BEVERLY — To understand why Charles Peabody spends his free time hanging out with drug addicts, it helps to know what privilege means to him.
Originally it meant growing up in Beverly with advantages: Caring parents, private schooling, and a blueblood lineage that included Senator Henry Cabot Lodge . But none of that kept him from becoming a pill-popping, heroin-sniffing addict who’d get high before work, on highways, and in packed commuter rail cars until dope almost killed him.
True privilege came later at age 28, says Peabody, now 35, an investor and author of “The Privileged Addict,’’ which went on sale last summer. It involved learning to be a changed person, who’s recovered from desires to use drugs and who no longer uses and abuses people.
Now, Peabody is sharing that privilege with as many addicts as possible, including about 20 he sponsors on the North Shore. Massachusetts ranks among the 10 states with highest rates of illicit drug use, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration .
He’s also challenging some conventional wisdom about treating addictions.
“Mainstream treatment methods take the teeth out of recovery,” says Peabody, who speaks from experience. Patients “get group therapy, role-play, and good meals, but there isn’t much talk of actually turning your entire life over to the will of God. The spiritual component and the solution [to addiction] are absent.”
“The Privileged Addict” gives a vivid, disturbing account of Peabody becoming a drink-till-you-black-out alcoholic in boarding school and turning into a junkie for opiates. As years passed, Peabody says, his moral character decayed with his body. He confesses having lied to his wife, pretending to play golf and sneaking off instead to find his dealer. While holding down a job in real estate, he stumbled from one crisis to the next: car accidents, stints in detox, buying dope from strangers who looked as sickly as he did. At 6 foot 2 inches, he went from weighing 210 pounds to as little as 140.
Clinical treatments didn’t work, Peabody recalls. Their reliance on pharmaceutical and talk therapies, he says, only fed his selfish need for comfort and his talent for talking around the real issues. What finally worked was a program in New Hampshire, where addicts rigorously apply steps to recovery, such as surrendering to a higher power and making amends, as prescribed in “Alcoholics Anonymous,” called “The Big Book,” first published in 1939 and still widely used today.
“It was only by expelling the poisons of selfishness, dishonesty, and self-seeking that I was going to be able to really repair myself,” Peabody says. “That is ultimately what fixed my mind and what freed me.”
Peabody is no Bible-thumping holy roller. He doesn’t attend church, but instead seeks God through prayer, meditation, and religiously practicing the 12 steps as prescribed in The Big Book. His spiritual community consists of others who do likewise.
“The Privileged Addict” is now giving him a platform to confront what he sees as tragic shortcomings in addiction treatment systems. Readers have bought some 500 copies online, he says. He’s spoken in recent weeks at support groups for parents of addicts in Gloucester and Salem.
But experts say treatments that Peabody criticizes aren’t as ineffective as he suggests.
Consider clinical treatment programs, where health care workers use drugs such as Naltrexone and Methadone to help wean addicts off substances and connect them with social workers and therapists. These don’t work for everyone, but they do help many people, according to Lee Ann Kaskutas, senior scientist at the The Alcohol Research Group of the Public Health Institute in Emeryville, Calif.
“Research has shown that treatment programs that give you Naltrexone or [other drugs] and talk therapy . . . are effective three years out,” Kaskutas says. But, she adds, “there’s concern in the field that these treatment programs give the impression that they have fixed people,” when in fact addicts need ongoing support after clinical treatment to prevent relapses.
Peabody also criticizes what he calls “watered-down” AA groups, where the 12 steps are posted on a wall but not applied methodically in the lives of attendees. He calls it a “disservice” when attendees are told they can never fully recover and should trust in the power of sponsors and meetings, rather than rely on a higher power and the hard work of 12 steps to keep them sober day to day.
But research shows other factors to be more effective than rigorous application of the 12 steps, according to Kaskutas. She says the strongest predictors of sustained sobriety through AA are whether a person has a sponsor, has a social network that consists of nondrinkers, and is committed to service.
“We haven’t got strong evidence [to show] that actually working through the 12 steps [is] a determinant of future recovery,” says John Kelly, associate director of the Center for Addiction Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. Even so, he adds, some people might “recover by very strict adherence to [the 12 steps] and really focusing on changing their character.”
Example: Pat Smith, 23, of Wakefield. He recalls his teenage years in Peabody as a blurry time in which he spent every day “either trying to get high or trying to stop getting high.” After detox programs, he couldn’t stay sober for more than a few days. Mainstream AA meetings left him thinking the sober life was a miserable one spent barely holding on from one meeting to the next.
Desperate and willing to try anything, Smith trusted Peabody’s advice to enter a rigorous 12-step program and live for a purpose: To help other addicts recover. In taking the step of making amends, he fearfully knocked on a friend’s door and confessed he’d stolen about $30,000 from him. When the man said, ‘You don’t owe me anything, and you’re always welcome here,’ he knew he’d crossed a threshold.
“For the first time, I had this overwhelming feeling that I was never going to use again, and I didn’t,” says Smith, who later worked at Number 16 , a community in Wakefield where as many as 33 male addicts rigorously practice the 12 steps. “It was the amends that did it.”
Jared Kusiak, 25, of Beverly, also swears by the steps taught to him by Peabody, whom he regards as a sponsor and friend. He has a job as a plumber, a fiancée, and a newborn son, but as a teenager, he was a homeless drug addict in Minneapolis. AA didn’t help him, he says, because he needed hope and character reform but instead just heard “drunks and drug addicts talking about how miserable they are.”
“Meetings would never keep me sober,” Kusiak says. “It’s more about what I’m doing in my life . . . doing the right thing and being a good person. It’s just a way of life.”
The AA Central Service Committee of Eastern Mass. declined to comment for this story. Its website lists more than 75 weekly step meetings on the North Shore. Step meetings emphasize doing the 12 steps and generally include reading from The Big Book, as well as a personal testimony.
Kaskutas argues that because step meetings are common, addicts have many opportunities to follow the steps vigilantly in a supportive setting. But Peabody doesn’t see step meetings as necessarily sufficient.
“I have no problem with 12-step meetings,” he says, “but I have never met a recovered person in any of the [step] meetings I’ve been to. I’ve never met anyone who has taken steps the way they were written and intended back in the 1930s. . . . Talking, studying, and having knowledge does not fix us. Action does.”