In this episode Zach is first joined by Dr. Judy Ho, a triple board certified and licensed Clinical and Forensic Neuropsychologist, tenured Associate Professor at Pepperdine, and published author. Dr. Judy maintains a private practice in Manhattan Beach, CA and is a co-host on the TV show “The Doctors.” Zach and Dr. Judy discuss how the stigma of addiction and mental health affect her patients and their desire to get the help they need. Following Dr. Judy, Zach speaks with Jeff Grant, who is the Co-Founder of Progressive Prison Ministries, a ministry serving the white-collar justice community. The two discuss his experience in Federal prison for committing a white-collar crime as a lawyer, and how addiction stigma impacts life after prison.
Welcome to Recovery Radio by Landmark Recovery with your host Zach Crouch. In this program we’ll discuss the root causes and treatments of alcohol and substance addiction, speak with experts in related fields and help navigate the road to recovery. Now here’s the host of Recovery Radio Zack Crouch.
Zach: Hi, i’m Zach Crouch and you’re listening to Landmark Recovery Radio. Your source for addiction and recovery news and knowledge. You can find us online wherever you get your podcasts and don’t forget to subscribe to get the most up-to-date information from experts. We have guest Dr. Judy Ho joining us on the show today. Dr. Judy is a triple board certified and licensed clinical and forensic neuropsychologist. She’s a tenured associate professor at Pepperdine University and published author. Dr. Judy maintains a private practice in Manhattan Beach, California where she specializes in comprehensive neuropsychological assessments and expert witness work. She is a co-host of the TV show The Doctors, co-host of CBS’s Face the Truth and host of The Supercharged Life podcast.
She also hosts an active research program to improve mental health care for high need populations and is the chair of the Institutional Review Board at Pepperdine University. Dr. Judy received her bachelor’s degree in psychology and business administration from UC Berkeley and her master’s in doctorate from San Diego State University of California San Diego’s joint doctoral in clinical psychology. She also completed a National Institute of Mental Health sponsored fellowship at UCLA’s Semel Institute. Dr. Judy, it is a pleasure to have you on the show today.
Judy: Thank you so much for having me Zach. I’m really looking forward to talking with you.
Zach: Talk to us about how you got interested in psychology and how that has kind of impacted your view of addiction today?
Judy: Well I became interested in psychology at a very young age. Actually by high school I had an idea that I wanted to make it a career. This all started because I was volunteering in the big brother big sister program and I had a mentee. She was the sweetest little girl just maybe five years younger than me. I was maybe 15 at the time and she was 10. She had been in and out of 12 or 13 foster homes by the age of 10. Even though I was only 15 and didn’t really know what I was doing it became really evident to me that just the fact that I showed up every week like I said I was going to take her to ice cream or watch a movie that it really made a profound impact on her ability to trust and to be able to talk about issues that she was feeling.
Talking about her anxiety and her depression and even just having conversation with somebody without any training that I was able to enact a positive influence on her life by knowing nothing and then really just again showing up. It just got me thinking about how much difference one person can make in another person’s life and really wanting to do more work and gain more expertise so that I can help more people. I’ve been very happy to say that my high school dream of a career is my career now and I was able to follow that dream.
Zach: Group speak to us a little bit more about that piece in particular, the relational part, the relational aspect of people simply sitting down and sharing intimate truths about their lives because I was trained as a marriage and family therapist. That’s where I received my clinical training. At the very end of really graduation we were all handed our class handbook. It really did talk about how yes, you need to know theory. Yes, you need to know genogram. You need to know all this stuff but at the end of the day what makes the most impact is the relational part of people trusting you. It sounds like you had that at a really young age, experienced it at a really young age.
Judy: Absolutely. Human beings are social animals. We are social beings and we need that feeling of connection and meaningfulness with other human beings. At the end of the day I think everybody wants to feel like they are loved and they are understood. That is really the biggest core issue that people are looking for resolving in their lives is that feeling of acceptance and being embraced by someone else.
I think that that is precisely why we see all these studies that no matter what theoretical modality you use the primary predictor of therapeutic success and progress is that relational rapport. It’s that feeling that you can be who you truly are and be told that that’s okay with all of your flaws and your warts and all. We all have them and I just think that that is so remarkable about the work that both you and I do from our training is that you mentioned the relational piece is really the biggest piece that people are looking for when they come to treatment and go to therapy and looking for someone to talk to.
Zach: Sounds like that 15 year old really had a huge impact on you and I also worked in a foster care agency for two years. It was amazing to me just there was some kids that would come through that really did show a lot of improvement. Then there were some that just, it was sad because they just kind of go from foster care, to agency, to the next. Have any of those folks ever come back to you later in life to share any of their experiences? Just kind of curious.
Judy: Yes, I get letters sometimes from people that I’ve worked with and actually the child that I was just telling you about she and I are actually still keeping in touch. Of course now we’re both adults. It’s very interesting because really she’s a peer of mine now. She was only five years younger than me at that time but it felt like a world of a difference like five years as a 15 year old and a 10 year old is a big difference but now she’s a fully formed adult. She’s doing great and she’s actually working as well in the social work industry which is really amazing. I’ve just been so happy to get to follow her life and get to hear how she is doing from time to time.
Zach: Well, that’s fantastic stuff. You treat a lot of patients with co-occurring mental health and addiction disorders. I’ve talked about this before on the show but how have you seen the stigma of addiction and mental health play out for your patients?
Judy: I think that is oftentimes so interrelated and of course we still have a lot of work to do with regards to reducing stigma and clearing up misunderstandings about various types of mental health conditions and addiction conditions but they are interrelated because for the most part most people don’t just become addicted because they are trying to live a wild life and that’s how they got started.
For the most part I would say more than 96% or 97% of individuals I work with that struggle with addiction and other co-occurring issues it’s their drive and need to grasp at some kind of coping that led them down the path of utilizing drugs and alcohol. It’s a way for them to deal with unpleasant realities that of course offers that temporary reprieve from your problems but then when you come to after using you realize you have a whole other set of problems.
I oftentimes hear that people become addicted because they were really anxious and felt that alcohol helped to quell their anxiety or that they were in deep sadness and pain and using drugs just gave them that temporary break from their mind going on all cylinders consistently worrying and judging themselves. Then of course the more you use, the more you become depressed or anxious not only because physiologically that sometimes happens with the withdrawal symptoms but also you start to feel even more horrible about yourself. Then it then feeds your co-occurring clinical condition.
Zach: Here’s something i’m curious to kind of get your two cents but parents who have these kiddos and if we’re talking about people who get started in the process early on in their life with substances etc. and maybe they’re starting to have some consequences from it. Are there things that you’ve seen or done with parents that have helped to sort of turn the tie before it just turns into something that’s just kind of control?
Judy: I think that the most important thing that I’ve tried to educate parents about and of course parents they all are just trying to do their best. They have all their wounds that they’re dealing with is that oftentimes I see that addiction comes from families where feelings are just not allowed to be expressed openly. I hear oftentimes that these families just either brush negative feelings under the rug when the child actually tries to express they’re not feeling. Well, they just say well don’t worry about it and why would you feel that way. Kind of dismissive or maybe even ignoring.
Zach: My favorite is we only talk about the good things in this family.
Judy: Yes, we never talk about the bad things. That’s right and then of course a lot of these families then the parents result in divorce but it’s very confusing to the children because even during the divorce no one’s really talking. No one’s really communicating and they’re confused because the whole time they’ve maybe not even seen their parents argue. In fact their parents don’t really even talk that much to each other and all of a sudden they’re getting a divorce.
It just becomes really confusing to the child and maybe they feel like they just can’t fully express themselves or else something horrible is going to happen. I just think that they lose the ability to be able to just dispel their distress in a different way because sometimes as we talked about the relational piece is so important. That sometimes you feel better just after talking to somebody, a friend expressing that you feel that way and your friend is saying, oh my gosh. I feel that way sometimes too. When you lose the ability to connect with people that way it makes sense that that could be a precursor to you turning to substances as a way to solve your problems.
Zach: Do you kind of agree with this statement that if it’s a divorce, if it’s some sort of trauma that someone, anyone who really cares for this kid. It seems like we’re talking about kids today but if there’s someone, anyone in that person’s life that they genuinely have the kid’s best interests in mind whether it’s a parent or not that their chances of doing better are just they exponentially increase.
Judy: I definitely think that if the child feels that at a very basic level that there is this regard for their well-being and that that actually is the priority even if the parent or the adult is not able to execute that perfectly. I think that that is reparative because there is that understanding that they’re trying and maybe their execution is not perfect but the intent is there. I think what happens is a lot of times I’ll talk to people about how they’ve felt…
Zach: Because kids are pretty smart. I’m going to cut you off. Kids are pretty smart. They can pick up on that stuff right? I mean they kind of know.
Judy: I think that they do. Yes, versus you know sometimes feeling like they’re maybe being used as a pawn in the parents’ dynamic that sometimes they have to be the go-between. I think that that actually really does damage the child feeling like they have to be the peacemaker and of course it makes them over responsible so then when things don’t work out they blame themselves.
I think that children are pretty smart. They are intuitive and they know when somebody is trying their best and maybe just not hitting it out of the park every time versus somebody who just doesn’t care.
Zach: For whatever reasons some of these kids they eventually go on perhaps and they do get into this cycle of problems with addiction, problems with their mental health issues. Talk to us a little bit about the cycle that goes on of avoidance and stigma with addiction and how that impacts individuals getting the help that they need.
Judy: Addiction even more so than other forms of mental health problems brings the person who’s suffering from it this really deep shame. That shame could be coming from societal messages. That shame could also be coming from the individual’s family members but most of all themselves. There’s this real huge self-judgment about well strong people wouldn’t fall to this. Maybe this says something about my character or my will or my morals or there’s all kinds of self-judgments that come into the picture which of course then prevents them from openly discussing with anybody else and seeking help.
without talking about it and seeking help you have no idea that there are so many people out there who feel the same way as you, who suffer like you are and even that sense of not having to deal with being alone in this entire phenomenon can already help people to have hope and feel better. The more people avoid and the more they feel bad about themselves the more they’re going to actually grasp that temporary quick fixes and alcohol and substances are just one type that is probably maybe one of the most common types but there are other ones like over sleeping, playing way too many video games, gambling, any type of even process addictions, even including eating and binge eating.
It’s all to try to calm that part of yourself that feels deeply ashamed and is emotionally dysregulated and has not only self-stigma but of course society does still have a stigma on you as well. I think that it’s just a huge cycle and there are multiple ways out of it but you do have to identify that you’re in a cycle first and then be able to say what’s my next step. Unfortunately a lot of people take a really long time to get there.
Zach: As you were talking I was thinking to myself. I was really curious to hear your thoughts on it seems like a silly question but why do you think that people internalize this issue, this addiction issue. I mean and get into this cycle of we’ll call it just self-shame. Is it driven a lot by the culture that we live in and obviously the family of origin or wherever they came from that sort of reinforces this message like you’re just not good enough? I mean because you’re right. Shame is one of those people get in that cycle and it’s like you cannot pull yourself out of this by yourself. It’s almost impossible sometimes.
Judy: I think that it is really hard for people to pull themselves out of it because it doesn’t take one day for them to get into that cycle either. The thing about shame is that it’s really the self-fulfilling prophecy and a real factor in self-sabotage. The more you feel shame the more you’re likely to do things that are more avoidance perhaps more against the person that you thought you were. The more you try to hide that from everybody else and that feeling of not being good with yourself and that feeling that sometimes people describe as imposter syndrome or just the cognitive dissonance. It can really get to you.
More than anything human beings are always looking for confirmatory evidence once they have an idea in their head. Once they start to feel like they’re no good well they’re going to see the world that way and they’re going to start doing things that way.
Zach: I’m pretty sure most of the folks, at least the majority of the folks who are listening probably are familiar with that term you mentioned cognitive dissonance but maybe for family members can you kind of break that down as it relates to our conversation and how that applies to this talk.
Judy: Cognitive dissonance is when you hold simultaneously two opposing ideas in your head. For example you might be thinking i’m generally a good person but then you’re recollecting the fact that you screamed at your romantic partner this morning for really no good reason at all. That type of dissonance can relate to a person in terms of how you feel about your self-esteem and self-concept.
A lot of times people will look for confirmatory ideas to bring that into alignment. That alignment is not usually making yourself look better. It usually makes yourself look worse. If you’re thinking i’m generally a good person but I screamed like crazy at my romantic partner this morning and without cause well I guess maybe i’m a horrible person instead. Maybe i’m a selfish person. Maybe I have anger problems. You would rather say that than to say something like oh well, I am a good person. I just had a bad morning.
That is kind of a weird human fallacy that we all have sometimes towards ourselves is that when we do something that’s not so helpful it’s oftentimes easier and if you’re already feeling depressed or not so good it’s much easier for you to then change your views of yourself to being aligned with your behaviors and say well I guess i’m just a bad person and I don’t deserve anything good to happen to me. That of course then causes that cascade of self-sabotaging actions that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Zach: Kind of going back to what we were talking about at the beginning where within families where addiction is present. There’s this idea of not talking about things. I mean that’s how addiction lives it’s in secrecy but I’ve heard it said from family members before that they’re just so afraid to say something that would throw this person into a tailspin and make them start using again.
It comes from families like I just want to protect them. I want to make sure that they don’t use again obviously protection mode but I think it goes along with this idea of the cognitive dissonance that you’re talking about because a person who’s in their active process of addiction at any time really would use any sort of reason to use but as it relates to what we’re talking about now I was thinking about most people who are in their active process of addiction have so much shame that they can’t even see themselves as good people anymore.
This whole idea of seeking out help becomes a lot more complicated because of the stigma of addiction that’s attached to it. What advice would you give someone who’s avoiding seeking out the help because of this stigma that’s attached to addiction?
Judy: I think it’s a good thing to remind anybody listening that is having the struggle that you are absolutely not alone. It’s a completely understandable coping strategy that really exists on the spectrum for many people. Even so the people who have fallen to more of the extreme ends of the spectrum where they actually need professional help and it’s become a real problem in their life those people are so many in our world and in our country.
I think that one of the issues with addiction is that it makes you feel like you’re completely alone that nobody could understand you. I think if the person just remembers there are so many other people who are struggling with this and also have overcome it. I think it’s important to not get too ahead of yourself. Sometimes people will say well but it’s going to be such a long journey before I get better. I’m going to have to face all of these people and I think that that really takes you out of the moment of what you can do today.
I would encourage people just to take it one step at a time. Don’t think about all the things that you’ll have to do to eventually feel like you’re completely better but more just think about what’s this next thing I can do. Can I just call one of my trusted friends and talk to them about it? Can I look up a treatment center and look at what they have to offer and maybe think about making an initial call sometime in the next couple of days. Take it one step at a time and then once you finish that step then ask yourself what’s the next step. You will conquer it because we have proven evidence that people do with great treatment.
Zach: As far as someone that would say to the effect that addiction really is a choice what would you say to them or maybe even a family member or someone who makes that statement?
Judy: Well, I think that is part of where our stigma comes from that you think the person is just choosing to be addicted, choosing to be suffering, choosing to make your life miserable. The person’s not choosing any of those things. The person is just doing their best to survive in this world emotionally and physically. Somewhere along the line they developed this problem which is not a choice it’s a full biochemical process that involves so many different factors.
Just like anything else like when somebody is diagnosed with diabetes or heart condition they need evaluation and treatment to get better. It is a disease of your brain, of your mind, of your body just like so many other conditions that we treat without stigma. I would encourage people to think about it that way that it’s not a choice that the person is consciously making and that it is a condition that they need treatment for just like anything else.
They shouldn’t be told that this is something that they’re choosing to be. Nobody tells somebody that they’re choosing to have a heart condition. Similarly no one chooses to have an addiction. It’s something that gets a hold of them and they need to find a way out and without the support of their loved ones it’s going to be much harder.
Zach: I was thinking too about when family members or maybe partners uh are involved with people who have an active process of addiction, substance use disorder. In your work with those folks, the family in particular. Have there been certain themes that are common that you’ve seen uh across the board? I was thinking about did those family members have perhaps unresolved issues within their own family of origin in their past that this person’s addiction is not bringing up for them.
Judy: I think that oftentimes the person who is suffering from an addiction becomes the identified patient in a family but of course once you actually look deeper there’s other areas of dysfunction and certainly other areas that can be identified for improvement. Sometimes those family members don’t want to look at it that way. They want to try to put their energies toward identifying someone as the person who is causing the problems and it allows them in many ways to avoid some of their own conflicts and deeper psychological factors and emotions that might play a role.
I definitely think that really addiction does not develop in a vacuum. It develops within a context. It really does involve the entire family to self-reflect and to be willing to introspect and think about the ways in which they may have contributed to not only this problem but maybe to other areas of their life that isn’t going so well and to start thinking about ways in which they can learn more effective coping and to communicate better.
So much of any relational problem is communication and oftentimes I find that in the families of people struggling with addictions, communication problems are just running rampant and they just haven’t been addressed in a very long time.
Zach: I don’t know what it’s like well, I mean I was going to say California but just in your work with other people maybe even in treatment centers and in working with the system, the family system of those people who are involved with a loved one who has a substance use problem. From your perspective why don’t we do a better job of treating the entire system, the family? Well, it seems to me like a lot of the times the family just kind of is just kind of sticking around waiting for the person to get home after they’ve done 30, 60, 90 days of treatment.
Judy: I think that sometimes the person who has been suffering the addiction has put such a toll on their family it’s made things very difficult for them. Maybe the family has certain codependency issues and they felt like the person who has been struggling addiction has brought a lot of chaos. When the person who…
Zach: Because they have.
Judy: Right, exactly. Because they have. Then when the person goes to treatment it’s like oh my gosh, finally a break. They kind of want to sit back and breathe. I totally understand that but we give them that moment to breathe but we do have to bring them back into the fold because as we just discussed addiction does not happen in a vacuum. It happens in a context and if the context and that environment and the family support is not there when they return then they’re going to have the same exact problems all over again.
Because then you’re basically putting it all on the person who is suffering the addiction and who is in a very fragile part of their treatment process because they’re in early sobriety to basically start to make all the good decisions themselves and to be the best communicator in the family. To basically be the best role model for all of those behaviors and they can’t do that. They need to have certain things in place.
I think sometimes the families are not getting involved as quickly because there is some resistance from the family. I also think that maybe for some providers it also feels cleaner just to work with the person who is the patient but as we all know we all have to do a better job, the families, the providers even if it’s tough to really reach out to the families, keep them informed.
At the very least start with a psycho-educational piece. This is what addiction really is and if there’s any blaming going on we just wanted to let you know it’s about chemical process. It’s not something that the person is choosing to do just to make your life miserable.
Zach: Kind of winding down here. I was thinking too just expanding the system a little bit even more because I think that we are recognizing the risk involved with not paying attention. I’m talking about even employers today but as a whole in our country. Are there things that we can do even now to expand this idea that mental health really does deserve the same attention that medical health and health do beyond from your perspective that we’re not doing currently.
Judy: I think that there is still a judgment that emotional health is not really on the same footing as medical or physical health but more and more we’re seeing research studies say it’s completely intertwined. This idea of a mind-body dualism where these two systems are separate is an idea of the past. That’s wrong. It’s like the idea of the earth is flat. It’s not true and it’s not a fact.
In fact we see so much evidence that they are completely interrelated systems. I think one of the things that we have to do to try to fight the stigma is to really bring emotional health onto the same playing ground as physical health and understanding that if your emotional health is not together it will impact your physical health directly. That really we have to think about whole body wellness as opposed to just isolating one part from another.
Hopefully as we start to think more about this and people can really understand that for many people struggling with mental health issues or addiction concerns that the brain is inextricably involved. The brain is an organ. The brain deserves that attention. You can’t expect that brain…
Zach: It’s not a bot rather.
Judy: You can’t expect that the brain which is communicating with all the other parts of your body if it’s not doing well for the other parts of the body to be fine. It’s really about understanding that we need to give it just as much attention. That we should stop feeling like when people say that they suffer from addiction or mental health problem that it’s a weakness. It’s not a weakness. It’s not a choice. It’s not because if they were more stronger willed that this wouldn’t happen to them.
In fact there’s a lot of people who tell me I was the last person who I thought would have an addiction and here I am. It’s not about presuppositions or perceptions or earlier beliefs. It’s really about solving whatever problem is in front of you. I really don’t want stigma to be the thing that holds people back from getting care when there are so many great solutions out there so that they can get better.
Zach: Awesome. Last question for you. What’s your favorite book that you’ve read lately?
Judy: Wow. I’ve read so many great books lately. I’ve actually been doing a ton of reading during the pandemic but one of my favorite books I always go back to and I kind of reread every couple of years is The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris. I really love that book because it’s really about how this whole idea of hedonic happiness and us always trying to chase this idea of absence of negative emotions is a complete myth. That doesn’t actually make you a happy and joyous person.
It really comes from living a meaningful life that’s rooted in values that really gives you those feelings of this is what i’m on earth to do. Then this is this is what my life is going to be about. I love that book. I think it’s super accessible for anybody who’d like to pick it up. There’s lots of great tips and advice and guidance and strategies on how we can basically rethink this idea of happiness and understanding what true happiness really is. I really like that book.
Zach: You are the co-host of CBS’s Face the Truth and also the TV show The Doctors. You have your own podcast called The Supercharged Life. Where can folks find out more information about these? Can they just kind of search them online, the podcast at least?
Judy: They can find out more information about me on my website DrJudyHo.com. They can also follow me on social media at Dr. Judy Ho. I’m on Instagram and twitter and Facebook. On Instagram especially I do a lot of wellness guidance, strategies, tips and advice. To learn more about my podcast and to download live it’s Supercharged Life with Dr. Judy. It’s on Apple and a bunch of other podcast platforms. That information is also available on my website and my social media.
Zach: Judy, it’s been a pleasure.
Judy: Thank you. It was a pleasure to talk to you Zach.
Zach: If you know someone’s struggling with an addiction and you’re searching for answers visit us at landmarkrecovery.com to learn more about substance abuse programs that are both saving lives and empowering families. Until next week i’m Zach Crouch with Landmark Recovery Radio.
We have guest Jeff Grant joining us on the show today. Jeff Grant is both a lawyer as well as a masters of divinity. He is also the co-founder of Progressive Prison Ministries, a ministry serving the white-collar justice community. After an addiction to prescription opioids and serving almost 14 months in a federal prison for a white-collar crime he committed when he was a lawyer Jeff started his own re-entry earning a master’s of divinity from Union Theological Seminary in the city of New York with a focus on social ethics.
Jeff has over three decades of experience in crisis management, business law, re-entry, recovery, he’s been sober for over 18 years, public speaking and corporate training. Sometimes referred to in the press as the minister to hedge funders he uses his experience and background to guide individuals, families and organizations forward in their lives, relationships, careers and business opportunities and to help them to stop making the kinds of decisions that previously resulted in loss, suffering and shame. Jeff, what a great, great topic to talk about today. Thank you for joining us on the show.
Jeff: Thanks Zach. Thanks for having me and thank you for that beautiful bio. It’s almost as if I wrote it myself.
Zach: That’s awesome. I was reading this and I was like man, this guy has been all over the place. He’s probably lived about three lives in one lifetime already.
Jeff: The only thing I need to change that I used to be a lawyer. I practiced for 20 years but it’s been a while since I’ve been a lawyer. I did get disbarred because of my crime and which was because of probably mostly because of my drug addiction and my alcoholism. It’s a perfect topic for our show.
Zach: Appreciate that. You’ve told us a little bit about your background. Tell us a little bit more and how you started Progressive Prison Ministries.
Jeff: We started Progressive Prison Ministries as the world’s first ministry to serve white-collar criminals mostly because I am a white collar criminal. It’s something that I learned to respect and understand that’s a vastly misunderstood and underrepresented group of people. White-collar criminals just like alcoholics and there’s a huge crossover between those two categories. They’re just people and people who’ve done some things that they’re not proud of or in the case of alcoholics had a disease or have a disease.
In the case of white-collar criminals most of them are suffering from similar pathologies whether it be drug and alcohol issues or mental health issues, compulsivity, gambling addictions, risk addictions, things that 12-step programs could be helpful for, things that various forms of recovery could be helpful for but there was nothing specific for people who had been prosecuted for white-collar crimes.
I’ve been involved in criminal justice re-entry for since I got home from prison about 13 years ago. I spent most of my time either in seminary or post-seminary somehow involved in general criminal justice. For seven of those years I was on the board of directors of a large criminal justice organization in Connecticut and then for two years I was the executive director of that organization.
It was basically street crimes, drug crimes, inner city inner city crimes but since I headed that organization that had about a hundred employees and a five million dollar budget I learned uh really the nuts and bolts of criminal justice advocacy and programs from a decidedly inner city point of view. I was able to bring that as a resource to the white collar community. It’s been a blessing and a joy and truly the great calling of my life.
Now I get to spread the Gospel as it were since I am an ordained reverend as well and try to bring light and love to as many people as I can who are either suffering the throes of the criminal justice system or their families or their friends or the entire criminal justice community.
Zach: You brought up an interesting point in particular about the piece around the vast misunderstanding that most people have about white-collar crime and what it actually means. Talk to me a little bit more about that because I think of white-collar crime and I think of Bernie Madoff. That’s who I think of and others like him. What is it that you think that the public doesn’t understand?
Jeff: There’s two parts to that. The first is the fact that 99.9% of the people prosecuted for white collar crimes are pretty much just ordinary people. They’re lawyers or doctors or nurses or people who’ve made very, very bad decisions or living unhealthy lives. There’s a lot of reasons for that whether it be childhood trauma or a desperate need to succeed that overwhelmed their ability to maintain ethical boundaries but normal people for the most part.
People who are parents of your children’s friends. They don’t attain anywhere near the kind of notoriety or that you would see with people who would be on say CNBC or the front page of The Wall Street Journal. Maybe they have their 15 minutes of notoriety coming from a small town for example where they become the talk of the town or if they’re in a big city no one even pays attention because it’s just a sea of people. In some ways the world has become somewhat anesthetized to a lot of facets of white-collar crime which is its own conversation but it’s not nowhere near the notoriety of a Bernie Madoff or Michael Cohen.
The second piece of that is the fact that what people hear is the sensationalized journalism that sells newspapers or tunes you into news programs because the reality is that just like in alcoholism and drug alcohol recovery this is deeply, personal difficult stuff that people are going through but for the news cycle they would be going through it pretty much anonymously.
In the throes of criminal prosecution and the difficulties of family and families that split up and estrangement from children and financial hardships. No one really views it as a human story. Instead the default is Bernie Madoff and that’s just not really the case.
Zach: To be clear when you’re talking about like white collar, we’re talking about doctors we’re talking about dentists, we’re talking about folks who have like you said made really bad choices, unethical choices and have you know been found to be guilty right of whatever crimes they commit. I appreciate that clarification because that does make it a lot more I guess real might be the word that I use because i’m in front of a doctor, a dentist, I need to go see my dentist each year.
Now, I want to come back to your story because I find it really interesting, fascinating, whatever that you went to seminary. When you went to seminary was there some things that you really were looking for going into that experience that maybe it was the themes that come up for me obviously like grace, forgiveness or was there anything at all that you went into seminary with prior to your starting.
Jeff: It’s a great question. I found a new connection to faith in God certainly in my 12-step experience. In my case I resigned my law license and the same day tried to kill myself with an overdose of drugs in 2002. Wound up going to rehab and then was in 12 step program for 20 months before I got arrested. I went to prison two years after that. I was almost four years sober by the time I went to prison. It was a profound experience and most people are drinking and drug all the way up to the door to prison.
It was a profound experience for me to go through that and have it be a time of self-actualization and learning about facets of myself that I had begun to explore in recovery but now with a deeper understanding of my faith. At the time I was Jewish. I went from being a Jewish lawyer in New York to a catholic priest in Connecticut. Go figure.
Zach: Nothing wrong with that. I’m Italian catholic. Welcome to the fold.
Jeff: The real point of it at least for your listeners is that wasn’t something I decided the next day. I didn’t I didn’t wake up off the floor from my overdose and say wait, I have a great idea. I’m going to become a catholic priest. There were a lot of little steps along the way of recovery that serpentine road that led to my coming out of prison starting to volunteer in alcohol and drug recovery and then in prison re-entry. This concept emerged where it was an intersection of my faith and wanting to be in a helping profession.
Zach: Well you’re experienced too Jeff. I mean you lived it.
Jeff: Exactly and so thinking there is a difference between my faith journey and my professional journey of becoming a minister but I mean of course they intertwine. I decided to go into it professionally and go to seminary and earn a professional degree because at some point I realized that I wanted to serve the criminal justice community but I wanted to do it through the lens of both religion and recovery.
By and large it’s been the great challenge, mystery, love, passion of my life. I never had this kind, I never had this kind of life beforehand when I was a lawyer. I was making a lot more money but I was miserable. A lot of that was because I was addicted to prescription opioids.
Zach: I want to talk about the prison system a little bit. From your experience at least would you say that addiction, addiction in the prison system are really tied together in sort of almost a lifestyle cycle?
Jeff: Sure because a huge number of people who are in prison are there for drug crimes or have drug or alcohol addictions whether or not that’s an underlying factor in their particular crime. It wouldn’t surprise me if 90% of the people in prisons had some kind of drug and alcohol issues.
It’s a little bit of the chicken and the egg here because the drug and alcohol addictions are part of criminological factors or the one of the social determinants of health that we have failed our society with where people wind up in prison instead of in recovery. The prison system becomes the largest servicer of mental health and drug and addiction services in the country not doing a good job of course.
Then when people come out there are not enough programs for them especially in at times of deficit spending, budget problems like right now. I can’t even imagine what’s going on with people coming out of prison now and having almost no resources whatsoever or being forced into a lockdown situation where they’re in isolation instead of the kind of community that they need to succeed in recovery so they recidivate.
If you can’t get a good job you can’t get good housing. You can’t get good soft skills, parenting skills, good citizenship skills. Where do you go? You’ll wind up on the street corner hustling drugs again. Either take them or to sell them.
Zach: Nobody’s going to hire you. I’m absolutely picking up what you’re putting down here. I am curious in your time and maybe haven’t looked at what other countries are doing besides imprisoning their population. Are they having success? If they are why aren’t we copying that particular way of dealing with the problem? That’s one question and a caveat to that really is if the prison system were not a huge business which it is and if political platforms weren’t built on this sort of idea of getting tough on crime. If we erase those two would it be possible to implement whatever somebody else is doing and found success?
Jeff: Two great questions. In order to answer them I have to give you a pre-Covid view because Covid has changed everything and who knows what’s going on anywhere right now but other countries have a much more compassionate and rehabilitative view of prisons and incarceration in the criminal justice system. That’s everywhere from shining examples like Germany and Norway to Canada and Australia where none of them believed the way that we warehouse people and throw them away and make money off of warehousing people.
This is nothing more than an extension of slavery whether you’re a black or brown person or anybody in prison is somehow part of that prison industrial complex. They’re worth 50,000 or 60,000 a year to the matrix and that’s just the way it is. In other countries they have enlightened community corrections. The models are clear that if you place corrections primarily in the communities and you allow people to work and grow and their families to stay together that the entire community gets lifted up.
You have a culture that is designed more for community health and people who’ve gotten into trouble remain as active parts of the community. The community stays together to try to help them. It’s not such a foreign thing. We’re not othering anyone. It’s not us and them. It’s a community problem and they’re trying to solve these problems all together. They’re specifically in the German and Norwegian models.
The second part of your question, the entire criminal justice, the real reason that it’s even an interesting topic is scale because there are so many people behind bars and going through the system. If it was one-tenth the size we wouldn’t really even be talking about criminal justice as a topic. We’d be talking about all the underlying factors. We’d be talking about poverty and access to health and access trauma, access to education, keeping families together, racial injustice. That’s what we would be talking about.
Those are still things that are most important to talk about but because of the scale, the raw scale prisons, criminal justice has become becomes its own category. We’re never going to solve that problem unless we understand that it’s an intergenerational cycle of problems. We can get to choose our inflection point. We can get to choose where we’re going to stop the cycle. Thus far we’ve done a very poor job of doing that.
Zach: Jeff, how have you seen the stigma of addiction really have an impact on individuals and their use of drugs, substances?
Jeff: The interesting thing about anonymous programs is they were born probably in the 1930s. I’m not calling out anyone in particular for a lot of reasons including it’s inappropriate to mention anyone in particular.
The thing about anonymity it was created to try to avoid stigma so that people who were in those programs weren’t denied access to jobs or business relationships or personal relationships. Whether or not I believe that these things should stay anonymous or not nowadays with the google and search engines and with all this information available it’s almost impossible for people to hide what they’re going through. Almost everything is public.
My experience is I went public with everything immediately. It’s part of my calling. I lecture on it. I speak on it. I give workshops on it. I’m someone who people know not only has a prisoner record but also has a mental health issues. I’m bipolar. I have drug and alcohol issues. It’s definitely affected my ability to get jobs, to be invited into a polite society for example. The same is true with other members of our support group.
We have a white collar support group that meets online on Monday nights. This coming Monday evening we’ll hold our 229th meeting so we’ve been doing it for four and a half years. You know that grassroots criminal justice or any organization many of them can’t get to their third meeting because they don’t have unanimity of purpose, they don’t have sufficient leadership, they’re underfunded, whatever the reasons are. We’re having our 229th meeting. We’ve 25 to 30 people from all over the country and actually from around the world now. We have people from Canada and South America.
We come together on a grid on Zoom. We’ve come out of isolation and into community. What we found is that the cure for the problem is community and living in isolation is like being in alcoholic or substance abuse death.
Zach: It’s your death. It’s your own little silo of shame that you live in I think.
Jeff: Exactly and unlike most recovery which is pretty much geographic in terms of its ability to come together as a community. If you live in a town and you decide you’re going to go to a recovery meeting you’re basically with other people in that town or if you go to a treatment facility then at least geographically you’re all under the same roof for a certain amount of time whether that’s weeks or months you’re all together. You can develop a community but for things like white-collar crime there’s no geographic center. It’s all over. It’s in little pockets all over the all over the country.
It’s only because of technology that we can come together and have a meeting that approximates a recovery meeting. We had adoption problems like anyone else. Would you choose to be online instead of in person if you had the choice? The answer is I don’t know. Probably not but the world is now adopted online as a form of a gathering because of Covid. A lot of people have come and joined us who would have otherwise been unwilling to because they were afraid of the format. They were afraid of the technology.
Zach: I appreciate that. I don’t want to say best of luck but just continue to do that. That’s such a great outlet it sounds like for anybody who’s found themselves in that situation. Having been to prison, how has that stigma impacted your life after prison? I mean you’ve touched a lot on it.
Jeff: I think that the mostly it’s an inside job. The biggest barrier to success after prison or probably even success from drug and alcohol addiction is personal shame and self-limitations. Trying to parse out the difference between what I’ve caused myself and then the stigma that other people put on me and prevented me from pursuing certain options or success it’s hard to tell what part of it is personal shame and what part of it is stigma.
There’s no question that say I applied to two seminaries, two very well-known seminaries, Ivy League top of their field and I applied to two. There’s no question in my mind that one of them did not accept me because i’m a white-collar criminal. They weren’t going to have any of that. The other one I think accepted me because I was a white collar criminal.
Zach: Isn’t that what Jesus did. I mean he accepted white collar criminals.
Jeff: In some views Jesus was a white collar criminal.
Zach: That’s right.
Jeff: It depends whose side of the story you’re listening to.
Zach: He didn’t sit back. That’s for sure.
Jeff: I think there is I think there’s a great Biblical view. I would love to have that conversation with you one day especially since I know you have ministers and seminarians in your family.
Zach: That’s how we met by the way. That’s how I met my wife was in seminary. Just a quick snippet but that’s when I got sober too. I got sober in seminary. I wanted to hear you finish the thought but I have a question after you get done sharing.
Jeff: It’s so interesting because I would say that the weakest part of my recovery program, the weakest part, the part where I was most at risk was part of time while I was in seminary. I went to seminary when I was about seven years sober but in my mind I thought that that attending a seminary was somehow going to be a replacement for working on my recovery.
I found myself drifting away from recovery thinking that okay but now i’m with faith and God and people who are invested in all of this. I found out that the opposite is true. That would have been the most important time to double down on my recovery and to embrace it more. Eventually that’s what happened but if you’re a drug and alcohol, a drug addict or an alcoholic there is no substitute.
Not only is it a lifestyle choice but it’s something I have to work on every day. I get my 24 hour reprieve and I do that from mostly being in the company of other people who are suffering the same things and were committed to their recovery. It was it was a lesson I had to learn.
Zach: Thank you for that. As I mentioned I did get sober in seminary. I relapsed actually while I was in seminary. I almost got kicked out of grad school and had to double down as you said on my recovery program to successfully get through because seminary, I think that there’s some idea that maybe people have that seminary is just this place where you get to go and you get to learn about religion. It’s very ecumenical like our seminary was which was great but it’s hard. There’s a lot of really smart people, professors depending on the seminary that you go to and it’s challenging especially for someone like me who really grew up in a pretty dysfunctional catholic family.
I didn’t really have a firm grasp on what I believed. As you said I think earlier the mystery of religion, call it spirituality is the gift I think of believing is that it continues to unfold. You get to have participation in new revealing parts of whatever speaks to you. I’m curious to know from your perspective though just you and I had the experience of being on seminary. It’s a very, I would say sacred place. How do people create their own sacred space on a daily basis you think? It’s pretty broad question but what do you think?
Jeff: I’ve never been asked that question before. That is a fabulous question. It’s really a complex organism inside a seminary because it’s, I love when you said that you almost got kicked out of grad school because it’s grad school. It is. It’s a master’s program with and it’s academic. There’s certainly a faith component and there’s a sacredness to it but it’s intensive schooling.
Zach: Rigorous right.
Jeff: Yes, rigorous and Union Theological Seminary which calls itself the preeminent urban seminary in the world. It can use that because it’s in the heart of New York City. It’s on Columbia University Campus. There’s all kinds of people there that you wouldn’t find in a lot of other seminaries around the country. It’s a crazy melting pot. The time I was there it was during the time of occupied Wall Street. They were leading the marches on Wall Street and against the one percenters. I was a one percenter.
It felt very isolating in a way to be on a campus of people much younger than me who were staunch advocates and in the streets picketing and really trying to implement social change. I didn’t even understand the social justice components of being in the seminary. I didn’t understand or in a progressive seminary anyway. I didn’t understand that and certainly Union was where for example Niebuhr went and Tellick and Bonhoeffer went back to Germany after studying at Union Seminary and said it’s strong on social justice but a little light on religion.
I’m in this i’m in a space and i’m trying to carve out a sacredness for myself but people were finding that sacred space to honor your question within social justice components. Certainly there was prayer and there was meditation and there was chapel every day and there was all kinds of things that you would classically think of as carving out sacred spaces but for the most part it was forms of experiential liberation theology. They were doing. They were doing things out on the streets. I or people were like me like lawyers or former lawyers and for the time I was there in some ways we were the enemy.
Zach: Did people know that you were a former lawyer when you were there?
Jeff: It’s hard for me to know when the moment was when I when I was comfortable revealing myself. I certainly didn’t I certainly didn’t want my prison story to be I didn’t want to lead with my prison story because I didn’t want to have to be that guy. At some point I found out that I wasn’t being authentic enough, I wasn’t authentic at all. When I finally revealed it although of course the people in admissions knew it. When I did it that’s when things got better in terms of my recovery. That’s when things, I wasn’t living a lie anymore and I was able to start participating in the criminal justice modules. I ran the religion in prison panels for two or three years. Things got better as I found that I could trust the people around me and they could trust me.
My best friends in seminary were, my best friend for example was transgender. I found that we had a lot in common because we both felt marginalized and ostracized and that the world wasn’t accepting of us. I learned a lot and they learned a lot. We’re still in touch now and I wouldn’t say we speak often but we’re on Instagram and Facebook with each other all the time. No one would have told me when I was a New York lawyer that your closest friend in grad school is transgender.
At the time I was a middle-aged suburban white guy who was in the process of getting remarried. From all appearances was kind of as straight as they come but underneath I was a raging alcoholic and drug addict in recovery and at that point I’d been abstinent for seven, ten years but that’s what formed everything. I mean there was no way I could not use that as a fundamental tool to be able to explore religion in the world and what my place in it was.
Zach: Jeff, we’re getting close to the end here. I just want to thank you for your time today coming on the show to talk with us on Landmark Recovery Radio. This has been a great episode so much appreciated sir.
Jeff: Thank you Zach for the opportunity. As a fellow in arms and a lot of those things overlap i’m glad to have met you. Please feel free to call me for your colleagues for anything I can do to help. It would be my honor.
Zach: Much appreciated sir. Listen, if you know someone struggling with an addiction and you’re searching for answers visit us at landmarkrecovery.com. Learn more about substance abuse programs that are both saving lives and empowering families. Until next week, i’m Zach Crouch with Landmark Recovery Radio.
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