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Akshay Nanavati

Men in the army

 

Overcame addiction
Became a leader in the self motivation industry.

Akshay Nanavati is a Marine Corps Veteran, speaker, adventurer, and entrepreneur. After overcoming addiction, Akshay enlisted in the Marines. After his service he had wrote the book Fearvana. Fearvana gets the reader to change they way they traditionally perceive fear and stress.

Interview

I read that you were in your teens when you were first exposed to drugs. Can you tell us more about that experience?

Yes. So I had moved to Austin, Texas, at around 13 years old from India and Singapore, so by the time I had moved to Austin, I had lived in four different cities, Bombay, Bangalore, Singapore, Austin. So as a result I was very lost, I wasn’t sure who I was, who I wanted to be. I didn’t have a path. I wasn’t one of those kids who you know, knew what I wanted to be from a very young age, and I was very adaptable. Adaptability to this day is one of my strengths, but like any strengths, your strengths can also be your shadows. So being someone who’s adaptable, I got into a group of friends, and you know I, today I take responsibility for my actions and my behavior, but back then as a young kid, you’re very impressionable, and you are, you get adapted into your environment, so I got into a group of friends, and we started going from alcohol to marijuana to much, much harder stuff, and I was always this kind of person who was pushing the line, so to this day I’m still that same person, now I just do it in positive ways. But I was always pushing the line to do things in a very extreme way, so even before I came to Austin, you know I remember in Singapore I used to run barefoot on rocks to test myself, or I remember when I was in India and as a kid I used to play rugby, every time I got cut I loved these cuts as a battle scar, you know, so I always the person pushing the line. So when we got into drugs, me and one other friend of mine, we were the first two to start going from alcohol to marijuana to harder drugs, and he’s no longer alive today as a result of that, and I lost two friends to drug addiction. And I was headed down that path, I was in a very dark place. I used to cut myself. I still have the scars on my arm from cutting myself. Burning myself. I have a scar right here from burning myself. Very self-destructive, did a lot of self-destructive things that sometimes I can’t believe I made it out alive. I mean throwing knives up in the air, not in a professional way. Trying to catch them, I mean, driving cars 60 miles an hour down a steep hill in a residential neighborhood. Not only did I not kill myself, but thankfully, more importantly, I didn’t hurt anybody else. So I was in a very, very, very dark way, I was at a point in my life that I would have done any drug that came my way. I was the one pushing the line you know, as I am today, but again in healthier ways, but any, I wanted to explore the extremes in every single context so I was the one doing these intense, crazy things, you know? And that’s what kind of drove me down into that dark path, which leads me to the next question.

What was the spark moment that drove your decision to join the Marines?

I was watching the movie “Black Hawk Down”, and I still remember that evening. We were about to do another evening of getting drunk and doing drugs, and one friend wanted to go see the movie, but nobody else wanted to go, and I was like “Alright Luis, I’ll go with you.” And watching that movie, I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie, but watching that movie planted the seed that changed my life. Watching these, these Medal of Honor recipients, Gary Gordon and Randy Shughart, who sacrificed their lives for Michael Durant, knowingly putting themselves in an incredibly hostile situation, in front of, two people in front of a thousand armed enemy personnel, knowingly doing that. It was awe-inspiring, you know? The capacity for human courage. The limitlessness of the human spirit to transcend ourselves, to put our own lives on the line in service of something greater was profound, and so after watching the book, I mean after watching the movie “Black Hawk Down”, I read the book “Black Hawk Down”, right after it. My friend who I went and saw the movie with, he had the book. He loaned me the book, I read “Black Hawk Down” and started reading book after book after book after book on military and life in combat, and pretty much overnight stopped doing drugs, and decided to join the Marines. It took me about a year and a half to get into the Marines, because I have a blood disorder that two doctors told me would kill me in Marine Corp bootcamp, so I have a blood disorder, I have flat feet, I have scoliosis, and so I had to get all these medical waivers to join, and that’s why it took a little bit of time to finally, to get into the Marines. But the “Black Hawk Down” was the spark, and then just, it just made me realize that I was living a very selfish and meaningless existence, and I wanted to live in a institution where the good of the group mattered more than the individual, where you get to experience, again this was in a way just my own personality of exploring the edges, exploring the extremes, and now channel that into war, to go into the Marines, because I was an infantry Marine.

Tell us about your time in Iraq. Do you think this is where the spark moment happened for the Fearvana concept?

So leading to your next question about my time in Iraq. I was an infantry Marine, so being infantry Marines in the front lines, we were in a place called Haditha. I had many different jobs out there, I did a lot there, you know. But one of my jobs at one point when I was in Iraq was to walk in front of our vehicle convoys, looking for IEDs, Improvised Explosive Devices, bombs, looking for IEDs before they could be used to kill me and my fellow Marines, so a pretty dangerous job, as you might imagine. But when I was there you know, it wasn’t wild, wild, west it wasn’t firefights happening regularly. We had rounds going off all the time around us, and we had rockets, IEDs, that was our big threat, the biggest threat was the IEDs. So you know, it was intense, it was war. So obviously experienced a lot of adversity, but I learned to find peace in the chaos of war. I learned to, that even when you can’t control the world around you, because I was in war and I was a Marine, so if you’re told to go do something, if you’re told to go on a mission, it doesn’t matter how tired you are. It doesn’t matter how many days you’ve been on a mission without days off. It doesn’t matter how you feel, you go do it. So I learned to find peace and to control my attitude when I could not control my actions, when I could not choose my actions, and you can’t choose your actions as a young non commissioned officer in Iraq. So I learned to shape my attitude. Victor Frankl’s book “Man’s Search for Meaning” has had a tremendous impact in my life. He says you know, when you can’t change your circumstance, you’re challenged to change your own attitude. The last of human freedoms is to choose one’s own attitude in any given set of circumstances, and that’s what I did. I ultimately changed my attitude and found me peace in the chaos of war. And I don’t know if that was a spark moment that happened for “Fearvana”, because even before I joined, before I went to Iraq, and after joining the Marines and stopping drugs, I started finding other ways to test myself. And keep in mind, before I got into drugs when I was a kid I was terrified of everything. I was terrified of Ferris Wheels, not even roller coasters, Ferris Wheels, everything. So obviously I’ve taken a 180, so after joining the Marines, I started looking for other ways to test myself, to challenge myself, so I went mountain climbing, cave diving, skydiving, bungee jumping, scuba diving, you know, rock climbing, ice climbing. I mean you name it, nature became my playground to push myself, to explore my fears, to engage fear. And it’s not that I was, that I was fearless, I was scared of doing all of these things, of heights, of everything. But I did them to test myself, to push myself, to grow. So in a way I was living this “Fearvana” lifestyle, from all of these dangerous sports I was doing, the outdoor sports, and I fractured four bones in three months from rock climbing and skydiving, so you know, I was doing some dangerous stuff. I’ve almost been killed multiple times, not just in war. But, in fact, in war I found out 10 years after the war that my vehicle drove over an active IED, but for some reason it didn’t explode. You know, crazy to find that out, but anyway so I had kind of got into it, so in the sense that you know, it wasn’t, I wasn’t necessarily doing this all consciously. It wasn’t, I was living this life, but the “Fearvana” concept hadn’t been fully crystallized yet.

After your time in the Marines, I read that you experienced addiction once again years after. What were the hardest moments?

So after my time in the Marines that I did experience addiction again, I stopped, I completely stopped drugs after high school, but I was drinking a lot in college. After I came back from the Marines I went to finish my undergrad, my senior year, and then I went to grad school. I was always a great student. I got a full scholarship to one of the best journalism schools in the country for grad school, always a B to A minus student, you know B plus to A minus kind of student. Did enough to make sure I got good grades, and you know college student, so drinking during the weekends, partying hard, right? So I never really saw it as a problem because I still trained, I still got everything done. But when I drank, I drank hard. You know, I drank hard. It was not a, you know initially in college, it might have been just a Friday, or maybe sometimes a Friday and Saturday, but I drank hard. And then eventually, after coming out of grad school, I had a corporate job for a year and a half. Hated the job. After the job I spent one month dragging a 190 pound sled for 350 miles across the world’s second largest ice cap, at temperatures as low as minus 40 degrees. Amazing expedition, but the truth be told looking back now, I realize that I was just doing everything I could to run away from myself, to run away from my demons, to run away from confronting my own darkness, my own survivor’s guilt, my own feelings of inadequacy, that I haven’t suffered enough during in the war to earn my place on this planet. I haven’t been shot, I didn’t lose a limb. Who was I to have lived this life, to be alive? And so I was looking for, I was looking to keep going at the edges, exploring Greenland was just one way of going into the edge. Going into an extreme environment, where you could die, and a British explorer died the following year of my crossing so, you know, it was an extreme environment, so I was just channeling that. So when I came back from Greenland, now with no job, no Marines, no expedition, because I didn’t have much money to afford an expedition anymore. I was building my business, and business was kind of going good. I’ve was always, I’ve always been a been a very driven person. But the drinking, without the external structure imposed upon me, the drinking started going from one day, to two days, to three days, to four days. Eventually, I mean I’ve been at a point man, where I would drink like a full bottle of vodka a day, and just drink until I passed out, and then wake up again and drink again until, you know, this would go on for five to seven days until, I mean I’ve been at point in my life that I was throwing up in the toilet, and I have flashes of memories of this, and right after I’d throw up, there’s a bottle sitting on the shelf, and I would drink again. I mean just a dark place. There’s nothing pleasant about that drinking obviously. So, I mean those are some hard moments, being that in that low, going through the withdrawals, the withdrawals were brutal after some of these sessions. And the darkest moment when I was on, well actually I’ve had some darker moments since, but I was at the verge of suicide. After one of these binge sessions, I woke up and was about to go to the kitchen and pick up a knife and slit my own wrists. So that was very, very, very dark. So that kind of answers that question about what life was turning into during this time of my life. “

What did it feel like when you were no longer the driver of your life?

You know, I mean, at first it wasn’t, again a big problem, because business was growing and I was just drinking one day, two days, but it got to a point where I was getting really bad, and I would go through these binges and I would be like, “All right, you need to stop. Clearly something is wrong.” But then a week, two weeks, three weeks, whatever later I would go right back into the binge, and my problem was, because again, I could never control it. I mean, if I drank, I drank hard. And then once, when you wake up the next day after a day of drinking, you don’t want to awaken to that chaos of the mind, so you just start drinking again. Until finally you have to confront it, and then you go through those horrible, horrible withdrawals. And so, I mean it was a really, you know, it was a horrible time. I was married, but I was mostly hiding this, you know, because when my wife was around, I would like, she knew I drank, but you know, I would maybe have a couple of beers in front of us. Right now I’m no longer married, but I would only have a couple of beers in front of her, but I would then drink, when I’d go to the bathroom I would hide my vodka under the bathroom sink. And then when she would go to bed, I would be like, you know she always knew, I’ve always been a night owl, I like to work at night. So she would go to bed earlier and I would be like, “I’m just gonna hang out and stay up.” So I managed to find ways to sneak, to sneak around my drinking pretty well, and we had a great marriage. I wasn’t obviously abusive or anything like that. None of that. We had a great marriage. She loved me, I loved her. Why it ended had nothing to do with my drinking, that’s a whole different story I won’t get into, because at this point I had sobered up, and then it ended for very much different reasons. But I was managing to sneak it, the binge drinking would happen when she was traveling. Maybe she was in India visiting family. That was my opportunity to go crazy. It was dark, I mean it was, it felt horrible, and I was just running away from confronting myself, and what happened was, you know at this point, I had gone to the VA, the Veteran Affairs doctor, because to be very frank with you, my wife and I were struggling, I was struggling physically, sexually, and it wasn’t a physical issue, it was nothing that, it was a psychological issue. So that was the point my wife finally said, “Look, let’s go find out what’s going on.” So that was when I finally went to the VA. I can’t remember what year this was, it’s all a blur now. But I finally went to the VA, and that’s when they diagnosed me with PTSD, and I was starting to see the therapist, but every time I would leave the VA, I would go straight to the liquor store, you know? And I was in a dark place. I mean, it just felt, everything felt awful. I hated it. Obviously at this point, when the drinking started going up, obviously business was starting to slow down, as it happens, obviously right?

When was your spark moment to change?

Business was getting worse and worse and worse. Until I hit that really, that really low moment when I was on the brink of suicide, that was the spark moment to change, kind of leading to your next question, that was the spark moment when I hit the brink of suicide. And it wasn’t a, it wasn’t a slow climb up. I mean it wasn’t a rapid, it wasn’t like I hit that moment of being you know, on the verge of suicide and suddenly everything changed. That wasn’t it at all. I mean, it was a slow, dark climb out of that abyss, an arduous climb. I drank after that moment, it’s not that that was the last time I ever drank. I fell back into the pit, but I was learning from every time, I was learning from every moment, I was learning from every fall, and just getting better, getting better, getting better. I started delving into research on neuroscience, on psychology, and spirituality.

Who were the people in your life that helped you through recovery?

My wife obviously helped, and my family helped. I had a great support. Jack Canfield, “Chicken Soup for the Soul” author, has been an incredible mentor of mine. He helped a great deal, his work helped me a great deal in sobering up and confronting my demons. But a lot of it also was just doing my own research, and having to go, here’s the thing, you know, like it is invaluable to have support, but you have to be willing to go there. This is a big thing I’ve seen with addicts that I’ve worked with, and with other people is that, yeah obviously the support is good, but a lot of the times, I mean, all of the support in the world won’t mean anything unless you go into those spaces that you’re not willing to confront. And that’s the thing, there’s no easy path out. You have to go into the dark spaces, so I had to confront my survivor’s guilt. I had to confront my feelings of inadequacy about not having suffered enough in the war. And I started to learn all kinds of stuff that led me to “Fearvana”. You know, I can maybe get into that, just looking at your questions.

Do you have a specific memory that’s particularly powerful that helped launch writing “Fearvana?”

So you know, when I was doing all of this work and finally started getting better, and actually for a little while I was moderating alcohol. You know? And I learned to moderate for a little bit, but the problem was little triggers would hit, and then eventually I would you know, just go deep into the pit, like let’s say watching a war movie or something. And so eventually I realized my, in history everything about my life, it’s pretty clear that I’m not very good at moderation. I mean today I’m an Ultra runner right? So I don’t do anything in moderation. Which can be an asset, that’s why I believe addicts can be some of the most powerful human beings as they channel that addiction into a healthy way. You know I’ve always realized, or at least recently, I’ve realized over the last few years that either I’m gonna end up dead in a ditch with alcohol and drugs, or I’m gonna change the world and do something magnificent. There’s no middle ground with me. It’s just the nature of the beast. So what lead to “Fearvana” was me chatting with Jack Canfield, as I mentioned, a mentor, and I asked him, “What would you have done differently in your career?”, and he said, “I would have written my book sooner.”, because the impact of his book, the amount of lives his book has changed. So that inspired me to write a book, and I was like, “All right.” “What am I, what do I write about?” “What do I want to share with the world?”, and that’s what led to make “Fearvana”. My ex-wife coined the term “Fearvana”, but I had been living the idea, and she just crystallized this concept by giving it a name. But I was really living this ethos of you know, using fear as a vehicle for bliss. I don’t need to go into it, it sounds like you’ve seen my interviews, so I don’t need to go too much into it.

Tell us more about your spiritual journey and how it impacted your recovery.

I mean it was everything, the spiritual path of confronting my darkness, confronting my demons. Yeah going into those spaces, learning, just the flaws in, you know the people at the VA were good people, really cared, but I just learned that they were operating from a bad playbook, as a lot of forms of mental health today are, a lot of forms of therapy are, they’re operating from a very bad playbook in how they approach it. I mean, fundamentally, mental health is often, the belief is that mental health means the absence of tension, the absence of stress, the absence of anxiety, and it means being in inner peace, being in calm, and that’s nonsense. Like, that’s not what mental health is. You know, one of my sort of things that I always say is that inner peace is not the absence of chaos or conflict, inner peace is the acceptance of them, and you have to embrace the chaos. I learned to make my guilt work for me. For a long time I had a picture of my friend that I lost up in war, that I lost in the war, I had a picture of him and me up on my wall, and it said “This should have been you.” “Earn this life.” So your darkness can become your greatest allies, and you gotta go, you gotta go into those spaces, and there’s nothing easy about that journey. I just think, I mean, forget about just addicts. People in today’s world don’t want to go into spaces of pain. We do everything to avoid pain, but you gotta go into pain in order to go on the other side of that pain. It’s like, I mean, another one of my mantras, if you will, is you choose an easy life, you’re only gonna get a hard life. If you choose the hard thing, you will find easy. So you gotta seek out hard to find easy or choose easy and you’ll find hard. I mean, that’s, you know, addiction your drinking is your running away. You’re doing the easy thing, because it’s this much easier to do this than it is to, and it’s hard, I mean like, I’m not saying that it’s easy when you’re sitting there throwing up drinking, but it’s much easier than confronting your demons. So you gotta go down that path. You gotta go into those spaces, and that’s what led to everything with “Fearvana”. I’m not sure if you read the book, but you know, I don’t need to go into the details about the concept the book covers at all.

What was your inspiration to join the self motivation industry?

So I kind of started it after joining the Marines, because when I got, joined the Marines and got into climbing and all this kind of stuff, I started studying “How do you build a better brain”, to handle these extreme adventures, and so when I first started building my business after coming back from Greenland, it was as a life coach. So joining the Marines was my entry way into the world of personal development, into the mindset of mastery, and then I got really into it after hitting that low moment on the verge of suicide, and then started devouring, I mean I must have read a hundred plus books to write “Fearvana”, you know devouring books. So that was kind of, just my natural progression. I mean almost, if you’re gonna seek out, if you’re gonna evolve and seek evolution from one place to the other, it’s almost natural you’ll get into personal development, right? Because that’s what personal development is, to grow. So after coming out of drugs and joining the Marines, I was looking to grow, that kind of, that was the initial point that led me to it.

So many would say starting a business is stressful, did that affect your recovery?

Absolutely. Life is stressful. Business is stressful. Everything is stressful. I broke my sobriety after getting divorced. After my divorce I ended up breaking my sobriety. You know, I wasn’t proud of it, but I went, and when I break, I break hard. You know, I broke hard. Binge drinking for days again, multiple times. So that’s what led me to do the seven days of darkness, where I went and spent seven days in darkness, isolation, and silence to go deeper within and find something. And that’s what led me to realizing a lot about, that I felt guilty. To this day I still wrestle with it, but I’ve learned to make it work for me, and now obviously, I’m completely sober. I learned to confront these feelings that I felt like, I’ve always felt guilty like, “Why do I get this life?”, “Why was I born to a good family?” I have great parents, couldn’t ask for a better life, better parents, when there’s so many people suffering in the world. I haven’t just gone through my own darkness, I’ve seen people in war zones, people in, who work with former child soldiers in post-conflict zones, women who’ve been raped, victims of sex trafficking, people in leper colonies, extreme poverty, you know? Seeing the depths of human suffering within and without, and that stays with you. I’ve lost Junior Marines to suicide, I’ve lost friends to addiction, I’ve lost friends in war. That stays with you. But life is stressful. That’s why, I mean the fundamental teaching of “Fearvana” is to develop a positive relationship to suffering. If you’re always going to run away from pain, addiction is a natural. I mean one of the, two friends that I lost from addiction and people I see struggling with it, you have to fill that void with something. You have to fill that void with something. You can’t just leave it empty, and that’s a big barrier with people, with addicts, is that you just try to leave it empty, and then you’re naturally gonna retreat. I mean, people, human beings, forget about just addicts, human beings, our brain is naturally lazy. It will retreat to the laziest and the easiest course of action. So we have to, and we live in a world that feeds into that garbage. I mean we live in a world that looks for easy, that preaches the easiest way out. I mean, you’ve seen all this nonsense, like “Walk 14 minutes a day and get six-pack abs.” Firstly, that’s just nonsense and it’s not true, and secondly, even if was true, it’s missing the whole point. It’s not about the six-pack abs, it’s not about the million dollars, it’s not about the house, it’s not about the car, it’s about the person we become on the journey and the person that we become, the evolution happens through the struggle, but we live in a world that demonizes struggle. I mean that’s the whole essence of “Fearvana”. We live in a world that says fear is bad, stress is bad, anxiety’s bad, adversity’s bad, suffering’s bad, pain is bad. And when I do talks, I often start a talk, we’ll say things like, fear, stress, anxiety, suffering, pain, adversity, how many people hear these words and think positive? Nobody thinks of them as positive words, and that’s the problem. That’s the problem. They’re not negative, they just are. Fear is not negative. Stress is not negative. It just is, and we can do whatever we want with it. There are no bad or good emotions. There are no bad or good experiences. There are only experiences, and there are only emotions. It’s up to us to decide what we do with them. So life is stressful, everything is stressful. But trying to run away from stress, which our society cultivates, I mean the whole ethos of an American culture we have a thing that says it’s about the pursuit of happiness. That itself is a deeply flawed concept. It’s not about pursuing happiness, because when you live in a world that promotes or says, “We should be pursuing happiness.”, then suffering becomes a barrier to the goal of happiness. The goal is not pursuing happiness, the goal is pursuing meaning. Pursuing meaning, or what I like to call your worthy struggle. Cause it is a struggle. I always like to say the question to ask is not about which passion do I follow, but which struggle am I willing to endure? Work a corporate job you hate, start a business. Start this business or that business. Stay in a relationship or be single. Every path, there’s going to be struggles. Drink or stop drinking? There’s going to be a struggle in both paths. Question is, which struggle are you willing to endure? But we live in a world that demonizes struggle, and nobody wants to confront their pain, so we do everything to avoid it, and that’s the fundamental problem.

I saw that you’re an avid runner and your goal is to run across every country in the world. Which countries have you hit so far?

So coming to your next question, forgive the rant, but I can go all day on this but, I am an avid runner. My goal, so I’ve done nine countries so far, Liberia was the last one, where I ran 167 miles, was about a marathon a day, across the country to help build a school out there, we also did humanitarian work out there to distribute water filters, school supplies. I worked with former child soldiers, drug addicts in the ghetto out there, just a deeply powerful and moving experience. We raised thousands of dollars to help build the first sustainable locational training school out there. Right now, just to give some clarity, that goal has kind of shifted, because I no longer, I only want to do runs where the run can be of service. Like for example, let’s say I were to go run across Switzerland. It’d be beautiful, I would have a great time, but is that run going to provide value? Like running in Liberia, I was able to use my vehicle of service, which is running, to raise funds to build a school in a country that needs some help. So I’m no longer, I don’t care about running across Fiji, all these beautiful countries or whatever. Switzerland would be fun for me, but it won’t add meaning. The run is not about me, it’s about using one of my vehicles of service. The other is entrepreneurship, and I also have my own non-profit, but one of my vehicles of service is adventure and running as a means to serve. Otherwise, what’s the point? It’s not about me going to have a good time in Switzerland so, I’m not longer planning on doing every country, I’m just gonna go do where countries where I can serve. So I am planning, for example, to eventually run across India, a few other countries in Africa, you know, places where I can serve, and the run can be used to do some good. Let’s look at your last couple of questions here.

I know it’s very hard right now, social distancing and people not being able to connect like they’ve done traditionally, what’s some things people can do to help, especially if they’re struggling with sobriety?

You know, connecting with people virtually. Connect with those you love, there’s still virtual connection. Exercise is by far the most important thing you can do. I don’t mean there’s neuroscience, one neuroscientist calls it “Miracle Gro for the brain”. Just on a neurological level, the power of exercise is an absolute game changer. And it’s the best thing you can do for mind, body, and spirit healing, by far. Exercise, I mean that’s why I’m an Ultra runner, it’s saved my life. You know, so that’s another thing you can do. There’s sort of the more obvious answers, which I don’t have to tell you about, you know all the things, connection, meditation, exercise, those are the more obvious answers, so I’m gonna, I’m happy to share more of that, but I think we all know that, and I don’t think there’s anything unique about that, so I think the not-so obvious answer is to actually confront the stuff you’re running away from. That means going into the spaces of darkness. Going into the spaces of pain. If you have somebody with you, do it in a monitored way. You know, the beauty in a self-quarantine is potentially you can’t go out to get drugs or I mean, yes liquor stores are still open, but you know, you can potentially, there’s a constraint. There’s always power in constraints. So if you’re running away, you go into those spaces. When I stopped drinking and I broke my sobriety, my only trigger was being alone. It wasn’t being around people. I could be in a room with every single human being in the room drinking. Not even .1% desire to drink. My only trigger was being alone, and now I’m in self-quarantine, I live alone, as I said I’m divorced, and that’s why I went into seven days of darkness, to go deeper within. Because the problem is, don’t use, connection is important. Connection is important. It’s hugely important. We’re social creatures, and evolutionarily speaking we need social connection, but don’t use connection as a band-aid from having to avoid confronting yourself. And this is, the same is true for addicts and non-addicts. I mean, again, we live in a world that is, most advice that I read articles about how to confront the quarantine are just nonsense in my opinion. They’re doing the same pattern. “Here’s 20 ways to run away from yourself.” You know what you should do in quarantine? Sit your ass down and look at the wall. Let your thoughts go where they go. Go into your pain, go into your darkness. The reason why I spent seven days in darkness is because in pitch darkness, your mind has no where external to go. There’s no consciousness. Your consciousness has nothing external to latch into, so you have nowhere to go but within. I learned this exercise from an endurance cyclist friend of mine of sitting and staring into a wall. He would sit still and stare into a wall. So no TV, no music, no painting even. No stimuli, and do this for 12 hours, then go riding for 12 hours. Now I understand, I’m not saying do it for 12 hours in your first go, but confront that stillness. Don’t do what the world does and run away from ourselves. We do have this little tool, our laptops, Netflix, this, that, and the other thing to run away from ourselves.

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Photo by LC. CPL. Randy Vinson, USMC – https://www.huffingtonpost.com/thai-nguyen/ptsd-a-marine-corps-veter_b_6134486.html, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=72720408

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Marion Weston, executive director

MARION WESTON

Executive Director

Marion Weston, Certified Interventionist, has been sober since November of 1989. Since then, she has sponsored many women through the 12-steps as well as being heavily involved in service. Also, Marion has led step workshops and has given talks in Nebraska, South Florida, Washington, New Jersey, Sweden and many other venues.

She has been involved since her first days in recovery with her Church and has enjoyed years of success in the chemical addiction field. Originally from Bellingham, Washington, Marion now resides in South Florida. Her favorite phrase is “turning scars into stars”.

Peter and Marion have a combined sobriety time of nearly 60 years, and a combined 40 years being in service to others in the field of treating substance use disorder.

Marion has been involved in recovery for over 25 years. She has walked many women down the path of recovery on both a personal and public level. Having been a part of 1-on-1 mentor-ship in recovery guiding women towards freedom, to leading various workshops to educate groups of men and women on the practical approach to a sober lifestyle. Marion strives to better herself and be of service to those around her.

Women recovering from alcohol addiction sometimes find it extremely difficult to survive without medications, the Through The Archway program helps them learn different dimensions of life and get over with addictions eventually.

Andrea Morganstein MS, RD, LDN, CDCES, Registered dietitian

ANDREA MORGANSTEIN

REGISTERED DIETICIAN

Andrea Morganstein MS, RD, LDN, CDCES is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes care and education specialist who received her Master’s degree in Nutrition and Dietetics from Florida International University in Miami, Florida. Some of her certifications include weight management, functional nutrition, fitness, and diabetes.  She currents owns a private practice in Davie, Florida and works one-on-one with individuals helping them achieve a healthier lifestyle using conventional nutrition as well as functional/integrative nutrition concepts. 

She started her career in Sports Nutrition and weight management but over the years has expanded her knowledge and expertise to include diabetes, mental health and substance abuse. As a contractor for multiple local addiction and mental health facilities, Andrea shares her passion and knowledge about nutrition in conjunction with behavioral changes with her clients suffering from mental health disorders including disordered eating and substance abuse. She works with them individually as well as in a group setting.

Alex Lizardo, Group facilitator

ALEX LIZARDO

GROUP FACILITATOR

Alex Lizardo is an entrepreneur, writer, speaker, philanthropist, and an unshakable optimist. She is an obsessive learner who spends time reading, writing and creating strategic projects to help individuals make their dreams a reality. She is was born and raised in Venezuela, having moved to the United States in 2010 and established presence as a certified life coach with a specialization in spiritual psychology. A mechanical engineer and marketer by trade, she is currently a yoga and meditation instructor, reiki master, theta healer, and pranic healer. Her work focuses on trauma in inner child wounding and emotional codependency. She is a bonafide mental health advocate, and her passion for helping others is evident in all of her interactions with the Sylvia Brafman family.

Vinny Richards, Group facilitator

VINNY RICHARDS

GROUP FACILITATOR

Vinny Richards is a unique therapist who went from working as an in-house therapist in various treatment centers to being a successful group facilitator bringing motivational enhancement lectures and relapse prevention programs to the mental health therapeutic community. His direct, authentic approach resonates greatly with the patients at SBMHC. Originally hailing from New York City, Vinny has also engaged in individual therapy with hundreds of clients over the last several decades.

Talia DeLuca (ACE, PPSC), Group facilitator

TALIA DELUCA

GROUP FACILITATOR

Ms. Talia DeLuca is certified fitness coach (ACE, PPSC) who is passionate about helping others to understand the important interplay between fitness, exercise, and mental health. She attended Boston College where she received a B.S. in Political Science and minored in Managing for Social Impact. During her time spent at BC Talia earned her personal training certification and became an instructor at the university recreation center. Talia further discovered her passion for fitness and mental health during an internship with Happify in her Junior year of college, where she helped to create an exercise program for app users to alleviate feelings of anxiety and depression. She is now a trainer at Anatomy in Midtown, Miami.

Talia grew up in a small town in Rhode Island and has spent the majority of her life in New England before moving to Miami in June of 2021. Throughout her youth and in school she struggled with anxiety, depression, disordered eating and other mental health challenges. Exercise has become a necessary aspect of her life that has helped her to better manage and overcome these challenges. In addition to training and fitness, Talia loves to spend time with her dog, eat, and travel.

Linda Milano, board certified Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner

LINDA MILANO, PMHNP-BC

PSYCHIATRIC NURSE

Mrs. Linda Milano is a board certified Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner who is passionate about incorporating a whole health approach in the treatment of psychiatric disorders. She attended Florida International University where she first received a Bachelor’s of Science Degree in Psychiatric Mental Health Nursing, and later a Master’s of Science Degree in Psychiatric Mental Health Nursing. She has over 25 years of experience treating patients with substance abuse and mental illness. She is certified by the American Association of Nurse Practitioners. Mrs. Milano also runs a private practice with over 200 patients. She grew up in a small town in Virginia. When she is not working, she enjoys spending time with her family and friends.

Jim Magner, Director of business development

JIM MAGNER

DIRECTOR OF BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT

Jim Magner has worked in the field of substance abuse and mental health for the last 15 years. He has always had a passion for helping others. Jim has held many leadership positions over the course of his career and draws on his own recovery experience to assist families and their loved ones.  Born and raised in Lynn, Massachusetts, Jim now lives in Coral Springs with his wife Courtney and 2 kids. When he’s not working or playing with his family, Jim’s hobbies include golfing, fishing, working out and watching Wheel of Fortune, which he was a contestant on back in 2017.

Linda Newman, Primary Therapist

LINDA NEWMAN

PRIMARY THERAPIST

Linda Newman was born and raised in NJ. She received her Bachelor’s degree from Monmouth College followed by her Master’s degree from Georgian Court University. She started my career in 1993 and have been working in the counseling field since then in different arena’s. I started as an A/D adolescent counselor for 5 years until my second child was born. At which time, I took some time off to raise my family. Upon returning to work, I did some counseling in the school setting for some time. I also spent some time on the alliance in my town and assisted in creating programs for the school district regarding alcohol and drug education. She relocated to Florida in 2011 and have been here ever since When I moved to Florida, I went back to SA/MH which I’ve been doing consistently since then. I have 2 amazing children.

Michael Lenok, MA, Primary Therapist

MICHAEL LENOK

PRIMARY THERAPIST

Mr. Michael Lenok, MA, is a primary therapist at SBMHC.  Michael has been working in the field of substance use and mental health disorders since 2017. Michael is proficient with individual therapy and case management. He takes a very personalized and individualistic approach to treatment, and works in collaboration with each and every client to help them realize their true potential. Michael excels at group facilitation. His group curriculum and material is personally created and original. Michael’s unique approach to treatment for co-occurring disorders is something that is unique to SBMHC.

Michael has a Master’s degree in Addiction Counseling: Integrated Recovery for Co-Occurring Disorders from the Hazelden Betty Ford Graduate School of Addiction Studies. He received his undergraduate degree in Psychology from Syracuse University. Michael is a native New Yorker but is settling in Florida after spending the past 3 years in Washington and Massachusetts. He is a diehard New York Knicks fan, and makes far too many basketball references. He spends most of his free time chilling with his dog, Mamba.

Tricia Taylor, Clinical Nurse

TRICIA TAYLOR

CLINICAL NURSE

Tricia Taylor a detailed oriented Licensed Practical Nurse with extensive experience in business operations, patient services and work well with team members and doctors.

Possesses exceptional team building, communication, and interpersonal skills and the ability to quickly adapt to the ever-changing business environment. Creative problem solver that works closely with doctors and staff to provide real time solutions.

Cynthia Ingram, Director of admissions and case management

CYNTHIA INGRAM

DIRECTOR OF ADMISSIONS & CASE MANAGEMENT

Ms. Cynthia Ingram has worked in the field of mental health and substance abuse treatment for over 25 years. Cynthia, through her own personal experience, strength, and hope, has worked closely with many treatment centers, community providers, courts and other organizations who walk with the same vision and purpose, to help those who struggle with mental illness. Through this journey her purpose is clear: to give back what was so freely given to her.

Valeska Medel, Director of operations

VALESKA MEDEL

DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS

Ms. Valeska Medel has been a professional in the healthcare industry for the past 17 years, with a primary focus on the operational and administrative functions. She comes with 15 years of experience as the Executive Assistant to the Administrator for a skilled nursing facility and an additional year as a Business Development associate for a Behavioral Health Hospital. Valeska attend Florida Atlantic University where she received a Bachelor of Science degree in Health Administration.

She has certifications from Broward College in Business Operations, Business Specialist, Accounting Technology Operations, and Human Resources Management.

Valeska grew up a small town in Chile and moved to the United States at the age of 28 where she learned and became fluent in English. Outside of work, Valeska enjoys Latin dancing, travel, and cooking.

Jaime Blaustein is Co-Founder and CEO of Sylvia Brafman Mental Health Center

JAIME BLAUSTEIN

CO-FOUNDER & CEO

Credentials & Accolades

  • Credit Suisse – Investment Banking
  • Lord Abbett – Institutional Sales
  • Morgan Stanley & Wells Fargo – Wealth Management
  • Duke University – MBA
  • University of Michigan – BA

Mr. Jaime Blaustein is Co-Founder and CEO of SBMHC. Prior to this role, he was an investment banker at Credit Suisse in its Global Industrials coverage group in New York City. Here he was responsible for advising clients in the basic materials sector on strategic matters, including mergers, acquisitions, divestitures, leveraged buyouts, restructurings and various debt and equity financings. Prior to this role, he worked in institutional sales at Lord Abbett, a mutual fund manager overseeing ~$150 billion in assets under management. He previously worked in wealth management at Morgan Stanley and later Wells Fargo, advising a wide array of clients on investment strategies.

Jaime received his undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan and his M.B.A. from Duke University. He is an unapologetic NY Giants, Duke Blue Devils and Michigan Wolverine fan. His interests include fitness, steakhouses, international travel, meditation retreats, and quality time with friends. Jaime is a newly minted resident of Miami. He is actively involved in sponsoring dozens of men in recovery and is beyond excited to marry his business expertise with his passion for helping others make a comeback from the depths of mental illness and addiction.

Peter Marinelli, executive director

PETER MARINELLI

EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR

Through the Archway

Credentials & Accolades

  • International Circuit – Speaker
  • Certified Interventionist
  • National Council on Alcoholism – Speaker
  • Through The Archway – Founder
  • FHE Health Sober Living Program with Peter Marinelli

Peter Marinelli, Certified Interventionist and published author, has been sober since 1988 and has dedicated his life to helping others recover from alcoholism and drug addiction. The spiritual emersion program at Through The Archway has been created by Peter Marinelli. As an international circuit speaker, Peter has given hundreds of talks across the U.S. and Europe on subjects related to recovery.

He has spoken at numerous treatment centers, universities and medical organizations to both sufferers and clinicians alike. Peter has also been invited to speak for the National Council on Alcoholism and has been a guest on talk radio and has done workshops on spiritual transformation for various religious organizations.

He has spent the majority of his sobriety in the Treatment Center industry. Peter Marinelli’s mission is to help addicts and alcoholics recover from their fatal illness. He is the Founder and CEO of Through the Archway, a 30-day program designed to help suffering addicts reclaim their lives.

Dr. Linda Dolin, Medical Director of Sylvia Brafman Mental Health Center

DR. LINDA DOLIN, MD

MEDICAL DIRECTOR

Credentials & Accolades

  • Destination Hope –  Medical Director
  • House of Hope –  Medical Director
  • Florida Medical Center – Internal Medicine Physician
  • Florida University Hospital – Internal Medicine Physician
  • Milestones in Recovery – Internal Medicine Physician
  • MedPsych Consultants – Founding Partner

Dr. Linda Dolin is the Medical Director of SBMHC. She received her medical degree from Chicago Medical School and went on to complete her residency at Weiss Memorial Hospital in Chicago. Dr. Dolin brings nearly 32 years of experience as a practicing internal medical physician to her role as medical director at The Sylvia Brafman Mental Health Center. Her medical practice consists entirely of inpatient and outpatient clients with psychiatric diagnoses.

Dr. Richard Seely, Director of psychiatry

Richard Seely

DIRECTOR OF PSYCHIATRY

Credentials & Accolades

  • Psychiatry & Addiction Medicine – Board Certified
  • Florida Medical Center – Psychiartrist
  • Florida Society of Addiction Medicine – Officer & Director
  • Profes sionals Resource Network – Evaluator & Provider
  • Princeton University – AB
  • Jefferson Medical College – MD

Dr. Richard Seely educated at Princeton University, Jefferson Medical College, and University of Miami residency in psychiatry, Dr. Rick Seely is Board-certified in psychiatry, child and adolescent psychiatry, and addiction psychiatry, and also in addiction medicine by the American Board of Addiction Medicine. He serves as an evaluator and provider for Florida’s Impaired Professionals Programs and for professional sports teams, and as a consultant to the Florida Board of Bar Examiners.

Dr. Seely is an addiction medicine psychiatrist who has served as medical director of addiction treatment centers in South Florida since 1990 and has had the privilege of assessing and treating over 100,000 individuals suffering from the disease of addiction. He has taught addiction psychiatry at medical schools for over 35 years and supervises psychiatric resident physicians in addiction medicine.

In long-term recovery from addiction himself, Dr. Seely empathizes with patients and provides clear, consistent, and compassionate guidance in their recovery efforts. He imparts his experience and knowledge in a manner consistent with humility and dedication to spreading the message of hope and recovery.

Ben Brafman, MS, LMHC, CAP, Co-Founder and Clinical Director of Sylvia Brafman Mental Health Center

Ben Brafman

CO-FOUNDER, CHIEF CLINICAL OFFICER

Credentials & Accolades

  • Destination Hope –  President & CEO
  • The Academy for Addiction Professionals – President & CEO
  • Rx Angels – President & CEO
  • Sullivan Pharmacy – President & CEO
  • Barry University – Mental Health Counseling and Family Therapy

Mr. Ben Brafman, MS, LMHC, CAP is Co-Founder and Clinical Director of SBMHC. He has founded a multitude of programs focusing on addiction, men’s issues, eating disorders and personality disorders. Ben was Founder, President and CEO of Destination Hope, a treatment center specializing in substance abuse and mental health disorders, established in 2007. Ben is also the founder, President and CEO of The Academy for Addiction Professionals. The Academy is a school geared toward preparing professionals for the field of addiction by assisting students in getting their CBHT, CAS, CAC, and CAP. Additionally, Ben is also Founder, President and CEO of Rx Angels, a non-profit organization. Its main purpose is to help families that cannot afford medication and treatment for their mentally ill loved ones.

Ben has been in the field of behavioral health for 25 years. He has developed several programs in the South Florida area and has been instrumental in teaching other professionals how to effectively manage their clinical programs. Ben is recognized as a leading authority in behavioral health and a pioneer in clinical services. He is also actively involved in several community services programs. He has helped families all over the country from Atlanta, Georgia to Santa Barbara, California. He is a published author in the area of dual diagnosis and behavioral health. Additionally, Ben is a leading expert in family issues related to addiction and its impact on the system of family, having positively influenced thousands of families in his career.

Ben has a dual Masters from Barry University in Counseling and Family Therapy. Mr. Brafman is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor. He is also a Certified Addiction Professional and trains supervisors in the state of Florida to supervise others effectively. He resides in Parkland, Florida with his wife, Suzanne, and his 3 children Abigail, Jacob and Elijah. He has completed several marathons and is currently working on publishing books in the area of addiction, mental illness and behavioral health.