This week, I’m taking a deep dive into the world of addiction. Almost every family I know has been affected by alcohol and drug addiction in some way. Did you know that every year more Americans die of drug abuse than died in the Vietnam War? This information came from the book, Such Unfortunates, the story of author Andrew Mann’s personal experience with decades of severe, nearly life-ending, drug addiction. Drug and alcohol addiction has been killing millions of people globally for decades.
When Andrew approached me about interviewing him on my podcast, I had to think long and hard. My gut reaction was to say no. My own life was changed forever by my 13 year marriage to a man who suffered with opiate addiction. Despite not being an addict, I lost almost everything because of addiction. I was angry with addicts for a very long time. I avoided the topic for years, preferring to put that time in my life behind me.
However, it crossed my mind that perhaps this was the opportunity of a lifetime. I would be able to ask questions and possibly get truth in return. I decided to read the book and have a conversation that, truth be told, I dreaded. I didn’t want to be unkind to a man I didn’t even know, but my old demons with addiction kept pressing me close to anger. However, in the end, this interview was incredibly powerful and healing for me.
If you have ever suffered from addiction or suffered because you loved and addict, please listen to this podcast. It is real and heartfelt from minute one. Andrew was willing to answer every question with vulnerability, honesty and humanity. He was able to help me see that many of the beliefs I held about addicts were false. Now that he is sober, his goal is to help others suffering as he was.
Andrew’s book title, Such Unfortunates, references the subgroup of addicts that even addiction treatment centers have given up on. Andrew was part of this group, spending years living on the streets with a sole focus on getting heroin in order to get high and avoid being “sick.” The book is painfully detailed about what life is like in the grips of opiate addiction. Far from glamorous, his life was brutal and filled with trauma.
In this interview, we discuss some of the most difficult truths of addiction. Andrew talks about the inadequacy of treatment centers as places of healing. Despite going in and out of numerous facilities, he wasn’t really helped. Treatment would focus on his plan to stay sober that day, but never got below the surface to ask why he was numbing and why staying sober was so painful. This shocked me but maybe it shouldn’t. There is a multi-billion dollar rehab industry that has always been incredibly unsuccessful. Good treatment centers have relapse rates of 70% or more. We all know addicts who have been to treatment multiple times and yet get right back on drugs and alcohol. I, for one, have always been horrified by the low efficacy of drug treatment, and haven’t really understood it.
The topic of addiction is complex. Andrew and I discuss issues of trauma, mental illness, society’s judgment of addicts and desire to punish as opposed to treat with compassion. I was able to ask my most difficult questions and was given truthful answers. Why do addicts lie all the time? Why didn’t you share your history of trauma with your first counselor? Relapse is a sober decision. Please help me understand why you were sober for years sometimes and then chose to use drugs again? These questions and many more were covered during our interview.
Andrew helped me understand the components necessary for his recovery. First, he had to be willing to talk about his trauma. He could not heal while hiding the sexual abuse he suffered as a child. Second, it sounds basic, but feeling unconditional love for the first time was a huge component of Andrew’s personal sobriety. He never felt love in his own family, so finding a woman who loved him unconditionally was a turning point. Third, the love of an animal and being in a care-taking role with an animal had a huge impact on Andrew. It made him want to create a treatment center that incorporates animals as part of the healing.
One of the things Andrew said that struck me to the core was that addiction is an incredibly selfish disease. “You only care about yourself when you are in it and trying to get your drug.” His idea, and dream, is to start a foundation to create a treatment center that uses therapy plus an animal shelter. He believes that if addicts took care of animals as part of treatment, it would force the addicts to serve something else. They would feel love from the animal and be able to focus on helping something outside of themselves. Many of Andrews ideas seemed to focus on healing through connection.
I was inspired by Andrew’s gratitude. He spoke of gratitude for his years of addiction as they make him thankful for everything he now has. He is grateful for heat, a driver’s license and money in his wallet. He spoke of being thankful to wake up and not feel the sickness of withdrawal. Things that might bother the rest of us, don’t bother him since he remembers a reality most of us will never know.
Our interview will cover his thoughts about why so many addicts have trauma in their history and whether or not it is possible to feel happiness again after years of opiate abuse. We discuss judgment of treatments like Methadone that have the power to give addicts a lifeline.
My main takeaway from this interview was that compassion is more powerful than judgment when it comes to the treatment of addiction. Despite the fact that addiction caused me a great deal of pain, I can now see the disease through a different lens. The way Andrew felt everyday, was too awful to face while sober. The pain and anxiety from his trauma was unbearable. I was able to finally get that. Addiction is not something that addicts are doing to the rest of us. It is a way of coping with pain.
I feel truly grateful to Andrew for his openness and I hope this interview helps heal others the way it did me. His book is an opportunity for us all to understand an epidemic that kills too many people who could otherwise heal.
You can listen to me talk through this in the podcast by clicking ‘play’ below or in the following places:
Shannon Connery, Ph.D.