The disease of addiction took nearly everything from budding basketball star Chris Herren, but after more than a decade of sobriety, Herren has bounced back and found success off the court, helping others in their drive toward recovery.
Fame arrived at an early age for Herren, as he was featured in popular magazines in high school and recruited by some of the biggest programs in college basketball. His skills eventually carried him to the NBA, where he played for two years before continuing his career overseas.
Along the way, however, Herren struggled with substance abuse. He was dismissed from Boston College after the 1994-95 season after failing multiple drug tests. In 2004, Herren says he overdosed on heroin for the first time. After surviving what would be his last overdose in 2008, he entered treatment, and he has remained sober since.
In the ensuing 11 years, Herren has launched a variety of recovery-related initiatives, including Herren Wellness, a residential health and wellness program, Herren Project, a not-for-profit foundation that provides scholarships for treatment and recovery housing, and Herren Talks, his speaking series in which he discusses substance use disorder and wellness with students, athletes and community members.
In December, Herren will share his story at the Treatment Center Investment & Valuation Retreat. Ahead of his appearance at TCIV in Scottsdale, Arizona, he spoke with Behavioral Healthcare Executive about the pressures he faced at a young age contributing to his substance use, the role treatment programs played in his recovery, and how helping others has helped him maintain his own sobriety.
[Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]
You were in the spotlight from a very young age. As a high school basketball player, you received national player of the year honors. You were featured in Sports Illustrated and Rolling Stone. You were recruited by some of the biggest college programs in the country. Looking back now, did the pressure of all that notoriety and attention drive you toward substance use?
I don’t think it helped by any stretch. At a young age, I wasn’t given the resources to vocalize the pressure I was under. Some of the responsibilities I was taking on at a young age, dealing with college coaches and being recruited, they were things I didn’t know how to deal with or cope with. I don’t want to attribute that all [to what led to substance use], but it definitely didn’t help.
You have now been drug- and alcohol-free for more than 11 years. What role did addiction treatment programs play in your recovery and getting you to the place you are in today?
I was unbelievably blessed. I had an unconventional path. I went to a therapeutic community by the name of Daytop [a drug addiction treatment program in New York]. I spent roughly four months in that program and transitioned out to a halfway house, where I spent 90 days. After I completed the halfway house, I moved on to sober living, which I stayed in for another four months. I was engaged and living in treatment for almost 11 months. If it wasn’t for that, I don’t think I would have had all I’ve had given to me in recovery. That long-term treatment program was exactly what I needed. There were multiple approaches along the way—therapeutic community, behavioral modification, then a transition into a very strong 12 Steps halfway house and then on to a sober house, where I continued to apply both methods to my recovery program.
How have the tools of recovery that you acquired in those treatment settings helped you continue to maintain your sobriety for more than a decade since?
At that level of care, it was just the consistency. It was establishing a routine and waking up early at the right time. It was accountability that was practiced quite often there. Their methods, do I completely agree with all of them? I don’t. But at that time in my life, to have a roof over my head and a place where I could heal and start the process of learning new behavior, it was something I hadn’t experienced in a long time. I was out of basketball for almost five years. I was a father of three children, one was a newborn. That routine of waking up every morning at 6 a.m. and going to whatever job was assigned to me for that day, it was something that helped my self-confidence and allowed me to believe that there were possibilities, that there was a little bit of hope.
You are active in a lot of recovery-oriented initiatives now. What has it meant to you to be able to help others in their recovery, and do you think your work inspiring others has helped you stay sober as well?
I think that is part of it. I was given a gift, and that gift is treatment. If it wasn’t for that gift, a family that was selfless and navigated the process for me when I couldn’t do it myself, I can’t say that I would be here today. When I started going through the recovery process, I made a promise to myself that I was going to help others, that I wanted to be part of the process for them. I wanted to help in some way. In no capacity did I think I would be doing it at this level. That wasn’t my initial intention. But organically, it has just evolved over the years. To speak 200 times a year, to have a foundation that has helped thousands of people in the recovery process, and now today to be an owner and CEO of my own wellness centers, it’s pretty amazing what recovery in 11 ½ years has given not only me, but my family.
At TCIV, you’ll be speaking to owners and executives and other top-level stakeholders in the addiction treatment and recovery community. Is there one piece of advice or a message that you would want to share with that audience, based on your personal experiences?
Not everybody has the same background. Not everybody holding these positions within their companies comes from a place of recovery. I’m fortunate that I can apply some of my own experiences with others. I never lose sight of where I was 11 ½ years ago. I never lose sight of how I felt at certain points when I was in treatment. For me, oftentimes I go off my instincts. There’s not a greater joy in life, there’s no greater gift than to watch somebody heal, recover, reconnect and become part of—whether it’s their family, society or just life in general. That passion I have, I’m fortunate that it’s stuck with me along the way.