Mindy first reached out to me after an incident occurred with her husband Bob and their granddaughter Lucy. She was at her wits end. Mindy was panicky over a series of phone calls, worried she’d never see her granddaughter again. “It’s okay Mindy,” I said in a measured voice. “Tell me what happened. Start from the beginning.”
Mindy explained that her husband Bob was a successful entrepreneur, amassing a sizable fortune. He steered the ship of a large company while she spent her time floating from charitable event to event. She basked in the light of gleaming luxuries – a parade of cocktail parties, fancy black-tie events and what her husband described as “deal-clutching dinner meetings.” To the outside, Mindy recalls, they are the perfect couple: wealthy and successful, envied in every way.
Despite the glamorous facade, deep inside they harbor dark secrets. Mindy said it was Bob’s drinking. “He’d have 2 drinks at lunch and then hit the afternoon golf course where he would consume who knows how many more,” Mindy’s quivering voice told me during one of our many phone calls. “By the time we’d meet for dinner, he was three sheets to the wind.” She began to cry. “He would sometimes nod off in the middle of business dinners and events, unable to keep it together.”
As an interventionist and clinician who specializes in addiction, mental health, substance abuse and chronic pain, high wealth clients like Mindy and her husband Bob require a specific treatment approach. In fact, high wealth clients pose a particular challenge because they are surrounded by a team of paid people whose unspoken job is to cover up unwanted behaviors.
And as we have seen recently in the media with the college bribery scandal, wealth often affords people to do things that otherwise would not be tolerated. Like the Emperor’s New Clothes, it can be difficult to break through. 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.
That’s exactly what Mindy did to cope – turned a blind eye to what was going on and put all her time and energy into shopping. “I looked the other way and found solace in new shoes and outfits,” she said. “I know nothing could ever replace my marriage, but Saks, Barneys,Neiman Marcus and Chanel were the comforting embrace that distracted me from the emptiness. The loneliness.”
Mindy said she became so desperate that she reached out to other leaders in the company for help with Bob’s problem. But she was shocked to find the company was afraid to help Bob because he was known for his volatile temper. Nobody wanted the head of the company to lash out at them about an issue he never recognized as a problem.
“They would even cover up some of his poor behavior!” She exclaimed with a twinge of indignance. “Why do you think they did that?” I asked. “So as not to rock the boat, please creditors, clients and business associates. Nobody speaks up when money is on the line.”
Mindy hit her breaking point when their granddaughter, Lucy, came for a visit. “Bob was drinking, as usual, when he suddenly became irate.” He threw his glass across the room, slumped in his chair and spewed a litany of swear words – all in front of sweet little Lucy. “I couldn’t breathe,” she said, stunned into silence. She described it like she was breathing through a straw – no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t get enough air.
Then Mindy tried to explain what happened to her daughter, Lucy’s mom, and she blew up on her. She said her daughter threatened to limit grandparent time with Lucy. Devastated, that’s when Mindy called me.
After listening to Mindy’s story, together we talked about the range of emotions experienced in this situation. I explained to Mindy that there is a great deal of shame she was feeling because people in their position of wealth and influence are assumed to have it all together and that their success fix their problems. Of course this was false, and that we needed to approach the problem with a system of treatment that included Bob and Mindy, his company of employees, their adult daughter’s family, including little Lucy.
Though Mindy came to the realization of the problem and was eager for professional help, approaching Bob about his alcoholism took more work. He went through a litany of rationalizations for why his drinking did not need to be addressed. 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 or the country club’s golf attire and see that substance abuse 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 they are the sole reason for their company’s success if they take time away, the company will fail or all their efforts will crumble.
- Fear of Financial Loss. There is an old adage that no amount of money is ever enough. 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, substance misuse 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 to help wealthy people understand that addiction has the potential to cause more financial strain than seeking out effective treatment.
- There may not be an “ah-ha” moment. Although Mindy hit her “rock bottom” and sought help, many wealthy people – cushioned by financial and other resources – may not have 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.
- Confabulations 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. Their company brand promise – whether its tires, airplanes, hairdryers, or a food chain and restaurants – may be compromised. Tragically, parts of our society still view 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.
- 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.
- Fear of Being Wrong. With high wealth often comes inflated egos. “I am never wrong” and “I am always right” may play on repeat. Putting one’s ego aside and allowing others in to help create a recovery path forces the executive to put aside their know-it-all attitude, surrender and take direction – often a tall order for one who gives orders.
In addition to unpacking Bob’s rationalizations for his drinking problem, Mindy agreed that she had to take a hard look at her own behaviors – both her influence on Bob and her ways of coping. Mindy came to the realization: “I had to look at my spending. I had to look at my behaviors and the impact they had on me and others.” Together we explored the ways in which Mindy was dependent on these material things, the way she interacted with the world and how to fill her empty soul with positive things other than shoes and dresses.
Bob spent 45 days in a residential treatment facility. During this time, as was clinically allowed, he was able to check in with work as I worked with his colleagues and employees to craft a new work environment which supported Bob in sobriety. I also assembled a team of expertly trained behavioral health professionals to help Bob navigate home and company life.
The good news is effective treatment starts 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 narcissism and “yes man” mentality that feeds the wealthy person’s ego.
Furthermore, treatment centers recognize that high wealth clients do not need to have their egos fed. As we may recall, Mrs. Betty Ford was one of the first women to advocate for shared rooms amongst clients — movie stars, executives or shopkeepers — with a vision for equality. Mrs. Ford realized that catering to an already entitled and wounded soul would only exacerbate the problem, rather than serving to help others.
The road to sobriety – as we know – is often full of twists and turns. After some stops and starts, much hard work and focus, Bob maintains his sobriety, Mindy tells me. Little Lucy is four now and her Grandpa makes her laugh.
“Thank you,” Mindy recently told me over the phone. “Without your help in getting us where we needed to go and staying with us through every step, we would not be where we are today.”