In my work in community gardens in North Edinburgh, an issue which I often come across is addiction – there are a number of folk who attend our gardens who struggle with different forms of addiction, and for whom joining the garden has enormous therapeutic benefit. It is an area which I strongly feel that herbal medicine can play a big role in treating, and for that reason I recently spent a week at Sankalpa, a holistic addiction treatment centre based in Finglas, North Inner City Dublin. Sankalpa’s approach is to incorporate herbal medicine, tai chi, reiki, meditation, acupuncture and community gardening with recovery groups embedded in a community reinforcement approach to behavioural change. They work with people from the very deprived Finglas and Cabra communities of North Dublin to become drug free, but also use community and adult education to facilitate their participants having more choice and control over their lives.

During the week I attended reiki, acupuncture and community gardening sessions as well as the recovery groups, and outside of that spent a lot of time working with Tom O Brien the manager. Tom has a long background in adult education and addiction in Dublin, and recently qualified as a herbalist. He is increasingly incorporating herbs into the practice of Sankalpa, which are being enthusiastically received by the participants. We spent two days brainstorming different herbal tea blends for the service users, focusing on support for the liver, the nervous system, herbs for sleep and concentration, and a specific mix for hepatitis.

I was really impressed by the people at Sankalpa, who are definitely the most radical “healthcare professionals” I am yet to come across. They have a very person centred approach, that is totally grounded in and led by the autonomy and choices of the clients that come into the centre, and they are very critical of the medical model and its subsequent medicalisation of addiction services. The folk at Sankalpa understand addiction in a more individualised, and complex way, as part of a set of individual social and cultural forces, and not as a ‘disease’ or ‘defection’ in a person. The medical model through this conceptualisation of addiction as a ‘disease’ effectively removes recovery from the picture, and instead only offers to ‘manage’ diseased ‘addicts’ with treatments such as the ‘Methadone Management Treatment”. We had a lot of really interesting conversations, and it felt really good to be around others with the same views about health care and the capitalist system we operate in. Similarly, the participants of the service were very aware of the social and economic problems rife in their community, where they felt that people’s choices were constrained by their upbringing and the culture of guns, violence and drugs that is absolutely endemic in Finglas. In no way did they see themselves as ‘defective’ or unable to recover, though many struggled on a daily basis with using drugs.

The experience reinforced something for me – that herbs are fundamentally used as ‘guides’ or ‘partners’ to help facilitate the body’s own healing. We form a relationship with them, personally, emotionally and on a chemical, cellular level too. But in the end we heal ourselves. There is no other way to approach physical or emotional pain, but to understand that to overcome it, you have to heal yourself. This applies directly to using herbs in the treatment of addiction. I was somehow naively labouring under the conclusion before I went to Sankalpa that there would be some ‘special herbs’ or formulas that were specific to addiction, that I would have the privilege of learning about. In fact, the mixes that Tom is using, and that we created together, are exactly the same herbs and combinations that you would use to support anyone at all.

It is a crucial point really because addiction to opioids is on an emotional level fundamentally connected to avoidance of pain. Though of course every addict does make a choice to use drugs, that choice is made (consciously or not) within a set of personal, social, economic, cultural and familial circumstances that very often involve deprivation, dissatisfaction, boredom, abuse, neglect, lack of meaningful activities, perceived lack of choice control over their lives and more often than not, a great deal of pain. A huge part of the recovery process (or perhaps the entirety of the recovery process) is about taking full responsibility for your own life, accepting the choices and decisions you have already made, and taking control over the choices you will now make. There is of course a serious physical addiction and tolerance that goes with this, but it cannot be separated from the underlying psychosocial issues involved. Without addressing your own avoidance of pain, no amount of physical detoxification programmes will lead to the end of the continuum of recovery. To relate this back to herbal treatment then, herbs cannot ‘cure’ addiction. There is no miracle drug, or miracle herb that can fix a person. Herbs can play an excellent role in supporting someone who wants to make significant changes in their lives to detoxify their body and nourish their nerves and spirit to give them courage to address their choices in life. This approach then reinforces a person’s autonomy, choice and control which I think is an extremely powerful healing tool.

Another surprising element of being at the centre was that Tom and the other staff were really excited to have me there, that somebody had specifically sought them out as a place to come and learn from. As a student, I didn’t expect this at all, but having an outsider take an interest in their work had a wonderful reinforcing effect for them, and I was privileged to feel I was taking part in a ‘mutual exchange’ of enthusiasm, rather than just taking from them. It reminded me of the importance of supporting each other’s work, and expressing solidarity with other herbalists and projects focused on health inequalities.

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