Politicians, health care workers and others in recent years have called for a change in approach toward addiction, from condemning it as a lifestyle choice to treating it as a disease.
But as the opioid epidemic and other issues of substance misuse continue to wreak havoc in the United States, Joe Polish – a marketing entrepreneur recovering from multiple addictions himself – says he sees addiction instead as an attempt by people "to deal with pain."
"If you want to understand why many people are addicts, even people that get, you know, hooked on drugs from pharmaceuticals, a lot of it can be traced back to childhood experiences and trauma – not all, but most of it," says Polish, 51.
The founder of addiction resource hub Genius Recovery and the entrepreneur-focused Genius Network says he hopes to change the global conversation around addiction to one that treats those suffering from it "with compassion instead of judgment." He also aims to "find the best forms of treatment that have efficacy, and share those with the world in the form of education," he says.
Polish spoke with U.S. News about his own addictions, the crucial factors that have led to his and others' long-term recovery, and what he says is needed to diminish the deadly effects drugs are having on society today. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Everyone's talking about addiction as a disease. What's your take?
I think of addiction as anything that has a compulsivity attached to it, and doing something that you don't want to do or that you do want to do that has negative consequences that you cannot stop on your own. And so I look at addiction in terms of not just drugs and alcohol, but also behaviors. My core addiction was not actually drugs. It was behavioral addiction – from sexual addiction to work addiction – as a coping mechanism.
READ:Our Problem Is Bigger Than Opioids?]
I also don't believe addiction is a disease. I believe it's a response to trauma. I believe addiction is a solution to pain. It is a way to scratch an itch, a way to deal with pain.
Could you tell me more about how your addictions developed?
Specifically with using, the first time I probably ever got introduced to drugs would have been marijuana, maybe when I was 14 years old. And 15, 16 is when I was introduced to speed, taking pills, snorting coke. Through the ages of 16 to 18, I was starting crystal meth and smoking pot almost every day, using different forms of speed, taking psychedelics. Eventually, it led to freebasing cocaine, and that's when I became heavily, heavily addicted. In my worst state, I weighed 105 pounds from freebasing for a long period of time.
Joe Polish, founder of Genius Recovery and Genius Network (Courtesy of Joe Polish)
The setting is really critical. It's not about the drugs – it's about the mindset you're in, the environment that you're in, if you're doing it for entertainment, if you're doing it for therapeutic reasons. But I got really just strung out on drugs. I just wrecked my system.
How did you go from there to starting your recovery?
I went to New Mexico and left all my friends and relationships behind, simply because there's not much I could functionally do in that environment.
I just got away from everything, every relationship, every access. I went and lived in a trailer with my father and got sober and ended up working. In a weird way, one of the jobs I ended up getting after being in New Mexico for a couple years was working in a mental hospital, and I would drive the addicts to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and Narcotics Anonymous meetings and Cocaine Anonymous meetings and stuff like that. And I got an introduction to 12-step groups, which I've done. I've been in recovery for 20-some-plus years.
Stopping use and entering recovery aren't necessarily easy decisions to make, especially given the power of addiction. How did you do it?
I'm in a fortunate situation, which many people are not, as I know how to run companies and run businesses and bring in revenue. And so I have access to money that I create, and I've spent over half a million dollars on my own recovery.
But there are four ways I've discovered that you get sober and stay sober. First is through community, such as joining a 12-step program or any sort of support groups that bring you around other people that have mutual suffering in a space of wanting to share, help and support each other.
Then there's biochemical means: When you introduce artificial, feel-good chemicals, your body shuts down its own production. It's very hard for someone that is an addict to sleep, to focus, to function without being in a constant state of craving. But if you can reintroduce, rebuild their system, it helps them recover … through food and nutrition supplementation.
Third is addressing trauma, which includes everything from different types of yoga, meditation and breathing to EMDR, somatic therapy, plant medicines and psychedelics – like Ibogaine or MDMA – done properly. (Editor's note: Ibogaine and MDMA are both illegal in the U.S.)
And finally, there's changing your environment.
Tell me about Genius Recovery: Why did you decide to start this platform?
Genius Recovery is an educational platform that lists meeting locations, help videos, different interviews we've put up with doctors and addicts, and links to all kinds of different podcasts. We have a Facebook community, and we have articles and all kinds of things that we have put out there. If someone's an anti-12-step person, or if people have no money at all, they can at least find resources and they can watch videos and they can have links to podcasts.
If someone just takes away the drugs or tries to give them something else without dealing with the underlying drivers of the pain and the causation of it, it's going to be very short-lived. All you need to do is look at people's lives – understand why they're doing what they're doing, and how they've got where they've got. It all makes sense, if people are willing to have that conversation. So the point behind Genius Recovery is to first put out this type of conversation and information and engage people with it, while we also are looking at what are the best forms of treatment that have efficacy.
My goal is to save lives and reduce human suffering.
What do you think is missing from the global conversation surrounding addiction?
I think the root of all addiction, including opioids, is trauma, and trauma causes pain, both perceived and real. Right now, all we have is pills that can fix the problem, and what we need is pain to be worked on at the real root of the trauma. We need a more holistic approach to pain.
When you go to a doctor, they don't ask you, "How's your relationship? How's your children? How's your job? How's your sleep?" They give you a structural diagnosis for pain and opiates and other forms of medications, antidepressants. They're very easy, quick fixes, but the problem is they're not solving anything.
We're treating the wrong thing. The right thing is the trauma, the repressed emotion, the emotional turmoil.
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