Struggling with drug addictions can be an incredibly toiling and difficult challenge. Transforming Life Center CEO Siamak Asfhar knows this all too well, and strives to help others overcome their habits just like he did.
Imagine finding yourself at an all-time low. You are desperately struggling to find the smallest bit of hope or energy each day. You might be desperate for a crutch to keep upright. Unfortunately for many, that desensitizing aid can come in the form of overdosing on substances like alcohol, drugs, and smoking. But the relief of stress or euphoric feeling is only temporary. Every aspect of life with health, relationships, hobbies, and work continues to worsen.
Siamak Afshar doesn’t need to imagine the above. No, he knows it all too well because he went through feeling hopeless and in darkness for years. “I was a heroin addict for 17 years,” he recalled, remembering the constant turmoil he faced in that period. Afshar wasn’t just addicted to heroin, however – alcohol and tobacco played a major role in his seemingly endless downward spiral that at one point saw him homeless, sleeping in a cardboard box for over nine months.
Of course, every low is followed by a high. Afshar would get the help he needed and turn his outlook around for the better. But he wouldn’t stay away from the issue of addiction. Instead, Afshar — who’s also currently studying for a Ph.D. in Psychology — would become the founder and CEO of Transforming Life Center, a recovery center located in North Orange County, California, that utilizes culturally conscious or connected evidence-based practices, along with motivational support to bring self-worth back to those stuck just like Afshar once was.
Perhaps one of the greatest struggles that addicts have faced is the stigmas surrounding them. In the past decades, addiction was looked upon as a trail of poor decisions and willpower that seemingly warranted little sympathy from others. However, that has since changed due to medical research that shows that chronic brain imbalances play a hand in these self-destructive and compulsive behaviors.
“Addiction was more of a taboo [back then] than it is today. Nowadays, most people believe that addiction is an illness and treatable,” Afshar said, noting that in many ways, addiction is similar to diseases like diabetes and cancer in that, while they can be treated, there’s also the possibility of remergences (in an addict’s case, relapse). “Addiction is not a moral decision, it’s a psychological and emotional and mental [problem]. Addicts are not bad people, they are sick people.”
“Patients have to be aware of what nicotine does to [them and how] it damages their organs, how it decreases the amount of T cells in the body, and makes [them] susceptible to other [infections].”
Because of his own experience and consequent obstacles that eventually forced him to open his eyes and make a change, Afshar has become more driven than ever to help addicts overcome not only the damaging effects of their addiction but the stigmas that have been unfairly placed on them throughout their lives.
“That’s been my commitment for 34 years, to work with people going through recovery. To help them gain insight about their life,” Afshar said. “One doesn’t have to continue leading a life of lowered standards.” Afshar also looks at his treatment center as a way of making up with the people in his life who he’s damaged from his addiction.
One of the most common addictions Afshar sees is nicotine, which isn’t surprising given the state of smoking in the country. According to Addiction Center, 59.2% of Americans 12 and up have tried nicotine as of 2020. Meanwhile, there are around 50 million Americans who are addicted to some kind of tobacco product.
Afshar explained he — along with a professionally licensed doctor — gives lectures and provides education on the consequences of nicotine and smoking. Afshar also strives to help his patients care and show gratitude for their bodies. “[We] help them gain some respect for their body. We help them realize they only have [a finite number of] their organs, they don’t have others [to replace them]. If they damage their lungs, that’s it.”
“We assist with smoking cessation, we taper it down. We are not expecting them to not smoke [instantly]. We start them with [a specific] number of cigarettes. So if somebody has been smoking for 30 to 40 years, we start them at 20 cigarettes a day and then we go down. If they’re really hardcore smokers, normally every three to four days we taper one down. If someone’s been smoking for five years and is smoking 10 to 15 cigarettes a day, we’ll start them at ten or eight a day.”
Patients are then encouraged to manage how much they smoke at a certain time, having to break up what set amount they have that day, and slowly become less dependent on constant smoking. “They become mindful of how many they’re at, and we teach them how they can deal with the cravings associated with smoking.”
“Slowly their muscles begin rejuvenating and endurance is increased. Cardio work also helps their heart go faster, and when the heart goes faster, the cardiovascular system is healthier. One maintains more energy, [and] a lot of illnesses will subdue.”
Another treatment strategy Transforming Life Center stresses is an exercise routine, helped by their on-site gym. Patients work out for a half hour a day — whether it’s cardio work, running on a treadmill, or biking — this routine teaches body awareness and starts the healing process.
Afshar can more than support that idea of repeated exercise – at one point, he smoked 15 cigarettes a day until he started running, both every day and in marathons. “Next thing I know, I’m doing two cigarettes a day two months into running. I gained some respect [and] discipline for my body. At that time, I said, ‘Hell to it,'” Afshar recalled, eliminating the remaining cigarettes and successfully overcoming the nicotine addiction.
Afshar’s admirable and healthy insistence on a nicotine-free environment has proved to be costly, costing him over his 17 years around $3 to $4 million due to patients — both potential and current who are suffering from addictions like alcohol, heroin, and methamphetamine — refusing help because “they chose not to continue in a treatment setting that also promotes nicotine cessation.” “They would rather go to facilities that will not address their nicotine addiction,” Siamak noted.
For those who stay, over the last 12 years, Transforming Life Center has seen a 93% success rate, which is 51% higher than the national average 42% success rate of patients. Those results show Afshar’s methods and motivation can indeed turn the tide in lives that seemed hopeless and lost. “That should be proof that this philosophy of a nicotine-free treatment can really produce the results that are needed.” That positive outcome is even more needed where Afshar’s treatment center is located, as over 180 lives a day are lost to fentanyl.
“When you bring recovery into the whole family, chances are, that family can become more forgiving and receptive to the addict, but it takes time.”
Looking around at Afshar’s patients shows a wide variety of ages, with some in their 20s, 40s, and even 60s. Recent global issues have contributed to these age ranges seeking help. “With Coronavirus, there have been some that start misusing late in life because of depression and anxiety due to isolation or separation from families.”
However, the main reason for their older adults is due to numerous instances of relapse over their lives, bringing them right back to square one. “Those [ages] 60 to 70 with increased misuses have become alcoholics to sedate their emotions and anxiety.” Of course, that kind of stress can affect addicts of all ages — not necessarily a specific group — forcing them to find a method to numb their pain when it becomes too much for them to handle. “Recovery teaches coping skills so one does not have to turn to a drink for comfort.”
The patient isn’t the only person Afshar is concerned about. “We tackle the whole family. I truly believe [addiction] is a family disease,” he said, noting that it doesn’t matter whether it’s husbands, wives, parents, children, or siblings. Anyone who is considered family is recommended to be on board with the treatment plan, and play their part in order to help their loved one. Families play a crucial role — whether inadvertently or not — in the addict’s continuing abuse.
“When addiction is present in one family member, all are negatively affected. They lose sight of themselves,” Afshar said. “When an addict comes to us, we get a commitment signed from the family that they also have to be in treatment. Not here physically, but we encourage participation in groups. I can be difficult at first, but it helps bring the family together in the long run.”
“If the family is [enabling] addiction, they may be preventing the addict’s recovery. They have to stop smoking, they have to stop drinking, they have to stop doing heroin, cocaine, meth, whatever it is.” In addition to their support, along with having to attend various programs and meetings, families are educated by Afshar on the severity of codependency in these kinds of situations and discover how much they’ve lowered their values and standards in life, and how they could also recover.
“What I have created in my relationships with others, my business, it is so valuable that I would never, ever consider losing it over heroin — or any drug or behavior — again.”
While treatments are always the main pillar in a recovery program, another crucial factor is helping the patient realize their own self-worth. That they’re not a burden to society and those around them, but they are a real, respected human being who can find love and meaning for themselves; provided they put in the hard work and are motivated to do so. “At TLC, we also encourage fellowship with past group members, including our alumni. We not only rebuild lives and families, we build new, lifelong friendships that are authentic.”
Afshar empowers addicts to see “how they’ve left themselves behind,” along with how they can bring value and meaning back into their lives while emphasizing the beautifulness and importance of the said values. “Once they get that, they go through the grieving process. It’s truly like losing a relationship when the drink or drug is put down. Then [through] encouragement, coaching, and therapy. They can regain [that feeling] of innocence, love, and dignity that was lost, and a transformation occurs.”
“When they do the work, and they regain all that, doors open and miracles happen. Once they transform, their quality of life increases. Their relationship with themselves becoming connected again is awesome. Their finances, relationships, education, and career continue to improve. An addict with tools would not want to lose that.”
Afshar knows that feeling of victory firsthand and also serves as a testament to others doing the work of a recovery program. “It’s awesome. Everyone in my family is very proud of what I’ve done in my 39 years of recovery. The difference I’ve made [in a post-addict] life.”
Siamak also believes that any addict has the opportunity “to turn all the liabilities of his time of struggling with his addiction into an investment and tools to make a difference in the world.”
While Siamak has accomplished an enormous amount from the ground up, further support through donations is always needed and appreciated. If you’d like to contact and help him continue bringing others up from a dark place in their lives and support him with lobbying for the nicotine-free philosophy addiction treatment, versus addicts being able to smoke all day in the treatment facilities — along with learning more about the services the program offers — you can visit Transforming Life Center’s website by clicking here or donate by mailing a check. You can also email Afshar directly.
Andrew Rhoades is a Contributing Reporter at The National Digest based in New York. A Saint Joseph’s University graduate, Rhoades’ reporting includes sports, U.S., and entertainment. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.