For Americans living in Australian Thanksgiving is this Thursday (or Friday when I will be celebrating) and I, for one, am really excited for it. I wrote last week about how addiction affected my family in a negative way but what it actually brought about, with time, what an incredible connection with my family. While studying in America, Thanksgiving turned into a holiday that became special for my mother and brother.
We would wake up Thursday morning, drive to the river, hike and climb on the cliffs. One year I fell into the water which, being so close to winter, was frigid and kind of ruined the hike. We would come home, cook a chicken (because a turkey was too large for the three of us) and sit around the table talking about the things we were grateful for.
Although we all know too well the effects a trauma can have on a person, a shift in thinking can help us to see the growth that can occur in the right setting. One view of this is called Post-Traumatic Growth. If we have the opportunity and capability to heal our wounds we may be able to find the gifts born out of such difficulty. For us, that is closeness, trust and relationship.
Thanksgiving, or “Giving Thanks”, is also important to me from an American Indian perspective. Some of my previous work experience has brought me close to elders and facilitators of the sacred traditions of America’s indigenous people. Such ceremonies are the Sweat Lodge, the Give-Away and Sun Dance. Many of the rituals I have participated in all start with gratitude. In most that I have witnessed, gratitude was given to the earth, community, family and elders.
While I was living in Alaska I was fortunate to be able to immerse myself into a strong indigenous culture. We had storytellers travel from far and wide to tell us about their teachings and held potlucks regularly within the community. I met children that knew how to hunt and forage using traditional methods and saw the power of a small community that held the strength of their ancestors and the story of their survival. They were grateful for who they were, where they were and who they were around. And living in Alaska is hard!
Although Thanksgiving is also a traumatic story for many American Indians I recognise their influence on how important it is to remember what you’re grateful for. This blog was sparked by an article I saw talking about how your brain reacts to gratitude. It’s amazing. If gratitude is so helpful, why not have a holiday for it. I even have a fantastic book of Native American poems all dedicated to Thanksgiving and the art of gratitude.
For Thanksgiving this year, in Adelaide, I am having some of our closest friends over, Renee is cooking a turkey and we will sit together reflecting on all the things that we are grateful for. Here are a few of mine:
Even if you do not celebrate Thanksgiving, you may like to see what can happen if you sit with your family and friends and talk about gratitude. After all, it is the best drug for your brain!
Will Dobud MSW
I grew up in a house with an alcoholic. From when I was born until age 10, my father was not drinking but things were still not good. Once he left, he went back to his old ways. He lost his job for driving intoxicated, lost all his money and did not show up for a family event again. He dropped twenty kilos of weight and died just over sixty years old with cancer unable to withstand treatment with a body that was not holding up.
It’s most likely this story that got me to stumble into the field of working with people struggling with addiction, from all sides. I work with those caught in the grasp of addiction and with the family members trying to help. Addiction rips families and people’s lives apart. But still, our common understanding of addiction is mostly diluted.
Our understanding of it starts with rat experiments. When given the choice of pure water or water laced with heroin or cocaine, rats will choose the drugs. They will continue taking the drugs, regardless of negative consequences, until they die. They will starve to death. Those who have experienced addiction first hand will know this all too well. This is what happened to my father. He had a curable cancer but had starved his body for his drink. When we do studies like these we see that rats cannot say no to the drugged water and that drugs are causing these rats to become addicted and they die. This unfortunately is wrong.
In the 1970’s (Yes, that long ago), a psychologist named Bruce Alexander thought differently. The rats in the previous study lived in cages. Alone. They did not have another rat to play with, they did not get to search for food or participate in any normal rat behaviours. So Bruce Alexander thought to build a large environment for rats. He made it as natural as possible. The walls of the enclosure were painted like an outdoor setting. He filled it with male and female rats and offered the same two drink bottles as before, one with drugs, one without. The rats curiously tried them both.
The rats that were living these happy lives did not consume the drugs. None of them became addicted. None of them died. To take the study further, professor Alexander took rats from their isolated cages where they had become regular drug users and placed them into the happier “Rat Park”. Surprisingly, despite having the choice to continue using or suffer withdrawals, the rats went back to pure water and a healthy life. The presence and availability of the laced water was not a motivator or cause of addiction. It was the cage.
So what does this mean for humans? In the 1990’s large organisations got together to study the effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences, also known as The ACE Study. This landmark research found that those who had suffered these adverse experiences were having effects lasting long into their adulthood. Think of these adverse experiences as a trauma. They include physical, sexual and emotional abuse, neglect, household substance abuse or mental illness, parental separation and divorce or a member of the family becoming incarcerated. Like the rats, these are people’s cages. For some, experiencing trauma changes our brain, affects our “feel good” systems and leads to changes in health.
Two-thirds of the thousands of people that participated in the study reported at least one adverse experience. However, more than half of those reported multiple traumas. The number of these experiences that someone went through was also predicting certain behaviours. Someone who had more than one of these adverse childhood experiences was seven times more likely to develop an addiction, twice as likely to be diagnosed with cancer and more likely to struggle with severe obesity, depression, promiscuity, heart or lung disease and have a shortened life span. More than six of these traumatic experiences increased the likelihood of attempted suicide 30-fold.
Let’s take this study and look at what is happening in Australia. Let’s look at the epidemics around us. There is an ice and drug epidemic. There is an obesity epidemic. Suicide is now the leading cause of death among our teenagers, not auto accidents which is second.
I posted on True North’s Facebook page yesterday about when we will see a mental health reform. It cannot be more needed than now. The problem is not the availability of ice or food as the rats and ACE study have shown. In the same way, the availability of a deck of cards does not make me any more likely to become a gambling addict.
The epidemic is not the drug. The epidemic is that today, we are seeing more and more people suffer and we are not picking them up. The stigma associated to mental health puts people in another cage. They are isolated and it is not helping. We are not collecting our wounded and traumatised colleagues.
If isolation and trauma can predict the onset of addiction, both for a rat and a person, then the answer is love and connection. This is the backbone of change. Connection. Although addictions push us away, we have to get closer. This will help us to understand the people we are trying to support and help them to heal.
During the Vietnam War many soldiers were using heroin on a daily basis. Many were addicted. However, when they came home 95% of those who used stopped and only a few went to rehab. The war was traumatising, anxiety-producing and an open invitation for addiction. Similar to the rats in the cage. But just like the rats that were moved to a better environment, the soldiers that were able to return home, to a safe and nurturing environment, began to heal.
Will Dobud MSW
During a session last night with a young male with Autism and learning differences, we did our regular “Mindfulness Moment” using one the apps I like to use. Of course there are times that we would practice mindfulness on our own but come on, it’s the 21st Century and some of these apps are incredible!
He completed his five-minute meditation and I asked him what had happened (he was wearing incredible, sound proof Bose headphones so I couldn't hear). He said that the focus was on Joy. He was asked to think joyous thoughts for one person that he respected, one person he felt neutral about and one person he despised. I asked who he picked.
He said that he felt joy for me and struggled thinking nicely about two kids in class who had been picking on him this week. He said, however, that while he was breathing he could feel his anger begin to boil towards them but, in this particulate moment, felt that he could breathe it out, let go and not take it personally.
Earlier this week I had another person in to see me struggling with life with drug abuse and a history of trauma from when he was a small child. We meditated together for our first ten minutes as he said that he was not feeling his best today. At 13, I was impressed that he was able to voice this.
After the session we talked about how drugs can become our safety blanket, giving us that sense of safety that we are craving but struggle to find in healthy ways. I asked him if there were times that he did not feel like using. He said that when he is with long-term friends from his childhood that do not use, during our sessions and during certain classes at school. While investigating this he said that all these places make him feel safe and not on edge.
Both of these young people were experiencing a difficulty and were able to ride it out without resorting to a patterned negative coping skill such as lashing out, ignoring the feeling or seeking something pleasure such as drugs or alcohol. Instead, we sat together with that emotion and both the intensity and duration of the experience diminished.
When working with parents I speak regularly about Dr Bruce Perry’s Three R’s and how they can help guide us to knowing what next to do. Instead of diving into a discussion about bullies or the harmful effects of drug abuse, both of these young people courageously resolved an inner conflict using mindfulness and by sitting with their difficulty.
I speak often about how important relationship is to psychotherapy and these are two good examples of why. Together, we were able to create an environment of safety and together, we experienced a challenging feeling and worked with it. This success has a better chance of repeating than does a pamphlet or worksheet. We experienced it working.
Experiencing these successes is key and I thank mindfulness for it. I’m now preparing for a session with a young person interested in yoga. I’m sure there is another blog coming soon.