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Thursday, April 17, 2014

The News Only Gets Worse

Here we are in Holy Week.  Only a few days until Pascha.  It is a spiritually profound time.
Outside, our nation is dying:
It is embarrassing that our Attorney General would say this-
"This kind of sneaked up on us,'' Holder said, referring to heroin's resurgence after its former popularity in the '50s and '60s.
Oh, yes, they had no idea that the huge battle with prescription drug abuse and over-prescription of opioids would lead to an increase in heroin use.  Wow, what exactly are we paying these guys for?
America is hooked on prescription opioids, and when your insurance policy limits out and your supply is suddenly cut off, what do you think will happen?  Yes, you will find something else.
Sure, meth is still out there, but I think, like the crack epidemic in the 1980s, it will eventually burn out enough of its users that it will go back to where it was 20 years ago.  heroin is now set to become king, because it is filling the needs created by the medical industry.
The Russian Federation is struggling with heroin as well, smuggled in through Kazakhstan from Afghanistan.  I hope that whatever policy they follow, it is not like ours.  I think Russia has the capacity to really use a more integrated system of prevention, simply because secularists are not as radical there as they are here.  Religion and spirituality still have meaning.
Our courts just kick people over to AA or NA meetings without thinking about why it is that we are having so many drug problems.  They don't want to admit that the godless path is destroying us.
I'm not calling for a theocracy.  I am calling for an acknowledgment that men need God and that our religious communities can work together.  perhaps we need to see the Russians doing this first before we will understand.  I have more to say about this, but I think it will have to wait until after Pascha.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

'Moderate' Pot Use and the Brain

We have all heard how marijuana is 'harmless.'  It is 'so much healthier' than alcohol.  Yeah, those canards have been repeated so often, despite the awful evidence to the contrary that surrounds us.
Now, this:
The name of the game is 'neuroplasticity.'  What is that you ask?  The Wikipedia definition is rather clear:
Neuroplasticity, also known as brain plasticity, is an umbrella term that encompasses both synaptic plasticity and non-synaptic plasticity—it refers to changes in neural pathways and synapses which are due to changes in behavior, environment and neural processes, as well as changes resulting from bodily injury.  Neuroplasticity has replaced the formerly-held position that the brain is a physiologically static organ, and explores how - and in which ways - the brain changes throughout life.
Neuroplasticity occurs on a variety of levels, ranging from cellular changes due to learning, to large-scale changes involved in cortical remapping in response to injury. The role of neuroplasticity is widely recognized in healthy development, learning, memory, and recovery from brain damage. During most of the 20th century, the consensus among neuroscientists was that brain structure is relatively immutable after a critical period during early childhood. This belief has been challenged by findings revealing that many aspects of the brain remain plastic even into adulthood.
What this means is that what we do, quite literally, changes our brains.  When we learn a new skill, the brain will change and adapt to it.  It will also re-task areas that are less used.
If you take up 'recreational' tennis, your brain will change and devote more area to coordination and physical activity.  If you take up 'recreational' gaming, your brain will also change and devote more area to reflexes and visual processing.
If you take up 'recreational' marijuana usage, you ought to consider how this is changing you.  There is a follow-up question which I have asked before: what about your life is so bad that getting stoned becomes so necessary?
There is an overall social shift in attitudes towards life.  Employers are noticing that it is harder and harder to find employees who will show up to work on time.  Our schools have preached the message of self-fulfillment, but really failed at communicated the basics of a civilized society.  Part of that is how to hold a job.
There's a lot of talk about raising the minimum wage, but not so much talk about improving the employability of citizens or examining why so many people want to stay in minimum wage jobs to begin with.  There are plenty of people who seem to want to remain in circumstances that make them unhappy, and they look for coping mechanists rather than change.
That's where marijuana comes in.  It is a coping mechanism for a meaningless, dead-end life.  It is a way to get endorphins, the reward chemical associated with satisfaction and completion, without achieving anything.  It makes living a tedious, monotonous existence somehow more bearable.  No incentive necessary... you don't need to try harder to get the same sense of satisfaction a joint can give you.
The problem is that this joint is altering your brain.  It is making you into its image rather than making you more of who you are supposed to be.  You are becoming a 'pot-head' as you light up, and you are retraining your brain to stay in that state.
Tonight, Orthodox parishes across the world are offering the service of Holy Unction.  As we receive anointing, we ought to consider asking God to heal our brains from the bad training we have given them.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Lost Art of Listening

So, on Facebook a priest posted a photo from an Orthodox parish with a 'life-size' cardboard cutout (perhaps plywood, but you get the imagery) of Christ surrounded by altarboys holding candles.  He asked the question as to what the rest of us knew about this.  I had no idea, but I do have my hunches.

My response was this:

This is just my 2¢, but our churches are becoming a lot more 'visual' to compensate for a couple of factors. First, since people can't understand the languages of services, we seek to 'entertain' them with visuals. Second, as we are in an age with HD video, TV, computers, we are far more visually oriented, which tempts us to make services more about seeing than listening. We put more lights, demand bigger Holy Doors to 'see' the clergy (mostly doing nothing), etc. This is part of that general phenomenon. I think it is a distraction from listening, but when you can't understand the service, then there really is nothing else to do but watch the standing about.

Orthodox worship is indeed visual, but we are seeing a loss of listening as a more important feature in worship.  We don't hear much of what is going on around us anymore.  We are too busy watching.

Vision is complex, and involves 30 separate regions in the brain in order to get a complete 'picture.'  But, it is largely a sensual process.  Listening is not as demanding in many ways, yet I would say it is far more complex and nuanced than vision. 

Understanding language involves a layer of paying attention that can be exhausting in the way that, let's say, watching a silent film is not.  language is far more abstract.

Our modern technology and the rush of information means we often rely more on visual cues than listening.  We don't have time to listen.  A picture presents itself all at once, so it can be scanned in a moment.  Sound happens in time... and we have so little of that.

While you can spend as much or as little times as you want with seeing a picture, listening requires being in the moment through the duration of the sound.  If you can't stay there in that time, you will miss everything.

We have gotten to the point that we not only don't listen to others, I think sometimes we are not even listening to ourselves.  An example: a priest contacted me about something I wrote and said I was in big trouble with this other priest, who was threatening to get a bishop involved if it wasn't taken down.  So, I contacted the other priest and asked that, if he was going to do that, if he would extend the courtesy of letting me know before hand so I could prepare by family.

The response was, in short, 'I didn't say anything like that.'  Now, one of them, or perhaps both, were not listening.  Perhaps the threat was not intended to be a threat, or the fellow who heard the advice decided to hear it as a threat.  All I know is that I wouldn't put it past anyone to mess up listening these days.  We do so little of it.

Anyway, I have been threatened plenty of times before.  Eventually someone will act on a threat, but so far I have walked the line and avoided giving people real things to follow through on their threats with.  Perhaps someday I will.  Only God knows.  Some people don't even need facts to act upon.  Their desires are sufficient reason for them.

Recovery requires a lot of listening.  A sponsor and a sponsee, or priest and a parishioner, can't just send each other emails (though there is no shortage of attempts these days, if my inbox is at all reputable).  We need to listen and pay attention.

This requires time and focus that our modern lives often deny us.  We don't spend time with each other, which is why we are lonely.  A keyboard and a bottle of chardonnay are no replacement for real human contact.

I saw this picture (I believe the artist is Banksy), and I think it summarizes our real problem:

Monday, April 14, 2014

The 'Village People'

Just the other night, I was regaling a group of parishioners with my various crazy stories and whacky theories, when I decided to share my theory about the 'Village People' and how this affects alcoholism and addiction.  Now, this group of listeners was a mix of people, but in particular there was a Mexican-American, a Pennsylvania German (close the Amish in lifestyle) married into a traditional Russian family, and an Arab American.

All of them agreed that this described their family lives and the communities they originated in.  So, this is not aimed at one particular racial or religious group.

So, who or what are the Village People?

Well, we start with looking at Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, which another parishioner introduced me to from her experiences in working with Haitian women and their children in Port-au-Prince.  She was involved with trying to get mothers to care for their children, whom they would routinely abandon at orphanages.  The women had difficulty empathizing with their infants, and had such low levels of intellectual development that almost all forms of abstract thought were lost on them.

Maslow describes a world where people develop various levels of abstract thought that emerge from basic needs into the realm of highly-abstract world of religion and the Divine.  A lot of it is culture, and how we are brought up.

While American culture is all about the higher levels of abstract thought and self-fulfillment, most of our immigrant folks come over here as Village People.

What I mean by Village People is that they think like a person from a traditional village.  They are very low on Maslow's scale as far as thought, and don't understand highly-abstract concepts.

Their lives are about food, work (to get food, really), and relatives (to share the food and resources during hard times).  Anything else is lost on them.

They can make it to work on time, because they know they will lose their jobs if they are late, but they don't understand the concept of 'punctuality' and are late to everything else (including church).  No matter how much you plead or yell, they will always be late because they never developed that type of thinking growing up.

They also have a pretty low level of empathy.  They may have lots of emotion, but it is usually about themselves.  At a funeral, they really are crying for themselves, and they do so with gusto (I have LOTS of stories from my own experiences  of tipping caskets and whatnot, but now is not the time).  Self-indulgence is not embarrassing, because it is expected.

These people are highly prone to alcohol abuse and alcoholism, in large part because they don't know how to handle problems that involve abstract thought.  Humans have a natural capacity to think in an abstract manner, but when a culture loses this, it will not imbue its members with this important way of thinking.

Circumstances like war and political oppression, famine and uncertainty, produce people whose sole interest is basic survival.  Now you have Village People, peasants if you will, who can think of nothing but getting the next meal by any means necessary.

This leaves them vulnerable to extremist political and religious opinions, because they cannot comprehend the wider implications of their beliefs.  They will also seek the easiest solution, even when that involves harming a lot of people, because so long as it benefits them, they really can't empathize with the suffering of those outside their close-knit network.

In addiction, the natural selfishness and shallow thought-life of the Village People means that they will indulge themselves in such harmful thought patterns as self-pity.  All they know is what they need, and everything beyond that is a fog.  Yet, their humanity leaves them naturally yearning for something greater.

So, while they can often be much happier than more 'complex' people (intelligent people have the hardest time being happy because they tend to overthink their problems and circumstances), they also have a dreadful time with addiction because they don't understand how destructive their behaviors are.

They also have a very pagan view of God.  To them, He is the Fertility God who gives them things, and that's about it.  They know He is appeased with certain rules, and they will keep them to the extent that they understand them.  The rest is utterly meaningless.  A few of them, with the help of religion and natural intelligence, will rise above and become 'spiritual' in the sense that they can understand the implications of the Gospel.  Most of their family won't.

Addiction treatment with these people requires a much slower process.  Those who are on higher levels of Maslow's Hierarchy will be able to trade bad thoughts for good ones.  When counseling the Village People, you first have to teach them how to think.  This is a slower process.

That's not to say that we in America only get our 'Village People' from immigrants.  Our schools are producing a new form of 'Village Mind' which I will describe in the next post.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Unwilling

One of the most common requests for advice are from people who have an addict in their lives and desperately want him/her to quit.  So, they ask me for an effective way to take control of the other person.

Well, they don't say it exactly like that, but pretty close.

Sometimes I have the time and patience to work with the person until he/she figures out that this is a problem.  But, since I am usually juggling 30 things in my head at once, they get the direct approach: "So, you think you want to control him/her?"

I have a parish full of people at various levels of spiritual growth.  I am usually judged not so much by how I deal with the enthusiastic parishioners, but it seems that everyone wants me to take control of the nominal people and compel them to come to church (and make a substantial financial contribution while they are there).

In both cases, I have to keep in mind that while we are all called to go after the lost sheep, we can only be reasonably expected to bring back the willing ones.  Sure, our Lord tells us to go out to the highways and 'beat the bushes' to find people, but he does not tell us to club anyone like a baby seal and drag them to church, let alone sobriety.

No amount of religious insanity or codependency is going to make up for the fact that people get to do what they want.  If they want to stay 'out,' that's what they get to do.

God does not force us into the Heavenly Kingdom.  So it is that we cannot force someone to stop using.  If we are honest, we may note that all of us struggle with sins we can't control.  Welcome to insight.

The unwilling are best dealt with when we ourselves are healthy.  In my church, I am supremely (over)confident that folks who don't come to church know what is going on and choose to not come.  They are not lost, or even strayed.  They just don't want to come.  The question is whether they are staying away for a good reason or not.

If we are crazy, then they have good reason to stay away and we should not interfere with that.  I don't blame my seminary classmates for not returning my calls or even trying to keep in touch (beyond the nearly obligatory 'friending' on Facebook) because I am quite aware that I am annoying and an overall difficult person to be around.  My friends are special people.

But, if we are healed, then the person who chooses to remain outside does so for no good reason.  What we should do, then, is not force anyone to do what they don't want to do, but rather remove the good reasons others have to stay away.  If we are healed, then our own illness does not become an impediment to others.

No one wants to stay in a house where everyone has the flu, even if he has the flu himself.  Sick people know sick people, and healthy people know healthy people.  We have to get healthy first before we start inviting people in.

There is no 'magic pill.'  There is only our own improvement and healing.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Youth, Self-Confidence, and a Lying Head

It seems that just about every situation I've had to deal with in the past week has been 'younger folks,' both in and out of recovery, who are supremely self-confident that the ideas that pop into their heads are worth acting out on.  Perhaps it is all that talk about 'self-esteem' that goes on these days in modern schools and colleges.

It is frustrating, because they seem to have very little in the way of self-doubt.  They do experience 'confusion,' but even then there is an unwavering commitment to thinking their way out of problems that their thinking got them into.

It was not just one or two contacts, but it was virtually all of them.

I have long ago accepted the fact that most of what pops into my head is pure garbage and hardly worth considering.  Before I accept an idea, I usually run it past a few who are smarter than me.

It was something I learned after years of heartache: my head lies to me.  That's just the way it is.  before I act, I need to have a lot more than ideas, opinions, and thoughts to move me to action.  The disadvantage of youth today is that your parents are automatically 'dumber' than you are.

That's the message, from the education system that extends from Kindergarten to Post-Grad studies.  Don't even think of asking your grandparents... they are just plain ole senile.

So, when I get into the picture, I find that most people are not looking for advice as much as 'confirmation.'  They want me to approve of the messages they have gotten.  When I don't agree, then the battle is on.

Sometimes I just shut down when I run across the overly self-confident.  Other times, I even find myself purposefully disagreeing with otherwise innocuous statements just to see how deep the disease runs.  Sometimes, when the person is overly demanding of my acquiescence to their demands for agreement, it takes everything within me to not feel sick.  I know what it is they are doing to themselves... I've done it to.  It is tragic.

So, how do we handle these folks, who seem advice-proof?  Simple answer: I don't know.

There is no sure-fire way to wake people up, and I am not even sure that we should want to have that kind of control over others.  After all, if we start thinking that we can wake someone up, then we are indeed controlling their behavior.

Since I am lousy at controlling my own behavior, I found it improbable that I can control anyone else.

So, after such fun interactions, I try to review my own reactions, paying close attention to why I experienced the emotions that I did, and making sure I don't get vested in the idea of 'success' or 'failure' in the work that I do.  God and that other person are what is important, not my 'performance.' 

I have learned a long time ago that sometimes my job is to fail.  That's what God needs from me: my failures.  I can look back at the blessings I have now and realize that they come as much from my successes as my failures.  So, if I 'fail' to convince these people that they are on the wrong track, all I can do is accept that as a fact and move along.  This is just another part of God's plan.

It goes without saying that God's plans are often intensely frustrating for people like me with no patience.  I still have not entirely grown up myself.

However, it is much easier to deal with a lying head when you don't take yourself so seriously.  It becomes a source of joy when you come to realize how many people God has put in your life to deal with those lying thoughts.

In the end, I am grateful to God for the gift of today, even if it comes by means of frustrations.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Treatment Shortage

I came across this article talking about the national shortage of treatment beds and the insurance industry:
There's a reason why insurance companies won't pay for it: most treatment fails.
There are a few reasons.  First, heroin relapse is absolutely awful, and yet the pain of going through it without assistance is hardly enough motivation to keep addicts from relapsing.  In other words, addicts are slow learners.
Insurance companies are giant gambling operations, and they bet on what works.  Treatment of the 'medically-approved variety' is expensive, inefficient, and often ineffective.  For every success, there are 5-10 failures.  You would not buy a car with those kinds of stats.
Second, most addicts end up manipulating their way into treatment to get a shower and a few meals, then find some reason to 'Lindsey-Lohan' their ways out of treatment and back onto the streets.  They may not have a plan, but they sure know what they are NOT going to do... which is surrender.
The treatment facilities that I have seen work, and by that I mean work miracles, are places where the addicts actually have to come in with 30 days clean on their own.  yes, they need to take responsibility for their own sobriety for 30 days!
You may wonder, 'But, how is that possible when we say that addicts can't stay sober through their own will-power?'  Let's face facts: you can stay sober through sheer will-power.  It just sucks really bad and general won't last too long.
But, if you are willing to white-knuckle it for 30 days, then you are probably willing enough to actually listen to the counselors and follow directions.  However, if you take an addict, make his withdrawal as pleasant as possible, then start trying to wrestle with his ego, you are almost always going to lose.  Once he starts feeling stronger, he will use that strength to fight recovery and the change he needs to make.
Insurance companies don't make as much money off of this industry as much as the actual providers do.  Look at the prices... what are they paying for? 
I have watched charity rescue missions do far better work than any state or private treatment program, and yet the state-corporate system has all but squeezed out private charity.  I believe the Orthodox Church should start considering its own charity programs (which are just starting in Romania and Russia for example), and I think that if we could just get our acts together, we could be offering a lot of treatment options at much more affordable rates than the state-corporate system.
Corporations are bogged down by profit margins, and state systems die from bureaucracy and managerial malaise.  Our problem is that our community relies on these groups to do what we should be doing.
We should be out there doing this work.