You will see death and failure and you cannot take it personally. This was a difficult lesson for me as I invest myself emotionally into my clients, but the bottom line is not everyone will recover. I have had to accept that I cannot save everyone.
As a part of my series about “Heroes Of The Addiction Crisis” I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Robb Kelly.
Robb Kelly, PhD is a renowned addiction consultant who believes in treating the problem of addiction, not the symptoms. Based on his own experiences working with addicts and alcoholics over the last 20 years, a PhD in Psychology from Oxford University and as a recovered alcoholic himself — he is a triple threat against the disease of addiction.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit of your backstory?
Before achieving sobriety, I was a hopeless, chronic alcoholic. I am not sure when I crossed the line from social drinking to alcoholism, I just know I did, and my life would never be the same again. I was married with children and had a great career; life could not have been better. The only problem was that I drank too much, and when I did, I lost control. When I enjoyed my drinking, I could not control it, and when I controlled my drinking, I could not enjoy life. Finally, alcoholism gripped me hard and like most people I sank quickly.
I lost millions of dollars, my business, my home, wife, and my two children. I went from family to friends to acquaintances until I finally became homeless and on the streets of Manchester, England for 14 months asking for handouts to purchase food but mainly liquor. While homeless, I was arrested several times, prone to blackouts that lasted for months, and was assaulted physically and sexually. I have had several near brushes with death, including blood loss from injuries during blackouts and an attempted suicide. To this day, I do not know how I was found or survived my suicide attempt.
In a moment of desperation, I fell to my knees in the cold rain, barefoot because my shoes had been stolen while I slept off another bender, and I looked up to heaven and said I cannot do this on my own anymore. For the first time I accepted that I was an alcoholic and I could not manage my life, moments later a man with a bible walked around the corner and asked me if I needed help. A stranger took me in, and I started my path to recovery. He let me stay with him with the rule that I was to attend AA meetings and though I had been in and out of the rooms for years, I quit fighting and finally found the answer I was looking for.
Is there a particular story or incident that inspired you to get involved in your work with opioid and drug addiction?
There are two reasons that I keep fighting for other people’s recovery. One is that I promised God that if he got me off the streets, I would make it my life’s mission to assist other hopeless, chronic alcoholics and addicts, and educate all I could on the dangers and warning signs of alcohol and addiction. Secondly, having been in the industry for over 20 years I am tired of watching people go in and out of treatment centers and never achieving lasting recovery. The system is broke, and I want to be part of the solution.
Can you explain what brought us to this place? Where did this epidemic come from?
There are many reasons why we are in this position. It starts with the companies that produced these extra powerful and addictive medications and their aggressive marketing strategies to reap as much profit as possible. Opioids affect the central nervous system in the same manner as drugs such as heroin, but the pharmaceutical companies either did not know or played down the addictive properties to doctors who in turn did not educate their patients about the risks. The pharmaceutical companies sweeten the deal by providing gifts and other perks for doctors to prescribe these medications over other options.
My question to pharmaceutical scientist and to doctors is, “how is pain worse today than it was 40 years ago?” Fentanyl is 80–100 times stronger than Morphine — has pain magnified that greatly or did the invention and prescribing of these medications create a mindset in the US population that any level of pain is unnecessary. We now have a population who is now accustomed to and demands these powerful medications to erase all pain.
Do not misunderstand me, I know there are individuals with cancer and debilitating illnesses that need powerful medications, but the doctors overprescribe them. I am originally from England where the prescribing of medications is very conservative compared to the US. To be honest, I was quite shocked to experience how easy it was to be written prescriptions for such powerful drugs.
So, to answer your question, you have pharmaceutical companies creating synthetic medications of which long term affects are unknown paired with aggressive marketing to doctors who were only too happy to help with their patient’s pain issues. The popularity of the medications with the public provided an opportunity to some enterprising doctors and the pill mills were born. Authorities were slow to react because these were under the umbrella of medical doctors and not drug dealers. It was a complete and utter failure on the part of doctors, authorities, and the government to understand the scope of the problem.
Can you describe how your work is making an impact battling this epidemic?
I have treated over 5,000 individuals in the past twenty years with alcoholism and addiction. In the past 10 years, I have seen an increase in abuse of painkillers or other prescription medications such as Adderall or Xanax. Patients move on to street drugs and alcohol when their access to the medications becomes an issue. I have a high success rate with my treatment method, and I am pleased to say very few repeat customers. I believe drug and alcohol abuse are symptoms of deeper issues. Trauma, childhood neglect, abuse, or abandonment issues. You treat the underlying issue, and the drug and alcohol use will be removed. The neuropathways in the brain must be retrained to find healthy solutions to triggers and that is what I do.
I am also a community advocate. I do television, radio, podcasts, and public speaking appearances to educate people on the warning signs of alcoholism and addiction as well as treatment options. But mainly, I want to spread hope and let people know that there is a solution.
Wow! Without sharing real names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted by your initiative?
Every client is special to me because they all have family and friends that are also being affected by their addiction, but I had a father, husband, business owner who just could not stay clean and sober. At the time I met him, he was living out of a hotel as the wife had kicked him out and divorce papers were on the table. There were 5 children, 3 under the age of 4, involved and I think it affected me so heavily because I was that man. By the time I finished treating him, divorce papers were rescinded, he was back at home with the wife and kids, and he had his business under control. I still hear from him from time to time and it makes me happy to know that he is now the good husband and father that I always knew he could be.
Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?
I worked with an A-list actor who had a highly publicized battle with drugs. We took custody of him from the courts where the judge made it clear that if he did not get clean, his next stop was prison. We worked with him for 3 months altering his mindset and clearing out all the stuff he kept stored away that was keeping him sick. In the course of his time with us, his entire life turned around. Not only did he recover from his drug addiction, but he was sent the script to one of the biggest blockbuster movies in the last 10 years. He is still sober and is one of the highest paid actors in the world. I am so proud of him because he truly was in a fight for his life.
Can you share three things that the community and society can do to help you address the root of this problem? Can you give some examples?
Educate, educate, educate yourself.
1. Educate yourself on medication before you take it. Ask your doctor questions about the medication or research medications that you or loved ones may be prescribed and always try a conservative route first. Less is always better. If a doctor wants to give you Oxycontin for lower back pain straightaway, that is a good sign you need to find another doctor.
2. Educate yourself on the signs and symptoms of addiction or drug abuse. If you think you have become reliant on pain medications to get through the day or are requiring larger dosages, then you are headed down a dangerous path and you need to seek help. If you see a loved one struggling, speak to their doctor or a mental health expert to get advice on how to help them. There are many resources (good and bad) but the more educated you are the better prepared you are to receive adequate and meaningful help.
3. Educate yourself about addiction. Addiction and alcoholism are not behavioral issues, moral or spiritual failings, or the result of choosing to use or drink. It is a mental disease and should be treated as such. The stigma of being an addict or alcoholic is a huge impediment to receiving treatment. We need to quit penalizing drug use, it does not work and is a huge waste of resources. Addicts do not belong in jail; they belong in treatment and we need to dedicate financial support to providing treatment instead of building more prison cells.
If you had the power to influence legislation, which three laws would you like to see introduced that might help you in your work?
1. Limit or ban the advertising of alcohol and pharmaceutical medications on television and other venues. They should be treated the way cigarettes are as toxic substances that can pose a danger to the public. Advertisers glamorize drinking and have convinced the public that fun cannot be had without alcohol. In the same vein, marketers have created a consciousness in the US that every ache, pain, or discomfort can be dosed away with a quick trip to the drugstore. These are dangerous programming messages to the masses.
2. Make pharmaceutical companies, clinics, and doctors financially responsible for the medical crisis we are now facing.
3. Better oversight of the treatment industry. There should be an independent governing body to ensure standards of care that are getting people well. The current model is profit-based and as it is a self-governed industry which is failing the public.
I know that this is not easy work. What keeps you going?
The wins. I get to see miracles happen every day. That parent who feels they have their child back, the husband reunited with his wife, the son and daughter speaking to their estranged parent for the first time in years. Mostly, to see the happiness and hope in a client’s face when they have turned the corner on their addiction and finally see that they can overcome it. This is what gets me out of bed every morning.
Do you have hope that one day this leading cause of death can be defeated?
I am a big believer in not giving up, but I fear it cannot be completely defeated. We live in a world with many broken people, and one where instant gratification and easy access almost ensure the continuation. I do believe the damage can be limited. The more spotlight we shine on it, and the better treatment options we can provide, we can certainly reduce its negative impact on our society.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
A leader is someone with the ability to bring the best out of people, inspire courage, and lead by example. Everyone has true potential inside them, the key is to help them find it and show them their true self and their purpose in life.
If you look at some of the top companies of the world, not in terms of financial prowess, but places where people love their jobs, you will find good leaders. At the very top, you have someone who exhibits these traits, and he/she surrounds himself with like-minded people and empowers them.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1. Not everyone is in this business for the right reason. The treatment center model is based on profit and unfortunately permanent recovery is not good for the bottom line. There are so many people who have been in and out of treatment for years and they are not recovering and sadly many are dying. Most clients I treat have been to inpatient on average 5–7 times. Inpatient has its place but too many of them place profit before people.
2. You will see death and failure and you cannot take it personally. This was a difficult lesson for me as I invest myself emotionally into my clients, but the bottom line is not everyone will recover. I have had to accept that I cannot save everyone.
3.One man can make a difference. I cannot recount the number of people who have sent me notes or called me and said I was ready to give up and then I heard you speak at a meeting and you inspired me to keep at it. When I go to meetings, I go for the newcomers, I am there to bear witness to the still suffering alcoholic. They need to be greeted and given attention as they do not have yet what the rest of us there do. I can make a difference and so can anyone who will just stop and take that moment to offer compassion and hope to their fellow man.
4. Never give up on anyone. Everyone had given up on me and written me off as dead but one man, a stranger to me, did not walk away and I am alive today because of him. When all seems at its most bleak, there is always hope.
5. As a follow up to never giving up, you must have boundaries and not become so enmeshed in someone else’s pain that it infects you. It is okay to take a break or walk away when you know that you are personally being compromised. An individual’s sobriety is the most important thing in their life, anything that threatens it must be shut down. You are of no use to anyone else when your own sobriety or emotional life is not fit. Clean your own house before you try cleaning up someone else’s.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Recovery to the masses — everyone is recovering from something. We need to live in kindness and inspire each other instead of breaking each other down. When you smile or compliment someone it releases endorphins. I spend my days showing people how powerful and exceptional they are, it is not a superpower, I am just reminding them of who they truly are. Imagine if we lived in a world where everyone saw the beauty and specialness in the people around them, this world would be heaven on earth.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I say it all the time: “I’m living the dream instead of dreaming to live.” When I was on the streets everyday was a challenge to see the next morning. I assumed I would die there but twenty years on and I am still kicking, and every day is a blessing.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
George W. Bush. I am very non-political first off, but I met President Bush in passing at a former client’s house in Dallas and knew little about him other than he was the previous president. The man I met greeted me very politely and was kind and gracious. I did my research and have come to know more of his story, and I have his art book. I would love to sit down and have a conversation with him and just see how his brain works. There is a depth to him that does not come across in media appearances.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much!