Scared Senseless

Note: Jan wrote this article in October 1992, many months after we had completed the final manuscript of the Addictionary but a little before it was actually published.

“Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Anyone who does not recognize that quotation might think it came from a radical right wing leader. Close. It was Vice President Spiro T. Agnew during an era when the government was trying to justify the terrible mistake that was the Vietnam War.

Our senior citizens remember the McCarthy era, when zealous anti-Communists defamed good people for fuzzy ties with people and organizations said to be Communist sympathizers. Long before that, the Crusaders conquered nations in the name of Christianity, contrary to everything Jesus stood for.

Going too far

What do these events have to do with addiction? A lot. I have observed over the years that addicts (and most of us who work with them professionally) tend to extremes. In a sense, all addiction is addiction to excess, and addicts excel at going off the deep end. We have always been in danger of carrying a good thing too far.

For about the first ten years of my addictions counseling, I subscribed to the idea that people who are chemically dependent were not really in recovery unless they were off all psychoactive drugs. In retrospect, I feel bad about many of the “dual diagnosis” folks who simply didn’t make it in the Twelve Step programs, because they truly needed medication to have a decent shot at recovery. Even some who stayed sober didn’t survive that prejudice. An alcoholism counselor friend was both alcoholic and manic depressive. He helped teach me the lesson that some alcoholics need drugs, sadly, through his suicide.

Mistreating eating disorders

During that same time, in the early 80s, we treated quite a few bulimics who were also chemically dependent. It amazed me that counselors supported their alcoholism as a disease, encouraging the Twelve Steps and a Higher Power as the solution, but telling them that bingeing and purging was under their control and they should just stop it. Talk about shame producing!

Now there are several food addiction programs and groups that encourage rigid, black-and-white thinking about food. An impossible and nutritionally unsound definition of abstinence makes failure almost inevitable, and heaps more shame on people who often think of themselves as worthless anyway. Traditional therapists are not favorably impressed by the obsession they see in people who are avoiding compulsive eating by following a rigid diet they may call a food plan.

Criticism of Twelve Step approaches

Have you noticed the proliferation of books that are critical of the Twelve Step approach to addictions, codependency, and eating disorders? They may attack the essential philosophy of AA and other Twelve Step groups, but they make their points by citingthe extreme behavior of some Twelve Step groups and their members.

There have always been such books, of course. Jack Trimpey’s The Small Book is the “Big Book” of Rational Recovery, a group whose primary orientation seems to be negativity toward Alcoholics Anonymous. Most psychiatrists and other therapists have been very cool toward use of a Twelve Step approach with eating disorders. And lately the codependency and inner child movements have begun to draw flak, even from some who support a Twelve Step model for alcoholism and drug dependency.

Villains and victims

The recent television abuse and incest special, “Scared Silent,” was the first major production I had seen that supported not only the victim of abuse and incest, but the perpetrator as well. For a long time, therapists did not want to believe that these issues were common, and when they did surface, they jumped on the bandwagon. Get tough with the perpetrators. That Way society has a villain to blame it on, even though nearly all these “cads” were abused themselves as children. It also insures that most will not seek help until they are caught in the act. The TV program was superb, in showing the need for love and honesty in healing all the tragedy’s victims.

Nowhere, or everywhere

I’ve heard therapists say that everyone with an eating disorder has sexual abuse issues. I find that just as hard to believe as those who say that incest and other abuse are rare. Reasonable estimates range from about 25 to 75 percent. The point is that wherever the true rate is, every therapist should be aware that these issues must be evaluated and incorporated into the recovery plan, and that sexual trauma could not be the sole cause of all eating disorders.

Scared senseless syndrome

Whenever anyone begins to believe that they know the Truth about addiction or other mental health problems, they risk closing their minds to other ideas. When people (even addicts and their therapists) become afraid to question the prevailing opinion, they suffer what might be called the “Scared Senseless” syndrome. Fear breeds intolerance, rigidity, and lack of common sense. It is related to the fear-based mentality that when carried to extreme, led good people to allow the Salem witch hunts and the Nazi holocaust.

Hindsight is 20/20. We can always see the mistakes of our earlier days, professionally and personally. Maybe part of a daily inventory could be to look carefully at our blaming, rigid, and disrespectful attitudes toward others, and see if we can identify some of these extremes before we carry them too far. Addicts recover best in an atmosphere not of shame, fear, and rigidity, but of love and tolerance.

— Jan R. Wilson, 5 October 1992

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Addictionary 2 by Jan & Judy Wilson

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