1811 Eastlake: Revolutionary Addiction Treatment

Guest post by Matt Stone

Many years ago I classified myself as a “sugar addict.” For nearly a decade, spanning my mid-teens to my mid-20’s, I put forth a daily struggle to consume fewer foods that I “knew” were unhealthy. I had many victories, but within a week I would almost always cave in and eat something really “unhealthy,” and would do so in ever-greater amounts. In other words, in an attempt at junk food abstinence, I set up a repeated cycle of binging, followed by starving, followed by binging again – harder and harder with each round. And each round became more frustrating and shameful. The more I failed, the more guilt, shame, and self-loathing I experienced.

So I lived with a song of self-punishment playing in the background of my life. This came to a climax at 26 when I went 44 days on a very low-sugar, low-calorie, monotonous diet while making my way through Wyoming’s most rugged and vast mountain range. “You have to work for the right to eat,” I convinced myself. “The luxuries of modern life are not to be taken for granted.” And I certainly worked very hard for very little of it – food and luxury that is.

The result? My “addiction” got worse, and I developed new addictions in the process. After the 44 depleting days I developed new addictions to coffee, tea, and chocolate in addition to my sugar addiction, which was magnified several times over. Alcohol had become a lot more exciting as well. I now ate a couple pounds of candy and chocolate and 10 cups of caffeinated tea daily. I started turning up all offers of beer instead of turning them down.

Worst of all, I felt really defeated. My attempt to break myself of my weaknesses had failed. And I felt more powerless than ever as I put away “fun size” candy bar after fun size candy bar – rarely going more than an hour without having a couple during waking hours.

Luckily I had broken myself, and really had to develop a different relationship with me. It was at that time that I started dabbling in alternative “spirituality,” and adopted the practice of diffusing feelings of guilt or self-loathing when they arose as my highest priority. When it came to sweet treats – ice cream, cakes, candy – I would smile and eat them slowly, focusing on all the flavors and textures in a very sensual manner.

And something remarkable happened. The compulsive need to eat such things completely went away. Of course, I no longer was punishing myself with hard exercise in response to my “moments of weakness,” nor was I starving myself in repentance the rest of the week. So all of this worked synergistically together to break the psychological pattern that really was at the root of the compulsion to begin with. Loving myself, choosing to enjoy the experience of eating yummy food instead of feel anxiety and guilt over it, and not consciously trying to make up for lapses in willpower through barbaric dietary strictness and “binge exercising” diffused the whole circle of addiction. It’s as if shame, guilt, and fighting or being at odds with oneself are prerequisites for the development of addiction in the first place. At the very least, this psychological pattern is a great perpetuator and strengthener of addictive tendencies.

1811 Eastlake… Seattle, Washington…

Orchestrated by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, an entity whose name makes me giggle more than once, the city of Seattle embarked on an incredibly bold and revolutionary approach to dealing with its homeless alcoholic population. It built a very nice, $9 million, 75-apartment building with taxpayer money specifically for housing the homeless.

Although the move was highly controversial to begin with, it became a lot more controversial when it allowed and even subsidized the drinking of alcohol inside the building. They were effectively saying to the homeless population, “Here, come live in this nice, warm, safe apartment, staffed by a nurse 24 hours a day, and drink here with your friends and other troubled people who you can relate to instead of out in public. We’ll even make sure you have plenty to drink.”

It was a revolutionary idea, and one based on our collective understanding of human psychology and sociology instead of presumed assumptions and uncompassionate detestation of those with substance abuse problems. It was attacked for being a publicly-funded “enabler” of alcoholics of course, even though tenants were encouraged to drink less and resources were made available for treatment.

The cool thing was that it actually saved money – millions of dollars in fact. $4 million in the first year of operation alone due to decreased medical costs, reduced need for law enforcement, and a dozen other ways that were not fully expected. And, even cooler, the amount of alcohol consumed by residents steadily declined. The longer one spends at 1811 Eastlake Ave, the less he or she drinks. Some even got off the sauce completely.

And I get why this works. The community says, “We care about you and love you. You deserve a place to live. It’s bad enough you have to deal with addiction, mental illness, public humiliation, and other things frequently suffered by the homeless. The least we can do is give you a safe and comfortable place to live.”

The fact that they are allowed to drink however much they like just affirms that who they are is being completely honored. When helping someone out without asking for any change in behavior or other hoops to jump through, that help comes across as a lot more sincere. The energy behind it is totally different. It evidently worked, as they only had to invite 78 to fill their 75 rooms. That’s not many turning down the offer, unlike what would have happened if they were forced to stop drinking or work like it was some kind of enslavement.

It’s also important, as I have always argued, that working at overcoming addiction is something that comes after a foundation has been built. That’s exactly what went on at 1811 Eastlake Ave. You don’t tell a person in a truly horrendous and desperate and depressing situation that they should stop drinking. That’s like telling someone trapped in a forest of poison ivy that it’s time to break their addiction to Calamine lotion. Rather, you need to make that person feel appreciated, put a roof over their heads, give them three quality meals per day and a comfortable bed in a quiet, safe room, surround them with people they can relate to, and, ideally, give them something fulfilling to pursue. Get them out of the poison ivy forest before you take away their itch cream.

While 1811 Eastlake has probably come up a little short in terms of helping its residents find something fulfilling to pursue, it’s certainly delivered on the rest of the equation. They provide a foundation with the faith that human beings, with a strong foundation, are more likely to thrive. And they are. And even the ones who continue to drink heavily or cause trouble are still drinking less and causing less trouble than they were while living on the streets. Improvement is improvement, especially when it saves money instead of burning through it faster.

I bring all this up because a recurring theme since the 180DegreeHealth creation known as the “High-Everything Diet” was developed in 2009, is that addictive fixation on certain foods or a compulsive desire to eat them typically lessens or goes away altogether (and with the even more recent development of strict adherence to whole foods falling by the wayside this is even more true). This is a phenomenon noted elsewhere too, such as The Gabriel Method, the world of “intuitive eating,” the Health at Every Size movement, and the work of disordered eating pioneers like Geneen Roth.

Part of it is nourishing yourself well. When the body is in a nourished, restful, low stress state, the desires for various crutches decline. But something changes when your relationship with “x” addiction changes too. Tell someone that eating a certain food is bad for them and they will feel a deep yearning for that food on some level. If they indulge in the desire for that “forbidden fruit,” a strong guilt and repent cycle can form with its own, mysterious, paralyzing grip. The greater the magnitude of sinfulness of indulging in something forbidden, usually the bigger the binge. The greater the repression, the greater the escalation and perversion – an idea that obviously extends far beyond food and alcohol.

Anyway, I think what’s going on at 1811 Eastlake Ave. in Seattle is a glimpse into the future of our understanding of human behavior, addiction, and a lot more. It is a powerful example of care, compassion, and support’s ability to outgun punishment and shame in the battle to bring about a better, more synergistic and pleasant existence for all involved. This is a rare case of a win-win story, but there are a lot more where that came from if we learn from this example.

As far as how it applies to us, as individuals, it’s good to keep 1811 in the back of your mind. The person we typically treat the worst is ourselves, and it’s a valuable health lesson to break the downward circle of shame, blame, guilt, and punishment about who you are, what you’ve done, and what you’re into. Food of course, is more of the practice ground for much bigger and more important issues. But it’s a start.

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This post was originally posted on 180degreehealth.com. Thanks to Matt for letting me repost it here! To read more of Matt’s work, visit his Amazon Store, or subscribe to his website.

12 thoughts on “1811 Eastlake: Revolutionary Addiction Treatment

  1. Very cool. I think there’s a similar place in NYC — this one where they don’t require mentally ill homeless whom they shelter to take their medications. Instead, they just provide great psychiatric and social care. Many improve without medication, and many more decide to start medication and see how it goes. It’s been very successful.

    I’m proud that these sorts of centers exist and that my tax dollars pay for it.

    And I’m amazed at how well radical acceptance works.

  2. This is brilliant. Love and compassion will accomplish what shame and judgement never can. If only we could adopt this mentality in all respects when it comes to our treatment of one another — and ourselves. Society beats these arbitrary norms and guidelines and ideals into us, and they do us all a horrible disservice. An attitude of loving acceptance can bring about more change than anything else. Thanks so much for sharing this!

  3. One of the best articles on 180. despite being such a stellar example I doubt there will be more centers like the one in Seattle. The scorn, lack of patience and disgust we have towards people suffering from alcoholism and depression is too much really 🙁

  4. The same principles are behind supervised consumption (injection, inhalation) sites, such as Insite in Vancouver, BC. Insite provides a clean safe supportive place for people to inject drugs and to chill out with each other and with support staff and counselors. There is a detox unit and a recovery and transition floor (services called ‘Onsite’), and people – clients – are also supported to connect with a range of other services in the community such as housing, mental health, addiction, HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C-related supports and treatment. The place has been researched to within an inch of it’s life and that’s good because our neo-con pro drug war federal government is bent on shutting Insite down and keeping others like it from opening. A recent Supreme Court of Canada ruling favours the provision of these services as a constitutional right and recent word is that 4 supervised injection sites will be opening soon in Montreal. Insite never asks or demands any kind of commitment to getting off drugs. It just provides a safe, caring environment with amazing staff – including peer helpers – and, lo, all kinds of great things are happening in the neighbourhood. Many many great things. Anyone interested in learning more can google Insite or Urban Health Research, BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS. Awesome post, Matt, really appreciate learning about this place in Seattle.

  5. Hey Amber,

    Great post- glad to see it here. Just FYI- the link back to 180D seems to be off.

    Cheers!

  6. Loved your article. Really well written and I totally agreed with it all! What a wonderful project up in Seattle. Finally bringing humanity and compassion to the homeless population and to addiction treatment. What a beautiful project! Hope for much more of this in the future!

  7. I have a slightly bizarre insight into the effect of deprivation on cravings from my own life – for a year at university I shared a house with a girl who was dangerously (anaphylaxis) allergic to celery so I couldn’t bring any celery into the house and was too scared to even eat it outside in case I brought some allergens home on my skin or clothes. I went from being completely indifferent to celery to absolutely craving the stuff, and binged on it when I finally moved out. This was more than a decade ago now and while I won’t eat a whole bunch of celery in one sitting anymore it’s the one vegetable that’s always in my fridge, and people laugh at me for barging past them to get at vegetable plates at parties. Brains are weird.

  8. Pingback: Day 15: That Time I Spit A Snickers Into The Garbage | Move Fit Performance

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