Spotlighting Addiction from the Stage

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Episode #44 | November 15, 2017

Featured Guest: Caty Davis and Emily McLeod

Today I’m joined by two special guests who use their unique platforms to bring attention to the both the gravity of the addiction crisis and the profound hope of recovery. My first guest is Caty Davis, the reigning Miss Tennessee. In that role, she has made it her mission to serve as an ambassador for addiction prevention and recovery, sharing her own family’s story of tragedy and hope to educate and empower others across the state. Then I welcome Emily McLeod. Like Caty, Emily is using her platform in the Miss Florida pageant to help break the stigma and start some tough, but necessary, conversations about alcohol and drug abuse. She sat down with me at the Moments of Change conference in Florida to share the turning point in her own story of addiction and explain how she hopes to make the most of the second chance that she’s been given.

Podcast Transcript

David: Hello and welcome to this episode of Recovery Unscripted. A podcast powered by Foundations Recovery Network. I am David Condos, and today I’m joined by two special guests who used their unique platforms to bring attention to both the gravity of the addiction crisis and the profound hope of recovery. My first guest is Caty Davis, the reigning Miss Tennessee. In that role, she has made it her mission to serve as an ambassador for addiction prevention and recovery, sharing her own family story of tragedy and hope to educate and empower others across the state. Now, here’s Caty.

I’m here with Miss Caty Davis. Thank you for being with us.

Caty Davis: Yes, thank you so much for having me.

David: Yes, it’s real honor to have you here, I appreciate your time. I guess to get things started, could you tell us a little bit about your own background, your personal story and the journey that led you here to do what you’re doing today.

Caty: Yes. I have dealt with addiction in my family for my entire life. There’s three generations of addiction and 12 of my family members have struggled or are currently struggling with substance abuse disorders. I have seen the ups and downs, I have seen rehab centers. I’ve seen when they check themselves out and the disappointments. My father was an addict. My grandfather was an alcoholic who died when my dad was 14 in a drunk driving accident. My dad was addicted to alcohol and opioids and my half-brother was same. I have seen how those drugs and alcohol affect someone’s mind and their mentality and their dreams and desires. Whether they can be a good father or not. Eventually, my half brother and father both committed suicide. My half-brother was five years ago my dad was three and half years ago. I’m fighting and battling every day to break that cycle and also let people know what these substances can do.

David: Yes, you’ve really seen a lot of the ramifications beyond just that one person that really affects, the whole family and everyone around.

Caty: Yes, the whole family.

David: I guess then to take it one more step to what you’re doing now, why did you decide to begin competing in pageants and then specifically use that as an outlet for your platform of addiction education?

Caty: I am a singer and I really wanted an outlet to do that. Whether that was on a stage, maybe to get some recognition, to get some scholarships dollars, all these things led me to the Miss America organization. Within the Miss America organization each contestant, each girl that compete has to have a personal platform. Of course, I choose attacking addiction, prevention, recovering and restoring families. I wanted to do that for my father but also for the thousands of children that I’m speaking to now as Miss Tennessee. I speak to reach 70,000 students. We hear some motivational talks but it’s about telling them, Miss Tennessee did not always have a perfect life. I didn’t have a fairy tale life I had to work through high school. I had to walk off to college. My dad wasn’t around, I was dealing with grief and loss. I think them hearing that from a girl with a shiny hat but someone whose been through it, establishes more credibility and they, hopefully will listen.

David: Yes, just open up their minds if that’s something they are dealing within their life to see like–

Caty: Absolutely.

David: This person is like me, look at how they’ve overcome and if they are still dealing with some of that stuff, that there is hope out there.

Caty: Absolutely. That’s the message that I’ve been able to share so far. I’ve been to– I couldn’t even tell you how many counties and how many thousands of students so far I’ve spoken with but I’m doing this every day. Three to five school visits in the same place a day. Each kid that comes up and talks to me, because I make myself vulnerable to them, I’m basically giving them the okay to be vulnerable with me. I give them that outlet, that ability to talk about their problems, that they might not have felt more validated or that we’re different from someone else. As Miss Tennessee tells them that, they come up and they want to talk about it. Then I’m able to either talk to them and work through it or refer them to the guidance counselor. Many guidance counselors and people who are in that position within the school system, who were saying, “Thank you because my door is opening a lot more than it was before.” These kids are wanting to start talking about their feelings. That’s something that I didn’t have the chance to do. Age of sixth grade I was 11 years old and had to deal and see my dad passed out on the floor and I had no idea what to do. That was, whether well? Do I take care of my sister? Yes. Do I call the cops and get him in trouble? I don’t want to do that. Those were adult problems.

David: That’s a lot for an 11 year old.

Caty: You’re an 11 year old. I let them know that I went through that. I’m going through the same similar situations that you might be going through. That’s vulnerable. I’m in a very intense position as Miss Tennessee, specifically with the things I talk about because they want to talk about them.

David: It’s such an appropriate time relevant issue right now. I’m sure that’s really valuable. I bet they do want to talk about it. They’re just waiting for somebody to come in and say “You matter, we know you going through matters, how can we help?”

Caty: Yes, absolutely. When I’m able to validate their feelings, the things that they are going through with saying something similar that I have been through, whether that’s dealing with the loss of parent or grandparent, I’ve been through that. Divorce is still a problem within our school system and the kids don’t know how to talk about that. We’re seeing so many grandparents who are raising their kids or their grand kids because of this drug epidemic but we see it within every school system, every socioeconomic class in school.

David: You mentioned school assemblies is a big part of this, that was some I was going to ask you like what is the average week look like? I know you’ve been doing this for several months now. What is the entail?

Caty: Yes. I’m in a different county probably everyday but I visit probably three to five school a day but I can give up to seven school assemblies. We can put those schools up. Yesterday, I actually served as principal for a day in Knox county, which was something different because I spent the whole day at one school. It was actually my elementary school. That was extra special and also very eye opening because I knew what was going on in my house hold but my own community is still they don’t want to come to that conclusion that people are dying from this.

David: They don’t want to recognize how real and how extreme it is.

Caty: Yes. Seeing it in the faces of so many– even second graders, they were talking about it to me. Dealing with behavior issues, acting out, not knowing how to live with your feelings or even have healthy coping mechanisms is a total gap in our education, is teaching kids how to do that because they are going through trauma, this is not just an adult or a 23 year old is. In average day, lots of school systems. There’s usually events in the evening. Either whether like speaking at the university, different panels that I’m on that talk about drugs and alcohol. That’s my main goal, so that we start reducing stigma, we start talking about it. I do a lot as Miss Tennessee, I’m a princess but it’s a lot of travelling too. I travel 80,000 miles by myself in little car. Thank you, Chevrolet of Knoxville. Sit go also provide my fuel, so that I can get to all of my school appearances and all the things I need to because that’s represent in the whole state. We have a big one.

David: Especially to go from one end to the other. I know that– [crosstalk]

Caty: Yes. That’s a long trip. I listen to a lot of podcast maybe I’ll listen to this one next. [laughs]

David: Yes. There you go. Go plug for the podcasts medium there.

Caty: Yes.

David: Something that you mentioned earlier and something we talked about on podcast a lot is the stigma and our catch rates for that is breaking the stigma. Could you say a little bit about how you’ve overcome the stigma in your own life, like telling the story of your family and how do you want to change other people perspective of the stigma in their life

Caty: I was really nervous and anxious when talking about addiction. I knew it was a big deal to me but I didn’t want anybody else to know. I just dealt with a lot of shame and a lot of different emotions that I now as a psychology student or psychology grad, I’m still trying to figure out. I think when I finally figured out how it is affecting me, then I was able to start talking it. The more I talk about it the less power it has over me. My story in particular has to do with an absent father, that use of drugs and alcohol and then an eventual suicide, those are three different huge things. When I talk about breaking the stigma, in even breaking the cycle, it’s still people don’t really want to talk about it. Not everyone in my family is 100% ready, let’s just talk about it because they’re still where I was in step one. I know that I have helped more people by talking about it than keeping it all inside.

David: Yes. I guess is there anything else that we haven’t covered that is on your horizon for things you want to accomplish in the next– I guess you still have several months left?

Caty: I sure do. I’m really looking forward to them. I have been going, going, going and the more opportunities I have to talk about it, the more successful I’ll feel at the end. I go to Miss America and I compete and do all that, I don’t measure my success by that, I am measuring it by the people that come up to me after, after I speak to hundreds of people. It’s that last person that waits, that is the one who really needs to speak with you. I look forward to those moments because then I know the impact that I’m making and it gives me motivation to keep going because it’s not an easy job, it’s a lonely job and I’m happy to do it for that one person that’s trying to talk to me.

David: Like you said on the road, going to all these different schools you really have to believe in it and be passionate about that mission in order to keep getting up in front of all these students.

Caty: It’s emotional because every time I do talk about it, I want to give it 110% because number one, it could be the last time or the first time they meet Miss Tennessee. I have that opportunity to make a difference. I’m in this position for a year and I’m honored and grateful to have it because I have the opportunity to be the person that little Caty needed back in sixth grade.

David: Okay, before we wrap up, I did want to ask one Miss America pageant question, I’m guessing most listeners have seen it on TV at some point, but I can’t imagine what it’s actually like to be there. Just briefly what was that experience like for you? Were there things about it that surprised you or something you didn’t expect?

Caty: It really was an amazing experience. I started in the Miss America organization back in 2009-2010. This has been a seven year dream to get to go to Miss America, have the opportunity, it was incredible. I will say that I’ve also been preparing for seven years.

David: Yes, I didn’t even realize that that was the path.

Caty: I started in the teen program, it’s now same teen program from 13 to 17 or 18, whatever they have it at now, then went straight into the Miss programs, that’s the one I’m in now. I was going for seven years and preparing and watching the news and working out and singing every day. I’m in an acapella group, I’m busy. Then you get to Miss America and the first week it’s like a vacation. We were at a golf course one day and then the next day we’re like, “We’re all going to get facials.” I’m like, “What is happening?” [laughs] I was like, “This is so weird.” What was surprising is that everyone was kind, but I think when you get to the position and you’re working a selfless job, you’re travelling the state by yourself, I think everyone has that same mindset, they want to make a difference.

We were all friends. I still I’m supporting our Miss America now and all of our state title holders because I know what they’re dealing and I know how hard it is. It’s a pretty elite crew. Now it is weird that once they start the live television show, it’s going. There’s not the time to think or even acknowledge the fact that you’re on national television. I was really fortunate and also unfortunate in a way. I was called out first in the top 15. I didn’t have to stand up there and wait and get all really nervous. That was really cool but then I was like, “Oh my gosh.” I had more time to think, “I’ve really got to nail the swimsuit walk.” [laughs] Then everybody else because they all had to change really quickly, that was really cool.

David: Yes, awesome. I just have one more question, everyone who is serving in this field, devoting their life to this work has their own reasons for wanting to get up every day and keep furthering the cause of addiction recovery. I guess could we end by having you wrap up what that means for you, why is helping people find recovery so important to you?

Caty: Yes. I think it’s because I honestly wish my dad had that opportunity because I saw him in and out of recovery and he had to technically check himself out. I always got frustrated, I didn’t understand it. I understand it now and I have a totally different mindset than that girl in high school who didn’t know what to say or didn’t know how to support him in the right way. It doesn’t make me have any regrets now that he’s gone, of course there’s different things of course I’d love to say to him. We know we can’t change the past, but I can change what I’m doing now. Support more people who are going through the same thing and understand how complicated it really is. Just advocating for more resources and more recovery because it’s definitely possible. There’s many kids that I’m able to talk to that want the same thing for their parents or grandparent. I’m fighting for them too.

David: Yes, absolutely. All right, well Caty, thank you for your time.

Caty: Thank you very much.

David: Thanks to Caty for taking the time to share that with us. Now for the second part of this episode, I’m happy to welcome Emily McLeod. Like Caty, Emily is using her platform in the Miss Florida pageant to help break the stigma and start some tough but necessary conversations about alcohol and drug abuse. She sat down with me at the Moments of Change conference in Florida to share the turning point in your own story of addiction and to explain how she hopes to make the most of this second chance she’s been given. Now here’s Emily.

All right, I’m here with Emily McLeod, thank you for being here with us Emily.

Emily McLeod: Absolutely, thank you for having me.

David: To start things off, could you tell us a little bit about your personal story and the journey you’ve been on that led you here today?

Emily: I’m 23, I’m from Orlando, Florida originally. I’m native to Florida. I’m very proud of that. I started off just like any other kid. I grew up by the street with a bunch of other kids that were my age, very loving nurturing environment. I fully believe that there is no specific incident that happened that made me the way that I am. I believe I was somebody that was born with this disease just because I’ve displayed the isms before I even put a chemical in my body. I found a way to cope with it, it wasn’t healthy, it was with drugs and other substances and alcohol and everything else that goes with it. For a while I was just using anything and everything to change the way I felt because I couldn’t cope with reality, I didn’t want what I had.

It always looked like someone else had something better, something more, something more fun going on. I never felt like I was good enough, I always wanted to be accepted, I always wanted to fit in and feel like I was a part of something. That’s what drugs and alcohol did for me, it helped me fit in because really that’s all I wanted. Since I’ve gotten sober, it’s funny how that’s worked out because now I am part of something that is greater than me once again. I have this wonderful group of people that are in my life that I love so much. I have the most wonderful relationships with people today. Since I’ve gotten sober, I’ve seen that there’s just the stigma with addiction and I believed in that stigma.

Then I got sober and I went to this halfway house with all these other women. They’re from all different parts of the country, all different walks of life. There truly is no stigma, there’s no one face of addiction that doesn’t care, what zip code you grew up in and really addiction doesn’t care. The cool thing is that neither does recovery. Sobriety and recovery is available to anybody and there are so many different ways to achieve it and I think that’s so wonderful. Using my title as Miss Maitland to promote that and talk about my story, talk about my recovery and get it out there and just say, “Here’s who I am, this is what I do. I want to start breaking the stigma.”

David: I guess now that you’ve been through all of that and now you’re building your life in recovery today, could you just say a little bit about what your sobriety means to you today?

Emily: My sobriety is everything, because when I first got the treatment when I was first getting sober I was so miserable and I was so in love with the lifestyle that I was living. There is a certain lifestyle that we become very accustomed to. It’s comfortable and it’s familiar. I enjoyed it and I missed it. It was almost like I was grieving the death of a close friend when I got sober, because when I got there I was stripped of everything that I knew. All my vices were taken, everything, I was so uncomfortable. All these feelings, all these emotions came rushing and flooding back to me that I didn’t know what to do with. I had to rebuild who Emily was again because my counselor asked me who is Emily and I didn’t have an answer.

David: Because like you said you built your identity around that lifestyle?

Emily: Around that lifestyle. I would be looking at myself and I would be so lost and so confused and just not know even how to get out of this mess that I had created for myself. Sobriety gave me that, it gave me that confidence again to know who Emily is, it gave me the ability to make connections with other people and genuinely care about them. I heard of Ted talk recently about addiction and he said the opposite of addiction is connection and that really, really resonated with me a lot just because I was so isolated before and sobriety has just given me to so many blessings. It’s absolutely incredible. I wanted to transcend that to other people. I want to give that to other people and tell them that there is hope. We don’t have to keep living the way that we’re living and life can be so beautiful. I’ve been given a completely different life, for a very low cost of admission.

David: In the information that you sent us, you said that when you were in active addiction, you really had no idea that you had an addiction. You didn’t understand what was going on, which I think is a common issue. Was there a turning point for you? I guess what the situation where you finally understood what was going on, and what you had to do?

Emily: It took a really long time because, for so long I just thought I was doing what normal college kids did. Go and you have fun, and you party. I didn’t go to class or I didn’t do this. I stopped going to class or I would black out which is really dangerous especially being so young in a different city. I had eventually surrounded myself with people to where that kind of behavior was normal.

I truly was living in fictional reality that I made up for myself because that was comfortable. I couldn’t imagine my life with or without alcohol or drugs at that point. This disease is so mental. It physically prevented me from being able to say in that moment, “Okay, fine. I just want this to stop. Let me get help.” then I just kind of started to accept, “Well, maybe this is all that I was destined for. Maybe this is all that I am good enough to be.” It of kind of become an identity.

David: Like you said you surround yourself with other people that feels like normal after a while.

Emily: Exactly. I didn’t know anything different. I thought it was fine, it was everybody else’s problem. I wasn’t the one with the problem. Finally, I came to I did not want to go to treatment when I went at all. It was my second attempt at go into treatment. My parents basically said, “Go or we’re kicking you out, but we were taking everything away. The phone is in our name, the car, everything. Everything is gone.” I didn’t have a great job to where I could support myself on my own, I didn’t have anywhere to go because all these “friends” that I had, the day I was leaving for treatment to go try and find a place to stay, nobody’s picking up the phone. Nobody’s coming to get me. That was pretty eye-opening too. I had run out of options.

I remember packing up to go off to treatment that morning, it was early and I was angry. I remember I was throwing stuff at the suitcase and it’s just so awful. I heard this– I believe it was my higher power today. I believe it was God telling me, “What else do you have to lose?” Truthfully what else did I have to lose. That changed it for me. I said, “Okay, fine I’ll give it a shot.” I heard that and suddenly I just felt so relaxed. I went to treatment. I was probably angry about it again further down the road in the car. It got me in the car to go.

There were signs leading up to the fact that something was wrong. Truthfully, I had to have all of my enablers take everything away from me. There had to be no more gas in the tank. If I felt like there was any room left to manipulate another situation anymore, money to take, anymore, anything, if I could bum off my parents for a little bit longer, then it would have been a completely different story. I may not be sitting here today.

David: You mentioned you’re currently Miss Maitland, here in Florida, so congratulations.

Emily: Thank you. Thank you.

David: That whole world is something I know very little about, could you start off by telling us a little bit about what that process was like?

Emily: It’s been a long one. It’s been an interesting one too. I actually used to do pageants when I was in high school, before I started drinking and doing. Then I put that all in the back burner, because it didn’t fit into my lifestyle that I was living. This has been something I’ve thought about for a while is reentering and competing in Miss Florida USA and wanting to do that again, using this recovery platform and sharing hope with people that it does get better and it can get better.

Basically, I went on and applied, I was honest about my story and told them that I was celebrating two years of recover. Now, I’m accepted to compete in the pageant as my hometown in Maitland. It’s such a fun way to share the message of recovery. It’s such an awesome way to do it. I’m so grateful that I had the opportunity to be able to do it.

David: As you mentioned, you’ll be competing in the Miss Florida pageant coming up later this year, what are some of the things you’re doing to prepare for that? I know you mentioned like you’re practicing for interviews and that kind of thing. What I else are you doing?

Emily: Interview practice is a big thing, public speaking, platform development and how to talk about my recovery platform in a relatable and positive light. There’s a lot of physical training involved. As you get there as soon as the competition. It’s about the discipline of going and working out even when I don’t feel like it. Honestly, I feel like it’s just like a heat plug for recovery. Recovery has taught me how to do that, to be disciplined. To show up when I don’t want to show up, to do things I need to do to follow through.

The discipline, the dedication to the job, to the title of Miss Florida USA and taking it seriously. This is part of the prep to is making these appearances and meeting people and learning about recovery and talking about it as well. Just putting it out there and getting comfortable talking about it.

David: What do you hope to achieve if you are selected as Miss Florida? What do you hope to achieve?

Emily: I want to start encouraging everyone to start seeing the similarities, instead of the differences between each other. To show people that there can be hope in all situations. Not just in recovery situations. For me, that just happens to be my story, is that I went through recovery and I feel like I can train, send out a message of hope just because I had a lot of hope when I was getting sober, I still have a lot of hope that the best is yet to come in my life.

I want to show people that there can be hope in all situations and use my story to do that. I want to start smashing the stigma of addiction that comes with it that keep so many people scared and shying away from saying, “I need help.” I want to open up that dialogue. I want to have some uncomfortable conversations with people. Things that need to be talked about with teens, with children, with adults. All these things that we’re so unsure of that we don’t talk enough about, I want to show people that recovery is possible. That it can be done. Here’s my journey in recovery. Here’s what my recovery looks like. This is what I do, I’m a normal person.

I go to music festivals, I hang out with my friends, I go to lunch, I get coffee, and I have a job. I do different things, I reaffiliated with my sorority again. I just do different stuff now, my recovery allows me to do that. That’s something that I want to open up that dialogue and really talk to everybody about that and get that message out there as well.

It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Getting sober was so hard. It’s so worth, it is so worth it. That’s really why I want to promote this message of recovery, is just because I know what recovery has brought for me and I know what the potential of recovery is. It’s so huge. It can bring so many different blessings to so many different people. We don’t have to keep living the way that we’re living. It can be different. There’s hope. If I can do it, anybody can do it.

David: Awesome. Well, thank you for being with us today, Emily.

Emily: Thank you for having me. It was great.

David: Thanks again to Emily for joining us. Now, I get to introduce you to Lauren Hall, race director of the 6K run walk series, put on by Heroes in Recovery, a grassroots movement that brings together communities across the country to celebrate life in recovery. Welcome Lauren.

Lauren Hall: Hi good to be here.

David: All right, how you doing today?

Lauren: Pretty good. We’re excited for this weekend. We’re in the swing of things and the thick of things for this event coming up.

David: Absolutely. To start off, could you just give us a quick summary about the overall mission of the Heroes 6K series?

Lauren: Sure. The Heroes 6K series is really a great community event. It’s a platform to celebrate people in recovery and also to bring in a new audience and introduce them to why it’s important to break the stigma surrounding recovery from mental health and substance use disorders. We talk about it, we present it in a positive light. The recovery is something to talk about not to be ashamed of. That’s the mission of the movement.

David: Yes, as you mentioned, you’re in the thick of it right now coming up on a race this Saturday in San Diego, California. What can you tell us about what’s coming up this Saturday?

Lauren: Well we are super excited. It’s one of our bigger events. It’s grown every year, this is the third year. The course is beautiful, it’s in a little bay area of San Diego. It’s a really scenic little course. We have great sponsors support. Southern California Recovery Centers is our presenting sponsor. Through this event we also get to support local recovery nonprofits. The one for San Diego is Turning Point Home. They will also bring out a team of ladies that have been training that our clients of theirs are in recovery and this is kind of a great group activity team effort and way that they can get healthy and celebrate the recovery together.

David: Yes, nice. The next race is coming up also not too far in the distant future. Austin, Texas. coming up December 2nd, right?

Lauren: We’re really excited because Austin is a brand new location for us. So December 2nd we’ll be in Walter Long Park. It’s going to be a park which has a cross-country course. Which is kind of different for us. I think it also offers something a little different than the average 5k road race.

David: Cool. Like you said, you’re packing in one more before the end of the year December 17th out in Arizona. Tell us about that one.

Lauren: It’s a third year there, and it goes through a really beautiful course that is a riparian preserve and it’s also on trails– packed trail but it goes through like a wildlife preserve area. It supports a recovery non-profit called Step One which provides recovery services basically to the homeless community, to people who have absolutely no funding, no health insurance, no access to any other support. We really feel like it, it creates a real impact.

David: Yes it sounds like a great cause. Like always, I know you guys have stuff going on throughout the year, all over the country. Where can listeners go to find out more information about everything else you guys have going on?

Lauren: Just visit Heroes in Recovery, and you will see a full listing of events, we have already got 2018 events opened for registration. We would love to have you out there.

David: All right, thank you Lauren.

Lauren: Thank you for having me.

David: This has been the Recovery Unscripted podcast. Today we have heard from Caty Davis and Emily McLeod. We wish them all the best as they continue to use their platforms to break the stigma surrounding addiction and recovery and thank you for listening today. Please take a few seconds to leave us a review on apple broadcast or your favorite podcast app. We would love to hear from you. See you next time.

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