By Susan Tretakis – There’s a great deal of talk about addiction these days; in truth, there always has been, even if that talk was couched in whispers. Today, we speak with somewhat louder voices, but still, when it hits close to us, we tend to lower our voices and attempt to look away.
In 1985 I did my thesis on addiction, its causes and treatments at that time. Back in those dark ages, the statistics were overwhelming; at that time, there was a call for more interventions, more drugs, more of anything that would stop the relentless self-destruction of individuals of all socio and economic classes. Today, the United States is in the midst of a silent epidemic, which while somewhat more open, is still often hidden behind closed doors. It’s an epidemic of addiction, both of substances and behaviors, and the research tells us it is growing worse.
“While the usual culprits are to blame, including illegal drugs and alcohol, other addiction and addictive behaviors are part of this epidemic. Over 52 million people over the age of 12 have used prescription pain killers “recreationally’. Nearly 88,000 people died from alcohol abuse related disorders in 2014, and other addictive behaviors, such as compulsive overeating, eating disorders and account for even more death and despair. In a nation of 321 million people, 22 million use illegal drugs.”
We live in a society that sends mixed messages about compulsive behaviors – those behaviors that live in the gray area between self-medication, compulsion and addiction. Overeating has many shades of gray – obesity and diabetes affect millions, but self-medication with chocolate is a common commercial theme on television to be used as a reward for a job well done or the completion of a hard day. We are urged to “drink to the good life”, to pair this wine with this food to fully enjoy our lives. My local “health food store”, prides itself on both its organic produce and its “Sip It Sundays”, where one can stroll the food aisles sipping their favorite glass of wine from the café. We are constantly urged to be pain-free – however the means – to live “the good life”. It’s a slippery slope; for many such indulgences can turn into compulsions without our even noticing it until it is too late. Who has not reached for that last potato chip to find the bag empty, or to pour that last drink and find the bottle empty as well? And who has not wondered, how did that happen? Some reach for another bag to open, another bottle to uncork.
As a mental health practitioner, I was trained in ways to assess both physiology and psychology. Today, though, I tend to leave those Western constraints to concentrate more on the tenets of Traditional Chinese Medicine, specifically acupuncture, as a means to assist this heartbreaking epidemic.
“In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the assessment of addiction is called ‘empty fire”, the flaring up of symptoms, including emotions and behavior due to the loss of a calm center.” Psychologists refers to this as “triggers”. Rather than therapy and drugs, “TCM treatment is designed to nourish the Yin aspect, restore balance, and support the recovery process by making the person stronger from the inside.”
In an op-ed article published in The Chicago Tribune, and then re-published in The Washington Post and the Miami Herald following the death of chef and author Anthony Bourdain, Jo Ann Towle wrote, “Alcohol works for the alcoholic until it doesn’t. It promises and delivers what we seek from it from years, until it stops working. Alcoholics minimize, deny, and believe their drinking is under control and refuse to connect the dots – that drinking for escape, relief or to solve problems is creating more problems, as well as taking a toll on self-worth.”
I would say the same is true for any addictive behavior, be it drugs, eating, or inappropriate and dangerous behaviors. Everything works – until it doesn’t. That’s why the TCM model of dealing with the person “within” appeals to me – and has forced me to re-examine much of my previous, professional and personal beliefs.
In TCM, “Treatment is appropriate as support throughout the continuum of care, from pre-treatment or harm reduction, through aftercare and recovery, maintenance and relapse prevention. Addiction is not a Chinese medical diagnosis. Sometimes the TCM practitioner is supporting the withdrawal process, minimizing the symptoms and cravings. At other times, the concentration is on the underlying complaints which psychologists refer to as triggers: stress, anxiety, depression, and/or history of trauma and abuse.”
I used to say, somewhat laughingly, but very truthfully, that I wished my triggers (stress, anxiety, fear, too much negative self-talk) were akin to the light switch in my laundry room; even after three electricians inspecting, replacing and rewiring, each flick of the switch leaves the light dark. There is absolutely no connection between the switch and the light – and I’d like to think that acupuncture, my acupuncturist and TCM have helped me disengage my inner “poor choice” switch in the same manner.
“TCM theory states that if the body is in harmony, and its internal systems are balanced, then outside illness cannot affect it. Though we cannot control outside factors, we do have the ability to control internal ones. As our culture offers more complex and seemingly effective solutions to health problems, it is easy to buy into the idea that health and healing are separate from ourselves. We are trained to give away our own unique healing powers. Indeed, it takes a strong heart to stay well in a complex world.”
In TCM, addictions to substances stem from an imbalance in the body’s systems. Acupuncture is one way to treat this imbalance. It also treats the emotional ties to the addiction, and helps to calm the individual’s nervous system. “When an addict is suffering from an imbalance, they use substances to self-medicate. In many cases, the imbalance in the patient’s body is in the liver, which is often referred to as liver qi stagnation. The overall goal of acupuncture treatments is to “help patients get back to a para-sympathetic state on their own, where they are not in a ‘fight or flight’ mode, but where they feel most like their true self.”
My parents were both hard core smokers and drinkers. As a child, I binged ate whatever I could. As a child of the 60’s I found many drugs that helped me shed excess weight. As I grew older, I found the usual Friday afternoon “Happy Hour” devolved into a mid-week, then a daily glass – or two – or three of wine – “just to relax”. Sometimes it was to celebrate the completion of something – anything.
I do not believe that genetics are destiny, but I do believe that an informed and truthful review of one’s past can help fine tune their vision to see just how slippery a slope addiction can be. I notice that as my acupuncturist treats my liver imbalance with both acupuncture and herbs, I am becoming stronger, and more able to identify the “why” of what I am eating. The “why” of what I am drinking and doing.
Almost embarrassed, I told him the last time we met that I was feeling more “empowered” to deal with what life threw at me, a word I would never think to use in relation to myself. He smiled, handed me my herbs, and told me that such strength was exactly his goal; obviously, the treatments were working.
In much the same way that acupuncture and herbs empowered me to change my eating patterns, it has also helped me identify, change and refine my self-reward system. It all comes back to self. Because, while all things work until they don’t, a strong sense of self remains long after the chips go stale and the wine turns to vinegar.
The Acupuncturists of Care Wellness Center offer free consultations daily in our South Florida wellness center serving the communities of Coral Springs, Margate, Coconut Creek, Tamarac, Pompano Beach and Deerfield Beach Florida. Give us a call today!
- Dr. Landon Agoado
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