The Craving Behind the Craving: Addiction as a Spiritual Disease

“It is more important to know what sort of person has a disease than to know what sort of disease a person has.” -Hippocrates

As a child, I remember walking in my grandmother’s backyard and one day noticed a litter of kittens near her garage in the alleyway. They were hissing, crying, and yelping with the hair sticking up on their backs as their frames were so thin you could see their skeletons.

“I want to pet them,” I told my grandmother.

“Oh no. They are not ready for that,” she insisted, “Someone must have dropped them off and they need food and water first.”

“Why not?” I asked, “Are they bad kittens?”

“Of course not, “ she laughed, “there is no such thing as bad or evil. There is only misguided love. These kittens were abandoned and they just need love. But they are also starving so we need to first feed them so they can refill what is missing.”

We went inside and came back with dishes of tuna fish, milk, and water for the kittens. Like always, grandmothers are always right. As the kittens indulged in the meal we brought them, the hair on their backs went down and their growls turned to purring sounds. When cats purr it is an instinctive reaction to communicate their mood as content, calm, and safe.

It was truly amazing. They were lacking basic survival needs of food and water, which had altered their behavior to aggressive and mean. Yet, once that need was met, they were content and friendly.

I look back at this story often as it has so many wonderful lessons attached. The first such is that when these kittens were lacking basic needs – such as food and water – and then finally presented with fulfillment of these needs, they instinctively indulged. In fact, a few of the kittens actually vomited after eating so fast.

It makes perfect sense. If I am walking in the desert and dehydrated and finally brought to an oasis, I am going to drink water to replenish the fluids and nutrients that were have been missing. If I am starving, I am going to crave foods to relieve all the nutrients that are missing. But, what if I am spiritually starving or thirsty? Wouldn’t it only make sense that if presented with a substance that would seem to instantly fill this void, I would also indulge?

Spirituality

Spirituality is not religion; although religion is a type of spirituality.

Most people that get turned off by the word spirituality have had a negative experience with religion, which is why it is essential to differentiate between the two terms. Spirituality refers to finding purpose and meaning in life, as well as a sense of connection to the universe outside of our self. Some people find this in religion, which is why religion is a type of spirituality. Religion does so with traditions, customs, books, and preachers. And at the core, all religions have the exact same spiritual message – to love one another unconditionally.

Spirituality can be found in any type of connection such as nature, sports teams, understanding the universe, in meditation, groups of people with a common goal, love, friendships, and mindfulness. All of use experience spirituality at times of our lives, though may not have used that term or understood what the term actually means.

As Ekhart Tolle explains, the word is not the experience, The word honey isn’t honey. You can study and talk about it as long as you like, but you won’t really know it until after you taste it. After you tasted it, the word becomes less important to you.

In this same sense, the word spirituality turns people off. But it is not the word, it is the experience in which we have all had in our lives such as:

·   Moment of clarity

·   Sense of inner peace or calmness

·   A burst of euphoria

·   A feeling of interconnection with the world around us

·   Being in the present moment

·   Detached from all of life’s labels and feeling as your true self

·   Unconditional love

Is Spirituality a Human Need / Desire?

“At every stage, addiction is driven by one of the most powerful, mysterious, and vital forces of human existence. What drives addiction is longing — a longing not just of the brain, belly, or loins but finally, of the heart.” ~ Cornelius Plantinga

In the opening story, I share the story of the kittens that were derived of their basic animal needs of food and water for survival. But is spirituality also a human need and/or desire?

This answer comes in two parts. The first portion involves the innate need for love and connection, whereas the second part involves a historical perspective of spirituality in humanity.

In 1958, Harry Harlow performed the controversial “Wire Mother Experiment” which was a designed experiment on the overlooked human need of love.

In one part of the study, the monkeys were reared in isolation in which many died and others were frightened and acted abnormally. Once they grew older, they could not interact with other monkeys. The second study separated monkeys from their mother and gave them options of two surrogate mothers – one made from wire and the other with a soft cloth, both which provided milk. All the monkeys spent more time with the mother made of cloth, even if she had no milk. They would only go to the wire mother when they were hungry and then spent the remainder of the day with the soft cloth mother.

Furthermore, when a scary object was placed in the cage, they rushed to the cloth mother for support. The monkeys were also more willing to explore, or take risks, when the cloth mother was present. This allowed Harlow to conclude that for a monkey to develop normally they must have some interaction with an object they can cling to during those critical first few months.

Back to the story with my grandmother, the behavioral theory would suggest that the kittens needed food and water which is why they responded with joy after that need was met. However, Harlow’s theory shows that it is actually that these kittens were abandoned of their basic animal need, love and security, which created the erratic behavior and they were only brought back to loving animals once they established trust and love.

In regards to the human history of spirituality it goes back to the beginning of humanity. Humans have always shared a desire to alter their level of consciousness in one way or another. The oldest evidence dates back 40,000 years ago in which archeologists have discovered cave paintings in France that show images of humans in a trance-like states, indicating the first recorded history of humans intentionally altering their consciousness.

All ancient cultures have had different ways in attempting to do the same, including indigenous tribes in the Americas would go on vision quests in nature in which they tried to find their mission or purpose in life. Tribes in Africa dance in the streets until they feel the presence of their creator, other tribes in the east will dance on hot coals to try to free their spirit from the body, and many other cultures use meditation as a means to alter their consciousness.

As shown by Harlow, spirituality in regards to love and connection is a basic human need. As indicated by historical accounts, for at least the past 40,000 years humans have had a strong desire to alter their consciousness.

And psychoactive substances have always contributed to this.

Historical Substance Use

One of the oldest organized religions today is Hinduism, which was founded around 3500 B.C. in eastern India. The scrolls and texts of the Hindu religion is organized in books known as the Vedas, which is put together by a series of poems and hymns. Throughout the texts, there are numerous references to the drug/plant called Soma. The drug is basically idolized and worshipped as a hallucinogenic drug that helps the people of this time feel a sense of connection to the world.

Today, experts still do not know what this plant is and have been unable to discover its origins. Historians believe that the drug got into the public’s hands and started to be abused recreationally which led to the first prohibition of a drug.

In the southwestern American tribes they used peyote buttons from cactus at religious ceremonies to feel the presence of the Great Spirit. Also in the ancient Americas, tobacco was initially used in prayer and in South America the Coca plant was originally deemed a gift from the Gods. In the East, opium and cannabis also first were believed to be gifts from the Gods and used in religious ceremonies as it served as a way to alter the level of consciousness. While these ancient cultures it seemed worshiped these drugs by their texts, documents, and artifacts, one could argue that not much has changed.

If someone were to research our current times a couple thousand years from now, they will report that this generation wore clothing and jewelry with a hemp plant, 90-percent of their popular music made references to this hemp plant, and their passionate conversations and debates all revolved around the use of this plant. They will clearly say that cannabis was worshipped in this time.

Even alcohol has its spiritual roots as the ancient Egyptians, Romans, and Greeks all had Goddesses of Wine. Today, go into any liquor store and they still refer to hard liquor as spirits. As Bill W, the founder of AA refers to the formula for addiction as “spiritus contra spiritum,” which is directly translated to spirits against spirits. This means that the only solution to fight the spirits (alcohol) is to find a spiritual solution in a natural way.

The Craving Behind The Craving

Addiction is a spiritual disease. It is a thirst, quench, hunger, or starvation for some type of fulfillment or wholeness in a person’s life. People who become addicted to something or another either have an initial void of spirituality, a innate higher drive for a spiritual connection, or a combination of the two.

In listening to many speakers over the years it is quite apparent that the first time the person uses their drug of choice, it significantly alters their consciousness to the point that addiction is inevitable. Just as the opening story indicates that the kittens indulged in food and water because of they were dangerously lacking the nutrients to fill what was missing, people who become addicted certainly share the same behavior in indulging in alcohol and drugs that help fill their spiritual void.

The craving behind the craving refers to looking beyond the desire to use the drug, but rather the desire of the spiritual connection.

In an unofficial collegiate study, a graduate student surveyed about 200 people including students, professors, and staff in regards to the reasons why they use alcohol. The student provided a checklist of ten reasons why the person uses and they could check off however many applied. The results showed that 100-percent of the people in the survey checked off the box marked, “I like the feeling.”

Every single person that drinks alcohol does so because they like the feeling. Which made me dig deeper into examining exactly what is this feeling that everyone craves?

Using personal experience along with talking with others that are actively using or in early recovery, we came up with a list of our own in describing the feeling of being drunk or being high:

·   Everything makes sense / I just get it……………………………….…(Moment of clarity)

·   I just relax and not worry about all the stressors of life………(Inner peace)

·   Everything is better – food, people, jokes, experiences…….(Euphoria)

·   I understand people better / love for everyone………………..(Interconnection/oneness)

·   Not worried about minor things / Content in moment….….(Being present)

·   Freedom from self-criticism and anxiety …………..……………..(True self)

·   No judgments about anyone……………………………………………..(Unconditional love)

·    

In reviewing the list, you see that it is the exact same feelings of a spiritual moment. This proves it is not the drug we are craving, we are craving the feeling the drug provides. The drug is just a tool to help us reach that spiritual connection.

If I am dehydrated, I am going to drink water or fluids that help replenish what missing. If I am starving, I am going to eat some food that brings energy and life back into my body to restore what was missing. If I am spiritually starving, and have not yet identified that unfulfilled need, I am likely to indulge in a drink, a joint, or a pill that will temporarily revitalize all these things that have been depleted.

See the Forest for the Trees

It is highly common for people to find their first encounter with spirituality in the natural world and in nature. On a sober trip that I took with a group a few years ago, we went camping in one of the most beautiful places in the country – Northern California. We spent a couple of days in the Redwood Natural Forest and finding instant connection with the world around us.

In observing the Redwood Trees, there was something quite majestic about these giants. They stood about 300 feet high, some were 20 feet wide, in fact some of the trees have tunnels carved in the middle of them through the highway and our bus drove right through the center. The Redwoods are the tallest living organism on Earth and some of them date back to the time of the Ancient Greek Empire 2,500 years ago.

I always wondered, how do they grow so tall? Whenever there are storms, the tallest trees always topple over because they lack the strength to survive the strong winds. In order for a tree to grow tall, it needs strong and deep roots. But, in looking at the size of the Redwoods, you would think that the roots must reach to the center of the Earth to keep these trees upright amidst strong winds.

But then I discovered that the Redwood Trees roots only grow about five or six feet deep, only adding to my confusion and admiration of the species. Upon further research, I was told that the roots of the Redwoods actually grow horizontally and go about 100 feet wide. Also, they need to grow together in forests so that their roots can interlock underneath and they help prop each other up. You can not grow an individual Redwood tree, they can only grow together so their roots can connect and ensure that they grow together.

The trees also cycle nutrients amongst each other to help each other grow. The tallest trees collect moisture from the fog and share with the shorter trees, and the barks of the trees are intentionally burnt so help cycle the nutrients at the bottoms of the trees.

The story of the Redwoods is a perfect metaphor for spirituality and addiction. We can not survive the storm alone, but once we are able to interlock and find a sense of connection outside of ourselves we are able to embrace the storm and help each other flourish as we rise above and reach the skyline.

BOOKS BY THIS AUTHOR:

Walking Daddy Home is a new book for kids and adults. Kids often ask difficult questions about topics we usually do not know how to address with them, leaving them confused and frustrated. This new book helps explore kids questions about spirituality, the meaning of life, and other challenging topics that are difficult to discuss with children
Taking the Mask Off: Destroying the Stigmatic Barriers of Mental Health and Addiction Using a Spiritual Solution

Taking the Mask Off” is the new book by Cortland Pfeffer and Irwin Ozborne. Cortland Pfeffer spent years as a patient in psychiatric hospitals, treatment centers, and jails before becoming a registered nurse and working in the same facilities. Based on his experience, this story is told from both sides of the desk. It offers a unique and valuable perspective into mental health and addiction, revealing the problems with the psychiatric industry while also providing the solution – one that brings together science, spirituality, philosophy, and personal experience

The Lunatic is on the Grass: : A schizophrenic golfer unwittingly removes stigma of mental health

I once worked at an Intense Psychiatric rehab facility.  Every week we would have our team meetings in which we would go over the treatment plans of the 16 patients.

We would have the mental health practitioner present the patients, their goals, and their progress. 

One day, we talked about this new patient, a schizophrenic, and we discuss his goals. It is said that this is a ‘career schizophrenic’ that goes to hospitals over and over. His goal is to marry Paris Hilton and play golf on the European golf tour. 

After this is said, everyone cracks up. The laughing is intense, everyone teases, ridicules, and assassinates his character. 

I am a little intrigued with this new case because I love golf. I am terrible at golf, however, to be outside in nature with the sun for 4 hours I love. 

The lessons golf taught me was like exercise for my mind. Every shot matters in the same way that every moment matters. If I hit the ball near a tree, then become angry and impulsive, and try to smack it out of the woods, it will likely hit a tree, and I will be in worse shape. However, if I let my ego down, and chip it out, then I will be better off. 

It all adds up, little things matter, have patience, and the only shot that matters is the one in front of you. Swing soft and the ball will go further, nothing is as it seems. Do the opposite of what the ego tells you to do. You cannot beat nature, go with nature. Use your talents, do not try to be like other players. Stay within yourself and be humble. 

This is why I loved golf. It was some sort of meditation for me. Those things I learned in golf, could be said of life as well. 

One day back at the psychiatric rehab facility, I walk upstairs, and I see these ratty old shoes hanging over one of the couches. I look over and there is the guy, the ‘Paris Hilton golfer guy’ we’d talked about. He wears the same clothes every day, it is likely all he owns.

 He says he’s not sick, but he has to take medications. He gets angry if anyone tries to talk to him about his “illness.” 

I just walk by him daily for about 2 months, the whole time thinking he is a typical schizophrenic, thinking to myself, let’s write our notes, get him out of here and go home. Let’s get our checks and continue living the lie. I was so embarrassed to be there, a part of this industry, I just did not want to talk to him….and I felt like a fraud. 

So, one time I talked to him about golf to measure his awareness. He knew a lot, so I was surprised. Then, I began to talk to him daily and they became just person to person talks. He had started coming down to talk to me more because it was more of a friendship than me acting in my role there – which would just be me asking him about his “coping skills” and his “goals,” and the other stuff they teach you to say in school, and at these trainings. 

He did not seem to feel threatened by me or assume I was prodding him in order to write things down in his chart. When patients act nervous or suspicious, we are taught to think: “See, they are paranoid.” 

However, is that really paranoid? We read their charts and decide who they are without ever getting to know them! I think their lack of trust and not wanting us to write things down is a perfectly normal response based on the circumstances they are usually in. If they say the wrong thing to the wrong person, then it’s another forced treatment and commitment. 

I swung my clubs inside one day that I had brought my clubs into work. He saw me, and said “Whoa, not bad.” 

 He then asked “Hey, can I take a swing?” 

This was the beginning of one of the most deeply profound experiences of my life – one in which my false selves would all die.  But there was more to come.  

This profound moment did not take place in a church, in a school, or as part of a momentous occasion.  No, I was about to learn about life from a lifelong schizophrenic at a golf course! 

Not quite as I had dreamt this moment of enlightenment would be! 

He swung the club, and it was one of the nicest swings I had seen in person. I was shocked. Of course, that didn’t mean he was a European pro. However, I did start to doubt my own pre-conceived notions as an “expert.”  

Could I, the all mighty one be wrong in my beliefs? It brought me back to a time when I was working at the county hospital. One of the doctors training me said, “You don’t treat the diagnosis, you treat the patient, everyone is different.” 

I had an idea, and I went to get support from the program director to take my new golfing friend (and anyone else who wanted to come) to the driving range. I chose the ‘the university’ where I got my golf lessons, it was close, and I was familiar with this place. 

I got the O.K, and we drove the van to the driving range. We arrive and there is a bunch of young kids — teens with fancy clubs and clothes, looking us over as we walk onto the course — a group of patients perceived as mentally ill. 

The college kids golfing had that look like “Umm I think you guys are lost” or the “Not in our neighborhood” looks. 

Here is a schizophrenic guy with 20-year-old shoes, long hair, and 10-year-old jeans. We had no clubs other than mine. All the course can offer my friend is a 9 iron for kids, which typically a professional golfer can use to hit a ball about 150 yards. I am sure they had more appropriate clubs on offer, but it seemed they did not want the lunatic ruining their clubs. In fact, they did not want the lunatic on the grass! 

The patient says “O.K.”, he was not arguing. This man is 6’5.  In addition to being an ‘ill-fit’ for a man of this height, this club looked as though it had been well used by kids for about 20 years or more, but my lunatic friend is just happy to be there…as is everyone else. 

Then came that moment, the one that changes everything! 

He puts the ball down. All these young teens, with their 3000-dollar clubs and their fancy clothes are all chuckling and watching, I am watching, the other patients are watching. The tension is building. 

He says “Wow, I haven’t swung a club in a long time.” 

I was so nervous at this point – I could see all eyes were watching, and I was wondered, was this a delusion?  By bringing him here, am I hurting this guy and embarrassing him? I felt my body get tighter, my teeth were clenched, my heart racing, I was really feeling it. 

I look at his face, I watch his eyes, they are not schizophrenic eyes. His tongue was tightly wrapped on the outside left side of his mouth. He has this grimace on his face – the look of extreme like focus. I glanced at his feet, they are not schizophrenic feet anymore, they are solid, on the ground, in perfect stance. His arms are not schizophrenic arms, the hand grip is right, but the club does not fit him. 

I sense the energy building as everyone was watching this “freak.” The thing is, he could not sense it – he already knew what we were about to find out. He was not hitting the ball for just himself, he was hitting it for me, to give me hope. He was hitting it for the other patients. He was hitting it for the watching teens — the bunch of 18 to 22-year-olds who already have their mind made up, and they wait because they want to laugh. He was hitting it for them! 

And then it happened – he hit the ball, it goes well over 175 yards, with a child’s 9 iron!  The ball flew so high in the air, in a manner a pro-golfer would hit it. It towered over the earth, and the ball was so beautiful in flight, it was like a magical TV moment. I could not believe it, and as for the others, well you could have heard a pin drop! Complete and total silence – everyone was still. The world had stopped, and mine had changed forever. 

It was all perfect! 

Had the first shot been a miss, no one would have watched any longer. The first shot was the key! But it was not a ball you could say was just struck well by an amateur. It had the look of a talented golfer. He had not swung a club in years, he had a junior club, he carried no fancy equipment, nor did he wear fancy shoes or a glove. He was in jeans, a sweatshirt, and those old raggedy shoes. 

He did not do it right just once though, he did it repeatedly!  Eventually people were not whispering anymore, and after a time they went back to hitting their balls. 

Then more magic happened! 

At a driving range like this, you see many golfers hitting many balls. They are all in flight and all hit well. But on this day, there was always one ball that towered over the rest and made the others look like little kids. I started watching the teens – they had started swinging and missing and hitting terrible shots. Our schizophrenic’s style may have been affecting their game, after all in their minds, schizophrenics who look like this guy are not supposed to do what he is doing. 

I could barely move. I had been shown the truth yet again. I hit some O.K shots myself that day, but it did not really matter anymore. Things had changed for me. 

My new golfing friend walked over and started giving me tips on my golf swing, and all those tips worked well. I could not believe this. Then I look behind me and see there is 20 teens watching him hit the ball – watching him teach me! It was all surreal and utterly impressive. Of course, watching from the side were our other patients, tripping and laughing, running around. The world had been moved – for all of us! 

Then came another moment – a moment that still tears me up as I write this account here now. One teen with extreme courage and bravery came up and asked my friend for advice on his swing. What courage to do this in front of his shaken peers. Instead of teasing, he came and asked for help. Earlier they had mocked and judged, but my guy did not care about that. He said “sure”, as it was obvious, he loved helping. Before we knew it, we had the schizophrenic giving golf tips to these college golfers. I would never be the same, and I knew it in that moment. 

I remember getting back to the facility and sitting down. My co-workers said, “You must really like golf, I’ve never seen you so alive and energized.” 

 I could not describe what I had just seen and my account here is still not doing it justice.  All I could say was “yeah I like golf.” 

We went to golf again maybe 3 times he and I, and we had long talks in the car. He started telling me about his life growing up, how he got involved in the system. I started teaching him about schizophrenia. 

Eventually, he said to me, “Well I have been going to these hospitals and group homes for over 20 years, and no one has ever explained it to me like that. I think I do have that disease, actually maybe they are right.” 

I think others had explained it to him, but he had not listened, because no one had ever listened to him. He was open and without fear with me.  Ironically, I only talked to him by chance really, and prior to that I had ignored him for 2 months. 

Everyone played a role in my ‘inner change’ at that time – from the negative mental health practitioner who tried to make a joke of his treatment plan, to the great program director. I started to listen carefully to what my golfing friend said when he went on a rant, instead of just falling back on preconceived notions as I would have done in the past.  He talked about the college he went to, so I decided to look it up online, and there it was, a picture of him, clean cut, well dressed and very well groomed.  He had a 4.0 and was captain of a division-1 golf team.

 My life changed forever with that first swing that stopped the world, and it happened at a time when I had given up on the ‘mental health industry’ coming to believe it was all a fraud. My life change made me realize the mental health industry was not always a terrible business. Yes there are terrible things that happen, and terrible abuses do occur, but that was not good enough reason to give it all up completely – I had been shown good reason to stay. I would work on the inside and do my best to create change. It is only a fraud if we allow it to be. 

There is a moral to this story… 

We have the power over every present moment we are in. Present moments will always build on the past moments, much like golf. We can always find evil if we look for it. However, as Socrates said “Our energy is better spent on focusing on positive future than on the negative past.” 

 And it was Francis of Assisi who said “The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better. “ 

The point of this article is to acknowledge that everyone is human, we are all connected, and we all have things to offer. If we put our being into treating others as equals deserving of love and respect (without the ‘superiors and inferiors’ nonsense), then things start to change for the better.  When you drop the facades and preconceptions, the ego allows you to see truth and that’s when magic happens. When we take that leap, (or are forced into it like those with schizophrenia), what happens is a type of freedom and beauty enters your life, that I cannot explain with mere words. 

But I can say this: Labels can destroy lives! 

My greatest teacher was a “schizophrenic” – a man who had been committed to an institution for over 10 years, by a court who deemed him “crazy”. Like others I worked alongside of, I had almost closed myself off to him because I believed the label he’d been given – that of sick and delusional man – could NOT be a teacher, let alone my teacher.  Yet there he was waiting for me – my greatest ever teacher – and all I had to do was ‘lose the mask’ and forget the labels to see him for who he really was. Is this not what seeking enlightenment is all about? 

BOOKS BY THIS AUTHOR:

Walking Daddy Home is a new book for kids and adults. Kids often ask difficult questions about topics we usually do not know how to address with them, leaving them confused and frustrated. This new book helps explore kids questions about spirituality, the meaning of life, and other challenging topics that are difficult to discuss with children
Taking the Mask Off: Destroying the Stigmatic Barriers of Mental Health and Addiction Using a Spiritual Solution

“Taking the Mask Off” is the new book by Cortland Pfeffer and Irwin Ozborne. Cortland Pfeffer spent years as a patient in psychiatric hospitals, treatment centers, and jails before becoming a registered nurse and working in the same facilities. Based on his experience, this story is told from both sides of the desk. It offers a unique and valuable perspective into mental health and addiction, revealing the problems with the psychiatric industry while also providing the solution – one that brings together science, spirituality, philosophy, and personal experience