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The Malibu Beach Recovery Center: a neurobiological approach to addiction treatment.

".... when I speak of parents and children, I do not mean specific persons bur rather certain conditions, situations, or questions of relative status that concern us all, because all parents were once children and most of those who are children today will one day be parents themselves." Alice Miller, For Your own Good, and Prisoners of Childhood; The Drama of the Gifted Child.

Last year I was invited to do staff training at the Malibu Beach Recovery Center. I was amazed at what I saw. They had taken very forward thinking research developed in Europe, and were focusing on using a neurobiological approach to treating people with addiction. With only six clients at a time, with several PhD level therapists, yoga teachers, experts in natural supplements, and French Chef's with haute cuisine that was also extremely low on the glycemic index, here was a totally different approach to treatment.

I felt so encouraged and excited that last fall I left my happy retirement, left my home in northern California to assist in the clinical aspects of this remarkable and unique approach to recovery.

I have long believed that families with addiction problems are impacted and fragmented by trauma. This changes both the structure and chemistry of the children in these families. Today we are dealing with multi-generational addiction, which means working with the whole person. In the past, when we spoke of the "whole" person, we worked with only behavior and feelings in the treatment of addiction. Having worked with addiction and the treatment for addictive disease for thirty years has given me an unusual perspective. In the late 70s the average patient entering treatment was white, male, and 45-55 years of age. They came from intact families and jobs to which they could return. For those of us on the front lines of treatment, we began to notice some significant differences in the late 1980's. More women were coming to treatment, the average age seemed to be lowering, and more drugs than alcohol were emerging as the primary need for treatment. We also noticed that the family unit was frequently not intact, and jobs often had already been lost.


In hindsight, I believe the most important change in clients accessing treatment was that a majority described growing up in families where one of both parents had their own addiction. This is certainly true of the clients who come through Malibu Beach Recovery Center--many of them high-level executives, many from the entertainment industry.


Ground-breaking new books were written such as Claudia Black's It Will Never Happen To Me, in which she described the survival roles of the children and the three "rules" of the addictive family; "Don't talk, don't trust, and don't feel". Another leader in this movement of Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACoA), Sharon Wegschcider-Crusc describes these children who become tomorrow's parents as "... a specific condition that is characterized by preoccupation and extreme dependence (emotionally, socially, and sometimes physically) on a person or object. Eventually this dependence on another person becomes a pathological condition that affects the co-dependent in all other relationships. The condition of co-dependence is characterized by delusions/denial, compulsions, frozen feelings, low self-esteem, and stress-related medical complications."

We--members of the addiction industry--spent many years assuming the major role in generational addiction was written in the genes. 95% of the work done was on the person with the primary disease, approximately 5% on the families. We ignored entirely the multi-generational impact on the brain, central nervous system, social system and psyche of trauma!

Although there are many excellent studies on the impact of trauma on family systems, the impact on individuals from families of addiction had not yet looked at the changes in the brain and it's chemistry. At least not until recently. The impact on the individual is exactly what we focus on here at the Malibu Beach Recovery Center.

In her book, Home Away From Home, Janet Woititz describes the role of the ACoA in the workplace this way; "there is an overwhelming degree to which CoAs feel inadequate. There is no indication that these feelings have a basis in the rational world. Feelings of inadequacy, being unappreciated, boredom, and perfectionism, create stress. The stress is created primarily from using energy to repress these feelings and from keeping others from discovering them. The stress is further exasperated because of the lack of understanding of how to address these feelings in constructive ways."

These children, now adults, are our clients. They are depressed, anxious, and very hard on themselves. We know we are treating a brain that needs help in healing. What is remarkable is that this is where the Malibu Beach Recovery Center's program starts--helping the brain begin to recover and become healthier. When clients are anxious, instead of medication, we show them relaxation exercises and they relax in therapy chairs while using oxygen and breathing taught in yoga. When they are depressed we do energizing exercises targeting brain centers that respond to increased mood.

I believe that it is the painful family system that causes us to now be treating the 3rd and 4th generation of people with addiction. This means we have failed to properly address this national health crisis. We are working with multigenerational trauma leading to addiction that causes an assault to the brain. We need to balance the brain before we can work with the psyche.

Now, in the 21st Century, we need a 21st Century approach to a very old problem. Coming to treatment at this time are people with addiction along with severe depression, bi-polar disorder, anxiety disorders, personality disorders, hyperactive disorder, process addictions such as gambling, relationships, spending, sex, etc. Take away the substance that propelled them to treatment only, and you are playing a deadly game of "whack-a-disorder". One goes down another pops up. It is time to look at the neurobiological aspect of this disease and apply neurobiological solutions.

We know that emotional regulation is both necessary and very difficult. The emotional flooding is too painful to with-stand. Psychological solutions, necessary in the long term, take too long in the beginning. The brain has been victim too long to stress hormones and damage has taken place. To those of us at Malibu Beach Recovery Center the answer is this: TREAT THE BRAIN FIRST!

The Malibu Beach Recovery Center system begins with restoring the brain. We allow no caffeine. Our clients receive medically supervised detoxification from the substances that brought them here but most are also detoxing from sugar and caffeine. By the 2nd or 3rd day, they begin to go to yoga. By the 8th day a miracle has occurred. They look and feel healthier and happier than they have in months or years! At this point, they are able to sit and listen to the psycho-education necessary to understand this disease. They are also able to begin working with a therapist and do some good work as they now have a method for dealing with their emotional turmoil.

We believe in helping our clients understand and participate in 12-Step groups as a primary method of achieving long term recovery. With a brain that is now recovering, the body, emotions, family and social systems improve. I have been calling the Malibu Beach Recovery system, "A Spa For the Brain." At the Malibu Beach Recovery Center we often comment that when our clients leave they "look like movie stars!" The work of recovery still needs to continue, but with a healthier brain, individuals are better able to cope with everyday life and achieve a healthier whole person. The Malibu Beach Recovery Center is a 90 day program as we now know that 90 days is a minimum period of time needed to begin a successful recovery.


Ms. Willis (CADC II, NCAC II, BRI II) has been working in addiction treatment, family counseling, employee assistance and education for 30 years. Ms. Willis is a graduate of John F. Kennedy in Orinda, California with a major in psychology. She has taught in the addiction studies program at the University of California, Davis and for the Employee Assistance summer school at the University of Nevada. She has conducted interventions for the past 20 years and created a style of counseling to assist newly recovering alcoholics and addicts called Transitional counseling. She was a former Executive President of the California Association of Alcohol and Drug Counselors and served on the executive board of NAADAC.

By Kathy Willis. PhD, NCAC II, CADC II, BRI II, Executive Director
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Author:Willis, Kathy
Publication:Addiction Professional
Date:Jul 1, 2009
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