January 7, 2014

Greed, Sex and Drugs on Wall St.: Therapist to Financial Pros Tells All

Jonathan Alpert, psychotherapist to the Street, talks to ThinkAdvisor about why some advisors and bankers are so self-destructive

Alpert says none of his patients are as devious as the character Leonardo DiCaprio, above, depicts in “The Wolf of Wall Street.” (Photo: AP) Alpert says none of his patients are as devious as the character Leonardo DiCaprio, above, depicts in “The Wolf of Wall Street.” (Photo: AP)

Compulsive drug use, heavy drinking, rampant sex with prostitutes: more Wall Street financial advisors than you would think are caught up in that sticky web, according to New York City psychotherapist Jonathan Alpert.

Dubbed “The Wall Street Therapist,” Alpert, 42, has developed something of a specialty treating financial services professionals, including traders, investment bankers and advisors, who seek him out to scrap their self-destructive behaviors.

The spotlight shined on Alpert during the financial crisis, when he commented to the media about the bad behaviors his Wall Street patients were exhibiting chiefly as a result of the meltdown. Then, in the Oscar-winning documentary about the crash, “Inside Job” (2010), he elaborated on the psychological consequences the crisis had wrought.      

He is hardly an old-school, lie-down-on-the-couch Freudian, instead conducting businesslike sessions with patients sitting upon a white leather sofa and squeezing stress balls to relieve tension the requisite Kleenex box nearby, however.

Alpert’s approach is goal- and results-oriented and of short duration. His practice is located in Manhattan, but he uses phone and Skype to treat folks around the country as well in London.

Wearing another hat, as an executive coach he helps people with business-related issues, including launching new companies, salary negotiation and communication skills, to connect with clients on an emotional level.

ThinkAdvisor chatted recently with Alpert, author of “Be Fearless: Change Your Life in 28 Days” (Center Street/Hachette-2012). Here are excerpts from that conversation.

ThinkAdvisor: Ever had a Wall Street patient who was as morally corrupt as Jordan Belfort, “The Wolf of Wall Street”?

Jonathan Alpert: I’m familiar with Belfort and can proudly say none of my patients are that devious!

What’s the audience takeaway after seeing that movie, based on Belfort’s life of debauchery and dishonesty?

A hatred toward Wall Street. It shows a lot of deception, lies and cheating. It’s negative press for Wall Street.

Why do many financial services folks participate in behaviors like pill-popping, using street drugs, excessive drinking and frequenting hookers?

To cope with stress, but those are very poor ways. Also, there’s the accessibility factor: drugs are prevalent on Wall Street, and there’s a lot of prescription drug abuse, too. Certain street drugs, like cocaine, seem to work well with the culture and the profession: going out late at night, working late. If people have to work through the night and don’t get much sleep, cocaine helps them through it and through the next day.

Is that why they choose cocaine?

Some of these people tend to be impulsive and grandiose, and cocaine is a massive stimulant that plays into their personality.

You saw these behaviors during the financial crisis. What about now?

They’re still prevalent but don’t seem to be on the rise. Still, drug use on Wall Street is widespread and more so than in other industries. People drink and use drugs in good times and bad. They drink as a way to cope with stress and use drugs to distract. The sex is quite common and remains very accessible. Going to Asian massage parlors or strip bars is a way of dealing with stress.

Jonathan AlpertMen often explain away the sex issue by saying they’re “sex addicts,” implying a helplessness to control their compulsions. Is this valid?

We see that in the popular culture with celebrities and politicians, like Anthony Weiner-types who get into trouble. Whether it’s a sex issue or a porn issue, they say they have a problem and use that as a defense. So there’s a trend to seeing those issues as problems as opposed to “He’s a creep.” People think “sex addiction” is an actual disorder. However, the medical community hasn’t come up with a diagnosis of “sex addiction.” It’s not accepted.

Well, what about greed? Is that addictive?

Yes. From a conditioning point of view, if the person desires something, such as money, and they get it through whatever means trading, for example it makes them feel good so they desire more to achieve a similar level of satisfaction. This behavior is reinforced, creating a reward system in the brain.

Where do financial advisors, traders and others in the industry use drugs, and where else do they go for indiscreet sex?

A lot of the cocaine use and sexual behavior is being done outside of work at clubs and bars. But people are popping prescription pills [anywhere]. They think they’re safe because a doctor prescribed them, but not necessarily, especially when mixed with alcohol and other drugs.

To what extent are Wall Street women using drugs and drinking to excess?

Not as much as the guys. But often younger people want to fit in with the culture, so they’re participating just to fit in.

Jordan Belfort has been called sociopathic and even psychopathic. Do you have Wall Street patients who can be so described?

Many of my patients, including those who work on Wall Street, show signs of sociopathy or psychopathy — old descriptions of what is now referred to as antisocial personality disorder. This is characterized by several traits: the person is usually charming, yet this veils his manipulative ways. He might break the law and have a blatant disregard for others. Lying, cheating and fighting are commonplace. These people often use drugs, are easily angered and have an arrogance about them. They also show very little remorse or guilt if they hurt someone or if they’re wrong.

At what point do financial services professionals seek your help?

Often they don’t come in on their own volition but because they were caught doing something — their wives or significant others caught them looking at porn or cheating — and they were forced to see me.

Why do they acquiesce and come in?

To save their marriages. But many times it’s because they’re protective of their fortune: When they fear divorce, they’re afraid of losing what they’ve gained. By the way, I’ve often also found wives who are quite aware of their husbands’ indiscretions and are having their own fun on the side.

"Be Fearless" by Jonathan Alpert

Have you had any financier patients who defrauded their clients?

Yes. It ties in with their impulsive mindset, greed and narcissism. They think they’re invincible. They have big egos and sometimes feel they’re better than others or better than the law or that they can find their way to a loophole or a way around the law. There’s a disregard for societal rules.

Do they ever show guilt or remorse for bilking clients?

Their spouse or significant other may become aware of what’s going on, so they feel guilty. But many times people dissociate themselves from it and talk about how they weren’t in the know; so they don’t feel responsible. They’ve divorced themselves from it. Some, though, do feel remorse and guilt, and re-evaluate their lives.

Does drug use lead to the unacceptable, or even criminal, behavior; or does the bad behavior come first?

The individual’s personality traits lead to the risk-taking behavior. Drug-taking is consistent with these personalities — impulsive, thrill-seeking. It’s hard to know which comes first: fraudulent behavior on the job or drug use. Certainly, drugs impair and influence decisions, and that makes it easier for them to carry out their acts.

Why do they think they can get away with it?

It’s that sense of entitlement, that narcissism. There’s a feeling of invincibility. They weren’t born with these traits: they developed them later in life.

A former advisor that I interviewed, who went to prison for conspiring to commit fraud, blamed his crime largely on his firm’s culture and the pressure on advisors to produce. Was he just weak?

People get wrapped up in the culture and are in a bit of a bubble. Of course there’s enormous pressure, but that doesn’t mean what they’re being pressured to do is right. They just lose sight of their morals: what’s right and what’s wrong.

What about folks who compulsively watch online pornography? Is that commonplace on the Street?

Not as common with Wall Street people [in the office] because many aren’t using their computers all day, and their [online activity] is closely monitored [by firms]. But outside work, as I’ve said, a lot of people go to places like massage parlors and sex clubs to have sex.

Are many younger people in the financial services world coming to see you?

Yes, and they’re a mess – guys and gals just a few years out of college and working 12 hours a day. They’re 22 years old and have developed bad behaviors and bad health: migraine headaches, sleep disorders, sexual performance issues, and of course, drug and alcohol problems. Most of the time they’re self-referred but only after they reach a very unhealthy point that starts to interfere with their health, relationships or work performance. Some seem to recognize the toll the stress is taking on their health, but many don’t. A lot see me because their marriages are on the rocks, and their spouses required them to get help.

Why are these younger folks such reckless workaholics?

They’re working 70 hours a week for that year-end bonus. But things are different now. The bonuses aren’t what they used to be.

So that goal — the year-end bonus — puts even more pressure on them.

Yes, and it creates a lot of stress. After the financial crisis, people were not getting the bonuses they once received, but a lot of them continued to lead a lifestyle as though they were.

Many financial advisors were laid off in the crisis. That must have greatly upset them and caused many to seek help.

Losing a job was critical because they felt they lost their identity. Often a person’s identity becomes fused with that of their career: “My name is Jonathan. I’m a financial advisor with such-and-such firm.” The danger in that is if you lose your job, you lose most of your identity. After the crash, many on Wall Street who lost their jobs were depressed, distraught and aimless. They didn’t know who they were and had to reinvent themselves.

Did they accomplish that?

Five years later, it seems that, for the most part, they’ve done it successfully. The crisis forced them to re-evaluate what’s important.

What type of treatment do you provide to financial services people?

I try to bring about changes in their behavior — developing healthier lifestyles around eating, sleeping, exercise and time management. Frequently an unhealthy lifestyle is the reason they suffer from depression and other issues. They’re burning the candle at both ends.

So, do you have many Wall Street patients with sleep problems?

Yes. In large part, it’s due to working hard and playing hard. That, combined with the use of stimulants — prescription and street drugs — and high anxiety brought on by their jobs, lead to disruptive sleep. A big misconception is that alcohol helps you sleep. It may help you fall asleep; but as the body detoxes from it, it disrupts sleep and you usually wake up two or three hours later.

What specific approach do you take with therapy?

Very direct and outcome-oriented because these people are busy. They’re apt to be somewhat resistant to therapy and want to know they’re getting something for their money. They want results. So it has to be almost like coaching: Do this, do that — this is what you need to do to make these changes. And there is homework.

Do you ever move beyond only changing behavior?

Yes, I go deeper and try to help people with depression and anxiety issues around their personality: that is, flaws that may be impacting their productivity and work relationships.

Seems that many on Wall Street — and likely people in the industry throughout the country — create lots of big problems for themselves.

The majority are not greedy, impulsive and reckless. But a lot are, and it ruins the reputation of just about all of them. Some really bad guys tend to negatively affect the image. So much of what I do is getting patients to realize that there are things more important than making money. People that have been in the profession for 25 years or more often look back and wonder where the years went. At the end of one’s life, it’s not more money that people want but more time. Time is more valuable than money.

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