Being Human in an Era of Collapse

A Mythological Approach to Personal & Planetary Regeneration through Addiction and Autoimmunity

Signs are everywhere that the way we’ve been living is coming to an end: peak oil, degraded soils, depleted fisheries, and climate change, and increasingly stressful lives of isolation, overwork, and economic insecurity. The processes we put into place through millennia of desecrating wild places are now threatening not just the health of natural ecosystems, but the health of our bodies and minds. Through escalating rates of mental health disorders, substance abuse, chronic illness, and suicide, it’s becoming increasingly clear that we and our planet are in this together.

Scholars such as Joseph Campbell and Michael Meade suggest that we are not just facing environmental, social, and health crises, but a crisis of mythology as well. The metaphorical, nature-based stories that have enabled humans to survive for millennia have been co-opted by our consumer culture to profit from our distress by selling quick fixes and distractions. We are aching not just for health and happiness, but for a sense of meaning and direction in an increasingly uncertain world.

I seek to address this crisis of mythology by showing how those with addiction and autoimmunity are living out a deeply personal story of planetary collapse. Through describing the processes that brought humanity to this point, I hope to relieve the burden of shame and isolation that often accompany these “pathologies”. And through outlining a process of transformation through reconnecting with nature in our bodies and life-affirming stories, I hope to restore a sense of meaning and purpose to even our smallest efforts and inner victories. They are, in fact, intimately connected to the survival of our planet and our species.

Addiction and autoimmunity are both a sign of the dire situation we find ourselves in as a species and an invitation — a roadmap — to a more profound, vital, and authentic way of belonging to life itself. And we can cultivate this way of being every day, regardless of our historical limitations, current circumstances, or what the future brings.

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Humanity’s Story of Disconnection

We evolved for hundreds of thousands of years through an intimate dialogue and exchange with the natural world. Many indigenous cultures see our role as humans to be stewards of nature and witnesses of wonder. There are tribes in Africa that have farmed the same land for thousands of years because they figured out exactly what percentage needed to lie fallow for the soil to regenerate. The diversity and quantity of food-producing trees in the Amazon is a direct reflection of humans selecting and scattering seeds for thousands of years. These are just a few examples of how, when we use our minds to work with natural ecosystems, we can enhance the quality of life for everything that lives there.

But when we began to farm the land and domesticate animals, especially in vast monocultures, not only did we set ourselves up to exploit and destroy the environment, but we experienced a disconnect from ourselves and each other as well. Instead of being supported by the cycles of life, we were now outside of them as vulnerable overlords: greedy, insecure, and justifying oppression and violence as a means of survival. We divided people into classes and castes to use, much like plants and animals. Everything deemed “lesser” was exploited instead of seen as a sovereign ally to partner with. And without a sustainable way of life, we are forced to dominate, migrate, colonize, convert, and civilize — all in the name of taming nature to meet our increasingly unrealistic, fear-driven demands. This approach leads to extinction, as it likely did on Easter Island, and as we are starting to see globally as we approach our planet’s limits. Desertification, climate refugees, global pandemics, and plummeting biodiversity parallel increasing rates of mental health diagnoses, addiction, and chronic illness.

Just as humans have been manipulating nature for millennia to meet our growing needs, we have been exploiting our bodies to meet the demands of our minds, seeing our bodies as things that exist to serve us as opposed to something we co-exist with in partnership. Just as we spray and fertilize the fields to get as much out of them as possible, we medicate and supplement our bodies to keep up with the pace of our ambitions. But this isn’t sustainable. Environmental pollution, processed food, and escalating social and economic stressors mean it takes more and more manipulation to get less and less quality and quantity, and the soil of the earth and of our bodies is becoming depleted, infertile, and even toxic.

Just as the planet holds our body, our body holds our psyches — our inherent selves as often expressed through our minds. We long to know where we came from, why we are here, and how to live a meaningful life. Mythology has been answering these questions for humanity for millennia through metaphorical stories embedded in nature. Ancient peoples learned through trial and error how to live sustainably on the land and incorporated those learnings into their mythology, rituals, songs, and government. But our modern mythology does not help us live sustainably, grow up strong, or develop and share our gifts. Our capitalist culture, which developed through exploiting wilderness, wildlife, and human bodies, is concerned only with creating good producers and consumers. It teaches us to subvert nature in ourselves. It teaches us to doubt our instincts, our needs, and our authentic self-expression. This disconnection from self leaves us increasingly vulnerable to stress and manipulation, making us the perfect market for the newest trend in therapies, self-help programs, and entertaining escapes. Our culture is more than happy to affirm and feed the belief that we as individuals are the problem that needs fixing; not the culture, not the stories we are telling, and certainly not the way we are living on the planet and in our bodies.

Whether or not we sense or acknowledge any of this consciously, our deepest, authentic selves know. But because the fundamental tenets of our culture deny this truth, and to go against the tribe is akin to death for our gregarious mammal bodies, we silence the alarm bells. It feels safer and more empowered to see ourselves as the problem rather than risk being an outcast or fighting a losing battle against an entire broken system. Unfortunately, this is akin to burying nuclear waste in the desert sands. It doesn’t go away; it just poisons us from the ground up, silently, over time. And we don’t even remember the true cause.

This leaves us drifting, displaced from the land, each other, and our own sense of worth. This estrangement from self and other is what Gabor Mate identifies as the trauma at the heart of addiction and auto-immunity. Without authenticity or attachment, we are hungry ghosts. Our souls are as ravaged as our bodies and our soils, capable of the unthinkable just to attain what we perceive of as safety and nourishment. We are not just failing to appreciate and care-take the land on which we live and the bodies we inhabit, but we are actively pillaging them. And we are doing so because we think we have to in order to survive.

A Personal Story of Disconnection

My entry into 12-step for behavioral addiction came within months of being diagnosed with poly auto-immunity. My body had been living through years of stress from over-working, self-medicating with food, toxic relationships, and reckless life decisions. I had just moved to a new town for a new job and found myself drowning in overwhelm and isolation. It took just one failed love affair to trigger a toxic spiral of despair and self-hatred. I saw no end in sight and no way to escape and my life was reduced to a numbing crawl through each day: “eat, sleep, try not to get fired.” Despite all I had survived up to that point, this was the first time I contemplated ending my life.

The trauma of it deepened coping behaviors and switched on genes that have permanently changed the landscape of my body. For the rest of my life, whenever I encounter a certain degree of stress, I will struggle with urges to numb out through self-harm and my immune system will start attacking my own tissue. My body will never have the degree of resilience it once did, just as our planet may never recover its previously prolific level of diversity and richness. I have entered a new chapter of my life, just as we have entered a new stage of being human on the earth. We must learn the lay of the land, accept the new boundaries, and rebuild from a place of respect for what we previously neglected.

My body had been parched and crackling hills and this was the spark that sent fire sweeping through. The heat of rage, grief, and hopelessness brought what felt like complete devastation. Only blackened branches and smoldering ash remained. What I didn’t know at the time is that redwoods need the fire to release their seeds. I, like so many others I’ve met, am the sort of tree that needs to be scorched to release what lay inside us. What got me through were two simple stories that came to me in the darkest time and have formed a large part of the bedrock on which I’m building my new life:

- There is no escape from what pursues us, in this life or the next, and no one and nothing is coming to save me. My only choice is whether to face it now or face it later.

- What I am facing isn’t just my struggle — it is our struggle. The stressors that made me vulnerable to collapse are the same burdens we all carry. If I can find my way through, I will have discovered and contributed something precious not just to my life, but to humanity.

What took me to the brink of death was trauma. And what brought me back from the edge was story. Story enabled me to see a life-affirming context for my suffering, to find a reason to endure when life had taught me there was no hope left. And story ultimately enabled me to find the support I needed to reconnect with others and to begin to learn how to listen deeply to my body, to trust my instincts, and tend my true nature and its vision.

If you are one of the many who are struggling with behavioral addiction or auto-immunity, and the trauma and toxic shame that fuel them, know that your failure to thrive is not a personal defect. You are a canary in the coal mine, a product of generations of oppressing and exploiting the wild in nature and in our own bodies.

Autoimmunity: From Disconnect to Self-Destruct

Autoimmunity is when our immune system begins to target and attack our own healthy tissue. There is disagreement around the root cause and appropriate treatment of auto-immunity, but one can be definitively diagnosed through tissue antibody testing. While 7% of Americans have been officially diagnosed with an auto-immune disorder, the numbers are on the rise and experts speculate many chronic illnesses have an undiagnosed auto-immune component.

After several generations of filling our bodies with toxins and stress hormones that disrupt our natural biological rhythms and damage our tissues, our bodies’ natural defenses are being overwhelmed. When that happens, any genes we have that are predisposed to auto-immunity get turned on. The beneficial protective mechanisms of the immune system become overactive, misidentify threats, and begin to attack our own tissue. Then anything that activates the immune system can trigger the auto-immunity. It may be inflammation from a stressful event, consuming a food protein that closely resembles the targeted tissue, or a routine infection that stirs the immune system into action.

As we have attacked the earth, so now our bodies are attacking us.

If you experience chronic health conditions such as digestive distress, fatigue, body aches, inflammation, or depression that haven’t responded to treatment or that your doctor brushes off as nothing, it may be worth getting tested for auto-immunity and getting help from a functional medicine doctor who can help identify and address root causes.

Here are the core elements of how auto-immunity progresses from disconnect to self-destruct, inspired by the research and teachings of Dr Datis Kharrazian:

1. Disconnect. When we are disconnected from our bodies, we miss or over-ride the often subtle cues it sends about the care it needs such as rest, relaxation, exercise, or relief from harmful foods or chemicals. This is exacerbated by living in a culture that often demands and rewards over-exertion and by a medical system that is over-priced and oriented towards treating disease instead of supporting wellness.

2. Overwhelm. Living in an environment full of pollution, food additives, synthetic chemicals, and toxic levels of stress, our bodies become less resilient to unexpected life transitions, significant loss, or acute infection. Our natural defenses can be overwhelmed and this trauma switches on any genes in us that are predisposed to autoimmunity.

3. Loss of Control. One or more elements of our natural immune response break down causing too many of the wrong types of cells or the cells are no longer able to do their jobs effectively. We may make too much interleukin 2, so that too many killer cells are deployed. Or we may not make enough t-suppressor cells so that our immune system stays active even when the threat has been eliminated.

4. Lack of discernment. Our befuddled immune system begins to attack our healthy body tissue, mistaking our bodies for an external threat. This can be the result of too much interleukin 4, which tags intruders for elimination and can make mistakes when overly vigilant. And it can be the presence of too many food or chemical proteins that closely resemble our own tissue, as is the case with gluten and thyroid autoimmunity. The immune system mistakes self (thyroid) for other (gluten) and goes on the attack.

5. Obsession & Constriction. Unmanaged auto-immunity means our immune system is on red alert. Over-deployed and under-regulated, it attacks what it mistakenly perceives a threat. We find ourselves sleeping for hours due to fatigue, avoiding activities we used to enjoy because of chronic pain or sensitivity, limiting our diets due to digestive distress, or abandoning life goals because of loss of function, depression, or despair.

6. Self-Destruction. Chronic inflammation and progressive tissue damage become life-threatening. Once one auto-immune disorder is present, more will be triggered if left unaddressed. For example, Hashimoto’s may be a precursor to rheumatoid arthritis. Auto-immunity to insulin islet cells may progress to type 2 diabetes or hyperthyroidism (from thyroid auto-immunity) may cause heart failure. Our exhausted immune system becomes more vulnerable to potentially lethal infections such as pneumonia.

Diagnosis with an auto-immune disorder isn’t a death sentence. Being well-informed and finding a skilled practitioner enables us to identify and remove environmental triggers, regenerate where our immune system has gone awry, and develop self-care routines that manage stress and inflammation. While many people have been able to take their auto-immunity into remission and live symptom-free, the genes are never turned off. They will always have a heightened vulnerability to stress and must stay committed to diet and lifestyle changes to stay resilient.

Addiction: From Disconnect to Self-Destruct

When many of us think of “addiction” we imagine alcoholism and drug abuse. And while we may know people who struggle with these addictions, the concept may not feel as personal or relevant. I think of addiction broadly as behaviors such as workaholism, gambling, or romantic obsessions. Defined in this way, most of us can identify some behavior we default to under stress that gives us short-term relief but hurts us in the long term. Despite knowing this intellectually, we continue to engage in those behaviors to self-soothe. The cumulative trauma of living in the modern world simply overwhelms our ability to cope and we compulsively seek escape.

This is why some experts say we are all addicted to something. And while many of us function just fine and may even be rewarded for our behavior — as is often the case with socially acceptable addictions such as workaholism or compulsive exercising — every addict suffers a disconnection from self, others, and life. And this disconnection deepens every time we get high or numb out instead of listening to what our pain is trying to tell us and allowing it to heal through us.

As humans have disconnected from nature, leaving us vulnerable to fear and despair, so do we disconnect from our own true nature, leaving us vulnerable to our inner shadows.

If you are struggling with compulsive behavior that is compromising your health, relationships, job security, or values, please find community support through a local 12-step or group treatment program. You have nothing to be ashamed of, your life is worth saving, and you don’t have to do this alone.

Here are the core elements of how addiction progresses from disconnect to self-destruct:

1. Disconnect. When we disconnect from our inherent sense of value, instincts, and sense of purpose, we lose the ability to tend our wounds, put challenges in perspective, and respond to difficulties in an effective way. This is exacerbated by trauma, which taught us that we are inherently flawed and that our instincts aren’t to be trusted.

2. Overwhelm. An initial “hit” brings us relief by drowning out anything else we may be thinking or feeling. This could be an adrenaline high, blood sugar rush, or flood of endorphins. We are completely immersed in our experience and swept away to a euphoric place where our troubles no longer exist.

3. Loss of control. We lose the ability to consciously choose whether or not to engage in a behavior. Every time we feel discomfort, we immediately default to our “drug of choice” to self-regulate. We feel disappointed, so we open a bag of chips. We feel agitated, so we masturbate. There is no space or awareness for evaluating our real needs or responding in a way that meets them.

4. Lack of discernment. As the addiction progresses, we begin to lose our inner compass. We have difficulty distinguishing between helpful and harmful people, truth and lies, what soothes and what harms, what aligns with our values and what compromises them. We may think we’ve met our soulmate, and miss the signs that this person is emotionally unavailable. We may feel enlivened by an important project, but those around us can see that we’re completely exhausted.

5. Obsession & Constriction. In a full-blown addiction, we lose our grasp on shared reality and live in our own delusional world. We focus in on what feels like the only remaining source of comfort and safety: eating huge amounts of a particular food, spending all our time with one person, binge-watching the same show for hours, or playing out the same fear or fantasy over and over in our minds. Without any sense of perspective, we neglect our basic needs, isolate, lash out when confronted, and feel consumed by fear and self-hatred around what we are certain we have become and the hopelessness of our future.

6. Self-destruction. Whatever the ultimate end, most addicts consider their behavior fatal if left unchecked. When behavior is harmful, compulsive, progressive, and at the exclusion of all else, there is only one possible ending. Complications of obesity, drug overdose, cirrhosis, or recklessness can lead to early death. Distress around a lost relationship, poverty, meaninglessness or general despair can lead to suicide.

Not all addictions lead to self-destruction. Many treatments exist and some reportedly resolve on their own. At the core of recovery seem to be connection to one’s worth, a sense of agency, a supportive community, meaningful work, and feeling a part of something great than oneself. Some believe complete recovery is possible, while most attest that while impulses can diminish over time, one must remain vigilant with self-care to avoid defaulting to old patterns in times of stress.

Addiction & Autoimmunity Interwoven with Planetary Collapse

When looked at through a metaphorical lens, there are surprising parallels between the development of addiction and auto-immunity, which can be traced back to our disconnection from nature in the wild, in our bodies, and through life-affirming stories. While addiction and auto-immunity often have physical components that require clinical support to manage effectively, they are also often triggered by stressful events that overwhelm our ability to cope and are fueled by shame and depression: a “pressing down” or stifling of our wildness — our inherent sense of self and our value.

Many addicts also have auto-immune diagnoses from years of chronic stress and trauma. And many people are unable to manage their auto-immune disorders because of underlying chemical or behavioral addictions. These leave us in a chronically dysregulated state, which continually perpetuates inflammation and maladaptive coping strategies, feeding the fire until there is complete destruction of our physical, emotional, and spiritual being. And as more of us become increasingly vulnerable to infection, natural disasters, and social and economic stressors, we are beginning to see elevated rates of interpersonal violence, premature death, and suicide. What is now at stake is our lives, our species, and our planet.

According to many practitioners, both addiction and autoimmunity are also incurable. While we can learn to manage behaviors and stressors, once the genes are turned on and patterns established we will always be primed to default to those mechanisms in times of stress. We must learn to live with the reality of relapse just as we may have to learn to live with a permanently altered climate and planetary ecosystem.

Here is an overview of how our disconnect from nature as a species becomes a personal process of disconnection from self, which can culminate in self-destruction:

1. We disconnected from nature when we started farming and raising livestock. This shifted us from participant, collaborator, and steward to overlord.

2. Our bodies register this disconnect as a source of distress because they know they belong embedded in the natural world.

3. Nature itself is seen as the source of our distress because in having disconnected ourselves from the natural cycles, we have made Nature the “other” — alien, threatening, “not us”. This fuels our suspicion of and lack of empathy for other lifeforms.

4. We try to overcome this threat of Nature by accumulating more goods, more power, more technology — essentially attempting to cheat death, to cheat nature’s way of keeping us in check. We feel justified in regarding Wild things as resources to exploit and enslave, as heathens to convert to our religion, and as witches to burn.

5. We begin to doubt and disconnect from our own feelings, instincts, and intuitions because our culture has made it difficult and sometimes even dangerous to act in solidarity with non-human life. Our bodies are constantly reminding us of that connection, so we must silence the voice to retain the security of aligning with our tribe and species.

6. Shame and self-hatred arise in us to control, cleanse, and irradicate the wild parts of us, just as our species has sought to control, cleanse, and irradicate the wild within the world. Our bodies experience heightened distress from being disconnected from both the natural world and our own inner nature.

7. We develop addictions and other mental and behavioral “disorders” to try to cope with our inner overwhelm, alienation, and suppression. Eventually, our body itself registers the cue to self-destruct and our immune system — originally designed to discern and destroy threats — joins in the attack by targeting our own tissue.

But while we may feel disconnected from nature in and around us, and while these processes in our bodies may escalate that separation, the very nature of our distress is proof that we are still very much embedded in the web of life. We are in this together. The trauma in us is constantly wanting to resurface and be integrated. Nature is constantly trying to restore balance and call us home. If we look at how these conditions developed and are perpetuated in us, we can see a story playing out that points towards nature’s attempt at a resolution:

- Someone might have a physical condition in which their immune system attacks their thyroid gland, compromising their ability to regulate energy. They also live in a culture that has rewarded them for being a workaholic. Their body is revolting against these unnatural conditions by forcing them to slow down.

- Someone else might be a sugar addict because the high helps them feel happy and empowered despite having been abused. But eating processed junk food for decades has weakened their natural defenses, and now they have multiple food allergies and pre-diabetic autoimmunity to their insulin islet cells. They gain a tremendous amount of weight, the shame of which forces them to withdraw from relationships entirely. The safe cocoon of solitude presents an opportunity for them to find unconditional love within themselves or in the safety of a wild place in nature.

When we are able to look at our struggle for health and sobriety as a metaphor for our struggle to find sustainable ways of living on our planet, we resolve a core human crisis: the crisis of mythology. We can use story to provide a larger context for our suffering, showing how the very nature of our isolation is connected to the story of our planet and our species. And through finding ways to re-engage with what we have cut off and shut out, our personal healing becomes a potent part of regenerating life on our entire planet.

Regenerating Our Lives & Our Planet

Self-destruction isn’t the end of the story. Despite our sense of disconnection, nature has never left us. Even in cities, displaced for generations from the land, we still dream of animals, find comfort near trees, and long to wander in wild places. And just as ecosystems regenerate when given time and space, our bodies and psyches hold an astonishing capacity to heal when given the right conditions to thrive and tended mindfully.

Thomas Hubl writes that the very process of evolution that produced us — a species capable of destroying the planet — is also bringing us an awareness of what we have done, of the trauma we have inflicted and endured, and teachings and practices for reconnection and regeneration. We can reinstate the ancient practices of deep listening and collaboration with non-human life. And we can surrender ourselves to letting nature restore balance to itself through us as willing participants.

The question is — how? Living with addiction and auto-immunity means we often don’t have the resilience or stamina to join front-line fights for the environment or social justice. But we can each wake up to the reality of our current circumstances — individually and collectively — and begin to build a new life realigned with a sober acceptance of our gifts and limitations. We can choose a story — a new personal mythology — that views our addiction and auto-immunity as a fire that’s releasing the seeds of new life, for ourselves and our planet.

Reconciling with nature starts with the way we treat our bodies and psyches right here, right now, in this moment, because that’s where the disconnect has become most personal. We can start to treat our bodies as revered companions with needs as sacred as our own. We can start trusting our instincts, our skepticism, and our rage. And we can make a commitment to countering shame. Nature doesn’t criticize. It doesn’t compare and it doesn’t envy. These arise from the wounded shadow side of our species’ gift for language. Wild things cannot pretend to be what they aren’t. They simply react based on their inherent nature and they survive, or not, through a mysterious mix of adaptation and luck. Whether they live or die, life continues to experiment and evolve. We are an inseparable part of that story.

If we are living with addiction and/or autoimmunity, we can find the thread that led to these conditions in us today and follow it all the way back to our true individual and human home on the planet. We reconnect with our psyches through a personal, life-affirming mythology, reconnect with our bodies, cultivate community, and regenerate our role as tenders of wild places in nature.

Here are six vital practices that disrupt the process that culminated in our addiction and/or autoimmunity and that help us regenerate, alongside whatever clinical care we may need:

1. Being willing to surrender and practice humility. We stop seeing our bodies and our psyches as the enemy — as every symptom and “defect” as something to battle, to overcome, to eradicate. Then we accept addiction and auto-immunity as alarm bells that bring us to a stand-still and enable us to listen to what we’ve been ignoring. We let go of being in control and simply ask for the one thing to do next. Sometimes that’s as simple as finding a subtle sense of levity or wonder to accompany our suffering. But with that simple expression of a desire to collaborate with the sovereignty of our bodies and psyches, we begin to mend the rift between humans and nature. And this opens us to being guided towards genuinely new and more aligned ways of being.

2. Recognizing and abstaining from self-harm. We get honest about and avoid the people, places, activities, and substances that trigger a compulsive and destructive cascade of behaviors. We identify the sources of stress and inflammation — food, toxins, relationships, infections — and we eliminate them to the best of our ability. We begin to make simple lifestyle changes to show solidarity with the earth such as buying local food or supporting environmental advocacy.

3. Discerning what our body, mind, heart, and soul really need. We understand that our brain and our soul need a variety of ideas, activities, relationships, and experiences to stay supple and engaged, and we notice those things that offer genuine comfort, security, and pleasure. We recognize that our gut microbiome needs a wide variety of plant fibers to be healthy and restore immune tolerance, and we identify the foods, supplements, sleep and exercise routines, and beliefs that keep our immune system resilient. We notice how our human communities thrive with many skills, abilities, gifts, and temperaments in complementary roles just as ecosystems are rich and resilient when many species are engaged in a balanced way.

4. Setting boundaries. We balance our time, energy, money, and care-taking so that we have time to replenish, rest, and digest our food, our feelings, and our experiences, especially when we don’t want to or think we can’t. This enables our nervous system to settle, which soothes systemic inflammation and redirects addictive impulses. We look to nature to teach us how things grow through gradual and enduring cycles, such as tree rings, islands, and canyons.

5. Anticipating setbacks. We accept that despite our best intentions, we will experience addictive relapses and autoimmune flares, just as the deterioration of our environment will likely continue even though we invest in new ways of living in solidarity with nature. Normalizing these aspects of life in our bodies and on this planet as they are enables us to be grounded, compassionate, and constructive. We cultivate relationships, practices, and beliefs that keep things in perspective and remind us that everyone faces challenges and doubts. We remember that we do what we do simply because it affirms our connection, not because we are in control of the outcome.

6. Cultivating a reason to endure. We cannot stay engaged without an orientation towards what remains beautiful and wondrous in ourselves and our world. This balances the inevitable darkness and reminds us that it, too, belongs as a season and a time of day. It humbles us, matures us, and decomposes what is no longer needed. We remember that it is only an all-consuming force of annihilation when we lose our sense of the sacred. We cultivate dreams and activities that give us a sense of purpose and that we can sustain alongside our limitations. We remember that we are needed and are never doing this alone. Life thrives in reciprocal networks — mycelium feeding trees of different species, countless examples of symbiosis, grassroots activism, and neural pathways.

An Invitation

Having just entered my third year of addiction recovery and learning to manage my auto-immune disorders, I am well on my way to reclaiming a fulfilling life — one that is surprisingly even more fulfilling than the one I had. Back when I used to work in drug and alcohol rehab, I used to marvel at the transformation I saw in some of the men we served who were able to tell their stories with such grace and light in their eyes. And I met women who had lived with auto-immunity for decades who inspired me with their grounded authenticity and fierce boundaries.

I am now seeing those qualities in myself. Addiction and auto-immunity broke me down to the point that I had to find something to live for, something deep in myself that was untouched by all the despair and suffering, something that could bring a moment of awe and levity into the most difficult days that gave me something to live for. Often that was just a simple moment in nature. Or a quiet pause with myself to whisper: “I know you hurt and you can’t see the way through, but I’m here with you. I’m listening. And I won’t leave you.”

These skills and this perspective have transformed my life. I have more faith in my ability to deal with whatever the future brings. I find comfort and amusement in my own company. I know my life is my responsibility — that no one can save me and no one can decide for me. I have a sense of purpose that’s independent of anything I produce or achieve. And I know my inherent value regardless of anyone else’s opinion. This makes me resilient, engaged, and difficult to manipulate and exploit.

Addiction and autoimmunity aren’t something we get over but something we learn to live with. They aren’t something we heal from, but something that transforms us. They change the parameters by which we live our lives. They ground and season us with uncertainty and humility. They require us to dig for answers in places most of us prefer to avoid.

The story of what we as humans have done to the planet is playing out in our bodies. We have pushed the carrying capacity of the land and our bodies past their limits. And if we are to choose life over self-destruction, for ourselves and for our planet, we have to allow ourselves to be broken down and rebuilt.

My story is one of experiencing my true nature rising from the ash, cleansed, and released by the fire. This is how the earth is healing itself through me. And I believe this is possible for anyone who views their addiction and auto-immunity as a deeply compassionate invitation from nature itself to shed and regenerate. It’s a call to learn how to live on a planet and in a body that is dying, to identify and rectify the processes that brought us here, and to find ways to protect, nurture, and regenerate what we have left.

We just need to begin to trust in our bones and roots that our individual struggle is part of the evolution of our species. Everything, everything that has happened to us has been Nature’s attempt to welcome us home. We just need to let it dream through us — and to love and serve that dream — for whatever time we have left.

Nancy Alder

Nancy Alder is a group facilitator, inner guide, and writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Trained in eastern meditation, core shamanism, and somatic ecopsychology, her unique approach to witnessing and reflecting regenerates and deepens our lives by reclaiming what it means to be human embedded in a living world. www.innerwoven.net

Nancy Alder is a group facilitator, inner guide, and writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. www.InnerWoven.net