We are thrilled and honoured that Michael was interviewed by The Fix. Here is the interview in full:
Michael Pond and Writing “Wasted”
At age 50, Michael Pond was a successful psychotherapist in Canada with a wife and children. By age 54, Michael Pond was a homeless, destitute, and extremely ill alcoholic.
In his book, Wasted, Pond recounts his journey from a clinician treating alcoholics and addicts to becoming one himself and, finally, to his own success at recovery.
What is different about Wasted is that it’s not just an addiction memoir. It’s also an exploration of our outdated approaches to treatment. The book and accompanying documentary film he and his partner created introduce the importance of more evidence-based treatment—including treatment for trauma in those addicted.
You worked as an “expert” in substance abuse prior to your descent into your own addiction. Why do you think the tools you provided others were not helpful to you in your struggle?
It was only when I confronted the harsh realities of my own addiction that I saw how ineffective I was being as a clinician—on several fronts. I told some clients I could not deal with their depression until they quit drinking. Ridiculous in retrospect. Those two conditions are intimately intertwined, as is substance use and so many other mental health issues.
I believed in the “abstinence only” model. I sent people to AA. The program made so much sense to me and I had clients for whom it worked. Through my own successive failures at abstinence, I saw how demoralizing it was to always go back to Step One and begin all over again. I felt intense shame. And I thought of all my clients who struggled so much with abstinence and I had so little else to offer them back then. My clients were not “failures.” They just needed another treatment. It’s that simple.
What was missing?
Even 30 years ago, I knew trauma played into a lot of addictions, especially in my work with Canada’s First Nations people. I now do a lot of trauma work with my clients battling substance use. I needed trauma work myself, and didn’t recognize it. In the end, I realized the tools I provided others were inadequate in the face of deeply entrenched addiction, complicated by other mental health issues. Only when my sleep-deprivation psychosis emerged, did I realize how much expertise is needed to deal with this disorder. And that expertise is still not there for most battling substance use. I was so sick in unlicensed recovery homes, run by people still using. There is no way someone should battle a life-threatening disorder in what is, for all intents and purposes, a flop house.
I didn’t know about medications. How could I, as a practitioner, not know about naltrexone, on the market in Canada since 1995? Even in the worst of my addiction, seeing an addictions specialist, no one offered me naltrexone. That medication works for me. If I’d been offered it in 2005, who knows how this story may have turned out.
Without giving away too much, you mention in your book that at a certain point the desire to drink disappeared. What do you think made that happen?
I’m still not sure. I was in the hospital for 28 days of rest, warmth, compassion, medication which may have also had the unintended effect of quieting cravings and agitation. I also know I was so near death I just didn’t want to die a drunk. Not the legacy I wanted to leave for my sons. And I am open to the possibility of a spiritual awakening of some kind. I think there’s just so much we don’t know yet about how our mind works and why things happen the way they do. I don’t have all the answers. I just know the desire left me that day. It may have been a spontaneous remission, which evidence suggests happens to approximately 25 percent of us.
In your book, you write a great deal about your experience in Alcoholics Anonymous. What are your thoughts about AA now?
It’s complicated. I do believe the program works for some. But its’ success rate is nowhere near what our culture—and the power brokers within it—believe. Support groups work. I am alive today because of some of the guys in the fellowship of AA. I tell my clients, by all means, try AA and SMART Recovery or Women For Sobriety. Try everything until you find something that works.
Many people believe AA is the only way.
According to the science we discussed in the film, AA works at best for 30 percent. That means the majority needs something else, and for the most part don’t get it, as 90 percent of treatment in North America is 12-step based. That is changing, but slowly. My mission now is to broaden the tool kit of options for everyone.
There are some people in AA who give the organization a bad name. They shame and humiliate those of us for whom the program doesn’t work. They tell us “it works if you work it. Try harder.” We’re accused of all manner of moral defect. They become dogmatic and unforgiving, which is the antithesis of what Bill W. would have wanted. Bill W. was all about compassion and patience and meeting people where they are at. I have received hate mail because I’ve challenged the program. I understand why people get so defensive about AA. If it worked for them, saved them from a hellish life—no wonder they want other people to try it. But “try it” is one thing; it’s another thing to be harangued and badgered by those in your life, within AA and outside, who insist you keep trying. So on top of battling addiction, people who should be supporting you end up shaming you because you can’t make the “one thing that works” work for you. I just wish everyone would support everyone’s individual journey to health and wellbeing. I don’t care how you get there; I just want you well. That’s the attitude I’d love to hear from AA members. Some broad minded members of AA invited me to be a guest speaker at a rally here in BC this summer. Other members refused to have me and withdrew the invite. Too bad. I think there’s growth when we can talk to each other. Bill W. even wanted AA to be open to change with the advancements of science. It’s not happening and the program could be stronger for it.
You have become a champion of “evidence-based” treatment. Could you talk a bit about that?
This fall, I will be a keynote speaker at a conference held by the Canadian Mental Health Association, called B4Stage4—the idea being you wouldn’t wait until someone had stage 4 lung cancer to begin treatment. That’s the standard I believe we need for battling addictions. This disorder is so diverse, so complex and presents so differently for so many, we need options for early intervention and aggressive treatment. People with diabetes, cancer and heart disease are offered a range of options based on science, and their caregivers recommend the best course of action for the illness. Could you imagine a cancer sufferer being given chemo but the chemo doesn’t shrink the tumor? No doctor would say, well let’s just keep trying more chemo (i.e. keep using the same chemo drug) and a support group. No, we’d whack that cancer with surgery and radiation. Fire all the big guns at it. That’s the approach we need with substance use.
Critics say, “yeah, but a person with cancer didn’t bring it on themselves.” As a culture, we still love to blame the victim when it comes to addiction, and that’s so wrong when we know addiction is caused by a complex number of issues that are not within the control of the substance user. And frankly, there are cancers caused by behaviors—like lung cancer. And we don’t shame people with lung cancer who smoked. We don’t shame the diabetic whose cake-eating binge causes her to end up in ER. Or the heart attack sufferer who hasn’t exercised a day in his life. There is NO POINT in shaming anyone. It doesn’t make them better—in fact, it makes them worse. And as a society, we continue to waste billions in courts, crime, prison, social services and medical costs because we refuse to treat the condition with an evidence-based method, and compassion. Which is idiotic. Keep shaming and blaming and keep paying outrageous social costs for it. Is that how an enlightened society works? I think not.
Yikes. I did a rant. I get frustrated.
You had a relapse in February 2015. What were the circumstances and what do you think contributed to the relapse? How were you able to get sober again?
I had a motorcycle accident. Not my fault. Driver felt terrible. I ended up in the ER. For a talk I gave in BC, we’d calculated the number of times I went to ER as a drunk: 31 times. The vast majority of times, shamed; always moved to the bottom of the triage, even when I was having seizures. Got an Ativan and a bus pass. Heard things like, “I don’t want to see you in my ER again.” I was very sick. I just felt horribly anxious when the ambulance brought me to the ER after my accident. I went home and drank a bottle of wine. My partner was compassionate as we were just beginning to film on her documentary on best evidence-based treatments for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. She had researched Vivitrol, not yet available in Canada. We went to the U.S. and got the shot and filmed it, to my shame at the time. It worked. I ended up having five shots before feeling really well again. I don’t like to use the word “sober” to define my state. I am well.
How has your treatment of those dealing with addiction changed since you went through your own personal battle?
I have much more empathy and compassion. I meet them where they are at. I make a commitment to try everything. I am committed to changing the system and have great allies in both the U.S. and Canada who share my mission. NO ONE is hopeless. I was called hopeless by too many people. I give my clients lists of approved meds to take to their doctors. I fully recognize the role of trauma and work to resolve childhood issues. This is key, especially in my First Nations work. I love CRAFT—Community Reinforcement and Family Training. Working with loved ones, empowering them, telling them the substance user in their life can get better with connection. This is a systemic disorder. I use Motivational Interviewing.” (Motivational Interviewing focuses on identifying the client’s personal motivation for sobriety, with the goal of identifying and resolving ambivalence regarding behavioral change.)
People who have been shamed and struggled in their lives don’t need more shame. They need to be rewarded, even for small successes. Especially for small successes.