Can Good Come from the Opioid Crisis?

More than 150 Americans die each day from painkiller overdose. Thousands upon thousands more are at risk of death as they find that they must increase their daily dosage of painkillers to experience the same level of pain relief that they did just months before.

Some have found the euphoria that Vicodin, Oxycontin, and other painkillers provide offers a wonderful escape from the stress and anxiety of daily life without the hangover associated with binge drinking.

As a nation, we are becoming more aware of the devastation caused by the current opioid crisis. It has tragic effects in the lives of those who are addicted and in the lives of family, friends, and colleagues who are indirectly affected.

So it is with caution that I say that there may be a glimmer of hope that some good can come out of the opioid crisis. That maybe from its tragedy we as a nation will become more willing to see addiction to painkillers and addiction in general as a concern for all us.

Maybe by looking within at our own addictive tendencies that we will have the empathy necessary to desire the social and healthcare reforms that will encourage those who have been relegated to the darkness of addiction into the light of compassionate and effective treatment.

Back in early days of AA, alcoholics were considered to be morally defective and weak. “Why can’t he just stop?” was the question for those suffering from this apparent lack of willpower. Society looked away from them with disgust.

That still occurs today but to a lesser extent because we have learned that alcoholism is a disease and that willpower is not the problem. Like other diseases, it is an equal opportunity destroyer because it does not discriminate between the poor and the wealthy.

And now, the opioid crisis is forcing Americans to see that even the outwardly successful are being sucked into the vortex of addiction. It has made Americans realize that addiction can strike down one of our children as easily as the guy who lives next door in the beautiful house.

The changes I see as a result of the opioid crisis is the expansion of our collective consciousness that addiction is much more common than we once thought. That hardcore alcoholics and drug users are just on one extreme on a continuum. They represent a small percentage of the problem our nation faces with addiction—a problem that the opioid crisis has awakened us to.

Recent figures from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that nearly 42,000 Americans die each year due to opioid overdose. Excessive alcohol use claims 88,000 American lives and steals 2.5 million years of potential life lost each year. Add to that the 480,000 deaths each year from cigarettes. Those numbers speak to the tragic loss of American life due to substance addiction.

Yet, there are many more Americans whose addiction is not to substances but to behaviors. These behavioral addictions include addictions to food, gambling, and pornography. Add to those the more socially acceptable behavioral addictions like excessive working, excessive spending, excessive gaming, and excessive use of social media, and we can see even though behavioral addictions do not frequently result in death, they take a tragic toll on the quality of our lives every day.

In short, addiction is huge problem that the opioid crisis is bringing to our awareness.

For the past decade, I have devoted my life to reading the wisdom of experts in the fields of addiction, recovery, and psychology. I am convinced that at the root of all addiction is the avoidance of discomfort. Carl Jung, one of the early fathers of psychology, said that all mental illness is due to the avoidance of pain. And that avoidance makes us all a little crazy.

Our addictions—to substances or behaviors—are a way to avoid discomfort. And at the core of this discomfort is a gnawing absence at the center of our being. In his book In the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts, Dr. Gabor Mate’ talks about the “avoidance of the void” within us. That there is a hole that we are trying to fill with our drug or behavior of choice. As addicts we do what we can to avoid this black hole within.

In this light, addiction is our misguided attempt to avoid the void. And the reason that these behaviors and substances become addictive is that they seem to work—if only temporarily. “It’s hard to get enough of what almost works,” says addiction specialist Vincent Felitti, MD.

The tragedy of addiction is this: There is a void that all addicts are trying to fill with our addiction that cannot be filled by our addiction. I know this firsthand as a recovering alcoholic.

For me, that gaping hole at my core was a profound lack of connection to my true self. I have come to believe that we’re all spiritual beings having a human experience. At the core of who we are is not the brain but the soul or spirit.

As we are socially conditioned beginning at home and then in society, we become separated from who we are. This has its source in our early development as human beings. The need for food and water were contingent on us being alive, and we couldn’t survive as individuals without belonging to the tribe or otherwise we would become prey. For survival we continually compared ourselves to those in our tribe. Behaviors that prevented us from fitting in with the tribe either needed to be changed or we faced exclusion. In a real sense, either we conformed or died.

This need to conform ensures our survival, but the cost is a loss of connection to who we really are. This social conditioning allows us to unite with other human beings, but it creates separation from who we are at our cores. In this separation from our true selves, we also become separate from our relationship to the source of our being, whether we call that God, Spirit, Eternity, or Universe.

This is the void.

And it is my hope that we as a nation become compassionately aware of the connection between addiction and avoidance of the void. I hope that through the pain, suffering, and loss inflicted by the opioid crisis, that we reach out to those in our lives and encourage them with kindness to seek treatment. And that we ask those in positions of influence at our jobs and in our schools to offer programs to help those who are suffering from addiction.

There are solutions to this epidemic of addiction. Many have found it in the spirituality of a 12-Step program while others through programs like Rational Recovery.

However, if we condemn and relegate to the shadows those who most need our help, then this crisis of addiction will continue.

May we as a society offer to those who are suffering our love and acceptance not because they have changed but so that they can change.

RJ Handley, Addiction Recovery Coach.
Contact me for help at RjLifeCoaching@gmail.com.

How to become more spiritually awake

We have busy lives. This is a blessing of our recovery.  And many of us have experienced the spiritual awakening promised in Step 12.  But what do we do after the 12 Steps to expand this awakening so it brings greater meaning and joy to our busy lives?

This question is so important to me—and maybe to you too—that I decided 10 months ago to launch my blogging website with the title After the 12 Steps. In my blog posts, I address ways we can awaken more and more from our initial spiritual awakening.

I have a passion for spirituality and psychology.  And it drove me to undergo an intense 18-month certification process to become a spiritual life coach. As a spiritual life coach, I get to share with my clients—some of whom are in recovery—many of the insights I have learned over the past decade reading widely the work of awakened masters.

I particularly admire the work of the author Adyashanti. He has a deep and profound understanding of both Christianity and Zen. His approach to awakening can be applied to your own life regardless of your spiritual leanings. And applying the three core practices that he presents in his book The Way of Liberation have worked in profound ways to further awaken me—and my clients.

These core practices are inquiry, contemplation, and meditation. As with anything you practice, these practices become more and more intuitive as you use them. Let’s take a look at each.

Inquiry
This is going to sound paradoxical at first. But inquiry is more about discovering who you are not than who you are. It is about fearlessly looking at the ideas, beliefs, and opinions that you have adopted, often unknowingly, into your life.   It is not about answering your questions but questioning your answers. And it requires the same fearlessness that you used in your courageous 4th Step work. Basically, it’s about challenging your own bullshit.

The question that we ask in practicing inquiry is simple. Yet, it requires willingness and great courage: “Do I know with absolute certainty that this current thought, belief, opinion, interpretation, or judgment is true?”

Adyashanti’s question is about Truth. As survivors of our own addictive shipwrecks, we know the power of honesty. After all, it was the tool we used in our stepwork that revealed to us just how insane our lives had become. It is also the means by which God performed the greatest miracle in our lives—and that is saving it.

So it is with that same honesty that we ask the question: “Do I know with absolute certainty that this current thought, belief, opinion, interpretation, or judgment is true?”

But when do we ask it? As I tell my clients, it’s the moment when you feel yourself tightening—when you suffer a disturbance as the BB says. It’s in that exact moment that you stop and drop the question.

By doing this, you can begin stripping away your old, repetitive, negative patterns and open yourself to what is often a new perspective. Look at your own life and see if you can identify painful experiences that happen to you again and again even when they involve a different cast of people. Then drop the question into the pain.

We can also use inquiry about statements. For example, a popular one is “The only constant is change.” So I begin by asking myself if I can be absolutely certain that idea is true.

When I challenge the statement with the question, I can see it is true as it relates to outward appearances. In nature, rivers change landscapes. In my home town, new businesses have changed its character, and in my life, time has caused my hair to gray. But is it absolutely true for me inwardly? Have I changed how I respond to life? And to that I would have to say, “Not entirely.”  Inquiry helps me identify the beliefs and behaviors that are carryovers from my drinking days that still cause me suffering.

Whether I’m working with clients or with my own issues, the results of inquiry can then become the subject of another of the three core practices: contemplation.

Contemplation
According to Adyashanti, contemplation is the art of holding a word, phrase, idea, or belief in the silence and stillness of your awareness until “it begins to disclose deeper and deeper meanings and understandings.”

Inquiry is about actively challenging things whereas contemplation is more about passively reflecting on things.

You can take the subject of change from the inquiry work above and use contemplation to reflect on an inner change that you want to make.  When first practicing contemplation, it is suggested that you begin small by focusing on words and phrases. For example, if you wanted to use the Serenity Prayer to contemplate change, you may choose to just focus on the phrase “the courage to change the things I can.” Hold that phrase in the silence and stillness of your awareness and let the wisdom flow from it like tea from a steeping teabag.  This is contemplation.

Meditation
According to Adyashanti, meditation is the art of allowing everything to simply be in the deepest possible way” by letting go “of the effort to control and manipulate our experience.”

To me, meditation is like bathing in being. It is my spirit immersed in God’s spirit. It is about surrendering, about effortlessness, and about openness.

So we can take the wisdom that we have learned from our contemplation of the Serenity Prayer and sit with it in meditation. Adyashanti says, “In meditation, you are not trying to change your experience; you are changing your relationship to your experience.”

When meditating, it is recommended that you use a chair or cushion in a place that is free of distractions.   Relax, let go of the concerns of the day, and “just be” with the wisdom revealed to you in contemplation.

In your daily schedule, try setting aside time for these core practices.  All three could be done in one sitting or spread over three days.  Regardless of how you implement them, they are powerful tools in stripping away your old patterns and social conditioning and opening yourself to Truth.

Soon you will discover that the spiritual awakening that you began with your 12-Step work has expanded into more and more facets of your life. And with that expansion comes a new level of joy, peace, and understanding.

If you would like to work one-on-one on with me concerning an issue that is robbing you of your happiness such as depression, anxiety, relationships, negative thoughts, or esteem, contact me.  I’m at rjhandley.com.  Google my name if you’d like to find out more about me.

Be Bold,
RJ Handley
Spiritual Life Coach