Constance Scharff, has a Ph.D. in Transformative Studies, specializing in addiction recovery and mental health. She sits on the advisory board and serves as research director for Rock to Recovery, an evidence-based music therapy program used in addiction treatment centers in Southern California. Prior to this, she was senior addiction research fellow and director of addiction research for the Cliffside Malibu addiction treatment center. She is one of the world’s leaders in applied addiction research and frequently teaches healthcare professionals worldwide about the latest best practices in addiction treatment and mental healthcare. Dr. Scharff is an advocate for improved access to mental healthcare. Her goal is to eliminate the stigma that is too often associated with addiction and mental illness, so that individuals in need of care will be able to receive that support and lead productive, fulfilling lives. She is also a well-respected author.
What do I do best?
Thinking globally, I’m sure there is someone, somewhere who is better than I am at anything and everything. However, the trait that I possess in the most abundance is probably persistence. I have a level of stick-to-it-iveness that most people cannot match. When I want something, I keep trying for it. That doesn’t mean that I’m single-minded in my pursuits, but I don’t give in until I have either achieved my goal or every known option available to meet the goal is exhausted.
What makes me the best version of myself?
I am consistently reading and learning. We can’t do better until we know better. I teach so that I can learn more and be in dialogue with those who have different perspectives and experiences. Until I die, I will see myself as a work in progress and I think that’s a good perspective to have.
What are my aspirations?
I’d like to get healthier. This means a combination of things including being more diligent about my meditation practice, going to the gym with more frequency and working out with greater intensity, and adding more fresh vegetables to my diet. Perhaps that all sounds average for a middle-aged woman. But that’s where I am. Like anyone, I am exceptional in some ways and struggle in others. My personal struggle is with working on long-term health goals instead of giving in to the delicious, but short-term delight of a treat.
Professionally, I am transitioning from an addiction researcher to a full-time author. I will still teach and speak; I could never give that up, but I would like the focus of my days to be my art. There is something powerful about being an artist, a novelist. I want to be able to spend every day in the creation of beautiful stories. I’m compelled to make this transition because I have lessons to share to inspire my readers to live their best lives, to improve our communities, and to make real change.
My Biggest Success?
I am most proud of my writing. It takes a great deal of effort to conceive of and write a book. I have written three, two of which have been published. The latest is looking for a home. With every book, I work to hone my craft, to improve my storytelling. Writing is not a solitary project, but a collaboration between the writer and a host of others including editors, publishers, publicists and my agent. I am extremely grateful for the support and encouragement I have received from my closest friends and my writing team. It is not easy to maintain confidence in one’s self and work. The writing life is full of rejection and criticism. Having a tight support system makes my successes possible.
My Most Challenging Moment?
I have suffered at times from major, persistent depression. It’s a condition that is so overwhelming and pervasive that I find it difficult to function or make clear decisions. A few years ago, while in perhaps the worst depressive state of my life, I became seriously ill. Doctors were clear about the problem and the treatment. There was no dissent among them. Remove my uterus and I’d recover quickly. Leave it and I’d die.
Child sexual abuse leaves a complicated web of scars. The physical problems I dealt with likely developed, at least in part, because of the abuse I suffered as a child. Psychologically, one of the ongoing issues of childhood sexual abuse is lack of power. I didn’t have the power to keep my abusers from doing what they wanted. My illness felt like an emotional return to that earlier, powerless state. My abusers had taken so much from me, I didn’t want them now, all these years later, to take part of my body too. I know that sounds irrational, but it’s how I felt at the time. Those around me suggested I say, “Yes!” to life, but what I wanted to do was say, “No, no more!” despite the consequences. Compound the scenario with major depression and there was no way I was going to say yes to the surgery.
My friends eventually convinced me to go through with the surgery despite my feelings. Doing so led to a profound reorientation of my life. I could no longer believe the fantasies I told myself about my life. I had to face life as it was, in its abundance and deficits. However, the situation also meant that I had a completely new beginning in the sense that any life I lived beyond that point was a true gift. I went on to pour myself into my work. I wrote two books, traveled the world teaching healthcare professionals about the best ways to treat addiction and co-occurring mental illnesses. I moved to the place in the world I most wanted to live. I got back into horseback riding. I decided to pursue my passion for fiction and wrote a novel.
Perhaps because I cannot live in fantasy and lies about how things “should” be, I have been given the clarity to take advantage of every gift and opportunity available. I’m still melancholic and I wish sometimes that things were different, but I have a clarity of purpose and resolve to experience the fullness of life that I would not have had without being ill.
“You don’t have to have a great start to have a great finish.”
A lot of people were not born into good or healthy circumstances, and unlike what we like to tell ourselves, this nation and this world are not a meritocracy. You don’t always get what you deserve or what you earn. But that doesn’t mean that our diligent efforts are meaningless. We can often improve our circumstances or at the very least our outlook on those conditions. We have an obligation to ourselves and others to constantly work for change, to be of service, and to improve our communities, no matter what the outcomes of those efforts may be. We are not doomed to end where we start. We have the power to strive for better.
My Favorite People/Role Models?
The person who immediately comes to mind is Vice President Al Gore. He came back from an embarrassing loss of his presidential campaign to be one of the world’s leading advocates in the fight against climate change. What did he know about climate change when he started? Not much; so he educated himself. He’s a great example of the ways in which some people choose to use their resources and influence to serve.
I also have a great deal of respect for author J.K. Rowling. She was a divorced, single-mother on welfare in Scotland who had an idea for a book. Her manuscript was rejected a number of times before it was finally published. I believe her advance was around $4,000. Despite her circumstances, she believed in herself and she happened to have a story told in such a way that she caught the world’s attention. She is certainly both skilled and lucky. What makes her great is that instead of amassing all the wealth and attention she could, she has given so much money to charity that she has removed herself from the various wealthiest-people-in-the-world lists. She uses her platform to stand up for justice and to be of service. I hold her in high regard both as an author and a human being.
Most recently, I am having a “literary love affair” with Jorge Luis Borges. His stories are mind-blowing. If you can read them in Spanish, do, but if not, many of the translations are beautifully done.
My Favorite Places/Destinations?
I love the Pacific Northwest of the United States and British Columbia, Canada – and have chosen to live there. The green and the rain inspire me. It’s also generally cool, but not cold; the mild temperature invigorates me.
I genuinely enjoy exploring the area around my home. Last summer, I went to the local raspberry festival one town over and in the autumn, the annual fruit tasting put on by a local nursery. Down in Seattle, the Wing Luke museum offers food tours like the “noodle slurp” and just off the coast on Blake Island is the Tillicum Experience, where one can learn a little about local legends and the Native tribes of the Seattle area. In Vancouver BC, the University of British Columbia has a tree walk at their botanical gardens that will blow your mind. After the tree walk, you can head over to Vancouver’s Chinatown for some of the best dim sum in North America or Granville Island for the food court and market. I like to share an order of the pear crepes. The point is – wherever you live, there are great things to do. Find them and enjoy them.
My other favorite place, if I have to be away from coastal Washington State and British Columbia, is Melbourne, Australia. My god-children live there and I love spending time with my friends and “family” there. Plus, kangaroos. You can’t go wrong in a country with kangaroos.
In the future, I want to explore more islands: Madagascar, Maldives, Seychelles, New Zealand and nations of the Pacific, and of course, Easter Island. I also want to spend much more time in Turkey. I had an opportunity to have a short visit to Istanbul and it was not enough.
My Favorite Products/Objects?
I’m not really into “stuff.” I spend my money on experiences far more than objects or products. You will never find me with the latest gadget or name-brand anything.
That said, there are things that mean a great deal to me. I love the small treasures that I find on trips, mostly pieces of folk art that remind me of a place and an experience. I have a small sheep made out of upcycled Hebrew books that I got in the Tel Aviv craft market; it reminds me of the friends and good times I have had in Israel. Almost all of the art in my home is from my travels.
I also would never part with the things I have inherited from my family, particularly my paternal grandmother. I lived with my father’s parents for the last years of their lives and I was quite close with them. My grandmother and I often hosted dinner parties. I have one of the silver services we used to host those parties and will use just about any excuse to bring it out. It’s a bit silly, because few people my age like that level of fancy dining, but it connects me to the past and generations of family getting together, and so I use it.
My Current Passions?
I know it sounds cliché, but I love animals. I have two cats, Ziva and Dov, and a ¾ Arabian gelding named Cody. The animals take up a lot of my time.
I also love teaching Jewish adult education courses and leading weekday minyan. Ma’ariv is my favorite service. I like helping individuals apply the tenets of our tradition to how we live our lives. Currently, my weekly study group is learning about teshuvah (repentance) by reading Maimonides’ “Mishneh Torah.”