The opioid crisis: The times they are a changing
Note: This article, written by Cherry Sullivan, originally appeared in a Hampshire Gazette column on September 29, 2017.
After graduate school in the early 1980s, I was hired as clinical coordinator of an outpatient methadone and counseling program at Cambridge Hospital, affiliated with Harvard University. Frankly I was shocked to be offered the job.
My graduate school, Antioch University, Institute of Open Education in Cambridge, was focused on social justice, holistic thinking and humanistic therapy. Psychiatry, on the other hand, followed a top-down, authoritarian model. For me, working at this Harvard program was like entering a foreign country.
During my time there, I changed the program, making it more human, less therapist authoritarian. Not hiding my recovery, I became a part of this community of people addicted to heroin — and I became their student. My own addiction to downers, alcohol, pot, acid, etc., had been faced years before, and my recovery, though at times difficult, was sustained. We shared a common knowledge about what addiction was all about. The heroin addicts I came to know well were among some of the most sensitive people I have ever known.
My path, both professional and personal, has taken me many places: I lived on a Lakota Reservation in Wanblee, South Dakota, experiencing mind-changing meditation practices, and real honest-to-goodness mentors. The teachers appeared at my most vulnerable time, when in recovery I had to face the potential for death at a relatively young age.
Die I did not, at least in body. But there’s another kind of death that can be an essential step in recovering from addiction: The death I am talking about is more about the illusions about oneself and about life. Addiction is a very human experience. Much of our species is addicted to power, position, oil, privilege, money and status. Some of us are addicted to western comfort, over consumption, and share a common arrogance that is an emotional buffer against the tremendous suffering of much of the world. We remain addicted to illusions of aloneness, a sense of separation from all life, the Earth, nature and the global biosphere.
It is noted that at the core of addiction is isolation; and the opposite of addiction is community, purpose and connection.
Yet there are pathways to healing and wholeness. Throughout our lives, mentors appear. The late Bill Wilson and Bob Smith, the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, were just that for many. Through their writings and the fellowship they created, they are still that for many. For others, that’s not the right path.
What is the right path? There are many options. Each person must find the path that is most likely to work for them.
Over the course of my clinical practice and study of addiction and its causes, I’ve learned a great deal about brain science involving neuroplasticity and quantum studies, ideas that are transforming the recovery field. We used to think that the brain, once damaged, could not repair itself. Breakthroughs in neuroscience show this is not true. Neuroplasticity tells us the brain attempts to heal itself and we are learning how. With intensive therapy, spiritual practices and other holistic methods such as mindfulness training and stress reduction methods, the “recovery” loop within the brain is strengthened. The brain begins to recover.
Quantum studies, the field of quantum physics, tell us that paying close attention to both body and mind leads to greater influence over both. By learning techniques, one can retrain the brain subtly over time.
AA’s famed 12 steps make reference to “having had a spiritual awakening.” There are many ways to find and live this awakening, but it must be authentic. Once experienced, it is the best damn drug there is. Hundreds of people throughout history have written about it. This awakening is at the core of the recovery of one’s own life, finding one’s purpose for life, and a way to experience life fully, and to help others. To find this awakening, with a mentor, helps to resolve addictions.
For me, during one of those long deep and dark nights of soul searching, I found Zerka Moreno, who emigrated alone from pre-Nazi Europe to meet JL Moreno, a psychiatrist, whom she would marry. Together, they created a model called psychodrama, often used in psychotherapy. Psychodrama uses dramatization of life events and role playing to act out past situations and then evaluate the behavior to better understand how past traumas may influence present-day responses.
I studied with Zerka Moreno for nearly three decades while she mentored me in my own discovery, just as I feel I must do for people who seek my counsel. I honed and synthesized what I learned into what I call Mindful-Attunement, an educational tool for people seeking a kind of spiritual awakening or healing. These are some of my ideas about Mindful-Attunement as experiential learning:
Within each of us is a place of being which is beyond pain. Finding this is the hero’s journey that takes courage and persistence, not giving up no matter how difficult, with guides assisting along the way.
Mindful-Attunement can be learned, using techniques based in new understanding of the neuroplasticity of the brain, involving holistic approaches.
The sensitive among us are looking for something. People who are opiate-addicted are often traumatized, highly sensitive people. But they are not the only people struggling with addiction. Many in our culture live in an addicted state.
A paradigm shift in our understanding of addiction is on the horizon. I personally think the AA model of seeking a spiritual awakening is right, although people may come to that awareness through different paths. We are building new paths. In this I have found my purpose and my work, to share. One path along the way.
Edward Schreiber, EdM, LADC1, TEP, is ServiceNet’s Director of Outpatient Substance Use Services and a member of the Hampshire HOPE opioid prevention coalition, run out of the city of Northampton’s Health Department. Members of Hampshire HOPE contribute to this monthly column about local efforts to address the opioid epidemic.