From chaos to joy: an addiction success story
May 07, 2020 12h21
By Linnea Lundgren
Bryce Astill spent over a decade addicted to drugs and alcohol. The practice of mindfulness helped turn his life around and now he teaches others.
By Linnea Lundgren | [email protected]
When looking back on 10 years of drug and alcohol addiction, Bryce Astill doesn’t dwell in regret.
“So much of my life I saw as pathetic. It seemed worthless and meaningless, all the suffering,” said the 38-year-old Astill, who grew up in Sugar House and Salt Lake. “Then the narrative flipped. I realized all that suffering had a purpose, a potential to get one person out of suffering for a moment, to feel what it’s like to just be.”
The present moment is where Astill strives to live. The practice of mindfulness—purposefully paying attention to the present moment—has taken him down a new life path, one that he says helps him understand the nature of the mind and work with it. Now he finds connection and joy in teaching others the practice of mindfulness.
Years of addiction
His addiction started in junior high, a time when his family was “falling to pieces without direction.” Each of his four siblings ended up coping with the chaos in their own way. He took the rebellious route.
Astill started smoking pot and drinking alcohol which allowed him to relax in social settings and gave him a sense of belonging. He then graduated to taking acid and mushrooms. “Natural drugs,” he quipped. Soon he was steadily using and selling Lortab, Percocet and Oxycontin, long before the opioid crisis was part of the lexicon. Then came cocaine and finally heroin, which set him off on “some pretty intense addiction.” Drugs took away the pain of being in a mind and body where intense anxiety, victimization, self-criticism, and a deep fear of rejection lived.
“[I was] an egomaniac with an inferiority complex,” Astill said. He estimates that between ages 14 and 24 he was intoxicated “in some way every day.”
Between college classes he’d retreat to his car where he’d do lines of coke or smoke heroin to keep up his attention. “Oddly enough, when I was on them I could study really well. Drugs actually helped with one thing.” As the years pressed on, he was frequently homeless and jobless. Relationships came and went. He came close to death after a heroin overdose. Selling drugs paid for more drugs, but it was not enough. Over time, he forged $10,000 worth of checks from his dad’s account for his $200 to $300 daily heroin fix. “It all dulled my sense of reality,” he said. “There was deep shame, but I couldn’t stop. It felt very out of my control.”
After being caught stealing, his family confronted him and urged him to enter rehab, something he thought wouldn’t work. “I felt there was something innately wrong with me… that I was broken.” But, by that point he’d been sleeping with a gun beside him, was $35,000 in debt, and his only “friend” he could call on was his drug dealer. His family was the last thing he had left, and he didn’t want to lose them.
He tried a 12-step recovery program, but bristled at some of their tenets. He saw a psychiatrist who prescribed a “cocktail of psych meds” that left him feeling totally apathetic. Finally he entered a rehab program that offered a mindfulness-based cognitive behavioral therapy model, which incorporated breathing exercises and meditation practice. “It was experiential, not intellectual,” Astill said, and that experience was transformational for him.
The practice of mindfulness
With mindfulness practice, he learned that thoughts are neutral, not good or bad. “It’s the stories and narratives that we place behind them that start to give them power,” he said. “I gained awareness that it’s not the circumstances around me that are causing me to feel pain, it was how I was relating to them. Mindfulness gave me a space between stimulus and response.”
Mindfulness, he said, is a mental practice that focuses one’s awareness on being in the present moment. By tuning into the breath and senses in real time, one can acknowledge thoughts and feelings that flit through the mind, but not engage with them. One can observe a thought passing through without judgment and return to the present moment by connecting to the breath.
Another aspect that clicked with Astill was that mindfulness isn’t out to “fix” anything. Instead, it teaches that “we are enough, we are whole, but there are a variety of thoughts, beliefs and identifications that may distract you from that. When you become aware of what those distractions are, you have the choice to engage them or not. That was a really powerful paradigm shift to recognize that.”
Astill said that paying attention to one’s breath and being in the present moment sounds simple, but it’s not easy. In our culture, the media often depicts mindfulness as something that will instantly make you “happier, fitter, more calm, more relaxed, all the things that sound really nice,” he said. While mindfulness does trend toward the positive he says the practice takes work and requires tuning into all emotional states and bodily sensations, including unpleasant ones, and not becoming stuck in them.
The skills developed from a consistent, long-term practice gave Astill what he needed—a connection to a better version of himself. “I knew that person was there, but I could never seem to access or touch,” he said. “Slowly, over time, I started doing things in a way that wasn’t harming me or others.”
And, he found that mindfulness practice didn’t mean just sitting in silence. It could be applied to running, something he had enjoyed pre-addiction. “I started applying mindfulness practices to eating (well) and running,” he said. “That first started with just trying to get through a mile a day, five days a week. It became a moving meditation practice for me.” He’s since completed one half and one full Ironman Triathlon and several trail-running ultramarathons.
Observing his own before-and-after transformation, Astill said, “We have an insane amount of ways to disconnect, numb and distract and never be fully present. These practices are becoming more and more of an important way for people to connect back with themselves, people they love, and the world in general that doesn’t harm them or others.”
Today, the only high Astill gets is washing the windows of Salt Lake’s skyscrapers through his own cleaning company. It’s a job that lets him indulge his perfectionist, obsessive tendencies to get things clean, plus the outside view is nice. But what makes him feel the best he says is when a part of his life is spent in service to others. So, he makes time to help at rehab centers and in youth wilderness therapy programs, often volunteering to mentor the most difficult teenager. And each Sunday, he teaches a free mainstream mindfulness class that’s open to all at Tune In Mindfulness, a new downtown studio.
“It’s my duty and joy to share [mindfulness practice] with others…there is a possibility of healing and experiencing a beautiful part of themselves,” he said. “I get a lot of joy sharing with others and seeing the light come on.”
Visit tuneinmindfulness.com for Astill’s teaching schedule which also includes his yoga classes.