Two specialists – and recovering addicts – pen book about addiction’s effects on the brain and why recovery programs are successful
When Harvard Medical School graduate and neuroimaging radiologist Louis Teresi, MD, sought treatment at the Betty Ford Center for alcohol addiction, he found peace of mind and a professional collaborator on the topics of neurology and addiction.
Teresi, the former chief of neuroradiology, MRI director, and fellowship instructor at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center in California, and now medical director of SimonMed Imaging in Southern California, also discovered a writing mate in Harry Haroutunian, MD, physician director of the residential treatment program at the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif.
Teresi, who graduated with highest honors from Harvard and comically calls himself a graduate “of the middle of the class” from the Betty Ford Center, and Haroutunian teamed up to pen Hijacking the Brain (Author House, 2011), arguably the first published scientific explanation for the success of 12-step recovery programs.
“He went through the program with me, attended all my lectures, and wanted to find some medical evidence in journal articles,” said Haroutunian. “Together, we scanned about 5,000 articles – 1,250-plus to help substantiate this book. Many people in the medical profession don’t know how to give some evidence basis to the 12-step recommendations. They believe it’s too spiritual, a lot of mumbo jumbo, but they’re not sure. This book tells you that there’s indeed at least a strong hint of ties to the chemistry in the brain, and the healing that we see when somebody engages in that kind of recovery program.”
Among the interesting findings: new research conducted by the University of Illinois that shows how exercise may actually prime the brain for addiction.
Even though the book focuses on drug and alcohol addiction, which coincides with the primary focus of work at the Betty Ford Center, Haroutunian noted that “process addictions” are now getting a lot of play, such as food, sex, gambling, and the Internet. “They all seem to work in the same area of the brain,” he said, “and they all have 12-step programs that help deal with them in recovery.”
The most surprising aspect of the book to the medical community has been its uniqueness in its approach.
“Many of my colleagues have sighed a sense of relief that finally something’s coming out that gives a little bit more substantiation,” said Haroutunian, a recovering alcoholic who only shares that he’s been sober “since I got off my knees this morning.”
“The study that we use as a medical basis for recommending the 12-step work really goes back to Project MATCH done by a giant in the field, Dr. George Vaillant, who argued that researchers need to examine differences between alcoholics who succeed in recovering and those who fail, rather than limiting themselves to a search for contrasts among professionally run treatments,” he said. “Many patients saw that psychotherapy combined with the 12-step program gives one positive results and probably better outcomes than anything else we have. Now, in an era where pharmaceutical companies are coming out with medicines to help aid in the detoxification and early treatment of people, we have more and more tools in our armamentarium to combat the disease. And that’s one. The other draw to this project is my own fascination with brain chemistry and seeing some of the studies we found that were done not just in men, but also in animals, to see that there’s actual magic and chemistry and hormonal release that takes place when a being is nurtured, fed, safe, warm, comfortable and in fellowship, not unlike a mother nursing her baby. Chemical events take place in the brain that calm and soothe the individual. Those extraordinary chemical events work against the process for addiction and seem to help tremendously.”
Hijacking the Brain connects the dots between the medical condition of addiction and the spiritual solution.
“Addiction is a biological, psychological, and social disease that affects your body, mind, and relationships,” said Haroutunian. “But it’s also a spiritual disease. It affects your connection with other individuals and with your notion of a higher power, or God. The disease of addiction is often disconnected in isolation with a lack of faith or a lack of hope that life’s ever going to get better, with a feeling of abandonment that God has gone out of your life. It’s not a ‘God’ program. It’s a spiritual program. We know that addiction is fired by anxiety and stress in the brain and the chemicals that are produced. The brain of the addicted individual doesn’t tolerate stress like a ‘normal’ individual, and is directed to use drugs and alcohol to get rid of that craving, that pain, that suffering that you may know of as withdrawal-like symptoms.”
Once they identify with other addicts and feel safe, they seek calm, soothing connectedness.
“A belief in God isn’t a requirement for the 12 steps, although much of it is Judeo-Christian based,” he explained. “Buddhists have told me, ‘this is what we learned when we were kids.’ Muslims have told me, ‘This is part of our teachings.’ It’s almost like the Golden Rule that knows no religious or denominational boundaries. It’s universal. It’s simply part of the core instructions on how to be a good person. Atheists may not have a notion of a God as a higher power; if they’re addicts and they’re the boss of their own lives, they’re not going to get better. Sometimes, the higher power for them simply becomes the 12-step group of people who have been through it. When you feel hopeless and walk into a room full of people with five, 10, 20, 30 years of sobriety, there’s hope. ‘My God, how did you do that?’ they wonder, and see that it’s really possible. So, it’s all about faith and hope. Twelve-step programs absolutely work.”
Editor’s note: Haroutunian has another book coming out later this year for people who find Hijacking the Brain too technical: How to Stay Sober When Nothing Goes Right.