Drugs and Athletes, Addiction

Phelps Overcomes Childhood Loss to Win Again

Majority of teens at Elk River Treatment Program dealing with abandonment, loss

Facing Personal Pain Frees Phelps

August 17, 2016

Michael Phelps’ turnaround after rehab to return to the Olympics in Rio is an inspirational story to everyone, especially those that struggle with drug and alcohol addiction. But the real breakthrough is how Phelps allowed himself the time in therapy to uncover the source of his negative behavior. This is the daily goal of mental health professionals at Elk River Treatment Program for adolescents.  

“Placement in a residential program will halt negative behaviors because the patient is in a safe, therapeutic environment without outside stressors. The key to lasting recovery is addressing the underlying issue that drives self-sabotaging behavior,” said Karen Lee who founded Elk River Treatment Program 10 years ago. “The most painful step is uncovering the core issue (usually an event beyond the patient’s control) since typically the patient has ignored or carefully guarded it for years,” Lee explained. For example, in a recent interview with NBC’s Matt Lauer, Phelps revealed that his father’s absence for more than 20 years was directly related to his lack of confidence which ultimately led to self-destructive behaviors. 

Getting to the source of negative behaviors

In many cases, underlying issues are not obvious to children or their parents. The underdeveloped brain of a child does not recognize that anger, drug abuse, depression or anxiety may be the result of a traumatic event or loss. A child’s brain is incapable of processing such events so they resort to self-medicating.

Parents of children that are exhibiting risky behaviors due to their struggles with loss often attempt to fill the role of both mother AND father to their child. Eventually these multi-tasking, exhausted and terrified parents reach out to mental health professionals to seek help for their depressed or oppositional child. Often these parents are searching for a diagnosis or label (depression, bi-polar, ADHD, addiction) so the right therapy or medication can be dispensed to heal their child. Other parents are looking for anything but labels, saying “I don’t want my kid around a bunch of druggies” when inquiring about admission to Elk River’s residential treatment program.  

Phelps' example is inspirational

Although Phelps has not labelled himself as an alcoholic, he candidly admits to feeling abandoned by his father for more than 20 years, and endured bouts of low self-confidence which led to self-destructive behaviors. If abandonment can impact the world’s most decorated Olympic swimmer – it’s no wonder that the majority of teens who enter Elk River Treatment Program are struggling with negative behaviors driven by abandonment or loss.

Those who have experienced loss, trauma, grief or abandonment can identify with Michael Phelps. All the medals in the world will not replace the loss of a loved one. At Elk River Treatment Program for adolescents, we believe that recognizing and treating the source of behaviors is the only way to halt self-sabotaging behaviors and prevent them from re-occurring.

Olympians deserve admiration for their athletic abilities. Shining a light on their struggles as well as their accomplishments is inspirational to everyone - athletes or not. It is our hope that the ripple effect of this message will travel beyond the Olympic rings.    

Watch: Michael Phelps talks Rio, rehab and retirement with Today’s Matt Lauer http://www.nbcnews.com/feature/on-assignment/assignment-michael-phelps-n572226