07/7/14

Never Give Up Hope

Adam’s lead was one of those powerful tales of riches-to-rags-to-riches of drinking and drug use leading to a “low bottom” and then recovery. His bottom included being homeless; losing his job; jail; the whole works. And then he got sober. He always concluded by saying: “And I know that if I ever were to pick up again, I’m never coming back.” He meant what he said. His audience believed him. And when he did pick up, he never came back.

When I was an intern at an outpatient drug and alcohol clinic, I heard the tale of Adam’s relapse. That wasn’t his real name; I don’t think I ever knew it. But Adam’s story was my first lesson in mistaken beliefs about relapse: His mistaken belief about relapse created a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In his booklet Mistaken Beliefs About Relapse, Terence Gorski said: “A mistaken belief is something that you believe to be true and act as if it were true when, in fact, it is false.” Within it, he listed seventeen separate mistaken beliefs. Adam seems to have believed numbers 16 and 17.

Number 16: “Once you begin using it is impossible for you to interrupt your relapse before you have ‘hit bottom’ again.” Many addicts program themselves for a destructive relapse. They believe that it is better to be dead than drunk or high. This seems to be what Adam had buried in the concluding statement to his lead. Once he started, he believed there was no way he could stop. His first bottom was so low, that next was death.

It is true that once you again begin to use addictively, you can never be sure of what is going to happen. But you can have periodic moments of sanity; times where you “regain control of your thinking, your emotions, your memory and your behavior and judgment. . . . It is your responsibility to yourself and those whom you love to get help to interrupt the relapse during these moments of sanity.”

Number 17: “Successful recovery from addiction requires continuous abstinence from the time of the initial commitment to sobriety.” It is a fact that most addicts and alcoholics are not able to maintain permanent abstinence the first time they try. But this is NOT MEANT to be permission to periodically drink or use. There is a difference between a lapse—the initial return to addictive use, and a relapse—the destructive return to loss of control, addictive use.

There are two choices. The person can get help from others to return to abstinence (call your sponsor or others people in your support system; get back into treatment). Then they need to learn from the experience what went wrong; and what they need to do to stay sober in the future. Or they can convince themselves that staying sober is hopeless and continue to use destructively. “If they believe they are hopeless or that they have failed totally because they have lapsed, they will give up and not continue in their efforts to recover.” Sometimes they are lucky enough to have the right set of circumstances re-engage them in treatment or other help. Sometimes they die in their addiction like Adam.

In his blog post on Mistaken Beliefs About Relapse, Gorski discussed what he called the three most common mistaken beliefs about relapse: 1) that it is self-inflicted; 2) that it is an indication of treatment failure; and 3) once relapse occurs the person will never recover. These mistaken beliefs are differently worded than those in his booklet, Mistaken Beliefs About Relapse, but still worth reading and thinking about in their own right.  Adam seems to have fallen prey to the third one.

There are two additional mistaken beliefs I hear a lot: First, that relapse is a part of recovery. Relapse is often a part of someone’s recovery journey, but it doesn’t have to be. Second, some people are “constitutionally incapable” of recovery. Here, Gorski said it best: “The consequence of believing you cannot get well is despair. Without hope there is no motivation to try again and you are condemned to a life of despair.” Never say never. And never give up hope.

What other mistaken beliefs about relapse or recovery have you encountered? 

I have read and used Terence Gorski’s material on relapse and recovery for most of my career as an addictions counselor. I’ve read several of his books and booklets; and I’ve completed many of his online training courses. He has a blog, Terry Gorski’s blog, where he graciously shares much of what he has learned, researched and written over the years. This is one of a series of blog posts based upon the material available on his blog and website.

07/4/14

How Does God Become Real for Modern People?

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image credit: lightstock

Several years ago I read a fascinating study of psychiatry, Of Two Minds, by T. M. Luhrmann. Her insights brought clarity to how I view modern psychiatry and how it has changed since the 1970s. So I looked forward to reading When God Talks Back, where she sought to explain to nonbelievers how God becomes real for modern people. What I didn’t expect was to find new insight into how God became real to me over thirty years ago. In a future post, “How God Became Real for Two Modern People,” I describe two examples of what Luhrmann calls sensory override encounters with God, one of which happened to me personally.

Luhrmann spent time with members of two separate churches in the Vineyard Christian Fellowship. She intentionally chose a style of evangelical Christianity whose belief system would be difficult for ordinary Americans to accept. Members of Vineyard churches are encouraged to see God as someone who “interacts with them like a friend”; someone who speaks to you—at times with an audible voice. God is someone who you can hang out with; or go on a date with. Someone who wants you ask for specific things, like a particular score on your medical boards: “God just doesn’t want to know that you want to pass the MCAT. . . . God wants a number.”

According to Luhrmann, the relationship with God within a Vineyard church represents a shift towards “a more intimate, personal and supernaturally present” encounter with the divine that has developed in American spirituality over the last forty years. This style of evangelicalism wants Jesus to be as real in their lives as He was in the lives of the disciples. And it “involves an intense desire to experience personally a God who is as present now as when Christ walked among his followers in Galilee.”

God becomes “hyperreal.” He is “so real that you are left suspended between what is real and what is your imagination.” In literature, film and art, this is known as “magical realism.” Here the supernatural is seamlessly and unexpectedly blended into the natural world. Some film examples of this would be: “Stranger Than Fiction” and several Woody Allen movies, including: “Midnight in Paris” and “To Rome With Love.”

Luhrmann’s thinks that understanding or experiencing God in this way helps believers manage the doubts posed to such a belief within Western culture where reality is explained in terms of natural, physical laws. God becomes so real and so present that “the supernatural is presented as the natural.” In other words, individuals report sensory perceptions of the immaterial: of God. These “sensory overrides” are odd moments of hearing a voice when you are alone; seeing something that isn’t there; smelling or tasting something that isn’t present.

She systematically and even experimentally demonstrated how these sensory overrides were not pathological. Unlike hallucinations, these experiences of the immaterial were typically rare, brief, and not distressing. Luhrmann pointed to examples in the Bible and a long Christian tradition of individuals reporting they heard or saw the supernatural. But these sensory overrides are not limited to purely religious experiences. Like William James, in The Varieties of Religious Experience, Luhrmann successfully described what James said was the instinctive belief of humankind: “God is real since He produces real effects.”

Are people seeking “a more intimate, personal and supernaturally present” experience of God?

07/2/14

Thor’s Psychiatric Hammer: Antidepressants

60 Minutes broadcast a segment on treating depression in February of 2012 that is still causing ripples of controversy. Two of the individuals interviewed, Irving Kirsch, a Harvard psychologist and Walter Brown, a psychiatrist with Brown University, challenged the two accepted pillars of current depression treatment. Kirsch said: “The difference between the effect of a placebo and the effect of an antidepressant is minimal for most people.” According to Brown, “The causes of depression remain a mystery.”

The chemical imbalance theory, which has guided the pharmaceutical industry in developing new drugs since the 1960s, is “probably incorrect.” Brown added that the experts in the field, the academic people who do research on drugs, now believe that the chemical imbalance theory is “a gross oversimplification.” If the neurotransmitters serotonin, norepinephrine, dopamine have anything to do with depression, “it’s of a minor role and probably sets the stage for depression. But they’re not the cause of depression. I think we know that now.”

Yet the chemical imbalance theory is still widely taught in medical schools. Many psychiatrists and mental health professionals still believe it. “The problem in psychiatry is that we don’t have a lot of tools. And if the only tool you have is a hammer, you treat everything as if it is a nail.”

Irving Kirsh has been doing research into the placebo effect for over 35 years. His original research intent with antidepressants was to evaluate the size of the placebo effect with antidepressants. He was a believer in the efficacy of antidepressants and he used to refer people to get antidepressant prescriptions. “I didn’t change the focus of my work onto looking at the drug effect until I saw the data from our first analysis.”

In a 1998 study, Kirsch found that 75% of the response to antidepressants was duplicated by placebo. He did a follow up study in 2002, where he analyzed the data submitted to the FDA for the six most widely prescribed antidepressants approved between 1989 and 1999: Prozac (fluoxetine), Paxil (paroxetine), Zoloft (sertraline), Effexor (venlafaxine), Serzone (nefazodone), and Celexa (citalopram).  He found a small but significant difference between the antidepressant drugs and inert placebo. “If the drug effect is as small as it appears … then there may be little justification for the clinical use of these medications.”

Leslie Stahl challenged Kirsch, saying that people are getting better by taking antidepressants. He agreed. “People get better when they take the drug. But it’s not the chemical ingredients of the drug that are making them better. It’s largely the placebo effect. . . . The only place where you get a clinically meaningful difference [with an antidepressant] is at these very extreme levels of depression.” The placebo effect is stronger with mild depression.

Both Kirsch and Stahl cautioned that antidepressants should not be stopped cold turkey. Leslie Stahl said that individuals who take antidepressants, and feel better as a result, will likely continue to take them. But she worried about the side effects. For some people there are serious side effects. “And if a sugar pill is just as good, how can we keep prescribing these pills?”

For more information on antidepressants, see: “Antidepressant Withdrawal or Discontinuation Syndrome?” and “Antidepressants: Their Ineffectiveness and Risks” under the Resources: Counseling Issues menu.

Do you think evidence about the placebo effect with antidepressants effectively challenges the chemical imbalance theory of depression?