Mind and Body

Recovery is not about sobriety; it is about connectedness

When U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams visited the Anchor Recovery Community Center to learn about the state's efforts to combat the overdose epidemic, he dispensed a lesson in how to listen and respond

Photo by Richard Asinof

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams holding a young baby girl during an interview at the Anchor Recovery Community Center on Jan. 26. Above his shoulder is the photograph of a smiling Jim Gillen, one of the leaders of the recovery community in Rhode Island.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 1/29/18
U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams visited Rhode Island and attended a roundtable on the state’s effort to combat the opioid epidemic, listening and responding to what was said in an engaged manner. His ability to embrace connectedness and inclusive conversation, in turn, was something that state officials could learn a lot from.
Why has the Governor’s Task Force not yet produced a statewide harm reduction strategy, one of the tasks in Gov. Raimondo’s July 12, 2017, executive order? Why did it take the initiative of the R.I. Medical Society to convene a meeting of stakeholders to discuss safe injection sites? Is the effort led by Lt. Gov. McKee to get 14 municipalities to join in a federal lawsuit against drug makers and distributors an election year gambit? If the opposite of addiction is not sobriety but connectedness, when will the conversation begin to include the social and economic landscape around the diseases of despair – and loneliness? What will it take to create a clinical center to treat pain using alternative methods in Rhode Island as part of the primary care infrastructure?
Last week’s issue of ConvergenceRI “broke” the news at 6:30 a.m. Monday morning that the R.I. Medical Society had convened a meeting of stakeholders to discuss medically supervised safe injection, in the sidebar, “Under the radar screen,” as part of the story that reprinted RICARES Report to the Community, a detailed analysis of harm reduction strategies that Rhode Island could consider adopting, including safe injection sites.
The detailed report followed the failure of the task force to develop a statewide harm reduction strategy, one of the things stipulated by Gov. Gina Raimondo in her July 12, 2017, executive order.
So it was surprising to see that a story published the next day, Tuesday, by Rhode Island Public Radio, about the stakeholder meeting, under the label of “exclusive.” Really?
The “follow-up” story by Rhode Island Public Radio did a good job, in some ways, of exploring the controversy around safe injection sites. But this kind of self-congratulation and cheerleading by news media outlets about alleged exclusive “breaking news” is, in large part, what undermines the ability of readers and listeners to understand the full context of the story.

PAWTUCKET – On Friday morning, Jan. 26, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams visited the Anchor Recovery Community Center to listen to, and to learn from, those on the front lines battling the overdose epidemic in Rhode Island.

The roundtable, organized by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse as a way to showcase the efforts underway in Rhode Island to address the epidemic and to garner federal support, was a carefully orchestrated event, followed by an unscheduled meeting at the State House with the Governor’s Task Force on Overdose Prevention and Intervention.

Setting the scene
There were a large number of dignitaries in attendance for the show-and-tell, seated around the tables arranged in a three-quarter rectangular fashion, including: Whitehouse; Congressman Jim Langevin; Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, director of the R.I. Department of Health; Rebecca Boss, director of the R.I. Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals; Eric Beane, secretary of the R.I. Executive Office of Health and Human Services; and Deborah O’Brien, president of The Providence Center, most of whom were dutifully quoted in the news release about the gathering.

Dr. James Fanale, the interim president and CEO at Care New England, also attended the event. The Anchor Recovery Community Center is a division of The Providence Center, which in turn is part of the Care New England health system. The day before, Partners Healthcare and Care New England announced they were moving ahead with the next steps in their planned merger.

Strategically seated across the room from Fanale were Dr. Latha Sivaprasad, senior vice president of medical affairs and chief medical officer at Lifespan’s Rhode Island Hospital and Hasbro’s Children’s Hospital, and Dr. Stephen Chabot from the Lifespan Recovery Center.

Also attending was Tom Coderre, who began his work as a member of Gov. Gina Raimondo’s senior staff earlier in the week on Jan. 22, and Linda Hurley from CODAC.

What the people in recovery said
The main goals of his visit, Adams said, was to find out what’s working, how to scale it up, and what barriers exist. He got an earful.

Adams listened intently to those in recovery share their stories – including Jonathan Goyer and Abbie Stenberg – and shared his own stories of recovery, involving his brother, who is currently serving time in jail.

Goyer, who directs Anchor MORE, the Mobile Outreach Recovery Efforts, framed the issue succinctly: recovery from addiction was not about sobriety; it was about connectedness.

Goyer, working with a team of 5-6 employees, said that MORE had helped some 600 people get off the streets and into recovery. Further, Goyer said, his team had distributed 42 percent of the total distribution of Narcan kits in the state.

Stenberg, 27, announced that Anchor Recovery was going to launch in February the Jim Gillen Anchor Youth Recovery Center at 1280 Main St. in Providence, providing a place for young people to go to find the “connectedness” they needed on the road to their recovery.

In terms of her own connectedness, where once her mother avoided talking about her recovery, now Stenberg’s mother proudly shares in her daughter’s successes.

Law enforcement
Officer Matthew Beltrami and clinician Heather Seger from the West Warwick Police Department, shared their efforts as a pilot program to conduct outreach with those who had overdosed in their community, trying to change the dynamic between law enforcement and those who using drugs, with the promise that there would be no charges involved, instead treating overdoses as a medical emergency.

Alexander-Scott said that the state had hoped to scale up the West Warwick program but funding from a potential Centers for Disease Control and Prevention grant to do so “did not come through.”

Adams, who formerly served as Indiana’s statewide public health officer before becoming the Surgeon General, told the story about his involvement to forge a consensus around developing a needle-exchange program for a rural community that found itself beset by a rapidly growing number of HIV cases, tied to illegal drug users.

Adams said he worked with the local Chamber of Commerce and with local law enforcement to get the needle exchange program up and running. [Unmentioned in his retelling of the work was the role that Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, now the Vice President, had played in precipitating the crisis by opposing needle exchange programs because of political beliefs.]

Not part of the conversation
Two important developments in Rhode Island not discussed at the formal gathering were efforts by the R.I. Medical Society to convene a group of stakeholders to discuss how to set up a medically supervised safe injection site, and the efforts of 14 Rhode Island cities and towns to sue the makers and distributors of prescription painkillers as part of a federal lawsuit in the hope of recouping some of the expenses from dealing with the epidemic – until ConvergenceRI raised them in an interview following the event.

Adams spoke while holding the “beautiful little girl” of someone who was in recovery and getting support services at Anchor Recovery. [In speaking with Adams, ConvergenceRI was joined by WPRO’s Steve Klamkin and Latino Public Radio’s Reynaldo Almonte, two of the hardest working journalists in Rhode Island. A link to the interview is provided below.]

In terms of safe injection sites and harm reduction strategies, Adams said that the full spectrum of harm reduction strategies should be part of the conversation, and then let the communities decide what they want to pursue.

In regard to the legal strategy of suing the drug companies, Adams said that he was against pointing the finger and blaming either doctors or the drug firms, saying that everyone was to blame, and that everyone needed to be part of the collaborative solution.

The takeaway from the roundtable, Adams said, was the need to focus less on the bad and more on the good, with a focus on engagement.

The young infant began to cry, and Adams, a father of three, skillfully talked with her, asking her what was wrong and comforting her. She calmed down. It was a strong statement about the power of connectedness and an engaged community.

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