It’s nearly three years since Brent P. finally got clean and sober.
I say finally because he was first introduced to AA thirty years ago. Back then he went to meetings believing AA might have some preventative benefits. He was young and liked using alcohol and drugs but he didn’t want them to become problems to the degree that he might one day be compelled to abstain. The idea was not to quit but to learn what mistakes others had made and avoid them.
So it came as little surprise to him some twenty years later, after having done a couple of stints in rehab, the odd night in jail, blown a marriage and alienated a few friends and family, that, in the absence of the preventative strategies he’d so sincerely sought in AA, he had indeed become the alcoholic and drug addict he’d set out not to become.
Now clean and sober, Brent has embarked on a web series that mirrors what he was looking for when he started out thirty years ago. Called The How Not 2 Guide 2 Getting Clean & Sober, it is less a how-not-to-become-an-alcoholic guide than it is a how-not-to-fool-yourself-into-thinking-you-don’t-have-a-problem-when-you-really-do guide.
You really should view the episodes below, currently running on YouTube, to fully appreciate the interview that follows…
A few days ago I sat down to talk to Brent about this enterprise and what he hopes to accomplish with it.
Roger: First off, is this a joke?
Brent: Anything but.
Roger: Having seen the three episodes you have out now and enjoyed them, I thought some people might conclude that you’re having fun at the expense of people we both know have a problem that could kill not just them but others too.
Brent: The goal of the project is to wake people up, particularly young people, to the types of behaviour that often indicate they have a potentially lethal problem. Using humour to do that seemed the most effective way to get their attention. The goal is also to disarm them and the defensive reflexes that are activated when drug and alcohol problems are raised. Besides, the logic that justifies anybody’s drinking or using drugs, when the problem is obviously out of control, is without a doubt so absurd, it’s funny. It deserves to be laughed at. And so do the people who believe it.
Roger: So the humour is a device in a serious effort to educate?
Brent: That’s a good way to put it. When I first attended AA and learned that abstention was the only real solution to alcoholism and addiction, I balked. The prospect of stopping drinking was so unattractive to me that it likely was the first indication that I was headed for trouble. Most normal drinkers don’t go to AA to begin with, and only alcoholics would go searching for the answer to their alcoholism, have the answer presented to them in the clearest possible terms, and then say, “Thank you, no.”
Roger: Why is that?
Brent: Well if they’re anything like me and just about every other alcoholic I’ve ever met, the last thing they want to do is stop. They want whatever trouble it was that first drove them to AA to go away, but damned if they’re prepared to actually quit drinking.
Roger: Now you’re talking about an alcoholic’s relationship to alcohol. And of course this would also apply to an addict’s relationship to drugs.
Brent: Exactly. I mean the problem is defined as an abnormal, progressive dependence that, if continued long enough, will lead to addiction to alcohol or drugs. So when a person who has come to rely on alcohol or drugs to, I don’t know, help them handle social situations, cope with stress and tension, ensure hilarity and good times, hell, even make a football game more interesting, then they are not going to easily accept the prospect of stopping.
Roger: You’ve said that the How Not 2 Guide is, or was inspired by your own experience. Is what you just said a description of you?
Brent: For sure, but I know I’m not unique. I went to AA and had my problem defined as“powerlessness over alcohol” and I was told that my life “had become unmanageable.” In those early days, I could argue with that definition but what came to haunt me was the promise that, if I indeed was in the early stages of a lifelong problem, my problem would get worse until finally I would not be able to deny it.
Roger: But you set about to prove that wrong, to show that you did in fact have some control over your drinking.
Brent: I think that’s what most alcoholics do unless their first exposure to AA or treatment comes after they’ve seriously harmed themselves or others. I mean I’ve heard of people waking up in jail or hospital to learn they’d killed somebody or broken their own back or neck in a car accident or a fall. If alcohol was the reason for that then it typically doesn’t take a great deal of convincing for that person to accept they need help. But I’ve also seen those same people hobble out of the hospital in a neck and back brace and head straight for the liquor store.
Roger: But without a definitive experience like that, you suggest that most alcoholics, because alcohol is so central to their lives, are going to do everything in their power to control or manage their drinking.
Brent: Right. And that’s when the rationalizing, strategizing, justifying, theorizing and so on comes in to play. It’s when alcoholics go searching for the flimsiest alternative explanations of their problem and give in to absurd misconceptions, all in an effort to not have to stop. And that, essentially is what the How Not 2 Guide is all about.
Roger: Identifying those rationalizations, strategies, justifications and so on, to expose them as nonsense: that’s what the Guide is about?
Brent: That’s a big part of it. But I’d elaborate a bit more.
Roger: Please do.
Brent: AA talks about alcoholics “hitting bottom.”
Roger: That’s the shorthand that’s used to describe the moment when we consciously or unconsciously realize, “This is it, I’m done.”
Brent: Right. It’s a life changing moment, even if you don’t recognize it that way at the time. Yet in reflecting on my experience, especially as a chronic relapser, I didn’t experience a bottom. For several months after my last drink, I had no idea if I was finished or not. It wasn’t until I’d reached about seven or eight months, by far the longest I’d gone in the previous decade, that I realized that not only was I staying clean and sober, but I was entirely free of the obsession and the compulsion to drink or use drugs. While I couldn’t say for sure why this was the case this time, I did make an informed guess.
Roger: And that was?
Brent: That I’d finally reached my threshold for self inflicted pain at the same time that I’d run out of the lies and strategies to justify drinking or doing drugs “just one more time.”
Roger: So rather than hitting bottom, you just kind of ran out of rope?
Brent: I couldn’t come up with one more good reason to put myself through the horror show that drinking and using were certain to inflict on me.
Roger: So how does that relate to your How Not 2 Guide?
Brent: Because prior to the end I must have justified my drinking and using a million different ways. It was like moving men on a chess board. “Oh I haven’t tried the mix-alcohol-with-cocaine gambit yet, so lets see how that works.” That sort of thing. The How Not 2 Guide is really a collection of the strategies I employed, strategies that inevitably led to more and more epic fails.
Roger: AA’s Big Book talks about that, all the different strategies that alcoholics use to gain some control over their drinking, and says that some alcoholics will chase the illusion of control to the gates of hell.
Brent: It does. But what it doesn’t address, at least to my satisfaction, is the thinking that allows these illusions to persist. That’s the insanity of addiction. And I’m certainly not the first to identify that. In fact A&E’s Intervention has done a great job of portraying just how hopeless and tragic the alcoholic/addict can become. But I frankly think that show works against enlightening those who may be in the early stages of alcoholism and addiction. I mean if I’m 17 and quaffing beers with my friends on the weekend, and maybe sparking up some dubes, I am not going to relate to what I see on Intervention. Furthermore it’s a bit of a buzz-kill.
Roger: A buzz kill?
Brent: Yeah. I mean unless you’re a fan of the human train wreck, you know, seeing bodies mangled in the machinery of seriously damaged brains, it’s hardly something you’re going find fun or entertaining, especially if you’re high.
Roger: So the How Not 2 Guide is meant as entertainment for people who are high?
Brent: High or not, if they are entertained, then they will watch it to the end. They may or may not identify with what they’ve seen. But if indeed they do have a problem, the day will come when they either do the same thing they’ve seen on our show or something similar. That’s when it comes back to them and there’s a sort of uncomfortable shiver because they know they’ve done something that was clearly identified as symptomatic of someone who has a problem.
Roger: And you think that will stop them?
Brent: No but I do believe that we will have robbed them of at least one of the multitude of excuses people use to keep going. So we will have moved them at least one step closer to the truth.
Roger: You said “we” a couple of times there. Are there more people involved in this than you?
Brent: I have four partners. One who financed the project so we could hire really good actors. Another who did the editing, camera work and handled all the technical stuff. One who directed each episode and another who will handle the sales end of things. And I came up with the idea and wrote each episode.
Roger: Okay. So I take it there’s more to come. What we’ve seen so far is just a taste, a preview of the real thing.
Brent: What we have now are really condensed demos. We expect to get a TV series out of it while the long term goal is a comprehensive website that will house these episodes but also include a place for people to send in their own stories, whether filmed or written. We are associated with a very well known addiction counselor who himself has been on television many times and will provide the clinical perspective. There’s more, but you get the idea.
Roger: So you’ve done your homework as well. You’re working with professionals in the field of recovery.
Brent: Without their support and encouragement then I think we are simply making fun of addicts and alcoholics. Our objective for this has always been “edu-tainment”. But if experts look at it and don’t see any value in it, if they don’t see the validity in either the approach or the content, then we’ve failed.
Roger: I like it, Brent, very much. I was at an AA meeting a few days ago and the group was doing a particularly quaint reading from the Big Book. I thought, to myself, “What are the chances anyone under 50 could relate to this reading?” I think your approach is fresh and I think the humor is relevant. It just might get through to a tough audience: younger people, boys and girls, if you will, younger women and men. If you have the opportunity to expand on it on the web and TV and get it out to a wider audience, I believe you will be contributing to the growing body of our knowledge and understanding of addiction and recovery.
Brent: Thanks for that. And I do want to say that despite the seeming irreverent tone, I have taken this very seriously. We call it the comedy before the tragedy, because we’re all aware of the horrors that await when addiction and alcoholism aren’t addressed before an individual is truly trapped. I wished that I had been better informed when I was young. I’m not saying that would have stopped me but if something like this had been presented to me when I was in my earliest stages, then I think I would have felt more comfortable talking openly about the insanity of alcoholism and addiction. Ultimately, if you’re going to get anywhere with young people, they have to feel they can talk openly without fear of any sort of reprisal and in their own language.
Roger: Many thanks for this interview, Brent. Best of luck with this project and please do keep us informed about any new developments.
Brent: Thanks, Roger. Will do.