By Becca Wetzel
Often, we’re most inspired and effective in our work when we bring something of ourselves to the enterprise. In my time at Bridging the Gaps (BTG), I have seen that there is something intensely personal that calls most of us to the work we do and ignites our passion for it. Sometimes the journey to find our niche in addiction treatment is winding and unexpected, but it is rarely a random choice. I recently sat down with Dr. Steve Sutton, Head Physician and Medical Program Lead at BTG, to hear the story of how his own recovery, his interest in addiction treatment, and his medical practice intersect. Dr. Sutton is a Board Certified Addiction Medicine Specialist, is Board Certified in Integrative Medicine, and is a former surgeon and a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons.
In the first conversation in what will be a series of posts here, Dr. Sutton shares about how his journey in recovery has shaped and influenced his work. He also discusses the integrative approach to treatment and why a small treatment center in Winchester, Virginia is the place where he chooses to invest his energy and time.
Does your recovery change the way you treat your patients?
I’m not sure my own recovery changes the way I practice medicine, but I can sure empathize with people so I think that allows me to have a better rapport with people. I don’t think the actual way I would practice medicine would be different if I was or wasn’t in recovery other than the fact that I can usually develop some intimate rapport with the person pretty quickly because of my experience. A lot of times they don’t know– I don’t disclose that I am in recovery to a lot of my patients – but there’s this ‘knowing’ like ‘I know what you’re talking about…and where you’re coming from… and how you feel’. I know the craziness that’s going on in your head without saying any of that stuff. You just operate with that knowledge. And I think working in a residential treatment center where you’re not just seeing someone in a 15 minute office visit once a month, [but] you’re intimately involved with these people on an ongoing basis, is probably an advantage. Although I know a lot of people who are not in recovery who have a great relationship with their clients, too. So I don’t think it’s mandatory, but it gives me an in-depth awareness of what they are going through so that I can hopefully be on the same page when we are talking about different aspects of the treatment process.
Do you find your work in addiction treatment fulfilling?
Yes, that’s’ why I got out of the field that I was in and into this! It’s more fulfilling to take someone who is struggling with substance use and empathize with them, and work with them, and bring them around. That was more fulfilling to me than taking someone’s cancerous kidney out. Because then they just have an illness. I was treating them and they would say ‘thank you very much’ and go on their way, versus working with someone and um… giving them essentially a new lifestyle – a new behavior pattern a new way of looking at things. My experience in addiction medicine has been much more fulfilling than other kinds of medicine I have practiced in the past. Substance use disorder affects the person as a whole. It’s not just a body part. You have something wrong with your arm [I would say], let’s fix your arm or your leg, let’s fix your leg. You’re a broken individual, [it becomes] let’s take you and help you have a new life, almost – a new way of living. It’s been much more fulfilling from a medical point of view.
What about integrative medicine is better for the treatment of addiction?
Addiction falls under the criteria of a disease of chronicity. Diseases of chronicity mean that they are chronic relapsing, incurable diseases. They’re treatable but usually incurable, and the primary treatment is going to be behavior modification. So I always give people the example, if you’re obese and you go the doctor, the first thing I am going to suggest is lose weight, exercise, and look at your dietary patterns, look at your lifestyle, quit smoking, and then if that doesn’t work, we may put you on insulin. But you’re never going to go to the doctor and have him say ‘here’s a bunch of insulin, just do what you want and don’t change your lifestyle’. That’s not how it works. Within the context of that behavioral modification, I think it’s imperative that you have some kind of integrative approach. The World Health Organization definition of health [says health] is not just the absence of infirmities. [And in] working with addiction which is mental, physical, and spiritual, I think that is really important.
I like the integrative approach of taking things like energy medicine and incorporating that into that behavior modification. I have found that it is very helpful with substance use disorder. From a scientific point of view, you can see there have been a lot of papers that have come out recently about neurotransmitters and energy medicine. So if you have a reiki session, you feel better because your neurotransmitters have been altered. Sometimes we say,’ I ate some ice cream and I feel better, so my dopamine must have gone up’. But really what you should say is, ‘I ate ice cream, my dopamine went up, therefore I feel better’. It’s a little semantic shift. But the reason we feel better is because our neurotransmitters are altered. I can also give the example of aromatherapy. If you use deep breathing techniques, and have some [essential] oils and you start to breathe, your anxieties are going away. And why are your anxieties going away? Because your GABA levels have gone up. Why have your GABA levels gone up? Because of things you’re doing.
And this is so important partly because addiction is multi-faceted or complex?
Yes, it’s not just medically based or just physically based…it’s all these things working together. If someone has opiate use disorder – someone’s addicted to heroin – I can’t just put them on suboxone, and cure them or treat their disorder. Because substance use is so encompassing, I have to treat the whole person. [In] the integrative approach, complimentary modalities can be very helpful when targeted at substance use disorders.
Bridging the Gaps has been committed to an integrative approach to addiction treatment since our founding in 2000. Combining proven psycho-social-spiritual therapies and 12 step approaches with some of the most progressive modalities available, our programs help to restore physical and neurological health and enhance spiritual and emotional well-being. We use methods that support the health and recovery of the whole person – mind, body and spirit. As part of our day-to-day care for each client, intravenous and oral amino acid supplements are used to address neurotransmitter deficiencies which, if not targeted, often leave clients susceptible to mood swings, more severe withdrawal symptoms, and cravings that can make early abstinence challenging. We use neurofeedback to help rebalance the way the brain functions, and offer acupuncture detox to stimulate the body’s natural detox pathways and help the nervous system find natural rest. We also help clients find their natural sleep and biorhythms through nutritional protocols, while a regular program of exercise, massage, and reiki help to naturally relieve stress and promote relaxation and physical healing. Nutrition and healthy eating are also consistent and foundational elements in helping clients restore their bodies and minds, and we ensure that clients both eat well daily, and learn how to create simple, nutritious, and delicious meals on their own. Paired with evidence-based clinical and therapeutic work, and a solid grounding in 12 step concepts, these complimentary and innovative modalities help each client find their whole healing.
For additional reading on how amino acids and neurological balance inform a more comprehensive approach to healing and recovery, consider exploring the seminal text, Staying Clean &Sober by Miller and Miller.
A Look Ahead: If asked about your true passion, what you have a love for doing and how you found it, you might say that the path was winding and unexpected. Sometimes that is where we find the most fulfilling work – the place where necessity, circumstance, and life events intersect with unearthed passion. In our next segment with Dr. Sutton, we learn how his journey in recovery led him to Bridging the Gaps, and what drew him to the integrative approach to addiction medicine.