One of the keys to recovery is support, but support should not end at recovery. Entrepreneurs struggling with addiction should surround themselves with advisors — whether they hold spiritual, leadership, familial or therapeutic expertise — who they can turn to in times of need . If possible, there are added benefits when those advisors serve as a team and can address your situation from a gestault perspective. For instance, when making a major life decision, I turn to my team who help me see things from different angles. That way I can make the most informed decisions. I learned this approach to life while in recovery and it’s one of the most valuable lessons I learned.
As a part of my series about people who made the journey from an addict to an entrepreneur, I had the pleasure to interview Zack Ament of Westwind Recovery.
He went from addict to entrepreneur and now dedicates his life to helping others who struggle with addiction. Zack Ament, 31, is the founder and co-CEO of Westwind Recovery that maintains 7 sober living houses and 2 detox centers in Los Angeles. While he enjoys his life today, the road to success was mired in weekend benders and run-ins with the law.
Zack’s first drink was at 13 and during the next decade or so, he went in and out of rehab several times before finally committing to sobriety. But it wasn’t his experience in rehab that inspired him to launch his own business. As a way for him and his partner to remain sober, they and a group of friends decided to rent a house together. To keep sober, they filled their time with activities — weekend BBQs, hiking, gym workouts, dinners out on the town, weekend trips — all done in sobriety.
And that’s when the idea of launching a business struck. Zack thought if he could recreate the model that his group had formed, it would help others get sober. Most sober living facilities are somber places where residents are forced to participate in group meetings a few times a day intermixed by smoking breaks on the patio, card games and watching TV.
Putting FUN in sobriety has given birth to Westwind Recovery and the demand is so great his business is blooming rapidly.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you describe your childhood for us?
My parents struggled to have children for years due to hormone irregularities, failed IVFs, unsuccessful adoption attempts… They even appeared on “60 minutes” in the mid-80’s to discuss their struggles with adoption (this is back when there were no legal protections for perspective parents.) Finally, my mother’s friend introduced her to one of her patients who was about to make the most difficult decision in her life — to put her baby up for adoption. This was my biological mother; too young, already raising one daughter, and in and out of addiction.
I speak about the trials that my parents went through to find me because it highlights how desperately they wanted me, and, ultimately, how much they would sacrifice because they loved me so much.
My adoptive parents, whom I consider my “real” parents, provided me with a stable childhood that was rich with love, connection, academic stimulation and opportunity. They worked hard to give my brothers and me a comfortable and love-filled life. We traveled often and were introduced to spirited, fascinating and inspiring people. I always felt cared for and supported by my parents, And early on I realized that they had high expectations for me. Consequently, I always felt like I had to be the perfect student so that I could pursue a successful career as a doctor or lawyer in order to meet my parent’s high expectations.
As much as I felt loved and supported, however, deep down inside I felt like I was different. My adoption left me wondering what sort of circumstances my biological parents must have faced in order to make the decision to put me up for adoption. I couldn’t shake the thought that despite the advantages my parents provided, I might somehow turn out like my birth parents because I share their genes. As I was struggling with the very fundamentals of who I was, I was also coming to the realization that I was gay.
Although Los Angeles is considered to be a bastion of liberalism, in the mid-1990s it was relatively homophobic. So between struggling with my very identity combined with my newfound realization that I was gay, I turned to alcohol to help me cope. Instead of simply anesthetizing me, drinking was just one more secret to deal with. Before I knew it, I wasn’t the young boy I once was. My friends and family didn’t recognize me anymore…and I didn’t recognize myself .
Can you share with us how were you initially introduced to your addiction? What drew you to the addiction you had? And What do you think you were really masking or running from in the first place?
I was terrified of the reality that I was gay. I honestly hadn’t met anyone else in my life who was gay or, at least, didn’t think I had. Gay characters on television and other media portrayed gay people as comic book characters that society was supposed to laugh at or tragic figures that you were supposed to feel sorry for. I also believed that being gay somehow didn’t fit in with the plans for success my parents had hoped for me.
While grappling with this internal struggle I turned to alcohol on the day of my Bar Mitzvah. I stole a bottle of wine from my parent’s tiny collection of alcohol. I felt that drinking would be relatively safe since I knew that kids from school were experimenting with it. After taking a few drinks, the alcohol began to take its effect and suddenly the out-of-control feelings I had disappeared…like magic. I was no longer “in my head” and, more importantly, no longer uncomfortable in my own skin. Later, I realized that my genetic predisposition to addiction had just been waiting — for 14 years — for me to take my first drink.
Can you share what the lowest point in your addiction and life was?
The lowest point was the night of my arrest. I was 20 and attending college when I came to a really low point in my addiction. Fueled by drugs and alcohol, I had pushed many of my friends and family away — my addiction was my priority. One night, while at school, I got very drunk and took a sleeping pill, which caused me to make a scene on campus. I was arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct, evading arrest and assault on a law enforcement officer and, rightfully, was booked and charged with these crimes. Being in jail for the first time ever was an eye opener for me. It was then that I came to the realization that I couldn’t continue living my life this way and, for the first time, understood that I needed to seek help — fast.
Can you tell us the story about how you were able to overcome your addiction?
I initially thought that I could help myself. I decided to do away with drugs altogether and moderate my drinking. I told myself that if I would only drink after 6 p.m. or only on the weekends, I could control it. But I soon came to the realization that, for me, moderation would not work. I needed to understand that I am an addict and that no amount of moderation would be OK for me. I had to look at addiction from an analytical standpoint before I could accept that that is what I truly am.
Today, in order to maintain my sobriety, I need constant reminders that I am an addict. I attend twelve-step meetings in order to hear stories of those who are newer to sobriety than I am. I work with others who would like to get sober because helping them helps me. By sharing my story and experiences, it helps me remember how bad and out of control things were before I got help and how valuable it is for me to do the metacognitive and spiritual work required for me to maintain sobriety. I love learning new spiritual, psychological and philosophical teachings that help me gain new understanding and tools to live life as a sober man.
How did you reconcile within yourself and to others the pain that addiction caused to you and them?
I had to to live my life as a recovered person for quite a while some time before my family and close friends were able to trust me again. After about a year or two into my sobriety, I noticed that my parents were able to take a deep breath and see that I was OK. It was then that I was able to make amends to the people in my life whom I had hurt, and commit to never returning to my old ways. I am now in a position to mentor and be there for the people in my life whom I had once hurt. I know that they look up to me and seek my emotional support and advice on major life decisions. This commitment to others is my amends for the pain I caused others.
I also owed financial amends to my parents. It was important for me to repay them for the money I had stolen and I include money wasted in college tuition, previous attempts at rehabs and an apartment that I had forfeited. I continue to make amends to my parents, both financially and emotionally. I am completely self-supporting, and take the opportunity to support my parents financially whenever possible. I go to their house for Shabbat dinner every Friday, and we spend five days a week together with my son, so they have the wonderful opportunity to see him grow up (as well as the wonderful opportunity to watch me grow up as a father).
When you stopped your addiction, what did you do to fill in all the newfound time you had?
What stopped me from using was my fear of getting to the point of no return. The night I got arrested, I realized that the way I had been living was catching up to me. I was terrified that I might not be able to salvage who I was at the most fundamental level.
When I stopped using, I needed to treat my addiction with therapy, 12-step programs, and deep and meaningful connections with other people. It was also extremely important to explore new things and experiment with sides of me that I had previously been too scared to explore; like my sexuality, my artistic and creative drives, and my athletic nature.
I returned to school to pursue my studies in liberal arts, psychology in . I intended to make something of my life…make my mark on the world as a repayment to those who had supported me through the hard times and healed me into my recovery. I have always been psychologically inclined, both as a child and through my addiction. In school, I utilized values that I had developed through my recovery — integrity, getting things done in a timely manner and always showing up and sitting up front. By making use of the tools in my recovery, I was able to be top of my class.
8. What positive habits have you incorporated into your life post addiction to keep you on the right path?
I run my life and all decisions — life decisions and business decisions — off of certain values, which include maintaining a peaceful existence, removing chaos from my life, being honesty, doing no harm to others, and, as a person transitioning from young adulthood to adulthood, I constantly ask myself, “what would adult Zack do?”. Since I filter every decision through my core values, I know that my behavior will not lead me astray.
I also maintain a consistent schedule and I work with advisors in every area of my life. I have a career coach, a therapist, a sponsor in my recovery program, and a mentor in the spiritual sector of life. I know who to go to for consultation, and make sure I never keep any secrets.
Can you tell us a story about how your entrepreneurial journey started?
Though I had been in rehab several times, it wasn’t my experience there that inspired me to launch my own business. In fact, Westwind Recovery was borne organically…there was no great business plan, no late nights filled with number crunching and “what if” scenarios.
It started after I met the man who would eventually become my husband, Justin Wells, on a sober ski trip. After we returned to LA, Justin asked me if I wanted to join him and a few others from the ski trip to rent a house together. I agreed and the ensuing months were jam-packed with activities — weekend BBQs, AA meetings, hiking excursions, gym workouts, dinners out on the town, weekend trips to Palm Springs — all done in sobriety. (By then Justin and I had become romantically involved, and we later married.)
And that’s when the idea of launching a business struck. Justin and I approached our long-time friend, Justin White, who is now CO-CEO with me. We thought that if we could recreate the model that our group had formed, it would help others remain sober too. You have to understand that most sober living facilities are relatively somber places where residents are forced to participate in group meetings punctuated by smoking breaks, playing cards and watching TV.
Unwittingly, the Justins and I realized that we had created another model for recovery where we put the “fun” in sobriety. That concept we named Westwind Recovery was soon ,wholeheartedly, embraced by those longing to get sober and their success became our success. An essential part of our model is our focus on community. Also, our alumni program allows former residents to maintain their connections to the group and participate in countless activities.
What character traits have you transferred from your addiction to your entrepreneurship. Please share both the positive and negative.
There is a certain drive, a hustle that comes from needing to get your fix when you’re an addict. I would do whatever I needed to get high or drunk. Today, I use that same determination in my professional and personal life. “Hustling” can be a positive and negative trait. While it is important to spend long hours and make sacrifices to support a successful business, it is important to balance those responsibilities with a healthy private life. As the saying goes, “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”…but it also makes Jack a one dimensional, hollow and boring boy, as well.
I also have brought with me a unique understanding of the human condition. I read people’s emotional states pretty well, and that allows me to understand what drives them to make the decisions they do. This is a trait that served me well in my addiction and now helps me in the business of addiction recovery.
Why do you think this topic is not discussed enough?
While a reported 80% of Americans understand that addiction is a disease, similar to cancer or diabetes, the same population also hold the belief that addiction is a moral failing. While these concepts are mutually exclusive, reality suggests that there is more nuance at play. The media tend to highlight the salacious aspects of addiction. The public devour stories of high profile celebs, athletes and politicians becoming human train wrecks due to substance abuse. Unfortunately, we don’t see enough of the extraordinary stories of courage, perseverance and commitment of those who have taken back the reins and regained their lives.
Oftentimes, that’s due to the anonymity demanded by 12 step programs. But I believe that by sharing your stories you can offer hope and inspire others to seek change. Addiction is not a moral failing or a choice — and those who are in recovery should not be scared to share their truth. Only then will we be able to begin to break the stigma of addiction. Until then, you will continue to witness the addicted population suffer, be marginalized, jailed, and lose their lives in ever increasing numbers.
Can you share three pieces of advice that you would give to the entrepreneur who is struggling with some sort of addiction but ashamed to speak about it or get help?
1. Speak up to those you love and trust. Addiction can isolate you from your support system. In your addled state, it’s easy to mistrust those who are there for you, love you and have your best interests at heart. Invite them to help you — be brave, then you will open the door to receive the support and guidance necessary to heal. Seek professional help. There are treatment programs that can accommodate everyone. For instance, many high-profile people, often surrounded by sycophants, don’t get the treatment they need. There are facilities that offer effective treatment in an anonymous manner.
At Westwind Recovery, we offer a concierge treatment program that includes detox, residential treatment, and ongoing outpatient treatment that is truly client-centered and specific to the needs of entrepreneurs. This treatment takes place in a private property with our team of treatment and clinical experts and doctors.
2. Both addicts and entrepreneurs have been known to struggle with inflated egos. One tool that I constantly employ is checking in with myself in sticky situations to see what my intentions are. I call it “trying to right size myself.” One I do that is seeing myself as a student when facing a particular situation. I make sure to put my ego away and view each challenge as an opportunity to learn. By keeping myself open like that, I am seeing myself achieving personal growth.
3. One of the keys to recovery is support, but support should not end at recovery. Entrepreneurs struggling with addiction should surround themselves with advisors — whether they hold spiritual, leadership, familial or therapeutic expertise — who they can turn to in times of need . If possible, there are added benefits when those advisors serve as a team and can address your situation from a gestault perspective. For instance, when making a major life decision, I turn to my team who help me see things from different angles. That way I can make the most informed decisions. I learned this approach to life while in recovery and it’s one of the most valuable lessons I learned.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
@zacktravels on instagram. Zack Ament on FB