February 18, 2014
I can’t believe how long it has been since I last saw you. You are always in my heart and on my mind. You got me out of prison and showed me there was a way to survive PTSD.
However, once I was out of prison, I brought PTSD home with me. My wife, Rose can testify to that. Just as I had done while working in prison, I continued to seek a rational answer to my problems. I am very lock-step left brain, thinking that logic is the answer to everything.
But my anger, fear and depression were not logical as they continued to control my life. I still wanted to die, feeling I was a complete failure. I didn’t think continuing to live was worthwhile.
I went into my books, trying to find answers in science. As I think I’ve told you, I found a new logic called, ‘Topas Theory’ In a book on Quantum Physics. Rose went online to find sources for this logic and found 5 Topas Theorists in Siberia. They quoted a European philosopher who wrote about Quantum Logic, Knots, Topas Theory and Baruch Spinoza.
I was fascinated to see this 17th century philosopher being tied in with these theories. I’d briefly read him in graduate school. I hunted out my old Spinoza selections and began reading him. That was over 10 years ago. I have read and meditated on him ever since, even to carrying around a pack of quotes from him in my pocket.
Spinoza is best known for his Ethics. I found however that his Emendation (healing) of the Intellect and his Short Treatise on God, Man and His Well-Being to be equally important to me. It took me awhile to understand that his whole project was to heal his intellect which doesn’t mean IQ but simply everything we think in the freedom of god as we understand god.
I suspect he had PTSD. I quickly bought into what he said about how destructive are the emotions (passions). I resisted his use of the word, ‘God.’ So every time he used that word, (which he did constantly), I penciled an X through it.
While reading Spinoza gave me some intellectual peace, I began to see that PTSD is a physical rather than a mental disease. Adrenaline kept surging through my life; anger, fear and the need to control everything, (which I could not do).
Rose, in the meantime, had found help for her own demons in AA though she is not an alcoholic. She occasionally mentioned their 12 step program to me but I was not at all interested.
I considered her as naïve and AA’s use of god as a cop-out. Rose said she had an eating disorder and using the 12 steps, had discovered a support group online and locally through which she lost 150 pounds and kept it off.
The weight loss probably saved her life. On Boxing Day this year, she had a five hour surgery on her bowel due to a botched hernia job. At her age, if she’d still had the weight, they likely would have considered it too risky to operate.
But she had changed in many other ways through the 12 steps. She used to become angry at my PTSD outbursts whereupon I would escalate the situation to a major blow up. She no longer reacted in anger.
Spinoza says we are thieves, stealing from God when we don’t know God nor ourselves. I hated myself for these blow ups.
The change in Rose aligned in me to what Spinoza called, ‘healing the intellect.’ It impressed me. So when she said she had decided to start a 12 step study locally, obviously waiting for me to weigh in on the negative side, I surprised her by saying I’d go with her.
“So, would you lead it?’ she asked calmly.
“I don’t know anything about the 12 steps,” I said.
“That makes you an ideal leader,” she said. “It’s a study, not a lecture.”
When Rose had begun her interest in the 12 steps, I read a book on the history of AA. The American philosopher, William James was influential in laying the foundations of AA.
I got out James, Varieties of Religious Experience and discovered he had a fondness for Spinoza. So AA and Spinoza began to connect.
Shortly before this I had re-connected to my son, Louis. He kept attempting suicide due to his addiction to drugs. This involved many daily phone calls with painful discussions. He had tried both AA and NA. He inspired me to write a short graphic work connecting Spinoza’s idea of God with AA.
Rose put this writing on my blog, ‘Spinoza On Science & Stress.’ Whether or not it helped him, Louis was eventually successful in taking his life. I felt I had failed him.
About a year later, an AA member from New Jersey emailed me after reading this work online. His daughter had also taken her life. He felt he could no longer believe in god. In writing back to him, I discovered his daughter had died in prison on exactly the same day as my son, a year apart.
When he heard I was a retired prison guard, he had all kinds of questions for me, both about prisons and Spinoza. Weekly correspondence began and I started to explore Spinoza’s idea of god with him. This led to a series of papers on my blog, some of them illustrated, in which I tried to understand what god was.
This intellectual exercise cumulated in a paper: ‘Spinoza, the Man Who Changed the God Game.’ My intellectual struggle to understand god can be seen on my blog.
Like Spinoza, my understanding of god is scientific and not religious. Spinoza believed it was madness to describe god as a human being with human emotions like anger and hate, (anthropomorphizing). He wrote that this would keep humankind in darkness for eternity.
So he desacredalized religious ideas and presented a god instead based on mathematics. Armed with such an understanding, I felt confident I could lead Rose’s 12 Step group. She had found a text to use, The Steps We Took by Joe McQ along with the Alcoholics Anonymous book where the steps come from.
AA was contaminated with anthropomorphism, I felt. So I could make an important contribution to the group by pointing this out. I could accept Steps 1 and 2 without reservation: (1 We admitted we were powerless over ____, that our lives had become unmanageable. 2. We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity).
I would replace the word, ‘sanity,’ with ‘heal my intellect,’ but this wasn’t a problem. At Step 3, however, I balked. (We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understand Him.)
Joe McQ’s book begins with a promise from the King James Bible: “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” (Romans 8:12). Spinoza says; “Truth is god itself,” and goes on to say that this knowledge can heal our intellect and make us free.
So I could accept Joe’s point of view even though it was from the Bible.
There were six of us in that first meeting. After we got acquainted we decided to read a chapter from Joe’s book daily and return next week to share our understanding.
I was surprised how both the Alcoholic’s Anonymous Book and The Steps We Took were a practical expression of what Spinoza taught. My intellectual arrogance began to melt and dimly, an understanding of why Rose had asked me to lead the group.
Then I read in the AA book of Bill Wilson’s healing experience while he lay in a psyc ward, suffering from delirium tremors. His alcoholic friend, Ebby visited him. Bill was amazed at the change in Ebby who said he’d had a religious conversion. While the difference in Ebby’s life was obvious, Bill couldn’t accept his religious explanation.
So Ebby said Bill should just accept god as he understood god. Bill writes that his mountain of intellectual arrogance melted at this suggestion and he accepted god as the higher power in his life.
Reading these words, my own intellectual arrogance began to melt too. My participation in the 12 step study began to be of an entirely different nature.
After Bill’s experience, he found another drunk who happened to be a doctor and shared what had happened. Together, Dr Bob and Bill started the group that eventually was called, AA.
While I am an adrenaline junkie with PTSD and not an alcoholic, the principles of AA’s 12 steps work on any addiction. While I will never be free from the damage these surges of adrenaline did to my body, I now understand what it is when it erupts. I have ceased to lash out and try to hurt others when it happens.
The PTSD episodes have become shorter and shorter though at one time they would last for hours, days, whole weekends. Now they are over in a few minutes of reflection and doing the AA waltz (Steps 1, 2 & 3).
I no longer think of suicide. You can ask Rose about the change in my life that has occurred even through incidents that formerly would have activated my adrenaline in a second. I am actually enjoying my life.
A case in point where I would’ve turned to adrenaline was Rose’s surgery. My mother died when she was 36 from a ruptured spleen and an incompetent doctor. A great fear rises up when someone I love goes into hospital.
This time I resorted to the Serenity Prayer: ‘God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference.” The ‘courage to change the things I can,’ became part of my daily experience while visiting the hospital.
I have spinal stenosis which allows me to walk about 75 yards before pain stops me from going any further. I use a walker outside and a cane inside the house. Rose was up on the sixth floor and these long daily walks were painful.
Also painful was the knowledge that I had left all the housework to Rose including the laundry and the garbage. Following AA’s ‘one step at a time,’ I took on all the chores I had ignored for so many years, including buying groceries and putting up a step ladder in the living room to dry the clothes I washed.
My world before the 12 steps was intellectually secure, watching tv sports when I was not reading and studying. Now that I’ve returned to the reality of my life, I do not plan on returning to such intellectual malaise.
I no longer approach ‘god as I understand it,’ with smugness. I can accept anyone’s idea of god, including religious points of view. As long as someone has found a higher power, I don’t care how they express it. This acceptance has enabled me to return to some of the good parts in my earlier days in Christianity, including the songs. As long as it is not expressed in politics and dogma that originally led me away from that fellowship.
After all, ‘as I understand god,’ is not restricted to any intellectual movement but to the truth that lives inside us and makes thinking itself, possible.
Vince, this has been very long-winded I know but I have a reason for writing you. The 12 step study I am in has so far attracted only compulsive overeaters, though anyone interested in the steps is invited.
I would especially like to be involved with other adrenaline junkies like myself; guards, police and soldiers. If you know any individuals to whom my experience could be helpful, I would appreciate being involved with them.
Thank you for the blessing you have been in my life.