What's in the Book
Table of Contents
This is the story of a group of physicians, men and women, as we work our way through rehab for drugs and alcohol. As we proceeded on a course of personal self-discovery, we shared our frustration, our anger, and our fear. We were at the absolute low point of our lives and everything we had worked for was rapidly going down the drain. We didn’t want to be here, but if they are to have a life, it must start now.
We arrived in rehab frightened and at the absolute low point of our miserable lives. Three days in detox had only allowed the toxins to drain from our system. The people we met in rehab offered hope and trust. Our minds were too cloudy and our bodies too sick to do more than just hold on. We lived under an enforced abstinence from drugs and addiction, and we loved it.
We arrived sick, frightened, and angry with no idea what had happened to us. Our stories all varied in detail, but the result was always the same. Then we saw those only a few weeks ahead of us, and they were happy and peaceful. We wanted that terribly.
Where to begin?
We admitted we were addicted. Our overinflated doctor egos had to go (there is a God and it ain’t you). We had to throw out all our old ideas about how to live (like that thing about being right all the time). We had to become open to new ways of thinking. The word ‘trust’ must become part of our vocabulary again. We had to embrace what had become a lost virtue—honesty. We came to hate what we had become; we could not love ourselves. But they said not to worry, we will love us until we learned to love ourselves.
Addiction is a Disease
Using is a choice, but addiction is a disease. We had crossed over an invisible line and now we could never go back. The uncontrollable urge for using comes unbidden and is irresistible. Once the first drug or drink hits the bloodstream, there is no stopping. We will use until we run out or pass out. This is the disease of addiction.
The illness is inherited. It poisons the body, brings insanity to the mind, and cripples the spirit. It is a feeling disease. We were uncomfortable in our own skin and will do anything to change the way we feel. It is a chronic, relapsing, and fatal illness for which there is no cure. Fortunately, as with other chronic diseases, long term remission is possible.
When we arrived at rehab, our brains were sick. Every get-high you can name is a neurotoxin. Depression always follows in the wake of chronic substance abuse. Fully half of us have co-existing mental illnesses (bipolar disease, PTSD, and others) which are always worsened by using.
Our thought processes themselves became slowly and imperceptibly distorted. Negativity clouded everything. Denial protected us from the truth of our decline and the good advice of others. Our minds were deteriorating in front of us, but we never saw it happening.
Then there is the insanity of addiction itself. Someday, when we least expect it, the thought of a glass of wine, or a line of cocaine will return, and we will lack the power to resist. This insanity is hardwired into our brains and will never leave us. This is relapse, always waiting in the wings.
Addictive character traits
Our psychiatrist said there is no alcoholic personality type. He may be right, but we’ve seen the same character defects too many times to ignore them. And these shortcomings were already present long before we began to drink and drug.
It began with low self-esteem. We feared that we were never good enough. No matter how hard we tried, we just didn’t measure up. Our fear drove us to over-inflate our image of ourselves. Arrogance and self-will became useful skills. This worked well in the world of medicine, where we always had to be right. The God-complex thing seemed to suit us.
Our hearts were simply too sensitive, and the pain of the world overcame us. So, we shut down our hearts, leaving the ego to run amok unchecked. The ego, driven by fear, grabbed for all it could get. Self-seeking and controlling behavior were the results.
Fear, it turns out, drove all our character defects, from shame to blame, from adultery to dishonesty, from gluttony to pride. Fear, then, is the enemy. A wise man once said that the secret to life is to live without fear. But how?
Begin with Baby Steps
To undo a lifetime of wrong thinking and wrong behavior wouldn’t happen overnight. The burden of our past was an albatross around our necks, too heavy to lift by ourselves. Fortunately, they said we didn’t have to do it alone.
Small steps were enough. Even if we couldn’t see the top of the stairs, we could still take the first step. And becoming honest was that step. Honest in our dealings with others. Honest about our feelings (Hey, I’m fine. You're fine. That’s why we’re all here in rehab, because we are all so fine!) And honest with ourselves, admitting to ourselves the horrible lies we hid deep inside. (“I may have been untrue, but it was never to you.”)
We had to become willing to change, to recognize that our old way of life was killing us. Maybe just willing to be willing would be enough. We had to be open to new ideas, as horrible as that sounded. Our old cherished ways of doing things (Hey, it’s how we got to be doctors, right?) simply didn’t work anymore.
Honesty, willingness, and openness. Could that be a ray of sunshine coming through the door?
Our clouded thinking wasn’t going away anytime soon. Give us something useful while we heal.
We started by deflating our egos, at least enough to ask for help. We recognized that we were responsible for the consequences of our actions. We found a mentor to guide us, after all they knew better than we. And we took our medicine: a daily dose of spirituality to stay sane and sober, and we found it at most AA or NA meetings.
When we saw a sick patient, we always looked for the cause. We couldn’t begin to treat an illness until we knew what it was. So, Diogenes, turn the light on yourself. Until we could see our own problems with clear eyes, we couldn’t start the treatment. That’s what those Step things on the wall were all about. They really worked and we really needed what they offered. A lot of work, we thought, but if we can get my license back, maybe it’s worth it.
We thought they were trying to brainwash us. Only with time, did we realize how badly our brains needed washing.
We had run out of moral currency. Virtues had been exchanged for pleasures, anything to relieve the pain. We had achieved a state of moral bankruptcy. We didn’t like the sound of that. The only option now was to open the wound and let the pus drain out.
So, working with our new eyes, we fessed up. We made a list of all our wrongdoings, all the times we had hurt others. It made us sick to look at ourselves this way, but we persevered. Telling on ourselves, confessing out loud to another person, somehow took some of the sting away. We felt better.
More that that, each mistake revealed to us one of our character defects. Identifying the problem was the first step in fixing it. (Funny about that, it turned out we all had the same flaws.) And the root of all these messy problems—fear.
So, how do we go about changing our character, casting out the fear that had eaten at us?
Prayer and Meditation
Wait a minute, we knew nothing about prayer, and we weren’t sure we believed in God. Where was He when our patients were dying of pancreatic cancer? Give us an antibiotic, a scalpel and a suture, things we can count on. What was this Higher Power thing, anyway?
Turns out we had been worshipping at the altar of our own Higher Power all along. We prayed to it, loved it with all our soul, and promised always to be faithful. Of course, it was our booze and our drugs. We had no god before them. We surrendered our wills to serve Lady Cocaine and John Barleycorn. Oh, my.
The tiger cannot change its stripes nor the leopard its spots. But we had to change our essential nature to survive. We didn’t like it, we didn’t understand it, but we were willing to try the prayer thing. We started with the simplest of prayers, like a first-year medical student fumbling with his stethoscope.
Then something funny happened. We lovers of science and hard truth found that there was more to heaven and earth than we had dreamed of. Prayer worked. Like any treatment that helped, we wanted to try it again, get better at it.
Was there something out there beyond what our science could measure? Where did our virtues come from? Our conscience? And could we access this ‘whatever’ when our alcoholic insanity was reaching out for our soul? When the craving was a maelstrom pulling us down? They said it would, and they held up their sobriety as proof. Hard to swallow.
Fortunately, we didn’t have to return to the God-of-our-fathers. We had thrown that beast out long ago. But, if we were to find something we could believe in, it had to come from our own heart. God as we understood Him, a novel idea. One we could work with. How about a universe based on unconditional love?
Once we realized that science did not hold all the answers, we became open to knowledge from unconventional sources. When we opened our eyes to new possibilities, we were not disappointed. We saw the world in a new light.
A New Way of Thinking
No longer bound to our old ideas of who we were, we were free to discover our new selves. Exciting but scary. Yes, we had a Higher Power, and, yes, we were learning how to pray, but who were we? What were we supposed to do with our lives? If our careers were no longer our number one priority, what was? And how is this going to keep me sober? (Somehow getting my license back wasn’t quite so important as it had been.)
(About this time, my friend Larry took me aside and whispered in my ear. “You are a child of God, and your job is to bring God’s love into the world.” Sounded like a Hallmark greeting card at first, but the more I pondered his words, the more I heard the ring of truth.)
New concepts began to pour into our feeble minds. Yes, we have a relationship with the Universe, with our Higher Power. And that relationship is that of parent to child. We were in fact, children of God. As such, we were imbued with his qualities. Our nature was kindness, honesty, compassion, and love for others. Whoa! We were in fact good people with a bad disease. Our inheritance was a life that was happy, joyous, and free from fear. We just had to claim it.
We took hold of these new ideas. We could control the thoughts in our heads. We were not responsible for the first thought in our heads, only what we do with that thought. We would no longer try to control the world. We began to remove negativity from our lives. We freed ourselves of old resentments and hatreds. We could see new truth, spiritual truth, everywhere we looked.
Maybe life wasn’t that hard after all. Maybe we were just doing it wrong.
Living by Spiritual Principles
Principles, principles before personality. What a thought! With our new eyes, we saw that living by spiritual principles could in fact solve all our problems. Sounds bonkers, but it started to become a reality in our lives. Knowing right from wrong. Being kind to others. Thinking more of others more than ourselves. Bringing forgiveness, harmony, and hope into our consciousness. Not judging others or ourselves. Seeing the joy in life rather than the sorrow. Feeling comfortable in our own skin. (That ‘feeling disease’ lifted from us!)
Integrity of the soul, not moral bankruptcy, was a goal within sight. Not that any of us would find spiritual perfection, but we were working on ourselves with all the energy we put into our using. We became a work in progress, and for the first time in our lives, we felt good about ourselves.
Could we accept the world as it is, without the need to judge God’s handiwork? Could we give up those absurd expectations that always seemed to throttle us? The more acceptance, the more serenity, we learned. Pursuing a life based on spiritual principles became infinitely superior to chasing the dope man down a dark alley.
A New Way of Living
Developing new habits did not appear quickly or easily. But they did appear.
We developed new ways to make decisions. Relationships became easier. We lost our fear of financial insecurity. We quit overthinking everything. Self-pity and self-seeking slowly fell away.
We established new priorities, which simplified everything. No longer were our top three priorities ‘my job, my job, my job.’ Recovery was now firmly at the head of the list, with family close behind. Yes, that family that we ignored so we could live in a world of drugs and booze.
Life was no longer a burden, but rather a joy, golden and sweet. Serenity, peace, and living in the moment became commonplace.
And here’s the kicker. As our egos shrank, there was more room for the love of the Universe to flow through us. And with that love came an indescribable ease. We found a faith that said, ‘no matter what happens, everything will be alright.’ We realized that God was doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.
The Fine Points
As we prepared to leave rehab, begin our new lives, and, for some of us, return to the practice of medicine, they gave us a going away present. A spiritual tool kit they called it; a package full of wonderful goodies.
In everything there is a lesson and a blessing. We just have to remember to look for them. We must quit playing games we can’t win. Understanding is highly overrated; acceptance works better. We can’t fix another person’s problems. Rather we should concentrate on fixing ourselves.
In any situation, we must remember to ask ourselves, what is my part in this? After all, it is not so much what happens in the world, as how we relate to the world. There is no thing good or bad except my thinking makes it so. We, and we alone, are responsible for our own happiness. And, of course, we are the source of all our problems.
Constant vigilance of our thinking is the price of our recovery. We must recognize negativity and drive it out. Anger and resentment cannot be tolerated. And most important of all, we must never lose sight of the incurability of our disease. If we fail to maintain our spiritual fitness, if we allow our integrity to be compromised, or if we neglect our daily dose of spirituality, our disease will recur. We will use again. And for us, to use is to die.