The Road Less Traveled: A Physician’s Perspective on Personal Growth, Willingness, and Finding a New Path Forward

A Physician's Perspective on Growth, Willingness and a New PathBy Becca Wetzel

As part of our continuing conversation with Dr. Steve Sutton, we discuss how Dr. Sutton’s own path in recovery led him to Bridging the Gaps and spurred a lifelong interest in an integrated approach to addiction medicine. Dr. Sutton leads Bridging the Gap’s Medical Program, and is Board Certified in Addiction Medicine, Integrative Medicine, and is a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons. The first in this series of interviews can be found here.

In this conversation, we learn more about how the gift of recovery not only created a pathway through a difficult transition for Dr. Sutton, but opened up a world beyond the more black and white model of patient care. Here, Dr. Sutton talks about the shift in his beliefs with regard to what constitutes effective treatment and how he came to see the complexity as a good thing.

What brought you to Bridging the Gaps?

When I got out of treatment, I had to do aftercare. Where I lived at that time, I could either drive 20 miles into Fairfax or 20 miles into Winchester, and I said I have no interest in going into Fairfax – I’ll come out to Winchester. I don’t think I had ever been west on Rt. 66. I didn’t know all this was out here. So aftercare was here on Wednesday nights late 2008 early 2009. That’s where I met Stan Stokes, the founder of BTG.  I started coming to aftercare, and I would stay late and talk to Stan,  because I thought he was interesting. He’s an outside the box thinker, a visionary.  We had this really good relationship for a year. He wanted me to stay and see what he was doing.

 I am a black and white thinker – I am concrete – and if I can’t cut it out, it doesn’t exist. So, coming into this realm where the approach was totally different, was unusual for me. I became fascinated with this integrative approach and complimentary medicine. At the time, I had the luxury of losing my job, so I started working with Dr. Kathleen Kelly and Stan. Stan encouraged me to learn more and more and more. After a year, I wasn’t required to come here anymore, but I wanted to keep coming. I started standing in for Dr. Kelly and, after a period of years, I sort of took over the medical department from Kathleen. Why am I here? Because, I really believe in it.

What was different about what you were seeing?

I have been in other treatment centers that are really traditionally based, and everyone that goes in are put on SSRI’s and I think there is so much more to it than that. Some of these other treatment centers are bigger and have more people, but I am not sure they are really better.

I would rather be in a small, intimate setting like this where we have a program that I think is integrative and complimentary and much more effective. Historically, Bridging the Gaps has always been the “cuckoo place on the top of the hill” [laughs] but now the other treatment centers are all doing reiki, yoga, acupuncture, music, dancing, and art. Now treatment centers are offering integrative or complimentary approaches that we have always had here.

From your perspective, what wisdom would you offer another professional in early recovery?

I don’t think it has to do [only] with professional people in recovery, but I would say: stay grounded, stay engaged, and stay connected. Sometimes professionals are more inclined to disengage and “compare out” – especially in treatment…when they get to treatment, and it’s pretty classic, a lot of intellectualization, a lot of getting inside their head and thinking that they’re different.  A higher number of professionals have a problem with substance use disorder than is recognized. It’s not something that is talked about a whole lot and you can see it in high-level professionals too, business men, and pilots. My pearl of wisdom would be to stay grounded and connected to other people because, as soon as you start to pull away, it’s easy to fall back into the same coping patterns.

In your opinion what makes someone more successful in recovery than another?

 I am not sure I want to say “successful” because I am not sure that’s the right term, [but] what makes one person more able to be in a life of recovery is – some of this sounds  so cliché – willingness. And I tell people, relapse is a behavioral pattern.  The actual use is not the relapse. The relapse is the behavioral pattern leading to the ultimate use of the substance. So you can tell people, I mean, we have a high level predictability as to who is going to relapse within the first few days here because of their willingness. I think it has to do with where they are in their life and their willingness to change whatever they need to change.

Isn‘t that sometimes easier said than done?

Am I going to quit my job, and lose my livelihood, and move away from my spouse? What does ‘change everything’ mean?  I think sometimes it’s more difficult for that particular person [with so many people depending on him] to be willing to change because logistically it’s very hard. To answer your question on what makes one person more successful, and what makes one person better able to lead a life of recovery, it’s just willingness to do whatever it takes.

In Alcoholics Anonymous literature, Bill W. said the willingness to grow is the essence of all spiritual development. As Dr. Sutton embraced the loss of his job and found the willingness to move forward, a path of curiosity and exploration led him to finding his part in a better, more integrative way to treat addiction. Dr. Sutton’s advice to professionals is not just for the high level executive, but for everyone. The ability to stay open and the willingness to participate in recovery is essential to the process of living a life in recovery. Be open, be willing, and try something new to get a different result.

A Look Ahead: During my final conversation with Dr. Sutton, we discuss what families should know when they send their loved one to treatment and how to cultivate balance and fun in recovery.

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