Recover to Live – I recently finished reading Christopher Kennedy Lawford’s latest book, Recover to Live: Kick Any Habit, Manage Any Addiction, and am thrilled with how he’s presented the science of the chronic, often relapsing brain disease of addiction and the myriad of issues that accompany this disease: the impacts on families and society, how it develops and progresses, what makes for effective treatment, what recovery is and how it transforms a person’s life and so much more. You can imagine how excited I was that he agreed to be interviewed about his new book.
In your book, you write about unhealthy habits, toxic compulsions, substance abuse and addiction – what are the differences and when does one become another?
Basically, it’s a continuum. People are not born addicts or alcoholics, rather they develop the brain disease of addiction by first getting into the unhealthy habit of using a substance or behavior for any number of reasons (to cope, to feel better, to engage…). This happens because the substance or behavior activates the pleasure/reward neural networks in the brain. This unhealthy habit can move onto abuse, which when coupled with that person’s risk factors for developing addiction (the key ones being genetics, social environment, childhood trauma, early use and mental illness), can move onto an addiction (i.e., dependency or toxic compulsion). It’s a complicated concept, but this is where this book can help readers understand the progression and how/why it’s important to interrupt it at any point along the way.
From your interviews with the more than 100 experts in this field, what are the key facts about addiction that might surprise readers?
Firstly, is the fact that there is no difference between substance addiction and behavioral addiction because of the ways in which they both activate the pleasure reward neural networks in the brain.
Secondly, that addiction is a brain disease. It’s chronic, and it’s often relapsing.
Thirdly, that there are three times as many people who have a non-dependent use disorders as there are those with the disease of addiction. In other words, they have a problem with substance abuse or behavioral compulsions, but they don’t have addiction. Those people need help, resources and guidance, as well, because this is a progression and the sooner it’s interrupted the better.
I have to add that this illness is thought of in the most basic draconian terms. To change, we need to understand this is an illness, and as with all illnesses, the sooner a person intervenes – seeks help, treatment for their illness – the better. Instead, the stigma that surrounds this disease – a stigma due mostly to people’s inaccurate views of it as a moral weakness or character flaw – causes the person with the problem, society, loved ones – all of us – to let it go until it’s chronic.
This is one of the key reasons for this book – to hopefully raise people’s bottom and help them get recovery sooner.
Fourthly, is the fact that these toxic compulsions travel in groups – meaning someone has alcoholism and drug addiction or alcoholism and smoking addiction. If they put one of the toxic compulsions down, they’ll most likely pick up or continue with another – so they need to be treated concurrently (for example, initiate a smoking cessation program for the alcoholic who also smokes) in order to truly treat the disease of addiction.
As you have toured the country and given interviews talking about your new book, what has surprised or concerned you the most about people’s reactions or assumptions?
I think the basic thing is the stigma and then how complicated this issue is. You know, if people were told they need to do these five things to recover from cancer, they’d do it in a heart beat, but they won’t do the same with addiction. That’s the mental part of this disease. Addiction is a disease that tells you you don’t have a disease. You couple that with the stigma and denial that keeps people stuck – keeps all of us from talking about it and dealing with it – and we see why it’s so difficult for people to seek treatment and recovery.
The solution is to point people to good answers. I think I’ve done that with Recover to Live, where I share some of the recovery tools that can be used by anyone. Having said this, I must emphasize that we also need to paint the picture of what people can do in recovery. We need to help people seeking or starting treatment to see they’re in for the ride of their lives when they get recovery. We have to help people realize recovery is worth it.
The other concern I have is people’s lack of understanding that we need to treat this is a family disease. Always you see families are affected, but we don’t take the time to educate, help and treat them, too.
What are the key actions a family member or close friend can take to help a loved one grappling with an unhealthy habit, substance abuse or addiction?
1. Throw the rope, but don’t get in the water.
2. Get help yourself. Each family member needs to do an assessment to look at his or her biological, psychological and social activities to begin identifying the ways in which they may need to heal from wounds created by the often multi-generational process of this disease.
3. Learn how to set boundaries and not allow unacceptable behaviors because that’s what supports the illness. Support your loved one’s recovery, yes, but not their disease. Family members (and the addicts themselves) need to understand that a person with this disease is not responsible for having this disease. In other words, they can’t control which genes they inherit or the circumstances of their life that contributed to their developing the disease, but once they know they have it, it is entirely their responsibility to treat it. People that are enabled to continue their addictive or toxic compulsion behaviors don’t get well.
When we look at the progress made in the treatment and prevention of cancer, HIV-Aids and heart disease over the past thirty years, why do you think we are still so far behind in the treatment and prevention of addiction?
Stigma and where we put our resources. As a society, we put a lot of money into source eradication and the War On Drugs but not into prevention, treatment and recovery.
I am hopeful, however, because the science that is now available is going to help all of us understand it’s a complicated brain disease and thus requires a complicated healing effort. An addict has to change every aspect of their life in order for them to get well.
Recovery is an amazing place – people don’t know this so as this becomes known, recovery will become more inviting and people will take that first step.
I believe we’re going to make some significant advances in the coming years.
What is it about your approach that enables recovery from addiction that may be different than those people commonly associate with addiction treatment and recovery?
Addiction treatment requires a total life change approach –the tools for which I’ve outlined in Recover to Live. It’s a process and one that changes as you change on the continuum of recovery. You don’t go to a 28-day rehab and you’re fixed – it takes time because you’re unlearning behaviors and treating a complicated brain disease. Not only that but the ways in which everyone expresses addiction differently means there isn’t a single prescription for treatment and recovery that works for everyone. However, it is more or less the same prescription, which are the tools I’ve outlined in my book. A person in treatment and recovery needs a support system. They are going to need to reach out to find a person or group of people they trust and who will support them in their process of changing their lives. They are going to need to develop techniques like mindfulness, meditation, journaling, cognitive behavioral therapy, exercise, nutrition and body work to deal with the symptoms and cravings.
But it’s possible to change your life, and a person needs to understand they can begin the process themselves. It’s likely very likely they’ll need help along the way, and that’s okay. Whatever it takes, which is why I’ve outlined a host of options that work.
One more thing on this idea of recovery – we must follow ASAM’s (American Society of Addiction Medicine)’s recommendation – namely, to follow the disease model of treatment which includes long-term continuing care. It’s long-term continuing care that is most often missing. We don’t heal cancer in 28 days. We certainly can’t heal the brain of addiction in that short time, either. Continuing care is critical to long-term recovery – tools for which are also outlined in my book.
Aside from the person wanting to kick or manage their habit or addiction, who else would benefit from reading your book?
Policy makers, teachers, administrators, those in the care profession – anyone who has a chance of this walking in their door – needs to read this book. It will help them understand this brain disease, how it starts, what it takes to treat, intervene and/or prevent. It will help them feel compassion for the people it affects. And, family members will benefit from reading it, as well. People who have family of origin experiences are really obliterated by this illness and generally don’t have anyone addressing their issues, their needs, their healing and recovery. This book tries to do that.
For those who do not know Christopher’s background, he has been in recovery for more than 26 years from drug addiction, having started using drugs and alcohol when he was 12. He campaigns tirelessly on behalf of the recovery community in both the public and private sectors and is currently working with the United Nations, the World Health Organization and the White House Office on Drug Control Policy to raise awareness and promote activities that support drug treatment, care and recovery. He is the author of two previous New York Times bestselling books, Symptoms of Withdrawal (2005) and Moments of Clarity (2009). For more about Christopher Kennedy Lawford, please visit his website, and to learn more about his activism, please visit Global Recovery Initiative, a not-for-profit 501(c)3 social enterprise that seeks to help transform social attitudes and policy to expand opportunities for recovery and remove social, cultural, legal, and policy barriers to recovery.
In closing out this post, I want to thank Christopher Kennedy Lawford for taking his time to conduct this interview and for writing this book, Recover to Live. It is excellent and a true resource for anyone whose life is affected by this disease, which, of course, is just about all of us in one way or another – either directly as the addict, family member or friend, or indirectly as the fellow employee, student, victim of a drug/alcohol-related crime or tax payer who helps pay the societal costs of untreated, unhealthy discussed, undiagnosed substance abuse or addiction.