A combination of life experiences led Steven Eickelberg to become a physician and an addiction psychiatrist. He knew he wanted to be a doctor by the time he reached junior high, he says: He enjoyed science, his mother was a nurse, and a family friend — a “kind, generous, and warm” small-town doctor — influenced Eickelberg deeply.
But one factor was pivotal: In 1987, Eickelberg, by then practicing primary care and occupational medicine in Oregon, entered treatment for his own opioid and alcohol addiction. It wasn’t the stresses of the profession that sparked the problem, he says: “It was my own natural propensity to addiction — something in my brain.”
Experts were just starting to recognize addiction’s neurobiological roots when Eickelberg made his recovery and took a year off to re-evaluate his life. Today, scientific awareness has transformed the field, and as medical director of the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, he’s working hard to help doctors understand both the physiology and the psychology of the disease and the process of recovery.
Evidence now shows, for example, that certain medications work best for detoxing from certain drugs, but that “no single type of treatment is appropriate for everyone,” Eickelberg says. Studies also confirm addiction coexists with depression and other psychosocial factors: “We knew it ran in families,” he says, “but now we see there’s a relationship between adverse childhood experiences and risk for chronic disease.”
Psychotherapy with non-addicted family members was a big part of Eickelberg’s previous practice in Arizona, where some of his substance abuse patients were athletes and airline pilots. “It can be devastating, especially for spouses in a longtime relationship,” he notes, “to attempt to control something in a loved one that’s out of control.” He’s particularly proud of Betty Ford’s family and children’s programs, which help children even if a parent is not in treatment: “It’s been life-changing for these kids.”
The chance to direct the center’s physician fellowship training program was a big factor in his move to the desert in July 2014. ‘“One of my passions is to prevent the harm being done to patients by physicians who lack the knowledge and training to treat addiction,” he says. “Physicians as a rule don’t understand addiction: how to recognize it in a patient, or, if they do, what to do. I want to continue educating physicians so we can help people get back to leading happy and purposeful lives.”
VIDEO: A conversation with Dr. Steve Eickelberg