Santa Cruz's Cally Haber administers the five-point ear acupuncture protocol. Photo by Chip Scheuer.
The tattoo-covered young man on my left is afraid of needles. With a genuine seriousness on his inked face, his polite trepidation sends a ripple of laughter around the living room, where nine of us lounge on chairs and couches.
It’s a Friday afternoon at Santa Cruz Residential Recovery (SCRR), a sober living environment on the Westside where adults stay for a two-month treatment program to overcome drug and alcohol addiction.
For a moment, all eyes jump between the tiny needle that acupuncturist Cally Haber is holding up, and the smile growing on the man’s face. He settles for one painless needle in the flesh between thumb and forefinger—a point for detoxification—and Haber moves on to the next resident, a young woman with long blonde hair. She brisky inserts five needles into precise locations in both of the woman’s ears.
The atmosphere changes once everyone has received their respective needles, which tingle slightly in our ears. Eyes close, heads drop back and the room grows quiet except for the involuntary laughter of one resident—an emotional release that is not uncommon among first-time treatments, Haber explains.
While acupuncture dates back some 3,000 years, auricular, or ear-focused, acupuncture as a treatment for addiction is relatively new, first becoming popular in the ’70s for treating opiate withdrawal, and later found to aid in the withdrawal from all addictions, as well as alleviate depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“To be able to give a measure of peace to people, to connect people to an inner calm, is so huge,” says Haber. “My teacher Mike Smith always talked about people learning to relax from the inside out, as opposed to having to take something or have external cues.”
Administering the five-point protocol of the National Acupuncture Detoxification Association, (NADA), which began in New York in 1985, Haber has worked at recovery centers all over the country, and she’s been a regular feature at the SCRR twice a week since 1990—making it the longest running NADA program in the country.
But Haber emphasizes that the treatment is not a stand-alone solution—it’s best implemented in the context of a treatment program, she says. She believes all addictions, from nicotine to heroin, should be tackled from several different angles and a myriad of healthy lifestyle changes.
Haber, who gives private treatments at her office at West Wind Healing Arts in Santa Cruz, believes that all addictions, whether substance or behavioral, are really about healing traumas, and correcting brain chemistry that is out of balance.
“People are trying to self-medicate. So you really have to address that,” says Haber. “You know at some point, the drug or the behavior was working for them. I don’t think it’s an accident that we talk about heroin as a ‘fix.’”
All drugs to which users become addicted deplete the brain of dopamine, says Haber, who also specializes in amino acid deficiencies—addicted patients are often depleted of endorphins, GABA, and catabolin, too, not to mention their unstable blood sugar. Depleted neurochemicals are at the root of anhedonia, the inability to feel happiness or joy that many addicts experience, especially following withdrawal from stimulants like cocaine and methamphetamines.
Having needles in our ears kind of forces us to sit still and relax, but the peaceful component comes in on a cellular level: by stimulating the body’s energy meridians, acupuncture raises levels of stress-relieving endorphins and other chemicals in the brain that elevate mood, increase focus and concentration, and have a calming effect.
“It’s why we get high, because we have these chemicals naturally in our brain,” explains Haber.
Endorphins are, essentially, the body’s own naturally produced morphine, she says. “Like exercise, acupuncture works best when it’s done regularly. Each time you have a treatment, your body learns how to bring itself into balance.”
Haber sees a regular number of individuals who keep coming back for NADA treatment long after they’ve graduated the program.
“Anytime you touch somebody, there’s an intimacy in it and in their struggle, it’s a change,” says Tamara Boole, a councelor at SCRR who says residents look forward to the treatments each week, and the naptime that follows it.
After what feels like fifteen minutes, the hour is already up and Haber makes her rounds collecting the needles from the groggy residents. In her matter-of-fact demeanor she’s delivered dozens of useful insights about our bodies and why they crave substances, and we’ve all just spent a full hour comfortable and relaxed in own skin, without needing anything else.