A Fireside Chat with John Cates

Just look at that smile.

Just look at that smile.

We are proud to welcome John Cates to the Spera team as our Chief Clinical Officer! John is a rather amazing individual, and his role will involve providing clinical oversight and guidance to our operations, helping develop our products, and leading other projects that we’re not at liberty to reveal just yet.

Here are some highlights and honors from his past projects:

  • 1976 -- Designed the first free standing recovery high school in the United States, located in Houston, Texas

  • 2015 -- Co-founded The Association of Alternative Peer Group Programs

  • 2000 -- Counselor of the Year for the State of Texas

  • 2001 -- NAADAC Counselor of the Year for the United States

  • 2016 -- Jim Czarnecki Community Impact Award from the Association of Recovery Schools

John sat down to answer a few questions about his history, passions, and vision for the future of Spera. As the interviewer, I must say that if you ever get a chance to meet John or hear him speak, do it. He’s a wonderful person and an inspiring leader in the addiction treatment community. The following is a conversation we had over video chat a couple of weeks ago, with some dialogue streamlined for the sake of print media.


So what was your story before coming to Spera?

I think I was chosen to mess in the area of changing the way your brain works with chemicals. You know it says more times in the Bible to not get drunk than to not kill people? Quite a few more times. It also says the truth will set you free, and if culture ever accepts the truth about these substances and their effects on the brain -- and the effect of the brain being broken over the choices people make -- a lot of ills would fade away for a lot of people.

Accordingly, I’ve been doing everything from running big treatment organizations to designing different ways of solving problems for 42 years, as well as teaching and running substance abuse treatment programs. I also produced industrial films for about four years and love tinkering with gadgets, so I have a wide variety of skills.

I’ve been a CEO at multiple organizations, which means I've been involved in both marketing and raising funds. The Spera team wants this platform to facilitate treating this deadly disease the best it can, so they asked me how to relate it to the widest clinical audience out there, and how to make it work best for the whole group.


What particular advantages does Spera-enabled treatment have over traditional addiction care?

So here’s the cool thing about our platform: research says that to stabilize with any substance abuse issue, the process takes an average of eighteen months to four years. This means you need to keep a whole team together for support for the duration of the treatment -- this continuity of care is absolutely key. The most promising thing about Spera so far is how they’re matching up the treatment approach with what the research says.

Spera understands this time frame. Now we ask ourselves, what are the tools to pull this off? With new tech (I’m an old man who plays virtual reality games) you can make alternative peer groups without physical contact. It makes sense for all of those elements to be coordinated under one program, and Spera has embraced that this process is drawn out and takes lots of elements to work together. Alternative peer groups embrace other aspects of the recovery process too -- you’re gonna make new friends, so the platform you interact with them on should be fun. More information on alternative peer groups can be found here in a 2016 interview with John.

A lot of people in the treatment field are not paying attention to what the research says and are instead focused on time frames of thirty to ninety days. They're focusing on trying to get insurance to pay, so most treatment throughout the world is set up around an inappropriate amount of time. Spera isn’t doing that.

I hope we can take advantage of the tech itself while also taking advantage of the organizations that DO understand this long term commitment and the importance of peers. Take therapists. A lot of them realize this is an 18 month to 4 year journey. They understand that a broad, thorough range of continuity of care and coordination needs to happen. But just a phone and a building is not sufficient to make that happen efficiently. This kind of tech is a whole new aspect, and it makes the process a lot easier.


How do you see technology like ours improving the recovery experience?

Imagine you’re at the movies and you bump into an old girlfriend from before you got clean. She’s excited to see you, anxious to catch up, and wants to sit by you at the movie. Now, you KNOW she’s not clean, but you’re tempted to see where things go. When any inkling of doubt pops up in your mind, you can check in with the app and let your circle know what's going on: “Hey, just ran into an old girlfriend.” You can then hear back “Dude, remember your disease.” So when you’re being cocky and sure of yourself, someone could rally to you and help keep your head on straight. And for the other people who might be following along with the interaction in the app -- how many of them are about to run into an old boyfriend or girlfriend? How many of them can take advantage of that moment themselves?

Even think beyond specific interactions. I have a client right now with some legal issues. He needs a set track of how every day has gone, so when he gets to court, there’s a displayable path that shows what he’s done to treat his disease. There’s no way to do that adequately without an app. This is going to make a huge difference.

What do you like to do in your free time?

Here's hoping that hair makes a comeback.

Here's hoping that hair makes a comeback.

Music has always been a big part of my life. I still love it when I get asked to play and sing. In the early years of recovery it was a joy to be a part of a rock n' roll group called Freeway that did all original recovery oriented music.  The group was born out of Palmer Drug Abuse Program and our last concert had 8000 people at the Astro Hall in Houston...  I have never heard of anything like it!  A lot of people are shocked to hear that this once existed.  It is this "enthusiastic recovery" that Spera wants to infuse into its platforms!

Otherwise, I play video games, read, write, and fish, mostly. I’ll work out. Get this: I can do three sets of 33 pull-ups. Not bad for a guy with a liver transplant! (Note: your writer is a healthy young adult and would be lucky to complete three sets of three pull-ups.) Most of my free time centers around my wife, to whom I’ve been married for 37 years. I spend a lot of time at night watching her play video games -- she’s playing Witcher right now. We love all that kind of stuff. We travel, been all over the world. Oh and we have two awesome kids too.


Any final thoughts?

You think about retirement, and the cool thing about retiring is NOT retiring. You get to put your time into what you think truly rocks. And I really have great faith in this Spera thing. The things they’re letting me work with them on are going to be huge.

We’re talking about saving lives. And not just the people who have the disease, but the toddlers who don’t die in a car wreck because of this tech. There will be so much misery avoided by incorporating all these elements, so having a chance to work on it is pretty cool for an old dude.