As a part of my series about people who made the journey from an addict to an entrepreneur, I had the pleasure to interview Michael Cartwright.
Addiction treatment trailblazer Michael T. Cartwright co-founded American Addiction Centers, Inc. in 2012 and currently serves as its chairman and chief executive officer (CEO). With over 20 years of experience, he is a noted behavioral health expert, author and entrepreneur whose treatment philosophy is based on his expertise and involvement in 15 federally funded research studies on dual diagnosis and addiction.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you describe your childhood for us?
I grew up in a loving family that was also extremely dysfunctional. There was a lot of substance abuse and mental illness on both sides of the family. It was a challenge to be able to come out of that and get sober, obtain a degree, secure a job and go on to do as well as I have in my life and career. My grandmother was the one oasis in my life. She was safe and consistent. I could go to her house and not be around dysfunction or chaos. That’s the environment my wife and I have tried to create in our home for our children. We don’t judge our kids. We try to encourage them and inspire them.
Can you share with us how were you initially introduced to your addiction? What drew you to the addiction you had?
Many of the people in my neighborhood and in my family regularly used drugs and alcohol, so I thought it was normal. I didn’t see anything wrong with it, so I tried it out. I found I really enjoyed it. I kept using until it caused me so much distress that I couldn’t use anymore.
What do you think you were really masking or running from in the first place?
Initially, I wasn’t running from anything other than the normal dysfunction in my home. I started using simply for fun. Eventually, I realized my substance use was masking mental health problems and a lack of direction in my life at the time.
Can you share what the lowest point in your addiction and life was?
My lowest point was being in a psychiatric hospital for months at a time. This experience was unbelievably distressing. Not only was I psychotic, but I thought I was never going to be able to live a normal life. It was devastating to think that I was so debilitated that I may never be able to hold down a job, have a family or do all the normal stuff most people get to experience in life.
Can you tell us the story about how were you able to overcome your addiction?
First, I had to admit that I had a problem and then believe that I could overcome the problem with the help of a higher power. That is what AA helped me do with steps one and two. In my book, Believable Hope: Five Essential Elements to Beat Any Addiction, I further explain how I overcame my addiction.
The five essential elements include:
- Believe and hope — I had to believe that freedom from my addiction was possible.
- Visualize the life you want — I had to change my mindset and how I viewed myself and my future.
- Surround yourself with winners — I believe in the principle that you become who you surround yourself with. I committed to surrounding myself with the right people.
- Put your plan into action — I put together a game plan of how I was going to achieve long-term sobriety.
- Maintain the life you love — Recovery is a lifelong journey. I’ve been able to maintain my sobriety for more than 26 years now.
How did you reconcile within yourself and to others the pain that addiction caused to you and them?
Time was the biggest factor. There was no quick answer. Some people forgave me right away. There were others that became very bitter and never got over the fact that I hurt them while I was using drugs and alcohol. The AA program is all about making amends. But that doesn’t mean everyone is going to accept your forgiveness.
When you stopped your addiction, what did you do to fill in all the newfound time you had?
I discovered I had a passion for wanting to help people. After leaving treatment, I worked as a caseworker at a rehabilitation center. I went on to open a halfway house in a local Nashville neighborhood. In 1995, I launched Foundations Associates, the first of many residential drug and alcohol treatment facilities I would establish prior to co-founding American Addiction Centers.
What positive habits have you incorporated into your life post addiction to keep you on the right path?
I have incorporated many positive things into my life, including travel and spirituality. A wonderful family and good friends are also instrumental to my success. In addition, work keeps me extremely occupied and helps to keep me on the straight and narrow. Knowing my purpose has also been huge for me.
Can you tell us a story about how your entrepreneurial journey started?
I had relatives that were entrepreneurs that inspired me. I assumed I would be an entrepreneur in some form or fashion, but I did not know it would be helping others. Foundations Associates was the first business that I started in 1995.
What character traits have you transferred from your addiction to your entrepreneurship. Please share both the positive and negative.
The two most significant characteristics have been my drive and persistence. These traits have helped me to build a business that now helps more than 20,000 people a year who struggle with drug and alcohol addiction.
Why do you think this topic is not discussed enough?
Unfortunately, many people still view addiction as a moral failure and not a brain disease. The stigma makes people embarrassed to talk about it. Until people understand that addiction is like any other chronic disease, such as diabetes, the reluctance to talk about it will persist.
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 — Reach out for help — if you were struggling with cancer would you try and do it yourself? No, you would try and seek some guidance. You shouldn’t just sit there with a significant problem in your life and do nothing. Addiction does not get better on its own, but rather progressively worse.
#2 — Believe you can get better — You have to believe you can get better. Why do some people survive in extreme conditions, such as a snowstorm, while others die? I think it has a lot to do with their belief that they can survive and get out of there. You should have this same mentality with addiction.
#3 — Make a daily choice — You have the choice with this brain disease to make it better or make it worse with every action that you take. You can fight it or succumb to it. I choose to wake up every day fighting.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
People can follow me on LinkedIn.
Thank you so much for your insights. That was really inspiring!