Dr. Adi Jaffe’s Simple, But Controversial Approach To Addiction + Recovery

Adi Jaffe PhD is the author of The Abstinence Myth: A New Approach For Overcoming Addiction Without Shame, Judgment, Or Rules.  In our interview below, Jaffe, who has appeared on Larry King, Good Morning America, Dr. Oz and more, shares about his highly controversial approach to addiction and recovery. At its core, we find his philosophy to be reasonable, modern and approachable, but it is one of the only programs that breaks from the status quo. That being said, when it comes to addiction recovery, Jaffe has raised a lot of eyebrows.

At its core, Jaffe’s approach is about unearthing the core issues (often unaddressed shame, he claims) lying beneath our addictive behaviors. The diversity of those core issues, argues Jaffe, is what makes our current ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to recovery so commonly ineffective.

Editor’s note: Addiction and recovery are very serious issues effecting more individuals in 2021 than ever before. We do not disparage any approach to recovery that is effective, including AA. One of our goals is to always present you with emerging ideas in wellness — we think it’s important to explore new tools that could help a broader range of individuals.

The Chalkboard: In our initial discussion before this interview, you said that there is really just one school of thought currently when it comes to addiction and recovery. Lets talk about that…

Adi Jaffe: Right now, around 85-90% of what happens in the addiction field is, in all essence, based on the following model: short-term treatment — rehab as we call it, inpatient or outpatient, followed by life-long engagement in AA (if you’re one of the successful ones).

The idea behind this approach is simple: “addicts and alcoholics” are sick people with a disease that keeps getting worse and they need to be managed forever.

There are a lot of problems with this model — no one has identified the biological underpinning of the disease (they think dopamine has a lot to do with it, but everything that’s rewarding does), it describes a very small portion of those who struggle with drugs, alcohol, sex or food, and yet everyone has to get thrown into the same bucket — because that’s all we have.

When you look at everyone who is told to try this method or who tried it on their own you find success rates between 5-15%, depending on who you ask. Even AA recognizes only around 15% meet lifelong abstinence rates.

Despite this, we continue to send everyone with an addiction problem into that system — a system that is literally failing 90% of those who go into it. The results are obvious: we are losing the war on addiction recovery. 2020 was the deadliest overdose year ever recorded and we double those numbers every 10 years or so.

TCM: When it comes to “abstinence” you have a whole other way of looking at things. Will you spell it out for us?

AJ: The approach I offer in my book The Abstinence Myth is simple: addiction to alcohol is not about alcohol and addiction to sex is not about sex. Let’s stop mandating that people stop drinking alcohol and watching pornography to get help with their problem. People become addicted because the drug or behavior is making them feel something they are seeking. Typically, because it helps them feel better (because they normally feel bad) or helps them numb or avoid pain (because they hate aspects of their life).

The drug addiction is their medicine, but the real disease is whatever they are actually struggling with: trauma, environmental pressure, stress and anxiety, depression, terrible relationship, problematic upbringing and attachment. That makes every addict unique (another reason NOT to toss them all into the same bucket).

Addicts need help solving the actual problems they need help with. As those problems are addressed, their need to drink or use is reduced and they become less addicted.

That is NOT to say that there aren’t physical aspects of their addiction that will need to be addressed and it is NOT to say that this makes the work easy.

At IGNTD, we believe you have to go to the core of a person’s belief structure and life experience to truly fix their addiction. But once you do it, they are free forever — that’s right, no AA meetings for life, unless you want them.

We do not mandate abstinence (and yet about 40-50% of our users want it) and we do not measure success at IGNTD by how many days sober a person has. We measure overall quality of life across 10 different areas of life (AOLs) and improved self-functioning. Those are the outcomes we look at. We have no problem with abstinence, but believe that people have to self select it if they so choose.

TCM: This break with the mainstream approach has been super controversial for you. After all, dealing with addiction is a serious issue and there is a lot of fear surrounding the issue for those who have friends and family that struggle. Talk to us about your experience there…

AJ:  Sure. I’m not forcing someone who drinks too much and hurts themselves to commit to quitting forever. And that feels dangerous to many.

Many people believe they can force others to quit. Looking into deeper issues beyond the addiction behavior itself might feel complicated and bring up pain and discomfort and that’s hard to deal with (It’s much easier to say “you’re an alcoholic and you have to stop drinking” than “our relationship has been damaged for 15 years and we have a lot of work to do if we want to fix it because we kind of hate each other right now”). If you tell someone to quit and they don’t do it it is then their fault they didn’t get better (or so people like to tell themselves).

For a century, the system has blamed those who struggle with not being serious enough (or having damaged brains) to commit to getting the help they need. I call BS. I liken it to a restaurant owner with terrible Yelp reviews who says “the reason 95% of people don’t like eating at my restaurant is that people have terrible taste in food.” No. Your food sucks, or your service is terrible, or you charge way too much money or your location is smelly and full of cockroaches. It’s on us to fix this problem and we have to stop blaming the vast majority of people out there struggling because we have not created a solution that works for them and that they want.

 TCM: We’ve presented more than our fair share of health and wellness ideas commonly met with skepticism. For the skeptics out there, sell us on your approach to recovery…

AJ:  If the above didn’t do it, I’ll say this: It is OBVIOUS that what we’ve been doing for the last 100 years is simply NOT having the impact we want it to. So we can sit around and argue about the “right approach” or hold onto our guns and say “if they really want to get better they’ll come our way.” Or we can roll up our sleeves and find another way to get to the 95% of people who struggle with alcohol and drugs and are not getting help.

Success should be simple to measure: are we saving more lives than we ever have before? If we can’t answer that with a resounding ‘yes’, then we haven’t done our job. Anyone who believes the current system is working needs to take a look inside and see how they’re measuring that, because it’s not for the hundreds of thousands dying each year.

The biggest selling point for the ideas in my book come down to the stories — the hundreds of people who found IGNTD and it changed their lives. After trying the “standard” recovery offerings out there (whether free or uber-expensive), these people simply didn’t find what they needed. We now have dozens of testimonials and a handful of podcast episodes with those stories — people who were at the end of their ropes and got a new lease on life.

 TCM: How has your own experience informed your philosophy?

AJ: Yes, although not exclusively, my own experience and 8 years of schooling followed by another 10 years of research and learning have allowed me to create what I believe is one of the most effective, efficient and life-transforming programs in the IGNTD Hero online program. The need for non-abstinence help came from my own journey, but the methods and the focus on shame and the tools came from school and research and experience.

TCM: Are there any case studies or personal stories from the book you’d like the share? 

AJ:  There are a lot, including Aliyah, who we just interviewed for the podcast and Julia who we’ve talked about many times before (both are public in their support for our work).

Aliyah was addicted to meth and used to chronically relapse over decades. Her sister is a psychiatrist who specializes in addictions, but even she couldn’t help her. Aliyah found IGNTD right after a suicide attempt and credits the program with saving her life and getting her family back. She is now 2.5 years sober.

Julia came to us to learn how to drink less after years of trying everything she could think of and is now 3 years sober and doing amazingly well. We have so many more stories to share, you can find more of them on our IGNTD podcast or in my book.

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  1. “We don’t measure success by how many days sober a person has”…then lists the number of years sober of his example clients at the end. He also doesn’t explain HOW his program works, or what his methods are. Like……at all. And saying that someone can become ‘less addicted’ to inherently addictive substances by talking about their failing relationships? It’s just absolute new age nonsense. Also, notice the multiple straw man arguments he employs (poorly, I might add) to discredit AA and traditional drug rehab programs. Yiiiiiiiiiiikes

    Vivian | 03.15.2021 | Reply
  2. Deeply intrigued by this. Have tried an addiction program as a codependent, and have to say I was not impressed by the single minded focus on cognitive skills. There’s so much more to trauma, addiction, and coping with stress. Have been hoping we’d continue to develop greater tools. For me, it’s organizing resilience focused exercise groups near wherever I’m living. Practice is so far behind the science that’s out there.

  3. thank you for posting this interview- i’m doing some research of my own right now revolving around shame and its pervasiveness in my own life – as well as in society. what he’s pointing to — addressing the root (instead of the symptom) — makes a fuck ton of sense. holistic health care – which includes things like addressing childhood conditioning is absolutely a direction we need to offer more of and move towards.

  4. I just think it’s dangerous to say abstinence isn’t the best way. No one does heroin recreationally. I’ve been sober 9 years and lost my fiancé to an overdose a couple years ago, and I would never have to suggested to him to try it moderately. Addressing the shame? Absolutely. But that’s literally what they show you to do in A.A. Is get to the core of your issues and gain self-awareness and work on the wounds from your past that have given you false beliefs about yourself and life. Everyone in A.A. says that alcohol is not the problem. It was a temporary solution we found but it never addressed the actual issues. I also thought it was interesting that he said they don’t measure by sober time but then mentions it at the end. It seems a little aimless. It’s hard for me to accept ideas like that when it comes from someone who hasn’t experienced true addiction themselves.

    jackie granese | 03.31.2021 | Reply
  5. While I haven’t read his book nor am I an addict, I have listened to his story and he is where he is today because of his journey and the fact that he was, in fact, an addict. It had an incredible impact on his life and that of his family. I’d look into Adi/his work before passing judgement on something that may not work for you, but absolutely works for others.

    Christina | 04.15.2021 | Reply
  6. I wish I could say I believe you Dr. Jaffa, but I do not. I was married to what many would call a sex addict. I do not believe in sex addiction in itself. It is a by-product of being a sociopath narcissist, and possibly a psychopath. After I threw him out after a 38 year marriage, we communicated for 6 months, but in every text and every email, I found lies. During those 6 months, I did my own investigation into who is this man. I spoke to over 50 people in all the places we had lived through the years. Though the most charming man in the room, so believable, it was revealed to me how evil he was. He made me out to all our family and friends as the bad guy, and the one with the problem. When I confronted him with all I discovered, he simply said, “I had to protect myself”. I then filed for divorce. He said he had changed and begged me to call off the divorce. After the divorce, I discovered while he was begging me, he had been living with another woman for 3 months. He had to cover all his bases. He did marry her a year ago.
    There is much more to this story with emotional, verbal and physical abuse, but all that was hidden from the world and done behind closed doors. What I do know is he and others like him, never change. They just become better liars and manipulators. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, maybe never, but you will never change.
    It has been 6 years since I divorced him, and I would not believe him if he told me the sky was blue.

    JJoan Fallis | 05.18.2021 | Reply
  7. The reality ia that Abstinence based programs simply do not work. If tbey did we would see much higher success rates.
    Addiction or abuse is merely a symptom of an underlying issue. Once you treat, and hopefully resolve that issue, the symptoms will subside. One may drink to excess to cope with an issue, and that behavior is causing problems in their life and thus needs addressed. Once they are no longer using alcohol to as a coping mechanism, they are quite likely able to drink socially as their motivation has changed. Wby then, should they be made to feel like a failure at that point? Its insane and counterproductive. If anything, that’s a success story. Abstinence based methods that apply label that can never be shed are actually perpetuating substance abuse by making those who should be praised for their success. , see themselves as hopeless failures. Dr. Jaffes method is the only method that is actually focused on the actual malady that is manifesting itself in addiction as a symptom.

    Jodi Jennings | 09.26.2022 | Reply
  8. I absolutely disagree with his repetitive statement that the 12 step programs don’t address the underlying issue. Thats a complete fallacy. In fact, they teach that the act of using/drinking/gambling is but a symptom. It is how we deal with ..our past, present and future. And I still don’t know what ignth stands for. And the pricing..omg..best package is roughly 275 a month!! The lowest is roughly 60 a month. I do agree that preaching complete cold turkey abstinence is dangerous and wrong . Just my 2 cents

    Tara Reed | 01.31.2023 | Reply

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