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From Shamans to Journeys

Country music mogul-turned-rehab businessman Lee McCormick talks alternative methods of recovery.

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By McCarton Ackerman

01/03/14

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In the last three decades, Lee McCormick has gone from the big business of country music to the alternative business of rehab and recovery, all while kicking his own cocaine addiction in the process. He is the founder of the Integrative Life Center in Nashville, The Ranch Recovery Center in Nunnally, TN and The Canyon Treatment Center in Malibu, CA, establishing himself an expert in non-traditional methods of treatment. His annual journeys in Mexico through Spirit Recovery take people through the pyramids and temples of Teotihuacan and the ancient city of Toltec, inspiring recovery addicts to believe that heaven on earth can exist.

His most recent film, Dreaming Heaven, is now being screened at recovery conferences across the country. McCormick spoke with us about his own journey to sobriety, why more doctors and therapists are opening up to more alternative methods of treatment, and how the big business of recovery is hindering the quality of treatment that addicts receive. 

When did you get first involved with drugs?

I started smoking pot when I was 13 or 14, but that was just part of being a beach kid in Florida in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. You go to parties and drink a couple of beers. There wasn’t anything addiction-oriented until I was doing cocaine at age 20. Cocaine was the hottest bitch I had ever come across and it was love at first line. I had a buddy who was an ex-special forces Vietnam veteran. He’d fly on military planes and bring back a kilo of coke with him. It got to the point where I’d rather get high than talk to a good-looking girl unless she was doing coke as well.

Was that the moment when you felt like things were getting out of control?

I had been using for six or seven years, but it didn’t get out of hand until I moved to Nashville. I was in the music business and coke was everywhere. But even the first few years in Nashville, I never did it all the time because when I did do coke, I wanted to stay up for a couple of days.

But after 10 years of being able to take it or leave it when it came to using cocaine, the addiction profile came into reality the last five years of my use when I started smoking it in my mid-30s. The good thing is smoking coke speeds up the whole process so you can be a train wreck in a couple of years. [Laughs]. Things started to move into a dark place and I began hanging out with underworld characters, prostitutes and mafioso types. I ruined my first marriage because of it. I never enjoyed that part but was in too deep at that point. My life was just out of control and the epitome of powerlessness.

At that point, my drug use was the split between your mind and the insanity of addiction versus the purity of your heart. My heart was saying, “God, not again” and didn’t want to do it, but I had been living by my head because we are taught to live that way in this country. 

You’ve spoken about your experience in rehab being life changing. What was it about being in treatment that affected you so deeply?

I finally went to treatment at Sierra Tucson in the mid-‘90s. It was expensive for that time, about $19,000, and was largely full of well-to-do people. But when the other clients spoke in group about the trauma and rape and sexual abuse and abandonment they had experienced, seeing the way we prop up our lives so that everything looks good completely blew me away. I didn’t know that 80% of women are traumatized in a sexual manner of some form or that 50-60% of men have major trauma or sexual abuse. But it made sense that I could never buy into the official story line of how life works. Humans haven’t come to a place where we’re willing to acknowledge truth on a cultural level. It takes a crisis like addiction to even get us to acknowledge our experiences on a personal level. 

The power of the community and connection to other people in treatment, as well as the level of vulnerability and honesty that clients brought showed me that deep and soulful healing doesn’t happen one-on-one. That being said, healing has to be open-minded and eclectic. If the group is bound around 12-step practices, that limits the progress which can be made. 

How did you then get involved with more alternative methods of recovery?

Just through personal experience and trying to get to my core. I’m interested in experiencing life and not just talking about it. I’ve done trips at Native American sweat lodges and journeys to Mexico with Miguel Ruiz, journeys to Peru with shamans. These are methods of healing that are thousands of years old. They’re so soulful and powerful that you can’t replace it with methods at other rehab centers like talk therapy or equine therapy. The trick is blending it all together. 

If you have therapists and other licensed people in addition to drum circles and a shaman-trained breath worker, you’re addressing spirit and the entire human. These are all tools, but we get stuck on specific methods. Until we heal the core issues that first came up as children, we will always seek to be right and put ourselves in situations where people agree with us so we can be right. 

Are the recovery journeys you offer mainly for people who have sober for years or is it open to people at all levels in the process?

It’s both. If they’re two or three weeks clean, I would handle the journey completely differently than someone who’s five years sober. It’s best if someone has a sense of being grounded and isn’t completely scattered or lost in heartbreak and waves of emotion. But the bottom line is that people need to be sober. They need to not be using. 

If these alternative methods of recovery treatment have found success, why haven’t they been implemented in more traditional rehabs?

You can’t learn it from a book. You have to live it in order to provide it. Most of us find a spot where if we’re sober and comfortable and found our way into the profession, we’ll just settle down in the middle. But more therapists and psychologists are realizing that what is considered “good enough” in therapeutic practice really isn’t good enough. You can’t keep ignoring the fact that 60% of people are relapsing right out of the gate. Unfortunately, the industry doesn’t want to acknowledge that because they’ll have to address what all the money they’re getting is going towards. You can print that shit. 

But wouldn’t more money going towards rehabs and treatment ultimately be beneficial?

The problem is that the treatment industry became so profitable that it attracted the buying power of equity and venture groups. But those groups are not in this to be more effective. They’re there to do business and maximize profits. It’s two different paradigms that are oil and water. 

The treatment industry and quality of care people receive now has suffered as a result. I sold the ranch three years ago and had 36 treatment beds when I left. They’ll have 130 beds next spring. You can’t provide the same treatment experience with that number of people. The amount of money corporately owned treatment programs can spend on things like salaries and advertising completely skew the landscape.

Is it even possible for independent or alternative treatment centers to go up against more corporate rehab centers and succeed?

It’s difficult for independently owned programs to succeed, but it’s certainly possible they can. If things are going to change, it will be up to individuals who are operating from a pure place wanting to come back for a second round. They’ll be successful because we’re providing what the corporate locations can’t provide, but they will unfortunately just be bought up again. The big guys are always gonna want to eat the little guys.

If there were ever a well-heeled venture company that had the ability to operate on principles, they would dominate the business and make way more money than anyone else. Unfortunately, these corporate locations are too short sighted and trying to make back their return as quickly as possible. The staff are still getting paid when that happens, but it’s the clients who are suffering.

McCarton Ackerman is a regular contributor to The Fix. He last interviewed The Denver Post's new pot editor.

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