Dr. Gabor Maté, a renowned expert on trauma and addiction believes that at the root of addiction is a fundamental disconnection from one’s true self.
This split can happen because of any number of factors including childhood trauma, or familial or societal pressure to conform to a way of being that isn’t in alignment with one’s own true nature. This was certainly the case for me. When I was pursuing a career as a graphic designer, I found that the higher I climbed the corporate ladder the more miserable I was. I’m not blaming anyone, these were certainly choices that I made, but I made them because of deeply held beliefs of what success looked like in our society: you get a job, make money, and keep pursuing new opportunities to make more money, which allows you the luxury of buying a car, a house and all the distractions you need to feel happy. The thing is, the more money I made, the more I had to compromise my creative freedom, my time and my identity. The more I compromised, the more I distanced myself from who I really was.
The symptoms of this were anxiety, night sweats, a short temper, and outright panic attacks that become more and more frequent. I would need to drink alcohol every night after work until I was numbed enough to fall asleep. Of course, I woke up feeling terrible every morning and this only compounded the symptoms. It was a destructive cycle that I had seen in my own family, one that I vowed as a kid that I would never repeat and yet here I was, stuck in the same loop.
When I look back at this time in my life, I can see that my true self was never completely obliterated. I was still interested in all the things I used to be, but I mostly kept them secret. I would often sneak off to a yoga class on my lunch break, or before hitting the bar at night. I exercised every day, riding my bike for hours, working out at the gym and taking martial arts classes. I was living a kind of double life, and I can see in some ways how my getting drunk was actually an attempt to feel relaxed enough to be myself. I was usually the last person at the party, secretly craving the intimate connections that were possible in the late night or early morning when people got really open and vulnerable.
The more I drank the wilder and funnier I would get, so I got a lot of positive affirmation from the people I was hanging out with. And I had some really amazing times back then — playing in all-night psychedelic jam sessions in my friends’ basement, having some of the deepest laughs I’ve ever had as my friends and I pushed way beyond the boundaries of politically correct humour, and even meeting my future wife at a weekend of debauchery at a mutual friends’ cabin.
But eventually, something in me decided enough was enough. I remember when we installed a small infrared sauna in the little house we fixed up in Toronto, sitting in there and becoming acutely aware for the first time how difficult it was for me to just sit and do nothing. I started to force myself to not listen to a podcast or read a book while in there, and man, did I sweat out a lot of anxiety and discomfort in that little cedar box. One day I decided that I was going to quit smoking, and I started doing deep breathing exercises in the bathroom every morning instead of having that first cigarette. I didn’t really know what I was doing — none of the yoga classes I’d been to included pranayama — but I was being guided by something inside of myself. It worked though, and within a month I’d complete weaned myself off cigarettes. I like to say that I replaced my smoking habit with a breathing habit — a habit that persists to this day.
Pretty rapidly, things really started to change for me. My wife and I went out less and less at night and I started to go to yoga class more frequently. I grew out my hair and beard (before it was trendy), which became a bit of a running joke at the ad agency I worked at. The more cracks people made about me being Amish or homeless, the more I knew that I didn’t really belong in that world. One day at work, when I was probably feeling especially fed up, I typed “shamanic therapy Toronto” into the Google search bar. I don’t really know what led me to do this. No one in my family had ever gone to therapy, and it wasn’t something I had every considered before. But there I was, being guided by something deep inside to type that particular combination of words into Google. Amazing thing is, it came back with a return. I opened up the website and as I read the description of this therapist’s approach that little voice inside said resoundingly, “YES”.
I made an appointment right away and soon began working with this therapist, who specialized in Jungian dream work. When I started paying attention to my dreams a lot of things started to become very clear for me — how out of alignment I felt in my current job, the unresolved issues I had with my family, how some childhood and teenage experiences had left deep wounds in my psyche — the source of the pain I was numbing with booze, drugs and constant distraction. I can see now that my soul was speaking to me through my dreams and all I had to do was pay attention. Acknowledging that pain with an interested and non-judgemental therapist was in itself deeply healing — to truly be heard, to get affirmation that I wasn’t crazy for feeling the way I did, and to be able to share my deepest secrets and not feel judged started to open something in me.
Eventually, this therapist, knowing about my early experiments with psychedelic mushrooms, LSD and ecstasy, suggested that I try taking some mushrooms in a more intentional way, alone and at home (rather than at a party in the woods or at a bar like I’d done before). I was a bit terrified to do it, not sure of what darkness might be stirred up, but at this point I was ready to try anything that might help. So, I got some mushrooms, arranged for my wife to be out of the house for an evening, made a playlist of music that was special to me, and had my trip. I’ll save you the trip report, but the main thing that I came out that night with was a feeling that I had truly reconnected to myself. The experience was introspective, poetic, playful, musical and emotional. I felt all the feels, for the first time in a long time. After that, the urge to drink started to fade away. When I participated in my first ayahuasca ceremony a short time later, it went away completely. It was like a switch had been turned off. No struggle, no discipline needed, no 12 steps. The craving just went away.
Of course, none of these things are a magic bullet, and I hope you can see how they were just one facet of the healing process I was going through, but the mushrooms and ayahuasca definitely helped me break through some barriers that I’d constructed around my deepest self. The feeling I had after that first ayahuasca ceremony was that I’d come home. I remember being in the afterglow, looking up at the stars, filled with the same kind of wonder and awe I’d felt as a kid, and just weeping with joy. I’d come home to myself, and it was such a moving and tender experience to know that after years of neglect and abuse, that this fundamental part of me was still there, unbroken and completely whole. The root of the word healing is related to the word “whole”, and I believe that true healing is simply a return to wholeness. There’s nothing to change or transform. If we recover (uncover) our true self, our lives will change and transform naturally and effortlessly because we’ll be guided by what we really want in life and who we really want to be.
And, once recovered, I don’t think you can ever go back to that disconnected state. It’s like being born again in one lifetime, only this time you don’t forget your past life — you retain those memories and lessons learned. And that too is part of being whole. To not deny your past life or try to hide it, but to use it as a way to connect with others in their place of pain and disconnection and maybe help them see that there’s something inside of them that is whole and unbroken.
All of the indigenous healing traditions share the goal of soul recovery — whether it’s journeying with a drum, dancing yourself into a trance state, drinking ayahuasca, or slowing down your breath in yoga — they’re all methods of getting out of your head and into your heart, where you can reconnect with that part of yourself that is always whole and at peace with the world. The path you take is your own, you can’t follow someone else’s, but there are guides along the way waiting for you, those who have learned some things on their own healing journey. To find them, sometimes you just need to get quiet, listen for a small voice inside and say “YES”.
"Yoga is the steadying of the mind.
When this is achieved, one's true nature is revealed in all its splendour."
— Yoga Sutra 1.2-1.3
Artwork: "Sink Into Your True Self", by Itami Kerry