Everyone loves a great comeback story.
Once again the headlines shout of another fallen star. This time it is basketball and reality TV star Lamar Odom. It is an all too familiar story: a young life full of adversity and challenges overcome. A drive to succeed that resulted in dreams turned into reality. A time spent on the pinnacle of success followed by a loss of purpose and a crushing crash. It all makes for sensational headlines but it doesn’t come close to the whole story.
I do not know Lamar personally but as a recovering addict and CEO of a Drug Treatment Center I recognize and understand his journey. It is a tragedy of epic proportions that gets played out every day in America from Park Avenue to the park bench. This latest tragedy demonstrates the need for early intervention and access to quality mental health services. What begins innocently as ‘partying’ with friends progresses into self-medicating that morphs into addiction.
Substance abuse and self-destructive behavior are symptoms of a far deeper soul sickness that often goes unrecognized. This is especially true for people with special talents and abilities. Many times these people are surrounded with enablers and yes men who derive benefit from the substance abuser’s successes. The addict’s emotional and spiritual development is put on hold for what is perceived as an important short term benefit. Whether athlete, artist, musician or any number of professions, mental illness, addiction, and emotional immaturity often parallel fame and success.
Lamar Odom has survived some of the highest highs and lowest lows any human being ever encounters. His childhood was riddled with adversity and sadness; his mother died of cancer when he was 12 and his father was absent and a known heroin addict. The loss of a parent at such a crucial time in a child’s development, while simultaneously dealing with the stigma and shame of his father’s addiction and lack of involvement, is a traumatic combination at best. In addition, we know that addiction is a family disease that get passed from generation to generation just as many other diseases. What’s more, Lamar has also suffered the loss of his own infant child. If anyone should be tested for PTSD it is Lamar. On the flip side he has experienced some of the greatest highs a person can know. He is a beloved professional basketball player, a member of championship teams, a respected leader of his community, and an internationally known TV star.
All this drive for success coupled with the deep rooted emotional trauma of his childhood can lead to confusion and anxiousness. Is it any wonder he sought escape? Is it any wonder many high achievers self-medicate? Lamar has been a running full-out sprint since childhood without a break in the action. When his basketball career ended his identity and coping mechanism was gone. He was left without the skill set needed to live life on life’s terms and he crashed. Drugs, hookers and excess are the misguided distractions he used to keep from feeling his feelings. Lamar isn’t a bad or immoral person. He is a sick person deserving of compassion and help.
Lamar’s story is not all that unusual. The same characteristics that can push us to the mountain top when used constructively will lead us to the gutter and ruin when misused. Consider some universal character traits of most high achievers. They have an intense single-minded focus and an unwavering commitment to their craft. They are driven, creative risk takers. They are often likeable, self-assured almost to the point of cocky. They are defiant and don’t stop when they hear the word NO, or, when faced with adversity, they just push harder. They are nonconformists who blaze their own trail. These same character traits that can lead to success are shared by every active alcoholic and drug addict. For example, addicts have an intense single minded focus and an unwavering commitment to their #1 project: finding drugs. They are driven beyond reason and are willing to risk their freedom, health, reputation, and career to accomplish their task. They ignore the word ‘no’ and figure out creative ways to overcome challenges. They are nonconformists who regularly sabotage their own success.
Lamar’s actions are no different or reckless than many clients we treat at our treatment center. His fame makes his downfall more public and his wealth ensures that if he does not get treatment he has enough money to continue on this downward spiral. Addiction is a progressive terminal disease. It is true that once an addict always an addict but long term recovery is possible. Total abstinence from mind altering substances, a working spirituality and a complete psychic change is what is required for addicts to live a happy and productive life. Addiction is a complex illness that has biological, genetic, psychological, social and developmental roots. Effective treatment must target this entire range of factors. Now is the time for action before the moment passes. Lamar is still in the game. Let’s hope he makes the right decision before he gets permanently sidelined. We all love a great comeback story. With treatment, support and the willingness to change Lamar Odom has a chance to become the comeback player of the year.
Brian McAlister is CEO of Full Recovery Wellness Center in Fairfield, New Jersey, and author of the book, Full Recovery: The Recovering Person’s Guide To Unleashing Your Inner Power.