He knows how to treat addicts - he's one of them

In his youth, drugs and alcohol nearly killed Don Serratt. Then workaholism destroyed his marriage and career. Now he hopes his new treatment centre can help others. Clare Rudebeck reports
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Life Works recovery centre is housed in The Grange, a beautiful grade II listed manor house in Woking, Surrey. It feels more like a home than a hotel or hospital: the grounds are leafy; the rooms are spacious and airy. But appearances, as ever, are deceptive. Don Serratt, the founder of the recovery centre, is adamant that Life Works is not a place to rest, but to work.

"Make no bones about it: getting sober and dealing with the issues underlying addiction are hard work. Most people don't want to do it," says Serratt. "But we're here to make sure that our clients get what they came for and that means doing something every waking hour that they're here."

And he should know. Serratt finally got sober when he was 19 years old after a long struggle, and yet his problems were only just beginning. What happened in the following years was to destroy his marriage and put an end to his career as a high-flying investment banker. And it led him, finally, to set up what he claims is the highest quality addiction treatment in Europe.

"I think I had a problem with alcohol the first time I tried it," says the 41-year-old Texan. "I can remember having my first drink when I was six years old and thinking, 'Wow. I feel good now'."

During his teenage years, he developed addictions to every drug he could get his hands on including speed, acid, cocaine and heroin. "But my favourite thing to do was speedballs, which is heroin and cocaine mixed together. It was them that brought me to the end," he says.

He overdosed repeatedly during these years and left school at 14 to embark on what he describes as "a full-time career as a juvenile delinquent". At 18, he realised he couldn't go on and dried out at his mother's house with no outside help.

And yet his problems were far from over. "I finally got sober in May 1983 and that's when the first process addiction started taking hold," he says.

A process addiction, Serratt explains, is a dependency on a certain behaviour such as shopping, sex or gambling. In Serratt's case, it was his working life that spiralled out of control.

"When I quit drugs, all I knew was that I was a white trash junkie and there was nothing I wanted to be further from," he says. He enrolled in his local community college, running his own plumbing business at the same time to support himself. "I was working almost full-time at the business and studying more than full-time because I hadn't had a formal education," he remembers. "I'd be in the library until one or two at night every night."

His hard work paid off and he achieved near perfect grades all the way through college and then university. Five years after quitting drugs, he landed a job as an investment banker with Bear, Stearns and Co. in New York.

For the next few years, he had the time of his life in what he calls "adrenaline city". However, the work addiction that brought him this success would destroy his marriage and end his career in banking. He was 35 before he kicked all his addictions at a recovery centre in the United States: The Meadows in Arizona. "I put down alcohol and I picked up drugs, I put down drugs and I picked up work. I can't tell you how many people I know who just keep moving addiction," he says.

He claims that the attitude at treatment centres in Britain is normally just treat the addiction and things will get better.

"However, the attitude of a few very good places in the States, including The Meadows, is that you've got to deal with what's going on underneath and you've got to deal with all the addictions and the compulsive behaviours," he says.

It is this attitude that he wants to bring to Life Works. The idea is to get to the bottom of the problem - to find the psychological reasons why a person developed an addiction - and, as a result, to stop that person from relapsing or moving on to another addiction.

This perspective is not entirely new to Britain. "We also adopt a holistic approach," says Keith Burns, the marketing manager of the Promis Recovery Centre in Nonington, Kent. "Unless you deal with the trauma underlying the problem, you aren't going to make a lot of progress."

The centre, which opened this month, will eventually house up to 24 clients at a time, each paying £485 per day. Their time will be filled with psycho-educational lectures, group therapy, one-on-one therapy, yoga and meditation among other activities.

Many of them will focus on what Serratt calls "the deep work", looking at the causes of their addiction. However, he concedes that not everyone who checks in will be ready for this. "We make a big distinction between people who have never been treated before and people who have. In most cases, people coming for the first time aren't ready to do the deep trauma work. They just need to get physically sober," he says.

The deep work, Serratt says, usually focuses on trauma and abuse suffered in childhood. That was certainly the case for him when he checked into The Meadows.

His parents, Dwain and Toni, were both drug addicts and alcoholics. They divorced when he was three. He lived mainly with his mother, but was taken away from her three times while still a toddler. Life with his father was little better: frequently there was no food in the house. "I was never physically abused. Mine was more a case of neglect," he says. "But what I've learnt is that abuse has as much to do with what you don't get as with what you do get.

"People who are abused get the message from their care-giver that they aren't worth caring for and that instills a deep sense of shame, a sense that they're not valuable. And so, in most cases, addiction tries to feed that hole."

The Promis Recovery Centre holds a different view about the roots of addiction. "A very large number of people have been abused and, therefore, a large number of our patients will have been abused," says Keith Burns of Promis. "However, we believe that the addiction is largely in the genes. We find that in excess of 90 per cent of cases, addiction runs in the family."

Both Life Works and Promis encourage the families of addicts to come to the centre. Life Works' family programme will be a week-long residential course, during which parents and partners will be educated about addiction and dysfunction. They will also face the issues that have devastated their children's or partners' lives.

"The aim is to develop communication skills and process old wounds," says Serratt. "We want to get them to the point where they can make peace. That may mean that they never speak again, but at least they will have said what they needed to say."

Life Works, like several other treatment centres in Britain, follows the 12-step programme developed by Alcoholics Anonymous. The key to this programme is that the addict must admit that they are powerless in the face of their addiction and put their faith in a "higher power". This "power" need not necessarily be God. Some addicts choose their self-help group as their higher power. A few have been known to choose a whisky bottle. The key, says Serratt, is that you cannot be your own "higher power".

"You have to remember that you are not running the show. One of my big problems was compulsive controlling," he says. "Eventually that cracks. People don't like being controlled."

At Life Works, he will be trying to get this message across to people just like his younger self. The centre will be running an "impaired executives and health care professionals programme" aimed at high-flyers such as bankers, lawyers and doctors.

"These are tough cookies to crack. Most impaired executives - and I'd include myself in that group - think they are God. And it's worked for them: that's why they got so successful," he says.

"They think they're different and special - not like the rest of the junkies or alcoholics. A lot of their treatment has to do with what we call ego reduction." One of the keys to this will be the fact that many of the staff at the centre - whether therapists or support workers - are ex-addicts. "When you are confronting an addict, you get a lot of respect if they know that you've been there," he says. Serratt hopes to attract people from all backgrounds, with a wide range of addictions, to the centre. "It's important to show people that we are all addicts; we are all the same," he says.

On the centre's website, potential clients are told that recovery from their dependency can be "more than just a liberation from our addiction; it will pave the way to a life beyond our wildest dreams."

How can Serratt make that claim? "It's not about what a lot of people think are their wildest dreams," he says. "It's not about boats and Caribbean islands. It's about serenity and peace of mind."

Time will tell whether his centre can deliver on that promise.