Today on the podcast, Zach speaks with well-known interventionist, consultant, and recovery coach Michael Walsh about how he got started in the addiction space, steps to address your loved one’s addiction, and more. Michael has been an advocate for patient and families’ rights, has developed recovery programs at various levels of care, and influenced policy at national and international levels. With more than 25 years of experience, he also is a sought-after speaker regarding behavioral health issues, treatment, and recovery issues.
Welcome to Recovery Radio by Landmark Recovery with your host, Zach Crouch. In this program, we will 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, Zach Crouch.
Zach: Hello, everyone. You’re listening to the Landmark Recovery Radio Podcast, your source for addiction and recovery news and knowledge. I’m Zach Crouch. In a recent post featured on the blog Recovery Review, author Bill Stoffer compared addiction to melanoma. In its early stages, melanoma is easier to treat and has a higher success rate, but once you get to around stage 4, it can be fatal. It is often fatal, which is why regular screenings to get in front of skin cancer make a lot of sense. They save lives. Addiction is also fatal when it runs its course, but we shouldn’t wait until stage 4 to treat it.
Our systems of care aren’t currently designed to detect early, and we often need to intervene. We ignore addiction because it is viewed negatively across our society. We see it as something that happens in other families and not in ours. It happens to other people’s kids, but the truth is, addiction is preventable and recovery is possible. For listeners who are in the recovery space, you probably know today’s guests. He’s an expert in the field. He’s also a friend to many. He has seen many stage 4 addiction cases but he strives to educate and equip others with facts about mental health in order to restore hope and to save lives.
Michael Walsh currently serves as the Director of Clinical Outreach for Landmark Recovery. Mike is a certified intervention professional. He holds a master’s degree in counseling. He works as a consultant and a coach. With more than 25 years of experience in the Behavioral Health Field, Michael has worked extensively with individuals and families and licensed professionals affected by complex issues. He is currently a board member of the C4 Recovery Foundation and the past President and CEO of the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers.
Michael has been an advocate for patients’ and families’ rights. He’s developed recovery programs at various levels of care and he’s influenced policy at national and international levels. He is also a sought-after speaker regarding behavioral health issues, treatment, and recovery-related issues. Last but not least, he advocates for change in the current systems of behavioral health, addiction, and mental health for individuals and families. Michael, my friend. Welcome to the show.
Michael: Thanks, Zach. It’s great to hear from you. I think you’re talking about somebody else.
Zach: How long has it been? You’ve been in the field for more than 25 years so I’m just curious to know, how did this all start for you?
Michael: It started at my first go-round. For years, I didn’t even consider it because when I was in college, I actually was a psychology major. I double major in Health and Human Services. I worked for the Department of Services in Massachusetts. I recently found some old papers I wrote back in college. One was sports and juvenile delinquency, keeping kids off the streets. Although I was a budding heavy user at that time, I was interested in psychology. My mother was a nurse. I always wanted to help people. And way before, I thought about quitting drinking. And any of that, I was really interested in the field. I did an internship in the DYS.
I worked with a lot of troubled kids and thought that that was the direction my career was going to go. I did that for a couple of years until I graduated from college. I had to decide whether what I was going to do next and they paid so poorly back then that I had to look at my options. One was to go on and get my Ph.D. And when I found out how much they were going to pay me now that I was a college graduate, it wasn’t much different. Actually, I don’t think it was any different from what I was making before I graduated from college. I looked at law school. I looked at a number of different things. I wound up taking a job with Anheuser-Busch, which kind of was the foreshadowing to my next career.
Years later, I did quality control for Anheuser-Busch up in Boston. That led me in a roundabout way to treatment years later and then back into the field as a sober person. I remember the first time I was at a conference and I heard this therapist from Key Western. I remember she was talking about how she had been a therapist for 25 years. She had been cleaning sober for 23 years. I thought I couldn’t believe she was working as a therapist, drinking, and drugging. I mean, how awful is that? At some point, later on, I realized a lot of people had done that same thing. You get out of school. You wind up working in the field and then eventually address your issues and become a subway person in recovery. Your professional career is longer than your personal recovery story at that point. I was one of those people.
Again, I think I look at the years in between as market research, learning a lot about myself, about addiction, about mental health issues. The second time around, I didn’t plan on coming into this. The first time I planned on it, I didn’t last and the second time, it kind of just happened. I was early in-person recovery and trying to figure out what to do next. I was a securities broker. Just by happenstance, I was having some conversations with people. There was a job opening at a place. I was 2 years sober and they were looking for somebody that had the skills that I had and I applied for the job and got it with no idea that it would become a career. I just wanted a job at that point.
Zach: Would you say that this is a calling, so to speak, almost in a sense for you?
Michael: I think for most people it is. I think after a long time doing this now, I heard mentors say that if you don’t love this and you don’t take care of yourself, it’s really hard to stay in it and continue to be good at it and learn. Working with people that are in crisis day after day, year after year wears on you if you don’t take care of yourself. A couple of things I’ve learned is it’s important to take care of yourself if you want to work in this field for a long time and be good at it because it’s just so easy to get eaten up by the stories you hear and the things you see when you do it for a long period of time. I think the most important thing is the mentors. On my first day, my first job, the second time around, my boss called me in and told me that I didn’t work in recovery. I worked on the disease. If I wanted to continue to work in this job and enjoy it, I needed to step up my game and take care of myself personally.
Zach: I want to pause there for just a second because that’s such a great point. I want to hear from you now. What is taking care of yourself look like now compared to 25 years ago? How is it different? How is it the same?
Michael: The similarities are one important thing I’ve heard and I tell people to always remain teachable. It’s easy when we feel good about the coast. It’s human nature, I believe. I think it’s one of the reasons that New Year’s resolutions are so hard to accomplish because when we’re not feeling that bad, it’s hard to continue to change. Surrounding myself with mentors and people I’m willing to listen to that won’t always accept my position and make me think about things and having a spouse and family around that holds you to a higher standard, that holds me to a higher standard are important. I think also learning as of age to take care of myself, physically, mentally, and spiritually. All three of those things are extremely important.
Zach: Got it. You’ve told me before and you’ve often said to other people that you don’t set out to be in this line of work. Something brings you here. You took that first job but you turned into an interventionist. You’ve got your master’s degree. You mentioned obviously taking care of yourself. The spirit, does it lean more one way or the other? What keeps you in it? I guess, is a better question. Is it the spirituality piece of helping people? Is it just like you keep learning so there are fascinating pieces of understanding, addiction, and mental health to continue to evolve? What is it for you?
Michael: For me, I think it’s just an opportunity every day. And you know my stepson, Matthew. Matthew was younger and I was pretty new in the field. I remember one morning, I believe it was over breakfast, he looked at me. I think he was 11, 12 years old. He said, “It must be cool to know that every day that you wake up and go to work. You might help someone change their life.” I just thought that was so profound from a young man because it’s not that I have the power to change someone’s life, but I was afforded an opportunity to be in a career that just by showing up every day, I might be able to help influence someone to change their life.
That was a cool thing to me. My father had always said, if you find something you love to do, you’ll never work a day in your life. I had had a lot of jobs, especially early on when I was in Anheuser-Busch. I loved my job until it chewed me up and spit me out, so to speak. That’s the thing I didn’t want to have happened in this career. You mentioned why do people get into this? Unlike cancer treatment and so many other lines of work where people don’t necessarily have a personal vested interest in what they choose to do and what career path they follow and they’re younger. We go to school.
We pick majors. We try jobs until we find something that fits often. It’s about the opportunity presented. It’s about the best opportunity, pay wise, that we can advance our career. Sometimes it’s about something you love to do but oftentimes it’s just something that interests you that there’s an opportunity at. But in this industry, almost everyone I’ve ever met, and I can’t remember anyone who hasn’t had some kind of interest from a family member, a friend, a loved one that was affected by this disease.
It’s interesting. I had somebody outside the field comment on me one day that it seems like everybody that works in addiction treatment has had an issue with addiction or somewhere in their family. I find that interesting, but it’s also great because when you’ve got a personal vested interest in something, I think it’s easier to work harder. Consequently, that’s also why I think it’s so important for us to take care of ourselves work as we work in this field/
Zach: Yeah, absolutely. I completely agree. Just the piece around doing your own work in this field is important for a lot of people because if you’re not careful, begin to get over-invested in some of the cases that you get involved with as a professional, where you’re trying to sort of figure out if you will, your issues through the clients that you’re working with.
Michael: I take something from home health care workers and hospice. People that you need to take your oxygen first. We saw a lot of burnouts in the industry and not only for professionals, but family members taking care of elderly loved ones and just really not taking care of themselves because it’s a full-time job taking care of a loved one with dementia or any of those things. When you’re talking about people who work in mental health and addiction treatment and not making a ton of money for a lot of people and working long hours and hearing these crushing stories every day, we are sad to COVID how much more prevalent it was for burnout for people that are trying to help people having their issues with all the stress from the early days of COVID.
It goes through until today, raising families and all the other stuff that goes along with it. And then being in this profession where we’re hearing often tragic stories day after day after day. I think burnout, the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers is starting to address it at their conference and how we take care of our workers. And I know companies like Landmark have instituted options for people for their mental health and their physical well-being. I see a lot of companies starting to address those things. Major corporations in other industries have started to do that years ago, but I think this is something new to our field. I think it’s great.
A young lady I took to treatment years ago from my Alma Mater, Boston College. We were on our way to the airport and she looked at me and said, “You should have taken all my roommates with us.” She was a sophomore, I think, at BC at the time. I asked her if all of her roommates fell down and broke their teeth when they were drinking as she did. She laughed and said, “No, but they’ve all got the stuff.” That comes up a lot when I’m talking to people and working with families that whether or not it’s alcohol and drugs or mental health, everybody in life has stuff. They’ve got their own issues that they need to deal with.
I think that the more we talk about mental health, the more we talk about substance use disorder. The more we talk about overall general health and well-being, the better off our society will be. I look at this industry as something that overlaps with so many different areas of life. Because of that, I’d love to see it taken a lot more seriously from when kids are young. Not just in medical school, not just with therapists, but being trained in college in graduate school. He’s an interesting guy. I met up in Massachusetts years ago. I started the first Recovery high school. He did so because his 2 sons had come out of treatment and they were in high school and a big public high school in Beverly, Mass.
He knew that they were going to have some real issues if they stayed there so he started this small recovery high school in Massachusetts. There are 6 of them now. The two things I want to talk about from that is 6 is not a lot for the entire state of Massachusetts, but it’s a lot compared to all the other States because although the first one we started about 15 years ago, there are so many places in the country that haven’t even started one. That’s something that I think needs to be addressed. Colleges and universities are finally starting to take this a little more seriously. Some do a better job than others, in my opinion.
But this guy started the first recovery in high school. He said he was going into high schools and talking to kids about handling stress and emotional wellness and wellbeing and things like that. He started going into elementary schools because he said by the time they get to high school, it’s too late. I think if we can start to address these issues with kids and how to handle stress—Not a big fan of the Doctor Phil Show, but one thing I hear him say a lot is that kids shouldn’t be involved in adult conversations. I think a lot of young people get pulled into these family stressors way too early in their lifetime and it’s causing a lot of dysregulations.
Zach: I want to highlight for a second that piece around children in families where there’s a lot of instability going on. It is because research will show over and over again that when kids feel safe in their house when they feel like they can express themselves whoever they are, they tend to do very well. They tend to make decisions later in life that reflect a choice that has been instilled in them because they aren’t doing anything to placate their parents or just sort of people, please or those things that we all learn growing up in family systems where there is instability. I think this idea of creating safety early on, I think school systems that do this to talk about mental health have a huge advantage.
Michael: Yeah. I think that we’ve learned from studying kids and not necessarily just addiction but studying kids and human growth and development. We know kids who have adverse childhood experiences are more likely to become addicted. I believe that the brain takes about age 25 before it’s mostly developed. When you’ve got kids that are unable to handle stressful situations at an early age, and there’s so many of them today, and they start to learn how to cope with those emotions, if they can’t talk about them, if they don’t feel safe, they’re going to look for ways to change how they feel.
Unfortunately, in this country, we’ve got a high number of kids that change how they feel by experimenting with drugs and alcohol and other adverse behaviors that can get them in trouble. We see healthy device management for lack of a better term. My friend John Grant talks about a lot with kids, and it’s kind of terrifying to see how addictive the screen has become. Many of these young kids are checking out.
No matter whether they’re doing it with traumatic behaviors where they’re in relationships young that are unhealthy or they’re getting into things online or they’re starting to experiment with drugs and alcohol, the younger they do that, the more likely they are to have problems again. We know a lot of this stuff. I’d love to hear us talking about it more. I think it’s a shame that somebody in this country could still go through medical school and get some of the best training in the world and not learn about substance use disorder.
Zach: Let’s talk about that. In your experience, and you’ve worked with medical professionals. I have two. I worked in a hospital for a number of years. The amount of Physicians Internal Medical Docs, once you start getting into specialty stuff like hearts, lungs, all that kind of stuff, the amount of general knowledge about addiction probably even decreases. Why is it then that here we are in 2021 and still the amount of people who are in the medical field know so very little about the addiction process and how it manifests and what to do about it?
Michael: I think there’s a couple of reasons. The first one that comes to mind is this was established in our medical training a long time ago and there’s been a lot of advances in medicine, with medications, with devices. We can keep people alive longer and longer. One of the things that I think is challenging is people don’t need something to be purchased. For instance, recovery. You don’t make a lot of money on somebody who’s not drinking and drugging.
If their mental health is stable and they’re successful members of society and making a living, there’s not a lot of money to be made in trying to treat them because they do not need these services. Our training is set up in a way that it’s pretty dependent on big Pharma and grants and all kinds of things. Unfortunately, a lot of money goes towards developing products and services that will be a good return on investment. People not needing services is not necessarily a good return on investment from a business standpoint.
Zach: It’s a terrible return on investment.
Michael: It’s a terrible return on investment. I think that’s one of the reasons we’re slow to make this training available for everyone. There’s not a lot of money in it. That’s one thing and maybe that’s kind of my negative view on the training and the helping professions. But if you think about it, it actually makes a lot of sense. The other thing is, I think a lot of people don’t know how to talk about it. It’s amazing to me that there was a study done years ago. I heard this ER doctor from a small hospital in New York City talk about this family that had this tragedy.
Long story short, there was a woman who came in with her child for treatment, staff smelt alcohol. Nobody addressed it with her. After the child’s treatment was her last treatment for cancer. They left the hospital after a drunk driving accident. The daughter was killed and the ER doctor went around and did a research project in that hospital to find out how many people worked in the hospital. One is, would they feel comfortable diagnosing someone and asking questions? And two, if they felt there was a problem, would they feel comfortable talking to them about it? It was frightening.
I don’t remember the exact statistics, but it was pathetic. One, how many people at that hospital felt comfortable doing a brief screen for alcohol? And two, if they did have a concern after that screen, how many of them would feel comfortable addressing it with the person? There weren’t very many. She started to talk about that. I wish we would talk more about that because we can help so many more people if we get it out of the shadows.
Zach: I’m curious from your experience, too, just with having worked with so many different families. What I know about addiction is it affects not just the person, but also the sphere of people. The system of people that person is involved with and including it extends out dramatically to our community systems, our medical systems. Everything gets affected by mental health and addiction. Why do people not recognize from a very sort of smaller level why their loved one is progressing into stages of addiction? Why does that happen?
Michael: I think that there’s a number of reasons, and part of it is human nature. We want to believe the best in our loved ones and our friends and we tend to minimize and justify. If you hear the stories, you drink like I did, too, if you had my wife, my job, my this, my that, my upbringing. Again, not that those things aren’t true, but a lot of people don’t understand what problem drinking is. That’s part of it. Part of it is as most of us start to get deeper into our disease. We don’t show it to as many people. We kind of hide it and people brush it off. There’s a lot of reasons.
It’s funny you mentioned that story at the beginning about cancer and my mentor used to use that analogy a lot because people understand cancer, the progression of cancer. John would put up three different shots of the same melanoma over a period of time and say, “When do you want to address this? When it’s a little bit abnormal? When did it start to look like maybe this might be a problem? Or do you wait until it’s inoperable?” Most people will go for early cancer screening. That’s the standard today. We know if we catch it early, we can address it. I think we need to put that same kind of emphasis on this.
We don’t have to wait until someone is totally addicted and incapable of doing pretty much anything in their life of quality. We can start to look at problem drinking early on and maybe get a lot of these people before they get to that point of no return. Maybe everyone doesn’t have to be clean and sober. Maybe some people can just learn how to handle stressors in life, learn what appropriate levels of alcohol intake are in what situations. Instead of creating this society, a few years ago, I read a study that we had less than 5% of the people in the world in America and we took over 80% of the Opiates.
Zach: That’s right.
Michael: I wonder, do we have that much more pain than everyone else in the world? Or are we just medicating that pain because we can?
Zach: Yeah. Absolutely. Big Pharma is right there for you. I’m curious to know as it relates back to what you just talked about problem drinking as an example here of having that conversation with someone. It is because I think that most people, and you brought it up beautifully with someone at the hospital following up with someone, they wouldn’t feel like they’re competent to follow up after they had screened someone for problem drinking or mental health issues. What are the first steps that a loved one or someone, anyone can take for that matter to begin having that conversation when they notice something’s wrong?
Michael: I think the first thing is people need to arm themselves with the facts. If we put up a chart right now, you and I know how many drinks per day, per week are considered problematic drinking. I know I was shocked the first time I saw that and I think most Americans would be shocked how little alcohol it takes to cross over that line. First is knowing what is appropriate, what’s healthy. The second is learning what questions to ask. Don’t be ashamed. People don’t blame people. Have an honest heart-to-heart conversation, doing interventions. We know that the best way to approach someone is heart to heart.
This isn’t a thinking fix. This is usually an emotional fix. I usually say it takes one of the four L’s and sometimes all of them. Liver, lover, lawyer, labor. Someone has some health issues, they might ask for help. Someone has some legal issues, they might ask for help. Someone loses a relationship or has relationship issues around love that might get them to ask for help, and work. If you’re not meeting the standards that you set for yourself, if you’re not happy in your job and your life and you’re using alcohol and or drugs to make yourself feel better, that’s part of the definition of a problem drinking problem using.
I don’t have a problem with people drinking and drugging. I look at why they are drinking and drugging. What are the levels and why? Those are the important things to me. As a loved one, as a family member with the holidays coming up because so many people wind up in treatment around the holidays, you haven’t seen someone in a while and they show up and they’re a heck of a lot worse than they were last year when you summon Christmas or last year when you summon Thanksgiving. Doing a little bit of research, finding out what questions to ask and how to approach it could go a long way to getting somebody some help before it’s in that stage 4, if you will, as we talked about with cancer.
Zach: What are the biggest points right now of discussion in our field in the recovery world as it were?
Michael: I think a lot of it is this new California sober. I’ve got into some LinkedIn and Facebook discussions with people that think that it’s not an issue. For some people, it’s not an issue. I beg to differ with one of my colleagues…
Zach: Does that mean that I can drink on the weekends basically? I’m free to…
Michael: You do not use that, but I think some people probably can. Not me. I know you.
Zach: You don’t want me to.
Michael: But again, for people in those early stages where moderation is a reliable option, a healthy option, I think moderating it. There was a thing that a friend of mine just started this year called Sober October asking people to try to not drink for 30 days and see how that works for you. Again, people in the early stages, fantastic. If you can curb it if you can control it and you want to drink and drug, fantastic. The problem I see is that so many people justify their drinking and drugging and think that it’s not abnormal drinking and drugging when it’s way over the line and they and the people around them don’t realize how out of control it is. Again, I think moderation management, I wouldn’t call it sober, California sober. To me, it’s not the truth. The truth is to me, at least, it’s moderation management, which again, I have no problem with the people who are able to moderate well.
Zach: I remember one of my supervisors saying to me that I think it brings up a good point is this whole thing you brought up, too, about sober October, where one of my former sponsors got to year sobriety. The very next day, he relapsed, and what he did and he told me this, later on, he’s got I think at least probably got about 20 plus years now, but anyway, he said to me, “I looked at the time that I was able to stay stopped. I never looked at what got me back into or what led me back to drinking or using again.” I think that that’s something that people can kind of get confused about. It’s just like, “No, I got a month sober. I can do this however I want. I’m just choosing to drink now. Granted. I’m planning myself in jail or all these relationship problems. I’m getting fired from my job, but I can’t stop drinking.”
Michael: For me, I quit drinking for 30 days but I was smoking a lot more pot in those 30 days. I think if we start to look at it differently, where it’s overall health and well-being. If you look at the 20 questions, there’s another version of it to 10 questions. Be honest about how it’s affecting your life and in what areas. A lot of times we think it’s not affecting our work. We ask our colleagues and our bosses. They may have a different opinion. If we’re doing the self-assessment without the benefit of other people around us who might see us a little bit differently, you’re not getting all the information.
One of the things that my mentors have often said to me is you just don’t know what you don’t know. I used to get mad at doctors because they couldn’t identify a problem. I went to the doctor before I got clean and sober and he said, “Whatever you’re doing, keep it up.” I went to him to help. I didn’t tell him the truth because I wasn’t able to, but I thought I beat myself up pretty good and he might have caught on. He didn’t know how to identify it. One of my mentors said, “Michael, you wouldn’t know how to cut the grass if your father hadn’t shown you”. That kind of changed my perspective.
I think that’s why it’s so important that we talk about these things, that we educate people, that we make those questions available so people know what to ask themselves. Again, I look more at the quality of life and why you’re drinking and or drugging as much as how much you are drinking and driving. It is because if you’re really, truly happy and successful and you’re one of the outliers like Willie Nelson that can keep this up for a lifetime, God bless you. I think the sad reality is that most people think that they’re in that category and they’re not quite as happy as they pretend to be.
My stepbrother, who is an actor-writer, heard him say on stage, “One time I was having such a good time drinking and doing drugs, I didn’t realize what a bad time I was having.” Sometimes, it takes us putting this thing behind us to realize how lucky we are and how fortunate we are to be able to live a clean, healthy, sober life if that’s what you want. Again, some people don’t want that. I don’t look at it as something I had to give up. I look at this life today as something I get to do. I think that’s just a different way of looking at it well.
Zach: And you’re right. I think one thing that I’ve taken away from my own recovery is that instead of running away from things anymore, I’m running towards things today.
Michael: The last piece I want to make sure to address is the hot topics coming up. I know California Sober is one or whatever people want to call it. I think the THC, Ben Corte recently published a book called Weed incorporated a lot of states legalizing weed. I don’t have a problem with weed for other people. For me, I have a problem with weed. I do also have a problem with a lot of the negative side effects that we’re not talking about. The research on what it’s doing mental health-wise is out there. People think it’s just pot. It’s not just pot anymore.
The incredibly high concentrations of THC in the edibles, in the vapes, in the marijuana, it’s causing havoc in our mental health system, in our emergency rooms. I think people need to start to look at the truth about pot. It’s not your father’s weed. It’s not the stuff we smoked when we were younger. It is causing havoc with the brain. I think that this is something that if you don’t know about, you need to start looking at it. Psychiatrists, psychologists, mental health therapists, this is something that I can’t stress strongly enough. They need to start talking about this in school because there are way too many professionals that have no idea and the misdiagnosing people.
Zach: Mike, I appreciate all that, man. Again, thank you for coming on the show today. You’ll be seeing more of Michael in the coming weeks and months as we broaden the scope of our podcast guests. You can follow us on social media at Landmark Recovery for Buzz Around, Who’s Next in our Lineup. We’re on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tik Tok. If you have questions for Michael or a personal story of recovery you’d like to share, send us a request on media at landmarkrecovery.com. We’d love to hear from you and we’ll share them in future episodes. And until next time, take care, everyone.
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