Addiction, Recovery and TRY

“Addiction is not a choice anybody makes. It’s a response to emotional pain.” ~ Gabor Mate, MD

The science behind Trauma Recovery Yoga (TRY) is taught in the 20 hour TRY Teaching Training workshops by Dr. Nicole Anders, Phd. The first topic we discuss is Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), that is, experiences from birth and throughout childhood development which cause toxic stress to a child.

Experts have been studying and discussing the relationship between childhood traumas and addiction for years. Dr. Gabor Mate, an author and renowned expert on addiction, pain and trauma has delved deep into this subject. In his research, he has found the majority of people who have addictions also report some sort of childhood or adult adverse experience. Addiction is an attempt to soothe pain. Addiction meets an essential human need that is not being met in that person’s life ~ examples are emotional pain relief, escape from stress, and a sense of connection and belonging.

In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts argues persuasively against contemporary health, social, and criminal justice policies toward addiction and those impacted by it.

Dr. Mate says in addition to substances such as tobacco, alcohol, and drugs, virtually any type of human activity can become addictive, depending on the person’s relationship to it. Sex, gambling, shopping, eating, work, exercise can all become excessive to the point it is an addiction.

He notes the greatest myths about addiction are 1) it’s genetic and 2) it’s a choice that people make.  An alcoholic abuses (emotionally or physically) his child, that child grows up to soothe himself with alcohol ~ is that passed on genetically or is that a behavior the child developed because the conditions that  the alcoholic grew up in were recreated?  Addiction is not a choice, it is a response to emotional pain.  He says instead of asking addicts “What’s wrong with you?” we should be asking “What happened to you?” and addressing the human suffering the addict has endured.  We should be helping addicts work through and resolve their traumas instead of punishing them as criminals. 

Why is it some people who have experienced ACEs don’t become addicts?  Dr. Mate says that individuals who experience ACEs but have had somebody as a support system during that time are less likely to become addicts because their emotional pain is being soothed.  “It doesn’t mean that every person traumatized will become an addict; but it does mean that every addict was traumatized.”

Dr. Gabor Mate, renowned expert on addiction, pain and trauma, speaks of all addictions as “attempts to soothe pain.”

Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, former president of the American Academy of Pediatrics and currently the first Surgeon General of California since 2019, says “Adverse childhood experiences are the single greatest unaddressed public health threat facing the United States today.”  She is known for linking adverse childhood experiences and toxic stress with harmful effects to health later on in life.  Prior to this appointment, Dr. Harris founded and was CEO of the Center for Youth Wellness in San Francisco, which was created to improve the health of children exposed to toxic stress and early childhood trauma.  ACEs include abuse, neglect and household dysfunction.  While we may not be able to change their environment, we can provide tools and coping skills to help children deal with the negativity in their lives.  Below is a link to an interview of Dr. Harris in which she discusses ACEs and the detrimental and the detrimental health outcomes they can have on a child.

Some important takeaways from Dr. Harris’ interview are: “…when children, in particular, are exposed to high doses of adversity, because their brains and bodies are just developing, it actually changes their developmental trajectory. … These changes to the brain, immune system,  hormonal system and the way our DNA is read and transcribed, these are things that are measurable even still in adulthood.  Even long after people have left the stressful situation they were in in childhood because of changes to the way the body is wired.”  And Dr. Harris comments that it is possible to heal with positive factors like sleep, exercise, nutrition, mindfulness like meditation, mental health, a therapist or psychiatrist, and healthy relationships ~ these things all help to reduce stress hormones, reduce inflammation and enhance neuroplasticity.  

What is neuroplasticity, sometimes referred to as neural plasticity? It is the brain’s ability to develop and change throughout life, which at one time Western science thought was impossible.   An integral part of Trauma Recovery Yoga (TRY) is the repetition of two very important words, “I am” followed by positive self-affirmations throughout the practice.   By this corrective emotional experience, we are changing our brains and creating a new neuropathway in the brain.  For those of us who have experienced trauma, it may feel more difficult to escape the negativity, the dark places our minds sometimes go.  But by the “I am” exercise, which may of course be utilized anytime and anywhere, not just on a yoga mat, we are reinforcing positivity about ourselves, which is a monumental step in the post-trauma journey. 

In our TRY teacher training sessions, Dr. Nicole Anders talks about the fight, flight, freeze response we experience. It is a natural human reaction. It becomes a “disorder” when you get emotionally and physically stuck in the freeze, as in “post-traumatic stress disorder” (PTSD). It’s ok to feel fear, that is natural. But as my friend Max suggests, allow the front door and the back door of your mind to be open. And see the thoughts as they enter and pass through and leave. Just don’t invite them to stay for tea. Don’t become attached to the fear. Acknowledge it, but don’t shine a light on it and help it grow. Shift your focus upon something positive.

Over the past few years, I met three women, Daria, Monica and Brenda, through Trauma Recovery Yoga. They have all completed the TRY Teacher Training program and have taught TRY either in the Mindful Movement program in the Las Vegas schools or in individual classes. I had individual interviews with each woman in which we talked about their traumas, their road to addiction, their recovery and what part Trauma Recovery Yoga played. All three reported childhood adverse experiences, ranging from sexual abuse to death of a parent or close family members. Alcohol, opiates and heroin were their addictions.

Daria started drinking alcohol young; her mom left when she was 11 and her dad died when she was 16. While she was “taken care of”, she was basically alone and had no support for her emotional pain. Her comment, “Trauma is the great equalizer,” reflects the observation of researchers like Dr. Mate and Dr. Harris that ACEs and addiction are not selective regarding race, economic status or education.

In 2017 Daria met Joyce Bosen, founder of Trauma Recovery Yoga. Joyce was the first person to suggest to Daria that she could have PTSD. Daria was the first TRY scholarship recipient and completed the 20 hour training in November 2017. Last year she was able to quit drinking. She has found the numerous TRY volunteer opportunities and teaching to always be “magical” experiences. She says the two years between finding Joyce and TRY were a journey of discovery, and that cannabis and yoga are now her pathway.

Memories of a sexual assault when she was a toddler and her parents’ refusal to acknowledge that anything happened coupled with a 10 year abusive, toxic relationship when she was 18, led Monica to drugs to help her “numb the feelings”.  A car accident rendered her unable to function without pain medications; but because of the high costs of the opiates, she eventually turned to heroin.  Her mother took her to a rehab program in Rosarito, Tijuana to help her get clean.  Monica had a positive outcome; she says she grew in that space, in the 3 month stay she found compassion within herself and seeing some of the other participants, realized the extreme negative state that drugs can take you.  She experienced hard days and stressful times, but the happy times of singing and dancing and the camaraderie of the housemates helped her immensely.  She described how the facility is located on a hill with a view of the ocean, and said to herself, “One day I’m going to be on the other side of the fence and be on that beach.”   

When she returned to Las Vegas, the time she spent alone while her boyfriend was at work allowed her to explore self-worth and meditation programs.  She made the decision to enroll in the YTT (Yoga Teacher Training) at the Downtown Yoga & Wellness Co-op.  She set her mind to do it on her own; she got a job in a local cafe where daily she could see hummingbirds while doing her job.  She proudly paid for the training with her income.  She completed the TRY teacher training during the same time.  She has found extreme satisfaction with teaching yoga.  When she was chosen as the Co-op’s first featured teacher, she had this to say: “Yoga opened my mind, my body, my soul to who I really am.  I used to struggle with sobriety and yoga helped me transform my health, my body, my emotions by accepting who I am.  I love teaching yoga because I can give people a new perspective of the light inside them.  I practice yoga not just to be a better person, but to bring happiness, peace and clarity to those around me.  Yoga inspired me to be able to be me!”

“I know I’m in the right place with the right people at the right time.” ~ MR

Brenda has experienced a lot of trauma; a constant cycle of loss of family members through what she described as “not natural death”. Having worked at a Las Vegas hotel, she said “every day was a party and drinking was a way of life.” When her brother committed suicide in 2016, the feelings she experienced were very aggressive and dark; she isolated even from good, valid relationships. She felt nobody knew what she was going through. She felt guilt about her brother’s death – “I could have done more.” It was after his death that her drinking became addictive. She said there was no more celebrating after he died – she felt alone. Two years after her brother’s death, her mother was admitted to a behavioral hospital. Distraught from her son’s death, her mother has lost her memory and herself.

Brenda recalls her experience with Dray Gardener’s Silent Savasana with heartfelt gratitude. Yoga allowed her to look deeper, to look beyond the negative thoughts. Through yoga, she found understanding of herself and accepted that allowing herself to let go of the anger towards different people was ok.

Last year, Brenda found TRY and completed the teacher training in March. She has gone on to teach Mindful Movement classes in the elementary schools and subbed for various TRY classes. She says that finding herself on the mat helped her get sober. She found calm and peace with the “I ams” and visualization techniques within the method. She describes TRY as having a positive ripple effect, saying she has built friendships through TRY that are deeper than any she’s ever had. This is true for so many of us in the TRYb. TRY has opened up a whole new world for Brenda.

“When you try to help yourself, you end up helping others.” ~ BB

EndureLV is a Drug Addiction Treatment Center in Las Vegas. Opened in 2018, EndureLV provides spiritual, mental, emotional and physical help for those struggling with substance abuse addiction. Founder and director Brittani Sitar, a licensed therapist for 9 years, saw that people in treatment needed a community to plug in to for support. EndureLV is fitness-based with yoga, boot camp, and support meetings. A full one hour Trauma Recovery Yoga class has been an integral part of EndureLV’s program since its inception. Max Carter is the TRY teacher, consistently showing up every Monday night; in the beginning maybe only one client showed up, or none, but Max would stay for the entire time just in case someone arrived late.

The yoga room at EndureLV is simple, but work gets done.

TRY is a required part of the EndureLV program; the average client participates for 6-10 weeks. The weekly TRY class is included in the program fee, but once discharged, clients may return to the class and pay the drop-in fee. Brittani told me that clients must meet for a one hour group, participate in the TRY class, then and re-convene for a one hour follow-up group. Client comments following the class include “I feel better” and “I love his class”. Clients have also shared that if they cannot sleep at night, they envision Max’s voice leading the closing meditation. Brittani commented, “Max is crushing every stigma regarding yoga, men, and treatment.” It is true that Max is not your average yoga teacher, and that is part of what is appealing about him for many. He is not a thin, bendy young woman in stylish yoga attire at the front of the class. He refers to himself as a “lumpy old guy”, but in reality his heart is so large it needs a big vessel in which to reside. His teaching style is slow and explanatory, making sure that even the most awkward feeling participant feels comfortable. His class is not one where the beginner looks around helplessly and tries desperately to catch up with the others.

An in-patient program for substance abuse and eating disorders buses over patients for Max’s TRY class every week. Other clients may be self-admitted, or job-referred. I noted with interest Brittani’s comment that they often see flight attendants in their program. She said the job is a high stress environment, and likened them to First Responders who must address critical incidents in a restricted space. The fear of terrorists is common, especially since 9/11. In addition, flight attendants are away from their families for periods of time, and may turn to the hotel bar to ease their stress and pain.

During this period of statewide quarantine, our Trauma Recovery Yoga classes have gone online. They may be found via the Trauma Recovery Yoga Training Facebook or Instagram pages. Videos of past classes may be accessed at any time on the Trauma Recovery Yoga YouTube page.

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