An alcoholic therapist’s search for an evidence-based treatment

Alcoholism nearly killed therapist Michael Pond. Now, he’s looking for answers on why substance-abuse treatment can be so hard to find.

Maureen Palmer and Mike Pond.

Maureen Palmer and Mike Pond.

Michael Pond is a Vancouver psychotherapist who lost his practice and his family after alcoholism took a hold of his life and nearly killed him. Despite many unsuccessful attempts at sobriety, Pond eventually succeeded. Soon after, he met Maureen Palmer, a documentarian who became his partner. Together, they are telling Pond’s story of addiction through a new book and film to raise awareness about evidence-based treatment options that exist for substance abusers and their families—but which aren’t always easily accessed in Canada. Wasted: An Alcoholic Therapist’s Fight for Recovery in a Flawed Treatment System was released today; a companion film will air on Thursday on CBC’s The Nature of Things. They pair have also co-launched AddictionTheNextStep.com to spread their message.

Q: What motivated you to put your story out there?

Pond: I was a professional for many years, and I would refer people to treatment centres and recovery houses all the time. When I ended up in them, two of the worst, I realized that’s where most people wind up—young people, and people suffering from mental illness, eating garbage for food basically, and treatment was a ride to the next AA [Alcoholics Anonymous] meeting. When I got sober, I was saying, “Somebody’s got to do something about this.”

Q: You bounced from treatment facilities, the streets, psych wards and recovery houses. Is there a common theme about how you were treated, or how they failed to treat you?

Pond: I don’t like to focus on the negative because I want to practice what I preach. But the common thread was the shaming, and the lack of kindness and science. Even in facilities like hospitals, clinics, doctor’s offices, ER—they’re all professionals, they’re all educated, they’re all wonderful people, but probably they are worn out, exhausted. I know, I’ve worked in all of those facilities. And there’s still the stigma. My ex-wife talks in the film about how hard it was for her to take me to ER because she could see them murmuring.

Q: AA is synonymous with alcohol addiction treatment but Mike, you say it didn’t work for you. Why doesn’t AA work for everyone?

Pond: My personal experience with it was bad, but I met some amazing people in the program. They saved my life. When I was on my last big bender, it was the guys from AA who would come and check on me. I was in the hospital for 29 days. The only people who visited me were AA people. So I’m not here to bash AA. That’s not what this is about. This is about the treatment industry, where you pay up to $100,000 to go to a place and have equine therapy, and then have a 12-step meeting or two, and maybe get one counselling session a week with somebody who is not qualified. So AA started 80 years ago, 1935—there’s been a lot of changes in the world, and in science and medicine since then.

Palmer: Dr. Bill Miller is in the film and a world-renowned expert on AA. You know the notion of having to admit you’re powerless? Generally speaking, when AA was first invented it was a white male population. Dr. Miller says there’s a whole group of people in our society who already feel disenfranchised. Admitting your powerlessness is going to make you feel worse. The idea of spirituality—and to be fair to AA, it says a God of your own understanding—that’s a turn-off for a lot of people. As much as the original intent of AA was not shame or blame, if you go to some meetings, it is quite prevalent.

Related: Dr. Lance Dodes on why AA’s abstinence policy doesn’t work

Q: So you set out on this search for evidence-based addiction treatment. What do you mean by that?

Palmer: If you look at any other illnesses where people get severely ill and die, they get evidence-based medicine—you get chemo or radiation because there’s lots of science that says it works. Both the Canadian Medical Association and the American Medical Association decree that this is a disease. There are enlightened groups, including here at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, where they now say we have to give the same level of compassion and care, and that means evidence-based: “Is this scientifically proven to work?”

Q: I think a lot of people would be surprised to learn of an injectable drug that, Mike, you’ve received to treat alcoholism. It curbs cravings. I gather that the injectable drug Vivitrol isn’t approved for use in Canada?

Pond: Right. It is a chemical medication, a 30-day injectable with a delayed or long-term effect. It’s powerful.

Q: Can you describe your experience?

Pond: When I had the first relapse I got the first injection in Bellingham, Wash. It’s right across the border. That was Feb. 9, 2015. I relapsed after a motorcycle accident. When I got that injection, I knew within half an hour it was taking effect. I could feel the agitation go down, this calming effect, and cravings were completely gone. It was remarkable. That was the best thousand bucks we ever spent. So I’ve gone down five times or six.

Palmer: Mike went down for five months. What this drug is supposed to do it apparently did for Mike, which is build up a critical mass in your system so that he doesn’t require it anymore. It is part of a drug trial now at St. Paul’s Hospital.

Q: Do you continue to use it, Mike?

Pond: I don’t go for the injectable. But I can tell when I’m struggling. I know the precursors to a recurrence [and] I’ll take a Naltrexone pill. That’s Vivitrol in oral [form, which is approved for use in Canada].

Q: Does it seem to have the same effect on you?

Pond: It’s more unsettling because you’re getting that one pill and it’s going to last for 24 hours. I get a little bit [of] nausea but it does immediately take away any craving.

Q: What is the pill version that’s approved for use in Canada used for?

Pond: It’s supposed to be used for alcohol addiction. It’s an opioid antagonist that’s designed to treat heroin addicts.

Palmer: Here’s the core of the problem in Canada. Dr. Evan Wood, who you see in the film, explains that probably less than 10 per cent, probably closer to one per cent, of Canadians battling substance abuse get Naltrexone or any other approved medication.

Q: So besides this drug, did you discover other things in the evidence-based category?

Pond: Motivational interviewing, community reinforcement and family training (CRAFT), I use it all the time now in my work. That’s for the loved ones. Behavioural couples therapy is very effective. This is a systemic problem. With CRAFT you start off excluding the substance user. You work just with the family, empower them, and give them different ways of coping.

Q: Mike, your father and grandfather struggled with alcoholism. What have you learned about how that has shaped you, psychologically and genetically?

Pond: It’s both. Looking back, I remember what my dad’s father was like: he was a risk taker. He was renowned for the crazy things he would do. My dad was the same, very impulsive. So there are these genetic traits that I definitely inherited and predisposed me to substance misuse.

Palmer: The experts said that 60 per cent of addiction is genetic-based.

Q: Mike, you have three sons, you’re rebuilding relationships now. Do you think about how family history might affect them?

Pond: I think about it, and we talk about it, but no so much. They went through so much trauma themselves and hardship. Before the drinking got bad our family was pretty wonderful. It didn’t get bad until my oldest was about 14 and my youngest was nine. So they lost somebody that they really loved. That made it that much worse for them. Now, you see the healing in them. In terms of worrying about them ending up the way I did, I don’t worry about it, that’s not the word; I have some concern. But I have optimism.

Q: What’s your message to people with addictions, to the families, doctors?

Pond: The main message is the system has to change. Our doctors have to be trained and educated about this problem. And there is hope. I don’t even use the word hopeless anymore. I don’t care who it is and how severe the problem. There’s always hope.

Palmer: Underscored in that message is that there’s an expanded toolkit to treat this problem. AA works for millions; it doesn’t work for everybody. There are a lot of other things that do and we need to get the word out.

Q: Mike, what do you hope for?

Pond: I hope that my sons will have a wonderful, happy, fulfilling, flourishing life. And also, that we can be a part of helping change this system that is flawed.


An alcoholic therapist’s search for an evidence-based treatment

  1. The Key To Lifelong Happiness

    As spirit we incarnate and pick up a body and an ego. The ego has three emotions, fight, flight and needing to be loved. Fight and flight are pretty simple to understand, the needing to be loved part needs more explanation. If we did not have this aspect of ego, we would never get married and procreate, each of us would just go our own way and life would not be as we know it. This needing to be loved has many aspects to it. I will explain later.

    Many people are unaware that we have Chakras and that they are in the front and back of our bodies. These Chakras can be open or closed. An example would be if your solar plexus Chakra, right where your stomach is located has closed, you get that tight pit in the stomach feeling.

    The Key to Lifelong Happiness is the rear heart Chakra. If it is closed or solidly blocked then the ego is fully in charge. This is when we are not loving ourselves. We have grown up in families that did not love themselves. We had a tough childhood, sometimes with abuse, feeling unloved or abandonment. When the ego is fully in charge our spirit sits back and watches. It is not really involved with our existence. The ego is constantly seeking to be loved and is always looking for something outside of itself to make it happy, material items, cars, homes, clothes, purses, drugs, cigarettes, alcohol, sex, something that will make it happy. These are ephemeral at best. The ego gets something then moves on to something else. It is never happy, always searching. If the ego is in charge, you can have bulimia, anorexia, eating disorders, work far too hard, or go to the gym to make yourself perfect. There are perfectionist issues, control issues and needing to blame others for our circumstances.

    All of this can be changed when we open the rear heart chakra and send love to the ego, it is then getting exactly what it is wanting….love. Love from self. The ego is always seeking love. If you give it love, constantly, then love from self never goes away, unless you allow it.

    When your rear heart Chakra is open, a feeling of calmness comes over you. The spirit and ego now walk hand in hand, both creating from a place of love. When the ego is fully in charge, we constantly come from fear. When the spirit and ego are working together, we come from love.

    I created the Rose Exercise to help people recognize their rear heart Chakra and open it up.


    It is necessary to keep aware of the emotions that come up which can close your rear heart Chakra. Circumstances or other people can cause it to close. Our ego gets in charge and we start running fight, flight or needing to be loved again. Take time to close your eyes, do the Rose Exercise and send love to yourself. Say “Ego I Love You”, put your hand over your heart. Say your name to yourself and “I Love You”. It may be difficult at first, particularly if the circumstances you are dealing with are onerous. Keep at it, you are worth it! It will become much easier the more you practice. Do the Rose Exercise before you go to bed at night, it will help you sleep better.

    There are the two basic emotions we all come from; love or fear. Which would you prefer to come from? If you are coming from fear, have addictive behaviors, relationship problems, control issues, perfectionist issues, anorexia, bulimia, depression or anxiety, your heart Chakra is closed in the back. It is time to create a different way of being for yourself, it is the MOST IMPORTANT thing you will ever do for yourself. Be happy.

    • Excuse me Tom…you mean well but talk too much, how do I know you ask ? I’m all those word’s you used yet only one is really key. Love. Get it from the right source and “kaboom” you’re in “how did I miss this land”. It’s not for sale and anyone who bills for it is a criminal. So then how much do you charge ?
      By the way this man’s story of addiction is very touching I truly hope he stay’s on the wagon. AA is one stupid human answer to the simple question we all get to ask ourselves…..yes or no ?

      • AA has been the answer for a lot of people I know who have addiction problems. For one of those people it has been the answer for 60 years. To call it “stupid” is unfair. It might not work for everyone but it is the most successful program there is. It was started by two addicts 80 years ago, one of them a doctor. It is self-supporting meaning it gets no government money. It is run by addicts for addicts. The powerless part is admitting that one is powerless over alcohol. Pretty much it means one can’t stop at one drink. For most who are in AA, that is reality. Also family does get involved. There is Al-anon and Al-ateen. There are round-ups for the whole family. Perhaps some people don’t know enough about the program.

        • Gage….I stand corrected, “stupid” is an extreme and possibly inappropriate way to describe AA for the many who believe it has helped them or others. That being said all addictions have starting points regardless of circumstance that require a “yes” or “no”. Our will to choose is ours and ours only I appreciate one aspect of AA…..the higher power concept or veiled reference to God. Other than that it’s another band aid solution to another much larger issue that only the “higher power” can resolve and until then alcohol,drugs,sex, and a myriad of addictions of distraction move us closer to that day of resolution…so sorry I called AA “stupid”

  2. Whao daddy….such a lovely human telling a human story….if I can reach so low and say there are only two things that may reach our collective hearts ……
    someone knows us better than we do and that someone has a name….

  3. I watched “Wasted” with great interest as all my life I have dealt with people around me, family and friends with alcohol addiction. At one point in the video I was shocked to see that Maureen drinks wine around her husband and keeps alcohol in their home knowing full well that alcohol is a trigger for him (as the video clearly showed)….in my opinion I think Maureen might need to be really honest with herself and look into her own issues around alcohol and why she has a continued need to consume it and have it in their home even when she is fully aware that it is such a stumbling block to her husband and indeed can even completely jeopardize his sobriety.

    • Very good insight. People who are sober addicts tend to make very big changes in their lives. One of those changes is that they no longer hang out with their friends who are addicts and their families show support by not having the source of the addiction in the house. If one’s partner was quitting smoking would one have a pack of cigarettes hanging around.
      I was thinking about this book and documentary and it occurred to me that we have no real treatments for eating addictions/disorders that work either.

      • Precisely why I find AA not for me……I do not find it healthy to be around a bunch of people who have or are trying to quit an addiction by sitting around talking about it and all the details. Quit it move on and get rid of any memory source associated with it, humans included. It’s not as harsh as it sounds. An eating disorder is no mystery either. The refusal to accept simple answer’s to questions we insist on making complicated by who and what we watch or listen to is the culprit.
        Being weak willed is not a treatable disease it’s simply a choice.

        • I’m an Anti-AA activist based in the Mid West. To use AA terminology, I’m “grateful” that Canada is free enough from the stranglehold of AA ideology to run such a useful and helpful program. I hope that the US will soon follow.

          However, because the US, and especially the Mid West, is the birthplace of AA, it is much more of a fight to make the public aware of alternatives to AA.

          As we see with Gage, active members of AA tend to become close to hysterical and predict the end of the world, bla bla bla if AA doesn’t continue to be the first and most popular recourse for treatment.

          It is in keeping with the semi-insanity of AA, that it nonetheless continues to have Old Timers insist in meetings that it is AA or “jail, institutions, or death” when AA only has a 5% success rate and there are 10 other major methods with naloxone having an 80% rate of effectiveness. Of course, AA also continues to have Old Timers say in meetings, or rather close to chant, all the methods that people supposedly tried before AA that prove that AA is “the last house on the block” and why it is “jail, institutions, or death” if AA suggestions are not followed. These methods include, for example, switching from wine to beer or vice a versa, but never mention the 10 major alternatives, that also include HAMS and SMART in addiction to the naloxone method, also known as the “Sinclair method.”

          It is frustrating that on the comment boards on the issues of 12 Step and the alternatives to 12 Step, AA Old Timers will admit that there are other treatment methods, but last I heard in the meetings, Old Timers were still insisting that AA was the only and best method.

          Then AA is surprised when former members go so far as to say that AA is a “brainwashing cult.” The AA comeback for this is “Someone tole’ me that AA had brain warshed me, an’ I tole’ um that I needed my brain warshed.”

          Okay, so some people want to sit around and say nonsense to each other like this in AA meetings and they either believe it helps them stay sober or even does help them stay sober. I think though that we need to start thinking more about the rights of the 95% that don’t do well in AA, such as myself, and start promoting more of the alternatives.

          • Silver…..I concur and will not bore you or anyone else with the details.

  4. In my opinion the issue with this type of habits has to do a lot with how people view the world, many people that I have met and that are struggling with this problems often do it because they feel like they do not fit in so they do this as get away, I met a guy who got help from http://www.NorthPointRecovery.com and he told me that many of the people that he met there were people that got addicted by just following their family foot steps, in some places is very normal to drink so much so they do not see it as a problem, that right there is a huge problem if you asked me.

    • Really interesting article. And amazing comment from Andy as I have a brother who accepted recovery from http://www.northpointwashington.com/ – must be the capital arm of the treatment center! Anyways, we were all drinkers in our family, generation after generation, so I can see the point of the arument. Tahnks for your article – I found it quite moving in places as i recall the perilous journey my brother traveled. Godspeed to you, sir.

  5. I was able to get my friend to get help from http://www.southshoresrecovery.com/ he become a whole new person, today he is a family man and his kids are proud of him, I hope anyone seeking help chooses to explore this option.

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