Road to Recovery
Whether they find solace in 12-step programs or a different approach, former addicts find their own paths
If Ryan Lundsten ever needed to undergo surgery, it would require some extra planning. He’d alert his sponsor and tell the doctor he’s in recovery. He’d justify the pain pills because his 12-step program makes complete abstinence from all mind- or mood-altering substances a must.
A medical necessity marks an exception. There are established guidelines for getting through such an ordeal without getting re-hooked. And, yes, there’s a pamphlet for that.
Lundsten, 32, celebrated one year of sobriety from drugs and alcohol on July 6. He went to a meeting and to Chili’s with friends after, where they split an appetizer sampler.
Lundsten is the house monitor for four other people at a three-quarter house in Westland. Although it operates independently, tenants are required to attend at least five meetings a week — though they needn’t be a traditional 12-step-style meeting.
Media guidelines for those 12-step programs based on anonymity require a member either not share their last name, or not name the specific group for a story like this. The practice may protect members’ identities, but critics say anonymity makes accurately gauging the programs’ success rates nearly impossible.
For some people like Lundsten, a traditional 12-step has helped them get on the bandwagon. But
others say such an approach doesn’t work, and in recent years, the effectiveness of such programs vs. more scientific-based programs has been challenged.
Another criticism of the traditional 12-step programs, including the likes of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, is that their definition of successful recovery feels too one-size-fits-all.
Using medication to ease addiction, for example, gets frowned upon.
However, one local physician heavily immersed in the recovery community says approaches to recovery can vary.
Dr. Carl Christensen has worked with addiction and recovery patients for about 15 years. He and his wife, Cathy, have a private practice in Ann Arbor where they treat people for addiction and chronic pain. Christensen also treats pregnant addicted women at his practice in the Detroit Medical Center, and he’s also the medical director at Wayne State University’s Tolin Medical Clinic, a methadone facility. The Christensens also work together at the Don Farm Treatment Center in Ypsilanti.
“There’s more than one part of treatment,” Christensen says. “The first part of treatment is getting people out of withdrawals, and that frequently involves medication.”
Christensen says the most common meds prescribed are buprenorphine (which goes by brand names Suboxone or Zubsolv), methadone, and Naltrexone (brand name Vivitrol).
“Once people rely on medication alone, they will usually fail,” Christensen says. It’s the recovery programs sought after medication that helps boost success — learning how to live without the drug long after the cravings subside.
Christensen acknowledged the difficulty in finding reliable statistics for successful recovery rates. One reason, he says, is because people in different types of recovery programs clash over approaches.
Sober from drugs and alcohol for 16 years, Christensen is the medical director for the Michigan’s Health Professionals Recovery Program. Christensen says HPRP doesn’t require AA or NA; it merely requires mutual help meetings.
Christensen says if he could tell anybody anything about addiction, it’s that it’s not a matter of self-will.
“I believe that addiction is a disease and it should be treated,” Christensen says. “But there’s no one single treatment for all addiction.
“Recovery is self-defined; that’s the difficult part.”
According to research by the science-based organization CASAColumbia, 40 million Americans, or one in seven people, battle addiction. CASAColumbia researches addiction in America to help inform doctors, policymakers, and citizens on the best tools to help fight it and remove stigmas.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse, a federal scientific research organization under the National Institute of Health, defines addiction “as a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug-seeking and use, despite harmful consequences.”
Changed brain chemistry makes it difficult for users to realize they have a problem and/or control it if they do. Without seeking help, relapses aren’t merely inevitable, they’re likely, says NIH research, putting relapse rates for addicted people at 40 to 60 percent. The organization does not consider relapsing a failure in the road to recovery.
Traditional 12-steps also consider addiction a disease, and their philosophy is that a person is powerless over the addiction. A “one day at a time” approach is taken, abstinence is taught, and nearly half of the 12 steps propose a relationship with a higher power for healing.
Lundsten says it’s important to live the 12 steps every day. For him, the community-style support meant sobriety success — something he’s known he needed since age 13 or so.
It had got bad after a television news special. The then-12-year-old Lundsten, who had been stockpiling his Ritalin “just because,” didn’t know he could snort the drug until he watched the report about kids abusing drugs. Learning different drugs had different buzzes intrigued him.
During a nearly 20-year span that included some self-induced periods of sobriety, Lundsten says he did numerous drugs, including crack, coke, meth, pills, Adderall, barbiturates, benzos, heroin, Ecstasy, mushrooms, and LSD.
Moving around and switching schools made finding new friends difficult for Lundsten, who says he self-medicated in part to help overcome his shyness and anxiety. Drugs helped him fit in, he says.
Five years ago, he was arrested and charged with impaired driving after hitting-and-running from four cars. Lundsten tried rehab, including using Suboxone, but quickly relapsed. After his girlfriend left him over a year ago, he got serious about recovery.
A 12-step program didn’t work for Greg*, 46, who celebrated 13 years of sobriety from most drugs on Jan. 22. Over 20 years, his flirtation with cocaine blossomed into a full-on addiction that ended in shooting up heroin and getting arrested for shoplifting.
He initially found solace in a program similar to Lundsten’s, but some aspects turned him off. Being “powerless over addiction” was one. Another was the spiritual aspect of it.
One mainstream alternative to the 12-step approaches is the Mentor, Ohio-based Smart Recovery program. Psychologist and Smart Recovery President Tom Horvath says the main difference with Smart is that its research and help materials are science-based — not spiritually based. Rather than teaching members they are powerless over their addiction, Horvath says, the aim is to empower people to take control and learn to manage addiction on their own merits, through methods like cognitive behavior therapy.
While Smart Recovery focuses its help on people stopping whatever addictive behavior they’re seeking help for, Horvath says the goal is to teach each individual to cope in the way that’s best for them.
That kind of approach works for Greg. He says he eventually found the NA scene too chaotic. After NA, he lived in a three-quarter house and began to focus on his education. He credits the drive to finish and succeed with helping him overcome his problems.
Today, Greg says he’s doing well. He has a job in the robotics field. Sitting in his neatly kept Dearborn apartment, Greg says another reason he didn’t jibe with the 12-step lessons is because some would consider his occasional drinking and medical marijuana prescription to mean he’s not fully recovered.
Greg has choice words for those who’d challenge his 13 years of recovery from crack, cocaine, and heroin because he still smokes and drinks:
“I’d ask them if they drink coffee? Is the answer yeah? Then f--- them!”
Editor’s note: Because Greg named the specific 12-step he participated in and anonymity is a condition of the program, his last name has been withheld.
A Sober and Safe 'Bar'
Brillig Dry Bar, a pop-up open since December at the downtown Ann Arbor location of the Mighty Good Coffee Roasting Co., offers “cocktails” with a twist: no alcohol.
Closed over the summer for updates, Brillig aims to reopen this month. Coffee shop by day, the Mighty Good space does double duty on Saturday nights by catering to folks recovering from alcohol abuse.
Ann Arbor residents Nic Sims and her husband David Myers own Mighty Good/Brillig. Sims, who joined her husband’s recovery by choice, came up with the idea for Brillig to provide a safe place to go out on a weekend — minus the alcohol.
Custom “cocktails” are served, made from juices and other non-alcohol ingredients. For example, the Sunny in the D is a concoction of pineapple and lime juices, ginger-turmeric agave syrup, and seltzer. The Sassy McSasserton Iced Tea is made of brewed sassafras with undertones of root beer and sweetened by clover honey.
Not on the menu are possible trigger drinks, like virgin daiquiris. Light fare including meat and cheese trays and dessert offerings are available, too.
Sims says the response has been enthusiastic, with mostly packed houses made up of a mixed crowd including students and young people. Brillig has no age restrictions and is family-friendly.
Different activities are offered, from game nights to live music.
Ypsilanti resident Ariana Riegel and her husband, David Arnold, visited Brillig last February. Riegel occasionally drinks, but Arnold is in recovery. A news story and Facebook post about Brillig piqued their interest, and the couple went on a night offering live jazz. They arrived an hour from closing time, but at least 30 to 40 people still filled the place.
“The atmosphere was sweet,” Riegel says, adding it was relaxing to be out without the temptation of alcohol.
The pair plans to visit again and sample more beverages. Riegel tried a Sunny in the D, which was tasty, she says. —Julie Walker
Brillig generally opens 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. Saturdays, but the schedule changes. Mighty Good/Brillig is at 217 N. Main St., Ann Arbor; 734-222-4514. Visit brilligdrybar.com.
• Alcoholics Anonymous: aa.org
• Dr. Carl Christensen’s site: christensenrecovery.com
• Narcotics Anonymous: na.org
• SMART Recovery: smartrecovery.org
• Michigan’s Health Professionals Recovery Program: recovery.org/browse/michigan