A Challenge in Working in the Addiction Field

August 19, 2014 | Julie Schoolmeester

Working in the addiction wellness field is challenging, often due to misconceptions in regards to the disease. I still occasionally run into folks who believe that addiction is a moral failing. They don’t believe diabetes is a moral failing. They don’t blame people with cancer when they have a relapse of the disease, or just tell them to try harder to get better. All too often, the go to solution for addiction is a 30 day stay at a treatment center, even though this approach doesn’t match the chronic nature of the disease. So the system fails those who suffer.  

At Face It TOGETHER Sioux Falls, we work to extend the continuum of care past the initial treatment phase and offer long-term supports and services for those with addiction. It’s worked beautifully and we’ve achieved some great results since we opened our doors in 2009. We love to share those stories and talk about how many more people stay well from addiction and are in recovery at the one-year mark. We know we are affecting positive change in the community and we believe that no one is ever completely incapable of getting better. But the sad reality is that sometimes we lose people.  Sometimes life is just too much or the disease has too strong a hold on the brain. Sometimes it’s progressed too fast or too far. Sometimes, they die.  

In America, an interest in death is considered odd or morbid and many of us don’t like to talk about death. It’s something we compartmentalize nearly to the point of emotional indifference and then toss around platitudes to comfort each other or express our disbelief that someone actually died. There was plenty of that during the past week, with the news of Robin Williams’ death. I was asked to comment about it for both radio and television programs and found my comments focused on us needing to get over an explanation of how this could happen to such a beloved person and change the dialogue to discussing issues like depression and reaching out for help when we feel hopeless, as those who suffer from depression and addiction often do. 

It was a difficult week at Face It TOGETHER Sioux Falls. We received news that two of our clients had died. One I didn’t know particularly well, as he received telephone recovery support, so I never saw him in the center. I do know that he completed suicide and my hope for him is freedom from whatever became too intolerable from this life. I do know that this was tough for the volunteers who make those calls to hear. They are peers in recovery who are actively seeking wellness in their lives and they hope to help others find it.  

Another gentleman died from complications of another chronic illness he was fighting. He was a character. The first time I met him, he looked me up and down and said, “Nice tatts. I like you,” then walked away, saying “They got the right lady in charge” to no one in particular. He carried many labels—veteran, OG, felon—but he also carried himself proudly and fought his illnesses to the end. He was particularly bonded with his recovery coach and she discovered that she was listed as his emergency contact and asked to help make arrangements. She was the one stable person in his life, the one he could always count on to answer the phone or visit when he needed to vent or was having trouble with his appointments.  

It isn’t always easy or fun, but I know we did have some impact on these lives, even if the end results aren’t something to positively report on a stats sheet.  When you’re working with people instead of products, success isn’t always easily measurable and when you’re working with sick people, the life milestone of death may be part of the equation.  

I plan on dying someday. At this moment, I don’t know where, when, or how, but of all the things I may think I know about life, my death is something I accept with certainty. I agreed to be born, which means I also agreed to die. We’re all terminal.

That view might help me live more in the moment and not take my life for granted, especially my recovery life and the opportunity I have to help others find recovery and wellness. Most days, I feel like it’s a miracle that there is breath in my lungs. Today was lots of little miracles—a run with the dogs, working on the yard with my Man Friend, eating Icies with my nephew, and listening to Janis Joplin while I type.