I’m optimistic about the future of addiction recovery. Ongoing research into the brain has led to new understandings in prevention, identification, treatment, and relapse reduction. At 85 years old I am just grateful that I’ve lived long enough to feel a part of the fighting chance that now exists. In the spirit of this perseverance, I want to share a letter that I received from a colleague who experienced a transformation while reading The Craving Brain. Knowledge is power when it is combined with meaning, and particularly so when it is combined with hope. Thank you, Patrick Ryan, for sharing your words with me. I know that there are others who have experienced a similar change when they’ve come to understand the nature of addiction. And I know that there are much more desperate to find their way to the place you are now. You have put the “you can be here” mark on the map.
The following is a guest post written by Patrick Ryan, M.D.
I grew up hating alcoholics and for good reason. Although my father was a physician, he was never able to rid himself of his terrible addiction to alcohol. Largely as a result of his drinking, my five siblings and I were permanently scarred by extreme poverty and the social ills that accompany being poor.
I never went camping when all my acquaintances did—basically, I had no friends. One summer, I had no shoes. From 1977 to 1982, ages 9 to 14, I lived through five Boston winters, walking up to two miles to school without proper winter clothes. Until I was 18, I did not have health insurance. My mother was emotionally absent, but it was my father who was responsible for all this because of the insidious control of alcohol and his own meanness. While we lived in poverty, he once flew to Ireland on the Concord. He was a jerk; there is no doubt.
My contempt for my father, however, has begun to melt. I am a doctor, and a while ago, I began volunteering with an organization, Jobs for Life, that helps homeless people get jobs. The person to whom I was assigned was an alcoholic. As I came to know him and other addicted men in the program better, I started to feel love and empathy for them.
One night, as I was walking back to my car after a Jobs for Life meeting, I found myself crying and asking, Why could I feel empathy for these men, who were strangers to me, and not my own father? “That sorry sack of s**t,” I thought. “He could not have done any better than he did.” My father was an alcoholic by virtue of his family (Irish drunks), his geography (Ireland), and his economic status (son of a poor grade school teacher).
This moment nudged me down the road to forgiveness, but it was reading a book by my medical colleague, Andy Spickard, that really helped me see things differently. His book, The Craving Brain: Science, Spirituality, and the Road to Recovery, is the first thing that I have ever read about alcoholism that doesn’t make excuses for addicts but instead burrows down into the science of the chemical and anatomical changes in the addicted brain. It rides the razor’s edge of showing empathy for addicts and helping them take responsibility for their own actions.
Andy wrote his book with a recovering addict, James B., and writer, Barbara Thompson. James tells how he just barely got through what must have been really horrible days in his early recovery. Then, slowly, cautiously, one careful step at a time, he reestablishes himself in the brotherhood of the living. Perfectly meshed with James’ tale of fall and ascension are Andy’s descriptions of what is happening in the addict’s brain. These physiological explanations affirmed for me that my father really was never in his right mind—not ever—in my lifetime. More importantly, he could not have been expected to make many (if any) rational decisions.
Together, Andy and James showed me how incredibly hard quitting drinking and using other drugs must be. I understand now why so many people fail—and why my father failed. If only he were alive so that I could talk all this over with him and find out what his demons were. Surely, he felt extreme shame, and guilt, and the other emotions that all addicts share. But I would like to know why he got started in the first place. When did he think he was past the point of no return?
The dead hold the answers to so many questions. Instead of being so damn angry at my father before he died, I wish I had possessed the spiritual maturity to try to understand him and forgive him. I pray that some person like me will read this book and talk to their loved one before he dies. It could make such a difference and prevent decades of unnecessary malevolence toward a person who cannot help himself.