Gabriel Loewinger grew up in Washington DC and studied neuroscience as an undergraduate at Pitzer College, part of the Claremont colleges in California, USA. He has been travelling for 11-and-a-half months on a Watson Scholarship to study alternative treatments for drug addiction recovery in Peru, Brazil, Vietnam and here in Thailand. He came to New Life Foundation to discover how it can help those looking to recover from suffering. This is Part Two of our interview with him.
At the Sit-and-Share group a recovering addict who has been clean for eleven years shared his life story, how did you find that?
What continues to draw me to working in this field is that I really always enjoy how – when you are in a positive treatment community – addicts are unusually honest and frank about their shortcomings. I find this really inspiring because most people have some stuff they need to work out in their lives that could make them happier, or cause less suffering to other people, and usually have a lot of defense mechanisms up. Even my closest friends sometimes won’t even just tell me, “You know I’m feeling insecure today and that’s why I am snapping at you”. When you are in a therapeutic community I find that people are much more willing to apologize or be frank and point out their own, or my own or other people’s, flaws in a non-offensive way and a helpful fashion. I definitely saw that a lot in the talk yesterday. The guy was so honest with himself about stuff that must have been horribly hard to go through and pretty accepting of himself even though he had been through some pretty hard stuff and, frankly, had done harmful things to others. He was so upfront about that and proud to have recovered and that is always inspiring to me because no matter whether you have stolen for years to support a heroin addiction or you are just struggling with emotional issues, everyone has regret in their lives, everyone has anxieties they are dealing with. When I see someone who struggled as much as that and accepted things in such a mature way I can’t help but reflect upon how I could do more of that in my own life.
After his share, the community then shared on the parts of his story they identified with or were inspired by. How was that for you?
People really shared and some of the stuff was the first time they had really come out and said how certain behavioural patterns were affecting their lives. Clearly the courage it takes to do that is enormous. I could really tell people were inspired by this guy’s talk and so willing to share their own difficulties afterwards. It was a powerful 60-minute period.
Is it a drawback going from a community like this where you are looking at the deep dark holes and corners then going back out there into the world where people are not quite as willing to be so open and honest?
That’s a fantastic question. I’ve noticed a lot of people from all different types of treatments have a lot of trouble transitioning from a supportive, or very emotionally assertive, community where they are doing a lot of inner work and allowing themselves to open up to going back to the ‘real’ world where people are more closed and have a fair bit of defense mechanisms. Is it a drawback? It’s tough to say. I mean I think of course it’s better to have this type of community than to have one that might be less open with the supposed advantage that it is more like the real world because I think you can get so much done here.
Are there any methods that can help transition?
I think one way around it is that people spend increasingly more time integrating into the community – going out more or doing outpatient care, living outside and coming here. I think that can help but it’s always going to be a transition and that always has the risks of reintroducing triggers that can quickly bring you back to where you started.
It’s also very helpful to go back to a different ‘real’ world – a new place – so that out there doesn’t have the same triggers it had before. It doesn’t have people who are expecting you to have the same behaviour patterns or attitudes or personality and so you can kind of start anew and that’s really important in drug addiction therapy.
I also think it’s important to implement the tools you are given here, like meditation and yoga and checking in with yourself, seeing how you are feeling without judgement. It’s about making yourself aware so that when you do run into the inevitable problems of the real world, you don’t lose control and spiral out or do things that can lead to negative behavior or relapse. It’s also helpful to identify a community of other recovering addicts you can work with, and maybe a psychologist or a life coach, so that you have people who understand what you are going through and can coach you through that.
With all of those, you are armed with a pretty good toolbox to assist you in what can be a very hard stage of the recovery process.
If you cannot go back into a new environment on the outside, for whatever reasons, what can you do then?
I was talking to somebody yesterday who went back to their old life and saw all the old triggers and realized they couldn’t deal with it and came back here to live here. That’s not always an option for people and I think applying the same tools I mentioned before can help. If you are living far from other people and away from cities and can’t go to a community of recovering addicts it’s going to be tricky – though in the modern world you can always Skype a therapist.
Apply all your tools with the understanding that it’s going to be more challenging to return to old environments and that you may have more triggers but that you are armed with a toolbox.
Why is it so important to find a community of people who are in recovery?
It’s great to have a community who can help you make the transition – a community that’s going to be accepting of who you were in the past and what stage you are at now. They’re going to understand your perspective either from what they have been through or are currently going through. It also helps to still have that connection with the process of recovery. I think it’s also beneficial to have people you can connect with on another level – maybe over the new dance class you just got into or martial arts class or music class or whatever –so you don’t just identify as “I’m someone who once used drugs”.
So what is next for you?
After my travels I hope to continue studying drug addiction from an academic perspective. I’m not 100 per cent sure through which subject I’ll be pursuing that interest, whether it’s laboratory and biological based neuroscience or whether it’s more along the clinical or public health sector perspective but I’m pretty confident that, for now, I would like to stay in the study of chemical dependence.
NB: Interviews and testimonials on our blog have only been edited for length and grammatical accuracy.