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CommunityMental Health‘Addiction is an escape hatch from pain’

When Dubai-based Canadian Nancy Zabaneh moved from corporate banking to the wellness world, it was a deep dive. She’s a Kundalini yoga instructor and a compassionate inquiry therapist, practicing a psychotherapeutic approach founded by the Canadian physician, author, speaker and addiction specialist Dr Gabor Maté. People usually think of drugs or alcohol when they think of addiction. But as Nancy explains, the addiction is really whatever we use to escape from pain. “When we use it repeatedly,...
Ann Marie McQueenDecember 22, 202216 min
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Nancy zabaneh addictionNancy Zabaneh/Image courtesy Bodytree

When Dubai-based Canadian Nancy Zabaneh moved from corporate banking to the wellness world, it was a deep dive. She’s a Kundalini yoga instructor and a compassionate inquiry therapist, practicing a psychotherapeutic approach founded by the Canadian physician, author, speaker and addiction specialist Dr Gabor Maté.

People usually think of drugs or alcohol when they think of addiction. But as Nancy explains, the addiction is really whatever we use to escape from pain.

“When we use it repeatedly, to the extent that something else is happening,” she says, “our relationships are affected, our bodies are not serving us in the same way anymore, our minds are not working in the way that we would like them to work, then this is already having a negative impact.”

You talk about the stigma associated with therapy in the Arab world. How have you experienced this?

Having lived here for 20 years, there’s definitely a feeling that what happens at home should stay at home and also, that if we’re feeling sad or angry about something, that we should conceal it with a smile or that there’ll be other things that we can cloak to hide those feelings.

In the Arab world and being originally Arab myself, my parents are both Palestinian, although I was born in Canada, I get that. There isn’t a lot of talk about our feelings. We don’t talk about when we’re sad. We focus on the bliss, we focus on the joy, we focus on the happiness. That’s a cultural thing, not that easy to actually admit when we’re feeling sad, not that easy to go public about when we’re feeling sad and to show that level of vulnerability. I would say the stigma is very much still around showing vulnerability and being truthful to oneself, not just privately, but publicly because of the cultural byproduct that is associated with going out there and being honest with our feelings.

How much do you think religion plays into it? 

The whole sentiment around Inshallah, that God-willingness, and that all things come from the divine and all things go back to the divine, in a way, allows one to say, ‘Okay, well, it’s coming from God and therefore it’s okay. I just need to live with it. I need to deal with it.’ There could be an element of it, and some of that is cultural, but at the same time, I would still argue that it’s less about the religion and much more about just the way that we as Arabs manage our feelings.

Do people need to acknowledge it? To talk about it? 

It takes a lot to be able to come out and say, ‘I’m depressed’. It takes a lot to actually acknowledge what that experience is like in your mind and in your body and to be able to say ‘you know what? I actually feel depressed’. The thing with depression is that we all have those moments of feeling low and what takes us into depression is the depth of that loneliness and lowness, I should say, and the inability that we might have to pull ourselves up. It’s almost like a stuckness of that low state because we all have dips, it’s part of being human.

There are days when we feel more joyful, days when we feel more sad, days when the anger gets to us more intensively and a lot of that is biochemical, a lot of it. When we begin to understand the body, we learn the importance of the breath and movement and actually, altering our state, but just how important it is to be able to actually stop, feel and say, ‘I’m depressed. I’m depressed. Okay. All right, what am I going to do about this? This is the energy that’s not moving inside of me. This is something that doesn’t seem to be shifting. What can I do?’ Actually, just the very act of saying, ‘This is how I feel. I’m depressed’, is already creating a shift.

Can you explain compassionate inquiry? 

As we understand it, addiction really is anything that we do repeatedly that has a negative impact and is used as an escape hatch. Anything that we are using. I use that word use. What am I using? Using anything. Using our social media, we could be using sugar, we could be using food, we could be using alcohol, we could be using burying ourselves in somebody else’s story, as an escape hatch. An escape hatch from what? We talk about the pain and most of us are experiencing some level of pain that we haven’t fully processed or addressed.

The answer is to address the pain, to feel the pain, to process the pain, to acknowledge the pain and to move through it, and this is something that Gabor talks a lot about, and we actually talk a lot about it in the teachings of Kundalini yoga. In a way, his teachings are very much in sync with the yogic teachings and especially the teachings that I’ve been working with very, very closely for the last 10 years.

How do you begin to unearth that pain?

Pain is really sadness, and that sadness can be expressed in many different ways, including anger and we know that anger is the bodyguard of sadness, in fact. It could be as simple as just starting by getting into your body and acknowledging that something’s there. It could begin with a journey of acknowledging that stagnant energy, the energy that’s not moving inside of you. It could begin with a visit to a trusted mentor or a therapist or a coach, and you suddenly realize, actually, ‘Gosh, I’m hanging onto something that is an old story, and something that is part of my childhood, something that is a part of me. It could be a chat with one of your girlfriends, where you actually realize that there is something there.

We all have pain. We were all born into a life with different social conditions and social programs and through our social conditioning, we would have developed certain reactive patterns and coping mechanisms. Cope, I use the word coping because we would have coped with something in our environment that didn’t entirely serve what we, as children, might have needed. That’s not because our parents or our caretakers, or whatever was going on around us, wasn’t necessarily ideal. It’s because the nature of being human is to have an experience of that lack and we search for it for the rest of our lives.

We search for it in so many different ways, in another partner, in an addiction, through the work that we do, and we yearn and we chase and we yearn and we chase, when actually, everything is inside of us. It’s an old program, an old pattern that just hasn’t been fully addressed. Sometimes when we acknowledge that one thing that kept us going in our reactive pattern for years and years and years, sometimes decades, we’ve already cut the cord of that pain.

What are some of the things you encourage people to do? 

The first thing would be to ask ‘do you have a spiritual practice’? When I talk about spiritual practice, I’m not talking about necessarily just going to the mosque and praying on Fridays or going to church every Sunday, like clockwork, it’s do you have something that keeps you in the remembrance that you are more than just your flesh and bones, that you’re more than just your mind, that you’re a spirit being in this human life? Something that just keeps you in remembrance of that wonder, of that mystery that goes beyond anything the finite mind would have us know.

It could be as simple as a practice of watching the sunset at the same time every day. It could be your weekly hike into the desert or into the mountains. It could be your time by the sea, when you just go into deep states of silence without your phone, without a friend, without chit-chatting, it could be you and your dog, whatever is your experience of spirit. It’s really do you have that?

I encourage people to have also self-care pillars. What do you do when you’re feeling at the end of your tether? What do you do when you have a really intense week of work? What mechanisms do you have for self-care? Do you treat yourself to a massage every two weeks? Do you treat yourself to a meeting with your girlfriends? Girlfriends, it’s not like drinking buddies, but that really reflect the light of your soul, that reflect the light of that spirit, that see the best of you. That’s something that I push people to find, conscious community. If you look at cultures where people are very long-lived, you will find that inevitably, community is a central aspect of their lives because community keeps us going. Remember that the bridge between the individual and the universal is community, which is why we’re suffering so much in this pandemic, because that community is being taken away from us.

Finally, I would say that, find that mentor in your life, realize who that person is. It could be one mentor, it could be two mentors, but we thrive on mentorship. It’s really, really important to find that person who is pushing you, who is poking you, who’s provoking you to find and realize that best version of yourself.

• Nancy Zabaneh was a guest on The Livehealthy Podcast

• This article originally ran on November 22, 2021.

Ann Marie McQueen

Ann Marie McQueen is the founding editor-in-chief of Livehealthy and host of The Livehealthy Podcast. She is a veteran Canadian digital journalist who has worked in North America and the Middle East. Her past roles include features editor for The National, trends writer and columnist for the Canadian newspaper chain Sun Media, and correspondent for CBC Radio.

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