TRADITIONAL CHINESE MEDICINE AND ADDICTION
The core concepts of the way the universe works according to ancient Chinese philosophy and science are summarized in the three words yin, yang, and qi or Ki in Japanese.
Yin (pronounced yeen) and yang (pronounced yahhhh-ng sort of like “yawn”, not yay-ng like “gang”) only exist in relationship to each other.
Yin is conventionally considered feminine while yang has been masculine. I don’t feel that is politically correct any longer so I won’t use those terms again. But there is lots more that makes sense. Yin is moon, dark, form, cold, water, and the colors blue, black, and white.
Yang is sun, light, function, hot, fire, and the colors red, orange, and yellow. These colors are important when looking at tongues, skin, and personal preferences.
Anatomically yin is the parasympathetic nervous system in charge of rest and digest. It’s interior, caudal toward the feet, inferior meaning below, medial meaning toward the midline, and posterior meaning toward the back.
Yang is sympathetic our fight or flight mechanism, exterior, cranial toward the head, superior meaning above, lateral meaning toward the side, and anterior meaning toward the front.
The yin organs are heart, lung, liver, spleen, kidneys, and pericardium. The first five are clearly organs of importance even in Western physiology. The pericardium in Chinese medicine is a meridian of its own, with associated points along the skin and pathologies when the channel is blocked, though we know the pericardium in the west as simply the outer covering of the heart. In Chinese medicine the pericardium protects the heart from the fluctuating emotions generated by the other organs.
In Chinese medicine each yin organ is associated an important emotion: Heart with joy, Lungs with grief, Liver with anger, Spleen with digestion, Kidneys with fear, and Pericardium with pleasure.
The yang organ paired with the heart is small intestine; paired with the lung is large intestine; paired with the liver is gall bladder; paired with the spleen is stomach; paired with the kidneys is the bladder; and paired with the pericardium is the triple warmer. The triple warmer is another uniquely TCM concept. The heart/lungs create the upper “warmer”, the stomach/spleen/gallbladder/liver are the middle “warmer” and the intestines/kidneys/urinary bladder are the lower “warmer.” Simultaneously, the triple warmer has its own meridian and associated pathologies when that meridian is blocked.
Qi (chee) is life energy. The Japanese call it ki (kee). Though we say “life” energy to describe qi, the Chinese believe everything in the universe has qi even stones. So maybe what they are referring to is the movement of electrons, which creates an electromagnetic field, which inevitably interacts with other electromagnetic fields. For, even stones are composed of electrons!
Chinese medicine describes health as the free flowing circulation of qi through all the meridians of the body. When qi is blocked pain or pathology follows since blocked qi causes congestion in organs, systems, or meridians. Blood follows qi.
When I saw my first client as a graduate student at the Nanjing College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Nanjing, China, in 1983 she told me through the interpreter that her reason for coming to the clinic was “fear of cold.” What we interpreted that to mean was that cold weather caused her arthritis to flare up.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) includes weather as a pathological condition. People can be harmed by too much dampness, cold, or heat.
So what else can block qi? Emotions, wrong foods, dehydration, electromagnetic energies, disease, parasites, lack of exercise, allergies, toxic chemicals, and physical trauma are some of the most common causes.
There are different kinds of qi in TCM. It begins with source qi from one’s parents. Then there is a kind of nutritious qi created from food and transformed in the stomach. There is also a protective qi that protects one from external invasions of all kinds. You can see that the ancient Chinese had already recognized what Europeans and Americans only centuries later identified as genetics, nourishment, and the immune system.
You don’t have to know about the various kinds of qi or even all these details about TCM to be a good ADS/EPT but I think it is culturally interesting and useful for you to have some understanding of the concepts of TCM if you aren’t an acupuncturist and if you are going to stick your toe into the field even in a superficial way.
Nada in Spanish means ‘nothing’ and for the early NADA folks it was a precious pun, an on-purpose acronym for National Acupuncture Detoxification Association (which we in California see as an unfortunate reference!) because the founder of NADA, Dr. Michael Smith, saw early on that the people with drug addiction under his care suffered from emptiness inside.
It is a spiritual emptiness, and in a profound way an emotional emptiness as the person does his best to hide from his own emotions using drugs to eliminate feelings that are too scary, too powerful, to painful, too whatever to bear. In Chinese medicine we talk about “empty fire.”
Imagine someone who is well. She has adequate yin and adequate yang energies. She is peaceful inside, but also alert. We come from behind and touch her shoulder and she turns her head with a smile to see who is there.
Now imagine if she suffered from deficient yin. She was still alert but there was lack of peacefulness. All we can see, therefore, is the alertness, which now looks like hypervigilance. She might grimace and squeal when we come from behind and touch her shoulder.
Let’s visualize it by using two people from our class. Stand with your arms out, almost touching each other. Person One is yin. Person Two is yang, and they are in balance. But, when Person One drops down six inches, it looks like we have a case of excessive yang, doesn’t it?
In this situation life isn’t peaceful. Addiction consumes yin substances and leads to lives full of violence, chaos, and denial. Not replenishing yin leads to false yang and yin deficiency. Symptoms of mental restlessness, insomnia, and irritability are symptoms of underlying deficiency. The downward spiral of repeating behaviors to self-medicate the shame, the denial of horrible consequences of one’s actions, continues the depletion of yin. Tolerance develops: more drugs are required to maintain same level of comfort.
Our goal in serving these clients is to help them fill their emptiness with their own inner resources of power, courage, and self-respect. It starts with their recognition that the feelings of peacefulness and comfort come from inside themselves, not from anything in a syringe, cigarette, or capsule.
We fill this empty fire with greater yin, balancing their inner core and making them more able to resist outside pressure to remain in addiction.
Looking at it another way, the book of wisdom called the Tao Te Ching (Dao 4 De 2 Jing 1) says it is the emptiness of a vessel that makes it useful, so we are also engendering a receptive attitude in our clients by creating a treatment that is simple, repetitive, ritualistic, and reliable. This in itself helps over time rebuild the clients’ own will power.
Some people see addiction as a result of disconnection. Johann Hari, for example, is the author of Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. In a January 20, 2015 Huffington Post article he describes the research of Bruce Alexander who put rats in a cage with lots of toys and an interesting, stimulating, environment and they shunned the cocaine in one feeding tube and preferred the water offered in another tube. It was only the rats in boring empty cages that loved cocaine to death. Again, the word empty. In his Huffington Post article Hari says, “Professor Peter Cohen argues that human beings have a deep need to bond and form connections. It’s how we get our satisfaction. If we can’t connect with each other, we will connect to anything we can find – the whirr of a roulette wheel or the prick of a syringe.” Hari says Professor Cohen suggests we should stop talking about ‘addiction’ altogether, and instead call it ‘bonding’ because a heroin addict bonds with the drug when he can’t bond as fully with anything else.
In short, says Hari, “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection.” I have a feeling Dr. Michael Smith would agree.
From a TCM perspective the key to successful treatment is to nourish yin, create firm foundation beneath the individual. Treatment best that helps person recognize his/her needs, feel the healing taking place. Can be silent, yet builds support. Develops rapport. Maintaining boundaries important! Boundaries are especially important in drug treatment, with people with abuse in their past. Many people in the helping professions have porous boundary issues. One sign: Telling too much personal info too quickly.
Meditation, yoga, tai chi, acupuncture help nourish the yin. Difficult for an individual to accomplish self-care when there is so little yin to support it, so program needs to help by creating a yin-nourishing environment.
Acudetox uses yin organ locations in the ear: heart, lungs, kidney, liver.
It is important to allow the clients to feel what they are feeling, even pain, and realize they live through it. Experiencing what they are truly experiencing is liberating, rewarding, and important part of recovery for those who have for years submerged feelings in drugs.