Discovering Acupuncture in an Addictions Setting

Nov 11, 2020

I feel deeply grateful for the fact that I was exposed to the benefits of acupuncture for addiction recovery at the beginning of my acupuncture training, over ten years ago.  My school, the TAI Sophia Institute, had a long-standing relationship with the Penn North Recovery Center located near downtown Phoenix, and we were all required to do I think it was 40 hours of community acupuncture training at this center.

I’m not going to lie.  The first time I visited Penn North, I nearly had a panic attack.  The building is in the midst of littered street and boarded up buildings.  I had all kinds of stories about my personal safety at 10 am on a weekday morning, the safety of my car, and “the kind of people” I would encounter here.  Because of my acute feelings of anxiety, I was placed in a chair to receive my first auricular acupuncture treatment.  I walked to the door with all the arrogance of a student practitioner and entered the building as a client.  It was humbling, to say the least.

The most humbling part of this experience was that I was so cared for as soon as it was seen that I needed some attention.  “The kind of people” who were on staff at the center, and “the kind of people” who were court ordered to receive acupuncture as part of their recovery process, were the kind of people I have come to deeply honor.  Simply put, they were kind.  They were honest and didn’t try and sugar coat the fact that I was in distress, and in seeing this, they made room for me in the healing circle and tended to my needs.

Throughout the years, I have come to deeply appreciate this sense of community that I find in working with people in addiction recovery.  The reality is that more often than not, there is a brutal honesty and acceptance of one another exactly as we are.  This is refreshing to me in a world where most people are trying so desperately to talk around (or wholly avoid) saying what is true for them, with a denial of the fact that we are all human and we are all going to make mistakes.  In the addictions community, some of these mistakes are colossal and can destroy the lives of everyone involved.  But the gift of these communities is that one can say what is true for them – saying exactly how they are feeling in that moment and calling one another out on their B.S. – because they know that this is the path to healing.  And the circles are meant to be supportive, empathic environments where a person can tell their story to a group of people who share similar journeys.  And in speaking and bearing witness, there can be profound healing.

I’m not going to pretend that there isn’t also a great deal of bending the truth or hurt feelings in these communities with all of this truth telling.  Again, we are human and many of us are in pain and simply doing the best we can do.  I have learned to be kinder and gentler in my judgements of others as I hear these stories, because often, it’s a wonder that people emerge whole from certain early life experiences.

I’ve learned the same in my Chaplaincy work here in Phoenix when I look around at the people walking through hospital corridors: I have no idea what that person is going through or has just experienced.  These experiences give me more compassion in dealing with others when they are cranky or downright rude – maybe they just lost a loved one or found out that they have a terminal illness or can’t have a child of their own.  Wouldn’t you be cranky as well, much less interested in holding the door open for someone else than you may be otherwise?

Acupuncture for addiction recovery isn’t just about treating accompany symptoms of nausea, body aches, insomnia, anxiety, depression, racing mind, etc.  Sure, this is what I focus on in the early days of recovery, especially when working with those going through acute withdrawal from drugs or alcohol.  I’ve worked at addiction detox centers in Phoenix and elsewhere, and this is precisely what needs attention in the early days of recovery.

But the real work of recovery begins after this acute stage.  This is where we begin to address the spirit.  This is where that radical honesty can be so valuable, discussing the grief, loss or myriad of pain that may have led to drug abuse in the first place.  Acupuncture is a valuable tool for helping to balance the body and soothe the ongoing emotions of anxiety, depression, and trauma from the past.  In addictions, the whole system goes out of balance – acupuncture helps to realign it to enable a person to begin to heal and see their innate strength and capacity for survival.  I feel blessed every day when I get to work in this capacity with people both in my Phoenix office as well as in residential treatment centers throughout the valley.

With a background in counseling psychology, I have always known that I’ve wanted to work with people on a deep level.  Throughout the years, I’ve continued to focus my training around addictions, trauma-recovery, grief and loss, and other mental health concerns.  Because at the end of the day, it’s really all about treating the spirit.  Sure, I can help alleviate nausea and anxiety and insomnia, but that’s only the first part of any healing journey.  My passion lies in bearing witness and holding space for those who are willing to show up and be honest with themselves and those around us.  It’s a simple equation, but it’s far from easy.  Thank you to all who have let me partner with you in this journey up to this point.

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