On April 14th and 15th at Virginia Commonwealth University COBE hosted “From Research to Rehab: A Town Hall Meeting on Substance Use and Young People.” Over 300 researchers, practitioners, interventionists, family members, students and members of the recovery community gathered to engage in dialogue around how to understand and best care for those suffering from addiction.
Tom Bannard, administrative director of COBE and director of Rams in Recovery, gave this address at the opening of the town hall meeting.
Tonight more than 300 people have gathered to look for a path forward to address substance use among young people. I would guess that many came here by their seat honestly, or as the saying goes, most of us don’t get to places like this on a winning streak.
Regardless of what brought each of us to this particular room at this particular time, I think that most of us are here because some part of us believes that we need to do better in how we deal with substances in our bodies, in our families, in our work, or in our communities. That we are looking for courage to change the conditions that we cannot accept.
As citizens, we have participated and become complicit in creating laws based in prejudice and fear, that have destroyed communities of color while ensuring that punishment would be our default approach to battling addiction.
In our communities, we have defaulted to prevention of substance use problems through shame and scare tactics, with little care or understanding of the ineffectiveness of these approaches.
As professionals, we have too often relied on myths about “hitting bottom” or blaming clients for their relapse, while we have failed to create the structures adequate to ensure their success.
As Universities, we have failed to make our research real. We have been complicit in systems that reward silos of research, in which researchers’ primary audience is each other.
As people in recovery, we have failed to break down barriers of stigma through advocacy, and too often we become overly attached to our particular path to recovery, and we are too quick to dismiss relapse as lack of willingness or effort as though we are experts on other’s lives.
To this day Father Bill from the Caron Foundation has the best description of addiction I have ever heard. Addiction robs us of the capacity to have intimate lasting relationships with ourselves, with each other, and with a higher purpose until the most important relationship in our lives is with the substance itself.
Because substance use so strongly impacts the capacity of individuals to make choices, substance users often damage our communities in deep and lasting ways. It can tear apart families and hurt children, and it can leave all of us baffled and frustrated.
Addiction has done well at tearing us apart and separating us into silos, but we are starting our own journey to recovery. We are slowly turning the ship.
We are united in a common belief that maintaining the status quo is just not good enough, that we have to do better.
With our vote and our voice we are moving our society towards a focus on treatment and recovery.
In the area of prevention, more high schools are copying insights from impactful work done on college campuses like VCU.
In treatment, we are moving towards standards of care and long term outcomes monitoring that allow families to have a truer prognosis of the challenge and opportunity of recovery.
As family members, we are finding time to show up to places to learn about addiction and recovery, to support our loved ones, and find our own paths to healing.
As Universities, we are finding new ways for research to reach the hands of the people who need it most.
As members of the recovery community, we are beginning to embrace our allies and advocate for those coming behind us in ways that are unprecedented.
If we are willing to look more deeply at ourselves, addiction forces each of us to decide what kind of society we want to be.
Will we be a society that insists on punishment and justice, that shames and washes our hands of human beings?
Or will we be a society that shares responsibility, that empathizes, that forgives, that heals?
The path forward must come from researchers, practitioners and people with lived experience. We must all arm ourselves with the knowledge that we need to make better decisions for ourselves, our families, and our communities.
But more importantly I hope that we can start to believe that change is possible for us, for our loved ones, and for people in our community who are struggling. That we can make meaningful changes in the way we treat substance use in our society, and by doing so, we will not only save lives, but we will restore relationships.
Tom Bannard is the administrative Director for COBE and the Program Coordinator for Rams in Recovery. He is also a person in long-term recovery.