Last month I interviewed, David Callister. He is the clinical director of an addiction rehabilitation center called Renaissance Ranch. I talked to him for almost 2 hours and I could have talked to him a lot longer! He’s thoughtful, insightful and he understands addiction from both a personal and a professional perspective. Pin this, email it to yourself, print it out, whatever works best for you, but definitely make time to read it. It’s worth it. Dave has so many important things to say about the causes of addiction, what family members can do and also what can happen if men have the courage to open up about their vulnerabilities.

Dave-1Christine: Tell me a little bit about yourself and the population you work with.

Dave: Okay, I grew up in Bountiful, Utah. When I was a teenager, I got into some drug use myself which pretty quickly turned into an addiction and that was the catapult that got me into this work. I went through my own treatment experience and then worked at that place for several years as a para professional or a peer mentor working with youth and their families with various addictions; not just drug and alcohol related, but video game addiction, pornography addiction, sex addiction, etc. I worked there for 8 years until I graduated with a Bachelor’s in Psychology and an Master’s of Social Work from the University of Utah. Then I continued to work there as a clinical therapist for a few more years before moving on to a treatment center for men called Renaissance Ranch which is strictly drug and alcohol addiction. Now I’m with Renaissance Ranch Outpatient and we work with men and women with drug and alcohol addiction.

The population I work with is an interesting question because it’s just a good cross section of society. Everything from soccer moms, to your stereotypical alcoholic at the homeless shelter, to former religious leaders. Kind of everyone all over the board.

Christine: Do you have any statistics about the types of people who struggle with addictions?

Dave: Drug abuse and alcoholism is on the rise. It’s estimated that 1 in 10 Americans struggle with addiction. Only about 11% of those receive treatment for it. A recent survey released by drug distribution companies found that residents of Utah were prescribed antidepressant drugs at twice the national average. The center for disease control has Utah ranked number 1 in terms of the number of residents contemplating suicide. There’s a huge risk particularly with men ages 15-19.

Christine: Why do you think this is?

Dave: A lot of people come to Utah to seek treatment because there are so many treatment options here so that has a part to play in the statistics being higher, but clearly there’s something going on. What I’ve noticed in my experience is that Utah culture has a rare breed of shame. There’s a lot of perfectionism and a culture that says a certain lifestyle will provide happiness and joy. If that lifestyle doesn’t bring happiness, then a lot of people start to think, “Well then there must be something wrong with me. I’m broken.” That plays a huge part in those mental illness, addiction, suicidal statistics.

Christine: Tell me a little bit more about the emotional component that goes into addiction.

Dave: So there’s been a few authors and several of my mentors who actually refer to addiction as a feelings disease. And Bill Wilson, who co-founded Alcoholics Anonymous, says in one of the chapters of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous that alcohol, and you can substitute any addiction, is just a symptom of the greater problem. So drugs and alcohol aren’t even the problem, they’re a symptom. And he says in order to recover, we have to get down to what the causes are. What he’s referring to there is shame.

A lot of the books that have been written on Shame: Healing the Shame that Binds You and On the Family sort of look at different rules that families have that lead to dysfunction. The four most common ones are:

  1. Don’t Talk
  2. Don’t Trust
  3. Don’t Feel
  4. Don’t Risk

You know, you’ll hear things like, “We don’t talk about that in this family,” or your little child is angry or hateful and you respond with, “Oh don’t feel that way, here’s a sucker.”

Christine: So what would you want parents to do to help their children when they see them in pain?

Dave: I would want them to remember that they didn’t cause this. They can’t control it or cure it, but they can contribute and I think one of the most important things is simply to spend the bulk of your parenting time on developing and sustaining an emotional connection with your child. Spend far more time there than you would spend lecturing, disciplining, or even teaching. That listening, being empathic, accepting the child where they’re at fosters an environment conducive to more emotional honesty and opens doors for that child to kind of be okay with who they are.

Christine: You know, something I talk about a lot on my blog is masculinity and many of my readers want to know how they can develop and sustain that emotional connection with their masculine spouses, particularly because their spouses rarely show when they’re in pain? Doesn’t showing vulnerability make a man feel less masculine?

Dave: It’s interesting, there are those stereotypes societally that men are more feminine if they show emotions or if they cry, but in my experience with all the men I’ve worked with, when one man is willing to take that risk and get vulnerable at the risk of maybe being judged, it opens the floodgates and other men intuitively begin to do the same thing.

Every impactful experience I’ve had with men: my father, a religious leader or a guy in recovery, has started with emotional honesty on the part of that man I’m looking up to. Like Brene Brown says in her Ted Talk, there is power in vulnerability.

Someone has to go forward so others know there’s somewhere forward to go. I could give you dozens and dozens of examples of men in group therapy who have shared something they are just so ashamed of and reluctant to talk about and he’ll put it out there and it will kind of be silent for a second and then hands will start to go up as men say, “Dude, me too. I was never going to address that, but now I can. Thank you.”

And that’s the power of group therapy in helping men overcome addiction and shame. There’s a sense of “me too.” People don’t care what books you’ve read, or what you know, they don’t care about anything other than to know, “This guy gets me and he’s telling me there’s a solution that works for him. I’m going to follow that.”

Christine: Can you think of an example you could share?

Dave: Definitely. I’m going to change some of the identifying details and obviously not use names, but this was probably over a decade ago. I had a client in a youth program come through. He seemed to be your poster child of recovery. He came through, he followed all the steps, he was charismatic, seemingly pretty open and honest and likeable – which are protective factors. So he went through and he graduated; and within a week, he had overdosed on heroin and was clinically dead for several minutes. He was able to be resuscitated and once he was stabilized, he came back to the group once and he said, “Look, I’ve got to be honest about something.”

And then he told us how when he was younger, he had had a same sex experience while he was playing around with his friend. It wasn’t anything more than that, but he was so ashamed about it and he spent the next several years being sexually promiscuous to “prove” to himself that he wasn’t gay. He was afraid if he talked about it he would be called a “fag” and he had all this fear pent up about it and that was haunting him as he relapsed.

He put it out there and four or five hands raised and said, “Dude, that same thing happened to me. I relate to you so much. I was going to take that to my grave.”

That shame of holding in that secret, that feeling of “If anybody really knows me, I’m unlovable. I’m unacceptable. I’m unworthy.” It’s so toxic, but just being willing to share opened up that safe environment. And to hear other people say, “Me too,” is one of the most powerful, emotionally validating experiences we can have. That’s when the light comes in and healing really starts to take place.