I want to tell you a little bit about my father. My father is a quiet, consistent loving man, who has been teaching for the last 48 years and doesn’t show any signs of loving it any less. My father, more than any other person, led me to recovery.
A little more than ten years ago, I sat across from him at the kitchen table. Due to my addiction, I had just been arrested on felony charges, I was in serious personal danger, and I had dropped out of school. All this had transpired in less than a week, and I still had hand tremors from my alcohol withdrawals. And my father did something amazing.
He looked at the son he had raised, who had squandered the tremendous opportunities, who had lied to him and stole from him, and he forgave me. He was able to tap into his own struggles and look at his son with empathy and love and without judgement.
I look back on this as one of the most important moments of my life
But I also received tremendously high-quality treatment for more than a year, my family received support, and I was able to return to a school that had a collegiate recovery program.
Only in retrospect do I realize how blessed I was, how much the deck was stacked in my favor. I had a family that worked on themselves, treated me with empathy and love, and had the resources and wherewithal to doggedly pursued the best options available for my care.
Now, I know that most people are not so fortunate, and this is the question that drives me everyday:
What would our country look like if we treated all people who struggle with substances with dignity and respect?
I want to tell you a few stories that shape my views about addiction and some ideas about how we move forward.
From Rusty to Scooby Doo Blue
In early recovery, the first car that I was able to buy and pay for myself was a rusted out 1992 Dodge caravan. It was one of those cars we call a meeting-maker in recovery rooms. After seeing me drive around in this car, Barry Moore who runs the Haley dealership here, offered to paint it up for me. It came back decorated with logos from CARITAS and the Healing Place in an unforgettable 1980s Phillies blue, and it looked straight out of Scooby Doo.
I was driving Scooby Doo to a friend’s birthday party and riding through a predominately black neighborhood. I was about five years into recovery at the time, working at CARITAS and helping people get back on their feet. But I also had a pony tail, was in a black neighborhood, and it was Friday afternoon. I was speeding and got pulled over. In a whirlwind, there were three cop cars there.
They asked to search my car. Figuring they would probably let me off when they searched and found nothing, I consented and they did a search of the car and my body, turning up a Big Book, 12 & 12 and a Basic Text.
After giving me the ticket and driving off, I remained in my car and cried. The experience had been crushing and humiliating. Didn’t any of the cops know what the Healing Place or CARITAS was? When was society going to considered my debt paid? Did I really look like someone who was living that life? And even so should anyone be treated that way?
As I processed that experience, it became hugely valuable gift that increased my empathy. I had read The New Jim Crow, which makes a convincing argument that The War on Drugs is the most recent chapter in a long history of oppressing people of color, and I recognized that my experience was a rare reversal of what is happening to people of color in our community on a daily basis.
It drove me to read and research everything I could on the War on Drugs and our long history of failed drug policy in this country. How had we gotten to a place where we had essential made it legal to profile based on race?
Where people of color were more likely to get pulled over, searched when pulled over, arrested when searched, convicted when arrested, sentenced to more time and have less opportunity for probation and parole? Despite the fact that African Americans, Latinos and whites use substances at very similar rates.
Through the War on Drugs, the United States has become the greatest incarcerator of our fellow human beings in the world. How did we get here?
I came to the conclusion that we as humans are naturally wired to think about ways to escape. In this case the escape is to blame someone else. This allows us to say that drug use is strictly an inner-city problem, though it never was. These things don’t happen in our neighborhoods, not to good families, and we create sufficient shame and stigma, that if it does happen, it is rarely discussed.
And our willingness to blame others and believe that alcohol and other drug problems are driven by something other than a normal human desire to escape or feel good or do better has lead us to the simplistic and unrealistic solution that if we can eliminate the substance than that will solve the problem.
And we are paying dearly.
By classifying drug use as a “moral crime” through our policies, we have eroded the potential power of the 4 decades of science that demonstrates addiction as a disease. We have placed nearly all of our funding in law enforcement and incarceration rather than prevention, treatment and recovery.
Most of us are guilty of falling into patterns of treating addiction as an acute condition that can be solved by a single consequence. Or believing that there is a one-size-fits-all-model and we, as professionals or people in recovery, have all the answers.
Working with individuals just entering recovery in treatment centers or recovery programs, we give a lot of cookie cutter solutions. Unsurprisingly, those who follow all our recommendations: meetings, service, not using, do extremely well. Those that don’t do well and come back fulfill the cycle, reinforcing our feelings of expertise even more.
There has been nothing more humbling than six years of working with Families in our Family Education Program. As I have gotten to know these wonderful, strong, resilient families, I have found myself less prone to blanket advice. I have learned that listening for 5 minutes and confidently labelling family members as enablers or codependents, is irresponsible, unhelpful and further traumatizing.
I have watched families gather all the knowledge and advice, execute perfectly and still have tragic results, and I have seen families do all the “wrong” things and have wonderful results.
It has been a truly humbling experience, but I have come to the conclusion that there are two messages that I am very comfortable with telling our families consistently.
“Your loved one is extremely fortunate to have you engaged in the recovery process,” and “It is never a bad thing to tell your family member you love them.” These two truths, putting love first, and taking more than our share of the responsibility will take us far.
One of the first things, I did when I started at VCU was to attend Safe Zone, our training for how to be a better ally forLGBTQ+ students. My experience there has played a huge role in shaping my views on how we move forward. What the training made clear to me was the challenge of holding a marginalized and hidden identity, and that my own recovery experience paralleled that of members of the LGBTQ+ community.
I had started to feel the pressure that many people in recovery experience
As I became more successful in my life, I should be more guarded about disclosing my recovery identity and criminal history.
Indeed, as a faculty member at a University, I could really “pass” now, but I also realized that if I consistently passed, my students might get the message that recovery was something to be hidden and not celebrated. That their identity had to be set aside or locked away in order to be successful.
The tremendous work of our LGBTQ+ friends and Racial Justice Advocates have taught me that my role on campus is more than building a small haven within a larger community. Instead, we have a broader focus which is to build a Recovery Ready Campus, a campus where anyone who reaches out for support can be met with compassion and not judged.
What I love about working on a college campus is that we have very limited leverage. It is so clearly against our best interest to “kick someone out” or to support punishment that is greater than the natural consequences use.
Instead, our job is to look for ways to intervene with students early, to help them find internal motivation for change, to show them how much opportunity there is in a life of recovery, and to create allies everywhere that will identify issues, listen non-judgmentally and support those changes.
Our job is to create the loving and empathetic community that people crave, where people can be engaged for their entire college experience and beyond with no limits. This is about more than ‘having a safe space’ on campus. This is about creating a campus wide system of care.
What I believe is that if we can figure out how do this on a college campus, then we can figure out how do it in our city, in our state, and in our country.
When we talk about recovery from substance use, we are not just talking about individual or family recovery, we are talking about societal recovery.
There is a widely used story that illustrates this so well.
If we taking a dying tree out of a forest, and we water, and we give it fertilizer and sunlight. And it grows and blossoms and flourishes. And then we put it back in the same forest, in the same place. We should not be surprised when it withers and dies.
Do we blame the tree for its failure?
We have done tremendous damage by allowing ourselves to be motivated by fear and blame and not by love, empathy and science.
To this day Father Bill from the Caron Foundation has the best description of addiction I have ever heard. Addiction robs us of the capacity to have intimate lasting relationships with ourselves, with each other, and with a higher purpose until the most important relationship in our lives is with the substance itself.
Because substance use so strongly impacts the capacity of individuals to make choices, substance users often damage our communities in deep and lasting ways. It can tear apart families and hurt children, and it can leave all of us baffled and frustrated.
Addiction has done well at tearing us apart and separating us into silos, but we are starting our own journey to recovery. We are slowly turning the ship.
Recovery is about reconnecting with those relationships
We are united in a common belief that maintaining the status quo is just not good enough, that we have to do better.
With our vote and our voice, we are moving our society towards a focus on recovery.
If we are willing to look more deeply at ourselves, addiction forces each of us to decide what kind of society we want to be.
Will we be a society that focuses on punishment, blame and the politics of fear, that shames and washes our hands of human beings?
Or will we be a society that shares responsibility, that empathizes, that forgives, that heals, that loves?
The path forward must come from all of us. We must arm ourselves with the knowledge that we need to make better decisions for ourselves, our families, and our communities.
But more importantly I hope that we can start to believe that change is possible for us, for our loved ones, and for people in our community who are struggling. That we can make meaningful changes in the way we treat substance use in our society, and by doing so, we will not only save lives, but we will restore relationships and communities.