[Article by Tapati McDaniels]
I enjoyed reading Sarah Katherine Lewis’ previous books, Indecent: How I Make It and Fake It as a Girl for Hire and Sex and Bacon: Why I Love Things That Are Very, Very Bad For Me, so I was delighted to read her new, self-published book in .pdf format, My Boring-Ass Rehab Diary.* I wasn’t disappointed. It was so engrossing that I felt like she was in the room and I wanted to ask her questions. I’ve become acquainted with her over the last few years online and realized, why not? I can do an interview. The result was a ninety minute conversation by phone where we realized we talk entirely too much. Perhaps there’s a rehab program?
TSM I sent you the first question in advance because as I was reading some of your problems with the paradigm they were operating under I found myself wondering, if you could be in charge of a program, how would you redesign it?
SKL [sigh] Yeah and I thought that was such a great question and I’ve been thinking about it since you sent it to me. I don’t know how I would design a program because I think one of the genius things about the 12-step program is that it’s like McDonalds and there are franchises everywhere and even if what they’re offering is not delicious to everyone it’s at least acceptable. You could be anywhere in the world and you can go in and buy a Big Mac and be pretty sure of what you’re getting.
I think that kind of consistency is really helpful to some people. It’s not something that I seem to need but when people get into addiction one of the things that happens is that their lives become really chaotic and at the same time they feel like they have less control over their lives, and so there’s this thing that you can choose to do wherever you are, you can go to it pretty much at any hour of the day and it’s pretty much the same. It seems to me that would be grounding no matter what the activity was. It could just as easily be, you could come out and go bowling for an hour, or come out and press flowers for an hour. I don’t think the activity matters as much as the idea of control and consistency.
TSM That makes sense. But then in your book you write about how it turns some people off so much that they resist going,
SKL Right, well really what was the main problem that I had with what I was being asked to participate in, the whole ‘powerless’ thing, because it seems to me like what I was doing was being anything but powerless. I had worked really hard to get into rehab. I had pursued the whole thing with Writers in Treatment because I knew I couldn’t afford it on my own, and I followed up and followed up and sent in my tax returns and you know, got with the whole thing while they were trying to get funding and stayed with it and stayed with it…I mean, I felt like for the first time I was actually being powerful…and it was kind of frustrating for me to sort of feel for the first time like I was doing something that was really important for my health and really important to sort of get back on track the way I wanted to be and then as a necessary condition of that I was asked to pretend as if I believed I was not a prime mover in the situation and that I was simply a vessel for the will of a higher power. It did not feel authentic to me at all, particularly after what I had experienced, being powerful for the first time in many years.
TSM As I was reading this a lot of thoughts were coming up for me and among them, that initially people have to admit that they have been powerless over this problem because whatever they were doing before they came to the program wasn’t obviously working for them.
SKL Yes, but what’s wrong with saying it like that? Why do we have to get into who is powerful and who is powerless? Why can’t we just say, you know, we admit that the addiction wasn’t working for us anymore, or we admit that we didn’t like what our lives had become, or we admit that we were scared and we didn’t know what to do and we didn’t know how to fix ourselves–all those things seem like they could be true, but they also seem like they are left potentially alienating to somebody who does not identify as powerless. you know? I never, I never identify as powerless. I feel like I can always do something.
* My Boring-Ass Rehab Diary can be purchased directly from SKL for $20.00 U.S. via her PayPal account: firstname.lastname@example.org. Her website is currently being reconstructed. If you prefer another payment option you can contact her at that email address to arrange it.
Tapati McDaniels is the former publisher and editor of Uppity Women Magazine and is currently writing a memoir. Excerpts can be found at http://tapati.livejournal.com/ where you can contact her with questions or comments.
God Can Take It From Here
TSM I think a lot of people have a big problem with the wording of that first step and also people that aren’t religious are like “so what am I supposed to do with all that God stuff?”
SKL Oh right and I mean that’s a whole other thing…luckily I didn’t have problems with the idea of a God or a higher power, it’s just that…I did have a problem with the idea that God somehow wants me to be sober because God’s been my buddy you know for my whole life, like God’s walked with me through everything I’ve ever done and now all of the sudden I’m supposed to pretend that God wants me to be sober? God doesn’t care, God’s along with me for the ride no matter what I do, so it seemed kind of arrogant to all of a sudden decide that God wants me to be sober when all the evidence in my life has been that God has been with me unconditionally.
I can only imagine how difficult it would be to deal with that as an atheist or an agnostic with no belief in any sort of spiritual presence or anything like that. Why, what does that have to do with the price of rice? Who really wants you to be sober? You do. Why is that not enough, why do we have to create this whole idea that something bigger than you wants you to be sober? It seems unnecessary to me.
TSM I’ve always looked at this from the outside so I’ve always tried to understand–so what exactly are you saying that you want them to feel like God is on their team so that they’ll feel this boost of empowerment that they wouldn’t otherwise feel?
SKL God’s always on your team. You know what I’m saying? It’s like God doesn’t care if I’m sober or not, God loves me just the same, no matter what so–what bothered me about it was that it was illogical to decide that A) we know God’s will at all, ever [laughing] and B) that all the sudden we’re supposed to accept that now God or a higher power has stepped in to go to bat for us for our sobriety. I mean, that’s just ludicrous, if that were true and God is all powerful why doesn’t He just flip a switch and make you not an addict anymore?
TSM I guess the counter-argument could be made that because we have free-will, until we ask for it, He can’t impose it on us against our will.
SKL Right, but God imposes all kinds of things on us. I feel like we need to pick a story and stick with it. Which brings me back to your really interesting question, if I were designing the program, what would I do? One of the things that I was really thinking about when I was in Denver in rehab is what part of what I was doing was effective? Was it the fact that I was far from home, living in a much different situation, being accountable to other people who knew that I was struggling with this problem. Could it just be that, without the whole 12-step thing, and would that be as effective? And I thought that for me, it would be as effective.
TSM It could have been a yoga retreat or a Buddhist retreat or anything that got you out of your routine where alcohol wasn’t really part of the scene?
SKL Right, and telling the truth about my problem because for, for a long time when I was living in Seattle and Michigan I was not being truthful with anyone in my life about how much of a problem that I felt that this was turning into. I mean I was functional, I was working, but at the same time I have this secret I have to protect and when I decided to sort of ‘out’ myself, that was a powerful thing because it made me accountable and it made me accountable to other people.
I think that there’s something really powerful in saying that this is a problem for me and I think that it’s really hard, but I think that that maybe is the moment of change, not the powerlessness, not the whole “I surrender, I give up” you know, God’s gotta take it from here, but the fact that you’re admitting to yourself and to your primary relationships, “I f–ked up, and I’ve been f–king up and I don’t wanna do this anymore.” But to me that seems, really powerful.
TSM Right, because you’re owning it, you’re stepping up to the plate.
SKL You’re saying this is f–ked, essentially I’ve been lying to you all and I don’t want to lie anymore and I don’t want to lie to myself. To me, that does not seem like a statement of powerlessness.
TSM Definitely. Not that I’m in your inner-circle but I had no idea that you had a problem and so my finding out about it was your announcing that you had a rehab diary. Rehab diary? Why did she need rehab?
SKL I knew it’d sort of be out of the blue for most people. My partner didn’t know!
TSM I recall you were always posting these things about how you were self-nurturing…and I admired that. I really need to get on some of those things myself and it was inspiring to me that you would be posting about , you know, eating something nutritious, or making it to the gym.
SKL Both things can be true.
TSM Right, exactly–and I thought that was all [of] the picture and so it surprised me.
SKL Right. This is total heresy and I don’t even know what to think about this but part of me thinks that alcohol was not my problem, not my primary problem. Part of me thinks that my primary problem was absolute despair, and what I was doing to mitigate that despair was drinking a huge amount. But I’m not in despair anymore and the AA party line is like “well, you’re not in despair ‘cause you’re not drinking anymore” and I wonder if I’m not drinking anymore ‘cause I’m not in despair?
TSM Which came first the chicken or the egg? I think a lot of people use alcohol to self-medicate depression or other problems and I found myself wondering well, are they true alcoholics in the sense of having a genetic-based illness?
SKL Right. Exactly. Thank you for saying that so well because I go back and forth. On one hand it was really interesting seeing that nutritionist and learning about GLA, the missing synthesis chemical that allows you to process alcohol. That was really interesting. You could definitely make a case for me being genetically vulnerable to true physical alcoholism, but I think the jury’s still out. I don’t know if it was just that simple, or if it was a confluence of like things that made me feel bad that I responded to by drinking to numb it. And of course, when I’ve talked to people who are hard-line 12-steppers about it, they sort of conveniently say “Oh that’s just the disease talking, the disease is trying to fool you that you don’t have the disease.”
TSM Yeah, there’s such a hard-line thing there that you can’t even explore it, and try to understand the difference between problem drinkers who can quit and not need constant reinforcement and treatment for the rest of their lives versus people who really will relapse if they have a drink and really need the regular meetings.
Counting the Days
SKL Yeah, that’s the other thing that’s really curious to me, the whole idea that having one drink or even going out for the night and getting really plastered, according to the 12-steppers, that would be a relapse that would basically stop my sober time, and, I would get my 24-hour chip, no matter if I’ve been sober 15 years, and then I went out and had a glass of champagne at a wedding, that basically would start my sober time over, completely invalidating all the years that I’ve been sober, which doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense to me because it seems to me like if you’re in college, and you flunk one class, you just lose the credits for that class. You don’t lose the credits you’ve accrued for all the years of classes that you’ve successfully passed and thinking about that, I think that encourages continued relapses because if you’re gonna have one glass of champagne then you’ve totally wrecked it and you might as well go on a binge for a week.
TSM I liked your comparing it to dieting and how some people, if they go off their plan it’s like oh well, I’m screwed so I may as well just–
SKL I might as well eat, like 12 pounds of chocolate you know …What if, what if there was room for saying “Ok, well you had a glass of champagne and that probably was not the best thing for you, but you haven’t wrecked anything”…
SKL What would that look like if you could come to a 12-step meeting and say “you know what, I had a glass of champagne last night and I don’t feel great about that, but today is a new day and I’m not going to have champagne today.” What if there were support for that? But then at the same time there can’t be support for that because they’d drive themselves effectively out of business if there wasn’t that huge fear that if you don’t keep going, this relapse will happen to you.
TSM It makes me wonder, are there people who really aren’t safe to do that without having a major relapse and are they using the accumulation of days/weeks/months and years to create sort of a wall that their ego is attached to so they don’t want to give that up with their one glass of champagne?
SKL Right and I think that’s totally cool if that’s what they honestly want to do, but I mean for instance, I’m supposed to be counting my days of sobriety and they have something called birthdays, which is like the date that you got sober and then you celebrate three months from that and six months from that eventually you go by the year. I could probably look at my day-runner and like look and see what day I actually arrived at rehab and that would be my date of sobriety but it just doesn’t mean a gosh-darn thing to me and as far as counting my days, why the hell would I count my days of not doing something?
TSM Yeah, perhaps some people really find that useful. I had a friend who went through rehab who was clinging to that as an accomplishment, I’ve accumulated x amount of days and that seemed to help her ego, which I guess had been bruised by her behaviors when she was addicted.
SKL She was, but if she was thinking about it that much and if that’s such a huge factor than how is she not living a life that is intimately involved with substance use…it’s just sort of the whole, “I’m not doing it. I’m not doing it. I’m not doing it. I’m not thinking about the white elephant. I’m not thinking about the white elephant”. You know it’s like what, your life is all about the white elephant, whether you’re doing it or not, right?
SKL I think, part of me like feels, I didn’t think that it was supposed to be this easy. I just don’t think about drinking. I mean, ok, in California you know they can sell alcohol in like the normal drugstores and the other day I was walking through the liquor aisle to get to the coffee section and I felt neutral. I didn’t think it was supposed to be like that, I thought that one way or the other it was supposed to provoke feelings in me, but the sort of neutrality was something I was not prepared for at all.
Drinking to Medicate Mental Illness
TSM And that makes me wonder if you are actually an alcoholic or you were simply using alcohol to temporarily self-medicate especially when you started doing the EMDR [Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, a therapy for PTSD] and that brought up a lot of stuff for you.
SKL You know my EMDR therapist in retrospect tried to prepare me the whole, you know Pandora’s box…but I was not adequately prepared, I mean I, she was like “Oh yeah you know sometimes it brings up intense emotions” I’m like “Yeah well, you know I’ve been having intense emotions”. One of the things that I would do is if someone else is doing EMDR I guess I would put more support into place because you can sort of intellectually say “Oh well this might stir up a whole bunch of stuff” but my thinking was I probably should’ve been hospitalized for it, because I was not able to take care of myself….during it…and I don’t think that that means EMDR is bad, I think it means that it’s really strong.
TSM Really powerful.
SKL It was much stronger that I expected…and, I think that’s a good thing but I…I think that people may be go into it and they think “Oh la la la that might bring up strong feelings blah blah blah” and then when they have kind of a breakdown or kind of a crisis, you know, umm, they’re not expecting it I mean I certainly wasn’t …
TSM Yeah, and it seems like you were trying to use alcohol as an off switch, like ‘turn this off I can’t deal with this right now’ you know
SKL God yeah! Oh for sure but at the same time I mean who’s to say who’s a real alcoholic? I mean, what is being an alcoholic? Is there a time-limit? You know is there a certain amount of years you have to drink heavily before you get to be a real alcoholic? I think part of it is that by definition alcoholism is different for everyone, so maybe I was a real alcoholic, maybe that’s just me being a real alcoholic…but, what does it mean if I’m not a real alcoholic? I mean, does that change anything? Does that mean I’m going to run out and like have a glass of wine? Nah, I don’t think so.
TSM No, I wouldn’t suggest that because it seems like it wasn’t a good place for you to be in, but I’m just saying that there are people who have episodes of drinking to medicate some form of psychiatric disorder or depression or whatever…and they’re not getting adequate or effective treatment for that
TSM –and when you’re desperate to do something about feelings that are completely overwhelming you, alcohol is readily available and a sort of tried-and-true method.
SKL Right, and you know I think in some cases alcohol can actually save your life because …I mean if the choice is, I either kill myself or I can drink until I pass out, it seems to me the harm-reductive viewpoint is drink until you pass out. Don’t kill yourself. You know?
TSM Right …yeah. In the moment and I mean some people would say that if you keep doing that eventually the alcohol will do it for you in a slower manner.
SKL Yeah, but I mean they say the same thing about eating too many saturated fats. <sigh> I don’t know, I think the whole issue of substance use is way bigger than any of the 12-step programs reflect. I feel like it’s hard to sort of reduce it down to fit into their box when there’s so much more to it.
TSM I do know somebody who died from alcohol-related illness at the age of 44, so I have a healthy respect to what a real excess of alcohol can do to you.
SKL I’ve heard about people who committed suicide in their early twenties, and maybe they could have held on until their fifties if they had had a viable anodyne to go to, right?
TSM That’s possible but one of the things we were taught when we went through the training program to be on the suicide crisis line is that a lot of suicides are when they are drinking or doing drugs. In other words, that gives them the courage they need to finally go through with it. That lowers their inhibition.
SKL Sure. That’s an easy thing to count. What’s not so easy to count is how many times alcohol or drug use can save a life.
TSM That would be complex to study. You would have to get a bunch of people self-reporting saying “Well, you know, if it weren’t for being able to turn to alcohol I’d be killing myself today.”
SKL It’s possible
TSM I think that is true for some people, but I think it’s problematic in that it can do so much harm as well.
SKL Yeah, and I really want to be careful and I want to be respectful because the last thing I want to do is be the poster child for boo on 12-steps – like12 step programs suck. I don’t want to be backed into a corner and come out swinging against 12 steps because ultimately, I might think it’s totally stupid or I might think it really doesn’t work for me or I might have all kinds of problems with it but it doesn’t matter. If that’s what helps someone and they feel better, then great.
Sexism and Classism in Rehab
TSM It’s become an orthodoxy that you can’t question and that bothers me about it because I don’t think that anything in mental health should be an orthodoxy because we’re constantly learning more about the human brain and so if we get hardened in any kind of orthodox thinking then that just discourages innovation that might actually help people so I have a problem with that.
There was also a lot of sexism going on in your program and I suppose that’s not uncommon to programs everywhere, but besides the guys trooping through your room to use your bathroom, I don’t know if you had gold-plated fixtures or, what was special about your bathroom?
SKL I honest to god believe it was just the fact that it was women’s private space. That they could not stand the idea that there was a small area in the house where they were not allowed to go or wanted.
TSM Yeah, you guys weren’t trooping into their bathrooms.
SKL No, I mean it’s hard because I am a feminist for sure, and I’ve been accused of taking things that are not feminist issues and putting sort of a feminist spin on them but there’s so many things that I have no other explanation for.
TSM No, I couldn’t get it unless they only had a bathtub and you had a shower, unless there was some logical reason why your bathroom was actually better and more desirable, and I couldn’t understand why it was even being allowed under house rules–why in the world?
SKL I couldn’t either.
TSM I was just dumbfounded, I would think that you would want to discourage the men from going into the women’s rooms. Period.
SKL Right. You would think. Except that, the house was owned by a young man. I actually had meetings with him and said this has got to stop, this is horrible, women need to have private space. If the bathroom is not the private space, give us a shack in the back yard and have it be women only private space. Or give us a towel, and when we’re sitting on the towel [that’s our private space.] “It’s not the idea of whether the space is desirable or not, it’s that the space needs to exist, and it needs to be protected.” We went around and around and he never, ever was able to understand that.
SKL It occurred to me that maybe it was a generational thing because what I saw was younger men had no ability to understand why women might need space of their own, it was nuts to them. They had no capacity to even understand why someone might even ask for that. But my older male friends, to a man, got it. Of course, of course you need your own space.
TSM I know and maybe that’s just young men being clueless about everything and that’s just one of those things or maybe the young men, like a lot of young women, think that feminism isn’t needed anymore because we’re all equals and as equals you’re just one of the guys. I would use my buddies’ bathroom so why shouldn’t I use your bathroom?
SKL Why does it have to be such a big thing, why are they making such a big thing out of it? That’s something I was accused [of], why are you making such a big thing out of it?
TSM If you stood at the door of your bedroom and said “No, you can’t come into the bathroom” would they have just barged past you and gone in?
SKL You can’t hold down the fort 24 hours a day, eventually you’re going to have to go to sleep or go get some food and they just come in
TSM It’s just so rude. The other thing that was rude was the actual counselor who was saying all these sexist things in your groups.
SKL Yeah, the prick-tease counselor?
[So named because he talked about some women being prick teases in a mixed group.]
TSM Yeah, I mean [the part] about his big-breasted clients, oh my god. You managed to not say anything. I was apoplectic reading it, I don’t know how you managed to not let him see that it was getting to you but I realize [you were] picking your battles.
SKL He was a real piece of work and it was interesting because I started talking to other women who were in the rehab and none of the women were comfortable with him.
TSM That says a lot.
SKL I didn’t go to bat over that, and that was weird for me because it’s really a new thing for me to decide to just roll with something. I felt like I needed to shore up as much strength as I could because I was working on other things and I didn’t want to be distracted by going into battle on this when I needed all my resources to get better.
TSM I understood why, because you weren’t going to change him anyway. You could’ve talked till you were blue in the face and this guy would’ve continued to be a sexist asshole.
SKL Yeah, no he’s a total f–king idiot and just an ignorant, ignorant man. He would say these things about how the brain works but he’d get the areas of the brain all mixed up and he’d say the instinctual part of the brain and the autonomic nervous system was like at the forefront of the brain and the more advanced analytical thoughts were at the base. And I was like, physically you’re wrong, you’re giving bad information, but on the other hand, does it matter?
TSM I got why you weren’t challenging him but I just thought it was so unfortunate that there he was spewing this out to the detriment of any woman who goes through that program and you’re going there to get some help and meanwhile this guy is potentially doing damage, especially to women who don’t already have a feminist consciousness and know that it bothers them but they don’t understand exactly why, they can’t put a finger on it or point out exactly what is wrong.
TSM Then the other thing I was noticing in addition to the sexism were the class issues. The high paying clients with the rich parents versus people like you who were there on a scholarship basis and how those dynamics weren’t recognized, weren’t consciously handled by the people running the house, to the detriment of both parties, because the rich people were being pandered to in a way that was not helpful.
SKL That became way more of an issue when I got to California because I was staying in a sober home. There were distinct strata of how people were being treated. The wealthy people basically were allowed all kinds of freedom that, for instance, I was not allowed. They could skip meetings at will, where if I skipped meetings I would get screamed at and get threatened with being thrown out. I understand that it’s nice to make money from people and you want them to stay and you want them to have a positive experience. I guess what I’m getting at is that it’s a business, which sounds like “duh of course it’s a business” but no I mean it’s really, really a business.
People really go into the recovery business not because they’re into recovery but because it’s a pretty easy way to make a lot of money.
TSM We should open up a house. [laughing]
SKL I have seriously thought about it because I made all kinds of calls about the house I was staying at because this is absurd. There’s got to be some sort of state regulatory thing that oversees the administration of sobriety houses. Otherwise, why isn’t everyone hanging out a shingle as a sobriety house? What I found was that there was no overseeing–you can essentially hang out a shingle and be a sobriety house. You don’t have to provide anything, basically, you just have to say it’s a sobriety house.
So that’s kind of my master plan, I suppose, if the writing thing doesn’t work out. Maybe I can open a series of sobriety houses [laughing] ‘cause the people that were staying there were paying tens of thousands of dollars a month. It was an absurd amount of money for staying in a place with roommates, in a living situation that was maybe worth five or six hundred dollars a month.
TSM Yeah, just reading your accounts on Facebook of crazy Botox lady and the lady with the non-stop Fox news–
SKL I know, people were [saying] “Well why don’t you just ask that she has to turn it off after eight or something?” and I [replied], “You don’t understand, I’m there on charity, she is paying, she gets to do whatever she wants” and it’s right up front …I mean they, to their credit they don’t try and pretend much of otherwise [laughing]…
TSM I was one of those people and I couldn’t believe that they would actually run things that way.
SKL Oh yeah, but how much responsibility do they have to be altruistic? Really?
TSM [laughing] I don’t know, in an ideal world a hundred per cent, but my husband’s always telling me “No, people don’t think like you think.” I’m always the idealist and I’m always expecting the best of people, assuming that they would care about the well-being of everybody under their roof. It was really hard for me and some of your other friends, who also have some ethical basis, to comprehend that–no really, they only care about the paying customer.
SKL What’s interesting is that my sobriety has not suffered so who’s to say whether that’s an effective way of treating people? [laughing]
TSM I think it was a good thing that your sobriety didn’t suffer and other people may not be that lucky. Also I don’t really think it’s the best thing for the rich person to continue to think that she has all the rights and you have none because I don’t think that’s good for her either. I think that somebody somewhere in her life ought to call her on it–but apparently that will never happen.
SKL [laughing] One of the things that I kept asking myself through this whole thing is, what part of this is effective? What part of this is working? And I think you can’t know because there were so many things going on. Maybe for someone like me, part of what’s keeping me sober is the whole like ‘F–k you’ aspect.
TSM [laughing] I gotta be sober in spite of you people.
SKL I mean that’s genius. That’s brilliant. That’s built into the system, you know, working with people’s tendency to be selfish. Maybe it’s a brilliant aspect.
TSM [laughing] I’m gonna show you people. I’ll get my zillionth day yet.
SKL Yeah, f–k you guys!
TSM That’s sad. Well I’m delighted to see you self-publishing.
Next month: The story behind Indecent and why self-publishing may be a good choice for writers as the conversation continues.