A Prescription for All Addictions
by Michelle Katz
We all have at least one. Maybe it’s one of the healthy ones like running, cycling or yoga. Or maybe it’s the cravings for cheese (which is related to opioids), potato chips (pointing the finger at myself), or the call for coffee. Maybe it’s one of the more problematic ones: drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex or work.
Addictions are a human experience. This article is not only to those who are actively in treatment or living recovery, but to all those who are highly functioning with their addiction too. At times, life is hard and we need things that feel good to us. Addiction is often stigmatized and avoided as an issue that needs our attention. It is clear to me that we fall into these practices to cope with the hard times because we are ultimately not getting something essential we need.
For me, stages of life have revealed many addictive patterns: first perfectionism, then potato chips (really), I am always struggling with being a workaholic, and the one I seem to really struggle with right now is TV. As a millennial and product of immigrant parents who were workaholics in order to make ends meet and support our family, I often found myself home alone propped in front of the TV. This offer some sort of solace as I was waiting for mom and dad to come home, soothing the feeling of not being with my parents, and it would zone me and my brother out so we wouldn’t fight. Now, when I find that challenging moment of crossing over that threshold between alone (which I love and relish being in) and loneliness, I find that I so deeply want to turn on the TV. This was easy in my 20’s when I didn’t have a TV but with the advent and ease of Netflix, watching TV is all to easy, I don’t even need to be watching it, the familiar voices of old familiar characters in the background is enough.
I have faced the other addictions in my life, with much diligence, attention, and consciousness, while learning about the beauty of moderation of all things, including moderation itself. I eat less potato chips, I let go of being perfect if not every day, every hour. And I take necessary breaks from work and participate in a more balanced life. Yet, still when things are difficult, all these arise again and again and I meet them the best I can. The TV one will be no different. In this, I also feel acutely aware of the growing addiction to technology in our culture, the dopamine and serotonin hits of illuminated screens and social media likes, screams out that something essential is missing in our lives. Yes, we are virtually connected, but more utterly alone than ever in human history.
Interestingly, I also find that I seem to partner up with men who show me the drug, alcohol, sex or work addiction, or some combination of them all. All of these people have been highly intelligent and good people with so much vibrance. They have well developed brains, maybe causing some anxiety, and in that, they have found ways to cope with their highly active brains being “on” all the time. I really get it and see it as a way that it makes us all more interesting people. I may even go as wildly far to say, addictions somehow contribute to the depth of each individual's’ personality and character.
Whenever something is over exaggerated then we are experiencing an imbalance, and we can hopefully come to realize whatever we are addicted to is beyond our control. Working with addiction, seems likely related to the imbalance that has to do with: a lack of depth or meaning, a lack of connection or love, a lack of an experience of spirituality in life, or a lack of play (particularly in the life of a workaholic). All these things really excite me! Imagine if we could invite more of these elements into our lives to heal our addictions! That feels incredibly worthwhile!
This week a friend asked me, “What does Oaks Counsel do for those struggling with addictions?”
Nature connection! Today I walked out onto the land, a storm on its way, and the snow on the ground had melted through the week, leaving patches of revealed earth here and there and a dusting of dirt on the once white polished snow. I walked the path, up and down slipping at times, crunching or sinking in other moments. Then the rain came (wishing it was snow). I could not help but admire the trees of the landscape. They withstand all things, winter storms, rain, flooding, heat waves in the summer. They just stay still with all the changes. They don’t turn to technology or food or alcohol. It’s not even in their artillery of choice. They just stay. They just see it all through. Seeing nature as a mirror, I wondered, what it would be like if humans had this as their only choice as well, in the ups and downs and weathering of life when it gets slippery and sticky, when we want to turn to our addictive coping, what if we looked to the trees as a model for what to do and stayed with that uncomfortable feeling.
As a therapist, clients struggling with any addiction issues tended to be my favorite to work with. The reason for this is that I truly believe these are the people who are really the seekers of something bigger in their life. They are experiencing a call to that something bigger but they lack a clear path to get there, so they have turned to other things to ease the pain of the absence of this, this thing that more often than not, does not have a clear name. From what I have seen, it is the lack of meaning, love and connection, spirit or play. Nature and Oaks Counsel helps us connect to these much lacking and longed for pieces of life.
Meaning. (This is a big one for workaholics who falsely find meaning in their doing rather than their being of who they are.) For addicts, time in nature not only helps them get away from situations that perpetuate the addiction (offering time to slow down to the pace of nature, thus giving them more time to respond rather than react to a craving) but also helps individuals gain a sense of meaning, life, spirit and play. Oaks Counsel is perpetually positing the question of “Who am I?” The Big Rite of Passage Question. Solo time in nature helps us sit with this question and see what arises within us, in a place that is balancing. Nature offers us balance, nothing is in the wrong place out there, and we learn that neither are we. We are utterly and completely accepted as we are and for all we have to offer the world, through the nature’s lens. No blade of grass is in the wrong place, as the Buddha said. So when asked, who am I? We can hold this in silence and contemplation and know that what arises is right.
Love and Connection. (A big one for sex addicts who rely on the fleeting physical experience when they cannot tap into this not so tangible consistent feeling. Also a big one for technology addicts, who rely on “likes” and wifi connection to meet this basic human need.) Our addictions give us a feeling of being “high” a serotonin or dopamine hit that is similar to the experience of love. So often our addictions relieve us of feelings of not being loved or cared for and this can be related to the very present moment and go as far back as our childhood experiences. Being in nature, lying on the earth, looking up at the sky, interacting with animals and plants, feelings of love and being loved arise naturally even when human interactions cannot offer this. A big part of Oaks Counsel is also the creation of community. In the process of sharing stories of life, we find deep connection and loving of humanity. The people around the circle seems to mirror our experiences, and when we share our stories we feel heard, seen, and valued in a way that transforms us. Johann Hari speaks about the importance of this in his noteworthy TEDtalk.
Spirit. (I do not think it is a coincidence that alcohol is often referred to as spirits.) People who struggle with addiction are often seeing an experience of higher consciousness, whether they are conscious to this or not. The 12 step program works because there is an element of connecting to a higher spirit. Someone recently asked me “what is spirit?” The question stumped me, mostly because I couldn’t quite find a way to answer him as I think the definition is different for everyone. Here I am defining it as connection to something bigger than ourselves. (Though I know in a different context, this definition changes for me too). In nature, we can feel and see how related we are to the world around us, that we are part of something much more vast than us alone. In this state of knowing, we experience a higher level of consciousness, one that we so deeply crave in times when we turn to our addictions. Moments of Awe are also a big part of the experience of the spirit; and nature supplies this constantly in sunset and sunrises, in shooting stars, waterfalls, redwood trees, the ocean, mountain ranges, and animal interactions. The feeling of vastness and appreciation for being alive is deeply felt in these moments, as they transform us, it can feel like a deeply religious experience.
Play. (Also a big one for those that find substances as a way to let go of their adult self in order to act goofy and outside their well developed persona.) Somehow, as we grow older we forget how to play or that play is important. So we turn to our addictions as a way to “cut loose”, to give ourselves some sort of contained experience of play when we can be something or experience some way of being that we usually are not. (I find perfectionists really love to turn to drugs or alcohol for a good reason to let go of the perfectionism for just a brief time.) I chuckle in wondering what it would be like, if instead of pouring ourselves a cocktail or glass of wine at the end of the day, we met some friends at the local playground and all tried to see how many of us can fit down the twisty slide at one time. Or if we could let ourselves wrestle like we used to with our siblings. Forget organized or skilled sports as a way to let ourselves play, when is the last time you had a snowball or water balloon fight? Or if you are alone, when is the last time you built a castle in the sand or suspended disbelief enough to have inanimate objects talk with each other just out of your own imagination? When we turn to addictions, are we not aiming to play in this pure mind-suspending unadulterated way to balance out the seriousness of life?
Today, I was in my car, when right next to me at a red light, I saw someone I loved dearly and now never speak to. I immediately began waving wildly with both arms and grinning ear to ear with such exuberance that it would make anyone smile, he didn’t notice me and looked intensely serious, on his way to work and likely thinking about it already. I wished he looked around to notice the burst of joy happening toward him just in the next car. It is my wish for all us to look around more often to see the love, connection, spirit and play around us in every moment and that we all more truly see ourselves in this reflection, so much so we may just not need those addictive coping skills that are so well developed to meet our needs.
Oaks Counsel offers all this and more! Explore yourself and your way through habits that no longer serve you.