When does it stop being a party and start becoming a problem? Is there a way to steer clear of addiction? Every Wednesday, Mike McGowan, host of the podcast "Avoiding the Addiction Affliction," explores substance use disorders with expert guests. The podcast series is sponsored by the Kenosha County Substance Abuse Coalition.
Original cover art created by
Kelly P. of Kenosha, Wisconsin
Peg O’Connor, PhD
Professor of Philosophy at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota
Are suffering, long-term pain, and surrender necessary before individuals address their substance abuse? Dr. Peg O’Connor echos the sentiments of the philosopher William James and says “absolutely not.” Peg O’Connor, PhD, is a Professor of Philosophy at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. She believes that philosophy helped her address her addiction and aided in her recovery. Dr. O’Connor’s expertise has been featured on BBC’s Free Thinking and Canadian Public Radio’s On Drugs podcast, as well as in print and online publications ranging from The New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education and Cosmo. Dr. O’Connor is the author of numerous books, including her new one, Higher and Friendly Powers: Transforming Addiction and Suffering (Wildhouse Publications, 2022). For more information go to: https://pegoconnorauthor.com
[00:00:00] [Jaunty Music]
[00:00:12] Mike: Welcome everyone to Avoiding the Addiction Affliction, a series brought to you by the Kenosha County Substance Abuse Coalition. I'm Mike McGowan. In these conversations, we've explored a variety of ways people recover from substance use and addiction. Well, we're going to continue that theme today. My guest Dr. Peg O'Connor is a recovering alcoholic. A professor of philosophy at Gustavus Adolphus college in St. Peter College in Minnesota. And I knew I'd mess that up. An author and lecture whose expertise has been featured on BBC's Free Thinking. The Canadian public radio's on drugs podcast, as well as in print, online publications ranging from the New York Times, the Chronicle of Higher Education and Cosmo!
[00:01:01] Peg: Cosmo!
[00:01:03] Mike: Welcome Peg.
[00:01:05] Peg: Thanks Mike. I'm awfully glad to be here. Thanks for giving me this opportunity to have a wonderful conversation with you.
[00:01:12] Mike: Well it's great. I know you have a, um, a new book coming out, uh, Higher and Friendly Powers. And we'll talk about that in a minute, but yeah, we always started this with talking a little bit about your recovery and your bio you emphasize the recovery part. So that's why I included it. Um, could you tell us a little bit about your recovery?
[00:01:29] Peg: Sure. So I'm a good long time Silver. Um, if all continues to go well, on August 1st, I will be 35 years sober. So that's a very long time. So I sobered up young. I was just coming out of college and my drinking period was high school through college.
[00:01:48] Mike: And I couldn't be more grateful to be in recovery, but I'm also grateful to, to be an alcoholic, to have had those experiences. They have been absolutely foundational to me as a citizen of the world, as a teacher of young people and as a daughter, as a friend, it's, it's part of my core.
[00:02:10] So were you drinking all through college?
[00:02:13] Peg: Oh, I was drinking all through high school and through college. College, I would stop and start. So I wouldn't drink during athletic seasons and I would tell myself, oh, I can't have a problem because I can stop drinking. And what never counted as evidence was the fact that when I started up again, I was off to the races.
[00:02:31] So I was a heavy binge drinker, blackout drinker, you know, I would start drinking in the late afternoon, say after tennis practice and then it would be Saturday morning and I would've gotten home somehow thankfully, luckily, I mean, I'm just so grateful not to have had terrible things happen to me or to have hurt myself or to have hurt others.
[00:02:53] I don't know how I managed to avoid it, but I did.
[00:02:58] Mike: Um, I'm always amazed when people talk about blackout drinking and just continuing it. Cause I think that that's, that's an interesting branching off of the tree, because that would scare the heck out of most people, to have one of those episodes, let alone repeat episodes.
[00:03:13] Peg: I know. And I think that's one of the things though that, that we have us who struggle with addiction, whatever kind of substance or whatever kind of behaviors. We get so good at having things not count as evidence, you know, the usual tricks of minimizing and rationalizing, justifying in certain kinds of ways.
[00:03:34] But at the end of the day or the beginning of the morning, when I would wake up and not remember what I had done, I didn't know what was more of a torment, not remembering, or if I were to remember what I had done and did I make a complete jackass out of myself and I really offended someone, you know, all those sorts of things, but I think we get remarkably good.
[00:03:56] We're very good at adapting to our most maladaptive behaviors.
[00:04:00] Mike: You said you, you then just stopped. Was there a reason, did you finally just wake up and go, what was the trigger to stop?
[00:04:09] Peg: So I had graduated from college. I had no real career aspirations. I didn't know what I was going to do and my drinking had slowed down some it certainly had, and I was in a horrible car accident on August 1st in 1987, I got T-boned by a pizza delivery person and I probably should've been killed. And I was on my way to meet my friends. We were going to go bar hopping and go out dancing. It was the late eighties. What else did you do? You went dancing to Michael Jackson. And I woke up in the hospital. I remember getting cut out of the car and all that. And I woke up in the hospital and there was a police officer there, and I figured out that he was waiting for the results to see if I had been drinking. If I had done impaired driving and I hadn't been, but I didn't know that my assumption when I woke up was oh, well, insert an expletive here.
[00:05:02] I'm really screwed up. I'm going to get a DUI, but I hadn't been drinking. I would have been in another hour or so, but I hadn't been. So I was really banged up pretty bad. I had a severe concussion, broken collarbone and massive muscle trauma and bruising all down my left side. My car door ended up in my lap and my head went out through the, through the window and I'm in the hospital.
[00:05:24] I'm in acute pain. And a nurse comes to me and asked if I need any pain medication. And I had this clear thought. It just, it, it rung like a bell. If I were to take one of those painkillers, I think one was, uh, was, oh, I can't even remember the names of them. That's probably a good thing. And I thought Betty Ford here I come, because I knew, I knew me and I knew how I was, and I knew that I was in so much pain that I was looking for some protective wraparound gauze. I needed the pain to go away, but I also knew that if I did that, I would probably start abusing them in the same way I did alcohol. So at that point, in my drinking career, as I said, I had stopped drinking for periods of time, but then I'd always start up and I made a deal with myself in effect said, I'm going to try and experiment.
[00:06:17] I'm going to see how long I can go without drinking. And I've done this before and I failed epically, but I'm going to see how long I can go with it. And so now here we are 34 and 10 months later or so, and I still regard it as an experiment. I still always kind of want to have a, a proactive relationship to it.
[00:06:40] Not that I think, you know, relapses just happen. I think that isn't the case. I think we choose to relapse at various points and at different points in our sobriety, sort of what cravings are longing look like will change. But for me, it's keeping the healthy kind of skepticism about my sobriety. It's never, a given. It's always an ongoing achievement and it's something to which I better stand in a pretty nimble and flexible relationship. I don't ever want to go back. I wonder at times, you know, could I drink, would I be okay? I'm a different person now that was so long ago and I choose not to find out. So I've, I've chosen to be abstinent.
[00:07:20] I don't drink, I don't use any kind of drugs as, uh, I don't use any drugs that aren't medically prescribed and I use whatever I'm prescribed as prescribed. And I've just decided that's just not for me and non-negotiable and I don't, I just want to move it from the traffic of doubt. I don't want to start wondering, because then if you start wondering, you start spinning fantasies about yay! I could drink, you know, I would love a cold, Molson Golden Ale. I would love all of that and still have everything great and wonderful in my life right now. And it just think uh uh, that kind of rosie vision is not one that I want to tend.
[00:08:00] Mike: Rosie vision and slippery slope go together.
[00:08:02] Peg: All of those things. And I think you're going to end up flat on your rear end.
[00:08:06] Mike: [laugh]
[00:08:06] Peg: And with a lot of road burn.
[00:08:09] Mike: Yeah. You know, that's a great transition into your, um, into your, your book and your theme, you know, the accident and that, that aha moment. Some people. Uh, we'd call it. You had your God moment, you had your spirituality moment. You said, you'd said that actually philosophy helped you recover from addiction. How so?
[00:08:32] Peg: Well, I, I think there, that answer has a couple of different dimensions a couple of different branches. So one of them is William James. And we'll talk more about that, but that kind of aha moment I had on the one hand, it seems like it just kind of rocketed up. And like I said, it was like a bell being rung there it was. But on the other hand I had, since the time I was a sophomore in high school, so I had about an eight year drinking career, sophomore in high school, I was saying, oh God, I got a problem. I know I got a problem. I mean, I knew it, my addiction developed really quickly. It was duck, water, swim.
[00:09:10] Mike: [laugh]
[00:09:10] Peg: It, it was with me and I always knew it. So I was always thinking about it on some level, but it did seem to pop up in that kind of way. And so for me, was that a God moment? No, that was a moment of something that had been kind of intuit. That was percolating along it finally, because I was. You know, I had a significant concussion that I've only begun to understand what the effects of that were on me at that time.
[00:09:37] You know, back then they just talked about, you got your bell wrong, you know? Oooh! And now working with students who have concussions and reading more about it and the kinds of cognitive impairment that it can cause, and emotional dysregulation and everything. I think that it was an opportunity for that thought to just fully burst up and command my attention in a kind of way.
[00:09:59] Um, so I, I don't think it was a God moment or anything like that. I think it was a me moment saying you're at a turning point here, you can go left. You can go right. You know where those two roads go, you got to go straight in a kind of way. So there was all of that, but there was philosophy. So I was a philosophy major as an undergraduate.
[00:10:19] And I always inclined towards the moral philosophers, you know Aristotle, for example. So around 350 BCE writing about moral character and saying "You become who you are by what you do repeatedly or habitually." And there's nothing more important to a person of a person who Aristotle didn't necessarily believe in a soul.
[00:10:44] Then one's moral character. Then the fabric of their character. And so I always got those questions in my mind about, well, who am I? And am I being what I want to be or how I think I should be? I didn't know myself. And so I was also reading the existential philosopher, Kierkegaard, Danish philosopher in the mid 1800s who died tragically young as a Dane.
[00:11:09] And I'm part Danish. So I can say this, terribly melancholic in a kind of way. And he wrote about despair and he wrote about the kind of despair, the kind of existential crisis that happens when someone is in such a fundamental imbalance within themselves and to the world. And I knew that I was tremendously imbalanced.
[00:11:32] And so it was up to me to figure out what would a balance would be. And I think it became pretty clear to me that it might be easier to strike a balance if I didn't have a bottle of Seagram Seven in my hand or anything else, I mean, I would drink anything except red wine. That was the only thing I couldn't drink because I got terribly sick on it as a kid one time.
[00:11:55] And then I went to Catholic school and Monday was a holy day of obligation and they had wine at the mass and I got so sick from the smell I had to run out. I mean, so still the smell of red wine gets me and, and I just thought I can't. I can't even begin to live if I continue to drink in this kind of way.
[00:12:15] And that, that to me said, okay, you need to ask yourself what you're willing to do. And so that's why I was willing to undertake this experiment.
[00:12:25] Mike: You know, and, and back then back then there was, uh, a real linear progression for recovery. Uh, you know, you went into treatment, you went into a halfway house, got into a 12 step meeting.
[00:12:38] Right. Um, and so you had to be there wasn't a lot out there for you. That sounds like self exploration rather than the linear approach.
[00:12:50] Peg: It was, it was self exploration. I went to one AA meeting when I was in college. I think it was my sophomore year of college. Um, And I went to it and I, I just felt like this is not the place for me.
[00:13:03] I knew I had a problem, but at 19, you don't want to hear about your powerless. You don't want to hear that you have to give up something. That you're going to lose something, but losing something, you get it back and that God is going to do everything for you. And maybe that's also the vestiges of the 13 years of Catholic school, where a certain picture of a providential God was one that had never really worked for me.
[00:13:31] And I always felt like I was somehow being dishonest about that, that if I had a relationship with God, it was terribly adversarial, but I wasn't really sure that I believed in a God. But if there was a God, I was in a fight with him all the time. So that, that wasn't going to be a home for me. And so I was sober for 19 years before I went back to an AA meeting again.
[00:13:52] And as you said, there was always this expectation that this is what recovery looks like. Hit rock bottom, go to treatment or go to AA meetings. You know, if you are in a treatment center, maybe you do transition to a halfway house, all of that. And. My recovery has never been that kind of linear progression.
[00:14:12] And I think that's important that we think about all the different ways that people can get into recovery or be sober or engage in harm reduction. Because as many paths as there are into addiction, there need to be an equal or greater number out of it. And I think that's a strong case for pluralism, which is a philosophical approach, that there isn't one way that is right. True, good, best, absolute. But there are multiple paths that may converge to a place of recovery and that's, that's important for me to continue to get that message out there.
[00:14:50] Mike: And, and what a great transition to your book, right? September 1st you have a new book coming out Higher and Friendly Powers: Transforming Addiction and Suffering. Tell us a little bit about it. Cause it's, you're already are really.
[00:15:04] Peg: So this book I describe as my problem child, this book existed in three or different forms before its present one. Before I could commit to what I thought it should be, which would be a book about William James, so great. American philosopher physician, psychologist who lives 1842 to 1910, and perhaps more people know his brother, his younger brother, Henry James.
[00:15:29] It was an American novelist. But William James is an important figure in the history of AA, although he's been relegated to some footnotes. So the concept higher power is one that Bill Wilson, the founder of AA took from William James and then created a whole program around that notion of higher power and created a program around Bill Wilson's own experience.
[00:15:53] Of a conversion. One of those big sudden conversions where his desire to drink was lifted when he had reached the point of complete ego deflation had reached what we now call rock bottom and we'll come back to rock bottom. I can't stand that concept. So I thought it only fair if Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob the two co-founders of AA. [inaudible] Parker said some of the earlier figures in AA regarded William James as a co-founder, even though he'd been dead for 25 years before Bill Wilson sobered up. If he was going to be regarded as a profounder, I thought it was interesting to find out, well, what actually did William James have to say?
[00:16:32] Where did this higher power, what is this all about? So James gave a series of essays. In Scotland called the Gifford Lectures in 1902, that became published as the varieties of religious experience, which is this massive encyclopedic book about intense spiritual experiences because William James believed that spiritual impulses are part of our human nature.
[00:16:55] And he's interested in people for whom those impulses, he says burn like an acute fever and people who undergo conversions or so fundamentally alter his concept was habitual center of personal energy. Now how new agey wavy gravy is that visual center of personal energy, so that spiritual impulses burn at their center.
[00:17:22] And in that book, he chronicles again, this is in 1902. So no Google, none of that. He read so widely Muslim texts, Buddhist texts, Hindu texts, anything he could get his hands on in the 1870s when he was a young man contemplating suicide and feeling completely unmoored from anything. He had no connection. He did not know what he wanted to do. And he had to make a choice to decide that he was going to live. And so that book was given to Bill Wilson after he had his big experience of God as a spirit removing his desire to drink in 1934. And Bill read the book and he was captivated by it because. At least four of the stories, the first person stories that James uses are about reform drunkers or people who suffer from carnal mirth, what we might now call sex addiction or hypersexuality.
[00:18:20] And those examples I would have to imagine really spoke to Bill Wilson. And so I thought, well, this is interesting because the important concept I think, in AA is higher power. And Bill Wilson got it wrong in terms of how William James used it. So in AA in the 12 steps higher power is God as we understood him and that God has a kind of providential agency over us.
[00:18:48] He can remove our defects of character. He can remove our desire to drink and that what human beings need to do. Is get out of the way and understand what God's plan is for us. And then just be smart enough to go along with that plan, that everything happens when we don't follow God's plan. Now in the varieties of religious experience, these lectures were given to a very highly educated Scottish audience. So one that was steeped in Christianity and William James would say, well, we Christians call God and give some examples, but then he would give all these different kinds of examples of something that could function as a higher power or as a friendly power.
[00:19:33] So James was a pluralist. He didn't think there was any one right true absolute indefatigable proof for God's existence or of a God. He said there's always multiplicity. And so what James includes as higher powers are ideals, such as truth and beauty from Ralph Waldo Emerson was kind of his intellectual godfather. Enthusiasm for mankind. The sense of human decency, patriotism, moral principles. And one of the most important examples he gives of a higher power. So a higher power is something that is just bigger than you and your own embattled self. He says at one point it might be even a better you for the possibility of a better you could be a higher power.
[00:20:26] He said anything larger will do, so long as it helps you to take the next step. And so one of the most compelling examples in there for me that James uses comes from Henry David Thoreau, living in his little cabin in Concord, Mass on Walden Pond, which Thoreau could walk home for lunch if he got too isolated or needed a good meal from from his family. But Henry David Thoreau one day is wandering around the woods of Walden and it's a Misty day and he reflects that he feels a connection with, or a communion with the pine needles in the mist. And that he's really no different from them, that he is a part of nature. And those pine needles are a part of nature.
[00:21:13] And they're connected. They're in communion in a kind of way. That's a higher and friendly power. That's radically different from a providential God doing things for you. So James was very clear that a higher power doesn't do anything to you. It doesn't act on you. But a higher power is something that each of us can create for ourselves or access within ourselves or access with other people, that enables us to make extraordinary changes in our lives.
[00:21:45] So my hope in writing this book Higher and Friendly Powers is to bring a couple of groups of people together who often don't come together. So people who are interested in the history of AA and AA works really well for them. And what little they know about William James comes from the couple of references scattered in Bill Wilson's own writing and the reference to him.
[00:22:07] I think in the second appendix of Alcoholics Anonymous, the big book, that that could be like, who is this guy? Who had such an effect and learn about him, but it's also written for people like me. And I know that there are a lot of people like me who just could not square themselves with that notion of higher power that, that kept them out of the rooms for quite some time.
[00:22:29] And to say that this notion of higher power as a providential God, that worked for Bill Wilson and Bill Wilson built a program around it that has worked for many, many people.
[00:22:43] Each of us has to find our own concept of higher power that works for us. And whether that's in the context of AA or whether it's completely separate from AA. And someone begins to think that I really can offer change within myself. If I can believe in something that's just a little bigger than me. Again, anything larger will do.
[00:23:10] Maybe I can be a better person. Maybe I can be the person that was before I started drinking, or maybe I can be like this person over here who I know is suffered tremendous loss or who has struggled with addiction and look at him over there. He's able to do it. And if he can do it, maybe I can do it. And so one of the ways I described people early in recovery, but I think later in recovery too, is we're kind of hitchhikers.
[00:23:32] We hitchhike on the success of others. Or on the hope of others because we can't quite generate that yet for ourselves. And so when we see people who have struggled in the ways that we have who no longer struggle in those ways. When we see people who are willing to go to extraordinary lengths, to make sure that they can maintain a healthy and viable relationship.
[00:23:57] Or set of relationships in their lives and not have them affected or colored or destroyed by addiction, then that gives each of us something really important to hold onto. And so I think that's why our stories are so important in recovery, regardless of what program it is, even if you're doing it on your own.
[00:24:20] You may be hearing stories of others. You may be reading books, you may be reading memoirs. I think there's a reason why memoirs are so popular in the addiction genre, because we want to hear those stories. We want those transformations. We want to see how people did it, because no one should ever feel as if they're totally alone.
[00:24:38] And that each of us doesn't have to completely make this up from scratch. When we decide we want to change our relationship with alcohol, drugs, or other kinds of behaviors. So William James, I think, has so much to offer people, struggling with addiction and other forms of suffering. And he is a wonderful. Uh, tour guide is, is to flip away to put it, but he's a wonderful guide to how life can be different when suffering and addictive behaviors and practices aren't your habitual center of energy, because those are absolutely soul crushing.
[00:25:15] Mike: You know, you, you, I, I agree. I totally agree with that. I've been doing this for a long time. It's always bothered me. That whole concept of you can't help somebody unless they want help. You got to hit rock bottom and you actually have a quote in your book that says, if you don't mind, if I read it, "Must acute suffering and grievous loss always be present in order for a person to alter radically, the ways she is in the world, must one suffer to the point of narrow annihilation before surrender.
[00:25:48] That's so powerful. And your answer would be. No.
[00:25:52] Peg: A resounding no, no, it'd be a hell no! So this is part of my objection to the concept of rock bottom. I mean, it makes it seem as if you've got to lose everything before you'll be willing to change before you'll be willing to do something differently. That was the story for Bill Wilson, although we never did lose everything. He always had his wife, Lois and Lois' family, and various kinds of supports like that. But Bill Wilson codified, I think that notion of complete ego deflation, you know, people like us. Where he met the people who were really pretty down on their luck and had perhaps fallen from what they took to be their rightful, easy places in society or in a certain kind of economic class.
[00:26:38] And I think this is where William James is really helpful. James has this wonderful expression or wonderful concept called the misery threshold. So each person has their own threshold for tolerated or withstanding suffering, and it's akin to a physical threshold of pain. So some people, they stub a toe. They're going to be, you know, screaming for a surgeon and, you know, running to get the walking boot and everything like that. And other people, you look at them and you say, I don't understand how you're walking on that ankle because I can see the bone practically. They be like, "Oh, this little thing!" So emotional, mental, existential suffering is similar.
[00:27:20] There are some people who just really can't tolerate very much of it. And so when they start to suffer in that kind of. They're going to be willing to make changes. They're going to be figuring out what's going on. What could I shift is an, is it sort of my attitude problem? Do I need to adjust my attitudes instead of blaming it all on the world?
[00:27:40] Is there something that I can fix to try to achieve a kind of equilibrium or balance or serenity. And then James says, there are those people. He calls them the "Six souls and the divided self". And he always included himself as one of those six souls, because he struggled enormously with what we probably now call clinical depression, but that language didn't exist in his time.
[00:28:04] It was acute melancholia. It was angst. It was despair. And those are philosophical concepts, [inaudible] again. And. The idea that everyone has to reach the same point before they become willing to change, I think is a very dangerous message because some might say I still have my wife, I still have my kids. I have a job. I've got a fabulous dog. I can't be alcoholic. So there's disincentive to look at one's troubling behaviors with this rock bottom threshold, but instead if you say. "But you're kind of miserable aren't you?" You've let go of dreams or you're in the world that a kind of way. Maybe you don't recognize yourself, even though you're hitting some benchmarks that many people would say, well, that's a mark of success.
[00:28:55] "Oh look at that mike McGowan, and he's got everything going on with him. Oh know, he's got this, he's got that." But inside you, or certainly I felt like. [sigh] I don't know who I am or I don't like who I am. I don't know where my life is going. I can't take that suffering. So depending upon where your misery threshold is, that will determine when you perhaps become willing to make some kinds of change.
[00:29:22] And James was quite clear that there has to be the willingness to change. You can't just wish that you would change because you can wish for all sorts of things. Like I am wishing on Powerball all the time. I'm wishing for good weather. But when I'm willing to engage with realities, I want good weather, but I'm a fool if I don't bring my raincoat, when there's a forecast for rain. So willingness is always accompanied by action. Wishing is just kind of a, a mental event where you just start spinning stories around in your head about what do you want to have happen. And then when it doesn't happen, well, then, you know, you could be.
[00:30:01] A pit of resentments or seeding rage, that things didn't work out for you. So what, one of the things I love about William James is it's, it's so clear that the changes that happened with us are changes that we are authoring ourselves. Now, James is clear, he says, if there is a God, but that if carries all the way, there may be a God, I can't disprove it nor can I prove it.
[00:30:30] But if there is a God, well, you still have to act. You still have to lead your life. You still have to make choices and you have to act as if. And so one of the ways that James defines faith, so some people say, you know, one of the concerns about AA, it borders on being religion. You have to have faith in this kind of God that is perhaps very different from your own faith tradition or it's your former faith tradition.
[00:30:59] And what James says is you need to have faith, but all that faith is, is a willingness to live on maybes and possibilities. It's a willingness to act where the results are not guaranteed or certified in advance, but it's just that willingness to live on a maybe or a possibility. But he said that willingness.
[00:31:25] So having that faith embodying that willingness can make facts actual or can make something fact. So faith can make fact. And so if you have a faith and I think as I look back on my own experience, you know, let me see how long I can experiment with this. Well, okay. I can go a day. Maybe I can go two days.
[00:31:51] If I take the actions that dramatically increase my going that second day and I make that second day, then my faith in myself has made the fact that I've gone that second day. And then maybe I can go a third day. So faith and fact, interact in all kinds of ways and it, you can have faith about anything, faith isn't just about religion or gods or higher powers or spiritual impulses.
[00:32:17] James was a physician as well. And he said, faith runs through science as much as it runs through theology. Physicists act on faith all the time. About what kinds of particles there are, even though they haven't yet been proven, they build theories based on faith. So what's wrong with basing your life on that kind of faith.
[00:32:45] And I think that's wonderfully inviting, liberating. I love that about William James.
[00:32:50] Mike: You know, and I think going back to what you were, you were saying about the misery. I've always thought that we have a lot more recovering people than we actually measure, because we never measure the people for whom. They woke up one morning, not remembering the night before and just change their behavior.
[00:33:11] Peg: Uh huh.
[00:33:11] Mike: And they don't count themselves. I've had conversations on this podcast with people who said, "Yeah, I just knew that it wasn't the right thing for me." They don't count. They don't say they're recovering, but they're absolutely.
[00:33:25] Peg: Yeah, I think that's right. And I think it's interesting with, so when the DSM fives. The diagnostic statistical manual of mental disorders, version five came out. What was that in 2013? So that's some people say it's the Bible of psychiatry. I prefer to think of it as a dictionary of psychology. So the word addiction doesn't appear anywhere and everything now is a substance use disorder. And there's mild, there's moderate and there's severe.
[00:33:57] And the question becomes well, if someone has a moderate substance use disorder. And they walk it back into a mild or they walk it back so it's no longer problematic, you know, was that person an addict? Are they in recovery? I mean, I think with putting everything on a spectrum like that we really need to think about, I mean, just those sorts of cases that you talk about, you know, so the person who wakes up and says, "Ah, gosh, I just, this doesn't fit right for me anymore. I'm going to choose to abstain." Or "Oh boy, this doesn't really work for me. I'm really going to curtail my behaviors." And, you know, have something more of a harm reduction approach. And I think we need all of this complexity because there has been, like you said earlier, a dominant story about what recovery must look like.
[00:34:45] And I want sort of everybody to fit in a tent. You know, whether, whether they call it recovery or whether they just call it having a healthy relationship to alcohol or drugs, or just say, this is how I am, that there's plenty of space to talk about those kinds of experiences, because they really do matter in terms of how we think about what it, what it means to, to lead a good, meaningful kind of life.
[00:35:13] Mike: And in your book, you talk about substitution view, which fits that. Right?
[00:35:17] Peg: Yeah. So this was something from William James. William James is great because he was the intellectual giant of his time, but he would always give public lectures. And any group was a group that was never too small for him.
[00:35:34] I mean, he was extraordinarily generous with his intellectual energy and he did a lot for teachers. So he has this wonderful book out Talks To Teachers, and he really tried to calibrate his language and examples to make it accessible to regular people, not just other pointy-headed academics. And he said, whenever someone is going to make a major change, it isn't enough just to say no to that thing.
[00:36:04] But you have to begin to say yes to other things. So what happens when someone moves from saying, "I can't drink anymore. I can't drink, I can't drink. I can't drink." A person can get stuck in them. So they're stuck in this saying no, but if you don't expand, if you don't open up the space of saying yes to things, to say, I get to not drink anymore.
[00:36:29] I get not to wake up with hangovers. I get to wake up and be excited because it's a day I'm excited that I get to pay my bills or I'm excited that I get to do these things that you've, if you've got positive life affirming activities and commitments and relationships that those are always going to be ballasts in your life.
[00:36:55] They're always going to help you keep in balance, so that you do have that kind of stability and that equilibrium. But if everything is always about saying no saying no saying no, what James implies is you kind of shrink back into yourself again. And if addiction is anything. I think it's a shrinking into yourself where the world collapses and sort of all of, many of your interests, not all because depending upon one where one is on that spectrum of, of a substance use disorder, but addiction, I think makes your world smaller and smaller and smaller and smaller.
[00:37:35] So if your way of trying to change an addiction is simply by eliminating the thing to which you're life has been reduced already. There's nothing there to grab hold up. There's there's, it gets harder to make positive meaning and value in your life. So that's the other thing that James talks about all the times is expansiveness.
[00:38:00] So when we are in our addictions, we have enbattled little selves. And when we change, when we, I mean, his language is wonderful when we're rejuvenated, when we're regenerated. He does say reborn or born again, we become a new person cause that habitual center of energy changes. If that habitual center personal energy is always a negative, then it's always about deprivation.
[00:38:25] Then that's not going to be enough. There needs to be more, there needs to be a yes to life, but learning how to say that yes. I think for many people struggling in addiction, with addiction or newly in recovery is horrifying. It's scary.
[00:38:43] Mike: So where, so we'll wrap a bow around this. Where, so after your 35 years of experimenting now, [laugh].
[00:38:51] Peg: Yup.
[00:38:51] Mike: Where are you in that expansion? Where are you in your sense of self?
[00:38:55] Peg: That's a hard question, but it's a wonderful question. And that I get to answer it, I think is evidence for my growing self.
[00:39:03] Mike: That's a great answer.
[00:39:04] Peg: And I'm someone who thinks that our needs in recovery change. Because we're always changing. And this is a point from William James.
[00:39:15] It's not like we have a self and it's stable and it's given and it's unchanging, but he prefers to say, we're always selving. Like we have all these dimensions of ourselves and they change and we cast them off and take on new ones and prioritize some, we demote others, all these sorts of things. And for me, one of the things that is different is 12 years ago, I was just working in feminist philosophy, which is extraordinarily important because I think that's where we do a lot of work about oppression and privilege and responsibility. That's where all of my early work was, but my life and work as an addict were completely cordoned off. And now I would say I'm far more integrated that my, my writing for the last 12 years has focused on matters of addiction and recovery.
[00:40:05] Whereas before that I was writing mostly for other pointy-headed academics, which I love the work that I did, but I love this work in such a different way, because it is so energizing and it's, it's always so humbling for me to be able to talk with other people in recovery, to do this podcast with you, to talk about what I think is so important. In helping people to both live with addiction and live with recovery and to get to talk to people. About how they want to do that and how they do it. I am constantly learning. I'm constantly learning from people about how they stay sober or what are some of the things that they have done or what some of the questions are that, that animate them?
[00:40:58] I think people who struggle with addiction are some of the most philosophical people I know. If I were to take a group of addicts and put them in a room and take a room of PhD, trained philosophers and throw them in another room. A. I know it's room I want to be in. And B. I know what's room would be so... much... more... alive.
[00:41:20] Mike: Yes.
[00:41:22] Peg: And so for me, I, I feel alive doing this work.
[00:41:25] Mike: And connected.
[00:41:27] Peg: Alive because connected, I think, I think that that is the way to put it.
[00:41:32] Mike: Well Peg, your, your book comes out September 1st, uh, Friendly and Higher Powers, but I assume it can be pre-ordered and I'll put links to that, right?
[00:41:41] Peg: Yes, it can be pre-ordered um, it should be on the usual suspects of Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
[00:41:47] And also I have a webpage, I can't believe I have this. And so I'm just an academic. So I'm not used to doing things like this, but it's called pegoconnorauthor.com and I'll be putting some updates there and some different podcasts like this and other sorts of things, but yet, and actually we pushed the date up to August 15th.
[00:42:07] Oh, great. It'll be available. But yes, it is available for pre-order it also from the publisher Wild House Publications
[00:42:15] Mike: Well and that coincides with your 35th anniversary.
[00:42:19] Peg: Yeah, it does. I hadn't actually really paid attention to that.
[00:42:23] Mike: I will put links to all of that at the bottom of the podcast.
[00:42:26] And I just really appreciate you taking time. We could do this again and again and again, and I hope the release is really successful and I hope we can have another conversation.
[00:42:36] Peg: I hope we can have another conversation too. And thank you for all the work that you're doing before the pandemic and during the pandemic.
[00:42:44] Mike: Thanks.
[00:42:46] Peg: I think one of the greatest gifts of recovery for me is making all these connections and, and making new friends.
[00:42:54] Mike: Yes.
[00:42:54] Peg: And just feeling that kind of Goodwill in people during the worst of times. I mean, it's, it's just so humbling and empowering.
[00:43:03] Mike: It is, and, and we'll, we'll leave it there. And for those of you who are listening, please listen in next time. You know, we're going to discuss more issues around this topic. Until then, please stay safe and go connect with somebody.
[00:43:19] [END AUDIO]
The Kenosha County Substance Abuse Coalition’s mission is to support networking, encourage education, explore gaps, and realize solutions to improve treatment and reduce alcohol and other drug abuse in our community with a primary focus on families.