Heroes of the Addiction Crisis: “Having humility prevents overconfidence and disrespecting the capabilities of what a person is up against” with Brian Licuanan and Chaya Weiner

I define humility in this context as “accepting there is a challenge and the need to manage it and respect its capabilities.” Having humility prevents overconfidence and disrespecting the capabilities of what a person is up against. This concept is not much different than a competitive athlete preparing against an opponent, a person dealing with […]

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I define humility in this context as “accepting there is a challenge and the need to manage it and respect its capabilities.” Having humility prevents overconfidence and disrespecting the capabilities of what a person is up against. This concept is not much different than a competitive athlete preparing against an opponent, a person dealing with depression, or a patient managing his own diabetes. I often see with people who continue to find themselves engaging in the same patterns of old behaviors over time is largely due to reaching the idea that “I got this” mentality and stray away from their recovery program and minimize the capabilities of their disease (i.e., entity that they struggle with such as mental health or addiction). People need to always keep their recovery at the forefront to lessen chances of the “perfect storm” that leads to relapse.

As a part of my series about “Heroes Of The Addiction Crisis” I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Brian Licuanan, an educator, speaker and addiction and mental health specialist who serves as the primary therapist at premiere treatment center A Better Life Recovery. Dr. Licuanan treats clients with complex mental health disorders and their co-morbidities which often includes substance abuse disorders. Additionally, he successfully treats clients struggling with anxiety, depression, stress management, PTSD, ADHD, and a variety of other severe mood disorders. Furthermore, Dr. Licuanan integrates Solution-Focused, Positive Psychology/Strength-Based, and Motivational Therapies into his treatment planning with clients.

My backstory:

I was born and raised in Hamilton, Ohio until I was 13 years old, then moved to southern California due to my dad’s desire to continue his work as a physician as well as be closer to family. My family has always been passionate about the helping profession as my brother is a physician and sister and mother are nurses. The attraction to the helping profession eventually led us to cross paths with others who share our passion; my wife, brother and sister in-laws are physicians. I always had a desire to help and making others feel better, but wasn’t quite sure what that would look like and eventually came across the psychology field. It was a not a direct path as I tried the medical field route, wanted to go into law enforcement at one point, and even was in a PhD program in Industrial-Organizational Psychology — branch of psychology focused on behavior in the workplace. It was not until one summer in graduate school that I realized I needed to chase what I knew all along — to help others through the gift of dialogue. I’ve always been comfortable talking to others and making those who don’t fit in feel a little more comfortable. Entering the therapy field has been one of the most life-changing choices in my life as I don’t have to work a single minute in a career that is already fundamentally in line with my values, principles, passion, and skillset.

My career goal in life is to continue to spread the message of mental health and addiction and to have an impact on others through my work as a clinician, speaker, and educator by hopefully facilitating healthy change in individuals and families.

Is there a particular story or incident that inspired you to get involved in your work with opioid and drug addiction?

The frequency of substance abuse to which I saw emerge in all of my clients stemming all the way back to my work as a child care worker for troubled teens to later in my graduate training and internships is when I began to realize how critical training in addiction would be if I was to be a well-rounded and effective clinician. Whether it be the clients themselves struggling with substance use or their loved one, this issue almost always found its way in the therapy room. My further fascination for working with opiate addiction was when I learned that the United States accounts for over 80% of the world’s opiate use and became fascinated with the etiology of opioid dependence. Furthermore, I was grateful to have been part of a treatment team for a gentleman named Matthew who lost his legs as a result of opiate addiction then later to heroin use and his treatment journey to recovery was featured on the talk show The Doctors in 2017.

Can you explain what brought us to this place? Where did this epidemic come from?

The question that seems to cross my mind of how we got to this point of substance abuse, specifically opiate addiction, seems to always bring me back to the question I ask myself, “Have we gotten weak on managing our emotional and physical pain?” In other words, “Has our threshold or breaking point for discomfort waned?” What I tell my clients is the reason they use substances is because “it works” for what it was originally intended, such as taking the edge off, allowing one to numb the pain, forget the trauma even if momentarily, feel less anxious, less sad, or even more happy or euphoric, and so on. However, as time goes on, a person becomes tolerant of the substance and needs more of it to reach that level of pain relief or gratification and it loses its effectiveness and eventually becomes dysfunctional and counterintuitive in the addictive stage. I also believe we have been quick to pull the trigger of relying on a substance to relieve pain and for the quick fix, so we can get back with our daily lives. Additionally, the vast options that we have available such as alcohol, prescription pills, and street drugs have made it easier to attain and circumvent us from finding other ways to cope such as mindfulness skills, stress management, and healthy coping tools.

Can you describe how your work is making an impact battling this epidemic?

I believe that education is the first line of defense in battling this epidemic. People need to understand the reasons people are needing to revert to substances to cope, what are the signs of symptoms of addiction and how to get a loved one into treatment. One area of work that allows me to fight this epidemic on the frontlines, is my role at A Better Life Recovery, an integrated drug and alcohol addiction treatment center in San Juan Capistrano, where I serve as Primary Therapist. At A Better Life Recovery, we are dedicated to helping our clients achieve a complete inner and outer transformation. This process has no set time frame and can widely vary from one client to the next. However, we do have a recommended structure to the different phases of our program. Our approach is not simply the “cookie cutter” way, which consists of a 30–60 day treatment that is often followed up with an abrupt and unsupported ending. Many of our clients have elected to stay with us for 12 months or longer, and we do whatever it takes for as long as it takes in order for our treatment model to be successful for each and every one of them.

In addition to A Better Life Recovery, I have been volunteering for the past 8 years for the National Alliance on Mental Illness educating the community on mental health and addiction. The majority of families who attend my open support group are in acute crisis, and most of my work in the group is strategizing ways to get their loved ones help or into treatment. Some of the most common tools I assist families with are setting healthy limits and boundaries, allowing loved ones struggling to reach a level of desperation which treatment is the only viable option, recognizing enabling behaviors, and recognizing what they do or do not have any control over.

Repetition and boredom are often the enemies of a long-lasting recovery. A tremendous part of the recovery journey is learning that life is full of fun and healthy adventures and activities that are void of using any substances. Our clients at A Better Life Recovery learn that there is a better life (pun intended) apart from the self-destructive mindset that was used to equate using drugs and alcohol with fun and excitement. The programs immerse clients in a wide variety of fun and stimulating extracurricular activities that also promote the camaraderie of healthy shared experience, such as yoga and trips to the local gym, and more. A community-centered dynamic of interpersonal connections are vital in the recovery process, and new activities bring our clients close together. As Johann Hari, author of the New York Times best-selling book Chasing The Scream and a long-time studier of addiction states: “The Opposite Of Addiction Is Connection.”

Wow! Without sharing real names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted by your initiative?

One particular client who I feel I have impacted struggled with substance abuse as well as had a serious suicide attempt prior to presenting in treatment. This individual was hospitalized due to the gravity of her attempt on her own life. My work with her was multi-focused but mainly targeted the areas of relapse prevention, instilling hopefulness, restoring self-worth, and grief and loss from her trauma. This person has not had a suicide attempt since and has developed a strong recovery program. At A Better Life Recovery, our team views treatment as one critical stepping stone focused on rebuilding a foundation that embodies renewed strength, the instillation of hope, attaining fulfillment, and maintaining long-term success for each individual seeking a new beginning.

Can you share something about your work makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?

What makes me most proud of my work is knowing that I am helping people gradually be a better version of who they were yesterday by providing them with options in life. I realize that is really all the power I have — to show them what their life can look like with alternative choices and also providing them with a tool set that they may have never had or knew that existed. I also enjoy coming from a motivational standpoint and sharing skills and thinking patterns that have helped me progress in my own life. One particular story that was one of the most uplifting is when I was part of the treatment team on a segment for the talk show The Doctors in 2017 for a gentleman named Matthew who lost his legs due to consequences as a result of a relapse on heroin. For a period of 4 months, I worked with him on rebuilding his self-worth, managing his depressive symptoms, strengthen relapse prevention, navigate through grief and loss without his legs, and finding hope in the future. I appeared on the show and witnessed as he walked across the stage with his prosthetic legs and sharing his story of renewed faith and the hope of a future with new insights on 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?

3 Things To Address the Root of Problem: a) Education: It is the most important defense for working through mental health and addiction. People need to best understand what they are dealing with (e.g., trending drugs, signs/symptoms of addiction, dangers of substances, what someone can do to help or get help, etc.). Too many times I see loved ones coming from a good place, but their limited understanding of the issue causes a great deal of communication break-down and invalidation for all parties involved leading to resistance and resentments — huge obstacles for healthy dialogue.

b) Humility: I define humility in this context as “accepting there is a challenge and the need to manage it and respect its capabilities.” Having humility prevents overconfidence and disrespecting the capabilities of what a person is up against. This concept is not much different than a competitive athlete preparing against an opponent, a person dealing with depression, or a patient managing his own diabetes. I often see with people who continue to find themselves engaging in the same patterns of old behaviors over time is largely due to reaching the idea that “I got this” mentality and stray away from their recovery program and minimize the capabilities of their disease (i.e., entity that they struggle with such as mental health or addiction). People need to always keep their recovery at the forefront to lessen chances of the “perfect storm” that leads to relapse.

c) Hope: Have hope that treatment works as long as everyone is doing their part. These people include the individual struggling, the assembled treatment team, and the system (e.g., family or fellowship) to which person is surrounded by. If everyone assumes their own share of accountability and adhering to their roles in the recovery process, then the probability of long-term success is likely.

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) All people with first legal offenses who face serving jail time have a psychiatric/mental health assessment in order to get help if needed, since people who have legal issues often struggle with a mental health condition and/or a substance abuse issue. Steering offenders in the right direction early can help lessen chances of repeat offenses.

2) If upon assessment from “1” above, person will be transitioned to mental health court or jail that provides mental health and substance rehabilitation services as appropriate

3) Each county provide funding and a center to which the community can attain a certain number of individual, family, or group therapy sessions subsidized by the county or state.

I know that this is not easy work. What keeps you going?

What keeps me going is simply the satisfaction of perhaps being an “impact person” to others and providing options to people who feel as if they do not have any hope or a promising future. I enjoy knowing that I can have some power in helping others change their thinking and behavioral patterns. I also believe with diligent work that anyone can change their lives no matter what they have endured in life.

Do you have hope that one day this leading cause of death can be defeated?

I always want to stay hopeful and believe that any circumstance can be overcome as long as there is desire, willingness, hope, and diligence. This epidemic is a national and global crisis and continued awareness and fortitude to find alternative, healthy ways to cope with emotional and physical pain are the keys to making a dent in this dilemma.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership, more specifically good leadership, is defined as the qualities that a person or entity possesses that is utilized to lead, influence, facilitate achievement, and/or promote optimal growth in a person or group of persons. An effective leader is able to build relationships with others that foster honesty, trust, and a unified vision. A leader creates a culture that promotes creativity and room for individual growth that collectively contributes to the overall vision of the group or institution.

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) Validation will be one of the most critical building blocks of relationship formation with a client. There was a client early on in my work in addiction treatment who presented with resistance in each session. What I later found out that all he needed was validation — to accept one’s truth and not necessarily agreeing or believing his/her truth. Once I understood his world from his lens, there was much more trust and less resistance in our work together.

2) Serenity Prayer: Learning what power we have as a clinician and what power we do not has allowed me to step back and realize that I cannot force anyone to want change. My role is to guide and facilitate change. There are many clients who I found early on in my clinical work that I was working harder than they were. I realized that people sometimes have to experience the natural consequences of their choices as a means to initiate change.

3) Being okay with “good enough.” I realized that not every session and intervention had to be pin point on target. Sometimes we have to realize as clinicians that we have to be okay with our help being “good enough” as long as we truly believe we are executing due diligence and doing our very best.

4) The chances of one person dying under your care sometime in your career is likely. Working in addiction, I have had several people primarily (i.e., work with client individually) or secondarily (i.e., work with client on group level) who have passed in my care. It is one of the biggest fears a clinician may have, losing a client while in your care. I accepted that those who struggle with addiction are at one of the highest risk factors for suicidality or premature death such as overdose and health complications.

5) A lot of your challenges working with clients will be working with a system that does not truly understand mental health and addiction. I have come to realize that therapy and treatment, from a current system standpoint, are privileges and not a right and there are many people who are suffering and who want help but either cannot afford it or do not have access to services. A major shift is needed in continued awareness of the pervasiveness of mental health and addiction and that a major financial need to support treatment services should be an ongoing social agenda.

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

A movement that I think would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people would be teaching others how to set strong limits and boundaries with one another, especially with a person struggling with chronic substance abuse or addiction. One of the major reasons I find to which people continue to chronically relapse is the system (e.g., family or support) to which they are surrounded by that inadvertently enables the person. I have a simple answer when people ask me why their loved one continues to repeatedly struggle or act in ways that are dysfunctional; “because they can.” People will continue to engage in behaviors that are reinforced. We have to remember that enabling inherently comes from a place of love. It is our natural instinct to unconditionally care for our loved ones, especially a parent for a child. For instance, if a son is famished, we satiate his hunger; if our daughter does not have shelter, we provide a roof over her head; if a grandchild is limited in resources, we provide him with financial support, etc. However, this enabling behavior perpetuates the problematic behavior and not allowing the person struggling to reach a level of desperation to which they have limited options. Enabling is as if we are recharging their batteries, even if a little, to keep on going with their dysfunctional lifestyle in addiction. The only option I feel to leave on the table when someone chronically struggles with addiction is to get treatment/sobriety and anything else will not be supported. A phrase I tell advise family to tell their chronically struggling loved one is, “We love and care about you, but will no longer be willing to support your unsober lifestyle.” This type of boundary setting does not mean the family loves a person any less, just means the love looks differently, which I call “assertive love.”

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite life lesson quote was by TD Jakes, a pastor. He stated in one of his motivational videos, “Master Your Breaking Point.” I believe everyone has a threshold to which they have an emotional and physical breaking point at which they will do anything to relieve their pain such as resort to substances, avoid or leave the situation, quit a job, abandon a relationship, make an excuse to get out of an obligation, lie to others, etc. What I focus on in my own life and with clients are ways to increase our breaking point or pain threshold by continually putting ourselves in uncomfortable situations that force us to find ways to navigate through the discomfort. I help clients navigate through the discomfort by helping them develop mental and physical skills to make the uneasiness less fear invoking (e.g., reframe irrational beliefs, overcome small bouts of anxiety one manageable bit at a time). This exposure to discomfort is at the center of En Vivo Exposure and Systematic Desensitization — considered by many as the treatments of choice for Phobias and Panic Disorder. If a person can master small chunks of fear at a time, they can eventually work towards getting through the actual fearful event.

One area of my life that has helped me significantly increase my emotional and physical breaking points has been since I began training and competing in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu — a submission grappling martial art/self-defense. This martial art puts me in uncomfortable situations every time I set foot on the mat. Since this is predominantly a ground fighting art, I can only imagine a few situations which I am inherently fearful of in a physical altercation than to be forced to the ground, someone mounted on top of you, or someone attacking you from behind — the classic positions a bully or attacker would resort to. This art not only teaches you to escape these positions but also to become offensive at the same time while in these vulnerable instances. It has also taught me to stay calm and relaxed and to not panic when put in compromising positions. I have found that the mental and physical threshold I have attained in Jiu-Jitsu have crossed over into my life off the mat. I have noticed that I have been able to manage a lot more discomfort and adversity without panicking or making rash decisions. I am able to stay calm, hold my position, step back from the situation and think through multiple options and solutions — a mindset that Jiu-Jitsu has turbo propelled on a whole new level for me.

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

One person who I would absolutely love to meet is Oprah Winfrey. I have always admired her passion and desire to promote better living and health. Oprah is an ambassador of individual and global change. She has also been transparent about her struggles and adversity in life and it is amazing how she has navigated through life and been such a landmark for high achievement and spokesperson for a “never give up” mentality. I also admire her charisma and ability to formulate relationships with people and is able to empathically understand others. She is also a huge impact person and has changed lives for millions of people across the world. I always strive to be an impact person each day and would love to do so on a bigger level, even if remotely to the level Oprah has achieved.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Go to our website, https://abetterliferecovery.com/




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Thank you for all of these great insights!

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About the author:

Chaya Weiner is the Director of branding and photography at Authority Magazine’s Thought Leader Incubator. TLI is a thought leadership program that helps leaders establish a brand as a trusted authority in their field. Please click HERE to learn more about Thought Leader Incubator.

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