Saturday, January 2, 2016

Acupuncture Treats Addiction

Photo Courtesy of NADA 
Psychotropic herbs and plants have a long history. We could argue what came first plant or human, but that is another blog entirely. Humans learned to adapt plants and herbs quickly, whether it be by observing animal behavior after consumption or just plain trial and the tales we learned in Chinese medicine about Shennong. He was our first Chinese herbalist who tasted all the herbs until one ultimately killed him. One could speculate that if Shennong had lived, we might have discovered sooner, how many more plants could change our brain chemistry, and in a simple explanation: take control of the body.   
The evolution of addiction parallels technology. The better we became at distilling or isolating chemicals in psychotropic herbs and plants, the easier it became for us to consume it. Combine human stress, the collapse of family and/or community, genetic predisposition, and decay of health, be it mental or physical and pair it with a quick fix of a pill, a smoke, a drink, a snort, or a shot directly into the bloodstream, comes the birth of an addict. This is the simplified version. The modern-day addict is much more complicated, and his or her story and struggle is usually long, and often never ending. The drug of today does not have to be an opioid or the like. It can be a cigarette, computer games, sugar, other carbohydrates, coffee, gambling, shopping, sex, eating or not eating. One disease; so many causes.

This is not about blame...because anyone, including the addict will have much to say about his or her current condition. But it is about addressing the problem at hand, regardless of history, culture, or even genetic predisposition. Recovery is a long and arduous road, with no guarantee of outcome. Some live and some die, but for every addict and person(s) who cares for them, he or she wants nothing more than hope. 
One of the lesser-known acupuncture facts is its use for the treatment of addiction. Less known than this is the fact that using acupuncture for addiction began in 1974, and spear-headed by an American psychiatrist who worked at a busy local hospital in South Bronx, New York. His name was Dr. Michael Smith, and the place was Lincoln Hospital. I cannot speak for Dr. Smith, but any person whose job is to find cures for the sick will often run into walls. There is always a desire to find something better. 
The National Acupuncture Detoxification Association (NADA) is an organization that provides training to individuals willing to work with people in recovery. Recognized by the World Health Organization, NADA technicians are used in more than 40 countries around the world. Dr. Smith still sits on NADA's Board of Directors, and is a founding member. He has since retired from Lincoln Hospital, but not before inspiring models like his recovery center all over the world. 
In 1994, I visited a methadone clinic in the heart of the San Francisco Tenderloin. My job that day was to interview heroine addicts who were required to go through a recovery program by receiving managed doses of legalized methadone. What made this center different were weekly visits from a local acupuncturist by the name of Karen Black. Even though the methadone did not cure the heroin addiction, it provided a way for addicts to survive and function. I cannot comment whether this is the lesser of two evils. But the program kept the addicts out of jail. 
At the methadone clinic, the NADA acupuncture treatment helped with withdrawal symptoms. Not just the physical ones...the sweating, shaking, headaches, and the cravings. But an acupuncturist or NADA technician will tell you that there are more than physical symptoms to temper. Indigenous cultures have called the addiction a possession from harmful Spirits. We have similar interpretations in Chinese medicine. The idea that a substance can take control of our mind and body sounds demonic. An addict at the height of withdrawal might agree that it is "that" and more.  What is the perfect picture of an addict? You might be surprised. My first interview 21 years ago at that methadone clinic was a mother of young children...seemingly happy...sweaty and nervous.
Fast forward 21 years. I am a licensed acupuncturist, and I am trained with NADA.  My experience the second time around was not just an observer, but of a provider. As a trained acupuncturist, I did not need to learn how to insert the basic five points on the ear. Whatever drew me to writing that article back in journalism school, still resonates with me. I walk a fine line daily. Be it the few expired bottles of prescription drugs in my medicine cabinet for pain relief, the once three cups of coffee I used to drink, my rush to sugar when I am feeling "down," or waking up occasionally and dreading my day. Who has not experienced this? I don't need to work in a recovery center to see people in recovery. Some go to the acupuncture clinic, and others are not educated about the lesser-known fact.
I knew an addict. He was on his deathbed, with multiple gunshot wounds on his back from running away during his days as a rebel fighter during Japanese occupation. He hid underground a year while suffering from his injuries. Did this drive him to addiction? The war? The injustice? A rocky and possibly dismal future for a young man at the prime of his life? Addiction to opium seemed small potatoes compared to everything else going on.
Fast forward this man's life...he kicks his habit twice before he fathers eight children, and manages to raise some of them. He is able to immigrate his family to safety, becomes a healer, helps introduce acupuncture to America, and builds a good foundation for his youngest daughter: me.  
I found meaning in my NADA training, and was humbled by it. It brought me closer to the memory of my father. There are few parallels, but enough to know that I have no plans to cross the fine line. A place all too familiar for plenty, and for the aware observer, much closer than we realize.
A disaster could happen today causing stress to hundreds or more, a spouse or child may be abused, a soldier may be at home unable to cope, and an addict faces imminent death or jail. With five paper thin sterile needles, and the best of intentions held onto each of its handles, a NADA technician inserts: healing into the Sympathetic, Kidney, Liver, Lung, and Shen Men points of the ear. For the next couple days, those who crossed the line can see over to the other side, because that line is also not too far away. 
For more information about NADA, visit: