Let’s Get Real About Addiction and Mental Illness

Robin_WilliamsRobin William’s death is soaking the social media with reflections on the treatment of addiction and mental illness. It’s time to start talking openly about addiction and mental illness in the context of social justice and engaged Buddhism. Not taking care of yourself and your own mental health, or trying to avoid those issues by focusing on “justice for others,” can lead to kamikaze levels of self-destruction, burnout, depression and suicide. Compassion begins at home; you have to take care of yourself first, especially if you have mental illness and addiction.

I have struggled with symptoms of mental illness in sobriety for almost 20 years. Just because you are not drinking or using your drug/addiction of choice, doesn’t mean you are “well.” Not drinking or using is only Step 1 in the process. What finally “fixed” me, after 18 years, was meditation. Yes, that’s right, it “fixed” a lot of what was wrong with me. But it wasn’t instant either; it’s not like taking a pill. It took three years of daily meditation, albeit only 20 minutes a day, to finally fix what was wrong with my head. And the dharma teachings were also critical to alleviating symptoms of mental illness in sobriety. I’m not saying that if Robin had learned to meditate, he wouldn’t have killed himself. Who knows? Maybe he was meditating already. Or maybe it wouldn’t have worked anyhow. But I’m deeply grateful that I finally found what did work for me. I consider myself very lucky. Many people don’t make it.

From the perspective of social justice, we have to make meditation instruction cheap, or better yet free, accessible and available to the poorest people, to people struggling with mental illness, depression, alcoholism, drug addiction and other addictions. I’ve heard too many people “poo-poo” the idea that meditation shouldn’t be reduced to a form of self-help therapy, that mediation doesn’t “fix” anything. Well, if it doesn’t help you with your own issues, what the hell are you doing it for? Are you trying to get into buddhist heaven or something?

Meditation absolutely should improve your mental well-being, and that’s a reasonable expectation to have. Help, but not cure; meditation can’t cure mental illness or addiction. But it can improve your mental condition and provide a foundation that supports other forms of treatment, including 12-Step work, therapy, yoga, medication (if necessary) and other forms of self-care.

And I certainly would not rely on meditation alone to deal with the violent throes of alcoholism and addiction. Too many addicted Buddhists went to their grave not realizing that meditation alone is insufficient to deal with a disease as pervasive and powerful as addiction. The more fortunate practitioners eventually found their way into drug and alcohol treatment programs.

Many practitioners have learned to combine addiction treatment with Buddhist meditation and dharma with excellent results. They have forged a path of wisdom for us to follow by writing books and teaching others how to combine these paths. Some prominent teachers in this area are Valerie Mason John (8 Step Recovery); Noah Levine (Refuge Recovery); Kevin Griffin (One Breath at a Time); Bill Alexander (Ordinary Recovery); Darren Littlejohn (12 Step Buddhist); Judith Ragir (White Lotus Zen). I will be covering Noah Levine’s latest book Refuge Recovery, which was just released in June 2014. Check the Buddhist Recovery Network for more online resources.

Have compassion for yourself by establishing a regular practice of treatment and self-care for your mental health and addictions. This is not selfish. We want you feeling well and strong enough to stand on the front lines with us.

Robin Williams on Alcoholics


One thought on “Let’s Get Real About Addiction and Mental Illness

  1. I also found meditation really helpful for my obsessive, alcoholic/addict brain. It was freeing. Realizing thoughts are just thoughts and not facts was freeing too and I felt, for the first time in my life, that I was okay, just as I was, felt a lot of self acceptance. Was so interesting when I started noticing all the extra stuff I added to an experience, all the extra shit I added to everything and meditation allowed this noticing when nothing else before ever had. Still meditating and cannot completely articulate how much it means to me, but it keeps me a little saner. There is a witnessing and an “allowing” aspect that is life changing for me.

    I meditate an hour a day and some days it does not take the edge off, but every day is a little different. It also does not feel like some kind of precious thing but is an ordinary thing, like brushing my teeth or doing the dishes. It feels like coming home. It helps me stay alive. – Lisa C

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