The Heart Addiction Connection
“This heart will one day find you a sweetheart. This soul will one day take you to the beloved. Seize your pain as a blessing. Your pain will one day lead you to healing.” Rumi
Buddy fell from grace into the heart of darkness – the heartless realm of near oblivion and emptiness.
I met Buddy when I was working in a West Coast emergency room. He came into the ER looking pale and barely breathing.
His overdose was thought at first to be from IV heroin, but it was due to Fentanyl: a synthetic form of a heroin-like opioid -- much stronger than heroin, more likely to cause overdose deaths. The EMT said he had been revived with Narcan -- a drug that is used in opioid overdoses. In this case, Buddy had been treated just in time and had avoided death.
It was the second time in two months that this had occurred. He didn’t seem any wiser or hadn’t taken the first, almost tragic outcome, to heart.
Later I found out, to my dismay, that Buddy had been in a twenty-eight-day residential drug treatment program, which was just before his recent overdose and near-death episode. From the ER, he went to a drug detoxification facility, and then to another twenty-eight-day residential drug rehabilitation program.
It turns out that Buddy lived just down the street from where I was living in LA at the time, in a quiet community near the university. I ran into him one day while walking my dog near the college campus. He was currently living nearby with his mother, hoping to return and complete his college degree. He felt that the last rehab program, and his close encounters with death, had opened his eyes to the deadly hold his opioid addiction had on him. He wanted to regain his life back. There also was the recent loss of two close friends to heroin and fentanyl overdoses. Another friend had developed a chronic liver infection – Hepatitis C, caused by the use of a dirty needle while shooting up drugs.
A year later, I again saw Buddy* in the LA area. After another relapse with IV heroin, he decided to enter a medication-assisted treatment program (MAT). In the program, he received daily Methadone, a long-acting opioid. The oral medication controlled his craving, the desire to reuse, and the need to use and buy street drugs. He was also going several times per week to a narcotics anonymous twelve-step program. Drug addiction counseling and therapy was also continued through community mental health services.
Ten years later,
while I was consulting in a residential drug and alcohol treatment center, in another area, I again saw Buddy. This time, the circumstances had changed, and he was working as a licensed substance abuse counselor. He had ten plus years of sobriety, from his drug use, that had almost cost him his life. The compassion in the community had helped, as well as the good fortune to access effective programs. The realization of the need to seek assistance was also a critical factor in his recovery. Another breakthrough for him was his personal recognition of a larger inclusive essence, power, and wisdom. He viewed this recognition as being beyond his limited learning, views, and opinions. He began to feel the deep connection to all that he had forgotten – community, life, and love itself.
Buddy also shared that he had opened himself up to doing continual inner work and healing. His inner work now was directed towards negative emotions as anger, painful memories, and demeaning stories in his mind. He grew up with a neglectful mother and an alcoholic father. Both parents had physically and emotionally abused him. His father often beat his mother in front of him and his brother. The father then wholly abandoned them when he was nine-years-old. He became compassionate and accepted his painful memories and emotions. He realized that this would be his lifetime work for learning, growing, and healing.
Buddy had become
a student and practitioner of the art of being more present and in-the-moment. His new determined intention was to be more aware, compassionate, and lovingly kind towards his self and others. He was finding himself to be more peaceful, happy, and giving, with a passion for helping others. There still were slips into angry thoughts and feelings, especially fear, wanting more, and cravings.
A turning point for him was a workshop he attended with a master teacher of mindfulness and meditation. The meditation practices for loving kindness, compassion, and troubling emotions were especially helpful. Part of his recovery was to read, a little every day, from an inspiring book. He was carrying a copy of Kornfield's book, "No Time Like the Present" - click here.
Buddy tries to stay present, creating respectful space for all the thoughts and emotions arising in his mind. No matter how painful some may be, he witnesses them with acceptance rather than judgment. The opinions, stories, and feelings pass, he said, like clouds in the sky or waves in the ocean. The joy and liberation of being in the eternal now are there and a sanctuary that is always present. He strives to give his constant attention to his inner work, and mindfulness - to prevent a return to the painful separation from life and love.
Buddy had rediscovered his heart.
He refound his passion, love, and connectedness with life. He felt an existence beyond his limited self-perception, constraining stories and beliefs. Buddy was experiencing himself as a whole person, interconnected with his community and spirit. His healing was now a life long journey with recovery and helping others. He now was able to open to experiencing his feelings. Emotions had often been avoided as being too distressing with their connection to disturbing memories.
It took much courage to reach out for help and support. He needed a lot of strength to realize and accept that life often brings pain, disappointment, unfairness, and uncertainty. There was a sense of liberation from his prison of avoidance, fear, and anger. He had grown into a spiritual warrior. He now knew that he could stand firm against any negative thoughts, emotions, or personal self-defeating stories. I was told, that on the street, Buddy was now referred to as Buddha. He truly had become the embodiment of peacefulness, joy, loving-kindness, compassion, and acceptance. He indeed was a giving spirit for all those in need.
Buddy's newfound freedom
Buddy, now called Buddha, had found a path of recovery from his addictions, pain, and suffering. His heart connection was regained. The gifts of acceptance, compassion, flexibility, and adaptability were now his to share. His story became a inspiration for all those feeling unsteady in this ever-changing world and its uncertainness.
In the world of addictions, there is often an avoidance or numbing towards feelings - especially anger, fear, aversion, and hatred. This can lead to rigid adherence to limiting behaviors, thoughts, opinions, and beliefs. A desperate search for relief, gratification, and sources of pleasure can ensue. Vulnerabilities can then develop to substances or drugs - to help avoid pain, discomfort, and suffering.
(*Buddy is not an actual person, but a composite of people with similar issues encountered in the past. The Buddha is real.)
It is hard to ignore
the growing number of severe outcomes and deaths from the current opioid crisis – especially the abuse of Heroin and Fentanyl. Substance use disorder and addictive illness now need bolder and more innovative programs. Awareness training and addiction education should be a part of every school curriculum. Selling and the promotion of drugs now is a thriving industry in our country - without sufficient regulation or restraints.
The numbers are staggering as*
7.6% (18.7 MILLION) people aged 18 or older had a substance use disorder
11.4 million Americans misused opioids in 2017
2.1 million Americans have Opioid Use Disorder
Over 70,000 drug overdose deaths in 2017 - 2/3 related to heroin and synthetic opioids (e.g., fentanyl)
Heroin and illicit opioid pills contaminated by fentanyl and other potent opioids are responsible for the majority of deaths
45% had no treatment for heroin use disorder and 79% had no treatment for prescription pain-reliever use disorder
*Above statistics are from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration - SAMHSA and the Mental and Substance Use Disorders in America: National Survey on Drug Use and Health for 2017 - click here, of the 18+ population.
Cited reasons for the growing problem and lack of progress are
The stigma that keeps people away from needed treatment
People's entrapment in views, opinions, and beliefs about addictive illness
Inadequate addiction-focused education, resources, and providers
Lack of integrative and holistic oriented programs, treatment availability, and community recovery supports
Insufficiency of compassion and acceptance by significant others
The essence of heart
The balance of mind, body, emotions, and spiritual attunement is vital for mental health and well-being. The loss of connection with the heart has meaning beyond the real, physical heart. Symbolically, metaphorically, and poetically, the heart represents noncognitive emotional experience like: love, passion, warmth, feeling, and connection with others. In ancient times it was thought that the heart was the connection with the divine and the soul.
As a physical organ, the heart is felt to be in the center of the body. It is the pump that circulates blood, nourishment, regulatory hormones, vitality, and warmth to the body. The heart when, thought of as a representative of emotional states, feelings, compassion, and passion, has led to such expressions as:
Heartfelt, heart of the matter, or tender-hearted
Whole-hearted or listening to your heart
Being true to your heart or with all my heart
Cold-hearted, heart of stone, or empty-hearted
Lonely heart or grateful heart
The heart, as a persons’ passion and emotion,
is sometimes seen as being separated from the mind, reason, and the brain – as in the expression, head over the heart. The heart expression may also represent, the holistic union of mind, body, feelings, love, emotions, and the spirit. See article - click here
In ancient Pali and Sanskrit Buddhist scriptures, words such as "Citta" were used to represent "heart-mind." One would be in the state of unity in the consciousness of both thoughts and emotions. With meditation and mindfulness practices, the "mindfulness of mind" would be experienced. An enlightened and liberated mind would provide the ground for the union of thoughts, emotions, and spiritual essence. See article - click here
Addiction vulnerability factors
A greater vulnerability may exist for addiction from early life trauma. This is seen especially in critical development years. It may occur from losses; abandonment; betrayals; neglect; and physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. All these can lead to the development of
Behavioral patterns and maladaptive defenses
Feeling of insufficiency, lack, or low self-esteem
Hypervigilance, panic, or anxiety
Rage, anger, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Getting to the "Heart of the Matter"
We need to uncover a deeper understanding of the nature of addiction – get to the “heart of the matter.” The hope would be to reorient our thinking to evolve better approaches and treatment.
Thank you for your interest and review of this article. You are welcome to make comments below.
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A special acknowledgment and appreciation to all of you that work tirelessly in the addiction field, and to all those families who have members that struggle with addictions, or who have lost loved ones to the ravages of the current opioid, heroin and fentanyl epidemic.