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Bridge to the Many Paths to Recovery

By Mary Painter, DCF Director of the office of Intimate Partner Violence and Substance Use Treatment and Recovery

In 2020, I celebrated my 28th year of recovery from substance use disorder and also marked the 1-year anniversary of my nephew's death to an opioid overdose.

I am sure that when my parents set out to raise a family, they were filled with dreams and hopes for their children that never included the destruction and heartbreak that families impacted by substance use endure.

We know the stories and see that pain in the work conducted here at the Department of Children and Families. We also know the stories and see the strength and resiliency in the children and families we serve.

The pandemic has offered all of us the opportunity for pause and I have spent some time during Recovery Month wondering why many of us are graced with the experience of recovery and many are not.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has established a working definition of recovery that defines recovery as a, "process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live self-directed lives, and strive to reach their full potential."

I also like the phrase "there are many paths to recovery", and I know it to be true.

I do not believe that I "wanted it more" or "worked harder" for recovery than my nephew. In some of our talks, we both recalled the adults who were there for us when we were struggling teens, the services and communities that helped us when we were doing the best we could, yet our paths in recovery were very different.  I was able to move the needle in the direction SAMHSA describes more gracefully, while my nephew's barriers to recovery continued to mount.

During his journey, he had periods of recovery in spite of becoming a felon, having no transportation, experiencing trauma, and the growing amounts of hurdles he needed to manage, as his illness worsened. I cannot help but wonder how a program like Family Based Recovery (FBR), Multidimensional Family Therapy (MDFT) or many of the other programs the children and families DCF serves have access to, could have helped ours.

The last time I saw my nephew, he was recovering in the hospital from medical complications due to an overdose he survived, thanks to the lifesaving drug Naloxone (Narcan).  He had just successfully exited a treatment program and was awaiting recovery housing, a vulnerable time.  There were two things that he wanted to do when I visited him in his hospital room.  He wanted to "make peace" with his mother and he wanted to call his most recent substance use counselor.  My nephew visited with his mother-my sister- and had a very important and healing conversation with her.  He used my phone to leave a message for his counselor about his condition, because he felt that this professional genuinely wanted him to succeed.  He said this counselor never judged or shamed him, believed in him, and treated him with respect and that he would really care and want to know this had happened.

That counselor who worked so hard with my nephew could be one of you as exemplified by the endless calls, visits, motivational words and strength-based approaches you take each day with that person sitting in front of you. You make connections which lead to healing. Impart strength to the most compromised individuals. You then come back the next day. And the next.

We must stay strong. For our families, there are many paths to recovery.

In our short time on Earth, we will all leave a legacy. Our contribution which made the world a better place. My nephew positively impacted people he knew but also those he never met, and who will never know his name.  My nephew said that once he conquered his own demons, he wanted to help others.  While he will not have the chance to do this, I hope that sharing this moment I had with him can. This article is part of his legacy.

For me, my nephew's story reminds me of two very simple things that I will carry with me professionally: how significant the bonds of family are -even when they are damaged and in need of repair- and how important the kindness of a person can be.  My nephew needed to repair his relationship with his mother, and he knew that his counselor genuinely cared about him and wanted him to recover.  He probably knew this from the simplest of indicators: a genuine question, a kind greeting, a supportive statement.

His death, to me, doesn't negate all of the times that he was abstinent, or mean that he "failed" at his recovery, but rather shows how serious of a health condition that opioid use disorder is.