Junk Talk Interview with Tom Catton, author of The Mindful Addict


Tom Catton is the author of The Mindful Addict, A Memoir of the Awakening of a Spirit, a reflection on his many years in recovery from an addiction to heroin and other drugs that he acquired in the sixties. He has been in recovery since 1971.

Tim Elhajj for Junk Talk: The granddaddy of all twelve-step programs is the venerable Alcoholics Anonymous, which has been around since the late 30s and has spurred an unprecedented growth of similar programs for all sorts of problems from eating and sex addictions to compulsive gambling. In deference to the twelve step tradition of anonymity, we’re not going to press you to reveal the name of program to which you belong. However, you’ve been in recovery for 40 years and AA itself has only been around for 76 years. Whatever program you’re in, you must be one of its original members, or quite nearly. What you can tell us about how the program has matured over the last 40 years? Has it matured?

Tom Catton: First Tim let me thank you for this chance to talk about and expose my book to a few more people. I believe all the 12-step programs have matured over the years and this is because of the traditions we follow as our guide, thank you for respecting that. When I went to my first meeting in 1968 there were about 25 meetings world wide of the fellowship I ended up in; now this fellowship has about 60,000 meetings in 136 countries. I would say it has matured. I and another member started this same 12 step program in Hawaii in 1973.

Junk Talk: Your memoir is a recovery story, but it stands out for me because of your life long quest for spiritual enlightenment, especially your interest in Buddhism. You open the book immersed in an active addiction, yet even here you seem to suggest an interest in Eastern philosophies along with the counter culture movement of the sixties. Were your father and mother Buddhists? Were you familiar with Eastern religion during your childhood and upbringing? Can you elaborate on what sort of spiritual guidance or training you received (if any) as a child? What are your earliest memories of a longing for a spiritual experience?

Tom Catton: I was brought up in the typical Christian household, attending church pretty regularly. I remember around 7 or 8 years old, pondering the question of”what is nothing?” I would think about it constantly, knowing that it can’t be black space or gray space, because that is something. As I look back it was my first Zen Koan. I turned sixteen in 1960, so I was certainly a child of the 60’S. I was introduced to LSD around 1962 or 63, along with the rantings of Tim Leary, verbalizing his mantra of ‘turn on, tune in and drop out’ plus lots of influences from an influx of gurus from the east. I read the book Autobiography of a Yogi in 1966 and started my practice of meditation. The way of the Veda teachings resonated in my heart, nothing from early childhood will explain the strong connection I felt. I think it was from an earlier time.

Junk Talk: You’ve met both Mother Theresa and the Dali Lama, two icons of spirituality in modern times. Most people consider the spiritual life to be a life dedicated to self-sacrifice and service. Public attitudes and perceptions about addicts are rapidly changing, but most people also consider addiction to be the most self-serving and harmful of human experiences. What can you tell us about this seeming paradox in your life?

Tom Catton: There is no doubt that self- centeredness is at the core of addiction. Hopefully we find the program and are introduced to the concept of thinking of others. Early on we learn to help set up a meeting room and clean up afterwards or we might find ourselves going out of our way to give someone a ride to a meeting. Our new life is the beginning of learning to love without a price tag. We find that service is something we have to invite into our lives if we want to continue in recovery. My book emphasis the practice of meditation coupled with service; this being the combination to open the door to a life of self forgetting. Our egos become exhausted trying to capture our attention.

This is not another book on addiction and the nightmares of it. This book takes us beyond that, showing that the seemingly hopeless disease of addiction can be an enlightening dilemma, and quite possibly a misunderstood gift, a blessing in disguise. I practice mindfulness meditation daily. I always arise from my cushion with an open heart, with the prayer of: “send someone to interfere in my life.”

Junk Talk: Most recovery memoirs are essentially the story of a hero’s journey, but your story literally does span continents. More than most, you’re on a literal quest. At one point, you describe yourself as a bird. I know I recently saw that you were in the Middle East earlier this spring during the Arab unrest. Is travel an essential part of your spiritual life? How does a literal journey—the act of traveling, living on the road—inform your spiritual life?

Tom Catton: I was introduced to the program in an unusual way that has affected my life ever since. A woman was guided in meditation to the house next door to where I lived in 1968. She was a member of a 12-Step fellowship and started a meeting in this house. This was my first exposure to the fellowship; this woman had experienced a spiritual awakening years before and now dedicated her life to carrying the message to alcoholics and addicts. The lesson I was learning in early recovery was the importance of practicing the 11th step each day and listening for guidance. In the 10 years I traveled with her before her death in 1978, I saw this women go around the world twice with no money. It wasn’t so much about travel as it was learning to listen within; wherever we were guided it was about helping others get clean. Living on the road with no visible means of income at times was a real life experience of trust. I was told if I become willing to carry the message to whomever, wherever I would be provided for. I base my life on this concept of following my heart; the lessons are still in motion. You mentioned the Middle East. Yes, in February I was in Bahrain. I was attending a forum for fellowship development as a delegate from Hawaii. There were 20 other countries represented. I was woken the 2nd night there with horns and gun fire. The unrest had spread from Egypt to Bahrain. That week I found myself in a vortex of change, the political one on the streets and the spiritual change within the conference room. Some of the countries represented were: Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, India, Pakistan, and many more. The love was something that words cannot describe and it was quite apparent that with the turmoil on the streets outside emphasized the peace felt within our endeavors to carry the message to anyone wanting recovery . This contrast acted as a great description of the significant change the 12-Steps can have on your life. Needless to say this is an adventure that I won’t forget.

Junk Talk: The pact that a writer of memoir makes with his audience is that he’s going to share his story truthfully, to the best of his ability. For the author who is involved with a twelve-step recovery program, there is also the tradition of anonymity to consider. What are your thoughts on program anonymity, especially as it relates to recovery memoirs? As writers, should we satisfy to our readers desires to know all the details of our recovery? Or must we do our utmost to accommodate our friends in the rooms?

Tom Catton: Throughout my book, and with any interview verbal or written, I have always respected the principle of anonymity, simply by just mentioning 12-step recovery instead of any program specific. The publishers of my book, Central Recovery Press, are extremely mindful of the traditions and respecting anonymity. With this tradition in mind I was able to write candidly and truthfully about my life. I continue to be open about it to anyone anywhere and still respect the traditions. Thanks again Tim for the opportunity to express a few ideas on the practicing of this spiritual life. I remain excited about this process of awakening and I continue to work the steps and participate in my own recovery. I’m 67 and almost 40 years clean, yet most the time I feel like a newcomer. The practice of just being mindful with each breath will keep me busy the rest of my life.


2 Responses to “Junk Talk Interview with Tom Catton, author of The Mindful Addict”

  1. nice piece, nice wisdom, nice sharing. i am grateful to you.

  2. Thanks for the kind words, Cary. Keep coming back.

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