Everybody’s Got a Hungry Heart

Have you seen the documentary The Hungry Heart?  APNC presented it at their recent conference-accompanied by the Director Bess O’Brien and Raina Lowell, who was featured in the film.

A poignant, honest, winter grey, and hopeful telling of one small-town Vermont Doctor’s turn from a regular Pediatrician toward Addictionology due to so many of his kids ending up addicted to pain pills as they went through their teen years. I recommend it highly as the current media hoopla around our waves of opiate addiction has shoved this recurring issue into our collective faces again. The movie has many benefits in its truth telling. One I love is this whole issue of our need to end denial.

Various factors have confluence together in my psyche to make me want to and even enjoy the act of exposing and discussing the problems of society. Allow me to back up.

As the scapegoat in the family I was inclined to point out stuff or ask questions about that which was unspoken or unacknowledged. My family had the usual laundry list of secrets, nothing too hideous considering the spectrum of life in general but we did have secrets and pain and it clearly dominated how we functioned. I believe that family/early childhood deeply influences/imprints us but being the kid who pointed out that the Emperor had no clothes was a trait I was born with.  I came into this life with it, which is another way of saying genetics (or past life). Then something happened.

After some 29 years of cycling through and around drug dependence/addiction a moment of Grace freed me from the obsession to use drugs and I was literally set free. This moment happened during my third day in detox, a detox attached to a long-term recovery program which I entered.  This being 23 years ago and on a low budget, this program was quite traditional for the time which meant a lot of 12 Step meetings. In my newly liberated state I took to meetings like a duck to water.  In my newly transformed state the idea of exclaiming, “My name is Jimmy and I am an addict” made perfect sense.  To state to the world-if only in the meeting- “I’m an addict”, after so many years of denial, was empowering and began a life-long search for healing.

That, converging with my childhood scapegoat dynamic, gets us to here. Again I’ll step back a bit; a take-away from all that is; once one accepts something-even if we don’t like that something-that is when change begins. It literally sets change in motion. This is an energetic law.  Once we accept the truth of something we are half-way home.  My spiritual moment/drop of Grace actually gave me full-on surrender to the fact that I suffered from addiction and acceptance and surrender makes it ok, makes it good, actually begins transformation.  To see reality, to at least accept reality is the process that begins change!! I repeat, ending denial, about anything, and seeing honestly means we are half way home!

All this adds up to me wanting to exclaim the facts and truth about our societal problems, because shame can be busted if we get honest. Since we’re half way home once we know the problem I say, let’s get to exclaiming. How can we make something better if we don’t first identify the problem? So let’s not just say it lets shout it from the rooftops!  It brings to mind the line from a spiritual book, “For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open.”

Of course, I have to be most honest with/about myself first before I get to proclaim anything from any rooftop.  Gulp. So I need a process, a spiritual path in place to support my process of change.

Serious research shows that most spiritual paths have deep similarities and one recurring theme is the need for regular inventories.  I need to check myself on a regular basis to know my shortcomings (and strengths) which gives me a guide to lead me to growth/change/healing.

All the serious religions of the world actually have this within their dictates and doctrines.

Just as individuals walking the spiritual path can benefit from regular inventories or introspection & contemplation, as the Mystical Christian tradition names it, so would all organizations benefit from said work.

Which leads me to my friend Chris Budnick’s inventory he gave to the world; An open amends letter to those with substance use disorders, your families and your community.   You can read it there.   AND   You can hear it here.

His willingness in this is touching and feels vulnerable. Honesty, open-mindedness and willingness are key spiritual principles we can never have too much of, including as a society. There’s lots of reasons why a person becomes a friend.  He’s a friend because of his heart and humor and willingness but also, for me, we have a similar shared background. He has the experience that, if we live long enough, makes us experts, in the best way. Lived-experience recovery, some two decades in treatment work, plus serious historical research, and plenty more adds up to a bigger picture which led him to make this amends proclamation. He also plays semi-pro, fast-pitch, hard ball! All that makes me want to listen up when Chris speaks.

His talk wasn’t universally loved or embraced. This stuff makes many people nervous which is telling. I have watched groups, including Providers who should know better, resist the truths of all this. Once more I shall back up.

When the unconscious is largely in control, we unconsciously use the three defense mechanisms as classically defined: denial, rationalization, and projection. We project over there what we don’t want to deal with in ourselves. The whole point of increasing self-awareness is to get better or at least give ourselves choices.  There’s no real recovery without Grace, and an actual spiritual benefit of Grace is a natural humiliation to the ego, in that Grace is freely given and free gifts say nothing about me. This makes everything right sized.

This idea of people/groups needing to do an inventory, to do spiritual footwork, to assess strengths/weaknesses, giving direction toward change that improves things, is deeply embedded within the transformational nature of recovery and actually essential to change. The pain of life drives us toward change and the insight of inventories helps us purge the past to illuminate the future. We want to avoid letting the ego run the show as it leads to consequences and periodic inventories give us practice at submerging the ego. Ego deflation is painful, which means resistance to this process, resistance to change, is understandable and not necessarily a sin, but let us all now proclaim our intention to push through that resistance and forge ahead into change (all the while laughing together at how uncomfortable it can make us feel at times).

That’s what we want those with drug problems to do, so we might as well walk our own talk.

Another well-made movie, from another true story, that displays how ungodly hard denial busting seems to be for us humans, is Spotlight.  I highly recommend.

As I listen to the news, it’s clear this world’s in a lot of pain. Make no mistake; There is a way out. We know how to walk into the light and it starts with recovery.  Inventory, Amends, Forgiveness & Service = Love

Medicaid Development

bullworthThere’s a lot of press/action/movement on the Medicaid front for North Carolina and I’ve been trying to make sense of it all.

Here’s what a press release says:

“The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services on March 1, 2016, unveiled an innovative, multi-year draft plan for reforming North Carolina’s Medicaid program to drive better patient outcomes, higher quality patient care and more cost certainty. This comes after the September 2015 passage of historic Medicaid reform legislation, achieved under the leadership of Governor Pat McCrory and through the efforts of a supportive North Carolina General Assembly”.

The webpage found at this link, http://www.ncdhhs.gov/nc-medicaid-reform contains links to the following documents:

  • The Draft Medicaid Reform Waiver Application (Section 115 Demonstration)
  • A Medicaid Reform Report the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Medicaid and NC Health Choice
  • A presentation of the Draft Waiver and Report to the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Medicaid and NC Health Choice
  • Medicaid Talking Points
  • A Press Release titled: Medicaid Reform Plan Offers a North Carolina Solution.

“The public comment period for the draft Section 1115 waiver application opens March 7, 2016. Please visit the web page on March 7 to see how you can submit comments on the waiver application and other Medicaid Reform items”.

Please see this link below regarding the dates, times and locations for the Public Hearings on the 1115 Waiver.
Then someone pointed out that:
The waivers allow for expansion of services (payment for these services) outside of what Medicaid typically covers. Anything related to SUD begins on Page 16. of this document.

Here is a Fact Sheet put together by the NC Council of Community Programs.

They have an upcoming Spring Policy Forum June 20-21in Raleigh: Medicaid Transformation: A Closer Look. Here’s a link to that information.

Here’s what the NCSEG-North Carolina Stakeholders Engagement Group says; Medicaid Reform 101

Then this came out:
NCDHHS Leaders Propose a Medicaid Reform Plan

Last month, the leadership of the NC Department of Health and Human Services offered a three-year plan to the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee, which takes the State from a fee-for-service system to a value-based prepaid health plan. DHHS will submit the state’s waiver application to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) by June 1. It is expected to take at least 18 months to receive approval. Once approved, Medicaid reform will be implemented over the following 18 months. Medicaid beneficiaries will not see any change in services during the three-year interim. More information here.

It’s complicated.

I say:
Medicaid is a beast. Which is to say I have compassion for those charged with administering it. A complicated, lumbering beast. I do not (necessarily) mean bad or anything negative, but my MO is embracing what can be condensed into simple and Medicaid is not one of them. There are plenty of things; issues/topics/studies that do distill down, but Medicaid just ain’t one of them. So, I have empathy for all who must manage it, right on up to the Governor.

I have thoughts and ideas, starting with what has worked in other locations on the planet. Keep it simple means review and study so you do not have to reinvent another wheel. Of course there are numerous cultural concerns that make local creation essential. Health, real health is a deep and dear subject of study for me and that is related to Medicaid. There is a lot we could do to improve our overall health in America and it is similar to what we could do (and what is lacking) in treating substance use disorders. Which means I am apt and prone to look at it and it’s still hard to grasp solutions. That’s when art is useful, it can convey what linear thought cannot.
What I am reminded of and invite you to watch is an 18-year-old movie I saw again, the hilarious, truth-telling “Bulworth” starring Warren Beatty.

Have you seen it? If not, get on that Instant Netflix site tonight! It sums up this issue well. I remember when it came out I went opening weekend which meant a packed theater and as the movie unspooled I was bursting with laughter and over time I realized I was often the only one laughing in the whole room. Once over, as people got up to leave, I looked around and asked, “Wasn’t that great?” and noticed people, how-you-say kinda sliding away from me quietly with a, “Don’t talk to the strange man” look. I was floored. What happened to us America? The movie was (and still is) courageous, brilliant, hilarious, truthful, well-done, with a stellar cast. It co-stars Halle Berry, Oliver Platt, Don Cheadle, Paul Sorvino, Jack Warden, Amiri Baraka- (poet LeRoi Jones) and others, what more could you ask for!? The pivot point of the story is around health insurance companies, who, to quote the movie, “get 27 cents of every dollar they make”.

Aside from laying out the lies and truths of the health insurance game, it dissects race relations in America, poverty, and plenty more. Still managing my Spoiler Alert awareness, here’s a snippet from Roger Ebert’s review; “Bulworth is in trouble. He hates his job and his life, and has just lost millions in the market. So he puts out a contract on his own life and flies back to California thinking he has three days to live. His impending death fills him with a sense of freedom: At last he is free to say exactly what he thinks, and that’s what he does.”

Thus hilarity (and truth) ensue. The idea of impending death freeing us to tell the truth is a deeply appealing storyline to me.
Health insurance has also been on my mind due to reading reports of the NC Legislator’s desire to: “Shift management responsibility of Medicaid to a new agency called the Health Benefits Authority, and create a corporate-like structure to manage the Authority. Under this proposal, the new Authority would contract with three healthcare providers to provide services to LMEs/MCOs.” Put another way, it’s been said, “the program envisions management by regional Provider Led Entities (PLEs), statewide private managed care companies and regional LME/MCOs for MH/I-DD/SUD services.”
Then I stumbled upon “Bulworth”, after all these years, and here we are.
Illness/health and insurance, including the Affordable Care Act, have been at the top of the American zeitgeist for a while and for good reason. As stated, my desire is always to distill it down, make it simple whenever we can. Yet I must grant that Medicaid/Medicare are unwieldy beasts and concerns the Administration has about Medicaid are valid. Hence why we need to start with truths and grow a vision from there.
“Bulworth”, co-written, co-produced, directed by, and starring Warren Beatty, actually won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. But it never had a chance to really reach the public. Just to get a glimpse of how truth-telling this movie was, read what Wikipedia said:
Bulworth was made in complete stealth and released by 20th Century Fox only after protracted contractual wrangling, only for a brief period of time, and practically without any publicity. As Peter Swirski reports in his study of this film, “after 20th Century Fox backed out of producing Dick Tracy, Beatty used the leverage of a lawsuit to wangle unprecedented artistic freedom,” disclosing only the barest outline of the story and essentially duping Fox into bankrolling the project.
Epic multi-national media conglomerate that they are, Fox never would have bank-rolled this much honesty.
See this movie!

Next acronym (in the movie vein): INPSISB- “It’s not personal Sonny, it’s strictly business”. – Michael Corleone

Doves Crying

Like Recovery, Creative Force is an actual, real thing, an energy which flows through the Universe and is available to us all. We can apply the Creative Force to any endeavor. It parallels and is akin to Love, the Energy that flows directly and hangs in the air waiting for us to loosen our armor and build our esteem so we can flow it ourselves. Love can heal anything, Love coupled with Mind created the Universe, Love is the one thing that is not the illusion and the hardest to know (and the ultimate answer).

Music was the Creative Force that triggered and represented the cultural explosion we called the ’60’s. For a moment in time, there was an organic expression of real creative force that empowered people to think and grow. Then came disco. Ok just kidding. Then came Altamont and corporations and co-option.

I loved much of that music, it influenced and affected me and later Prince continued to represent that moment better than almost anyone on Earth. He did it all; magnetic and astoundingly prolific, he could play all the instruments (and often did on his recordings) including startling guitar solos, he could write the songs, in numerous styles, he could produce the records, could sing his heart out, could put together the tightest bands on Earth and tour the world making you need to dance. Oh yeah, he sure enough could dance too. An epic creative force the likes of which we haven’t seen before. His music celebrated Spirit and he was peerless. James Brown, Jimi Hendrix and Michael Jackson all-in-one with Chaka Khan/Jill Scott thrown in for sass.

With all that, he managed to maintain a certain aloof mystique which implied the vulnerability of an introvert.

He was authentic, true to himself, taking the risky step of rejecting his record label to get free of their control and gain ownership of his art. Despite hurting his bank account he stuck to his principles, broke free and modeled how to be an artist.

In case it’s not clear, I am deeply experienced in addiction particularly narcotic addiction, personally and through working with people over years. This experience developed an intuitive ability to sniff out problems, from a distance, early and easily. I also worked in the music business for years.

Yet I had absolutely no idea or sense Prince ever had a problem and now it is coming out he used narcotics for years and it probably led to his premature death.

I loved the guy’s talent and music, saw him perform early (NYC in 1981) and multiple times after and I want to share how his death personally affected me.

I’ve gone through emotions when artists I love die, sometimes anger, of course sadness. This time what I feel seems related to Awe.

The overall take-away I feel is respect,

respect for the disease of addiction and my commitment to continue looking after myself in this world to ensure I am balanced, congruent with my heart and healthy.

I mean it, I’m dead serious; if this disease is so bad/so tough/so cunning/baffling and powerful it can kill Prince and imprison James Brown (not to mention countless millions) it sure as hell can get me. So I look after myself; body, mind, heart and soul.

The Backwards Brain Bicycle

Our Legal System

I attended the 38th Legislative Breakfast on Mental Health that Steve and Julie Bailey, from Josh’s Hope Foundation (and numerous others), put on each year at the Friday Center.  I must say I like the Friday Center.  This year’s event had a criminal justice reform focus, including a talk from the NC Division of Adult Corrections Commissioner W. David Guice. In the course of the morning I heard some great quotes and my favorite was from Rep. Graig Meyer. He is a Licensed Social Worker and has a daughter who has struggled with mental health diagnoses and he now represents NCGA House District 50 (Orange/Durham).  At one point, he said, as he walked us through an honest snapshot of what we are dealing with these days, “We need to understand the difference between those we are angry at and those we are afraid of.”

If you don’t quite understand what that means allow me to back up a bit.

Way back, my sponsor and grand-sponsor took meetings into Jackson Prison, to one of the felony pods, and for a while I went with them.  Do you know of Jackson Prison, about an hour outside of Detroit?  It’s the largest walled prison on Earth.
You’d think Russia or some other place would hold that record but no, it’s Michigan.  Angola prison in Louisiana is bigger, maybe, but they are not fully walled, Angola’s surrounded on some sides by swamps no one can escape.  If you run through those swamps the gators get ya. Getting back to Jackson, it was evident these were great meetings.  Honest authentic meetings from a group of prisoners who were telling it “raw”, as they say. But what really blew my mind; after a while I realized most of these guys were never getting out, they were here for life. Some were in for murder, plus, Michigan has three-strikes-you’re-out, what they call habitual offender laws. Three felonies and you’re in prison for life, no chance of parole. North Carolina has them also.  We’ll come back to that topic. The point is, these convicts had no reason to go to meetings except; they were in recovery.  There was no favor or early release or parole release they could work their way toward through good behavior. No reward except the purely spiritual.  Inner growth. That’s when it really sank in how good these meetings were, maybe the best meetings I have ever been to.

I like to say that recovery is a real thing, ’cause it is. People ask, “What does that mean?” and it is a bit of a problem to convey because it has an experiential transformative quality to it. What the early Christians we call Gnostics talked about. This example, this story, is an attempt to convey the reality of lived experience. To be authentic with no earthly reward, that is recovery.

I’m circling back to the Meyer quote but the real trigger for all this was; last week I heard a prisoner, in prison for life, give an open talk at a 12 Step meeting, OUT IN THE COMMUNITY. In the early 90’s, in a drunken black-out he had shot and killed a family member.  Native by birth, his childhood traumatic, he had seen much violence in his life. Introduced to recovery in prison, his recovery has progressed, he’s so rehabilitated, that he resides in minimum security and they allowed him to attend and speak at a meeting.  He was honest, real, and humble.

Recently, I linked to a flyer about an annual NC Alcoholics Anonymous conference on bringing AA into prisons. Some prisons in NC have developed such a good relationship with AA they allow sponsors to come and take prisoners to meetings.  THAT is recovery, both for the prison system and the individual.

Three-strikes-you’re -out: the thing about the habitual offender law; it doesn’t work.

  1. There are all sorts of offenses that are classified felonies, including non-violent, that don’t warrant life in prison and
  2. for true bad guys it is not an effective deterrent and
  3. States (like California) that had it and threw it out are glad it’s gone!  Their crime rates did NOT go up and they are saving millions of dollars. Three strike laws are ineffective at reducing overall crime rates and are responsible for crowding prisons. It was bad policy, bad lawmaking-originating out of the Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York era-and has been thoroughly discredited.

Btw, it’s been studied and it’s clear the same can be said for capital punishment. Believe it or not, the death sentence is not a deterrent.  If you want to better understand these issues, go see Sister Helen Prejean when she comes to speak.  Remember the movie, ‘Dead Man Walking’?  That lady.  She not only has a great personal story but this unassuming jailhouse nun paints a devastating picture of how out-of-whack and unbalanced our legal/prison system is.  Compelling cogent talks!  She’s speaking on April 14, from 12-1pm, in Room 5042 at the College of Law, UNC-CH and it is open to the public. In May I believe she comes back to receive an Honorary Degree.

Now-murder/manslaughter is profoundly serious business.  I sure-as-hell don’t take it lightly.  Grace of God I didn’t kill someone driving drunk, but the simple fact is recovery/redemption is for EVERYONE!  No one is excluded. Redemption does not mean religion; it means transformation from and through pain to restoration. From hell on earth to a chance at life.  So, back to the quote. There are some criminals we are afraid of, as a society and that’s ok.  Most of those addicted are not the ones we are afraid of, they are the ones we are mad at, and that’s ok.  It’s ok to for us be human and have feelings when we watch those around us, some we even love, kill themselves, sometimes quickly sometimes slowly, with drugs. The Recovery Community movement is not about making feelings “wrong”, it’s about framing those feelings within a broader landscape to give us perspective. Said perspective always leads us to hope and faith because recovery is a real thing.  We can be mad at them and still love them. They can engage in bad behavior and we can still comprehend they have a disease. The disease does not excuse bad behavior; it keeps us focused on the vision. The vision ahead-of recovery. That real thing up ahead we are moving toward.

I’d like to close with this story from a recent 60 Minutes episode. Their lead story, on prison reform in America, compares German prisons to ours and had some interesting perspective.

Part 2: many, many others

A core aspect of this vision, that I believe can be applied to systems as much as individuals, is that recovery, as an organizing paradigm, is about Restoration and Transformation. Allow me to expand this topic, with assistance from a favorite spiritual teacher, Richard Rohr.

In our duality-driven, either/or, win/lose, scarcity-not-abundance, retribution NOT restoration mind-set (My God, have you listened to these political campaigns?) we lack true recovery. Retribution appeals to the ego, Grace/transformation/recovery appeals to the soul. I’m not saying the ego is “bad”. In a healthy, actualized world, we all still have an ego, but unchecked ego is pure self-will and leads to grandiosity and always leave us unfulfilled. The biggest rock band in the world’s biggest # 1 hit was “I can’t get no satisfaction.” The anthem of our time.

Healing = movement toward wholeness and vice-versa. Ultimately, recovery always includes Grace – and Grace always brings abundance, not scarcity. A saying you hear around 12-Step is, “Religion is for those wanting to get into heaven and recovery is for those who’ve already been to hell.” This is not remotely anti-religion, just a way to lovingly portray the truth of transformation. Love is not there if and when I change, Love is there so I can change! Anybody can change given the chance. “No addict seeking recovery need ever die!” is a fact. Believe it. I’m living proof – and many, many others are too.

Recovery illuminates meaning for our human suffering, it shows us what to do with our pain, with the absurd, tragic and nonsensical injustice we see in the world. We transform and transmute our pain, so we do not transmit it. The “blessings” of all become evident and our wounds become sacred. Our wounds are sacred. All of life is sacred. This brings hope, purpose and direction. Our hurts become home to our greatest hopes. This renewed and implanted hope washes away the cynicism, bitterness, many -not necessarily all- resentments and nihilism. The soul cannot live without purpose and meaning, but shines with it. Science itself affirms and reports that everything in the universe is deeply connected. There is no such thing in the whole universe as autonomy. It doesn’t exist. Our cultural indoctrination that promotes this illusion of separation, coupled with a lack of soul purpose, supplies the nutrients that feed the very roots of the rampant rates of loneliness, addiction, depression and suicide we see.

All of this demands we change (and change is the word that most represents recovery). It’s easy to be cynical in this world. The transformation of recovery and release from cynicism compels and demands action, advocacy and activism. We live happily while advocating for change. Individual advancement is incomplete without the social connection that activist change brings about. Think globally, act locally.

As we see the whole, we create “wholeness”. Mistakes make sense and are used in our favor. Life is a school and mistakes become our supreme teachers. Hope compels us forward even into Mystery. Honest Abe Lincoln said something like, “The winner feels good, but the loser is smarter.” People who have the gifts of faith, hope and love are indestructible. In the beginning this process is scary. Powerlessness, vulnerability and surrender are SCARY! Surrender goes against everything our culture teaches. All of this demands we detach and observe and change our own thinking which certainly demands humility. Taught by the dark, we only need enough light to be able to trust the darkness. A little bit of humble courage and I do not need to be absolutely certain before I take the next right step.


REMBA stands for Rehabilitation of Ethnic Minorities with Behavioral Addictions, their 10th annual conference at NC A&T April 14-15. Hosted by the Department of Human Development and Services at North Carolina A & T State University, the focus this year is Women, Trauma and Recovery and I am honored to be presenting, focusing on my treatment work experience and how the shift to a Recovery Oriented System of Care will benefit all.

“The REMBA Conference attracts rehabilitation counselors, community counselors, school counselors, counselor educators and supervisors, social workers, psychologists, administrators, students, and others interested in learning more about the impact of addictions and trauma in underrepresented communities. CEU, CRC, and Category B (NC Psychologists) credits will be offered.”

Here’s the link for registration

For me, the honor of being included is about the history of NCA & T and Historically Black Schools and Universities (HBCUs), particularly in North Carolina. My own snapshot of civil rights, seen through the lens of living in Detroit, what I saw and experienced growing up, coupled with study since moving here, has driven home the fact that North Carolina was a home of the Civil Rights movement and HCBU’s were instrumental in leading the way. And let’s be clear; the African-American (and LGBTQ and women and disabled peoples and native peoples and other) movements, to grow civil rights, benefit all peoples here in America, so their history is my history is our history. And let’s not forget that NCA&T has a growing Collegiate Recovery Program, which grows civil rights for those dealing with substance use disorder.

Wikipedia says, “There are 107 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the United States, including public and private institutions, community and four-year institutions, medical and law schools.”

North Carolina has eleven historically black colleges and universities, including the oldest in the South, Raleigh’s Shaw University, founded in 1865, and North Carolina’s newest HBCU, Durham’s  North Carolina Central University, founded in 1910 and today one of the sixteen senior institutions in the University of North Carolina system.

So sign-up, check it out and Say Hi!