A Conversation about Being Sober and Becoming Happy with John MacDougall

John MacDougallDr. John MacDougall spent 30 years drinking and using drugs every hour of the day before he found sobriety in 1989. He worked at Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation for two decades as the director of spiritual guidance and now works as the spiritual care coordinator at The Retreat, a treatment center grounded in the 12-Step principles. He will present on June 23 in Northbrook and June 24 in Aurora based on his lectures and book, “Being Sober and Becoming Happy.” Gateway spoke with MacDougall about the lessons he’s learned through a life and career in recovery.

What is the “spiritual condition” for people recovering with substance use disorder?

Basically, spirituality consists of a set of three relationships: how well we’re getting along with our higher power, with ourselves, and with other people. You really can’t pull them very far apart. For example, I don’t think it’s possible to love God, be at peace with yourself, and treat other people like dirt. So any improvement in one of the three relationships improves the other two; any breakdown in any of the three relationships brings the other two down.

Before you found your sobriety, what was your relationship like with the “spiritual condition”?

My attitude was I’m the center of the universe and you exist only to the extent that you can help me get what I want.

What clicked for you, so to speak, when you found your sobriety, or what worked for you to strike a balanced “spiritual condition”?

I thought I was just a heavy drinker and used a lot of drugs and that I wasn’t an alcoholic because I had a job, an address, a wife, a car—what I now call “scavenger hunt recovery.” When I finally figured out I was an alcoholic and a drug addict, I carefully detoxed myself over a six-week period, I went to AA (Alcoholics Anonymous), and I asked this guy to sponsor me. He said to me, Here’s “The Big Book.” He opened it and basically said, Here’s chapter five: it’s how it works. Here’s chapter six: it’s it in action. The 12 Steps are contained in these two chapters. If you read these 12 Steps and you do what they say, you will never drink or use again. And at that point, I had been drinking and using drugs every single hour of the day for 30 years in a row. I read them and never drank or used again. So I did a very literal application of “The Big Book.” The things it says to do are really spiritual in nature: honesty, hope, faith, courage.

What made you wake up one morning and say, I need to write my own guide?

I worked 20 years at Hazelden and I gave a lot of lectures. My wife said to me, You’ve got to write this stuff down. I said, No, no, I’m a talker, not a writer. And she said, No, no, you’re getting old. This stuff will be lost. You’ve got to write it down. So the lectures I’ve done made the basis of the book.

If someone could only hear one lesson from your book and from your lectures, maybe someone who is initially struggling with their sobriety, which lesson would you tell them?

I see guys relapse at my meeting after 10, 15 years, not because they’re not working the steps, but because they’ve been working them and every aspect of their life has gotten better—marriage, job, home, finances. They look at the fact that their life got better and they go, So I’m better.

Because this is a brain disease, our brain resets every night to alcoholic. So I need to take the first three steps of AA in the first minute of my day. My simplified version is this:

Step 1: Good morning, John. You’re an alcoholic. Pay attention.

Step 2: There’s a God; it’s not me.

Step 3: I need a fresh decision today to turn my world and my life care to God. And then carry step three all through the day.

MacDougall will speak from 9 a.m. – 3 p.m. June 23 at Techny Towers Conference and Retreat Center in Northbrook and on June 24 at Prisco Community Center in Aurora. For more information and to RSVP to the Northbrook event, click here; for the Aurora event, click here

It’s Not Always Easy Being Green: Staying Sober this St. Patrick’s Day

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This weekend, the Chicago River will flow green and people dressed in green across the country will flood the streets, bars, and restaurants for St. Patrick’s Day. The holiday, originally celebrated in honor of the patron saint of Ireland, has become a drinking holiday for many Americans. It can be easy for nondrinkers and those in recovery to feel excluded and uncomfortable during the holiday weekend. So here is Gateway’s guide to activities that do not involve alcohol and some tips in case you find yourself among the pint glasses:

Stay in and enjoy your favorite indoor activities.

Whether you prefer Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime, there are plenty of streaming options to choose from. Marathon a new series or re-watch a classic film from the comfort of your own home. For a list of what is available for streaming this weekend, click here.

If sports are more to your liking, then, as you probably already know, you’re in luck—March Madness . College basketball is now at the forefront of the sports world with games playing nearly every minute of the day. Even if your ride or die team failed to make it into the tournament or is already out, there are plenty of exciting matchups and Cinderella stories waiting to happen. For the schedule of all this season’s games, click here.

Read a new novel or re-read your favorite one. For a list of books everyone should read, across different genres, click here.  If you’re in the mood for fresh books with the potential to become classics, here is a link of New York Times’ best sellers released this past weekend.

If you prefer something more hands-on, look no further than the DIY board on Pinterest to find tons of crafts to keep you busy through the weekend—and even through the remainder of the month.

Focus on any of your hobbies, whether it’s playing an instrument or baking. Whatever you decide to do, dedicate time this weekend to something you thoroughly enjoy.

If you start to feel cabin fever…

Use this weekend to see the newest movies in theaters. Blank Panther has shattered world records and received glowing reviews. If you’ve already seen Black Panther or classic superhero movies aren’t your thing, there are plenty of other options now showing, including A Wrinkle in Time and Tomb Raider. Click here for a complete list of movies currently playing.

The time for New Year’s resolutions may be over, but it’s never too late to make a new resolution or to revisit one you made in January. Heading to the gym or a fitness class is a sure way to get your body—and your mind—feeling good. Exercise is proven to signal the release of dopamine, which makes you feel happy.

Surrounding yourself with people who are also not drinking is the surest way to resist temptation. Even if you are not drinking, simply seeing alcohol can lead to cravings.

However, if you find yourself somewhere where other people are drinking, remember to keep your mind and hands occupied. Try to find a sober friend who will accompany you so you have additional support and someone to talk to. Mingle with other guests but shy away from areas where alcohol is located, like bars. Hold a cup of a non-alcoholic beverage, like a carbonated drink or seltzer water mixed with juice. This reduces the likelihood someone else will make a drink for you or ask if you want something to drink.

Always remember you know yourself best, and if you feel uncomfortable, it is okay to leave. Trust your instincts.

There is no wrong way to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, and regardless of what everyone is doing, you should take the time to do what is best for you this weekend.

Diffusing Drug Cravings with Mindfulness Urge Surfing

As defined by author Jon Kabat-Zinn of University of Massachusetts Medical School, mindfulness is: “A gentle effort to be continuously present with experience…paying attention on purpose.”

With practice and commitment, mindfulness is a tool that can help people work through a variety of common concerns, such as: mood swings, stress, depression, grief and impulsivity. And now, it is being used with success to help people in drug treatment manage their addiction issues for lasting sobriety.

A newly released book, Mindfulness-Based Sobriety (Turner, Welches and Conti; 2014), relates mindfulness techniques to relapse prevention. According to the book, mindfulness begins by focusing awareness on one’s own breathing. If and when the mind strays—to thoughts, feelings, sensations and urges—it’s completely normal. However, the trick is to observe yet not react to the distractions.

 The key to appreciating mindfulness is twofold:

  1.  Be aware and accepting of urges, cravings, emotions, and all aspects of your experience, while not driven to act on them.
  2. Base motivation and actions on what need to be done in order to move towards a life worth living.

mindfulness, urge surfingWhen cravings or urges arise, a person in drug treatment learns how to acknowledge the urge without “fusing” with or acting upon it. Cravings, like waves in an ocean, tend to rise in intensity, crest and then subside. Also like waves, the process typically repeats itself. Mindful awareness of this pattern is called “urge surfing,” a term coined by the late Alan Marlatt, psychologist and developer of Relapse Prevention Therapy.

Experiencing and accepting the rise and fall of cravings and urges without reacting can be liberating for individuals who have surrendered to their urges with alcohol or drug use in the past. With a new sense of empowerment, individuals with a foundation in mindfulness will base their actions on what they need to do to achieve the life they want.

To learn more about using mindfulness to manage addiction issues, please sign up for Gateway’s free CEU webinar on Jan. 30, 2014, from 12:30-1:30 p.m. The trainers are Dr. Phil Welches and Nick Turner, substance abuse experts and co-authors of Mindfulness-Based Sobriety: A Clinicians Treatment Guide for Addiction Recovery.

Purchase the book with curriculum on Amazon.com today.

12 Tips for Staying Sober During the Holiday Season

tips for staying sober, holidayRemaining sober can be especially challenging during the holidays.  Family gatherings, holiday parties, and other social occasions can be very difficult for someone who is in early recovery.  Thoughts of past holidays can bring up memories of celebratory drinking or drugs.

Although it seems hard to get used to the idea of a sober holiday season, especially if friends seem to be having a great time drinking or using drugs, completing treatment is an accomplishment that you should be proud of.

Here are some helpful and practical tips to make staying sober easier:

  1. Write yourself a letter – “How I stayed sober over the holidays:” The act of writing your ideas on paper is a very powerful to reinforce your intentions. Think about your values write down all the activities that will help you have healthy, happy and sober holiday season.
  2. Plan each and every day of your holiday season:  Plan to spend the majority of your free time with friends and family who are supportive of your recovery. Likewise, plan downtime for reflection and rejuvenation.
  3. Keep a daily gratitude list: The quickest cure to get you out of the holiday blues is by counting your blessings and being grateful for what you have every morning.
  4. Sober community support: Come to Gateway’s holiday celebrations in addition to your recovery group get-togethers to share your experience, strength and hope with others. Check out Gateway Foundation on Facebook to find schedules for recovery groups, alumni meetings and special events hosted at our treatment centers.
  5. Tell your family and friends how they can support you: Those who are truly supportive of your recovery will be happy to help you throughout the holidays.
  6. Create a contact list: Make a list of 10 people you can call. You are always welcome to call a counselor or confidant at Gateway Foundation. Carry your cell phone and list of names at all times.
  7. Don’t skimp on exercise: Regular exercise is an essential component of any balanced recovery program and will help you weather the stresses that often accompany the season.
  8. Avoid unhealthy hangouts: There is no reason to ever check out your former favorite establishments—no matter who is in town.
  9. Begin for new traditions: Start an annual bowling tournament or flag football game with fun awards and prizes. Host a cookie baking party and trade cookies with your guests. Use your imagination, be creative and have fun.
  10. Volunteer for a charitable organization: There are many people in your community who are less fortunate than you. You will be helping not only the needy but yourself!
  11. Avoid H.A.L.T. (Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired):  If you are hungry, get something to eat. If you are angry, talk to somebody about it. If you are lonely, go to a meeting or call a friend. If you are tired, get a good night’s sleep.
  12. Take one day at a time and enjoy your sobriety: Stay in the moment and live one day at a time. Never mind about what happened or what could happen. Enjoy today. Live today. Celebrate your sobriety.

Take this opportunity to celebrate not only the holidays, but also your new life of sobriety, which is something really worth celebrating. If you find yourself struggling during the holiday season, please remember that you are not alone. Help is only a phone call or meeting away. 877-505-HOPE (4673).

Can the Body Recover from Excessive Drinking?

Research suggests the body can bounce back once a person stops drinking.

The liver, one of the few organs that can compensate by growing new cells, has remarkable regenerative powers. A liver mildly inflamed by alcohol can recover fairly rapidly once the drinking stops. Even a scarred liver can halt the process of cirrhosis if alcohol abuse is stopped in time.

Research even suggests that brains too can recover from damage caused by alcohol abuse.

Studies have found that after a month of sobriety, an alcoholic’s brain begins to repair itself, and brain volume, which tends to shrink from excess alcohol, is increased by a few percentage points. Patients’ ability to concentrate is also improved.

If you are concerned about someone who may be abusing alcohol or drugs, Gateway Foundation can help. Contact Gateway to arrange a free and confidential consultation at 877-505- HOPE (4673) or learn more about Gateway Foundation at RecoverGateway.org. Renew hope today.

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