Recovery from addiction: Stigma and many obstacles, but no excuses!

Many of the people in my life nowadays forget that I’m an ex-convict. Still, I get daily reminders that the “ex” part of convict doesn’t carry much weight. I also know that I have it easy because I have a Ph.D. after my name. For many others in recovery, things are even harder.

Still, when filling out job applications, considering possibilities for the future, or trying to start anything new, my past convictions are ready to jump out as the first hurdles.

Stigmatization after recovery from addiction

My first encounter with this sort of stigmatization came at my first job search after I got out of jail in 2003. I was applying for an Apple Store job and did well. Even though I told them that I’d been arrested on the job application, I got a second interview. Then the coveted email letting me know I was to report for training next week. Only the background check remained. But that final email never came. I never heard from Apple again and none of my emails and phone calls were ever returned. I can only assume that they found out that my arrest resulted in 9 felony convictions and decide to “pass.”

When I started at UCLA (no questions about felonies on school applications), I tried to volunteer at the Los Angeles Big Brothers and Sisters organization. I was rejected as soon as the background check was completed. People wouldn’t even let me volunteer and I had been drug free for over 3 years and attending a doctoral program at UCLA… It was frustrating to say the least

Being licensed is probably also going to be an issue if I want to become a clinical psychologist in the future. It was one of the reasons I didn’t try to go to medical school or law school. The hassle of having to fight for the right to work in my chosen field wasn’t something I was looking forward to. Apparently though while I wasn’t quite ready for the fight then, fighting addiction stigma is something I feel strongly about now. Between our “Anonymous No More” campaign and my efforts on and off the website, I think we’re going to be able to slowly move public opinion away from either the notion that drug use in itself is a terrible thing or that addicts are lepers and should be kept at a distance.

Recovery success, there is a life after addiction

Still, I am constantly reminded that success follows perseverance. When I’m told “No”, I feel disappointed, but I pick my head up as soon as possible (my great fiance often helps) and try to figure out another way in. That was true when I first set on my path and its true today. I’m proud of my achievements and by now, more than eight years after the last time I used crystal meth, they are many.

I know my worth, I believe in my purpose, and I’m not going to let anyone else hold me back. Yes I have nine felonies and I used to sell drugs for a living. But I’m done with that and I’m trying to do the best that I can.

I think my recovery is pretty damn good – I’ve got All About Addiction that is visited by thousands of people a week, more than a dozen publications and articles about addiction in professional and popular journals, and I’ve spoken at literally hundreds of sessions, classes, and conferences about addiction and the problems associated with it. If you believe in yourself, you need to think the same of your own work. Stay on the right path. Don’t let anyone stop you.

Talking to NIDA about addiction research- Nicotine, cocaine, treatment matching and more

It’s not everyday that I get an invite to speak with NIDA‘s director, Dr. Nora Volkow, and so, even though it required my creative use of some VOIP technology from a living room in Tel-Aviv, I logged onto a conference call led by the leading addiction researcher. When my colleagues, Dirk Hanson and Elizabeth Hartney, were introduced, I knew I was in good company.

Addiction research directions the NIDA way

The call focused on some NIDA interests, including a nicotine vaccine, which Dr. Volkow seemed confident will triumphantly exit phase 3 trials in less than two years and potentially enter the market after FDA approval in three years or less. The vaccine, which seems to significantly and effectively increase the production of nicotine antibodies in approximately 30% of research participants, has shown promise as a tool for smoking cessation in trials showing complete cessation, or significant reduction in smoking among participants that produced sufficient antibodies. Obviously, this leaves a large gap for the 70% of participants for which the vaccine was not effective, but a good treatment for some is much better than no treatment for all. For more on the vaccine, check out Mr. Hanson’s post here.

Aside from the nicotine vaccine (and on a similarly conceived cocaine vaccine), our conversation centered on issues relevant to the suggested new DSM-5 alterations in addiction-related classifications. Dr. Volkow expressed satisfaction at the removal of dependence from the title of addictive disorders, especially as physical dependence is often part of opiate administration for patients (especially pain patients) who are in no way addicted to the drugs. Dr. Volkow also noted that while physical dependence in relatively easy to treat, addiction is not, a matter that was made all the more confusing by the ill-conceived (in her opinion, and in mine) term. Additionally, the inclusion of severity ratings in the new definition, allowing for a more nuanced, spectrum-like, assessment of addiction disorders, seemed to make Dr. Volkow happy in her own, reserved, way.

Treatment matching – rehab search for the 21st century

As most of my readers know, one of my recent interests centers on the application of current technology to the problem of finding appropriate treatment for suffering addicts. I brought the problem up during this talk, and Dr. Volkow seemed to agree with my assessment that the current tools available are nowhere near adequate given our technological advancements. I talked a bit about our upcoming addiction-treatment-matching tool, and I hope that NIDA will join us in testing the utility of the tool once we’re up and running. I truly believe that this tool alone will allow more people to find appropriate treatment increasing the success rate while maximizing our system’s ability to treat addicts.

Involving the greater public in addiction research

It wasn’t until the end of the conversation that I truly understood the reason for the invitation (I’m slow when it comes to promotional issues) – NIDA is looking to move the discussion about it’s goals and directions out of the academic darkness in which they’ve lurked for years, and into the light of online discussion. I’m in no way offended by this, especially since this was exactly my point in starting All About Addiction in the first place. If anything, I’m honored to be included in the select group of people NIDA has chose to carry their message, especially since the conversation was an open, respectful, and data-centered one. I hope more of these will occur in the future.

Resolving confusion about addiction

One of the final points we got to discuss in the too-short hour we had Dr. Volkow on the “phone” had to do with the oft misunderstood concept of physical versus psychological addictions. I’ve written about this misconception in the past, and so I won’t belabor the point here, but it’s time that we gave our brain the respect it deserves by allowing it to join the rank, along with the rest of our body, and the physical realm. We’re no longer ignorant of the fact that our personalities, memories, feelings, and thoughts are driven by nothing more than truly physical, if miniature, happenings in our brains. In the same way that microbe discovery improved our well-being (thank you Pasteur), it’s time the concept of the very physical nature of our psychological-being improves our own conceptualization of our selves.

We are physical, spiritual, and awesome, but only if we recognize what it is that makes “us.”

California prison problems: Drug use policy gone awry

PrisonOriginally posted on Takepart:

I’ve been aware of the unjust nature of our prison system for a while, but a recent NPR story I heard in the car brought the issue front and center again. This piece is a combination summary and extension of that story.

Did you know that the US makes up 5% of the world’s population but houses 50% of the world’s prisoners? This significantly trumps even China and Russia, those evil countries whose human rights violations we keep hearing about so much.

The California prison system is a perfect example

Though it held steady throughout the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, its prison population today is 8 times larger than it was 30 years ago. The reason? California’s passage of a slew of “get tough on crime” laws including:

-Increased parole sanctions
-Minimum sentencing laws
-Tough prison sentences for non-violent drug offenders (now 32% of the prison population)
-The famous “three strikes” law

The push for these laws was strong, and as NPR reports, one of its major contributors was the California Correctional Peace Officers Association (CCPOA). The CCPOA, through its political action committee, has been behind much of the toughening of CA sentencing laws. Even worse, it’s put its muscle to work fighting efforts to divert offenders from prison and reduce the prison population.

And it’s worked. Since the laws went into effect, the union grew from 2,600 officers to 45,000 officers. And the money followed: In 1980, the average officer earned $15,000 a year; today, one in every 10 officers makes more than $100,000 a year. Their average salary? About $50,000, according to Payscale.

Letting the CCPOA affect California’s crime policy is like letting health insurance companies determine what health care you’ll get. What you end up with is too little care that costs too much money.

Prison CellBut aside from giving the officers’ union a full 70% of the state’s correction budget, Californians get little in return for their $10 billion. Cheap inmate programs that have been shown, in study after study, to reduce recidivism (repeat behavior) are now getting cut. In Folsom prison, there is a Braille translation program that in 20 years has kept every inmate who has been involved in it out of prison. This year, that program got chopped in half.

The currently available substance abuse beds can barely handle 5% of the inmates that need them.  To make matters worse, the programs were instituted so poorly that even the available beds are badly managed.

The results are obvious. California has the United States’ worse recidivism rate–70%!

Arnold Schwarzenegger touts his independence from special interest, but what’s happening in California seems to say otherwise . The CCPOA is a special interest of the worst kind–their interest lies in putting us away. The better they do, the more jobs they have, but at what cost to society?

It’s time for us to take back our streets, not by putting away every criminal forever but by fixing a system that’s been broken for nearly 30 years. If we want a fix to the CA budget crisis, let us divert money from officers to teachers, both inside and outside the prison system.

It’s time for California, and indeed America, to start thinking about the end-game. Unless we want to find ourselves building more and more prisons to house a larger and larger proportion of our citizens, it’s time to tip the scale back in favor of rehabilitation, and away from incarceration.