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Brett Favre: Addiction, Relapse, and Recovery

If you are a football fan, you are probably somewhat familiar with the story of NFL Hall of Famer Brett Favre and how he battled an addiction to Vicodin in 1996. Today, it is the stuff of sports legend—how he overcame his issues, won both the Most Valuable Player award and The Game of Games, and went on to have one of the longest and most celebrated pro football careers in history. But as is usually the case with problematic substance abuse, there is much more to the story. In fact, Favre’s issues with alcohol and drugs were far more serious than most people knew. In a recent candid interview, he admitted that he actually needed to go to inpatient treatment on three separate occasions. Let’s take a closer look at why this was necessary, and what the rest of us can learn from it.

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1990: The Car Crash That Could Have Killed Brett Favre

On an early evening in mid-July 1990, Favre, then a 20-year-old about to start his senior season at Southern Miss, was returning home to his parents’ house after a day of fishing and drinking… and drinkingand drinking with his older brother and two football teammates. Alone in his 1989 Nissan Maxima, Favre was driving up to 35 miles an hour over the speed limit, failed to notice an oncoming car, overcorrected, slid off the road, flipped several times, and crashed into a telephone pole. The impact of the crash was so great that Favre ended up behind the car’s backseat. His brother and one of his teammates, who had been following in a separate vehicle, had to break the car’s windows with a golf club to pull Brett out. Favre had multiple injuries, but the impact to his abdomen was potentially life-threatening. Favre had a hematoma on his liver, and a blood blockage meant doctors eventually had to remove 30 inches of his intestine. As a local athletic hero, Favre was never charged with a DUI.

Lessons for the Rest of Us

Addiction doesn’t just happen overnight. It is a progressive disease with stages and warning signs that should serve as red flags that a problem may exist. In young Brett Favre’s case, there were at least four causes for concern –

Alcohol played a major part in the wreck that could have taken EVERYTHING from a promising young man—football, freedom, even his LIFE. This would have been the perfect time for Favre to change his behaviors, or for someone to step in and get him the help he needed before the problem got any worse. But as future developments would show, neither of these things happened.

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1995: 28 Days

“Deanna (Favre’s wife) and Bus (Cook, his agent) talked me into it. I didn’t think I had a problem, but they talked me into it. I went for 28 days. When I got out, I was able to control myself for a while. I wouldn’t take anything for a day or two, and I wouldn’t drink.” The first time, it was painkillers. In 1994, in addition to the usual checklist of nagging football injuries, Favre was still dealing with lingering pain from the 1990 wreck. In 1994, he had to have additional abdominal surgery to correct residual issues from the earlier injuries. But evidently, the pain medication regimen he was prescribed developed into a dependence and addiction. Urged by his wife and manager, Favre checked into a treatment center in Rayville, Louisiana.

Lessons for the Rest of Us

The first takeaway is that opioid painkillers are highly habit-forming, even when taken exactly as prescribed. Favre had real health concerns, was legitimately-prescribed pain medication, and still ended up with a problem. Next, the era must be considered. In 1995, most physicians were still under the mistaken impression that opioids were generally safe and non-addictive, thanks to a letter published in the New England Journal of Medicine and overly-aggressive marketing by Big Pharma drug companies. Pain was treated as a vital sign and opioid drugs were freely dispensed. Additionally, Favre was in constant pain. In 2016, research conducted at the Columbia University Medical Center shows that people suffering from mild-to-severe pain have a 41% greater risk of opioid addiction. Finally, we see that intervention works. In his own words, Favre says that he didn’t think he had a problem, but two of the people closest to him—his wife and his agent—were able to convince him to go to rehab.

1996: 72 Days

“But I was a binge drinker. When I drank, I drank to excess. So when I went in the second time…I remember vividly fighting them in there. They said drinking was the gateway drug for me, and they were right, absolutely right, but I wouldn’t admit it. I will never forget one of the nurses. I had it all figured out. I fought with this nurse all the time. I would not admit the drinking problem. At the end she said to me, ‘You’ll be back.’” In mid-May 1996, Favre announced he was entering a treatment facility in Kansas City, saying, “This is kind of a difficult time . . . because . . . throughout the last couple of years, playing with pain and injuries, I’ve become dependent on medication.” This time was different, because now, Favre was getting Vicodin illicitly. A so-called “friend” would obtain the drug and give it to him. Brian Noble, a Packer TV announcer, said, “Brett is hanging around the wrong group of guys, people who aren’t interested in Brett Favre the quarterback. He has to be more cognizant of what people want from Brett Favre…He needs to find a better quality of people to hang around with.” Also different was the depth of Favre’s addiction. It had gotten so bad that he had suffered a dangerous seizure earlier in the year. Favre entered treatment partially under compulsion. If he had not agreed to go to rehab, he would have been subject to a $900,000 fine from the NFL. But once in treatment, Favre stubbornly refused to admit that he had a problem with alcohol as well as with painkillers. And not only was he abusing alcohol, it had also become the gateway drug that impaired his judgement and made it more likely that he would misuse Vicodin.

Lessons for the Rest of Us

As evidenced by Favre’s continued struggles after his first stint in rehab, relapse is all-too-common during recovery. In fact, relapse rates are up to 60% for people who remain in treatment for 90 days or more, and even higher for people who go for a shorter period of time. Next, associations matter. One of the first lessons learned during early recovery is the need to avoid triggers—those people, places, and things that might lead to relapse. Favre still hung around the “wrong group of guys”. Also, compulsory attendance works. Favre wasn’t convinced by his accident, his earlier rehab stay, or even his seizure in February, but when facing a HUGE fine of almost a million dollars, he acquiesced. Finally, addiction is addiction is addiction. While Favre insisted that his problem was pills and not alcohol, he was missing the point. Chronic abuse changes the brain and makes a person vulnerable to cross-addiction to other substances, not just the drug of choice. This is why people in recovery are taught to avoid ALL intoxicants, even legal ones like alcohol, opioid pain medications, and marijuana. 75% of overdoses and 98% of those that are fatal involve multiple substances.

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1998: 28 Days and Final Lessons?

“I was back. 1998. Guess who was waiting there when I walked in — that same nurse. This time it was strictly for drinking. I didn’t go back to the pills. I admitted my problem, I was in there 28 days, and it worked. When I got out, the toughest thing was the first three months, because I had to change my thought process…I realized with each passing day I really didn’t like drinking.” Favre had to go back to rehab in 1998, this time “strictly” for drinking, and it appears that the third time has been more successful thus far than his earlier attempts. The difference? In his own words, Favre admits that he had to change his thoughts. At the core, his issues weren’t just the alcohol or the pills. Rather, it was a maladaptive way of thinking about and dealing with things. And whether it resulted from a sense of entitlement because he was a rich and famous athlete who felt he could do no wrong, or whether it was due to poor coping skills in response to physical pain and the extreme stress of playing professional sports, it was his way of thinking that had to change in order for Brett Favre to achieve and maintain lasting successful sobriety. Once his way of thinking about things changed, staying sober became easier. And that’s the biggest lesson for the rest of us—RECOVERY IS POSSIBLE, even if it takes multiple attempts. After all, as Coach Vince Lombardi, the legendary coach who led the Green Bay Packers to five NFL Championships said, “It does not matter how many times you get knocked down, but how many times you get up”.