Mark Scheeren is the Chairman and co-founder of the Baldwin Research Institute, a drug and alcohol research organization dedicated to honestly and objectively educating the public as to the effectiveness of treatment and prevention programs. He is also the Chairman of The Freedom Model Retreat, the original non-12 step program for addiction.
Mark’s story begins, however, in childhood, where grew up as 1 of 12 children. His father lived in a separate house, next door to the children. He recalls the deeply dysfunctional living arrangement as “a strange circumstance.” Mark was the youngest, and most of his brothers and sisters were grown and gone from what they called the “kids’ house” by the time he was growing up there.
In our recent interview, Mark described to me his childhood home as "a very violent, neglectful, animalistic place.” He spent weekends in the custody of his mother, mostly languishing in an alcohol addiction rehab facility where she worked as a counselor. Otherwise, he raised himself from the age of 8. Downplaying it a bit, he calls the experience “a rutty old ride.”
Throughout his teen years, Mark spent a lot of time drunk, high, or both. It was a lot of fun for a while. But many of his siblings were struggling with addiction and some attended various rehabs. The sphere of alcohol and drug addiction and recovery was very familiar to him during his youth, and AA was a big part of his family life.
Addiction Predisposition: Helpful Warning? Or Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?
Throughout his childhood, Mark was taught that he was predisposed to addiction and that eventually he would become addicted. So, while he was partying during his teen years, he carried the burden of belief that he would inevitably succumb to alcoholism and drug addiction, and that belief became a self-fulfilling prophecy. As an adult, Mark came to doubt that he had actually been predisposed to becoming addicted.
On the contrary, he had learned to become an addict, from his family, and take on that construct, that identity. In different circumstances, he would have been less likely to have become addicted. In fact, that possibility led to Mark’s addiction research and its eventual intriguing conclusion that there is no predisposition to addiction for anyone. During his first semester at college, he was drinking extreme amounts and drugging every day.
He says he’d been thinking for months prior about quitting. His father and the rest of the family were finished with him at that point and had told him he had to leave home. In December of that year (1988) he was the driver in a drunk driving accident, and that was the turning point. He stopped drinking and using drugs, he just quit. But he couldn’t go home, so, for three miserable days, he went through detox on his own, in a bathroom at college where he was completing his first semester. He was forced into a mandated treatment program for a year based on the charges against him.
He attended an intensive outpatient program for a year. But, since being kicked out of the house, he was sleeping on friends’ couches, homeless and wandering while in treatment and AA. He stayed sober, because he had made the choice to quit using, and he was eager to move on to a new future.
What’s Wrong With Current Addiction Treatment Methods?
Moving on with his life wasn’t going to be that simple for Mark. Per his nature, he bucked the system during his daily treatment regimen by refusing to call himself an alcoholic or an addict.
Consequently, the treatment staff devoted the year to breaking him on that point, and they succeeded. Eventually, they convinced him that he was an addict and that he needed to accept that as his identity. He came out at the end of the treatment feeling broken.
Yet, through that experience, he sensed there was something wrong with the treatment he’d received, and he decided to figure out what that was. He had always been a kid who pushed the limits of everything he did, so he naturally regained his tough, ambitious spirit and embarked on his long journey into addiction and treatment research at just 19 years old. That work would later culminate in the revolutionary conclusion of a 12-year study of addiction and the supposed treatment for it.
Through the many years of the long research program, Mark’s role was to painstakingly record patterns associated with alcoholism and treatment effects, based on his round-the-clock observations of a series of test subjects. He worked in collaboration with multiple experienced professional researchers in the field, and arrived at the finding that addiction is merely a strong preference for getting high — not a disease. He cites other research, amassed over 80 years, supporting that conclusion.
He notes the existence of a $35-billion industry that has been built around drug addiction and treatment. Mark suggests that it’s worth considering the sizable economy when exploring the potential motivations for maintaining lifelong addiction treatment.
He does not believe that anxiety and depression and other issues cause someone to get high, despite so much teaching that those conditions can trigger drug abuse. After all, only a fraction of people with mental illness also have drinking or drug abuse problems, which would seem to negate the notion of a causal link. His study finds that the reason people get high or drunk is that they strongly prefer to do that; they choose it. He emphasizes that a reason or a choice is very different than a cause — a cause does not allow for choice.
He attributes addiction to various learned motivations (whether real or not), such as the belief that substances can help the individual escape from something emotionally, to overcome a sense of fear and vulnerability, and self-damaging ego problems that create life obstacles, among others. Mark’s research and model reflects that those beliefs must be challenged so the individual can see if a change in perspective will allow for a positive change in one’s substance use. This is accomplished by a focus on what he calls the Positive Drive Principle which posits that all people are nearly always driven, not by fear of consequences, but rather their pursuits of happiness. All of this flies in the face of treatment and recovery models which focus on the costs of substance use.
A Partnership Formed and New Addiction Treatment Strategy is Discovered
At just 19 years of age, Mark connected with addiction researcher Jerry Brown, who was speaking at an AA meeting. He had already begun examining why the Alcoholics Anonymous success rate was so bad (5%), especially when a much higher percentage of people (30%) recovered from addiction on their own without doing anything (and even further, that when age is factored into the rates of getting over a substance use problem, users move past their addiction at rates of more than 90%). Those numbers suggested that AA was actually harming people. But how? He approached Brown after the meeting and told him he’d like to work as his research assistant, and Brown agreed.
In 1990, Brown and Scheeren performed their initial one-year study. They worked with 38 test subjects, tracked their success in AA, and evaluated the recovery maintenance program designed by Bill Wilson, AA’s founder. The model is based on the theory that addiction is a disease, and it’s designed to control participants’ behavior. But because Mark and Jerry abandoned the AA ideal that one is powerless, their study subjects fared much higher success than the full-on AA dogmatic model presented in the meetings they were attending and studying.
The study found that the AA model’s rigid abstinence requirements and its instilling deep feelings of guilt and intense fear of relapse is counterproductive. People typically crumble and end up relapsing. The researchers concluded that AA actually did not work for the participants in their study, the Baldwin Research Project (named after its location on Baldwin Road.)
Brown and Scheeren then embarked on their larger study, examining the outcomes of teaching people that they could choose to move past their addiction and become completely free of it.
The approach was based on the premise that alcohol addiction is not a disease. Scheeren’s unique methodology was to live among the test subjects and observe, and ask them what they needed (vs. the AA approach, which is to tell people what they need). That exploratory strategy proved highly productive and, over time, they discovered that the alternative method they were experimenting with appeared to gain much higher rates of abstinence and moderation than any other method in existence.
Brown and Scheeren knew they had found something important. They sent their research paper out to numerous rehab facilities. But, despite its evidence of the robust new solution that freed people from lifelong treatment, administrators weren’t interested in modifying their own systems.
In 1992, the two researchers got a new location, in Hagaman New York, which later became the site of one of their retreat programs. Mark was 22 years old then. He and Brown had done all of their preliminary research by that time and had their pilot recovery program completed. They started to work.
Mark lived and worked onsite for more than a decade. Looking back, Mark assesses his life’s work simply saying that he gained his knowledge in his field the hard way, but he believes it was the right way. He had conducted the research on a shoestring budget, and not received a paycheck in his more than 12 years of the 24/7 labor of love. In the meantime, he had finished an Associate’s degree, but had been so completely immersed in the research that he bypassed a further pursuit of formal education. He’s satisfied with the trade-offs which enabled him to complete the vast body of research that the studies have produced, and he’s convinced that working on the ground, one-on-one with recovering addicts for all those years, provided the immersive learning that led to the combined studies’ groundbreaking revelations. He states, “The Freedom Model was born in that house, we just didn’t know it at the time.”
In addition to Jerry Brown, he also credits researchers Stanton Peele (and many others), Steve Slate, BRI’s Executive Director, Michelle Dunbar and others for their research findings and contributions to the work.
Mark emphasizes that, overall, 90% of people addicted to substances quit when you factor in age, and they do so whether or not they get treated. That includes alcohol, heroin, methamphetamine, and other frequently abused substances. He says that that’s “the great untold secret” in the world of addiction treatment, where the message is always to get more treatment.
Empowering Addicts with A Choice — Not a Disease
In treatment, people are conditioned to believe that they’ll never find anything else as good as being high, and they’ll have to live deprived of that and stay in treatment for life. But Mark argues that that’s a false narrative, as most of them stop using alcohol or heroin because they’ve already moved on from it, before ever starting treatment, as he did. They’ve already gone through the personal process of recognizing that something else can be better than using.
At the Freedom Model Retreats, people are focused on claiming their freedom to move beyond addiction, and not to fight it. Mark and his team teach that there’s nothing to fight, “there are just choices to make.” He says they help people leaving their addictions behind recognize, “You are not fighting anything — you are choosing something else: either abstinence, adjusted use, or some will choose to continue heavy use, but with the right information, very few choose the last option. People want to grow past an addiction and move on.”
To concerns about chemical addiction and the risk of relapse and worries that the freedom model sounds too easy, Mark’s response is that it is easy to quit, if you want to and you have the correct factual information about addiction. He says the problem is one of perspective: Many thousands of people have major surgeries and are put on heavy dosages of opiates for weeks, then leave the hospital perhaps unaware that they’re physically dependent. When they stop the opiates at home, they find themselves sick with vomiting and diarrhea, but don’t frame the sickness to “an addiction”. They think they have flu or something else, and they then move on with their lives unaware to frame it as an addiction, and therefore aren’t and never will be addicted. It is only by being told your “hooked” that you feel “hooked” and frame it as an addiction.
Think of it this way; if one of those same people is taking the same amount of Dilaudid with his addicted friends, they’ll tell him he can’t quit, because he’ll go through hellish withdrawal. Mark says, “They’re terrified of that 3-day sickness, because it’s been framed for them as the horror of addiction that compels further use. So, we now have an entire industry of Suboxone, and people never get away based on a subjective perspective.”
Reframing Addiction and Living His Mission of Changing the Treatment Industry
So, what is addiction? He describes it as the frame we put around our preference to use drugs and our beliefs about withdrawal — not something that “happens to us”. Further, he points out that many drugs, like cocaine, have no associated withdrawal symptoms, yet people believe they’re addicted.
Or, people may believe they can’t sleep without using a certain drug, but it’s really a matter of finding another way to fall asleep, without using the drug. Mark asserts, “It’s not more complex than that. It’s not a pharmacological matter.”
In another example, he notes the concern that opiates and other drugs alter brain chemistry, so that users can feel happy. He points out that it’s true that repeated heavy use does change brain chemistry, but that it’s temporary, and that the brain and body resolve such imbalances.
He also notes that ANY repeated behavior changes the brain, and that brain changes are completely normal. Mark noted that the brain disease theory is debunked in his book, The Freedom Model for Addictions.
After many years of working on a freedom-centered alternative to traditional addiction treatment, Mark’s Freedom Model Retreats began to fill up. Mark increased the range of programs, and began offering private instruction options for participants at home.
All program options have the same curriculum (The Freedom Model for Addictions and Workbook Series) and instruction and are made available at every person’s level of financial ability, from books and home programs, to a 4-week retreat executive residential retreat. People with no ability to pay are provided with the materials, so that no one who wants it is left without the instruction. Mark also co-hosts the Addiction Solution Blog and Facebook Freedom Model Live Events.
Many guests of The Freedom Model Retreat have been to typical rehabs and were so immersed in disease-model treatment that they were completely caught in the rehab/recovery/relapse trap. They’re ecstatic to feel their freedom and eager to fill their time with options of all kinds of positive activities offered at the retreat. Detox needs are addressed at local hospitals and detox facilities nationwide before an individual enters the retreat. Psychiatric needs are also addressed off site by mental health professionals.
As for Mark’s own life these days, his immediate family were estranged for some time, but they’ve all since moved on from their drug habits and are getting along great together. At age 48, Mark has been married for the past 17 years to a wife he adores. He credits her for making it possible for him to pursue his vision. He has three very bright children, ages 23, 17 and 16. He reflects, “My kids have a wonderful life, very different from the way I grew up.” He’s up at 5:00 a.m. year-round, off for his daily 4-mile walk, which he calls the most beneficial thing that he’s ever done for himself. He says he has most of his best ideas during those walks.
Mark’s life mission has been to share the information that a recovery program that presents addiction as a disease is a trap that ties people to addiction permanently. He wants people to recognize their addiction as something they did for their own reasons, and then to be free never to think about addiction again, to move on and be successful with their lives.
Mark Scheeren is the co-founder of Baldwin Research Institute and The Freedom Model Retreats and is the author of The Freedom Model for Addictions, Escape the Treatment and Recovery Trap. The book provides a view of the Baldwin Institute’s monumental 30+ years of research into the disease model and other addiction myths, and the alternative to it, The Freedom Model. It’s available through their website, www.thefreedommodel.org, Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. To learn more, go to thefreedommodel.org or soberforever.net or baldwinresearch.com.