addiction

How I Caught Alcoholism

It takes a lot for some people to realize that addiction and alcoholism are the same thing: A sleazy date finally taught me what even a wise counselor could not.

When I got to rehab in the spring of 2000, I was sure of exactly two things: that my life needed to change, and that I was in no way an alcoholic so I didn’t need to quit drinking.

Mental IllnessBut I knew how crafty and manipulative those rehab and AA types were. I knew that they were out to convince me that I was an alcoholic even though, at that point, I didn’t even like drinking.

A sober friend had taken me to a few AA meetings a year or so earlier, where her friend calmly explained that my distinction—that I was an addict and not an alcoholic—made not one bit of difference to her.

“They’re the same,” the girl said, while sighing in what I perceived to be a sanctimonious way. And boy did I argue her down—trotting out every example, defense point and anecdote I could. With more notice, I’d probably have prepared flow charts.

I was fairly certain I’d won that argument, too. I got the official word on that a few days later: The friend who’d been taking me to meetings stalled when I asked if I could go with her again—explaining that I made this girl uncomfortable. “She said you remind her too much of what she was like when she was still ‘in her disease,’” she explained. “You can’t come to meetings with us anymore.” Shortly thereafter, that friend drifted away from me.

You’d better believe that I used this as ammunition against AA and meetings and sobriety for a good while.

When things got undeniably worse, I made a deal with myself: I’d go to rehab, but wouldn’t subject myself to any of that AA stuff. AA was where they told perfectly nice drug addicts that they were also alcoholic. AA was where my incredibly logical arguments—how I didn’t drink that much and about how drinking didn’t ever motivate me to do drugs—were ignored.

I immediately recognized the enthusiasm of a sleazy guy who’s just received information that leads him to believe he will be getting laid that evening.

So when my counselor at rehab asked me if I was an alcoholic, I was prepared: “Nope. I’m a straight-up drug addict. Cocaine. And pills, too—but those aren’t for fun, they’re just to sleep or calm down or whatever.” I uncrossed my arms, sure that he would be swayed by my honesty.

“Uh huh,” he said, nodding. Now, I really liked this man. This was a man who, though I was as terrified and overwrought as ever, made me feel safe and comfortable. He was so kind and gentle, and he was the first person I’d ever heard talking about recovery in a way that didn’t make it sound awful. So when he posed his next question, I was only willing to take it into consideration because I liked him so much: “Given that you’re not an alcoholic, why don’t you take some time off of drinking?”

“Sure,” I replied. I didn’t tell him that I’d quit drinking once before and had made it 10 days—10 stressful, horrific days where I’d talked incessantly to anyone who would listen and many who wouldn’t about how I was “x” number of days off drinking. Ten days during which I’d taken plenty of painkillers and hypnotics. But things were different now. I was in rehab. I could make it longer than 10 days—and without the pills.

“Great,” he said. “How about you take off…I don’t know—a year?”

I looked at him evenly, trying to figure out if he was kidding. Who in God’s name took a year off of drinking? This thought, if I’d had the ability to absorb one, might have given me a clue about my situation. But I said nothing.

Then he asked: “Are you willing to believe that addiction and alcoholism might be the same thing?”

I thought about that. And because I liked him so much—just for him—I nodded, slowly: “I’m willing to believe that they might be the same thing.”

So the next six months progressed, with me fully admitting that I’d been a drug addict who took so much Ambien at night that I sometimes found myself driving around the next day not knowing where I was going or really who I was. An addict who stayed up for days at a time doing fat lines of cocaine by myself. I shared these stories with the people I met in rehab and then, when the rehab started taking us to AA meetings, with the people there.

I never went to NA or CA for the simple reason that I was so out of it and confused that I just went where I was taken—and the rehab took us to an AA meeting, where I met people who told me to go to another. About half the stories I heard in AA were about drinking and the other half about drugs; nobody seemed too concerned when people like me identified as addicts, not alcoholics, or talked about drugs, not alcohol. I was fine with this mash-up of addicts and alcoholics as well, since the whole time I was telling myself that I was willing to believe that addiction and alcoholism might be the same thing. In many ways, I thought I’d even convinced myself.

Then a friend from rehab relapsed, on cocaine. I grilled him for the details: Had he had a horrible time? Was it true that a head full of recovery and a body full of drugs was a terrible combination? Did he hate himself and want to die?

Nope, he told me with a smile. The night had been amazing.

Soon after that, I ran into a guy I’d dated years earlier, a guy who’d been sober for a long time. I told him I was now sober, too. He shrugged and said he wasn’t anymore: “That whole thing was bullshit.”

Somehow, these two conversations fused in my mind, and the thought occurred to me a day or two later that alcoholism and addiction were very much not the same thing—that even though I was going to AA meetings, and liking and relating to what I heard, all those people must be crazy. Because how could addiction and alcoholism be the same thing when they were two entirely different words?

I chose not to call my sponsor with this thought. I instead chose to call the guy I had a date with that night. When I got to his house, where we were planning to have a drink before going to dinner, I introduced the topic: “Remember how I told you I don’t drink because I have a drinking problem? Turns out I don’t have a problem, so I actually do drink now. Do you have any wine?”

This guy nodded like he couldn’t believe his luck, and I immediately recognized the enthusiasm of a sleazy guy who’s just received information that leads him to believe he will be getting laid that evening. But what did I care? He was just going to be my evening’s drinking buddy and he could think whatever he felt like.

He poured me a glass of wine and I took first a sip—and then a gulp. I remember feeling mystified that this innocent little beverage, this thing that tasted and felt so benign, had caused such endless discussion. My partner in crime seemed to feel similarly. “I can’t believe you thought you had a drinking problem,” he said. “You’re not drinking alcoholically at all.” We did a “Cheers” to that happy thought.

One glass led to us finishing a bottle, so he opened another, and at some point, like in some Fitzgerald novel, the dinner plans were forgotten and I was lying down, a little woozy, and he was sitting next to me, saying that he didn’t feel bad about giving me alcohol but he did feel bad about the drugs.

“The drugs?” I asked, popping up. He held out a handful of ecstasy pills. “I can’t do that—drugs were my problem” was a sentence I attempted to get out of my mouth. But I think I only said “I can’t” before popping the first pill in my mouth. Once I’d done it, it seemed silly to not go all out, so I took another. And when I couldn’t even feel that one, he suggested a third. By the end of the evening, I’d had two bottles of wine and four-and-a-half hits of X, and it turned out that being high and drunk and aware of a different way to live felt awful—like the volume on a horror movie turned up. Perhaps that’s what made it easier for me to escape the sleazy guy without giving him so much as a kiss.

Horrified and chagrined, I went back to a meeting the next day, where I explained what had happened and declared myself a newcomer. I announced that I finally understood what everyone had been saying about how alcohol was a clear gateway to drugs, which I’d never known before because I’d always done drugs all the time, without needing alcohol to ease the transition or give me the idea.

It was a good year or so later before I saw the situation a little more clearly—when I saw, specifically, that I’d always drunk alcoholically. From my very first drink, I’d been doing things I didn’t intend to do and drinking to get drunk. I’d just been surrounded by so many people who were doing the same, and my vision of my life had been so small, that it hadn’t registered. This became even more obvious when I started going to parties again, and discovered that not everyone who arrived ran straight up to the bar to start doing shots before looking around for the best bathroom to do coke. That was just what people like me had done.

A year or so after that, I saw what a good thing it had been that my experiment in alcoholism versus addiction had only lasted one night. I’m even more grateful for that today. I still know both the guy from my rehab who relapsed and the guy I’d dated who had been sober but decided that the “whole thing” was “bullshit”: They both still go to meetings where, for the past 15 years or so, one or the other is always a newcomer again.

I’m not any different to them, really. We’re all three addicts—or, if you will, alcoholics. The main difference, as I see it, is that the night I decided to experiment, I happened to have access to enough supplies to overdo it in a massive way—and I happened to do it with such a sleazy guy that I simply couldn’t avoid admitting that there was a serious problem with my behavior.

If only sleazy guys could always be put to such good use.

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.

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.

Getting Real About Playfulness, Addiction, and The Human Heart

As part of changing the global conversation around addiction, Joe Polish, the founder of Genius Network and GeniusRecovery.com, sat down with comedian JP Sears whose videos have been viewed over 250 million times online. At the time of writing this, their Facebook Live discussion has been viewed over 164,000 times as the two discussed how people view addicts and the current treatment of addiction. Joe and JP discussed the need to view addicts with compassion instead of judgment and how we can’t punish pain out of people. Joe and JP also discussed the current state of addiction, the four elements of recovery and how to connect better with others and ourselves.

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.”

An Entrepreneur in Recovery Who’s Determined to Connect the Two

As anyone with any proximity to addiction knows, the recovery world is rife with colorful life stories. Still, addiction entrepreneur Alex Shohet’s is unusually rich. “I’ve had a long and complicated career,” he says. “I probably have a story that’s out of some kind of crime novel.” Shohet’s most recent venture is The Red Door, a luxe sober living home founded in 2018 that offers recovery support while also serving as an incubator space for its members’ business ventures, creative projects and start-up ideas.

If that marriage seems counter-intuitive, that’s because it is—and Shohet understands that. “We always call it the experiment,” he says. “There’s a linear approach to recovery which is to get clean and sober and then when you’re healthy enough, go back and start working. What we’re trying to say is, ‘Well, it’s not actually linear.’” For Shohet, The Red Door represents a point on his own business and recovery trajectory some 34 years removed from where it all started. To understand it in context, it’s best to go back to the beginning.

As a young man, Shohet attended UCLA but was battling addiction at the time. “I became a heroin and cocaine user,” he says. “I never graduated. I was going in and out of treatment and in and out of whatever else.” This rocky period of Shohet’s life led to him dropping out of college and attending an inpatient program at Impact Drug and Alcohol Treatment Center in Pasadena. “I stayed there for six months and then did about 12 months of outpatient,” he says.

In 1988, Shohet left Impact with newfound sobriety. But he also had a series of unpleasant realizations after getting back into the real world. “When I was in Impact, there was a period of time where you’re supposed to go out and get a job,” he says. “The challenge with that is: what do you put on your resume? I was doing petty crimes, I was a heroin and cocaine drug addict, I’d spent six months in a treatment center for people coming out of prison. Was I supposed to write all that?”

The common wisdom of 12-Step oriented programs is that recovering addicts ought to pursue a life of rigorous honesty and authenticity. Unfortunately, Shohet found it difficult to be both rigorously honest and gainfully employed. “I’m not saying I encourage this,” he says, “but faced with the opportunity of not having work, I lied on my resume.” Shortly thereafter, Shohet found employment working with personal computers (on the strength of his uncompleted engineering degree from UCLA). Fortunately, luckier times were ahead.

With the guidance of a friend and mentor, Shohet started his own computer company and found success during the dot-com boom of the 90s. In 2000, Shohet’s sponsor died of AIDS and his best friend died from relapse complications. On top of that, his wife became pregnant right as her brother passed away. Combined with the burst of the dot-com bubble, the stress led to Shohet relapsing and finding himself in rehab once again at Beit T’Shuvah. “I went [to rehab] the first time as basically a homeless person,” Shohet says. “When I went in the second time, I went in as a yuppie.”

Though his position had changed, he noticed the same problem as before: recovering addicts were finding it nearly impossible to reintegrate into the labor force. After researching the problem more on his own, Shohet embarked on new business ventures. The first was Wonderland, a high-end treatment center in the Hollywood Hills which has since closed amidst legal disputes with his then-business partner, Dr. Howard Samuels. Shohet then split off to found ONE80Center, which also closed amidst legal troubles related to two wrongful death suits. After years of legal battles, Shohet found himself back at square one. “After the litigation was over,” he says, “I went back and started saying, ‘Well, one thing I thought was a missing element in previous versions of treatment was entrepreneurship.’”

Through all his experiences in the Wild West of the high-end California rehab industry, Shohet says he always remained focused on his social mission. “I feel like what we do [at The Red Door] is standing on the back of all the other programs that have existed before us,” he says. “In the 80s, the places with work components were Salvation Army, Delancey Street, Impact. The thing about it was that most of the kinds of employment available were blue-collar work. But there was a big part of the population left out of that.”

Historically speaking, it’s no secret that jobs within the recovery industry are some of the best jobs available to recovering addicts. Still, those jobs represent a very narrow slice of the entire labor market. “Maybe we can expand on the blue-collar work and become more relevant or more current,” he says. “People can come out of these programs and feel like they can compete and succeed.”

Despite the entrepreneurial aspect, The Red Door still has all the rigor of any other sober living home. The house has five bedrooms and five-and-a-half bathrooms and equips clients with their own customized recovery teams of therapists, psychiatrists and other treatment professionals. Above all, Shohet is hoping to change the way addiction is treated and to break down the stereotypes society has about people in recovery.

“Many addicts have an incredible amount of drive,” Shohet says. “When it’s harnessed towards their addictions, it’s very destructive. But that drive can be harnessed or directed into other things.” Speaking personally, Shohet says that his entrepreneurial journey and recovery are more or less inseparable—and he hopes the Red Door can impart that wisdom onto others like himself. “I’m passionately interested in creating things and building things and learning everything I can about business,” he says. “But I’m also an addict.”

Emotional First Aid Expert Dr. Guy Winch on Trauma

While it’s well-known that recovering from addiction is a non-linear process, it’s more difficult to tell what throws people off course. After getting clean and sober, the difficulty of staying clean and sober is often a surprise—particularly when drugs and alcohol were previously used to medicate many different discomforts and psychological issues. It’s the latter that Guy Winch, a licensed psychologist, author and pioneer of the concept of Emotional First Aid, has taken aim at.

Winch got his doctorate in clinical psychology from New York University, completing a post-doc at NYU Medical School. Though he has a private practice in Manhattan where he sees individuals and couples for psychotherapy, he has also written books such as The Squeaky Wheel and Emotional First Aid. Perhaps what he’s most popularly known for, though, are his wildly popular TED Talks about practicing emotional first aid and fixing a broken heart. While his work has all kinds of helpful applications, it applies particularly well to addiction recovery.

In a recent interview with Joe Polish, Winch expanded on his concept of emotional first aid: “We really know how to address physical injuries when we have them,” he says. “We have no such practice whatsoever when it comes to emotional or psychological injuries.” As it turns out, the “injuries” that we try to ignore the most are the things that create the most problems for us. “Injuries like failure, rejection, loneliness, guilt,” Winch says. “Unless we’re aware of these things, we’re just going to get deeper in and sustain more damage than we need.”

Becoming aware of our emotional state is a practice Winch calls emotional hygiene—and  according to Winch, we should all strive to make it part of our everyday life. “One of the things I’m really for is…gratitude exercises,” Winch says. “A gratitude exercise is getting up in the morning and saying, ‘You know what? The people I really care about right now are healthy, my parents are in good health, I’m really grateful for that because there may be a time in the future where that may not be the case.’”

Research shows that substance abuse disorders are often strongly correlated to a variety of mental health issues—issues which can further worsen our emotional states. Although this isn’t specific only to people with diagnosed disorders, overly negative self-talk is one of the negative symptoms of mental illness that Winch says is a major culprit. “The self-critical internal voice that so many of us have in so many frustrating moments is absolutely useless,” he says. “It’s purely damaging, there is no utility to it.”

While negative self-talk can have any number of causes, it can sometimes be exacerbated or caused by underlying trauma. Some addiction experts like Gabor Maté have theorized that trauma or a lack of connection may be to blame for all (or at least nearly all) of addiction. While Winch agrees that trauma can be a cause, he hesitates to give a blanket explanation—and says that the reality of trauma is much more complex.

“It only takes a few seconds to have trauma,” Winch says. “It’s not a quantitative thing, it’s a qualitative thing. Trauma is something that shocks the system, something that’s impactful enough that it causes you to reassess and rethink your general views on yourself, on life, on the people around you. It causes a fundamental shift, a seismic shift in your psychological system.”

Much like his concept of emotional hygiene, Winch similarly agrees that untreated trauma could lead addicts back to drugs and alcohol, or to negative emotional states that then lead to drugs and alcohol. “When I read that ‘the generalized approach to trauma should be this or that,’ it’s hard for me to endorse,” he says. “You have to have some kind of understanding of it in a way that gives it meaning. In the narrative of your life, it has to be a plot point that leads to something of significance.” While for some people this may mean excavating the experiences, others, according to Winch, may not need to.

Perhaps the underlying problem for recovering addicts, as Winch sees it, is one of positive and negative identity—particularly as they relate to trauma and negative self-talk. “Having a strong sense of self is actually really important,” Winch says. “At a certain level of addiction, it is so prominent in [an addict’s] life that it is the organizing principle. Many people get sober but they can’t maintain it. The problem there is that the addiction has become so central in their lives that there is nothing else central enough to attract them into another way of being.”

For his part, Winch has hope from his practice and his understanding of psychology that people can make changes in their habits to increase their chances of recovery. “I’m not a psychiatrist,” he says,” but my general thought is that it’s a two-way street. Our brain chemistry, our wiring, those kinds of things, impact our behavior significantly. But there are things we can do, behaviors we can assume, that will impact our brain chemistry.” Still, he notes that it’s a bit more complicated than that. “The impact of neurochemistry on our behavior is like a six-lane highway,” he says. “Our ability to impact brain chemistry and hormones by thinking or behavior is like a single-lane country road.”

Because of these hard facts, Winch also advocates getting on medication whenever necessary to treat depression, anxiety or whatever else may be ailing a person. With that chemical boost, people can then begin positive habits to reinforce their change. What all these disparate threads have in common, according to Winch, is simple. “Self-awareness,” he says. “When you hear yourself go through the same argument and it’s not going to get anywhere, stop doing that. That’s my advice in general. When things aren’t working for you, change the script. Don’t just try the same thing but try harder. Change the system.”