Can you briefly tell me about your own personal experience with addiction?Answer: “I started experimenting around 12 or 13 years old. I started with what’s known as huffing, which is inhaling the noxious fumes of various substances. My preference happened to be rubber cement. I got caught experimenting with that and it was decided that the reason I was doing this stuff was because my mom worked nights and couldn’t keep an eye on me. So I was sent to live with my dad, who was an avid marijuana user. Shortly after that, he said to me, “The huffing stuff really kills people and I don’t view marijuana as being as harmful, so you’re welcome to do this with me instead.” That was when I really got going with smoking pot. Hallucinogens followed. I was a big fan of pills and started dating a girl who had a lot of prescriptions for things and taught me how to fake symptoms and get prescriptions. Drinking was always a part of that when it could be. I got sober when I was 20 but I tell people that those were my three main food groups of substance abuse: pot, pills, and alcohol.”
So you had some complicated family dynamics with your dad actively abusing marijuana?Answer: “Yeah, he was a hippy that never grew up. I love him, he’s just always been more like an older brother to me. We smoked together up until the time I got sober, so when I went to treatment and stopped using, that definitely created a shift in the relationship. It created an extra wrinkle because our whole relationship sort of revolved around us getting high together.”
For clients who have similar family dynamics, how do you see that affecting their progress in treatment?Answer: “Well, it can be an extra wrinkle but one of the benefits of sharing my story is that I can let clients know up front that this doesn’t have to be a barrier to recovery. It might be a hurdle, but I don’t believe in any roadblocks. Going to a sober living environment after treatment was really necessary for me. When I left treatment, I didn’t go home right away. I went to a sober living home in Illinois. I remember while I was there, I wrote a relapse story about what it would be like if I were to relapse when I left treatment. My story involved going home to my dad’s for a visit. The front door was open and he was downstairs in the basement. I walked in on him getting high and he just casually passed me the joint and I got high with him. That was the story that I wrote. It was a useful exercise because that actually happened almost exactly as I wrote it, except for the part where I got high. That part was prevented. The first time I told him, ‘No, I can’t do this anymore.’ it was really awkward, but our relationship didn’t end. He’s actually really proud of me today.”
You got sober at the age of 20. Do you think there are any distinct advantages or disadvantages to getting sober that young?Answer: “Yes and no. One thing that I encountered in early recovery was that other people in treatment would say, ‘I wish I could have gotten sober when I was your age’ or ‘It’s really good to see so many young people here at the meeting’ or something to that effect. Those comments are well-intentioned and there’s no malice behind it, but it feeds into this false mentality that as a 20-year-old in treatment, my life isn’t actually in shambles yet. Or that I actually have another 20 or 30 years ahead of me that I could spend drinking, but I’m just doing the smart thing and stopping now. I truly believe that at 20, I did not have another 20 years to get around to it. We see people die from addiction and alcoholism before they hit 30 all the time, and that would have been me. It’s easy to buy into the lie that treatment is just prevention and it’s not actually a necessity. Luckily, I didn’t buy into that. I truly believed that I was dying.”
What kinds of unique challenges do young people face in early sobriety?Answer: “There’s research now that shows part of the brain isn’t even fully developed as late as the early 20s. So just in that decade, from 20 to 30, there are a certain amount of mistakes people are going to make in life—sober or not. You are guaranteed to make mistakes in your 20s and I wish somebody would have told me that when I first got started. I would stand up and fall again and again and none of it involved relapse, it just involved not knowing how to do life. It would always eat away at me and I’d think, ‘Am I working a bad program?’ ‘Is my sobriety in jeopardy?’ ‘Why do I keep having these failures to launch?’ I mean, I didn’t even know what I wanted to be when I grew up until like last week, so I think there’s just not enough talk about that in meetings.”
Do you think age has an impact on how effective treatment is?Answer: “That’s a tough question. I would have to look at statistical data to really be sure of that answer, but I know that the advantage of young people in treatment is that we are, at the very least, planting a seed. The earlier we can plant that seed, the longer it has time to germinate. I will say one of the saddest things I’ve seen is someone who wasn’t quite ready for treatment, but their family was. By the time this person was ready, they’d already burnt all the bridges between anyone who was in a position to help and support them. Sometimes I’ll tell the younger guys, ‘You don’t want to be ready for this 20 years from now when your family is done with you. You need to take the help when you can get it.’ ”
Do you feel like your personal experience with addiction gives you a unique advantage when mentoring people in recovery? If so, how?Answer: “Yes and no. While I do believe there are certain clients that only I’m going to be able to reach because of their age, their position, their family dynamics, or even their drug of choice, I also believe that there’s a group of people out there that I can’t reach for those very same reasons. That’s why we have such a variety of people on the Recovery Specialists team. We have people from different walks of life with different lengths of sobriety. I’m definitely by no means a one-size-fits-all Recovery Specialist. There are people that I’m uniquely qualified to help, and I’m grateful for that, but there are others that can’t be helped by me alone.”
Peer accountability is a key aspect of recovery at Nova. How do you manage to maintain an atmosphere of love and kindness while also holding clients accountable for their actions?Answer: “I think it boils down to the idea of, ‘You’re not okay, but that’s okay.’ For example, if you take a fish out of water, it looks like the most ungraceful creature on the planet. I think most of our clients feel like that when they walk through the door. Nothing is quite working the way it should for them and they are spinning in self-will, trying harder and harder to just be better. But the truth is until you put that fish in water, it’s not going to look like what it was created to look like. The water, in this case, for our clients, is what we call the sunlight of the spirit. It’s the whole foundation of what the 12 steps are designed to do, which is, enable our clients to have a spiritual awakening. When they do, they’ll find that this thing we call life is effortless. It’s not the same flopping around and feeling out of place. They are graceful and productive creatures.”
Can you describe what the process of a spiritual awakening looks like as a client works through a treatment program?Answer: “I have always maintained that the 12 steps are an empowerment program. At the very beginning, we start with the premise that we’re powerless. Once we’ve worked all 12 steps, the book Alcoholics Anonymous asks the rhetorical question, ‘Why shouldn’t we laugh? We have recovered and we’ve been given the power to help others.’ There’s very clear evidence that this whole deal is going from a state of powerlessness to a state of power. But it’s not a power over others—it’s having agency over one’s own life. It’s funny how many people walk through the door at treatment, thinking that their freedom has been taken away. But we are offering them choices. We are offering a way of life that will get them to a place where they will start having choices again and that’s a beautiful thing. It all starts with recognizing that you don’t have power.”
What would you say is one of the main challenges a client can expect to face while in treatment?Answer: “The thing that’s been coming up a lot recently with my clients is feeling like treatment is punishment. They think, ‘If I would have just done better, I wouldn’t have to be stuck here in treatment.’ I don’t know a single cancer patient that feels that way. Even a diabetic (who arguably contributed to that cause with some forms of diabetes) wouldn’t be sitting in a hospital dialysis chair thinking, ‘This is my punishment for not behaving right.’ What I see here is a lot of clients thinking that they’re serving time. There are also some clients who come to treatment who just aren’t all in yet. One of the things I love about Nova is that we’re strictly 90 days. In a 30-day program, you can spend the first two-and-a-half weeks just accepting the fact that you’re in treatment. So if that’s the point when treatment actually begins, how much actual treatment are you getting in that 30 days? At Nova, we have more time. So even if it does take longer to get acclimated, we at least have time after that to work with the client and address some important things.”
A lot of our alumni say that coming to Nova and thoroughly working through the 12 steps for the first time was a critical turning point for them in their recovery. Why do you think this is?Answer: “I’ve often had the experience of presenting Step 1 as it’s presented in the book, and have a person who’s been trying to get sober for years look at me and say, ‘I’ve never heard that before.’ It’s bittersweet because it’s nice that I get to play a part in that but it’s very sad that this person has been trying to do the right thing for years and just hasn’t been presented the information they needed to do it.”
You hear about people getting sober on their own by just quitting cold turkey. Are there any advantages to professional treatment programs like Nova?Answer: “First of all, alcohol detox can kill a person. You can’t detox yourself at home safely, especially if you’re coming off of alcohol. That component is certainly the starting point. Once a person is detoxed, coming to treatment gives them a break from the environment that probably contributes to or exacerbates some of the underlying issues at play. It allows a person to take a break from their life for 90 days and to really focus on what’s important: getting well. Treatment also provides advantages for Step 4, which is writing an inventory. Writing an inventory might be a little frightening and disturbing. In fact, most people writing an inventory say that they feel disturbed while they’re writing it, but this is the best place on earth to be disturbed. You’re also not going to get trauma work with a clinician or EMDR therapy just going to meetings. For people who have other stuff going on, there are a lot of advantages of professional treatment.” Derek’s personal experience with addiction gives him an insider’s perspective on what it’s like to get sober young and successfully navigate a life of sobriety for decades after. Derek is a great resource for additional information about addiction treatment at Nova and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more insider interviews with Nova staff and alumni on our blog or contact our admissions team to learn more about our long-term addiction treatment programs for adult men and women.
Takeaway #1: Factors like getting sober young and having complex family dynamics can be stumbling blocks during treatment, but Derek’s own personal experience with addiction is proof that these circumstances aren’t determining factors for success in treatment. Takeaway #2: It’s okay to not be okay. Nova Recovery Center is a safe and insulated place where clients can take a break from the challenges of everyday life and focus on what’s most important—getting well. Takeaway #3: Nova’s professional treatment with detox and a 90-day program isn’t only the safest option for obtaining sobriety, it’s also much more beneficial and thorough than a 30-day program.