This week we bring you Chapter 19 of HIGH Confessions of a Cannabis Addict By Leonard Lee Buschel. Leonard Lee Buschel is an American publisher, substance abuse counsellor and co-founder of Writers in Treatment, which supports recovery and the arts, and executive director of REEL Recovery Film Festival, focusing on stories of addiction and recovery. This week, we bring you the Preface to whet your appetite. Follow us weekly for more delicious chapters of this incredible story.
Addiction is Not a Disease, It’s an Addiction
Remember just because you hit bottom doesn’t mean you have to stay there.
— Robert Downey Jr.
The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.
It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.
I have learned that when you call addiction a disease, most people think of their uncle who died of cancer or of their cousin who died of tuberculosis or their father who died of a heart attack, like my father did. It’s a “disease” that people love having until they don’t.
How many “diseases” provoke people to commit crimes against others or their property or steal cash out of their mother’s purse? In reality, thousands get clean and sober by simply walking into a meeting of AA or NA or checking into a rehab, like what happened to my son and me. The AA expression is “struck sober.” In AA meetings sometimes, people will occasionally share that after attending just one meeting, they haven’t had a drink ever since.
Is this experience a result of being DONE, being desperate or by receiving God’s grace? Maybe it’s all of them? It’s amazing how sometimes people can stop on a dime. The Japanese have an aphorism, “At its extreme, everything turns to its opposite.” Is that what happened to me?
Sobriety is a decision and a “letting go,” not a frog march, similar to achieving satori. Recovery starts in your heart or in the frontal lobe. Only after the ice starts to melt around the heart and the mind clears can someone sincerely decide to embrace sobriety. When I worked as a Certified Substance Abuse Counselor, I learned you can’t force true recovery. Recovery that starts with judgmental judges in courtrooms or CEOs in boardrooms sending you to rehab, the suspension of your allowance or the threat of being written out of a will or divorced is rarely successful.
In 1994 at Betty Ford, nothing was forced down our throats, neither meds nor the 12 Steps. I listened to my peers’ stories, my counselor’s advice, the lectures and educational classes and the still small voice within. I realized I had been living an insane existence and had seriously flirted with death on more than one occasion. Most importantly, I learned it was not only possible to go a month without weed, booze or Percodan, it was preferred, advisable, desirable and a winning way to live. No more arrests, emergency rooms, or being numb with staccato heartbeats through frightening frisks at airports and border crossings.
Thank God. Today, I am no longer on the run, fearful, or alone. I marvel at the miracle of a new life in what is truly, for me, a new world.
Alan Watts said, “You can’t force enlightenment through the window—but you can make sure the window is open.” A treatment center should be a place where you learn to open the window for a healthy lifestyle to come in, and aftercare, with participation in 12 Step programs, is how you make sure the window stays open. Then, it’s a lot of vigilance and self-reflection, self-discovery and developing a joie de vivre while using all the sobriety tools you have. Becoming your own sentinel.
Sobriety is a gift. My gift was to be relieved of my cravings; and it’s a gift because drugs can ruin your life or kill you. The gift is that I am no longer killing myself or endangering other people.
Sobriety is a miracle. I knew in the bottom of my heart that I did not want or need to do drugs again. Twelve Step programs helped me to see alcohol as a liquid drug, so I stay away from one bourbon, one shot, and one beer. There is something eloquent about living with no substances. Once you have some time being sober under your belt, it’s like a reward. Sobriety is like having been given a flower-bearing plant you have to water every day. It’s like being deputized by God.
Frankly, recovery for me has been a magical thing. Like the time I met a complete stranger who I appeared to have nothing in common with. I was strolling through Central Park and happened upon Strawberry Fields. It’s right across the street from where John Lennon lived and where he got killed.
I walk over and see that people have left teddy bears, little guitars and flowers. It’s like a continuous shrine there. And I thought, Well, what do I have that’s valuable to me that I could put down? I had my 15-year sobriety medallion. I set it down on the perpetual impromptu memorial and said a little prayer.
John was a very important human being in my lifetime. Coincidentally I had just gotten my first mini-iPod and had Sgt. Pepper on it—the whole album. I sat down on a park bench near the teddy bears and other tchotchkes and started to listen to Sgt. Pepper in its entirety with no distractions, right where John Lennon got offed in front of Yoko. Not unlike the other John being assassinated in front of Jacqueline. Halfway through the album, I see another guy looking down at the shrine.
Pondering, he takes something out of his pants pocket and lays it on the ground.
And I thought, Holy shit.
I pause the iPod and walk over and say, “Hey, what did you just put down?”
He said, “I put down my 60-day chip.”
He said he did that because he saw somebody else had put down a medallion. He said he wondered what’s the most valuable thing he has to put down on the ground? It was his 60-day chip.
He was from Boston and I live in LA. And we just had this moment. We didn’t fuck it up by saying, “Oh, let’s exchange numbers, or are you on Facebook?” It was just like this special moment because I knew he’s in Boston and I am in LA. Though we inhabit a fellowship that transcends time and place.
It might have been different if we were both New Yorkers. Maybe we would have hit a meeting together. But it was that moment, that vortex of Universal love energy that sometimes follows those in recovery one day at a time. It was just so damn magical. Sometimes it’s not so hard to be a saint in the city.
Afterward, I sat on a nearby bench, recalling a day when I had a ceremony where I literally “married” a quarter pound of hashish . . . talk about love. Unlike a woman, or a father, hashish would never desert or abandon you. But will turn on you eventually. And maybe leave a souvenir tumor in your head. Who knows?
Recovery takes courage. Not really a word I was consciously familiar with as a kid. Courage is woven within Step 4 of the 12 Steps, where we summon the courage to honestly look deep within. For addicts and alcoholics, the prospect of a life without one’s main coping mechanism, their “medicine,” is unfathomable and unbearable. Not to mention saying adieu to the most important love in their life. It takes courage to decide to break that bond. As novelist James Baldwin wrote, “Nothing is more desirable than to be released from affliction, but nothing is more frightening than to be divested of a crutch.”
Recovery takes patience. How long does it take to be sober for a year? 365 days, 8,735 hours, 525,600 minutes. That is where the expression “slowbriety” comes in. I love that. You can only get a year sober by living through 365, 24-hour days. You can’t pay off your sponsor or take a class for extra credit. It’s not instant coffee or instant gratification, like the first wireless remote-control device Zenith brought to market so you can push a button and change from one show to the next without having to stand up and walk to the set.
Recovery takes commitment. There is a power in passionate commitment. Know what you love, and manifest that love in action. The secret of happiness is no secret. It is living your life in harmony with what you love. I have always loved film, literature, music and multifaceted human interaction, be it erotic or intellectual. Art is manifest when the impetus is self-expression rather than self-indulgence. May God grant me the wisdom to know the difference.
The Greek philosopher Socrates famously said that an unexamined life is not worth living. Canadian Jungian therapist Marion Woodman claims the secret to maintaining long-term sobriety is to constantly strive to get to know ourselves better and realize that our life is more interesting and genuine without drugs. You learn to stay sober from the inside out.
The path of sobriety is never uninteresting.
My name is Leonard Buschel and I am an addiction survivor. To this day, all desire for drugs and alcohol have vanished—and it’s been that way for 27 years. I learned early on that my odds of keeping sober and avoiding relapse would improve if I was continuously striving to lead a more balanced life. Leading a more balanced life physically, emotionally and mentally is a lifeline toward successful recovery and long-lasting sobriety.
Every morning I sit at my altar and light three sticks of Japanese smokeless incense and flip over a 15-minute hourglass and sit still. Then I do 15 minutes of Dō-In. At least a few mornings a week, I’ll attend a 12 Step meeting. I love going to AA meetings. For me, it strikes a spiritual tuning fork that resonates throughout everything I do during the day. I have a sponsor (who I rarely talk to) and at least two commitments a week. All of this helps keep me grounded in my recovery. I remain an addiction survivor because of AA.
Sometimes at a 12 Step meeting, I look around the room and think: There are no wimps here. These people are all incredibly courageous. They have been through so much, both in and out of recovery, but they stay on a path that I think can be described as nothing other than holy. Yes, this is a spiritual movement.
Daily physical exercise like long walks or aerobics will improve your mood. Healthy mental and emotional input garnered from reading good literature, frequenting museums or attending inspirational plays, musicals or performance pieces are also helpful for maintaining sobriety.
Many psychologists believe that a contributing cause of addiction is lack of connection. [See Johann Hari’s book, Chasing the Scream (The Opposite of Addiction is Connection)]
Interestingly, your drug dealer is called your “connection.” Addiction creates connection but not to the right things or people.
Has that lack of interpersonal connection been fueled by technology-driven social media, with Twitter’s tiny, 280-character messages or Instagram’s mindless reinforcement of narcissistic video selfies from teens and pre-teens looking for themselves where there is no one
home? Can you imagine having to take the time to find a phone book, look up a phone number, then dial ten numbers on that old rotary phone? Imagine then having to actually talk to someone for more than two minutes.
“Now that we have reached a hastier and more superficial rhythm, now that we believe we are in touch with a greater amount of people, more people, more countries. This is the illusion which might cheat us of being in touch deeply with the one breathing next to us. The dangerous time when mechanical voices, radios, telephones, take the place of human intimacies, and the concept of being in touch with millions brings a greater and greater poverty in intimacy and human vision.”
—The Diary of Anaïse Nin, Vol. 4, 1944–1947
Lack of connection is not only caused by the advent of technology, which actually has brought us many good things. Like the GE slogan says, “We bring good things to life.” (Not to be confused with “COKE Adds Life” or DuPont’s brainwashing of the American Soul with “Better Living Through Chemistry,” certainly something every addict will perversely agree with.) Still, I cannot help but wonder: Does technology interfere with self-awareness in our lives? For some it’s a rhetorical question. For others, they don’t know. Still others just don’t care.
It’s important to release any creative juices you might have had bottled up. Anybody can be creative—a pencil and a piece of paper doesn’t cost much. Anybody can look up how to write a Haiku – the Japanese very short form of poetry. Anybody can go to an adult night class to take essay writing or watercolor painting. Walking down the street, observing the leaves on a tree is a meditation; and it’s also interactive, if you’re sensitive enough to hear their stories. Once you remove drugs and alcohol you have to find other ways to feel alive, without tempting death. Being creative is a high unto itself.
In the early 1980s, an interesting study reported in Advertising Age or a similar publication looked at the positive effect of cocaine on creativity. In small amounts, the stimulant was quite effective and beneficial. In larger amounts, with increased frequency, the effect disappeared entirely and actually worked in reverse.
When I worked as a counselor, I used to tell my clients to do something unique. If you used to play guitar, start taking guitar lessons again. Walk around the block and leave your cell phone at home and just be open to your feelings, which can sometimes be very uncomfortable. The wind in the trees—the meditative mind—may offer you unexpected strength.
I was sitting under a tree at Betty Ford one Sunday afternoon when I saw a negative feeling coming at me like a locomotive. The feeling came toward me and seemingly went right through me and out the other side. From that point on I realized that feelings come and go. They won’t last forever. I can just observe and even appreciate them. Even be afraid. During years of my addictions, when I felt a “feeling” coming on, I would always be able to heighten it or deflect it, depending on what it looked like and what drugs or booze I had at my disposal.
Recovery—especially if you’re going along the steps of Alcoholic Anonymous—suggests prayer and meditation. It’s really wonderful. It’s not just giving up substances; it’s developing yourself as a better person.
I thrive on eating well-balanced meals (and not too many processed food-like substances), sleeping seven to eight hours every night, meditating for a measly (self-judging) 15 minutes every morning, trying to walk two miles a day and making time for reading, writing, films, music and poetry, hobbies and recreation.
Thich Nhat Hanh, a famous Buddhist monk from Vietnam, brought a new form of insight meditation to the West termed Walking Meditation. He said that when you walk you should try to focus on feeling each step and how you are becoming more in touch with Mother Earth, whose energies fill your body with a new sense of awareness. This can happen when you are being open to the energy coming down from the galaxies above and up from the Earth below.
Michio Kushi, with George Oshawa, brought a healthy living practice called Macrobiotics from Japan to America. Macrobiotics means “Big Life.” They said if you adopt a macrobiotic lifestyle, eat and practice a certain way, you will become a free man or woman. It was agreed the purpose of life is to play. When I took his class, we were encouraged to look at the dolphins in the sea. Look at the birds—all they want to do is soar and sing (and eat and procreate). On a more physical level, Michio also emphasized stretching and yoga as appropriate means of increasing flexibility in general. Why? Because exercise can decrease your blood pressure and increase your resolve to stay healthy and lead a longer life.
I have always wanted my clients to learn (or relearn) how to read inspiring books, go to museums and enjoy life. It can help keep you sober if everything in your new life is more interesting, more compelling and inspiring. There is nothing between you and reality. There is a new level of honesty and pride to guide you. So, creativity is a big part of recovery as so many recovering artists have proven personally.
You just have to enjoy it. I don’t play an instrument and I can’t paint. I don’t dance. I don’t even recite poetry (an actual sin). But I can cook. And cooking is where my creativity comes out. Luckily no friends have had to be rushed to the hospital to have their stomachs pumped, like some did after taking a bottle of Excedrin PM.
In recovery, you must also learn how to sit with boredom—and lower the bar when it comes to what you feel is exciting. Not much is as exciting as when Melissa and I were searching for drugs in Vieques, Puerto Rico (also known as Isla Nena, or Little Girl Island), a very small Caribbean island populated by hundreds and hundreds of wild miniature ponies. For years the U.S. Navy used Vieques as target practice. The Puerto Ricans could never build any tall hotels there because the navy kept bombing it. But it’s a special place, with a phosphorescent bay.
That was an exciting night. In sobriety, you’re not going to get the we-could-die or we-could-get-high kind of excitement. Newly sober people have to be reminded they’re not going to feel that kind of excitement ever again.
You don’t get that kind of excitement sitting in an AA meeting. But you’ve got to learn how to just sit with the stillness. You’ve got to get comfortable with living without the drama and the challenges and excitement of addiction.
Keep things interesting. Not crazy enough to get arrested. Just crazy enough to have fun. Do something unique. Follow the suggestions of the 12 Steps.
Marie-Louise von Franz tells us that the “gift of renewal” can suddenly change a “stale and dull life” into a “rich unending inner adventure, full of creative possibilities.” The price is too high to not attempt sobriety. Perhaps the most important aspect of healthy living is learning to re-love yourself.
Each day of sobriety gives me a new opportunity to expand and awaken my feelings of gratitude and appreciation for this new and sober life. Afterall, recovery is all about reawakening and rebirth. The Swiss psychologist and philosopher Alice Miller tells us that “addiction . . . is a sign, a signal, a symptom of distress. It is a language that tells us about a plight that must be understood.”
Often newly sober and out-of-work recovering alcoholics can be cursed or blessed with an inkling. When a business idea strikes with a brilliant inchoate thought, it can grow into an idea and after sufficient research and a plan, one could then take action. Focused and sober.
Everything that happens in recovery is magical. As Dr. Gabor Maté has said, “The attempt to escape from pain, is what creates more pain.” Recovery begins as you cultivate a new purpose for your life. Don’t let the past steal away your present.
For some of us, chronic fear and anxiety (negative thinking) creates pessimism and worry, driving us to continue drinking. Unease and fretfulness often lead to a sense of apprehension or dread. Many people are scared of the “unknown.” Even more afraid of the unknown than dying the painful death of an alcoholic.
Sobriety is an awesome adventure and the future does not have to include manipulating fears and insecurities with substances. That future does not include behavior that we’ve used to cope with life on life’s terms. Good or bad. Sobriety is like a reality show, except the stakes are life itself. Everyone’s a finalist and everyone can win. It’s the ultimate reward when you emerge as a survivor. And it can be done with or without faith in a higher power. It’s just a lot easier if you have one, or at least realize that you may be or not be God.
It’s beneficial for the addiction survivor (it was for me) to have a structured daily routine. Get up in the morning around the same time (even if you’re not working), have dinner early and go to sleep at a set time. You will more easily feel accomplished in the things you do, not feel you’re wasting time, experience less boredom and procrastinate less often.
Russell Brand reminds us that our irrational behavior makes us “completely powerless over addiction and unless [the addict has] structured help, they have no hope.” Without hope the addict thinks less rationally, behaves less responsibly. Sobriety can seem too far away . . . Like the Zen proverb says, “If we’re facing in the right direction, all we have to do is keep on walking.”
Be gentle toward yourself and keep in mind that there’s no room for perfectionism—a kind of black-and-white form of rigid thinking. In recovery anxiety will diminish, and you’ll actually begin to feel good about your imperfect ways.
Joseph Campbell offers a magical reward for your efforts. He says that it is “by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life. Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.” It is as if you already are what you are looking for. You too can be an Addiction Survivor.
When you are in recovery you need to understand yourself deeply. A superficial understanding of oneself only leads to more frustration and possible relapse. However, a deeper and more spiritual understanding of oneself can lead to Joy, which is a special kind of Wisdom, that aids sobriety. Great literature, inspiring films and timeless music can also inspire Joy and Wisdom. And getting a therapist wouldn’t hurt.
Observation of yourself is always most fruitful in the present moment—at the moment you are hurt or angry, greedy, jealous and worse. And this must happen without criticism, condemnation or judgment. You watch, you observe, it flowers and disappears, it withers away and loses its power over you. You are now free to live a new life and undergo a radical change in yourself that creates a life free from substance abuse.
We are not bad people doing bad things, we are heroes lost like the Lotus-eaters from The Odyssey. Retold here so beautifully in the Marijuana Anonymous guidebook, Life With Hope.
The Story of the Lotus Eaters
About 3,000 years ago, the poet Homer told a story about a man called Odysseus and his voyage home to Greece following the Trojan Wars. The story of the Lotus-eaters is found in Odysseus’s tale to the Phaeacians in book nine. According to Odysseus, Zeus sent a storm and blew them afar for nine days, before they landed on the island of the Lotus-eaters. There the inhabitants gave them some fruit from the lotus plant. When the men ate this fruit, they lost all desire to make it back home. All they wanted to do was to stay and eat more fruit. They became sleepy and lazy. They would have stayed, lingered, and probably died there, but Odysseus by force of character dragged the men back to the ships to sail homeward. As the men were going, they were weeping. Odysseus even had to tie them up on the ship, lest they escape and stay.
Isn’t it time all the drug addicts out there decided to go home? A home that you build on love and compassion. First for yourself, and then the whole world. Be brave. You only live once possibly.
You can buy a copy of Leonards book HERE