This is part two in our series about the book Addiction: One Cause, One Solution. My guest is Barbara Sarah Smith, who co-authored the book with my guest from Episode 1, Christian McNeill.
Barbara shares about her connection to the subject of addiction recovery, why it matters to her, and how she sees addiction differently now that she understands the principles of mind, consciousness and thought that shape our human experience.
Barbara Sarah Smith is retired from her work as a mental health practitioner where she worked for over 40 years in various settings including acute health care, hospice, outpatient mental health and addictions treatment.
In 2014 she was introduced to a new, principle- based understanding of mental health that has transformed her life as well as her client’s lives in extraordinary ways. Rather than a pathology based lens, she now teaches her clients about our innate emotional health and resilience.
You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and the full transcript is below.
- How our past has the ability to affect us only as long as our thinking is focused on it.
- On the universal nature of wanting to feel better
- Our fluid experience of life and how that helps with addiction recovery
Resources Mentioned in this Episode
- Book: Addiction: One Cause, One Solution
- Jamie Smart on subtractive psychology
- Book: Women Who Run With The Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estés
Transcript of Interview with Barbara Sarah Smith
Alexandra: Barbara Sarah Smith, welcome to Unbroken.
Barbara: Thank you. Lovely to be here with you.
Alexandra: I’m so happy to have you here. This is part two of our series on Addiction: One Cause, One Solution, which is the book that you co-authored with Christian McNeill. So I’m so glad to have been able to speak to the both of you.
Barbara: Well, it’ll be interesting to see how this plays out.
Alexandra: We were just I was just saying before we started recording, for our listeners that many of the questions today that I’m going to ask Barbara are similar to ones that I’ve asked Christian. I did that deliberately. Because I think sometimes from different voices and different perspectives, we can hear different things, they might just strike us in a different way. So that’s the reason for that.
Why don’t you tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to discover the three principles?
Barbara: Okay. Well, I’m an MSW by education. And I have been in the field of social work in all different forms for 46 years, I really loved it. I had a private practice for about 45 years before coming to this. And I really loved my work, I had a very full practice, very full practice.
Years ago, I really started to burn out, I thought, I’m just not sure what we’re doing here is really helping anybody because I was seeing some people for years. And it just, I just didn’t have the same feeling I wasn’t showing up in the same way. And that didn’t feel good. So anyway, very long, very long story short, a colleague of mine introduced me to the principles.
Or at least she introduced me to someone who she said, could introduce us to this. And I was absolutely, first of all, very skeptical, and extremely skeptical, and, but really no clue that there was anything that was going to be different than what I already knew after 46 years in the field.
So I really didn’t want to meet with this woman who was on her when I didn’t have any interest, but they wanted me to do it. And I thought I’d be nice and do it. And when she started talking about this and used words like wisdom and common sense and intuition, it just really piqued my interest. And that sort of drew me in and it was six months off again.
Maybe not. Then finally, I think very skillfully, at some point, she really recognized that something had shifted and recommended that I go for an intensive, which was the turning point for me.
Alexandra: Oh, nice.
And given your background in therapy and social work, and you ran a retreat center for a while, didn’t you?
Alexandra: Is there anything you can pinpoint that that kind of helped you to, to flip the switch to see the difference between this paradigm and the pathology related one?
Barbara: Honestly, I would love to know that myself. Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t even know why I stayed with it. I don’t know. I didn’t have the money.
But for some reason, I kept going back to it, I think in part because I was really, I had to keep working. So I needed to do something and I knew I couldn’t do what I was doing. So part of it may have been desperation. But I don’t know when when the tide started to turn. I’ve thought off and on. But I think I still have all the recordings. I should go back and look at them. Because something happened.
And again, she recognized it, I think. I don’t I don’t really know. I just know, it started to sort of make more sense to me at some point.
Alexandra: Thank you for that.
We’re here mainly to speak about your book addiction one cause one solution so maybe share with us how did that come about?
Barbara: What happened was I was a guest on Harry Derbitski and Greg Suchy’s webinar on alcoholism, addiction in the three principles. I was on that several times. And Christian saw me on there and got in touch with me to talk on her show. And we just hit it off.
I invited her to come visit me in the Azores, where I live part of the year. And she did and she came and we were like, well, I said something about I’m writing a book just a while I’m writing a book. And so we decided to combine forces and write a book together. And it was really quite an extraordinary experience for both of us that it was just seamless. It was seamless.
We knocked it out, really, in three months, we were we had a deadline, because we were trying to get ready for the big addiction conference that was going to be held in Minneapolis. So we had that time pressure. But we’ve just worked so well together too.
We both are pretty strongly opinionated people, but we just, we’re able to just feed off of each other in terms of really good suggestions and really good edits. And it just came together really quickly. I mean, it was really very seamless. Really.
Alexandra: Christian, in Episode Two, she explained her interest in addiction related to her experience with alcoholism, and then sobriety.
What is it that draws you to that subject?
Barbara: I’ve worked in the field of addiction for 30 plus years. I came from a family where alcohol created issues. And I blamed that for my mental health or lack of many, many years.
I love working in the field of addiction. I worked in a number, a number of treatment centers over the years, and I’m a great fan of 12 step recovery.
I love people who get it once they get it. And so, it was a challenge for me. But again, I was at a place where I thought, what are we doing? We weren’t I wasn’t seeing any progress and people. So it was I was starting to feel so frustrated that is this best we can do? I would I remember saying to some of my clients?
Well, I know you’ve done your steps over and over and over. And I know you’ve done this, and when when do you get to the joy part? And they’d look at me like I had 12 heads. Joy, what’s joy?
So, I didn’t really realize what was happening. But it was, I think, at a place where either I’m going to get out or I’ve got to find something different.
Alexandra: Something that really caught my attention there about blaming our lack of mental health on the past what may have happened related to an addiction or something, some other circumstance in our home.
I’d love for you to touch on that and how you see it differently these days.
Barbara: Well, that’s, I would say, one of the greatest gifts out of this for me, because I get into psychotherapy personally, early on in my life, and really always blamed my mother’s drinking on all of my problems.
My mother was an incredible woman. She was brilliant, and she was funny, and she was generous, and she was kind but I didn’t focus on those things. Growing up, I just focused on the several hours a night she had a very strange reaction to alcohol, the minute she started drinking, she would just get me and she could be very cruel.
And so I focused my attention solely on that. And it became the lens through which I measured my whole life. And so I really felt as though I needed a lot of therapy and that she had essentially ruined my life with the way she treated us.
When I found the principles, I was still blaming her drinking. And it was it was kind of hard to wrap your brain around when you were a kid because when she wasn’t drinking, she was just awesome. And my friends loved her. But when she was drinking, she was, she was really, it was mind bending, to could be very difficult.
So, I focus my attention solely on that, really, I over time I, in some of my spiritual work, over the years, I certainly came to forgive her more and more, and I could see her after reading Women Who Run with the Wolves that she was this brilliant woman who really didn’t have a lot of options. At that point in her life, she went to college, interestingly enough at Smith College with Julia Child.
Julia Child once wrote, “If I hadn’t found what I found, I probably would have become an alcoholic.” I think they were bored and restless. And, so sorry, I sort of got that. And I gave up gave her some credit for that. And but I still believed I truly fully believed that my mother had ruined my life.
And then when I really found the principles, I realized that all my focus had been on what she had done wrong. And that kept me miserable. And once I saw that, it was like, that was the lens through which I saw my mother.
It wasn’t about all the wonderful things and what was interesting over different over the course of years, different ones of my sisters would say, I thought mommy was stupid for drinking, but I had a great childhood. And I was like, oh, I know, you’re in denial.
So all the psychobabble that went along with that kept me stuck. Kept me stuck in believing when you believe that the feelings you’re having or that your entire childhood formation is due to what happens to you? It’s a trap. And I was ensnared in that trap for my whole adult life.
Until I learned the principles, and then I realized no, no, I created a story about my mother’s drinking and her ability. And that story was the was that it had an ability to, to ruin me. And it carried, I carried it around, like, a big heavy ball and chain free for my whole life, my whole adult life. And then it was gone.
Alexandra: What do you see now about your mental health?
Barbara: Oh, I feel robustly mentally healthy. Even when I get caught up in old things that may come up again, I’ve had several periods over the last few years of, feeling depressed, but now I see that as an opportunity to explore a little bit more deeply.
I remember a few years ago, I had a period of intense insecurity. I don’t know, just sort of came out of nowhere, it seemed like it came out of nowhere. And it felt like every insecure thought that I’d ever had was like, velcroed on me a little post it notes. I couldn’t shake them, they wouldn’t go away. And it was just I went down a dark dark hole for a period of time. And then one morning, I woke up to this insight.
Ah, the problem isn’t that you still have insecure thinking the problem is that you believe and then it was done.
We all have insecure thinking at times. It’s perfectly normal. But I was for some reason during that time just stockpiling it, piling up pulling them all together, and they were sticking to me but I do believe that that was the beginning of the end.
So now when it happens, and I just did a retreat last weekend, and everybody kept referring to going down the rabbit hole of their their thinking, when I go down the rabbit hole, I don’t stay in the rabbit hole very long. I go down and then I come out. it’s like, okay, well, there it is again.
Alexandra: If I could say what I hear in that, is that what you saw going back to about your mother was that you may be innocently believed that she could have an impact on your mental health and your well-being.
What you later saw was that that wasn’t possible. Is that a fair way to say it?
Barbara: Yeah, it was because it was just the opposite of what you do in psychotherapy. A good friend of mine, who was also a social worker gave me a set of cocktail napkins one time that said, it’s all your mother’s fault.
That is psychotherapy. We really didn’t mean to do that. But we explored a lot about what our mothers or parents or families or did or didn’t do that created our unhappiness, that was a major focus of it. And I bought in hook line, and sinker, obviously for 40 years.
Seeing that that’s not how it works, is has been enormously liberating, enormously liberating, because then you can really look at where the true where the truth lies, in yourself and in your situation.
That gives you back all the power, you’ve now got the power.
Alexandra: And for those who are new to this understanding, that this the way that we’re speaking about this now, doesn’t mean that you as a child didn’t experience the things that you experienced, correct?
Barbara: Correct. Yeah.
Alexandra: They still happened. And they had an effect on you at that time.
What you’re pointing to is looking at how you’re moving forward, how your thinking, kept you stuck in a way in that place? Is that a fair way to say it?
Barbara: Yeah, it certainly happened. I mean, there was no question that my mother had this reaction, but I would spend all of my time ruminating on that.
I wasn’t able to shake it off, and move on. And, and again, I think this spiritual work helped me to see her within a bigger context and be more compassionate towards her life. But I still believe that she had damaged me.
I remember having that conversation with a bunch of my peers, probably a year or two before I learned the principles. Yeah. So that’s how long it had to held out. It seems so true. Because it was supported by the whole psychotherapeutic community. Of which you were a part of which I was a part.
Alexandra: Let’s switch gears slightly now. And talk about your book.
One of the things that I really appreciated in the book, Addiction: One Cause, One Solution is that you talk about variability, and the ups and downs of life and how normal that is.
I wondered if you could talk about this a little bit more in the context of addiction recovery and what it means in that circumstance.
Barbara: I think, in working with addicts, over the course of years, anytime there was any kind of blip on the radar screen, or they had a bad day, or they had a fight with their husband or their wife, or they had difficulty at work they became this automatic default, that would take them to, um, damaged goods.
I have these problems that I have because I’m an alcoholic or an addict.
And I used to say to people, alcoholics and addicts don’t have don’t have corner on the market. Just because you’re an alcoholic or an addict doesn’t mean we don’t all suffer from the human condition.
Now, again, this wasn’t within the context of principles, but it just was pretty clear to me that every single passing mood got turned into, oh, I’m so damaged, I have all these, these issues that are because I’m an alcoholic or an addict.
I felt like I was trying to pry people’s fingers off of that, and character defects. That’s a term I’m looking for. These are all my character defects. And, so then the solution to doing to having that time, a difficult time, challenging time was to do another fourth step, which Alcoholics Anonymous, for those who don’t know, is that inventory of basically everything you’ve ever done wrong in your life.
And as I would say, to them, like, really down in the dumps, I’m not sure I would start digging all that stuff out. But, that wasn’t program, the more you could sort of self flagellate around that, I think the idea was that that was going to make you better make you humble, make you better in some way. And now, now, talking about it, and I don’t mean to make fun of it. But it doesn’t even make any sense. It doesn’t even it’s not even logical.
So I just really can see that we all have bad days, we all have bad days, in the program, they call it one day at a time. Well, if you had to stick, bamboo shoots under your fingernails for 24 hours, that would be a long time. But when you realize that we have bad moments.
I have a wonderfully funny client, former client who was just at the retreat this weekend, and she actually timed it. One time she was she went down the rabbit hole with her thinking and wanting a drink and feeling really, sorry for herself and whatever else was going on. And she timed it, she waited. She waited, and it passed. And she’s like, you’re right, it did pass.
So, the idea of one of the spiritual guiding features that I have in the quotes that I have all over my office in my home, and everything is this too shall pass. Well, I got that I knew that was true. But once I learned the principles, I really started to see that this too shall pass because it is the nature of all things to pass.
It’s not just words.
Alexandra: We can rely on that, it’s not just something to tolerate, it’s a predictable experience.
Barbara: And so grounded. All the wisdom that’s been surrounding us our whole lives, like your grandmother saying, all the things will look better in the morning. They always do, unless you keep cranking out the same negative thinking they do better, they certainly look different, at least until all your negative thing kicks in, they look different, you feel better.
And I now have very physical, I am really in touch with the physical sensation in my body when the thinking lets go or the, the place where it’s caught in some sort of eddying effect of of your mind. Some people refer to it as a thought storm.
Kind of once it lets go, it’s like, Oh, okay. So there’s a real physical experience of that in your body when when your mind stops doing that, and you just move back into it flowing down, like a normal stream.
Alexandra: Right. And it it’s occurring to me now to that when you talked about previously holding your mother responsible for your life and your approach, as you say, you have to pry people’s fingers off that belief.
What that can really do, it seems, is interfere with this natural variability and flow so we can almost make ourselves stuck, in a certain part of that stream, create a stickiness that doesn’t need to exist.
Barbara: Absolutely. The stories that we write based on the outside in misunderstanding keep people stuck, sometimes the whole lifetime. And when we can be open enough to see this, again, the freedom is just extraordinary. But there are people who don’t want to let it go.
If they really are convinced in I am, and in all fairness, I think, 20 years ago, I don’t know that I would have been able to let it go either. So I don’t know when we’re going to be open, if I would love to be able to predict when someone is going to be open to hearing this and seeing this.
Alexandra: In another part of the book, you and Christian talk about subtractive psychology. And I just, I hadn’t actually heard that phrase until I read your book, which I reread a couple of weeks ago.
I would love for you to touch on what that is, and why it’s central to this understanding that we’re exploring.
Barbara: Sure, it’s actually a term I believe, that was coined by Jamie Smart. So give him credit for that. And it just really rings true for both of us, in that, when someone believes that they are broken, and they’re damaged goods, or they have a disease, an incurable disease. And there’s all of this maintenance that needs to be done to just help you limp through to the finish line of life. That’s a lot of stuff on your mind.
I have, not even an addiction, but certainly an addict, well, let’s stick with addiction for now. if you believe you have to go to this many meetings, and you have to do this much stuff, and you have to go to psychotherapy, and you have to do body work in the service work that’s a lot of stuff on your mind.
And there’s a lot of stuff on your mind about, again, if you tell someone that they have an incurable cancer, if you go to the doctor, and he tells you, sorry, your scan just came back and you have terminal cancer, it’s going to be a long haul, it’s, I don’t know that you’ll ever feel better, and you’re going to die at the end. And then you go back the next week, and he says, Oops, wrong scam.
That’s how sort of I see this, like this, this constant monitoring this constant sense of measuring yourself against someone else’s yardstick, and especially the program. How many meetings is enough? How many meetings is too many? How many times should she be doing this? And you can’t, God forbid, you would walk past a liquor store, go to a wedding where there’s no, I mean, just like the lack of farce, our ability to trust ourselves.
And trust our judgment, now, that doesn’t mean at the beginning of recovery, it’s a good idea to go hang out at a bar. I mean, that’s just common sense. But I remember I had some friends once who stayed at my house, they were both in recovery. They’d been in recovery for 10 years or something, we had a half a bottle of wine in the refrigerator, and they freaked out because what do you think it’s going to do? Jump out and pour itself down your throat. I mean, they both had very stable recovery.
So it’s this sort of fear based lack of, of trust in this in our ability to make it through life. And once that starts to come off your mind, it creates a whole lot more space and perspective to see life as it really is.
Alexandra: You give an example in the book about how this ties in with your clients asking what they can do to really get this understanding and how it sort of doesn’t work that way. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Barbara: Well, again, most people want homework, they want doing. I guess this client I was talking about a minute ago, said this weekend, I asked Barbara for her homework and she wouldn’t give it to me. So I broke up with her for six months.
She’s got a great sense of humor, anyway. We’ve been taught, what do I say Okay, so now what do I do? I go home, and I need to practice this and I need to try to have more positive thinking, and I need to, you know. And so when we say no, in fact, and I think this is really important.
I used to really hate getting anxiety clients, which was pretty much everybody but they would come in, and they would have all these anxious feelings, it’s anxious thoughts, and they were in a great deal of pain at night. I’m not trying to, because I’ve had anxiety a lot, like, but, we give them there’s this big book and field called the anxiety and phobia, workbook, panic, and it’s about that fat.
So you’d give them all these exercises to go home and try to do something about their anxious thoughts. And they’d come back the next week and just be in we didn’t do it, maybe if I did it right before bed? And should I do it twice? oh, no problem. We’ve got another exercise for you. Oh, okay. Good, and then go home. It didn’t work. I just, I can’t.
Oh, and, their anxiety would ramp up, because it was innocently a setup for failure. Because there’s nothing you can do about the flow of thought, except to see it, see what you see what experience you’re creating. Once you can see that, like, Oh, I’m doing, I’m just focusing like I did with my mother, I’m just focusing on these anxious thoughts. And I’m scaring myself with my imagination.
Once you start to see that, that you don’t, there’s nothing you can do about that other than to see it more clearly. And the more you see it, and the more curious you get about it, the more it will show you the more it will teach you.
Because there’s information in that, the feelings that you have the anxious feelings are just pointing you towards some information about how you’re using this creative, creative ability of our minds with thought.
Alexandra: love that you use the word curiosity. That’s so great.
Barbara: What a gift man. Yeah, I have to say that. Someone once asked a doctor that I was working with who are the ones who are going to survive?
I have chronic Lyme disease. And he said the ones who are going to survive are the ones who have good detox systems. Well, mine is the ones who survive and thrive are the ones who are curious.
When we can be curious about what’s going on, instead of having these walls that we build up with our thinking about, that there’s a right way to live or a wrong way to live or convinced of our rightness. And certainly I had a lot of that when I came into this a lot, 40 years of psychobabble under my belt. I was convinced, but again, I give Annika a tremendous amount of credit because I wasn’t good at it. Just your patience at letting me bang my head against that for months at a time.
And then eventually starting to see… once you start to hear yourself, and then it starts to fall away.
Alexandra: I want to ask a question now that’s a little bit unfair. So forgive me.
I wonder if you’ve had any fresh insights about addiction and unwanted habits since your book was published?
Barbara: Ooh, good question. I don’t know that they’re fresh. I think they’re just more peaceful, that basically we just want to feel better. We don’t want to be in pain. And however you get into addiction, I know some people feel you’re going to get into addiction because you’re insecure of insecure. I’ve known plenty of people who are plenty secure, and they got into addiction, because they thought it was cool so I don’t know how we get in, but I know that we want to feel better.
I get that. I want to feel better. It’s the most normal thing in the world to not want to feel bad. So I guess for me, when you realize when you just don’t know this, and you think that feeling better is going to come from circumstances or people places and things, you get derailed by that.
And once you know this, if you’re open and curious. They have a saying, part of the slogan is how which is open, honest, open and willing. So if you can be honest with yourself and open and willing to see something new, there’s no limit to what you can accomplish and achieve emotionally and in your world.
Of course, we want to feel better. I have issue going on with my knee right now. Just came from physical therapy, like, I want to feel pain in my knee, I want to be able to get in my kayak, I’m going to do what it takes to figure this out. I’m not that old. So,
It’s most normal thing in the world. But when we jump in with this notion that you’re sick, and you’re diseased, and it’s incurable. And, again, it doesn’t mean you can drink again, I just I really want to go on record saying that, there are certain percentage of the population who cannot and should not drink alcohol. Just like there’s a certain percentage of the population who are diabetic or who, have tremendously high cholesterol and dietary related. I mean, that is part of the wisdom of this.
But once you can see that it’s very much a part of the human condition to one A, find a way to make yourself feel better, alright, I just have a lot of compassion for that.
Alexandra: Me too. Absolutely. And for all the ways that we try to do that and then suffer because we think there’s something wrong with us. And that’s why we’re doing that thing.
Barbara: And so then, again, then all the negative stuff, the character do fix, and I’m doing this because I’m this and I’m not, yeah, it’s not a good way to feel better.
Alexandra: There’s a podcast I listened to, and the host is a recovering addict. Cocaine and alcohol, I think mostly, but other things as well. And he very often casually refers to himself, as I think he says, scuzz ball or scumbag or something like that. And you can hear it when he says it, that he’s, he’s being sort of light hearted. But he really believes that.
He believes that at his soul, at his core, there is something really defective about him, that there isn’t about someone who hasn’t had an addiction to alcohol and cocaine or whatever. And I just always want to reach out and give him a hug whenever I hear him say that.
That’s what we can do to ourselves, when we innocently misunderstand that there’s really nothing wrong with us. We’re just trying to feel better.
Barbara: Well, I understand that, I understand how that got started, again, it’s trying to be more humble and trying to own your stuff.
One of the things that I say a lot is that in 12 step recovery, there is so much wisdom, so much wisdom. I just I love reading through the big book and some others, I miss just amazing, it just runs through it at its core, but there’s also a lot of contamination, then innocent contamination, but again, this notion that, you’re going to be more humble and feel better once you start listing everything you’re doing wrong or have done wrong.
Some groups that are just awful in that way, they just really harp on that everything, how screwed up you are. And again, the goal was and their thinking was to, get you to see, how, where this has led you and but I think there are much better ways of going about it. And I see the principles as a much kinder and gentler adjunct to 12 step recovery theory, because we certainly with this understanding, do not have the kind of support that’s available in 12 step recovery.
Alexandra: Yes, 365 days a year. Pretty much everywhere in the world.
All right. So we’re coming up to being out of time here.
Is there’s anything you’d like to share that we haven’t touched on yet today?
Barbara: I think that about covers that. Thank you so much for this. This has been great.
Alexandra: Thank you for wanting to chat with us today.
Where can we find out more about you and your work?
Barbara: I have a website, GiftsOfInsight.net. I do work with individuals and I love doing intensives that’s one of the things I think I was born for, either with groups or families or individuals, and then I do workshops and retreats.
You can find all of that on my website.
Alexandra: Great. Okay. I will put links in the show notes, so people can find that. Thank you so much, Barbara. This has been so lovely.
Barbara: Thank you. The best of luck to your with your new venture.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai