July 24, 2020

Intervening in Recovery. A Conversation with Earl Hightower

Earl Hightower made a career out of standing up to addicts and helping get them the help they need. Now, he is unafraid of pushing back against the government and big pharma, and speaking up for what he knows works.

By Kelly Burch

For thirty-two years, Earl Hightower has been the person families turn to in their moments of desperation. As an interventionalist, he has helped untold numbers of people find sobriety. Along the way, he has learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t in treatment and recovery. Now, Hightower is an outspoken advocate for improving the outcomes for addicts by providing more structured, long-term support for people in recovery.

 Hightower sat down with Renew to share his thoughts and experiences on four key aspects of recovery. Here is what he wants you to understand:

There’s a difference between treatment and recovery.

 I believe the main purpose of treatment is triage. People spend years developing an addiction severe enough to land in treatment. Then they have 30 to 90 days to turn that around. I think that’s absurd.

Treatment centers need to acknowledge that this is triage. They stop the bleeding, stabilize the client, and give them the tools to get from treatment into recovery. In treatment you have a clinical team. Their job is to find the resistance to ongoing recovery: to determine why there is resistance, what is the block. That’s how you create a treatment plan: by working on addressing those roadblocks.

Recovery isn’t about stopping use. Treatment is about that: giving people distance from the drug, reducing the physical phenomena, the cravings. Recovery is about addressing the dangerous kind of thinking.

There is a gap when moving from treatment into recovery. The first 60 days out of treatment is where the greatest number of relapses occurs, because people are not being taught enough.They are not being focused enough on ongoing sobriety.

We need to get better at getting more people all the way over that bridge. We need to use tools to assist people so they feel that they have support, and they’re not suddenly launched into recovery with no idea how to matriculate. With better support, more and more people will be able to reach that bar. Every alcoholic and addict should have a shot at freedom and the only way to do that is to offer them a drug- and alcohol-free life.

Alcoholics Anonymous provides much-needed support in recovery.

 Alcoholics Anonymous has existed for close to 80 years now. It has helped people stay sober more than any other organization that comes to mind for me.

 AA’s job is about building up an individual’s ability to stay stopped. The program gives them tools through the 12 steps to deal with relationships to themselves, their higher power, and others.

 Speaking as an interventionist watching people go through this, people desperately need this community. Left alone they relapse. With the community, their families aren’t callingme back to help again. If they’re working the steps I know they’re making a significant commitment to staying sober.

Alcoholics are experiential people. You can talk to them, but chances of them doing anything about their addiction based on that are slim. . If you show them how to live as a sober person, they are more likely to succeed. The repetition of healthy patterns feels good. Science is basically saying AA has it right. Repetition affects brain chemistry and has a positive affect on addicts. Going to meetings impacts brain chemistry.

The kiss of death to an addict is thinking, “Treatment was ok, but I’ll take it from here.” That’s a big red flag.

Relapse occurs when healthy habits stop.

 People say that AA doesn’t work, but when they say that they are placing no responsibility on the addict. When I am at treatment centers and ask how many people in here have been to treatment before, one third of the hands go up. I’ll say, “There curious. Would anyone like to offer why the first time failed and why you’re back?”

 They tell me, “I left treatment. I crossed the bridge from treatment to recovery. I was working the steps, being of service, and doing all the stuff that people do in AA, all the right stuff. Slowly things got better, my priorities started to change. I was going to fewer meetings, being of service less, had a bad run, and I got drunk.” When I ask who has had similar experiences, virtually every other hand goes up.

 It’s not that AA doesn’t work. It’s that people stop working AA. There are far more of those people than those who are failed by AA. I’m sure people will consider that anecdotal, but after 32 years of working as an interventionist, it stops being anecdotal.

We need to tell the hard truth about addiction.

 Addiction has finally been recognized as a chronic illness. It is not acute, it’s chronic, and needs to be treated over a long period of time. People get 30 days in rehab and are under the false impression that they are fixed.

It’s easy for me to tote the solution, because I don’t have to pay for it. This solution is much more easily solved without considering a successful business.

 The solution is this: A guy walks into the admissions office, and the counselor says, “Welcome to the first phase of your treatment back to life. It didn’t take you 90 days to get here, it’s not going to take you 90 days to get you better.”

 We need to start telling the truth right from the beginning telling the truth: It’s going to take daily maintenance for the rest of your life. 

The Abstinence-based Treatment Alliance. Earl Hightower believes that there is an appropriate use for drugs, but that pharmaceuticals should not become the cornerstone of recovery. Instead, abstinence should be returned to the national discourse on treatment of addiction.“Every alcoholic and addict should have a shot at freedom and the only way to do that is to offer them a drug- and alcohol-free life,” he said. To support this cause, he founded the Abstinence-based Treatment Alliance, which advocates for a return to abstinence- focused treatment plans. For more information or to join the cause, visit www.abtanow.org.

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