Interview with Lisa McLaughlin
This week Liv interviewed Lisa McLaughlin, a real inspirational and innovative woman. Lisa tells us, "I am a social entrepreneur building digital health tools that dramatically improve the landscape for brain health in the 21st century. I am the Co-Founder and Co-CEO of Workit Health, which I founded with Robin McIntosh, whose mission is to make recovery accessible to high risk substance users around the clock, enabling early prevention and intervention, and empowering individuals with tools to live the lives they want to live."
Interview with Lisa McLaughlin
Liv: Let’s kick off with a food question: what have you had for breakfast today?
Sushi, salmon nigiri specifically. If there was a daily fresh fish delivery service, I would be an early adopter. Omega 3s play a huge role in keeping me sober. There’s actually a ton of research indicating that they are helpful for people recovering from addictions. It took me two decades to realize I feel like crap when I don’t eat protein first thing in the morning.
I’m obsessed with tea, so I typically have Tea Haus tea with every meal, either a black or green or black/green blend. They’re the best in the world. When I lived in San Francisco I shipped myself Tea Haus tea from Michigan despite the Bay being rumored to have some of the best teas in the world. I now send Tea Haus tea annually to my co-founder Robin, and she’s a convert. It’s become a Workit tradition. We look forward to having it on tap at our offices when we grow.
Liv: Moving to your story, you wrote about the importance of getting outside and owning your story. In a nutshell, what is your story of being affected by addiction and how did you recover?
I got sober young after a whirlwind adolescence. I started drinking and doing drugs at fifteen and they were a fast solution to my social anxiety, my longing for adventure, and the inevitable awkwardness that occurs when a girl raised to do missionary work in the Baptist church enters the world of dating and parties in a large public high school. I became immersed in the Detroit Rave Scene, things went pretty far afield from there. Strange things happen when you throw hundreds of teenagers into an empty masonic temple in a gutted urban city and fill it with miscellaneous pills of uncertain composition. In my darkest moments I once lost eyesight for four hours, was tempted to leave my brother who needed to go to the ER to “go to the club,” and had a variety of near-death experiences. It is memories of the absurd moments when I lost total touch with my moral compass that keep me passionate for sober living. It was wonderful, it was terrible, it was life in fast forward.
I recovered initially through a deep and complex mix of counseling, AA, women’s studies courses that taught me to be more present in my body, and incredible friendships with women in recovery. That first hand that reached out to show me a different way to live was key. For me, it was an acquaintance from high school who I was in aftercare with. I knew she had seen what I had seen and was ok. She gave me a letter about her path and hope.
Today Workit is the foundation of my recovery. It’s the grad school I was always hoping would follow the twelve steps.
Liv: I loved your top tips post for how to thrive sober—in particular cultivating a growth mindset. Tell me what ‘learning something uncomfortable every day’ looks like?
When I looked at the reasons I was using, a key element was boredom. My co-founder Robin often says this incredible line about “deserving big juicy lives” in recovery – and I agree with her. Why give up a life of wild abandon if there isn’t something just as compelling and spontaneous on the other side of it? I now live by the Bob Dylan motto “(s)he not busy being born is busy dying.” That means taking risks, questioning your assumptions about yourself, digging into the stories you tell about yourself and unpacking them. For instance finishing the blog is uncomfortable, it forces me to reflect and peel back the layers. It breaks down my fear that “I’m not the sort of person to finish things.”
Liv: You are the CEO and Co-Founder at Workit Health. You have talked about how you and Co-Founder Robin McIntosh (Robin’s interview here) met in 2009 in the Bay Area and noted the lack of tech companies focusing on addiction. Given the hours that you worked and your levels of expertise in this subject (both personally and professionally), you founded Workit Health. The core of your program is the philosophy of patients as designers, together with evidence based treatment. Tell me a little more about the design element and what makes that unique?
Well, Robin is a design genius and has turned the whole lot of us into designers of different stripes. She’s taught me to understand that “designers” are world builders who use different tools. I design by remix, through collage and curation. Others on our team design through research or illustration or storytelling. When we started Workit we laid out a giant visual map of the tools we had that we believed were pivotal to our success in staying sober. They mapped out a path for survival between us and those we had lost along the way. There is great power in making that world available to everyone by using design to map it out in simple terms.
Liv: Now it is no secret what a fan I am of Workit Health and your mission. What I particularly love about you is that you have all been directly affected by addiction—either personally or with someone close to you. How do you think that uniquely places you as an organisation to better understand the needs of people enrolling in your program?
Its key to our differentiation in the landscape. When we started Workit we tested a wide range of digital programs that were available to support people with addictions through counseling and exercises. They lacked a pivotal understanding of who they were talking to. They either bored me, provided me with a coach who was in undergrad and knew very little about the context of my brain chemistry, or worse, were created by an academic with a top-down mindset that I couldn’t stomach. It heals nobody to write down 50 different times the number of times that they did a particular drug. No recovering person I know would even be able to recall that level of detail of their use. It’s just offensive.
Liv: You talked about how it is really important to your mission to help destigmatise addiction. How would you say Workit Health does this? And what could we all do more of to help with this mission?
Part of the reason addiction is stigmatized is because the community has relied for a long time on anonymity as a matter of survival. There have been benefits to that perspective historically, there are certainly dangers for some embedded in “recovering out loud.” At Workit we believe that we have been hiding in church basements for far too long, but it’s critical to provide discrete paths for people to explore and get started on a path that works for them. The Workit team likes windows, open spaces, gorgeous environments. We aren’t satisfied with being in the closet in a world where 175 of our people are dying every day.
Workit does this by showcasing the vitality of the recovery world by building new and relevant rituals for our time. We use our platform to showcase new thinkers like you, who are less accessible to our patient and clients in rural areas. Those simple practices get us beyond stigmatisation and into revolution. You can help our mission by spreading the word that we exist and that we now treat all stages of addiction with a full suite of programs. People often mistake us for an app because we’re digital.
Liv: What we know about traditional modalities of recovery—say 12 Step programs—is a life-long program of recovery. How does a 90 day program compare? What is the evidence to support a shorter period of recovery?
Our 90 program provides a kick-off into our world but from there our members move into “Onward,” our aftercare program which has no defined end date. We’re deeply conscious that it takes a village and a lifetime to do recovery right, we just like to give our members a bite-sized way to jump in and lay a foundation. All of our programs run on membership models, you can pop in and pop out as you need us.
Liv: What I also love is that Workit Health provides a range of programs to cover a whole host of addictive behaviours. For example, you have an eating program. Can you tell me how that came about?
We’ve been supporting women in recovery with co-occurring eating disorders for years. It’s difficult to treat any one addiction in isolation. My co-founder Robin went through a wide range of services and had access to the best of the best. We wanted to democratize that programming and make it modern and available for everyone.
Liv: Moving on to the physical aspect of recovery, how did your relationship with your body evolve in recovery?
The other day, Gloria from our team posted this incredible quote on our Nayirrah Waheed “and i said to my body. softly. ‘i want to be your friend.’ it took a long breath. and replied ‘i have been waiting my whole life for this.”
Liv: What has been your relationship with food in recovery?
I’ve spent a great deal of time in recovery figuring out foods that make my brain work better. I keep up on microbiome research and believe strongly that investing time to make sure our second brain in the gut is functioning well can help us maintain a healthy mind and body.
At Workit we’ve had the incredible opportunity of working with the National Science Foundation to push the future of holistic recovery through biometrics. That means exploring the role of genetic testing in prevention for those at risk in recovery. Turns out I have a fair number of malabsorption issues that I learned about through 23andme and other genetic testing services. It’s changed my diet and my supplement regimen considerably. I’m so excited about the future of nutrition in recovery.
Liv: Last, what are your top three recovery tools?
Workit Facebook Groups, the Workit Program, Nightly talks with my co-founder Robin.
Lisa on social media: