The tagline for SeekHealing, the nonprofit she launched in 2018, is “Rethink Rehab.” It is far more radical than a typical addiction-recovery program. Funded by state health organizations and private donations, it’s one of a growing number of initiatives around the world aimed at tackling loneliness, social isolation, and deep-rooted disconnection by helping people develop critical social skills and offering a safe place to practice them, as well as a menu of ways to meet connect, interact, build trust, and give back.
…There’s a growing realization that supply is only part of the problem. Widespread loneliness and despair—from losing jobs to automation and trade, to mental health problems and a dearth of adequate opportunities—drive people to seek the relief that opioids and heroin seem to offer.
…They do not have to aim to be sober, only to improve their relationship with the substance which is causing them harm. The program refers to addiction as bonding, since we bond to substances or behaviors …when we can’t bond to one another. Relapse is “returning to patterns one is trying to avoid.”
…Listening training, a core educational component of the program, aims to undo the transactional way many people converse—with an intent to fix, solve, be clever, or respond quickly. Instead, the goal is to actually listen without judgement. This creates the conditions which allow the types of interactions that flood the brain with natural opioids and make us feel good.
…Aside from listening training, the calendar is packed with ways of building connection muscles, meeting people, doing things, and learning. There are Sunday meet-ups in West Asheville and connection practice meetings in which facilitators encourage vulnerability and substantive conversation. There are pick-up basketball games, Reiki workshops, art therapy, and Friday night emotional socials (“no substances; no small talk”).
“The whole project is a playground of different ways to help people feel connected in this intentional, non-transactional way,” says Nicolaisen.
…A lack of strong social connection disrupts the balance among the brain circuits that use these feel-good chemicals produced by close relationships. When we are really hungry, Wurzman says, we will eat anything. “Similarly, loneliness creates a hunger in the brain which neurochemically hyper-sensitizes our reward system,” she says.
…“We need to practice social connective behaviors instead of compulsive behaviors,” she says. It is not enough to just teach healthier responses to cues from the social reward system. We have to rebuild the social reward system with reciprocal relationships to replace the drugs which relieve the craving.
“Our culture and communities either create environments that are either full of things that cause addictions to thrive, or full of things that cause relationships to thrive,” Wurzman says.
…SeekHealing offered something those programs couldn’t: access to a world that is not defined by addiction, but connection to others. “I am interested in things I never thought I would be interested in— growing plants, art, poetry,” he says. “Not the violent things I grew up with. I am always looking for new ways to grow.”
He has been sober for one year, and says he now gives way more than he takes—something he notes is remarkable for an addict, who has spent most of his life taking.
…“The epidemic is not to drugs—the epidemic is the loneliness and the pain and the feeling that you can’t belong anywhere,” he says.
…“Even people who are still using, once they start making connections, the chance of them staying alive, and not OD-ing, and moving into greater levels of service, to maybe using medicine-assisted treatment, and becoming productive members of society increases.” Rather than limit recovery to those who are ready for abstinence, the theory goes, try giving help to those who aren’t ready yet, but may become so. This falls under the approach known as harm reduction, defined by the National Harm Reduction Coalition as “a set of practical strategies and ideas aimed at reducing negative consequences associated with risk-taking.”
…There’s funding for emergency care, which gives anyone at risk of overdosing, whether because they are recently out of detox or because they have had a major negative life event, free access to counseling, acupuncture, work with a program manager, body work, and Lyft rides to the center. No drug tests are required.
…She had been thinking about how to help people heal through real connection and communication—not just because there was such a dearth of services for care after rehab, but also because a lack of social connection affects everyone, and drives people to whatever substance they can find to sate the hunger they feel: Screens, social media, porn, shopping, alcohol, Adderall, heroin.
…She’s a big believer in the importance of rituals and the need to find non-religious ways for those who are not religious to have them. Rituals, she says, are a fundamental human thing, bringing people together.
sounds promisingly logical.