Jungle medicine for drug addiction
TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Tue Nov 08 2011. By Heather Mallick, Star Columnist
What if I told you there might be a new way to treat drug addiction?
I don’t mean spending billions failing to police the drug supply, or mopping ineffectually at addiction’s results, which are ill health, violence, sold bodies, damaged families . . . let me reword that, blood infections and oozing facial sores, fractured skulls, oral sex in alleyways and toddlers weeping in shock at a mother’s slap or a father’s sexual fondling.
We throw up our hands and claim not to understand why people want hard drugs in the first place, those drugs that make them beautifully high and pain-free for a brief interlude, gosh that’s mystifying.
But even if we don’t have an abundance of empathy, perhaps we might help in a practical way and consider supporting a new approach to treating human emotional pain, a technique that doesn’t just treat symptoms but goes to the core of why people damage themselves this way.
And what if this radical new strategy actually worked? It’s cheaper. If that is how we measure things now, and it is, this could be a moral and medical triumph.
On Thursday at 8 p.m., the CBC’s The Nature of Things will present a documentary, The Jungle Prescription, about just such an approach. It’s about an Amazonian medicine called ayahuasca, the so-called “vine of the souls,” that enters the brain to change the way drug-users think and feel about the original hurts that made them take up the heroin needle.
Dr. Gabor Maté, the Vancouver doctor who has treated the drug addicts of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside for many years, has drunk ayahuasca himself. Me, I trust a doctor more if he has tested some wild new treatment on himself before prescribing it for others and Maté has gone down the drug’s dark road several times, to make sure.
He thinks it will help addicts face their pain-soaked memories and change the way they react to them.
When you are hurt, often when terribly young, your brain is imprinted. It remembers and reacts. When similar events occur, or anything triggers that memory, the brain travels old pathways reinforced like scar tissue. We drink, smoke, overeat, snort and inject just to cope.
Maté says this strange new liquid will help. Made from two plants mashed, cooked and juiced, ayahuasca looks deceptive, a watery spinach soup in a cup. But its effect is extraordinary, hyperactivating the parts of the brain where emotional memory is stored and processed. Rather than revisiting the same old neural connections, it forms new ones, letting people look at a painful event they could not normally contemplate without agony and altering the way they see it.
When ayahuasca fades, they feel calm, refreshed, able to view hurt in a new way rather than rushing to find a fast opiate way to stomp out an old emotion.
It takes courage to swallow the drug, which is why Maté says it must only be taken in controlled settings of safety and comfort. Imagine your worst nightmare. Imagine deciding to risk revisiting that nightmare while awake.
Only the addict who truly wants to turn the boat around midstream will dare do it. But the rewards do seem to be remarkable.
I talked to Maté in Toronto last week. He is an intelligent man of great warmth. He radiates compassion. If you’re going to swallow something that tastes horrendous and makes you vomit with abandon for an elusive goal of repairing your shattered life, this is the person you want by your side.
But will it work? Yes, he says. Look at us. “We are a stressed, traumatized, medicated society.” We try to manage the symptoms of this in the most expensive wasteful way possible, but instead we should “enliven and invigorate our natural healing capacity.”
It sounds like shaman talk, it sounds hippie-ish and not-our-world. But the thing is, it sounds like it works. Watch the documentary and think for yourself, especially in your lowest moments when you reach for a drink or a smoke, something to grease the skids of this painful life.
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