How I Became an Addiction Expert

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How I Became an Addiction Expert

By Stanton Peele 04/25/15

My name is Stanton, and I am not an alcoholic. But I can help.

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At one point, I spent quite a bit of time on the road, giving workshops and making presentations to audiences of counselors and treatment program staffs.

I began my lecture by saying:

“I’ve never had a drug addiction or been an alcoholic, nor has anyone in my family. I’ve never worked in a treatment center. And I’ve never taken a course on addiction.”

People would shoot each other uncomfortable looks, and shift in their seats.

“But,” I continued, “no one had to teach me about addiction. I’ve thought about it every day in my conscious life. Oh, and I have been addicted.”

“When I was five years old, I lived in a row house near a man who was carried home drunk every night. Seeing him helpless and babbling distressed me as a kid roaming South Philly, when I was often accosted by roving gangs because I was Jewish. (Yes, I walked to kindergarten six blocks on city streets by myself.)”  

“I asked my mother, ‘Why does he do that? Why does he leave himself helpless, when anyone could do anything they wanted to him?’ It completely violated how I understood the world worked.”

“And so, I asked everyone I knew about it, and watched every time I came upon someone who was drunk, or observed closely whenever I encountered a street person. My mother would tell people, ‘Stanton is really interested in alcoholism. Isn’t that fascinating?’”

“I reflected on the meaning of being helpless, out of control. I thought from a very early age, ‘There’s an escape in doing that, when you aren’t expected to do anything, like I have to do my chores. What would my mom say if I told her I couldn’t do them because I was always sick?’”

“When I was 13, I read a newspaper article that described a man who had been in a treatment program for alcoholism. He came home to an apartment with boxes stacked all over the place, since his wife had moved in the interim. He immediately turned around and went on a bender.”

“I thought, ‘I know people like that.’ My father was a very anxious man. When faced with any upsetting or chance event, he blew up in rage. He never struck us, but he was unrestrained in expressing his anger and anxiety.”

“At the University of Pennsylvania, then a fraternity school, I associated with both athletes (I played intramural club basketball) and hippies (I lived in the hippie section of Philly), and witnessed young adults who got drunk nightly, and others who smoked marijuana around the clock. I had a girlfriend who lived downtown with heroin users, and I shot up with them a few times. They held jobs, had non-using girlfriends, and were healthy, riding their bikes everywhere."

“At Penn, a group of us were close friends. My roommate, who was an isolated person, started dating a high school girl. He told me, ‘Now that I’m together with Claire, I won’t be seeing you guys anymore.’ They got married in our senior year, and she accompanied him to his grad school, where she went to college.”

“I meanwhile went to grad school at the University of Michigan. While I was there, Claire came home and left a tape recording for my friend saying things weren’t working, and she was running off with another man. I had an epiphany: ‘That wasn’t love, it was an addiction. They were together to fill a need for each other (she was from an abusive home). When they no longer filled that slot, they were replaceable.’”

“At the same time, I was familiarizing myself with the addiction literature at Michigan. I was especially fascinated by an article in the New York Times quoting Charles Winick (Winick was the first to identify that people frequently outgrew, or matured out, of heroin addiction). Winick was quoted as saying that ‘opiates are usually harmless, unless they are taken under unsatisfactory conditions.’ This, of course, confirmed my own experiences with heroin.”

“So, you see, I don’t think of addiction as something outside of normal human experience. I think of it as a variation of what people ordinarily undergo, that anyone can experience, that I have experienced myself with girlfriends and lovers. For, you see, it wasn’t only my college friend who was addicted to love. I am an anxious-attachment kind of person—can you guess why?”

“I knew what it was like to become desperate in an involvement, to start clawing at your surroundings, flailing and acting out in ways that only make your situation—and feelings—worse. And then you need more of the addictive experience—even if, in the case of a girlfriend or a lover, she was the source of your anxiety and pain. More hair of the dog that bit you, with predictable results.”

When I described this inner experience of addiction, people often responded to me in terrifically emotional ways. Archie and I first wrote a preview article for Love and Addiction for Psychology Today in 1974. A man named Lee Silverstein who was active in the recovery community came to see me at my office at the Harvard Business School, where I taught after grad school. He said that he had been reading passages from the article aloud in his group, and that they often burst out in tears of recognition.

Still, people didn’t know what to make of Love and Addiction. It was a mass-marketed paperback. It wasn’t a book about my recovery, although there was a lot of me in it since I have been a love addict, both before and after my long marriage.  

Love and Addiction’s publication brought me into contact with grassroots people in the field, who often reached out to me. For instance, when I was living in California, I was invited to speak with drug counselors at the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic. They were very reinforcing and appreciative about how my writing illuminated people’s inner experiences of addiction.

Once I was giving a talk with LeClair Bissel, the founding director of Smithers. She told the audience that "Nothing Dr. Peele says makes sense to me. But an alcoholic medical student of mine gave me his book and told me 'This meant more to me than anything else I have read in the field.' So he must have something of value to say."

More recently, a long-time addictions counselor and researcher in Scotland, Rowdy Yates, said about rereading the book 35 years after it came out:

This book I read as soon as it was published. A friend had recommended it and she wasn’t wrong. Peele and Brodsky view addiction as a normal behavior that has veered out of control and they compare it with dysfunctional human relationships. I think it was probably the first book I ever read which analyzed addiction in a way that made sense to me and echoed what I knew from my work. Years later, I undertook a study looking at recovered addicts who had been sexually abused as children. One of the researchers we used was a psychotherapist and remarked to me that the relationship they described with their drug(s) of choice sounded exactly like their relationship with their perpetrator. I remembered Peele and Brodsky and pulled it off the shelf. It still reads absolutely true as an understanding of addictive behavior all these years later.

Of course, reactions like these confirmed my feelings that all human beings have had addictive experiences, although in some cases they become more life-defeating than others. This reality shows our shared humanity, and also holds the promise that anyone could overcome addiction in service of larger life goals and rewards.

In 1978, the provincial branch of the Canadian Addiction Research Foundation (now CAMH) in Alberta was hosting ARF’s national conference. The head of that agency came to New York, where I had moved with my wife, to meet with me. He asked me to provide my insights on addiction by delivering the keynote address at the ARF conference. After that, I was on the map of international addiction speakers.

My greatest strengths were my greatest disadvantages. I didn’t think addiction was a special category of behavior. I never regarded it as a disease. Of course, that view contradicted the dominant memes for addiction and alcoholism in our culture, and people regularly lambasted me for my views. I was viciously attacked personally, for instance, for recognizing controlled drinking as one treatment option.

I always believed that people could quit addictions on their own (including cutting back their use), since I saw that happen all the time out in the world. In particular, my old college alcohol-dependent and pothead friends were growing up, getting married, and—to take a phrase from that old folk comedian, Martin Mull—they “got normal.”  

Once I asked an old friend, who became a major star in the art world and a father of two, how he had overcome his college alcoholism (he was the first blackout drinker I knew) and pot addiction. He looked at me strangely: “I was never addicted or alcoholic.”

What could I say?

At the same time, people often noticed that I treated addicted people like everybody else. I listened and believed what they told me about their lives. I didn’t think of them as outsiders—at least no more so than I was!

My position in the addiction field has always been unique, and has given me key insights. I don’t believe addicts are different from other human beings since those I originally dealt with weren’t in AA or treatment. Of course, since then I have become engaged with treatment populations and providers. I realized that for some people it takes unusual effort to change, and that some can benefit from guidance and support that reflects the awareness of addiction that I described. 

As a result, I created the Life Process Program. It appeared originally in a self-help book, The Truth About Addiction and Recovery, which I wrote with Archie and my wife, Mary Arnold, in 1991. I converted it into a residential treatment program, and now it is available online. And people regularly write me about how one of my books (of the 12 I have written from 1975 to 2014) has made a crucial difference for them in overcoming an addiction—what a gratifying feeling!

At the same time, I understood then and now that drug use—even heroin—could be normalized. In this case, former addicts who have returned to more moderate substance use reach out to tell me how much my writing expresses their experiences. I didn’t believe that people are doomed to be addicted by their genes or their pasts. I knew they usually outgrow addiction with maturity. I believed that addiction makes sense to people in terms of their own experience.

While my ideas were initially considered crazy by many, each and every one—natural recovery, harm reduction, use of practical coping skills training in treatment, along with maturity and purpose as guideposts to recovery, and the idea that addiction occurs with non-drug involvements (e.g., gambling, sex, and electronic entertainments) exactly as it does with heroin, while heroin use is often managed within a normal lifestyle—is now recognized in the addiction field.

But there still remains so much for me, at age 69, to do.

Stanton Peele, Ph.D., is the author of Recover! Stop Thinking Like an Addict. He will be interviewed by Tom Horvath, President of SMART Recovery, in a webinar on the future of addiction treatment on Saturday, May 16, 2015, 5:00 PM EDT. He is the recipient of career achievement awards from the Center for Alcohol Studies and the Drug Policy Alliance. His Life Process Program for treating addiction is available online. He last wrote about 12 concepts of recovery that have stood the test of time and outgrowing sex addiction.

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