Completely Self-Serving Plug:  Improv Theater Training–February 2—Hope for NH Recovery, Manchester, NH

Each millennium brings with it an event so huge it changes the course of human history.

The first thousand years anno domini brought us the sack of Rome, with its joyous fires, picturesque streams of blood and a return to home rule.

The second millennium’s Black Death helped increase workers’ wages, reduce urban crowding and create a middle class.

This third thousand years brings the Hope Improv Theater.

The Hope Improv Theater comes into the world Saturday, February 2, from 12:30 to 5:30 with an initial training for actors.  We’re looking for enthusiastic folks with a hankering to change the world, spread recovery and have fun. Experience is NOT preferred, but a willingness to explore communication through improv theater is.

To sign up for this free training, please write me at keith@recoverynh.org or text me at (603)361-6266.

I love improv theater. When done well, it’s watching a juggler manipulate burning kittens on a high wire while wearing wet ice skates. When done poorly, it’s observing a group of stamp collectors arguing about the value of an 1851 Hawaiian Missionaries 2-cent stamp while wearing wet ice skates. I’ve been part of both, and want to help prevent philately in our time. Hence, the Hope Improv Theater (HIT).

We’ll use short-form improv scenes to educate the public about recovery, communicate the challenges of early recovery and, always, entertain. I spent five years running and acting with a national theater group focused on AIDS, teenage pregnancy and runaways.  This process is simple yet difficult to explain, so if you want to learn more, I’d direct you to Dorothy Oliver’s excellent monograph on the subject.

I look forward to hearing from you and seeing you February 2 at 12:30 at Hope for NH Recovery in Manchester.

 

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Shipbuilders of Sunken Vessels:  Quick Dispatches from the Belly of the Treatment Industrial System

A confession: although I’ve been clean and sober for 11 years, I didn’t go to a 28-day treatment facility. When I reached the jumping-off point, the spot where suicide made more sense than simply wishing for death, I was lucky enough as a veteran to walk into a VA facility and say, “I’m Keith Howard and I don’t want to be alive any more.” From that short sentence, I was detoxed off alcohol—my poison of choice at that point was stolen dollar-store mouthwash—and introduced to a program of recovery that remains central to my life.  After a five-day stay, I was discharged and told to go to meetings. I did. It worked and I’m here to write about it today.

“Here” is Los Angeles and my putative purpose is the Evolution of Addiction Treatment Conference, a five-year old gathering of treatment professionals. Apparently, four or five conferences are held each year in Cape Cod, Palm Springs and other epicenters of the addiction challenge. I used the word “putative” because I’m really here for the first West Coast Faces and Voices of Recovery Mid-Year Leadership Retreat, held concurrently with the treatment conference. Like Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Rancher and Cowman, treatment and recovery folks should be friends, although that’s not often the case, with treatment folks relying on a clinical model and recovery people favoring peer-based supports. In short, and perhaps unfairly to both, treatment partisans believe letters after one’s name are important while recovery supporters see lived experience as key.

Anyway, I’ve got a free morning until an afternoon-long leadership meeting, so I’ve been chatting with a variety of treatment professionals. Despite my introversion, I can strike up conversations with most anyone. Here are some quick impressions:

–Addiction treatment is an industry, and like all industries it needs to grow to survive. I had an interesting conversation with a marketing exec for a California treatment center where they’re broadening the treatments they offer to include “addiction” to smartphones and other technologies. While I’ve broadened my view of what the solutions to addiction can look like, I’m a bit put off by the word used to include every damn behavior. During our conversation, my newfound acquaintance told me “addiction” only requires two behaviors: 1) You sometimes do more than you’d intended to, and 2) you continue despite negative consequences. Thus the following are some of my addictions:

Poker

TV news

Stephen King novels

Peanut M&M’s

Conversations with marketing execs for treatment facilities

–I’ve been invited to be part of a focus group for a treatment facility. Not because I run a recovery center. Not because I’m an active member of a recovery program. Not because I’m from New Hampshire.

I’m invited because I’ve never been to treatment and that’s apparently a black-swan event in this field.

–Interesting conversation on data with the director of an Arizona treatment program. She believes follow-up phone calls to discharged patients after 30 days, 90 days and one year are an appropriate way to determine program success. Apparently these phone calls consist of asking the former patient whether they’re using and whether their lives are better. Her concern was that it’s hard to find people after 30 days, much less a year, and that her statistics were meager because of that. When I suggested the problem might lie in asking people with substance-use disorder to be honest about their usage, she looked at me blankly. I said I spent 30 years lying to people about my drinking and drug use. She responded that if that’s true, every treatment facility faces that problem so statistics are still comparable.

People lie at the same rate no matter who the questioner, so we can trust the results of these lies? Oh.

–Treatment folks I’ve talked with seem to think the 28 days users spend in treatment is the most important part of the solution to addiction. They’re very concerned about how to structure that time and what modalities to use, with little regard for the following 20, 30 or 50 years after treatment. In fact, there’s some expectation users will go through treatment multiple times. It’s like talking with representatives from the boatbuilding industry who are focused on the mechanics of ships and their creation while ignoring all the sunken vessels clogging up the harbor’s mouth. After all, those boats can be rebuilt in 28 days and sent out to sink again.

A Radical Moderate Take on Recreational Marijuana Use

 

Smoking marijuana is not a revolutionary act.  Finally, at 60, I understand this. You see, boys and girls, I started smoking weed in 1972 when I was 13, and the whiff of revolution—at least as defined by Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies—still hung in the air.  While I was going door to door for George McGovern, I also read Steal This Book, Revolution for the Hell of It and Woodstock Nation. Abbie and Jerry Rubin were my Marx and Engels, and they were one-hundred percenters when it came to the benefits of smoking weed.  Not only would it make The Who and Dylan sound better and mean more, it would help bring down the sexist, racist, imperialist government.  Lighting a joint was also poking Richard Nixon in the eye.

They were naïve, and so was I.

Smoking weed is simply smoking weed.

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Recently, through a chain of events too convoluted to explain here, I’ve been asked to opine on legalizing the recreational use of marijuana in New Hampshire. As a man in recovery from opiates, alcohol and a variety of other chemical solutions to life, I don’t use pot in any form.  Still, my first response was “This issue is outside my concern. I don’t smoke, although I know plenty of people who do without any negative consequences.  Likewise, I know opioid addicts who have ceased using that substance but continue to smoke weed.  More power to them.  Recreational weed use is, honestly, none of my business.”

My public and political position remains the same, but last night I had a chance to experience public recreational marijuana use. I didn’t much like it.

I’m in Los Angeles for a conference. After a day filled with canceled flights, shuttles and Ubers and buses (oh my), I got to my hotel around 7 pm. Being in a place where going outside doesn’t require layering, bundling or gloving, I went for a two-mile walk to a CVS. Along the way, the smell of marijuana smoke was almost ever-present, except when I walked by In-N-Out, where fries and grease overwhelmed it. In an hour-long walk, I passed five or six folks smoking weed on the street, engaging one woman with a very cute dog. She offered to share her weed with me in a kind and neighborly way, but I preferred playing with her dog.


All this marijuana smoking didn’t have much impact on me.  None of the smokers seemed any more or less threatening or kind than any random collection of humanity. Still, I remember when I was first in recovery, battling an obsession to drink. If I’d walked a gauntlet of folks with bottles of vodka in their hands and offering me a sip, I’m not sure how I would have responded, or how long my resolve would have lasted.  Frankly, I have serious doubts. In the same way, I wonder how many newly clean and sober folks, offered joints on the street will walk away and how many will say “screw it” and get stoned.

 

Getting stoned is not a big deal for non-addicts.  Getting stoned is nothing more than a form of relaxation for the vast majority of Americans. Getting stoned, for people like me, can be the first step backward into the abyss, the beginning of an end that can come soon enough.

If New Hampshire does legalize recreational use, I hope communities can implement and enforce regulations to keep marijuana use off the streets. Let it stay in the living room where it belongs, and away from the newly recovering.

 

 

 

Where There is Life, There is Hope: Rethinking My Notions on Recovery

I am an alcoholic in recovery. Without treatment, an alcoholic of my type is like a medieval town under siege. The military tactic of a siege, of course, is used to cut off all incoming supplies and to prevent escape, and so it was with me. I huddled in my drinking as all other forms of support melted away. By the end, an alcoholic has two choices: die within his own crumbling walls or surrender and walk out in search of recovery. After years of denying my alcoholism while watching my world get smaller, darker and emptier, I am grateful that second choice was still available. Life under siege is barely life at all.

I am also a heroin addict in recovery, although I haven’t shot dope in 40 years, having discovered in the Army that I could meet my need for self-escape with booze rather than dope, with a socially-acceptable rather than a stigmatized substance.  Still, I remember dope sickness, the emptiness and its physical manifestations that could only be filled and relieved by heroin. Daily, I was under siege from an enemy I loved more than life itself. I was lucky, though, not just to have switched from heroin to booze, but to have been a young addict in the days of artisanal opiates, made from poppies picked by hand, separated into opium with ancient tools, then boiled down to make a morphine base. Even in its final stages, when the base is converted into heroin, the chemicals used are familiar and homely ones:  ether, alcohol, hydrochloric acid.  Ah, the good old days.

Today, the addict faces not just opiates—chemicals derived from poppies—but opioids—synthetic and much more powerful versions of the drugs of days gone by. Consider N-(1- phenethyl-4-piperidyl) propionanilide citrate (1:1), for instance, with nary a pronounceable nor recognizable section in its name. More commonly known as Fentanyl, this mouthful of chemicals is significantly more powerful than morphine or even heroin, has no organic roots and can lead to overdose death immediately.

It may have seemed glib to refer to artisanal opiates, but the difference between the heroin addiction of 40 years ago and today’s opioid addiction is the difference between life in a town under siege and the same life in the same town—but with a catapult outside the village lobbing large boulders over the walls. In the former, death is always imminent, but the resident can at least hope to sue for peace and surrender; in the latter, death from above comes unwarned and unbidden. It just comes and you’re just dead.

One of my favorite passages in the book Alcoholics Anonymous:

We do not like to pronounce any individual as alcoholic, but you can quickly diagnose yourself. Step over to the nearest barroom and try some controlled drinking. Try to drink and stop abruptly. Try it more than once. It will not take long for you to decide, if you are honest with yourself about it. It may be worth a bad case of jitters if you get a full knowledge of your condition.

Forty years ago, heroin users could be given this same advice—try some more controlled dope-shooting and determine your condition. Today, though, with fentanyl and other opioids, no sane person would send a user out to field-research his condition—he might well find death unwarned and unbidden. This difference animates my vision of addiction, illuminates my understanding of treatment and recovery, and has altered my approach as a leader and, more important, a human. Although my life was saved by a faith-based recovery path, I now fully embrace and support any and all forms of treatment, whether clinical or peer-driven, medication or talk, spiritual or scientific. Whatever works is what works.

After all, death from overdose is not a bad case of the jitters.

Again: death from overdose is not a bad case of jitters.

Mea Culpa, Brad Ladner—And Let Those Panties Drop

I’ve always been a smart ass—no surprise to anyone who’s read this column—but I’ve tried to be a gentle smart ass, punching up not down. As part of my recovery path, I’ve learned the importance of apologizing when I’ve been in the wrong. Because my life is filled with mistakes, this ability to say I’m sorry has been honed to a fine edge.

I am sorry, Brad Ladner.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a column called My Personal World Records, a bit of fluff with the conceit that I’d done some simply amazing things that the folks at Guinness should enshrine. For example, I kissed a girl when I was seven while “talking” on a wooden block to Kitty Carlisle, a TV guest star of the 1960s. I thought I deserved an award for being named my summer camp’s most improved camper one year, then getting fired from a counselor job at the same camp two years later. It was all tongue in cheek, I thought, for who could possibly believe the Guinness Book of World Records would recognize my accomplishments.

Brad Ladner, apparently, and that’s why I owe him an apology.

You see, as an intro to the piece, I talked about how every man wants to be remembered for his uniqueness, and included comments about three genuine Guinness world-record holders. Among them was—you guessed it—Brad Ladner, who owns the world’s largest collection of Batman collectibles. Here is the quote:

Finally, when Brad Ladner bought his first Batman collectible 30 years ago, he likely did so as girl-repellent. Now, he’s a record holder with a total of 8,226 Batman dolls. (I can hear him from seven states away, “They’re not dolls, they’re ACTION FIGURES! Jeez!” Of course, Brad. They’re figures that prevent you from ever getting any action.)

I am sorry, Brad. I really am.

My comments about Brad were ill-advised and unkind. Although designed to amuse rather than provoke, they upset Brad Ladner enough to write me a lengthy and impassioned response. Because I don’t want to misrepresent Brad’s comments, I’m reproducing them in full:

So freakin weird. First off, if you are any kind of a good man, you don’t want renown for your kindness and acclaim for your good acts. I do plenty of good things for the world, none of which I will list because to list them, well, would make me an asshole. If you do good just to get a pat on the back, how truly good is it? Do you hold onto the $20 bill before letting the homeless have it till he says ‘thank you?’ What you are discussing is pride. If you are religious, pride a sin; and if you aren’t religious, then pride is just pathetic. Yes, I have the world’s largest Batman collection, and you know what, some of them are barbie dolls. And it’s more than 8226 now, it is past 13,000. But it is just a hobby, and I got the Guinness record by applying, not by having Guinness seek me out. They don’t do that. I applied for the fun, and I don’t swing it around like a big dick on a 

porn shoot. I have it and that’s that. Didn’t ask to be in the book, not going around trying to get any type of fame for owning stuff. Having a collection isn’t really a special feat in the journey of life, it’s just buying shit and not throwing it away. I don’t try to make myself out to be anything of importance because of it, and if I did, how truly pathetic would my life be. As far as women, I never made it to triple digits, but I’m happy with my numbers. And the collection, total panty dropper. Good luck with your broad generalizations and uninformed assumptions of people you don’t know anything. If you want to go for the Guinness World Record for stereotyping strangers and mischaracterizing and insulting people so you can pick yourself up, I’d gladly sign as a witness to the marvel of your attempt.

So, Brad Ladner (http://bradladner.com/home.html), I am sorry to have hurt your feelings, stereotyped Batman collectible archivists in particular and collectors in general and offering broad generalizations of people I don’t know anything about. In the future, I will go to a subject’s websites to learn more about them and their lives before attempting to be humorous. I encourage all readers to visit Brad’s website noted above, from which Brad’s photo is drawn, and take a look at Brad’s very impressive collection of Batman Stuff in the video below.

Sorry. Sorry. Sorry.

 

 

Grateful for Your Recovery? Open Your Wallet!

Nobody comes into recovery on a winning streak. I’ve yet to meet an addict or alcoholic who decided, while on top of the world, to walk away from a substance that works. Despite the downsides—hangovers, jonesing for product, shame, self-hatred—if alcohol and drugs are working no one walks away from them. Drunks and junkies only try recovery when the shit that used to work doesn’t work anymore. It’s shattered men and women who walk into church basements.

I entered recovery a broken and hollow man.

(Please forgive the narrative break, but T.S. Eliot’s “Hollow Men” is one of my 12 favorite poems of all time and Daniel Amos is one of my 12 favorite bands of all time. The two come together here as the latter covers the former.  Really and for true. It may be the greatest marriage of high art and pop music in the history of the whole human rat race.)

(Please forgive the rerouting of the previous narrative break, but I know certain readers will want to know some of my other favorite poems. In no order: “Acquainted with the Night” by Robert Frost, “Power” by Adrienne Rich, “The Journey of the Magi” by Eliot, “The Second Coming” by Yeats and almost anything by A.E. Housman or Ron Koertge. )

To remind you. I entered recovery a broken and hollow man.

Today, my life’s breaks have knit, and I am filled with gratitude. It’s this latter notion I’d like to explore a bit today. As regular readers may remember, my first sobriety mentor made many useful suggestions: “Go to a variety of meetings,” “Sit in the front and pay attention,” “Hold off on dating for the first year of sobriety” and “Don’t drink.” The slogan that has stayed deepest in my consciousness, though, is simple and, for me at least, absolutely 100% true:

“A grateful heart will never drink.”

Life is balanced when I focus on what the universe has given me instead of what I’ve been denied. Interestingly, gratitude implies at least two separate notions—I am thankful and something outside me has met my needs. Whether that something is God or god, Universe or universe, he, she or it doesn’t really matter. My thankfulness is directed outward, also acting as wind to blow resentment away. In short, the feeling of gratitude as an emotional high colonic on the crap that builds up inside my soul.

I used the phrase “feeling of gratitude” above, and that’s probably correct. Unfortunately, feelings are not facts, and they flee with the turn of my head. Instead, I need to express my gratitude, which brings me to a sermon of sorts to those who have been saved through sobriety.

The Preacher clears his throat and begins.

Ahem.

Every single one of us whose life has been improved by recovery has reason to overflow with gratitude. While November is Gratitude Month for all, those of us who have been saved from ourselves and our self-destructive behavior must demonstrate our thankfulness, and that demonstration must include putting our money where our mouths and hearts are. In other words, I’m calling for all of us in recovery to look unflinchingly at our earning power today versus when we got sober and to give 10% of our income to charity.

That’s right, I believe us folks who used to daily find the money to keep us in our substance of choice should tithe to charities we believe in. While folks who belong to churches that emphasize tithing as a spiritual practice should probably begin there, my experience has been that recovering men and women are less likely to say, for instance, “I’m an active member of my local Presbyterian (or Catholic or Pentecostal or LDS or Jewish or Muslim or any other damn thing) worship community. Instead, we say, “I’m spiritual but not religious.” Great! Now spread your spiritual experience by opening your wallet.

I’ve never put this in print before, and have told only a few people, but for the last three years I’ve tithed to local and national nonprofits, charities focused on veterans causes, recovery and protection of our constitutional rights. As part of full disclosure, I’ll say I’m currently tithing to Hope for NH Recovery and to Shower Them. I’m employed by the former and sit on the board of directors of the latter. More important, though, is my faith in them as organizations with goals that align with mine.

I don’t care where you give your money; I just want every man or woman who’s today making significantly more money than we were when drinking or drugging to find a cause that matters and to write out a check or click on a donate button. Ten percent of what you make. Immediately. Turn that feeling of gratitude into an expression of progress.

End of sermon. Now a brief return to the inspired jackassery you’re used to from me.

Please don’t forget Angry Haiku this Tuesday at 6 pm at Manchester Hope for NH Recovery.

Call me for directions.

Or a description.

Or to brag about how you’ve started tithing.

(603)361-6266]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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My Personal World Records

Every man, I think, wants renown, wants to be known for his uniqueness, the thing that sets him apart from his mates. The Guinness Book of World Records is filled with people like Mike Carmichael, who’s added 17,994 coats of paint to a baseball, starting in 1977. The baseball, which began approximately baseball sized, now has a circumference or more than 9 feet. If used in a game, according to Carmichael, it would be impossible not to pitch a strike. Likewise, Cherry Yoshitake may like apples and may like holding his head under water, but it was a desire for immortality that led him to bob for 37 apples in one minute. Finally, when Brad Ladner bought his first Batman collectible 30 years ago, he likely did so as girl-repellent. Now, he’s a record holder with a total of 8,226 Batman dolls. (I can hear him from seven states away, “They’re not dolls, they’re ACTION FIGURES! Jeez!” Of course, Brad. They’re figures that prevent you from ever getting any action.)

While Guinness has never approached me for proof of any of them, I lay claim to more than a few world records of my own. In fact, more than a few, quite a lot actually. Enough, in fact, that I may hold the record for number of Mundane World Records© held. For example:

  • At the age of seven, I kissed Sheila Draves while talking on a walkie-talkie with Kitty Carlisle. The walkie-talkie was cleverly disguised as a scrap of 2×4, and I don’t believe I ever had even a brief conversation with Sheila again, despite the fact she was my next-door neighbor. For you sticklers, the record includes first kiss and (fictional) encounter with a nearly-fictional celebrity.
  • The fastest climbing of a crab-apple tree near the house where I grew up. To my knowledge, no one else ever climbed that tree. If they did, I don’t believe they ever timed themselves. Regardless, the tree has long since been cut down, preventing any further challenges. My record climb? It took the time it takes to sing “Mr. Dunderbeck” twice with all three verses and the chorus in between each.
  • I was the first boy in Camp Mi-Te-Na history to be named Most Improved Camper and be fired from the camp as a counselor two years later! The Most Improved award came about because I went from being shy and nervous my first year at camp to loud and obnoxious my second. The firing was the result of bad breaks against me and misunderstandings of my behavior. There is an innocent explanation for why, on my first night off as a counselor, I led three other counselors to hitchhike into Alton Bay (the town, not the water), get big kids to buy us a case of beer, drink it and end up jumping off a ladder-less pier into Lake Winnipesaukee. The coup de firing was being picked up in a police boat and driven back to camp by the cops.
  • I am the only boy in the long and glorious history of the Newington Mall Orange Julius to be fired for dropping acid 30 minutes before my shift. More honestly, the complaints brought to mall management were not about interior chemicals but outward behavior. Although I was the only employee working, I refused to wait on anyone, choosing instead to laugh at the idea they would stand on line for sugary orange juice with vanilla milk. By the time my cheeks were sore from laughing and smiling, security had already frog-marched me to the parking lot and watched me drive away. Which brings us to:
  • While tripping on acid, I believe I have logged the most miles driving a 1968 Chevy Malibu. While the Malibu was a member of the Chevelle family, and not armored, I can swear to its ability to change size and color while going over 60 mph and to protect the driver from recently-opened holes in the highway and vicious razor-toothed birds swooping from the sky. Also, it can be a portal into heaven when playing an 8-track of Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s “Brain Salad Surgery.”

I realize, looking back at this list, that all my records are self-centered, self-destructive or both. I do wish at least one of them showed me in a positive light. I mean, every man, I think, wants renown for his kindness, wants acclaim for his unique good acts, the things that set him apart from his mates. In many ways, all men deserve that. Except, apparently, me.

Another record!