By Christopher Interdonato
Crystal meth is a curious thing. For many gay men, it allowed them to awaken their repressed sexuality without inhibitions. And while this is a powerful awakening, it comes with a cost. Crystal meth robbed me of my emotions, morals, employment, housing, and my life. It constantly felt like a proverbial dance with the devil. In brief moments of clarity, I would see what my life had become and make a renewed vow to abstain. Time and time again, unable to suffer the throes of extreme depression that followed, I would use again.
Three and a half years later, I now have an explanation for this. I get to share it with clients and other people in the community looking to come off drugs. Dopamine, the neurotransmitter responsible for pleasure, is flooded into the brain with the use of crystal meth. With prolonged use, this becomes the “normal” for your brain’s functioning state. When you take away what it has become acclimated to, we are left with a state known as anhedonia. Anhedonia is the inability to experience pleasure. Current science suggests that it takes approximately 18 months for your brain to heal and return to its operating state prior to crystal meth use. All of this can sound very discouraging to someone trying to take it one day at a time.
This is where the cognitive behavioral therapy tool of ‘reframing’ helps. We can allow this fact to feel overwhelming, or we can use it as a roadmap to the light at the end of the tunnel. I used crystal and was not able to stop for 6 years. My stints of abstinence were brief and intermittent. On July 26th, 2014 I was arrested again. I was in the midst of a deep psychosis and unknowingly committed a very serious crime. As I began to sober up in jail, I couldn’t help but feel like a victim. “How can they do this to me?” Today, I can look back on that event as the best thing that could have happened to me. If I would have continued the way I was, I would surely have ended up dead in a few more years. I was constantly putting myself in dangerous situations, I couldn’t adhere to an HIV treatment regimen, and I had no hope that life could ever be different again. I sat in the jail for almost a year fighting my case. In the course of that year, the cloud lifted from my mind and I began to realize this was not the life I had pictured for myself. I made a commitment, once more, to sobriety. Over the next several months, I came to terms with what I had done that landed me there to begin with. I took responsibility for my actions and I laid myself at the feet of the State of California to punish me as they saw fit. I was done fighting.
And then it happened, as if someone finally turned on the light in the dark room I had been stumbling around for 26 years. The moment I stopped fighting life was the moment I started working with it. When I was ready to accept whatever the judge decided, he decided I needed rehab (an offer that had never been on the table over the past year of negotiating between the district attorney and my lawyer). What a brilliant idea; when I accept what is, I don’t create the disharmony and tension I was so used to living in.
Fast forward to now. I have been clean and sober for over 3 years. I run a treatment center in West LA. I am a substance abuse counselor at the Los Angeles LGBT Center. I am an active member in the Crystal Meth Anonymous community. I ride my bicycle every year from San Francisco to Los Angeles for AIDS LifeCycle, a fundraiser to benefit the Los Angeles LGBT Center and the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, two amazing organizations that help provide HIV treatment to people who otherwise could not afford it. I volunteer my time at the Los Angeles Mission on holidays, hoping to bring a small spark of joy and hope to the clients it serves. I am on the planning committee for the Conscious Contact Retreat, a biannual spiritual retreat focused on spiritual seeking and developing a stronger connection a higher power of your own understanding. A shadow of the man that I once was. And often times, when I reflect on my past with a client, a sponsor, my therapist, or even friends, it’s like I am talking about somebody else. Crystal meth caused me to be 180 degrees completely out of phase with my authentic self.
I discovered yoga after my first year of sobriety. I was drawn to the intersection of spirituality and exercise. I didn’t know that it would teach me so much more than that. I continued to practice daily. The lessons of the practice were slowly penetrating my mind and subconscious and kept me coming back for more. In truth, the practice and philosophy of yoga goes with the principles of recovery like peanut butter goes with jelly. How often do you go throughout your day without any awareness that you’re breathing? The breath is a subtle and simple tool to tap into the divine consciousness. The breath sustains us and keeps us alive whether we are aware of it or not. My higher power works in the same fashion – whether I am aware of its presence or oblivious to it. With something as simple as bringing awareness to my breathing, I am bringing awareness to my higher power; the same force that fills my lungs and flows through my blood providing oxygen to my brain and other organs. With this awareness, I begin to interact with my environment differently. I begin to see the divinity in every person, every situation. Life begins to look less like a complicated instruction manual and more like a beautifully painted picture.
I decided to become a yoga teacher. I thought, “If my experiences with this have been so profound, how can I share this gift with others?” Through my training, I studied more intensely the yogic philosophy. These realizations I was having have literally been around for thousands and thousands of years. The yamas and niyamas are two of the eight limbs of yoga, the others being asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi.
The yamas are moral restraints that control not only our actions, but our speech and our thoughts. They are far reaching and require constant vigilance.
The first of the yamas is ahimsa, or nonviolence. This is considered the most important of the principles. When we think of nonviolence, we must bring awareness that this also applies to the relationship we have with ourselves. We inflict violence upon ourselves in many ways, whether it is through the negative self-talk in our head or the drugs we put in our bodies. Violence that we inflict on others comes in many forms as well. Thinking that we know what is best for others is a subtle way of doing violence. Our inability to love and accept all the pieces of ourselves create ripples, tiny acts of violence, that have huge lasting impacts on others. In this way, we see that how we treat ourselves is in truth how we treat others.
Satya, or truthfulness is the second yama. Our words are powerful. Truth has the power to right wrongs and end sorrows. Truth, however, rarely seems to ask the easier choice of us. Words can be used as weapons, and it is with regard to this that satya always bows to ahimsa. Before speaking, we must consider if what we are saying is kind, necessary, and true. The compassion of nonviolence keeps truthfulness from being a personal weapon. Satya encourages us to honor ourselves and those around us by speaking only truth, from a place of loving kindness.
Asteya means nonstealing. The principle of nonstealing is not restricted to material things. Asteya tells us that we must not take what does not belong to us and what we have not earned. In our addictions, we stole not only from ourselves, but from our loved ones. We stole their peace of mind, we stole their security. We may have even stolen their money. Asteya encourages us to look at ways our actions may be “stealing” what isn’t ours.
The fourth yama is brahmacharya. Brahmacharya literally means “walking with god”. The principle refers to moderation. The yogic path discourages overindulgence in many things, including food and sex. When we obsess on these things, they can cause us to lose touch with what is truly important. Brahmacharya suggests we never use our sexuality to manipulate another person. It invites us to the awareness of the sacredness of all life. It invites us into the sanctity of life by seeing every relationship and experience we have as one with the Divine. “When gratitude and wonder sit in the heart, there is no need for excess.”
The fifth yama is aparigraha, or nonhoarding. What we try to possess ends up possessing us. Like the breath when it is held too long, the things that nourish us become toxic. The true nature of aparigraha is impermanence. Nothing stays the same. Our expectations keep us captive and disgruntled yet we choose our attachments rather than freedom. When we visualize the things we think will bring us happiness, we can see how our attachment to the outcome actually serves to do the opposite. It perpetuates the belief system that until I obtain ___________, I will not be happy. It continues searching and seeking outside of yourself when the path to true happiness is already within you.
The niyamas are observances of self. The first niyama is saucha, or cleanliness and purity. In yoga, we work to purify our bodies, thoughts, and words. When we purify ourselves from distractions, we gain clarity to meet each moment with integrity. We become pure in our relationship with each moment. Saucha always begins with clearing away that which weighs us down. Perhaps we eat a poor diet, or perhaps our mind is carrying the heavy baggage of victimhood. Saucha calls us to action in cleaning all aspects of our body, mind, and spirit.
The second niyama is santosha, or contentment. Santosha invites us into contentment by taking refuge in a calm center. Contentment comes from the gratitude for what we do have. When we expect the world to meet our needs, we turn outside of ourselves to find completion. This always keeps contentment just out of our reach. The truth is that everything is neutral. It is the personal labeling we put on these things that make them appealing or appalling to us. Discontentment is the illusion that there can be something else in the moment: there isn’t, and there can’t be. Each moment is complete and perfect as is.
Tapas means heat, or self-discipline. It refers to the discomfort that comes with breaking habitual thought and behavior patterns. It is change. The topic of tapas has been described as catharsis, where we have two options: to break down or to break open. Each moment is an opportunity for clear right action. Tapas is the willingness to be both burned and blessed.
The fourth niyama is svadhyaya, or self-study. Self-study is about discovering and knowing our true identity as an experience of the divine. Like a present, we come wrapped with our experience, conditioning, belief systems, how we identify, our dislikes, and our fears, but these are all containers. They are like a set of clothes we wear over our true selves. The most authentic expression of our true self is the divine. Yogic philosophy tells us that we suffer because we forget who we are. We identify with the wrapping paper instead of the diamond ring inside. The ability to shift our identification from our own ego to the place of a third party – the “watcher” – and finally, to the divine, is the essence of self-study. They say if you write 5 statements to describe the world, the statements in truth will tell you more about yourself than the world. Every statement that we make about the world, another person, an event, about life is but a projection of our interior landscape. We cannot love or hate something about another person or about the world unless it is already inside us first. The guideline of svadhyaya invites us to look at every small ripple of disharmony that we experience; not to shut out the unpleasant parts of ourselves, but to carry them with kindness and compassion, for god lives there too. Becoming the “watcher” is one of our greatest tools in our spiritual growth. The watcher is our ability to watch our own thoughts and emotional disturbances. This clues us into our belief systems, how we identify, and the narratives that run us. The “watcher” is our ability to watch the ego rather than identify with it. Knowing that we are not who we thought we were opens the possibility to know our true selves.
The final niyama is ishvara pranidhana, or surrender. It suggests that there is a divine force at work in our lives. It invites us to surrender our egos and open our hearts. It invites us to accept the higher purpose of our being. Yogic philosophy tells us we can live this way all the time, but that we get in our own way. In yoga, savasana is the one pose where there is nothing to do. It is one of the most important poses we can do, for it is here we learn the meaning of letting go of all the ways that we physically and mentally fight with life. As we learn to stop fighting life, we begin to act skillfully. Surrender asks us to be strong enough to engage each moment with integrity while being soft enough to flow with the current of life. As the ego surrenders, the heart expands.
Learning all of this left me feeling like Christopher Columbus “discovering” America, a continent that thousands of people already knew about prior to his arrival. How could I have not stumbled across this path sooner? As many demons and hardships I faced through my addiction, I am grateful for it as well. I would not have arrived where I am today without experiencing the things that I did. It prompted me to go deeper in my search for meaning in my life. Truth be told, my life has been unfolding like the blooming of a beautiful lotus flower – growing through the mud and muck to reach the surface and blossom. When I sit in a place of gratitude and reverence, life finally starts to make sense.