Addiction isn’t a problem limited to an “unlucky” or “inferior” class of people, as is so often portrayed by common stereotypes. If anything, substance use disorder is a symptom of a much broader issue – a plight that impacts humans across the board. Nicole White, Executive Director of the Process Recovery Center, refers to this plight as “soul sickness”. But what is soul sickness? Furthermore, how does soul sickness impact people universally?
After listening to Nicole and co-host, Justin, comment on soul sickness on the Process Radio Show, which airs every Wednesday at 10:05 a.m., I decided to sit down with them individually to learn more. The result is a two part series dedicated to the subject.
Soul Sickness: Nicole’s Perspective
“From my experience,” Nicole shared, “I don’t know that it’s happening until it’s gotten out of control internally. I think most of us do things with good intentions. But we like to move quickly. I think sometimes stuff in life piles up against us. So, I don’t necessarily think it happens in one day. It’s more of a build up over time. Soul sickness is an actual feeling for me. It’s like when I feel the weight of the world on my shoulders, due to my own actions. It can be heavy and chaotic, and confusing. In times when I get like that, it’s because I’m not staying centered in myself. I think that, again, my intentions have never been necessarily bad, but maybe my motives can be self-seeking, and it can lead me into a place that’s chaotic. And it can be dark. I usually identify it as ‘manic’. I think I say, ‘I’m manic right now’. But, really, behind that mania, my soul feels out of balance. I’m not grounded. I’m not staying true. I’m not moving as one unit”.
“So, you almost feel fragmented? What are those fragments looking for?” I asked.
“Sometimes security. Sometimes they’re driven by fear,” Nicole explained. “Even, for instance, with school, and all the stuff I have on my plate – I did it to myself. My intentions weren’t bad, but they’ve created a lot of chaos. I don’t think my motive was fully self-seeking, because part of it is I want a little more freedom. But in doing so, I’ve created a lot of chaos. I think in early recovery, these things happen when we don’t prioritize what’s important and what’s not important. For years, and even still today, I let the mail pile up or I won’t check my emails, or I won’t check my text messages – all these little things start to stack up against me. Or I’m eating too much junk food, or I’m not doing it in moderation, and a month goes by. Or I’ll notice I drank three coffees today and no water. It can be anything from something so little to something so big, that starts to stack up against me, and I don’t have any room to be in balance”.
“How do you see soul sickness societally?” I pressed. “How does that connect with the addiction crisis?”
“I always say this isn’t just specific to addicts because I do believe that to be true. I think that I am around a lot of people who are in recovery, but I’m also out in the world, and I have people in my life who aren’t in recovery, who get twisted up the same way we do. I think there’s this misconception that people who aren’t addicts or who aren’t in recovery have all the pieces to the puzzle, and we don’t”.
“And that’s not even true!” I exclaimed.
“No,” Nicole agreed. “And, so, that’s why I say that a lot on the radio show, because the stuff we’re talking about applies to all humans. It’s not just recovery. Yes, the stakes are higher, because we can relapse, should we not take care of these things, where maybe the average person might be impatient, or they might cheat on their wives, or pick up a gambling problem. Whatever that looks like for people. I think as a society, we all search outside of ourselves. I think that, again, even with good intentions, you’re taught to go to college, then you get married, then you have children, and you do all these things. And I’m sure your heart is in it – I’m not saying these are the wrong things to do. But the issue becomes that you do all the things you think you’re supposed to do, and it’s really hard to stay centered while you do them”.
“I’ve even met moms who aren’t addicts who are like, ‘Whoa. I thought this was going to be something different’. You lose yourself. I think that applies to all people. One person in particular I often think about when I say this stuff is a mom who – she’s a family member of mine – now she lives up in the woods in northern New Hampshire. But she’s somebody who had the kids, bought the house, did all those things. Being a mom, you can lose yourself very easily, and she did that. She literally ran away from home as an adult. Her daughter was still in high school, her son had just graduated, and she left. I always think of her because she left to find herself. And she was judged for it. I think that she went against being true to herself for so long that her only option was to run. And that can go for people who don’t have kids – who aren’t married. How many times do you see somebody get a career and then just lose it one day?”
“It’s like we’re taught to function on autopilot. You’re taught to do what you’re told, or what society tells you to do, or what the American culture tells you to do. It doesn’t work. It’s not working for us. It’s not working for anybody, really. We’re not taught to be true to ourselves. We’re not taught to get centered with ourselves. What is your spirit saying to you? What do you desire? We’re not taught that. We’re taught to go on autopilot”.
“Beyond addiction,” I mused, “we have the obesity crisis. We have diabetes. That’s all a manifestation of, ‘I don’t feel comfortable with myself’. Or the divorce rate is really high. Because people aren’t committed to doing the work on themselves first, and then being in partnership with someone else”.
“Right,” Nicole concurred. “It’s widespread. I think that addiction – and we talk about this all the time – addiction highlights it. Because we’re all over the place and we create havoc and chaos, and people are dying. But that scenario of people dying and health conditions – that’s happening in every other group of humans, but maybe on a quieter scale. How many people are dying of cardiovascular stuff, as it relates to diabetes, and all these other things?”
“That’s almost sadder because it’s a quiet scream,” I lamented. “It’s like this torture that nobody even recognizes, and you might not even see yourself. And your body is doing the silent scream, trying to tell you, but you can’t actually see what’s at the root of it, because we’re so wired to be the way we are”.
“We’re wired wrong”. Nicole affirmed. “For school, we had to watch a TED Talk. And it was this guy who was showing statistics for the AIDs epidemic, and cardiovascular disease, and obesity. He was showing how health promotion has made those numbers go down in the last decade… and how we don’t do that for mental health. There’s no health promotion piece for mental health”.
“When you go to the doctor, for instance, they tell you, ‘Oh, you’re twenty-six-years-old. You should have three HPV vaccines by this age’. It pops up on their screen. Or they’ll say, ‘It’s flu season. You need to get your flu vaccine’. We’ve probably all filled one out – the depression scales at the beginning of your primary care – do you know how many times nobody has actually never looked at it? That’s the only assessment you’re getting. Yet, when you walk in the door, you’re getting your bloodwork. You’re not getting that for your mental health. In my opinion, it all starts in your mental health”.
“Even before you look at the physical symptoms, it would be important to assess what’s going on mentally. Because how much of that is contributing to what’s presenting physically? We sort of have it backward,” I reflected.
“Even our suicide rate is astronomical. It’s really crazy,” Nicole mourned. “The teenagers who are killing themselves – yes, I understand the social media thing. But I think it goes back to the soul sickness. I think that as humans we are actually demanding more answers spiritually or universally – however you want to say it. And I think it can be torture – when you’re looking for those deep answers, but you’re presented with: Go to school, come home, do your homework”.
“So, the other side of all of this, would be, ‘okay, how do we combat soul sickness?’” I asked.
“To ask somebody to meditate is important,” Nicole suggested. “There are so many forms of meditation. Stop for a second. Take a couple deep breaths, check how you feel on the inside, check what’s going on mentally. We’re taught not to do that. Another form of meditation can be making a to-do list: Getting your priorities straight and getting it on paper, and saying these are the things I need to do, these are the things that aren’t so important, these are the things that are bothering me”.
“What do I need versus what the world is telling me I need,” I concluded.
“Right,” Nicole replied. “Even the way I parent my kids doesn’t feel right to me: ‘Get up, go to school, come home, do your homework. Then after that, you’ve gotta go to sports’. Do I want my kids to be successful? Yes. But I really just want them to feel okay in their own skin. That’s really what I care about”.
“And I think we live in a society of people who don’t feel okay in their skin,” I asserted. “I think that should be what we are working on. I guess that would be my final question: How do we make a societal shift?”
“Ask yourself a simple question,” Nicole recommended. “‘Am I really taking care of myself?’ Not just externally. External is one piece of it. But that’s such a small piece of it. ‘Am I taking the time to check my mental health, and actually see if the way I’m living is in line with what I want to be doing?’ I think that’s where we can start. Obviously, the healthcare system plays such a big role in so many different things. I hope that holistic approaches are honored. Whether it’s yoga, or any of those things. I only say yoga because it’s something that can bring people inward”.
“Imagine you walk into your primary care and somebody asks, ‘How are you feeling mentally?’ Or, ‘Do you feel like your mind and your heart match up?’ And if they don’t, ‘Here’s some ways we can help you get to that place’. I spent my whole life trying to match up my head and my heart. I say my heart, but really my spirit”.
“We’d see our healthcare expenses plunge because people would be taking care of that internal stuff, and it would just have a ripple effect outward,” I declared. “It’s so funny that we just refuse”.
“I say I think it starts with our kids,” Nicole continued, “but for people who don’t have children – or are approaching their late twenties and just trying to find themselves – I think it’s important to sit down and make that to-do list. In nursing school, they used to tell us, when we did geriatrics, the ones who are angry are the ones who are filled with regret. It’s most likely because they led a life that just conformed to what they were told to do. That always stood out to me – when they said that. They’re at the end of their life with all this anger at nobody but themselves, really. Or maybe not. I don’t know. But I know that at the end of my life, if I live my life in accordance to what other people want me to do, I will end up angry, too”.
“That makes so much sense,” I remarked. “Imagine going to the doctor’s office and doing the rocking chair test: ‘Visualize sitting in a rocking chair at eighty. Are you happy with your life?’ And if the rocking chair test was a standard every time you went to the doctor’s office, we’d live in a different world”.
“My mom’s generation was taught that you just eat life, and it is what it is,” Nicole added. “’Don’t rock the boat. You just do what you have to do’. When you meet that generation – ‘It is what it is’ – they say that. But is it really what it is?”
“Look at the repercussions of living that way,” I observed.
“Right,” Nicole replied. “I think that is a big part of it”.
Nicole White/ Contributor
Autumn Khavari/ Contributor