On Sunday I was booked to appear on the Jeni Barnett show on BBC Radio London. It was for an hour and the plan was just for me to take calls about how Cognitive Hypnotherapy can help people with their problems. I was really looking forward to it. I awoke on Sunday morning to hear the news about Amy Winehouse, and guessed that the show was going to go entirely differently.
I watched the news and saw a succession of experts on addiction give their opinion on what had happened and why, and I was resolved about one thing: I wasn’t going to be one of them. Much of what they had to say was valid – about the general patterns of addiction and its timeline, and some spoke movingly from personal experience, but nobody other than Amy herself could really speak about her addiction, certainly not someone who never met her.
I work with addicts. I find there are two main areas that need to be worked on for recovery to occur and be sustained. The first is the physical addiction. Chemicals are a vital part of the brain’s operating system. Anything we add to the mix of them changes the way the brain works. After prolonged exposure to the effects of a chemical that chemical can become part of the operating system. If it is withdrawn or runs low the brain causes us to behave in a way that will restore its balance – as deadly as that balance might actually be. An addict will experience that as a craving.
The good news is that because the brain is amazingly adaptive it will change itself again in response to the continuing absence of the chemical or its effect – it will find a new balance, given time. Part of my work is to use the techniques I have available to create a sense of that stability as soon as possible, and minimise the degree of the craving as much as we can. Many approaches focus on this area, and some stop there.
Personally I believe the second area is even more important because the first can lead to recovery, but not necessarily prevent relapse. A basic premise of Cognitive Hypnotherapy is that all behaviour has a purpose. So why we would invest in something we know is going to kill us? Why wouldn’t Amy stop? Most of what we do is driven by our unconscious, and as a therapist I see many variations of behaviour geared towards the same thing – trying to feel better about who we are, or damping down the bad feelings we have about who we are. Mood altering substances can be used for either – they can make you feel more comfortable around people and able to ‘be yourself’. They can make your feel sexier, more interesting, more talented, more loved or loveable. They can also be used to dampen your response to traumatic memories, to escape from an unpleasant reality or to distance you from your self-loathing. So here, in my opinion, is the key to sustained recovery: improving your relationship to yourself. If you change the learning your brain has taken from past experiences that led to the unconscious seeking drugs or drink to make you more able to cope with yourself in the world then you can learn to live without them. Tune your brain to a reality that allows you to enjoy being you and everything changes. It’s not easy, but it’s possible.
And that’s why only Amy could tell you what led her to addiction, and what prevented her from being able to sustain her recovery – and why I didn’t want to sound like an ‘expert’. We know the chemistry of addiction, and it applies to everyone, but the psychology of addiction is a story the person writes themselves. In Cognitive Hypnotherapy we believe that is true of all clients. They are the experts. It’s for us to fit into their ideas, not force their issue to fit ours.
Sadly for Amy there was an additional obstacle: I believe that everyone has the potential to recover, but it depends on many factors, even with a better relationship to yourself. A healthy environment is one of them. Protection from people looking to profit from you is another. Showbiz is not the ideal place for recovery. We should all take care to create the best environment to support who we’d like to be – and that includes work, relationships and friends.
On a more positive note, the show did demonstrate how people bond through music. It touches us emotionally, and a singer’s words can resonate with our own lives. Amy sang of the struggle to love and be loved, and to live. And most of us have understood that struggle at some point in our life. Listeners struggled to voice their loss for someone they never knew. And that, in what has been a dire week for humanity, is some reason to hope.
If you’d like to listen to my bit on the show where I talk about Cognitive Hypnotherapy and speak to some callers about self-esteem, insomnia and procrastination then click on this link.