In his memoir, "Life," Keith Richards of Rolling Stones -- and drug-taking fame -- puts together a compelling retelling of his life story, lurid details and all. His honesty is rare in our age; he applies the same observant gaze toward himself as he does in his frank assessments of others.
Richards' description of his long road with drugs is wrenching; just when you think there can't be more, that no one could take anymore, there is more. Just reading the story practically gives a contact high. At the same time, a reader who takes the roller coaster with Richards can't escape anxiety about his prodigious ability to use and take a beating from drugs. Richards is a fighting man, carries a "blade" and sleeps with a gun. But even he comes to know the difference between trying to control drugs and being controlled by them. At some point, even this "outlaw," as he calls himself, who knows he is a "folk hero" for living out regular folks' most outrageous fantasies, cries uncle. But after so many years, so much of his identity bound up in his drug-taking, so many traumatic experiences, how did he turn it around? The book offers a ringside seat into how surrender -- that hallmark of 12-step programs -- can help you get your life back.
Richards had more than his share of false starts. At some point, though, he finally realizes that the drugs are "hoodwinking" him. He doesn't really "get off anymore that much." It gets "progressively harder and harder to kick." Meanwhile, in the world of "Junkiedom," users actually promote the idea that "if somebody cleans up and actually stays clean, it's like they've failed somehow". Richards felt degraded into a position of "self-loathing," living at the mercy of dealers and the necessity to maintain a supply line to get dope. "After 10 years and five or six cold turkeys," he had had enough and "finally said good-bye" to heroin: "I was out of its power".
Why does it often take such a beating to cry uncle and clean up? Richards shares an important truth about addiction:
I was bigheaded in that I thought I could control heroin. I thought I could take it or leave it. But it is far more seductive than you think, because you can take it or leave it for a while, but every time you try and leave it, it gets a little harder... The taking of it is easy, the leaving of it hard... You've got to think about that and say, hey, there's one simple way of never being in that position. Don't take it.
The struggle to come off heroin, cocaine, alcohol and cigarettes for those who become addicted is often played out over time as a battle of wills, willpower and willfulness -- a battle to control that which can't be controlled. "I've got this thing under control," the addict will convince himself. "I'm big enough, strong enough to handle it." Much of the way addicts rationalize their problem with their drug of choice goes like this: "I'm not really hooked, I can stop when I want. I am in control here, not the drug, so I can drink/smoke/drug like everyone else when I please." This is a rationalization -- what we all do to try to make ourselves feel better about something we feel bad about doing. The way Richards tells it, he turned to the drugs as a release from years of hard work recording and being on the road. Even now, there is a touch of dangerous seduction in his descriptions:
I suppose heroin made me concentrate on something or finish something more than I would normally. This is not a recommendation. The life of being a junkie is not recommended to anybody. I was on the top end, and that was pretty low. It's certainly not the road to musical genius or anything else.
In my work with addicted patients, realizing and accepting they've lost control of their drug use becomes the turning point after which they can get on with their lives.
One patient might tell herself, "I'll just get a buzz." She's not trying to cause chaos and destruction. She realizes alcohol is dangerous for her, but she is not logical or rational about it. Emotionally, she's in a fight about it. She wants to believe alcohol makes her feel better, but has plenty of evidence that her moods and relationships are much better when she doesn't drink at all. She knows her drinking is abnormal but the pathway is automated and familiar. She keeps trying to handle it. She says, "It's a blow to my ego that I can't handle it, when I can't drink. I still want to prove I can do it in moderation -- that I can have and keep control."
Drug addicts, alcoholics and smokers succumb to the notion that they, not their drug, will run the show -- will have, and keep, control. But like an old boxer who is beaten to a pulp every time he enters the ring, the only real power they have is to leave -- to say good-bye, as in any abusive relationship.
Dr. Seidman is author of "Smoke-Free in 30 Days: The Pain-Free, Permanent Way to Quit" with a foreward by Dr. Mehmet Oz. An audio book is available from Random House. Dr. Seidman first introduced his own program to stop smoking as a featured expert on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" with Dr. Oz early in 2008, after 20 years of helping smokers at Columbia University. For more details about the book, go to www.danielfseidman.com.