I just had a wonderful weekend with my son, John Tyler. The weather was perfect, 70 and sunny with clear blue skies and a silky breeze to caress the skin. With weather like that, who wants to stay inside?
Not us. No, we spent just about every waking moment out and about. Deep Run Park. Lombardy Park. Byrd Park. Sometimes we played with toys, sometimes we played on the swings. But most of the time, John Tyler rode on his bicycle, a little wooden Skuut, one of those fancy new bikes without pedals.
Yes, I said a bike without pedals. He sits on the bike and scoots his way along – hence the bike’s name – all the while improving his balance and coordination. No pedals, no brakes, just feet. By the time he outgrows this bike, his balance will be good enough to go straight to a regular bike, with no clunky training wheels to mess with.
To tell you the truth, he’s already good enough to ride a regular bike. His balance is so good he just gets a head of steam going, then coasts along with an ear-to-ear grin on his face. He’s so fast that Daddy spent most of the weekend just trying to run alongside. Running, as in faster than walking. As in, something I used to do back in the day. Way, way back in the day.
“Run, Daddy, Run!”
“I’m running, I’m running (huff, puff). Can you slow down just a little?”
And so it went. By Sunday evening, I was exhausted. With the light quickly fading outside, John Tyler and I went inside and upstairs to his toy room. I sat down in my rocking chair, listening to the Lithium channel on Sirius Radio while I watched him play with his cars.
As I sat and watched, for how long I couldn’t tell you, it slowly dawned on me . . . I was happy. Not manic. Not deliriously, jump-up-and-down happy. But content . . . the warm, fuzzy feeling of your favorite blanket, only on the inside.
I suppose you could say I was feeling a “sense of ease and comfort.”
Why the quotes, you ask? Well, the phrase “sense of ease and comfort” is one that is well-known in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous. It comes from the Doctor’s Opinion, a collection of letters written by Dr. William Silkworth that form the introduction to AA’s Big Book. In one of his most oft-cited passages, Dr. Silkworth tells us that
Men and women drink essentially because they like the effect produced by alcohol. The sensation is so elusive that, while they admit it is injurious, they cannot after a time differentiate the true from the false. To them, their alcoholic life seems the only normal one. They are restless, irritable, and discontented, unless they can again experience the sense of ease and comfort which comes at once by taking a few drinks – drinks they see others taking with impunity.
As a recovering alcoholic, I’m often asked why I drank the way I did. The first, and probably least helpful, answer to this question is “I don’t know.” And that’s the truth . . . I don’t really know. But I can tell you from personal experience that Dr. Silkworth’s explanation goes a long way to capturing what went on inside my head during my descent into madness.
The key is this notion of an elusive “sense of ease and comfort” that alcoholics look for. I remember when I first came into the rooms, I kept hearing people talk about how they felt out of place, how they didn’t fit in, until they discovered drinking.
I told my first sponsor that all that talk was just a little too simplistic for my taste. Feeling like you didn’t fit in was just part of the human condition, wasn’t it? I mean, didn’t everyone feel that way?
His response? “No, Jim, they don’t. But almost every alcoholic I’ve ever met does. Our natural state is a strong sense of ‘dis-ease’ and ‘dis-comfort.’ That’s one of the major reasons we drink.”
My own personal retreat into alcoholism came about as the result of a deep dissatisfaction with myself and my life. I didn’t like who I was, and I didn’t like how my life was going. But rather than do something positive to change my life for the better, I found myself increasingly succumbing to the siren song of alcohol.
And that sense of ease and comfort calling out to me was very real. Call it a “mild euphoria,” if you will. Call it a “warm, fuzzy blanket feeling.” But the feeling’s there, and, at least for this alcoholic, it came immediately, and predictably, on the heels of the first drink. It was almost as if I was transported to a different place, one far away from the continual sturm und drang inside my head.
“Calgon, take me away,” indeed.
The problem, of course, was that I never wanted to leave that “other” place. I didn’t want midnight to come, ever. I never wanted to go back to being a pumpkin. Only thing is, I couldn’t stay drunk all the time. Trust me, I’ve tried.
So what to do? I couldn’t keep drinking, but I was unhappy when I was sober. How could I find that sense of ease and comfort I needed without alcohol? The answer, at least in the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, is to provide a spiritual solution to what is, at its heart, a spiritual malady. By working those steps – by cleaning house and changing the way we approach life – we enter into a new relationship with the God of our understanding, one that provides us with that same sense of ease and comfort we once sought in drink.
This is what we call a spiritual awakening.
But all this is really just a roundabout way of saying that when I felt that feeling with my son this weekend, I recognized it for what it was. The same sense of ease and comfort I used to get by drinking.
Was I addicted to my son? Was it even possible to be physically addicted to another person? If so, was that necessarily a bad thing?
Well, it seems that it is, in fact, possible to be addicted to another person. At least if you’re a mother with an infant child. In the July 2008 issue of Pediatrics magazine, a research team led by Dr. Lane Strathearn, of the Baylor College of Medicine, found that a mother viewing a photograph of her own child smiling experiences increased brain activity in key brain centers associated with pleasure and reward. The specific brain areas involved included the substantia nigra region, the striatum, and the frontal lobe regions involved in emotion processing. Significantly, these are also the areas that have been activated in experiments associated with drug addiction.
“It may be that seeing your own baby’s face is like a natural high,” Dr. Strathearn said.
Dr. Strathearn noted that this was an important first step in understanding the bond between mother and child, a critical relationship for child development. In cases where this mother-child bond is weak or lacking altogether, “neglect and abuse can result, with devastating effects on a child’s development.”
I can believe it. I can also believe that a strong, “addiction-like” attachment between a parent and child can go a long way towards ensuring the child gets the love and support she needs. At the end of my drinking, the only compulsion I felt more strongly than my desire to drink was my desire to be there for my son. The need to be with him was overwhelming, overpowering, so strong that I pawned my wedding ring and spent my last few dollars on a bus ticket to Richmond just to be near him.
And my desire to be with him, to be there for him, was what got me into The Healing Place eighteen months ago. If it weren’t for that emotional attachment, my son probably wouldn’t have a father today.
So am I addicted to my son? I’m not sure I know the answer to that.
I’m willing to bet you that if you took an MRI of my brain function while I was sitting with John Tyler last weekend, you would find elevated activity in the same regions that Dr. Strathearn identified in his 2008 study. That’s probably as close to a picture of Dr. Silkworth’s “sense of ease and comfort” as you are ever going to get.
But does that mean I’m addicted? I used to think so. I would walk through fire for that boy, and I would happily move Heaven and Earth to be at his side. But a crack addict would do the same for his next hit.
I never did like that answer, though. I don’t want to think about my son that way. Thankfully, I don’t have to. I gave the question to my new sponsor a few days ago, and here’s what he said.
“Kaj,” he calls me Kaj, “don’t think of it as being addicted to your son. Remember, you turned to alcohol to fill a void in your life. Drinking worked for a while, but it could never keep that void filled. That initial sense of ease and comfort quickly gave way to suffering and humiliation, and, if you’d kept drinking, to death.”
“The only thing that works is the spiritual awakening of the 12 Steps. God is the only thing that can fill that void in your soul and keep it filled. That sense of ease and comfort you’re looking for comes from your conscious contact with God. So when you felt that familiar feeling last weekend, it wasn’t because your son is just like another drug to you. It was God touching you through your child.”
Nine Inch Nails' “Closer to God.” Not P!nk’s “Just Like a Pill.”
I’ll buy that.