Drug Addiction and Mindfulness Meditation
The fog was just beginning to clear. After three weeks battling very acute heroin withdrawals, I was finally starting to feel a measure of physical relief.
Unfortunately, my mental health continued to suffer. At the long-term recovery program house, Dave Smith, a mindfulness meditation instructor from Against the Stream Nashville, gathered us together for a group.
“What we do a lot of times is think ourselves (negatively) into these corners that we can’t get out of. But you aren’t even in a corner. You’re just thinking some stupid stuff.”
As Dave commented on particularly pronounced negative thinking in people with drug addiction and alcoholism, it finally dawned on me how this wisdom applied to my own experience. For years, I had “thought” my way into dilemmas that either made situations worse or entirely invented nonexistent problems. The light bulb flashed, and I began to listen intently to Dave discuss these peculiar aspects of alcoholism and addiction.
“At this stage for you guys in early recovery, you need to learn to tolerate unpleasantness…Before you move, before you give in to your mind, can you just learn to tolerate this? If you can learn this, it is one of the most valuable skills you can acquire.”
With these words, Dave led into a 15 minute session of mindfulness meditation. The Boston native with sleeves of dharma-inspired tattoos rang the bell to mark the start our meditation.
A few months ago, all of us had been preoccupied with drug and alcohol abuse. Now we sat together with Dave, sober and awaiting his instructions. The pitch of Dave’s bell drifted away, and a sharp northern accent replaced its chime.
“One of the ways you can use the sound of the bell to start into the meditation is to come into contact with the moment the bell stops ringing, and to see if you can actually be aware of the moment the sound of the bell disappears.”
And so we all disappeared into “the moment.”
The Meditation Begins
“Take a few moments to connect with your breath, turning your attention towards the breathe and away from the mind.”
Dave guided us through the meditation with gentle reminders to focus on breathe and sound. For the first time in forever, a sense of peace and purpose overcame me. I sank into the tranquility of mindfulness, allowing Dave’s words to serve as a guide towards something that had evaded me for a lifetime.
When the session was over, it felt like 15 years of emotional turbulence brought about by drug abuse and alcoholism was washed away. My head felt lighter, much lighter. My thinking felt focused and sharp. My body felt relaxed and at ease. I knew I had found a sufficient substitute for drugs and alcohol; mindfulness meditation provided the relief I sought in substances in a much more profound, organic way.
Over 450 days later, I can honestly say there aren’t many mornings where I don’t meditate. I usually start the day with 15-20 minutes of mindfulness meditation. Dave continues to teach at Against the Stream Nashville, and his energetic humor make for dynamic discussions.
I am certain I wouldn’t enjoy quality sobriety without his instruction. And I feel there's a good chance I might have relapsed without the relief meditation provided.
Meditation and Medical Research: Spirituality, Recovery and Overall Health
Recently, the medical community has taken a keen interest in meditation, specifically mindfulness.
Research in Alterations in Brain and Immune Function Produced by Mindfulness Meditation states, “These findings demonstrate that a short program in mindfulness meditation produces demonstrable effects on brain and immune function. These findings suggest that meditation may change brain and immune function in positive ways and underscore the need for additional research.”
My experience with mindfulness practice definitely confirms these research findings. In my practice, I have found mental clarity on levels previously unknown. As a result, I feel, work and act better. But meditation provides something far more profound than mere lucid thought.
Spirituality is the primary mechanism utilized by alcoholics and drug addicts to impart, maintain and grow healthy recovery. Meditation serves as one of the pillars of my spiritual foundation.
Medical research also speaks for the incorporation of meditation into a spiritual way of life. In Stress Reduction through Mindfulness Meditation, researchers conclude, “The techniques of mindfulness meditation, with their emphasis on developing detached observation and awareness of the contents of consciousness, may represent a powerful cognitive behavioral coping strategy for transforming the ways in which we respond to life events. They may also have potential for relapse prevention in affective disorders.”
Furthermore, researchers discovered that, “Following participation, experimental subjects, when compared with controls, evidenced significantly greater changes in terms of…(3) higher scores on a measure of spiritual experiences.”
Not only did mindfulness enrich my spiritual life, it also empowered me with a valuable tool to confront cravings and thoughts related to my past with drugs and alcohol. As I hinted earlier in the article, my meditation practice allowed me to meet relapse symptoms with healthy behaviors.
In Mindfulness Meditation and Substance Use in an Incarcerated Population, researchers note that,”… after release from jail, participants in the VM (Vipassana Meditation) course, as compared with those in a treatment-as-usual control condition, showed significant reductions in alcohol, marijuana, and crack cocaine use. VM participants showed decreases in alcohol-related problems and psychiatric symptoms as well as increases in positive psychosocial outcomes.”
But you don’t have to be incarcerated to enjoy the benefits of meditation. If it can work for prisoners, it can certainly work for the Average Joe. I know that without meditation, my recovery today would be shaky at best. Maybe that’s why it is part of the 12 steps.
Meditation allows me to detach from hectic day-to-day demands and objectively view my thought processes and actions. My practice provides a measure of peace and tranquility in turbulent times, and when life is going good, it enhances my gratitude while providing some levity.
It is important for an alcoholic/drug addict like me to stay grounded when success comes knocking. Yet I must also meet the day’s challenges with the maturity recovery teaches. Meditation grants me the ability to accomplish this. In today's world, I feel like meditation is viewed as being some mysterious, esoteric practice. Maybe there's some truth to that, but I feel meditation is just as relevant today as it was thousands of years ago. Don't take my word for it though, try meditating and see the benefits for yourself!