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David Livingston of the Domus Retreat: “Mental illness is the cost of this confusion”

…We have a culture that is still needing to better understand the necessity of healthy dependency. A lot of mental illness is related to confusion on what to identify with and what to value. As a culture, we have overvalued the external world and undervalued our internal lives. Often, mental illness is the cost of […]

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…We have a culture that is still needing to better understand the necessity of healthy dependency. A lot of mental illness is related to confusion on what to identify with and what to value. As a culture, we have overvalued the external world and undervalued our internal lives. Often, mental illness is the cost of this confusion.


As part of my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to normalize the focus on mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview David Livingston, MA, MFT, psychotherapist at Domus Retreat, a licensed drug treatment and recovery center, as well as for patients who have gone through medical detox treatments such as rapid detox at Waismann Method® Advanced Treatment for Opiate Dependence. He performs counseling for individuals after they have gone through opioid or alcohol detox with the Waismann Method® medical team and creates individualized treatment plans for each patient, utilizing supplementary medical professionals and community services when needed.

He also teaches meditation and stress management techniques to individuals with chronic pain. He focuses on motivating patients and helping them create structure and strategies to achieve defined goals.

He helps patients understand the factors that caused compulsive behavior or emotions that contributed to chemical dependence, as well as other contributing factors, such as sleep problems, chronic pain, persistent anxiety or depression, mood fluctuations, and the inability to relax amid continuous responsibilities.

Livingston started working with Waismann Method® in 1999. Domus Retreat was created in 2005 by Waismann Method® founder Clare Waismann because there wasn’t an adequate recovery center for medical detox patients. Livingston and the team at Domus Retreat diagnose patients’ mental health issues so an effective recovery plan can be put in place and provide the necessary support to enable patients to succeed with those plans. At Domus Retreat, treatment plans are tailored to best fit each person’s physical and emotional needs instead of trying to fit the person into a conventional treatment protocol.

Prior to this work, Livingston provided counseling as a staff psychotherapist with other counseling service providers. His credentials include the following: Los Angeles Institute and Society for Psychoanalytic Studies Post-Graduate Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Certification; masters of clinical psychology from Antioch University Los Angeles, California; bachelor’s degree in history, business minor, from University of California Los Angeles.


Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?

My early school years were significantly focused on playing competitive sports, leading to a tennis scholarship at UCLA and a short professional career. After that I helped run a company in Southeast Asia for a few years.

During this period of living abroad, I found myself reading constantly. I quite enjoyed biographies and other literature, but eventually my interest moved more toward philosophy and psychology. I really enjoyed people of all kinds, and I liked discovering the ability to understand myself and others.

After returning to Los Angeles, a good friend suggested I consider going into psychology as a career. I had never considered it, but I soon knew that I had found what I wanted to do — a feeling that has been confirmed over the last 25 years of working with wonderful people who are courageous and resilient.

I began working with Clare Waismann at the Waismann Institute® nearly 20 years ago because we shared a desire to provide patient-centered treatment and the belief that the treatment of addiction ultimately comes back to understanding an individual’s needs and their capacities to grow and develop.

While we understand the gravity and dangers inherent in substance use, the process of moving forward is always about the development of the individual. Working with a group of people who are committed to providing a very positive and nurturing patient experience — one that is founded on a strong sense of boundaries and understanding as to what’s going to help an individual get better — has been incredibly fulfilling.

According to Mental Health America’s report, over 44 million Americans have a mental health condition. Yet there’s still a stigma about mental illness. Can you share a few reasons you think this is so?

I think the stigma about mental illness is complex. First, I don’t like the phrase mental illness. We all exist on a continuum which includes deficits, ways we are conflicted, and the myriad of ways we function and relate well with ourselves and with others. It’s hard to be alive, and there is a lot to manage. Some people have things harder than others — if something isn’t working, getting help is the most practical and honorable thing we can do.

There is no benefit in suffering needlessly. I think the stigma about mental illness is overall much better. I see people with a greater sense that what they are struggling with is part of the norm and not outside of it. That said, we often prefer to minimize or skip over that which is painful or not working well — we tend to not like our vulnerability.

One of the biggest reasons people don’t seek help for mental illness is they consciously or unconsciously fear being let down — meaning having a bad experience along with the possibility of not getting better.

Can you tell our readers about how you are helping to de-stigmatize the focus on mental wellness?

The most helpful thing I can do to help de-stigmatize mental wellness is bring understanding to whatever the problem is. The understanding includes the reality that problems like anxiety, depression, and substance dependency can be helped.

Because we have the potential to grow out of our symptoms, we can rediscover ourselves. The symptom is the limitation; the cure is the expanded, more capable, and resilient self. Most all mental health problems that are not biologically caused can be improved or resolved by the right understanding followed by an active process of growth. This is not hopefulness; this is a treatment and how we get better.

Was there a story behind why you decided to launch this initiative?

There is an extensive relationship between mental health and substance abuse. I joined forces with the Waismann Method® team and Domus Retreat because I felt that few people get the kind of care, treatment and understanding they need to address unwanted substance use. Once someone is detoxed from a substance so that they are no longer burdened by a physical dependence, they need to work with an experienced therapist to help them understand the factors causing the compulsive behavior or other causes of the dependence. This approach and our customized treatment plans set our team and recovery center apart.

We focus on each person’s unique needs and his or her underlying causes of using opioids or alcohol. We don’t rely on one-size-fits-all approaches. We also prioritize time for the person to work on their recovery and growth without being distracted by busywork like chores or group activities. Private, one-on-one therapy at our recovery center is designed to help patients feel more comfortable and secure to facilitate real growth and improvement. Our focus on the individual’s personal adjustment after detox and treating their unique symptoms and causes in an inpatient setting is dramatically different from many types of rehabs and other treatment programs.

In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?

Individuals, society, and the government need to all create a narrative that makes mental illness normative. Meaning, we can bear the realization that part of the world will include individuals suffering from biologically, developmentally, and emotionally based illness — and that we are very often capable of significantly improving these illnesses. This is a narrative of acceptance, understanding, and action.

We have a culture that is still needing to better understand the necessity of healthy dependency. A lot of mental illness is related to confusion on what to identify with and what to value. As a culture, we have overvalued the external world and undervalued our internal lives. Often, mental illness is the cost of this confusion.

What are your 6 strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?

I have four. The strategies that I use to most help my own well-being are:

  • Getting enough sleep
  • Regular cardiovascular exercise
  • Eating well
  • Having good experiences with others

These are the four most regulating processes I know — together, these four strategies help keep me healthy and in balance. I have specific routines that I protect around exercise: Saturday morning, I have a regular game of tennis. Wednesday morning, I go hiking. I have foods I keep at home that I enjoy and are healthy.

My sleep is fairly regular, and if I am not rested enough, I will cut something out to catch up. I also have time to spend with the people I enjoy most. I’m fortunate to have work that I enjoy and that is also meaningful. I have family, friends and colleagues I enjoy and can rely on when needed. I enjoy reading, movies and travel as a way to escape. I don’t think there is anything new or novel in what helps me stay emotionally well, but putting all of these components in place and managing them is a life’s work.

Earlier in my life, my own analytic therapy was significant in helping me discover who I am and what kind of a life I’m willing to work to create. It’s far easier to sustain healthy habits when you know yourself and are not in conflict.

What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?

I have been influenced by the writings of Robert Johnson, James Hollis, Joseph Campbell, Melanie Klein, Joseph Goldstein and too many others to list. I just finished the “The Righteous Mind” by Jonathan Haidt, which is excellent in understanding the polarization happening in America.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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