Two weeks ago we interviewed Koorosh Rassekh about Evo Health & Wellness, the addiction treatment center he founded. We learned about Evo’s philosophy, which is grounded in compassion and respect for the dignity of its patients. Today we get a more personal understanding of Evo, as Koorosh shares the backstory of his own struggle with addiction and recovery, and why that led him to founding the center.
Though I had been sober for five or six years, the beginning of my real recovery took place inside a Starbucks. The barista asked my name and I said, “Koorosh.” It was the first time I had ever used my real name in a public place like that. After I placed my order, I broke down, crying uncontrollably.
Before then it was always “Chris” or “Roosh.” I was used to people fumbling my name constantly and giving them permission to do so. “Did I get that right?” a person would ask. And I would quickly smooth over the conversation – “That’s right,” I would say. Or, “There are many ways to say it.”
When my family first moved to Orange County from Iran when I was 10, I was the only Iranian in the school, and it quickly became clear that I was different. That’s when the systematic bullying began.
I didn't have any friends. Instead, it felt like everyone was calling me names. There was a group of guys that were athletes that would chase or jump me every day, and I didn’t understand why or have anyone to talk to about it.
Koorosh and his mother, Mina, and sister, Pooneh.
Some other Iranian friends clued me into the idea that I could adopt an American name. They all had. Babak became “Bob,” Amir became “Andrew,” Ali became “Alex.” I started asking people to call me “Chris.” It rolled off the tongue and it gave me distance from the Iran that was on the news around the clock, with the Iranian Revolution in full swing and the hostage crisis bubbling up.
When my cousin Darioush, who was much darker than I was, started attending my school, the attention turned towards him. I never participated in the bullying, but I also didn’t stop it. Outside of school he and I were friends, but at school, I wouldn’t be seen with him. As terrible as it felt to see him suffer, I also felt a sense of relief. The heat on him meant it was off me.
Isolation and loneliness set in. I would literally spend hours playing sports outside, by myself. I used to dribble a basketball obsessively. Or throw a tennis ball against a wall for hours until it was pitch black outside and my parents forced me to stop. There, I held both the fantasy of acceptance through physical ability and a feeling of total aloneness.
I drank for the first time during my sophomore year in high school. I was on the tennis and water polo teams, and by this time I had some neighborhood friends, but none at school. Someone on the tennis team invited me to a party. I had one drink, which turned into a lot of drinks, fueled by my nervousness. I noticed that the drunker we got, the more I became part of the group. I liked the version of me that emerged, free of inhibitions. The next day I was sick and felt terrible. But suddenly, I existed. At school on Monday, I was part of the weekend. I was no longer an outcast. Instead, people came up to me and talked about how drunk we were and what a great time we had.
I NOTICED THAT THE DRUNKER WE GOT, THE MORE I BECAME PART OF THE GROUP. I LIKED THE VERSION OF ME THAT EMERGED, FREE OF INHIBITIONS.
From there, drinking and drugs became a part of my identity: I was a partier. In a time where I did not feel accepted–where I felt unacceptable–substances gave me connections that were much closer. They allowed the more authentic and important dimensions of who I was to creep into my life. I could share stories and my thoughts about the world, and people thought I was interesting or a nice guy. I was the designated drunk driver and I never questioned whether driving while blacked out was something I wanted to do; It was something I was going to do because that meant there would be other people with me. More than a connection with drugs or alcohol, it felt cooler to be me.
From then and through my twenties, as I grew into a successful businessperson, this grew into an identity of work hard, play hard. Many friends didn’t know about the darker side of my experience—a persistent loneliness and its solution, substance use. They didn’t know that when I left the party, I had a pocket full of drugs.
There were at least a dozen times that I picked up the phone to ask for help, but didn’t follow through. I worried about what would happen if I did.
Getting help meant assuming a label. It meant I would have to say, “I am an addict.”
And along with that label would come so many things—the idea that I was a failure, that I would hit rock bottom, that I had a disease.
So I didn’t ask for help. Years passed by, and things got worse.
Finally, I had absolutely no more options. I was homeless, driving around the desert in circles. I had previously entertained thoughts of suicide, but I had come to a point of certainty that I should either ask for help for commit suicide. Only then did I finally pick up the phone and let it ring.
My only request was for non-AA treatment. I found a renowned treatment center that claimed this, but in practice was actually heavily 12-step focused. It even hosted AA meetings onsite, which all clients were encouraged to attend. Even though it didn’t feel quite right, I dutifully became a model AA member. I opened up new meetings, sponsored new members, and even made great friends with people who are still dear to me. We used to joke about how the ideas of AA didn’t make sense, but we just needed to go along with it. AA not making sense was part of our illness, we used to say.
It wasn’t until years later that I even began to ask myself the deeper questions about who I was and what was driving my use.
WE USED TO JOKE ABOUT HOW THE IDEAS OF AA DIDN'T MAKE SENSE, BUT WE JUST NEEDED TO GO ALONG WITH IT. AA NOT MAKING SENSE WAS PART OF OUR ILLNESS, WE USED TO SAY.
I had the opportunity to take a class in Berkeley, California, with Lee Mun Wah, director of the well known film on race, Color of Fear. As we went around the room, I introduced myself and talked about the many different variations of what people called me. Mun Wah asked, “When did it become ok for people to call you so many different names?”
At first, Mun Wah’s question didn’t make sense to me. Of course it was ok, wasn’t it? Then he and other people in the room started to build on this idea with their own stories, insisting that my name did matter. And then it started to click. It should be ok to to be my full self wherever I go, uncomfortable history, blemishes, and all. I didn’t need to try to fit into a version of me designed to make it easier for other people to accept me. I realized that throughout my journey, from middle school to high school to AA, though I developed strong relationships with people, I was never able to be vulnerable or authentic. The consistent message from the world around me was that the true me was not welcome.
During a break, I stepped out and ordered an iced coffee. For the first time, when they asked for a name, I said my real name, “Koorosh.”
Koorosh with his son Cyrus at Venice Beach.
My real recovery, from that moment forward, was embracing my identity the way I was. Internally, I stopped being ok with fitting myself into other people’s ideas of what I was supposed to be. To participate in the broad, single story of recovery meant that I had to assume a prescribed, cookie-cutter identity. Instead, I began to build my identity on my own terms. I began to understand that I was not sick or broken, that my actions were the result of pain and resorting to extreme ways of coping with it.
TO PARTICIPATE IN THE BROAD, SINGLE STORY OF RECOVERY MEANT THAT I HAD TO ASSUME A PRESCRIBED, COOKIE-CUTTER IDENTITY. INSTEAD, I BEGAN TO BUILD MY IDENTITY ON MY OWN TERMS.
Professionally, as a therapist, I started practicing differently. I realized it was important to be curious about a person’s multiple identities, to not take it for granted that people are having incongruous experiences with who they are and how they fit into the world. I also started Evo, a treatment program with an alternative approach: to meet people where they are and respect where they want to go.
When I reflect on my story, I wonder, why did it take so long to get help? Why do people have to assume the label of “addict” and follow a single path to work toward change? And why did it take years after formal treatment for me to actually begin the journey toward real recovery, toward building and embracing an identity that reflected the real me? One thing is certain to me: there need to be more pathways to recovery so people can get help earlier.
I no longer have any problem saying my name. While sometimes that inner voice reminds me that it would be easier to say my name is “Chris,” I now have another voice that reminds me that who I really am is welcome.
Koorosh, his wife Christy, and their son Cyrus.