Overcoming Addiction

If we’re close, you probably know that I’ve struggled with addiction for a long time but it’s not exactly something I’ve shared with the outside world. I’m not sure why I need to share this today but as I sit here with intense cravings, writing becomes my medicine.

I had my first hit of weed when I was 13 years old. I was going through a tough time. My parents were divorced and I had been terribly abused at home. During that summer visit with my father,  I told my mother that I was planning to stay there, moving over 2000 miles away to Fairbanks, Alaska. I was confused as she tried to beg me back in emotional fits that included attempted bribes or verbal harassment for “betraying” her, but I couldn’t stand the thought of returning to her torment.

New to town, I didn’t have many friends and when an older boy offered to smoke me out at the roller rink, I was all over it. Suddenly my depression lifted as I raced around the rink while headbanging and laughing. Soon after, I bought my own bag and kept buying bags whenever I had any money. I’ve smoked heavily, on and off, ever since. I’m now 38 years old – twenty-five years. When I was a kid, they used to say weed isn’t addictive, but I beg to differ. More recent studies state that for about 10% of us, it is.

Sure, I’d quit for periods of time. I think my longest was about two years after I first enlisted in the military. After that, I hooked up with a pothead boyfriend and began smoking heavily again while dodging drug tests with copious amounts of Goldenseal and water.

In my early twenties, I discovered diet pills. The first pills were prescribed to me after I had seen a commercial on TV. I was about 30 pounds overweight, technically obese. I was on the Air Force Weight Management Program and convinced the doctor that I needed Meridia or I’d be kicked out. I lost the weight and gained another addiction. My prescription dried up and desperate for that increased energy, I started buying Hydroxycut over the counter.

Anger and depression from unresolved childhood issues kept me seeking inner-peace and I eventually found freedom on the dance floor. I loved to party and began trying out drugs like MDMA, Acid, Ketamine, Adderall, and Cocaine. For the two years that I had a steady supply, I kept a “candy jar” of Ecstasy on my nightstand. But nothing ever hooked me like Marijuana. I had tried to quit using so many times. I’d give my weed away or dump it down the garbage chute. Or, I’d finish a bag and not buy again for a few days, but ultimately, I’d go back to it.

My mom died in 2015. While I didn’t realize it, I think I had my first adrenal crash at that time. I cried uncontrollably for months as I continued to “medicate” with weed, and counteract my fatigue with Hydroxycut and coffee. But I was unmotivated and a drain at work. It was clear that my heart wasn’t in it and I was laid off with a severance. I was told that an investor had pulled out of our start-up and sacrifices needed to be made, but looking back I’m pretty sure the CEO was graciously protecting my ego – I was the only one they let go.

I moved to Ecuador in an attempt to escape my misery. Cocaine was cheap and easy to come by. I loved it – It felt like what I thought perfect health must be like and I quickly ditched the chronic weed habit for a chronic coke habit. I dropped about thirty pounds and couldn’t live without it. I was doing a line first thing in the morning after just a couple hours sleep. I don’t think I hit REM sleep for over a year.

Friends were worried and I realized things were out of control. I needed to leave so I went to India for a yoga teacher training. While I was there, I’m pretty sure I experienced a second major adrenal crash. I saw an Ayurvedic doctor who prescribed herbs for emaciation and with deep concern on his face, told me that I needed to lay in bed for a week and do nothing. I laid in bed for a month while detoxing from my coke addiction. I cried, begged God for mercy, and began to see a way out as I received messages through dreams and visions. I’m still not sure if they were hallucinations or if God was speaking directly to me, but they got me to come back to the United States where I laid in bed for a couple more months as I dealt with sobriety for the first time in almost twenty years.

Shortly after my return, I connected with some Ayahuasca ceremonies. During these medicine journeys, I was able to see the abuse and trauma I had been bringing on myself. Though my childhood wounding was very real, it had long ended and I had become my own perpetrator. I hadn’t ever been able to see all the ways I was disrespecting myself before. I dropped the Hydroxycut and eventually the coffee.

It’s been about a year and a half since then. At first, I did buy some weed when the opportunity arose – so difficult to break these addictions – but that was short lived. The hook was deep though and I’d smoke at any opportunity. Since it’s so prevalent, the opportunities have been many, but over time it has become less and less appealing.

About five months ago, I had a hormone panel done to find out why my period was going haywire. The results turned up low cortisol and dopamine production. These hormones are responsible for energy throughout the day and feelings of joy. At the bottom of my test results, it cited “chronic marijuana use” among possible causes. I’m sure the cocaine was a contributor too.

It’s been hard to quit these accumulated habits. I’ve been exhausted – the result of all that borrowed energy. I’ve been moody and I have cravings all the time. I’ve also felt rather uninspired. I used to smoke a bowl and paint, write poetry, or go on a walk while photographing nature’s beauty. That’s mostly dried up now, but I know my own nature as a creator and I have faith that inspiration will return.

Ayahuasca has been a large part of my recovery. The shifted perspective and eye-opening awareness that I’ve experienced has become a part of me – imprinted at a cellular level. I was able to see who I had become and who I have to the potential to be. Ayahuasca also allowed me to experience how valuable I am to God, inspiring more self-acceptance and love and increasing my sense of self-worth. My memories from ceremony have given me the reinforcement that I desperately needed to quit.

Because of this, I’ve made the changes necessary for recovery. I’ve cleaned up my diet and simplified my life to allow for more rest. I’ve also left the city and am surrounded by nature. I’ve been working to replace old habits with healthier habits like getting outside for fresh air and grounding daily. I’m also surrounded by people who take their health as seriously as I do now. I’m so grateful for all of it… 2018 was my most sober year in the last twenty.

I am not perfect. I have definitely slipped, hoping a puff of weed at a party would give me those bursts of inspiration back but it hasn’t. And whenever I do fall off, with increased self-acceptance, I forgive myself and I renew my intention to quit. The path to healing is not linear. It is filled with ups and downs, good days and bad, but I’ve learned to roll with it and take it one day at a time.

The Benefits of Yoga: Mind, Body, and Spirit

On August 22nd, I wrote an article about Yoga for The Madison County News-Record and Sentinel . Below is the text from the article published below. I had a 400 word limit (impossible) which I came very close to with a lot of cuts. It doesn’t flow exactly how I’d like since style had to be sacrificed for the space to put in that wonderful picture taken during one of my retreats. It was published with minor changes and a title chosen by the editorial staff. Overall, I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity to write about something so dear to my heart, as a member of the local community. This is in Marshall, a small town, about 20 minutes north of Asheville, North Carolina.

Yoga for Body, Mind, and Spirit

While yoga is great for the body, a regular practice also nourishes subtler parts of the self. We become physically stronger, grounded, and centered, and so do our minds and spirits as we grow into our best selves.

Body

Yoga improves muscle tone, flexibility, and hormone regulation. Repeated postures on each side of the body slows brain activity, syncing the hemispheres and moving us into a calmer state. Cortisol reduces and natural chemicals release to relieve chronic inflammation and restore physiological systems. Deep stretches reduce tension and strain. As body awareness increases, we shift from thinking and doing to feeling and being.

Mind

Our minds can be considered in parts: basic survival instincts and drives such as securing shelter, nourishment, and human connection (stress responses like fight or flight also live here), while the discerning mind makes informed decisions. For instance, when hungry (basic drive), the discerning mind chooses salad instead of nachos.

The mind also holds defenses. Any trauma (we all have some) leaves us with a broken sense of trust (and other symptoms). They are useful defenses but can also work against us as distrust distances us from those who love us. Human connection is vital to our health.

When the mind holds tension so does the body, often below our conscious awareness. It settles in like a subtle fog that we don’t realize is there but that disrupts our sleep, concentration, and affects our relationships with a subtle anxiety.

Balancing postures sharpen concentration while long holds tone the nervous system, inducing a clearer and calmer state, on and off the mat. Over time we react less to life’s challenges and trust ourselves more.

Spirit

While physical injury and psychological trauma are obvious blocks to vitality, society goes against our basic instincts with food we can’t trust, a culture of fear, alarm clocks, too much work, and more. Our lifestyles demand constant output, but we are not static beings. Our bodies fatigue as we push through all seasons as though they are the same, losing alignment with the natural rhythms of our body and the planet, dampening our spiritual connection.

Yoga means union and is a spiritual practice at its core. This union is between you and whatever you connect with. For me, it is my intuitive self. You do not need to believe in traditional concepts of God to practice yoga.

While it’s unlikely that we can eat clean all of the time or take winters off, we can return to a healthier and more natural state as we address environmental stressors and psychological tensions through yoga. Beyond a workout, yoga instills a sense of peace, calm, strength, and confidence as we become more aligned at all layers of self. Our bodies improve and so do our minds, relationships, and the bigger picture of our lives.

Stephanie Toler hosts yoga retreats regularly in Marshall, NC. Check out her retreat packages at www.yoginistephanie.com. She also keeps a blog where she shares poetry and essays about yoga philosophy, spirituality, and life lessons at www.stephaniesfaith.com.

*Note* At the time I wrote this, I was in a very internally focused state and wrote this from the perspective of yoga as an internal practice. However, if I could give this article another go and had a higher word limit, I would include a section on heart. Yoga nourishes us: body, mind, HEART, and spirit. Not only is the practice itself heart-opening, but the connections I’ve made through yoga make up the bulk of my friendships and I am forever grateful for my yogi tribe.

Lessons from Aya… Why I’m no longer vegetarian.

Yes, it’s true… My yoga and meditation retreats are fully vegetarian, but I am not. While the vast majority of my diet may be plant based, I have stopped using these labels to structure my own eating.

I have had a long relationship with vegetarianism. At 17, I stood in horror as an activist group played a slaughterhouse video in the lobby of a concert venue. It was effective. I didn’t eat a piece of meat for six months and the next time I did, I saw the video playing again in my mind’s eye. Over the next seven years, I was a committed vegetarian and even went back and forth with veganism… no meat, eggs, dairy, honey, gelatin, and more.

I didn’t particularly enjoy being vegetarian. While things have progressed over the last twenty years, back then I felt like a burdensome dinner guest and often only had one menu choice while dining. But I just couldn’t switch off the very visceral reaction that I would have at the thought of eating flesh.

Determined to eat meat again, I began with egg salad, then progressed to tuna salad. One Valentine’s Night Dinner, I shared a bottle of wine with my date and then enjoyed a few bites of his steak. After, that, I re-introduced meat in small amounts.

Within a couple of years, yoga began to take over my life. I learned about the Yamas & Niyamas (yoga’s moral code) and specifically “ahimsa”, or non-violence, the reason many yogi’s don’t consume meat. Once again, I was back to eating just veggies. However after a few Ayahuasca ceremonies last Fall, this part of my world-view shifted giving some relief to the constant questioning in my mind as to whether or not I should, ethically speaking, eat meat.

There’s a part in the book I’m working on where I talk about somatic lessons, and this is a perfect example. While surveying my surroundings in ceremony, I feel connected to all beings. There is a resonance throughout my physical body that might be loosely translated as “namaste”… the light within me sees and honors the light within you, but this isn’t “light within” this is light throughout. And it doesn’t just apply to humans – it applies to everyone. I’ve shared conscious space with dogs, horses, lizards, and with the trees. This is a profoundly real understanding of the pranic field that permeates all life… the kind of understanding that comes from bearing witness to something ineffable.

I could see the larger picture of nature, of life cycles, and of food chains – how it all fits together. I could see how we all have our place in the great cosmic order and that cycles of production and consumption are as sure as creation and destruction.

Our minds love to think their way out of natural choices and before our rational minds got involved – hunting and gathering was the way. I spent twenty years looking to doctrine and others’ opinions for help deciding what to eat. Now, I’m trying to just listen to my body. Veggies or meat… it’s all in the cycle of life.

I must eat to live and while I don’t have to eat meat to live, it does, on rare occasion, seem to be what this human body wants. When it does, I thank the creature for bringing me nourishment, the way I am continually grateful to Mother Earth for all the delicious fruits and vegetables she provides. In the end, we’ve all come from this earth, and to this earth we’ll return.

While I might consume a small amount of meat every couple of weeks or so when I’m craving it, I consider it a special occasion and usually eat that meal out. I prefer to cook vegetarian at home.

Most of my retreat guests are coming from the other side – a lifetime of omnivorous eating based in the standard American (processed) diet. Offering a whole foods vegetarian menu during my retreats introduces guests to a whole new way of eating that opens up possibilities for better balance in their existing diets by learning new ways to prepare fruits and veggies that are not only delicious but satiating.

Less Thought. More Body.

Whether we are conscious of it or not there is a constant stream of self-evaluation going on in the form of critical self talk: I need to work harder. I should get out of the house more. Why am I so tired? I need to lose weight. Why did I have to eat so much? Am I a good enough x? Was I too defensive with so-and-so? Am I pulling my weight? And it goes on. Fearing judgment, we evaluate ourselves from a socially-agreed-upon yet often out-of-reach standard, exhausting ourselves with self-admonishment at failing in every regard.

But instead, we can step outside of thought and enjoy our lives.

Dating becomes an extension of that mindset. We sit across from a potential partner while our minds carry on the perpetual critique but now with a new target, Is he smart enough? I don’t love his clothes. He seems too serious. Does he make enough money? What will my friends think of me for dating him? Or even, Does he like me?

But again, we can step outside of thought and check in at a deeper level.

I’ve been listening to the book Deeper Dating by Ken Page since October. It’s taking a while to get through since I haven’t been on many long drives lately. But I have been dating, trying out suggested exercises and actively considering the philosophy. I love this book.

On all my dates for the last three months, I have stepped away at some point (gone to the bathroom) to sit alone, in silence, and feel my most base emotive sense, beyond questions. Am I happy? Laughing? Is my energy expanding? Or is it shrinking? Am I turned on? Asking what does it feel like in my body, rather than mental processing as my guide. My body feels and energy have determined whether I choose to keep spending time with someone.

How do I respond to this person? is a different paradigm than…
Does this person seem like a good match for me?

There was a hand on mine and I felt warmth.
An arm around my shoulder felt secure.
His gestures felt generous.
When we kissed, I was charged.
When alone, I was thrilled.

All systems go.
Move intuitively.

Stepping Forward In Fear

It’s incredible how much fear lives within me. I think of all the times I’ve been flattered as others have called me “brave”, while marveling at the boldness with which I live my life. They admire my ability to change directions, cities, careers, relationships… all of it. But what they fail to see is that I have been running. All of these changes have been based in fear. Fear of what?

Fear of myself.

Fear of the authentic Stephanie that has been fighting to get out. All these changes I’ve made have kept me from living my potential. If I’m constantly dialing things in, organizing and arranging my life around new circumstances, then I remain distracted from myself.

Yes, it’s been an adventure. Yes, it’s pushed me to grow. Yes, I’ve gained perspective. Yes, it’s been necessary. It has been my path and I do not regret it. But in my newfound stillness and sobriety I see how limiting it’s been. It’s a paradox – increasing and limiting my potential at the same time.

I have been rearranging my external circumstances while looking for the key to happiness. Perhaps it’s in this city, this man, this job… neglecting the one place where it resides – within. I have come to discover that it’s not about my environment. It’s about my belief systems, my values, my morality, my relationship to myself. It’s not about controlling, it’s about allowing. Allowing the goodness inherent within me to emerge.

But old habits die hard. Here I am, my second month in a new city, and I’m already dying to get out! I’ve been addicted to the distraction of new-ness. Now that things are becoming routine, I find myself growing uncomfortable. I find myself making plans to escape, telling myself… I miss Florida. I miss the heat. Why am I here anyway? I can just pack all this stuff up and bounce… Just like I’ve done so many times before. But this time there is a voice that comes in and says firmly, Stay Put.

There is clearly something here for me to learn. I can only guess at what that might be, but I think it’s about self-discovery. I think it’s about release. I think it’s about allowing… allowing myself to shine through the muck that has laid over my spirit for too long. There’s been enough input. It’s now time for output.

There is so much inside of my that wants to come out. So many experiences that I’ve had, especially in the last couple of years, that need to be shared. And I have shared them to some degree, in conversation with friends, but they need artistic expression. And so, in part, I’m here to “creatively ground”.

Creation is difficult in the midst of change. It takes stillness to let experiences and ideas coalesce into creative output. That stillness is scary because I know that eventually I must step out into my own expression. Expression that I fear, as I know the world will judge my creations. I fear my own potential, but I suppose all of those people have been right…

I am brave. I can step forward in fear.

In my last Ayahuasca journey, she told me to Create from Within. And I’ll be honest, it terrifies me. I have been programmed from birth by a judging and unaccepting family environment. It’s hard to re-write my hard drive, but I’m trying. Slowly I’m letting go. Slowly, I’m letting her out.

As I’ve been shifting my career from business to yoga, healing work, and writing, I’m learning to hold the emotions of extreme discomfort and absolute bliss at the same time. Discomfort that stems from financial insecurity, a new city, a new vocational landscape, and a fuzzy path forward – all while feeling the bliss that comes from living my dharma, discovering my purpose, my voice, and my place in the cosmos. I’m moving forward despite fear, shifting into alignment with my true nature. It’s a paradox for sure, but one I’m growing very familiar with.

I’ll be making some announcements next week regarding my path forward and a couple of new projects I’m working on. For now, I’m sitting with my fear as I make my plans. Wish me luck! Xo

I love you.