A message from Liberation Programs’ Chief Operating Officer, Cary Ostrow
At community forums, a popular topic of conversation is how to help individuals with “co-occurring disorders.” Broadly defined, a co-occurring disorder is when someone has a psychiatric diagnosis, such as depression, and also a substance misuse disorder. The National Institute of Health estimates that more than 8 million Americans are afflicted with both of these difficult diseases at the same time. The conversation inevitably and understandably ends up at a key issue – does an individual misuse a substance to help alleviate the symptoms of the psychiatric issue or is the psychiatric issue caused or made worse by the substance misuse? The answer, quite simply, is “yes.”
It is of no surprise to anyone reading this that our healthcare system is fragmented. Whether it’s intentional or by accident, we end up trying to fix problems one at a time instead of looking at the whole person. Behavioral health has a long history of doing this as well. As professional in the field, we separated treatment for alcohol issues from misuse of “other drugs” and we developed separate treatment facilities for psychiatric issues. Not surprisingly, the outcomes were not what we hoped they would be.
Liberation Programs, like many behavioral health organizations across the country, discovered years ago that treating issues in a silo makes for bad medicine. Whether someone drinks to excess, uses cocaine, takes too many pain pills, can’t find the energy or motivation to get out of bed in the morning, or can’t function at their job due to overwhelming feelings of anxiety, they share common links: emotional pain and a poor quality of life. That’s not to say that one type of treatment works for everyone. Liberation employs an array of different service providers in its system of care to offer specialized, targeted help. Whether it’s a psychiatrist, social worker, family therapist, professional counselor, certified addiction counselor, recovery coach or advanced practice nurse, the techniques are different – but the goal is always the same: ensure that people get what they need to feel better.
Feeling better is the cornerstone of what Liberation offers. In a world that often asks the people who come to us for help to be “perfect,” “better” is an undervalued commodity. But it should be celebrated. I have a friend who participates in a local weight loss program. They celebrate every 10 lbs. lost. My friend has lost 30 of the 80 lbs. he needs to live a healthier, happier life. Does he have bad weeks? Sure. Do some of the pounds take longer to lose than others? Of course. But absolutely no one minimizes his accomplishments. Everyone encourages him to complete his goals and the entire helping team – no matter what the specific focus of their help is – works together to gently nudge him toward his ultimate goal. Sounds like a good model, doesn’t it?
September is National Recovery Month, when the country purposefully sets time aside to celebrate stories of recovery from the disease of addiction. It also gives us time to review the proven methods developed over many decades that have helped millions of Americans improve their lives. Liberation Programs will be hosting a number of events ourselves and are proud to be part of this national movement to recognize that recovery can, and does, happen.
But there’s always some trepidation as we approach September. We worry if our message of hope is lost somehow in all the statements that get bandied about so easily, with little exploration of accuracy. I’m sure you’ve heard some yourself. I know I’ve been in public forums where I’ve heard people say things like “only one in ten gain sobriety,” or “it’s not really a disease, it’s a lifestyle choice,” or more shockingly in 2018, “recovery medication is a crutch” (try saying that to a loved one suffering from high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease or the litany of other chronic lifelong illnesses aided through medication).
The truth is that recovery is not elusive. Not at all. Difficult, sure. Requiring patience, vigilance and support, check. But every minute of every day, it happens. Recovery isn’t some fleeting thing, outside the grasp of those who strive for it. Recovery is all around us. We are surrounded by it. Liberation Programs serves about 1,200 people each day. Come and take a tour with us in any of our facilities. Talk with people enrolled in one of our many programs. Listen to what they say and you will be amazed. The number one response I get after a tour is “I can’t believe how normal the people are. They seem happy.” It’s true – people in recovery are often happy and we celebrate that!
August will mark my 26th year working at Liberation Programs. When I tell people this, so many ask me how I can do it – “It must be so frustrating and sad to see so much suffering,” people will say. I’ve had basically the same response for two decades: “Sadness and frustration are part of my work, no doubt. But where else can you witness miracles of change happen all day, every day? Families reunited. Communities re-established and strengthened. Lives saved. Who wouldn’t want to be part of that?”
All of us have a story. Not all of us live long enough to tell it.
Sara came to Liberation Programs in need of our help and because we were there for her, she can tell hers.
She took her first drink at only 13 years old. What followed were many years of heavy drinking, well into her adulthood. In 1990, she joined the U.S. Navy. During her eight years enlisted, she found it easy to hide her excessive drinking – which continued unabated throughout her naval career. When she left the military, she was able to get sober and remained so for about 14 years.
Then Sara became involved with a man who became physically and emotionally abusive, suffering 26 black eyes, four broken ribs, and two broken noses at his hands. “He threatened to throw me out of the house. He threatened my life. He told me I had nowhere to go. I believed him.” Every day, Sara felt like her partner was waging psychological warfare against her as he prevented her from seeking help.
One day Sara finally reached her breaking point and called the police. A sense of relief came over her when her abuser was taken away, but what happened next devastated and stunned her: child welfare removed Sara’s two children from her care as a result of the domestic violence in her life. Shattered and not knowing where to turn, she walked into a bar.
Eleven long, agonizing months followed where Sara self-medicated with binge drinking and drugs, thinking that it was the only way to dull the emotional pain of years of abuse – trauma now made still worse by the unbearable separation from her little ones.
May 10, 2015 was excruciating for Sara – it was the only Mother’s Day she’d spent without her children. But she also began to feel hope for the first time in ages when she made the courageous choice to become addiction-free once more. She reached out to Liberation Programs where staff in the Families in Recovery Program (FIRP) helped her understand she could get her children back after she became more grounded in recovery.
Sara moved into a sober house where every day she committed herself to getting better – spending countless hours in group sessions, unpacking and trying to understand the trauma she had experienced. In a year’s time, she had made tremendous progress.
Even so, Sara knew that she still had more work to do. Ready to move on to the next stage of her recovery, she reconnected with FIRP. She remembers, “When I first came to the program, I was scared to death. I didn’t want to be around anyone – I truly didn’t like myself. My anxiety was out of control.”
People who know Liberation Programs well know that our philosophy has always been about treating the whole person. So, in addition to helping Sara gain more tools to support her recovery, FIRP helped her reconnect with life and the world around her. They encouraged her to take walks outdoors and go to outside meetings. When her godmother passed away, staff made arrangements to take Sara all the way to Portland, CT to attend the funeral.
Like Sara, many of the women at FIRP have become separated from their children due to crises and traumatic circumstances. At Liberation, we are in the business of treating the whole family, because addiction doesn’t just affect the addicted person, but it touches everyone in their life. FIRP is one of the very few programs in Connecticut where women can keep their children with them while they are in treatment. The staff members at FIRP were there to support Sara as she took the painstaking steps to get her children back.
After four successful months in the program, Sara moved into transitional housing where she continued to work hard on her recovery for another year. And her hard work continued to pay off.
Today, Sara has regained part-time custody of her two beloved children and they all live together in Sara’s own three-bedroom apartment. Sara has an excellent job as an office manager of a furniture store and she has become a Recovery Support Specialist, certified to hold group sessions to help others suffering the ravages of addiction and past trauma.
Now Sara is able to look toward the future with hope. She wants to continue helping others, and plans to get her master’s in social work and become a certified counselor. Sara credits our program for its pivotal role in her recovery: “FIRP is not just a set program, but a place where the staff tailors treatment to match your individual needs. They let me know how much they valued me as a person and believed in my recovery.”
This approach to treatment is part of Liberation Programs’ philosophy of care. We understand that to effectively help people break free from addiction, we need to value them as individuals and demonstrate our belief that recovery is possible for everyone.
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Addiction to drugs and alcohol affects millions of Americans each year. Yet, many people are not well-informed on the biological, behavioral, and social aspects of addiction. Since the information about the nature of substance dependence is so expansive, we decided to narrow our focus down to a few facts to better educate others about addiction. Below you will find six addiction facts that you may not have otherwise known.
Addiction Fact 1: Addiction Can Change the Structure of Your brain
Repeated use of addicting substances has been shown to change the way the human brain is structured. The reward system and the area that manages willpower and impulse control become damaged overtime. Most addicting substances cause a rush of dopamine, one of the brain’s feel-good chemicals, each time the substance is used. However, the effect the drug has on dopamine lessens each time, resulting in the desire for more of the substance. Eventually, the reward system will no longer function properly, leaving the user feeling dull or listless. Also, areas of the brain that manage self-control begin to wear way as the substance continues to be introduced into the nervous system, making it harder for those already addicted to quit.
Addiction Fact 2: Many Species of Animals Seek Out Intoxicating Substances
Humans are not the only ones who seek out mind-altering drugs. Several species purposefully seek out intoxicating substances. Some animals use rotting fermented fruit as a form of alcohol while others look for naturally hallucinogenic plants and animals to ingest simply for the mental effect they produce. From monkeys to butterflies to domesticated dogs and cats, many animals look to become intoxicated in one way or another.
Addiction Fact 3: Several Genes Play a Role in Addiction
One of the many addiction facts that people tend to get wrong is the belief in the “addiction gene.” Contrary to what many believe, no single gene determines if someone will or will not become addicted to a substance. There are many genes and combinations of genetic material that can play a role in addiction. But many scientists believe that genetics are only 50 percent responsible for the probability of developing an addiction. Lifestyle and environmental factors play a big part in the likelihood of becoming addicted to a substance. Stress levels, physical health, social and intellectual engagement all can impact a person’s likelihood of seeking drugs or alcohol.
Addiction Fact 4: Addiction Costs the Economy $740 Billion Annually
The abuse of addicting substances including alcohol, tobacco, prescription and illegal drugs is costing the American economy billions of dollars. The high price of substance abuse comes from increased health care costs, damages from drug-related crimes, the cost of law enforcement and incarceration as well as the loss of workplace productivity. The startlingly high cost of addiction is enough to make anyone realize that addiction is a serious problem facing our country.
Addiction Fact 5: Men and Women Are Almost Equally as Likely to Have an Addiction Disorder
Generally speaking, the biological differences between men and women do not determine whether one sex is more likely to become addicted to a substance than the other. However, social and environmental conditions can influence how men and women use substances differently. For many decades, women were behind men in rates of alcohol and drug use. However, in our current culture, substance use has become normalized for both men and women, making the rates of substance abuse almost equal. In fact, some data projections show that women will surpass men in their alcohol consumption over the next few years.
Addiction Fact 6: Medication-Assisted Treatment Is Considered the Gold Standard for Treating Certain Addictions
Another common addiction fact involves medication-assisted treatment (MAT). Many believe that MAT is just trading one substance for another. However, that is far from the truth. Medication-assisted treatment is the most effective form of treatment for opioid or alcohol dependence. The medications are FDA-approved and have significantly better success rates than other programs such as detox programs for treating opioid misuse. Many of these medications help with the recovery process by reducing cravings and alleviating the unpleasant symptoms of withdrawal. These medications are often used as a form of relapse prevention as well. A good MAT program will provide behavioral health or mental health services to go along with the medication that is provided.
Hopefully, these six facts give you a better understanding of substance abuse and addiction. But you don’t have to keep them to yourself. The a great way to lessen the negative effects addiction has on our society is to share the right information. Please share this article on social media and follow Liberation Programs on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
Just two weeks ago, we welcomed in the new year. This is the perfect time to hope for the future and to reflect on the year that has passed. In Fiscal Year 2017, we helped more individuals than ever before, making it our best year ever in that sense. We provided medication assisted treatment (MAT), mental health counseling, and other vital services to 2,215 individuals. I am happy to share that, of those receiving MAT, 75 percent eliminated or significantly reduced the use of illicit opioids, improving their life function. None of these individuals were among the estimated 1,076 Connecticut lives lost to drug overdose in 2017.
While 2017 may have been our best year—with so much left to do—it was also one of our most challenging years. Sadly, we closed 2017 with news that life expectancy in the United States had fallen for the second year in a row, in large part, due to the opioid epidemic and alcohol dependence. And the numbers show that opioid overdose deaths affect all people regardless of their race, gender, economic status, or any other characteristic. With more than 2.13 million Americans suffering from opioid dependence but only 20 percent receiving treatment, we have a long way to go.
Communities across the nation have the ability to end this epidemic of overdose deaths. For instance, Liberation Programs is launching the Bridgeport Integrated Health and Wellness Center. By augmenting our existing mental health and addiction treatments with a comprehensive array of services including family therapy, services for children, parent education, and vocational programs, we will provide an encouraging and welcoming environment to allow more individuals and families to get the help they need. We have taken on the construction of this center without state or federal support because the Bridgeport Community needs these services—and because it is the right thing to do. Other communities feel the same way and are following a similar model to help more people get access to care. There may still be a lot to do in 2018, but local communities like ours have the capability to end this crisis.
Liberation Programs could not have made so much progress in 2017 without the hard work of our employees—and I offer my sincerest thanks to these wonderful, dedicated women and men. I am also deeply grateful every day for the steadfast support of our board of directors. They help make everything that Liberation does possible. Last but not least, I owe a special debt of gratitude to our other donors and volunteers, those loyal friends whose sacrifices help make the work we do a reality. Thank you for believing in our mission long before the opioid crisis was a trending topic in the news. I hope that all of those who helped us make 2017 a successful year will join us in taking more steps this year towards ending overdose deaths in lower Fairfield County.
As a next step on our journey together, would you please follow us on social media? Like, comment, and share our posts so we can spread information about how we, as a community, can end this epidemic.
By Alan Mathis
President and CEO of Liberation Programs
National Survey on Drug Use and Health