Giving Thought: Healing substance abuse in community

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought

Official estimates vary but recent statistics suggest that between 1 in 4 and 1 in 7 of us will have our lives touched by substance use disorders. Recent research suggests that these rates are rising.

A Way Out is a local nonprofit celebrating 10 years of providing individuals and families who are in crisis with either drug and/ or alcohol abuse access to treatment and recovery support regardless of their ability to pay. Last week, they hosted a Mental Health and Addiction Care for Our Community symposium, which highlighted the importance of healing in community. Aspen Community Foundation staff attended the event and reported back on their takeaways.

While substance use and addiction were the focus of the half-day event, the underscored theme was the importance of family and community in healing. Additionally, speakers highlighted the impact of trauma on addiction.

Human beings have an innate need to belong. Research and science are finding evidence to support that the impact of feeling separate has far-reaching health implications that we are just beginning to understand. Belonging is critically important regardless of our socio-economic status. The pandemic and contentious political landscape have created disconnection in ways that we have not navigated before.

People are hurting in isolation and evidence suggests they are leaning more and more toward substances as a coping mechanism.

Without a sense of connection, our nervous systems remain in a state of heightened alert. In this state, it can become habitual to seek out something to numb or help cope, such as drugs or alcohol. Over time, this can become a habit leading to addiction.

Johanna O’Flaherty, Ph.D., an expert in crisis management and trauma, began the symposium exploring how ancestral trauma plays a role in addiction. She explored how recent studies suggest that family legacies and traumas that occurred long before our present day impact the ways families are shaped.

“It doesn’t matter what story you are telling, you are telling the story of your family,” she said. Families are often the first place people learn to relate and it is there that many of us learn how to behave and belong. When families are unhealed, the cycle continues because the pain has not been resolved so patterns continue.

O’Flaherty emphasized that across her more than 40-year career, she has seen time and again that true healing and recovery happens in community when people feel seen and supported. When people feel they belong, they are better able to heal because there are connections coming from outside of themselves.

Julio Medina, founder and CEO of Exodus Transitional Communities, shared his powerful story of transforming his life after 12 years in prison. During his incarceration, he was profoundly impacted by the pain of his peers. He now has a staff of over 300 and 85% of his team have had their lives touched by the justice system. His work is rooted in a deep belief that humans should not be defined by the worst moments in their lives.

Exodus offers a wide array of services and programs for those whose lives have been affected by the justice system and their theory of change is rooted in connection. According to their website, “All Exodus programs are borne of the Exodus Contract, a service plan that guides participants through six life areas of healing: family & relationships, employment, education, health & fitness, community involvement, and spirituality.” The theme that runs through all their work is connection and community because as he shared, separation is what adds to our pain and prevents healing and transformation.

The symposium concluded with Debra Jay, co-creator of the Structured Family Recovery®, sharing how going beyond traditional 12-step recovery programs and layering on a family component has been shown to support lasting change and healing for families.

Jay shared that when families can come together to heal and create new systems together, deeper healing happens for all the members because they come together and return to a sense of belonging.

Collectively the past couple of years have brought a great amount of trauma and disconnection to many of our lives. If the emerging science is correct, the effects will be felt for generations to come.

Connection is obviously a critical part of healing from substance abuse and addiction, but perhaps it is also a part in its prevention.

If you or a loved one is struggling with substance use disorder, A Way Out might be able to help.

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of the Aspen Community Foundation.