Why Jail Fails People Struggling with Addiction

*To preface this article, I want to start by saying that this is not about police bashing or to put out fear or disconnection to any sort of agency in America, this is about giving both an empathetic and responsible look at the War On Drugs and the system we are currently using with the more updated research that we understand now. I am grateful for having a system whose main goal is to protect us, and do good by American society, however, it is important that we also look at where the system isn’t working and learn from those well-intentioned errors. Also, instead of calling people “addicts” I will use the phrase, “people struggling with addictions” or PSWA for short, bc I don’t endorse addiction as an identity.*

Jail for people struggling with addictions doesn’t work. In one of my client systems, I was heartbroken that the moment they broke their parole by drinking alcohol the next step was to put him back in jail, and all of our work was put on hold. Not because I believe that I am some amazing therapist, but because deep down (and through reading through the recent research on attachment, trauma wounds, and the like) that jail for him was not working. And in fact, it was hurting.

Him and many other PSWAs had a past that had a lot of pain, trauma, misunderstanding, and lack of healthy family communication &boundaries. Turning to alcohol and drugs can be many things to a person: a way to numb out painful emotions, a way of feeling belonging and connection, a way of getting emotional needs met, a way to cope with overwhelm and depression, the list goes on….

Jail doesn’t meet these needs. Yes, it gives a punishment that clearly sends the message that this thing is not okay — but when complex emotions surface, drug use will always win over the painful feelings that come up. Drug use will always win over the scary and painful feelings of insanity, isolation, or worthlessness.

Jail can actually cause more trauma for an addicted person. It can increase feelings of disconnection, shame, and of not knowing how to be “normal” in the free world. One of my clients can’t sit away from a door from the beatings and the “boundaries” he had to create when he was in jail. Empathy, vulnerability, and healthy boundaries aren’t taught in jail… in fact, it would be AGAINST a person’s survival to engage in that. Unfortunately, in the “free world”, that leads to increased shame, disconnection, and inevitably turning towards a substance or something else (legal addictions like food, sex, or Netflix) to fill that void of disconnection.

Needless to say, jail isn’t fully working or fixing the problem. It’s just keeping PSWAs off the street and stuck in survival mode.

So, while we can’t overhaul the whole justice system here are my hopes for the future:

  • Prevention programs will understand the underlying causes of drug abuse and work to identify and point people to therapy, body work, or psycho-education resources early.
  • The jail system will allow people to attend therapy for the mind and body several times a week with specialists who address family systems, trauma, and attachment in their work.
  • That friends and loved ones of alcoholics and addicts will be able to communicate with both empathy & responsibility — always offering a hand of connection to the person beneath the addiction/alcoholism.
  • That families will also be extra-attentive to work on their issues (boundaries, ways of connecting, underlying mental illnesses, perfectionism/shame) when they have a family member struggling with addiction.
  • That we will seek to find other ways of helping the PSWA cope and self-regulate when their bodies and brain chemicals are creating discomfort. And after that, helping those who struggle with addiction learn to hold those uncomfortable emotions and know that they are not defected for feeling that way.
  • That we will honor and help people struggling with addiction.
  • Help those who are struggling with addiction find safety again in connecting with others and in their own skin through mindfulness, yoga, and the nurturance & acceptance of attachment needs.

If you have any other thoughts or ideas on this, I’d love to hear your feedback. You can comment below or send me a message on Facebook. With hope and shamelessness – Jenny




When Happiness Feels Bad.

Although millions of people search endlessly and spend copious amounts of money searching for the key to “happiness”, some people find happiness to be a really anxiety-provoking emotion. This is because happiness is an extremely vulnerable emotion. As people review their lives in their head they start to think, “Life is good right now…the family is good right now…the job is good right now… I feel happy… But what bad thing will happen next? When will the next shoe drop?”

These fears can make happiness and joy a really bothersome emotion. Some people even stifle their happiness with hopes of not feeling too hurt when bad things do happen. This is especially true for people who have suffered through a lot of unprocessed chaos and trauma — their brain’s start to rewire to think, “How can I protect myself? FEAR and NUMBING, that’s the trick! (although when we numb painful emotions, the happy/joyful ones get numbed too)”. However, stifling our joy or happiness does not make the messy or sad parts of life any more tolerable, better, or easier to endure — it just kills our ability to really soak in our happiness.

So what can we do if we struggle to fully embrace our happiness without fear that something bad will happen next?

Gratitude. Gratitude puts us back into our emotion and into the moment in an active way. It replaces our fear of happiness with honoring that emotion and thanking it for it’s presence in our lives.

So, the next moment you feel a blip of happiness  — say a little thank you to it, and let yourself enjoy where you are. Bad things will happen, yes. But it’s best to not let that put a damper on the good moments, because it does far less healing of the negative moments when they do arrive (and sometimes may subconsciously chase more negativity into our lives…. and ain’t nobody got time for that). Be happy, be grateful, be well!

I’m not here to fix you.

As a therapist-in-the-making, I am here to embrace you. The good, bad, messy, silly — all the parts. So many clients come to therapy saying “Fix me!” or “Just help me erase or get rid of these painful memories!”or “Make me better!”, especially when they’ve been struggling with pain from trauma, grief, a break-up, or feeling rejected.

But here’s the thing – my clients are incredibly amazing people and I can’t erase their traumas even if I wanted to. Even more so, I whole-heartedly believe that there is so much growth we can derive from digging deep, feeling the pain, and allowing ourselves to be imperfect as we heal from our past hurts. Trauma will happen. Life will happen. Pain will happen. This isn’t a way of minimizing trauma or it’s effects but to show people that it’s okay to be sad, angry, anxious, depressed and otherwise out-of-sorts when we’ve experienced a lot of trauma and the addition of pressure to not feel pain, to simply get over things, or to “feel normal” only hurts us more.

When a person gets stuck in trying to “fix” themselves — they often go to the shame cave. The shame cave usually is accompanied by or proceeds feelings of not being good enough, not mattering, not getting it right, or of something being “dysfunctional” about ourselves compared to other people. Often our attempts to “fix the problem” becomes the problem. The shame cave often results in numbing behaviors such as addictions, becoming overly involved in another person’s life or a relationship, and in depression.

So what do I  do when my clients are hiding out in the shame cave?

I try to get them back in touch with their true selves. That is, the parts of them that are hidden beneath their feelings of inadequacy. The parts of themselves that are fueled by love and not fear. It can often take some time to get to know these parts of ourselves, especially if we’ve been running a script that has been fueled by fear for years (which is fairly common for people with traumatic histories). This fear-driven part of ourselves is usually created to protect ourselves from future traumas, but now, playing out in non-trauma life moments, can really hinder us from being ourselves and reaching our potential. When fear is driving the bus, we can start to feel on-edge in every day life, and not even sure of what safety is or means. We may try to control things in an effort to feel a false sense of safety and power. And if we don’t know what to do with those feelings of being “on-edge” whether it exhibits itself as anger, anxiety, or depression — well, then we are really in trouble.

So no, I’m not here to FIX you. I’m here to find you. That true self that isn’t afraid, the parts of you that come out when you feel truly safe and valued. It may take some time to get there for many reasons, but boy, is it worth the journey. You are worth it.

Being yourself increases happiness.

“Positive emotion alienated from the exercise of character leads to emptiness, inauthenticity, depression, and as we age the growing realization that we are fidgeting until we die.”

What makes a person truly happy? Not the, “I just ate a really awesome slice of cheesecake happy” but true, lasting emotional satisfaction?

Scientists like Martin Seligman have been studying this phenomenon for years and they state that a crucial component of happiness is  (drumroll, please)…. being yourself.

In fact, many people spend countless hours trying to “correct their weaknesses” instead of honing in on their strengths. I compare it to the athlete that has one body type, but still fights to be good in a skill that requires another (for short people like me? Rowing & basketball will never be my thing). While body type is an easier attribute to understand, many of us also do this with our personality strengths and weaknesses.

But how do we know what these are? Personality tests? Time? Sometimes the tricky part is understanding what are innate strengths and limitations are.

For most, this involves taking time to ask yourself questions about how different things make you feel:

When did you last feel empowered? Or a sense of “flow”, that feeling of getting lost in what you were doing? What have people positively commented on about you? What topics get you excited? When were you last jealous of someone? What were you jealous of? Chances are, you want that thing. You admire the having of whatever triggered your jealousy. Asking yourself these questions can help you get to the root of those authentic strengths and values that ultimately point to who you are.

The other side of this is accepting your limitations. For some, this may be the first step to addressing them, especially if they are problematic. However, for most of us we tend to hone in on our weaknesses that aren’t problematic and don’t ultimately determine our happiness — like that stubborn last 5 pounds we’d like to lose, or not being more naturally good at certain things. It’s funny how becoming caught in stressing over these things can be the thing that keeps us stuck in unhappiness, and ultimately doesn’t make us better.

At the end of the day, getting to know yourself and owning your strengths is going to be important for your journey — and for others who may be missing out on those strengths because you are chasing your weaknesses. Instead, be you, be fulfilled, be happy.

Debunking Depression: myths, solutions, and how we can help.

Okay, this is a pretty lengthy one, chock-full of a ton of info broken down..

So let’s dive in!

Some myths:

1. Anti-depressants are the cure-all for depression. No, not really. Hardly at all. Recent research has indicated that while some people show improvements from anti-depressants, most users don’t experience a decrease in depressive symptoms and the success rates are comparable to the “placebo” effect. While I wouldn’t count out the meds completely, I would be cautious to solely rely on what a 9.9 billion dollar industry is trying to feed you.

2. Depression is not about a person’s character. People who are depressed are not simply lazy, prone to pessimism, or just being selfish. It is a biochemical disease, much like Cancer is not a symptom of someone’s character. However, I will say that having certain characteristics will help in recovery and resilience, character alone is not the cure, cause, or answer.

3. Depression does NOT equal sadness. Many people associate depression with having the blues. While yes, being sad is ONE symptom of depression. Every person with depression experiences it differently. We’ve also learned in psychology that there are a lot of secondary emotions that in essence are another version of “sad & hurt”. Anger, fear, and anxiety are just a few emotions that sometimes = sadness and can also be seen in people with depression. You’ll also hear some people describe their depression as not sadness, but simply “not caring”/ apathy. I’ve also heard depression defined as being the opposite of a state of playfulness.

In a mind-body approach, I’ve also heard of there being 3 forms of depression: 1. An airy one, 2. A hot one, and 3. A heavy one. The airy one manifests in always buzzing around, anxiety, issues with sleeping enough, and perfectionism (it’s often body-wise felt like a lack of being grounded). 2. The hot one manifests as anger, being easily irritated, and easily blowing up on people/things (it often feels body-wise like being very tense–like I need a massage stat!, and hot). The last one, heaviness, manifests in sleeping a lot, eating a lot, doing less/lack of motivation, and feels like a “heaviness”.

The important takeaway from this is to realize that depression may manifest itself in many ways and is UNIQUE to every individual. (Sorry textbook definition–you’re kind of limited!)Here are some key indicators: lack of interest in things once interested in, changes in appetite and sleep (either increases or decreases), manifestations in the body/health, a pattern of sadness & moodiness not tied to normal situational things, loss of motivation, falling behind on obligations, losing things, self deprecating thoughts, OTHER’s deprecating thoughts, (negative talk about self, others, and situations), feelings of fear, anxiety, becoming overly busy, anger, and all of these things are pervasive.

Textbook-wise there’s multiple types: dysthymia (mild, but pervasive 2+ years), major depressive disorder (extreme symptoms of depression for 2+ weeks), postpartum (common after birth due to physiol./hormone changes), SAD which strikes people during winter when it is colder/lack of sunlight, Bipolar (with euphoric highs and lows), and PMDD which occurs in women who have exceptional hormone changes during their menstruation.

Needless to say, depression is versatile… and impacts a lot of people in the US (many undiagnosed and high functioning).

Some Solutions:

While we know there is no single “cure-all” for depression and it’s many forms YET, the research shows that there are many things we can do to combat its symptoms, severity, and longevity.

1. Exercise! (I know I probably talk about exercise like they pay me for it–I wish!–but it’s so true..) Exercise has been linked to decreasing depression more effectively than anti-depressants (and producing a longer effect even after just one session). While the “whys and hows” are still up for debate, many think that increasing your endorphin levels and the decrease in the brain’s inflammation are some ideas of why going for a jog can be so helpful. I’d recommend getting involved in a group class–that way for the depressed person who likely needs the motivation to get there, having people hold you accountable might be a helpful way to ensure you get to the gym. If you’re REALLY not ready to take on the gym yet–having a friend or dog join you for a daily walk (45 minutes is the ticket) can be very helpful as well.

2. Diet. While this may be a hard thing to change for someone lacking motivation, simply changing your diet to a whole food diet can do wonders. Whole food= real food. Think any thing produce, organic/local meats, and healthy fats you find in nature (nuts, avocados, and coconuts). Even changing your diet from 0 to 50% whole foods can start changing the way your brain thinks.

3. Meditation. Learning to cultivate calmness and “being in the moment” can be very helpful (esp. for those struggling with the more perfectionistic/anxious type). It can also help calm people with disturbing thoughts and can ease pain/fear. Although it can often sound sort of new wave/hippie-ish meditation has shown to be very effective, I’d suggest seeking out a yoga that incorporates this or seeing if there are classes/groups that can help you get started if the whole mediation thing is new or scares you (honestly, it still scares me–but let’s leave my own growth potential out of this for now ;P)

4. Therapy and CBT. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Conditioning/re-framing your thoughts. Sometimes it can be helpful to become curious about our negative thoughts. “That girl didn’t wave to me because she doesn’t like me” could be followed by a CBT tactic of curiosity: “Maybe she’s having a bad day… Maybe she’s running late and focused on something else… Maybe she didn’t see me…” all could be a different way of framing this thought. It’s very helpful for people who are stuck in a place where every situation seems to revolve around them in a negative way. “I’m so lame. No one likes me. This day sucks…” could all be challenged by other thoughts. Practicing these re-frames could help end some of the negative thought loops that feed perfectionism, depression, and the over-all condition of “not enough” that plagues our society.

5. Gratitude. Recently I heard something really great about gratitude. It’s not simply about “counting your blessings” that is truly effective (because to me it always felt a bit over-the-top to be grateful for the same general things, every day) but to put a real, specific spin on gratitude that really changes life. The newest research shows that naming ~5 things that happened in the last 12-24 hours that you’re grateful for is so much more impactful than spouting off generalities like “I’m grateful for my health, my family, etc.” every day. This could be especially helpful in training/challenging the depressed brain to give some sort of meaning that’s relevant to the “here and now” of their experience. So readers, if you’d really like a challenge: what are some things you’re grateful for in the last 10 minutes? *(I’m grateful my hands have been keeping up with my thoughts, I’m grateful I have a cozy blanket around my feet, and that I’ve been able to keep my focus for the last 10 minutes)*

6. Increasing social support. Yeah, this one is EXTREMELY hard to do when depressed but really important. It’s hard to be around people when it’s hard to be around yourself, but if one can push back that discomfort, it can lead to gaining support in ways that you can’t provide for yourself–it’s especially helpful to be around SAFE people who understand the nature of depression and what they can do to help (SEE BELOW for some tidbits on “how to help”). This also may look like volunteering for some people who need just a second-order change to get them out of their head and feeling supported (I would only recommend this to people dealing with mild/moderate depression–if you’re in the deep slumps this is likely the last thing on your mind, and understandably so.)

7. Medicine…potentially. Although I am cautious about this one, medicine under the supervision of a knowledgeable Psychiatrist can be really helpful and aid in people beginning to delve into the other solutions. By all means–if you need it, please take it! However, I wouldn’t recommend this as a long-term fix unless the depression is severe, pervasive, and the participant has already tried other treatments with no luck.

How can we help?

1. Help care for them. Some people with depression lose track of taking care of simple, daily tasks. Helping them clean their clutter, doing the laundry, all those things that can fall to the way side when someone is battling their mind and just struggling to survive/get through the day.

2. On that note, encourage them to delve into self-care. People with depression while seemingly “self-focused” can often forget how/the importance of self care. Encourage them to do things that are self focused on healing–watch some comedy, get a massage (definitely a big advocate for this one–body work does wonders!), go to the gym (this goes with taking them out for walks), and so on.

3. Reassure them you are there for them, can handle their feelings, and that you are interested in trying to understand their experience. The isolation of depression can often be one of the bigger roadblocks to recovery. Many feel alone. Being interested in understanding a person’s experience can create a connection in a world that feels very disconnected to the person dealing with depression. This can do wonders.

4. Hugs, laughter, repeat. After trying to understand and reassuring someone you are there, making jokes, making play, and hugging someone (if they’re okay with physical touch) are all ways to physiologically get a depressed person out of their mindset for a bit. Developing a pattern of play can really turn things around–but only in the right context/after you’ve validated their experience.

5. Like the CBT tactics above, provide an example for challenging their negative thoughts/beliefs. When trying to understand their experience, it may also be helpful to get to know some of the negative thoughts a person is experiencing. It may be helpful to acknowledge their thought and then become curious about it. Challenge the white/black thoughts by providing some real life examples. This can help a depressed brain become curious about other thoughts to be thought.

6. Tell them why you love them/their strengths and encourage them to think of what they like/believe their strengths are for themselves.  Simply telling them why you love them can also be incredibly supportive. Sometimes people stuck in depression can’t see those truths behind the things that make them lovable, and that they are “enough”. Encourage them coming up with a few things on their own to also spark some change in their thoughts. What are 10 things you like/find to be strengths about yourself?

There is still much to be learned about this incredibly complex mental phenomenon, but it is still incredibly beneficial to utilize what we know to take strides in making it just a little better for those struggling with this common illness.

I only hope to continue to enrich my understanding in the psychological and medical world of “debunking depression”.

Until next time, J out.