Tom’s Experience

By Mavis Arnold

Tom began to abuse alcohol and drugs aged sixteen. He contin­ued to do so until he was thirty-two. He is now a psychotherapist working in Dublin. Interviewed here by Mavis Arnold, he talks about his recovery from addiction, about the far deeper issues which arose for him during that process, and how he eventually found his own path to healing. He begins by explain­ing his decision to remain anonymous.

“My having experienced alcoholism and drug addiction is not a secret. Most of the people who know me would be aware of it, and I have disclosed it when working with various groups and clients where it seemed appropriate and congruent. But in this particular scenario I have no control over who chooses to read what I say. I am not an expert in addiction and it is not an area that I specifically work in. Therefore I prefer to remain unnamed.

Ten years ago I went through a treatment programme in Dublin for alcoholism and drug addiction. I have to say that the experience saved my life but not my sanity. The Centre used a behaviour and reality based model and it certainly worked in terms of breaking the hold of the relationship that various substances had over me. For a lot of people that is sufficient. There are perhaps a million people involved in 12 step programmes worldwide and it is not always necessary to go beyond that in order to recover. In my case it was necessary to do so. I reached a point where the parameters of the behaviourist approach could not hold the other levels of illness that began to manifest when the alcoholism became controlled.

These parameters don’t work for everyone though they do successfully for a vast number of people. The focus in my recovery programme was seeing addiction as the primary illness and I believe that is true. It has its own special etiology and psychopathology: an addictive relationship with a substance becomes primary to the exclusion of other, deeper disturbances. This is why addiction is so attractive. It is better to live with one pain than with a multitude of painful experiences. When you have a relationship with a substance you take on some semblance of identity. If I can say “I am an alcoholic” it is clearer than saying “I don’t know who I am”. So the relation­ship gives you that identity which can be missing and this can be very difficult to break.

The focus in the treatment programme was quite justified in tenaciously focusing on that relationship and breaking it in two. I needed a very strong and consistent form of confrontation before I would take any responsibility for my addiction. I am not sure that it is possible to stay within the human­istic framework. In such a programme the finishing line is when you can acknowledge some, if not most, of the damage that addiction has done, and when you show some degree of consistency in changes that have taken place within your attitude. However, in my case what then emerged was an earlier experience of sexual abuse and I found that the focus of the recovery programme did not include the effects of meeting that abuse. Attempts to interpret these effects were taken as being danger signals that I would return to the addiction. Everything in the recovery programme reflected back to the addiction as the primary cause of any disturbance.

I found myself at that time in a very isolated and frightening dilemma. I was experiencing feelings that were being misconstrued as an urge to “use” again while, in fact, they were the coming into awareness of a much earlier wounding. I had no other support system except the very one that was not acknowledging my difficulties. At this point I left the recovery programme with one year to go. It was one of the best and loneliest decisions I have ever made. I was shunned by the group for doing this and seen as a sort of failure. I had a lot of guilt around it all. It was seen as leaving my group to go back to a lifestyle that I was conscious of not going back to. Within a couple of weeks I had lost contact with the others in the recovery pro­gramme. The language between us changed. I tried to talk about the benefits of working in other ways but there was quite a reaction against it. This left me struggling for quite some time. I then rang the Rape Crisis Centre, not knowing whether this was the right thing to do or not. I made an appoint­ment to see a counsellor. I told her what I was remembering, and at the end of the session she confirmed that I had, indeed, been sexually abused. This was a huge relief. I spent a year in therapy at the RCC. Other issues arose concerning my family background and I then moved to a different therapist to work on primal issues. Subsequently I went on to train as a therapist.”

So was there a link between Tom’s addiction and the underlying issues? “Yes, I believe there was. Because of the traumatic effect of the abuse and because of the dysfunctional communication in my own family it left me very much without a clear experience of myself or of my identity. When I reached adolescence – a time of forging identity – I took to drink and drugs as a way of covering up a kind of emptiness, a sense of inadequacy, a lack of being able to make concrete connections .

My father was a heavy drinker who was always either in a pub or at work. I longed for a relationship with him so I started to drink when I was sixteen. I longed to share something of his maleness and to find that in myself. I imagined in drinking we could find a common ground.

I finally looked for help at a time when I was in an important relationship. For the first time in my life I had found something almost as important as the addiction. I stopped abusing drugs, and I went on Antebuse to try to stop drinking. But I continued to drink, and then broke down completely. I remember hammering on the floor, realising the terrible truth that I could not stop drinking. My behaviour changed completely when I drank. I became violent and self-destructive. For example, I would drive very fast down the dual carriageway and see how far I could get with my eyes closed. It was as if I was challenging the “fates” that be. As if I was saying You either stop me, or you’re not there’.

There is a period after you stop abusing substances when you are swim­ming about trying to make sense of life. The need to be heard and under­stood is adequately met for most people through the 12 step programme. For those who in themselves realise other wounds it may still be sufficient for them not to go on and deal with these issues. I believe it can be difficult to re­engage an addict who is recovering in any other approach. A recovery programme is a two-edged sword. On the one hand it can offer release from drug addiction and alcoholism and a better quality of life. But it does not necessarily offer a person the opportunity to work through the root system of why their relationship with substances developed in the first place.

Not everyone wants or needs to explore this root system in order to become free of a neurotic entanglement. It is only when the underlying symptoms are sufficiently intense to need attention that the discrepancy between the person on a recovery programme and the broader scope of a human being comes into conflict.

Treatment programmes are right to concentrate on a specialised area and clearly to define issues of responsibility for yourself and the destructiveness of addiction. They can be very successful. My concern is for the many people who are like me but who did not have the fortitude to seek help and who may now be back in an addictive relationship.”

He believes the changes in treatment which have taken place in the last ten years are to be welcomed. “No matter what the addiction, it is the quality of the relationship between the therapist and the client and within the 12 step programme which is the most essential and which allows clients to maintain their journey into health.

I choose not to work with addiction not because I am too close but because I am too far away from it. Recovery from addiction can separate a therapist and a client when an issue of specific empathy comes up. Very occasionally I have shared my experience with a client. They have responded with surprise and a sense of being met in a way that gives an added dimen­sion to the relationship.”

And, finally, what led him into therapy? “What helped me to survive was my introspection. It gave me an affinity with the therapeutic process, an ability to walk within that space. My curiosity never seems to dry up. I love the challenge and the mystery of the work. The degree of healing and accept­ance and unconditional respect I experienced during my struggles was something I wanted to make available to others.”