Announcer: Welcome to Addiction and the Family, “Episode 31: Philosophy, Spirituality, and Recovery with Peg O’Connor.”
Casey Arrillaga: How has addiction affected your family?
Female Speaker: It robbed me of my father.
Female Speaker: Addiction's affected my family in absolutely every way.
Male Speaker: It has caused a lot of turmoil.
Female Speaker: It goes back to what I understand is at least three generations.
Female Speaker: It robbed my daughter of her mother. It robbed my mother of her daughter.
Female Speaker: Addiction has made our family quite challenging.
Male Speaker: Addiction has affected my family tremendously.
Male Speaker: It's affected my relationship with my sister where I wouldn't – I'd go for months without talking to her. It's a very difficult thing for everybody involved. It doesn't just affect the one individual. It's a disease that affects the whole family.
Male Speaker: Addiction is spread not only genetically through some of my relatives and I assume ancestors.
Female Speaker: It's generational.
Female Speaker: I think of him every day.
Casey Arrillaga: Welcome to Addiction and the Family, a podcast by and for family members of anyone with an addiction. My name is Casey Arrillaga, and I'm a clinical social worker and addiction counselor at both Windmill Wellness Ranch and InMindOut Emotional Wellness Centers. I’m the author of Realistic Hope: The Family Survival Guide for Facing Alcoholism and Other Addictions.
Kira Arrillaga: I’m Kira Arrillaga, addiction counselor intern and recovery coach at Windmill. Casey and I were in our addictions together for over ten years and have now been in recovery together for almost twice that long.
Casey Arrillaga: I've led hundreds of family workshops, but just as important is that Kira and I have lived the experience of being family to addiction as both children and adults.
Kira Arrillaga: Join us as we offer experience, strength, and realistic hope about how you and your family can find recovery together. In this episode, we’ll be looking at recovery from a philosophical perspective with Peg O’Connor. Dr. O’Connor is the author of Life on the Rocks: Finding Meaning in Addiction and Recovery and Higher and Friendly Powers: Transforming Addiction and Suffering. She is a college philosophy professor and she’s also in recovery from addiction.
Casey Arrillaga: In this interview, she talks about her perspective on reconnecting with our moral compass, finding meaning in suffering, and how she has been influenced by the father of American psychology, William James. All of this and more after a break to hear from one of our sponsors. [Commercial]
Kira Arrillaga: Welcome back. Now here’s Casey’s interview with Dr. Peg O’Connor.
Casey Arrillaga: Excited to have our guest today and fellow author talking about spirituality and recovery as well as a wide range of topics around philosophy and recovery and things that I think are interesting for both family members and people who are in recovery themselves. Do you want to go ahead and introduce yourself and let us know what are you doing on a program called Addiction and the Family? Peg O’Connor: Casey, first, thanks for having me on the show. I really appreciate the opportunity and really excited to talk about the sorts of topics that you have featured on your podcast, especially the ways in which family members are oftentimes collateral damage. Oftentimes family relationships take a very long time to heal and to say that family relationships actually can become better when an individual gets in recovery, and in many ways, I think entire families have to be in a kind of recovery. Because where there is one person struggling with an addiction in a family, the entire family struggles with addiction in some sense. My name is Peg O’Connor. In my day job, I teach philosophy at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. My training is in moral philosophy. That’s one part of my identity. The other part of my identity is that I am a recovering alcoholic of many years. I’m someone who says I’m grateful. I’m a grateful alcoholic. Grateful for my recovery, of course, but also grateful for this malady, this condition that I live with. I think that it helps me to be a better teacher, and hopefully, a better human being because it gives me an insider perspective on suffering and how to transform suffering and how to make meaning out of our suffering and how to perhaps live better lives by having things like self-love and self-knowledge and self-forgiveness and having attitudes that always reach out to others and always taking others into regard. My specialization is in moral philosophy so you’ll hear me [04:57] into talking moral principles and nonnegotiable. I think that one’s moral character is the most essential feature of a person.
Casey Arrillaga: That’s such an important idea and it’s something that I hear a lot of family members struggle with because they’ll look and say how come my loved ones do these things. They’re an intrinsically moral person or maybe their whole life they’ve grown up as the wild child, family members will often feel like I’m a moral person. I follow my moral compass. How can addiction go so sideways or how can my loved one do these things? Especially since sometimes that loved one will either completely justify and rationalize their behaviors or sometimes even worse be sobbing in between with no explanation how they did it. How do you approach that question for people? Peg O’Connor: I think that’s a really interesting and important question and points to a really interesting set of dynamics. I mean, all of us are mixed bags in so many ways. We all have commitments. We all have values. We all try to make certain kind of meaning. I think that’s one of the things it means to be a human being is that we seek to make meaning. We are connected to other people in myriad kinds of ways. I think what happens, depending upon the trajectory of one’s addiction, studies show that the younger a person starts drinking or using drugs, the more likely they are to develop an addiction. Psychologists talk about cognitive development. As a moral philosopher, I want to talk about moral development. Their moral development gets stalled or hindered oftentimes, particularly with early onset addictive behaviors. I think there are those people and in some ways they’re not fully morally developed yet because they haven’t had the opportunities because their addiction got in the way or the addiction becomes one of the governing features of their lives. Then I think there are other people, older people who develop problematic relationships to alcohol, drugs, or certain behaviors. They’ve led full lives. They’ve created their moral character. They know their place in the world. Then for whatever reason, they start to use and abuse alcohol or other drugs or engage in certain behaviors, like gambling, for example, and I would always define the diction, particularly in the extreme end, as a loss of one’s self. The great Danish philosopher Kierkegaard, who lived in the mid-1800s, said the greatest hazard of all is losing one’s self, but that’s the very loss that most of us don’t notice. If we lost $5, we’d notice it. If we lost our favorite pair of sunglasses, we would notice it. Developing an addiction becomes a way to lose one’s self. One’s self is importantly connected to family members. As I start to lose myself in addiction, for example, I start to put at risk the very relationships that have been foundational to me or that have been so important to my constructing my identity. I’m someone’s daughter. I’m someone’s mother. I’m someone’s sibling. I am someone’s partner. Addictive behaviors fundamentally start to change those relationships. As those relationships change, I change. As I change, those relationships change. It’s a very complicated dynamic.
Casey Arrillaga: Absolutely, and something that I hear in there is you talk about losing yourself. In my work as a clinical social worker, working with families but also, of course, working a lot directly with people who are just coming into early recovery at a treatment center or in individual counseling, what I often find is a moral shock and moral horror that people go through in recognizing what have I done and how much trouble have I gone to avoid looking at what I’ve done. What that suggests to me is that who we are, our moral compass never gets completely lost, but it gets buried. I had a client one time in a family workshop who out of the blue in a discussion that we were having in a group, said addiction is all out war with yourself. I wondered if you could talk about that from the lens of your work. Peg O’Connor: I think addiction is all out war with one self. William James is a great American philosopher, psychologist, and he was a physician as well. He started the academic discipline of psychology at Harvard University in the late 1800s. James is this fascinating character who argues that a human being is simultaneously two things. It’s an I who knows, who sees, who perceives, and a me. I look at me. Part of that me includes what James calls material dimensions. Your body is part of you. He says your family is part of you. Important property or possessions are part of you. He says we have social dimensions as well. He says a man, and we’ll say a person, a person has as many social identities as people who recognize him, her, or them in different kinds of relationships. I maybe want to be the [10:21] professional. I want to be the avid tennis player. I want to be the best friend. I want to be the great person working in dog rescue, all those things. Then we have spiritual selves. He says our spiritual self is the house of our interest. It’s the part of us that directs our attention and our focus and our will. If we think that’s what a person is, material dimensions, social dimensions, spiritual dimensions, addiction is going to start to put those selves in conflict with each other. Now we’re all full of inconsistencies. There’s no seamless person out there. Some of the inconsistencies are really pretty harmless or they’re quirky or they’re fun. As an academic philosopher, I think many people think I just read all these pointy headed journals all the time. Meanwhile, what I’m devouring is murder mysteries. Some might say that’s an inconsistency. Some might say I want to be that [11:20] professional but it’s at odds with my wanting to be a good parent. I don’t want to replicate the same parental dynamics that I had growing up. Those roles and those identities start to come into conflict for all kinds of reasons. Addiction is one of them. What happens when a person really starts to have hostile selves, my wanting to drink or use is getting in the way of my being a good parent, for example, or my deciding I’m not going to go for a promotion because it would mean I would be on the road more, I’d be stuck at home more, all these sorts of things. I think the question that each person who struggles has to answer is how much inconsistency can that person tolerate. Now some people can tolerate a lot and other people feel as if any kind of slight inconsistency is okay but if they reach a certain threshold, they start to become so uncomfortable with themselves or they feel dislocated or they feel unfamiliar to themselves in a kind of way then that is where there’s a problem. The question is, well, what then do you do about it. How do you try to unify that divided self? Because we’re all divided in all kinds of ways. Some of us can live with a lot of division and others want to try to create or store some kind of unity.
Casey Arrillaga: I love what you’re saying there because one of my personal and professional definitions of hitting bottom, especially when family members say when is my loved one going to hit bottom, what is that going to look like, or someone says, oh, I hit bottom, I think of that as being when the divide becomes so great between our core values, who we are as people, and our behavior. The farther my behavior gets away from my core values, the more painful it becomes. If it gets far enough away, I might call that hitting bottom, which one person might find the first time they get locked up, someone else might find the first time they get drunk, maybe they hit bottom, never touched it again, fantastic. We never meet those people, right? At least I don’t professionally. They say about a third of people who qualify for substance use disorder just got up one day and quit. I’m like, God bless those people, they’re fantastic. That still leaves two out of three of us that need help. You’re talking about the social self, that’s really important, too, because we’ve seen so much help come from recovery fellowships. We find that SMART recovery works as well as AA, as well as [13:48], as well as Women for Sobriety. One of the landmark studies in the last couple of years showed all four of those were equally effective, even though they have different approaches, and yet one thing they all say in common is gather together. Peg O’Connor: I think that’s right. I think one of the wonderful things that happen in mutual recovery groups or mutual support groups of any kind is the fact that we hold up a mirror to someone else. Oftentimes when an individual looks at their own past, they’re seeing things from the perspective of fun house mirror, convex or concave. Everything I look at is distorted in a kind of way. With self-help groups, I think people are often shocked when someone reports to them how they are seen. My self-view might be, oh, my God, I am a colossal mess. I have destroyed relationships. I’m unreliable. I’m untrustworthy. I am just the stuff you’d want to scrape off the bottom of your shoe. If someone else says to me in a self-help group, I really appreciate that you come early every week and make the coffee or I really appreciate the way that when someone new is here, you always go over and say hello because that was really important for me. I think an important sign of recovery is when we who are struggling with addiction, particularly early on, can begin to take in some of the ways that we are seen by others, particularly when they’re positive. I think many people who struggle with addiction, and I think there are important gender dimensions to this as well, that’s why I always worry about AA when it’s make that complete and fearless moral inventory, too many people take that to be I’m going to list everything bad or rotten I’ve ever done or my moral character. I’m disloyal. I cheated all the time. I’m a thief. I lied. Many addicts have the equivalent of a PhD in self-denigration and self-castigation, right? We’re so good at rehearsing everything that’s wrong with us. Part of that fearless in searching moral inventory must be our positive traits or our virtues or our strengths. Oftentimes we ourselves can’t see them until someone else begins to point them out to us. I’ll just hit the rewind button depending upon how old we were when we started the course of using and then abusing and then maybe developing an addiction, particularly with moral traits, moral characters, we don’t get an explicit kind of education in that like we get in other important matters of life. Many of us didn’t really know where to start to think about, my gosh, what could be positive about me.
Casey Arrillaga: Absolutely, and I’ve noticed that with some of my clients. In fact, in early recovery, like the first few weeks or the first couple of months, I can ask somebody, okay, list ten things you love about yourself and ten things you hate about yourself, and they can rattle off those ten things they hate right like that and usually right around three things they get stuck on the good. They can come up with two, three good things and then they’re like, yeah, no, I’m out of ideas. Then fast forward six months to a year in sobriety and they can flip that equation completely and they can start to rattle off things they love about themselves. I think it’s because we do reclaim our core values. I was lucky enough to study under Dr. Jason Powers on how to bring positive psychology into recovery for addiction. I found it so powerful for people to look and say what are the dimensions of happiness, what are my core values, what are some positive traits about me that I like, and then recognize that each one of those traits is like a muscle. If you look at it and say I’m not doing very well with humility, first off, I’m going to say, well, if you recognize that, that’s some humility so you’re not doing as badly as you think, but also you can build that muscle. What’s also really cool in recovery fellowships is we get to see ourselves reflected in that positive way that you’re pointing out. I love that, but we also get to see possibility by looking at someone who we say, well, you’ve done the things that I’ve done and yet you’re somebody I look up to. We have to be cautious sometimes to not put us on a pedestal, but just to look and say, okay, maybe it can get better for me. That’s maybe where some of those mirror neurons that we have as humans kick in to say, okay, I can learn not just by doing better things but by seeing someone else do better things, I can, okay, maybe it’s possible for me to do that and I can learn from their example. Peg O’Connor: I think that’s absolutely vital. I think that we in recovery oftentimes do provide a positive model even if we don’t know that someone else is taking us that way. That’s really crucial and that’s really humbling, too, because it should make each of us think we never know how somebody is going to take what we say or take our actions. I think it makes us be more attentive to the effects of what we say and do. I think the thing about positive psychology, which I would say probably is multiple generations removed from William James, psychology takes a certain kind of turn and it has become overly clinical and dominated by neuroscience. William James might say we lost the human mystic elements of all of this. I want to just go back to one thing you said. I think it’s true that people who develop their addictions later in life can reclaim their moral commitments and their moral values. I think people who develop addictions early or who were subjected to various forms of trauma or adversity haven’t learned how to identify moral principles or commitments like that. I’m really influenced by the work of Bessel van der Kolk who wants to argue for developmental trauma disorder. I know he’s talking about it as a psychiatrist talking about cognitive development, but for me, I think about it in terms of moral development. In recovery, some people who started really young, maybe didn’t have good role models, didn’t have the people who they wanted to emulate, for example. There’s this wonderful term from a feminist philosopher Annette Baier, the essential arts of personhood. Those essential arts include all kinds of cognitive capacities that I can deliberate, I can compare, I can augment, I can decrease, I can think in hypothetical situations. I can project out all of those things, very important, but how does a person learn how to cope? How does a person learn how to use their imagination to imagine good things, not just bad things? Because I think many people who have been traumatized are very good at imagining all the bad and horrible things that can happen because they’re drawing from reality. How do people who have been traumatized or subjected to adversity or abused in some sort, how do they learn to have something like bodily self-possession, bodily integrity in those kinds of ways? I think the best recovery is one that helps all of us continue to develop those essential arts of personhood that we always are developing them. Some of us just started out a little behind and have to catch up and others got side tracked and then they can come back and continue to develop that. That, I think, is one of the great gifts of recovery. We get to think about things like this. We get to do things like this. It’s amazing.
Casey Arrillaga: Yes, and they talk about the idea of recovery as being rejoining the human race. On a personal level, rejoining with my own humanity. I will say that in my work and working individually with people, I get to see that, I’m going to maybe debate this a little bit with you, because I get to see people that recognize, well, when I was a little kid, I valued kindness. I did have hope. The 12-step recovery course talks about being restored to sanity and some people wrestle with that idea, but I’ll say there was some point in your life, maybe it was in utero, there was some point where you felt okay and it is possible to come back to that point. I will absolutely agree with you that a lot of people don’t know how to do that as an adult. You mentioned the author of the famous book The Body Keeps the Score talking about the idea that, when we’re traumatized, we start to wall up, physiologically, psychologically, emotionally, and you mentioned spiritually which I want to get to in just a minute. We wall up and become convinced that we can’t be our best selves, that it’s not safe. It’s not safe to be a loving person. It’s not safe to be a kind person. It’s not safe to be a trustworthy person. I’m going to have to cope in some other way. Yet, I believe that so much of the journey that I watch my clients and fellow people in recovery go through is beginning to slowly but surely reclaim that core self of who we were in the first place. That’s why I say to all my clients, I have good news for you. At your core, you’re a really good person, probably much better than you think you are, but it may take some work to get back to that. People are often fearful that it’s not true. Peg O’Connor: I think so because I think many people fear how they are at their worst is their best. If I think that I am just terrible, awful, sinful, deviant, foul individual, what comes next is a kind of resignation if I don’t think anything can change. Then it becomes a kind of fatalism, so why bother? I think that kind of fatalism is one of the most devastating ways of living that a person can have. It’s not just a belief. If you’re a fatalist, you’re living in certain ways, acting as if nothing is going to change and nothing can get better. I think that is utterly devastating because I think too many people get that message that there’s something wrong with you, that you are defective, deviant, all the kinds of really loaded language that some people grow up hearing all the time.
Casey Arrillaga: Yeah, and then if you get into addiction, well, that’s not going to get any better because… Peg O’Connor: No, it’s not going to help anything. Rarely has addiction helped anything.
Casey Arrillaga: Yeah, it’s not going to help you with that self-image, and unfortunately, so much of the solution, certainly in the work that I’m doing, is to be able to help a person explore themselves, but if they’re terrified that at that core they’re going to find a horrible person, that’s going to say, well, no, don’t go look. Don’t go look in there. That’s going to be too dangerous. It’s going to be too scary. It's going to be even further devastating. Sometimes it’s just creating that hope, which comes back to the idea of, if we can get somebody who is in early recovery to connect with other people who are not just in early recovery but are middle and late stage recovery, then they can start to build hope. Sometimes they feel like they can only trust or hear that hope from someone else who’s been through it directly, which you addressed beautifully at the top of Chapter 2 in your new book. I’m going to read just a little bit here Chapter 2: Generations of Suffering, starts with a quote by William James, which honestly, no offense to William James, I’m going to skip over that and get right to your writing. It says people who struggle with addiction often become accustomed to being a topic of conversation with well-meaning family and friends and at times with healthcare and mental health professionals. We’re objects of study and subjects of talk shows and television programs. Many of us, including myself, often bristle at people, especially experts, who engage in research, make pronouncements of recommendations, and offer diagnosis, but who haven’t shared our experiences. They haven’t walked a few steps in our shoes, never mind a mile. If a person hasn’t struggled in similar ways, can they really understand why and how people begin to struggle with alcohol and other drugs yet continue to use despite tsunamis of bad consequences? Can you treat suffering without knowing it yourself? Then you go on in the rest of the chapter to talk about William James and his life and some of the suffering that he went through. Particularly what jumped out for me, and I didn’t know much about this until I was reading your book, about the suffering that he saw his brother go through with addiction to alcohol and how that helped inform William James’s work, which now then goes on to help inform lots of other people in recovery field. That really stood out to me because it highlighted a divide that I see maybe artificially gets created between family members and the people they love with addiction. Because sometimes in early recovery, the people with addiction say, well, you don’t understand. You haven’t been through what I’ve been through. The family member throw their hands up and say, I have no idea why you do anything you do, without recognizing that if each of us can understand suffering, as we pretty much all can, especially around addiction, then maybe there’s more of a common language and a bridge than we think. Peg O’Connor: I absolutely agree. I think it becomes far too easy to throw up hands and go into your opposing corners and never come out of them. In the context of in-patient addiction treatment during family time, the ways in which it can feel like rock ‘em, sock ‘em robots and then each party goes off to their corners, which I think is a real disservice in the sense that it is really hard to find that common ground. What can function as that common ground may be some shared values or may be a good memory together in some kind of way. I know the best therapeutic practitioners are always looking to identify something that can function as that common ground where people can stand on it together and see that, if we can find this common ground, we can always make common ground. The thing about common ground is it’s not found, it’s made. That means it takes a lot of work and it takes a lot of effort. While it is true on some thin sense, philosophers get all hot and bothered about this, whether anyone can truly understand what goes on in the mind of others and then they’re going to write multiple journal articles about it and tamp that down and deflate it. I think you’re right that the suffering is always a common denominator and that suffering always has the power to be transformative if one isn’t totally defeated by it. The philosopher Nietzsche said about human beings what makes us unique isn’t the fact that we suffer. We all suffer. What makes each of us unique is the meaning or value how we can transform that suffering. Starting conversations with, okay, we can rehearse all that’s happened, but we have to think about how do we want to be more responsive to each other and not merely reactive to each other. Because reactivity is always going to lend itself to antagonistic engagement versus being responsive to that I would hope would have different outcomes.
Casey Arrillaga: It’s amazing how many family arguments come down to I’m afraid to lose you. I’m afraid to lose you. I’ve seen literal yelling fights, okay, time out, everybody slow down. What’s going on with you? I’m angry. What are you angry about? We boil it down to what are you scared about. The deepest fear always seems to come down to I’m afraid of losing the other person. I notice as soon as we get to that, I’ve been through a lot. I’ve been through a lot, too. I’m scared. I’m scared, too. All of a sudden, we’re on the same team and the whole family fight deescalates and people are hugging each other. Peg O’Connor: Yeah, I think that’s oftentimes true. Going back to James again about that, each person with these material, social, and spiritual dimensions, when a family is really split like that, really at odds with each other, when they are just really verbally engaged in a slug fest with each other, you’re hurting the other person but you’re also hurting yourself. I think that that’s a big switch to making one’s thinking to come to believe that whenever I take cheap shots at someone I love, I’m actually hurting myself, that insight could be important in trying to change certain kinds of dynamics. It might seem well in self-interest, I don’t want to hurt myself anymore, but you can’t underestimate the importance of self-interest with this more complicated notion of self. If you’re trying to unify yourself, you have to pay attention to the way you can wound yourself and how you wound others and that comes back as a wound to you.
Casey Arrillaga: Absolutely, and it’s an area of trauma that I think goes underexplored which is the trauma of hurting other people. Peg O’Connor: I think so. I, too, am fascinated with that. When one has been an agent of even unintentional harming of someone, someone who has an accident in which someone else is killed or someone has some kind of causal relationship, if not direct but is somehow implicated in there, I think it can be utterly devastating and we don’t pay enough attention to that. I think you’re right. I think it’s one the covert harms because we always think of the person hurt but we don’t think of the kind of harm or hurt that’s done to someone else who unintentionally or unknowingly harms another and then there’s still the kind of harm that happens when one intentionally harms another. How does one come to think that doing this sort of act was justified or valid or okay, permissible in a kind of way? It’s fascinating.
Kira Arrillaga: Let’s take a break to hear from one of our sponsors and then we’ll hear the rest of Peg O’Connor’s interview. [Commercial] Welcome back. Here’s the rest of Casey’s interview with Dr. Peg O’Connor.
Casey Arrillaga: I want to take a moment to highlight how much all this applies to family members as well to look and say a lot of family members have said I’m afraid I’ve screwed up my loved one’s recovery or I’ve gotten in the way or something like that, which I always say, hey, by the way, you don’t have that much power. You can’t actually screw up someone else’s recovery. If they want to get sober, they’re going to get sober with or without you. That fear that I’ve done this and then also trying to recover from the harm that’s been done through addiction and otherwise and family members being able to look their own models. This is why I make such a big deal out of family members going to recovery fellowships, like Al Anon or SMART recovery family and friends or Families Anonymous or [33:32] groups, just going down the list there, but I did say I wanted to circle back around to talking about spirituality. Because you brought that into the conversation earlier on, but I want to bring it back in, especially because you have a new book out called Higher and Friendly Powers: Transforming Addiction and Suffering and I wonder can you talk about that a little bit. Peg O’Connor: Higher power is a term that is often associated with Alcoholics Anonymous, with Bill Wilson creating the 12 steps and writing the book Alcoholics Anonymous and I know that that is part of the language of Al Anon as well, anything that is descended from the tree of 12 steps. The term higher power originally appeared in William James in a great book called The Varieties of Religious Experience that was published in 1902 and it was delivered as a series of lectures. William James was interested in human nature as a psychologist. He believed that spiritual impulses are a part of human nature as much as anything else, as much as our having bodies, having certain senses, of our having certain kinds of cognitive capacities. By spiritual he means something very broad. It has nothing to do with any kind of particular religious dogma or doctrine. Spiritual is anything with which a person decides to stand in a solid relationship. People design what is divine for them and they treat it and they orient themselves in the world in certain kinds of ways depending upon what they regard as divine. For some people, it would be a providential God, the language of the 12 steps is God as we understood Him who’s going to remove our defective character and has a will for us and restore us to sanity. That’s one way to understand something that’s spiritual, one way to understand the higher powers is what we Christians call it, but he said there are multiple higher powers and they’re friendly. He includes things like ideals. Truth and beauty can be a higher power, enthusiasm for humanity, believing that human kind is pretty darn cool and can get better and does remarkable things, a belief in the kind of imminent divinity in things. There’s this philosopher Spinoza writing in the 1600s who was a Jew who was regarded as a heretic by the Jews and regarded as a heretic by the Catholics because he said, God or nature, they’re exactly the same. It’s not like there’s nature and there’s a personified God running throughout. Nature is God. The imminent divinity in things, God or nature, moral principles could be higher powers. What higher powers do is they help people to reach outward to something bigger than them or they can reach inward to a better self or a better version of them. What William James is arguing is that higher powers can help people to transform what he calls their habitual center of personal energy, the axis around which they orient many of their life’s activities or many of their social identities and material identities, that higher powers can help us transform our habitual center of energy so that we tend to incline towards a more expansive view of ourselves and expansive view of the world. Like you said earlier, addiction and trauma causes us to collapse into ourselves, be at war with ourselves, we start blocking ourselves off from others. We stop connections in all kinds of ways. Higher and friendly powers help to reignite the impulses that lead us to connect more deeply with ourselves or to connect more deeply with our family members or with parts of our identities perhaps that we have lost or that we came to disown. He says we want to reach out. It’s part of human nature to want to reach out and touch something and have a kind of continuity with something that is friendly and bigger with our own selves because he says we’re embattled little selves and we get locked down and we’ll say no to life, but when spiritual impulses burn at our center, we expand and we say yes to life. Opportunities and possibilities are absolutely wonderful because they can make us better whereas if we’re totally embattled and pulled into ourselves, opportunities and possibilities are oftentimes just horrifying because we know they’re going to lead to bad conclusions or they’re going to be opportunities for us to mess up. Partly this book, Higher and Friendly Powers, is meant to really return this notion to its more expansive inclusive pluralistic meaning so that more people might find help with AA if they can get beyond the God language or people can find help with their own struggles from William James who knew suffering from the inside, his own extreme melancholia, as a young man he contemplated suicide, he was oftentimes unwell, and he had a brother who was, the language at the time, a drunkard who would oftentimes spend months if not years in asylums for the inebriated. William James knew suffering from the inside. I think that’s why he’s such a wonderful companion to people who are suffering and he’s a wonderful tour guide or field guide for what life can look like when someone undergoes that kind of shift in their center of energy and that’s what James calls a conversion. Conversions can happen in so many ways and for so many reasons. They don’t need a god. Conversions makes you be a new person because you’re in the world differently. You relate to yourself differently. He says you're reborn. You’re regenerated. You’re rejuvenated. It’s wonderful.
Casey Arrillaga: In your book, you talk about types of conversions. You also talk about transformation where you talk about it as being one of the fruits of the spiritual tree. Can you talk about that a little bit and what that looks like for people around recovery and also that might apply for family members? Peg O’Connor: The practical fruits of the spiritual tree is William James’s expression, so when those spiritual impulses start to burn, he says, in people like an acute fever. He says one of the things that happens is that people come to develop a firmness of character whereas before they were zigzagging, they were all over the place, I want this, I want that, or one day I say I believe this and the next day I say I believe the exact opposite, you come to have a firm character. You know who you are. You know your moral values and your principles and your commitments and your nonnegotiable. You live them. You don’t just say you have them but you actually live them. Another thing he says is that you have a certain kind of stability. Stability is always relational. Stability is something that you have to maintain. If any of you spend any time in boats, you know that oftentimes you need to shift your weight depending upon if there is a wave coming. If you always stay in exactly the same place and a wave is about to hit a broadside of your boat, you’re going to topple over. It’s a kind of awareness. It’s a kind of responsiveness to the environment that you’re in, that you have certain things that you can always do to make sure that you stay upright or you don’t dump into the water, and also equilibrium, that kind of seesawing quality of life disappears. That’s not to say there won’t be small ups and downs or really bumps in the road, but you’re going to come to a point of, yes, you are always balancing a little bit to keep something in the state of equilibrium, but again, it’s what you can do. You’re not just going to be buffeted by all the winds and say, well, these things just keep happening to me and offloading responsibility in that kind of way. It’s really, for me, again, I’m trained as a moral philosopher, I think about how liberating it is to be able to take responsibility for your life in the big picture but also to be able to take responsibility for the small things in life and to feel joy for them. I remember I was talking to a friend who had just relapsed multiple times. Her housing situation was very unstable. Oday in a meeting she was talking about, and I paid all of my bills this month, and that was such a victory for me that it felt so good for her to be able to meet those kinds of commitments. That’s one of the practical [42:13]. We just experience the world differently because yes, we’re different, but the world might be different. We see things more brightly, because for example, that possibilities are opportunities. They are possibilities for good things, not just for the worst-case scenarios to land clump in our lap. He says that we have a freedom and a kind of elation from letting go of old grievances and that we orient our lives around gratitude and thankfulness rather than around grievance. Because if you are aggrieved all the time, you’re going to be a miserable person and you’re going to be pretty miserable to be around. If your attitude is one of thankfulness and appreciation, and I think this is really important for people in recovery to have gratitude for the family members who are genuinely there for them and doing the hard work and that may be holding you accountable, that is good, hard work and that’s the right thing for many family members to do, and making you earn their trust back. Trust is something that’s earned. It’s not something that’s just given. Same thing with forgiveness. You can ask for forgiveness but if your forgiveness isn’t in the form of a repair of restoring and making better and being responsible in different ways moving forward, that that’s not genuine moral engagement. Freedom and responsibility are flip sides of a coin and so where you have freedom you always have responsibility. There is a wonderful freedom in meeting responsibilities. Oftentimes people think, oh, well, if I have all these responsibilities, I’m not free. It’s like, no, no, that’s the backwards way of thinking of it. The bottom line William James says is when a person becomes unified, they’re no longer is such all out warfare against themselves or against their family or always coming from the bunker of grievance and just coming up and firing at will hoping to take out whatever is bothering them, that you end the cycle of drama and offense and try to repair and repent and then lather, rinse, repeat, that that kind of life is not sustainable. It’s not sustainable for the individual living it and it’s not sustainable for the people who are along for the ride. I would say that all of those same features that come to the person who’s in recovery, those same features come to families as they’re in recovery, as they begin to repair and move on and take responsibility for what’s there and put down the responsibilities that were never theirs in the first place. Because I think some people get really good at responsibility for too much, for things that aren’t theirs. If you’ve got that overly inflated sense of responsibility, that’s going to lend itself to grievance.
Casey Arrillaga: I actually had a moment in a family session yesterday where I pulled out my magic wand, because I keep one in my office just in case, very handy, and I was able to tap the wife on the forehead and say, I absolve you for all responsibilities for your husband’s actions, the husband being the one who’s newly in recovery. What’s funny is watching where family members struggle with that. They’re afraid to give up the responsibility. They’re afraid to say I actually have no power of what my loved one does, but when we can start to say I’m going to take all responsibility for my own thoughts, feelings, and actions, and allow other people the dignity of the same, then they start to find more and more peace in the relationship because what will happen is family members will get caught up and say, okay, I’m responsible for your thoughts, feelings, and actions, but perhaps self consciously a lot of times they will also say, well, my family member with the addiction is responsible for my feelings and actions. I only did this because you were spiraling out of control. I was angry because you did that. I’m going to say, well, actually, I want you to stop and look and say, what’s going on inside you? Where could you use transformation? Where are you getting stuck in this cycle, like you said, lather, rinse, repeat, over and over again? One of the things that I read in your book was that idea that the transformation really comes when it stops being that cycle, you’re not tempted in that same way to go back into the old behavior, whether it’s the addiction or care taking someone with the addiction, or whatever it is that’s going on in your life and being able to make that transformation as part of a spiritual journey. It’s reorienting. Peg O’Connor: I think that’s absolutely right. I think people always remain a little susceptible for really well ingrained patterns of behavior, but the victory is in recognizing them and interrupting them. You can’t think that you’ll never fall back somewhat or at least start to, but the victory is in interrupting it and course correcting early on before you get into that lather, rinse, repeat. I think that’s what good recovery is. I mean, it spits and starts, and it isn’t always just a straight linear progression. There will be times when there might be slips of certain sorts, where there’s a little back slide. One of the things that William James says that I absolutely love is that before that slip or before that backsliding, you may see the high watermark of your character, you may see the high watermark of what’s potential for you. If it calls your attention to what you can do, then there’s something important in that. It comes back to a lot of people have a hard time imagining that they could be successful at whatever, but particularly be successful in not just falling back in the same old habits or successful in being drivers of their own lives knowing, though, that they’re sharing the journey with others and that there’s always a kind of mindfulness that has to be self-regarding, looking internally. Like you said, Casey, ask yourself what’s going on, what dramas are you playing out here, but then also be other regarding because I’m not just in the world as an isolated individual. I’ve got these material, social, and spiritual selves that are fundamentally woven together and connected to others. I can’t just do what I think is best for me without also taking into consideration what might be best for others, but the art is in knowing when to stop that or when to pull back on that or when you are actually doing a good self-assessment and not falling back into the old habits. I’m doing this because I have to because I have to hold the family together while you were off at the bar and things like that. Those old dialogues are always ready at hand. Why do I still remember all of the tomes I had to memorize and repeat in holy family elementary school in the mid-70s? It’s because I learned them early and I learned them well and I can still say them. I think dynamics are like that, whether it’s parent-child, or whether it’s spouse, or even sibling.
Casey Arrillaga: Our brain loves shortcuts. It loves habits. It loves what it knows, and on some level, it will say, well, it did help us survive. We’re literally still alive so it must work so let’s not forget it. As you said, one of those really vital skills that people develop in recovery, whether it’s a family member or whether it’s directly the person with the addiction, is the ability to course correct afterwards or even in the middle. Our reaction times get better. When I’m first in recovery, I might realize six months later what I did, but over time, it becomes six weeks and then six minutes and then the magic day comes where I catch myself in the middle, I can start in my old thing and go, hold on a second, wait, I’m doing my old thing. Sorry about that. Let me try that again. I think of how many people in early addiction recovery will say, wait a second, sorry, that wasn’t true. Let me try that again. After a while, we catch ourselves partway through, and then ideally, we get to a point where we catch it just beforehand and we can say I’m about to do that thing I always do. Let me course correct before I’ve actually gone off course. How cool is that? Peg O’Connor: Yeah, and that’s one of the great gifts of recovery is that kind of self-knowledge. I know what I’m about to make something bait and take it and just devour it. I know my habits. I know my predilections and social relations. I know it’s going to get me all riled up and sometimes we like to tend those things. Other times we think this doesn’t work out well. Don’t do it. I know for me there are times I’m thinking, if I’m engaging with someone perhaps whom I have a contentious relationship with, I tell myself don’t take the bait. Don’t take the bait. It’s bait, chumming the waters, don’t do it. Sometimes I really need that kind of self-talk like don’t do it because I’m thinking I want to.
Casey Arrillaga: It’s very tempting. Peg, it has been a pleasure in this interview. Before we wrap up, two things I always ask, one, what’s one last thing you might want to say to the family members and people in recovery out there listening to this today? Peg O’Connor: I think the possibility for transformation is amazing, regardless of how far an alcohol use abuse dependency even in, and William James might say, especially in the worst case, the most severe addictions, that the possibility for transformation is always there. What it comes down to, though, is the willingness of an individual to begin to make different choices. It comes down to a willingness. Willingness is not the same as will power, but a willingness to take action, to do and not just wish, but to actually put into effect that that’s the key thing for both a person struggling with an addiction and those who are in relationship with those, that in a family, anyone can start to make changes. Some of those changes may be significant over time but may start really slowly, and I think most likely will start really slowly. I’m an optimist. I’m always hopeful. That’s the kind of person I am. The glass is always half full. I’m grateful to have the glass, but the willingness I think is key.
Casey Arrillaga: I hear you talk a lot about William James and I think it’d be great if we could get a few more people reading William James, but I’m also going to encourage people to read Peg O’Connor. How can people find you and your work? Peg O’Connor: I have two books on addiction. The one that is just coming out August 15 is called Higher and Friendly Powers: Transforming Addiction and Suffering. That’s available for pre-order on the usual suspects. It’s also available for pre-order on my website. I can’t believe I have a website, pegoconnorauthor.com. How’s that for a mouthful? I have another book that came out in 2016 called Life on the Rocks: Finding Meaning in Addiction and Recovery. That’s available on the usual suspects and on pegoconnorauthor.com. I just think the more we talk about addiction across disciplines, not just in psychology or not just in neuroscience, but philosophy has a lot to offer because we have been talking about meaning of life and suffering for millennia so why not take advantage of a very old discipline to tackle some of the perennial human problems.
Casey Arrillaga: Peg, it has been such an honor and a joy talking with you today. Peg O’Connor: Right back at you, Casey. What a wonderful conversation. What a wonderful podcast series. I think all of your listeners are fortunate to have you. Thank you for what you do for not just your clients but for everyone who has the good fortune to listen to your podcast and read your works. Thank you.
Kira Arrillaga: That was Dr. Peg O’Connor. You can find her books Life on the Rocks: Finding Meaning in Addiction and Recovery and Higher and Friendly Powers: Transforming Addiction and Suffering online in the usual places and at her website, pegoconnorauthor.com.
Casey Arrillaga: Thanks for being with us through another episode of Addiction and the Family. As they say in many recovery meetings, take what you liked and leave the rest. Go out and explore the possibilities for recovery in your life and give your loved ones the space and dignity to make their own choices. If you liked this podcast, please subscribe. It means a lot to us. If you know anyone else who could use what we have to offer, please tell them about Addiction and the Family. If you have comments about this podcast, have a question you’d like answered on the show, or want to contribute your voice, or just want to say hi, you can write to us at email@example.com. We’re also happy to be your friend on Facebook and we can be found tweeting on Twitter.
Kira Arrillaga: Addiction and the Family is produced, written, and engineered by Kira and Casey Arrillaga, with music by Casey.