Dear Alky: My Friend Says I’m Not Sober (Humor!)

By Alky for TheFix

I know what you’re thinking—pot never shepherded you down the path of making out with the cashier at 7-Eleven, so what’s the big deal?

A woman sitting behind a desk

How can I help you?

Q: I haven’t had a drink in four months but I still smoke pot sometimes (I have RA). My friend says this means I am not “sober” but since I am not waking up in weird dudes’ beds anymore, I kinda wanna to tell her to f**k off. Curious what you think.

A: While I am inclined to advocate for telling anyone to f**k off, in my experience it’s not usually a good idea. I will say that, according to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, “sober” is defined as not being drunk or addicted to an intoxicating drink and puts no parameters whatsoever on smoking weed. Therefore, technically speaking, you could tell your friend to go f**k herself and feel pretty self-righteous about it. But what your friend is likely proselytizing is her personal definition of “sober,” shared by many people in the recovery community. Those in active recovery (working some kind of program beyond abstinence) generally feel that using any kind of drugs (at least the kind that typically causes muchos problemas) means a person is not sober.

I know what you’re thinking—pot never shepherded you down the path of making out with the cashier at 7-Eleven, so what’s the big deal? That’s a fair question, especially if you are smoking/eating/Jolly-Ranchering the kind of cannabis that relieves pain but doesn’t get you high. Here are my thoughts: if drinking made your life unmanageable (i.e. waking up in bed with the cab driver), then it’s a good thing you stopped. Four months without a drink is nothing to shake a stick at but it’s also not long enough to really weigh in about whether just removing booze from the equation will solve your life’s problems. If you are truly using medical marijuana to deal with a real medical issue, and not just mounting a 4-foot bong every Friday night and high-dialing Little Caesars, then you are probably going to be just fine.

Q: I have been clean and sober for over five years now, but I live in the Denver area and pretty much have to walk into clouds of pot smoke half a dozen times a day. I thought I would get used to it but I’m actually getting more and more pissed off, to the point where I am worried I am going to clock someone or relapse. Any ideas on how to deal with this growing (pun intended) issue?

Bro, I feel you. My favorite 12-step meeting is in the back of this coffee shop and one day, a bunch of little a-holes just started hanging out in front, drinking café au laits and blazing up. There is nothing that will rub a clean/sober person the wrong way more than being forcefully shotgunned on their way to hand out day-count chips and hugs. But here’s the deal—other than your other friends in recovery and maybe your mom, no one else gives a rat’s ass that you are clean. Whether we realize it or not, many of us carry a proverbial chip on our shoulder about what we had to go through to get and stay sober and how much better people we are now in comparison. While all of these notions are 100% valid, you’ll have to forgive the rest of the planet for not stopping what they are doing to pat us on the back for finally becoming functioning and respectable human beings.

Now that we have the tough love part out of the way, I urge you to try and see your situation in a different way. Rather than feeling like a victim of all these stoners who get to frolic through the streets of Denver with a one-hitter and a dream, remember that getting clean was a choice you made and one you most likely made for a damn good reason. Try and put yourself in their Chacos and be grateful that you don’t have to waste anymore of your life thinking Doug Benson is funny.

In Defense of 12-Step Programs

By Helaina Hovitz for TheFix

Relying less on others, dramatically cutting back on meetings and calls to my sponsor, and actually trusting my own thinking and decisions is a sign that the program really does work.

A group of people in a circle holding hands

It feels like our world is increasingly being pushed to take a position on one side or another, pigeon-holing us into a realm of black and white thinking that, in recovery, only causes us even more pain.

“The gray” is actually a great place to live, and it’s quite relaxing if you can manage to make yourself at home; but it’s a bitch to try and settle into.

While taking on the important work of researching new approaches to treatment for alcohol and drug addiction, some reporters and scientists have, in the process, attempted to strengthen their own argument by tossing 12-step programs like AA under the bus, referring to them as dated and irrational.

I got sober in AA when I was 22 and haven’t had a drink or puffed a joint since (or lit up a cigarette, if you can believe it). That’s five and a half years so far. I was a social binge drinker, a frequent “toker,” and a high functioning reporter/college student/publishing intern. I had never been to rehab, but I did try to stop on my own until I realized that wasn’t my only option. To this day I think the only reason I ultimately even thought of AA was because I read it in Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story six months before I hit my “high bottom” and remembered underlining it in my copy.

Some people might disagree with me when I say that relying less on others, dramatically cutting back on meetings and calls to my sponsor, and actually trusting my own thinking and decisions is a sign that the program really does work. Whether or not you agree with me is none of my business.

What I can tell you is that I think one of the reasons I was so prepared to tackle the steps was because I had a few years of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (for a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder diagnosis) under my belt, and the steps felt like the next grade level up. More learning, practicing, and finally, consistently doing things differently after a real effort to learn new ways of thinking, doing, behaving, and perceiving, literally changing the way our minds work.

Also, times are changing. We can speak to other sober people through Skype or Facebook or texts whenever we need to. We can dial into phone meetings or attend virtual ones. We live in a world where social support is available in many different forms, not just meeting rooms. What we need changes as we grow, which is why nobody stays in Kindergarten forever.

As a journalist, I have stayed on top of and researched new forms of methodology and alternative forms of treatment. Maybe I’m biased, but I think the 12-step model still holds up, despite articles featuring interviews with people who will say that the “program doesn’t work.” Newsflash: a program isn’t a thing that works or doesn’t. It’s there for you to work. There is psychology in those 12 steps, and the model has been replicated in tons of recovery programs that we call “alternative.” Where people start to get persnickety is around God, the concept of powerlessness, and having faith.

First of all, “faith” simply means you’re willing to trust something greater than yourself, willing to consider other points of view and willing to come to terms with the fact that the world doesn’t revolve around you. Anyone who pushes a specific idea of God on you is marching to their own tune, and one that is a real ear-sore to listen to at that.

Second of all, regarding the notion of God, one of the first things they tell you, especially when you’re a newcomer and believe God has left the building, is that you can be an atheist for all they care—you just have to believe in something that’s not you. You, who kind of made a mess of things. When I came in, I said, “My higher power is just the concept that everything happens for a reason.”

I also don’t believe that something is “dated” just because it’s been around for 80 years. I remember reading Living Sober and thinking, “Holy crap, how do they know? They’re in my head!” If anything, I was amazed that it was so spot-on. So make fun of all of the Big Book references to John Barleycorn and get pissed at the references to gender roles of women at the time, but outside of that, if you want data to prove efficacy: there are over two million active members in 181 countries, and nearly 118,000 groups that meet regularly.

Take that and leave the rest, if you need to.

My experience has not been sunshine and butterflies all the way through, by the way.

In my first six months, I was dumped by two sponsors who had an issue with my taking medications, and I was left doing steps 1-4 twice, holding onto my 4th step in desperation, trying to find some random woman to go over it with me.

I’ve heard horrendous stories of sponsors who talk down to grown women who have years under their belt and who try to act as their doctors or their keepers.

I’ve been in meetings that end with “Our Father” and got really pissed, and I strongly disagree with those who say we are permanently sick and can never trust our thinking.

As my current sponsor says—and she’s one of these women in the New York Circuit that everyone knows and respects—as women in recovery, we learn to rely on ourselves and become people who are capable of trusting their own thinking again because we’ve grown and changed, and learned to do that.

Just like any other community on earth—your local government, your workplace, your book club, your yoga class, your MeetUp Group—you’re going to encounter personalities you don’t like and people who are overbearing and difficult to deal with.

But when we’re talking about changing and saving lives, it’s important not to toss any one approach under the bus. Explore alternatives, do what works for you, and keep in mind that just like one medication may help someone’s depression and do nothing for the other’s, different people respond to different treatment. Ultimately, there is enough room for all of us to exist here without putting one another down.

So please play nice.

5 Ways I Stay Sober Without AA

By Beth Leipholtz for TheFix

There are many ways to recover from alcoholism without 12-step programs. Here’s how it’s worked for me.

A woman standing and smiling at the camera, fingers pointing outward.

Four years ago, I got sober through an outpatient treatment program. The rehabilitation facility I went to followed the 12-step format and stressed the importance of AA meetings and a sponsor. In a way, I owe my sobriety to this form of treatment. I’m so grateful for it. For the first year or so of recovery, this is the format I followed because it was what I knew and it was what was working. But over time I found that I wasn’t necessarily comfortable at AA meetings. Part of it was the God talk, since I’m not necessarily religious, but it was more than that, too. The way sobriety was discussed just didn’t always click for me, and I found myself leaving meetings with a frustrated feeling hanging over me. Though I occasionally still go to meetings, I’ve stayed sober for three of my four years largely without AA involvement. Here’s how:

1. I have a recovery network online. The internet is an amazing resource for those in recovery. It allows you to connect with men and women all over the world, of all ages. There are various websites, chat rooms, Facebook groups, and more which are all about sobriety and recovery. There are hundreds of bloggers who cover sobriety and recovery from numerous standpoints. There are videos and podcasts. The list goes on. The internet has been a lifesaver for my sobriety. Not only has it allowed me to begin a blog and write about recovery, but it has connected me with many men and women who are going through or have gone through the same feelings and circumstances that I have. I’ve found that it doesn’t matter if we haven’t met in real life, that connection still exists because we have been through the same struggles and we’ve all decided to change our lives for the better. The women I have met through technology have become constants in my life and are always there to offer advice and love.

2. I have an outlet for stress and fear. Like many who are in recovery, I used to use alcohol to release stress and fear. Upon getting sober, that was clearly no longer an option. I had to find new ways to cope with my emotions, which was scary at first. I didn’t know how to just sit with them and feel them without burying them. I had heard from many people that writing about recovery was a healthy way to work through this array of emotions. Because I have always been a writer/journaler, this was the outlet where I found the most comfort. Since getting sober four years ago, writing has remained a constant in my life. I write when I’m happy, sad, frustrated, confused, hysterical. There is something about putting words down on paper that makes life seem just a little more manageable. Though writing has been a good way for me to find relief from difficult emotions, I’ve found I can only solve so much through words. I recently decided I needed another healthy outlet, something I could put my all into and walk away knowing I’d done everything I could. So I started Crossfit. To be honest, I don’t know how I managed stress and anxiety before I started working out. Moving your body and pushing it to its limits has a way of making the hard things in your life seem a little less hard. I still write often, but I also move often. Sometimes the most effective solution may be a combination of outlets that allow you to lead the healthiest life possible.

3. I think back to the way life was when I was drinking. This may seem like a small tool, but it’s a powerful one. Like most people in recovery, I have off days. I have days where I wish I could drink and forget about what is happening in my life. I have days where I want to feel “normal.” Sometimes I even consider what would happen if I did allow myself to drink. However, I can usually snap out of this mindset pretty quickly when I think back to the way my life was when I was drinking. Towards the end of my drinking career, my life was headed in a quick downward spiral. I had damaged many of the closest relationships in my life. I had let myself go physically and I often felt rundown or hungover. I wasn’t happy with the person I had become. I keep some photos of myself during this period of time because all of these things are reflected in the way I looked and the way I carried myself. When I’m feeling down about recovery, I look at these photos. And then I look at photos of the person I am today. And the choice to not drink becomes an easy one, because no part of me wants to return to that person I was before.

4. I keep words of wisdom on hand. Words are powerful, and there are so many words about recovery and sobriety out there. I have a board on Pinterest dedicated to quotes about recovery, as well as bookmarked blog posts on my phone. I’ve also saved emails or texts from people telling me they are proud of the journey I have been on. For some reason, revisiting words like these has a way of grounding me and making me remember why it is that I began this journey. In difficult moments, when I am wishing I could be more like other people my age, I grab my phone and pull up these quotes or blog posts or emails. I take five minutes to read, and after doing so I usually feel refreshed and remember why I set out on this journey four years ago. It was because I wanted a better life, and for me, drinking will never be the way to a better life.

5. I talk to people about how I am feeling and why. This is perhaps the most vital tool in my sobriety. Before getting sober, I disliked talking about my emotions. I felt like it made me weak to acknowledge that I was struggling and I preferred to just bury any difficult emotions instead. This often involved drinking in order to forget why I was feeling the way I was, which just made the feelings worse upon sobering up.

But when I found myself in treatment, I had to learn how to vocalize my feelings and figure out what was at the root of them. This was something I hated at first, but as time has passed I have become wholly comfortable expressing my emotions. Today I feel comfortable reaching out to the people in my life and asking for help. I can talk through my emotions and dig to the bottom of them to figure out what the root cause is and what I can do to get myself back on track. There are still days where confronting emotions is difficult, but it always proves to be worth it.

It’s important to note that staying sober without AA isn’t the right path for everyone. For some, AA is necessary in order to get sober and maintain recovery. And that’s just fine, because everyone’s path is different. Those living a life of recovery need to know that they have every right to find what works for them in their own personal journey. There is no right or wrong way to stay sober.

My Daughter, the Addict

By John Lavitt for TheFix

An interview with a mother and daughter about their journey through addiction and recovery.

Katie Donovan and Brittany Sherfield

After getting Brittany clean, the mother-daughter team have been spreading a positive message about recovery. Photo via

When Katie Donovan found out that her daughter Brittany Sherfield — a good girl from a loving family attending a suburban high school — was addicted to heroin, it transformed her life for seven long years into utter hell. Through her popular blog, A Mother’s Journey with her Daughter’s Addiction, Katie has reached countless thousands and helped many families to face their own struggles. Luckily, and through hard work, Brittany eventually found a path of sustainable sobriety, but her recovery did not stop the family’s advocacy efforts. Katie became one of the leaders of Families Against Narcotics (FAN). Today, mother and daughter often travel across the country, spreading a positive message of recovery. Together, they told their story to The Fix.

After a seemingly idyllic upbringing, Brittany progressed within a year from experimenting with Vicodin as a party drug during her senior year in high school to being a diehard IV heroin addict. How did this happen? When did mom find out about your drug abuse and what were the first steps taken?

After almost three months of snorting this powder, I woke up really sick. It felt like the worst flu in the entire world. I didn’t know what had happened. My boyfriend sat me down and told me I had been doing heroin for three months and that I was dope sick. I called my mom immediately, and we were both in shock, crying. We literally Googled what to do because the concept of addiction was so foreign to us. We had no idea how to detox, what to do for treatment, and so on.

Katie Donovan: When I learned of the prescription drug abuse, I first thought, “Okay, we can get her into some counseling, take away her privileges, and nip this in the bud.” This was nine years ago. At that time, I was absolutely blind and completely uneducated about the dangers of prescription narcotics, not to mention heroin. We taught our kids about the dangers of alcohol, weed, and drugs. I never even thought about prescription narcotics. Once she was spiraling out of control and turned to heroin, I felt so numb. I couldn’t believe this was happening. It felt so unreal, yet so painful at the same time.

I called a treatment center and was able to get her in right away. I remember driving home and I had to pull over. I was crying so hard, I couldn’t see through the tears. My chest was heaving, so heavy with emotion, fear of the future, relief she was in a safe place, shock that we were even in this position. Then I received a call five days later that she was being released. I couldn’t believe it. Five days wasn’t enough time, but insurance wouldn’t cover the cost of the rehab anymore. They felt outpatient was a better route because “she didn’t have a history of substance abuse.” I was heartbroken because I had seen my daughter firsthand. I knew how bad it was.

Yes, and when I say that Brittany was a diehard addict, it is not blown out of proportion. Over seven years, she experienced 17 attempts to get sober in a variety of institutions, overdosed three times, and ended up being homeless in three different states. Looking back, does the extremity of what happened astonish you? Beyond the disease of addiction, what other factors were fueling it?

Brittany Sherfield: Looking back, it feels like I am talking about a totally different person because the things I experienced now seem unimaginable clean and sober. Aside from having the disease of addiction, I was extremely depressed. I could be in a room full of people, yet I still felt completely alone. The drugs made me feel part of and connected. By being high, I obliterated the loneliness for a second and nothing seemed more important at the time.

There was a reason for this: My mom and I moved around a lot when I was younger. It was always to a better area or a better school, but it was hard on me. I constantly had to make new friends. It got to the point where I was so exhausted from trying to meet new people that I became a chameleon. I would blend in with any crowd no matter where I was, so I had no real sense of personal identity. I didn’t know who Brittany was and that scared me. But when I was high, I felt nothing—no pain, no loneliness, no sense of anxiety about not fitting in or being myself. Just peace.

Katie Donovan: I look back and have no idea how we made it through the addiction. Truly. I don’t think I slept for seven years. I was running on fumes and every day there seemed to be a new fire to put out, a new twist to the turmoil. I had to be a strong mom, trying to save my daughter, but I also had a full-time job, a husband and a younger daughter to bring up and care for. I experienced things that I never in a million years expected to ever experience in my life. Watching your child slowly die in front of your eyes, well, I wouldn’t wish that upon anyone. I’ve seen her in jail and witnessed her having three grand mal seizures. I once saw my daughter shoot up in a dealer’s car and nod out. I was so frightened that she wouldn’t wake up. We felt like prisoners in our own home, locking up items and being stolen from and violated. I slept with my purse and car keys under my pillow. It was just such a feeling of helplessness, beyond awful.

During the dark years of Brittany’s addiction, why did you never let go? Al-Anon recommends that you carry the message but not the addict. Do you feel that their perspective of letting go of the addict so they can hit bottom is too extreme?

Katie Donovan: In the beginning, I thought I could save her. I felt like if I could just “fix” all of her issues and bail her out of bad situations, it would make things better. I was the Queen of Enabling. It wasn’t until our family was several years into her addiction that I reached out for help. It was humbling to me because I was usually the one fixing other people’s issues. Why can’t I fix my own daughter? Clearly, whatever I was doing wasn’t working. I had to try another way.

That was the turning point. It was when I truly became educated about addiction. I learned to become strong because the knowledge I acquired gave me more compassion as opposed to anger in relation to the disease. Personally, I’m not a fan of “letting them hit bottom.” With heroin, any day could be death. I needed to create my own healthy boundaries, but you never stop loving. She knew I would always be there for her if she wanted help. Letting go doesn’t mean you have to stop communication. For me, it meant I have to let go of the chaos, but I would never let go of my child.

Brittany Sherfield: And that still means the world to me, Mom! I might never be able to forgive myself for what I put you through, but I also will never forget how you were always there for me. Year after year, even when I was homeless, I knew I always had a way out if I needed it. I also know I terribly abused that love.

Katie Donovan: You are my daughter, and I love you more than anything in the world. I’m just so happy you are healthy and happy now. From our experience, I know we can put the past behind us and live for today.

In A Mother’s Journey with her Daughter’s Addiction, you write about enabling and codependency. Can you tell how your experiences with enabling and codependency affected what happened? Going back, what might you have done differently?

Katie Donovan: Given the last answer, that question makes a lot of sense right now. I wish I had learned about enabling earlier in her addiction. What I thought was loving her at the time was really practically killing her. I did many things wrong; things that I thought were right, but weren’t in reality. I would spend hours and days printing out lists of AA meeting locations, job searching for her, making doctor appointments, all things that she could have done herself, and she should have been doing herself. I thought she couldn’t mentally handle it, due to her addiction. I really thought I had to take over. I thought I had to find some way to save her.

Once I found help for myself, however, I started becoming very strong. Ironically, once I became strong, she did too. I think she saw the change and realized I wouldn’t do the things anymore that had been enabling the addiction. As parents, when our child is an addict, we have to completely change the way we act in the dark shadow of this vicious disease. It’s not a natural course of behavior, and it takes some time to adjust. We want to fix things for our children, not have them suffer. We want them to be happy no matter what, but happiness doesn’t come if we try to do everything for them.

My husband said something to me once that really stood out. He said, ”Katie, if anything ever happened to you, I really don’t think Brittany would be able to survive.” And I realized he was right and how wrong that was: What had I been doing? What was I teaching her by enabling her? Helplessness? Just like those struggling with addiction have to work a 12-step program, families affected by addiction need to work on our own recovery. We need to work the steps as well to see how the disease affected us.

Dr. Gabor Maté believes that behind every addiction there is a childhood trauma that needs to be addressed. Brittany has written how, “This bubbly, outgoing, beautiful girl was secretly lost and self-destructive and ran to anyone I could fit in with that day.” Can you describe how you were secretly lost and why you were so self-destructive? What was the trauma behind the addiction?

Katie Donovan: This is a hard question for me to even think about it. I know it’s a question for Brittany, but it reminds me of the part I played.

Brittany Sherfield: It wasn’t your fault, Mom, and it’s not about you. There really wasn’t necessarily any “childhood” trauma. The traumas that I’ve experienced are significant and keep me up most nights, but they all happened during my addiction. As far as my childhood goes, the only thing I can say is that I do not know my birth father. Even though now I don’t care to know him, when I was younger, it felt like something was missing. I felt like I didn’t know the other half of myself. My mom is my best friend though, and she has always been there for me. I never felt unloved or unhappy. I can honestly say that I had an amazing childhood. What’s important to understand is that addiction can take over regardless of love and support. It’s that powerful.

Can you tell us how and why you became involved in the advocacy group Families Against Narcotics (FAN)?

Katie Donovan: I stumbled upon FAN when I was looking for support. I had attended Al-Anon, but it just wasn’t for me because I couldn’t let go like that. I tried FAN, and what I found there blew me away. It’s not just a group for those who have families struggling—it’s for everyone. It’s for those who are in recovery, those who are struggling, and those who have lost loved ones. It includes people from drug court, school districts, law enforcement, truly anyone who has been affected or would like to learn more about addiction. It takes a community to come together, and that’s what I found in FAN.

I started to volunteer and dove head first into their group. FAN is so much more than just a support group because that’s only one of the facets, and FAN is a real jewel with many facets. We go into schools to educate and create awareness, bringing both recovering addicts and those affected by the disease as our speakers. Real stories. Real lives. We also work with law enforcement, community leaders, physicians, dentists, and the legislature to continue our mission. I still can’t believe I’m now the executive vice-president of the organization. It’s such an honor.

Brittany Sherfield: It’s an honor that you really deserve, Mom. You have put so much work into FAN, and they are lucky to have you. Beyond helping me, you have helped so many others. I think I learned how to be of service to others by watching you.

Katie Donovan: Thank you for saying so, darling! That means the world to me. I have tried to be of service to other families and guide them. If I can help them avoid some of the pain, that means everything.

FAN president Linda Davis has said, “Almost every addict we come across started with a legit prescription or their drug dealer was their parents’ medicine cabinet.”

It sounds a lot like what happened to Brittany. How can such pharmaceutical abuse be avoided? What steps need to be taken?

Katie Donovan: What I have found is that silence is the number one killer. The more we talk about it, the more we educate, thus raising awareness and saving lives. Getting the doctors to limit prescribing large amounts, educating the public on how to store prescription drugs securely and dispose of them safely, letting people know that it’s okay to say no when your doctor offers you painkillers. It takes strength to say to a doctor, “I don’t really need 60 Vicodin. Maybe I don’t need any at all. Advil or Tylenol should work just fine.”

Brittany Sherfield: I’m not sure I could have said that back in the day. I don’t think I would have said that when I was a teenager.

Katie Donovan: I know, but that’s why it’s also so important for parents to monitor their teenagers when they go to the doctors because of a sports injury or to dentist to get their wisdom teeth removed. Parents have to be in control of all prescription drugs, both the decision before being prescribed and when they are prescribed if truly needed, for any underage child. By underage, I don’t mean 18 by the way. Given the obvious danger, I mean 21.

As mother and daughter, what were the respective worst and best moments of this entire experience for each of you?

Brittany Sherfield: The worst moments were knowing how much I hurt my family. I did so much damage, and it still shocks me to this day. They were feeling so ashamed, and that shame hurt me because I was the cause. I couldn’t bring myself to call my family, even though all they wanted was to hear from me.

The best moments were when my mom and I started working together once I found the path of long-term recovery. They were when I could sit down at a family dinner and honestly enjoy myself. My mom, younger sister and I could sit and laugh for hours. That was something we hadn’t done as a family in seven years. I regret the time lost, but I am so happy that we have recovered those smiles.

Katie Donovan: The worst was seeing my youngest daughter actually become scared of her sister. It hurt so much to see that fear in her eyes of her big sister. They are 12 years apart. She didn’t want her around, and she just wanted it to be over. She became so tired of the drama, of the letdowns, of seeing mom and dad worry and cry, day in and night out. That was very hard.

The best moment was when Brittany was early in her recovery, this one now that has lasted and become real. One Friday night, her younger sister wanted to do a puzzle. My husband and I were working on it with her at the kitchen table when Brittany walked into the door from a meeting. She sat right down with us and jumped right in. She was really with us. It had been so long since she had been really present as a member of the family. It was so beautiful. I had to take a step back because I was overcome with emotion. I was so grateful to have my family back together again.

In “My Daughter The Addict-A Suburban Mom’s Nightmare,” you write, “If you feel like ‘it would never happen to you or anyone in your circle,’ take a look around. It’s happening. You may not even know it.” What community-based steps need to be taken to battle the rising tide of drug abuse and the opioid epidemic in the United States?

Katie Donovan: I think community education is key. Speaking in schools, in colleges, at parent groups, coaches, athletes, churches, anyone that will listen. And don’t stop; you need to keep talking. Even after your kids find recovery, it’s not over. The healing process takes a long time, and we are still going through it, but it gets better and better. At the same time, it takes a lot of work.

I’m also on the executive committee in Michigan of an organization called Operation Rx. It’s a community-wide group with key stakeholders leading individual committees such as seniors, behavioral health, court system, education and prevention, data, dental, physicians, law enforcement, and legislative. All of these groups do amazing work. It really does take a village.

Republicans have been unwilling to provide funding for the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act of 2016. Although they voted for the act, Republicans seem intent on leaving the legislation toothless. Presently, only 15% of Americans seeking recovery are able to access treatment services.

Given your personal experiences, what is your take on this?

Brittany Sherfield: It scares me because I remember what happened to me, and I don’t know if I would have survived without the support of the treatment opportunities that I had. Even when they didn’t lead to long-term sobriety, they still helped me to survive and keep going. I think they even kept me alive.

Katie Donovan: Yes, it really upsets me because people are literally dying while waiting for treatment. There just aren’t enough beds available. There’s such a small window of opportunity when they reach out for help. We are failing them when we ask them to wait three weeks. Even three hours could mean death on account of an overdose. It’s a fragile situation, and it’s also life and death.

During the election, Donald Trump’s strategy for addressing the national drug epidemic was to build a wall between the United States and Mexico to stop the flow of drugs. If you were in charge in Washington, what would you do?

Brittany Sherfield: I don’t like talking politics. You can take this one, mom.

Katie Donovan: I don’t like to do it either, but I do know drugs are coming from everywhere. They are available online on that dark web, and they are coming from China, from Canada, and, yes, from Mexico as well. I’m a big supporter of any preventative measures that can be taken. Washington needs to take this seriously and make changes fast. They need to be funding recovery and making sure that treatment options are available nationwide to anyone that reaches out for help. In so many tragic cases, they don’t get a second chance.

Do you have any last words for families in crisis out there?

Brittany Sherfield: Recovery works, but you have to be willing to take the first step. I once thought I was hopeless, but I wasn’t, and that’s important for people to know. There is hope.

Katie Donovan: Don’t stay silent. Reach out for help. Don’t let the fear of judgement or shame hinder you. You are not alone. There are thousands upon thousands of people, even millions, across the country who feel the same and share the same stories. Once I opened up and began talking publicly about this, I was shocked and amazed at the outpouring of support.

There’s no shame in taking care of your mental health

When stress got to be too much for TED Fellow Sangu Delle, he had to confront his own deep prejudice: that men shouldn’t take care of their mental health. In a personal talk, Delle shares how he learned to handle anxiety in a society that’s uncomfortable with emotions. As he says: “Being honest about how we feel doesn’t make us weak — it makes us human.”


Is it possible to use medical marijuana for depression?

RIA neuroscience study points to possible use of medical marijuana for depression

 “Chronic stress is one of the major causes of depression.”
Samir Haj-Dahmane, senior research scientist, Research Institute on Addictions, University at Buffalo.
BUFFALO, N.Y. — Scientists at the University at Buffalo’s Research Institute on Addictions (RIA) are studying chronic stress and depression, with a focus on endocannabinoids, which are brain chemicals similar to substances in marijuana.

The findings raise the possibility that components of marijuana may be useful in reducing depression that results from chronic stress.

“In the animal models we studied, we saw that chronic stress reduced the production of endocannabinoids, leading to depression-like behavior,” says RIA senior research scientist Samir Haj-Dahmane, PhD.

Endocannabinoids are naturally produced chemical compounds in the brain that affect motor control, cognition, emotions and behavior. As the name suggests, they are similar to the chemicals found in marijuana (Cannabis sativa) and its active ingredient, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

“Chronic stress is one of the major causes of depression,” Haj-Dahmane says. “Using compounds derived from cannabis — marijuana — to restore normal endocannabinoid function could potentially help stabilize moods and ease depression.”

He cautions this is preliminary research. “Our research thus far has used animal models; there is still a long way to go before we know whether this can be effective in humans,” he says. “However, we have seen that some people who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder have reported relief using marijuana.”

Haj-Dahmane says the next step in the research is to see if using a marijuana extract, cannabidiol (CBD), restores normal behaviors in the animals without leading to dependence on the drug.

The study, co-authored by Roh-Yu Shen, PhD, RIA senior research scientist, was funded by a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health. It appeared in the fall issue of the Journal of Neuroscience.

Medical marijuana remains a controversial issue. Although 23 states and the District of Columbia have approved its use to provide relief for health problems such as glaucoma, nerve pain, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and nausea from chemotherapy, some experts are concerned that medical use of marijuana may normalize attitudes about the drug and lead people — especially youth — to believe it is completely safe.

RIA is a research center of the University at Buffalo and a national leader in the study of alcohol and substance abuse issues. RIA’s research programs, most of which have multiple-year funding, are supported by federal, state and private foundation grants. Located on UB’s Downtown Campus, RIA is a member of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and a key contributor to UB’s reputation for research excellence. To learn more, visit

Why everyone needs to take care of their mental health

This is part of a Globe & Mail series examining the mental health experience in Canada’s workplaces.

The term mental health problem or illness can be confused with the concept of mental health; however, they are different. About one in five Canadians will experience a diagnosable mental health problem or illness in any given year, whereas everyone has a responsibility to look after their mental health. Good mental health is an important tool to deal with life’s daily stresses.

The Public Health Agency of Canada defines positive mental health as “the capacity of each and all of us to feel, think, act in ways that enhance our ability to enjoy life and deal with the challenges we face.”


Given that two-thirds of Canadian adults spend 60 per cent of their time at work, workplaces can have an impact on our mental health. The way you experience your job can either damage, or enrich, your mental health.

Consider that a person living with anxiety might be receiving appropriate treatments, have a support network and a fulfilling job, at which she excels. Though she lives with a mental illness, her life circumstances, including her work, enrich her mental health. On the other hand, someone who doesn’t have a diagnosable mental health problem may be experiencing a range of challenges, from coping with aging parents, to financial stress, or undue workplace pressures. Even without a mental illness, this individual may still report poor mental health.

It is helpful to think about positive mental health and mental health problems or illnesses as interconnected, as shown in the diagram below.

One axis shows positive mental health as a resource. It is something everyone can work to strengthen. Taking care of your mental health requires the same kind of effort you expend to look after your physical well-being. On the other hand, if you are vulnerable to a mental health problem or illness, you can draw on positive mental health resources and supports to achieve well-being.

Given the central role of workplaces, it’s not surprising everyone performs better in psychologically healthy settings, free of harassment and bullying, where management is supportive, workloads are reasonable and expectations are clear.


While public discussion about mental health is increasing, too often people under stress believe they should be able to cope better. This is often true whether you are living with a diagnosable mental health problem or simply experiencing poor mental health. This kind of thinking can stand in the way of taking positive steps to build up mental health, like seeking appropriate support. Staying in the stress cycle increases the risk of becoming more ill or further depleting mental health resources.

When you find yourself feeling overwhelmed, or when your coping skills seem inadequate, reach out to someone you trust.


One way to take charge of your mental health is to tune-in to changes in your behaviour, feelings and thoughts. If your personal care, sleeping or eating patterns are changing, or you are being troubled by unwanted feelings and thoughts, these can be warning signals that your mental health needs attention.

1. Make a commitment to learn.

Explore what positive mental health means, and what kinds of things can build up your mental health resource kit. The wrong time to prepare for crisis is when you’re in it. Find out more about early warning signs and symptoms of mental health problems, and the kinds of help available. Like preventing a heart attack, it’s helpful to understand not only the signs and symptoms but also how to engage in prevention, and when and where to reach out when things are getting out of hand. A Mental Health First Aid course could be a good way to start. Consider inquiring if your employer would host one.

2. Get your baseline

If you’re questioning how well you’re coping at work, your current stress level, overall health and workplace experiences, complete the Your Life at Work survey. This behaviour-based tool will help you explore the relationship between stress and health and the role of coping skills. The Working Mind is an excellent tool to help employees learn to address mental health problems with a common language. Many employers in Canada are beginning to offer this training to their workers.

3. Devote a little of each day to improving your mental health

Maintaining your mental health is a lot like staying physically fit. A little effort every day goes a long way. The Canadian Mental Health Association is a good place to start for ideas.

4. Reach out.

Many people with mental health problems or illnesses endure in silence. There are resources in your community to help, including your family doctor and your company’s employee and family assistance program representative. A new report, released recently by the Mental Health Commission of Canada, Strengthening the Case for Investing in Mental Health: Economic Considerations, highlights Canadian research that indicates a person on short-term disability for a mental health concern will return to work 16 days earlier if they have access to collaborative care – which is when experts from different specialties, disciplines, or sectors work together to offer cohesive client services. This is one of many effective tools, interventions and that are available. Taking action will benefit your health, career and relationships.

Have you dealt with or are you dealing with a mental health issue? Please take a moment to complete our survey: The Mental Health Experience in Canada’s Workplaces: What’s Your Experience?

Bill Howatt is the Chief Research and Development Officer of Workforce Productivity with Morneau Shepell in Toronto.

Louise Bradley is CEO and President of the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

The science of meditation

While meditation has been around for thousands of years, it is only recently that scientists have probed its physiological effects on practitioners. In an increasingly hectic world, now more than ever people want to know, “what exactly is the science behind this centuries-old practice?” Is meditation some ancient hocus pocus still in use today, or a scientifically proven method to increase one’s well-being and health?

In a three-minute video posted to YouTube, AsapSCIENCE summarizes the current scientific findings on meditation. As it turns out, saving time in your day to meditate can minimize stress, boost pain tolerance, and increase the density of gray matter in areas associated with learning, memory processing, and emotion regulation.

By Kristy Hamilton