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BONUS ESSAY 

for

MOVIE CLUB MEMBERS

 

AHA Moments

I use the term “Recovery” so much in my personal and business life that the other day I decided to think more about what it is, what it isn’t, when it starts, and when it ends. Most individuals who have ceased to indulge in their addictive substance or behavior of choice see a Recovery without end.  It’s a lifestyle, a continual state of affairs, a cross to bear for some, a blessing for others—forever. Recovery is like reality at the quantum level, fuzzy and indeterminate. And like the universe at the largest scale, boundless and eternal.  

Regardless, what we can all agree on is that Recovery definitely has a beginning. And to me, Recovery’s Big Bang is that pivotal moment in an addicted individual’s life when they do something previously unthinkable—a mental paradigm shift, a phase transition, an act both terrifying and exhilarating: They change their minds.

 

Now on the level of everyday reality, changing one’s mind is obviously a fairly mundane affair that happens continually. People change their mind about a preferred brand of milk, password, or hair color. But at the level of addiction, the process of changing from active daily user to complete abstinence and sobriety is the mental equivalent of the earth reversing its polarity. Regular change is hard enough. Changing one’s entire life to pursue sobriety (because it does imply a complete change of lifestyle) feels next to impossible. And yet, it happens all the time. 

Change as an integral aspect of recovery was studied extensively by Carlo DiClemente and James Prochaska, who developed the Stages of Change Model to describe the various phases an individual goes through as they overcome addiction. I am very honored to have Dr. Di Clemente as a member of the Recovery Movie Meetups Advisory Committee. While the model provides a powerful framework to describe the process of change over time generally, I noticed that it doesn’t (nor did it necessarily need to) define the key moment when a person changes their mind about their addiction - the necessary precursor to taking action (like quitting and/or going to rehab). 

So what makes people change their minds? What elements factor into such potentially life-altering / life-saving decisions? What kind of tools do family, friends, and therapists have at their disposal to motivate individuals to cross the threshold into Recovery?

  • REASON: Sound reasoning can help people change. Tools like the Cost-Benefit Analysis (or CBA) come in handy, and I made a popular YouTube video about it. But can addicted individuals always be expected to listen to reason? And even if they did, to what extent have cognitive biases and magical thinking overpowered their ability to be swayed by it? If reason worked as effectively as reason should work, we probably wouldn’t have a drug and alcohol problem to begin with. Also, addiction is just as much a matter of the “heart” as it is the mind. Addictions are bound up in countless emotions (both positive and negative), and vice-versa. How do you convince a young, poorly-educated, impoverished childhood trauma survivor that talking rationally about their emotional anguish will work better or faster than just self-medicating over it?

  • PAIN: The anticipated physical discomfort of withdrawal can be a strong motivation to not change, or delay changing as long as possible. Conversely, many addicted individuals have built up such a tolerance to their drug of choice that taking it just makes them feel “normal.” But “normal” is still incredibly painful. By comparison, the pain of withdrawal seems like a small price for a person to pay for relief from their daily existence. Quitting is less painful. The effectiveness of the drug Disulfiram (Antabuse) is predicated on its ability to inflict physical pain and suffering on an individual who willingly drinks alcohol after taking it. Unlicensed or ad-hoc Recovery “centers” in some parts of the world use daily beatings to change people’s behavior. Does the threat of pain or actual pain make people change their minds? Sometimes. But at what ethical cost? Another way to describe using pain as an incentive is “torture.”

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  • FEAR: Fear is a strong motivator, whether it’s the fear of jail time, loss of money, forfeiture of a promising career, or damaging relationships with loved ones. The power of many AA “drunkalogue” lies in their descriptions of rock bottoms so harrowing that newbies end up scared shitless of going down the same rabbit hole. But fear can only go so far. Drunkalogues are just scary stories. An individual can quickly forget these stories, or employ cognitive biases to make them seem much less harrowing in their minds. And people build up a natural tolerance to fear. There’s a reason horror movies become less scary the more you watch them. An individual who is addicted to Desomorphine (aka “Krokodil”) and continues to shoot up despite the fact that their arm is rotting off is obviously not afraid of anything, nor likely ever will be.

  • SHAME: As highly social creatures, humans are constantly preoccupied with how others perceive them. Before the rule of law and threats of eternal hellfire, shame was an important tool to keep bad actors in check. “Losing face” has 100,000 years of social history behind it. The problem is, any change motivated by shame is done in reaction to others, not centered around a person’s own desires. Over long enough periods, addiction inoculates many people to any feelings of shame whatsoever. Or perhaps they never cared what other people thought about them to begin with. Even if people were to feel shame, it usually provokes so much anxiety that they just end up relapsing. 

  • INSPIRATION / IMITATION: Who doesn't love a great role model? Sharing stories of individuals who are in successful long-term recovery and now lead happy, healthy, productive lives are wonderful ways to motivate people to change.  By nature we are often driven to imitate successful people. I was honored to interview dozens of these role models for testimonial videos I produced for SMART Recovery’s YouTube channel. As parents, we know that positive reinforcement is more effective than punishing our children—although at times, punishment seems like a better option. And so it is with recovery. Positivity trumps negativity every time. Unfortunately, the outdated concept of “tough love” still loiters around in many parts of the recovery landscape, especially as applied in the criminal justice system.

To me, one of the most powerful but least-discussed factors that compel people to change their minds are AHA MOMENTS—instances when a person’s ego is put in check, their pride vanishes, and their heart is open for guidance. It’s a moment of surrender when all the cognitive biases cease to function, all the clever old rationales are revealed as hollow lies, and people finally understand and accept that they have a serious problem and need to act. Yes, the term "AHA MOMENT" itself is vague and decidedly nonclinical. But while no two clinicians may agree on how best to make these AHA MOMENTS happen, they acknowledge that there are legitimate therapeutic benefits when they do.   

AHA MOMENTS can take many different forms. In the 12 Steps tradition, the AHA MOMENT may often be referred to a Spiritual Awakening, a profoundly transformative experience made all the more significant because individuals believe that the moment is shared with - and ultimately initiated by - an all-powerful and loving Higher Power. I do not doubt for a second that this type of moment is transformative because I have seen its effect on many people whose lives have been saved by it. Many Spiritual Awakenings have positively altered the course of human history. 

In formal psychotherapy, efforts are made to create an AHA MOMENT through talk therapy, motivational interviewing, CBT and REBT, and other treatment modalities that gradually lead individuals to see themselves in a new light. A common description of these moments is: “I had a huge breakthrough with my therapist.”  Little doubt that traditional psychotherapy can work wonders, but not on everyone, and certainly not right away. It may take countless meetings with a therapist to arrive at this moment, if at all.  But not necessarily. It depends on the openness of the patient and the skills of the therapist.

AHA MOMENTS can also emerge from psychedelic experiences. Research into the potential use of psychedelics in the treatment of alcohol and substance use disorders has yielded intriguing results. Many psychedelics precipitate or facilitate an "ego death"—a state where an individual’s ego is temporarily liberated from its usual constraints and self-defenses, allowing the person to step back and see themselves from a radically new, fresh and healthful perspective. 

 

The first time I let my ego defenses down enough to acknowledge that I had a very serious problem with alcohol was when I was on LSD. It has been reported that Bill Wilson, the founder of AA, thought acid could help cut a clearer path towards Spiritual Awakening. Regardless to what extent that’s true or not, most of my colleagues who have tried these substances would agree - like I do - that psychedelic trips are chock full of tremendously valuable AHA MOMENTS. The question is, do these drug-induced moments always cause the person to actually change their minds? Yeah, LSD made me realize I had a problem, but it was another 20 years before I did something about it.

Meditation, mindfulness, and other practices that foster deep introspection and self-reflection can also facilitate AHA MOMENTS, but in a practical context a more apt term might be “enlightenment”—the ultimate goal of meditation generally. The effectiveness of this approach to addiction recovery has been studied extensively and there is little doubt that deep inward personal reflection can lead to powerful moments, or even the AHA MOMENT itself. But that is not always guaranteed. Nor does it happen quickly. Many people are frustrated that they can’t meditate, while others who can meditate think that most of the world’s problems could be solved if more people did.

All these possible paths towards AHA MOMENTS can work in their own ways, singularly or in tandem.  Multiple pathways to recovery, after all.  But must they have to take so long, and have such unpredictable outcomes? For years, drug scientists have been looking for a “magic bullet” that will “cure” addictive behaviors. We don’t seem to be much any closer, although there is quite a buzz about Ozempic as a possible contender. I highly doubt this. Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT)—while still a contentious issue for some old-school traditionalists—isn’t intended to “cure” anything, just assist people in their overall multifaceted recovery plan.  

What if there were a way to guarantee that an individual could quickly experience an AHA MOMENT powerful enough to absolutely and fundamentally change their mind—resulting in them quitting their addictive behaviors, seeking treatment, and embracing long term recovery? Sobriety for life. 100% guaranteed. 

 

Is such a thing possible? It is, but only in science fiction movies. 

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If you haven’t seen it, INCEPTION is a visually stunning, intellectually dense sci-fi action film that features the AHA MOMENT as a central plot point. The film's premise revolves around secret agents who have mastered the ability to enter a person's dream world and perform what they call "inception." Inception involves planting an idea or thought into their victim’s subconscious that then carries over into their waking world, leading to a critical change of mind with far-reaching consequences that benefit their adversaries. 

 

But inception isn’t easy, any more so than convincing an addicted individual to change their mind in real life. Director Christopher Nolan went to great lengths to depict the subject's ego as a heavily fortified fortress, housing an enormous, seemingly impenetrable safe. It’s an apt visual metaphor. In many ways a person’s addiction is a heavily-guarded mental construct—an “addiction safe”—that the outside world is trying to crack with any tools available: Reason, shame, fear, pain, inspiration, meditation, psychedelics and psychotherapy are just different possible combinations to the lock. 

Another compelling aspect of inception is that the idea that is implanted into the subject’s subconscious cannot appear to have been forced. The subject must believe that changing their mind is 100% their own idea, free from outside influences or coercion. This resonates strongly with what we understand about recovery in real life. The chances of success are significantly higher when the idea of recovery itself—the decision to change—is not forced upon them through threats of legal consequences, family ultimatums, or financial pressures. The AHA MOMENT must arise organically. 

If inception were possible in real life, would we employ it as a legitimate therapeutic intervention? Would it be considered ethical? Would the AHA MOMENT implanted via inception lack the power or legitimacy of moments arrived at by "conventional" means? Would it enjoy higher rates of long-term success? More importantly, would inception be billable to insurance?

Rehab jokes aside, I propose that there is another way to crack the addiction safe in real life instead of the movies—and that’s by using movies themselves to help people recover. The Recovery Movie Meetups Program that I developed, derived from my book ADDICTED IN FILM, asserts that visual representations—stories—of characters struggling through addiction and long term recovery can be highly therapeutic and lead to powerful AHA MOMENTS, especially when viewed with others in a supportive group context. 

“Seeing is believing” is not just an overused cliché. What people see greatly influences what they believe.  And seeing someone else in pain in a film leads to strong emotional connection, empathy, and fosters deep self-reevaluation. This point cannot be overstated. The image of a naked nine-year old girl fleeing in terror from her recently-incinerated village (aka “Napalm Girl” - real name Kim Phuc Phan Thi) changed several million American minds about the Vietnam War. Images of fire hoses and police dogs completely upended the narrative about desegregation. Reams of scientific data didn’t move the needle on global warming change awareness nearly as effectively as that picture of a sad polar bear stranded on a little sliver of ice in the hot sun.

Leveraging visual cues and fostering connections with the characters, plots, and themes of the films used in the Recovery Meetups Program can be a powerful way to guide individuals towards their AHA MOMENT(s). Films enable a level of emotional immersion that traditional interventions currently lack. We have seen this phenomenon in action in meetings across the country:

  • As they watch the films, participants can experience negative motivations—FEAR, SHAME, PAIN—vicariously, without the discomfort or risk of having to feel or experience those motivators themselves in real life. 

  • Films with happy endings allow participants to celebrate positive motivations—INSPIRATION and IMITATION. Sad ending remind participants that recovery success isn't guaranteed unless they really want it and work for it. 

  • To help in optimal integration, the Recovery Movie Meetups Workbook questionnaires provide a framework to guide RATIONAL group discourse and personal introspection after the movies end. 

Most importantly, Recovery Movie Meetups' carefully curated film selection empowers participants to extract whatever valuable lessons and inspiration they need from each film with barely any prompting from the meeting facilitator. 

 

As a result, the AHA MOMENTS that arise for participants during these group sessions feel organic, profoundly personal, and have greater impact. And similar to the concept of inception, the profound transformation of their perspective—the act of changing their minds—becomes a self-driven process, unforced, as if Recovery had been their idea all along. 

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