A Mindful Journey to Addiction Recovery

"Buddhist Sculpture" licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.

By Xue Xia
BU News Service

Ding. The bell rings and the light dims. Kaiti Los and her friends sit still, relax their bodies, rest their hands on their laps and gently close their eyes. With a deep breath, they bring their attention to physical sensation, feeling their thoughts and emotions come and go like clouds – there is nothing worth clinging to.

It is the first time Los has organized the weekly Refuge Recovery meeting, which is based on Buddhist meditation and principles, at Devine Recovery Center in South Boston.

Two minutes. The rustle of pants and down jackets. Five minutes. Heavy breathing and soft coughing. Ten minutes. The noise of television next door is getting louder.

Meditation is not easy work. The mind always drifts away, wandering into thoughts, feelings and sounds.

While many of those at the meeting start fidgeting, Los sits still, with mild and tranquil countenance. Los wears black angular glasses, a red sweatshirt and leggings. She looks like a college athlete. In the dim light, the contour of Los’s straight nose, oblong face and jutting chin is luminescent.

Los is 30 years old. She struggled with addiction and alcoholism for 12 years and has been sober for about a year. She wants to share her recovery process with her friends through Buddhism, which she has been practicing for four months. Los plans to hold the meeting every Sunday so that recovery community can meditate together and support each other.

“I am doing it for other people who have addiction problems and for me,” Los said.

Los was born in a middle-class family. When she was a high school student, she began dabbling with cocaine occasionally. She didn’t know she would be addicted to a more powerful opiate until she went to a party one weekend.

During the party, Los took some white lines on a plate, assuming it was cocaine. Her friends told her to have some beer and she would be fine. It wasn’t until later Los she learned she had consumed Percocet.

Percocet is a highly addictive painkiller commonly known as “blue” on the street. Los loved it at first. It brought her, an anxious teenager, euphoria, relaxation and heightened pleasure. It was especially strong when combined with alcohol.

Los didn’t touch Percocet for a while until she met a boy, the captain of her school’s hockey team. The boy gave Los 30 milligrams of Percocet and she took it. From then on, they spent time together using blues.

Los didn’t realize she could get sick from it. During her senior class trip to Canada, she didn’t take any blues. On the fifth day of the trip, she was seized with a painful sickness like having a flu.

“I went home and used Percocet,” Los said. “The sickness disappeared right away. I suddenly realized that I was physically addicted to the blues. I cried.”

After that, her body demanded more and she started mixing Oxycontin with other drugs. Afriend introduced Los to heroin at age 20. She was too sick to decline and snorted heroin for six months. Gradually, the drug made her body desire for a more intense high — she turned to injection.

“I thought I could put it down when I wanted to,” Los said.

Los asked her family for money all the time, even resorting to stealing. When her family found out what happened to her, they were overwhelmed.

She was expelled from college where she had stayed for a month because her needle was discovered. Los’s family forcibly took her to detox centers and would not allow her to live at home if she didn’t sober up.

But Los was not able to quit heroin. A few years later, her family stopped giving her money and threw her out of their home. Los said she was convinced her family still loved her fiercely.

For the next 12 years, she was trapped in a downward spiral struggling with addiction. She went back and forth in sobriety and relapse.

“I lived a very painful life for a long time,” Los said. “I was in pain when I was sober; I was in pain when I was using.”

Los world collapsed when her father, with whom she had a very close bond, died from overdose in 2014. She realized that she could also die from overdose. From that moment, she fought harder for sobriety now not only for herself but for her father.

Los has been living in New Beginnings, a sober house in Dorchester, for almost a year. She receives three drug tests a week there. If she relapses, she will not be allowed to stay there anymore. She doesn’t want to be homeless again. This will be the last stop of her recovery before she can start living independently.

Addiction recovery is a winding path, with ups and downs, successes and relapses. The thirst or repetitive cravings are big challenges for staying sober.

According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, 40 to 60 percent of individuals who receive addiction treatment will relapse within a year. Another eight-year study shows that the longer addicts and alcoholics stay sober, the lower chance they will relapse – among those who made it to five years of sobriety, only 15 percent relapsed.

Los went to the Refuge Recovery Program four months ago and noticed her biggest challenge was inside herself.

“The problem did not lie in drugs or drinking; it lay in my soul,” Los said. “The problem was inside me, in my attachment to pleasure and my aversion to pain.”

She started learning Buddhism and practicing meditation about 5 to 10 minutes a day, a couple days a week to find a solution within herself. Now she meditates at the same time every single day.

“In the beginning of getting sober, the cravings were so bad and so powerful,” Los said “There were always abusive voices in my head [saying] you are going to use it again.”

Through meditation, she became more aware of her suffering, craving, and pain – where these feelings came from and why she pushed them away. She gradually learned to understand Buddhism, the root of human suffering is relentless, persistent desire. The only way to be free from suffering and attain happiness is to give up craving and not cling to the past or future, she explained.

“Now, I am able to hold my feeling in a different way,” Los said. “The craving has gone way down. The depression has gone way down.”

Meditation is not only a philosophy but a science. According to a 2014 study published on the Journal of the American Medical Association, patients with mindfulness-based treatment are less likely to relapse during the long run than those with traditional 12-step programs. Although the research is still young, mindfulness offers hope for addiction recovery.

Judson Brewer, the director of research at Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts, has been studying the neurological mechanism of mindfulness training.

“When we get caught up in a certain craving, the behavior literally affects the region of brain called posterior cingulate cortex, which gets activated,” Brewer said. “When we are mindful and meditating, that same brain region deactivates. So, the subjective experience goes with that activation seems to be letting go.”

Brewer’s research shows that the practice of mindfulness can interrupt many kinds of addictions, including addiction to social media, cigarettes, alcohol, drug and even romantic love.

“I would suggest that somebody addicted to drugs, start to learn to pay attention as soon as possible so they can see the effect of drug use which will help drive the reward-based learning,” Brewer said. “Start learning the practices, so they can feel the joy of being mindful itself. And both will train from  the unhealthy habits to the healthier ones.”

Los has been a waitress for 15 years. Now, she works at Papa Razzi, an Italian restaurant on Newbury Street. Being a server puts a lot of stress on her body but she is still happy as this job prepares her for her dream – being a nurse.

She is going back to school at Bunker Hill Community College in September. She is planning to get her own apartment before the new semester.

“I lived in a way for so long,” Los said. “I stunted my growth for a very long time, with society and with living like a normal person.”

Los has also restored her relationship with her mother and grandparents.

“I do understand addiction now, and I do understand what happened to her,” Tracey, Los’s mother said. “We have got a lot closer over the past couple of years and right now, have a really great relationship.”

Los continues to hold recovery meditation throughout Boston to inspire others.

“One thing about recovery is that it never gets easier,” Los said. “You just get stronger.”

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