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Natural Awakenings Tucson

Healing Addiction Naturally in Tucson

May 31, 2015 08:44PM ● By Suzie Agrillo

Addictions can include alcohol, drugs, sex, food, gambling, tobacco and even products as innocuous as chocolate. Any type of addiction could be harmful, because it can lead to feelings of guilt, shame, hopelessness, despair, anxiety and failure. According to recovering addict Elaine R., the consequences of addiction run the gamut. “You can suffer financial ruin, as well as loss of your health, job, relationships, children and, ultimately, you can even lose your life,” she says.

Dr. Mark Pirtle, a lecturer at Sierra Tucson and a principal of Skillfully Aware, views himself as a conduit assisting clients in healing and growth from substance abuse. For many alcoholics, abstinence is the only answer. “An addiction is a sense that happiness or relief comes from a substance or behavior,” says Pirtle. “Any time a person is full of a sense of enchantment, that person cannot drink even one drink.”

The truth about addiction is that it is not a weakness or a moral failing. Experts like Pirtle and Amanda Martin, RN, BC, the manager for Behavioral Health Services at Carondelet, urge people to change the way we view addiction. “A person with an addiction is suffering. People need to be more compassionate and empathetic with this population,” states Martin. “Blaming the addict for lack of moral strength is not appropriate,” adds Pirtle.

Pirtle notes that it is not a black or white issue. “Addictions, depression and anxiety can all be lumped together as what I call ‘stress illnesses’. When a person feels overwhelmed emotionally, they typically fixate on a story about themselves. ‘I need this to feel better, I’m depressed’ or, ‘I’m feeling anxious about this’ or whatever the self-narrative is,” he says. “Self-identification creates a feedback loop that changes the body, brain and biochemistry, actually increasing the fixation. Then, you’re trapped in a stress illness that you don’t know how to get out of, because it literally feels like it is who you are.”


Conquering Addictions to Alcohol and Drugs

The O’Rielly Care Center at Carondelet, St. Joseph’s Hospital, serves those with drug and alcohol addictions and the mentally ill. The detox program at the O’Rielly Care Center utilizes alternative modalities as an adjunct to treatment, including art therapy, dog therapy, yoga, breath work and guided meditation therapy. “It’s all about teaching the patients coping skills,” Martin maintains.

Pirtle’s philosophy contemplates staying in the now, being fully present in the moment, having a positive attitude and not having regrets about the past or fearful projections of the future. “You can’t get better unless you know how to rewire your brain. That’s what meditation and mindfulness do. As a result, you feel less obsession and compulsion. Health and happiness then arise as natural byproducts,” he remarks.

According to Pirtle, it is the punitive voice in a person’s head that causes the addict to act out. The addict might be angry or ashamed, and has to work hard to change that self-story. “That’s the heavy lift. That’s why in-patient therapy can be an ideal venue for treatment of addictions. Sierra Tucson is a wonderful place to go. Pretend it’s a resort—a vacation to learn about yourself. Jump off the poles; talk to the horses,” he encourages.

In addition to adventure and equine therapy, the therapeutic modalities offered at Sierra Tucson include psychotherapy, which helps a person reframe their self-story; group therapy which leads to empathy, sympathy and self-forgiveness; narrative medicine, or telling your story; hypnosis, which can address self-sabotage issues, release trauma and redirect the neural networks in the brain; art therapy to open up to more creativity; yoga, which promotes a calm mind and supports staying in the present; and mindful meditation, which is used to support/create self-realization and tranquility.

Adopting a regular exercise program can improve health and assist in addiction recovery as well. Busting a dance move can keep endorphins going without addictive substances. The combination of movement and music may promote the release of endorphins. Complementing exercise therapy, nutritional therapy and keeping blood sugar levels up are important to overcoming addiction.

According to Pirtle, alternative treatments, like bungee jumping, are extremely therapeutic. “Every time you do something outside your comfort zone you’re changing yourself. If you work with a Shaman healer through ceremony and trials, like a sweat lodge, you realize you’re tougher than you thought and you reframe your sense of self,” he comments. All of these therapies and more are available at Sierra Tucson as well as other local providers.


Alternative Support Groups

While Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is the most predominant treatment organization and recovery paradigm, it doesn’t work for everyone. However, according to Pirtle, groups like AA serve a useful purpose. “Group therapy can be helpful in that you can be more empathetic and sympathetic of someone else’s problems than your own,” he says. “Listening to others can lead to giving yourself some grace.”

After 15 years in AA, Elaine R. decided to think outside the box, and she founded a different type of support group in Tucson. Thanks to her innovative initiative, people can attend a Metaphysical 12-Step Group, which meets at the Center for Spiritual Living. It is designed to help addicts discover new ways of looking at the recovery process from a spiritual path. “Go to meetings and get connected in whatever way resonates with you. You don’t have to do it alone. Have others lift you up,” she encourages.

The Metaphysical 12-Step Group meeting is not affiliated with AA. It is open to anyone currently or previously involved in any 12-step program. “It is about living in the now versus focusing on the past. It is about recognizing that we are the creators in our own lives,” she explains.

Elaine R. also attends a Buddhist meditation program at the Tucson Shambhala Centre. It explores the challenges and opportunities that addiction and attachments provide. The group meets on Thursday nights for meditations, study and discussion.


Overcoming Food Addictions

We can’t eat our way to happiness any more than we can take a pill for happiness. Food addiction can cause as much suffering and have as many negative health consequences as any other addiction. Because food is necessary, available and legal, some people do not consider it to be a source of addiction. However, food addictions have many side effects, including physical, emotional and psychological side effects.

Dr. Jeanne Rust, Ph.D., LPC, is CEO and founder of Mirasol Eating Disorder Recovery Center. “An eating disorder is something where, for a variety of reasons, people can’t sit down and eat a normal meal,” she explains. When someone has an eating disorder, their whole system is out of balance.

Rust points out that some of the universal markers of eating disorders are low self-esteem, lack of control over life and difficulty expressing feelings or emotions. “It’s about self-soothing. The purpose of an eating disorder is to block out emotions and trauma,” says Rust.

Food addicts are persistently preoccupied with buying, preparing and eating food. Overeaters might be seen sneaking or stealing food, hiding food or hiding signs of eating food—such as going to multiple fast food restaurants.

On the other end of the eating disorder spectrum, anorexia is when you starve yourself. “Anorexics have an intense fear of gaining weight. Their self-esteem is really attached to body image,” Rust points out. “As they get thinner and thinner, they think they’re fat. The self-deception the disorder creates is pretty amazing.”

Binge eating causes a release of endorphins, which reduce tension and elevate mood. Both anorexics and bulimics tend to have abnormally low endorphin levels, which can make it difficult for people with eating disorders to change. Rust is a big believer in integrative treatment for her patients. “Adding alternative things is what gives people the capacity to get well,” she observes

Mirasol offers a variety of treatments to cure people of their eating disorders. The patients practice yoga to enhance serenity, utilize guided visualization, participate in art therapy and use acupuncture, hypnosis or “agriculture therapy,” by working in the garden there. Therapists there also utilize neuro-feedback to normalize brain patterns. Another alternative therapy is Zuzi dance, which Rust says is low-level trapeze work.

Mealtimes provide an opportunity for “mindful eating” techniques, which focus on fullness and emotions during eating. Rust espouses a healthy diet of whole food, mostly organic, (they raise their own chickens) to help a person find the road back to health. A testament to their program is that Mirasol’s EDRecovery blog was recently recognized by Psych Central as one of the top 10 eating disorder blogs of 2015.

While most addicts need to practice total abstinence when giving up an addiction, food addicts need to find balance. Rust does not consider an eating disorder to be an addiction, because “with an eating disorder, you definitely can become completely well, and get to the point where you don’t have an eating disorder anymore.”

There is no one-size-fits-all program for addiction. To end addiction, people need to surround themselves with positive beliefs about being healthy and having the personal power to stay strong and in control. Being our own best friend and advocate in the pursuit of a healthy lifestyle is paramount, and self-care is the epitome of loving kindness.

After her 21 years in recovery, Elaine R. has learned, “There are many paths, but only one journey.”


Suzie Agrillo is a freelance writer in Tucson and a frequent contributor to Natural Awakenings magazine. She focuses on writing on the arts, inspirational people and the human connection.

Local Resources

Jeanne Rust, Ph.D., LPC
Mirasol Eating Disorder
Recovery Center
3116 N Swan Rd, Tucson

Sierra Tucson
39580 S Lago Del Oro Parkway, Tucson

Dr. Mark Pirtle
Skillfully Aware

Metaphysical 12-Step Group
Elaine R.
Center for Spiritual Living
3895 N Alvernon Way, Tucson

Tucson Shambhala Centre
3250 N Tucson Blvd, Tucson

Amanda Martin, RN, BC
Behavioral Health Services
350 N Wilmot, Tucson

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