Features & Columns

Photograph by Bea Ahbeck

Break Yo Stigma

Seeing Ha now—a young-looking 34 years old, good-natured and jovial—it's hard to imagine those dark days. He jokes about some of them, about how ridiculous they seem from a vantage point of sanity. But he shares his story openly and often, before classrooms and support groups, as a mentor for the Santa Clara County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Ha created a popular Instagram account, @BreakYoStigma, where he posts uplifting images, quotes and personal recollections. It helps him heal and stay sober—four years and counting. Just by talking about it, Ha hopes to normalize discussions around mental illness and recovery and shatter the stigma that once prevented him from committing to treatment.

"It took me eight years to finally admit that I have bipolar disorder," he says. "A lot of people are in the closet with their addiction or mental illness or whatever they have, because it's so stigmatized."

His grassroots effort to make healing a public process reflects a sea change in recovery culture, one that's pulling it out of church basements and community centers and into the open.

For 80 years, Alcoholics Anonymous has dominated the recovery landscape. What started as a gathering of men and women trying to kick the bottle spawned a vast subculture with a prevailing attitude that recovery stories should remain secret, shared with only peers under the cloak of anonymity. The lexicon that spun off from the organization further alienated some people in recovery by framing addiction—a complex psychosomatic disorder—as a moral failing. Ha originally sought help through AA but left when he felt its characterization of his struggle as a weakness for vice missed the mark.

"I didn't realize until later that I was drinking to cover up a bigger problem that AA didn't address," he says.

Recovery culture, however, has evolved, informed now by an understanding of the psychology behind addiction and its origins in trauma, abuse and mental illness. Realizing that addictions—meth, sex with strangers, fast food, Facebook, exercise, cutting, shopping, setting fires, watching shitty TV, stealing—have less to do with moral turpitude and more to do with neurobiological anomalies, people in recovery are increasingly emboldened to "come out."

But not all addicts are obvious. They're often stay-at-home parents, public officials, managers at work, the barista, brother, sister, daughter, son or friend. For this story, Metro decided to focus on the everyday addictions over crude caricatures of rock bottom.

"We certainly carry a deep abiding appreciation for how the 12-step movement has helped people, but I think there's a growing realization that there are many pathways to recovery," says Dana Bainbridge, the genial pastor of downtown San Jose's First Christian Church, where she recently opened the Recovery Café, an open-to-all space for shared meals and therapeutic "recovery circles."

"We don't lock on to any one recovery pathway," Bainbridge adds.

After all, she says, we're all recovering from something.

Digital Detox

In a wide-open room with cathedral ceilings at a community center in Palo Alto, a few dozen people dressed in yoga pants, flowing skirts or gym clothes slowly dance to the New Age soundtrack lilting out of a MacBook Air. The lights stay off to let in the sunbeams. Throughout the hour or so of "free dance," as it's called, the tempo pulses from quick to calm. At one point, someone starts crawling around on all fours.

"I do this to unplug," says Robin Jaffe, 35, a self-described tech addict who finds solace in weekly "ecstatic dance" sessions.

Jaffe blames computers, tablets and smartphones for the latest widespread addiction. Studies have suggested that Internet addicts experience brain changes similar to those hooked on drugs. Jaffe's compulsive social media checks strained her relationship with her boyfriend, she says, which led her to seek out help at a digital detox camp last summer.

"Since we all have a phone, I think more people are at risk of developing an unhealthy habit," she says, gesturing with the iPhone she clutches during our conversation outside a San Mateo cafe. "Because we're so dependent on technology, we have to learn to be mindful when we use it."

At "Camp Grounded," a device-free retreat started two years ago by Levi Felix, another recovering tech addict, Jaffe indulged her urge to post status updates by scrawling her thoughts on index cards she hung up on a clothesline.

"It put into perspective how silly it was," she says with a laugh. "I guess, maybe, I'm more hooked to the instant connection, the gratification. Technology just gives me an easy way to get that fix."

If Jaffe's use seems innocuous—it didn't cost her a job or scare away friends—there are plenty of stories of debilitating tech addictions coming out of new clinics dedicated to treating Internet dependency. Last fall, Dr. Elaine Brady opened one such treatment center in San Jose, followed by breathless TV reports of its clientele: porn addicts who eschew meaningful relationships to spend some 30-odd-hours a week surreptitiously beating off under the blue light of their laptops.

Net Worthy Recovery—the only tech-dependency treatment center in Northern California—treats addictions to video gaming, texting, cybersex, social networking and other forms of digital dependence. Technology, Brady says, has created a new generation of addicts.

"For years, I was treating sex addicts, who often have a history of trauma, some elements around sexual molestation as a child or a dysfunctional family early in life," she says. "But I started getting people coming in with cyber sex addictions with no pattern of past abuse. Nothing triggered their impulsive, addictive behavior until they discovered online pornography or other highly addictive venues online, like multi-player gaming or gambling."

Brady's clients are more likely to have some untreated mental condition, like an attention deficit disorder, or struggle with feelings of isolation and loneliness, she says.

"Procreation and mating behaviors are the most hardwired of our instinctual drives," she explains. "All we have to do is start thinking about somebody we're attracted to and it triggers the release of chemicals in our brain that hook into the same neurotransmitters that amphetamines release."

Like any addiction, the cause lies deeper than the substance being abused. People develop the compulsion for emotional reasons, and then the biological urge takes over. But digital addicts don't suffer the same sort of discrimination leveled against chemical addicts. The criminalization of drugs means the people addicted to them face greater consequences—like jail—and bias that often prevents them from getting adequate medical care, or even a job. Jaffe and Brady suggest that the rise of digital addictions may give a broader cross-section of society empathy for the plights of other addicts.

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