In our latest profile from Addict To Entrepreneur I sat down with Daniela Luzi Tudor, cofounder and CEO of WEconnect Health, an organization that helps support recovering addicts through a mobile platform that empowers them to stay accountable to their mind, body and spiritual activities or any pathway of recovery they choose.
Through Daniela’s work she has gained a deep understanding of her past addiction and has been studying addiction ever since. As we began or interview Daniela started by explaining her understanding of what lead her down the path of addiction. “What my understanding of myself and others on the spectrum going through similar experiences is that two things happened for me. One, I believe I was born with the parts of my brain that work in a different way. When I pick up a drink or a drug, I have no control past picking up that drink or drug. I have the phenomenon of craving, and essentially I am allergic to mind-altering substances to where a normal brain neurologically would make a decision to stop, my brain does not do that. I also believe though that addiction, any form of addiction whether it’s a process addiction, substance addiction, behavioral, I believe any of those addictions, that fire of addiction is really kindled and made bigger by trauma. Every human, I believe experiences some degree of trauma and I think, depending on environment, family, all those different kinds of things, that certain people react to that differently and deal and cope with it differently.”
Daniela believes that before she ever picked up alcohol or drugs through the trauma she experienced that she had these addictive tendencies. See Daniela had a very challenging childhood being born in Romania, a communist country at the time, where the country was going through major changes. Once communism fell, Daniela was moved 17 times across four countries before the young age of 11. As one can imagine this would be extremely difficult to adapt to as a child. Imagine being thrust into all theses different cultures with different languages and then imagine it starting at the age of 11. Daniela was always the new kid, in the new country, with the new language. Because of this, she was always being treated differently, never fit in and felt like an outsider.
All of those changes and situations created this sense of loneliness and not belonging that ignited some of the addictive behaviors Daniela was going through. This trauma caused her brain to pick up tendencies of an addictive nature starting at a very young age. In high school, Daniela was addicted to over-exercising to the point that she got tendinitis in both of her ankles. She was exercising three times a day while obsessively measuring herself and restricting her eating. When she went to college, she was introduced to drugs and alcohol. This combination linked with other traumatic events in her childhood led to her actions that started progressing into full blown addiction.
It was a fast progression starting with the alcohol which lead to her experimenting with drugs. Similar to my experience, cocaine is what really hooked us. However for Daniela it became an alcohol and cocaine mix which proved her vice. Like most, at first it was very manageable and functional. She had a full-time job and on the side was running her own business doing nightclub promotions and event planning while at the same time living that party lifestyle.
Out of control behavior and hitting rock bottom
Daniela’s enjoyment of the lifestyle lead her to creating waveform paintings of people’s favorite sounds, whether it was a baby’s heartbeat or someone saying “I love you” to their spouse or someone’s favorite song. In turn those sounds would be turned into unique paintings like visual waveforms. This became a business for Daniela and her cofounder Adrienne Trewolla, the artist known as Trew Love. The downside to this was that the market for this type of service was found at music festivals and music executives and producers, which fed into her lifestyle of partying. While for some like Daniela’s business partner who didn’t have addiction issues, this would be fun for others, like Daniela it was extremely destructive. Her behavior began to spiral downward pretty quickly culminating with her partner and room mate sitting her down and telling her, “I care about you and because of that, we may have to put the business aside, and I’m gonna move out unless you go get help.”
Daniela explains further, “At that point, it was pretty bad. I had to use drugs and alcohol more or less every single day, but I was still able to manage some functions. Once she left though (partner/roommate), I don’t know if it was a coincidence or they’re correlated, but my usage went up even more, and finally, that’s when I lost everything. Financially I was bankrupt, emotionally, mentally, all of those things, and I reached back out to my parents and I moved back to Seattle from L.A. When I got here, I thought that my environment change would help me move on. So I tried to stop on my own for about 18 months, and the harder I tried to stop alone, the worse that the binges got, and it was to the point where I had to be using every single minute. I would wake up in the morning and drink. I would hide mini wine bottles under my seat. It got really, really bad to where I wasn’t even eating. And I ended up getting a DUI and going to jail a couple times. So that last binge that I had when I detoxed in jail, my dad bailed me out after some time, and that’s when I really asked for help, and I said, “I think I need to go to this thing called treatment.”
No one but an addict can really understand the physical affect detoxing can have after years of drug and alcohol abuse. The physical pain and agony of going through that combined with the mental torture one goes through lead to Daniela’s decision to get help as she describes in detail, “What really got me to that place was that last time that I got put in jail and I was detoxing from like six different substances on the cold floor, and it was just miserable in there, and I felt like every single cell in my body was shaking, and I just didn’t want to be alive anymore. And it’s not that necessarily I thought that treatment would help, but I thought at least I’m gonna show my parents I tried because I didn’t think anything else was gonna work. I didn’t know a whole lot about it. I just thought this is gonna be my last option to at least show my family that I tried to make a change, but I really did not think it was gonna work, and I didn’t have a choice, you know. I’d been missing from work for over a week, and my boss at the time had been really gracious with this stuff. We’d known each other for a long time, but I just felt like I couldn’t function anymore. I couldn’t live with substances anymore, and I couldn’t live without them anymore, so it was just at that point of no choice, like no choice.”
So on July 29, 2014 Daniela got sober and shortly thereafter checked herself into a 28 day treatment facility. Afterwards, she went into a women’s sober living home, was there for several months and did everything they recommended. She took that momentum and got herself into a 12-step program, started doing outpatient treatment and started going to individual therapy. Everything changed. “I found a 12-step process the day I got out, and then that winter, I went on tour de amends through California, Nevada, all over, and then into Washington. And it was a very powerful experience.”
Making amends to all of the people we hurt through our behavior as addicts is a major part of the 12 step program. It can be a very powerful experience and Daniela had seen the people before her go through this process and gain some relief and freedom from it. She saw the change in them, so she went into the process with blind faith that maybe this will work and help start the healing process. The people and relationships that Daniela’s behavior damaged the most we her parents, so that’s where she started. She cried and cried as she made amends with her parents. Through this process significant changes in her relationship with her parents have occurred. Things Daniela would never had thought possible. Her mom’s physical and emotional health got better, and she firmly believe that a big part of that is because of this process. There are times when she still feels extremely guilty and in pain about some of the things that manifested themselves during her addiction, but that is so minute compared to the amount of joy, freedom and beauty she has seen from the healing of their relationship.
Besides her parents there was another person that Daniela was romantically involved with who was extremely damaged by her behaviors as an addict. This person was unwilling to meet with her due to the damage left, so Daniela sent a letter of amends. This happens frequently because as addicts we promise over and over that we will change. We lie, we cheat, we steal to get our “fix” and that damage is seen as torture for others who are caught up in the storm. There’s not much we can do beyond expressing our amends and by doing so Daniela felt her sense of guilt and shame become minimized. The lessons learned throughout this process have allowed her to show up completely different in her current relationship. She is honest, loyal, and tries to do the things to the best of her ability to show up as what a good partner would show up like.
Finding healthy behaviors
Changing our behaviors is a key in our sobriety and finding positive outlets to express oneself is a huge part of that. Daniela has explored a lot of different activities as she navigates her way through sobriety. “First off, I’ll preface I’m very curious, I’ve also tried a lot of things, but I would say the most consistent things that worked for me is writing, meditation, and prayer, which to me is not in a religious sense but really is just connecting to my intuition and to the universe. Those things are really consistent for me, and I do practice two 12-step programs as a foundation, Alcoholics Anonymous and Codependency Anonymous. Both of them have proven to be very valuable. Beyond that, I do have a business, an executive, and a fitness coach. Titus Kahoutek, from Heroics Training, combines business executive coaching, like talk coaching with fitness, and we’ve worked together the entire time. We actually started working together a few months before I got into treatment. He saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself at the time. And there’s a couple things that I do intermittently every few months that have really helped me heal a lot of trauma and also just identify more areas of talent, improvement and opportunity in myself as a person but also professionally. And those are EMDR and somatic therapy along with breath work classes and yoga.”
What is EMDR and somatic therapy?
Through my interview with Daniela I learned that EMDR and somatic therapy is a combination of meditation in a way. Through working with a therapist you identify an area or a belief system that you want to work on. For example take the thought “I’m not good enough.” You take this thought, drop into your body, close your eyes, and think, “Where in my body is the memory of when I was a child the first time and I felt like I wasn’t good enough.” You sit with that memory. The therapist then guides you through that and processes it out. Daniela explains, “It honestly feels like after every one of those EMDR and somatic sessions that I just ran a marathon. I feel really sore, but at the end of the day, my self-esteem and how I react in certain situations that are stressful, has completely changed. As an example, I used to have a complete panic attack and fear around going through borders because of my childhood trauma and immigration stuff.” After the therapy she has gone through Daniela describes the difference, “Now even when I came back from Panama from a speaking engagement, I had to get called into the immigration office for some weird reason. I didn’t feel an ounce of even annoyance, which I think any normal person would feel getting called into there, and I think that’s all a testament of doing that type of therapy where you’re really identifying and not shoving down some of these traumatic memories and letting them go.”
Once Daniela decided to throw herself into treatment and a life of sobriety she knew she would devote the rest of her life to focussing on this issue and helping others. In fact, it was in treatment that the genesis of it all started. “It was about in my third week or so, I had connected with people that I felt could be, you know, close friends, moving forward, and the counselor looked at me, and she said, “Look to your left, look to your right, it’s very unlikely that one of you will be sober past 60 days walking out of here statistically.” And I was like, “Wow, that’s like really horrible odds.” So I started sort of journaling about this idea of like how could this device (cell phone) that’s with us 24/7, close that gap between connection, communication, and accountability to the things that you’re supposed to be doing in order to sustain recovery. So sort of what hit the nail on the head for me was when I did walk out of treatment, they handed me a piece of paper. They were like, “Okay, if you do these ten things every single day for the rest of your life, you’ll be good and stay in recovery. Here you go, see you later.” I was like, “No wonder the relapse rate is so high if that’s all they’re giving you.” So I thought, “How could we translate this useless piece of paper into a useful tool that’s live 24/7 and keeps you connected to the right people at the right time? I was also unsure about pursuing though a startup so soon into my recovery. So I tried to push it aside, but it just kept egging at me every single day.
The formation ofWEconnect Health
This intuition led Daniela to participate in a startup weekend competition where she found her first cofounder and they finished in third place. Sixty days after that, and 90 days sober, she won a contest to go to Richard Branson’s island for five days. So Daniela took her first sponsor from the 12-step program she was in. She hadn’t traveled around much so they went together to Richard Branson’s island during Necker Cup, and on that trip, she met her second cofounder, Murphy Jensen. Murphy is a former professional tennis player who won the French Open in 1993. He’s been in long-term recovery for 11 years and came out with his story during the Open on national TV over a year ago. The timing was perfect as Murphy wanted to move away from training athletes and towards something more meaningful. Daniela’s other cofounder has been around recovery and experienced trauma in her family system which has given a great understanding of the research behind it as well as how a family member should be served by their products to help the whole family system heal versus just being an individual in recovery.
With this great foundation of a team in place it was then full on work mode. The three founders worked nights and weekends for nearly 11 months, and over the course of the last 3-1/2 years, they’ve put together a suite of products, one for patients and one for the healthcare ecosystem built from evidence based research. These products essentially prevent relapse and help people stay on a sustained recovery path. They also provide real-time verified outcomes data to continue to help clinicians and providers to make good choices and help people sustain recovery and improve outcomes.
They currently have 24 full time employees and are growing.
Daniela and WEconnect Health have a two fold mission focused on increasing education within addiction and how that affects the behavioral health system as well as changing the way addiction is treated in the healthcare system. As she explains, “I think that’s the biggest problem. It’s lack of education and not understanding that this is a chronic illness that requires a lifetime of treatment and care, and the way that treatment and care happens. There’s a really lovely neuroscientist and doctor from the East Coast actually, who said, “Addiction is the only chronic illness where you can get treatment for it 24/7” because you can find community meetings or somebody to talk to at all times. So I think the first thing is education. The second is we’ve been treating addiction like an acute disease instead of a chronic condition, so until we’ve gotten to the point of treating like a true healthcare issue, we’re treating it incorrectly. We’re treating it like an acute form of illness where people go into detox and then you just push them out, and there’s no real effort to give them the actual long-term treatment that they need. They can come to the ER, and then you just get released. But it’s a chronic illness that, just like diabetes requires daily insulin, you know meetings, a CBT, or refuge recovery, or whatever that modality looks like for the person that it’s working for. So I think it’s twofold. It’s again education and it’s like the way that we’re treating it as a healthcare system that are the two primary blockers
WEconnect is a B-to-B-to-C company. They work directly with the treatment centers, healthcare systems, and some of the alternative court programs like Drug Court, and provide their products to them and then they release the consumer-facing application to the folks entering the programs. There sweet spot is working with people in really early recovery by helping someone pivot from a level of care that’s really intensive to continuing to take all of those habits and community and connection and accountability with them in their pocket through the WEconnect application for the long term care needed. Their service is free direct to consumer, so people can go to WEconnectRecovery.com to both contact them if they’re interested in working with WEconnect in some capacity, partnering with them, downloading an application for themselves, or even as a family member.
Their Version 2.0 release is already on the path of success. The new and improved design is fun and easy to use. They also introduced a robust rewards program, where individuals can get both digital and real rewards in return for staying accountable to their recovery activities. The app is of course program agnostic and supports all pathways of recovery.
One of their longest customers, Tate W., has checked into over 98% of 7,000 activities over the last 3.5 years. He uses the Starbucks cards that he gets from using WEconnect to take out newly sober people for coffee.
Entrepreneurs and addiction
As I speak with more and more addicts turned entrepreneurs the traits that got us lost in addiction have elevated us as entrepreneurs. The same traits used in a positive manner have contributed to amazing organizations like WEconnect to be born. For Daniela she believes the extreme nature of addiction and being in a life or death situation has helped build a buffer and a resiliency that no matter how hard of a day it is in your entrepreneurship journey that you can make it through the next day and continue to grow your business. “There’s gonna be some really hard mental and emotional days through your entrepreneurial journey, and I think having experienced something much worse than that gives you the ability to make it through anything really. It gives you a buffer that I think most people may not have. I think the other piece in addiction, especially if you got into dealing or something similar, I think we have a huge talent for being able to read people and use it for good. I think people in recovery have a huge sense of empathy, which is why we try to dull and numb our senses. We have a huge ability to know and understand what other people are feeling and perceiving and if you learn how to use that correctly in the sense of like attending to people’s needs and like answering them when they don’t even know the question they’re needing to ask, it’s hugely beneficial in that entrepreneurial journey.”
Resourcefulness is another major trait most of us share. Daniela shares. “You have to be really resourceful, and you have to find new and creative ways to get from point A to point B, and I think that’s also another way that being put through the trenches of addiction, it can be used for good in entrepreneurship.”
As more and more young entrepreneurs come on the scene it is easy for them to fall into addiction especially if not surrounded by the right people and mentors. They get wrapped up in the lifestyle of living large, giving into temptation and trying to show off. When they even think of a life without alcohol, without drugs, without gambling or a variety of other things they automatically tend to believe there life will be boring. However these days there are so many other outlets to have fun and express yourself in a positive way. Daniela thought the same thing, “Just again to share my experiences that I’ve gotten to experience more adventure, more seeing the world, crazier parties that I’ve attended, all of those things as a result of being in recovery and working on myself personally and making sure that I stay in sustained recovery. So that’s one aspect, and I feel more productive at that. I think if you’re a young person today, where that generation is actually in a very fortunate spot because there’s a lot of health-conscious movements happening in L.A. and in New York that have to do with clean living, healthy living. They’re creating actually an equivalent of Soho House, but there’s no alcohol being served, and it’s just about yoga and mindful living and things like that.
There are opportunities on the front end to see how you could have still a fun lifestyle and meet other young people without having to use drugs and alcohol in your life. And also, there’s organizations now for young people. There is Young People of AA, which is a 12-step program that you can check out, and you can find other young people that are going through the same thing as you. So I think right now, we are actually in a very opportune time for the young generation to not have to hit a bottom or keep going longer than necessary. There’s also an organization called Daybreakers and they throw huge dance parties that are sober throughout the country now, so there’s all sorts of fun stuff out there that you can do as an alternative.
Be sure to check out Daniela’s app and how it can help you or others currently going through addiction challenges. To connect with Daniela and learn more find her on LinkedIn under Daniela Luzi Tudor and to find out more about WEconnect Health, check out www.weconnnectrecovery.com