They say it takes a village to raise a child, and for me, this proverb is never more present than when I’m working alongside people in recovery. Recovery requires a rebirth of the body, mind, and soul – and the key to this rebirth is connection to others, and to community.
Seven years ago, I was fortunate to be the Spiritual Director of Breathe Life Healing Center in West Hollywood, a community-based treatment program for addiction recovery. I later collaborated with Recover Integrity in West LA to create Sanctuary in the City, a boutique recovery program based on the Seven Foundations.
The Seven Foundations creates embodied ritual to help people transform the mundane into the sacred. Among those struggling to free themselves from addiction, the Foundations seemed to grow new roots and reach new depths.
Through these experiences, one of the things I have come to appreciate is just how fundamental it is to feel witnessed and supported by others in the process of self-exploration. My work is most often about helping people go on their own personal vision quests, and yet, the more I explore addiction recovery, the more I find that the experience of both feeling seen and heard – and to see and hear others – takes the vision quest to an entirely new level. In the ceremonies I facilitate, we call this finding your Spirit Buddy.
I recently teamed up with Westwind Recovery, which offers substance use and mental health treatment for all levels of care in Los Angeles, on retreat in Bass Lake, California. Their mission is to combine traditional therapy with alternative therapies like yoga, breathwork, music therapy, and adventure therapy in order to create holistic and comprehensive treatment.
Sober Living Through Spirit Buddies
As part of daily rituals and journeying on retreat, I invited participants to team up with a Spirit Buddy – someone who they might not have known or spoken to deeply before. At every moment we had group, I’d have them work with their Spirit Buddy, to emphasize coming back, processing in the discomfort, and holding each other.
Being able to sit with someone, to deeply heart share, and to be witnessed and held creates both availability and accountability. There’s a point where I ask Spirit Buddies to stand back-to-back, and just to feel what it means to really trust and believe that this person has their back.
So often, people suffering with addiction have endured profound trauma in their lives – and often that trauma happened at the hands of a loved one. Connections become riddled with mistrust, as addiction isolates the person further.
Spirit Buddies watched each other in pain and growth – and by day five, the participants had opened up in places that had been very closed and resistant. People tracked discomfort and fear with each other – and tears and laughter and resistance and joy emerged. It took a tribe to be able to go to this next level of healing and really walk their truth.
I teamed up with some of my Spirit Buddies who help run Westwind’s program to ask them to share their stories with me.
The Westwind Team & Their Stories
Although I joined the Westwind team on their Bass Lake retreat, where I facilitated Conscious Dance workshops and Spirit Buddy activities, it wasn’t until later that I got to sit down with them and listen to their individual stories — their treatment experiences, personal connections with Westwind, and hopes for those in recovery at the moment.
Zachary Ament, co-founder of Westwind, told me about how experiences of isolation fed addiction:
I was always looking for a community, having recognized that I was a young, gay boy at 13. I always felt separate and apart from not only my family — who were super liberal — but from others. I still had that ‘other’ feeling. Once I found a crowd that was drinking and also doing some drugs, I kind of immediately felt a part of [it]. A lot of my story in using and recovery is based in community — either in lack of connection or feeling super connected. If I accidentally find myself not connected to my community, that’s when I do start to have the thoughts of ‘Oh, maybe I can drink again!’ Basically just alcoholic thoughts.
I think for a lot of people, when they’re in their addiction, their lives become so small that they don’t see the world or even their backyard. They don’t experience what it’s like to be in relationships with others, let alone with themselves….I believe that a lot of our growth in recovery is taking a bunch of different principles from actual therapy — whether it’s a spiritual basis or 12-Step programs — and applying it to our lives. Because there is no one size fits all structure. My one solid foundation has always been the 12 Steps, but I fluctuate….We wanted to show people that life in recovery is not only fun, but we get to learn about ourselves through experience.
Michael Shahin, Westwind’s Housing and Alumni Officer, told me about a story that reminded me how one connection can make an enormous difference:
The clients really build a strong community and fellowship, and they always come back stronger, come back leaders, and are able to get back on their feet…. The Spirit Buddy system got so much positive feedback because of that connection you create with somebody, face your fears, and find yourself.
Growing up, I was always very uncomfortable with myself. And I was always looking for something to comfort that discomfort, and so I learned to grasp onto certain addictions. It started with food and sugar, and my disease with addiction is definitely a progressive one. As I got older and more mature, it went from food and sugar to alcohol. That progressed even more from alcohol to party drugs, ecstasy, THC. Eventually, at the end of my addiction, I was using daily crystal meth, alcohol — you name it. Anything that’d get me out of my comfort zone and out of my head.
It allowed me to push away anything that was important, anyone that cared for me — I pushed all of that away. Eventually, after so many bottoms and heartbreaks and tragedies, I had a moment of clarity. I realized this is not who I am. I was spiritually bankrupt, and for the first time ever I was absolutely miserable and nothing could make me happy, even the drugs and alcohol that fueled my addiction for so long.
I reached out to somebody that I knew that had gotten sober, and asked for help. The first thing that person did was offer me to meet them at Shakey’s and accompany them to an AA meeting afterwards. I was terrified and frightened, but I knew something needed to change. From that very moment, I started to make conscious decisions to change my life. I started going to meetings, I realized how happy people were in the rooms, and I thought it was insane because I hadn’t seen people that happy in a long time….I started volunteering, I had commitments at several meetings, I did charity work, joined convention boards.
Slowly but surely, the wreckage of my past started to clear up. I realized what was important in life, like physical fitness, mental clarity, financial stability, healthy relationships, creating a community. I started to do that one day at a time. Before you knew it, things just started to radically change. I left the entertainment industry and decided that I wanted to get into a line of work that was helping people, so I started working in treatment.
Rachel Corbett, Westwind’s Brand Officer, also shared a story where a “spirit buddy” of sorts emerged from an unlikely place and changed her life:
Very similar to Mikey and Zach, I experienced always being uncomfortable, always feeling something was off. I started drinking when I was 15, doing drugs when I was 18. I got my first DUI when I was 17 and from there I continued to be arrested over and over and over again. I never got away with anything, but it never slowed me down no matter what kind of trouble I got into.
I had to keep bashing my head against the wall and it wasn’t until I was arrested in 2003, the last time, that I realized I wasn’t going to get out of this one. I was facing 8-10 years in prison, and I kind of started to accept that I wasn’t going to see my son grow up, I wasn’t going to repair relationships with my family, and things got very dark for me. My father used to be a police officer, so when I would be arrested, I would go into solitary and it’s called K-10. That’s when you’re in your cell 23 hours a day and you only get out to shower. It affected me on a cellular level, it meant I couldn’t talk to people, know how to function. All my contact was with deputies bringing me food.
The last time I was in K-10, I was there for a year. And there was an amazing District Attorney who finally noticed that I had never been offered treatment, and started to wonder why that is. I always thought ‘detox’ just meant you go to jail and detox, I didn’t know it was a place. Everyone agreed and I was sent to a behavior modification treatment center, all female. I was there for a year, I had to drug test multiple times every week, and if I failed at all, I had to serve that 8-10 year sentence.
They would bring AA meetings in and that was the first time I could really HEAR what people were saying and how these women’s lives changed. I knew I wanted a better life, I just didn’t know how to get it. When we started being allowed to go OUT to meetings, I got a sponsor, and I clinged to that person. I told them, ‘Whatever you tell me to do, I’ll do it, because I don’t have the answers.’ I wasn’t even willing, I was just desperate.
This year marks 16 years of sobriety for Rachel.
Former House Manager, Briana Marhecke, expands upon the meaning of the trip to Bass Lake for her, as well as her appreciation for the Spirit Buddy system:
I came into treatment at WestWind two years ago completely broken, both spiritually and emotionally. After trying for years to get sober, I realized the importance of strengthening my spiritual condition and putting it above everything else in my life. I went through treatment and started meditating regularly, as well as doing yoga almost every day and changing my lifestyle to take better care of my body, mind, and soul.
I went on the trip to Bass Lake as a sort of send-off because I was moving out of managing sober living, and the treatment center I was connected to hosted the trip. I had an indescribably wonderful experience with the ceremonies led by Parashakti, and it shifted my perspective on myself and those around me. I went into the first night very skeptical and self-conscious, but I became comfortable almost immediately, mainly due to Parashakti’s energy and the way she was so unapologetically who she is.
The blindfolded dancing with our Spirit Buddies was by far my favorite part of the entire trip. Something about being in the dark but knowing I wasn’t alone helped me tap into the beautiful world we are all a part of and connected to. Watching the clients shed their skepticism and fears was also a beautiful thing to witness. I know my Spirit Buddy had a lot of doubts about the dances and the ceremonies, but by the end of it, I saw him completely come into his own space and dance without hesitation. The experiences I had on this camping trip were genuinely profound and I will cherish them forever.
Danny Shaw, Director of Housing at Westwind, recounts similar sentiments about the Spirit Buddy process we engaged in at Bass Lake:
I came to LA 4 years ago in search of a new experience with recovery. I was trapped in the addiction cycle, in and out of homelessness, and empty inside. I looked for relief and solutions in many ways, most to no avail, but I realized that if I was ever going to get and stay sober, I was going to have to start growing my spiritual life.
I went to treatment, where I was first introduced to Westwind Recovery. Little did I know that the people I met there would become my second family. I began praying, meditating, and started a regular yoga practice. I have over three years sober now and my life has grown into something better than I could have ever imagined possible. I am truly happy and able to appreciate all the amazing opportunities and people placed in my path.
When I heard that Parashakti would be joining us on our annual camping trip, I was eager to learn her approach to spirituality and try some new things. Most of the exercises I’d never done before, and I certainly had to work through some self-doubt and awkwardness to fully apply myself — especially when it came to the dancing. But, when I did step out of fear and dived into the dance, I was able to recapture these feelings of lightness and joy that made me feel like a little kid again. Luckily, from the beginning, everybody was paired with Spirit Buddies and I was able to feel supported through the trip knowing that someone else was walking through all the exercises with me.
There was reluctance and nervousness from the clients at the opening ceremony… but by the end of the trip, I think every single client was participating and even excited to do the exercises. We see the clients in a more serious lens a lot of the time, and to see them all let loose and tap into this side of themselves was a beautiful experience, as well as a great reminder of how we are all just parts of a whole.
The retreat was a cherished experience for me – to watch the clients transform over the course of the week was like an energetic walk, like a journey up a mountain. Ultimately, being able to witness such awakening is a gift that helps me become more available and in tune with my own practice, and to recognize that self-exploration becomes safer – and often deeper – when it is witnessed with compassion.
To learn more about the Westwind Recovery Treatment Center, their inspiring approach to sober living, and upcoming retreats they’re working on, visit their website: https://www.westwindrecovery.com/.
Parashakti’s 7-week program, Birthing the Shaman Within, begins Oct. 5. This group-oriented experience will take place virtually, and is aimed at long-term healing solutions for those in recovery. SIGN UP HERE to save your spot.
Parashakti’s shamanic healing work is born of more than two decades of experience facilitating workshops, trainings, and retreats around the world, in Los Angeles, New York, Mexico, Bali, Guatemala, Indonesia, Israel, and Greece. As a lifelong dancer, her path as a healer followed a severe injury – a period of what is often called shamanic dismantling, after which her mission shifted towards healing. Over the last 20 years, Parashakti has developed the Seven Foundations and the Dance of Liberation™, as maps for her spiritual practice, living and breathing these foundations in daily ritual. Dance of Liberation™ has been practiced by over 10,000 dancers around the globe. It’s was born of a mission to help people experience ecstasy – without taking it.
Above all, Parashakti is dedicated to serving community and creating a sacred container where people feel safe enough to experience their deepest essences, honor their voices, and shine their brightest light. Join her on the Dance floor: www.parashakti.org