Christmas & New Year in Rehab: Experiences of volunteering at a holistic addiction rehabilitation center
I never thought I would be able to say that I spent Christmas AND New Year's in rehab, but that's how it all panned out. Thanks to an amazing online platform called Yoga Trade, I was able to immediately jump straight into teaching as a newly graduated 200hr yogi. The position for teaching was located in the beautiful country side of New South Wales (Australia), at a private holistic addiction rehabilitation center. Luckily enough, I managed to bag my boyfriend, Henrik, a place volunteering at the center also (which was great as we hadn't seen each other for several weeks due to me being away in India). The location of the center was super beautiful, surrounded by mountains, fields of greenery and luscious grass (the only downside to being so inland were the copious amounts of humongous spiders!).
The center really did have everything you could ask for: a vegetable garden, a salt water pool, a beautiful, large wooden kitchen-with all you can eat access to the food in the fridge (a backpacker's dream), a cosy lounge area, a stunning yoga hall, chickens running around and a puppy! Not to mention that Henrik and I were in charge of running the activities which included daily fun outings such as going hiking, playing tennis, surfing at the beach and playing archery. It really did feel like some kind of dream vacation... with a slight twist: that we were partly responsible for facilitating the healing of a group of vulnerable individuals (those suffering with alcohol addiction).
What is alcoholism?
Alcoholism has been recognised as an dependency on the consumption of alcohol, often initially used with the intention of escapism and/or stress management (Sinha, 2008). It is common that those suffering with alcoholism, feel as though that they cannot function or cope with daily life without the use of alcohol. This can effectively lead to a wide variety of issues, including problems with relationships, family life, professional goals and overall health. Long-term health conditions brought on by alcohol dependency include heart complications, liver disease, brain defects, increased risk of cancer, vision loss and much more. Researchers from Britain’s leading experts estimate over 62,000 alcohol misuse related deaths to occur over the next five years, with the number of deaths caused by liver disease rising over 400% since 1970).
Henrik and I were scheduled to live and work at the rehabilitation center for two and a half weeks, along with a small group of other international volunteers (from France, America, China, Canada, Germany and the UK). When we arrived, there were only four guests attending the rehab (likely because it was the festive season and not many people wanting to be away over Christmas and New Years). These people had come to the center (most on their own will and another on a court order), because they needed to heal and begin recovery from their alcohol addiction. (It is suggested that alcohol addiction cannot be cured, however it can be treated and managed effectively).
The center took a holistic approach towards treating alcoholism, using a variety of methods including individual counselling, group therapy, mindfulness, yoga, exercise, good nutrition and karma yoga (used to rebuild social skills and to give back to the community). Each guest would receive a personalised structured program, with the focus of rebuilding life-skills, developing insight into healthy lifelong habits and helping to re-establish relationship and communication skills, financial management, mindfulness and emotion regulation, and how to promote physical well-being through good nutrition and regular exercise.
Henrik wasn't too sure what to expect before we arrived at the center (perhaps having little experience being around people suffering from alcoholism). However he was surprised to realise that these 'addicts' were just every day normal people who had fallen off the beaten path, and into the depths of self-destructive behaviours. Although I had expected to encounter every day 'normal' people (from understanding the prevalence of alcohol addiction from my Psychology degree), I was still surprised at how intelligent and well-educated these people were (all of whome had larger than life personalities). We actually all got along really well (thanks to many evenings of board games, mornings of yoga and afternoons of walking), and Henrik and I were lucky enough to gain insight into each of their life stories. (Also mobile phone use was extremely limited to help to facilitate the healing process, which sort of indirectly encouraged everyone to bond quicker than usual).
I got on particularly well with one of the guests (the only female guest, which is isn't surprising as men are more likely to abuse alcohol than women), as she was the same age as my mum and I was the same age as her children, which made it easy to relate well to each other. She very open and extremely driven to succeed during her recovery. Although she wasn't the biggest fan of yoga, she would instead wake up early and walk at least 5km every single morning. She would often speak to me about her husband and son who so badly wanted her to recover. She told me that sometimes they would breathalise her after an evening out, to make sure that she hadn't been drinking. Interestingly enough though, despite the pressure of her family encouraging her to try to give up her addiction, she said that this was never enough to stop her drinking. I learn't from her that the desire and motivation to change had to come from within. (Research suggests that individuals suffering from alcoholism who attend alcohol recovery programs without a desire for change, are less likely to engage in their treatment, DiClemente et al, 1999).
She had the idea of attending an Alcoholic Anonymous (AA) meeting, which she said had began to change her whole life around. It was after attending a meeting that she had agreed to come to the rehabilitation center and receive further help. During my time volunteering, I actually attended two of the AA meetings with her for support (and sheer interest). Having no real knowledge of AA, I wasn't too sure what to expect other than the contrived introductory greetings of "Hello my name is .......... and I'm an alcoholic", with the chorused response of "Hi ............" (which TV scenes so often manage to depict). Although they did in fact begin the meetings in this way, it was such a more meaningful and positive experience than any scene portrayed on a TV show.
First of all there was a huge variety of people attending, including some people you would never think twice to be deeply suffering from alcoholism. There were an equal mixture of men and women from all ages, some single, married, divorced and widowed. There were people from different professions, faiths and cultural backgrounds. It was eye-opening to witness such a diverse group of individuals, all suffering together from the same disease of alcoholism. Recognising alcoholism as a chronic disease is actually something important that I took away from the meetings. It's so easy to just think that people bring this on themselves by their own life choices, however it's not actually as simple as that.
In the medical and psychological community, alcoholism is recognised as a complex and serious disease, combining a mixture of genetic, environmental and social factors. It is a chronic diease as there is currently no cure, however it can be effectively managed by rehabilitation programs, AA groups and life-style changes. I feel that understanding alcoholism in this way is extremely important, as it allows you to cultivate compassion for the person suffering. This is something that is commonly misrepresented by the media though, especially with TV series like 'Shameless', which not only shames alcoholism but also marginalises alcoholism to only be occurring in lower socioeconomic status groups. (However NHS, 2017 statistics state that higher income earners of £40,000+ are more likely to consume higher rates of alcohol than those earning under £10,000).
What I admired most about attending the AA meetings, was how honestly and openly the people spoke. Everyone got a chance to share their experiences and stories with the group, to which everyone listens non-judgmentally and applauds in appreciation after the person has finished talking. It is not required that anyone comments on anyone else's stories, which allows for it to become and open and healing space for others to talk about their deepest regrets, shames and innermost feelings. I think that this is a wonderful practice, as it allows others to realise that they are not alone and that they have others around them that they can relate to. (Social support is suggested to be a key factor in treating alcohol dependence, Dixit et al, 2015).
I was particularly moved by one elderly man's story, about his wife at Christmas time. He spoke about how that every Christmas time, his wife would ask him to help her decorate the tree with her. He however would be "as pissed as a fart" (his words, not mine) and would reject her offer every year (which would often end up in him getting wasted and passing out early). Despite this, his wife would never lose hope in asking for his help to decorate the tree. One year his wife asked again, to which he so typically rejected her offer and continued to heavily drink. To his surprise, this time his wife didn't express any disappointment. Instead she leaned against him without saying anything. It was in the next few moments that the old man realised that his wife was dead. She had passed away with not even having her (unknowingly) last request fulfilled. He spoke about how this was the horrific turning point which made him give up alcohol. He just wished that it had been sooner than so many wasted years of being drunk and not a good husband to the woman that he loved. I could see the deep regret in his eyes as he spoke about this devastating experience. It made me realise how much pain and suffering that these people had experienced, and how fortunate I am to be healthy with no real current life threatening problems at hand.
Having experienced AA meetings just a couple of times, I could already see first hand the benefits of such a group in promoting healing and lasting change. The AA's infamous '12 Steps' program, places a particularly high emphasis on the importance of acknowledging a higher power to aid one's recovery. This spiritual element of the step's seems to be what makes it all so successful. I can recount a number of individuals at the meetings who placed a crucial importance on adopting spiritual practices, such as prayer and meditation to guide them through recovery. Even the people who used to have no faith or beliefs in a higher power, expressed how much their lives changed around when they surrendered their pain and worries to something greater than them.
I found this particularly interesting, as there was one guest at the center who was in-denial about his addiction. Not only did he believe that he did not have a problem with alcohol, he also continuously attempted to intoxicate himself on anything that he could get his hands on (including taking drowsiness tablets and drinking copious amounts of kombucha-which is slightly alcoholic due to the fermentation process).
What is interesting, is that this man, despite having an extreme alcohol problem (to the point where this children were taken off him), was not able to come to terms with his addiction and refused to attend any AA meetings, counselling or group therapy (although he did love the yoga classes and physical activities). Despite these circumstances, we all had a pretty good and open relationship with him and I came to learn (over a conversation at breakfast) that he had no belief in something greater than himself (God/Totality/The Universe), or a belief in a life after death. He believed that you lived and you died and that was that. There is no meaning to anything and everything is random. Being a reiki healer and yoga teacher, lets just say that I didn't exactly share the same epistemological views as he did. But I couldn't help but wonder that such a lack of faith or hope in life, may play a role in his inability to accept, cope and deal with his addiction. It turns out that according to empirical research, the ability to construct meaning from one's life, is a crucial element of psychological well-being. Furthermore, having a sense of meaning or purpose in one's life, can enhance one’s ability to successfully cope with life’s difficulties (Laudet, 2006). This may explain the prevalence of faith and spirituality, in addiction recovery programs.
It was pretty weird spending Christmas Day away from family, but it also my first Christmas together with Henrik which made it really nice. For the guests at the center, Christmas Day seemed to be something they wanted over quickly, rather than something to look forward to (which is understandable as they were also away from their loved ones). Despite this we all managed to come together as one big dysfunctional (international) family and celebrated together. Everyone had their little task to do, whether it was decorating the dining area or contributing with the food. I whipped up my classic raw vegan coconut and raspberry 'cheesecake', and another volunteer at the center made a delicious summer berry cake (which is fitting considering it's summer time at Christmas down under).
Considering we were at an alcohol addiction rehab center, there was certainly no alcohol...even at Christmas and New Years. So we had some fun with it and made some sparkling soda water with crushed frozen berries and fresh lime to be toasted on New Year's. It was interesting to experience these occasions without alcohol, with a diverse group of people, all in very different situations. It was definitely a great time and we managed to get up to some fun whilst we were there. We had a great day out kayaking at Byron Bay (and we even saw dolphins), every Thursday we would go as a group and play tennis on the local courts, one night one of the guest's father came around and taught us how to make authentic Indian dishes and another time I gave everyone a raw cooking class on how to make vegan protein balls.
Overall I feel that I had an enriching experience volunteering at the center. I was able to gain personal insight into the battles of addiction, and was lucky enough to be a part of the healing process, by teaching the guests daily yoga classes. Since alcohol addiction is synonymous with stress (Keyes, 2012), I feel that regularly practicing yoga is a really beneficial pathway to learning to manage and cope with stress, in a much more healthy and compassionate manner. For example, research supports that practicing yoga has as positive effect on the parasympathetic nervous system (which calms down the bodies stress response) and therefore decreases the likelihood of responding to adverse situations with stress (Kumar et al, 2015). Since drinking alcohol is highly associated with being used as a coping mechanism for stress (Sudraba et al, 2015), it would make perfect sense that decreasing stress levels (through yoga) may be likely to decrease the need to self-medicate stress with alcohol.
I'm so grateful for the time I was able to spend volunteering at the center, as it's really allowed me to build compassion and understanding for those suffering with alcoholism. I would really recommend that everyone has some experience with volunteering, as it allows you to gain a valuable and meaningful understanding of others. It was also a wonderful experience to live and be apart of a sustainable community, where everyone contributes their fair share of work (whether that was gardening, teaching yoga classes, cooking or cleaning). I definitely look forward to engaging in more volunteer work in the future.
Concerned about someone?
If you are concerned about someone who you think may be experiencing signs of alcohol dependency, do not fear as there are plenty of services and help lines available.
- Significant hangovers, and increase in time needed to recover from after-effects of alcohol use
- Increased amount of alcohol consumed because of increased tolerance; or, decrease in the effects of alcohol use without substantial increases in the amount consumed
- Reduced attention to personal and professional responsibilities
- Acknowledgement of side effects of medical complications from alcoholism
- Repeated unsuccessful efforts to reduce alcohol consumption
- Withdrawal symptoms (tremors, sweating, agitation/anxiety, insomnia, vomiting, seizures and hallucinations) when unable to consume alcohol
- Drink Aware (full list of UK services)
- Al-Anon (offers support to families and friends of problem drinkers. Confidential helpline: 0207 4030888)
- Talk To Frank (national drug awareness for young people and parents. Helpline: 0300 123 6600)
- NHS Choices (advice and info on alcohol and treatment)
- National Association for Children of Alcoholics (Free helpline: 0800 358 3456)