To kick off Recovery Month, I’m pleased to share my interview with Scott Stevens.
Scott explains his extensive research and personal journey to recovery in his well written book, Every Silver Lining Has a Cloud: Relapse and the Symptoms of Sobriety.
Scott’s award-winning book has information and advice that would benefit anyone concerned about alcohol abuse. Scott writes his story from the heart. He shares his tips about alcoholism, recovery, sobriety and relapse.
Please meet Scott Stevens!
Tell us briefly about yourself for those that don’t know you?
I’m a journalist and author, dad, and recovering alcoholic. I have a background in journalism, but I worked in the mutual fund industry as an executive for a long time. During that career, I got married, started a family, moved around and up, then later in my mid-30’s realized that alcohol had taken a priority in my life.
My wife at the time asked me to quit and I said, “Sure.” I tried to and couldn’t. At that point, I’m alcoholic. There was no denial in it, because I knew I was sick. I had this idea, though, that I could kick this all by myself. “I don’t need any help.” What I did was become a maintenance drinker.
From the time I woke in the morning until the time I conked out, I drank a steady supply of alcohol, not enough to get loopy, but certainly enough to keep me at a level of intoxication to prevent me from going through withdrawal. I was terrified of withdrawal. I steadily drank at least two liters of Jack Daniel’s every day for a period of almost two years.
Earlier, even through college, alcohol was never a priority. I could leave it behind. Once or twice a semester I’d go out with pals. In my working years, it was still my friend when I would go out with golf or work colleagues. My tolerance level was ridiculous, which I know now, was a pattern of drinking alcoholically. My friends would have a couple and be done, I’d just be getting started. Then, it seemed suddenly, alcohol turned on me. I couldn’t stop and struggled mightily for a couple years trying to quit. I went to rehab. Put together a string of weeks or months of sobriety and I kept going back to the misery of drinking.
The relapse part was part of my recovery. It doesn’t have to be for everyone, but it’s part of mine and it was a real revelation to discover some of the things I had to research for Every Silver Lining Has a Cloud.
You mentioned that nine out of ten relapse at least once and that lapse comes from stressors. Recovery is even something that causes stress. What are the main stressors that can cause relapse for people?
There are four of them I identify in the book: grief, guilt, shame and forgiveness. There were more than 200 people in the course of doing Every Silver Lining Has a Cloud who shared these common stressors. When you look at the reasons that people drink alcohol, nonalcoholics and alcoholics drink for the same reason, to relieve stress. These were the four that kept coming up.
When I think of grief, for example, having challenges with somebody’s death is certainly the type of grief or mourning of which most of us think. But also, for an alcoholic, it’s mourning a life or lifestyle that is no longer part of you when you sober up. A major part of your existence, your personality, your social life, is now gone. You have to take time to grieve that in order to move on in recovery.
Grieving is a process, a long one. Most alcoholics are impatient by nature and they just want an infomercial version of grief and it doesn’t happen that way. You need the time to grieve things appropriately and put them in your past, so you can move on from your past and live a sober life.
Forgiveness is another on that is a struggle for a lot of alcoholics because we are faced with seeking forgiveness for some hard-to-face things. The 12-steppers like to refer to that as making amends. It’s very stressful to admit that you’ve wronged someone, and go back to that person, make your apologies and make sure your side of the street is clean.
Guilt and shame are two of the biggest side-effects to any addiction, whether it’s opiates or alcohol, because addiction is still a stigmatized condition in our society. Young or old, pills or liquid, wealthy or not-so, if you struggle with addiction people view you as a weak person. There is a certain amount of old-school thinking that still persists today that permeates the way communities treat alcoholics both during active addiction and after they have sobriety. It’s a long process to get past this sort of shame.
Society still paints them with the same tired brush with which we’ve painted alcoholics for centuries. There’s something wrong with this guy. It has to do with his morals, his thinking, his character. The status quo is unsustainable and unacceptable. And it is a relapse hurdle.
When it comes to guilt, we also have a lot of guilt over the collision between our drinking selves and the things we said were our values. We have to make peace with that as well. Facing those ugly moments is also a very stressful period of recovery.
When I looked at stressors and alcoholism and stress and recovery, one of the medical studies I found was research on the stress hormone, cortisol. We all have it in our bodies, but alcoholics – even those years into sobriety – have a higher baseline of cortisol than nonalcoholics. So we’re starting with a high level of stress hormone and it doesn’t take much additional stress to trigger us back to what we know best, what we know as a relief, because as I mentioned earlier, alcoholics and nonalcoholics alike drink to relieve stress. They can… we (alcoholics) can’t. We need to use other methods.
What can family members do to support their child or family member when they have relapsed?
The important thing is understanding that this is a relapse prone disease and that is not uncommon of other chronic illnesses to show relapse. Our rate of relapse is pretty high. You’re looking at nine out of ten, but that’s not uncommon when you look at diabetics.
Really, all they need to do is change their diet. When you look at people with heart disease, they’re on a simple maintenance program of perhaps taking pills or changing their diets and they’ll have a period where their successfully managing their hyper tension and cholesterol and then suddenly it flips back where their cholesterol or high blood pressure increases. It’s the same with cancer.
What I like to talk about when I discuss alcoholism is that you are getting it in remission, you are not carrying it. With a cancer patient, we don’t get all up in their business if their cancer comes back and if they experience the reemergence of this disease that is eating a hole in their body and in their lives.
It’s the same with an alcoholic. We’re getting our disease into remission. We can hope and work as hard as we want, doing the right things to make sure that relapse isn’t part of our recovery, but it does come up. That’s not to say to expect it, but it happens.
Is it good news that it happens? No, it’s terrible news, certainly, but it’s not uncommon and it needs to be approached with the same kind of compassion and concern that we would show a person who has relapsed from cancer.
You mentioned the importance of communication. What is the role of communication and how does communication support sobriety/recovery?
When we have an addiction that we feel we need to hide, we hide things. Alcoholics are notorious for this. We don’t talk about stuff. We bury things or we drink them under, but now it’s a different way of life, so we need to talk about the things that we didn’t talk about before.
They may be hard things, difficult things to talk about especially if it’s a guy, but it happens to women as well. If it’s a matter of something that is personally upsetting or very private matter, you still need to bring it out, air it out. There’s a lot of support in my corner for people who are in the counseling business.
Surround yourself with people that have the same situation, same condition you have and that is where self-help groups come in handy, I could cite Alcoholics Anonymous, other 12-steppers or Women for Sobriety, Men for Sobriety and SMART Recovery. Anytime where you are in an environment that is safe and with other people who are struggling with the same kinds of things you are struggling with. We think we are all terminally unique, but we’re not.
These problems we’re having, everybody else has had them. Open your mouth and you’ll find out for sure that you are not alone in this. The strength in recovery is that none of us are alone if we just talk about things and bring it out to the table in open air, rather than just bottling it up inside. Bottling it up inside is exactly what brought us to the bottle.
What are three 3 tips for parents who are concerned about their adolescent or young adult’s drinking?
I think it’s really important to pick your opportunity to speak with them. If they are under the influence and while it may be hard to watch, may be upsetting, make sure they are safe, but don’t address them head-on with the problem right then and there when they are under the influence.
We all have moments of lucidity at some point in our using careers regardless of the drug of choice that we have. The opportunity to speak to the addict or the alcoholic is not when they are under the influence, but when they are out from under it.
First thing is timing and second thing is compassion. You’re not accusing the person, you are not confronting the person. You are talking with the person showing care and concern over a very serious health and lifestyle issue that if it is not addressed, it will kill you.
This is not a “He’ll grow out of it phase.” This is an end game here, regardless of the type of chemical that you are talking about with substance abuse. Show some compassion rather than confrontation.
Be informative, factual, rather than getting into the “You know better.” or “This is bad thinking.” Get away from that for a moment and focus on the facts. This is a serious illness and this is what the chemicals will do and what they are doing to your body.
In the case of alcoholics, it’s shaving 18 years off your life expectancy. It’s causing more than 60 other different diseases. Having a more factual approach, is going to take some of the emotion out of an emotionally charged situation. I know for my family, it was very emotional for them to stand back and watch as a career and a marriage disintegrate all because I could not put down the bottle, or chose not to get help for this.
But when the dialogue changed from being accusatory and emotionally loaded, to something that was more factual, it started to get through to me and that is an important part of the conversation that parents need to have. Keep it on the facts, rather than on the emotions.
You mention that there isn’t one silver bullet for everybody! What are your suggestions for people who are looking for support for their sobriety?
If at all possible, find a certified, licensed professional counselor who has a specialty in substance abuse and has a background specifically in substance abuse or alcoholism or addictions.
Lot of counselors are very skilled and competent at what they do, but if it is a family counselor who doesn’t really have a lot of background in addictions, it’s not going to be as fruitful or productive as seeking out someone who has that specialty. They know the language. They know the perils of addiction. It is relapse prone and they know how to work with the person in that regard when the relapse does come up. Make sure when you are talking with the counselor, that they have the kind of background that fits, so that you are using the right wrench on the right nut.
The other thing that I encourage people to do is that it is not just that 45 minutes that you are in with the counselor. This is an all-day/every-day kind of thing. If you have other opportunities, whether they are low-cost or no cost. Look at things like self-help groups. They are not for everybody. Some people may have reasons or excuses for not attending one of them, but most of them are free and 12 Step groups are pretty readily available in most communities.
When I lived in Arizona, there were 250 meetings everyday in the east valley outside of Phoenix where I lived. There were opportunities all around me, if I just decided to bring myself there and start talking. Shop groups, shop counselors, because it is a very personal, one-on-one relationship with a counselor and it’s a very perusal group relationship, or group dynamic within the group. You are looking for ways for including, you are not looking for ways not to go. You’re not looking for ways to say, “I don’t like that counselor because they’re older, or they’re a female.
You want to listen to the language, rather than listen to ways to exclude either a counselor or a type of group or program. Also, in the case of any type of substance abuse, get medical help, because it is a disease. When we have tooth ache, we go to a dentist, a professional. We don’t just whip out an ice skate, like Tom Hanks did in Castaway and try to address it ourselves. We go to get a professional medical type of involvement and in this case of alcoholism, not a whole lot of general practitioners have a great deal of knowledge about it. If you invite them into the conversation, if they don’t know it personally, they can refer you to someone within the office.
Quitting alcohol especially, can be very dangerous, because the withdrawal can be fatal and you need to have some type of medical person whether it’s a general practitioner or nurse practitioner involved in the discussion so that they know what is going on with you. It’s also going to be beneficial to get, from the medical standpoint, vitamins.
For some people, they may need additional types of pharmaceutical support, because they are going through withdrawal and they need medical supervision. Along with medical supervision, in most cases is some sedatives, something to help ease them through those first critical few days of sobriety that you don’t want people to be getting on the streets or getting through tales of other people saying, “Try this.” Go to a doctor. Get a pro involved.
Group involvement and changing people, places and things is a big thing in recovery. If you can go to inpatient treatment, that is great, but most people can’t. They talk about changing the people, places and the things that were part of your using days, months, years into a healthier, more sober orientation, so surround yourself with people who are in recovery, rather than going back to the bars, back to bar crowd and thinking that you are not going to go back to drinking. Change your approach. Change your life.
What do you want the reader to walk away with after reading your book?
I want them to know that there is hope. Nobody is alone in this. Everybody who has struggled with addiction has struggled. It’s never going to be an easy one shot deal. Sometimes we get it, something we don’t, but we’re all in the same boat. We’re all looking at the people around us, the people who have gone before us who have succeeded in recovery and have long-term sobriety and they are an illustration for us of how good it can be.
It doesn’t have to be miserable in recovery. There is hope and there are setbacks. There will definitely be setbacks. Not every day is perfect, but it wasn’t while we were drinking or before then either. We learn to adjust to life and its stresses in a positive way with hope and with the knowledge that we are not alone.
Scott Stevens is a journalist, posting regularly on health and alcohol issues for online news services. Many popular voices for recovery on air and on bookshelves have stellar credentials, but few have had to eat their own cooking. Stevens presents thorough research into alcoholism, sobriety, relapse and recovery against the backdrop of his stunning, personal 86-proof-two-liters-a-day story.
A former mutual fund industry executive, Stevens blends wit, journalistic objectivity, blunt personal dialogue and no-nonsense business perspective in his two books, 2010’s What the Early Worm Gets and 2013’s multiple-award-winner, Every Silver Lining Has a Cloud.
Among his life experiences, Stevens has met seven Presidents of the United States, flown with the Navy’s Blue Angels, piloted a Los Angeles Class nuclear submarine and driven a NASCAR at 140mph on a one-mile oval. The football fan and avid golfer holds a Master’s in Public Affairs Journalism from the University of Illinois – Springfield and lives in the Midwest with his children.