As we head into a new decade, I am energized thinking about all the opportunity that lies ahead for the behavioral health field. We have taken great strides in moving away from failed drug policy and criminalization and into a time period where we are heavily focused on advocacy and recovery. When these actions are supported with the pillars of connection, compassion, and kinship we move people from suffering into healing, and that is the goal. Sometimes we focus so much on the abstinence of substances we forget that in order for that to be possible, sustainable, our loved ones need to heal. We need to fill a void, that can only be filled with love. We still have work to do. In 2020, we will continue to reduce the stigma associated with addiction. Some of the hatred and negativity spewed on public forums is disheartening and often outright offensive. I try and make it a point to stay silent on issues that I am not educated in, at least until I have more knowledge to have a meaningful dialogue, however, addiction IS my arena. This is my arena because I have loved many people suffering from the disease of addiction because I have lost far to many people to the disease of addiction, because I have worked in this field since 1998, and because for so many people, including myself, we share the same narrative. I also suffer from the same disease. 

Over the past 20 plus years that I have worked in this field, I have watched addiction ravage families, turn saints into sinners, and slowly suck the life and hope out of far too many people. From doctors to lawyers to bus drivers to athletes to honor roll students to farmers NO ONE is immune to this disease. 

I have worked in the criminal justice system, in MAT programs, in school-based treatment and prevention programs, outpatient programs, residential, and inpatient psych and addiction programs. I have worked with adults and adolescents. I have started and managed harm reduction programs. I have told families of kids as young as 11 that their kids are addicted to drugs. In 2005, I lost 4 kids under 18 to this disease. I have had to share an HIV and HEPC diagnosis to people who had random testing done as a dare with friends. I have worked with gang-involved kids and adults, all that violence stemming from the drug culture. I have traveled all over this country to train colleagues and to be trained on the highest quality programs and interventions. 

With all that said I can tell you this, the most common theme that exists with those suffering from this disease is lack of connection and compassion. Whether perceived or real it exists. 

Those of us who chose to work in this field spend hours upon hours every week negotiating with individuals about the benefits of entering or remaining in treatment. We watch the anguish on their face when they can’t understand why they “just can’t stop”. We listen to their pain when they get overwhelmed and frustrated because they can’t understand the obsession and compulsion of this disease. We hear them say loud and clear, “I don’t want to die” or even worse, “I want to die because I’ll never beat this, I’m so tired of hurting”. 

Our hearts break with every single relapse. We constantly question whether or not we are doing enough, and what we can do better. 

We celebrate recovery and success, and we cry and mourn every loss. We helplessly watch people go back out, because the overwhelming urges, cravings, physical pain,  trauma, emotional havoc, and chaos become unbearable. 

So when harm reduction topics like sterile syringe services, Narcan, medication-assisted treatment, and safe injection sites come up, I urge you to take a step back and ask yourself if you have all the information you need to have an informed discussion on it. Challenge your belief system and ask yourself why these things really bother you. Ask how you instead can make a difference. If you have questions, ask an educated professional. Talk to people in recovery. LISTEN to their story. 

Those of us that advocate for the voiceless, and work in this treatment space are only enabling one thing – LIFE. 

If we say we want to save lives than let’s commit to doing that by any means necessary. That’s starts with compassion, connection, and kinship for all of those still sick and suffering.