Christian and Kaitlin Powell, both certified recovery coaches as part of Wellness INX, speak to a group Feb. 12 at Families Against Narcotics headquarters.

Christian and Kaitlin Powell, both certified recovery coaches as part of Wellness INX, speak to a group Feb. 12 at Families Against Narcotics headquarters.

Photo by Nick Mordowanec

Group works to eliminate the stigmas of substance abuse

By: Nick Mordowanec | C&G Newspapers | Published March 3, 2020

 A look at one group’s list related to the societal stigmas of drug addiction.

A look at one group’s list related to the societal stigmas of drug addiction.

Photo by Nick Mordowanec


MACOMB COUNTY — In the middle of the afternoon Feb. 12 in Clinton Township, at the headquarters of Families Against Narcotics, nine people stood at easels and jotted down the first words that came to their minds regarding drug and alcohol addiction, mental health, and being in recovery.

These terms were familiar, that nearly everyone has heard at least once: “Loser, bum, drunk, junkie, crazy, loony, quitter, manipulation.”

When the exercise was complete, those in attendance looked on in silence as the words were strewn across the walls, pondering what it meant to see what is all too familiar.

“All in all, most things are negative when it comes to addiction. … It kind of negates the positives,” one woman said.

Another woman, who said she was 31 years clean, said stigmas don’t apply to her anymore because she’s heard them all.

“The mere fact of saying something can be a catalyst for change,” she said.

Rather, it’s about looking beyond the stigma and seeing the individual.

“We can’t change the whole world,” said Kaitlin Powell, a nationally certified recovery coach with Wellness INX. “We can change the world one person at a time, with ourselves.”

She and her husband, Christian Powell, conducted the anti-stigma training session over two weekends. Christian Powell said that about 50% of people who attend do so because they are already in the field and want to expand their own education or certification; the other 50% are perhaps referred by intensive outpatient programs or therapists.

He told the attendees that language impacts the world in both ways. Following decades of epidemics, like crack cocaine, and false promises perpetuated by the War on Drugs and a “just say no” mentality, the zeitgeist has been altered the past 20 years due to substance abuse disorders becoming more prevalent.

Even amid the opioid epidemic, a feeling of optimism exists.

Christian Powell called it “almost a self-evident truth” that when grassroots organizations, such as FAN or Unite to Face Addiction, are audible, people will feel more empowered to fight back. That’s why he and Kaitlin, who are both five years into their own recoveries, are in this battle.

“We like to think of ourselves as recovery coaches to recovery coaches, so we’re trying to mentor the next generation of individuals who jump into this field — not only to equip them with knowledge and ethics, but even furthermore just being there as a support system for them,” Christian said.

Kaitlin said court systems, hospitals and even some corporations are “more conscious” in terms of the impact of language, explaining conditions with “less harshness” and more empathy.

It’s not always about entering the peer recovery field and saving others “by the power of testimony,” Christian acknowledged. More so, it’s about creating boundaries and sustaining the impact for the long run.


‘All we want to do is fix it’
David Clayton, FAN regional director and outreach coordinator, has been in recovery for about 6 1/2 years. He recalled a time when people he knew avoided talking to him because of his addiction.

Clayton makes his way around the state, speaking to middle schools, high schools, at conferences, and at institutions of higher learning. He said, “Society and news and social media paints this horrible image” of addiction, but “it’s really about letting them know what the face of addiction is.”

He said the chances of speaking to a group of people, of any age, and not finding someone directly or indirectly affected, is “very rare.”

“It does take time (to change stigmas),” he said. “It does take a lot of education. We’re not going to shift someone’s dead-set mindset on something overnight. Unfortunately, someone has to become personally affected by it to kind of shift it.”

That has included working with law enforcement, who he said realized that “arresting their way out of the problem isn’t working.” As more law enforcement members became personally affected and knew loved ones battling addiction, it propelled a “monumental shift” in the old police mentality.

“They’re people like you or I,” Clayton said. “They just have this title of being someone who protects and serves our community. Protecting and serving our community isn’t just about writing tickets and traffic stops and solving crimes.”

FAN Regional Coordinator for Hope Not Handcuffs Lisa Boska said anti-stigma training involves education and doing the simple things, like teaching different verbiages — something as simple as not calling someone an “addict.”

“I still think a lot of the public is just not getting it,” she said.

As someone who has worked and retired from an emergency room setting, as a patient advocate, she used to possess the same stigmas toward patients. She would wonder why she kept seeing the same people come through the doors.

Now, she speaks with social workers and medical staffers to relay her current worldview.

“I let them know that this is something (people with substance abuse disorders) didn’t ask for. This is something where they want to get better,” Boska said. “They don’t wake up and say, ‘I want to use.’”

She joined FAN about 4 1/2 years and became a state-certified coach. Now, Hope Not Handcuffs is over three years old, has upwards of 750 “angels” and has helped nearly 4,000 people seek help and avoid incarceration.

However, it took her own personal experience to truly realize that addiction does not discriminate. Her sons are part of the program, years after she told them it was their choice they decided to “put something in their arm.”

All the years of attending church services, or volunteering with school PTOs, or driving them to their various sporting events couldn’t stave off their demons.

“We did all the things,” she said. “And when parents are in total denial, we’re hurting our children that are suffering from this disease because we don’t understand it and keep enabling them, enabling their disease and we don’t mean to, but we don’t know anything else. All we want to do is fix it. We don’t understand how to fix it.”


Societal evolution
Deaths from opioids have been rising in Michigan since 1999. In 2018, death totals leveled off a bit, with declines of 3% for all drugs and 1% for opioids.

In 2018, 2,036 people died from opioid overdoses. Deaths from all drugs combined totaled 2,599.

Andrea Taverna, senior advisor for opioids strategy for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, said the state is “still very much in a crisis mode.”

Statistics do vary “because everyone’s pathway is different,” she said. MDDHS can, for example, look at people’s Medicaid plans and examine the amount of claims for assisted treatment. Of course, not everyone affected is enrolled in Medicaid.

The stigma paradigm in the United States is complicated. Those with chronic health conditions or diseases, such as diabetes, don’t receive the same vitriol as those may with drug or alcohol use — even though those could also be diagnosed as behavioral choices potentially aided by genetic and environmental risk factors.

“(Substance abuse disorder is) really quite similar to any chronic disease,” she said.

There is a concern of how individuals’ personal biases might infiltrate areas of the medical community as well. When people who may be using “feel an intense sense of judgment from the rest of the public,” Taverna said, they may be discouraged from seeking services.

It’s also about engaging with local communities and supporting people already in recovery, by relating substance abuse with “normal” people among us in society.

On Nov. 14, 2019, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, MDDHS and the Michigan Opioids Task Force announced steps to combat three key areas of the ongoing epidemic: preventing opioid misuse, ensuring that opioid users can access high-quality recovery treatment, and reducing harm to themselves and their communities.

That has included a $1 million media campaign, utilizing federal grants that make citizens statewide privy to the epidemic via broad-based TV, radio, billboards, social media, paid search, mobile and public transit ads. They will run through April of this year.

Taverna said “there are layers to the strategy,” adding that “everyone can change their worldview and evolve.” Just as criminal justice was the primary measure of dealing with such problems in the past, the process is continually changing.

“The message is that stigma is a very serious challenge, but that victims of opioid abuse disorder can recover, can lead good lives,” she said.