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Category Archives: Dr. Gerald G. May

Clarence H. Synder’s certainty that Step Seven gives us alcoholics a clean tape is affirmed by a comparable sure thing in The Life Recovery Bible:

Our holiness—the removal of our shortcomings—is God’s will for each of us. The apostle John wrote: “We can be confident that he will listen to us whenever we ask him for anything in line with his will. And if we know he is listening when we make our requests, we can be sure he will give us what we ask for.”

On the other hand, if we alcoholics need a cleansing prayer that functions in almost any creed or faith, Drop the Rock reprints the “Set-Aside Prayer.” It embodies humility:

Lord, today help me set aside

Everything I think I know about myself,

Everything I think I know about others, and

Everything I think I know about my own recovery

For a new experience in myself, a new experience in my fellows and my own recovery.

Interestingly, Dr. Gerald G. May suggests that we alcoholics who pursue spiritual growth in recovery may even need to set aside our penchant for newness:

In our culture, we are conditioned to expect growth to involve acquisition of new facts and understandings. To put it neurologically, the functional systems of our brains are used to elaborating upon themselves as growth happens. We have, in a way, become attached to the very process of expanding our attachments. But spiritual growth is different. It cannot be packaged, programmed or taught…. The essential process is one of transformation, not education. It is, if anything, an unlearning process in which our old ways are cleansed, liberated and redeemed…. Obviously, we cannot ‘conduct’ spiritual growth. At bottom it is God’s work. It is grace.

Personally, I consider this section of Addiction and Grace to be eloquent, more insightful into lasting recovery than anything I’ve experienced so far—and yet evidence for my hope and the essence of my very best moments during recovery. In all my years of drinking, I never doubted alcohol’s ability to erase my thoughts. Why, then, in recovery, do I doubt God’s ability to remove my shortcomings? Clearly, the best I can do sometimes is ask God to help me set aside my own thoughts. In fact, as New Year’s approaches, I do that with abandonment!

Copyright © 2009 by Randall E. Greene

Some modern research amplifies our alcoholic need for grace. It shows that “alcoholic men, even when sober, …still have impaired balance, which has implications for broken hips in older age and other potentially life-threatening health problems such as a decline in mental abilities,” according to Edith Sullivan, an associate professor and researcher at Stanford University.

Circumstances are worse for women alcoholics, who often suffer more than we men do. The “part of the brain that does thinking, the cerebral cortex, is more affected in women alcoholics than men,” reports Daniel Hommer, a National Institute of Health researcher. MRIs of alcoholic women that he studied showed “up to an 11-percent loss in brain matter and size, compared to healthy female subjects and to men.”

These researchers affirm what this blog has already demonstrated—that we alcoholics damage the hardware of our brains. But do these impairments also contribute to our so-called alcoholic thinking or addicted personalities, which could be described as our brains’ software? Stanton Peele, Ph.D., categorizes this view of alcoholism as “the diseasing of America by recovery zealots.” Other experts disagree. They argue that addicted thought exists, that it does great harm and it contributes to relapse.

Foremost among these experts is Abraham J. Twerski (a rabbi, psychiatrist, chemical dependency counselor and author) who wrote the classic book, Addictive Thinking. Another is Danny M. Wilcox, who captures our alcoholic-styled distortions in his 1998 book, Alcoholic Thinking (The latter includes insightful, third-party descriptions about how AA meetings help to correct our alcoholic thinking and behaviors). A third author, Gerald G. May, M.D., offers precise, psychiatric explanations for how addicted thought functions:

Addiction attacks every part of what Freud called our ‘mental apparatus.’ The attacks seem focused on two primary areas: the will, which is our capacity to choose and direct our behavior, and self-esteem, which is the respect and value with which we view ourselves. Addiction splits the will in two, one part desiring freedom and the other desiring only to continue the addictive behavior. The internal inconsistency begins to erode self-esteem. How much can I respect myself if I do not even know what I really want?

AA literature has long held that damage we do to our alcoholic brains results in mental illness—an “insanity”—about which AA’s Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions cautions:

Few indeed are the practicing alcoholics who have any idea how irrational they are, or seeing their irrationality, can bear to face it. Some will be willing to term themselves ‘problem drinkers,’ but cannot endure the suggestion that they are in fact mentally ill. They are abetted in this blindness by a world which does not understand the difference between sane drinking and alcoholism. ‘Sanity’ is defined as ‘soundness of mind.’ Yet no alcoholic, soberly analyzing his destructive behavior, whether the destruction fell on the dining-room furniture or his own moral fiber, can claim ‘soundness of mind’ for himself.

Similarly, once we as alcoholics accept that brain damage and addicted thinking are a reality in our lives, then most of us share four common goals in recovery—regardless of our gender, age, race, creed or life circumstances:

  1. Reverse the damage we have done, both to our brains and to our thinking.
  2. Restore our minds, emotions and bodies to a healthier state.
  3. Learn new, constructive ways to behave and live.
  4. Avoid relapsing into alcoholic drinking and/or thinking.

Such total mind-body-soul recovery involves a great deal of time and effort. For that reason alone, people with addictions “deserve sympathy and support, even when they relapse,” according to Harold C. Urschel III, M.D., who contends:

We don’t condemn a diabetic for having a sugary dessert or forgetting to take his or her medicine; we don’t revile the person with hypertension who gains weight instead of losing it…. We are understanding, in spite of the fact that people with critical diseases such as diabetes, asthma and elevated blood pressure often do neglect to follow their doctors’ orders. Less than 50 percent of patients with these diseases take their medicines as prescribed, and less than 30 percent comply with lifestyle changes recommended by their doctors. The relapse rates for these three illnesses … is 40-60 percent a year. And these frightening statistics are for people who do not have a chronic brain disease! … Why should we treat addicts differently, and so much more harshly, than we do other people with chronic illnesses? …Unfortunately, we do treat addicts differently. We beg, plead, nag and … bully them into improving their ways, which is about as helpful as ordering a diabetic kidney to work better.

Comparably, this new blog chapter will explore, with medical realism akin to Urschel’s, recovery topics such as spirit-based miracles, advances in neuroscience, Learn.Genetics, intercessory prayer, medicine paired with spiritual healing, relapses and new anti-addiction medications, humility, forgiveness, unmerited grace, plus AA’s fourth and fifth steps….

Copyright © 2009 by Randall E. Greene

I now realize that Dr. Gerald G. May wrote my recovery story—possibly your story, too?—in his classic summary of how grace works to heal addictions:

In practical terms, this means staying in a situation, being willing to confront it as it is, remaining responsible for the choices one makes in response to it, but at the same time turning to God’s grace, protection and guidance as the ground for one’s choices and behavior.

Broke, homeless, delusional and desperate, I stayed in Lexington and confronted my situation as it was: I began recovery in the same neighborhood where, for years, I had publicly humiliated myself as a drinker. Malibu rehabs, costly medications, Easyway clinics—even books—all were out of my reach. I was too poor to afford anything discussed in this blog (with the exception of AA’s steps, which cost nothing). Turning to God’s grace, protection and guidance, however, I had no inkling of the full, rich, painful and blessed healing that would be mine.

There is no virtue in subjecting myself to active alcoholism for a quarter century. Nor do I claim virtue for sobriety, because alcohol whipped me into subjection—the booze quit working, then I quit drinking (a natural sequence not unlike the Sinclair method). I can’t even claim virtue in choosing AA friends like Cobie, Jack, Jim and my men’s AA group or Rev. Ron and Faith Lutheran. All represent unmerited gifts to which alcohol, God and time led me—and that may be the most practical layperson’s definition of grace.

No, my only claim is sincere gratitude for the sobriety, peace of mind and sanity that God provides through the myriad of people or organizations named so far in this blog. Our story has already been written—and some of us alcoholics appreciate that, only after we subject ourselves to life’s original Author. He wrote the book on grace. And for us, a simple prayer—God help me—becomes almost as habit forming as alcohol used to be. And how so? you ask. Because it opens our minds, hearts and souls to that wondrous grace.

Copyright © 2009 by Randall E. Greene

A fifth, consistently bestselling recovery title is Addiction and Grace by Gerald G. May, M.D. This classic cautions us alcoholics not to objectify:

One of the most powerful and potentially frightening realizations is that there is no new normality of freedom to replace the old ones of addiction. …There can be no addiction to the true God because God refuses to be an object. God is more with us, more intimate, more steady than anything else in life…. Yet God is never normal.

Implications for our recovery are powerful. It may be unwise to replace a chronic addiction, like ours to alcohol, with attachments to religion, to spiritual recovery groups or even to faith in some singular cure. Mays explains the reasons:

Addiction to a religious system, like addiction to anything else, brings slavery, not freedom…. The structures of religion are meant to mediate God’s self-revelation through community; they are not meant to be substitute gods. Doctrines of belief, rules of life, standards of conduct and reliance on Scripture are all essential aspects of an authentic spiritual life. Sacraments are special means of grace; God acts through them with great power. All these things are vehicles for God’s love, but addiction to them makes them obstacles to the freedom of our own hearts.

Said differently, grace is God’s to give, not ours to demand. For those of us alcoholics who are Christians, and even for persons of other faiths or religions, Mays emphasizes that no quick fix exists. In so doing, his views parallel those of Urschel and even some twelve-step literature:

It is impossible to adapt to God or to true freedom and love. We canand, temporarily, we willmake images of God, freedom and love, and try to form them into new normalities that we can cling to, but these attachments must eventually be lifted as well. Authentic freedom and love will not be captured by attachment. Therefore, the journey homeward does not lead toward new, more sophisticated addictions. If it is truly homeward, it leads toward liberation from addiction altogether. Obviously, it is a lifelong process.

How familiar, emotionally, this clinging, attachment and yearning for liberation sound to most of us chronic alcoholics. That emotional roller coaster is every drunk’s story. But familiar, too, is the despair when attachments—both to addictions and to remedies—fail us. And when that happens, we alcoholics almost always crash.

So how, then, do we find grace?

Copyright © 2009 by Randall E. Greene

The twenty-first century is a remarkable era in which to seek recovery: According to the NIAAA (as this blog has already shown), there are at least five alcoholic subtypes. Similarly, this new blog chapter will examine seven bestselling recovery titles that describe nearly as many modern cures as there are alcoholic subtypes.

The reason this blog explores as many responsible treatments for alcoholism as I can find is my conviction that misery should accompany no one’s alcoholism. However, some of you alcoholics may discover that drinking is only one aspect of your alcoholism. If you do, then you may be an alcoholic of my type. Our condition does not end when we stop drinking. It is chronic, incurable, and prominent twenty-first-century research supports this view. Alone, we cannot defeat our alcoholism. Our disease runs parallel to, and concurrent with, whatever sobriety we achieve.

This harsh reality can leave us feeling hopeless. If our disease were not also treatable, most of us would become suicidal or die drunk. Thankfully, however, there are options available to all alcoholics of our seemingly hopeless varieties, and over a decade ago I chose one: I subjected myself to a recovery that helps us stay sober the rest of our lives.

We alcoholics know how to subject ourselves. Over the years, all of us (and many problem drinkers as well) subjected ourselves to booze. That was easy. Go with the flow. We drank with impunity as long as alcohol worked for us. That included sparing concern over any problems that our drinking created. Under such circumstances, subjection rarely felt like spiritual or psychological slavery. However, addictions do enslave us.

The New York Times recognized that twenty years ago. “The form of slavery under discussion is drug addiction,” A.M. Rosenthal wrote. “Like plantation slavery, drug addiction is passed on from generation to generation. And this may be the important similarity: Like plantation slavery, addiction can destroy among its victims the social resources most valuable to free people for their own betterment–family life, family traditions, family values.”

Thus, we alcoholics subject ourselves to a form of slavery when we drink, and to find healing, we must also subject ourselves to some kind of treatment. Most of us resist that, because we insist on our uniqueness and independence. Yet the reasons for subjecting ourselves are profound. “Addiction cannot be defeated by the human will acting on its own, nor by the human will opting out and turning everything over to divine will.” That’s how Gerald G. May, M.D., summarizes his belief that addictions require extraordinary healing. His classic book, Addiction and Grace, concludes that in order for us alcoholics or addicts to recover, we must surrender spiritually. “The power of grace flows most fully,” the psychiatrist explains, “when human will chooses to act in harmony with divine will.”

Similarly, this blog’s Chapter Four will explore modern cures for alcoholism, including subjecting ourselves to spiritual healing, and this blog will contrast such opportunities to the harsh reality that three-fourths of American alcoholics do not seek treatment at all–including up to 90 percent of addicted women. The irony is that such widespread refusal persists during a new century when the range of treatments and our access to them have never been greater. Is there some other (possibly spiritual) explanation for why we alcoholics refuse to subject ourselves to treatment? This new blog chapter pursues answers to that question.

Copyright © 2009 by Randall E. Greene

“Grace is the most powerful force in the universe. It can transcend repression, addiction…. Grace is where our hope lies”Gerald G. May, MD

In 1998 a former drinking companion—herself fresh from the Betty Ford Clinic—took me to my first meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. I hated it. Four of us sat in a musty club room for one hour. We drank coffee, smoked cigarettes, and they talked. All of that sharing felt like a root canal. I said little. But my circumstances were critical, so within a week I attended two other meetings at different locations. I was searching—albeit for what, I did not know.

That third AA meeting convened in the basement of Maxwell Presbyterian, a wholesome, neighborhood-styled church in downtown Lexington. Well-scubbed, energetic, uniformed Cub Scouts filled the first large room I entered. When I laughed nervously, several boys pointed to a different door (I was hardly the first confused alcoholic they had encountered). I opened it to enter a larger room where forty adults sat, quietly focused on one person talking (The world over, AA meetings exude the same ambience, I would discover. Faces, settings and languages change—but not the essence).

The first face I recognized was that of my old friend Jack. The two of us had hovered nearby, at a popular restaurant-bar called Ramsey’s, several nights a week for about five years. Jack never drank alcohol, only coffee. I did enough drinking for both of us. So seeing him at an AA meeting I thought, How strange! then protested too loudly: “What are you doing here?”

“Waiting for you.”

Over time, I came to believe Jack truly meant that. For about two years he patiently served as my first AA sponsor. It cost me nothing. Midway through his sponsorship (in August 1999) I would collapse and quit drinking altogether. Yet one problem persisted: My life stalled at the crossroads, and nothing seemed able to jump start it.

The earlier postings (Blog Chapter One) demonstrate that alcoholism follows certain patterns, stages or symptoms. Those postings provide examples of how we alcoholics share certain behaviors, emotional highs and lows, even distorted thoughts related to our drinking. Rarely are alcoholics exactly alike, but the vast majority of us do evidence what Gerald G. May, M.D., described as an addicted personality:

Suffering the extreme devastation of will and self-control that addiction brings, people necessarily become self-centered. The humilation, shame and guilt that erode self-esteem also breed deviousness and manipulation. Severely addicted people feel unworthy and incapable of getting what they need in straightforward ways, no matter what masks of competence or grandiosity they may wear. It is true, then, that a particular kind of personality distortion occurs with addiction, not as its cause but as its effect.

Two decades later, May’s argument still holds. Twenty-first-century research summarized in Healing the Addicted Brain disputes older psychoanalytic theory that chemical addictions occur because of pre-existing personality defects (i.e., an addictive personality). To the contrary, as previously discussed in this blog, “recent scientific research has discovered … that addiction is a chronic physical disease that attacks the brain, damaging key parts of the cerebral cortex and limbic system,” the bestseller says.

Similarly, Blog Chapter Two explores reasons that we alcoholics resist professional help and ways in which we deny or complicate our alcoholism. This is particularly true for alcoholics who are women….

Copyright © 2009 by Randall E. Greene


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