Solving The Opioid Crisis Requires Listening To Those In Recovery

How are we to understand the true impediments of substance use recovery if we don’t include the ones who hold the experiential knowledge?
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Recovery Point West Virginia

In the four minutes it will take you to read this article, one American lost his or her life due to an overdose or alcohol-related consequence.

In 2015, 52,404 people lost their lives due to an overdose, and from 2002-2015, there was a 2.2 fold increase in overdose deaths. In the aftermath, the lens becomes focused, and we realize that many of these were preventable. The opioid crisis across the nation -– and particularly in my state of West Virginia –- often leaves communities perplexed as they experience ever-increasing overdose death rates.

No longer is the issue contained to a specific geographical area or socioeconomic class. Frankly, we are all affected.

This crisis was recently declared a national emergency, and that declaration certainly is warranted. If you live in West Virginia like I do, however, you knew this was a national emergency long before the actual declaration was made. In 2015, West Virginia’s drug overdose death rate stood at 41.5 cases per 100,000 residents, the highest rate in the country and nearly three times the national average. Too frequently, my social media feed reports another brother or sister who has died from this insidious but treatable disease. Not all overdoses are preventable, but in many cases, they are when access to care, recovery support and naloxone are available upon demand.

“If you live in West Virginia like I do, you know this was a national emergency long before the actual declaration was made.”

I am the executive director of a non-profit in Huntington, West Virginia that provides recovery services through residential settings, drop-in services and outreach support to over 700 individuals annually. I see the debilitating effects of substance use but also see and experience the powerful process of recovery.

Growing up in Appalachia, I was raised to value hard work, family, faith, community and friends. In grade school, I fondly remember each child presenting to the class their dream profession. Many wanted to be police officers -– to protect and serve. Some wanted to be doctors -– to help and heal. Some wanted to be teachers –- to educate future generations. One of us even wanted to someday be the president of this great nation.

Never once did I hear, “I want to grow up and become addicted to drugs.”

Nor did I personally ever contemplate that one day I would be one of the millions of Americans afflicted with the insidious disease of substance use disorders. However, that is precisely what happened.

The next 20-plus years of my life would become a love-hate relationship with various addictive substances that eventually led to:

1. Periods of incarceration.

2. Homelessness.

3. Family distress.

4. The inability to make good decisions.

However, once I was introduced to recovery by folks in my city who had been there and done that, those once seemingly insurmountable circumstances became my past. And now they’re my single greatest asset -– my story of recovery. No longer am I shackled by debilitating shame. I am fueled by the grace of second chances which carries me to help lift others up. Today, I am a taxpayer, a homeowner, a husband and soon-to-be father. My story is not unique. I am one of the ~24 million people living in long-term recovery across our nation.

During the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s, mass incarceration began targeting the inner cities, and African-Americans were jailed at (then) unprecedented rates. Treatment was a mere fantasy for most, which inhibited the ability for many to enter recovery. The world of recovery therefore became the domain of the few.

This societal shift has continued to the present day and our current epidemic, opioids.

Incarceration rates have increased, the lack of treatment options has become even more apparent and an always-over-your-shoulder stigma combine to exacerbate the problem through creating barriers for sustained recovery. Certainly, the solution is more complex than adding additional treatment facilities and removing draconian sentencing guidelines. It requires a multi-faceted approach including research and development, just as other chronic illnesses receive.

During a national emergency, groups of professionals are dispatched to the affected areas to contain, treat and begin the recovery process. All local, state and federal resources are deployed, the red tape is diminished and the process is streamlined. This is what makes the recovery process easier.

Not so much with the substance use crisis.

Our system is still fragmented with antiquated prevention programs that imply a moral deficiency, barriers to accessing treatment, lack of authentic recovery support and a stigma that threatens the lives of millions to simply be comfortable in their own community once they enter recovery.

Policy decisions revolving around substance use disorders need to involve the recovery community, the very people who have “been there and done that.” When you have a problem such as this, the team that can make forward progress is literally in every city and town right now, just waiting to help others as they have been helped.

“My personal experiences bear fruit of how recovery support is effective, yet it still lacks the coordination, funding and credibility that’s required to provide improved outcomes.”

The history of substance use disorders and the subsequent recovery in America is proof of this. This is not our nation’s first proverbial rodeo with regards to substance use disorders. It has been with us since the founding days of our republic. That history, however, also points to solutions that have borne the test of time and experience. These solutions are real, they work, and there are literally millions of people who are a testament to their effectiveness.

People like me. And they guy down the street. Or the woman in the next cubicle at work. We’re all living examples of the miraculous transformation that occurs when treatment and recovery support are available. We know the barriers people face when entering and sustaining recovery; we have lived it.

In this life, wisdom is only gained through experience. The recovery community serves as a relatively untapped well of wisdom, grounded in gratitude and credible through authenticity. How are we to understand the true impediments of substance use recovery if we don’t include the ones who hold the experiential knowledge? When you need a plumber, you don’t call an electrician. You call the person who can help solve the problem through experience.

My personal experiences, and many others, bear fruit of how recovery support is effective, yet it still lacks the coordination, funding and credibility that’s required to provide improved outcomes. History tells us that if the mistakes of the past are not addressed, they will be repeated.

The most recent report submitted to the president by his Drug Policy Commission included vital pieces of the multi-faceted solution, but lacked the mention of authentic recovery support that improves the lives of people in recovery.

It is time to include the recovery community -– and with it, their collective invaluable wisdom and experience -– in the wide-ranging plans that our nation is undertaking in order to right our ship and return to prosperity and health. The recovery voice matters, and is ready to help; just ask.