Michael Pond seemed to have it all: a happy marriage with three teenage children and a successful practice as a psychotherapist in Penticton, the heart of British Columbia’s wine country. Then alcoholism took over.
Pond’s drinking didn’t start escalating until his late 40s, but it quickly spiraled out of control to the point that he ended up homeless and broke on the streets. After several unsuccessful attempts at sobriety, he eventually succeeded and met Maureen Palmer, a documentarian who eventually became his partner, about a year into his sobriety.
Chronicling the struggle to access evidence-based addiction treatment in Canada, the pair have released their latest book, Wasted: An Alcoholic Therapist’s Fight for Recovery in a Flawed Treatment System, and had a companion film air last January on CBC. They have also recently launched AddictionTheNextStep.com in a bid to help change the conversation about addiction.
In an exclusive interview with Recovery.org, Pond talks about rebuilding his practice after getting sober, the ways in which Canadian doctors aren’t receiving enough education on addiction and why AA isn’t for everyone.
When did your drinking first begin and when do you feel like it started to get out of hand?
Michael: It was a problem as an adolescent. I was about 12 and my younger brother was 11 when we started to drink. It took my brother down fast at a very early age and he continues to have problems with addiction and mental illness to this day. I dabbled in it in a way that was common for teenagers, but it became a non-issue when I got married and started having children because my focus was on being a father and husband and building my career.
The drinking came back into my life in my late 40s, when my sons were older. I had a lot more free time and my practice was thriving. We lived in the Okanagan Valley, which is basically Canada’s version of Napa Valley. The drinking escalated and I stopped showing up to the office for days at a time. Eventually, I lost my practice, my home, my family and all my friends. I was living in a little motel room in our town. I ended up in down-and-out recovery houses and hospitals and was even homeless at one point. I lost everything.
When you got sober, was there a fear that clients might be hesitant to take you on or work with you again?
Michael: There was. I had my license to practice suspended and was on medical monitoring for two years, but was allowed to have one of my other professional licenses, as long as I followed the conditions. I was able to do front-line psychiatric work at an adolescent psychiatric unit, which I had done 25 years prior as senior manager. After about a year sober, I met Maureen and we started to build a little practice here in Vancouver. Six years later, the practice is flourishing.
It’s a miracle to go from the dumpster diving guy in east side Vancouver to the point where people now want to call me an expert on addiction. The irony is that I am an expert because I was at the bottom on skid row and learned a lot from that time in my life. I learned about how people are both treated and not treated within the system. It was a powerful learning experience that gave me a deep and profound sense of empathy and passion for the people that struggle with this. It’s still considered a moral issue and a character flaw. I experienced that stigma and shame in a system where I used to work and it’s just not okay.
I had to cut a young man down and resuscitate him after he had tried to hang himself at one of these recovery houses. It was heartbreaking because he was the same age as my middle son. That just shouldn’t be happening at a so-called treatment center. I was not successful in resuscitating the young man. He died.
You said in the documentary that when it comes to addiction, the actions of doctors are different from their words. What are some of the ways you’ve experienced that?
Michael: Addiction is designated a disease by both the Canadian and American Medical Associations, but it isn’t treated that way. Only a very small percentage of doctors know about some of the medications that should be given like naltrexone and gabapentin. I experience that with my patients now because I recommend naltrexone for them, but then they tell me that their doctors will refuse to give it to them.
We really need to educate the doctors here. In medical school in Canada, students only get four hours of instruction on addiction. It should be a medical specialty. That’s one of the major problems here.
The Canadian Center on Substance Abuse is looking at making changes to many of their policies and procedures because they’re archaic. They’re still based a lot on the 12-Step model that’s been around for 80 years, but science has changed a lot in 80 years. The way we treat other illnesses has advanced dramatically in the last 10 or 20 years, but we still approach addiction the same way we did in the ‘30s.
AA needed to happen because the alcohol problem post-prohibition was awful. People were ending up in asylums and dying. In a lot of ways, that’s where we are now. I know because I had to spend a month in a local prison. People who have a debilitating, life-altering illness are being put in jail. The war on drugs has criminalized addiction. A trillion dollars spent to put our poor, marginalized, mentally and developmentally people in prison. That is wrong!
What are some of the other forms of treatment that people should be trying to seek out if programs like AA don’t work for them?
Michael: It should be standard that, if you go to your primary care doctor or emergency room and there’s any – I mean any – concern of addiction, a short brief assessment should be done. The probability of successful outcome when addiction is in its early stages is high, but very few of the staff at hospitals and clinics catch these problems early by doing a short brief assessment. I’ve been accused of taking the easier or softer way because I went for Vivitrol shots and began taking the medication, gabapentin. There are evidence-based treatments that work, so why should we have to suffer to get better?
Why doesn’t the system pay for good and sound professional behavioral therapy like Motivational Interviewing and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy? Why should I have to pay $1,000 for a Vivitrol injection that might save my life?
AA is a wonderful program, but it was never intended to be treatment. Bill W., the founder of AA, even said in his writings that it was important to collaborate with professionals. But judges order people to AA now. We wouldn’t do that to someone with cancer. “Oh, you have cancer? You’re going to have to go to three Cancer Anonymous meetings a week and if that doesn’t work, you’ll have to go to two a day. If that doesn’t work, then you didn’t work the program.” If the program isn’t working, why is the addicted person considered the failure? Maybe that program isn’t the right one or it’s not enough.
What do you feel like the main take-away message from your book should be?
Michael: The main message is that we need to change the system. The system needs to be compassionate, evidence-based and scientific in its treatment because this is a very serious illness. We’re sending people to prison or support groups when they should be getting the best scientifically proven, compassionate treatment available.
Image Courtesy of Michael Pond