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The Recovery Journey: How to Save a Life

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My name is Dr. Herby Bell and I’ve been in a steep learning curve for what seems like my entire life, while studying the cause and treatment of addiction while on my own addiction recovery journey. I want to share with you some of what I’ve been learning but first, let me tell you why I’m so interested in the subject in the first place.

Addictionology and working with recovering people is a big part of my life’s work because it’s been such a big part of my life’s story. My own Dad died of the disease as an impaired physician, I am a man in long-term recovery and addiction is a prominent thread in my family legacy. So I have a passionate, vested, generational interest in the subject, and the work just feels good and right to me.

Here’s what recent research has revealed. Addiction is a systemic problem in our culture. It is a symptom of our society and cannot be relegated to simply a genetic trait. In fact, the genetic markers originally thought to be the cause of addiction are only a contributory factor–in the largest picture.

The “epigeneticists” or those in the know, tell us that just because you have a gene doesn’t mean it necessarily needs to express a condition associated with it. In other words, the environment has quite a bit to do with it.

So, just like a growing seed requires nourishment from the soil, water and sunlight to develop properly, addiction has much more to do with our own, biological development, our repeating family of origin patterns and our dysfunctional culture, than exclusively, with genetics.

Which leads me to a startling revelation that the addictive process can begin in pregnancy. Now, I’m not referring to an addictive couple giving birth to a crack or heroine baby, for example. I’m talking about a so-called normal pregnancy.

Here’s a thumbnail sketch about how that works: If a pregnancy is overly stressed, and many pregnancies are in our culture, the mother can produce too much of the stress hormone called cortisol, which crosses the placenta and can prevent the baby’s early brain development from forming the optimal amount of what are called, “receptor sites” for the “feel good and well being” internal chemicals like endorphins and dopamine.

The baby is born with “sub-optimal brain circuitry”–really!–and predisposed to looking for things outside of himself to feel good–and to feel good about himself. This is amplified by being born into dysfunctional families–and we’ve all got ‘em, by virtue of the outside–in, addictive consumer culture in which we live.

Here’s a remarkable fact: 75% of our 2.5 million prison population in the U.S.–the world’s largest–are substance/behavior abuse individuals with the brain disorder and disease of addiction. That’s 3 out of 4!

It stands to reason then that 3 out of 4 of our families are also directly connected to addiction in one way or another.

So here’s the point: These sobering facts don’t cast blame or victimize anyone, but rather, shed light on why addiction has become such an enormous, epidemic problem in in our culture–in the world! We can all identify with addictive tendencies–in ourselves– from the workaholic to the shopaholic to unhealthy relationships with people and food and other behaviors–all different addictions, but all the same underlying brain chemistry and addictive process.

Addiction is a deeply personal, family, community–societal challenge and when we hold it in this more holistic way, we can begin to understand why our current education, treatment and law enforcement policies are failing miserably across the board.

For example, addiction is treated as an acute problem. It’s not! It is a chronic, recurrent problem having to do with a definable brain disorder, not a moral deficit. How many of you have friends and family members who have relapsed again and again and again, who are written off as three, four, five! time losers? Addiction is a symptom of our post industrial, technological society. A symptom. Let’s get to its cause. There is no “war” on drugs, there is only finding peace with a better way of life.

Ready for some good news? And there is good news for the brain disorder of addiction because, the brain is re-writable or as the scientists say, neuroplastic. I’ll bet you’re familiar with the term. What that means for recovering addicts–like me!–is that what is required is a safe place to practice abstention while forming new brain circuits–really!–another way to say it is a safe environment to practice new and healthier habits to produce and manage endorphins and dopamine–the feel good chemicals–from within.

An individual with addiction is absolutely incapable of deciding or willing himself out of his disease anymore than a heart patient or diabetic and his/her disease. Treatment requires many things, including compassionate, empathetic, and present people to help “re-birth” the addict into a new life while the brain is repairing itself. This takes time, sometimes years but when compared to the years it took to develop the condition, it makes sense, doesn’t it!?

Addiction is a metaphor for what we’ve lost touch with in our culture. When we can begin seeing that we all hold the key to getting back to a more integrated, holistic approach to the way we live, it is my hope and vision that we can begin making real strides toward helping more people with the chronic, recurrent and potentially fatal brain disorder and disease of addiction. Here’s to that collective endeavor to save a life: One life, and one day at a time.