Acupuncture turns addict into a believer

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Ed Dowdell can’t remember a time when he wasn’t on something.

He started drinking at the age of seven and then added drugs into the mix as a young adult. His life was a vicious cycle of abuse and addictions. The addictions helped numb the pain of his Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but caused his mind to race and his hands to shake. Sleeping was never easy and relaxing was out of the question. He became a workaholic – a man always running at full speed.

And so when his addictions counselor at Barrie’s Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre (RVH) suggested he try acupuncture as a way to relax, he just had to laugh. “I thought it would be a waste of time. I actually thought it was joke. I was so skeptical,” says Dowdell.

And so with his arms crossed and a scowl on his face, the 51-year-old Barrie man sat against the wall in the group therapy room. He didn’t really want to be there, but he had no place else to be, so the frowning cynic stayed. And all it took was one session to make a believer out of this ‘Doubting Thomas’.

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“Once Brian put the music on, and put the acupuncture needles in my ear, I shut my mouth, put my head back, closed my eyes and for the first time in as long as I can remember I relaxed,” says Dowdell. “I have never felt so at peace. I felt like I was floating down a river – so safe and calm. That night I had the best sleep in 36 years.”

Dowdell was among the first group of patients at RVH to be offered auricular acupuncture as an alternative therapy for addictions or mental health issues. The service began in May 2013 and since then almost 1,700 such therapies have been administered in RVH’s Inpatient Mental Health program. The program has been so successful that an additional five staff members have been trained to deliver acupuncture treatments.

“Adding an alternative therapy, such as acupuncture, into a client’s treatment plan is part of RVH’s ongoing commitment to deliver safe, quality, patient-centred care with a focus on individualized treatment plans that best meet the unique needs of our clients,” says Chris Nichols, manager, Mental Health and Addiction Services. “This alternative therapy is an innovative practice in an inpatient setting. It promotes a holistic approach to recovery and teaches patients techniques for relaxation, other than substance or prescription medication.”

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According to Nichols, more than 75 per cent of RVH mental health clients suffer from both addiction and mental illness, which are chronic in nature and can be very debilitating. “That is why it is so important to teach people how to manage their symptoms with more natural methods and ones they can do at home or at work,” says Nichols.

Brian Irving, RVH addictions counselor, has witnessed first-hand the benefit of using acupuncture. “People find it very calming and are more open and relaxed. Acupuncture is a way to build trust with clients who, after the treatment, are more willing to open up and talk about their other issues during counseling,” says Irving. “I know many people view acupuncture as holistic, but it is actually very complementary to modern science. Acupuncture won’t cure anyone, but it can ease the symptoms of substance use, withdrawal and various mental health issues, including depression, anxiety and PTSD.”

Typically, an acupuncture session at RVH is done in a group setting. Irving inserts five needles in the ears of each client, dims the lights, puts on calming music and lets the group relax. Acupuncture is being utilized in RVH’s inpatient mental health unit, the outpatient mental health program and more recently it has been offered to patients in the withdrawal management program and 21-Day residential treatment program.

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“Part of the purpose of acupuncture is to learn to relax. When people are stressed they sometimes turn to addictive behaviours as a way to escape and cope,” says Irving.

Dowdell knows all about that. “I was tense all the time and when I first came here my hands were shaking so badly I couldn’t hold a glass. My mind was racing so fast I couldn’t think straight,” says Dowdell. “It has calmed me down – I’ve never felt this way before. I couldn’t wait for the next session.”

Dowdell has since been discharged from RVH to a community-based 90-day treatment program where he is looking forward to cleaning up and get back to enjoying his family. “I’m definitely a believer now. And I hate needles – really do,” he laughs.