Today I have the honor of interviewing a friend of mine who has just written a compelling memoir, The Interventionist, about addiction from the perspective of both an addict and an interventionist.
You begin your book with the quote from Khaled Hosseini’s book, The Kite Runner: “And that, I believe, is what true redemption is … when guilt leads to good.”
Do you believe your work with other addicts is partly what keeps you clean and sober? Why compels you to enter into such hopeless situations and try to fix things?
Joani: I think as the quote infers “when guilt leads to good,” my work with addicts and alcoholics assuages my own continued ambivalence about my responsibility about having this disease. It is not at all logical. There is no “choice” about having this disease. That has been proven by medical science.
But the behavior that is manifested during the active state of addiction is not pretty and I think that is where the lingering guilt comes from. So sometimes my frenetic work with other alcoholics is an atonement of sorts, turning guilt into good!
And yes it keeps me sober. If I didn’t see the addict sick so much, I am sure I could get addicted again. Even though it is hell, it is a familiar hell. What keeps me sober is seeing the families in pain. I don’t want my kids or husband to live with that insanity. I don’t want my children to be negatively affected as adults as a result of living with my addiction.
I don’t see the situations as hopeless. That is probably one of the biggest gifts I give to the addicts for whom I do interventions. I see them as exhibiting a very treatable disease. A paycheck compels me to do interventions as well. Not a popular answer I know, but we are a two-income family with a special needs son with autism. I am a working mom! Also I just plain love it. It is never boring, I am a bit of an adrenaline junkie. Every day at work is different. You never know exactly what is going to happen when the addict/alcoholic walks into the room.
Both of your parents were alcoholics/addicts. And you explain in your pages how hard it is for an offspring of two addicts to rise above the bad genes and live a life of recovery. You have done it. What steps can you give others who were also raised by alcoholics or addicts?
Joani: I started in a 12-step fellowship Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA). I think I stayed in this group for seven years. It really helped me to see how many of my aberrant coping styles and general craziness were a direct result of having lived in an alcoholic home. I learned that it wasn’t so unusual … that many of us shared a common “pathology.” Then I was hit with my own addiction, which really pissed me off. Even with all my knowledge of my family, I still did not dodge the addict/alcoholic bullet. But genes are very hard bullets to dodge. So, yes, it was tough, being a product of an alcoholic home and then becoming one myself. But life is not always fair and you have play the hand your dealt.
Having spent time in ACOA gave me a working knowledge of 12-step recovery to fall back on when I became addicted. But first I had to go to hell. Like many addicts, the pain of the addiction had to outweigh the benefits I received from doing the drug before I seriously gave it up. That pain came from a near death from an overdose and an ache in my heart that my children could very possibly lose me and grow up without a mommy. That was the turning point.
You have battled both a mood disorder and an addiction. Do you think the recovery cultures of both clash? The 12-step world is harsher on a person than, say, a psych unit to someone with bipolar. How do you navigate that territory of both mood disorder and addiction?
Joani: You are right. You get more respect with a psychiatric diagnosis versus substance abuse. There are still many misconceptions and moral prejudices around addiction. I think though they are blending better in both the medical field and the 12-step community. It used to be that in some 12-step meetings you would hear “no psycho babble” rules.
But that is passing. I am not sure of the exact statistics but many, many addicts have co-occurring psychiatric diagnoses. One of the questions I always ask families as I am planning an intervention for their loved ones is “Has the patient ever had a psychiatric diagnosis?” This is very important when determining where you are going to place the patient. Some rehabs do a better job with co-occurring patients. Some rehabs take “mild” mental health problems, while others will take more severely affected patients.
Personally I take three psych meds and I am very stable! Finding the right mix is a challenge from time to time. My psych diagnosis is general and social anxiety, with mild panic and mild depression or dysthymia. I am not crazy about some of the side effects, but I am not well off of them. In 12-step meetings we primarily talk about our addictions and the 12 steps. When psych stuff is brought up, most folks respectfully listen. There are specific meeting for people with extreme mental illness and addiction.
Addiction, in general, is easier for me to deal with than mental illness. Most likely because it is not my expertise. But I am learning all the time from my brave patients.