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Archive for the ‘Interviews’ Category

Recently I did an interview with the wonderful Kenneth Anderson of HAMS on blogtalkradio:

 

I’m embarrassed to say that before Kenneth reached out to me about doing the interview, I had not heard of the Harm Reduction Network. But now that I’ve delved into it a bit I realize how aligned it is with my own beliefs and experiences in drinking and in recovery. Kenneth is very passionate and devoted to helping people find what works for them and to reduce the harm to themselves. From their website:

WHAT IS HAMS?

HAMS is a peer-led and free-of-charge support and informational group for anyone who wants to change their drinking habits for the better. The acronym HAMS stands for Harm reduction, Abstinence, and Moderation Support. HAMS Harm Reduction strategies are defined in the 17 elements of HAMS. HAMS offers information and support via a chat room, an email group, and live meetings–as well as in the HAMS Book and the articles on this web site. All information on this site may be reproduced free of charge as long as the HAMS copyright is included.

HAMS supports every positive change. Choose your own goal–safe drinking, reduced drinking, or quitting. For more information please visit our page How HAMS Works. Please also check out the HAMS Podcast and the HAMS Psychology Today Blog.

 

 

And on harm reduction:

WHAT IS HARM REDUCTION?

Harm reduction is a set of practical strategies intended to reduce the negative consequences of high risk behaviors such as overdrinking or drug use. Harm reduction is a nonjudgmental approach that attempts to meet people “where they are at” with their drinking or drug use. Instead of demanding perfect abstinence, this pragmatic approach is supportive of anyone who wishes to minimize the harm associated with a high risk behavior such as drinking or drug use. Harm reduction accepts that high risk behaviors such as recreational alcohol intoxication are part of our world and works to minimize their harmful effects rather than simply ignore or condemn them. Harm reduction does not attempt to force people to change in ways which they do not choose for themselves. Harm reduction is a compassionate approach whose primary concern is the increased well-being of its constituency. Moreover an overwhelming body of scientific evidence shows that harm reduction works!!

 

What strikes me about this approach to recovery — even if ‘recovery’ is not about abstinence but about finding a moderation or alternative approach that works for you wherever you happen to be — is the potential for helping so many more people than if there were just one road to recovery.

Recently I went through a very difficult period and found myself searching desperately for some relief. As I’ve always mentioned, I never closed the door on “the rooms” and vowed to be honest with myself if my current approach to staying sober stopped working. As a result, I found myself attending some local AA meetings.

While I continue to identify with the people and the themes that I find in the rooms, it’s just not me. I’ve talked about my initial experiences in recovery and realize that I very well could have used my rejection by other alcoholics as a rationale to continue drinking as I had been. Had I known about opportunities such as those offered by HAMS, my somewhat rocky road to recovery might have followed a different route.

Definitely check out HAMS, have a listen to the interview, and let me know your thoughts!

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Lauren Stahl created SPARKite to help people like you and me hold ourselves accountable to the goals we wish to meet (but to do so, we might need some additional support). Lauren and I sat down for a little chat the other day. View the video here:

In addition, we will be hosting a conference call on Wednesday, February 26 (Yes! Tonight!) at 8PM EST. Dial in details are below. Here you can ask me your questions about food, nutrition, intuitive eating etc.

Conference call with Jenna Hollenstein MS RD
Wednesday, February 26th @ 8PM EST
Dial-in Number: 1-857-232-0159
Conference Code: 329250

 

 

 

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I first became aware of Jennifer Storm during my alcoholism memoir-reading days. After reading her first memoir, Blackout Girl, which was raw and brutally honest, I felt as if I knew her personally. Her second memoir, Leave the Light On, was one of the first to chronicle the recovery process, addressing a glaring dearth of such stories. A fellow Penn Stater and warrior for victims’ rights, Jennifer was kind enough to grant me this interesting interview. Please enjoy!

 

 

D2D: You have written several books about your experiences with sexual assault, addiction, and recovery. Tell me how the writing process and the recovery process have worked together.

JS: Writing has been something I have always loved; I still have the first book I ever wrote in 4th grade for an assignment. It’s a healing process for me to be able to get out the things from my past and put them on paper. It allows for a deeper level of understanding, analysis, and healing. I am all about understanding the “whys” of my disease. I truly believe that in order to be successful in sobriety, I had to get down to the core of why I was using, which meant I had to revisit the things that haunted my past. That began with being raped as a child. Writing providing a safe venue for me to begin that process, and then I had to share it with others. Exposing my past and my issues became a key element of my recovery. I was told early on that my “secrets would keep me sick.” I took that to heart and truly believe today that in order to maintain recovery, I cannot have secrets.

 

 

D2D: While many books about alcoholism are written from the perspective of the author before getting sober, you wrote one of the first memoirs that chronicled your experience after rehab. How were the two books received differently?

JS: Blackout Girl did better in terms of sales because society loves the drama; they love the dirt of the story. Leave the Light On was more about the “what now?” of sobriety. Here I was a 22-year-old young girl waking up after a ten-year stupor. I didn’t know myself, what I wanted, how to connect to people. I moved 400 miles away from home, started and new life, and decided to go to college. It was a whirlwind but a story I felt young people could really benefit from. Leave the Light On had more critical praise, as I think my writing certainly improved but it hasn’t flown off the shelves like Blackout Girl. I do however, continue to receive weekly emails from readers, usually of Blackout Girl, who thank me for putting my story out there and sharing how it has helped them. That is the reception I hoped for and am so proud to receive.

 

 

D2D: Your first two books were memoirs while your latest book, Picking up the Pieces Without Picking Up, is more interactive with the reader. What motivated you to write this book and to take the next step from telling your story to influencing the stories of others?

JS: Working as the Executive Director of Victim/Witness Assistance Program has opened up my eyes to the amount of trauma caused by crime and, more often than not, that the crimes involve substance abuse on some level. It is such a hand-in-hand occurrence, yet I couldn’t find a resource for my clients that dealt with trauma and healing, and that walked the person through the various justice systems, all while dealing with co-occurring substance abuse issues. I’ve watched victims really struggle after a crime, which at times has led to relapse or new onset of substance abuse. I wanted to provide a quick and easy workbook that would help them through the various stages of healing. I’m very proud of this book and wish I could get it into the hands of many more victims.

 

Jennifer Storm is the Executive Director of the Victim/Witness Assistance Program in Harrisburg, PA. Ms. Storm recently received the 2011 Pathfinder Award for Excellence in Victims Services by Gov. Corbett. In 2002, Governor Edward G. Rendell appointed Ms. Storm as a commissioner to the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency. She has appeared in We, Women, Central Penn Business Journal, Rolling Stone, TIME, and many newspapers. Read more about Jennifer here.

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This interview was featured on the writing website She Writes but I wanted to share it with Drinking to Distraction readers as well. Look for a post about writing and drinking soon.

In her latest book The Wisdom of a Broken Heart: An Uncommon Guide to Healing, Insight, and Love, Susan Piver speaks from her own experience of heartbreak, sharing wisdom, stories, insights, exercises, and beginning meditation instruction. Here, Susan answers five questions from Jenna Hollenstein in a conversation about writing and meditation.

 

 

Jenna: Can you describe your daily writing practice?

Susan: My writing practice is all over the place. Not a day goes by when I don’t try to stick to a schedule. My preferred schedule is to get up very early, make a cup of tea, and write “morning pages.” Then I try to write for a few hours. On good days, this is what happens. I’d say my good days are running at about 40% currently.

Then I spend the rest of the day doing the business behind my writing and teaching. I sometimes find that late in the day (around 9 or 10 at night), I’ll go back to what I was working on in the morning.

When I’m working on a book, at some point I have to sort of sequester myself for a few weeks or longer and just live and breathe the manuscript.

 

Jenna: What are some similarities between your writing practice and your meditation practice?

Susan: I think they are identical. Both require simultaneous one-pointed focus (meditation: breath…breath…breath; writing: word…word…word) and panoramic awareness, a kind of agenda-less attunement to the environment. In writing, this is how you know what to say next. It just sort of comes to you while paying attention to the silence—thus you are able to detect whatever may arise from it.

 

Jenna: How has meditation influenced your writing?

Susan: It has made me much, much more comfortable with uncertainty and not knowing—both of which seem to be essential to writing something meaningful, something beyond your comfort zone.

 

Jenna: How do you deal with writers block and “bad” meditation days?

Susan: I just try again. I seem to have endless energy for trying again. At least, so far.

 

Jenna: How would you advise writers interested in meditation to begin?

Susan: Definitely learn it from some place connected with a lineage that is older than, say, 2500 years. No new age nonsense. My Shambhala Buddhist lineage is a great place to begin, but so are Zen centers or Vipassana centers. If anyone is interested, beginning on March 5, 2011, I’ll be teaching meditation on my site and also sending out a daily email to offer encouragement and insight into how to bring the mind of meditation into your everyday life. You can find out about it here.

 

Susan Piver is the New York Times bestselling author of six books, including The Hard Questions: 100 Essential Questions to Ask Before You Say “I Do,” How Not to Be Afraid of Your Own Life, and her latest, The Wisdom of a Broken Heart: An Uncommon Guide to Healing, Insight, and Love. She is also a frequent contributor to Shambhala Sun, Body+Soul, and The Huffington Post. Susan is a meditation practitioner and has been authorized to teach in the Shambhala Buddhist lineage since 2006. She offers talks and workshops internationally on the topics of love, creativity, meditation, and spirituality. Read more at www.susanpiver.com.

 

Jenna Hollenstein is a medical writer, blogger, and aspiring memoirist. Read more at www.drinkingtodistraction.com.

 

Connect with Susan and Jenna on their SheWrites profile pages.

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“Less is more” ~Robert Browning

“More is more” ~Unknown

When it comes to certain things in life – especially those we seek out for their pleasurable qualities – how do you know how much is the right amount?

Whether it’s booze, shopping, TV, sleep, food, exercise, sex, work…even relaxing or keeping busy, how much is too much and when do you know you’ve crossed the line?

I struggled with these questions when it came to drinking. When was it a wonderful, cultural, social, and perhaps even nutritious thing to do? At what point did it become distracting or – worse – self-destructive?

I loved the first drink – the initial experience of taste and smell, the softening of hard edges, the feeling of release that washed over my whole body. But I could never hold myself at that pleasant brink without overdoing it. I tried to keep that feeling going by drinking more, which always pushed me over the line. And once past the sweet spot, I continued to drink in an irrational attempt to regain it.

One of my long-ago nutrition clients told me “alcohol dissolved her resolve.” She meant dietary resolve but it also dissolves the resolve to drink moderately. The more I drank, the harder it became to judge whether I’d crossed the line. The next morning, I’d judge myself very harshly, as if I should have been able to cut through alcohol’s chemical effects on my brain and think clearly.

After enough nights like this, it was time to take a very honest look at myself and consider making a major change. As Petros Levounis pointed out:

“In life in general, when things start to go bad, most people do something about it – change something. If they don’t, things will get worse. If you have a fracture and you don’t do anything about it, chances are things are going to get worse – you might get septic and die. If you are in credit card debt and you don’t do anything about it, it will get worse. If you are gaining weight and you don’t stop eating like crazy, you are more likely to suffer from obesity. Same thing for addiction.”

I avoided taking a truly honest look at my drinking by trying every moderation management technique in the book – drinking only on the weekends, switching from hard liquor to wine, trying to stop at two drinks. While none of those attempts worked for long, the idea that the next approach would be the one that worked felt very much within reach. So rather than quitting, I conducted my life as if I just hadn’t found the right approach that would let me continue to drink.

In order to quit, I had to admit that I didn’t know where my line was, that I couldn’t recognize the moment it was crossed, and that I lacked the judgment necessary to keep drinking.

Looking back at these choices and behaviors over time, I wonder:

  • How do you develop the judgment to know your own limits?
  • How do you know where the line is and when it has been crossed?
  • Does the line move? Is it different from day to day? At different stages of life? Is it something that needs to be constantly reassessed?
  • And what things – drinking and other things – have you asking these questions?

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Petros Levounis, MD, MA, is the Director of The Addiction Institute of New York and Chief of Addiction Psychiatry at St. Luke’s and Roosevelt Hospitals in New York City. Dr. Levounis is a board-certified addiction psychiatrist and Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association. He is also the author of 4 books, including Sober Siblings: How to Help Your Alcoholic Brother or Sister-and Not Lose Yourself. Dr. Levounis serves as the Addiction Psychiatry Specialist for AOL Health’s Experts Program, where his blog addresses issues of alcoholism and addiction.

I recently spoke to Dr. Levounis about the definition of alcoholism, approaches to treatment, and the power of choice in recovery.

JH: Many people view alcoholism as a black and white issue: you either are or you’re not. Do you subscribe to this idea?

PL: I think that there are a lot of shades of gray and every individual is different; there can be all different kinds of expressions of the illness. But there does seem to be a qualitative difference in the brain – when the pleasure reward pathways get hijacked – that marks the transition to the severe form of the illness from the vast majority of people who don’t really suffer from what we call dependence or addiction.

Even within the people who do suffer from alcoholism, there is a range of severity of illness. That also should not be thought of as black or white. But what separates those with alcoholism from those who don’t has to do with the neurobiology of the system.

Dr. Alan Leshner describes a “brain switch” that gets turned on in some people when biological and sociological forces come together to change something in the brain. Once that switch is turned on, it remains on for a period of time, if not for the remainder of the person’s life.

We appreciate how differently this switch is expressed in different people and we’re somewhat aware of the multitude of expressions from problematic alcohol use to severe alcoholism, but still there seems to be a transition at some point that makes things far more serious.

JH: I often hear alcoholism discussed as a progressive disease. If you are an alcoholic, and that brain switch is turned on, does it inevitably progress?

PL: I cannot call it progressive because the word progressive brings to my mind a terminal illness, such as metastatic cancer or an ominous genetic disorder from which there is no escape. That’s not necessarily the case with alcohol dependence or alcoholism.

AA said it very nicely when they said that alcoholism is an elevator that keeps going down, but you can get out at any floor. We have tremendous amounts of evidence of many people who got out of the elevator at different floors, some of them with the help of AA, or psychotherapy, or medication, or sheer will power, or the church. All kinds of ways and combinations of ways can halt the worsening of the illness.

I think chronic-relapsing is the best way to describe it. For a lot of people, alcoholism has a chronic-relapsing quality in which there are periods of relapse and then there are periods of remission.

JH: Why are some people able to get off the elevator sooner?

PL: In life in general, when things start to go bad, most people do something about it – change something. If they don’t, things will get worse. If you have a fracture and you don’t do anything about it, chances are things are going to get worse – you might get septic and die. If you are in credit card debt and you don’t do anything about it, it will get worse. If you are gaining weight and you don’t stop eating like crazy, you are more likely to suffer from obesity. Same thing for addiction. This is common for all types of ailments people go through.

JH: So most people who are having problems with alcohol – or anything for that matter – make a change so that it doesn’t get worse. And those who don’t respond to the situation continue to worsen.

If you have crossed the line into alcoholism – as AA says, once a cucumber has become a pickle, it cannot go back to being a cucumber – there is something qualitatively different that makes going back more challenging.

JH: Why do people continue drinking rather than making a change?

PL: We don’t find the word denial clinically useful but it does have its place. People often feel that they can control their disease. That is much easier said than done.

Why would somebody not see the light earlier? It may also be because alcohol is everywhere and in some parts of the population it is considered ok to get drunk quite frequently. You look to your right and your left and it’s not frowned upon to be drunk on the weekend.

There is also something else that is unique to alcoholism. I remember a woman I encountered once who said, “I am very different than everybody else, and the difference is that when I use cocaine, I am perfectly fine. The problem is when I don’t use cocaine.” That’s exactly the problem with alcoholism: once you are on it, everything is so good and the problems seem to exist only when you’re not on it. You get the sense that if only you could control it, you would have the best of both worlds. It feels very much within reach to control your use.

JH: Alcoholism, the disease, may exist in an individual without his or her choice but each person has the choice to stop drinking, right?

PL: I think the best analogy I have is cigarette smoking. Once you are a heavy smoker, the vulnerability to go back to smoking does stay with you for a long time. Tons of people quit smoking and are able to live happy lives without smoking; but somewhere in the depths of their brains, the ability to go back to smoking is considerably higher than for people who never had a cigarette.

I think a similar thing happens for alcohol. If you have a drinking problem and you stop drinking, you can live a perfectly happy life without alcohol. But somehow your vulnerability to heavy drinking is higher than for someone who was never an alcoholic. If you were to have a few drinks after 20 years of not drinking, your risk of going back to being an alcoholic is much higher than someone who has never had an issue with alcoholism. It is possible that you would not go back to being an alcoholic again, but statistically speaking, chances are higher that you will than if you never had an issue with alcoholism – not a little bit higher, significantly higher.

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Susan Piver is the New York Times bestselling author of six books, including The Hard Questions: 100 Essential Questions to Ask Before You Say “I Do” and the award-winning How Not to Be Afraid of Your Own Life. Susan teaches on love, creativity, meditation, and spirituality for actual humans with relationships, jobs, deep yearnings, depressions, triumphs, bad hair days, and a multitude of ridiculously petty grievances. She teaches from personal experience. She has been a practicing Buddhist since 1995 and graduated from a Buddhist seminary in 2004. Her new book is The Wisdom of a Broken Heart: An Uncommon Guide to Healing, Insight, and Love, published by Simon and Schuster in January 2010. –adapted from Amazon.com

I was lucky enough to sit down with Susan recently to discuss life, heartbreak, fear, and meditation.


JH: Your books are about concepts – like heartbreak and fear – that are so common and yet so difficult. Why are these things so hard?

SP: I don’t know why they’re so hard. I just think we all carry around this incredible vulnerability. We are all so vulnerable! And we build these complicated structures within ourselves and around ourselves that we think can protect us; like ‘if I live in a certain neighborhood, in a certain kind of house, if I adopt a certain nutritional plan, if I fall in love with this kind of person and not that kind of person, I will be protected.’ Deep inside we know that we will never be protected, but we still try to employ all these strategies. It’s really hard to stop.

I think the attunement with your essential vulnerability is the same thing as attunement with your highest wisdom and your deepest creativity and your heart of hearts. It’s difficult to be human. It’s difficult to walk around with what we know is true, which is that we each have a raw and open heart that is without protection at any time.

JH: Your books are so compelling and easy to read. I always got the sense you were trying to write them for yourself, to figure things out for yourself.

SP: That’s absolutely right. I’m not an expert. I have been studying Buddhism for over 15 years; that is the wisdom that I turn to and it never seems to not have something incredibly smart to say about whatever is concerning me. But really, I wrote from personal experience, hoping that exploring the things that I find so difficult could be useful to others.

I also know that when I look for help, I find myself much more affected by people’s stories than their advice. For me it’s helpful to hear stories, so I hope that the other members of my tribe find stories to be helpful. [Reading stories] is so much more interesting and helpful than a theory of how I could avoid the problems that you learned to deal with; I appreciate [such advice] but it doesn’t touch me and to change you have to be touched. People are touched by other people, not pieces of advice.

JH: One of the reasons meditation was always on my radar was because it seemed like something that would allow me to be out in the world, aware of all the potential threats and vulnerabilities, but allow me to have a sense of safety.

SP: When you know the truth, you feel safest. The truth is there’s no safety. When you meditate, you get to see the truth about yourself and the world and one of those truths is that there’s no way to protect yourself from hurt. I think that’s what you mean by safety. So do you feel safer when you know that? Well, sort of. Because you change your expectations and you change your way of being. Not to avoid [hurt] because you know that’s impossible, but when you know the way things really work, your confidence rises even though the way things really work may not be to your liking.

JH: So much about life is expectation and the way you frame things.

SP: There are no guarantees.

JH: Why not?????

SP: I know, it sucks!

JH: Well is it guaranteed that you will hurt and you will have heartbreak and you will realize some of your fears, right?

SP: Yes, that’s guaranteed. Buddhism talks about two kinds of suffering. We’re big on suffering. We have as many names for suffering as Eskimos have for snow. First there’s regular suffering – things happen, people die or get sick, lose things that are valuable. Those things happen to all of us, although some way more than others. The second kind of suffering is called the suffering of suffering; this is the suffering we add on by how we think about it and the way we respond to it and the way we try to metabolize it. So the first kind you can’t avoid, but the second kind, which is actually the really painful kind, you can.

JH: I used to use alcohol to deal with the second kind of suffering. Eventually, I came to the point where I wanted to stop self-medicating that pain and see what I was so afraid of. That was one of the main reasons I finally got around to meditating – to dig a little deeper. How does meditating allow us to deal with that second type of suffering?

SP: When you sit and meditate, you watch your thoughts. Ninety percent are kind of inconsequential while the rest are really amazing, brilliant, and funny. Some are very, very painful – when you think these thoughts, it’s like sticking a knife in your own chest. But as you sit there, it sort of passes. Even if it’s just for a moment and then comes right back, it still passes.

So you start to see that this thing that is causing you so much pain is not solid. It doesn’t really exist. It’s not real. It just feels real. For whatever period of time it is – whether it’s moments or decades. But even if it’s decades, the feeling that’s causing you so much pain is only there for a little while and then it’s gone; it comes back and then it’s gone. So you start to get the sense that it’s just this thing that’s visiting again and yes, it feels bad, but you also know that it’s not going to be here after a certain point. You come to know that it’s just sort of transient and it doesn’t have any more weight than any other thoughts. You can just sort of watch it as opposed to thinking it’s the totality of who you are.

With that little bit of space meditation introduces between you and your thoughts, the whole situation changes. And it teaches you; it’s not a byproduct, it is the practice of sitting with those empty spaces. The more you practice, the more comfortable you become. And then you can do that when you’re not meditating. When someone says something crappy to you, or someone cuts you off in traffic, it still impacts you like it would anyone but you also have this sense that it’s just an arising that will also dissolve. That changes everything.

JH: It’s amazing how much thoughts and perception govern how you live.

SP: And who you think you are! And your actions! That’s the tricky part. When your thoughts govern your actions, then you don’t have much hope. When you have some choice about how to act, the thoughts might still be there and might be devastating, but you can choose your actions according to something more considered. You have everything you need. You can live a thoughtful life.

JH: I always thought that in meditation, you close your eyes and you disconnect and you’re in your own world. What are the unique benefits of Shamatha meditation, the open-eye practice you teach?

SP: When you meditate with your eyes closed, there is a quality of disconnecting and retreating. And sometimes that just what you need; sometimes that’s good. That’s a different kind of meditation.

When you practice with your eyes open – and the gaze is soft, you’re not staring – it is not so much a practice of withdrawal as it is a practice of engagement. It’s a practice of wakefulness; you are practicing being awake, right in the middle of your life. Right here, right in this room, with things exactly as they are, in this body.

Meditating with your eyes open also makes it less likely that you’re going to fall asleep. Most of us are just so tired, the second we close our eyes, we fall asleep.

It has the additional benefit that when you stop meditating and get off your chair or cushion to go into your regular life, it’s not like this big ‘oh I was somewhere else and now I have to come back.’ You’re always here; the practice is being here. There’s not a big jarring divide. It’s more seamless.

So your meditation practice and your life start to develop this kind of seamlessness that is good. This kind of meditation is more likely to have application to your normal everyday life – your job, your relationships, your house. Because you’re not retreating from anything; you’re going towards everything.

JH: This is so much in line with what I’m trying to explore right now!

SP: When you find a practice that’s right for you, it just makes sense. It’s almost like it’s telling you things you already knew but you didn’t quite know how to say them. It’s just touching your own wisdom and your own wisdom is touching this practice and there’s a reciprocity in which you recognize each other. It makes sense.

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