Sep 06

Maria Bamford: “Sure, I’ll Join Your Cult”

An acclaimed comedian chronicles her experiences with mental illness and her search for community. Warning: her hilarious riffs will make you feel seen. Adam Grant, reviewing Sure, I’ll Join Your Cult by Maria Bamford

Maria Bamford—the favorite stand-up comedian of Stephen Colbert, Tig Notaro, and other notables—and star of Netflix’s Lady Dynamite (2016-17), which dealt with the aftermath of her actual mental breakdown, has a new book: Sure, I’ll Join Your Cult: A Memoir of Mental Illness and the Quest to Belong Anywhere.

You can read an excerpt on Slate (My First Cult Was My Family. My Mother Was in Charge“). The “cults” she tries (beyond her family) in order to belong somewhere/anywhere include 12-step programs such as Debtors Anonymous and Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous as well as Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” and the programs of Richard Simmons.

Bamford has long been open about her various mental health struggles. Among the list are anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts, binge eating, a form of OCD called “unwanted thoughts syndrome” (for which she named a comedy CD), and Bipolar II Disorder.

Kirkus Reviews summarizes that Sure, I’ll Join Your Cult “is a memoir that examines her life in comedy, dealing with mental illness, and finding a way to belong.” Bamford, however, advises readers this is not your typical “trauma, healing, and victory” story.

More from Kirkus: “Bamford creates an effective mix of introduction (or reintroduction) to a fascinating comedian, a guide to the self-help industry, and an encouragingly lighthearted, respectful assessment of mental health, reminding readers that they are not alone.”

Publishers Weekly: “It’s all delivered with Bamford’s trademark blend of disarming intimacy and dark whimsy. The result is a consistently funny and occasionally heartbreaking glimpse into a unique comedic mind.”

On Goodreads Kendra Gayle Lee, an indie bookstore owner, writes:

If you’ve done a 12 step program, you’ll laugh. And nod along.
If you’ve struggled with anxiety, depression, OCD, you’ll feel so seen.
If you’ve ever felt like the only person in the world who didn’t get a ‘how-to’ manual for this life, you’ve found your book!

And, finally, I think Lee’s conclusion is definitely worth adding: “But what really got me was the last chapter on suicide. Maria Bamford wrote such a tender, compassionate tribute to folks who fight suicidal ideation–and sometimes die as a result of their mental illness–that it shifted something in me. She helped me understand something heretofore incomprehensible to me. I’m grateful for that.”

Nov 09

Group Therapy Saved Christie Tate’s Life

What’s it like to be in group therapy? Christie Tate tells readers about the importance of her own experience in her new memoir, Group: How One Therapist and a Circle of Strangers Saved My Life. “Tate sets a positive example by destigmatizing and demystifying group therapy, but she is careful never to present herself as an expert” (NPR).

How did she make the decision to try group therapy? At the time a high achieving law school student, Tate had hit a depressive low. A therapist recommended she enter one of his therapy groups: “Christie is skeptical, insisting that that she is defective, beyond cure. But Dr. Rosen issues a nine-word prescription that will change everything: ‘You don’t need a cure, you need a witness’.”

An excerpt from Chapter One describes her mental state before making her decision:

In my journal, I used vague words of discomfort and distress: I feel afraid and anxious about myself. I feel afraid that I’m not OK, will never be OK & I’m doomed. It’s very uncomfortable to me. What’s wrong with me? I didn’t know then that a word existed to perfectly define my malady: lonely….

I was already in a 12-step program….Twelve-step recovery had arrested the worst of my disordered eating, and I credited it with saving my life. Why was I now wishing that life away? I confessed to my sponsor who lived in Texas that I’d been having dark thoughts.

‘I wish for death every day.’ She told me to double up on my meetings.

I tripled them, and felt more alone than ever.

From Publishers Weekly:

Tate delivers a no-holds-barred account of her five-plus years in group therapy in this dazzling debut memoir….[She] ended up in group therapy with Jonathan Rosen, a quirky but wise Harvard-educated therapist who insisted that his clients keep no secrets—neither from him nor the group (‘keeping secrets from other people is more toxic than other people knowing your business,’ he reasoned). Tate then unveils the intimate details of her romantic life….Through therapy, Tate found a sense of self-worth, and eventually a lawyer named John at work (‘I felt something I’d never felt with a man before: calm, quiet, happy, and excited’). Readers will be irresistibly drawn into Tate’s earnest and witty search for authentic and lasting love.

Selected Reviews of Group

Kirkus Reviews: “Tate documents her alternately loving and confrontational encounters with fellow group members, but most of the book focuses on her many attempts to find the perfect man.”

Lori Gottlieb, author of Maybe You Should Talk to Someone (see previous posts, “Therapist in Therapy” and “What Is Therapy?“) : “It takes courage to bare your soul in front of a therapist, but when you add six strangers to the mix, it becomes an act of faith. In Group, Christie Tate takes us on a journey that’s heartbreaking and hilarious, surprising and redemptive—and, ultimately, a testament to the power of connection. Perhaps the greatest act of bravery is that Tate shared her story with us, and how lucky we are that she did.”

Ada Calhoun, author of Why We Can’t Sleep (see previous post here): “In this therapeutic page-turner, a boon especially to women struggling with loss, loneliness, or imposter syndrome, Christie Tate tells the story of how she overcame trauma and found love. Her hard-won strategy is as simple to say as it is tough to do: keep showing up.”

Apr 18

“Unbroken Brain”: Addiction Is Learned

…(A)ddiction is a developmental disorder—a problem involving timing and learning, more similar to autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and dyslexia than it is to mumps or cancer. Maia Svalavitz, Unbroken Brain

According to journalist Maia Svalavitz‘s new book Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction, the ages-old wisdom about addiction recovery is often off base.

Some of the ideas Svalavitz sees as myths:

  • The addict has a “broken brain.”
  • An individual becomes addicted because of his or her “addictive personality.”
  • One type of addiction treatment fits all individuals.

Or as Dana Goldstein, Slate, eloquently points out on behalf of Svalavitz, the entire following scenario is suspect:

The narrative of addiction is familiar. A pleasure-seeking ‘addictive personality’ spirals out of control, ‘enabled’ by friends and family, and eventually hits ‘rock bottom’ in the form of arrest, divorce, or homelessness. She may then succeed in a 12-step program, where she’ll embrace a ‘higher power,’ receive ‘tough love,’ and accept total ‘abstinence’ from substances including antidepressants and drugs that ease withdrawal symptoms. Even if she gets clean, she’ll be an addict forever, and is more likely than not to relapse.

In long-term recovery herself (cocaine and heroin), Szalavitz “offers an alternate way of thinking about what addiction is: neither an illness nor a sign of an immoral personality, but a learning disorder.”

How does she define addiction? “Compulsive behavior despite negative consequences.” Why/how does this happen? The addict learns “that the problematic substance can help soothe some other problem in [one’s] life, such as depression, social anxiety, physical pain, or, in Szalavitz’s case, what she believes was an undiagnosed childhood autism-spectrum disorder.”

What This Means For Addiction Treatment

A few basic principles addressed in Unbroken Brain:

  • Individuals can benefit significantly before hitting rock bottom.
  • Not all substance abusers have to forego all substances. The harm reduction model can work well for many.
  • Imprisonment usually doesn’t benefit the addict and often makes things worse.

Moreover, 12-step programs are only useful for some. Publishers Weekly: “Szalavitz may alienate otherwise sympathetic readers with her critiques of popular treatment methodologies such as 12-step programs. This study may not be for people who have recovered using such treatments, but it can help promote the importance of understanding—and working toward fixing—a persistent problem.”

Marc Lewis, author of The Biology of Desire“Szalavitz catalogs the latest scientific knowledge of the biological, environmental and social causes of addiction and explains precisely how they interact over development. The theory is articulate and tight, yet made accessible and compelling through the author’s harrowing autobiography. Unbroken Brain provides the most comprehensive and readable explanation of addiction I’ve yet to see.”

Mar 13

12-Step Programs and Addiction: Myths Busted By David Sack

David Sack, MD, is an addictions specialist with a blog on Psychology Today called “Where Science Meets the Steps.” A couple of his posts as well as a recent article by him in the current print edition of PT are useful toward understanding some common myths regarding both 12-step programs and addictions recovery.

Whereas the 12-step myths in bold letters below are taken verbatim from the PT article, the quotes come from a previous post by Sack.

  1. You Must Believe in God True, Christianity figured into the development of the steps initially. And whereas choosing a “higher power” can still involve “a religious deity or entity…it can also be the power of a group working toward a common goal, nature or some other outside force. If you feel uncomfortable with the spirituality of a particular group, keep searching until you find a closer match.”
  2. You Are Powerless and Not Responsible “Powerlessness occurs because prolonged drug abuse changes the structure and function of the brain, and it takes time in sobriety to repair the damage. Powerlessness does not mean that the addict is inherently flawed, exempt from thinking for themselves or incapable of recovery, or that they can rely on their higher power to fix everything without taking steps to improve their own lives.”
  3. 12-Step=Dependency “In the early stages, people may benefit from frequent attendance, which often diminishes over time as they develop other support systems and become more firmly grounded in their recovery…If recovering addicts find that support in 12-Step meetings, they should continue to go. This type of ongoing participation in a program that improves members’ lives is very different from a destructive drug or alcohol dependency.”
  4. 12-Step Is a Cult “People are free to participate or not, and to take what works for them and leave the rest. There is hope that participants will embrace the wisdom of some of the 12-Step principles but they are also encouraged to think critically and to find their own way.”
  5. Too Many Rules Guiding principles and suggestions may abound, but not rules. The principles  “address specific deficits in learning, memory, empathy and other areas impacted by drug abuse.  Sharing stories, along with routinely scheduled meetings and oft-repeated mantras, for example,    help addicts remember the next right thing to do even when their thinking is still clouded by drugs.”
  6. 12-Step is For the Weak “The opposite of weak, it takes tremendous strength and courage to reach out for help. Some people may be able to recover on their own, but most cannot – and there is no shame in that. People with other chronic diseases do not expect to heal themselves, nor should addicts.”
  7. 12-Step Doesn’t Work The scientific and recovery communities disagree on this point. “Science has long dismissed 12-Step recovery, leaving a dearth of data where 75 years of history should provide much more, and 12-Step recovery has long rejected the need for and validity of scientific inquiry. But the necessary conclusion is not that 12-Step recovery doesn’t work; rather, the research, to date, has been inadequate.”

The following myths about addiction that Sacks believes can undermine recovery are from another PT blog post:

  1. Addicts are bad people who deserve to be punished. Rather, bad things often happen when addiction is involved. “Driven by changes in the brain brought on by prolonged drug use, they lie, cheat and steal to maintain their habit. But good people do bad things, and sick people need treatment – not punishment – to get better.”
  2. Addiction is a choice. “People do not choose to become addicted any more than they choose to have cancer. Genetics makes up about half the risk of addiction; environmental factors such as family life, upbringing and peer influences make up the other half.”
  3. People usually get addicted to one type of substance. Polysubstance abuse is actually now the norm, whether to create a better high or to use one drug to counteract another’s effects or to take advantage of what’s more available at the time. “People who abuse multiple substances are more likely to struggle with mental illness, which when complicated by drug interactions and side effects, makes polysubstance abuse riskier and more difficult to treat than other types of drug abuse.”
  4. People who get addicted to prescription drugs are different from people who get addicted to illegal drugs. Less stigma is attached to licit drugs, but they’re not safer. “When a person takes a prescription medication in a larger dose or more often than intended or for a condition they do not have, it affects the same areas of the brain as illicit drugs and poses the same risk of addiction.”
  5. Treatment should put addicts in their place. Shame is worse than ineffective, but unfortunately is still used in some addiction recovery centers.
Jun 24

“The Anonymous People” and the Public Recovery Movement

Many in recovery from substance abuse and other addictions choose anonymity, often participating in 12-step “Anonymous”-type programs. But a new documentary called The Anonymous People focuses on something called The New Recovery Advocacy Movement, an alternative to this more traditional approach.

What is this Recovery Advocacy Movement about? Some key “core and evolving messages,” taken from the Faces & Voices of Recovery website, include recognizing various pathways to recovery, having supportive communities, seeing recovery as a voluntary process, and becoming part of the solution in communities.

The feature documentary film The Anonymous People attempts to destigmatize people with addiction. From the film’s website: “The moving story of The Anonymous People is told through the faces and voices of citizens, leaders, volunteers, corporate executives, public figures, and celebrities who are laying it all on the line to save the lives of others just like them. This passionate new public recovery movement aims to transform public opinion, engage communities and elected officials, and finally shift problematic policy toward lasting solutions.”

Greg Williams, age 28, is the creator of The Anonymous People and is reportedly himself at least 11 years sober from multiple substances. No longer “Greg W.”, he’s now fully out. Why? He’s on a mission to reduce the stigma attached to addiction and recovery.

From an article at Juvenile Justice: “[Williams] hopes the movie alters perceptions and leads to deep changes in how experts look at finding a solution.” This includes looking at the way addiction affects society’s institutions, e.g., public health and criminal justice.

Watch the trailer below:

Shehan Karunaratne, Nova Recovery Center, lists three things viewers may want to consider after seeing The Anonymous People:

  1. The battle against addiction stigma isn’t over yet.
  2. Coming out of the shadows is important for personal recovery and to help others.
  3. Community is the backbone of recovery.