Trade one addiction for another

Posted in Reviews at 20:02 by RjZ

James Frey was 23 and he had already been an alcoholic for 10 years and a crack addict for three. His memoir of six weeks in recovery, A Million Little Pieces, tells an unexpected story. In an unusual, clipped and scattered style, without traditional punctuation or chapters, it seems like he’s written down a sentence at a time on tiny slips of paper and assembled them later. The reader gets to pick of the scraps of Frey’s life very quickly and build a picture with increasing clarity as Frey gains that clarity himself. I’m not sure it’s great writing and I often wonder about the details of the story, but that’s not what interests me about the book (even if it is what seems to captured reviewers imaginations.) Frey doesn’t repeat the usual success story of following the 12 steps to recovery because following the 12 steps [also read Wikipedia's entry], for Frey, is about trading one addiction for another.

Instead Frey completely owns his failures and his success. When psychologists at the clinic tell him the chances against him are a million to one if he doesn’t follow the 12 step program which would require him to give up control of his life to a higher power. Frey responds that he’ll take that chance since it’s the only one he has; he cannot believe in a higher power. What will you do if you’re faced with a choice to drink or not drink? I will choose not to, he responds.

I often tell a story about how, when I was younger I was depressed. Not just sad, but what would probably be considered clinically depressed. It’s not a very interesting story so I won’t bore you hear, but I stopped being depressed by suddenly realizing that it was my choice alone and saying “I don’t want to be depressed anymore.” Often when I describe that story it’s not very satisfying to me or the listener. There’s nothing more to it than a statement. Reading Frey’s tale which is many orders of magnitude more overwhelming than my insignificant late teenage depression we still hear the same solution. “I’ll choose not to.” Not very satisfying, perhaps, but if you get it, amazing.

Frey describes with deadpan strength how he has finally decided to live. I try to live this way too, but I am not faced with the choices he is. He is told by the medical examiners that, thanks to the abuse his body has already endured, if he drinks or smokes crack ever again he will likely die. And still he chooses to ignore the advice of those caring for him and face his addictions head on without hiding behind blame, genetics or God.

Skepticality should interview James Frey. The Infidel Guy should interview James Frey. He is living proof that a rational philosophy can succeed in the face of overwhelming challenges. Is it right for everyone? Frey never says so, but with him around I’ve got a lot more justification for my world-view and at least one compelling argument that faith in a higher power is not the only path to salvation.

Apparently, while Frey seems to have come to his solution to addiction on his own, it’s not a new idea. Check out Rational Recovery for more info.


  1. Rachel Robson said,

    November 29, 2005 at 18:15

    Yay for James Frey. But as a skeptical rationalist type, I would like to point out that a compelling anecdote isn’t data for folks who believe in crystal healing, and it’s not data here either. It’s just an anecdote.

    I remain unconvinced that a power-of-positive-thinking cult of the self is the solution to brain chemistry problems, like those that cause serious depression or addiction. Also, I take antibiotics for bacterial infections even though Christian Scientists say I can pray my way out of them. I fail to see how praying to oneself for healing is more skeptical than praying to God.

    The neurological data indicating that there’s a material basis for our feelings, addictions, etc. is extremely strong. Positing some immaterial “self” that can make “choices” about how that matter behaves strikes me as religious in the extreme.

    I’m glad that Frey is doing well now, and I’m glad that you’re no longer depressed. (But–how do you know you “chose” not to be depressed anymore? How do you know that your brain chemistry did not change to release more serotonin & whatnot *on its own*, with this post facto narrative about choice? Y’know, our brains are really good at coming up with all sorts of storylines to explain observations….I have my own favorite story about choosing to conquer some phobias I used to have that I’ll not bore you with, either.)

    Let’s not confuse atheism and skepticism. A belief in a “self” that has no physical basis but can magically triumph through the sheer force of free will is every bit as faith-based as a belief in a “soul” that has no physical basis but can magically triumph through submission to God.

  2. RjZ said,

    November 29, 2005 at 21:35

    Excellent points indeed.

    I think of Frey’s story more as an existence theorem, not proof. It’s proof that it can be done, not that it will always work and that faith in a higher power is not the only path towards salvation. As I said, I’ve only got one compelling argument. As you point point out, it’s just an anecdote, not an experiment.

    I could posit, for example, that when Frey and I chose differently this was the impetus for our brain to change it’s chemistry and that this change is more powerful than the AA method which keeps the brain behaving exactly as it always has but changes the addiction to something far less unhealthy. There certainly is some evidence that changing what we think about has an effect on our brain chemistry. Changing from “I have an incurable disease,” to “I,have incredibly unhealthy habits which may, indeed, be caused in part by genetics but over which I have at least some control,” sounds like a reasonably different thought process that it may alter brain chemistry. It would be an interesting study I am sure and perhaps scientists have already worked on it. I am not making that claim however.

    Meanwhile, the number of people who “magically triumph through the sheer force of free will” is unknown (to me). There are no statistics on them (at least I don’t have them). Many of them never report that they were addicted (alcoholics often go unnoticed) and they aren’t in any group or study shouting out “hey, I’m better now!” I could reasonably argue that this group goes highly under reported even if there are studies and that furthermore the 12 steps are government funded, mandated and in some cases even required which further reduces the statistics for people who have only, and surely with great effort, just changed their habits.

    Frey’s choice doesn’t appear to me to be one of faith in self as much as choosing the only option available to him–he couldn’t follow the 12 steps for it required a faith he does not have nor feel he could have. I feel the same way (that was my motivation for reading The God Gene, to understand if, perhaps I am missing something physiological).

    I think the points you raise are excellent but I do not accept that lack of belief in a higher power which results on self reliance is a sign of faith. I don’t suppose that Frey had faith that his choices would heal him. Instead he was scared. He saw facing his addiction as his only alternative. No faith there, belief in magical triumphs, no “immaterial ’self’” just a change in behavior and an existence theorem that it worked, once (or if you include my pitiful example, twice.)

  3. Rachel Robson said,

    November 29, 2005 at 22:55

    And, if you include *my* pitiful example, thrice. If mine was, indeed, a real example, and not me coming up with a fairy story to explain a random brain chemistry change.

    Also, thank you. That makes everything much clearer.

    And there is, of course, accumulating neurological evidence that suggests that changing mental habits (or even doing physical actions that go along with particular mental habits, like smiling regularly vs. frowning regularly) can change brain chemistry.

    My main point is just that belief in an immaterial “free will” is just a belief, even *if* one is forced into it like maybe Frey was. Certainly there’s no more evidence for free will than there is for God.

    Btw, thanks for the interesting blog, as always. :)

  4. Penelope said,

    November 30, 2005 at 10:16

    One of the most interesting things I learned in my college courses (and reading lots of books by neurologist Oliver Sacks, whose work I highly recommend) is that the physical workings of the brain and the choices made by the mind interact in very interesting and usually mysterious ways. We know that brain chemistry affects behavior, and behavior affects brain chemistry.

    It is possible for someone to “mind-over-matter” one’s way out of a primarily chemical problem: Lots of people manage to quit smoking without the help of drugs. Rachel cured her phobia by learning a lot about the subject. (I think it’s a great story, Rachel! I wish you had shared it.) Ron may have overcome his depression by deciding not to be depressed anymore, though when he first told me the story, I took his moment of “deciding” as a sign that his brain chemistry was shifting for the better. A clearer example is Ron’s story of how he quit biting his nails by simply declaring that he had quit, and allowing his pride to keep him from biting them again. I, myself, came out of a near-fatal depression at age 20 by growing up and learning how to mange my own life. There is even a legend about my favorite celebrity, Neil Young, curing the epilepsy that plagued him through his 20s by sheer will, though this seems extremely unlikely. It seems more likely to me that his brain learned to work around whatever injury caused the epilepsy, or as he himself suggests, the epilespsy is still there, but affecting him now on a level less obvious than grand-mal seizures.

    The point of this laundry list is that it is possible to overcome brain chemistry issues by force of will, but it is difficult, and more difficult with some problems than with others. It is far more reasonable to expect someone to simply choose to overcome a mild case of depression, for example, than a heroin addiction. Sometimes it is quite reasonable to choose to let drug treatments help one out of a very difficult brain issue, even if a very strong will might also be able to cure it.

    In any case, all of this is off the topic of Frey’s book. Frey is not comparing the possibility of a chemical cure versus a mental cures. No drug treatment was offered to him–and for fear of substituting one physical addiction for another, perhaps they shouldn’t be. Both his free-will plan and the only alternative he had available, 12-step programs, are “mind-over-matter” techniques.

    I’m very happy to hear that Frey and the folks at Rational Recovery are offering alternative techniques for those who cannot accept the belief system required by 12-step programs, as there are many people who can’t. The twelve steps do not resonate with all of the people who need help with addictions, and they work less well for some addictive behaviors than for others. If people with addictions must go on will power alone (and in many cases, most cases of addiction, they must), it’s nice that they have a choice of support systems.

    I have to agree with Frey that the 12 steps are highly problematic for many people and many situations. The first step involves declaring that one has no control over one’s life, and subsequent steps involve giving all power over to something outside onesself (You get to choose the something, as you understand it.) and begging that something to take over one’s life, remove one’s faults, and take care of “our will and our lives” for one. People in 12-step programs then attend meetings, usually at least weekly, often daily or multiple times daily (one meeting for the alcohol, one for the narcotics, another for codependency…), for years if not for life.

    Even I, a fairly theistic agnostic, find this disturbing. Frey has a point about trading one addiction for another. These programs are a sort of mental methatdone: far better for a person than the addiction they’ve traded for it, but still an addiction in itself. Like trading heroin for methadone, then trying to get off of methadone while living an otherwise saner life, I can respect people who choose the 12-steps over more damaging addictions.

    Still, it is nicer, when one gets strong enough, to be able to take responsibility for one’s own life. I think many religious folks might agree. God gave us free will. It seems ungrateful for us to give it back to Him.

  5. Penelope said,

    November 30, 2005 at 10:22

    Like Rachel, I really like this blog. Can you tell?

    Sorry to go on so long. I’ll go write my own blog now.

  6. Rachel Robson said,

    November 30, 2005 at 17:00

    Also: John Nash was apparently able to successfully fight his schizophrenia by willfully ignoring the imaginary people who continued to chat with him. (See the book “A Beautiful Mind” or the film version of it for more.)

    An interesting thing about schizophrenia: It virtually always kicks in in late adolesence, between the ages of 18 and 30. Which is to say, right when the brain really stops maturing. Most neurologists, if memory serves, now think that this final bit of brain maturation takes place right around the age of 20-25.

    What’s funny is that that’s exactly the same age at which so many of us were deeply, clinically depressed, and then “chose” to snap ourselves out of it. (I don’t know the timeline for Ron’s story, but that’s definitely the timeline for Penelope and me, and everyone else I know who’s mentioned such a tale to me.) Now it could be that this coincidence of everybody choosing to straighten up and fly right when they’re about 20 is because that is when one finally *has* control of one’s own thoughts & actions. Or it could be because we *never* have control of such things, at 16 or at 23, and our brain chemistry is settled enough at maturity that we mistake that relative calm for our true identity.

    Additional information about me: When I was about 12, I decided to start liking boys. Also I had my first period.

    As with sexuality, I personally suspect that how amenable one’s brain chemistry is to one’s own mental tinkering follows something like a normal distribution. Relatively few people are capable of pulling themselves up by their mental bootstraps as completely as Frey, few are utterly in thrall to brain electrical storms, and most are somewhere in between.

  7. Penelope said,

    December 1, 2005 at 11:54

    Well said, Rachel.

    So far in my life, I have known three close friends who had or have bipolar disorder (”were” refers to the one who died of unrelated cancer a few years ago), one with schizophrenia, and one who has obsessive-compulsive disorder. (It’s a strange thing. I tend to meet a really interesting person, and when I get to know them well enough to share such very personal information, I find out that many of the most fascinating folks I know have had great trials with brain chemistry.) All of them admit to being really pissed off that they need to take drugs all the time in order to feel like “themselves”–that it is so obvious that thier personality as they know it is really one big chemistry experiment. This is why people dependent on brain chemistry repairing drugs are always tempted to go off their meds. I don’t know whether or not it comforts them to know that we are all chemistry experiments; it’s just that most of us aren’t as aware or as much in control of the game as they are. Hmm. Probably not. The knowledge pisses me off, too. I’ll just have to learn to deal with it. I think I’ll rearrange my chemistry by going to a yoga class later today.

    One more note about good books to read: I haven’t seen the movie, but whether you’ve seen it or not, I highly recommend the book A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar. It’s fantastic in ways that a movie can’t be. In addition to the amazing story of John Nash’s life (complete with stuff that isn’t P.C. enough to put into a major Hollywood movie), it is a history of mathematics and science, and a history of psychiatry. Before effective drug therapies were created (very recently), horrible things were done to schizophrenic people in attempt to help them. The one that got me most was “insulin therapy,” in which patients were shot up with insulin and not fed. This, of course, caused insulin shock. The patients lay around, very close to death (monitored by nurses in hopes that they wouldn’t quite die), and this really did stop the voices and pictures and delusions. The poor patients were too sick to think or do anything. It makes me grateful to live in an age when we’re constantly being offered drugs. I also can’t blame John Nash for looking for a free-will alternative!

  8. Traveling Hypothesis » Trade one lie for another said,

    January 12, 2006 at 23:02

    [...] In my review of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces I revealed that I was skeptical of the veracity of his memoir. I wrote that “I’m not sure it’s great writing and I often wonder about the details of the story, but that’s not what interests me about the book.” Good call. [...]

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