I recently read an article by Brianna Lyman called – ´´Stop calling your drug addiction a disease´´ and felt compelled to write and share this open response. You are welcome to view the original article by clicking HERE.
I appreciate fully what it is to feel baffled, confused and infuriated with the addict. Really I do. I have been the loved one on the outside looking in desperate for that person to wake up, wishing I could shake some sense in to them and incite them to ´´pull it together´´. It is natural to have anger and frustration come through, because both are really fear in disguise. I have felt this. I have felt this, in spite of also being the addict. Yes, I know both sides of the fence intimately, and in many ways I am deeply privileged to do so, as only experience can ever truly allow us to understand anything. All else is speculation and information.
However, in the potential absence of experience, I will now attempt to convey a more complete and fully informed picture of what it really means to be an addict and why addiction is a disease.
In her article Brianna explained that the only reason we call addiction a disease, is because certain chemicals affect the dopamine response in the brain, thus inducing a good feeling and desire for more. Other than this Brianna made very clear that it is the addicts fault that they are addicted because they ´´chose´´ to put that substance in their body in the first place.
It is absolutely true that many substances, including heroin, cocaine, alcohol, sugar and even cheese, affect the dopamine (pleasure) receptors in the brain making some substances more addictive than others. However, how then is it that many people, most people in fact, also chose to consume these very same substances - be it cocaine or Camembert, heroin or Haagen Daaz - and yet do not get addicted?
This is because dopamine can help get us hooked on a bad habit, but true addiction is much more than a bad habit to be broken. So what is it? True addiction, chronic addiction, is what I call the perfect storm.
Some people will be particularly susceptible to habit forming substances and struggle to control the amount they use once they have picked up. They may also create a dramatic change in personality and behaviour. This is because some people process substances differently and suffer an allergic – an adverse – reaction. When a substance hits their system they develop what is known as a ´´phenomenon of craving´´. Upon consuming even the smallest amount, a need for more is stimulated which is so powerful and all consuming, that they will be entirely unable to overcome or override it. For somebody who does not suffer this, it is almost impossible to comprehend.
This would be termed as acute alcoholism or addiction. These people may lose control at the time of using, but like general users or heavy drinkers with bad habits, will be able to stop should they chose. They will likely be able to stop, and stay stopped.
The true or chronic alcoholic or addict will find themselves unable to stop, either at all, or for any prolonged period of time (years), in spite of a crushing desire to do so. To be in the grip of addiction is to be held hostage by yourself. Any person in a well mind would of course, simply stop such a destructive behaviour. This much is obvious. But that’s the point; the addict is not well, they have a disease, they are suffering with a mental and physical illness that deprives them of the ability to take logical action in the way any well person would.
You cannot know true addiction until all you want in the world is to be free of the need to use, but have no ability at all to overcome the compulsion that is killing you quietly. To be a victim of your own incapacity to stop something that is wounding both you and those you love, is soul destroying. I know what it is to sob over a white powered mirror desperate not to use, whilst being simultaneously just as desperate not to get the cocaine wet, because I could not be without it… I could not breathe without it. I know what it is to be violently ill with every sip of vodka but be completely unable to stop swallowing it like life blood.
My addictions nearly stole a life, my life, a life that I was desperate to live. So why did I use to begin with and what made me, unlike some others, categorically unable to tame the beast for more than 10 years?
Many people may suffer with depression (mental illness) and may even become dependent upon substances to ´´medicate´´ that depression, but they are able to process the substance in their system properly, and therefore the craving and compulsive use is never sparked. They may use to change the way they feel, but will be very capable of picking it up and putting it down.
Some people suffer with the adverse reaction to chemical substances that sparks the phenomenon of craving and compulsive use, but not the severe mental and emotional imbalance. They may get out of control when using, but again, will be very capable of leaving it alone if need be and perfectly fine without it.
True (chronic) alcoholics and addicts suffer with both the adverse reaction and the mental imbalance. This devastating combination renders them completely powerless to stop, moderate, contain or control their use.
This condemns us to a vicious and violent cycle of needing to reach for something to change the way we feel because we are simply unable to process ´´life on life terms´´ and our emotional response to the world is completely skewed. In then reaching for that substance and sparking the craving, we are bound to continue to use it compulsively in spite of the fact it may be inducing more suffering. Sound insane? That’s because it is.
Alcoholism and addiction is an imbalance of both body and mind. An affliction that at the time is nearly impossible for the addict or alcoholic to grasp, see, or understand. To someone on the outside it will seem like baffling behaviour. But trust me; the addict baffles themselves just as much.
The paranoid schizophrenic, although they suffer, will not necessarily believe or understand they are ill and embrace treatment. It is no different for a true addict, and yet for some reason we condemn them to a different box.
Is it painful to watch someone destroy themselves? Of course. But is it also painful to be the assassin of your own crumbling heart? Without question. Having sat on both sides of the table – I would go as far as to suggest that the latter is the more miserable existence.
I feel it is exceptionally important to also note that studies increasingly show, (note the work of esteemed psychiatrist and leading trauma expert Bessel Van der Kolk) that the type of addiction and alcoholism mentioned here is almost always rooted in trauma. We are coming to understand trauma in a far more broad reaching capacity than ever before. Trauma can range from the obvious, such as abuse, to circumstances so subtle that only the well trained eye will spot it. Our brains, belief systems and the filters through which we process and experience life are mapped by our experiences. Traumatic experiences change the brain and in turn the way we see the world. Trauma locks the brain and body in to a state of hyperarousal causing the individual to be suspended in a state of intolerable fear and anxiety. They simply never feel safe, secure or at ease and are prone to deep depression and sense of disconnection from the world around them. This emotional and mental imbalance condemns them to need to numb, and quite simply, escape themselves. If our perception and reception of life is off whack, as an addicts is, there is always a reason why.
To appreciate the part that trauma imprint plays in addiction is not about blame or negation of personal responsibility. I fully believe that as we come to adulthood we all become responsible for our own healing and wellbeing. However, what this understanding does begin to do is crack open our awareness to the tragic plight of the alcoholic and addict, as well as all those whom the addiction ripple effects. The addict is simply someone doomed by faulty brain and body function, and healing is not easy.
I speak from experience when I say that the addict carries more self-loathing and shame than one could ever impose upon them. That said, we want to relinquish the need to fix or mollycoddle, for then we simply become the enabler and get in the way of the addicts own journey towards help and health. We must however learn to view them through informed and compassionate eyes, because blame and anger are unproductive. Hostility never initiates healing, for anyone, on either side of the street.
Indra Aimee Rai is a Kundalini/Tantra Yogini and Transformational Life Coach who specialises in healing anxiety, depression, trauma and addiction holistically. If you are interested to learn more about what is detailed in the above article, understand how it relates to you, or would like to discuss your own struggles or desire to heal then please get in touch for a free no strings attached consultation (online or in person).
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So often in life when experiencing fear, stress, anxiety or panic, a sympathetic soul will say to us ´"just breathe", but rarely do we fully comprehend the weight of wisdom behind these kindly words. It is easy to dismiss something so simple and miss out on the magic. In yogic terms breath is the very source of Prana, our vital life force or energy, and yogic tradition advocates the practice of pranayama – ´´mastery of breath´´ or more accurately ´´mastery of life force´´
To understand why the breath is such a powerful tool to both prevent and relieve anxiety and stress, we need to understand a little about our nervous system. The autonomic nervous system influences our digestive system, heart rate, immune function, and respiratory system. This system then branches out in to our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
It is our sympathetic nervous system that creates our instinctive ´´flight or fight´´ reactions through hormal surges such as adrenaline and cortisol. These are invaluable as they create our ability to energize, mobilize and complete tasks, but when they are sent in to overdrive, the continued elevation and state of arousal can cause multiple problems - including general anxiety and stress.
The parasympathetic nervous system is often referred to as our ´´rest and digest´´ mechanism and works to slow the mind and body. These sympathetic and parasympathetic branches are intended to work in union and equilibrium with each other, but too often our busy modern lifestyles cause the sympathetic nervous system to over function, poking us closer and closer towards what I call ´´the panic zone´´.
One of the secrets to feeling balanced and stress free… is to keep our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems working in balance with each other.
Our respiration - breath - is the only autonomic function that we have any external influence over. When we make the breath conscious rather than unconscious, we are engaging our brain, and in turn talking to and influencing our nervous system. To slow the breath is to slow the pace of your entire nervous system. Work with the breath, ,with regularity and commitment, even if only for a few minutes each day, and you will be able to bring your base line so far down from ´´the panic zone´´ that even the greatest of stressors will struggle to push you there.
Yoga means ´´union´´, and the simple act of focusing on the breath, unites body and mind in a unique way, soothing not only the nervous system but also gently beginning to train the mind to focus, and slow rather than incessantly spin.
To experience the calming, centering and empowering practice of pranayama, here are a few simple techniques:
Conscious Breathing / Long Deep Breathing
To breathe consciously is to simply to become aware of your own breathing at first, allowing the mind to focus in this alone, gently drawing it away from other stressors and distractions. The mind will drift, but just keep drawing it back without frustration or irritation. When people are anxious or stressed, they tend to take shallow breaths, breathing from their shoulders. Many of us only ever breathe this way, keeping us suspended closer to an experience of stress.
As such, sit in a comfortable position, with the spine reasonably straight without straining and place one hand on your belly and the other on your heart centre/chest. Close your eyes and breathe normally at first. Pay attention to your breathing rate, the rise and fall of the breath in the body, and how the air feels coming in and letting go. Then draw the breath a little deeper, down to your diaphragm so it causes your belly to softly expand like a balloon. Allow it to fill all the way up, expanding your ribcage and then your chest whilst keeping your shoulders relaxed, low and slightly back. The breath should never over expand so it becomes a strain. It simply needs to be fluid and full; soft soothing and a little deeper than usual. If you find your chest is rising in an exaggerated way to breathe deeper this is a sign that you are not breathing all the way down and using the full lung capacity. Visualise the air being drawn down as if in to the belly. Bring a little extra focus to the exhale, making sure to empty the lungs without over exaggerating. The exhale is the mechanism that switches on the parasympathetic nervous system, the one that brings you down.
Sit and focus on your breath for 3 minutes (with a timer) centering your mind with the simple mantra (tool of the mind) ´´I am breathing in…I am breathing out´´. With every inhale feel revitalized. With every exhale feel a gentle release, softening and surrender.
Left Nostril Breathing
For an extra boost in stress reduction left nostril breathing is highly effective but the simple long and conscious breath is advisable to master first.
Breathing through the left nostril for only a few minutes is shown to reduce the activity of the sympathetic nervous system lowering your blood pressure and creating a calming effect. It activates the ´´Ida´´ nerve ending in the left nostril, which relates to the qualities of calmness and relaxation. Left nostril breathing is also associated with the moon energy, which is changeable, feminine, yin, soothing and cool.
Sit comfortably and close your right nostril with your right thumb, your other fingers are stretched straight up like antennas. Your left hand can remain relaxed on your left knee. Close your eyes and begin to breathe long and deep, without over stretching, filling your lower lungs first and then up and in to the ribs and chest. Exhale slowly and completely. Continue to breathe only through your left nostril for three minutes.
Remember that pranayama can be highly effective to relieve already present anxiety, but to receive the most benefit, implement these simple practices daily to create and maintain a generally more neutral, calm and steady state of being. Build the times as you become more comfortable with the practice, remembering that 3 minutes a day is far more powerful than 11 or 22 minutes once or twice a week!
Science aside, when we focus on our breath, we draw deeply in to our innermost self and practice yoga in its purest form. We unite our body and mind so that we can unite with the moment. We get so caught up in the never ending torrent of life and in the fears and fretting of yesterday and tomorrow, that we lose touch with the reality that all we ever have is a continuous stream of ´´now´´. The moment, the now, is the peace and the stillness that resides within the very core of our being, regardless of what external stimuli may appear to be causing us ´´stress´´.
Feel in to this endless space by using the breath. Find your quiet center. Then feel the space in between each breath. There you will find, on the turn of the breath, a flash of the infinite, the stillness and silence, that exists in between the noise of our mind and of everyday life, that which is expansive, vibrant, joyous and always at ease; that which we could call God, but is nameless and formless. God is in the gap and your breath can journey you in to this sacred space of perpetual and uninterruptable peace. Just breathe.
Indra Aimee Rai
Transformational Life Coach, Kundalini Yogi
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