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Amy Dresner
Amy Dresner

Breathwork as a Treatment for Addiction?

Nathaniel V. Dust is helping addicts get clean with Breathwork For Recovery

Barry J. Holmes
Source: Barry J. Holmes

I got wind of an ex-addict doing breathwork with people at various rehabs with supposedly rave results. His name is Nathaniel V. Dust and he is not your typical hippie weirdo. Far from it. When I showed up at his house to sit down with him, he was wearing a pink tie, pink socks with the words “sock whore” and cats on them and a plaid suit jacket with a pink handkerchief peeking out of the pocket. Oh, and he has a mohawk.

(I was so intrigued following this interview that I had a session with Nathaniel. I don’t want to get into too much detail but it was, and I’m not exaggerating, incredibly profound. Imagine easily and quickly tapping into your primary wound without years of expensive analysis and sobbing like a child as you let it all go. Then imagine feeling an electricity running through your body that makes you wonder if you’re grabbing live wire with wet hands.)

You yourself have struggled with addiction and were in treatment (which is where you originally discovered breathwork). Are you sober now? How long? What other types of paths to sobriety did you try before discovering breathwork?

Nathaniel: Yes, I've been sober for more than 5½ years, which is mind boggling to think about. I used and dealt meth a little bit when I was younger, but I was a terrible dealer; I would rather just use it all with my friends. Started slamming it when I was 17. When I stopped doing that, I could never figure out why I couldn’t stop drinking. I mean, here I was slamming dope like a fiend and a simple thing like putting down a bottle of whiskey confounded me. I would drink until I passed out, wake up, drink again until I passed out. I went to detox many times, tried meetings and went to therapy. I couldn’t get connected to anything until I found breathwork. For me, the first time I did breathwork, everything just started falling into place. My path became clear and it was only through practiced vulnerability that I was able to change my life. I needed to break down the walls that disconnected me from others—especially myself.

Explain exactly what breathwork is for us.

Nathaniel: Breathwork is a simple (not easy) practice; a two-stage breath technique that essentially gives the mind something with which to occupy itself and tricks it into shutting up for a few minutes. In that short period of time, the brain calms and allows us to experience what it's like to be connected; connected to the most intimate parts of ourselves. Emotions that have been suppressed for years begin to stir and we get the chance to process and heal old trauma, finally giving us a sense of safety that we’ve never experienced before.

What kind of changes/impacts have you seen on clients?

Nathaniel: The most common change I see in clients is that they quickly begin to love themselves, forgive themselves. Clients have had profound spiritual experiences that change them forever and help them stay sober. By “spiritual experience,” I mean something existential—a human becoming aware that he or she is responsible for his or her own life and choices and that he or she has the power to change that by becoming connected to themselves.

One of the biggest impacts I've seen was from a man who walked in and laid on my table so angry that I wasn't sure if he was going to punch me in the face or storm out. He said he was willing to "give this hippie crap one try." He was in tears by the end of the session, having moved through and released so much anger. For the first time, he was able to successfully identify and connect to the pain and trauma that he had been stifling for so many years with heroin.

How long have you been working in treatment and with other addicts?

Nathaniel: About 5½ years. I started volunteering at the treatment center I worked at as soon as I was released back into the wild.

Your website calls you a “heretic healer.” Please explain.

Nathaniel: The answer is contained in the etymology of the word heresy, which roughly translates to the right to choose. I believe the healer has the ability to help others find freedom, especially from addiction. On the other side of that, I don’t necessarily fit in with the “healer” community. I’m not going to tell you to put crystals on your heart chakra and I sure as heck am not going to suggest you stay positive and grateful when your world is crashing down around your ears. Healing is messy; it requires us to take a look at all of our darkness and embrace it. Lots of people who call themselves “healers” often spout pseudo-spirituality as the solution, failing (and sometimes even avoiding) to confront the deep trauma and emotions that remain latent underneath.

As a “heretic healer,” the message I carry is one of personal truth. If we don’t look at and embrace all sides of ourselves then we only have partial truth, which means on some level, we are living a lie. I want the messy stuff to get out into the open, the secrets to be revealed, and the darkness to be seen for what it is: neither good nor bad, just there. This darkness becomes a lot less scary when we can see it. Remember the old cartoons where the big, terrifying shadow is creeping up on the person, and when they finally look and see what it is (rather than cower or run from it), it turns out to be a tiny mouse? Yeah. That’s healing. The heretic is the outcast. The rebel with a cause. If I can help a person channel that rebellion into a creative place instead of letting it destroy him or her, that’s heresy. If you rebel without really having a cause, the master you rebel against is still the master you serve.

What is breathwork’s efficacy in comparison to talk therapy?

Nathaniel: Apples and oranges. The breathwork is quick, which is why I favor its application when working with addicts. Within a few moments, people begin to feel something. We get to uncover things in a matter of a few minutes that with talk therapy may not get addressed for a long time. Some people speak to this being dangerous as it uncovers trauma that the addict or alcoholic may not be ready to deal with, but that's just fear mongering. If it comes up, neither the client nor healer should try and shut that off or postpone it. Heck, that’s what addicts have been doing for a lifetime already. It shouldn’t take years to get the healing you desire.

The breathwork can quickly deconstruct and break through the defense-mechanisms typically encountered during talk therapy. If a therapist is having trouble getting a client to connect to their emotion or trauma, that’s where breathwork comes in. At some point, talking about the problem is no longer useful in extirpating the root cause of a client’s issue. Some of my clients have been to treatment 30 times and have talked to twice as many therapists. They’re talked out. But get ‘em breathing and see what happens. The walls get smashed down and we get to look at things that they’ve hidden from themselves and their therapists for years. Hell, this work has gotten people to cry for the first time in 15+ years—people so shut off from their ability to feel that they were unable to mourn at their parents’ funerals.

What is the most incredible thing you’ve seen happen with a client?

Nathaniel: Let’s first dispel any idea that I perform miracles. I want to help empower my clients. That said, I've had clients holding onto deep trauma start breathing and come out forgiving their abusers and then actually changing the negative behavior associated with being abused. I've watched clients connect to their spirituality in ways that only they can define. I've witnessed clients learn to love themselves and watched their entire lives change as a result. If that's not miraculous, then I don’t know what is.

What do you think addiction is about? Trauma? OCD? Disease? Spiritual illness? Physical allergy?

Nathaniel: I think it's a coping mechanism that is created in an attempt to self-medicate. We reach out to our substance(s) of choice in order to cope with our reality with instant results. It works, so we continue to do that until we destroy ourselves. Some findings show that addicts and alcoholics are wired differently and because of that, we behave differently. Recent neuroscience research is obviating the disease model with studies revealing that addiction is a habit that changes the brain like many other habits, except for this being a deadly one. More research shows that the cause of addiction is tied to a lack of human connection and community. Our brains put the drug at the top of our needs-for-survival list, which affects our ability to choose (another nod to heresy), but we wouldn't have pushed ourselves to that point had there not been something wrong that we were trying to fix in the first place.

Addiction is not the problem. Drugs and alcohol are not the problem; they are the solution to a problem that is much deeper. We're humans attempting to cope with our realities. Our methods vary considerably, but in my mind, it comes down to one basic trait: We don't love ourselves. We were taught that love was not safe, that we couldn't trust it or it would let us down, so we push away anything that resembles love while simultaneously searching for it with the kind of desperation that any dying man or woman would have. Drugs have a way of making a person feel like everything is going to be okay, that he or she is all right. But what they’re truly seeking is love. Drugs are a poor imitation, but they do the trick when everything we’ve come to believe about love condemns it as anathema. There are a lot of other things, too, that lead to addiction.

The system we have now is helping create a lot of addicts by the way it isolates the “addict” and treats him or her like a criminal instead of someone seeking help. This involves the systemic racism and classism that is tantamount to the capitalism we have here in the U.S. We’re not helping anyone when we create a system in which they are born to fail. We are not teaching children healthy coping mechanisms, so they grow up not knowing how to deal with the things that happen in their lives. When they first try a drug or a drink, the sense of relief they feel is one they seek over and over again. Let’s start by approaching these issues from a societal standpoint, and then addiction may not even happen in the first place. I would be happy to find my work not needed any longer. I could grow a garden and build motorcycles.

You’re all about empowerment and take no credit for any “success.” You are merely there to be a conduit to help people connect to themselves. Talk more about that.

Nathaniel: Really, the breath is a tool that helps people connect to what I would describe as love. Not love between two people, like a father and son or a woman and her lover, but universal, unconditional love. I accept myself for who I am and I accept you for who you are. There are many facets to love: compassion, respect, kindness, acceptance. Boundaries are a big component. I help people get tuned into all of that. Certainly, I hold space for that to occur during sessions, but mostly I just help clients get out of their own way and let the breath do the work.

What makes a client a good candidate for this type of work?

Nathaniel: Breathwork can help all kinds of people; there is no official criteria that makes someone a good candidate. My favorites to work with, however, are the skeptics. The ones who have "tried it all." The doubters and the cynics. They're the ones I really love to help because this practice can disarm their busy minds long enough to let them have a spiritual experience. They usually end up becoming the breath's biggest advocates.

You say addicts/alcoholics are mostly not afraid of death or even pain, so what are we afraid of? And how is breathwork helpful in that?

Nathaniel: Most addicts I have known have spat in the face of death. We have longed for its embrace. We have even attempted to achieve it. I think we're most afraid to see ourselves as we are: the things we’ve done wrong, the people we’ve consciously hurt; the great things we can accomplish; the people's lives we might change. Because then we have to take responsibility and who the fuck wants that? Breathwork confronts the things that we believe about ourselves and shines a light on all of our lies. Only then can we begin to see our truth—and it’s not always pretty, but always beautiful.

You told me that breathwork is especially appealing to addicts because it’s more immediate in its relief and we love fast results.

Nathaniel: Give it 15 minutes of your time and you’ll see. I bet it can help you find something real faster than it’d take you to drive to your dealer’s house.

You’re big into getting other addicts certified in breathwork so that they can help others. Tell me about that.

Nathaniel: It's about building community. My mentor, David Elliott and I can't do this alone and we don't want to—plus, there’s no better way to cultivate a skill than by teaching it to others. Get people connected to a community and see how fast they can inspire change within themselves and others. The more people we train and certify, the more lives we can touch and save. I want the world to be a better place, and the only way I can do that is by becoming better myself.

This article originally appeared in The Fix.

About the Author
Amy Dresner

Amy Dresner is a recovering comic/drug addict and the sole columnist for the addiction/recovery magazine The Her memoir My Fair Junkie: A Memoir of Getting Dirty and Staying Clean (Hachette) is out now.

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