Opium, a powerful analgesic derived from the poppy plant has been used by humans for thousands of years. In 1803 morphine was derived from processed opium, and in 1874 heroin from morphine. There have been continuous waves of addiction to all three substances but, according to some sources, heroin use has recently escalated. There is no universally accepted reason why people use these drugs, but we do know that there are opiate receptor sites in the brain. In drug-circles, in my day at least, we assumed that this meant drug use was natural; if we weren’t meant to take drugs ,we wouldn’t have these receptors.
But scientific research argues that the body makes its own opioids and that is why the receptors exist. As mentioned above, heroin is a derivative of morphine and the body produces endogenous or natural morphines, also known as endorphins, under shock or stress (Fernandez, 1998). Either way, the fact is that humans have always been attracted to mood- and mind-altering substances and nothing has been able to control or prevent this. This is why I believe that we need to start working with drugs as opposed to working against them. This does not mean encouraging drug-use but finding other ways to achieve those states. This will demand a new sociological, therapeutic and philosophical framework and in my experience, Traditional Chinese medicine – applied outside its traditional parameters and in conjunction with Body-Mind medicine – is well-suited to this.
Both consider body, mind and spirit equally which is crucial in dealing with drug-related pathologies, imbalances and life after drugs.In my therapeutic approach, based on TCM and Body-Mind medicine, as well as my own experiences, the ‘platform’ for drugs are not receptor sites in the brain but the organs themselves. If you used computer terminology, the organ would be the hardware and the drug the software and my research indicates that the hardware for heroin is the Kidneys.
In TCM the Kidneys are considered the mother of Yin and Yang and, as heroin operates via the Kidneys, it enhances Yin and Yang equally and synthetically rejuvenates your Blood. This provides a solid ‘house’ for your mind creating a strong sense of emotional space and inner peace. I had my first heroin experience in the late seventies. By then I had experimented with a range of drugs including hashish, LSD and speed and I thought I was familiar with drugs and drug highs, but heroin was different. Within what seemed like seconds of taking it I felt warm, nurtured, centred and single-minded. Nothing mattered. It was the most grounded state I had ever experienced. I had no desire to go anywhere or do anything. I was in a state of perfect inner peace. I was complete and all that existed was the NOW. I sat there simply blissing-out on being present.
Heroin has this effect (to a greater or lesser degree) regardless of how you feel when you take it. For example, if you felt scattered, confused, guilty or depressed beforehand it would all vanish on heroin. However, if you felt like that and smoked marijuana, in most cases it would further imbalance Yin and Yang in the organs and produce a Yin Excess condition where you could find it impossible to interact with people. This would make you feel even more confused and frustrated. If you took speed while confused, guilty or depressed, it would make you feel ‘up’ but without a sense of grounding because speed doesn’t enhance the Yin.
If you dropped acid while feeling scattered and confused, you would probably have a bad trip. This is what makes heroin such a powerful but also such a destructive drug. The more you use it, chasing those blissful states, the worse the side effects and the more heroin you need to counter them. When I was a drug user, heroin was considered to be a kind of final destination on the path of altered states. Once you got to the point of regular use, return to a non-drug life became increasingly difficult. This was one of the reasons I never progressed to regular use but I have treated many people who have become addicted and it’s a really hard drug to stop using.
In TCM the flow of Chi is regulated by Yin and Yang but if heroin is controlling Yin and Yang, you are preparing the ground for serious Chi stagnations and Chi blockages. Each organ is dependant on ‘free-flowing’ Chi for deliverance of nutrients and fresh Blood. Heroin weakens the organs and as organs create emotional, physical and spiritual reality, it affects reality accordingly. Long term heroin users might experience pleasant or pain- free states on the drug but off it, the real world will feel hostile, harsh, adversarial and threatening due to the drug’s action on the organs.
On heroin though, as Liver Yin and Liver Yang are also both enhanced, the external world becomes irrelevant, you would be able to share a small room with the most annoying people and still feel perfectly centred. The Liver is responsible for smooth flow of Chi, and if the Liver Chi flows smoothly you feel comfortable and ‘safe’ in your skin. But after long-term heroin use you can’t stand being in your skin. You feel fidgety, can’t sit still and you may need to scratch constantly. After long-term heroin use Liver function is debilitated which manifests in emotional instabilities and sporadic, sudden emotional out-busts.
On heroin the function of the Spleen is also temporarily enhanced which is why you feel grounded and focussed. But the Spleen is also responsible for digestion of food, and long- term heroin use affects this important function. This is why long-term users of the drug can’t digest food anymore and suffer from constant vomiting. The body obviously needs food but as a long-term heroin users have serious problems with retaining food the resulting nutritional deficiencies will lead to physical, emotional and spiritual decline.
The Kidney’s are responsible for willpower and strength, in-particular sexual strength, but with long-term heroin use the Kidneys can’t produce these important qualities anymore and unreasonable fears, lack of willpower and sexual weakness arise. As Kidneys are associated with teeth, long-term heroin use also accelerates tooth decay. The Heart enables the experience and expression of love and ‘reasoning’, but with a decline in the Heart function selfish behaviour patterns and spiritual defeat develop. This is why addicts can steal from friends and family or turn to prostitution. In this context, punishing addicts for criminal activities doesn’t solve anything as the true problem isn’t the users’ personality but their organ condition.
The Lungs are the organs associated with control of destiny, but long term heroin use ‘victimizes’ you by depleting the Lung functions. You can become caught in a downward spiral where you watch yourself ‘falling’ but due to organ imbalances and depletion you have no means available to stop the decline. People tell you to get your act together but you don’t know how, simply because the tool for controlling your destiny is no longer available. In TCM the Lungs belong to the Metal Element and in the Five Element Cycle the Metal controls Wood as the Metal is the blade to chop the Wood. The Wood Element is associated with direction, planning and destiny, so to master your life it requires a well developed Metal Element, however in long-term heroin use this function is not available.
Heroin use does eventually have to end as the body can only sustain the level of organ destruction it generates for a limited time, but the withdrawal process is brutal and for most users life afterwards seems empty. I have treated many clients who managed to get off heroin but then became addicted to the methodone that was prescribed to assist in managing life without heroin. Methodone, a synthetic opioid compound, was synthesised by the Germans during World War II when supplies of morphine were running low. It is a highly addictive analgesic like heroin but does not produce a euphoric effect once tolerance is established.
Many mainstream drug treatment programs consider it the solution to heroin addiction as it does counter the cravings for heroin as well as the after effects of long term heroin use such as intense muscle tightness, muscle fatigue and muscle pain. However, all the recovered heroin users I have treated have suffered from a profound Liver Chi Stagnation and Yin- and Blood Deficiency, which in accord with TCM, accounts for these conditions. The aim in these cases is to also build Blood and Yin so that the Liver Chi can flow smoothly again, lubricating the tendons and nourishing the muscles. Consequentially the person begins to feel more relaxed in his/her skin. Another after-effect of heroin addiction that methodone eases, is anti-social feelings. Ex- heroin users are often uncomfortable in the presence of other people and avoid groups and interaction. This is because the Yin is so depleted from the heroin abuse that the person feels constantly aggravated by other people.
Methodone artificially makes the Liver Chi flow and provides synthetic Blood and Yin and thus allows social interaction. From the TCM perspective, methodone too is controlling Yin and Yang as heroin did previously. TCM is derived from Taoism and in that philosophy those who control their own Yin and Yang will enjoy a life of happiness, health and inner peace, whereas those whose Yin and Yang is controlled by other means, may not experience this. Drugs control Yin and Yang so eventually taking that control back ourselves is important. A crucial component of this is focussing on the body and on building organs, Chi and Blood.
Working with drugs for thirty years I have come to the conclusion that to control your own Yin and Yang you also need continue the journey that drugs initiate via the path of self-mastery. Recreational drug use is about exploration, excitement and wonder and this is how we experience life as young children. But these are also the qualities we lose as we meet blockages and resistance in later life. Drugs do temporarily recapture this and I believe that the more excitement or wonder you have experienced with drugs, the more you need to recapture those states after you’ve stopped but by positive means. In my opinion, heroin takes you on a profound inner journey of exploration of feelings and emotion so seeking to continue this afterwards is part of the recovery process. This requires not only Chinese Herbs, regular Acupuncture and Bodywork but also effective spiritual practices.