How to effectively fight the monkey on your back

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As 2015 begins to settle in, many of us are trying to keep our New Year’s resolutions, with varying degrees of success.

While some folks vow to lose the weight they may have put on over the holidays from rich foods and indulgences of all kinds, others have pledged to quit smoking or stop drinking.

But, how well we succeed depends entirely on each individual and our relationship with our weaknesses. Putting away the cigarettes may be fairly easy for some but for others it’s the highest mountain they will ever climb. Just like eliminating alcohol or drugs from one’s life is a long shot during a struggle with addiction.

What does addiction look like? If you want to quit smoking and are living in Eeyou Istchee, what are your options? What about coping without your fix (whatever that might be); what can you do? And finally, if you are really struggling with substance abuse and want to end it, what do you need to do?

The following is an exploration of the theme of  “quitting” in various situations.

Alcoholism, addiction and recovery

Quitting DrinkingA father and grandfather, Roger Orr is a recovering addict who was a National Native Alcohol and Drug Abuse Program (NNADAP) worker for many years. He has since moved on to become an entrepreneur and a public speaker on issues of suicide, alcohol and drugs, sexual abuse and other related topics.

Orr’s father left the family when he was three, and his mother had to be both his mom and dad, a provider and a residential-school survivor all at the same time. While he had a much older brother, and eventually had much younger sisters, for a long time he was alone with his mom.

“I encountered a lot of loneliness and bullying when I was young and so in the end, after pleading for help and trying to get some from the ones I thought should hear me or be sympathetic to my issues, I found myself betrayed. As a result, I found myself turning into someone else for many years and this led to addictions because these addictions became my saviour. In the end, pot and alcohol became my saviour because when I had this stuff, my bullying stopped,” said Orr.

Orr said his relationship with alcohol began when he was just nine years old, but it was in Grade 7 that he found himself making an effort to get his hands on it. By that time he was about 11 or 12, when he was a victim of heavy bullying. Alcohol and eventually drugs became his coping strategy.

Orr survived this way for more than two decades until he finally chose to check himself into a treatment program when he was in his 30s. That’s when his life had spiraled out of control. In all, he said he spent about 24 years abusing substances, which finally culminated into something he could no longer handle.

“There was a lot of family dysfunction going on and I was having financial problems as a lot of money was going into my addictions. I was also feeling the effects of alcohol very rapidly when I drank. With just four beers I was beyond the stage of immunity. Sometimes we can reach an immunity stage where we can drink and drink without blacking out and are able to remember what we did and are immune to the hangovers.

“There are three stages of alcoholism and I was at the beginning of the third stage where I was urinating every five to 10 minutes. I would get up from the table and lose my balance even after only four beers and then I would also have intense blackouts where I wouldn’t remember a single thing. I went from being immune to alcohol to experiencing all of this in just one year as my drinking would increase when I would encounter certain things. I would just drink and drink and drink and do more drugs. I was basically binging.

“Once I recovered from my hangover after a couple of days I would be popping open another beer. I had to have my morning glory and my nightcap, which was pot, and so I had to have that every day. For 14 years I smoked every single day. On top of that my cocaine use was on the increase, and I also did a lot of mushrooms.”

When he began to rediscover sobriety, Orr said he had to learn how to be himself all over again.

“When I was going through those emotions, there was a lot of fear, anger, loneliness and depression and I had no idea as to how to deal with this on a natural basis and so this was very difficult. There was a lot of mood swings – it was a rollercoaster ride of emotional confusion. I didn’t want to go back to the bottle just to numb myself, but at the same time, at 33 after 24 years I had absolutely no idea how to deal with my emotions or the truths that I was running from. The inevitable that I was running from was right there,” said Orr.

“It was very difficult. I had to go for a lot of therapy and counseling and other treatment programs, such as recovery enhancement programs, anger management and admitting to my self-defeating character defects. This was the hardest part and it was very scary because the realities were there and the bottle wasn’t.”

Fortunately, Orr not only managed to stick with his recovery program, but he has since gone on to help many others get sober and stay that way.

Orr said says the difference between someone who can just use a bit as opposed to a substance abuser is quite simple. Some people are quite capable of social drinking and not letting it affect the rest of their lives, their families, work or studies, he said. Then there are others whose lives spiral out of control.

Understanding addiction and quitting

According to Josée Quesnel, the Planning, Programming and Research Officer in Addiction at the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay (CBHSSJB), it is one thing to simply eliminate a substance from your life if you don’t have addictive behaviour. But s New Year’s resolution is not enough to deal with a serious addiction. Going cold turkey for some may not be the best strategy.

The reason for this, according to Quesnel, is that the issue may be too large to simply say that you are going to just quit alcohol or drugs or gambling or compulsive eating because if the user could simply stop cold, it wouldn’t be an addiction.

“This is the wrong approach because while you may be able to stop it in the short term, two weeks later you will be back at the same behaviour,” said Quesnel.

Quesnel said that while deciding the New Year will be the time you tackle your addiction, it is much different from just trying to give up the substance as a resolution. That’s because dealing with addiction requires a lot of planning and work.

According to Quesnel, if you want to work on addiction issues, you need to get advice, create a plan and maybe even get some counseling. As she points out, there is a process that goes far beyond simply stopping the behaviour cold turkey on New Year’s Day as a resolution.

“When you want to quit you need to understand what you are going through right now and why you are at this point in your life. An assessment with a counselor is absolutely necessary. You will then have someone who is not caught up with the addiction and who can be objective when it comes to helping you see the situation for what it is,” said Quesnel.

For those who feel that they may have a substance-abuse problem, help is available at your local clinic.

If cigarettes are your addiction

Quit SmokingAccording to Ron Shisheesh, the Program Planning Research Officer for Tobacco under Public Health at the CBHSSJB, cigarettes are the most addictive substance and the biggest killer in the world. That said, there are numerous ways to end an addiction to tobacco.

A former smoker himself, Shisheesh said his role is to run smoking cessation programs and to ensure access for every Cree who would like to quit. Shisheesh said he has a particular focus in his department on peer programs for Cree youth.

“The goal with the youth is to get them to start thinking about tobacco critically and have a look at what is in a cigarette. For anyone who wants to quit, once they know what’s in a cigarette, they have a much better chance at quitting. There are all kinds of chemicals in tobacco,” explains Shisheesh.

For adults, Shisheesh said there are trained Community Health Representatives (CHRs) in every community available to run stop-smoking programs.

As every individual is different, what works for one person may not work for the next.

“There are a lot of underlying issues about why people smoke. Sometimes it’s about stress relief or it’s a habit that they picked up due to peer pressure when they were kids and then they just get addicted to it.

“Some people can go cold turkey and others go with nicotine replacements like the patch or the lozenges,” said Shisheesh.

If you want to quit smoking, the first step is to pick a quit date and then begin to cut back so that you can lessen the addiction as much as possible before that last puff.

The next step is an assessment at a clinic to see how much you smoke and what kinds of options are available. While some patients opt for nicotine-replacement therapy through the patch, gum or lozenge, others choose a prescription from their doctor for one of the drugs that address psychological urges to smoke.

Shisheesh stressed that getting help from a clinic and from friends and family is a major factor when it comes to breaking the habit. If you can get through the initial few weeks of difficulty then the chances of staying smoke-free can skyrocket.

Many wonderful things result from a successful attempt to quit: improved breathing, an enhanced sense of taste, lowered blood pressure, better fitness and a longer life to share with those you love. Some men will appreciate their enhanced stamina during intimate moments with their partners.

As for those powerful cigarette cravings, Shisheesh said they will pass. He suggested trying to flush the need out with water, going for a brisk walk or simply talking to a friend.

Lending an ear

According to Nicole Rioux, who is a Youth Protection Consultant with the CBHSSJB, one of the greatest tools in battling any addiction is to simply talk about it, to express those feelings of desperation.

She knows how it feels: Rioux used to smoke two packs of cigarettes every day.

“One of the best suggestions that we can make is if you are struggling, to talk about it. Find someone who you can trust. It could be a friend, someone at the clinic, a religious leader, a traditional healer, an Elder or whoever else you like, but find someone who can help you and tell them that you are craving whatever it is that you are craving and share how you feel,” said Rioux.

Since she began to work with the Cree a few years ago, one of the things Rioux has found the most remarkable about the culture is how Crees tend not to be demonstrative about their frustrations unless they are absolutely at the end of their rope. For this reason she strongly emphasizes that talking about the craving to give in to the cigarette temptation is incredibly beneficial.

This works for whatever addiction you are trying to kick, be it cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, gambling, compulsive eating or even Internet pornography.

And, if you know that you are going to be going through a process where you are going to be giving up something that you have an addictive pattern with, she suggested that you find someone you can trust, and who is going to be there for you when you need it. This person can be a friend, someone at the clinic, a religious leader, a traditional healer, an Elder or someone you like just so long as they can lend you that ear when you need it.

“Just getting these feelings out and sharing them can really help. You need to express your frustration in having a craving and not having what you want.

Looking back at her successful battle against smoking 12 years ago, Rioux recounted how she would say, “I want a cigarette now,” at least five times per day. While her desire to smoke remained, she said that expressing and facing her feelings helped reduce the anxiety.

“You don’t need to explain your entire life to everyone; the point is just to share. Laugh about it, and don’t take yourself seriously!”

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