What should you say to a loved one with an addiction problem?
Just like with everything else, there are dos and don’ts to addiction. How can you stay connected with them? How can you make sure they don’t go over the edge? If you want these questions answered, you don’t want to miss this episode.
Ken Clark is back on the Voices InCourage Podcast with host KL Wells in another powerful conversation in the world of substance abuse disorder.
In this episode, Ken discusses his “Dos and Don’ts” for those who are afflicted with the disease of alcoholism.
Learn the top five things to say or do, as well as the five things never to say or do.
Ultimately, Ken uncovers the gifts that substance abuse disorder can provide to your loved ones in the midst of chaos.
If you, a family member, or a friend struggle to stay above the water, this discussion is for you.
Watch the episode here
Listen to the podcast here
The Dos And Don’ts Of Addiction
Our audience in this episode is going to get a great opportunity to spend a little bit more time with my favorite counselor, Ken Clark, out of Arkansas. He’s a hog guy, which is fantastic. As we’re getting ready to head into the holiday, these holidays are steeped with anxiety and wondering how to navigate. If you have somebody in your family that’s dealing with substance abuse disorder, where are the boundaries? Where aren’t the boundaries? How do I do this? Do I have them? Do I not have them? How do I love them through all the things? We’re going to touch on that throughout the time we have together.
Ken, before we got on, I asked him, does he have his own story because I didn’t know. We’re going to start with that because I think that it helps our audience have a window into his own personal journey and some of the decisions that he’s made and experiences that he’s had. We’ll then move into certainly out of his own experience, not just as a counselor, but also as a human being. What to say and what to stop saying during the holiday season? Ken, welcome again.
This is a great show, and for those of you that are reading at home, I’m thankful that this and things like this are out there. This is a big part of what we need to start doing. Meaningful conversations aren’t necessarily moments of decision, but moments of learning, educating, exploring, and wandering through these topics. They’re tough topics.
We need more of these conversations because there’s so much shame and judgment surrounding all of this that people tend to silo up, which is dangerous. If you would, start with your story that we had started talking about a little bit before we got on. I would love to hear and so would our audience.
I grew up in a family where it was half Southern Baptist and half Catholic. Both of those are probably adamantly against drinking and do a lot of closet drinking as populations went. I was raised in this odd environment where I was warned about the spiritual consequences or whatever of drinking right by the Southern Baptist side. They’re a bunch of teetotalers that surfaced and then also warned from the Catholic side about this Scotch-Irishman who does drinking as a national sport. Definitely, some warnings there were handed down to me by the men in our families. “Your great-grandfather did this,” and all that kind of stuff.
In the Depression Era, World War II, I’m not saying it’s okay, but there were a lot of stimuli that drinking was friendly too, and it was that madmen culture. That 1950s and 1960s culture, two martini lunches, and all that was part of being a business guy. I’m a business guy. I was warned about all that, and I grew up not seeing either of my parents drink. I remember my dad’s boss bringing him home once intoxicated when I was 5 or 6. It choked me up. It was one of my father’s most shameful moments.
In hindsight, I’ve been intoxicated enough over my journey that probably it wasn’t earth-shattering as it felt at five, but my father was so ashamed. I grew up with these strong warnings about it. At the same time, my parents threw some great social events and people would bring over alcohol as gifts like you bring a housewarming gift or whatever. We had this incredible stocked bar that my parents never imbibed from that I was aware of, but from an early age, I was fascinated with all the different bottles, shapes, and colors.
By the time I was in middle and high school, I realized I wasn’t as popular as I thought. We only had the well-stocked bar that all my friends would sneak stuff out of. I didn’t get intoxicated until I went off to college for the first time. There was a moment when that first time shook me to the core. I don’t mean to put any bravado around this. It speaks to that alcoholic gene or however we narrow it down. It was a fraternity thing and it was pledging and they made us all drink and all these guys who had spent their whole high school drinking and stuff, I’m the last person standing and I drank just as much.
I remember thinking, “I think my dad might’ve been right,” but I’ve never had a sip and I drank these guys under the table. That could be a sign. I probably had a bad year in college, got married, became a professional guy, had kids, and was pretty good about that stuff. Two moments, in particular, one losing my dad about a decade ago. I spent a year over-medicating with alcohol on that.
As a business owner, we’ve built this huge business and there are points where you end up on the floor in a fetal position because you’re scared out of your mind. Alcohol fits into that pretty dang easy. I had my moments. What I was saying before we jumped on this call is I think I’m at a very contemplative place about what is the value of this. It’s got huge social underpinnings in the South, but like, “Why do I even care for this? What is the point?”
I took a year off drinking a couple of years ago. It was one of the best years of my life. I had a mental conversation with myself. If this is the difference between making $1 million a year as a business owner and not, would I give up drinking forever? The answer was, “Yes, in a heartbeat.” As hard as I’ve worked to build this, if you told me the one tipping point thing missing was me putting down the glass, I’m in. talking before, very frankly, I’m again at a position where I’m probably ready to not drink even though I don’t perceive myself as having a substance use disorder.
I don’t know where it goes from here. I don’t see what the value is. I don’t see what it adds to my life besides having to tolerate an occasional ribbing from somebody who drinks too much that I’m not having to drink. As we were mentioning before, one of the big things that influenced me on this, and then I’ll shut up and let you talk to, but there’s a program out there called The Seven Challenges, which is a teen program.
It’s a fascinating approach, kind of not the AA approach. I love AA and believe in that. Seven questions, these very simple questions about we’ve committed to taking a meaningful look at the place of substances in our life. We’re committed to taking a meaningful look at whether or not these things add value or take away value.
There’re all these very open-ended questions that theoretically somebody could say, “Yeah, I’m a better person with it,” and the discussion would be over, but I found those The Seven Challenge questions have haunted me since I first saw them 8 or 10 years ago of like, “What is the value to this?” That’s where we are and we love social culture, celebration, culture, and all that kind of stuff.
I don’t see it as anything besides drag in my world and in my late 40s or early 50s, with kids off at college. It’d be easy for that to become part of my personality. That’s my journey with it, and I think my wife is in the same spot. We have very open conversations about it. We have open conversations with our kids about it. I’m very thankful for our dialogue with our kids where they talk about the same thing like, “Is this providing value for them?”
Two questions that I’m really curious about. One is I have a number of clients I work with that are around your age and having the same conversations with themselves. I think it is up to people to reflect and think and be much more choiceful about this. The impact that it’s having and exactly what you said is what most of my clients are saying is, “What is the benefit of doing this? They’re coming to the conclusion and asking the question. I don’t think there’s a benefit to doing this and all the things. The other question I have that I’m super curious about is, what was the thing that after your dad passed and you went into that year of medicating the feelings, what was the thing that pulled you out?
The pulling in, which probably ties to pulling out, is there was a place that I could get to emotionally that I wasn’t trained to get to because I wasn’t raised with good emotional intelligence. I wasn’t raised to feel, break down, and have a cathartic cry. I could get there with alcohol and grieve my dad in a way that was dysfunctional but also felt productive. Whereas at that cerebral level, there’s a line in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof that struck me. It was probably in the middle of that.
One of those turning points is one of the characters there who has an alcohol problem talks about he drinks until he hears the click. This moment where his brain converts over to a different way of thinking. I think there’s probably that realization that I am using this for something that I should have learned how to do emotionally like grief. My sons were preteens right then, and they’re officially watching with different eyes.
They are in school, hearing about substance use, and watching me pour a strong bourbon at the end of the day. What’s my legacy they take from this? What shit do I stop from rolling downhill that it ends with me? That was one. That’s even where we began. I took a year off. I told him, “I’m taking a year off. I don’t think this has been good for me lately.” They see that transparency there, which invites that transparency from them.
What did you learn in that year off?
The first thing that occurred to me was a part of me that missed that crisp, cold like I could get that same experience from other things, but I had falsely conflated certain moments to alcohol alone. That moment of release or that moment of physical distraction is limited to alcohol. I started learning that there were a lot of other things that provided the same sensations, the same release, the same ritual, or whatever that didn’t have to involve alcohol.There are a lot of other things that provide the same sensation and release as alcohol. Click To Tweet
I think alcohol had become too idealized in my world and in our culture. A perfect end to a good day is I think nothing makes a man feel more like a man than drinking beer on his roof after he has tarred it. We have these enculturated things around cigarettes and alcohol that we deserve, and that’s a reward in all kinds of stuff you can do.
My physical activity started going through the roof. I’ve always been a guy who has carried a few too many pounds, and I found that there was a virtuous cycle instead of a downward spiral between drinking and exercise. The more I exercised, the less I wanted to drink, the more I didn’t drink, the more I wanted to exercise and something that had been a point of self-loathing or shame or not liking myself for years. The big lesson is, “God, I’ve made this more important than it is.” It’s not the skeleton key to all locks like I thought it was.
You had your business at that point. You are a counseling company. How did that change how you showed up at work and the work that you’ve done?
Probably the biggest thing is I started talking about it out loud. There’s something weird that came on the other side of not drinking. It was freeing to tell people like, “I’m taking six months off.” Telling other business owners and coaching calls with groups of practice owners. I have now regularly talked about drinking too much as a coping mechanism. I get email after email like, “That was so great to hear. Me too. Maybe this is my sign that I need to dial back a little bit.”
I think what showed up was a more authentic self where this part of my life, none of us want to admit that we might be overdoing it a little or a lot of a problem. I started saying, “This is normal. A lot of business owners fight this crap.” It’s one of those things that when you say out loud, “Yeah, I think it might be time for me to dial back.” A lot of other people are like, “Can you tell me about that? Because I’ve been thinking to your point, at least, the people that you coach.”
I think that was like, “I’m a great leader. I’m a good business owner, but I was only 90% authentic because I wasn’t admitting out loud that I’m not sure where this fits into my life, but right now, I’m going to pretend it’s a non-issue. That made me a more charismatic leader. I start sleeping better too. I’ll tell you now that you’re processing out loud. One of the other things that changed was I had this running joke in my head as an entrepreneur that if I can get in bed by 10:00, I’m going to rule the world. If I’m in bed at 10:00, I’m up at 5:00. That gives me two hours before my kids get up to get all kinds of stuff done, and then I’m a present parent in the morning.
There are all these things that fall down the line from being in bed at 10:00. Alcohol was keeping me from getting in bed by 10:00 and I would usually get into the peanut butter, pretzels, and Netflix at about 10:30, and then I’d burn another hour or two. Now, you’re in this unwind mode. You’re having a little bit of a good time and you don’t want to go to bed. It was messing up my sleep and my sleep got substantially better without alcohol in my world.
That’s one of the things that I routinely hear over and over again, and fundamentally, sleep is so freaking important.
I tell people, whatever else you think about it, it’s fine, but now that we don’t waterboard people at Guantanamo Bay, sleep deprivation is the number one way we break people. That’s how we get people to lose their minds and we think they know or whatever. We do that to ourselves recreationally.
Isn’t that stunning?
Yes. Let’s do a little shift here and thank you so much for sharing that. We had talked about a discussion around certainly during the holidays, heightened and regularly just as walking around human beings. When we have somebody we love dealing with substance abuse disorder, what I want you to speak to is what are the five things that we can say and should say and that should be part of our language with our loved ones. What are the things we need to stop saying and dump and minimize saying?
We’re going to go slightly controversial or provocative here. When we were talking about this before and I think it’s this, “Stop eating this and start eating this.” I see these great things in magazines or whatever. Don’t eat the chips. Eat the carrots or whatever. I think the one at the top of my list, which is going to feel provocative for a lot of people, is I want you to stop saying I love you, and I want you to start saying, I like you.
You’ve heard me speak before. One of my big things is to be loved without being liked means you’re being tolerated. If you’re lucky, I love you because otherwise, you’re abhorrent, or your behavior’s disgusting. In other words, I don’t enjoy you. It’s only love that allows me to tolerate being around you. That’s a shame-inducing realization for somebody we’re being put up with, and shame fits well into substance use and numbing and all that.
Likewise, when we know we’re enjoyed, when we know we’re liked, which is different from knowing that we’re loved, there is something that we don’t want to lose. That’s why we do this sometimes right before we leave a crowded room after a long day. I want to make sure I don’t smell right. Shifting onto what is admirable about somebody, even though we’re frustrated with them, that we still do enjoy in the midst of it, creates a point of reconnection. It creates something that destroys shame and says, “You don’t need to run away and hide, even if it’s in the guest room with a bottle or something.” That’s probably the big one to move away from that.
It has power and may be provocative for some people, but I had another conversation with a great friend of mine and one of the things that he talked about was our ability to see the best version of the person that we love and to hold that up as a regular thing that we still see despite the substance abuse disorder because that part is all still there. If we can speak to that from a, “I not only love you, I like you,” perspective, it’s very powerful, Ken.
The second thing I would focus on is that we would stop talking about the past and the future and try and talk about the present moment as much as possible. When somebody has substance use issues, it’s easy to talk about the old wounds or our contributions to them. “If I was a better dad, a better mom, or a better sibling, we wouldn’t be in the situation,” or, “I’m just so afraid that you’re never going to get a handle on. You’re going to piss away a great career or whatever.” It’s what I tell couples. I’m a couple of therapists by training.Stop talking about the past and the future. Start talking about the present as much as possible. Click To Tweet
Talking about the past is your version versus somebody else’s version of events. A chemical imprint on the brain. You’re probably both wrong, by the way. Talking about the future is your guess versus somebody else’s guess. Your marriage only exists in one place. It’s in the present moment on my couch right now. All these discussions, they have a saying in the South, “Don’t borrow trouble.” In other words, “Don’t get upset about the future. That’s not even here yet.”
Again, when we look at things that ramp us up and make us not great caregivers, friends, family and also push people down that ladder of functioning, the past and the future go there really easy, and yet they’re so impractical. We accomplished a whole lot. That doesn’t mean that we don’t get good therapy or don’t do moments of healing or don’t do whatever. Talk about the future. It means it needs to make sure that we don’t go from seeing somebody sneak into the kitchen in an otherwise good moment to pour themselves an extra drink they shouldn’t be to now talking about the past instead of watching Christmas story and just focusing on that connection.
I don’t fully believe this, but it’s still a beautiful saying to wrestle with. My wife, who I heard it from, is a great trauma therapist. My wife says that the opposite of addiction is connection. In those moments where we break the connection, we raise the incentive for all parties to embrace bad coping mechanisms. Focus on the present and be present. Focus on the sight, sound, smell, or whatever of being with your kid or your spouse. I’m a high-anxiety guy. My wife walks me through a 4, 3, 2, 1, which is how she gets me grounded in the present moment when I’m off the deep end. What are four things you can see right now? Three things you can touch right now. Two things you can hear and one thing you can smell. It’s checking into the present moment. They’re thinking about your past with your kid. Look at them and try to enjoy the fact that you like their new haircut, that gray and their beard looks good, or being present is so good. That’s number two. Focus on the past and the future.
The third is I didn’t have a better experience with this, but it comes from my old time in the insurance world. Focus on comparative responsibility and not the binary. Is this my fault or your fault? The reality is we’re going to get into some of these discussions inevitably. I go there and I need to focus on the fact that addiction is multi-causal. Addiction and substance use disorders are often a somewhat perfect storm that comes together. Would my kid not be an addict if I was a better parent?
No, that’s not how it works. Would that combine with four or five other factors going in their direction, them not being an addict? Yes. That’s more accurate. This comparative negligence or this comparative responsibility thing of realizing your spouse had a choice and still has a choice. He still has some agency. He has the choice to get help and acknowledge that they don’t have much choice in it anymore. Whatever it is, they have some responsibility. You have some responsibility. It’s super complex.
Stop doing what Freud did because we threw the guy out years ago and tried to pin it down to one source of cause, one bad moment. Your mom didn’t hug you enough, that’s why you’re an alcoholic. Stop that stuff. The storm that you’re in has 5 or 6 contributing factors, at least, which means take care of your peace and recognize what you can’t control because when we over-reduce it to, “This is my fault or this is your fault,” we don’t have anything actionable that we can do besides accept or reject that blame and that’s super unproductive.
I think the conversation around blame alone could take 45 minutes.
The third is brilliant too.
Fourth is going to be, and I’m going to hedge this by saying, “Where appropriate.” You need to be aware of people’s boundaries. We need to be cognizant of consent and all that kind of stuff, but I’m going to encourage people to replace talking with touching and now that’s going to make me cry. Hold on a little longer before you let go. Maybe take a chance and put your arm around somebody that you haven’t been able to in 1 year or 2.
This goes back to connection. There’s something that is safe to touch. We have something about it. We know what it does in the brain. It releases oxytocin in the brain. When we get continuous touch, usually like 30 seconds or longer, I always think of Good Will Hunting where Robin Williams is saying to Matt Damon, “It’s not your fault.” He keeps saying it and he finally starts hugging him. It makes me cry. Matt Damon is hitting him and about 30 seconds in, he collapses into it.
That’s where that brain clicked over and said, “This is not a threat. You’re safe.” You can’t get that a lot of times without touch and if there’s ever going to be a moment where you push through your cultural standards or, “We weren’t huggers in our family or whatever.” To try and show somebody that they are worth drawing close to. They’re the opposite of disgusting because we don’t touch disgusting things as humans.
I don’t touch piles of poop. We touch what is beautiful and worthy and there’s something about that needs to happen more and you don’t need to be good at it. You can walk by your kid and say, “I know it’s super weird. I need a hug. Come here and give me a hug.” Talk about how awkward you feel and do it anyway because there’s something about that clears up worth and value that all these saying like, “We have a lot of good memories as a family,” or whatever. It can’t replace that.Replace talking with touching. Try and show somebody that they are worth drawing close to. Even if it's awkward, just do it because there's something about hugging that clears up worth and value. Click To Tweet
I’m totally with you on that. I did not grow up in a hugging family and somewhere along the way, I was like, “I’m a hugger.” With almost all my clients, I hug them when I see them and I hug them when they walk out the door. For some of them, it may be the only hug they get. I’ve started doing the 30-second hugs, but the heart hugs are where you shift through the other side and its heart-to-heart. That is extraordinarily powerful for people who don’t get that kind of connection with people. They all know I’m super safe. That’s the one. They know whether it’s the only place they get that will happen for them.
It’s one of the oldest anecdotes in human experience and you see it play out in so many different ways. There are real famous studies in Russian orphanages about the mortality rates of babies who were picked up once a day versus not. In the Christian narrative, regardless of what you believe. One of the whole things was to touch lepers first and heal the second. It wasn’t like, “Use my magic powers to make you not worth touching.”
Touch is such a repeated theme. It’s the beautiful moment in a lot of movies and things like that where he finally reaches their hand over and grabs another human’s hand. It’s amazing. If you haven’t seen it, I’m crying about it still. It’s on the internet right now. It’s the mom chimp. Mahale is her name. Her baby chimp was away from her at birth because she wasn’t getting enough oxygen and was put back in the cage.
You need to go watch this as soon as we’re done. They put the baby chimp back in the cage with a blanket. Put the mom in the enclosure with the baby and you see the little baby’s hand come out of the blanket and the mom realizes it and scoops this baby up. It’s so beautiful. We need those moments. We need to be scooped up. We need somebody to hug us for a little too long and not let go. In this environment where addiction tells us we’re so unworthy and we’re worthy of disgust and things like that, touch clears that up in a way that other things can’t.
Let me hedge it by saying, “It may be normal for some of us or it may be healing for some of us. It’s also going to be other people’s trauma.” Be attentive to what touch means for people. In the end, give them a chance to consent in or out but do more hugging. Last but not least, stop talking about forgiveness. It’s an oversimplified and overrated concept. I would argue that we have turned forgiveness into forgetting, and that’s not how it works.Forgiveness is an overrated concept. People have turned forgiveness into forgetting, and that's not how healing works. Click To Tweet
If the goal is to somehow forget all these things that have happened to us, we’re talking to people about needing forgiveness, or they need to ask for our forgiveness, like any of that stuff, and we’re mixing that with somehow that it removes how trauma relives itself in our brain without our choice, that’s so unfair. That in fact, what often makes healing so powerful is not that we forget it but that we remember what we’ve been through, how bad it was, and where we are now. The fact is it requires memory.
Forgiveness, I always explain it in terms of student loans. Forgiveness means that you no longer have to pay off the debt. If your student loan is forgiven, you no longer pay the debt. To forgive somebody means you are foregoing the right to collect on something they owe you, and if they’ve hurt you, they owe you or whatever. That means you’re giving up the right to collect on it. It doesn’t mean that debt never existed and that damage wasn’t done.
What we are doing when we forgive this holiday season or giving up our right to punish is a lot easier to do if we don’t have to give up our right to remember what happened to us. The fact it’s where grace and kindness and all these things emanate from. It’s that I’m going to choose to do something different, even though this was a big trauma for me. That’s a big piece of it too. I want you to stop talking about forgiveness, especially behind the scenes and away from the addict in your life.
We don’t talk about forgiveness if it equates to forgetting. Talk about foregoing punishment. Talk about how revenge doesn’t bring anything but more wounding. That’s where I would go with that. Those are the big tips. All that to say, if you’re not doing your individual work wherever it is, whether you have a coach or a therapist, you’re in Al-Anon or reading The Big Book by yourself. If you’re loving somebody with an addiction, you’ve never read the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book, order it off Amazon. It was $15. It’s worth having on your nightstand and reading through it. It’s spectacular stuff in there as well.
If you’re not doing your own work, that makes it so much harder. Not doing your own work on this is trying to drive a car with a dirty windshield. It’s tough to see where you’re going because it’s so gunked up with your own stuff, your own trauma. If you want to help somebody in your life, help them by helping yourself.
I fully believe, and I know this has been my own journey, Sam’s substance abuse disorder called me to learn more, to take care of myself more, to feel more, and to love deeply in ways that I didn’t know existed. To change my beliefs from, “My life’s falling apart,” to, “My life is falling.” Also, the vigilant learning that I’m constantly learning. Every conversation I have, book I read, movie, and podcast I listen to continues to wash in the ocean of my own transformation. That’s what I believe is one of the massive gifts of this experience is it gave me a catalytic push to do my own work.
That own work individually leads to collective work as a culture. I don’t know where you all grew up, but I remember being a kid in Los Angeles in the early eighties and there were commercials for the Rader Institute, which was a place to go if you had a drinking problem. Even in 30 or 40 years, the concept of being an alcoholic, those that were running in those circles understood it was a much bigger problem that applied to a lot of people, but the rest of us still had a mentality that the world can do two martini lunches and there’s a select few that get carried away with it.
We’re within the last decade or two, still having an evolving conversation culturally, which starts with the individuals saying, “I don’t know if this stuff makes that much sense. We are still learning as a culture that maybe we shouldn’t be drinking or doing these things as much as we do and we’ve been medicating ourselves unhealthily. That, again, comes back to the more that we talk, the more that we listen to these things, and the more that we continue the conversation. This is not revealing some great truth that’s been there for the last few years that all the people know. We’re literally still figuring it out as a society. We might have a problem. That clarity gets sharper. It comes into focus the more we talk to one another.
Yes and that’s the thing. When you’re not talking or you’re a “private family,” and we don’t talk about this sort of thing, you are only clamping down the possibilities of the fullness of being human and understanding that it’s all fascinating to me from that perspective.
Mold grows best in the dark and it’s so true with family secrets and things like that.
Part of the reason this show was birthed was because, number one, I couldn’t find all the resources I needed in one place. The other was that I kept running into the people that were like, “We’re not talking about this.” Certainly, it’s alive and well in Corporate America. We’re not talking about this. “It’s too touchy. You can’t touch that,” and so on and so forth. That’s a whole big conversation too, Ken.
I’m seeing that the C-Suite folks are telling us how big of a problem this is and will propose a great workshop that opens the dialogue and they freak out and have nothing to do with it. Simultaneously, leadership in companies, cultures, and organizations knows this is a problem. Why EAPs exist in part. Employee Assistance Programs were meant to help people with this, yet they still don’t want to acknowledge it out loud.
Let’s do another little shift to stop saying that or minimize saying that or the five things.
Those were the five things.
There are five in terms of what to say and what not to say. Is there any delineation in your mind?
Between what to say and what not to say?
I can think of a few things that you absolutely should. If you are thinking that in your head, you just stop it. Don’t ever say that out loud.
I think broadly categorically, anything that would oversimplify both shuts down your readers and/or makes them feel like a greater failure. You need to hold it to two drinks. Some of the stuff like, “If it were that easy, they would’ve done it,” which means you either don’t understand me or I suck, but nothing good comes from oversimplified conversations about quitting.Anything that would oversimplify addiction quitting shuts down somebody. This could make them feel like a greater failure. Click To Tweet
Most people with a substance use problem have regular dialogues in their own heads about how this is not a good idea. The promises they make themselves about how they’re going to get under control or whatever. That whole oversimplification there is problematic. The second thing that I cringe at when I watch people go there are reflexive talks and talk about inpatient treatment.
That if we’re going from not talking about it at all to, “I think you need 60 or 90 days,” or, “My friend went to this treatment center,” or whatever. A way to shut somebody down is to make them not like, “By the way, a great solution to this. We need to chop off your hand.” “Let’s have that conversation. That sounds fun.” I think that is problematic.
Stay with that a little bit longer because that is generally how people are approaching this you need to get fixed and rehab is your solution.
There are amazing rehab programs and a ton of them and some of those passionate individuals. The problem with rehab, in my experience and the stats, validates this. Modern substance use treatment is a relatively perfect environment to not be an addict. They are making sure that stuff is not there to you’re getting three squares a day and if it’s a bougie center, you might be getting massages and you get a ton of high-end therapy.
In the grand scheme of things, that’s an easy place not to use. You have to come back to the environment that you are and that’s why there’s a 40% to 80% relapse from 6 to 12 months when you look at inpatient. All this money gets spent and there’s a huge sense of failure that we relapsed. I think that a big part of it is it might be great for a hard stock, but if it is not seamless and community network participation. When somebody comes back to the same spouse who mistreats you or whatever, you’re going to relapse. You’re going to go back into those behaviors.
I think that a big piece of that is oversimplifying what happens in that environment and transferring it back to the environment where somebody is an addict is a tall order. At the same end, it’s oversimplifying and waving your hands saying, “You need to go to AA,” or something like AA. My church has Sober Recovery, or whatever it is.
I think a lot of people who are struggling with substance use issues know what goes on in those groups well enough. Either they’ve been there and it’s a much bigger problem for them than that and/or they’re not ready to stop drinking or stop using or whatever. Again, it’s creating distance between you and the person who’s struggling. It’s so easy to do when we wave our hands and say, “You should do this.” That gets paired with and you’re asking about the five things. Not to say oversimplifying somebody’s situation by saying, “My brother goes with,” or my this or that. It’s making somebody else’s journey their journey, which is why your oversimplified fix shuts them down.
I, as a cis-gendered white male, say to my friend who is an African-American transgender woman that you need to do this and or my uncle or my life, and they’re sitting there going, “What does that have to do with the world that I live in?” If we’re not careful, those oversimplifications degrade connection, which turns off listening and turns off openness. All these things you should not say. That’s going to be the biggest punchline if we shut people down, whether we mean to or not, and they don’t feel connection and empathy and understanding, then they’re done having any kind of meaningful conversation with us about themselves.
I think that’s a big one. I also think the oversimplification of mental health treatment is one of the other ones that we see. “You’re drinking. Are you depressed?” That simple attachment of, “You must be anxious. That’s why you’re doing this. Did you have trauma? Is that why? Were you abused as a kid?” Most people that have mental health disorders don’t also have substance use disorders. By definition, most people with substance use disorders are probably mental health disorders, but concurrent or comorbid stuff. Broadly affiliating those things as, “If we can take care of the anxiety or depression, this goes away.”
It’s not how it works. If it’s that easy, therapists would be out of business. Relegating those struggles to simple mental health, you just need to change the tires on your brain kind of thing. You need to get a good therapist. If it were that easy, therapists would be healing substance use disorders left and right. Those are probably the big ones all those things that look like an oversimplification of the problem. You can sound compassionate, but if you show that you don’t understand where this person’s coming from, why would they listen to you any further?
They’re going to break the connection and connection is where we find healing. Connection is the opposite of addiction and all that stuff. That’s one of the things I would be aware of. It’s not that oversimplification. I’d also be aware that some people aren’t willing to talk. They don’t want to talk in earshot of other people. A lot of these times, grandma, grandpa, a caring Uncle, a godparent, or whatever. We have this discussion while we’re sitting by the fire and your spouse is twenty feet away.
We’re going to get my childhood trauma and why I drink, to show some common sense. Being aware of when and where we talk about these things and, I think, probably just broadly. I think people over-associate the holidays with hard times. They are hard for a lot of people, but anything that is, “You’ll get through this. I believe in you. You’ve always been strong.”
Again, it’s if addiction and substance use disorders were simply a matter of, there’d be so many people that weren’t struggling. Honestly, a lot of people aren’t struggling worse because they’re strong, badass people and that’s why their addiction is held to a moderate level and not worse. Again, avoid oversimplifications. Avoid over-identification with people. You are telling that person, “You’re not a safe person for me.”
If you would, speak to the housewife that is only realizing that their spouse is drinking way too much and there are a couple of kids at home.
Probably one of the best books I’ve read, for a while, there was that intervention show on TV. There can be some fairly magical moments. I thought about doing some intervention work full-time. There’s a book out there called Love First, interventions in general from the point of valuing the person and that’s why we’re asking for change. The level of complaint is commensurate with the level of compliment. If you weren’t so damn important to me, I wouldn’t want you to change this thing. If your kids didn’t like you so much, then I wouldn’t be so sad that you’re not present because you’re three drinks in.
As far as having the conversation and where do we go with that? That’s a great place to start. It’s that love-first approach. How do we help somebody understand their positive impact before we help them understand their negative impact? I think that housewives, househusbands, or whatever they are discovering also need to lean into their own education around addiction and that’s got to include professionals as much as it does friend support and all that.
Friend support, we start getting home remedies and all that kind of stuff. “You must take a teaspoon of this for that.” Getting some psychoeducation on addiction and how addiction works. If there are kids involved, the worst thing you can do is chuck somebody’s kids in the middle as leverage. It’s not that we don’t talk about the kids, but if the kids don’t need to know or they don’t need to know any more than they do, shame goes up through the roof for a parent who feels like they’re failing. Do not use your kids’ disappointment. Do not foster your kids’ disappointment to get somebody to pay attention.
That’s trauma for your kids too. It goes back on you as the non-addict. We all need to look at, “Does addiction exist in my life?” Sometimes the first place that we notice addiction is in other people because it’s causing a problem for us, but that doesn’t mean that we’re not an addict ourselves. Think when somebody can step back and go, “What’s my version of this? Where do I over-indulge? Maybe I do two hours on the elliptical every day, but somewhere in there, I’m medicating away so I can function. You all probably do it somehow.”
What’s my version of this? It forces us to develop empathy with that person. What I would not do is some of the classic things that we see people do, which is dumping out alcohol or hiding cigarettes or all that kind of stuff. All that does is create animosity and incentivize people to hide things better. Addicts have been hiding things. Not waging guerilla warfare on that is huge. I think coming back to voices and courage and other things, there’s so much stuff out there in the end. Podcast-wise right now, people are telling their stories. You don’t even have to walk into an AA meeting or Al-Anon meeting to hear about a lot of people’s journeys.
I kid you not. The more you listen to stuff like this, the more you’re going to see the normalcy of all parties involved. That’s one of the big things when I speak and I talk about being a business owner who drinks too much. People are like, “My wife or my husband needs to talk to you. They run this huge carpet cleaning company or whatever. I think that’s a big piece if we want them. That problem’s been there for a while. We wouldn’t want you to not intervene if there’s an immediate danger, but that problem is you, intervening on that problem can wait 1, 2, or 3 months until you get some more education under the belt or until you get a system. Don’t run into battle unarmed.
That was part of the challenge on the front end of our experience is I still am not aware of there being a podcast out there that is dedicated to loved ones and there are more of us than there are of the people that are dealing with substance abuse disorder. I have listened to hundreds of podcasts of people who are dealing with the disease and their stories, whether it’s drugs or alcohol or sex or shopping or whatever it is, but I need more people like me that are talking about how they go from crisis to thriving. That thriving conversation is generally not happening out there. That’s what I aspire to.
I think so much of the treatment modality of the last 20 or 30 years is about getting people and families stabilized. It’s not a discussion that, in fact, crisis, just like in business, is an opportunity to take a gigantic leap forward in our functioning. Addiction or substance use issues surfacing in a family are an invitation to deal with everything that’s been holding this family back. It’s not because of the alcohol or whatever. It’s the symptom.Being in a crisis is an opportunity to take a gigantic leap forward in your functioning. Click To Tweet
These are opportunistic moments and this is a problem with psychotherapy in general. Over the last 40 years or 50 years, psychotherapy has been treated as, “How do we get you back to stable,” instead of the fact that things we know like in the UK, there was a study about men who went to therapy for the first time. Their income increased an average of 12% in the year after they went to therapy. That’s a huge opportunity.
All the great athletes at this point have therapists, coaches, and people that are inside their heads working on the mental game. As a family, this is not only a chance to not completely screw up our lives. This is a chance to put the hood up and talk about everything that we’re needing to talk about for a long time in all directions. Include the wounds that you’ve dealt to the addict. I’m sure you’ve hurt them too. You’re not the reason that they’re an addict, but they probably need some apologies from you and it may be about something twenty years ago that has nothing to do with it, it seems on the surface.
That’s one of the huge things here is by normalizing this, by allowing even the people in the supportive positions, the non-addict non-substance use positions to realize there’s a whole bunch out here who are trying to figure out where this fits into my life. How do I love somebody who is fitting into their life and you’re not reinventing the wheel? There are stories here that you can learn from and support that can normalize and undemonize your spouse.
There are two things I’m thinking about here. I would not have the amazing marriage that I have now if it wasn’t for both of us leaning into the crisis with our son. We routinely now talk about it as it was the greatest gift for us, up-leveling our level of connection and our clarity of how we love each other. I would not change what’s happened at all because I think for me, the story that I tell right now is that my son was the only one from a catalytic shake me to the core in order to crack me wide enough open to doing that kind of work. My story is generally going to be our kids that hold the key and the potential for us to crack wide open and do the human connection. Deep loving in a healthy way and all the stuff. That’s our journey too.
Analogies that’s been creeping into a lot of my speaking engagements publicly and I don’t know that I was using it back when I spoke to your Vistage group way back, but it’s the Japanese art of Kintsugi. It’s where when a vase would break or something in Japanese culture, they would glue it back together with molten gold. If you go on the internet and look up Kintsugi, you’ll see these gorgeous pots that have these veins of gold running through the side.
It’s such a beautiful analogy because gluing this together has two profound effects on the base. One, it makes it inherently more valuable because of the gold. Two, it increases the structural integrity of the vase. It’s like putting rebars through the side of the vase. You’re literally putting metal supports through this vase that was broken. Those vases become stronger and more valuable when glued back together properly.
That’s what you were talking about there. The stuff with your son shattered you in a way that nothing else could and then through the lean-in, through intimacy, through working through this with your spouse, through all the stuff, we end up stronger and closer if we do it right. It’s not this weird, shameful thing. It’s not a silver lining thing, by the way. Get rid of silver linings in your life. Linings are a load of crap.
There’s a parallel. You could have things happen to you that are simultaneously the worst thing and the best thing. It doesn’t mean they cross cancel and one causes the other to make sense, but that could be one of the worst things that happened to you and yet simultaneously, you could not know where you would be without that journey.
All this stuff, when we look at it, that’s what I’m into with all this is. These are Kintsugi moments. These are moments for us to take a hard look at what’s broken. The process of even talking about it, caring for each other, and connecting right with people through things like voices and encouraging all this stuff, that’s where we begin gluing it back together with gold.
I love you.
Thanks. I love being on this show. You have a great show.
Thank you so much. That’s a great place for us to wrap it up, Kintsugi. I’m going to be looking that up and I think it’s a brilliant metaphor. I’m going to do something I haven’t done and I would love again to have you come back and for us to spend the time talking about the gifts of substance abuse disorder, which I think would be very provocative and poke a lot of holes at generally the current culture around this. Are you game?
I’m absolutely game. You know me.
Thank you so much, Ken, truly, deeply from the bottom of my heart.
Creating space matters. We’ll see you again soon.
- Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book
- Amazon – Alcoholics Anonymous, Fourth Edition: The official “Big Book” from Alcoholics Anonymous
- Love First
About Ken Clark
Ken Clark is back on the Voices InCourage Podcast with host, KL Wells, in another powerful conversation in the world of substance abuse disorder. In this episode, Ken discusses his “Dos and Don’ts” for those who are afflicted with the disease of alcoholism. You will learn the top 5 things to say or do, as well as the 5 things to never say or do. Ultimately, Ken uncovers the gifts that substance abuse disorder can provide loved ones who are in the midst of chaos. If you or a family member or friend are struggling to stay above water, this is a conversation you do not want to miss!