Academy of Hope, Stedman Graham, and Joe Polish’s Genius Network

After surviving rock bottom, Andre Norman founded “The Academy of Hope” with the goal to diminish violence in prisons. Contributors include Stedman Graham, Joe Polish (founder of Genius Recovery Foundation) and The Genius Network®.

Andre Norman overcame poverty, gangs, and prison to become an International Speaker and Harvard Fellow. Having survived rock bottom, Andre knew he could help others do the same. Andre’s pledge has been, and continues to be, to help anyone in need. He saves people’s lives.

One of the ways he’s done this is by founding “The Academy of Hope.” The goal of the Academy of Hope is to diminish violence inside prisons. One of the contributors to The Academy of Hope is Stedman Graham. Stedman speaks to inmates about finding their purpose no matter where they are. Founder of Genius Recovery Foundation, Inc., Joe Polish, is also Founder of Genius Network®. Genius Network and its Members’ have donated books and other educational materials and through the Genius Recovery Foundation, made available to Andre’s program to help better the men and women in prison populations of America.

Joe Polish, Stedman Graham, and Andre Norman are healthy role models of transformation and service. They are helping develop a positive trajectory for people’s future.

Nelson Mandela was locked up for 27 years and became president of his country when he came out. We have to be able to give individuals who are incarcerated information that allows them to grow and develop, and build and create a positive future. That is what The Academy of Hope is all about.

Joe Polish teaches, “We cannot punish the pain out of people.” We cannot torture people into a better life. We have to speak them with respect and kindness and help them understand how to have a greater goal. In prison, they have the time to read, study, and learn. And after they pay their debt to society, they have the opportunity to become productive citizens utilizing their own talents, skills, abilities, passions, and purpose.

A form of addiction recovery and rehabilitation with efficacy is personal development, and self-education. If we can raise our consciousness and understand that there’s a bigger world out there… we can have a bigger vision, we can plan, set goals, organize a process to empower ourselves and focus on the positive. We can absolutely change our direction and develop a different trajectory for our future.

America’s prison population is a 2.2 million person problem and a multi billion dollar problem. Stedman, Andre, and Joe are getting stuff done and contributing to a better society. Your contribution can help propel the mission.

Why Is Addiction Not a Disease?

It’s important for addiction discussions to note the difference between a disorder and a disease. Addiction is a disorder, not a disease, because it is a host of symptoms that are different for everyone. For instance, a disease has to be measurable and testable. You can take someone’s temperature and know that they have a fever, but you cannot “test” for addiction as it is a set of behaviors that trigger a set of symptoms. These behaviors may not always be conscious because of the changes in the brain due to substance use. But they were voluntary at least in the beginning. The level of personal responsibility is at stake in labelling addiction whether it’s a disorder or a disease.

Some addicts can conquer their addiction and others cannot. Some treatment techniques work for some addicts but they don’t work for others. These are not the hallmarks of a disease, which would involve a more uniform pathology and a treatment plan that would work universally. There’s no cure for addiction that’s why it is not classified as disease. They just learn a new set of behaviors to short-circuit the things that trigger their desire for drugs or alcohol. They have to abstain from these substances for the rest of their lives after recovery.

Addiction as a Disorder

Addiction is not a disease

In the discussion of addiction as a disorder, you should consider the stigma attached of seeking help. When people think of diseases, they think of illnesses that are contagious and they think of the diseased person as having some kind of moral failings that has brought the illness upon them. Addicts need help understanding that we live in a culture that encourages over consumption. Some people can handle that kind of message and others can’t. This does not make an addict a bad person.

It just means that they need better examples of people who have higher priorities and healthier goals. Our relationship to drugs and alcohol is really a disorder that exists at the cultural level rather than at the individual one, even though some people are capable of moderation. These differences among personalities accounts for another reason why addiction is a disorder. If it were a disease, then anyone exposed to the same cultural message of over consumption would also become an addict. However, only certain people predisposed to this kind of behavior find themselves in trouble.

Whether we call addiction a disorder or a disease changes nothing about how it is treated. Diseases are often things that people try to solve by themselves at home. If someone has a cold, he/she might just get some extra sleep and eat a bowl of chicken soup. However, by understanding addiction as a disorder, we are admitting that addicts need a larger support structure in order to change their consumption patterns.

Are Some Substances More Addictive Than Others?

Not all substances have the same level of addiction, and a user’s road to dependency can vary greatly depending on which particularly substance is being abused. Common drug addictions can be broken down into three categories that roughly correspond to the first three levels on the FDA’s schedule of controlled substances: drugs that are highly addictive (schedule I), drugs that are moderately addictive (schedule II), and drugs that are minimally addictive (schedules III through V).

Crack cocaine is the worst drug in terms of speed and intensity that a user can become addicted. Crack offers a more intense high than cocaine. It enters the bloodstream more quickly when smoked rather than snorted.  However, the high ends much more quickly, which is one of the reasons that even first- time users have a high risk of engaging in compulsive and addictive use of this particular drug.

Crack addiction seems to be decreasing in favor of other controlled substances such as Oxycodone which is also highly addictive. This opioid is often prescribed by doctors to help with pain management. Dependency occurs when users take more than prescribed by their doctors and they become reliant on the feelings of euphoria.

Many people believe that Tamadol, another opioid used for pain relief, is the new Oxycodone in terms of addiction. Medical professionals initially started prescribing it because they thought it was safer than oxycodone. However, Tamadol users also have a high risk of addiction. Naloxone is the usual treatment to detox an addict from opioids. It seems to be less effective in treating addictions to Tamadol. It may cause an increase in fatal overdoses related to use of this drug.

Morphine & Xanax

SubstancesMorphine is another common pain killing substance which is derived from the poppy plant. It’s available in a variety of forms from oral to I.V. transmission. It relieved the pain after the surgery. Psychological dependency on morphine can happen after only a few doses but patients would have to use it for many months before developing a physical addiction to this medication. The problem with morphine for addicts is that it is dangerous to simply stop using the drug. Users need to taper off doses under medical supervision.

Xanax, a schedule IV controlled substance used to alleviate the feelings of anxiety and other medical purposes. The FDA’s schedule classified it so low, therefore considered to have a low addiction rate. However, that does not stop people with addictive personalities from abusing the drug, even people with a legitimate prescription for it.

Tens of thousands of people every year enter treatment centers due to overuse of benzodiazepines, such as Xanax. Adderall is the drug used to help people with ADHD, a behavioral disorder. Some people have reported developing a dependency on it, but the risk is rather low for addiction.

There’s a difference between taking medically prescribed substances for legitimate reasons and for recreational use. Taking multiple kinds of drugs at the same time or taking it with alcohol increases the risk of overdose.

How Do You Know if You Have a Drinking Problem?

It’s not always easy to tell if you’re drinking too much or simply more than you want to be. After all, “normal” drinking behavior for one person isn’t necessarily the same for another. Casual drinking is someone who doesn’t have more than a few drinks with friends and family. Casual drinkers don’t obsess over their next drink. They don’t have a second thought of leaving glass of wine half-drunk at dinner table. So, how will you know if you have a drinking problem? If you feel that your drinking behavior exceeds the basic definition of “casual,” it’s probably time to take a hard look at what role alcohol currently plays in your life. If “casual drinking” is at one end of the spectrum, “excessive drinking” is at the opposite side. The two types of excessive drinking are heavy drinking and binge drinking.

For men under 65, the general rule of thumb is that if you regularly drink four (or more) drinks a day, or more than 14 drinks in any given week, you qualify as a heavy drinker. Over the age of 65, both men and women qualify as heavy drinkers if they have more than three drinks per day—or seven drinks in a week. Binge drinking is an entirely different beast, though. This is when someone consumes a large amount of alcohol in a very short period of time. Typically for men, it’s five or more drinks in under two hours. For women, it’s four or more drinks in that same period of time.

Indications of Alcoholism

Drinking ProblemIt is important to bear in mind that a drinking problem isn’t always measured in the number of drinks someone consumes. For some people, an occasional night of binge drinking doesn’t automatically mean they have a chronic alcohol problem. There are, however, other signs to keep an eye out for. A major indication that you might have an alcohol problem is if you’re starting to neglect all the basic responsibilities in your life, be it school commitments, work tasks, or family obligations. Another sign is engaging in risky behavior such as driving while under the influence of alcohol. Another risky behaviors are mixing booze with prescription pills, or engaging in inappropriate relationships.

Rewarding yourself with a drink after a difficult day at work, for example, can quickly turn into an unhealthy habit. There isn’t a fine line between someone with a “drinking problem” and alcoholism, the physical and mental dependence on alcohol.

After all, alcoholics oftentimes don’t look like they do in the movies. They aren’t always homeless, jobless, or carrying around a DUI on their legal record. If you find yourself craving alcohol, if you’re drinking alone or in secret, or if you’re unable to control how much you drink—these are all clear signs that you may have a problem with the bottle. Another huge sign that you might have a drinking problem is if you start losing interest in activities or hobbies that used to bring you pleasure. People with drinking problems can have a problem with the bottle and never even fully understand it. Pay close attention to your behavior. Chances are if you have drinking problem, your behavior isn’t just negatively affecting you—it’s affecting all people around you, too.

Does Drug or Alcohol Rehab Work?

There are plenty of successful recovery stories that testify that drug and centers can work well for many addicts. However, this success really hinges on matching the right kind of treatment with the specifics of the addiction and the addict’s personality. Not every treatment for addiction is the same, just as not every addict is the same. In fact, there’s no official way to measure the success of a rehab program. It all depends on how the addict defines success. If the goal is just to reduce consumption, then this might be easier to achieve than addressing some of the underlying issues that might prevent someone from entering recovery completely.

Some people who abuse drugs or alcohol do manage to quit on their own. However, one might argue that if an addict can decide on his or her own to change their behavior, then maybe their dependence wasn’t to the level of addiction. This is where rehabilitation centers come in. Some addicts have such bad withdrawal symptoms vomiting, physical shakes that resemble seizures—that they need around-the clock medical care. This type of care is known as in-patient or residential care, depending on how long the addict stays in the facility. In-patient services are usually shorter, about a month, while residential programs tend to be longer. An alternative treatment plan would be an outpatient program that relies on counseling and mentoring.

Rehab Programs

RehabMany in-patient and residential programs are very costly. However, this might make an addict take them more seriously. If you know that you are committing a large sum of money to your health, you tend to value the process more. Also, you can weigh the cost of rehabilitation against the cost of fines and lawyer fees resulting from addictive behaviours. You might get into jail when caught in the possession of illegal narcotics.

And then, of course, there’s the old adage “you get what you pay for.” Rehab programs are often staffed by knowledgeable medical staff with graduate degrees in their fields. The national boards often evaluated the centers. However, a treatment plan is only as good as the commitment a patient makes to it. If an addict does not truly want to recover, then it won’t happen. Mere completion of program doesn’t indicate success, as patients can revert back to their old habits after finishing the treatment. So much of recovery from addiction has to happen through changes in the outlook of the person suffering from addiction.

Bear in mind that a relapse isn’t an indication that treatment hasn’t been successful. Neither is it a judgment about the personal failing of the addict. In fact, it’s merely just a pretty normal step in the process of recovery. Addicts often relapse few times before they realize the severity of addiction and the need to avoid from mood-altering substances. In many ways, the most important “work” rehabs  accomplish is to introduce addicts to the basic tenets of 12-step programs, healthy routines and habits, and what it takes to achieve long-term sobriety.


Meet the Man Who’s Stronger Than Drugs

Though we all go through plenty of highs and lows in life, few people have seen the extreme ends of the spectrum as clearly as Willie ‘The Bam’ Johnson. For anybody who is a fan of martial arts, Johnson is something of a legend. He’s the first American in history to win be a nationally-ranked, Triple Crown martial arts champion and holds fifth- and seventh-degree black belts in karate and kung fu, respectively. Beyond that, he’s also trained in jujitsu, Thai boxing, wrestling, kickboxing and Tai Chi. To top it all off, he achieved the rank of Grand Master in 1995 and has been inducted into the Martial Arts Hall of Fame.

Still, nobody is more in awe of his ascendancy than Johnson himself. “As a six-year-old kid growing up in the city of Baltimore in a community called Lafayette Projects,” Johnson says, “there were a lot of things going on in my household.” Beyond the general struggle of growing up in a poor, hard-working family, there were also significant family dysfunctions. “I was being molested and [experiencing] things that made me feel so less-than by other family members.”

The first germ of change happened only by accident. “There was this one moment where my mom had allowed me to go to this movie called Chinese Connection with a neighbor,” Johnson says. “I went there and I got a chance to see Bruce Lee. And I didn’t see Bruce Lee, I saw me. I saw an opportunity and I found a way to get through the pain I was going through.” From that day forward, there was virtually never a moment when Johnson wasn’t honing his martial arts skills.

Although he had all the enthusiasm, finding ways to practice was somewhat challenging. “In that time, there weren’t that many schools or people who were doing martial arts,” Johnson says. “You would have to find somebody who learned it in the military or a guy who was teaching privately. I found a guy who was teaching privately and he began to help me along.” Before long, Johnson was learning privately, sitting in on classes with the permission of instructors and honing his craft. Slowly but surely, he took things to the next level.

“As I got a little older, around 10,” he says, “My sister moved out and I made my own dojo in my apartment.” He started having kids in the neighborhood over to teach them privately until a few years later, one of his younger students suggested they try offering the class in a local community center. “I went over there, the first thing the guy told me was, ‘What are you talking about?'” Johnson says. “‘You’re only 12 years old, you can’t teach no class.'”

After that, Johnson and his troupe of kids went outside to practice in the field—where they were spotted by Kenneth Parker, a counselor at the community center. As it turns out, Parker was so impressed that he talked the owner into letting him lead a martial arts class at the center for the kids. “[Parker] was already a black belt in karate, did yoga, was into holistic health,” Johnson says. “He became a mentor and kept reinforcing my creativity.”

By the time he was 17, Johnson had competed in (and won) tournaments. By the time he was 18, he had his own martial arts school in Baltimore. As the 80s rolled in, Johnson’s star was on the rise—right as crack cocaine and heroin were flooding the city streets. “I started really being recognized in magazines,” he says. “All those dreams I had as a kid were now manifesting. But because of the influx of crack cocaine and heroin, all of my friends were becoming big-time drug dealers.”

The neighborhood Johnson remembered as a kid was eroding, replaced with gun fights and drug dealers. It culminated when Johnson saw his best friend get shot up outside his home. “Friends were hurting friends, family was hurting family,” Johnson says. “That’s when my addiction really took off.” Though it included drug use, the issue was more complex than that. “I was addicted to carrying guns, selling drugs, using drugs,” he says. “I never put a needle in my arm but [I] was addicted to a lifestyle.”

At home, Johnson’s mom was struggling with cancer. In his world, he had scored his first official cover shoot for a martial arts magazine. His plan was to go to the shoot and then go out partying—but he missed the bus. Instead of shooting for the magazine, he went home to see his mother, who was particularly ill. “My mom died in my arms [that night],” he says. “Her last words were, ‘Be good, Bam Bam.’”

Things got worse after that. “When she died, I was on the path to suicide,” he says. “I was smoking everything, taking everything. I ended up homeless. I was eating out of trash cans.” It wasn’t long after that Johnson found himself serving a year-long sentence in federal prison. “When I got locked up, I had crack cocaine in my pocket after they searched me,” he says. “After all that happened, I thought, ‘I could take this crack and go crazy, or I can flush it down the toilet and ask God to give me a chance.’” He chose the latter.

Johnson started working with a drug counselor in prison and working a 12-step program. He came up with the idea for Stronger than Drugs, a program to keep Baltimore kids ages four to 17-years-old off of drugs. Despite all his success and personal achievements, his sponsor doled out some hard lessons to Johnson. “I had five kids,” Johnson says. “My sponsor would say to me, ‘Don’t come in here like you’re all clean and sober when you still have an alcoholic’s behavior. When you go home, you gotta respect women. And secondly, go get your kids and raise your kids. Pay off your child support and stop talking like you’re some gangster on the streets. When you do all that, I’m impressed.’”

When he got out of jail, Johnson made good on his promise. “I still do everything I did in jail to this day,” he says—that means practicing martial arts, trying to guide the youth away from drugs and crime and relentlessly pursuing self-development. Aside from teaching students, Stronger than Drugs remains one of Johnson’s biggest projects. “Our ultimate goal is to educate the kids,” he says. “How do we educate them so they don’t have to come in a room and say, ‘Hey, my name is Johnny and I’m an alcoholic.’” Just as every great journey begins with a single step, Johnson’s philosophy behind his recovery and his success is as simple as can be. “In the martial arts, we say that a black belt is just a white belt that never quits,” he says. “And that’s what AA is. We’re just beginners who never quit.”

Addiction Once Ran Charlie Engle’s Life. Now He Outruns It—and Everything Else

For most of us, running a marathon is a nearly insurmountable challenge. A marathon, after all, is 26 miles long and can involve temporarily shrinking half an inch due to lack of water, sustaining short-term kidney damage and wobbling over the finish line. Though a marathon might be a big enough challenge for most people, it isn’t enough for Charlie Engle. Engle is an ultramarathon runner and as such, he’s no stranger to completing staggering physical challenges. What doesn’t get mentioned as much, however, is that some of Engle’s most grueling challenges have been mental and spiritual—namely, getting sober and maintaining his peace and purpose.

Before that, it’s worth running through (forgive me) some of the incredible things Engle has accomplished thus far. Before he got sober, he ran the Big Sur marathon and the Boston Marathon. He entered his first ultramarathon in 1996 in Brisbane, Australia by accident, thinking it was shorter—and ended up winning the men’s division anyway. He ran more events after that, including the Borneo Eco-Challenge, a 12-day adventure race where runners trek 320 miles and some change through the jungles of Borneo. Finally, Engle ran for 111 days straight all the way across the Sahara desert. That’s 4,300 miles. To put that in perspective, that’s about 38 miles a day—in other words, a marathon in the morning, a lunch break and a second marathon in the afternoon for 111 days straight.

He even wrote his own memoir, Running Man, detailing his life and experiences (and in typical Engle fashion, he overdid it: “I wrote 800 pages for my 300-page book”). Although Engle has been written about ad infinitum, the hardest part about his story is explaining where his Herculean drive comes from. To hear him tell it, it actually has a lot to do with childhood and addiction. “Like with most addicts, it’s complicated,” he says. “When I was a kid, I distinctly remember that I had this very bohemian upbringing. I liked to call myself ‘lovingly neglected.’ My mom was 18 years old and a theater major, so I was around a lot of adults.”

While Engle remembers his childhood warmly, the environment he lived in did expose him to alcohol and drugs like marijuana at an early age. “Regularly in my house, there was not a lot to eat or drink,” he says. “It was like living in a college dorm room almost. When I was about 10 years old, I woke up at two in the morning and there was nothing in the fridge. So I walked back through and grabbed a beer sitting on the table and I drank it. And I liked it. I liked it immediately.”

Even though that formative beer didn’t immediately lead Engle into the lifestyle of addiction, he says that it definitely planted a seed that grew in his college years. Though he was active in sports and involved in extracurriculars in high school, college was a wake-up call. “I went to UNC Chapel Hill and I think I expected there to be a ‘Welcome, Charlie’ banner on my dorm,” he says with a laugh. “What I found out very quickly was that I was actually pretty average.” Like any young adult whose self-image was in jeopardy, Engle looked for another thing to excel at—and found it almost immediately. “What I discovered by accident is that I was an All-American, first-team drinker. I could drink more than anybody else around,” he says. “It’s not the identity that one looks for, but that sort of became my identity in college.”

Drinking quickly escalated to harder drugs, all of which cost Engle a lot of time. “I did cocaine, I dealt cocaine,” Engle says. “The first time I tried it I didn’t feel a thing. Then the second time, everything changed. Everything was clearer and I had big plans and I was going to do all the things the person says they’re going to do when they’re on coke. And I spent the next 10 years after that night chasing that first high.” Engle’s rock bottom happened in Wichita, Kansas in 1992. He was on a cocaine binge and at the end of it, his car was shot at with a hail of bullets. He attended AA that same day and started on the path to sobriety.

It was in sobriety that the true self-discovery began. “Once I got sober, the mission for me was to pound the addict out of me,” Engle says. “If I could’ve taken a scalpel and cut the addict out of me, I would’ve done that. And it took me three years to realize that the addict was all the best parts of me. It wasn’t the part of me I needed to get rid of, it was the part of me I needed to nurture and point towards the things I really wanted to do.”

Although Engle adheres to a 12-step recovery program, he says that extreme physical exertion (put more bluntly: physical suffering) was a kind of spiritual key to unlocking the treasure of his potential. “The other ways to cause yourself pain are [an unhealthy] physical relationship, a lousy job,” he says. “Those are long-term commitments that are hard to untangle. If I go race a 100-miler, I actually know that 100 miles is going to end one way or another. I want to get to a place during that 100-miler that I desperately want to quit. That’s actually why I’m there, to get that feeling and then push past that.”

In fitting with that spirit, Engle’s newest adventure is the 5.8 Expedition, an ambitious undertaking which plans to have Engle race from the points of lowest to highest altitude on all seven continents. The crown jewel of the project is to be a trek from the Dead Sea in Jordan to the top of Mount Everest—but there are other races to complete first. “Phase one of 5.8 is going to happen in June,” he says. “It’s going to be in Africa, so from the lowest place to the top of Kilimanjaro.” Although many of us might tremble in the face of such a challenge, Engle couldn’t be more excited. “The point is that all of us live within this tiny 5.8 miles of atmosphere that surrounds the planet,” he says. “I think it’s a metaphor for life. We’re all in this together. Running in Africa or South America or Badwater, those are the payoffs for being sober. I get to do things like that. I get to go suffer in those places.”

Engle’s many high-profile races also have environmental and humanitarian projects attached as well, and 5.8 is no different. Though the project will undoubtedly inspire others, spread awareness and raise money for Engle’s newest environmental non-profit We Are One Village, the core motivation is still selfish, in a sense. “I’ve come to the deep understanding that service is incredibly selfish,” he says with a laugh. “Hard physical suffering, if I could put a picture to it, is like taking a firehose and cleaning out my insides to replace it with something better. I can’t find another way to have that sort of replenishment.”

Eating Dessert on a Full Stomach Helped Me Beat My Sugar Addiction

Like many folks with drinking problems, my first addiction was sugar. I actually recall the horror of losing my grip on a Cookies and Cream ice cream cone when I was three years old at Baskin Robbins. I was devastated, watching that perfectly good scoop of fresh ice cream hit the ground and turn into a goopy mess on the floor. I also recall hiding in the closet every Halloween so I could polish off my plastic pumpkin full of bite-sized Snickers, Three Musketeers and Mars Bars. My parents always warned me that I’d get sick if I ate too much candy, but that just never happened. To this day, my tolerance for sugar is about 10 times that of the average person.

Though I’ve managed to shelve the alcohol and the cigarettes, the sugar problem persists to this day. I’ve tried quitting altogether, but no matter how many times I hit an OA meeting, I just can’t give it up. Apparently, I’m not alone; a former AA sponsor who managed to rack up 30+ years of both sobriety and smobriety couldn’t quit the sugar either. She tried over and over and over, but she just couldn’t resist her cravings for Sees Candies suckers.

I’m sure one of the main reasons I can’t call it quits with sugar is that it never destroyed my life like alcohol. Sure, I sometimes have bad sugar hangovers, but thankfully the problem isn’t so bad that I binge on the stuff day after day after day. If I do have a sugar coma, it’s just a few days out of the month. I wish I could have iron self-control, like so many people you run into at 12-step meetings in LA who don’t consume caffeine or sugar or dairy or gluten or fructose or anything made from animals, but I’m just not willing to exert any more energy in quitting anything. Is it really that bad if I overdo it on Oreos?

Still, sugar is pretty gnarly, and gaining weight from stuffing my face with doughnuts all day is the least of my concerns. Though I wouldn’t be happy about going up a size or two, my main worry is that weight gain can bring on diabetes and insulin resistance. Diabetes in itself is bad enough, but the disease may trigger early-onset dementia and Alzheimer’s. No thank you. Then there’s the horrifying effect sugar has on my brain today; it messes with both my focus and my mood, and at times it can even trigger bouts of rage.

About a year ago, I made the mistake of scarfing down a box of Oreos with milk before bed and on a relatively empty stomach, and when I woke up in the morning I was convinced, for no reason whatsoever, that my boyfriend didn’t love me or pay enough attention to me. So, I proceeded to call him to tell him so, and when he didn’t pick up, I called multiple times, something I never do, until he finally picked up.

He answered with a quizzical “Are you okay?” With my body in a state of mild convulsion, I realized that no, I was not okay. I was in the midst of a sugar withdrawal only slightly less acute than the withdrawals I experienced from alcohol. What’s worse is that this ended up happening a second time, about a month later. Sugar, apparently, had the power to make me certifiably insane.

After these horrible occurrences and two tearful apologies to my boyfriend, I decided I really needed to take the sugar addiction seriously. But I’d already tried to quit so many times, and I just didn’t want to go through the agony of withdrawal only to give in again.

Then I remembered that a few weeks earlier I was out at a nice meal and ordered some blueberry beignets with vanilla ice cream on a full stomach, and I didn’t even finish them! The irresistible craving that I typically develop when eating something sweet on an empty stomach just didn’t surface. The same thing happened with alcohol; I rarely got blitzed while drinking at dinner, and even if I had a lot to drink usually just got sleepy and went to bed. Since I didn’t need to shovel down five beignets, I didn’t suffer from a sugar hangover or blood sugar imbalance.

Upon remembering this, I made a rule with myself that I wouldn’t have sugar unless it was on a full stomach. I’d let myself eat an entire package of Oreos if I wanted, as long as I’d already scarfed down plenty of protein and fiber.

The rule seems to be working.

Right now I’m in Armenia, my mother country, and this place has more Oreos than any other country outside of the US, so I’m beginning to believe my sugar addiction is genetic. You can find white chocolate and milk chocolate-covered Oreos, Brownie Oreos, Oreo Thins, and they even sell Oreos by the kilo.

I don’t resist buying these. Instead, I just cook up some chicken with eggplant, or eat some yogurt and lavash, and top it all off with olives and then chase whatever I just ate down with water and wait a good 20 minutes before allowing myself to eat the cookies. By the time all that food registers to my brain, I just don’t have the physiological desire to stuff my face with the cookies. I’ll end up eating maybe four or five of them (it’s a lot for some folks, but that’s nothing for me), and then putting the box away.

As a result, I don’t wake up out of my mind and in a rage at the world, and I don’t get all shaky and cracked-out and suffer from an inability to focus. For now, it’s a doable, harm-reductive approach that will hopefully help me stave off early-onset dementia, diabetes, and even an expanding waistline as I grow old.

Where Do Breathwork and Storytelling Meet? At Narrative Breathwork, Of Course

Most of us have had the experience of cleaning out a closet, opening a dusty box and uncovering some old writing we forgot about. The standard protocol in those situations is to allow ourselves a moment of nostalgia and embarrassment before stashing the offending childhood artifact away as securely as possible. But that’s not what Dave Nadelberg did when he found one of his own wide-eyed childhood love letters. “I found this letter in a cardboard box,” he says. “I shared [it] with my then roommates and they really got a kick out of it. And I was like, ‘This is really fun. There’s something to this.’”

Initially, Nadelberg thought the idea had potential as a one-night-only stage show—maybe a performance where people would read similar unrequited love letters (initially to be called Crush Night). The idea kept gestating until a chance encounter with a friend. “A coworker told me that she had found her diary,” he says. “She was telling me how she was mortified by what she’d found. And then it clicked.” With the language now firmly in place, Mortified was born.

Today, Mortified is a world-wide storytelling phenomenon that has been covered by virtually every major media outlet. “We’ve produced a stage show in 20 cities around the world,” Nadelberg says. “We have a podcast with nearly 200 episodes, we have a public radio special, multiple TV projects, a documentary, three books and a guided journal.” In the 16 years since it started, Mortified has evolved from a simple stage show to a uniquely funny (and therapeutic) storytelling brand.

As it turns out, though, Nadelberg’s storytelling talents have also been flowing into a new direction for the past four to five years. Once again, it all started with a chance encounter.

A friend gave Nadelberg some tickets to a holistic workshop that included yoga and something called breathwork, an activity he initially intended to skip. “When that portion of the day rolled around, I wound up participating,” he says. “And it was like Keanu Reeves coming out of the Matrix for the first time saying, ‘Woah, I know kung-fu.’ I found it to be transformative. It was completely life-changing.”

For the unfamiliar, breathwork is the practice of controlling one’s breathing for any number of holistic, relaxation-oriented and spiritually-motivated ends. Despite its simplicity, breathwork is also notoriously tough to define. “Breathwork is a horribly marketed, terribly branded, generic term that is a catch-all for multiple different things,” Nadelberg says. “I find that the meditation and yoga community takes itself way too seriously to the point where a lot of instructors turn me off,” he says. “They portray this caricature of what I think they believe a mindful, spiritual person is supposed to sound like.”

As with the genesis of Mortified, Nadelberg’s breathwork experiences led him to a new inspiration. “I saw there was an opportunity to give people an alternative,” he says. “I wanted to create something that felt more human.” The result was what he calls Narrative Breathwork, a new approach that he offers to clients in personal and group workshops. “My approach is to use elements of storytelling and personal reflection and memoir to enhance the breathwork experience,” he says. “I come at this not from the holistic community, I come at it from the storytelling world. And interestingly, I find that to be a more holistic lens than many of my experiences in the meditation world.”

Though his workshops still offer the traditional controlled breathing techniques, they also draw upon lessons and inspirations culled from his experiences with Mortified. “I’m all about guiding people through a story of their life,” he says. “I help my participants gently tell a story about their lives in their head while they’re going through the experience. We talk at the beginning about childhood memories, the fun ones, the not so fun ones. Whatever gets their mind and their heart going.” By combining the techniques, Nadelberg’s hope is that clients get both the mental benefits of positively reframing their life story along with the physical and spiritual benefits of breathwork. “I find that [my clients] wind up having a far more connected experience emotionally,” Nadelberg says. “And I like throwing in jokes—if you can make someone laugh during a breathwork experience, that can be good.”

While this lighter-hearted, down-to-earth approach to breathwork is not entirely common yet, it makes intuitive sense to Nadelberg. “I got into Mortified thinking I was doing it because I was looking to entertain people,” he says. “But when I got honest with myself and looked into it, a huge part of it comes from my own experiences with mental health struggles. I had a really rough time in my mid-20s.” Nadelberg’s struggles even included a brief hospitalization, an experience he says he’s never forgotten. “That was [very unpleasant],” he says with a laugh. “What drives me to do this goofy comedy show are very serious, human needs. And those are being carried over, for sure, into my work with Narrative Breathwork.” As with Mortified, Nadelberg is quick to qualify that Narrative Breathwork is not supposed to be a replacement for any kind of professional medical or psychiatric help his clients might need. “It’s not therapy,” he says. “It’s therapeutic.”

Just as there was no clear model for Mortified’s growth, there’s also no established path for Nadelberg’s Narrative Breathwork workshops. “Sometimes the best game plan, although it’s a very anxiety-inducing one, is: be guided by what feels nourishing,” he says. “And that’s a little different than be guided by what feels good.” Still, it’s easy for him to get philosophical about the journey. “In live comedy, audience laughter is about how we control our breath,” he says. “When we cry, we can’t catch our breath. When we fall in love, somebody takes our breath away. The breath is this thing that’s with us in all aspects of life, it’s a tool of our life. I’d like to examine that tool more and I want to help other people do that too.”