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Addiction is the “other pandemic,” according to addiction expert and psychedelic proponent, Dr. Charles Flores. Originally from the Bronx, Dr. Flores stood witnessed the shift in the neighborhood in the mid to late 70s.Many have contended that drug were purposely “dumped” into poor neighborhoods by the government in the drug war. There were social groups organizing at the time, the Black Panthers, for example, which, just like the drugs, were criminalized. However, despite this, a rich culture began to emerge despite the real heavy toll that the Drug War had on poor urban areas around the country like the South Bronx.
Dr. Charles Flores saw the impact that addiction had. He became a California licensed and nationally-certified psychotherapist, and a state and internationally certified advanced drug and alcohol counselor who has practiced in multiple settings in the field of co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders for over 25 years.
After spending years directing several multi-million dollar substance abuse and mental health treatment programs in the Bay Area, Dr. Flores has shifted his expertise to his own company, Vital Puma Integral Recovery, which provides psychotherapy, education, and consulting. He is excited about the prospects for the use of psychedelic therapies for Recovery in this “psychedelic renaissance,” and directing these therapies to the underserved and traumatized populations that most need them.
According to Dr. Charles Flores, the internet may be the biggest addiction we currently face.
Dr. Charles Flores had many illuminating points about the roots of addiction, how to treat addiction successfully, and what is missing from Western practice. First of all, this coronavirus is causing an uptick in relapses and addiction rates, in general. According to Dr. Charles Flores, the internet may be the biggest addiction we currently face.
Maria Mocerino: What drew you to addiction treatment and recovery as a career?
Dr. Charles Flores: At a young age, I saw the impact that drugs were having in the South Bronx. I talked about this on a podcast.
In the fifties and early sixties we saw an acceleration of many people, who identified as White, to move from cities to suburbs–“The White Flight.”
MM: Can you talk a little about the social climate in the Bronx leading up to this?
CF: I lived in the Bronx for 46 years. This was after the civil rights movement, Lyndon Johnson, and the war on poverty. There were a lot of social programs that started coming about, and we had a lot of social unrest. In the fifties and early sixties we saw an acceleration of many people, who identified as White, to move from cities to suburbs–“The White Flight.”
The Bronx changed in five years. It was mostly White, and then it shifted to be mostly people of color–African-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Guyanese, Caribbeans, Jamaicans, etc. You could see the change in school photographs from year to year.
MM: What about the affordable housing situation in the Bronx at the time?
CF: There were so many vacancies that landlords started bringing in people from anywhere. Many were trying to get out of the rental business by setting the buildings on fire to get the insurance money. Then, government buildings were being burnt out and completely gutted. Later on, you heard about the crack houses and condemned buildings.
Mayor Koch decided to board up the windows and paint little pictures like a picture of a window and a flower pot. From the elevated train, you could see the flower-potted pictures of what was supposed to be a “nice looking apartment” building, but it was just a bandaid on top.
As a teenager, I was involved in developing affordable housing with landlords that actually cared the buildings that they ran. If replacing torn down buildings, we wanted to make sure that there was reliable housing, so that lower-middle class people could afford townhouses, for example, because that’s what people wanted–a house.They didn’t want to live in cramped apartments or housing projects–which was what they were building in the 50s and 60s–and it was a disaster.
You know, there’s the old 8% rule. If 8% of people are people of color, then White people will usually move out because they don’t see the value in staying because it’s “going bad…”
MM: What happened with the “White Flight?”
CF: You know, there’s the old 8% rule. If 8% of people are people of color, then White people will usually move out because they don’t see the value in staying because it’s “going bad…”
As a kid, I remember walking down certain blocks where entire rows of buildings were burnt out. I was concerned that our building was going to be next. There were a few times when we were ready to leave the building. There was trauma that way. Then, the drug addiction took over.
A lot of the crime was related to drugs, and even my father was an alcoholic. We had tumult around that because, in his case, he couldn’t hold a job. There was a patterning that came up around that addiction, an inherent sense of egocentricity that was heightened up.
Without fail, addiction has to do with feeling and emotion, and people never having learning the skill to deal with challenging emotions.
MM: What’s addiction about, since you treat so many different kinds?
CF: Without fail, addiction has to do with feeling and emotion, and people never having learning the skill to deal with challenging emotions. Shame is a huge one. When you don’t learn from your parents how to move through emotion, that is, develop emotional intelligence, then the easiest go-to is a substance.At least for a while, it shifts your feelings. If you’re biologically addicted like opiates, people can build up a tolerance up to the point that they are using to feel normal.
MM: What are you looking for in treatment?
CF: When treating addiction, I’m looking for the trauma that is creating all this anxiety in their normal life. In recovery, we work on living life on life’s terms. You can have things that you like and don’t like, and you can’t get everything you like all the time. You have a choice to make with that. You can these feelings but not to let them drive you. It’s the feeling that assaults in the body that leads to craving and relapse.
MM: Let’s talk about emotion and how emotional awareness plays into addiction.
CF: Beyond kindergarten, they are not teaching emotional awareness. Emotions, by their nature, are ephemeral. They move. You’re not going to get killed by a feeling, which is something I talk a lot about in recovery with clients. You feel bad, I get it. You feel a little anxious now? Breathe. Emotions can be like that, and they can just move on, if you don’t cling onto them.
MM: What about the family’s role in addiction?
CF: People can do great in rehab, but when they go home, they return to all the chaos that they left–their families. It’s the toxic shame–“I’m a bad person, let’s prove it.” Without family intervention, it makes it very difficult for people to detoxify and rehabilitate.
I’ve worked with younger people. Many times, it’s the parents that need treatment, not my seventeen year old client. To be fair, it’s been passed down. Addiction is chronic and multigenerational. Our society has been working to try to deal with addiction in the wrong way.
Addiction is a relatively recent phenomenon that has occurred over the last few centuries. It originates mostly in the West.
MM: You said that in this “psychedelic renaissance,” it was important to reframe our relationship to nature?
CF: I explain to my students at Cal State that we don’t see addiction like we do today. There were festivals in Ancient Greece where people got drunk, but you don’t hear about alcoholism or people getting addicted. Addiction is a relatively recent phenomenon that has occurred over the last few centuries. It originates mostly in the West.
We start to see its prevalence when human beings pulled these substances out of their sacred rites. We’re not against nature, above nature, nor the caretakers of nature. This planet is our parent. This is where we’re from. When you ingest plant medicines, you’re taking a bit of that spirit into your body and communing with it. When you’re doing it in a sacred space, there’s an understanding that you’re entering a dimension that’s different. To be fair, it was true for everything. If you hunted an animal, you were also worshipping your animal.
First Peoples simply maintained a relationship with nature.
MM: First Peoples, you said, simply maintained this relationship with their nature, meaning that they kept a connection to it. What happened in the West?
CF: Leading up to the Renaissance, the Moors of southern Spain had translated all these texts from Greek and Latin. Then, the monks started reconquering them, so they rediscovered what was Ancient Greece and Rome. The human became center–humanism, and then, we were “special.” We are still suffering from this split, when we saw nature as being sinful, evil, and something we have to repress. Whatever is man-made, that’s what we’re about.
Today, we tend to “psychologize” it and say it’s “mythic.” It’s not about being superstitious, or getting over or past something. Ken Wilbur says–“transcend and include.” We need to do more inclusion. Many of the First Peoples, and that includes pagans in Europe got burned under Christianity. We have a systemic desire to destroy people who connected to earth bound religions and connections.
In South America, they’ve been using coca leaves forever, but they never taught of making cocaine or crack. That was all a part of our Western desire to make things bigger, stronger, faster.
We could take these substances and make them stronger. We’ve developed the chemistry to do that. In recent centuries, we saw this with poppy from which morphine and heroin were synthesized. In South America, they’ve been using coca leaves forever, but they never taught of making cocaine or crack. That was all a part of our Western desire to make things bigger, stronger, faster. We need to have that higher high. To us, it’s just a dead mushroom on the ground. There isn’t really any relationship to it.
You are your own best doctor.
MM: When you talk about the importance of repairing our relationship to nature, can you talk about the spirit or substance itself that helps the person to rebuild that relationship?
CF: Firstly, as a therapist, we’re always addressing our client wherever they are. We cannot assume that they are going to have any understanding of anything. This isn’t just a pill you’re taking, it’s not the “Matrix,” it’s not “Alice in Wonderland.” This is opening you up to other parts of yourself, and this is a catalyst for you to connect with your deeper resources and see things in a new way. You are your own best doctor. This medicine is not an object. You’re putting it inside of you, and it’s helping you activate the power within yourself.
As we say in recovery, this is an inside job with outside help. The substance, the therapist, the underground sitter–that’s the “outside help.” First Peoples have a different perspective as to what is inside and outside, but these medicines provide you with huge opportunities to see things in a new way. Intention is a big factor. If you’re taking MDMA with a therapist present, and you’re focusing on this traumatic incident, it’s incredible what the person can do.
Here, it’s called “underground,” but people have been doing this legally for thousands of years. It wasn’t an issue, but here in the West it is. We hope it changes.
MM: You called addiction, “the other pandemic.” How has the coronavirus driven those numbers up?
CF: Alcohol and drug programs have always been in person. Part of the healing has been through connection, being embraced by others, and welcomed, so there’s a human connection that is integral to healing. We have people that can’t go to their counselor. We have to do it by telephone, if the person has a smart phone, can communicate through a screen, or even has a computer. It immediately creates a massive barrier to millions that may be considering treatment.
It makes no sense. We see enrollment drop, and cramped quarters. Many places have closed temporarily, on that level, so we’re talking access to treatment. In addition, you see people are struggling because they are at home. It’s the worst place to be, depending on where you live.
Many of us are suffering from high levels of anxiety, depression, and not having work. We’re seeing high spikes of drug use throughout the country.
MM: Can you extrapolate why being at home is provoking addictive behavior?
CF: Many of us are suffering from high levels of anxiety, depression, and not having work. We’re seeing high spikes of drug use throughout the country. You’re home, and using drugs and drinking is something you can still do. If you have issue around domestic violence, and you’re shelter in space, that increases the likelihood of use, for example, various kinds of abuse.
Addiction is the other pandemic. Everyone talks about unemployment, but we’re also have a mental health crisis. People are acting out in order to feel empowered. We don’t know how long this coronavirus is going to last in the US. We’re gotten the biggest hit, partly due to our response to it. It’s just a matter of time until the addiction pandemic becomes very visible to us.
MM: Are you hopeful about the role that psychedelics can play in helping us though this coronavirus?
CF: The legalization efforts around these substances for medical use and the research coming out about addiction–it could not come at a better time. People are experiencing PTSD now.
I’m having clients with trauma and vicarious trauma by social media. People who are more vulnerable, and who have been medicating themselves all along have all the more reason. I had clients who were depressed and this confirms it. They see the world’s gone to hell…
MM: That’s the validation right…
CF: Exactly. You try to counter it with your best behavioral statements. What you say is, what’s going on is true, you acknowledge it. Some of it is depressing, but we still have to maintain ourselves. Some people don’t have the resources to stay above water.
MM: You see this moment accelerating the psychedelic movement then, because of the need that’s there is already?
CF: It couldn’t come at a better moment. People could have used psychedelic-assisted therapy during the Great Depression.We’ve been impacted. It’s going to take a long time to move through this worldwide. People are loosing their livelihood before our eyes. The convergence of possibility, and the legalization of these substances are auspicious. It’s just not about the substances, either.
I’ve directed programs that are full service partnership. We had everything: job coach, psychologists, nurses and they were getting injected with the medications, so that they had compliance to it. Some people didn’t get better even with everything. It was just spinning wheels. That’s psychiatry. It’s really a tragedy. All the research that was done in the 50s and 60s for psychiatry sort of stopped. Now, we’re starting to see the possibility of opening that up.
In my role as the Psychedelic Addiction Fellow at the Center of Psychedelic Treatment and Research, I want to push these psychedelic/plant medicines forward, because we haven’t had great new medications in psychiatry.
MM: What is important about maintaining a sacred relationship with these psychedelic medicines?
CF: Once we engage with a sacralized relationship, the medicines activate us in a deeper way. We don’t have to do it the way shamans did it for a thousand years. We have to do something that works with us as well. It needs some degree of modification, but I think there is a lot of power in maintaining a sacred relationship with these medicines. It provides an opportunity for someone to become more subjectively aware, especially, if this person has been living “externally”–for the next drink and hit. They can’t see what’s inside.
With the right conditions, psychedelic-assisted therapies are a facilitated opportunity for someone to feel that traumatic experience, move through it energetically, and view their lives in a new way.
Many times, there is a barrier because of trauma and shame. Somehow, the substances can help go over those walls, at least, for a little while, and make it less painful. With the right conditions, psychedelic-assisted therapies are a facilitated opportunity for someone to feel that traumatic experience, move through it energetically, and view their lives in a new way.
Everything else is integration. The insight doesn’t create the change, it’s more likely that your change will create some insight. Cultivation of certain qualities such as gratitude become very prevalent, because you survived that, and whatever this is, is much much better. It becomes a great opportunity.
MM: What is a book on addiction you can recommend?
CF: Intoxication, By Ronald K. Siegel. When people chose to become intoxicated, it’s an attempt to transcend themselves and to move towards a spirit, a God, a high power, whatever you might call it. We’ve always wanted to connect with something larger. They say in 12 Step Programs that you have a God-shaped hole in your heart. That’s what you’re trying to see.
Gabor Mate, author of The Realm of the Hungry Ghosts, frames addiction as the hungry ghost, in that, it can never be satisfied. You have no stomach, so you’re a ghost. You try to eat, but there’s no satisfaction from it. That’s what the craving of addiction really is.
The internet is probably the biggest addiction that we have because we’re glued to screens.
MM: You said that the internet was one of the biggest addiction we currently face, can you extrapolate?
CF: The internet is probably the biggest addiction that we have because we’re glued to screens. The big tech companies have set up the internet so that you spend more time on it. They want more clicks. This is a war for attention.
There was an interview with the CEO of a world wrestling entertainment company. He said that people could watch wrestling, but there’s about a zillion other things they could be doing, too. It’s not a matter of competition, it’s about somebody playing a video game instead or watching football instead. The war for attention bifurcates us and separates us. What we see about the internet, people fighting with each other, and wanting to be a star in their own realm–is a direct result of the tech companies fighting for attention. The attention is money–the addiction, in my view, that is king.
MM: And countries are starting to diagnose this…?
CF: In South Asia, they are diagnosing people who are constantly on their phones, screens, apps. People can be addicted to reddit. I had a client once that was addicted to google earth. I have clients who dream about being on the internet. It’s as bad as using crack.
MM: What do you mean, that the Internet is as bad as using crack?
CF: Internet addiction is a gigantic elephant in the room, and we’re all subject to it.Many therapists are viewing electronic health care records. We’re spending an enormous amount of time with technology to do that. Young peoples’ brains are being formed around it. We don’t test the technology, and it’s potentially harmful to us. If an iPhone 12 comes out, for example, we don’t test what impact that’s going to have on us long term. The new technology is put out, and then, the market drives it.
MM: So, if you treat addiction to the Internet, then, you’re basically weaning them off the same system that upholds all these values. Your comment inspired me to think about addiction itself being tied to the system, because they have to bring you back into it, somehow.
CF: From a social standpoint, if you’re addicted to something, that’s advantageous, because you’re now caught in a habit. You don’t actually have freewill. You’re predictable. You can be manipulated, because you have an addiction. We learned this beginning in the 1970s.
MM: Because drugs were being dumped in places?
CF: Like South Bronx, and many other cities. Anything you can become enslaved to, you can be manipulated by. Ultimately, this is about freedom. Psychedelics provide a potential opportunity for us to reconnect with our bodies.
Psychedelics, when used in a therapeutic context, can create an opening to help people detoxify from the Internet.
Psychedelics, when used in a therapeutic context, can create an opening to help people detoxify from the Internet. This becomes a subject of harm reduction, but it isn’t just about the substance. Are you spending an hour on the internet a day but spending lots of time outside, biking, socializing, whatever? You want to reconnect with that nature that is your nature.
MM: Could you share a couple of the statistics about the internet?
CF: In places like Hong Kong and Singapore, they are paying much more attention to this because there are people who are addicted to apps. This figure is probably higher, but 10% of the total population of young people are clinically addicted. How much time are we’re spending online, especially under COVID? It’s a way we can socialize right now.
The internet is poison and medicine. On the one hand, we have the largest library in the world that has ever existed. On the same token, you can get completely lost in it, and lose any sense of connection and your immediate environment.
Addiction Recovery doesn’t take away the societal structure of racism, but it’s a major step.
MM: But addiction recovery is a process, right?
CF: Addiction recovery doesn’t solve everything. There are things to clean up. Addiction Recovery doesn’t take away the societal structure of racism, but it’s a major step. You become part of the potential change because you’ve done it in yourself. You can be in hell and come out of it, so why can’t society? Sharing your recovery with others can create meaning in people’s lives–the Gospel of Recovery.
You can’t keep building it unless you give it away. That’s service to meaning. I promote caffeine free, but whether you’re making the coffee, getting out the literature, or just being the secretary, you’re providing a service. That’s justice.
Art by Mariom Luna.
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