Too Big to Fail: Wealthy Clients & Addiction

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Louise Stanger is a speaker, educator, licensed clinician, social worker, certified daring way facilitator and interventionist who uses an invitational intervention approach to work with complicated mental health, substance abuse, chronic pain and process addiction clients.

Sam Polk, a former hedge-fund trader on Wall Street, tells the New York Times how his addiction to money and gambling was the source of his discontent. “In my last year on Wall Street my bonus was $3.6 million,” writes Polk, “I was angry because it wasn’t big enough.”

Sam surrounded himself with all the nicest things which just kept pushing him to take in more. He reached a tipping point when he realized the injustice that he made more money in a year than his mother, a nurse practitioner, had made in her lifetime. However, the insular bubble he found himself in - an inflated sense of entitlement, money and resources, connections with other powerful financial tycoons - made it impossible for him to seek help. “Dozens of different types of 12-step support groups exist to help addicts of various types, yet there is no wealth addicts anonymous. Why not?”

Although Polk’s piece is specific to his addiction to money itself, his story illuminates the troubling issue of how to treat wealthy, high-achieving people experiencing a substance or process disorder and co-occurring mental health problem. He extrapolates--as his wealth grew so did his ego and money allowed him to build walls which protected him from taking a closer look at his behaviors that would put a middle income person on the street. While there are a plethora of treatment options for all kinds of disorders, finding the right place that affords privacy and employs smart and effective treatment methods for high-end, successful people can be a challenge.

There is an adage amongst behavioral health care providers that addiction does not discriminate. This is true---but for wealthy people experiencing addiction, denial and entitlement put up a good fight. In conjunction with Alta Mira Recovery’s resource blog on wealthy clients, here are some of the ways wealthy people may rationalize their addiction:

  • I am not like other addicts. Turn on a movie or TV show and you’ll find the stereotype of an addict -- homeless, in a shambles, on the street. As such, wealthy people experiencing an addiction disassociate with what they think an addict looks like from their own self-image. It can be tough to crack the veneer of a high-powered executive, coiffed in suit and tie, and see that addiction can happen to anyone.
  • Fear of leaving work. Highly successful people often see their position as validation for their hard work and achievement, and as such have a hard time taking a break. They believe if they take time away, the company will fail or all their efforts will crumble. Add in an addiction, which may adversely affect their performance at work, and the fear of losing their career success builds in the mind.
  • Financial concerns. Like Sam Polk in the opening, there never seems to be enough money. So if addiction arrives on the scene, wealthy people may not want to invest in the right kind of treatment because they see it as a waste. However, addiction can cause lost resources and money because of poor productivity, bad decisions made while high, or even reckless behavior. In the end, it is important for wealthy people to understand that addiction causes more financial strain than seeking out effective treatment.
  • There may not be an “ah-ha” moment. There is often a “rock bottom” for people who experience addiction -- losing a job, spousal separation, foreclosing on a home -- which serves as the signal to seek help. For wealthy people who are cushioned by financial and other resources, there may not be a bottom to hit, making it difficult to see the signs of a real problem.
  • Disappointing family, friends and colleagues. Because wealthy CEOs and executives are in such an influential position, they don’t want to acknowledge their struggle with addiction and risk letting down the company and those closest to them. In addition, wealthy high achievers may have a great amount of responsibilities such as mentorship, leadership and guidance and fear letting those around them know about their struggles with addiction will hurt them. However, seeing it as owning one’s responsibilities, not admitting the problem and seeking help can be the biggest let down.
  • Denial and rationalizing behavior. Often people in this situation will find excuses for their behavior. I only drink when I’m stressed or I’m only taking the pills because the doctor prescribed them for me. Although these sound like legitimate reasons, beneath the surface is avoiding the truth that there is a problem and they don’t want to confront it. Confidence in one’s self is a key tenet of success, but the dangerous flipside of this token is too much confidence can forge walls of denial and rationalizing behavior.
  • Fear of stigma. People in powerful positions are associated with strength, confidence, and a rock solid moral compass. Unfortunately, our society still views addiction as a weakness or moral failure, which sharply contradicts the key qualities of successful individuals. Add in public visibility and it can be difficult for an influential CEO or celebrity to seek help in an honest and open way.
  • Family related issues. Divorce is common amongst executives and CEOs who work long hours, travel often, and experience high levels of stress, so admission to alcohol or other substance abuse issues can complicate divorce proceedings and custody battles. And the love one has for their children or the comforts of marriage serves to perpetuate the destructive behavior for fear of losing the façade of the perfect life and family.
  • Fear of a permanent record. In addition to fear of shame related to addiction, successful wealthy people do not want this condition in a legal or insurance record, a paper trail that follows them the rest of their lives. Therefore, getting control of your addiction is important to avoid any high-profile legal repercussions.
  • A sense of entitlement. People in this situation often see their achievement as proof that they are deserving of something more. If they experience an addiction, they look at all their success and believe there couldn’t possibly be a real problem. I built an empire, am I so weak to fall to addiction? In turn, this self-image creates an Emperor’s New Clothes situation that makes it difficult to find help as the person is surrounded with people on his/her payroll, coworkers and teammates. Finally, their fear of losing their livelihood is often greater than their willingness to speak the truth.
  • A way to cover other physical ailments. According to Dr. James Flowers of Driftwood Recovery, wealthy people who experience a physical ailment such as an injury or chronic pain may turn to prescription pills, including opioids and the potent drug fentanyl, to manage the pain. Due to the highly addictive nature of these drugs, addiction is common and users often abuse them. Furthermore, wealthy people addicted to prescription drugs have been known to shop around doctors to get new prescriptions written to keep up the habit.

The circumstances surrounding a wealthy and high-achieving individual experiencing a substance abuse, process disorder or mental health issue requires a unique set of tools and treatment options to ensure recovery. And just because a person of this caliber is used to luxury experiences, does not mean luxury must be the only quality looked for in a treatment program. Too often I’ve heard from high-end clients how their treatment center with the great view and Olympic-sized aquatic complex and golf course nearby was essentially a luxury spa and didn’t give them the help they needed. An authentic recovery program is the right approach.

Effective treatment centers start where the client is--a multi-modal approach that addresses family dynamics, friends and loved ones, and even consults co-workers and employees across companies and business pursuits. The idea is to remove the “yes man” mentality that feeds the wealthy person’s ego. Furthermore, treatment centers recognize that these types of clients should not receive special treatment, a commitment to every client with the same level of dignity and respect. It was Mrs. Betty Ford who was one of the first women to advocate for shared rooms amongst clients -- movie stars, executives or shopkeepers -- with a vision for equality.

Treatment programs also tailor to the needs of a busy CEO or executive. They will make accommodations for conference meetings and calls, business travel and events, in so far as the client is committed to their treatment plan and maintaining sobriety. Moreover, some treatment centers are at the forefront of experiential therapy for their clients. Experiential therapy invites guests to engage in indoor and outdoor physical activities that challenges the participants to apply the behavioral therapies and 12-step programs to real world problems and tasks. Activities include hiking, biking, rafting, fishing, and golfing, which help the wealthy client connect with the natural elements.

Additionally, some residential treatment centers use equine experiential therapy whereby participants use behavioral building techniques with horses, in turn re-building their own behavior and returning to their beliefs and values. Others may use high-ropes courses or other low-challenge courses for team building and boundary setting. The sum of these activities, in conjunction with behavioral therapies and a team of experts guiding individual clients each step of the way, is a gestalt of finding recovery for the most ardent high-achieving person.


To read Sam Polk’s insider look at wealth and addiction, read his New York Times op-ed here.

For more information about how wealth advisors can help clients with substance abuse, process disorders or mental health issues, visit Aspiriant’s article here.

For more information about families, wealth and addiction, visit the Charter Financial Publishing Network’s post on the issue here.

For more information on the dual diagnosis of economic status and addiction, visit here.

Check out the following list of treatment centers that specialize and are known for working with high-wealth clients. Don’t see a particular treatment center? Please write to us and we’ll consider adding it to the list. (These are in no particular order and not endorsed in any way by the author or publisher.)

Alta Mira Recovery - Sausalito, CA

Avalon Malibu - Malibu, CA

Betty Ford Center - Rancho Mirage, CA (professionals)

Caron Treatment Centers - Wernersville, PA (lawyers program)

Caron Ocean Drive - Florida

Cirque Lodge - Sundance, UT

Driftwood Recovery- Austin, TX (chronic pain)

Headwaters at Origins - Florida

Promises Professional Treatment Program - Los Angeles, CA

Reflections – Novato

RiverMend Health - Atlanta, GA

Suspire - Florida

The Canyon - Malibu, CA

The Guest House Ocala - Silver Springs, FL (trauma)

To learn more about Louise Stanger and her interventions and other resources, visit her website.

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