PENTICTON - Michael Pond, author of the new, bestselling book The Couch of Willingness spoke with Infotel News about his memoir on alcoholism and what he’s learned from his mistakes and redemptions. Here’s a look at what he had to say:
Infotel News: Why did you decide to write a book about your addiction?
Michael Pond: There’s lots of reasons, but when I was about a year sober and just got out of the last recovery house and had made my one year through AA, I just started to get back engaged in life again. And I went on Plenty Of Fish at the advice of a bunch of young people where I work. They could tell Mike was not doing that great. What they didn’t know was that I was just one year sober and they didn’t know any of the story.
And so I started this dating thing and of course it would start out just fine and as soon as the date found out I was a recovered alcoholic and I didn’t have a driver’s license, they would basically say “see you.”
Then the one date was with Maureen Palmer, she is the coauthor and my partner and we’ve been together now for four years coming up. We met at a bistro here in Vancouver...and when we asked for drinks, she asked for a Chardonnay and I said I’d have a cranberry and soda. And she’s a journalist and immediately she started asking questions. As I peeled away the layers, she decided to have another date and the relationship just started to progress and I just cut to the chase. And finally one day she just looked at me and she goes ‘ You gotta write a book. We gotta write a book.’
I said, ‘well, I’ve been told that quite a number of times.’
She said, ‘No I mean it. You have to write a book.’
The main incentive, I was realizing was how much the writing process was healing me... getting up every morning (before work as a psych nurse) at 4-4:30 and I’d write for two, three hours; and I could just sense and feel things changing and healing.
I started blogging on my website and the Vancouver Sun picked up the blog. I’ve been writing a regular column for the Vancouver Sun now for about a year and a half. It’s really helped me, because of all the research I did, writing the book, learning about all these new models of therapy and how to deal with addictions.
IN: What were some of the greatest challenges while writing the book?
MP: Of course the writing itself, and try and hone something that was a great story but also an intriguing story and stay honest. It was very difficult to write some of the backstory because the book (was) mainly about the two years of my recovery back here in vancouver.
And so going back and having to write about the impact it’s had on my family and particularly on my relationship with my boys’ mother, the impact it had on my sons and just absorbing and reintegrating on a whole other level what had happened because of my drinking.
That was very difficult, very emotional. But also at the same time very healing and I’ve learned that what seemed to be the most painful things I ever went through have now turned out to be the most wonderful things that I went through.
And coming clean and getting as honest and as open as I could possibly get. I think that’s what people appreciate about the story is the honesty. Talking about those failings and the things that I’ve done and the things that I went through.
When you really look at it, it’s all about relationships and what happens to the relationships to the people who are the most important to you... and you love the most.
IN:What is your relationship with your sons like now?
MP: They’re absolutely wonderful. And this has been a remarkable thing. The boys still haven’t read the book—they’re not ready to do that for their own reasons and I really respect that and I don’t push it.
It’s just too hard for them. It’s too soon. I understand that — I grew up in an alcoholic home, my father was a severe alcoholic and his father was too. My grandfather died at 58 due to his alcoholism.
Through this process they’ve seen their father come back, the father that they remember before the drinking got terrible. It’s been really, really positive for them and to know now that I’m there for them now whenever they need me, and I’m reliable and solid and responsible. It’s deepened our relationship. There’s a whole renewed kind of respect. And they’re adults now, they’re men. We’ve talked quite openly about what’s happened and it continues to be an ongoing process.
They’ve learned a lot about themselves, and everybody’s learning about this problem and what it does to individuals and families and the damage that it does and how important it is to get treatment and get good solid treatment. To take the shame and the stigma away from this thing, ‘cause it was the shame and the stigma that kept me where I was and drove me even deeper into my addiction… to the point where you lose every. You lose everything.
When you’re walkin’ the streets of the Downtown Eastside with not a penny in your pocket and you’re starving and you gotta go climbing into the dumpsters to find something to eat, it’s a very humbling experience and it jolts you into reality.
IN: How did you get from Penticton to Vancouver?
MP: Greyhound Bus. Total blackout. I don’t remember getting on the bus. I had a bottle with me and I just remember the bus driver waking me up and saying ‘this is the end of the line’ and quite literally it was the end of the line for me.
I spilled out that bus and drank what was left of the 26er of vodka and wandered the streets. I had no money and needed a drink, I was detoxing, and I sold a $1500 laptop for 20 bucks and bought four more beer. And so the story goes.
IN: How did it all start? What drove you to the bottle?
MP: I think I had the genetic vulnerability, the predisposition anyway. And I drank as a young man, as a late adolescent and in early adulthood. That’s what we do. It’s part of life, partying and drinkin’ beer. It’s part of our culture.
I was always wrestling: this is a wonderful thing, a social thing and it just permeates every aspect of our society. And it’s probably the number one health problem that’s killing people.
I always knew I had it. When I became a father in my late twenties, early thirties I was focused on being a dad, a husband, a provider. Everything was fine. We lived in the Okanagan, it’s wine country. Half our friends are in the industry. Hockey dads, the whole culture; The tournaments, the golf, the skiing, the whole lifestyle. The Okanagan has to be one of the hardest places to stop drinking. It’s part of the culture for sure in that area. It was really tough.
I kept thinking I could beat it myself, and I would go into recovery or treatment and I;d make it 30 days and go right back to working...and I don’t think I realized the impact that was having on me. You don’t realize when you spend all day listening to other people's’ tragedies and trauma and grief and loss, that’s what I deal with, that’s my work, that’s all I’ve done for 40 years. I thought I was... invincible, I guess. But obviously it was affecting me and I used the drinking as a coping mechanism and look where it took me.
I used to go mountain biking. I’d have two water bottles... one was my juice and once I got to the top, my other one had Gatorade and vodka in it. That’s what I drank on my way down. That was like my reward. It was crazy.
IN: When did you realize you needed to get help?
MP: I think I always knew that I needed to get help. As the alcoholism was progressing and probably ten years ago, knowing this is getting bad, worse and worse with each day. I tried to go to different rehabs and different treatment centres but I was pretty deep and I ended up in final stages of alcoholism. And that’s a tough place to pull an individual out of.
Research is showing that .5 to 1 per cent of us that reach that end stage of alcoholism survive. So that in and of itself is a miracle.
My father was an alcoholic. I’m the oldest of four and three of us could be deemed alcoholics. There is that genetic predisposition, or genetic vulnerability that we have and the environment I was brought up in. The last thing I wanted was to be an alcoholic. You know, I had to live with that, with my dad and my grandfather. But this is what happens to us.
And we were a pretty high-profile family in the (Penticton) community. We were there a long time, I had a flourishing practice there in Penticton and we did very well. I had to put a lot of energy into hiding this thing and covering it up and keeping it secret. That could only last for so long. I started phoning into the office and saying I wouldn’t be in today, then I’d phone in and say I wouldn’t be in all week, just cancel all my appointments. And it just got worse, and worse and worse. I was kicked out of my home. I ended up staying in motels there in town.
This is the nature of this thing, right. I don’t know if I want to call it a disease anymore—there’s lots of controversy and the jury’s still out on what this really is. Some say it’s a learned thing, a coping mechanism. The American Medical Association considered it a medical illness, a disease. I guess at some levels it really is, it’s a terminal illness. It almost killed me twice.
IN: How would you describe an addiction to someone who has never experienced it before?
MP: Boy that’s a tough one. It spirals up and down so there’s a bit of an obsession, it’s an obsessive kind of compulsive behaviour. It becomes more and more embedded over time. And it’s progressive and then when you try and quit, first you go through the physical withdrawal, then there’s the emotional withdrawal, the guilt and the same and the remorse and the recrimination. And near the end, people are not wanting to be around you. It breaks up your marriage and your relationships and you’re… living way below sub-par what you were living before in terms of your lifestyle. Then the depression comes in and the anxiety and the worry and what’s the best remedy? Booze. It’s just a vicious cycle that spirals down.
Now I’m learning there are probably lots of ways I could have gotten off that spiral but I didn’t. But what I’ve learned is you don’t need to bottom out like I did. We can take of this thing way before you get to that point.
One of the biggest, most effective ways I’m seeing now, is you include the family in the therapy. Let the addict and alcoholic go off and do whatever he’s doing, you guys need to be taken care of and shored up and learn and get educated and train how to take care of yourself. And learn how to communicate effectively, and how to problem solve. Let’s make this family, minus the substance user, let’s make them solid and strong and resilient and give them the tools and ways of dealing with this person. It isn’t about shame and blame and punishment. 'Cause that just drives the alcoholic further down. It’s like this self-fulfilling prophecy that just builds on itself.
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