NORCROSS - In high school, Mike Sanders started drinking.
In college, he started binge drinking.
And in the business world, he started drinking a quart or more of vodka a day and taking prescription medications such as OxyContin and Xanax.
Now, the 50-year-old owns an addiction clinic in Norcross that is about to celebrate its one-year anniversary.
Quite a turnaround for a man who said he was on the verge of losing his family and business before seeking help in January 2005.
"(The addiction) truly began to control my life," Sanders recounts. "I began to spend excessive amounts of money on it."
But despite the obvious signs of addiction, the New Orleans resident said he couldn't imagine being away from work long enough to go to a traditional, 30-day rehabilitation center. Sanders owned his own financial services firm and needed to be there managing it.
One day his wife, while glancing through a local magazine, came across a treatment center in nearby Slidell, La., that offered a 10-day treatment.
Sanders decided to give the treatment, called Neurotransmitter Restoration, a try.
He said he went through the treatment and came out cured of his dependency. His withdrawal, he said, resembled a very mild case of the flu at worst.
The businessman was an instant believer in the treatment, and he soon made plans to open his own chain of clinics, called ExecuCare Addiction Rehabilitation Centers, that he could take nationwide.
"I became such a proponent," Sanders said. "I knew I couldn't be the only executive experiencing addiction."
Sanders wanted to set up his first clinic in metro Atlanta and eventually settled in Norcross. Atlanta, his hometown and home to a branch of his financial business, seemed a great opportunity to reach executives because of the number of Fortune 500 companies here.
The company opened Sept. 25, 2006 and has helped 22 patients in its first year. Sanders said all but four of those are still healthy.
He has now set his sights on opening clinics in cities such as Houston, Nashville and Baltimore in early 2008.
What exactly is Neurotransmitter Restoration?
Neurotransmitter Restoration uses intravenous treatments of amino acids to help patients overcome addiction, Sanders said. Addiction is a brain disease, he added, and restoring the needed balance of nutrients in the brain helps relieve the cravings associated with addiction.
"Other treatments focus on the psychological and social aspects of the disease," Sanders said. "This works on the physical problems first, then allows people to work on psychological and social problems later."
Dr. Stephen Holtzman said the rationale of the treatment makes sense (drug use does lead to an imbalance of neurotransmitters), but for the most part scientists still don't know what's going on in the brain in relation to most types of drug dependencies. Holtzman is an addiction specialist at Emory University.
Other specialists stressed the importance of treating all the aspects of addiction - biological, psychological and spiritual.
Donna Bliss, an addiction specialist with the University of Georgia's School of Social Work, said it's important for patients to develop social networks because what led a person to start abusing alcohol or drugs is usually still waiting for them upon their return from treatment.
"The real issue is what happens when they leave, because their circumstances outside of rehab have not changed that much," Bliss said.
Sanders said ExecuCare decides on an individual basis what type of outpatient treatment each person should receive, and recommends a course of action based on their circumstances.
ExecuCare costs $12,000 for the 10-day treatment, sessions with counselors and doctors and four follow-up treatments over an eight-week span.
Treatment remains unknown to many local specialists
The cost seems well worth it if the treatment lives up to the 80 percent long-term recovery success rate ExecuCare boasts on its Web site.
The problem, local addiction specialists say, is they know little about the treatment and have yet to see a formal study on it.
"It would be wonderful if there was a miraculous treatment where you went in for just 10 days, but I haven't seen it yet," Holtzman said. "I just have a degree of skepticism about the whole thing. It sounds great, but I'm a scientist. I want to see proof."
Sanders said the recovery rate posted on ExecuCare's Web site is based on numbers from The William Hitt Center in Tijuana, Mexico, where the treatment was founded by Dr. Hitt 25 years ago. The William Hitt Center has treated more than 15,000 patients, he said.
Still, Sanders conceded there have yet to be any major studies done on the treatment, mainly because it lacks any drugs and therefore lacks funding, he said.
"That's one obstacle we will overcome," Sanders said.
Brian Dew, an assistant professor specializing in addiction at Georgia State University, said he has heard of the treatment but knows of few people offering it in Atlanta. He said it's seen a little more on the West Coast and in New York, where progressive treatments are more prevalent.
Kim Paille, ExecuCare's clinic director, said most doctors and addiction specialists still aren't aware of the benefits of Neurotransmitter Restoration.
"Any time new technology comes out, people are scared of it," Paille said.
Still, Bliss said her skepticism of new treatments claiming quicker and better results is founded in 20 years of working in the field.
"I've seen a lot of treatments come and go over the years, and it's kind of like dieting - there's no simple solution," Bliss said. "If someone found one, they'd be rich."
Dew offered a relatively simple suggestion for anyone interested in new treatments like this: ask for a screening, depending on the cost.
Sanders said ExecuCare offers free screenings.
"If our treatment's not right for someone we'll make sure we find the best fit for them somewhere," Sanders said.