medwheel The Medicine Wheel & Recovery

© Jenna Caplette

Recovery isn’t a linear process . . . In fact the idea of linear is about black and white thinking, which is addictive thinking, about moving from problem to solution. The Medicine Wheel asks that we think in circles, cycles, and options. . . It’s about understanding the consequences of the choices we make.

Several years ago, Jamie Martin worked as a licensed addiction counselor with pre-release prisoners in Butte. At the time, eighty percent of his clients were male. Most of were white. What was different about Jamie’s approach to treatment for drug and alcohol recovery was that he taught clients to work with the Medicine Wheel, a Native American symbol used to represent the cycles of nature and the flow of life, a model of holistic living that Martin described as having to do with “the balance between all things, the interconnections, the overlap.”

The Medicine Wheel is generally represented as a flat circle marked in quarters relating to each of the four directions, but the wheel isn’t flat. It’s a globe that embraces seven directions, including Sky, Earth, and Center.

Martin’s particular approach to working with the Medicine Wheel draws from Cheyenne, Crow and Lakota Sioux traditions. Many of the men who developed it were serving life sentences in the Montana State Penitentiary at Deer Lodge. With Chippewa-Cree heritage and roots in the Rocky Boy reservation, Martin stressed that his use of the Medicine Wheel “by no means speaks for all tribes. Caucasians tend to lump Indians together but each tribe has its own thing.”

In Martin’s work, the Medicine Wheel offered a basis for a personal assessment based on developing a solid relationship with the 7th direction, the center of the globe, or circle. This is the direction where a person’s values and beliefs are held.

Usually, treatment centers have used a shame-based model for drug and alcohol abuse recovery, but Martin said that “kids are not holding the same kinds of shame.” Things like pre-marital sex don’t have the stigma that they did a generation ago. The Medicine Wheel asks people to look at their entire belief system. “It’s good for a disenfranchised population,” Martin said. “They already feel out of center.” But you don’t have to be disenfranchised for this model to work. “I had a client who was a police officer. He loved it.”

Other Medicine Wheel-based models for recovery have been developed specifically for Native Americans. The system Martin used is for all peoples. It goes beyond re-working the twelve steps of Alcoholic Anonymous, though it does interact with the 12 steps, and it formalizes the 10th step of AA that asks for a daily check in.

“Recovery isn’t a linear process,” Martin said. “In fact the idea of linear is about black and white thinking, which is addictive thinking, about moving from problem to solution. The Medicine Wheel asks that we think in circles, cycles, and options. The wheel is constantly turning whether we want it to or not. We’re all born. We will all die. It’s about understanding the consequences of the choices we make.”

The Wheel Martin taught named seven aspects of living that are to be honor in order to live in a healthy way and maintain sobriety. These seven aspects of living begin in the East with the Emotional. The South holds the Mental; the West, the Physical as it relates to our bodies. Martin describes the North as spiritual, and as “anything that takes us outside of ourselves the relationship between us and other people. Addiction is all about selfishness.”

The Sky represents our relationship with a Higher Power, with Spirit. Below is Mother Earth, the things that tie us to the earth, the physical things that need to be done. “The 7th direction,” Martin said, “is the hardest one to measure. It’s the exact center of the circle.

Acting in is the active part of recovery. You start paying attention in advance, noticing when you’re on your way out of the circle. You become aware of your relationship with each aspect of the wheel, every day.

Initially, drugs and alcohol are the quickest way to the center. Sex takes us there, so do power and control and anger. When we move outside the circle we do dumb stuff like overeating, misusing sex, kicking the dog. You can cause a lot of damage without drinking. It’s not good enough today just to not use. Working the medicine wheel is a self-defined program. It’s consecutive. Each piece that pulls you further from center builds on others.

“You learn to let go of the idea of being out of balance. You’re just further from the center. If one aspect is out of balance, each balances with it. It’s like a fish bowl, you can’t just fill, or drain, one side or the other.

“So if one dimension can pull me out of the center, one dimension can pull me back in. Something like taking good care of the physical, cleaning house, doing mundane chores. According to the Medicine Wheel, if you do the things you’re supposed to do, step by step, you will do better. Doing the little things moves you back in the right direction.”

Martin taught addicts to measure their degrees of separation from the center by using a charted wheel. “These hard-assed guys write incredibly insightful things about themselves and what they do. I hear people in my treatment groups saying, “I was outside my circle.”

“Acting out is doing something that will take us away from the center. The core belief here is, ‘If it feels good, do it.’

“Acting in is the active part of recovery. You start paying attention in advance, noticing when you’re on your way out of the circle. You become aware of your relationship with each aspect of the wheel, every day.

Martin believed, “Clients are getting beat up more by their belief systems, thoughts and values, than anything else. Many people get stuck in a circle between the emotional and mental. They keep going back and forth between the two and never progress to Spirit.

“Addiction,” Martin said, “is less about alcohol and drugs and more about the obsession. Until we get that fixed, we get stuck on the wheel.”

He added, “We need to develop a sense of being. The fact that ‘we are’ is more important than what we do. An addict’s history will tell them that it’s best for them to shut down; to live the life of the walking dead. The Medicine Wheel gives intuitive and fundamental respect to the individual.” Martin believes that no matter where you are on the circle you can learn to give. As he sees it, the Medicine Wheel never stops moving. It’s like a clock-face where the movement of the second hand is quick, and that of the minute hand is slower.

“This isn’t just about dealing with an addiction problem. It’s about dealing with every day living problems.”

Martin used to end his treatment classes by teaching the meaning of the Lakota word, Hoka Hey- It’s a good day to die. “That means, I can go and leave nothing amiss. I don’t have any fear. I’ve done what I’m supposed to do at this point.”

He said, “That’s what living life from the center is all about.”