What’s right about addiction? This is a strange way to frame a question about addiction, isn’t it? It’s a question I never asked in twenty-five years of critical care nursing. When I started teaching in 2009 and got challenged by what “normal” has become, my capacity to comprehend the human experience at deeper, more realistic and grounded levels began when I began to ask:
“What’s RIGHT with what I think is WRONG?”
Instead of looking at addiction and illness as consequences of a human experience, as a nurse I learned to “combat” addiction and illness, as if they were “evil enemies” needing to “be eliminated” or “dealt with.” The amazing and revolutionary psychiatrist, Thomas Szasz M.D. points out that medicine and psychiatry, like the rest of imperial anti-culture, use military language about just everything.
As a trauma and neuro-trauma nurse since 1992, I prided myself for “being in the trenches.” Dr. Norman Doidge M.D., who has written some amazing books on neuroplasticity, mentions how the entire allopathic medical field uses a military vocabulary of combat. As a result, there is a tremendous amount of biological wisdom which even manifests in such behaviors as addiction, or disease, which largely escapes the attention and appreciation of medical personnel combating dis-ease.
The first thing which, surprisingly, escaped me during my 25 years as a critical care nurse, was the very obviousness that the sense of dis-ease comes from the French des: “without, away from” + aise: “ease,” or a condition that is “without ease.” We harbor the illusion that a medical diagnosis is a “disease.” That misses the point. Illnesses appear after many years of living without ease, living in a way that takes us “away from ease.”
We have to spend years living in disease before illness manifests. Is that helpful to you? Many of us grew up without ease. I grew up with two parents neither of whom I could relax around. They were obsessed with correction rather than connection.
I discovered a tremendous sense of ease, however, as soon as I got away from them, at age 17. Curiously, at that time I committed myself to living enjoyably, and have, regardless of what I did or did not have.
Working in major inner-city hospitals in San Francisco & San José, California; Washington, D.C.; Denver, Colorado, and around New York City, I’ve taken care of a lot of drug addicts and alcoholics. Every critical care nurse has “war stories” from those Friday night shifts when the chronic alcoholics come into the emergency room, drunk out of their minds, crapping blood all over the place while their blood pressure goes in the tank. We pour blood into their veins while they crap it right out of their backside, often cover everything with it, including themselves, and us.
I grew up in tough neighborhoods in Chicago and then, when I returned to my mothers home in Brussels, I threw in my lot with friends who were also displaced, foreign and from other parts; a Mongolian friend from Russia, a couple of Palestinian brothers from Morocco, friends from the Congo, Britain, France and Spain; all different from Belgians.
By the time I was eighteen, most of my closest childhood friends in Belgium and in the U.S. had already died from drug overdoses or suicide. For me, caring for an “alkie” or an addict was like caring for friends from my younger days. I got what they were going through. I knew. And I knew that I could have easily been one of them, had I chosen to numb my pain, instead of facing, addressing, honoring and integrating my pain into an embrace that is more fully alive.
But I never, ever asked myself what could be right about being addicted, or ill.
In the last six years of teaching and traveling I’ve been amazed at how much addiction is going on; whether it’s tobacco, drugs, sugar, neurostimulant foods, wheat, porn, television, Facebook, internet. I’ve worked with hundreds of people whose neurologies are so “jacked up” that it becomes quite challenging just to have a conversation. They fidget. They fuss, and display a whole host of neurological symptoms which, to anyone with a background in neurology, are pretty disconcerting.
In my own personal and professional journey as a critical care nurse, I spent lots of time caring for people in very dire circumstances, and working with highly-trained, highly-dedicated colleagues. In my off time I was mostly quiet and out somewhere on the land. I got my “people dose” in the intensive care, trauma, interventional radiology and post-anesthesia units where I worked on-call.
When I went out to teach I discovered something that seemed surprisingly bizarre to me: somehow I had missed what “normal” has become. What I mean by that is what the neurology of “normal people” is like today.
I couldn’t believe the amount of self-sabotage in people’s lives. As I spent more time working with more people in more countries I saw the same thing. A highly-gifted and successful teacher with whom I discussed my consternation said to me, “Don’t kid yourself into believing that you’re going to do anything but entertain most of these people.”
With experience I learned that it was not a matter that these people would not do what they had asked me for; they couldn’t. When I started teaching I thought that, since I was no longer “nursing”, I could leave my neurological examination skills back in the Intensive Care Unit, delightedly thinking to myself, “Now I get to work with ‘normal’ people.”
After getting over my frustration over what “normal” has become I rediscovered my curiosity. I started slipping neuro evaluations very discretely into my interactions with clients. I wanted to see what was going on. Many of these people had significant accomplishments and commitments. The overwhelming majority of them also had significant neural deficits, along with significant childhood trauma and abandonment (which is profoundly traumatic). Their accomplishments were all the more admirable, in light of the challenges and limitations they achieved them with.
Let’s pause there for a moment: what do you think “significant childhood trauma” looks like? How many of you imagine bruised or battered children? What about children parked in front of the television set for hours a day? Yes, THAT is also “significant, and life-impacting childhood trauma.” We are mammals. Our neurological development does NOT come to completion in front of television sets. We, like all mammals, require a sustained, continuous, bodily and eye-to-eye connection with our mothers, at first, and fathers and other family members, later. Without that we develop in a way that profoundly deviates from our evolutionary continuum.
Many of my clients’ accomplishments were achieved at enormous costs and with tremendous sacrifice in younger years, as very courageous individuals worked amazingly hard to “put their dysfunctional childhoods behind them” and “make a different way for themselves.” I include myself in that bunch. Somehow we managed to harness our challenged neurologies into beautiful achievements. With age, those neurologies began to display their deficits. Our adaptive strategies, of “getting over” essential, felt aspects of our childhood beginn to manifest. The ongoing cost to our health of having bodies adapted to being continually stressed carries a toll.
Modern culture is effectively creating a humanity that is developmentally and metabolically head injured.
A profound turn-around, in my teaching work, occurred when I began asking myself what was right about self-sabotage and not following through on commitments. Because of my background and experience in neurology and neuro-trauma I knew the answer right away. It took me several years of being stuck in frustration and anger before I re-examined my attitude and the premises underlying it, namely that something is “wrong.” I finally dared to ask “what could be right about what I think is wrong?”
It’s a surprising approach to everything in our lives, including a corrupt political system, a biosphere that is undergoing accelerated species extinction, etc. We have been trained to think that this is all “wrong,” as if it “should” be what it isn’t. Somehow, we conveniently leave out the fact that the requirements for it being different haven’t been fulfilled. When I say “we,” I mean “I haven’t fulfilled the requirements for making the difference.”
Eventually, as I began to integrate this surprising approach of asking “what’s right about what we think is ‘wrong’?” I came across some amazing work being done by physicians who get that we, as human beings, are neither “right,” nor “wrong.” We are adaptive, and we adapt to our experience.
Today I’d like to share a talk on addiction with you by Dr. Gabor Mate who has spent decades working with addicts in East Vancouver, in Canada, while also addressing the dynamics of his own addictions. He asks what is right about addiction for the addict. This is not about excusing or accusing. It is about looking at our human experience in terms of what is actually happening with us, biologically, in the Logic of our Aliveness.
If you listened to Dr. Mate’s talk in our last post, rest assured that this is not simply a rehash of that material, although it is profoundly related.
Dr. Mate’s insights bring added coherence to my emerging appreciation for what it means to be human and the challenges we face in these times, in our primary relationships, and in these “modern” and imperial cultures. I hope it enriches your appreciation of what’s at play in our human experiences.
Please note that, right at the beginning, the etymology of the very word addiction, both in English and in Dutch, link it back to slavery and to the status of a person who is “assigned to,” or the liability of another person, a person who lacks self-mastery and is thus dependent.
There is far more in this talk than meets a first listen. I hope you will discover enriching, liberating and nurturing connections to other dimensions of your human experience.
Slavery is a neurology. It is the neurology of the addict, the traumatized, the tender child seeking connection and encountering repeated rejection and then finding another, alternative pathway to getting a moment of relief, of “getting connected,” even if that’s through a needle in the arm, another shopping spree, or another round of imaginary lovers on the porn site – and porn is the overwhelmingly major consumer of internet bandwidth.
We live in a culture of addicts. It takes courage to open one’s eyes and one’s heart, and notice. Not just to notice what’s “wrong,” but to notice what is right about the ways in which people are destroying themselves to “save” whatever shreds of a human feeling of belonging, of kindness, of warmth and of connection, their lives allow them to feel in their eagerness to avoid feeling the pain and disconnection that is the baseline of what they’re feeling.
Over the next months I will be sharing further references, videos, reading and audio for going deeper. I will be creating a Resources tab on the website so that you will have enriching references for your own Adventure in Growing Your Aliveness and the Aliveness of those whom you love. Several readers are engaging deeply with the material here and I know that the posts are coming out slowly as I generally live in remote, Sacred Places. The Resources will give you plenty of material for further study, much of which I will introduce in coming posts, and announce via our free newsletter which is available in the right-hand column.
Enjoy Dr. Gabor Mate’s wisdom as he shares his experiences with addicts, addiction, and the incredibly consequent dynamics of our primary relationships.
In my post Learn Anything Anywhere I outlined how you can enjoy these talks while taking a walk, or driving, instead of sitting in front of a computer.
Gather Seeds, Brother, Sister, of Wisdom, of Way-Finding, that you may Live in a Truly Loving Way that is Truly Loving to the Aliveness You Are.