Mind and Body

You can go home again

Tom Coderre’s new job as a member of the senior staff team with Gov. Gina Raimondo offers an important lesson about the role that hope plays in recovery

Photo by Richard Asinof

Tom Coderre journey in recovery has led him to believe that you can go home again.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 2/26/18
In an interview, Tom Coderre shared his beliefs that you can go home again, and that you can find hope in recovery, talking about his new role working with Gov. Gina Raimondo.
When will the Governor’s Task Force release a public document about a statewide strategy for harm reduction in Rhode Island? When will access to safe, affordable healthy housing be embraced as a prescription for how to build a more sustainable, resilient Rhode Island? What kinds of job training and workforce development initiatives can be targeted to supporting people in recovery? What will be the ratio for federal funds be invested in addressing the opioid epidemic – how much for treatment, how much for recovery, how much for harm reduction, and how much to address economic and social disparities? How will the Task Force begin to shift its ongoing focus from recovery “from" toward recovery "to?”
One of the character traits often found in people who are in recovery is a sense of honesty. That willingness, that candor, to answer questions honestly is something that is often missing from many public and political conversations. If the opposite of addiction is not sobriety but connectedness, then perhaps the opposite of persuasion in the art of advertising and politics is convergence: a willingness to talk, face to face, to listen and to engage in conversation with your neighbors, friends, family and colleagues.

PROVIDENCE – At 48, Tom Coderre has navigated the very bumpy road of life. The former state senator from Pawtucket stumbled, becoming a “visitor” at the ACI, battling addiction. He then climbed back in recovery to a staff position working for the R.I. Senate President. From there he went to Washington, D.C., in 2014, to lend his expertise on the national level in support of recovery policy efforts.

Now, four years later, beginning on Jan. 22, Coderre has returned to Rhode Island to become a key member of Gov. Gina Raimondo’s senior staff, serving as the point person to coordinate the work around her efforts to combat the opioid epidemic.

ConvergenceRI met recently with Coderre for coffee [it was not at his favorite place, Dunkin Donuts, nor was it at Olga’s, ConvergenceRI’s favorite place, but we were both willing to compromise] to discuss the context and import of his work.

[To be fully transparent, Coderre and ConvergenceRI had once been colleagues, working together at United Way of Rhode Island some 25 years ago.]

Unlike the novelist Thomas Wolfe, Coderre said he believes it is possible that yes, you can go home again.

In response to an initial question by ConvergenceRI about what it was like to be back in Rhode Island, Coderre said: “It’s actually been great to come home and be welcomed with open arms and to really feel the love, so to speak.”

“I always knew I had a lot of good friends and people I had worked with over the years here,” Coderre continued, “but when you are away for three and half years, you wonder if some of that shine wears off.”

The response has been really heart warming, Coderre said. “It helped me confirm that I made the right decision to come home, when people say to me: it’s great to have you back. Can we get together? Can we talk?”

Coderre said that there was value in having a person in recovery working on these issues. “People do feel that they can approach you, that you are approachable, because you know where they are coming from, that you know what they are talking about,” he said.

“I’m hopeful that I can open up avenues for people to feel comfortable in reaching out to somebody in a government position, especially to someone that has the ear of the Governor,” he said.

Coderre said that he was also looking forward to being at the table with other people that maybe did not share the same experience as he has had, to help them shape effective public policy.

More, better public conversations
At the last meeting of the Governor’s Task Force on Overdose Prevention and Intervention on Feb. 14, Coderre spoke briefly to the more than 100 people in attendance about his new role, having been introduced by Raimondo.

However, what was said after the meeting by Coderre, in conversations with both Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, director of the R.I. Department of Health, and Rebecca Boss, the director of the R.I. Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals, may show how Coderre can become a catalyst in influencing and changing the dynamics of the public conversation.

ConvergenceRI had asked Coderre about the apparent tension at the Task Force, given the full agenda and the limited monthly meetings that last 90 minutes, to enable a more involved public conversation about the issues.

There were often only 10 minutes for public comment, even when weighty issues are brought up for discussion, ConvergenceRI said, referencing Jonathan Goyer’s comments at the end of the Feb. 14 meeting, when he shouted out, “Cocaine,” not sure if he was allowed to mention it at the meeting, talking about the need to consider testing for fentanyl in other kinds of drugs. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Will success in tackling the opioid epidemic by Raimondo become a key message in the upcoming campaign?]

“It was my favorite part of the task meeting,” Coderre said, laughing. “I talked with both Dr. Alexander-Scott and Director Boss after the meeting and said: ‘That is what we need more of; we need more of that honest conversation.’”

They both agreed, and said that they had felt the same thing, Coderre continued. “They said that they feel that we’re packing the agendas, because there is a real desire to get the information out there, when you have this opportunity once a month. Because the task force really represents such a wide swathe of the community. It is multi-faceted, multi-dimensional.”

The challenge has been, Coderre continued, how to try and walk the line between getting people information about everything that’s going on, and at the same time, being a task force that actually talks and strategizes and figures things out.

“We are all committed to seeing more of that kind of conversation,” Coderre said. “Hopefully, you will notice it at future task force meetings.”

Talking about harm reduction
ConvergenceRI shared with Coderre his impression that conversations around harm reduction strategies, including safe injection sites and testing of illicit drugs for fentanyl, often had a hard time becoming part of the ongoing conversation at the Task Force meetings. In particular, it was part of the reason why ConvergenceRI had published an in-depth report to the community by RICARES, focused on harm reduction strategies, written by Ian Knowles, project director at RICARES.

At the Feb. 14 Task Force meeting, ConvergenceRI told Coderre that it was a pleasant surprise that RICARES and Protect Families First had been given an opportunity to promote the community conversation occurring on March 1 about “medically supervised consumption centers” in Rhode Island.

Coderre responded by saying that there were a couple of issues to unpack in what ConvergenceRI had observed.

“First, you know I’m a huge believed in RICARES,” Coderre began. I probably wouldn’t be in recovery today if it was not for the recovery services that I received from RICARES.”

Early in his recovery, Coderre explained, he became a volunteer at RICARES, and then served as chair the group’s legislative committee, and then on their board of directors. “I love RICARES,” he said.

In the coming conversation around implementing harm reduction strategies in Rhode Island, Coderre said, he believed that RICARES could play a helpful role in moving that conversation forward.

At the same time, Coderre acknowledged that there were complex political, legal and community issues around harm reduction strategies.

ConvergenceRI responded by saying that was why it was important for the Task Force to play a role in the public conversation. “We may not agree, for instance, about who has the best coffee in Rhode Island,” ConvergenceRI said. “But it doesn’t stop us from sitting at the table together and talking.”

Do the diseases of despair fit into the conversation?
ConvergenceRI also shared his efforts to introduce the work of sociologist Shannon Monnat into the conversation around the opioid epidemic, and her research connecting the mortality rates from suicide, alcohol and drugs with economic displacement and the growing gap in wealth between the top 1 percent and the rest of the nation. In turn, ConvergenceRI also shared that there seemed to be strong reaction by some to Monnat’s ideas, because it seemed to undercut work focused on the importance of medication assisted treatment.

That split was identified in the recent Upshot story in The New York Times, which asked 30 experts how they would spend $100 billion to combat the oipioid epidemic. Both Raimondo and Monnat were included as experts. The split in strategies seemed to break down in three major areas – proposed investments in medication-assisted treatment, proposed investments to address social disparities, and proposed investments in harm reduction.

Coderre was honest and direct in his response: “I haven’t landed yet,” he said, explaining he was still undecided where he stood on the competing strategies. Rather, he said, he felt they all needed to be part of the conversation.

“We know that the three biggest reasons why people do not sustain their recovery are [the lack of] housing, education and a job,” Coderre told ConvergenceRI. “So what does that tell us? It has nothing to do with substances. It has to do with all the things you need in life.”

When he gave credit to RICARES to sustaining his recovering, Coderre explained, “It is because when I went to RICARES, it was the first time I realized that I had hope.”

Coderre continued: “When I went through my battle with addiction, there was an arrest, and a series of public humiliating events. It was humiliating and embarrassing to go through that; it made me believe that I was never going to be able to do the things that I loved – politics, working in government, my family and friends were going to disown me. When I was sitting in a cell at the ACI, that’s what was crossing my mind.”

It wasn’t until Coderre went through treatment and then became active with RICARES and went back to the State House and stood in the rotunda at a legislative day rally that he realized that there was hope.

“You talked about whether you can go home again,” Coderre said. “That was my first homecoming. People didn’t shun me; they embraced me. Having that feeling inside that you have hope, that you can do this again, that there may be a path forward for people in recovery, that’s something that we have to provide for everybody.”

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