Learning Compassion

(Translation into most languages at tab to the right.)

The other day, I was thinking back over the tragic deaths of many of my family members. And I thought about how I felt towards people a few decades ago when they suffered various illnesses or struggled with disease or addiction. I didn’t have much compassion because I hadn’t ever experienced those types of painful and heart-wrenching needs myself or in anyone I loved.

But in 2000, when my younger brother was in intensive care for two months on a ventilator and in a coma, I began to learn about the sorrow and desperation that hover around situations like this – for the one who is ill and for those who love them and who cannot do a thing to help or change the outcome. His diagnosis of HIV/AIDS and slow but impending death broke my heart – maybe for the first time in my life.

Then in 2009, when my sister was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancers and I went to care for her in the last weeks of her life, I came to understand more of what someone feels as they vacillate between hope and despair on a daily basis. Someone in the prime of life now bed-ridden, unable to speak or eat or drink for her final weeks of life. A further lesson in empathy and compassion.

When my son died in 2014 of a heroin overdose, not only did my heart shatter to pieces, but all the regrets and what-ifs and missed opportunities to help change the trajectory of his life piled on top of each other, crushing all desire to go on living in a world without him. What has been the result of all those regrets? What would I change if I could go back in time to even just the year before his death? I would try to put myself in his place – walk a mile in his shoes. Try to understand the challenges he faced in overcoming his addictions, the shame that constantly undermined all his hopes and desires to be clean, sober, and free from the enemy within – the one no one could see but that was taking his life and stealing his future one relapse at a time.

For those of us who live with addiction in our families, we have a fine line to walk between compassion and enabling. It was one my husband and I constantly struggled with but one where we ended up short-changing compassion. We didn’t understand how desperately our son wanted to be free, which kept us from empathizing with his struggles and helping him get the medication assisted treatment that could have changed his life. It is a lasting regret we live with.

As we approach Easter this year, as a follower of Jesus, I am reflecting on why Christianity is the one religion where the god suffered and died. Why the God-Man had to experience suffering. Why he had to become human – to incarnate himself, to take on the living embodiment of women and men. One reason was so that he could experience the frailty of humanity, including suffering. By this, he learned compassion in order to better empathize with our suffering and weaknesses and offer us compassion.

The difficulty comes when we know he could relieve our suffering in some way but doesn’t. Why? Many times, it is so that we can learn compassion in the only way that will help us become compassionate to others. Because, like it or not, we live in a fallen world, where sorrow, sickness and death are part of life and co-exist alongside joy, health, and life.

No one person can experience all the ways people suffer in this world. But we can learn and grow in compassion through the unique experiences in our own life and then offer empathy to others in loving and wise ways. I want the compassionate area of my heart to enlarge in order to help comfort others.

Addiction Constriction

John Leif Trang – March 10, 1989 – August 2, 2014

(Translation into most languages at tab on right)

On March 10th, our son would have been celebrating his 33rd birthday. That day is now a painful reminder of all the potentials and possibilities that a young person should be experiencing in the 4th decade of their life.

After JL died of a heroin overdose in 2014, I began the dreaded process of sorting through his belongings – which included his computer and phone. Many of the photos on his phone I had never seen and some have now become permanently seared into my visual memory. One is of JL with a Boa wrapped around his shoulders and neck.

Boas are constrictors. Constrictors don’t chase their prey. They are ambush hunters. A boa grabs its prey with its teeth, then quickly coils its body around the prey and squeezes. It doesn’t break the bones – it constricts so tightly that its prey can’t breathe. With each exhale, it tightens its coils until its prey dies slowly from an overwhelmed circulatory system due to blood not getting to the brain. Once dead, the snake swallows its prey whole.

Continue reading “Addiction Constriction”

Enjoying the Ride or Reaching the Destination?

(Translation into most languages available at tab on the right.)

My husband and I learned years ago that in many areas, we see and experience the world in very opposite ways. I live in the future, he enjoys the present. I am content with less, he needs more. I want to get to the destination, he enjoys the ride. Our theme song is The Beatles Hello Goodbye: ‘You say Goodbye, and I say Hello’. After living together so many years, some of our ingrained predispositions have begun to change as we have rubbed off on each other – and this is a good thing as I believe it makes us each a more balanced human.

This thought came to mind this week as I began to work on this blog post. Sometimes I am so focused on my destination or goal and being faithful to stick with it that it takes a while for me to realize I am not enjoying the ride. As I wondered why, I realized that it’s not that I don’t feel passionately about advocating for those struggling with addiction and mental health issues. Rather, it’s that I have begun to feel stretched too thin – which is not comfortable or healthy. With the holidays approaching, there are increasing family commitments and events that I want to enjoy and not just endure until they are over. The path to this goal is to be more realistic about what I can and cannot do within my finite energy and allotted time.

This contrast in ideologies applies to recovery strategies as well. When our son was trying to recover from opioid addiction 10-15 years ago, the goal was to complete a recovery program and once and for all become clean and sober – get to the destination. As unrealistic as this seems to us now, it is still a prevailing goal for many recovery programs. Sadly, what it did for our son – and for us – was to set us up for discouragement and shame with every inevitable relapse. Failure.

What I hear from current recovery advocates is that recovery is a goal and a process. If your desire and goal is to become clean and sober, you will embark on a plan of some sort. It is absolutely essential that you get to your destination because with many drugs, continued addiction often leads to death. But it’s also absolutely essential that you understand that it will be a journey with many ups and downs – and that you need to be able to enjoy the ride, the process, as much as possible so that you will have the continued desire to make it to the goal. And that those who are advocating for you, riding with you, will understand and assist you on your journey.

So, in attempting to take my own advice, I am going to discontinue weekly blog posts for a while. Instead, I will write blogs as often as I can and I look forward to your comments and ‘likes’ – every ‘like’ helps with visibility and brings new readers. After almost four years of posts on all aspects of addiction & substances, grief & loss, and mental health, if you search the site, you should find something to bring insight and encouragement for the issues that you are facing today. Let’s enjoy the ride as much as possible as we head toward our destinations.

Advocacy or Cheerleading?

(Translation into most languages at tab to the right.)

A few months ago, John was on a phone call with a physician who was asking his input about a new drug to help with opioid addiction. John shared about our son’s addiction and death and how we hoped that by speaking openly about his life and writing our book and blog we could help in some small way. His response was something I did not expect and will never forget. He said, “Don’t underestimate advocacy because it is the surest way to change things. Science and medicine take a long time and have limited effectiveness.”

An advocate is someone who works by speaking, acting, or writing truthfully on behalf of a person or group in order to promote, protect, and defend their welfare and to seek justice for their rights. To speak out for those who have no voice. But advocacy is not cheerleading. A cheerleader is someone who only supports their team or player – since they are in competition against another team. They are indiscriminate about what their team does or doesn’t do. They don’t necessarily look at the big picture or causes and effects. Their role is to simply cheer on their team or player and boost support from their fans with slogans that may or may not be true.

Serious problems that affect the wellbeing of individuals, communities, and entire societies, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, addictions, and racial prejudice and inequality, are not helped by cheerleading. People in danger and suffering need advocates who have compassion, who are truth-tellers, and who will vigorously and untiringly work for a solution.

When I see a young person on the streets, homeless and struggling, enslaved to a substance that is stealing their life – or anyone living with addiction of any sort – I long to be helpful in a meaningful way and become discouraged at my inability to do so. And if I feel discouraged, how must they feel? What will help bring real, substantive change and hope to these lives and in these circumstances?

As parents of a son with a deadly addiction, we were sometimes cheerleaders when we needed to be advocates. Cheering him on and telling him he could do it without any medical help was not being realistic or being the advocates he needed. I think it is difficult to be an effective advocate for those we love because we are too close to have a clear perspective. Which is why a supportive recovery community – for both the family and the one struggling – is vital. We must try and use whatever resources we have: our voice for those who are not being heard, our writing to bring clarity to public thinking, our physical presence to stand or march with others, and our time, energy, and finances to step in where we can or offer help to find those resources.

There are as many ways to be an advocate as there are needs in this world. I have friends involved in racial justice, in refugee struggles, in stopping sexual exploitation and abuse, homelessness and poverty – the list is endless. The question is: How can each one of us be an advocate for the people and needs we are aware of and that we have a passion for?

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

(Translation into most languages at tab to right.)

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 

(Translation into most languages at tab to the right)

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:

Continue reading “World Mental Health Day ”

Grieving The Living

(Translation into most languages at tab to the right)

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:

Continue reading “Grieving The Living”

Recovery Communities

(Translation into most languages at tab to the right)

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.

Continue reading “Recovery Communities”

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

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