Treatment works! The recipe to recovery and storytelling as medicine

By Dr. Tom Wright, MD, Senior Vice President of Medical Affairs and Chief Medical Officer

When I was training to be a child psychiatrist many years ago, I had a mentor who was one of the most well-known and beloved child psychiatrists in Illinois:  Jay Hirsch, MD. Jay had many sayings, quotes, and “clinical pearls” he taught all of us and I continue to use today.  One of my favorites was that he believed everyone had a story about their lives and why they were coming for help. He said that it was our job to find a way for our patients to feel safe to tell that story, and for us to hear it.  He said that if we could do that, we’d be great psychiatrists. Recently, I was reflecting on these words: Storytelling can change the world.

There’s a lot of truth there. Storytelling acts as a sort of medicine and a rudder when all else feels directionless: stories we tell at the end of a long day; stories that bring people together over a meal and stories we turn to during our darkest of times. With that in mind and in the spirit of recovery month, I begin with a story of recovery from a Rosecrance client…

At Rosecrance we see over 30,000 clients annually and we hear a lot of inspiring stories along the way. Kristin I. recently shared her experience with Medication Assisted Treatment. After 20 years of abusing opioids, Kristin had lost nearly everything. However, she began actively working towards recovery and receiving monthly injections of Vivitrol to help control her cravings. It changed her life.

“I feel like everything I’ve tried to do to stay clean is finally working,” says Kristin. “I feel like I’m succeeding at something for the first time in my life.”

After treatment with Rosecrance Kristin now has more than a year of sobriety and begins school next month to become a substance abuse counselor. Her inspirational story certainly deserves celebrating, although it’s not altogether unique. Many of us have known or loved someone experiencing a mental health or substance use disorder. In fact, one in five Americans is living with mental health conditions, according to National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), and 21 million Americans experience substance use disorders, according to Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

The good news is…treatment works! Millions of Americans have transformed their lives through recovery. At Rosecrance, we experience that truth every day. We see individuals transform and lead productive, rewarding lives; we witness families being restored and communities working towards healing and wholeness.

As we celebrate recovery this month, we call attention to individuals, like Kristin, who have achieved and maintained their hard-earned recovery, but also inform and educate others on the level of commitment recovery really takes.

I like to think of recovery as a recipe that needs the right combination of ingredients. What does that recipe look like?

This year’s recovery month theme “Join the Voices of Recovery” focuses on four distinct pillars, health, home, community and purpose, which, very simply, serve as a basic recipe for recovery.

Health- Investing in physical, mental and emotional health and well-being is paramount to recovery. In many cases, health begins with successful treatment and establishing healthier lifestyle habits.

Home-Even after successful treatment, individuals still have to integrate back into their everyday lives and routines. This can be scary as recovery is often a complete lifestyle change. The ‘home’ ingredient includes establishing new routines, new people, places, things and support, new coping skills and new ways of thinking.

Community- Staying involved in the recovery community is integral to overall success. It provides an individual with a support network where they can receive helpful feedback and encouragement; stay connected and be held responsible for their actions and decisions.

Purpose- Purpose helps sustain and maintain recovery. Individuals may experience a new found life purpose through their recovery, which motivates and drives them to continue moving forward. For many, this includes giving back and sharing their story.

Of course, in order for this recipe to flourish, we must recognize hurt and healing comes in many forms and each individual has a unique set of circumstances to consider. We must also keep combating stigma, removing barriers to treatment, improving access to care, developing new treatment modalities and allowing individuals the appropriate amount of time to get well.

Still, I’m happy to say Rosecrance has helped thousands of clients get this recovery recipe right! And, we will always bring more people into the conversation of recovery so that, together, we can celebrate and incite change.

So, whether you work in the addiction or mental health field, you are in recovery yourself, know someone in recovery or you are just a person who happens to be reading this, I urge you to get involved. Get educated. Share your stories and, most importantly, be a voice for recovery this month, and always.

Dr. Thomas Wright, MD, is the Senior Vice President of Medical Affairs and Chief Medical Officer at Rosecrance, a non-profit organization and national leader in substance use and mental health treatment services.