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Health & Fitness

How to Get a Clean (And Sober) Start

Collin County substance abuse programs help patients get on the road to recovery.
photography by Billy Surface

Michael Fowler had alienated his entire family, dropped out of college, and been in and out of about 10 rehabilitation centers before he truly realized that he needed help. After spending the better part of 15 years in substance abuse programs, he was well into his 30s before figuring out that he had to want to get better to make it work.

Today, the former Preston Hollow resident, now nearing a decade of sobriety, is back in touch with his family and spends his days encouraging others with similar struggles. Fowler began working at Caron Texas, a Collin County in-patient rehabilitation center in 2011. Part of his role at Caron involves speaking to the patients in group meetings, showing them the road isn’t easy, but that it can lead to a life they’re proud of. Because patients know he’s been down that road himself, they’re more willing to listen.

Caron helps patients overcome alcohol and/or drug dependencies. A relative newcomer to Texas—its Collin County facility opened about two years ago—the Caron name is well known in eastern U.S. states, where it has been operating for six decades.

Caron Texas is located in the tiny, out-of-the-way Collin County town of Princeton, by design. The expansive facility, nestled in a peaceful setting, offers perks like meals prepared by an on-site chef and personal exercise instruction—even horse and water therapy. But Caron executives want people to know that just because patients are in a nice place, it doesn’t mean their treatment is any less difficult, or that the program is any less effective.

According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, nearly 700 Collin County residents were admitted to addiction treatment centers like Caron’s in 2009, the most recent year for which figures are available.

Addicts must first realize that addiction is a disease, says Stephen F. Garrison, MD, medical director. He likens addiction as being similar in nature to diabetes, in that it requires lifelong maintenance.

“If you were a diabetic and you went to your doctor and got medicine for your diabetes, or you were told to avoid certain foods like desserts or a lot of starches, you have to follow all of the advice,” he says. “If not, you’re going to have some problems.”

Physicians teach their diabetic patients about the disease, provide follow-up advice, and often refer them to a dietician or counselor. The same thing is true with addiction, Garrison says. Treating the disease is a daily process, and it’s something that people must deal with for the rest of their lives.

Hope and Change
To start showing people they can change, hope is often the most important factor, Garrison says. The first time he meets with patients—and he meets with all Caron patients their first day—he strives to get them excited about life. One of the problems a person dependent on drugs or alcohol may have, Garrison explains, is that they have reached a point where they can no longer live on life’s terms without self-medicating.

Garrison is a board-certified addiction-ologist, specializing in addiction medicine. Before he found his true passion, he was a pediatrician. It’s an unusual transition, but he believes he can help more people in his new field.

“A lot of times pediatrics is treating earaches and sore throats; this is much more of a critical thing,” he says. “Hopefully we can make a change in a person’s life and also help them through the rest of their lives.”

Garrison, who works roughly 60 hours a week, says a lot of people don’t understand that addicts have created a true chemical dependence to their drugs. That’s why abusers respond differently to substances than the non-abuser does.

When they begin using, they respond to it the same way as everyone. But they become determined to keep that feeling of euphoria going. Afterward, they come crashing down—often like a roller coaster, Garrison says. Eventually, the drugs or alcohol don’t make them high anymore; they just bring them back to normal.

Everyone has days when they’re more stressed, and days when they’re more happy. But alcoholics and addicts reach a point where they become depressed or anxious about the substances themselves. And, because the chemicals change abusers’ gene structures, addicts physically react differently to the alcohol or drugs.

“Once the genes are altered, they’re altered forever,” Garrison says. “They’re reset. That is why addiction is a disease. Getting back to the diabetes example, once diabetics have reached the point where if they eat a sugary food their blood sugar runs up, they can’t ever go back.”

Because addiction requires lifelong  attention, many facilities, including Caron, recommend ongoing participation in a 12-step program. “If they were to use the drug or alcohol again, they have reset themselves right back into their addiction,” Garrison explains. “They have to have total abstinence from mind-altering drugs for the rest of their lives, lest they reach a point of going back.”

Not all cases are as severe as Fowler’s. For example, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, more than 70 percent of people who use drugs illegally are employed. For those more highly functioning individuals, it can be even harder to admit they have a problem.

Caron alum Richard Moore, who lives in the northern U.S., is a small business owner with a wife and three children. He achieved years of sobriety in between bouts of alcoholism. “I can’t say that I lost everything before I realized I needed help in my life,” he says. “It was just that I got to a place within myself that … the best way for me to put it is that I kind of went insane in my own mind.”

Moore says it came to a point where he was trying to numb himself because he didn’t want to deal with daily trials and tribulations anymore. “It felt like there was too much chaos,” he says. “My best way to cope was to use instead of dealing with things.”

A Life-Long Process
McKinney-based Lifepath Systems in an outpatient treatment center that offers mental health treatment, in addition to drug and alcohol recovery. Strategies include group sessions with licensed professionals, therapy, and a skill-based curriculum for recovery, in addition to random drug testing. Once patients are finished there, the next step is Alcoholics Anonymous or a similar group.

Tandy Mahen, director of behavioral health for Lifepath, says patients often avoid treatment due to cost. Many have blown their money on drugs, she says. Although state funding is available, it can be a bit of a struggle to apply and go through the steps, especially if individuals aren’t convinced they need the help. Some facilities, including Caron, offer a couple of scholarships and sliding scale pricing for locals who need help and can prove they don’t have the finances.