Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Getting Unhooked: A Conversation with Susan Shapiro

When I decided to become more mindful about my drinking, I wanted to look at a lifetime, mostly unthought, habit. Ditto with food and coffee and sometimes shopping and exercise.

I can see now (or admit now) that at times I'd get mad or anxious if I couldn't have my fix. Hiking only two miles? Not enough! Coffee delayed beyond 10 a.m.? Help! No wine or beer served at this restaurant? Really???

I want a peaceful mind, a mind that can sit, a mind that can go with the flow. A mind that doesn't expect something external to make me feel better.

Pema Chodron's Buddhist writings have helped me immensely on this path. As have two books that are decidedly not Buddhist: Jason Vale's Kick the Drink Easily and Fred Woolverton and Susan Shapiro's Unhooked: How to Quit Anything. Although both are geared toward the addict who needs to quit, I think they are also helpful for people like me who'd like to look at their habits and compulsions and still have a drink or a dessert now and then. This amalgamation of ideas is not about deprivation but about a peaceful, happy mind and body. It's about making friends with my feelings.

Unhooked was co-written by a therapist and his client, Susan Shapiro--who also wrote a funny memoir about quitting her addictions, Lighting Up: How I Stopped Smoking, Drinking, and Everything Else I Loved In Life Except Sex. For my "Books That Inspire" series, I spoke to her.

It was interesting to read your humorous memoir about addiction, followed by a book you co-wrote with your therapist, Unhooked: How to Quit Anything. Dr. Woolverton helped you quit smoking cigarettes and other compulsive behaviors, including daily pot smoking, obsessive gum chewing, and imbibing prodigious amounts of diet soda. How long has it been since you quit? And do you ever re-read these two books as a kind of refresher--or have you moved on?

Thanks Kate! I don't go back to read my old books often because I start to revise and rewrite. I've been clean, smoke-and-drug-and-gum free for thirteen-and-a-half years now. In that time I don't think it's a coincidence that I've published ten books. I actually wrote my first novel Speed Shrinking about my sugar addiction, which happened after Dr. Woolverton moved to a different state. I've stemmed that but it's still a struggle. Food is the worst addiction to conquer because you have to eat three times a day. It's become easier for me to quit something entirely than be moderate.
At the heart of Dr. Woolverton's approach is this: we must learn how to use "strength and creativity to solve our psychological problems" instead of turning to substances that actually stunt our emotional growth and "thwart our ability to discover new coping mechanisms." Now that you don't use substances to numb yourself, how do you deal with difficulties?
I depend on people instead of substances, like my husband, family, and close friends. I still do therapy sometimes when I feel a need. I'm a workaholic. I work out, though when I was kick boxing, I hurt my back. My physical therapist Kenan was a Bosnian war survivor so we actually did a book together called The Bosnia List. I said "You fix my back, I'll fix your pages." 
Now, I'm much more connected to my husband. I talk to my mom on the phone every day. I rely on the brilliant critics in my two writing groups twice a week. I don't think most addicts will ever be able to only rely on themselves. As Dr. Woolverton said, addicts depend on substances not people. So when you take away the substances, you need others to help. If you're that type, I think it's important to understand your personality and flaws and always have backup plans. A Jungian astrologer said my chart shows I would always be extremely dependent on people. I do best with collaboration. Also "you'll take others higher than you'll take yourself."
Dr. Woolverton says that being secretive is harmful to the addict. Was writing a substance abuse memoir a deliberate part of your path to sobriety?

No it wasn't deliberate. Though I always journaled and took a lot of notes in therapy since he said so many fascinating lines like, "Underlying every substance problem I'm ever seen is a deep depression that feels unbearable." And to stay healthy and happy "lead the least secretive life you can." I suggest to that my students that they write about their worst obsessions. So when the addiction therapy was taking over my life for a year and I was chronicling it anyway, it seemed like a no-brainer to turn it into a book.  Doing research, there were tons of memoirs about quitting alcohol, heroin, cocaine and food. But I didn't find any funny first person books about quitting cigarettes, which was my main addiction. I smoked two packs a day for 27 years. So there was a hole I felt I could fill humorously.

You mention that quitting smoking and drinking made you more empathetic and intuitive. Almost 14 years later, is this still the case? 

Yes I'm more empathetic and intuitive. But I'm also still thin-skinned.  I don't travel as much as I used to. I'm no longer a people-pleaser. I'm not as complacent and nice. I'm rigid. I wrote an essay about quitting guilt that starts "I spent the last two years saying no." And in those two years I got everything I wanted. I've become much more selfish and more generous at the same time. As Dr. Woolverton said "Don't expect anything from an unhappy person, they have nothing to give. You'd get more from a happy stranger."

Well now that I'm happy and getting everything I want, I have much more energy to give. My husband and I are closer,  I'm more connected to  certain relatives and friends I love.  I have tons more students getting published in The New York Times and Washington Post (sometimes daily) and more getting big book deals. But if someone wants my help, it has to be on my schedule. I usually write 9 to 5 seven days a week. I don't answer the phone or email. If somebody comes by without an appointment, I don't get the door. I teach at 6 p.m. Then I'm ready to be very giving. I'm a night owl, so that's the best time to find me. 

Dr. Woolverton tells you to "aim for being closer to yourself." He stresses we must learn how to be unafraid of our feelings. I think that's great advice for anyone, even those who aren't addicts. What strategies do you use to be "closer to yourself"?

I personally love crossword puzzles, reading newspapers, journaling. Sometimes I do what Oprah suggests: a gratitude list, writing everything I feel grateful for. I love to swim, which I find soothing. And I do walking office hours with my students every night around Washington Square Park, which clears my head. I like listening to music. Once a week I get  a manicure, pedicure, back massage and foot massage while grading my school papers. It costs $100 and I  come out an hour later feeling cleaner, revitalized and productive. A friend jokes that's Sue's idea of relaxation. While I was going through withdrawal,  Dr. Woolverton told me to have my husband hold me one hour every night as we watched a movie or TV show on DVD, without speaking. That's still one of my favorites.

Dr. Woolverton says, "Using isn't pleasure-seeking, it's pain-avoiding. Do you still find yourself avoiding pain? What do you do when you catch yourself?

Unfortunately, eating at night is still an issue. I don't keep any junk food at home. But living in New York, I can pick up the phone and have anything delivered 24 hours a day. I'm sometimes conscious that I'm stressed out or frustrated, and I'm eating to fill that void, instead of staying with the discomfort--as Dr. Woolverton says, "letting it tell its own story." I have to fight myself. That's when I journal, or phone a friend. Or read. Or listen to certain music.

Your book ends with a humorously-wrought awareness that you are becoming addicted to low-cal ice cream. To me that suggests that after the book is over and your life continues, you might struggle with addictions to anything. Has this been the case?

Yes! I recently had to quit frozen yogurt. I don't think an addictive person stops being compulsive. We just get hooked on different--hopefully healthier--habits. I definitely feel addiction to book deals and literary events. When Dr. Woolverton heard how excited I was getting from good press he said, "That's your new heroin!"

What would you tell your younger self?

Stop smoking, toking, and drinking right now. It'll be a blockade to all your dreams. Get into therapy quickly. That's what I tell my students and younger protégées all the time.

Susan Shapiro lives in Greenwich Village, where she teaches her popular "instant gratification takes too long" classes at the New School, NYU, and in private workshops and seminars.
Visit her website to learn more.

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