Disclaimer: I tell my perspective on a very sensitive subject, and my recent experience with James McFee’s addiction. I am not claiming to be a professional, and I don’t want to hurt anybody or make anyone’s pain at the loss of James or any other loved on more difficult. Please, if you have any concerns about the validity of my research (this was done for an English class) or my “side” of the story, address them with me privately. I have tried to convey James’s story as sensitively as I could without sugar-coating it. I hope he is pleased with how it turned out.
I miss you, punk.
Addiction vs. James McFee
It has been said that the worst luck a gambler can have is filling an inside straight. Of course it seems like it would be the best luck a gambler can have, but the raw truth is that if, out of not more than 42 cards remaining in the deck, by some miracle that 8 that you needed shows up, the game will have you hooked forever; you will always chasing that elusive payout because of the time that you went all-in and managed to win big.
For James McFee – his name has not been changed, at his request when I asked him if I could talk about him in this paper – that is where the addiction started. In the back room of the escrow office where he worked with his mother just out of high school, he learned to play poker, and he was good at it. At a comparatively young age he played in televised tournaments, and as his skill level increased, the Casinos would comp rooms and meals for him when he went to Las Vegas. He would ultimately win and lose thousands of dollars over the next few years competing in tournaments. Those wins came at a high price.
The tenuous balance of sobriety is not just difficult, it is impossible for far too many people. By infiltrating the mind, addiction becomes a terrorist in the worst of ways, holding its victims hostage and often slowly killing them. But why some people and not others? Hundreds of thousands of people can have one, two, or even three drinks frequently and not become alcoholics. Drug use worldwide for people in their late teens spikes and then tapers off. Is this attributable to those who try drugs for the first time in their teens just dying, or do they “grow up” and quit, unaffected by their youthful ways? But what about pornography, sex, and gambling addictions? Surely if these were actually addictive, everyone who tried them one time would be hooked. Research suggests that contrary to popular opinion, addiction has less to do with biological factors than with psychological makeup including mental health issues, connection to a support system, and beliefs about self.
James, like hundreds of thousands of people in the United States, suffered from anxiety and depression. Other mental health issues exist, of course, with countless Americans undiagnosed or misdiagnosed. The stigma of being treated for mental health issues can cause a self-loathing tantamount to torture, and many either are never accurately diagnosed or suffer in silence with the demons that torment them, whether the mental health issues are brought on by the sufferer’s actions or they are victims of a trauma or disease.
Michele Rosenthal, a trauma victim, outlines for readers how the brain reacts to trauma:
The amygdala can become overstimulated. This is the threat detection center of the brain, and when a person spends an inordinate amount of time viewing the world around them as threatening, the tendency is to feel increased stress, anxiety, and fear. Since trauma is often not just emotional but physical, this also leads to a sense of vulnerability, increased sensitivity, and even paranoia.
The hippocampus, or memory-processing center can do the opposite, replaying the event as though it is happening again and again, day after day. This will often cause traumatic nightmares as well as unwelcome flashbacks of that trauma along with others that may have been moved to the long-term storage of the brain, re-traumatizing the sufferer.
The executive control center or cortex will override normal behaviors. Even habits you have had since you were a young child like brushing your teeth, using the toilet, and washing yourself can be disregarded to obey the instincts that arise from the cortex in order to survive. The instinct will often reengage despite years of sobriety if triggered by another, even minimal to the initial, trauma.
Michele goes on to say that nobody wakes up one day planning on becoming addicted to something, they just want safety and control. (Rosenthal, 2015)
James became addicted to the high of testing – and proving – his luck, as though he could control the cards simply by willing them to be that elusive 8 to fill the inside straight.
Dr. Joseph Troncale discusses the limbic system (fight-or-flight instinct) in an article about anxiety and addiction in Psychology Today. The limbic system is sometimes referred to as “lizard-brain”, but it isn’t something we grow out of simply because we get older. One of the major contributors to addiction, Dr. Troncale states, is that the sufferer of anxiety can cause irreparable damage to their body’s mechanisms that are in place to relieve their symptoms by self-medicating with drugs or alcohol. As these mechanisms are damaged, more and more drugs or alcohol are needed to assuage the anxiety and its sister, depression. (Troncale, 2014) According to the website, “Know Your Limits”, the very first thing alcohol affects is the brain, dulling the senses and your ability to make decisions. The Anheuser Busch slogan from 1982, “Know when to say when”, then is nothing more than a catchy slogan, as the very first thing affected by the alcohol is the ability to know when. (Know Your Limits. n.d.)
When soldiers are in Basic Training they are yelled at, pushed beyond their breaking point, and forced to stay in situations where everything in them is triggering the limbic system. In most cases they are not being mistreated, and certainly the body wants to be cool and sitting next to the pool more than it wants to run 20 miles in heavy gear in 90 degree heat, but the drill sergeants aren’t training waiters at the country club. They are training men and women who may be asked to walk over the top of their dead comrades, ignoring the death and destruction all around them, in order to advance the cause of the unit. They are training them to ignore the “flight” portion of the lizard-brain and training modern super-heroes. In the movie adaptation of the play, A Few Good Men, the inimitable Aaron Sorkin wrote a brilliant interchange between Colonel Jessep and Lieutenant Kaffee that displays what soldiers must learn in order to be successful:
Have you ever spent time in an
infantry unit, son?”
Ever served in a forward area?
Ever put your life in another man’s
hands, ask him to put his life in
We follow orders, son. We follow
orders or people die. It’s that
simple. Are we clear?
(Reiner, Scheinman, & Brown, 1992)
Follow orders or people will die. If it is, indeed, as simple as Colonel Jessep states, then altering the limbic system is absolutely necessary in a military command. The problem lies in what happens when soldiers come marching home again. The limbic system also regulates addiction, mood and attention, parts of memory, rage, and sex. A man who is governed by the orders of a superior officer in highly stressful times will turn to what he has been trained to do – fight. If the possibility of fighting is taken away, he will often turn to something else to relinquish his control to.
In an article on his website, Dr. Neil Neimark states that an over-activated limbic system can cause multiple problems. By design the system will completely ignore the logical and rational and send us into either attack or retreat. We view everything and everyone as an enemy or as dangerous. Mental alertness is heightened and our fears and thoughts become even more irrational, also known as intense anxiety. In today’s world most threats are significantly less hazardous than that of being chased by dangerous animals, but the limbic system remains poised and ready for any action, so the body inflates the threats based on the perceived danger. Extended activation of fight or flight can cause disorders of the autonomic nervous system as well as disorders of the hormonal and immune systems, causing multiple issues including depression. (Neimark, n.d)
James McFee trained his “lizard brain” to sit at the poker table for one more hand – over, and over, and over again. It’s not over until you’re out of money; your luck is about to change; whatever it takes. The poker table isn’t a battlefield where the ante is paid in blood, sweat, or tears, but when the limbic system is trained to ignore the impulse of “flight” when things get ugly, then the mental battle may just as well be the trauma of war.
Veterans returning from war and reintegrating into real life have an incredibly difficult time adjusting. Many have been self-medicating for years, and even if they haven’t, they no longer have an outlet for the debilitating need for an outlet for their anxiety and/or depression that is often caused by overstimulation of the limbic system from the moment they first entered basic training until the moment of discharge. An alarming number of soldiers returned from Afghanistan and ended up murdering their wives after they returned because they could not cope with the stress and anxiety that plagued them.
It is impossible to know whether James’ war with addiction started with anxiety and depression or vice versa, but one thing is certain: when the addiction took hold, it would not let go. As the hold grew stronger, he started to lie. James was a master liar. He would lie about the big stuff and the littlest thing, from what he had for lunch to how much he lost at the poker table, to why he was in the hospital, often to people who didn’t care one way or another. We discussed on more than one occasion how when trust is gone, the relationship suffers until, and unless, it can be restored. His relationships suffered and eventually he lost connection with those closest to him. His fiancé threw him out and blocked his calls. The lies drove a wedge between him and everyone he knew or cared about, and it didn’t need to happen. The biggest problem with that wedge creeping in was that he lost all actual connection to his world. He couldn’t be honest even with himself.
Johann Hari boldly stated in his TED talk as well as his book, “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs” that, “The Opposite of Addiction is Not Sobriety. The Opposite of Addiction is Connection”. He discusses in depth how for more than 100 years since drugs were criminalized in America, society has shunned the addict, driving a wedge between the addict and the community with which they previously had some kind of connection. Interventions and programs were designed. Other drugs to counteract the effects of the original drug of choice were manufactured. But what doesn’t get restored is a sense of belonging and connection, except to other addicts. (Hari, 2015, July)
Bruce K. Alexander studied rats in a psychology lab between 1960 and 1980. A series of graphic photos on his website as well as the description of the rats’ days is awful; sheet metal cages where they could not see or touch one another – only cold hard metal to interact with. They never even got a few moments outside their cages to run around or get exercise, and if they did get out of their main cells, they went into what was horrifically called a “Skinner Box” – a tiny box they could barely turn around in – but where they could get food pellets and/or electric shocks. At some point in the 1960s experimental psychologists decided the Skinner Box would be a good place to study addiction, and rats were able to consume large amounts of opiates including heroin, morphine, and cocaine. Many rats eventually overdosed on the drugs, and the experimental psychologists determined that humans introduced to these potent drugs also became addicted for the same reason; the drugs powerful “hooks”. However, they did not take into account the nature of the rats or their environment. Rats in the wild are much like humans, in that they “are social, sexual, and industrious creatures.” Enter the concept of the “Rat Park”. (Alexander, 2010)
The effects of solitary confinement on humans are well-known, including severe mental and psychological effects. There are laws worldwide prohibiting the isolation of prisoners unless it is for their own protection, and then they are typically monitored very heavily by prison staff in order to prevent suicides or other catastrophic problems arising. So it is not surprising that when Mr. Alexander introduced several of the rats from his experiments to the Rat Park, they did what rats do; having sex and subsequently having babies, climbing on platforms, running on the wheel and playing in wood chips, eating and drinking normally. They also had access to the same morphine that they had access to in the regular lab cages. In almost every experiment, rats in the Rat Park consumed significantly less heroin than that of their counterparts in solitary confinement. It is from this data that Mr. Alexander deducted that the Skinner Box trials proved something other than what was originally gleaned – that the environment has a lot to do with whether an addiction will be formed, and much of that is the social environment.
The twelve steps of AA are –
- Recognizing that we have a problem – that we are helpless against alcohol.
- Believing that a Higher Power can restore us to sanity.
- Turning our will and lives over to that Higher Power’s care.
- Making a fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
- Admitting to God, ourselves, and another human being the exact nature of our wrongdoings.
- Being ready to have God remove the defects of character.
- Asking Him to remove our shortcomings.
- Making a list of all persons we harmed, and becoming willing to make amends to them.
- Making amends wherever possible, unless doing so would injure them or others.
- Continue to take inventory and promptly admitting to our faults.
- Seeking through prayer and meditation to know the will of God for us and to give us the power to carry those things out.
- Practice these principles in all our affairs and try to carry their message to other sufferers.
This is a community with similar standards and “faults”. As alcoholics and addicts attend their meetings they get a “sponsor” – always another addict – that they bond with. They are encouraged to go to meetings as often as they feel is needed to stay sober. There are hundreds of people in forums who attended meetings every day for the first year of their sobriety, and even continue 4-5 times a week after being sober for 10+ years. Does going to meetings ensure that they will not drink? By no means. Something I love about the program from having spoken with many alcoholics and addicts is that when you slip up, you aren’t shunned from the group, you are loved. You are not pitied or shamed, you are buoyed.
James McFee, in an attempt to hide what he was doing, built a web of lies and deception. As he did so, his addictions not only grew in magnitude, but in scope. The spiral of anxiety unabated became impossible to withstand as he pushed more and more loved ones away and his guilt became more difficult to mask. He constantly feared being caught in his deception, and knew the truth would bear out eventually.
Mr. Hari pointed out in his TED talk that the only country in the world (Portugal, in 2001) to have decriminalized possession of all drugs has seen incredible results with its programs. Not only are addicts embraced by their society, but companies are subsidized to provide jobs and an education that helps provide the stability the addict needs, reimbursing them for a year’s worth of wages for the recovering addict.
The implication that those who are suffering from a lack of connection can be fully rehabilitated by providing an outreach of love instead of isolating them further seems to be self-evident, but not a single country has followed suit, despite dramatic decreases in drug-related infectious diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis B, deaths due to use of an illicit drug, as well as drug-related homicides and other crimes. (Transform, 2014)
In a poignant example of what not to do, Mr. Hari also told of his experience with a group of female addicts in Arizona. They were put on a chain gang with t-shirts that said they were addicts and forced to pick up trash alongside the road. The women were sneered and jeered at, and that was just during the time they were working. They cannot hold a regular job again. They cannot return to “real life” once they have spent time in prison for their crimes. It is, again and again, drilled into the person that they are useless, hopeless, and their lives are without merit because of their choice to ever begin taking the drug, regardless of whether they break the habit or not. This often propagates broken thinking, or as Dr. David D. Burns calls it, “Stinkin’ Thinkin’”. (Burns, 1999)
Stinkin’ Thinkin’ includes:
- All-or-nothing thinking – either you’re perfect or you’re the devil. (This is also a very military belief – “Never give up. Never, never, never.” – Winston Churchill)
- Over generalization – you’re completely defeated by a single event you view as negative – you will never be able to get out of whatever habit you are in, or luck you have been dealt.
- Mental Filter – Your perception of a negative event clouds every situation, poisoning your ability to enjoy anything else, even great things.
- Discounting the positive – deciding that the good things you do could have been done by anybody, even if they were Herculean for you.
- Jumping to conclusions – interpreting things negatively if there are no facts on which to base your belief
- Mind-reading – deciding someone hates you or is angry with you because of something they said or did that may or may not mean anything.
- Fortune-telling – predicting things will go wrong or continue in the pattern you’ve maintained despite different circumstances.
- Magnification – Exaggerating the negative and/or minimizing the positive – this is also referred to as “the binocular trick”.
- Emotional Reasoning – Assuming negative emotions are caused by a fact – this is often evidenced by statements like, “I feel stupid; I must be inferior.”
- “Should” statements – My husband has long said, “should according to whom?” when I said I “should” do something. That’s one I don’t have an issue with anymore, but so many people do.
- Labeling – instead of owning a mistake you internalize it. It is the difference between “I’m a failure,” and, “Well, that didn’t work.” It is the distinguishing of, “I hate myself at this weight” from, “This weight is where I currently am, not who I am.” This also is evidenced in how we label others – “He’s a jerk,” versus “I really don’t like how he treated me.”
- Personalization and Blame – this is the red-headed stepsister of labeling, expanding on, and often returning back to the beginning, all-or-nothing thinking. “If I hadn’t gained 45 pounds with the baby, my husband wouldn’t have had the affair.” “My daughter’s life is a wreck. I was a terrible mother.”
In a conversation held a few weeks ago with James, he exhibited nearly every Stinkin’ Thinkin listed here.
“Heaven won’t have me, and the devil is afraid I’ll take over.”
“I’m so tired of being a complete disappointment to everyone.”
“I’m in pain. All the time.”
“Nah, anybody could have done that. It’s just what I do.”
“She (the ex-fiancée) hates me.”
“Everything I touch turns to (expletive).”
“I’m a jerk for feeling this way.”
“I shouldn’t have called, I’m so sorry.”
What an addict believes about himself is pivotal in breaking the cycle. So long as Stinkin’ Thinkin’ is present, an addict may become sober, even for extended periods of time, but often the addiction will take hold again and the results can be devastating for all involved.
The World Health Organization estimates that worldwide suicide takes a life every 40 seconds of every day. (Befrienders n.d.)
Many who have either not attempted or not succeeded are self-medicating with alcohol, illegal or over-the-counter drugs, sex, gambling, food – including anorexia and bulemia, pornography, exercise, internet, cell phone or computer use including video games, self-harm, shopping, adrenaline-inducing activities, tattoos, or even surgery. The self-medication can also be called taking control of the circumstances, whether the “medication” is an actual substance or the control itself.
At the end, James McFee was using alcohol or drugs almost daily. Every penny he’d earned, won or stolen was gone. The mental issues, the wedge that he created between everyone he loved, and the belief that he was beyond redemption all piled up and ended with him sitting in his car having taken three bottles of pain killers, prescribed just the day before, waiting for sleep, and eventually death. His trusty Golden Retriever, Max, by his side, was waiting to alert passersby to the corpse in the driver’s seat. It was a waste that didn’t have to happen; a waste that started in the back room of an escrow company playing poker after work. Would that someone – anyone – had recognized the need to get help before it came to this, but what would we have done? Conventional wisdom states that an intervention or rehab is the only way to combat addiction. This country, along with so many others, needs to change our beliefs before we lose many, many more suffering from addiction. James died June 11, 2017. He was 34.
Research shows that contrary to popular opinion, addiction does have less to do with biological factors than with psychological makeup including mental health issues, connection to a support system, and beliefs about self. Sobriety is not unreachable, but it does require a very precise recipe that can vary widely for each sufferer of addiction. Key ingredients for the panacea are treatment for whatever mental health issues exist, a connection to another person or community, and a change in beliefs that help the addict know that he is not beyond help. Without these three – or a misapplication of any one of them – the addict is likely to flounder and ultimately succumb to their addictions again and again.
Rosenthal, M. (2015, March 30). Trauma and Addiction: 7 Reasons Your Habit Makes Perfect Sense. Retrieved from http://www.recovery.org/pro/articles/trauma-and-addiction-7-reasons-your-habit-makes-perfect-sense/
Troncale, M.D., J. (2014, August 14). Anxiety and Addiction. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/where-addiction-meets-your-brain/201408/anxiety-and-addiction
Know Your Limits. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.knowyourlimits.info/know%E2%80%A6-how-alcohol-works
Reiner, R., Scheinman, A., & Brown, D. (Producers). (1992). A Few Good Men [Motion picture]. United States: Columbia Pictures.
Neimark, M.D., N. (n.d.). The Body Soul Connection. Retrieved from http://www.thebodysoulconnection.com/EducationCenter/fight.html
Hari, J. (2015, July). TED Speaker – Johann Hari. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/speakers/johann_hari
Alexander,Professor Emeritus, Simon Fraser University, B. K. (2010). Addiction: The View from Rat Park. Retrieved from http://www.brucekalexander.com/articles-speeches/rat-park/148-addiction-the-view-from-rat-park
AA.org. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.aa.org/assets/en_US/smf-121_en.pdf
Transform: Getting drugs under control. (2014, June 14). Retrieved from http://www.tdpf.org.uk/blog/drug-decriminalisation-portugal-setting-record-straight
Burns, M.D., D. D. (1999). The Feeling Good Handbook. New York, NY: William Morrow & Company.
Befrienders – Suicide Statistics. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.befrienders.org/suicidestatistics