Meet the Sages (and Get A Free Poster!)

In recent years there’s been a surge of interest in ancient philosophers. Three of my favorite books in this vein are Expect the Unexpected Or You Won’t Find it: A Creativity Tool Based on the Ancient Wisdom of Heraclitus by Roger Van Oech, Breakfast With Socrates: An Extraordinary (Philosophical) Journey Through Your Ordinary Day by Robert Rowland Smith, and The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. I’m going to add to this growing body of literature by introducing the ancient writers of Hebrew wisdom literature. These sages said many interesting and often astonishing things, especially given how long ago they wrote. For example, two millennia before Freud and modern psychotherapy the sages wrote, “Many are the purposes of a person’s heart; one with wisdom draws them out.” There are things that go on in a person’s psyche about which we are simply unaware. In 2011 Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman wrote about this in Thinking Fast and Slow (read my summary here). Over one hundred years before that (1902 to be precise) William James said this about consciousness and perception, Our normal waking consciousness is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the flimsiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different, ” (Varieties of Religious Experience). These are all fancy ways of explaining what we mean when we say…
  • “Perception is reality”
  • “Appearances can be deceiving”
  • “My brain has a mind of it’s own”
  • “There are two sides to every story”
  • “Life is not always as it appears to be”
Woe to the person who doesn’t know that their consciousness can be altered an a variety of ways or that our minds can play weird tricks on us. Even neuro-scientists remind us that feelings of being right are not necessarily right. Click here to read an interview with Robert Burton, author of the fascinating book, On Being Certain. Which brings me to a free gift I have for you. The sages were preternaturally aware that things like emotions, health, hunger, sleep, and other factors trick us. I’ve collected (and drew faces for) thirty of their sage warnings that remind us that we can’t always trust our thoughts. You can download a free 8.5″ x 11″ color printout of this poster by clicking here. (Signed 13″x 19″ color posters are available for $30 (+$4.99 shipping in USA) on Amazon; small size posters are free to readers of this blog). The brilliance of these sage warnings is that being skeptical of our cherished beliefs will lead to open mindedness, mental flexibility, and a willingness to contemplate alternative ideas. This is often our focus when doing mediation or therapy–when emotions or other mood altering factors hi-jack our brains we don’t think rationally or clearly. I hope this handout (poster) will inspire careful self-reflection.

Help A Loved One Learn About Sobriety

coverMy latest e-book, Another Drink: Experiments in Sobriety Based on Secular Proverbs went public on January 1, 2016 and initial interest is encouraging. It is available on Amazon in Kindle format. Click HEREThe chapters are short and intended for readers with zero religious affiliation. If you haven’t downloaded your $2.99 copy yet, here is a run down of the contents.


1. Disclosure: A Short History of My Stupidity
2. Ambivalence: I Am Many and So Am I
3. Conflicting Desires: If I Ran the Zoo
4. Negotiation: The Zookeeper’s Consultant
5. Curiosity: I Will Seek Understanding and Then Tame My Zoo
6. Symptoms: Booze Is a Many-Flavored Thing
7. Learning: I Fell in Love with Alcohol; I Can Fall Out
8. Moderation: Dr. Lemuel’s Tonic for What Ails You
9. Need: Desires Begin in the Crib
10. Attachment: I Want a Friend That Sticks
11. Subjectivity: Alcohol Does Not Stick to Me; I Stick to It
12. Hunger: I Am Annoyed by the Void I Want to Avoid
13. Tolerance: The Brawl Is in My Count
14. Dependence: I Have a Problem With Alcohol and Without It
15. Withdrawal: Cutting Back One Drop Is One Drop Too Many
16. Cravings: I Am a Craving Lunatic
17. Motivation: I’ll Take Action Before Hitting Bottom
18. Disease: Get a Disease and Manage It Well
19. Cognition: I Think Soberly
20. Emotion: I Silence the Squawks in My Head
21. Connection: I Get a Mission That Matters
22. Rewards: The Happiness of Pursuit
23. Self Control: It Takes Power to Say I Have No Power
24. Shame: Behavioral Chickens and Emotional Eggs
25. Stubbornness: I Get Off My Drunken Ass
26. Choice: Get Your Claws Off My Decider
27. Relapse: Sage Hints of Grace
28. Temptation: I Resist the Allure of Drink
29. Triggers: My Relapse Prevention Plan
30. Sober Companions: Friends Don’t Let Friends Go Friendless
Appendix 1: Is Sapiential Sobriety a Fool’s Errand?
Appendix 2: Where Does God Fit In?
Appendix 3: Booze, Food, and Sex
Appendix 4: Interview Questions for Party Animals
Appendix 5: Society’s Role in Fostering Sobriety
Appendix 6: The Proverbs Chronic Drinker Recovery Plan
Appendix 7: How Many of These Actions Can I Do Today?
Appendix 8: A Note to Loved Ones
Appendix 9: Resources
Index: Where Does It Say That in Proverbs?
Also by Erik Johnson


On an unrelated note, I recently told a woman client at the end of our session, “Hold on; I can’t process your credit card AND schedule our next appointment at the same time. I can’t multi-task.”

She said, “Of course you can’t; you’re a guy.”

I laughed and had to agree.

My attention the past few weeks has been focused on preparing upcoming public lectures; consequently this blog has been neglected. I’m not good at multi-tasking.

However, do not give up hope, loyal readers. Stay tuned. I’ll soon be posting new blog topics.

How To Build Trust After a Betrayal

Sage Wisdom for Family Harmony

How To Break An Addiction To A Person

When Love Intoxicates

My Contribution to the War on Alcohol Abuse

coverI generally don’t care how much or even if a person drinks alcohol. But several things caused me to shift my attitude.

One of my kids is a cop and he tells harrowing tales of drunk drivers.

I’ve met people in agony over loved ones who risk job, health, and family harmony by excessive drinking.

I’ve met individuals who want to quit drinking but find it super difficult.

My zeal to be helpful also got supercharged when I realized how many chronic drinkers want to get sober but oppose religious Twelve Step groups. 

So…..I cooked up a plan. What if I gleaned wisdom from the Hebrew sages and wove their advice into “experiments in sobriety based on secular Proverbs?”  Only fifteen percent of the Proverbs mention God, religion, higher power, or spiritual things. The sages claimed their words–including the remaining eighty-five percent–were inspired and designed to foster self control. So I’ve written a Kindle ebook for secular drinkers based on that eighty-five percent. I hope that ancient wisdom will be helpful in these modern, boozy, secular times. 

You can buy a copy of ANOTHER DRINK: EXPERIMENTS IN SOBRIETY BASED ON SECULAR PROVERBS on Amazon by clicking here. $2.99. I’ll be discussing some of the contents of this book in the coming days.



Alcohol’s Shadier Side


I don’t like the thought of being likened to radical temperance firebrand Carrie Nation who smashed alcohol serving establishments with an ax. However, alcohol abuse and alcoholism are terrible scourges. At any rate, I’m not wielding an ax, just sharing a poem I came across in Beyond the Influence by Katherine Ketcham while doing research for my next book.

I drank for happiness and became unhappy.

I drank for joy and became miserable.

I drank for sociability and became argumentative.

I drank for sophistication and became obnoxious.

I drank for friendship and made enemies.

I drank for sleep and woke up tired.

I drank for strength and felt weak.

I drank for relaxation and got the shakes.

I drank for courage and became afraid.

I drank for confidence and became doubtful.

I drank to make conversation easier and slurred my speech.

I drank to feel heavenly and ended up feeling like hell.


Why The Non-Alcoholic Must Change (7 of 7)

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It drives some people crazy when they hear, “If you can’t change your spouse change yourself.”

A common reply, “My partner is falling down drunk and you suggest I make changes? You’re nuts!”

Why would anyone make such a bizarre suggestion?

  1. If past attempts at getting a partner sober have failed it’s unlikely future attempts will succeed.
  2. If Partner One is addicted to alcohol Partner Two can become addicted to trying to get Partner One to quit drinking. Now the family has two addictions to deal with–an addiction to alcohol and an addiction to the alcoholic.
  3. Most people have other obligations in life–work, self care, parenting–and don’t have time to monitor, obsess over, or try 24/7 to get their alcoholic partner to sober up.
  4. If one life is going to unravel due to alcoholism it’s not good for their partner to unravel, too.
  5. If you try to get your loved one to admit they have a problem you’ll likely waste a lot of energy. Breaking through their denial is not the goal; coping with their alcohol abuse is.

Most “helping” behaviors by the sober partner are done with good motives, pure intention, and loving kindness. The problem is those behaviors are not helping the drinker and may in fact be hurting you.

Things you can change

As your partner’s drinking has increased your unhealthy “stabilizing” behaviors may have increased, too. Here’s a brief list of new coping strategies you might want to consider.

  1. Your self talk. It’s good to repeat this often, “I’ve been telling myself my efforts are meant to help but really they’re an attempt to control.” It’s not our job to control anyone.
  2. Your anxiety. Learn how to respond, not react, when your drinking partner pushes your buttons. Control is usually fueled by fear. See a counselor to work on chronic worry.
  3. Your arguing. When the alcohol abuser/addict is challenged they often fight back which in turn often makes us want to argue even more. This is pointless since an alcohol-muddled brain can’t think straight.
  4. Your empathy. Once you realize how hard it is to control your controlling behaviors you get a glimpse into how hard it is for the drinker to quit drinking. Self change is hard for both!
  5. Your vigilance. Being on constant high alert gives us an adrenaline rush which can be as addicting as alcohol. Replace your “fight or flight” reactions with calm thinking and reasoned responses.
  6. Your obsessing. If you enjoy snooping for hidden bottles, listening for the sound of opening beer cans, or pouring booze down the drain whenever you find it, um, okay I guess. Many however find these things exhausting.
  7. Your enabling. By pretending our partner isn’t abusing alcohol when they are, by denying the seriousness of the problem when it is, and when rationalizing, minimizing, or making excuses for our partner’s drinking we may actually be making things worse.
  8. Your need to be right. When your partner is abusing alcohol the goal is not to win an argument but to foster an environment where drinking is reduced. I know it’s important to nail down how much they drank, when, where, what lies they told, who is the problem, and how much drinking is “normal,” but there is a more important goal: sobriety.
  9. Your safety. If your partner’s alcohol abuse leads to violence or abuse you’re at risk. If leaving isn’t conceivable, at least read Carole King’s account of her history of abuse in her 2012 memoir, A Natural Woman.
  10. Your anger. I don’t suggest you not get angry at the lies, broken promises, DUIs, and high risk behaviors. I suggest you channel it into productive action.
  11. Your rationalization. Many partners put up with crazy making alcohol abuse by saying, “It could be worse.” True. But it could also be better.

That’s the point of this blog series. I hope there have been an idea or two here that will make things better.

How the Alcohol Abuser/Addict Can Get Help (6 of 7)

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As wide spread as alcohol problems are, success stories are also wide spread. Here are the tools drinkers use to achieve their goals.

  1. Complete abstinence: this gives the alcohol-saturated brain time to “dry out.”
  2. Complete abstinence also allows the patient to work on other contributing factors–depression, anxiety, guilt, bitterness, loneliness, shame, anger, low self esteem, mental illness, etc. It’s nearly impossible to work on those other issues when in an alcohol-induced fog.
  3. Recovery: exploring the underlying factors that lead to alcohol abuse/addiction.
  4. Attend an Alcoholics Anonymous group. This approach has a high success rate for helping drinkers stay sober.
  5. Alcohol abusers (not addicts) can be “cured” with the help of a drug and alcohol specialist trained in motivational interviewing.
  6. Alcoholic addicts can be “treated” (not cured because of permanent cell damage), in clinics, treatment centers, and in-patient hospitals addressing the medical damage alcohol has done.

Since the alcohol abuser/addict won’t get help until they are ready, the sober partner can try one of three things to help their drunk partner get ready.

  1. Quit enabling. No more putting up with, covering for, or mopping up the social, financial, and relational messes the alcoholic leaves in their wake. Stop saying, “If you miss work I will call in sick for you.” Start saying, “If you can’t make family functions because you’re drunk or hungover I will not lie to them; I have every right to tell our kids you are abusing alcohol; if you can’t manage your own life I will not be managing it for you; I choose not to do for you what you refuse to do for yourself.”
  2. Boundaries. If your partner’s alcohol abuse/addiction threatens to leave you impoverished or at risk to life and limb, it’s time to set up boundaries. Note: boundaries are not intended to get your loved one to quit drinking; they are for your and your kids’ protection. “Until you choose to get help I choose to protect myself and the kids which means I’ll get support in Al Anon, I’ll tell your doctor how much you drink, I’ll separate our finances or living arrangements until I feel safe.”
  3. Intervention. Friends and loved ones hold a surprise meeting intended to convince the drinker into “voluntary” treatment.

Options 1 and 2 often create an environment where the alcoholic abuser/addict “hits bottom” and then gets help. Option 3 has worked for some people (so I’ve been told. I have no experience in this realm).

“Nice” people find all of these options terrifying. That’s when the old slogan applies, “If you can’t change your partner change yourself.”

Tomorrow: Why The Non-Alcoholic Must Change

Sobering Strategies That Don’t Work (5 of 7)

Sobering Funnies.1b

Some of the most distraught people I’ve met are those who live with an alcohol abusing partner. Naturally, they want strategies that will help them help their partner drink less. Here are some strategies that don’t work.

  1. Cry, whine, beg, plead, argue, threaten.
  2. Saying, “If you loved me you’d quit!”
  3. Reacting in anger when your partner slips up (which is different than full relapse).
  4. “If I only love (serve, please, cater to) my partner more they’ll stop drinking.”
  5. Enabling, which means, “Removing the consequences from someone’s bad choices.”
  6. Pasting Bible verses on your loved one’s beer cans.
  7. Wrangling over whether or not your drinking loved one is in denial, an alcoholic, or “has a problem.” These conversations are useless.

Repeat These Statements When Loved Ones Abuse Alcohol

  1. “I am unable to get my loved one to quit drinking.”
  2. “I do not have the power to make my loved one stop drinking.”
  3. “It is not my job to make sure my drinking partner is happy, tows the line, and succeeds at work, school, or life in general.”
  4. “It is not my job to make sure my partner sees the world the way I do.”
  5. “My mood, worth, and significance do not depend on my partner’s sobriety.”
  6. “My needs are worthy of attention.”
  7. “The healthier I am the better position I’ll be in to help my loved one.”
  8. “I don’t have to talk to my partner about anything important when they’re drunk or hung over.”
  9. “I don’t have to ride in the same car as my over drinking spouse.”
  10. “I can go to social events alone if my partner doesn’t want to go.”
  11. “My partner can go to social events alone if I don’t want to go.”

Tomorrow: How the Alcohol Abuser/Addict Can Get Help

Why Do Loved Ones Stupefy Themselves? (4 of 7)

Sobering Funnies.1a

Why do people like getting wasted, crocked, fall down drunk? You’d think the prospect of hangovers, impaired driving, injury, or loss of a good credit rating, home, family, and job would be a deterrent to alcohol abuse. But these don’t deter. Why not? There are stages a person goes through on their road to alcoholism.

  1. Responsible drinking. Media often portrays the teetotaler as a killjoy and the drinker as hip. And who wants to be un-hip? Also, alcohol tastes good, makes us feel good, and is one of the privileges of adulthood. We’re socialized, “When in Rome drink as the Romans (or French, or Irish, or Seahawk fan).”
  2. Self medicating. When alcohol triggers the pleasure center of our brain we learn quickly how to push that trigger when we’re in emotional pain, when we have a hard time falling asleep, and when we’re bothered by stress, tension, or existential angst–we reach for wine, beer, or liquor for relief. And it works. Temporarily. Alcohol used as a pain reliever or sleeping aid however contributes to a new set of problems and complications.
  3. Problem drinking. This includes binge drinking, early in the day drinking, secret drinking, alone drinking, defensive drinking (arguing with those who express concern about our alcohol consumption), obsessive drinking (being preoccupied with when we get our next drink), courage drinking (getting drunk in order to do things we’re too inhibited to do while sober), dependence drinking (getting the shakes when deprived of alcohol). These telltale signs suggest that self medicating is slowly crossing into the danger zone of alcoholism.
  4. Muddled brain chemistry. Soak a tooth long enough in a soft drink and it’ll dissolve. Soak a brain in alcohol long enough and it will….you know, be affected. Alcohol is a poison and prolonged, excessive exposure to it changes the very structure of our chemical make up. At some point the cells in our brains are damaged and alcohol becomes a craving, a neuronal necessity.
  5. Full blown alcoholism. This is a disease, a medical condition that requires medical intervention.

Tomorrow: Sobering Strategies That Don’t work

Rationalizations by Alcohol Abusers (3 of 7)


Some drinkers, when asked to drink less, get defensive. Here are some common responses.

  1. “I wouldn’t drink if you didn’t nag (neglect, criticize, control) me so much.”
  2. “I have a high tolerance for booze.”
  3. “I need to unwind.”
  4. “I don’t know how that bottle got in my car/closet/garage/diaper bag.”
  5. “It’s not that bad; I can quit anytime.”
  6. “I quit before and you were still unhappy with me so what’s the point of not drinking now?”
  7. “I’m mad at you for trying to change me and mad at myself for drinking so much so I promise to quit. Tomorrow.”
  8. “Sending texts while drunk is no big deal.”
  9. “It’s no big deal. Everyone was having fun. You want me to be a party pooper?”
  10. “I didn’t drink that much but they served dinner late and the alcohol went straight to my head.”
  11. “I need an alcohol buzz to help me sleep.”
  12. “Drinking is better than heroine so quit complaining.”
  13. “I only had one drink last year so quit worrying.”

My advice to family members grappling with an alcohol abusing/addicted loved one: don’t engage in these fruitless discussions. The point is to focus on excessive alcohol consumption, not wrangle over minutia. (I am not addressing in this blog series the rigid spouse who is intolerant of their partner’s responsible drinking. That’s not an alcohol problem; that’s a control/anxiety/marriage problem).

Tomorrow: Why Do Loved Ones Stupefy Themselves?

Four Categories of Drinkers (2 of 7)

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It is helpful to keep in mind there are four categories of drinkers.

Teetotalers (zero alcohol intake): This is the best option for those under age 21, folks who are on medications that interact with alcohol, pregnant mommies, those who can’t control their alcohol consumption, those who drive or operate machinery, and those with psychiatric disorders that are worsened by alcohol use.

Responsible drinkers: These folks savor the taste, culture, social, and medicinal benefits of alcohol. Because they drink in moderation they never get DUIs, miss work, lie to their spouse about their drinking, have hangovers, hide bottles, need a designated driver, or make promises to quit drinking. NOTE: Responsible drinkers do not jump immediately to alcoholism. There’s a middle stage called alcohol abuse.

Alcohol abusers: These folks drink excessively and risk significant harm to themselves and others–DUIs, arrests, school, family, and work relationship problems. Many who are reluctant to call their loved one an alcoholic rationalize excessive drinking as “normal.” Alcohol abusers themselves are often in denial about being in this stage, which over a long period of time can lead to alcoholism. NOTE: not all alcohol abusers become addicts.

Alcoholics: Alcohol abuse can cross over into a medical condition (the disease of addiction) when the drinker cannot quit drinking without medical intervention. Drunkenness is no longer a matter of bad character or a weak will but brain chemistry.

These distinctions are important for five reasons.

  1. Even though teetotalers are scoffed at in our boozy society it is a highly desirable choice for many. Champions of teetotaling are often mocked for “anti-saloon league” Prohibitionist rigidity but given the havoc wrecked by alcohol addiction somebody’s got to say it’s okay not to drink.
  2. There is a middle ground between responsible drinking and alcoholism. Since many are loathe to give someone the “alcoholic” label we convince ourselves that our alcohol abusing loved one is being responsible when in fact they are not.
  3. It takes a trained professional to make a diagnosis of alcoholism. But it doesn’t take an expert to recognize when a loved one is abusing alcohol.
  4. No drinker makes an automatic jump from responsible drinker to alcoholic. Instead, they slowly ease into alcoholism by prolonged alcohol abuse.
  5. As a society we still think alcoholism is caused by a lack of willpower. Brain research however supports the truth that prolonged alcohol abuse does permanent damage to our bodies, brains, and cells and alcohol becomes an addiction.

Tomorrow: Rationalizations by Alcohol Abusers