To the New Year – thoughts on mental health, sorrow and addiction | Opinion

By Eleanor Burke

Special to the Journal

With the new year here, it is good to reflect on the past year. The word “reflect” is rooted in Latin and Old French, showing up around the 15th century, and means to “turn or bend back.” When we turn or bend back to 2015 what do we find?

From school shootings, to the Alberta Tar Sands, lack of affordable housing here and across other communities, centuries old racism rearing its head in Baltimore Md., and Charleston, S.C., to the largest species extinction rates since the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, deaths of loved ones, fear and heartbreak are ever present.

Many wonder, “What world we are leaving our children?” Sorrow and anger can take root and grow into apathy and depression, two conditions which hinder our ability to act and experience joy and peace.

Sorrow and anger are not conditions to be solved; they are companions on the road. Winter months with short days and lack of sunlight can be hard. Without proper tools of self-care, many turn to alcohol and marijuana to cope. In the short term the sedating, depressing actions of alcohol on the nervous system, and the dopamine (“feel good” chemical) elicited when smoking marijuana, are quick ways to de-stress, calm down, relax. In lieu of extended family/friends and meaningful community engagement, people get their social needs met at the bar, and enable addiction.

What is an old time word for liquor? Spirits! And yes, when used with respect and moderation alcohol brings us spirit, but using these powerful substances on a daily basis sets us up for a life time of depression and addiction – devastating lives, keeping us from being engaged citizens.

Current rhetoric around addiction centers on morality, i.e. the addict makes a “choice” to use. Mental health and addiction must be understood from a physiological standpoint.

Hippocrates, the father of medicine, has been quoted as saying, “All health begins in the gut!” When was the last time your care provider asked about your diet, stress level and gut health? In my decade of study on herbal medicine, psychology, and nutrition, I have found that gut health, i.e. content of healthy bacteria, is directly related to mental health, and thus, to overall health.

For example, alcohol converts to sugar in the body, feeding Candida, a naturally occurring yeast in the gastrointestinal tract which, when overgrown, can cause yeast infections and chronic inflammation and can also affect mental functioning. There really is no separation between body and mind. Writer and teacher Martin Prechtel says many drink because they do not weep. Do not let the drink become a substitute for your tears. There is much to be wept for this day and age. We weep because we care.

This is a sign of life! Let this dark time of year remind us to draw close all we love – friends, family, animals, nature, music, books, good food. Weep with a friend. You may find the want for the drink or drug lessens.

Eleanor Burke lives on Lopez Island. She studies herbal medicine with Dr. Aviva Romm, and grief and redemption with Stephen Jenkinson of Orphan Wisdom School.