America is currently facing a devastating drug epidemic and mental health crises, unlike any we have seen before.
Before and during this epidemic, I have been institutionalized in over twenty drug treatment centers and mental health facilities combined. Being blessed to have a motivational speaking company, I attend conferences with other people who work in the treatment field. I also have spoken with countless others in recovery who went through the treatment system, and with students receiving outpatient services. Each of these conversations contains despair and frustration concerning the lack of progress in defeating this epidemic. A person once said, “You cannot recover if you die!”
The system is focusing on the wrong things.
The judgmental emphasis on how a person recovers has exasperated many recovery advocates fighting this debilitating epidemic. These viewpoints have infiltrated the 12 step rooms of fellowship, which has increasingly caused unnecessary harm. Logic would suggest that when losing a war, a change of attitude and treatment would make complete sense. But no. The mission statement of treatment centers and literature of 12 step fellowship is too often dominated by one-way thinking ideology that is statistically doing more harm than good. The question remains, how many caskets will it take to overhaul the system?
The question remains, how many caskets will it take to overhaul the system?
“Only one out of ten will make it! Maybe three out of ten will make it in this room!” That is the statistical verbiage and use of fear I heard in all my treatment facility stays. I was always told, “Your best thinking got you a seat in a treatment center.” Now I ask the system, “When will you change your thinking, so that we can stop losing this epidemic?” Looking back, I realize those sayings and ways of treating are a foundational problem that has kept the funeral homes busier than ever. I am not placing all the blame on treatment centers and 12 step fellowships, however, As the late United States Representative Elijah Cummings stated, “We are better than this!”
The world of addiction is changing, but the treatment system lags behind.
My mother attended one treatment center for five days and has remained sober for over 25 years. She also completed the outpatient program and went on to have a successful career in the field of addiction. In recent conversations with her, she spoke about how people are entering treatment younger, which means the epidemic is only getting worse. “Freddy, when I first began working in this field, it was unheard of to see a 13-year old patient with a daily intravenous heroin habit.” I, too, was amazed during my inpatient stays at how many youths needed that level of care. The clientele is coming in younger and considerably at a higher rate, but the programming remains the same. The methodology is a one-size-fits-all approach that yields more death than positive results.
My main attraction to Workit Health was their holistic approach to defeating this illness and having a prosperous life. They understand that every human has a different brain and life that requires multiple avenues of treatment. For years, the treatment system has relied tremendously on the 12 Step approach, cemented through the hiring process along with volunteers from such fellowship groups. The theory is, no one is better to serve and help save lives than those already in recovery. The psychological atmosphere of the building is that of a 12 step fellowship in hopes to change each person’s mind to the beautiful life of recovery. I believe this approach makes sense; however, the statistical relapse rate and deaths from this epidemic are begging for a change.
I want to be clear that the treatment facilities saved my family’s life. My mother gaining sobriety when I was in third grade gave me wisdom beyond my years. Not to mention that my last treatment facility altered the course of my life in unfathomable ways. We both garnered positive results, but had completely different experiences. These experiences are the solution to the current problem.
Individual helpers are showing a way forward.
I wholeheartedly believe the institutions are currently flawed and need to change. However, some special people work in this system and understand what must be done. When I entered my last inpatient stay, I had only the clothes on my back. I was very fortunate that the facility had a clothing donation bin that afforded me everything I needed. I was left with only a few outfits that needed washing multiple times a week considering the scorching weather that summer. The rules of the house stated you could only wash your clothes on certain days. I was very embarrassed only to have a few outfits, so I waited until the wee hours to wash my clothes regularly. I got away with this for about two days until a wonderful woman named Sue politely confronted me about my behaviors. Instead of simply telling me the rule and giving me a consequence, she asked me to sit down next to her. During these next few days and weeks, she would sit and talk with me at night. In my darkest hour, when I wanted to give up and thought I had no purpose, she spoke life into me. She would even share candy and snacks she brought from home. For a person in my shoes, that is the ultimate display of leadership, care, and love. These conversations would get in-depth, and I found it easy to open up to her. I trusted that her advice was real, regardless if it hurt my feelings.
Our conversations were not of the 12 step nature, nor did she stress any of that fellowship. She understood what I needed and how to approach me without going the regular programming route of a 12 step regimen. Sue explained that I had a duty as a son and wanted me to seek out different things in life. I remember her telling me to take advantage of the library that was offered and how working out is critical to a positive life of recovery. In hindsight, she was my first mentor but did it completely differently than any other facilitator I had come across in a treatment setting.
Sue and several other treatment staff went rogue to help me, and truly changed my life. Things like giving me money, toiletry items, and clothing for when I transitioned to the halfway house, understanding I would need support. They went above and beyond to save my life, which made me want to make them proud. I am forever indebted to them because of the risk they took in supporting me off the books.
Higher administration in these institutions emphatically object to having personal relationships with the clients, but Sue understood the way to my heart was soul-to-soul exposure. She knew that a mother figure was the medicine I needed to heal. I will never forget when she said, “Freddy, you have a purpose in this life, and you were never a mistake!” Fast forward my one year anniversary of sobriety. I spoke at that treatment center, and Sue gave me her first-year coin. She told me she loved me in front of all the patients. At my induction for Phi Theta Kappa International Honor Society, I was only allowed two guests, and she sat beside my wife. I gave her my rose from that night, because she deserved that and so much more. If Sue hadn’t taken a such a unique approach, I promise you I would not be here today!
We need flexible treatment options, not one-size-fits-all.
I have become successful by using my experiences and pain to inspire others. My lived experiences are not to be in vain. Instead they will be the fruit for a change. A brother, mentor, and inspirational leader Greg Williams of Third Horizon Strategies empowered my voice for this exact change. Greg Williams is a filmmaker and director of The Anonymous People. He has made it a life mission to change the way the world views substance abuse and mental illness. He is currently working with Alliance for Addiction Payment Reform to incentive recovery, not relapse. By allowing me to share my lived experience in the treatment system, the power brokers in the room can better understand how to treat this illness. I believe Sue’s behavior and Greg’s actions are the new ideology we need in this system.
What do we have to lose in adding to the foundation of a battle we are already losing?
Instead of immediately offering a 12 step program to a new patient, why not offer other avenues of health? What if there were an additional space for programming for spiritual practice, mental health, life skills classes, parenting groups, financial literacy, physical health, nutritional health, education on medication? What do we have to lose in adding to the foundation of a battle we are already losing?
Keith Murphy, LPC, LCADC, and recovery advocate based out of New Jersey has long been a proponent of a better future for the next generation. Dr. Kristine De Jesus, who is a generational change agent for diversity, agrees that the system must change foundationally. Together they delivered a workshop at the SAFE Project Leadership Academy held in Washington, D.C. last year that left the room shook to the core. However, it was a quote by Mr. Murphy that suggested to me how we can collectively accept change. He said, “We are all in the same church, just sitting at different pews.” If the treatment system could take a hard look at the programming with that type of attitude, I honestly believe the rate of relapse and death would drastically drop.
We can change, and we must!
I thought long and hard before writing this piece. I wanted to offer a solution rather than emotional critique. As a person in long term recovery and a motivational speaker for the youth, I believe I have a God-given duty. My mission statement, “Inspire, Educate, and Create healthy lifestyles for all,” must be a way of life. I am entrusted with platforms to be a teacher to the youth. My job is an integrity paycheck that I must daily deposit into the souls of the youth. So noticing a systemic flaw and not speaking on it would be tantamount to criminal behavior.
Any business that does not change with its market gets left behind only to fail eventually. When a medication does not yield results, it’s taken off the market. The television is filled with new marketing campaigns of various chemotherapy drugs in hopes of finding a cure. What is taking the drug treatment centers so long? Why are these institutions refusing to see the evidence and move to a more holistic approach? There are a few but not nearly enough needed to really put a dent in this epidemic. Is the philosophy a case of profit over people? Treatment centers, please wake up and realize there is more than one way to skin a cat!