VIC 27 | Stigma Of Addiction

Do you need help learning how to thrive in the midst of a family member’s substance abuse disorder?

Today, KL Wells and Jim Horton discuss tactical steps on how to retrain our brains to find the lessons out of tragedies as family members. Including the unimaginable: the loss of Jim’s son to overdose.

Their goal is to shatter the stigma of addiction to create an understanding of substance abuse disorders.

For KL Wells, this includes daily focus and intentionality with life-changing experiences. For Jim, he touches on the fact that in the recovery realm, “it has been so narrow for so long…there’s some stretching in there, there’s some work that’s involved, and there’s some uncomfortableness that precipitates those periods of growth and challenging new ideas to let that grow.”

If you need help on learning how to thrive with family substance abuse disorders and mental health issues, this podcast is for you. You don’t want to miss it!

Watch the episode here

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Silence Kills: Shattering The Stigma Of Addiction With Jim Horton

I am thrilled again to bring Jim Horton back to our show. We had such a powerful conversation the first time. He’s a delightful man. He has been on an extraordinary journey and continues to explore and do this journey that we call life in the midst of the world of addiction. I’m going to have him tell you a little bit of the background, and then we’re going to talk about some things that we talked about prior to getting on with you all. Jim, I’m going to turn it over to you again.

Thanks, KL. Thanks so much for having me on again. I get so much out of our conversations whenever I leave, and that’s how I feel about our discussions, is they are just conversations. My story is it’s been a few years since my son passed. I lost my son Zach to an accidental overdose. He was six months out of high school. The journey for myself and my wife early on, we wanted to understand and contemplate how we could have missed it. How did something that big happen got disconnected?

We were in such denial. We narrowed that down to what we determine as the stigma of addiction. That became the mission of our foundation, to break the stigma of addiction. That leads me to almost our discussion, which is about the grieving process of losing someone and the recovery process of working through it. That process with Zach when he was around, there’s so much that I didn’t understand then that I’m beginning to understand now.

What we had talked about was the challenge that I feel in changing the way that I think of accepting something new. It’s different than I had anticipated. We like to understand, “We know what’s going on.” That’s why I believe what I believe because I know what it is. It’s developed over this lifetime of knowledge and the path that I’ve walked.

All of a sudden, I stop and ask myself, “Is that as true for me now as it was even last year or before?” Maybe if I had done some more of that challenging or early on in my relationship with Zach, if I had been willing to think that way, it may have been different. At least, it would have been different for me than how I relate. What I’m shooting for is to understand but it’s a complicated road.

When we talked before as we are now, giving a name to the thought-provoking process that you’re in the midst of now is powerful. I firmly believe. I know this has been my journey too and I’m assuming that a lot of people are reading this. We’re awake for our lives and we continue to stay awake and be on this journey. We are going to learn along the way things from other people and life experiences, books and podcasts that challenge us to reexamine what we thought we knew previously.

I’m used to that. Although, there are certain things that I do believe. I believe in love and people’s unfolding journeys. I believe that life can be an extraordinary adventure, those things I’m not going to give up, but there are things about this disease and who I was and who I’m becoming that is forever unfolding.

KL, what do you think is the protagonist? What is it that keeps that? I speak of myself collectively in society, but is it our egos? Is it my ego that makes me want to believe that what I have is so right that I can’t view anything else? I don’t want that to be there but there’s something that keeps me stuck sometimes. It creates anxiety when change is getting ready to happen. What is that about?

There's something that keeps us stuck sometimes, and it creates that anxiety when change is getting ready to happen. Click To Tweet

That’s the human condition, Jim. It is ego from my understanding. There’s a thing called the four fatal fears. One of them is being wrong. Some of us hang our hats on, “We must be right,” because if we’re not, we’re fearful of what that might mean on so many levels. We hang on to that being right to the detriment of ourselves and others.

It’s a courageous act to reexamine what we thought we knew and reflect on how we come to this conclusion. Is it our conclusion? Was it what we picked up from our families, our communities, or the world? Does it resonate with my soul and my spirit? All of those questions are super rich. That’s how I think about this nagging and thought-provoking journey piece.

There’s a part of us that is wired to progress and continue to explore. That’s the part that’s nagging at you. It fuels me and then that nervousness that you spoke to at the edge of, for me, it has been a muscle to grow, calm the nervousness and allow it to become whatever it’s meant to become. For me, there’s a faith that I’m about ready to pop a new understanding, birth a new understanding, or see the world a little differently. The way that I frame it for myself and the people that I work with is it’s like a kaleidoscope. You change it a little bit and the world looks different.

I resonate with a lot of what you’re saying there. Here’s something we talked about before. Getting to that point of being able to be open and accepted. The challenge with that, when I’m living in my everyday life, is I’m still surrounded by the same pressures that were there all the time. My mind has found a comfortable routine that doesn’t allow itself to be freed.

What I was saying to you is that I traveled over to the coast, and I’m in my little fifth-wheel RV. I haven’t seen any news in 3 or 4 days. I’ve been detoxing and a lot’s been going on the last month with work. All of a sudden, I find my day 2 and day 3 just able. My mind is relaxed enough that I can start to consider some of those things and think of them differently. Otherwise, I believe in our ego and defense mechanism. When I start to challenge something and it shuts it off immediately, I don’t have to expend any energy chasing that down. I’m able to be open and let some of that take place.

Our defense mechanisms are there when we start to challenge something. If it just shuts it off immediately, you don't have to expend any energy chasing that down. Click To Tweet

That’s one of the crazy things about the world that we live in. There are so many distractions to keep us from these moments that we’re speaking about like the news, work, people and all kinds of things that are designed to distract us from knowing that we have, are going to know or are going to explore. If we’re busy all the time, we don’t allow new information in, we listen to the news and go down that rabbit hole in terms of, “Life sucks and you die,” we are more powerful than we give ourselves credit for.

The courage that it takes to create the space of 3 or 4 or more days that you’re doing so that your mind can calm, you can almost energetically detox so that you can get back to the truth of who you truly are, which is this amazing spirit and bright light in the world. I love your smile because it comes from inside out and that’s who you are.

To be able to take care of that kind of energy, it takes work. We had talked last time a little bit about the whole notion of self-care and you’re like, “It never occurred to me,” when we were in the throes with Zach. It doesn’t stop ever. You have big work in the world that was born out of your experience with Zach and self-care is a component of doing that work.

Probably 50% of all the books I read, there was an element of that in there. That is a theme over the last decade of writing. Regardless of what you’re doing, they touch on that and what that sounds like, if it’s eating well, exercise, meditation, yoga, or whatever that means.

I have taken it on personally as you are too to design what that looks like for me. That restores and recharges me so I can do my work in the world. One of the things I wanted to touch on was this whole notion of thriving. There’s a mindset component, belief component, and behavioral component to thriving. What I have found is that number one, is giving ourselves permission to thrive. What does that mean?

For some of us, we don’t believe we deserve good things to a point. That question hit me hard. Do I believe that I have to thrive? I want to thrive on Zach’s behalf. In my grieving process, there’s still some guilt that I’m dealing with. I’m sure too in how we were raised and how we were thought of to think of as what success was or what goodness is. All of those things come into play.

Some of us don't believe we deserve good things Click To Tweet

We grew up in a very similar time. I’m a little bit older but nobody talked about thriving and taking care of themselves. In the world that I grew up in, everybody was self-medicating. The best you could do to take care of yourself was to have a drink at the end of the day and relax.

That’s interesting. I never once remembered my parents ever talking about being happy or thriving. It was survival. They both had lived through the depression. Their mindset, which I’m sure was passed on to me in a great amount, was about survival. Thriving wasn’t even on the radar. If I want to ask, “What is it like to shop,” that would be the whole concept at that time of doing more. Internal joy didn’t come into play.

No. It was not part of the times. I do think that as the Baby Boomers have aged, there has been a revelation in our understanding of how we wanted to age and what thriving in our elder years might look like, sound like and feel like. We’ve been through a lot at this point. We have a lot of wisdom. We want to do it differently than our parents or our grandparents. How do we take control of our ability to thrive in the midst of the chaos that’s swirling around us? That’s what you touched on a little bit ago.

There’s all this stuff going on around us and it tends to impact who we are in the moment. Something shows up from a situational perspective outside of us and we react to that thing. For those of us who are working to impact our families, our communities and our worlds, it’s super important, at least for me, to center up and be the calm in the storm from a truly authentic and genuine place. That’s part of where my personal work is at this point. Paying attention to thriving as a thing to orient to and knowing what the elements are of. When I’m thriving, this is what it looks like, sounds like and feels like. I’m in more agency of making that happen than anybody else.

In the recovery realm, being able to give a different voice and information, it’s been so narrow for so long to be able to expand that. It almost sounds like whenever you dig a little deeper into the thriving concept, there’s some stretching in there. There’s some work that’s involved with it too. There’s an uncomfortableness that may precipitate those periods of growth and that challenging of new ideas to let that grow. That’s exactly what I’m feeling. I’m entering that and I don’t know. I want to know and I want to be in control. Letting go of that a little bit and letting that happen is going to be interesting.

There may be a redefinition of what control means.

Some of the reading that I’m doing in a book that you had recommended talks about control. There’s that control paradigm that has a lot of negativity attached to it but at the same time, my ability to control my routine or establish good habits, there’s a positive part of it, understanding that and how much of that is a good thing.

When it’s a good thing for me, then I want to push that off on everyone else too. What I need to do is if whatever the discussion is, it’s ideas of something I’ve opened and that’s that discussion I want to start instead of closing down. Whatever it is we’re talking about saying, “This is what I have to believe so you have to believe it my way,” that is how I have been taught to communicate.

I used to think that if they knew, they would do it differently. I laugh about it because I woke up one day, and I was like, “Look how many people smoke.” There are all these things that say that it’s a silly belief. I think, “I am going to embody and be a model for the things that I do believe in. I’m going to ask a lot of questions.”

I’m going to poke the bear so to speak, as to what is thriving and how you know when you’re thriving. Is it something that you want to orient to or not? Can you even conceive of thriving in the midst of all that’s going on? I’ve had numerous people say to me, “There’s no way. It’s too crazy. My son’s addicted. There’s no way I can thrive while I have a child who’s addicted.”

Part of what we’re doing is poking at these beliefs. “I believe I can thrive in the midst of my son’s addiction, even in the toughest of times.” What does that mean? Both of us are very wedded to this notion of shattering the stigma that comes with this disease and because of the stigma, the judgment and the shame, many people are silent in the midst of this.

That’s a conversation. It has to be reopened. Here’s something that I’ve been wanting to redefine for myself a little bit. The foundation is in its third year in 2023. When I first started tying the denial piece to ending the stigma of addiction was strong for me, I see that message. It’s morphing to where I want to start a discussion, but I want to define what that means.

At some point, people talking about it is going to bring voice. As more people talk about it, different ideas will come out. That is always a positive thing. I want to be able to share that concept more easily with people and define what that means for me. What is that like when I say, “I want us to have a conversation?” We’re having a conversation on the news and it’s all negative. If it’s only about a border and what other people are doing to us, it will be a limiting conversation. I want to get the conversation going but it’s got to have some positive momentum.

If we’re shattering stigma, then what are we creating?

We are creating an understanding. We’re leaning more into the facts of what substance use disorder is, instead of fairy tales and salacious stories.

We’re willing to redefine what we thought we knew about addiction and what is emerging as so much of addiction is tied to childhood trauma.

If we’re going to end the stigma of addiction, we need to throw mental health in there too because of the stigma surrounding mental health issues. The trauma that you or I experience may be different from somebody else’s but understand that it doesn’t have to be graded on my scale for me to get that.

That is another notion. Dr. Gabor Maté who wrote The Myth of Normal, which is a brilliant read, talks about trauma isn’t necessarily tied to the event that took place for us as much as it’s tied to the meaning that we made out of that event. That’s like, “I have to think about that for a little bit.” There’s no grade for “I had more trauma than you had. What I went through was more traumatic than what you went through.” Although a lot of people play that game, there are things that take place in our growing up and our lives that we define as traumatic. We make meaning and decisions out of that definition of trauma that informs and influences us in a way that doesn’t serve us in a lot of ways.

When I look back on my childhood, when we grow up in an environment, that’s our experience. When you’re young, you think everybody has that same kind of experience. I look back as I’m older and I know that I need to dig a little deeper if I start making excuses for something that happened. When I was a child, I didn’t have any control over it. That’s probably an area that I need to look at a little closer. It’s amazing that I can still benefit from that even at my age. Sometimes there are folks, especially as they get older in life, who think, “I lived with this already for this long. Why do any more work?” I’m in some of the directions to find some of those answers.

I applaud your journey on this. I’m a big believer in when life feels like it’s falling apart, it’s falling together. That’s trained on my part into the way that I think about things but there’s a powerful question that I lean into in the darkest of times, which is, “What are the gifts and lessons or opportunities embedded in this moment?”

I say this through the lens of, “This is a trained question for me to ask myself in the darkest of times.” I’ve trained myself to do it so it’s a very strong muscle. It works for me because I can flip out of the “darkness” of the trauma pretty quickly into, “What are the gifts, lessons, and opportunities embedded at this moment,” and there always are. I’ve done it enough times, and that’s why I have this strong muscle along those lines. I throw that out there as one way to approach life and living because we’re always going through stuff.

In retrospect, I’ll be able to ask that question but you are able to get there in the moment. I want to do that but what are some triggers or what did you use as the baby steps leading up to being able to, “I see this happening. What can I learn from it?” As opposed to me lamenting what took place and saying, “What can I learn from it for next time?”

That’s a great question because that pokes at this notion of how we retrain our brains. How do we rewire our neural pathways to get stronger outcomes that serve at a higher level? What I would say is my experience has been focused on intentionality to do that. I have things built into my phone. In the alarms, you can put sayings. For ten years, I had a saying in there that went off four times a day that said, “I’m amazing, inspired and courageous.”

I leaned into that and continued to lean into it. My day starts with love, service, and impact. It’s wired in my brain. I’ll give you an example real quick. This was years ago. I’m a backpacker, and the number one thing that kills people in the backcountry is drowning. We were crossing a river we had no business crossing, and I almost drowned.

In the midst of that moment, I lived. As soon as I got out of the water, I’d gotten my backpack off. My backpacking partner had taken my backpack off. I checked my body and make sure I didn’t have any broken bones, but I also knew that I was subject to shock. I get up. I checked my body. We’re about 1.5 miles in so we could hike back to the truck.

I put my backpack on and immediately, my brain went to, “What are the gifts and lessons embedded in this experience?” I did that mantra back to the truck. I leaned into that mantra for the next 2 or 3 days. I had trained myself to do that, so in the midst of coming out of the river and almost drowning, I dropped right into it. I know it can be done and it changed my experience.

Whereas, my backpacking partner carried guilt for months afterwards because she didn’t want to talk about it. I’m moving in, “What are the gifts and lessons embedded in this?” There were so many for me. I was living in this, “That was an amazing, extraordinary experience.” It wasn’t that I almost drowned and the terror of that. It was, “This was a life-changing trajectory experience that forever changed who I am in the world.” It gave me an opportunity in real time to practice that, “What are the gifts and lessons embedded in it?”

I tell that story quite often to people. I’m like, “If I can do that so can you.” Every time I tell the story, it wires in my brain. I surround myself with podcasts, books and people that believe that this is true. It anchors it as a truth for me. I gave you a number of different things to do that can anchor that belief into our brains over a period of time. It’s not a one-and-done.

I like what you said. These are things that as I get older, I know I don’t have to do anymore. When I was early in my sales career, I had a little Post-it note on my mirror in the morning. That was my affirmation that I would say, “Why not set my watch four times a day to recall, ‘What has happened that I can learn from now,’” just to shut my mind out of, “This is the way you’ve always done it.” For a moment, stop. “What new has come up?” I love that.

There’s a whole thriving gratitude movement at this point. At the end of the day, the three things you’re grateful for. The research has already shown. If you do that regularly, it changes the trajectory of your life because then you start to look for the things to be grateful for throughout your day, so you have things to report at the end of the day.

Imagine how difficult this is when you live in a world surrounded and bombarded by the news. The most salacious, negative impact that can take place is what grabs that, and to be able to not have that be my default and go-to.

VIC 27 | Stigma Of Addiction
Stigma Of Addiction: Imagine how difficult this is when you live in a world surrounded and bombarded by the news.

It is a focused, intentional decision to move in the direction that I’m talking about here. Other than to stay in the river of, “This is how it is and I’m flowing with everybody else.” I don’t want to do that. I am wired to be contrarian and a disruptor. I have a higher intention for my life. I want to be able to feel the joy and be grateful more often than not.

KL, let me ask you because you’re a coach. This is also your job so you’re fortunate enough to get to practice. All that time you’re practicing, you’re also training and teaching. You practice this in your personal life too. It’s not just about the coaching. Is there a difference between KL, the coach and KL, the personal person? Does she struggle? What can I learn from this? That was a great example of how it has become embedded in who you are. Do you feel like you’re coaching yourselves or do you just get to be you and it’s a natural flow of who you are?

At this point, I’m still working on perfecting my edges, learning and doing thought-provoking things. I’m always learning. I’m not done by any stretch of the imagination and I don’t ever see myself as done. I got a call from my son’s girlfriend saying that he has relapsed. What I would say is and we’ve been through this so many times, “My lows are lower in the midst of this journey.”

I know how to navigate it and I was like, “Take a deep breath. Do the things that I know I need to do to take care of myself knowing that my heart is a little sad that he’s still in the midst of this.” Given the fact that we’re in this fentanyl-horse tranquilizer world that we’re living in where anybody who’s relationally using drugs can drop like that much less somebody who’s an addict. My son’s living in Russian roulette every part of his day.

I talked to my wife that night because she was out of town. I was home alone. I said, “This is what’s going on.” We both cried. I said, “I’m going to do what I know I need to do to take care of myself.” I’m up at 5:00 the next morning. I do my workout. I have great meetings throughout the day. I fill my cup. I also have a very clear visualization in my head of the life that I live is extraordinarily blessed. I have amazing clients. I have an amazing marriage and friends. I get to do this with you. What a gift. It’s a “pinch me” kind of thing.

There’s this part with Sam. He is a much smaller bubble than the rest of my life. He’s an adult. I had a podcast Dad say to me. His son said to him, “The greatest gift you can give me, Dad is to do your work.” I’m doing my work. What I would say is that timeframe is much shorter. We talked on Thursday night. On Friday morning, I’m hitting it, whereas it used to be weeks, or it would be this underlying the background worry and angst. “Are we going to get the phone call now?” which is such a disempowering question.

I’ve been there and I have retrained myself very intentionally from a focused place to stay in thriving. I pulled out the grid that’s in my book, the 5 Acts of Courage, which is a crisis, struggling, surviving and thriving. I went through each one of those verticals again. I pulled out my sage material and read all of that again. I refocused my brain in terms of thriving in self-care and what was going to serve the most, not just for me but for the circumstances in the situation.

Do you hold seminars about your book and walk people through those processes or is that a part of what you do in your individual coaching stuff?

I do it in my individual coaching stuff. The book has just been birthed and it’s on Amazon. We haven’t done the launch stuff yet, but I’ve been working with this one thing that came out of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation of this grid that I’m talking about from crisis to thriving. I’ve been working with that for a few years. I’m not in the throes yet of doing the seminars and all the things. There’s a whole bunch of things to come along those lines.

It sets up so well for that and it is something that can be tracked along. It is a pathway to success, for sure.

We need more models of people who are shifting from crisis to struggling, to surviving, to thriving even in the midst of it. In the midst of this disease, thriving, which is from a brain science perspective up here, allows us to make better decisions. It allows us clarity and gives us more possibilities to work with. All of the good things as far as our being able to operate at a more optimum level comes from that place of calm, peace and thriving.

It doesn’t come from the crisis which washes our bodies and cortisol, the stress hormone. I want to be more optimally operating, certainly at this moment, not only for myself but for my family and my community. Yes, I am also blessed that every day I get to meet with people, train and coach on this, which that’s also designed.

Any coach will tell you they coach the things that they most need to embrace and learn themselves if we’re honest about it. That’s another way for me to keep myself awash in what I know to be true about thriving and what works. I get to experience this with so many people in watching their transformations out of crisis towards thriving. What a gift.

How rewarding, for sure.

Pinch me. It’s similar to what you’re doing, Jim, with your foundation. You are giving people a different way to look at this disease and convening conversations that matter. Hopefully, you only need one person to change their perspective on the stigma of this disease. One person can affect potentially hundreds.

We’re in different parts of the river in terms of our journeys. Each one of us is showing up every day to create a different knowing and unfolding for lots of people. I applaud you in this journey because it does take courage to show up every day and do this work from a heart space, a spiritual space, a mental and emotional space and a physical space and much less challenge yourself to rethink what you thought you knew.

That’s still the scariest part but it’s also interesting. The growth that is going to happen is out there. Keep pushing along.

This is how I frame it because it works for me. When I’m standing on that edge of discomfort, I know I’m at the edge of a breakthrough. When you get comfortable with edge-dwelling and jumping and you do it enough times, it’s a muscle that you grow that you begin to realize, “I’ve been here so many times and in some form or fashion, I’ve always been taken care of. I’m still here.” Are you edge-dwelling?

That’s what I’m doing.

Also, building stronger muscle. Another year from now, you will tell a different story that will serve so many other people too.

VIC 27 | Stigma Of Addiction
Stigma Of Addiction: Build a stronger muscle. Another year from now, you get to tell a different story that will serve so many other people.

Looking back to the last few years, I can see how it’s been a dynamic process. It’s continued to change along the way. The other thing is waiting to see, “What’s next,” and being open to the changes but still wanting to hold on to some new things that I have. It’s being open.

Hang on to the things that you want to hang on to in very intentional ways. Put them on your phone. Keep it visible to yourself. Keep having prompt conversations about those things. I think about it like it’s Christmas day. What you’re doing is pulling back the tissue paper of a package and you don’t know what’s in the box.

I hold that visualization in my head so much because I never know when I meet with somebody, “What’s going to show up? What’s the gift that’s going to come out of this conversation? How am I going to be changed because of this conversation?” I know I’m going to be changed and this conversation with you has woven me a little differently. Every conversation you start is going to weave people a little differently. It’s time to wrap up again.

As we’re talking, my mind goes to something else. I was reading another thought and that’s the way our conversations are.

We could go for a long time. Is there a thought that you want to leave the audience with, a new knowledge that you have, or a book suggestion, something that could wrap this up for our audience?

I always come away from our discussions with something else. I want to come back and draw to that intentionality that you were speaking about, especially when in trauma or crisis. For me, it can be the grief triggers that I still deal with where I’m at. Anyone who is living in the world of recovery who is waiting for that phone call or wherever you’re at in the journey but leaning into the idea and being intentional about asking myself as soon as I’m able to, “What can I learn from this? How can I grow from this experience?” Seeing it not as something that’s happening to me, but it’s happening that I get to learn from, grow from, and become better. That’s a beautiful thought to be able to ingrain and have that be part of what I do. I thank you for this time.

VIC 27 | Stigma Of Addiction
Stigma Of Addiction: Be intentional about asking yourself what you can learn from this and how you grow from this experience. See that it’s not something that’s happening to you, but it’s just a happening that you get to learn from, grow from, and become better.

That notion of, “Life isn’t happening to us, it’s happening for us,” is powerful. I appreciate that, Jim. Tell our audience once again how they can get ahold of you and find out more about your story and what you’re up to.

My website is My email and phone numbers are all there, podcasts that are there and recommended books and readings. There is a lot about our story and what we continue to do in the recovery community.

People reach out to him. He is a jewel and a gem. He is an extraordinary light in the world and in this space that tends to be dark. Thank you, Jim. I am so delighted to have been introduced to you and to be able to spend some time with you. I look forward to our time in the future.

Thank you.

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