Our Modern Leprosy
Last week I was sitting on a bench in a local shopping area, with my dog at my feet. We are moving, and our house has been on the market for the last month, during which we have spent many 45-minute chunks at local parks, on benches, in TJ MAXX. Normally our dog doesn't get out much as we have a fenced yard and a dog-walking-friendly street, and she is too big and energetic to bring on errands. Well, that's what we thought, until this last month, when we have had to bring her along. Turns out she no longer runs away or howls at everyone. Who knew.
Anyway, I was on this bench, and a couple was headed my way. I had been playing this mental game with myself, guessing which store people were headed toward. I guessed this couple was headed to the liquor store (most people were). The woman sat down on the bench next to me, while her male companion continued on (to the liquor store). She didn't say anything to me but out of the corner of my eye, I instantly knew she was currently or had recently struggled with a combination of self-injury ("cutting") and drug addiction (injectibles). I turned to her and said hello, and started a conversation.
In the ten minutes we shared a bench in my quiet, relatively affluent little CT town, she shared with me that she struggled with bipolar disorder and a couple of other brain health disorders, and that she had stopped taking her medication but had just decided to put in for a refill. The man was her boyfriend, and she was grateful to him, she told me, for his patience with her. They had walked at least a mile, because his car "doesn't work right now." I asked her if she has children, and she became more sullen, admitting she has a daughter, who is being raised by her daughter's dad. She told me that her daughter was turning five the next day. She hoped to see her for her birthday. By now, her boyfriend was headed our way, so I asked her if she would consider going back on her meds, for her daughter's sake. She said that yes, she would do that.
The interaction sat with me for a while. Later that day, a friend of mine who is an ER nurse in another state, shared how pervasive alcohol and other drug-related incidents drive people to the ER. She often shares ER stories of young people (in their 20s, 30s, 40s) who are at end-stage liver disease due to alcohol, the stories most people don't hear about because usually if you think of this type of death, you are probably picturing old men. At least I used to do so. My friend also shared how dismayed she is by the lack of compassion on behalf of the medical staff, toward people who are suffering from the disease of addiction. When someone enters the ER with other chronic disorders, they tend to get a much better response from the staff, as well as the insurance company.
Not for the first time, it occurred to me how much today's epidemic of addiction to drugs (which certainly includes alcohol) reminds me of leprosy. Leprosy was first reported in 600 BC in India, China and Egypt. Since then, it has been considered a "curse of God," often associated with sin. It did not kill the person suffering from it, but it was chronic and seemingly endless, lingering for years, causing tissues to degenerate, deforming the body. People were terrified of leprosy and out of fear of contagion, shunned those afflicted with it - friends and family included. Well, then Jesus showed up and in his badass rebellious way, treated lepers with compassion, touching and healing them.
Right now, if you are paying any attention, you know we have this crisis in our country (the U.S.), where according to the former Surgeon General:
"In 2015, over 27 million people in the US reported current use of illicit drugs or misuse of prescription drugs, and over 66 million people (nearly a quarter of the adult and adolescent population) reported binge drinking in the past month. Alcohol and drug misuse and related disorders are major public health challenges that are taking an enormous toll on individuals, families, and society. Neighborhoods and communities as a whole are also suffering as a result of alcohol- and drug-related crime and violence, abuse and neglect of children, and the increased costs of health care associated with substance misuse. It is estimated that the yearly economic impact of substance misuse is $249 billion for alcohol misuse and $193 billion for illicit drug use."
The report also talks about the fact that in spite of the fact that most Americans have been touched personally by substance use disorder (either themselves or a loved one), "few other medical conditions are surrounded by as much shame and misunderstanding as substance use disorders. Historically, our society has treated addiction and misuse of alcohol and drugs as symptoms of moral weakness or as a willful rejection of societal norms, and these problems have been addressed primarily through the criminal justice system. Our health care system has not given the same level of attention to substance use disorders as it has to other health concerns that affect similar numbers of people. Substance use disorder treatment in the US remains largely segregated from the rest of health care and serves only a fraction of those in need of treatment."
A few years ago I wrote a blog entry about how every single one of us is at risk for addiction. Around then is when I started to question my own relationship with alcohol, especially as I was intrigued with mindfulness and was incorporating mindfulness into my daily living. Or at least, trying to do so. Increasingly, as I looked at myself, and others in various stages of addiction, I became convinced that addiction is but a symptom of a deeper problem. Around the same time, I acknowledged to myself that I have a primal need for connection. Social situations that feel frivolous to me leave me feeling empty and frustrated. Small talk, light reading (eg "beach books"), many mainstream movies and TV shows - complete waste of time and somewhat torturous.
There are many reasons people today are relying on glamorized beverages, pain relief in a pill or powder, and other means of creating a false connection with others, or a relief from their current uncomfortable state. That is a whole other blogpost. Today, I specifically wanted to point out what I see as our current collective moral weakness. I do not think it's a coincidence that as we as a society have become more reliant on technology, on acquiring STUFF, on looking a certain way that defines beauty and success - our rates of addiction are skyrocketing. We are spending more time consuming media than we are spending communing with our loved ones in nature. We may be incredibly connected in virtual ways, and in superficial in-person ways, but real, deep connection, that can only come from honest, vulnerable connection, seems to take a deep nosedive from the time a kid first gets an iGod until - well, I don't know.
It is crazy to me how cruel our society is to those whose brains have succumbed to the disease of substance use disorder, from people who share awful, shaming media reports about very sick human beings, to a medical system that sends these people right back out on the streets. I am pretty sure that if Jesus were alive today, He would be making the rounds of certain street corners, as well as places where lawyers, doctors and other people who are mired in shame because of their addiction, are hanging out. The way we blame, shame, ignore, incarcerate human beings who have often had a traumatic childhood or incident, are often extremely sensitive, and are now very sick - is indeed a society moral weakness. The way our medical system today is based less on prevention and healing than on saving and making money (I am referring to the system, not necessarily medical professionals - who, by the way, are often themselves engaging in potentially unhealthy behavior, and risk enormous stigma if they admit to it).
The problem today is rather overwhelming, and it is easy to jump into the blame game. The pharmaceutical industry, the ineffectiveness of the D.A.R.E. program, the government, disconnected parents, drug dealers, materialism, internet-based drug markets, Big Booze, genetics, football culture, peer pressure, stressful living, Mommy Time-Out Wine, company happy hours, college application, Boards, violence that results in trauma... Yes, it's complicated. It's all true. But blaming is not exactly helpful.
When that woman sat next to me on the bench, after talking with her for ten minutes I had a pretty good idea of which factors from the above list had led to her current condition. But what I felt she needed in that moment, was someone who was listening to her. Who didn't shy away, or at least as bad, ignore her. I do not know if she ended up getting another prescription for her brain disorder. Or if she went to see her daughter on her fifth birthday. I pray that she did. But in the time that she was in front of me, I did not pick up my iGod, or move away from her. I saw her. I don't know if it made any difference to her, but it did to me. If we could all do our best this way, I think maybe things may start to slowly shift a bit. We may not be Jesus, but we can certainly emulate Christ-like kindness and humility. I think maybe just doing that goes a long way in healing those who are ill, if not physically, certainly on the level of the soul.
I think that collectively, if we start to move toward a more spiritual approach to living, the shift will start to happen. Our fellow humans who right now are suffering, are the canaries in the coal mine, alerting us that we are totally out of whack in terms of priorities and values. We can all do our part, one human to another. And let's start at home- in the one home we will always have on this earth, our own body. Let us be kind to it, listen to it, move it, feed it what it needs, rest it. And then, let us extend that kindness to others. Stop judging. Stop making assumptions. Stop treating those with substance use disorders as if they were lepers.
I urge you to check out the following resources, if you want to do your part in this national crisis.
Book - Chasing the Scream (Johann Hari)
TED Talk - Everything you think you know about addiction is wrong
Addiction is a brain disease - presentation by Dr Ruth Potee
"How we respond to this crisis is a moral test for America. Are we a nation willing to take on an epidemic that is causing great human suffering and economic loss? Are we able to live up to that most fundamental obligation we have as human beings: to care for one another?"
- Dr. Vivek Murthy, former U.S. Surgeon General
Stop Swiping (Your Life) Left
This morning, as I led my class (Poga - my version of Power Yoga) into our first bit of forearm plank moves, after the usual form reminders - feel your legs, abs, back work to hold you straight, if you find your hips starting to lower or pop up, take a breather by bringing your knees down - I also pointed out that planks are not a permanent condition, they too must end.
A few days ago, a group of friends and I were chatting via text about the addiction epidemic. Six of us are on this group chat. We are all moms, and we are all in recovery from alcohol among other things - that is how we met. You know that saying, how it is through the cracks, that light is able to enter? Our group is proof of that, as in the 10 months that we have been friends, brought together in our common struggles, we have cultivated an amazing friendship and support group - and we have never met in person! (I did meet one of the women a couple of months ago, but nobody else has met yet; we are spread out all over the U.S.). Anyway, one of the moms shared how her high schooler had just told her about the rampant use of drugs among his peers. As parents, knowing how likely our children are to encounter certain temptations, and even if they resist them, chances are strong that their peers and friends will succumb, is terrifying. In the U.S., someone dies every four minutes due to addiction. Not one of those people woke up one morning and said, “Today I will pop a pill/chug a drink/smoke a joint and start the increasingly slippery slope into addiction.” I think most people who end up with an unhealthy relationship with alcohol and other drugs, food, gambling, sex and love, technology, work, etc - were either oblivious of the addiction potential, or were absolutely certain it would never become a problem. That shit happens to other people. Not me.
I have this theory about one factor that may lead to the slippery slope, which for many ends up in a complete tailspin (though not for all). My theory is that we are addicted to changing what we decide are unpleasant states, and we are constantly moving away from discomfort, encouraged by all the people and businesses who stand to profit from this quest.
Let’s go back to today’s plank session in my class. Try it at home: get into a push-up position, with your hands under your shoulders, your back and butt in a flat line, not popping up and not sagging to the floor. Stiff as a board. Now, take it down onto your forearms. This relieves the pressure on your shoulders, transferring the effort to your abs. Your legs, abs, back and shoulders are all working - that’s why it’s a great core strengthener. Push your heels away from you and you get a great Achilles/calf stretch. Try holding it for a minute (or three). If you’re with others, you will feel tempted to laugh, talk (complain), or ask them to talk. If you’re alone, you will feel tempted to check Facebook or Pinterest. In other words, rather than focus on the physical (I’m shaking) or mental (I don’t know how much longer I can do this), we want to be distracted from the discomfort. And then, when I say, “Release,” it’s music to our ears.
My conversation with my friends about kids and substance misuse really got me thinking about our general intolerance for discomfort. If we have a headache, a stomachache, we feel tired, or unfocused, our immediate thought is, I need to solve this immediately. Some of us will pop a pill. I know some of us will try something less toxic, but most of us will gulp down a Tylenol or Pepto Bismol, take a sleep aid, guzzle caffeine. If we are unhappy with the way we look or feel in terms of our weight, we will jump on the quick fix (cleanse) bandwagon, to get rid of our discomfort in 7, 14, 30 days. Or, we will jump into an exercise program that would have been fine for us when we were 28 years old, but now at 43, is an injury waiting to happen - but hey, the social media photos promise muscles and smiles in less time than it takes us to read another self-help book. Anything is better than how I feel now - inadequate, unworthy, less than...
Back to the plank. When we stay with it, focusing on our breath, noticing the effort in our muscles, bones, our mental fortitude, and surrender into it, that is where the magic happens. We get stronger, physically, but if we are paying attention, we start to learn a couple of lessons that serve us off the mat. When we do not run away from discomfort, and instead, notice it, with curiosity - what’s going on in my body? In my mind? What sorts of labels am I attaching to the experience, to the emotions and sensations? - that is the point we enter a more mindful way of being. When we stay in that moment and open ourselves up to what is happening, rather than doing our best to end the state of discomfort, we are getting stronger. And this very practice is something we can take off the mat and into our lives. Are we stuck in traffic? Waiting in line? Overwhelmed by a To Do List? Bewildered about what to make for dinner? At a loss on how to solve a problem? Feeling stuck in a rut? Often, this is the point at which we reach for our smartphone (to check out mentally, not to call a friend for a meaningful connection), a cocktail, a pill or other packaged chemical (food).
That blissful release that we feel when we move from plank to flat on our bellies, with our arms alongside our body, our head turned, surrendering into our mat - gosh, such a good feeling! Why don’t we do this pose more often, in our daily lives? And, yet, it wouldn’t feel as great if we hadn't first pushed ourselves to that edge, in plank. If we went from, say, sitting on the couch, checking Instagram, to lying on the ground, we would not feel the delicious sense of accomplishment and physical tingling that comes from withstanding discomfort and then resting right afterwards. Just like, off the mat, if I have a stressful day, and at the end of it, “reward” or “relieve” myself with wine, I can tell you from experience and after about 16 months of sobriety, that staying with the discomfort and doing the work to learn more about myself, my habitual thinking and behavior, and making some healthy changes in my life, I feel far better now than I ever did during or after the “mommy juice.” But I can also tell you, before I made my decision that alcohol is not an option (a decision I then made every 24 hours), I would not have fathomed the freedom I feel, being released from the entrapments of being a drinker.
I think it’s natural to want to spend as much time in “good” states, that feel comfortable to us. It’s definitely for most people, the default - to instinctively move toward pleasure and away from pain. I remember when I was getting ready to deliver my second baby, my friend told me that her OB-GYN (not mine, phew) said he thought women who didn’t want an epidural were nuts - why would you want to endure pain when you don’t have to? I guess that’s the main reason opiate addiction is such an epidemic right now, since pain became a way to rate medical care, so doling out pills to erase pain was a smart business move. When my kids complain of a headache or a stomach ache, first we think about what may be causing it, then we try solutions such as water and yoga poses. Hopefully, my kids are not learning to end their pain as quickly as possible, but rather, thinking about the root cause, and some more natural solutions. And, yes, talking about this alternative form of discomfort management is part of the prevention plan.
One of my friends posted this quote from one of the best books I have read lately, which I think beautifully sums up what Glennon Doyle Melton calls our “brutiful” life:
“We want life to be as dazzling and painless as possible. Life, on the other hand, has a way of humbling us, and heartbreak is built into its agreement with the world. We’re young, until we’re not. We’re healthy, until we’re not. We’re with those we love, until we’re not. Life’s beauty is inseparable from its fragility.”
- Susan David in Emotional Agility
Perhaps we can all be a little more mindful of how we move through, toward, and away from the states of being that ultimately add up to life. It’s not the Easy button way of living, but it’s certainly the road less traveled. As I tell my kids, if everyone else is doing something, it’s probably stupid.
So, practically, what does this look like? Here are some examples:
- I am at the supermarket checkout line and there are two people in front of me.
State: impatience, boredom
Habitual behavior: pull out phone, escape the present
Alternative: look around, engage the person in front or behind, glance at magazines, focus on breathing
- I have planned a workout but it’s too early/too cold/too wet/I don’t feel like it.
State: unmotivated to do the harder thing
Habitual behavior: procrastinate until the workout window has shut
Alternative: commit to ten minutes of exercise
- I want to make healthy dinners every night but I’m too tired.
State: physically and mentally too tired to be creative and productive
Habitual behavior: order out, make something yellow or brown out of a package
Alternative: throw together a kitchen sink salad (any veggies you can find in the fridge or on counter) with a side of grilled cheese
- I had a hard day at work/home and I am cooked.
State: physically and mentally at wit’s end, on edge, anxious
Habitual behavior: numb out on alcohol or other drug
Alternative: acknowledge how hard I work, how I sometimes feel like I am on a treadmill to nowhere, and soothe my body and soul with a hot bath, a five minute meditation, a weekly yoga class, writing in my journal.
- I am in the company of someone or in a situation that makes me feel anxious.
State: anxiety, anger, general discomfort
Habitual behavior: escape via alcohol or technology
Alternative: set boundaries with the person or avoid the situation if possible, and focus on a prayer or mantra (the Serenity Prayer is great)
- I feel physical pain and discomfort.
State: physical suffering, fear
Habitual behavior: numb pain with medication
Alternative: address root cause of pain. Drink water if dehydration may be a cause (eg headaches), learn stress management techniques (often stress causes physical pain), engage in daily movement (exercise), examine possible nutritional approaches, visit a medical professional whom you trust will investigate the root cause.
- I feel mentally and emotionally stuck.
State: depression, anxiety (note: if you suspect this is more than a situational state, or if you are suicidal, please consult a mental health professional)
Habitual behavior: escape via alcohol or other drugs, technology, food, etc. Perseverate, isolate.
Alternative: ask for help. Call a friend, reach out to someone online, go to a support meeting or group. “Move a muscle, change a thought.” Sit with the feelings and pay attention to them, with curiosity and compassion. Accept them.
Our kids are growing up in a time where if they don’t like what they see, they swipe left. When we are numbing, escaping, choosing the path of least (short-term) discomfort, we are essentially swiping our life left. I will be the first to say, that I hate boredom, I hate toiling over tedious tasks. One of the many valuable lessons I have learned through triathlon and marathon and yoga training, is that the reward, the blissful release, is most intense when we sit with the discomfort, and choose not to DNF (Did Not Finish), but rather, sat on the trainer in the dungeon for six hours straight, or meditated for 45-60 minutes every day for eight weeks, no matter what, or finish the race even if we are basically hobbling and every step is a decision not to quit. I guess it's what we call grit. Dealing. Suck it up, Buttercup.... The most worthwhile stuff is the hardest stuff. And we model this to our kids, friends, peers, every day with our choices. It doesn’t have to be a marathon or going vegan or quitting alcohol. It can be something as simple as choosing to leave our phone in our purse, on Do Not Disturb mode, until the kids are in bed. Hmmmm. A marathon sounds easier than that to me. Definitely.
Wellness coach, athlete, mom, entrepreneur. I love helping people mindfully reboot their health & joy.