…let us work together

“If you have come here to help me, then you are wasting your time… 
But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, 
then let us work together.” – Lila Watson

Obviously, I’ve been thinking a lot about the buprenorphine maintenance, the NY Times series and the reactions since it was published.

At Dawn Farm, we’ve often said that maintenance approaches are rooted in the belief that opiate addicts can’t recover. Now, I’m the kind of person who tends to be uncomfortable making statements that claim to know the contents of another person’s mind. This week has made me much more comfortable with that statement. None of the responses have argued that maintenance is a great tool for achieving recovery. Several have referred to opiate addiction as a hopeless condition. All the arguments for it have been harm reduction arguments–that it’s associated with reduced use, overdose death, disease transmission, crime and incarceration. (The data is less compelling than many of them would have you believe.)

I want to make clear that I have no interest in getting between an addict and a maintenance treatment. All I want is a day when addicts are offered the same treatment that their doctors are offered–recovery oriented treatment of an adequate duration and intensity. I have no problem with drug-assisted treatment being offered. Give the client accurate information and let them choose.

However, when we have professionals, policy makers and researchers who don’t believe in the capacity of patients to recover, the kind of help they are going to offer is going to be unhelpful. They’ll focus on risk factors for overdose like “compromised tolerance”. Of course, decreased tolerance is associated with overdose. Then again, social interaction is associated with transmission of many illnesses. Should we discourage social lives?

One has to wonder if the experts interviewed for these articles know any addicts in full recovery–people who are fully re-engaged in family life, community life, vocations, education, faith communities, etc. If so, do they think of the people they know as belonging to some special category that makes them different from other addicts? (When I teach about addiction and bring up the outcomes for health professionals, many students argue that they are a different kind of addict and better outcomes are to be expected.)

While I don’t want to take choices away from addicts, there’s a big part of me that wants these “experts” to leave us alone. We don’t need your “help.” (A kind of help you would never offer a sick peer.)


That sentiment brings to mind this Malcolm X story:

Several times in his autobiography, Malcolm X brings up the encounter he had with “one little blonde co-ed” who stepped in, then out, of his life not long after hearing him speak at her New England college. “I’d never seen anyone I ever spoke before more affected than this little white girl,” he wrote. So greatly did this speech affect the young woman that she actually flew to New York and tracked Malcolm down inside a Muslim restaurant he frequented in Harlem. “Her clothes, her carriage, her accent,” he wrote, “all showed Deep South breeding and money.” After introducing herself, she confronted Malcolm and his associates with this question: “Don’t you believe there are any good white people?” He said to her: “People’s deeds I believe in, Miss, not their words.”

She then exclaimed: “What can I do?” Malcolm said: “Nothing.” A moment later she burst into tears, ran out and along Lenox Avenue, and disappeared by taxi into the world.

I can relate to his sentiment that the most helpful thing others can do is leave us alone. (“Other” can be a pretty ugly word, no?) Then, when I’m a little less emotional, I’m left to consider my own cognitive biases and creeping certitude. I have to think about the contributions of people like Dr. Silkworth, Sister Ignatia, George Vaillant, etc.

We also need to be watchful for ideological resistance to innovations that could help others find recovery.

Malcolm X had a similar experience to this too:

In a later chapter, he wrote: “I regret that I told her she could do ‘nothing.’ I wish now that I knew her name, or where I could telephone her, and tell her what I tell white people now when they present themselves as being sincere, and ask me, one way or another, the same thing that she asked.”

Alex Haley, in the autobiography’s epilogue (Malcolm X had since been assassinated), recounted a statement Malcolm made to Gordon Parks that revealed how affected he was by his encounter with the blonde coed: “Well, I’ve lived to regret that incident. In many parts of the African continent I saw white students helping black people. Something like this kills a lot of argument. . . . I guess a man’s entitled to make a fool of himself if he’s ready to pay the cost. It cost me twelve years.”

Malcolm X realized, too late, that there was plenty this “little blonde coed” could have done, that his response to her was inconsistent with what he, his associates, and his followers wanted to accomplish.

Bill White wrote about the things that have allowed practitioners to avoid the cultural traps in working with addicts:

Four things have allowed addiction treatment practitioners to shun the cultural contempt with which alcoholics and addicts have long been held:

  1. personal experiences of recovery and/or relationships with people in sustained recovery,
  2. addiction-specific professional education,
  3. the capacity to enter into relationships with alcoholics and addicts from a position of moral equality and emotional authenticity (willingness to experience a “kinship of common suffering” regardless of recovery status), and
  4. clinical supervision by those possessing specialized knowledge about addiction, treatment and recovery processes.

We must make sure that these qualities and conditions are not lost in the rush to integrate addiction treatment and other service systems.

I don’t know how to engage these experts who may know a lot about the illness, but they often appear to be blind to the fact that full recovery already exists in every community across the country. It’s especially tough when the field is so fractured, there’s so much money to be made, and external forces (like the Affordable Care Act) are going to be pushing addicts toward primary care for their treatment.

As far as Dawn Farm goes, I heard something last week that cast us in a new light for me.

We are unapologetically rooted in culture.
If you want to join us, and you’re not part of that culture,
you need to find ways to respect, honor and celebrate that culture.”  – Dan Floyd

We’ve talked a lot about the concept of cultural competence and that professional helpers need to deliberately develop similar competencies when working with addicts and the recovering community. I still believe this is true. But, at Dawn Farm, we go beyond mere competence. We are rooted in the culture of recovery, and we help non-recovering staff (more than half of our staff) find ways to respect, honor and celebrate that culture.

This puts us out of the mainstream among professional helpers and “experts” on addiction, but we wouldn’t change a thing.

The question is how to develop this kind of competence in these researchers, policy makers and experts. It would seem that recovery advocacy would be an important way to do this. However, drug manufacturers have ingratiated themselves with recovery advocacy organizations and the organizations have tried to ingratiate themselves with experts. As a result, they’ve waded into supporting medication assisted recovery, but have done little to challenge the therapeutic nihilism that PHARMA nurtures and is a theme in the public comments of these experts.

In the meantime, this brings me back to the quote I opened this post with.

“If you have come here to help me, then you are wasting your time… 
But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, 
then let us work together.” – Lila Watson

4 thoughts on “…let us work together

  1. Another awesome post, Jason. … Writers like Maia Szalavitz—whom I respect: she’s an important voice for treating intractable cases of addiction in which people chronically relapse and are at risk of fatal overdose—miss the point made here, which is that many, many people with addiction want to live drug-free, and they can’t because their practitioners don’t believe they can and don’t help them get there. I’m coming to believe that a drug-free life is a profoundly countercultural choice.


Comments are closed.