Steve Sarkisian, Rehab and the Troubles of Addiction


The University of Southern California is no stranger to controversy. If ever there was a time when USC and controversy didn’t go hand in hand, everyone has long since forgotten it.

The 24-hour news cycle has created a need for round-the-clock content, and bigger programs should expect that any decently-sized story will have ripple effects.

Those programs should also expect that journalists are going to keep digging on a story, even if it feels like the story has gotten out of hand. This is exactly what’s happening with Pat Haden, head coach Steve Sarkisian, and the Trojans right now.

Locally, the Sarkisian investigation appears to be gathering steam. The Orange County Register was calling for Sarkisian’s termination as of yesterday.

The Los Angeles Times took their questions to various academics across the nation.

The Daily Trojan, team-based recruiting sites, and the Daily News have also posted their takes and opinion on the situation, some supportive and others not that supportive.

On a national level, whether it was Kevin Sumlin’s unintentional (maybe) tweet about “Sark after Dark” or Desmond Howard’s mocking of Sarkisian’s punishment, there are a lot of strong opinions out there on USC’s handling of the situation.

Washington state journalistic outlets have begun posting a detailed history of Sarkisian’s drinking at previous universities, and California news outlets don’t appear to be showing any signs of dropping their investigations either. Even, a New Orleans based publication, had an opinion to offer on the Sarkisian situation.

Journalists’ reading and weighing of the evidence on Sarkisian will vary. A colleague of mine at Bleacher Report, Ben Kercheval, had a very reasoned and logical take on Sarkisian’s contrition and what it should mean for the bigger picture.

At the risk of taking a fantastically nuanced column and reducing it to a point, Kercheval’s thesis was that Sarkisian had owned up to his mistake. It’s also worth noting that Kercheval laid out in his piece that it was not a defense of Sarkisian. Either way, with all due respect to Ben, Sarkisian’s taking ownership is where I get off the bus.

Before I even get into the meat of the article, I would like to make it clear that I don’t know what Steve Sarkisian needs and I’m not going to suggest a course of treatment for him.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

I do not possess the appropriate schooling to diagnose his problems. These are issues that Sarkisian is going to have to confront. I’m not here to suggest his termination or his suspension, either. I don’t really have an opinion on that, to be honest.

It’s worth repeating: I’m not here to judge Steve Sarkisian or the opinions of people who have taken a strong approach

In the interest of being fair, I have already done my judging of people’s writings in a previous column for CFB Huddle, albeit for much different set of reasons than those I want to discuss today.

Each person has a unique set of life circumstances that help to shape and form their belief systems. Academics call this Sociology, but humanity often just refers to it as life experience.

For me, it ended up being a little of both, and that’s part of why I’m telling this story. The other half of me is telling this story because I think any discussion based around rehab and treatment should be more nuanced than it often ends up being.

This brings me back to Kercheval’s column. In essence, Kercheval is pushing for an open and honest discussion about Sarkisian’s problems.

Rather than hopping on the dogpile, Kercheval chose to sift through the intense emotion of the subject matter in an effort to find important truths, and he did an excellent job of keeping the conversation focused on the issue of seeking help and admitting that one needs help. It’s very easy to overlook the importance of doing this, so kudos to Kercheval for being up to the task.

That said, I’m not sure I can come along with Kercheval’s notion that Sarkisian accepted personal responsibility for the matter. As something of an expert in this field, Sarkisian’s apology sounded a lot different to me than it likely did to a lot of other people.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

To me, Sarkisian’s comments were the exact opposite of accepting responsibility. In many ways, they were atypical of what you’d hear from the mouth of someone refusing to take their problem seriously.

But before I get into any of that, I suppose I should lay out why I consider myself an expert on the subject of avoiding personal responsibility.

Anyone* who follows me would probably be shocked to learn that I was a jackass of epic proportions when I was younger (* – nobody).

Much of my childhood anger was borne out of being given up for adoption and abandoned by my mother and father. My grandmother sought legal guardianship of me at the age of three and was given that status by the court, but she never fully adopted me and I remained a ward of the state until I was 18. This will be important in just a minute.

After my grandfather died of a sudden heart attack on Halloween, things sort of fell apart for my grandmother, and our relationship began to suffer as a result.

She began to spend less time with me and more time with her singles groups. Similarly, I began to spend more time with my friends and out of the house. I eventually got tired of the situation and approached my birth mother about coming to live with her. A few short months later, we were off to Virginia and my life was about to become drastically different.

Things fell apart spectacularly for both of us in Virginia, and I do mean spectacularly. I wound up being sent to the first of many group homes and treatment centers I would inhabit, and my mother was admitted to a treatment center of her own.

I was thousands of miles away from everything I knew and I was about to be thrown in and out of facilities I didn’t even know existed.

A list of homes and treatment centers I’ve inhabited: Orangewood, College Hospital Costa Mesa, Provo Canyon School, Linden Center, Tidewater Detention Hall — did you know they can send you to juvenile hall from a group home if they don’t think you’re making enough progress? Neither did I, but being a ward of the state allowed them to do that.

I was thousands of miles away from everything I knew and I was about to be thrown in and out of facilities I didn’t even know existed.

The point I’m trying to make here is that I’ve been in just about every type of facility you can imagine.

It wasn’t too long before I was placed in the crown jewel of treatment centers, a place called Provo Canyon School. If you’ve never heard of it, consider yourself fortunate.

Colorado used to send people from their juvenile detention system to Provo, so you know that some badass stuff went down in there. When I finally did well enough in the program to get a discharge, they sent me to another group home in Los Angeles and eventually I ended up at another in San Diego.

I kept running away from the group home in San Diego because behavioral treatment at that group home was getting your ass kicked or getting faded with the counselors.

My group home had a counselor that we’ll just call Shucky Duck. Sucky brought me two forties and a blunt for my 16th birthday because rehab.

As you could imagine, treatment was slow-going in San Diego and I ended up going backward rather than forward. I eventually started running away and living on a beach in Oceanside and they’d keep bringing me back until I demanded a return to Provo.

Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

I was in Provo for about three years, but that occurred over two stays. The first one was about 2.5 years and the second time was just long enough for me to graduate high school, about six months.

Somewhere along this crazy journey, my mind opened up and I discovered my academic side. You might not believe this, but I was taking classes in polar graphing, calculus, and zoology while all of this was going on. I was discovering something that would one day save my life and turn it completely around.

Provo was an interesting facility. My experience definitely differed from those you’ll read about online, but it was a lasting experience.

To this day, I can still tell you the number I was assigned when I was in Provo. We had to have numbers written on all our clothes; that was how they knew an item belonged to you. If you had a watch, the number would be engraved on the back, clothing got the Sharpie treatment, and jewelry was cataloged and photographed. I was number 116.

I was discovering something that would one day save my life and turn it completely around.

While I can definitely confirm that the vast majority of the allegations lobbed against Provo are true, I can also say that the schooling there changed my life forever.

It’s something I hold very dear, even though the whole of my experience was less than pleasant. As you’d expect in a facility like Provo, everything we did was subject to a mental health plan and treatment evaluation. I had two therapists during my time there because I couldn’t stand the first one. But if I’m being honest about the situation years later, she probably would have been the better choice for tough and honest therapy. Anyhow, back to the matter at hand.

One of the things we had drilled into our heads during my time in Provo was the idea of accepting personal responsibility for our actions.

Many of these conversations took place during required substance abuse meetings. These meetings frequently featured guest speakers, and most of them were people who had been there, done that. Time and time again, these recovering addicts and alcoholics shared with us what helped them recover and avoid repeat behavior.

How does any of this relate to Sarkisian? Not one of those addicts or alcoholics ever tip-toed around the subject of their addiction.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

In other words, you never heard one of them get up and say “I don’t believe so” when asked if they had a problem with alcohol.

There was never a lingering doubt about whether they needed rehab, and they certainly weren’t waiting for a treatment center to tell them they had a problem. In most of their stories, it was the people in their lives who were urging them to get help that they were ignoring. It’s what addicts do. The problem is everyone else’s until we’ve decided that it’s ours.

Small newsflash: people in need of rehab are told all the time that they need rehab, but that doesn’t mean they go and seek help.

You cannot make a change if you have not identified the problem. Nobody else can tell you that something is a problem until you choose to see it for yourself.

Sarkisian doesn’t need rehab to tell him whether or not he needs help.

A man who accepts responsibility ought to be self-reflective enough to see a pattern of abuse in his life. I had to decide for myself that I wanted to make a change, and the first step toward accomplishing that goal was to admit that I had problems.

Alcoholics Anonymous drives this point home pretty damn clearly in their first step.

“We admitted we were powerless over drugs and alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.”

Do you see how little wiggle room that step leaves for phrases like “I don’t even know” and “I don’t believe so?” It’s about as cut and dry as it gets, and that is an essential component of any form of rehabilitation.

You cannot make a change if you have not identified the problem, and nobody else can tell you that something is a problem until you choose to see it for yourself. It’s a brutal life lesson often requiring repeated failures before it sinks in, many times by hitting rock bottom.

Sarkisian is smart man. A degree from BYU and a PR team to help you prepare for a press conference like this should be enough to help him navigate a situation like this without actually having to turn his attention to whether or not this is an issue for him.

I’m not too different from Sarkisian, and I could often talk my way out a good number of jams by saying and telling people all the right things. The one survival skill I learned very quickly in Provo was how to play the contrition game.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The more eloquently you can state your apology, the more contrite you appear to be. But the two do not always go hand in hand.

Therapists in Provo, the good ones, caught on to those of us who used this tactic repeatedly. Even so, there is an inherent ambiguity in these types of apologies, because we are trained to look for certain cues in them. People look for powerful phrasing and associate this with contrition.

Sarkisian offering up the pills when people only knew about the alcohol had to mean something, right?

Yeah, it was a great distraction from the fact that he was also unsure about whether he drinks too often or takes pills too often. Who else would know that, Steve?

Even if someone else did have that answer, there’s a strong chance that Sarkisian has heard it before. I lost track of the number of people who said anything from “are you sure you’re okay?” to “dude, you may wanna take a day off.”

To be clear, only Sarkisian knows if he has a problem and only Sarkisian knows if he needs rehab.

But Sarkisian knows. I knew.

At the end of the day, most of us would tell you that we always knew, we were just trying to fool ourselves or convince ourselves that the problem wasn’t as big as other people were making it. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t, but we always knew which was which.

Accepting responsibility and admitting you did something are often seen as one and the same thing. But they most certainly are not.

Only Sarkisian knows if he has a problem and only Sarkisian knows if he needs rehab.

Accepting responsibility is often preceded by a detailed explanation of the root causes of the behavior, along with a willingness to address these problems in great detail with those affected by the behavior, whenever possible.

Admitting something is a lot easier than accepting responsibility for it because the individual accepting responsibility must also wear the shame of what they did–almost to a fault. I was always able to admit the behaviors that landed me in Provo, but accepting responsibility for them and initiating change didn’t happen until much later in life.

At a certain point, Sarkisian is going to have to ask himself if he is ready to make a change. Otherwise, it’s only a matter of time before the pattern repeats itself.

Until I was able to consciously identify behaviors and address them as they came up, there was no possible way I could even begin to think about making positive changes. It actually became easier to stand up in front of people and issue an apology for my behavior than to admit to myself and others that I needed help.

There’s no way for me to know if that’s what Sarkisian did when he issued his apology. If he’s as good as I was, nobody will ever know until he tells them.

All I know for sure is that I’ve been around group homes, mental health facilities, foster homes, and treatment centers for the vast majority of my time on earth. None of them had a treatment program for the kind of ambiguous language that Sarkisian dropped last week.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

I also can’t tell you if Sarkisian has a problem. I’m not foolish enough to look at something like a restaurant bar bill and assume that means Sarkisian has a drinking problem. I’ve personally handed out bills that size before, and I can tell you that bills that large are a concentrated group effort.

All I know is that I used to do things like this all the time when I was cutting loose, and it eventually added up.

Speaking of adding up tabs, it may not be today, it may not be tomorrow, but eventually the little problem is going to become a big problem if it isn’t addressed. I know that routine well because I lived it.

I can’t tell you a lot of things about this Sarkisian situation because the vast majority of them are things only Sarkisian and his loved ones would truly know.

I can’t tell you why we aren’t having more nuanced and research-based discussions on these types of behaviors.

Eventually the little problem is going to become a big problem if it isn’t addressed.

I don’t know why marketing professors have an opinion on something like this, and I couldn’t tell you if it has merit.

I can’t say a lot of things about this situation, so I am not going to try because the situation calls for better.

I can tell you a lot of things about Provo, however. I can tell you all the different treatment programs they tried on me, all the different therapy groups they suggested, and all the stumbles I had along the way.

I can tell you that I drank like a fish throughout college and it took a lot of life lessons and failures before I realized the only way anything was going to change is if I discovered the root of my problems and dealt with them.

The trouble with doing that is that you have to admit a lot of messed up things on the road to being free. I know that journey is hard, but it always starts with an admission of the problem and a willingness to meet it head on, even if it is an uncomfortable truth.

The only thing I can tell you for sure about Sarkisian is that he believes he doesn’t have a problem, I believe him when he says that, and the problem, if there is one, isn’t going to go away until he does.

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