Interview with Constance Scharff, author of Ending Addiction

Constance Scharff has a PhD in Transformative Studies, specializing in addiction recovery. She is the Addiction Researcher and Transformative Studies Scholar at Cliffside Malibu Treatment Center and a researcher with the Institute for Creative Transformation. She is an expert on using ecstatic spiritual experience to maintain long-term sobriety. Dr. Scharff writes for a variety of journals and speaks to healing professionals on helping addicts in recovery maintain their sobriety. She has also traveled extensively in Asia, Africa, and North America, learning how to help individuals evoke life-transforming spiritual experiences and use those experiences to heal addictions and trauma.

What makes Cliffside Malibu different from other treatment centers?

Cliffside Malibu combines evidence-based treatment provided in a highly-individualized way, compassionate and intensive one-on-one psychotherapy almost daily, and holistic therapies to address the specific needs of each addict on the levels of mind-body-spirit. It does so with a deep understanding of the best change models available – namely Dr. Prochaska’s “Stages of Change” model. Combining these various activities into one treatment protocol, Cliffside Malibu has been so successful that I believe it is the only treatment center to guarantee its work.

In what ways do you measure the success of your program?

The most common way for anyone to measure a drug or alcohol treatment center’s success is by following graduates to determine what percentage remain abstinent from drugs or alcohol for a year post-treatment. However, this is only one measure of success. Cliffside Malibu is also JCAHO accredited. This is the highest standard of accreditation earned by only 6% of treatment centers. It is an indication of the highest levels of care available. We are also concerned with the feedback we receive from our clients. More than anything else, we want to know whether or not they are leading happy, productive lives post-treatment. The unsolicited testimonials we receive are therefore some of the most important measures of success we can have.

Why did you write Ending Addiction for Good?

Richard and I have different reasons for writing the book. Richard is the CEO of a leading addiction treatment center in Malibu, California. In addition to operating the facility, Richard sometimes speaks with desperate families that cannot afford to send their loved ones to his or often any other treatment facility. Richard wanted to write this book to provide the outline of his treatment protocol so that those without the resources to use his facility can have access to the exact methods that are available at the nation’s elite treatment centers. He also hopes that other treatment centers will use and learn from this protocol. “I hope they wholesale rip us off,” he says. “I want everyone to have an opportunity to recover.”

I was moved by observing and working with veterans who had profound PTSD symptoms. I related to them because I suffered from severe childhood abuse and neglect. I was miserable in my early recovery and recognized that I needed more help to be comfortably sober than the 12 steps could give me. Meanwhile, I saw these courageous men and women who had served our country relapse time and time again. I earned my PhD specializing in addiction recovery because I wanted to know what could be done to help those with trauma recover from addiction.

I have known Richard for many years; his wife and I are long-time friends. Over dinner one evening, he discussed his treatment center’s protocol and how it has had a lot of success with those with trauma. He piqued my interest in learning more about his center. Eventually, this discussion became the foundation for our collaboration on the book.

In the book you address very traumatic experiences with addiction. How has your recovery influenced your views on addiction?

It was my traumatic past that made it necessary for me to use alcohol to deal with my pain. But when I became sober, I was absolutely miserable in my recovery because the pain of the past intruded. Back then, there really wasn’t much out there for addicts other than 12 step programs, and that’s what I used. At the same time, I was working with men and women from the VA who had similar problems with trauma that I had – and they were not staying sober. When I went to graduate school, I was passionate about finding solutions for addicts with extensive traumatic histories – because we too wanted a shot at a happy and productive life. Due to my traumatic past, I wasn’t prepared to sign on to the party line that addiction is a disease and the 12 steps are your only hope. I dove into the research on addiction in the search for broader answers that would help greater and greater numbers of people.

Also, because of my experiences with recovery, I was not and am not now interested in making money off the backs of addicts. I receive a salary from Cliffside Malibu for my work evaluating the research on various therapies that can be applied to addiction. One hundred percent of the proceeds from the book are donated to nonprofit treatment centers, so that those who need treatment can receive it. I was blessed with the gift of recovery. Women who have suffered as I have usually die of addiction or kill themselves outright. My passion, thus, has become to speak and write about a message of hope – that there are methods of recovery available for addicts who are suffering. Keep in mind, Cliffside Malibu only has 18 beds – but there are hundreds of thousands of addicts in this country who need help right now and millions who will sometime in the future. For those people – those who want help but don’t have the knowledge or resources to know where to turn – I coauthored Ending Addiction for Good. I want to pread the message that recovery is possible and share the exact tools an addict needs to have a life beyond their wildest imaginings.

You state in the book that addiction is not a disease. Can you explain your reasons for that perspective?

In actuality, whether or not addiction is or should be defined as a disease is extremely controversial and discussed at length in “Ending Addiction for Good.”

What I suggest is that there is no “Truth” about what addiction is or is not. We define it as we believe is useful based on our biases and agendas. Certainly there are biomedical components to addiction; addicts become physically ill from their abuse of drugs and alcohol. However, I don’t find this information particularly useful in the treatment of addiction. If we tell an addict that s/he has a disease, that the disease is incurable, to expect relapse, that the disease must be managed for the rest of the addict’s life, and that most people fail to recover so expect death – is it any wonder that addicts give up before they even go to treatment?! We condemn these addicts to death by leaving them hopeless!

Richard and I have found – he in his work at the Cliffside Malibu treatment center and I in my research – that when addiction is approached as a behavioral disorder, recovery is much easier to attain and longer lasting. Why? Because the addict is given hope. If the addict is told that s/he has an ingrained set of behaviors, but that with help those behaviors can change and that by uncovering the root causes of addiction and learning new coping skills to deal with those and other issues that a full life is possible – the addict comes to believe in that possibility and therefore is able to grab hold of the support offered to him. With hope comes real life change.

What is the Cliffside Malibu approach to treating addictions?

Treatment at Cliffside Malibu is highly individualized; it is based on the needs of each individual client. Literally, every proven, evidence-based treatment or therapy available can be provided to a client if the need arises. These are covered in detail in the book. These therapies are based on intensive, one-on-one almost daily psychotherapy with a highly caring, industry leading therapist. Psychotherapy is combined with activities including but not limited to: acupuncture, brain mapping, therapeutic massage, equine therapy, yoga, spiritual counseling, and a host of other offerings.

Can you site any studies or research that supports your approach?

Absolutely! There are literally hundreds of studies on the various therapies that are used at Cliffside Malibu. We don’t offer anything that is not proven with evidence to work. For example, the National Acupuncture Detoxification Association (NADA) has developed a protocol that is well researched and highly regarded as a low cost, low side-effect, highly useful tool in addiction treatment.

But the efficacy of each individual treatment is not what makes them effective. What makes Cliffside Malibu’s protocol effective is that the treatments provided are given on a highly individualized basis. There is no “magic bullet” with regard to addiction treatment. Acupuncture or therapeutic massage or brain mapping or orthomolecular medicine is not going to create change sufficient for addiction recovery on its own. The synergy comes from getting to know each addict individually, his/her strengths and weaknesses, dreams and needs, and providing that person all the tools s/he needs to recover. The individually applied, evidence-based therapies given at the right time to the addict – that’s what makes success possible.

In the book you state that getting sober does not have to be as difficult as it was for you. Why do you believe that is true?

Simply put, there are more tools available now for addicts than there were when I entered recovery. When I got sober, there were 12 step meetings and there were treatment centers that were either 12 step or faith based. That was about it. Since then, we have come to realize that there are many, many treatments that can be used to help addicts. If you read the addiction literature, more and more people are following me in the call for evidence-based treatment for addiction. It is these combined treatments that get at the root of the addict’s problem – and helps him/her completely transform so that using simply is no longer necessary. I know that sounds almost unbelievable, but it’s true. Addiction recovery is about a total life transformation that leaves the addict’s pain in the past so that s/he can have a joyful and productive present and future.

Can you describe the style of Cliffside Malibu’s intervention?

We employ a soft method of intervention in which we “love” people into treatment. There are no hard lines in the sand or ultimatums about the “consequences” of not going to treatment. We let people know that there is hope and the possibility of real life change. We know this is true because we’ve been there ourselves. We’ve seen hundreds recover using the Cliffside Malibu treatment protocol. We know it works. In the intervention, we impart this hope to the addict. They rarely refuse to go to treatment.

We have written an entire chapter on interventions in the book, “Ending Addiction for Good.”

Please give a summary of your book, Ending Addiction for Good.

“Ending Addiction for Good” describes addiction and addiction recovery in a way that anyone can understand. It provides the reader with a history of addiction treatment, how it has been dealt with from the viewpoints of a moral failing, a disease, and a behavioral disorder. It then goes on to describe the Stages of Change model and how understanding the processes of change in general can be applied to help addicts recover. The authors then review the evidence-base for addiction recovery, helping readers to understand how various treatments/therapies assist addicts. This is all done within a context of caring, where the authors share their and other stories of recovery in order to give those reading the book hope that recovery is possible.

What is the most important word of encouragement you can provide for anyone that is struggling with addiction?

The most important thing to take away from this article is to realize that there is hope. You or the one you love can recover from addiction. You must ask for help. Seek out those who will love and support you through your recovery process. Ask them to help you find the best treatment you can afford, evidence-based treatments whenever possible. You need what is proven to work.