Isolation Loneliness

It has been said thatthe opposite of addiction is not sobriety, it is connection – to others, to a community.The Coronavirus pandemic has brought disconnection and magnified loneliness and stress for people the world over due to social isolation, economic instability, reduced access to spiritual communities, and overall national anxiety and fear of the future. “We certainly have data from years of multiple studies showing that social isolation and social stress plays a significant role in relapse…relapsing to drug use can play a role in overdose.” Dr. Wilson Compton, deputy director NIDA.

The acronym HALT: Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired, is used in Alcoholics Anonymous and most recovery programs. It is a simple reminder that when our basic human needs are not met, one is susceptible to toxic thoughts and self-destructive behaviors including relapse and suicide.

Regardless of where you live, there have likely been restrictions imposed to limit the number of people who can gather together – from dozens in some countries to only the members of your immediate household in others – in order to slow down the high-speed train that is Covid-19. For many of us, we have been able to maintain our emotional equilibrium because we know this is for a limited time and we can look forward with hope to the future.

But what about those vulnerable members of society who already struggle on a daily basis with insecure housing and food supplies and to maintain their mental health, sobriety, or recovery? In the midst of one of the most isolating crises the modern world has known, it is no surprise then that cities across America, and around the world, are reporting dramatic increases in drug overdoses, alcohol relapses, and suicides.

In-person community meetings are at the foundation of recovery programs. And no wonder. It is in community where individuals become part of something greater than themselves. And I believe it is in the breakdown of communal life in individualistic American ideology that has, to a great degree, contributed to the anxiety, insecurity, and depression that so characterizes our national psyche and has led to the pursuit of finding relief in so many unhealthy ways.

A friend of our son who is an alcoholic who has been working his recovery for the past 8 years, put it this way: 

“Self-isolation breeds relapse for people in recovery. With quarantine, people are losing the accountability they have relied on from in-person meetings and it’s a lot easier for people to further isolate and close off their emotions. Attending virtual meetings keeps me grounded and gets the message across as much as regular in-person meetings but lacks the fellowship aspect. This will no doubt expose many in recovery to loneliness.”

Even though increasing numbers of people around the world are vaccinated, it will not stop some of the isolation and loneliness. Is there anything those of us who are not isolated emotionally can do to help? The one thing my husband and I have made as a priority in our weekly schedule is to check in with friends around the world via texts, emails, letters, phone or video calls – including our young friends who are in recovery and elderly friends who just need to know they are not forgotten. With our social networks and finances, we can support organizations that are working the front lines to serve the addiction/mental health population. We can make or purchase masks, buy food and basic supplies, to give to those in need and support recovery programs in our area.

The Tattoo – Stigma

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In the Greek and Roman worlds, a stigma was a tattoo or brand, especially for a slave, identifying the person as “inferior.” As stigma moved into English, it referred to a mark you couldn’t actually see but which was nonetheless powerful. Social stigmas are based on perceivable characteristics, associated with certain behaviors that distinguish a person from other members of society. They convey disapproval and disgrace. Dis-approval. Non-approval. Dis-grace. Non-grace.

In an article on The Stigma of Addiction from Hazelden Recovery we learn: “The stigma of addiction stems from behavioral symptoms of substance use disorder…which can result in negative consequences including legal, occupational and relationship problems. Understandably, these consequences cause embarrassment and shame among those affected. They also create stigmatized attitudes and perceptions among the wider public, a response that perpetuates and exacerbates the private shame associated with drug addiction. For generations, this combination of personal shame and public stigma has produced tremendous obstacles to addressing the problem of alcoholism and addiction. Today, the stigma of addiction is seen as a primary barrier to effective addiction prevention, treatment and recovery efforts at the individual, family, societal levels. Addiction stigma prevents too many people from getting the help they need.” Yes, only one in 10 people struggling with addiction receive treatment. The article goes on to discuss the irony that many of these stigmatizing behaviors diminish and/or disappear when a person is appropriately treated in recovery.

When talking recently with some of our son’s friends, they have been unwilling to let their past drug use become public knowledge because of the potential negative repercussions they justifiably fear in their careers and relationships. How much worse would it be if they were still living with addiction? What does this say about us as individuals, communities, employers, and society in general? When an individual is seen as having a moral failure instead of a chronic health condition, stigma is the logical result. But no one makes the decision about how their brain will react to a substance and whether they will become addicted after minimal use or hate how it makes them feel and never use it again.

Negative labels stick like glue to our hearts and soul and, for those struggling with addiction and alcoholism, the personal shame becomes how they define themselves. The public stigma that follows is the tattoo they never asked to have. If we can reject stigmatizing and instead provide a safe and listening ear to those struggling with addiction, inviting them to share their stories and encourage them to consider recovery options, they may be willing to join the many people who do learn to manage their disease and successfully recover. Let’s remember that they are just as valuable and able and worthy of love – and as human – as you and me.

https://www.hazeldenbettyford.org/recovery-advocacy/stigma-of-addiction

World Mental Health Day 

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Mental Health and Addiction

Individuals who struggle with mental health issues and those with any addiction co-exist in almost half of both those populations, as the data shows after decades of research by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Not surprisingly, individuals who frequently abuse drugs or alcohol are likely to develop a co-occurring behavioral or mental health disorder. There is evidence, for example, that abusers of marijuana have an increased risk of psychosis while those who abuse opioid painkillers are at greater risk for depression. Regular methamphetamine use causes psychosis, anxiety and panic attacks, memory loss and depression. Cocaine users have increased anxiety, paranoia, delusions and depression.

Self-medicating to minimize our inner conflicts is not new, but it has reached new heights in the 21st century – perhaps due to the ease of availability. In Woman of Substances, Jenny Valentish discusses self-medicating at length. She says “In the initial pursuit of partying, people are likely to find themselves drawn to certain families of substances, and they will discover that these additionally offer relief to symptoms of mental illness, distress, or emotional pain.” Why do stimulants calm most people who have ADHD while they have the opposite effect on the rest of us? Why do some antihistamines sedate most people but for some others, cause stimulation?  Clearly, their brain chemistry needs something different than the ‘average’ person. It is for the same reason that for many, their drug of choice is a sedative. Their brains need something to turn off the rapid-fire stimulation that can be almost constant.

Informative and concerning statistics on mental health in the US:

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Grieving The Living

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In a world where ‘nothing is certain except death and taxes’ and loss is unavoidable, grief is guaranteed to be an emotion each of us will experience in our lives sooner or later. If we have lost a loved one and grieved well, we can understand grief in others and empathize more fully.

But what about those who are living with a loved one with mental health problems, or in active addiction, or in a recovery program for the umpteenth time, or whose whereabouts are unknown? How do they live with the constant flux between hoping against hope, waiting, and praying for a miraculous change, and discouragement and depression as they watch their loved one struggle against an unrelenting enemy no one can see? My husband and I lived in this twilight zone for years – as do millions of others. While he was still living, we were grieving the loss of the son we loved and raised and had hoped to see move successfully into adulthood.

In an excellent article, Grieving the Living, Dr. Susan D. Writer shared insights that are an invaluable help and source of comfort for this all too common situation:

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Recovery Communities

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What is a recovery community and what should it look like?

The answer to these questions is not simple – real solutions to real problems rarely are.

To recover means to return to a normal state of health or strength. When someone is injured in an accident or undergone surgery, they usually recover in hospital for a period of time where they can receive the special medical care that is required to keep them alive. If the injury or illness was severe or life-threatening, after hospitalization they would be moved to a rehabilitation facility where they receive appropriate and specialized care and therapy as they convalesce – they wouldn’t just go home. Convalescing is the recovery process of returning to health.

Recovery can also refer to the process of regaining possession or control of something lost or stolen. In a real sense, those who have become addicted to a substance or damaging behavior have had something stolen. That’s not a cop-out if we consider what happens to a person’s brain when addiction takes over. The chemical changes that take place in the brain steadily decrease the individual’s original ability to think clearly and make logical choices. Especially with substances, I consider that capacity to have been stolen.

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Reaction Recovery

Translation into most languages at tab to the right.

A few weeks ago, John and I were interviewed by Jeff Simone for his Surviving the Opioid Epidemic podcast (see YouTube link). We had a really great conversation about our family living with a teenage son with opioid addiction and how his death from overdose affected us and changed our lives. Jeff serves the addiction community with a coaching service called Reaction Recovery.

https://reactionrecovery.com

Here are some insights into his recovery approach.

Reaction Recovery is a private coaching service designed to help individuals thrive in their life of recovery from substance use disorders. It is a one to one, intensive behavioral approach to help individuals identify areas to make focused and intentional lifestyle modifications. Dr. Simone has been formally trained in clinical pharmaceutical and dietary supplementation advisory and management. He has earned degrees in nutrition, physiology, is a certified life coach, and has personally worked with over 200 people recovering from substance addictions.

Why ‘Reaction’ Recovery? Who is reacting and to what?

Reaction Recovery was started as a “reaction” to the current treatment approach to addiction. The medical community is doing a good job offering short-term acute care crisis management for addictive disorders, but are doing poorly offering long-term treatment for those who have become abstinent but not yet stabilized. This describes our son’s – and most others we know – situation perfectly. Addiction needs long-term care and support.

The basic coaching approach addresses the physiology of the addiction, post-acute withdrawal syndromes, nutritional interventions, dietary supplementation, and how this all can safely integrate with other pharmaceutical treatment strategies that might already be on board.

Based on what Dr. Simone has called the ’12 Daily Rules for Recovery,’ their coaching techniques will systematically and methodically help the individual identify specific areas to be adjusted and then develop individually tailored strategies to affect real change.

The 12 Rules focus on building up a support community – first and foremost – then developing a healthy and consistent morning routine, understanding the importance of full-day nutrition, ensuring the body is receiving all nutrients necessary to support a strong and optimal brain and body, establishing a safe and appropriate dietary supplement regimen, expanding the mind with helpful books and information, developing a realistic exercise routine, carefully auditing the external distractions in our lives, constructing a regular nighttime routine, and more.

When these considerations get repeated across thousands of iterations, and with a little guidance and accountability, they become a foundation upon which the rest of the individual’s recovery will be built. Eventually – through ruthless repetition – new neural pathways begin to form until eventually this life of abstinence doesn’t feel so difficult and a sustainable, meaningful recovery is able to take shape.

Jeff’s approach of community as essential and creating new, healthy habits to replace old, destructive ones has been the topic of several of my blogs (see below). Whatever habits we create will become automatic and will serve us and our life-goals well as we go through each day.  

2021 Aug 15, Connection is Crucial

2021 March 28, The Freedom of Habits

2021 Jan 03, Who is My Neighbor?

2020 Dec 27, Missing Community

2020 Aug 15 & 22, Loneliness

Our Electric Elastic Amazing Brains

 Translation to most languages available at tab to the right.

The human brain is a miracle – there is nothing on earth that comes close to its capabilities. Although the brain and the heart are the only two organs that can’t regenerate, our brain can form new connections and pathways. Neuroplasticity is this amazing ability of our neural networks to grow and reorganize – to change and adapt as a result of experiences.

Until recently, it was thought that neuroplasticity stops after about 25, but with new research, we now know that it isn’t all downhill from there. Neuroplasticity can be facilitated by physical exercise, paying attention, and learning new things.

Physical exercise that increases blood flow to the brain is now a no-brainer. Paying attention is when we are doing something that is not out of habit – when we switch off autopilot and pay attention to what is happening. This is called mindfulness. Learning new things and being open to change becomes harder the older we get – and it will become increasingly more difficult if we don’t intentionally challenge ourselves mentally.

But what happens when drugs – any drug really, but drugs/substances of abuse are my topic here – enter the scene? Neuroplasticity then becomes the facilitator of addiction as our brain learns to adapt to the new stimulus, increasingly over time.

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Australian Real Drug Talk

Translation into most languages at tab to the right.

One of the things I have come to appreciate about the Australian way is their straightforward approach to life. They are easy-going yet they say what they mean and you know where you stand. A lack of pretense – with a large dose of slightly off-color humor added in.

I think that is why they are more advanced in their drug policies and treatments than America – they are more honest and have less taboos. They benefit from having had comprehensive public health for decades which has facilitated progressive drug policies such as clean needle exchanges, safe-injecting sites, and medication assisted treatment.

John and I had an interesting conversation a few weeks ago here in Australia with Jack Nagel. Jack does the “Real Drug Talk” podcast from Melbourne and also runs the Connection Based Living Recovery Programs. We were preparing to record a podcast with Jack – see links below – and were asking about his experiences and what the current trends are here with drugs of abuse.

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/saying-goodbye-to-my-son-in-a-body-bag/id1507177011?i=1000533422150

In discussing opioids, I wondered why methamphetamines seems to be the main drug of choice and why heroin is not as common here as it is in the States. Jack said that in the 1990’s there was a big problem with heroin coming in from the Golden Triangle of SE Asia and lots of overdose deaths. And the heroin use was IV, not smoking. So, there is a collective memory of street people using heroin and dying which created a lot of stigma and fear associated with IV use.

After that trend slowed, people began using meth – young people like Jack –because smoking or snorting meth seems more innocuous and a less intrusive way to take a powerful drug than IV. Jack said that there is a huge cohort of people who don’t live on the streets and who smoke meth for years. Sadly, they don’t seek help because the public messaging that portrays meth addicts as homeless people with sores and missing teeth doesn’t apply to them. But meth addiction will eventually burst that bubble and ruin their lives too.

There is also a growing problem with cocaine. While once considered the drug of the wealthy city dweller with some high-flying users in Australia spending $10-$20K per week, statistics reveal cocaine usage has now spread much further. Consumption has grown in other areas and demographics where prosperity has increased such as middle-class teachers, tradesmen, etc. Australia is now the highest per capita user of the drug in the world. And the rise in use is being driven by men aged in their 20’s, with Sydney leading the country in use. The most recent stats reveal that there are nearly 1 million weekly cocaine users in Australia out of a population of 26 million. (1,2,3)

We also talked with Jack about what the entry drugs are for kids here in Australia. After alcohol and pot, they usually begin with hard “party” drugs used at house parties and concerts like ecstasy/MDMA, benzodiazepines, GHB/GBL. All mood-altering drugs that create different types of euphoria, but which are dangerous because many times they are mixed with alcohol and other drugs, sometimes without the user’s knowledge.

Even though heroin is in the background in Australia, it is still available and becoming more dangerous due to fentanyl being mixed in to the supply of much of the heroin, and all opioids, along with other drugs of abuse. (4)

When our son, JL, began using Oxy’s he never thought he would even try heroin. Then, as Oxy’s became more expensive and heroin was cheaper, he started smoking heroin. He then swore he would never stick a needle in his vein – the danger and stigma to him was clear. Eventually, just like 95% of heroin users, he did just that. He was living under the delusion that smoking opioids – or any drug – would never lead him to become a “junkie”, an IV drug user.

My concern for the young people and families of Australia is that, as The Age reported in 2020, pain management with opioids has increased here too, although not to the degree it had in the States. Opioid-related deaths have increased in the past decade and today at least three people die from opioid harm each day and 150 are hospitalized. (5) Fentanyl is showing up in wastewater testing and drug overdoses of cocaine and meth, drugs where the users are not expecting a potent narcotic. Because it is synthetic and cheaper to produce in China and India, it brings its criminal networks a greater profit margin.

As I’ve said before and will continue to say: We will not treat our way out of the opioid/drug epidemic. Prevention is key. Let’s continue to stay aware and educated about what we all can do to keep our children and their future safe and healthy.

http://www.RealDrugTalk.com.au

1. Why cocaine is most used drug in Australia behind cannabis

https://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/national/why-cocaine-is-most-used-drug-in-australia-behind-cannabis/news-story/0fa9bbcec60dfe0ecfb52a5cb58a38f5

2. Australia the highest per capita cocaine user in the world

https://www.news.com.au/national/australia-the-highest-per-capita-cocaine-user-in-the-world/news-story/c91869d4e2b2adeef266917d82f705e0

3. Sydney and cocaine: an illicit love affair for the ages

https://www.smh.com.au/national/nsw/sydney-and-cocaine-an-illicit-love-affair-for-the-ages-20210225-p575uz.html

4. Fentanyl in the Australian illicit drug market

https://adf.org.au/insights/fentanyl-australian-illicit-drug/

5. Australia’s opioid crisis: How pain management got out of control

2021 International Overdose Awareness Day August 31

Translation into most languages at tab to the right.

The need has never been more urgent to alert us all to the risk of overdose facing millions of people worldwide. During the 18 months of the Covid-19 pandemic, overdose deaths have risen approximately 30% in many parts of the world due to isolation, unstable drug sources, and lack of reliable medical and recovery help. Even the normal inadequate support services have been seriously disrupted and diverted. And the hope of C19 disappearing sometime soon is now seen as wishful thinking – it is a new deadly virus we will have to learn how to live with.

So, what can we do to help prevent further loss of lives for those already struggling with addiction?

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Teenage Perils

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Int’l Overdose Awareness Day Sale on eBook & Paperback through Sept 1st

Most of us have heard that the category of “teenager” came about after WWII. Before that, in a mostly agrarian society, you were either a child or an adult and the demarcation was when you went from being directed and cared for by your parents to being responsible for yourself and caring for others.

The word “teen” was introduced as early as 1818 referring to a person who was 13-19, “teener” from 1894, and “teen-ager” from 1922 (1). But the terms didn’t stick and didn’t carry a sociological group identity until after WWII. Being a teenager became its own sub-culture that revolved around like-ness, popularity and a fear of being on the outside.

Increasingly, the modern teenager relies more on peer-pressure than family relationships and values. And, peer pressure and group dynamics is known to be one of the highest risks for adolescent drug and alcohol experimentation and use. In one chapter of Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction, Derek Thompson discusses teenagers at length (2). He writes, “Psychologist Laurence Steinberg, put people of various ages in a simulated driving game. Adults drove the same, whether or not they had an audience. But teenagers took twice as many “chances” when their friends were watching. Teenagers are exquisitely sensitive to the influence of their peers.”

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