Our Stories Are Our Strength
Collective Journal: June 25 – July 2, 2021
Isolation is the enemy of mental wellbeing. We have all endured some level of isolation over the last year, though some more than others and some were more vulnerable or susceptible to the negative consequences than others. Those who are on the front lines of the fight against addiction/substance use disorder, either as patients or providers, have felt some of the worst impacts of this isolation. Imagine trying to save someone’s life, through a computer screen. Or imagine going from the comfort of weekly meetings and support groups to crushing self-doubt that comes from isolation. I myself relapsed during the pandemic. Weeks of working from home, having no social contact and no recovery supports led to a depression that disabled my recovery tools and let myself believe that I could start drinking again. Of course, all of the negative impacts that caused me to quit in the first place returned. Thankfully with the support of friends and family, and with the enormous amount of recovery capital I am privileged to be surrounded by, I was able to get back on the wagon. But I am one of the very lucky ones. I’m going to keep fighting for the majority of folks who contract the disease of addiction who do not have the opportunities, access and resources that I have readily available to me.
The memory of the phone call is still locked into my memory. I was sitting at the dining room table after dinner with some friends. “Luke is dead. It was an overdose.” The shock of the news was like a slap in the face. Luke was a brilliant young man, with a warmth and sense of humor that made him friends with everyone who met him. We had only just met, but quickly got into the habit of having long, serious conversations. His words still haunt me. “I’m not afraid of failing. I’m terrified of what happens if I succeed. We all have tremendous power within us that we don’t even come close to tapping into. That’s scary stuff man.” Dead before the age of 30. My sadness slowly became overtaken by anger. How could he be dead? Why was he not able to get the help he needed? I knew he had just got out of treatment. I also knew that he had started struggling almost immediately afterwards. The treatment center discharged him after 30 days of treatment. He was nowhere near stable. He was on probation for drug possession and the Judge wouldn’t give him driving privileges, so he lost the job that he had lined up. With no transportation, he was stuck in the small community in which we lived. His attempts at recovery were met by obstacles at every turn. In my last conversation with him, he was full of hopelessness and despair. He wanted so much to get better, but was so tired of constantly dealing with joblessness, homelessness, and one door after another being closed in his face. I used every bit of effort I had to cheer him up and help him keep fighting. It wasn’t enough. Treatment and recovery from addiction often feels like climbing out of an insurmountable hole that our society seems intent on filling while we’re still in it. One barrier after another is placed in our way as we try to get treatment and then live productive lives afterwards and success often feels more about luck, than effective healthcare. I survived. I crawled out of that hole. Luke didn’t, and the horror of his loss is that we buried him while he was still alive.
For that, we are all responsible.
Thank you for sharing your experience and being honest about your emotional reaction. SO many of us around the country experience similar things with our own details of the lack of concern for those populations that people would prefer to remain invisible and lack of support of those who provide services. Here in my state, nonprofits have been continuously asked to do more with less (it has been 12 years since I have seen any increase in funding, with nearly 20% loss of purchasing power, and I am one of the lucky ones – others have had reduced funding. Legislators do not value the workforce – and as Julius Newman, one of my professors at the UConn School of Social Work always said – follow he money. I follow the money and it doesn’t go where it should.
Keep fighting the good fight Sarah, you are not alone.
I have been working in the substance use and mental health disorder field for the past 42 years and have been a certified and then licensed counselor for 35 of those years. I remember the days when there were two separate professional organizations: the Alcohol Professionals of NC and the Association of Drug Abuse Professionals, merging in the late 1980s to become the Addiction Professionals of NC. Those were the days when individuals with an addiction to alcohol were sent to the Alcoholism Treatment Center and those with addictions to any other “drug(s)” were sent to organizations such as Drug Action of Wake County because the substances were not recognized as doing the same type of harm to individuals and their families and friends. In addition, if individuals had a co-occurring mental health disorder, they were sent to psychiatric hospitals such as Holly Hill, first, and then to SUD treatment facilities, the assumption being that if the “underlying” mental illness was resolved, the individual would stop using mood-altering substances. Their SUD and mental health disorders were never treated concurrently. It’s no wonder people kept relapsing! Those were also the days when many members of Alcoholics Anonymous did not welcome “druggies” at their meetings; thus, Narcotics Anonymous became a presence in NC, long after it had been a presence in other states. I say all this to point out that if this is the way our own field has approached addiction and mental illness, what can we expect from the rest of the world? Insurance companies, then and now, stop paying for treatment if individuals return to use “too many times,” citing their opinion that “they’re not ready” or if individuals are doing too well – “they don’t need counseling because AA is sufficient [and free!].” More financial resources have always been directed toward substance use (that is, following the “War on Drugs” and the “Just Say No” campaign) than have been spent on treatment. Only when individuals began dying in alarming numbers did the Legislature wake up and focus their attention on the “crisis.” Organizations such as the APNC and the RCNC (Recovery Communities of NC) www.rcnc.org are the standard bearers in our state for individuals struggling with addiction. Both APNC and RCNC not only shed light on “the problem,” but more importantly, they focus on the courage and resiliency of those in recovery. Both organizations deserve our support to carry on their work advocating for those whom we are committed to serve.
Ernestine Chapman, MS, LCMHC, LCAS, CCS
Well with all that I do, I know the struggle is real. My story is that of a Harlem kid who moved to mid-town Manhattan and somehow managed to survive addiction’s worst nightmares. When I woke from its grasp, I was in pre-Covid shock, and finally recognized our real state of affairs. It isn’t Covid-19 but instead the way we think about people who struggle, ourselves and what we believe to be truth about the bondage of addiction. What really matters the most in this system called Recovery? Is it the chairs that we fill? Is it the financial gain which we attain, or the freedom won, and chains broken? Are we going to a post-Covid world where nothing has changed nor gained from our past misguided, self-seeking, ill-advised decision making? These are choices we can make now. All is vanity and vexation. If there is no real authentic awakening within. There is but one truth to this matter, I was once blind but now am able to see. Not when I was slapped in my face by my 3rd grade teacher as I sat in my classroom seat, as I felt the blood drip, drip, drip… down my freshly ironed shirt … down to my seat……I kept this truth and trauma a secret until I was 57 years old. Truth gives us life. The freedom that sets me free as a black man is telling the truth and living its reality in telling my story. Living in Buffalo NY I was accosted by three police officers who stopped me for questioning. I was concerned and afraid. I was unusually afraid (at least at that time) to be stopped by five officers. They laid me across the patrol car and told me not to move, one officer asked me a question and when I responded he hit me on the side of my head with an object. Blood dripped, dripped, dripped. Down the side of my face down my cheek- as I laid there astonished the blood ran down the front hood of the patrol car. The officer said, “he’s bleeding like a pig”. A bag was put over my head. I was driven around until they eventually dropped me off in front of a hospital. The truth is that all my life I have had to fight to keep from being hurt and traumatized I remember the metal staples I received still. 7 of them- which means that I am uniquely made in the image and likeness of the Creator. God has given us favor of truth and being set free by telling our story.
Thank you for the privilege of this platform to tell an aspect of my story.
My friend’s son died of a heroin overdose. He had successfully completed treatment but when he returned home there were no recovery support options in his hometown. He was only 24 when he died, his father found him in his room. His baby boy gone before he had a chance at life.
I often wish that the biological mother of my adopted son had access to treatment and/or recovery support. My son has a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) due to fetal alcohol exposure. The day I adopted him was the best day of my life. He was an adorable and sweet 6-year-old little boy; I had no idea he had an invisible disability that would continue to challenge him throughout his life. At first, after he was diagnosed, I was angry that his mother had drank alcohol while she was pregnant with him. However, that anger towards her soon changed to understanding the disease and being angry at the fact that there is a lack of access to services to people with substance use disorders and/or mental health disorders. Now that my son, who is 23 years old, is suffering from anxiety and depression due to his FASD, we have had difficulty in obtaining mental health supports to enable him to live a productive life. He is one of the lucky ones though due to my advocating and fighting for him to receive services and find a job. I often think of the kids that don’t have someone in their corner due to their families being in a vicious cycle of not getting the treatment and recovery services they need and continuing to suffer from the consequences. I didn’t realize the “system” was so difficult until it affected my family and my son. It really shouldn’t be this hard for families and people to access affordable care.
The pandemic has illuminated the many structural problems in the United States. These structural problems are systemic. The pandemic has exacerbated the difficulty. Those who’s mission it is to keep the country from evolution have been sorely incompetent in crisis mode.
There is chaos in so many ways that it time to examine how our work reinforces the mission for change or the status quo. It is difficult to write about the United States without making lists of things that don’t work in regular times, when there is no pandemic, however these are extraordinary times highlighting what was already a problem. What seems clear, since February of 2020, the institutions are geared to immobility and status quo. Additionally, most calls for change are rarely calls for systemic change.
Moving the parts around is primarily what has been done. A lack of understanding of the deep systemic complications involved in each of our workplaces.
In this crisis people have tended to talk about what happened, who’s fault it was, how this is not “the way America works,” as if careful planning had been thought through by anyone in power. A system wide analysis would have begun to resolve our plight, with fewer deaths of citizens, and less pain to certain ascribed communities. I call for a dialog within your work community to discussion how systematic oppression operates within your sphere and how your work community can plan for your piece of social change. Since the systematic oppression of certain ascriptive groups is, at base, integral to most of the problems of the United States (drug overdoses, alcohol poisoning, domestic violence, etc.), to really effectuate a social change agenda in our work community, workers should have a common language and common understanding of the systemic problems.
The vision is larger than just the area of our chosen work community, but the work is within it. I suggest that the recent book by Isabel Wilkerson, “Caste: The origins of Our Discontents,” would certainly suffice for a common language. A reading by all workers in these human services looking to acknowledge our role in systems and social change would be a beginning. I suggest that any group of people interested in social change spent several weeks in structured discussion of this book and how the concepts fit into their professional lives. As an example, alcohol and drugs need to be a part of this discussion as not only a problem of the user but a systemic problem of oppression in the United States. As difficulties they require social change problem solving which do not only focus on the individual but on the beneficiaries of the drug abuse and maintaining of the status quo. We are aware that suicide by drug has increased in this last year of pandemic. We know that alcohol consumption has increased as
have accidents, along with the medical issues other than Covid -19. So too has drug use and death form overdose increased. The constant use of screens for work and school have created new problems, health related as well as increasing isolation. How has the lack of consciousness around systemic oppression motivated these dreadful outcomes? Let us begin a discussion of not how to treat the problem of the individual caught in a system that benefits from the use of drugs, but what the system Is, and what social change must take place to this system to change its harmful effects on our work community. How to work in each of our working communities on the system is the dialog. Understanding the role of systematic oppression and the ways in which it defines who gets what in the United States is a good way to start.
Where to start. I am a provider of MH/SUD treatment services. I work with people who are indigent, uninsured, underinsured and rely on state funding to serve them, whether coming from Medicaid or IPRS funds. We have so much paperwork to do in order to get those funds it takes at least 4 hours to complete an assessment whether the individual continues services or not. It takes so long because in NC there are too many databases containing client information: Alpha, NC Tracks, NC Topps, Screening
forms, crisis plan forms, locus and calocus, and on and on and on and on and on. There are well over 6 people being paid to punch in data on one person in offices spread out over the community. Plus, we do not get reimbursed for case management or documentation or the daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, yearly reporting we are required to do on each person we serve to all the different data bases. Also, when the data is mined (or however the powers that be make policy decisions) there are more and more forms added and none taken away that we don’t get reimbursed for. Not to mention that they do not provide the tools or the staff to implement the programs. The paperwork is redundant, redundant, redundant, redundant, redundant. Furthermore, the policies made through data mining are made on the backs of clients with no financial, social, academic, or political resources and the people who provide services to them, who are so busy trying to keep up, they don’t have the time or energy to
advocate for clients, much less the fact that no one is advocating for providers. We are treated like work mules and have no voice in what happens to us. The bottom line becomes what is most focused on and if we do not cower or bow down or whatever to tow that line, we are not able to earn. The less people value the people we serve, the less they value us. I have over 30 years in human services, and I am sick of the lack of understanding or caring from administrators, policy makers, elected officials, counselor education programs, social work education programs, and local entities that it is indeed a jungle out here. The state of mental health and substance disorder treatment is HORRIBLE. Private practitioners have opted out of treating indigent or Medicaid clients and last time I checked, none of them are doing any pro bono work. The mental health and substance use not for profit agencies are filled to capacity and the clients with the most difficulties and social barriers are being treated by paraprofessionals working under a licensed associate with very little experiences. I can’t breathe just thinking about the social and moral injustice of it all. The system is top heavy and scattered while the people providing the services are just another cog in a bureaucratic wheel that turns on a dime with more and more of the same.
It is a sick system.