Lisa Natoli interview (Bill Free’s interview is after Lisa’s on this page)
Ana: What was your experience of addiction?
Lisa: You don’t really know you have an addiction until you’re in it. I started drinking back when I was in high school just as a fun thing to do. I kept drinking into my 20’s. It was what everyone did, you know?
I moved to New York, started being really “cool” and drinking martinis and cosmopolitans. It wasn’t until my mid 20’s that I realized my drinking was a problem. I realized that I preferred to stay home because I could drink more and it was less expensive. Nobody was monitoring my drinking and I could just drink until I went to bed.
It wasn’t until I knew that I didn’t want to live this way, and I tried to quit drinking, that I realized I had an addiction. I also remember that alcohol was on my mind every single day. Sometime in the afternoon at work, I would start thinking, “I can’t wait to get out so that I can go home and drink vodka tonics.” That’s when I knew.
From the moment I acknowledged that I didn’t want to drink, I tried to control it. I thought, “OK, well, I’ll just stop.” And I could stop for a couple of days, weeks even, maybe a month or so. But I was always thinking about wanting a drink. When something upsetting happened, I’d find myself back at the liquor store. And that went on for five years. Five years of trying to quit and not wanting to drink.
It didn’t occur to me to go to AA. I don’t know why. Then I found A Course in Miracles (ACIM), in 1992, when I was 24. I started asking God and Jesus for help, and that didn’t help, either. I was also smoking cigarettes at the time. So I can remember thinking one day, “I will always be like this. I will always be an alcoholic, and a smoker.” And somehow, I was OK about that. I surrendered to not feeling guilty about it anymore.
Then I went to Endeavor Academy for a 30 day ACIM retreat. The rules were no smoking, no drinking and no meat. I knew I could do that. That was in March, 2001. And the desire to drink and smoke just literally went away. It wasn’t until a month later that I realized, “Oh, I haven’t thought about wanting a drink.” And here I am 16 years later!
I didn’t want to drink but I couldn’t manage it. I couldn’t make the behavior stop. I saw that I needed to want it with all my heart. Then, my addiction just disappeared. To me, the key is where you want to do Life. I didn’t want to keep hurting myself. I knew it wasn’t good for me. The drinking just passed away.
I did the 12 steps, about five years later. I love AA; I have deep respect for that program. I got a sponsor and did all of the steps, but I never really went to meetings. I still check in once in a while, maybe 1-2 times a year. I know for many people it is absolutely needed as a community and as a support.
Ana: Do you feel that because you were at Endeavor Academy with a group of people when you quit, that the community helped you go deeper?
Lisa: I think it probably did. The commitment to go there was a commitment to have a new life. Going there changed the scenery of my habits. I had a habitual way of living: waking up, going to work, then going to the liquor store, buying liquor and cigarettes, going back to my apartment, reading, drinking until I was tired, taking a bath and going to bed.
So the people at Endeavor were important, but also just going to the retreat was a really radical thing where I knew I was ready for a new life. I was there with a purpose and we all agreed “we don’t drink here.”
Ana: You said that you were able to quit for up to a month before this, but the retreat time was different. You were aware you wanted to quit, you had let go of the guilt around it, you had accepted yourself in your addiction, so that was one step. Can you say more about wanting sobriety with all of your heart? It’s such a poignant place. It’s taught in the Course, but many people don’t understand this.
Lisa: In Lesson 185, the Course teaches, “I want the peace of God… Many have said these words but few actually mean them.” It was such a personal journey for me. Nobody knew I was an alcoholic. I was just a fun party girl. And at work, nobody knew. But to me, deep down in my heart, I knew, “This is not the life I want for myself! I don’t want to keep drinking every night.” I knew that I really meant it. It makes me want to cry right now…and like it says in Lesson 185, if we really, truly want it, it is accomplished in that instant. So looking back, I know I didn’t want sobriety during those five years. It wasn’t until that moment in March, 2001, that I really meant it. Then it just disappeared!
It was like a cloud or something. All the times I’d quit before, I was still thinking about a drink every day. But once it passes like a cloud, you can’t even remember it! I don’t even think about it anymore.
Ana: That’s what I’ve been calling emotional and spiritual sobriety, not just physical sobriety.
Lisa: There were two other things that happened, though. The alcohol and the cigarettes fell away. I was married to a guy at that time and there was a tremendous amount of emotional turbulence going on in our marriage. There was so much conflict! I transferred my addictions over to food.
What I know now that I did not know then – and this is why I got into AA – was that I had healed the symptom of using alcohol and cigarettes, but I hadn’t yet healed the source that was causing the behavior. So I transferred [my pain] over to my marriage and my relationship with food. I don’t think it has to be a long process for everyone, but it was for me.
I started to really honor myself. I got out of that marriage because I realized, “This is just not working.” And with the food addiction, that was the last thing to go, leaving only in the last few years. I made a decision: I’m not going to diet anymore. I’m just going to love myself as I am. I’m just going to really make the commitment to know who I am, to be centered, and to be in constant awareness. Sobriety has to be a top priority.
Remembering what’s important to me is what keeps me centered. I want the peace of God. Everything falls into line with that kind of clarity.
Ana: Did you experience fear before your addictions fell away?
Lisa: I remember feeling tremendous fear when I first picked up the Course. I started smoking again after I’d already quit. I was drinking more than ever and smoking a pack a day.
Ana: Do you think your ego was feeling like its time was coming to an end? I see that happen in myself and others all the time in relation to the teachings of ACIM.
Lisa: That’s exactly what it was.
Ana: Did you have withdrawal symptoms when you quit the alcohol?
Lisa: After the retreat, I went back to my mom’s house in New Hampshire and I don’t know what happened. I don’t know if it was part of the transformation or detox or if it was a stomach flu, but I vomited for about 5 days straight. I would drink one sip of water and vomit out gallons of something weird…and after that it was done. But I didn’t have any withdrawal symptoms for the entire month on the retreat. I literally didn’t think about my addictions at all.
Ana: Have you ever relapsed?
Ana: What erroneous thoughts did you need to release and what right thinking replaced them?
Lisa: Good question. My erroneous thoughts were that I was alone. I was in fear and feeling that I had to do everything myself. Even though I knew about Jesus (author of A Course in Miracles) and God, I didn’t know them as real. They were just concepts at that time. The problem was my belief in separation, really. Therefore, I was living off-center.
I started to open my mind to the idea that I’m not really alone. I started to feel that there is a presence and a power with me, and I’m OK. I began to feel safe, like I was being watched, like Jesus is right here with me. Then, when I started feeling that way, all of the people from Endeavor Academy came into my life. I got physical effects from my change of mind.
Ana: That’s so beautiful. I know when I feel alone, I feel like there’s no one to help me. It’s really radical to accept that there’s so much deep, real help.
Lisa: Exactly. ACIM says that with the abundance of Christ, all addictions are healed. We must let go of our “lack thinking.” When I started to know that, when I began to say, “I don’t want to hold onto anything,” that’s when things fell away. You don’t really have to change anything but come into an awareness of who you really are and who walks with you, and then everything that’s not part of that falls away. There’s a temporary disorientation period where the fear is worse than ever, and you want to fall back into those old habits, but by that point, you say, “No, I just want to keep going.”
Edwene Gaines taught me, “You must forgive everyone and everything, including yourself.” And even though I’d already read that in the Course, I heard it from her. I got it.
Bill Free Interview
Ana: Please tell me your story about addiction in your life.
Bill: I started shooting drugs when I was about 13 years old. My friends and I did it for fun. We would shoot all kinds of stuff like reds, quaaludes, and later on, speed. We started getting into methamphetamine, crystal meth. We knew people who could write fake Dr.’s scripts and we knew how to print them out. We had guys who knew how to fill them out and girls who would take them to the pharmacy. Oh, my God, it was so crazy.
Ana: Where did you grow up?
Bill: Texas, outside of Dallas. Some of my friends went to jail. I did crystal meth until I was about 17. Then I went to Las Vegas and I was introduced to heroin there. I tried it for a few months. I was around all of these hookers and burglars and people who were really doing terrible things just to be able to buy the drugs. I saw how horrible this life of addiction was for heroin addicts. My older brother was selling and using; he had all these people coming around and he was hooked on it. It was so scary for me. I OD’d one day. I just about died. My brother and his girlfriend put me in a bathtub full of ice, and they said I was turning blue. They shot me up with some sugar water when I was passed out and that brought me back. It scared the bejeebees out of him!
When I came back, I said, “I am NOT doing that anymore. No more heroin.” I did do more for a couple of months, but when I saw how terrible these young people were – they had families where the husbands were hooked and the wives were prostituting and it was just so ugly – I talked my brother into leaving. I told him, “We gotta get outta here. I’m going back to Texas and you’re coming with me!”
I remember driving back to Texas with him. He had gotten some methadone for the ride from some friends. He ended up quitting the heroin and then he got religious. He got Jesus and cleaned himself up. And when I went back to Texas, I picked the speed back up.
Ana: You weren’t in school at 17? What was going on?
Bill: I left home at 15 and I’ve been living on my own ever since then. (Bill is about 60 now). I got kicked out of my house. I had two choices: go to a juvenile home or you’re on your own. I went to Las Vegas to live with my father, whom I’d never known. When I went out there, I lived with him for a couple of weeks. I enrolled myself in high school, and then he went to prison. So I dropped out of school and went to work at the Dunes Hotel as a busboy. After about a year, I made enough money to get myself back to Texas. It was my second time going to Las Vegas when I hooked up with my brother and did all the heroin. So no, I wasn’t in school. I quit early. I was a scared 15 year old!
When I was about 18 or 19, I was still doing the meth in Texas and I also became an alcoholic. I switched over to whiskey and beer, and just did the other stuff on the weekends. I had a couple of DWIs, and landed in jail for a couple of weeks when I was 19. Then I quit drinking after the accident and went back to drugs.
I met a woman who became my wife. We became drug addicts together. We were both into crystal meth. She became pregnant and at about three months, we became concerned about the baby so we both quit. She started taking supplements and had a beautiful, healthy baby. So then we started doing the drugs again.
After about two years, we moved to Austin with our daughter. I started wanting to get religious even though I was still partying on the weekends. I was running my own business and I was able to “maintain” even though I was still a drug addict and an alcoholic. At the same time, I wanted to know about God. My wife had no interest in spirituality. We ended up having a terrible relationship because of the drugs and alcohol. We got divorced and I was given custody of our child. My wife thought I’d be the better parent to raise her. So I carried on with a two year old.
A few years later, I was still partying. Shooting cocaine and heroin now, plus drinking. I came home one night when my daughter was not quite 5. My roommate had taken care of her that night. She was laying on my bed; it was 3 o’clock in the morning, and I thought to myself, “What are you doing? She needs you!” I got this total feeling like, “What the fuck are you doing?” And then I got on my knees in the bedroom that night and said, “God, if you’re real, I need your help. I really need your help.” And I didn’t know what that meant. I just got up and went to bed.
A couple of weeks later, my dad got out of prison. He was originally in prison for writing bad checks, doing stock trades… and out of prison, he was back at it again, doing really big deals. He invited me down to the Bahamas to see him. So I got on a plane and went down to the Bahamas. I ended up at a Billy Graham crusade. I saw people going on down to the front and I thought, “Wow, this is weird. What are these people doing? Are they in a trance?” They were baptizing people in the sea. And I wanted to do that. I thought, “Now I’m gonna know Jesus!” I was waiting for the Holy Spirit to land on my shoulder in the form of a dove, like what happened to Jesus.
It didn’t, but I changed. When I came out of the water, I picked up my pack of cigarettes and threw them in the trash. I quit drinking; I quit drugs. I had had cocaine the day before. I never had cocaine again. I moved soon after that to Florida with my daughter. A guy handed me a joint and I took a couple of hits, and then I said, “No, I’m not doing this again. That person doesn’t exist anymore.” I never smoked pot again. And when I started smoking cigarettes again, my little girl said, “Daddy, you said you weren’t gonna do that again. You said you were gonna stop!” So I actually threw the cigarettes away when she said that. She totally busted me. I never starting smoking again.
I didn’t drink again until I found A Course in Miracles, 27 years later. I had been a Christian and I felt that Christians don’t drink, so I wasn’t going to drink. I didn’t pick up drinking again until I renounced Christianity. After I found the Course, I felt that I hadn’t been drinking because I felt guilty about it. I decided that I wasn’t going to do anything out of guilt anymore.
I began drinking wine for 3-4 months. I went from drinking a glass of wine every now and then to getting a bottle and putting it in my refrigerator right before New Year’s Eve, 2008. I opened the fridge and saw the bottle there, and a voice came in my head. It said, “You can’t hear me when you drink that.” I knew that voice. It was the Holy Spirit. It had become my friend. It had become more real to me than anything that Christianity ever revealed. It was an inner voice of guidance that I had come to trust from my understanding of A Course in Miracles. When that voice said “you can’t hear me when you drink that,” it wasn’t a fear thought. I had a knowing that this was true and my Guide was telling me that I had a choice. On New Year’s Eve, I opened the bottle and poured it all down the drain and I never picked up alcohol again.
I did get hooked on drugs again, though. I had knee surgery on both knees. In 2014, I got hooked on oxycodone.
Ana: Did the doctor ask you whether you had a prior history of addiction prior to giving you that prescription?
Bill: No. I was taking the pills for about two months for the pain. And after that, I started taking them for the pleasure. I didn’t tell Lisa that I was hooked. I was taking 60 pills a week. I’d go online, refill my prescription from the privacy of my computer, and I’d go pick it up. I was taking 10 pills a day, every day. I realized that they owned me.
I was teaching A Course in Miracles. We were on Lesson 91 – Miracles are seen in light. I gave a talk and I said, “You guys are looking at a drug addict. I am hooked on these opiates. I’m telling Lisa right now for the first time, just like I’m telling you.” She was sitting in the front row. “They own me. I am claiming workbook lesson 91 for me today. Miracles are seen in Light. Light and strength are one. And I claim it right now.” We did the lesson together.
I came home and I had 18 pills left in the bottle. I thought, “If I only take 3 a day, I’ll have enough for 6 days. And then I’ll quit on day 7.” I was going to the bathroom when I heard a voice that said, “Throw them in the toilet.” I told Lisa, “I have this voice in my head that says to throw them in the toilet!” And she said, “Oh, good. Can I watch?” So I got the 18 pills, threw them in the toilet, and proceeded to have the worst cold turkey withdrawal of my life. For three days, I couldn’t sleep, I balled up in a ball like a little baby…it was the worst feeling. Terrible. But I quit the drugs.
I had another knee surgery last year. I took the drugs again – but only for pain. I was very present, aware and alert to what was happening with my decisions. I would check in with myself and ask, “Are you taking this for pain?” This time, I told the doctor that I had a history of addiction and I ended up overdosing from taking the prescribed amount. I had to go in an ambulance to the hospital because I just about quit breathing. They thought I’d taken too many pills but I took what they prescribed. I was almost without a pulse. My body just couldn’t handle it.
At least 100 times during that second knee surgery, I checked in with myself and did not take a pill. I weaned myself off of it after 2 months and took Tylenol and ibuprofen. Now I don’t take anything.
Ana: You quit everything, only to get hooked on opiates later on. Do you feel there were some teachings that you needed as a soul?
Bill: Definitely. For one thing, I felt the question: How much do I want this? How much do I want to be free? I want the peace of God more than anything. I want my connection with my true self, the love that I am. What I know I am, I want more than anything, more than any body experience.
Ana: That kind of inner strengthening is why I wrote this course. Dedication on the deepest level is really what it takes, I think, to heal both obvious and subtle addictions. What techniques do you use to keep yourself centered now?
Bill: What I use now is what I feel was the answer all along. When I found the Course, I began a meditation practice of getting quiet in the morning. I’m present, and I allow the quiet to be. That has always brought me back to alignment. It serves me also in trusting the feeling because with the feeling, I can trust the voice. The voice comes with the feeling, and the certainty comes with that experience of quiet presence. Quiet awareness is what I call it.
I did NOT know how to talk to Lisa about the drug addiction thing because I knew she wasn’t going to tolerate a partner who had a drug addiction. Sure, she’d be there for me, but she’s not going to be a party to it. I wouldn’t either. That’s just not what we’re about. So I had fear around her knowing. I had fear about saying anything, but I also know that “by the mouth, confession is made unto salvation.” (from the New Testament) When you say something and put it out there, the fear that was holding you back disappears, so now you’re free. When you tell someone else, fear can’t hold you prisoner.
Ana: Yes. I feel that secrets are what hold addictions in place in our mind. When we tell the truth and are witnessed, we can’t pretend that our secret didn’t come out. We have to live life on the other side of that – there’s no more secret to hide behind. It’s super powerful.
Bill: Yes, I agree. I would say quiet awareness and period of short meditation and quiet are my centering tools. So I can really BE the experience that wants to reveal itself to me.
Find out more about Lisa and Bil and their work with A Course in Miracles here: