#RecoverOutLoud over Coffee

When stopping at the same Dunkin Donuts I stop at every single day, a lovely lady who works there (and who asks me nearly every single day “how are you?”) asked me how I was doing this morning. I told her that I was at the amazing Recovery Walk yesterday, explained what it was and shared with her that I’m a person in long-term recovery. 
She turned around to check behind her, then turned back around and whispered out the drive thru window “I have eight years” with a smile and a thumbs up.

As I pulled off, I thought about two things. One of them was: you really often never know who is in recovery.

The second thing was: Eight years in recovery is an awesome, beautiful, heroic accomplishment that should not require having to check behind you and whisper about.  

It was a reminder of why I do what I do. I want the lovely lady at Dunkin Donuts, with all of the community-enhancing gifts of recovery that she likely has to give, to be able to better the world by being open about her recovery. 

 I want her to be able to #RecoverOutLoud.

And oh yeah, we’re getting her, maybe her family and hopefully a friend or 10 to next year’s Recovery Walk!

In Sadness, The Solution

The line between living and dying as a result of a substance use disorder is as thin as one generation in my family.

I used to wonder why my mother, who died at the young age of 32, was unable to sustain recovery from her illness while I have been able to do so and in turn have lived. I spent years going through the gauntlet of thinking maybe it’s luck, God, good fortune, motivation, her lack of motivation, her not “wanting” it bad enough, karma, me working harder, etc.

What I have learned in my journey is this:

Recovery is not about any single one of those things. Recovery is instead something that can absolutely be manufactured by making the right ingredients available for people who need them at the right time.  It is about having what it is we need, when we need it.  I was fortunate enough to have had access and continued access to what it was I needed, when I needed it.

It’s time to get rid of the myths and look at what we know.

People do not need to hit “rock bottom” in order to recover.  There isn’t just one way to recover. There isn’t one approach that should work for everybody.  People need access to treatment and support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week because substance use disorder and recovery is not a 9-to-5 operation.  Medicated assisted treatment works for many people.  Families should be included in the recovery process.  Naloxone saves lives.  We know these things.

The tricky part for me is no longer trying to figure out why some recover while others do not.  The tricky part for me lies in the ingredients and the timing – how do we begin to ensure that everybody who needs it gets their own individualized mixture of ingredients at precisely whenever the right time is for them?

For me, this is where I see hope.  Not the sort of hope we find in blind faith or in wishful thinking.  Not the sort of hope we hold onto when we don’t know where to turn.  It’s the kind of hope we have when we see a solution on the horizon.  If we know that recovery is possible, and if we know many of the ingredients that help people recover, and if we know that we need to make them readily available – well, then we know the solution.

Now all we have to do is make it happen.

I don’t know what specific ingredients my mother needed, all I know is that she didn’t have them when she needed them. Now, instead of thinking about why she died while I lived, I think about how our combined experience can be used to help make recovery available to all.

On this International Overdose Awareness Day, I think of my mother.  As we march into Recovery Month, I also think about the solutions that we have, and how the time is now to allow everybody access to them.

Policing for Recovery

It’s amazing how the past week presented examples of both the most effective and the least effective possible law enforcement responses to individuals living with addiction challenges.   As a proud Philadelphian, I very much wish that I could go on in this post to boast of how my beloved home was the source of the most effective response.  It is with sadness, disappointment and shame that I instead found my city’s response to be of the worst kind in terms of a viable, sustainable and respectful solution to combating addiction challenges in our communities.

First, for the best kind of response.  One of the most wonderful human beings I know, Mary Morwald, took the time to share an article to my Facebook wall about a law enforcement initiative taking place in Gloucester, Massachusetts.  According to the article in the Boston Globe, individuals with addiction challenges in Glocester can enter a police station and “be paired immediately with on-call volunteers — called “angels” — who will take them to an emergency room, if necessary, and help find detox, treatment, and other services afterward.”  The article goes on to state that those who seek help will not face any charges for any illicit substances or paraphernalia they have on them. As of July 17th, while the Gloucester PD looks to expand the services it will provide even further to include Outreach Coordinators, 55 individuals have taken the Gloucester PD up on their offer and entered into some kind of service for their addiction challenges.

What that means is  55 individuals received a unique opportunity to initiate recovery.

This translates to  55 less individuals in jail, 55  more families with an opportunity to experience their loved one in a new way and 55 people who have a chance to actualize their community enhancing potential.

Now, for the worst kind of response.  On July 20th, the Philadelphia Police Department took to social media to post the pictures of 68 individuals who were arrested as part of a two day “narcotics initiative” in areas  of the city that are well known to be open-air drug markets.  As if the pictures weren’t enough, the Philly PD would later go on to add the full names of each individual along with their picture. In addition to the names and pictures of those arrested, the Philly PD provided details on the outcomes of the sting.  These publicly released details make it crystal clear that the overwhelming majority of those caught in the sting, and subsequently plastered on social media, were in fact arrested for having small amounts of illicit substances.  This alludes to the fact that the overwhelming majority of those arrested were arrested for possession rather than intent to deliver charges, which in turn means that it is extremely likely they were substance users as opposed to dealers.  To that end, the Philly PD essentially littered social media with the names and pictures of citizens who are struggling with addiction.

While the Gloucester Police Department has committed to being of help and support to the citizens they serve, the Philadelphia Police Department has taken to publicly shaming citizens who are quite possibly living with the illness of substance use disorder.  This should be seen as an unacceptable response to any illness, particularly one that now kills more Pennsylvanians than car accidents.

Please understand, I am most grateful and appreciative of the difficult work that the Philly PD does in our city.  I cannot fathom, nor would I pretend to begin to understand what it must be like to serve our city in this capacity.  While I respect our PD tremendously, I do not respect the poor taste and ineffectiveness of its response to combating addiction in this instance.  I genuinely attribute the Philly PD’s poor judgment around posting the names and faces of citizens living with addiction challenges to a lack of awareness and education. I imagine that if the Philly PD were to realize the micro and macro level harm it causes by spreading this information in a shaming, insensitive, cruel and ineffective manner, it would be quick to start looking toward strategies that the Gloucester PD has found to be much more effective.

I hope that you will join me in finding ways to educate and support the Philadelphia Police Department around employing strategies that are effective and of support to our citizens and communities who are struggling with addiction challenges.  I hope that we can begin policing for recovery.

The Giving High

The greatest gift I’ve ever been given is the gift of being lifted up into being a human being in a position to be giving.

It is interesting to consider the idea that when compared side by side, it is far more rewarding to be the gift giver then it is to be the receiver.  Think about a time in your life when you were able to be in service or give a gift to another individual, or even a time when you were able to donate to an organization.  It was likely to have induced one of the most amazing natural kind of highs there is to be had!  And yes, while it absolutely feels good to be the recipient of a gift – particularly if it an extraordinarily large lottery winning or a spanking new 2015 Lexus – being a gift recipient typically does not give us the same sort of Red Bull wings on our back that being the giver of the gift does.  Whether we are being in service at our homegroup, paying for a newcomer’s after-the-meeting diner meal or giving a gift to a family member or friend, an act of generosity just feels really, really good.

There is actually some research behind understanding this whole idea.  When scientists look at the brain activity of individuals who are giving a gift versus individuals who receive a gift, what they find is that the brain lights up much more when we are the giver.  The brain’s natural ‘feel good’ chemicals are released, including dopamine and oxytocin, and we quite literally get a natural high as a result.  For many of us in long-term recovery, experiencing a rush such as this is exactly what we sought through the use of alcohol and other drugs.  Who would have thought that the greatest high in the world would actually come from being the exact opposite of the self-centered nature often described as the core of our disease?  Furthermore, even people who are not in recovery from addiction challenges are hard-wired to feel good when giving.  Human beings are built to give to one another.

For me in my own personal recovery journey, I have been beyond blessed to be placed in positions to “pay it forward” and give back to others.  I have found that not only do I enjoy the natural high of service work and giving, but that my life has also been filled with boundless beauty and abundance as a result of selfless giving.  Getting in touch with the notion that “we can only keep what we have by giving it away” has been a journey through many layers of the onion for me.  At this point in my life, I’d have to say that nothing leaves me feeling more like an optimally functioning vehicle for God/my higher power/my higher self/the Universe/Buddha/Allah than being in a position of being able to give.  Whether it is my time, money, energy, presence, knowledge, experience or something else, being in a position to give is a gift that far exceeds any other gift I could receive.

10:45 am

I don’t believe we ever officially met and I know now we officially never will.

You and I were actually scheduled to meet today. Your name is still neatly nestled in my calendar for the 10:45 am slot. I still have your application in my work bag.  I still remember what you typed into the essay boxes.  You were to interview for a training program I’m coordinating, a program that is designed for young people in recovery who want to learn how to support other young people in or seeking recovery.  You wanted to use your experience to help others.  I was looking forward to meeting you.

“—— will not be making it to their interview, they passed away over the weekend.”

This is the message your Mom delivered yesterday.  She called to notify us that you died as the result of the very illness you aspired to combat.  I cannot imagine being your Mother; I cannot fathom what making that phone call must have been like for her.  It took me much of the day to even wrap my mind around the idea that yet another person who was looking to help others access and sustain recovery had in fact lost their way themselves.

Nearly 25 million Americans and their families are living with a substance use disorder, with 114 Americans dying of a drug overdose every day, while over 23 million Americans and their families are living in long-term recovery.

Sometimes the line between which group one is a member of gets extremely blurry and way too thin.  While there are many strategies and resources that can help thicken the line and increase access to initiating and sustaining recovery, the side we stand on is never fixed and permanent.  You were one of the 23 million Americans in long-term recovery at the time of submitting your application before the holidays.  You have since joined the numbers that represent all of the individual human lives and family systems adversely impacted by addiction challenges.  You were going to help bring individuals and families over that line but have instead now forever crossed back over it yourself.

I don’t know you and your story.  I don’t know what happened and I never will.  All I do know is that you will forever hold the 10:45 am slot of January 7th, 2015 in my  calendar and a spot in my mind.  You will always be the appointment that didn’t happen because you are a possibility that didn’t happen.  You are a reminder that those of us in recovery from a substance use disorder are chronically near that blurry, thin line and you are a reminder of how all of humanity must always look to clarify and thicken that line.  We must always strive to ensure that more individuals and families not only cross over the line into recovery but that they have access to all of the resources and supports that they need to stay there. You are a reminder that our personal recovery must always come first. We must always ensure that our wellness is intact and our recovery is stabilized before, during and all throughout our service to and advocacy for others. You, and 10:45 am on January 7, 2015, will always be remembered.

Below the Surface.

The greatest lesson I’ve ever been taught is that we are not our fleeting feelings and taunting thoughts.

There are a colorful variety of ways in which people in recovery attempt to describe the voices in their head.  Some people refer to this group of voices as their disease or diseased thinking, others refer to it as “the committee” or “the circus”; some may call it the unhealthy part of them and others may go so far as to call these voices “the devil” or some other evil-doer.  While we all may use slightly different language when talking about what it is we struggle with, we do all seem to agree that there is some sort of struggle when it comes to our thoughts and feelings.  The good news is that this awareness puts us way ahead of the game when it comes to being human.  Those of us who landed in recovery have, as a result of the consequences of our addiction, arrived to a place of learning how to live a life not led by these voices in our head but instead led by something else.  So what exactly is this something else, and what is it that people in recovery come to realize much quicker than the average human being?  If we are not our thoughts and feelings, then what are we precisely?

The greatest freedom I received in recovery was the liberation I found from my thoughts and feelings.  I’ll never forget when I learned that all of these crazy thoughts and feelings will come and go in and out of my mind if I allow them to, and that there is true power in just letting them flow freely on through without responding to or attaching myself onto them.  This idea that feelings are not facts and that I am not my thoughts or feelings was a pretty astounding one.  It also lent itself to the philosophical inquiry of “who am I then?”  This is where that whole more will be revealed layer of recovery has unfolded for me.  Upon really grasping that the voices in my head are not really me, and that those thoughts and feelings which have led me astray for years are not really who I am but rather temporary unwanted visitors, it is then that I began to meet who it is I am.  It is then that the search many human beings have embarked upon began to lead to answers.  Who I am is far greater than these fleeting thoughts and feelings that are based upon my past.  Who I am recovering is far deeper than just the person I was prior to my use of drugs.  Who I am is that part of me that can sit back, observe and humbly laugh at that circus in my head.  Who I am is the same as who you are underneath your own committee or circus as well.

Recovery has enabled me to acquire some tools that help combat not only the diseased thinking associated with addiction but also the diseased thinking associated with the overall human condition.  While early recovery saw me scoffing at the people who claimed that struggling with addiction was the greatest blessing of their life, I think I actually get it.  My struggles with addiction led me to a recovery process that has taught me how to observe, laugh at and then ignore the thoughts and feelings that make up the diseased, lower power, circus-bound committee in my head.  Recovery has introduced me to who I really am underneath it all, and it’s helped me to see who all of humanity is as well.

Getting High on Inspiration

I’ve always been a frequent flier on the climb toward higher; little did I know I was only born hardwired for being inspired.

I loved getting high.  I loved escaping the confines of my brain, altering my reality, being in euphoria, experiencing connectedness and breaking free of my identity.  I loved expanding beyond the limitations of my ego. I loved slipping out of the shackles of my mind; transcending its ideas, thoughts, feelings and experiences.  I loved every second of being high, every moment of being something other than me.  The challenge was really more so that I could just never get high enough or stay high for long enough.  Crashing back down to the ground – often with a loud thud and a shattering of fragile glass lives around me – well, it was the crashing down part that was really the ultimate problem, not the being high part.

I now love being inspired.  I remember the first time I was inspired in recovery.  Like, the first time I was really, really inspired.  I had heard people talk about these things called “spiritual awakenings” and would envision some angelic figure shrouded in bright light with feathered wings popping out of each shoulder blade.  I would get this picture in my mind of some sort of sage in a robe who had been spoken to by God on a mountain top and I would instantly disqualify myself as a candidate for such an experience.  I didn’t even know where to find a mountain top in Philly, and I didn’t own a robe.  But then it happened.  I was asked to speak for the first time at a 12-step meeting, and after stumbling around for the first few moments, I experienced my mind breaking away and something bigger begin to take over and course through my veins and my entire being.  It felt like I was high; the energy, the excitement, the freedom; the timelessness.  I was filled with inspiration, I WAS inspiration, and in this inspiration I found myself higher than I had ever been.

When it was all said and done, I realized that I had experienced the first major awakening of my spirit.  I recognized that through service to others, I could act as a vehicle for this amazing energy that some call God, others call Buddah, some call their higher selves and others call Allah.  I awakened to an understanding that the ultimate high I had searched for my entire life was that of being inspired, the high of being in spirit rather than trapped in my ego and my mind.  All of the previous attempts to alter the chemistry of my brain with as many and as much of this substance or that substance were really just misguided attempts at getting to where being inspired takes me.  To be inspired is to be high.  I was born to be inspired, and even if you haven’t experienced the search to return to that state though illicit substance misuse, you were born to be inspired too.