
Preparation or Determination: When my behavior is in preparation, you’ll know because I’m planning out the needed resources, discussing how and maybe even why I want to make this change. I might even begin to take baby steps toward my healthier self.
Action: In action, I’ve moved forward and state my intentions to keep on that path toward healthier living. Any positive change is the key here.
Maintenance: Since I plan to maintain my change in this stage, I will need to work on recognizing obstacles and other speed bumps to my continued Change path.
Termination: For the researchers, this stage was noted by the problem behavior being eliminated for at least 6 months. This stage is often left out of behavioral health programs (including rehabs) however as many don’t believe this stage is reachable. I believe this concept deserves review, and that “termination” should be viewed personally and individually. For myself, I do believe my former addictive behaviors with alcohol and other drugs is done, finis, over with, hasta la bye bye. I have all sorts of other problem behaviors to continue to work on but not those. Others will likely feel more comfortable with termination being left out of the Spiral of Change.
Recycle/Relapse: The researchers decided that the term relapse wasn’t good enough as it isn’t accurate for most people making Change. This is because to relapse means to go back to the beginning, in this case to precontemplation. And while some people will indeed return to precontemplation, most will instead recycle back into one of the other pre-action stages.
Spring appears to have finally come to the Bay area. While we are all grateful to not have to endure yet another year of horrendous drought, we are equally grateful to get a respite from the torrents of rain that have devastated communities throughout our Golden State recently. Even as I write this, we are being warned of a touch more showers coming tomorrow, hopefully the last spurts for the wettest April I recall in my 40 years here. Spring is a natural time to think of change: flowers blossom; mice mate and dogs give birth; the seasons shift as our little Blue Marble of a planet tilts on its axis once again. Like the seasons, Change is both predictable and unpredictable at the same time: the only thing we can be sure of is that nothing will remain the same and that Change happens, constantly and without permission. I can accept that or not but like the moonrise, it will happen everyday in spite of my feelings about it. So will my Change. I will continue to change and grow because to do otherwise will be more painful. This I now know for sure. So, I will make room for the Change in the same way as the philosophical cat Garfield says so brilliantly: “Everything I’ve ever let go of has claw marks all over it!” No one said I have to Change gracefully. And I will wait to cry one more time at Part 2 of the final episode of this Star Trek series season to begin my long winter of wait for the next season to begin. And the next season, and the next Change, will come gratefully – both for my beloved Star Trek and for all of us, if we can just hang on to each other a bit longer. Let the adventure continue…