No recovery from drugs and alcohol is equal. Therefore, I can only speak for myself and from my own experience, meaning that — in this essay — I will try my absolute best not to assume that any actions, methods or treatments that worked for or failed me can be universally applied to help others. I find such thinking extremely short-sited, presumptuous and arrogant — that a person or organization would assume that their successful treatment or unique experiences could somehow automatically set a standard for everyone to successfully follow.
Such thinking has failed me personally, having been force fed such blueprints in various programs and treatment centers that I have encountered, without any lasting success. Other people, however, may find such thinking beneficial as it creates a group dynamic and a map that encourages action. That was not the case for me, and you will, therefore, not find any such endorsements here — only experiences as I have lived them. These experiences may include aspects of more specific, tailored addiction education and treatment strategies, but I do not intend to imply that these designs are for everyone. Also, any criticism of specific models are mere personal opinions and not necessarily factual. My hope is only that my experience can be of some use to somebody.
The Truth about Treatment Centers and AA
My introduction to recovery started as it does for many: With nowhere to turn, addicted to opioid pain medication and alcohol, I decided to go to a 30-day treatment center. My family had little to no education about addiction, and in order to do something, our natural reflex was to seek medical professionals who could fix the problem. Many treatment centers market themselves as the best option to save a loved one’s life, and therefore families are willing to pay astronomical amounts of money to do just that. But, what did I really pay for?
My first facility and all of the ones that I attended thereafter had one major thing in common — they all catered their education to the 12-step model originally established by the famous Bill W. in his book, “Alcoholics Anonymous,” published in 1939. After a week-long detox, patients at the treatment centers I attended would follow a daily schedule that was packed full of nothing but a variety of different settings that all taught from the same playbook. Small groups, lectures and even AA meetings themselves all fed us the methods of a program that was established in 1935, the 12 steps of AA.
This is interesting to me for a few reasons. First, AA meetings not associated with treatment centers are free of charge. Second, in the AA list of 12 Traditions, a list that is hailed as sacred by this group, is Tradition 6 which states, “An A.A. group ought never endorse, finance, or lend the A.A. name to any related facility or outside enterprise, lest problems of money, property, and prestige divert us from our primary purpose.” In sum, treatment centers break the rules of the very program that they endorse simply by charging people to learn a free program.
One can argue that cutting such a corner is of little significance and may be necessary in order to keep treatment centers open to fulfill their true mission of saving lives. But, regardless of the intentions of any treatment center, at the end of the day these entities are businesses that want to keep costs down to maximize profit margins. Meanwhile, AA’s 5th tradition states that “Each group has but one primary purpose — to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.” While this may be AA’s mission, it is not the primary purpose of a for-profit enterprise. Having these things in conflict is at best contradictory and hypocritical, and at worst manipulative and shady.
The third reason that I find it interesting that treatment centers focus so much on AA is that AA is a spiritual program, while treatment centers are medical establishments. While some of the staff in treatment centers have educational degrees related to addiction treatment, many are only recovering addicts themselves with nothing more to add to the conversation than what they would tell you at an AA meeting for free. Because AA is not a medical program and because AA is so old relative to what has been accomplished in modern medicine over the last 85 or so years since AA was established, 12 step programs have little business being the standard for these centers, which in many cases are hospitals.
For me personally, 30-day treatment centers and AA were both ineffective long-term solutions. 30 days became the standard for treatment centers because for a stretch that was the amount of time that insurance companies were willing to pay for treatment. Insurance companies base this policy on the myth that habits can be created in such an amount of time, which, even if true, is not applicable to a condition that alters the very wiring of the brain that is associated with habits themselves.
For me, 30 days was long enough to detox, sleep, eat and get clear headed enough to go back out and immediately use again — a little fatter and a little more confident than when I crawled through the front doors crying a month earlier. Further, because nearly every treatment center focuses on AA, each subsequent time that I returned to a treatment center I checked out mentally because of the monotonous regurgitating of 12 step jargon that I heard the first time around.
The only positive that I acquired from 30-day treatment centers was that it gave me some time since my last use which is, presumably, more beneficial than one day, but still nowhere long enough. 30 days is a start and being sober 30 days is more productive than being intoxicated for 30 days, or so it seems.
Trial and Error and AA
For me, there was no flawless recovery. My recovery was ugly and lasted almost a decade. I would not be here if complete abstinence was a requirement for sobriety. Subsequently, that is why AA was such a struggle for me.
AA preaches abstinence as the most important part of recovery. “If you can stay sober, you have a chance,” seems to be one of the main underlying messages. But for me, sobriety was the goal, not a means to an end. I always felt like a failure in AA because I could not stay sober. Meanwhile, people kept telling me to “keep coming back,” to a program that I continually failed. Therefore, I felt like a kid who failed the same class 1,000 times. This led to me further hiding my relapses and lying about my recovery, two things that were extremely counterproductive.
For me, the obsession with staying sober was as bad or worse than drinking itself. I felt like I had two options: stay sober and miserably obsessed with not drinking, or drink. Either way, I was doomed to be controlled by my addiction in one way or another. Every day revolved around drinking and drugs, whether I was sober or not! In the end, AA was not the best fit for me.
Therefore, I cannot tell you exactly how long I have been sober, as most in AA can. I do not have a sober date, because the last time I was intoxicated was not overly significant since I was trying to reduce harm versus stay completely abstinent. I did not know whether I would use again or not and therefore I did not record the exact date, though my wife and I can narrow it down to sometime in 2017.
For me, by taking advantage of medication for mental illness and addiction, and through trial and error, eventually I liked staying sober more than I liked being intoxicated and that is why I am sober today. If, by chance, I would have liked being drunk and high more, chances are I still would be.
The Desire to Stop
This may seem obvious, but I could not stop using drugs and alcohol until I wanted to. Most of my failed attempts at sobriety were not true attempts at all, but a way to survive in the short term. For many years, I would have stretches of sobriety out of convenience and necessity, but not from a true desire to stop using. I even lied to myself in those years thinking that I wanted to be sober. I did not, and I take my full responsibility for failing as even the shortcomings of treatment centers and AA do not excuse someone from their own personal desire and responsibility.
It was only after years and years of treatment centers and rock bottoms that I got tired of the cycle, and in that way, the treatment centers did play a role — I got tired of them. I also got tired of my lifestyle, something that I could only achieve by myself.
The only time that I acquired the true desire to stop is when I did it for myself. In the early years, I was so obsessed about what other people thought about my addiction, especially my parents, that I essentially did it for them. My parents and I had an unhealthy financial and emotional codependent relationship that hindered my ability to grow tired of addiction and want to change.
I can truly mark a huge step in my process of acquiring and executing a desire to stop using drugs with a random phone call to my parents sometime in 2012. I was living out of a hotel room with another drug addict in a suburb of Baltimore when one day we were out of money and options, and I did not have a place to stay another night in a city that was not my own. I called my parents and pleaded with them to send money, but finally they decided to deny me help. They cried and wished me luck, and that was all. It was that day that I started using drugs on my own time. It became clear to me that it was my life to live and do as I pleased. I could choose my path. Because of that day, I could grow a true desire to stop years later.
A Year Long Rehab
In 2015, I went to a rehabilitation program that lasted for one year. The method of this center was simple: the healing power of time. And, over the course of a year, I surely learned a lot about myself that contributed to my transformation as a person on my journey to self-discovery. Because of this program, I changed a lot of unproductive behaviors and matured greatly as a human being. Unfortunately, the one thing that this program missed was my mental illness. Though it was nobody’s fault that a specific diagnosis was missed, in my case my mental health and my addiction were inseparable. Therefore, this key element being absent did delay some healing that I would find later.
My Addiction and My Mental Health
For me, addiction and mental health are inextricably connected. They are one and the same. Unfortunately, AA and treatment centers do little to address mental health as a primary driving force in addiction. Alternatively, alcoholism or addiction is understood by many to be a primary disease, meaning that it exists separately from other conditions.
This has always been a big debate in the recovery community, but to be honest I do not really care whether addiction is or is not a disease. I do know, from my experience, that treating it as a primary disease did not work. It was only when I was treated correctly for an underlying mental health condition that I began to greatly progress in my recovery.
In 2016, once I had truly gained a desire to change my life, I went to seek true help for my mental health. It was the first time that I was truly honest with a provider because it was the first time that I was truly honest with myself. Honesty and truth were necessary for me to find the desire to stop, and it was the visit on that day that was another milestone in my journey to recovery.
After being completely honest about my symptoms and condition, my PA asked if I had ever been screened for bipolar disorder. I had not. After she assessed me, she felt that an anticonvulsant medication — lamotrigine under the brand name Lamictal — could be greatly beneficial to me. She told me that many of her patients that suffered from addiction had success on this drug.
I had been taking Prozac for years, a drug I now know can inspire manic episodes — and was very skeptical about trying a new drug. She said to me, “Josh, are you willing to try something new, or not?” I thought about it, and finally, I was ready to do something different. She prescribed me the medication and within days I could tell a difference in my mood. Consequently, there was a dramatic decrease in my desire to drink and use drugs, though it was not completely eradicated.
For a few months, I drank less, but continued to struggle a bit. On a return visit to my PA, she prescribed me Naltrexone, an opioid blocker that also has the effect of decreasing the desire to drink and makes drinking a less than pleasant experience. I took 100 mg daily of this drug and my recovery took off.
That was the first step in a 6-month process where I would drink very little, and when I did, I would regret it. I was not getting the desired result I wanted from alcohol because of the drug, but my mind was still telling me that I wanted to drink from time to time. So, I went about the business of trial and error until, finally, I liked being sober more than I liked drinking.
Today I am still on 150 mg of Lamotrigine, 100 mg of Naltrexone and 50 mg of Prozac. For me, this has been a winning combination of medication in my recovery, along with maybe the most important thing, my wife.
Without the love and support of my wife, I would likely not be fully recovered today. She has never accepted anything less than my absolute best efforts in life, and yet she does not judge me for my shortcomings. Nobody else was able to influence my decision to stop drinking and using drugs more than my wife, and part of it is a mystery. She just had that affect. In that sense, I am very lucky. I would not have sought out help for mental illness if it was not for her, and I would not have had as much of a purpose without her by my side.
With my wife, I changed everything about my life, and this was extremely important. Not only do I not associate with the people and places that used to contribute to my negative behaviors, but I changed as a human being completely. My goals and desires changed in order to accommodate my wife’s wants and dreams. I feel as though I am a different person all together — as though I died and was reborn. It used to be terribly difficult to imagine a different life for myself and I was afraid of what I would miss. I can honestly say that I am grateful everyday for the life that I have and the former life that I left behind.
For reference, my addiction was the worst of the worst. The drugs and methods of administration that I used were the most dangerous and risky of all. The places that I occupied were very dangerous and life threatening. I was reckless and shamelessly desperate in those days, and I have come very, very close to death on multiple occasions. I even once had a drug dealer tell me that he had never met anyone as bad as me. How could such a person come to turn it all around?
For me, the winning combination for recovering from drugs and alcohol has been a true desire to stop, medical treatment of mental illness, trial and error and the love and support of my wife. Today, I consider myself completely recovered from addiction. I have no desire to drink or use drugs and I rarely think about it at all. There was a time that I thought such a thing was totally impossible, and in that sense, I feel as though I have experienced a miracle.
Today, I am completely financially independent and stable. I have a beautiful daughter and wife, and we have a simple and wonderful life together. I enjoy working and I have many hobbies that I pursue that I never took advantage of when I was using. One of them is writing and using my pen to help other people in some way, which is slowly transforming into a full time career. I am so blessed to have the opportunity to share this with you.
Life is good.
Please reach out in the comments or message me directly if I can answer any questions for you. If I can overcome addiction, anyone can.