Filtering by Tag: Addiction

The Power of Suggestion and Support

The way I remember it, I was sitting at a Culver's somewhere between Minneapolis and Sioux Falls during an undergraduate mock trial trip when Professor Sandy McKeown challenged me to consider going to law school then becoming a public defender.

That was 2007. It was my second semester at the University of South Dakota after returning to college at the ripe old age of 30 and after a felony DUI conviction that was preceded by 12 years of struggling with addiction.

My goals until that challenge were: (1) Continue working on my recovery and journey to wellness, and (2) Graduate with a journalism degree and return to my former career of radio broadcasting. 

After a long string of excuses and self-imposed limitations, a process began with Professor McKeown, my lawyer, and many others to clear a path to law school. 

Three years ago -- 2013 -- the Supreme Court of South Dakota approved my conditional admission to practice law in South Dakota. Thirteen conditions were recommended and imposed by the Board of Bar Examiners. 

Last week, the Court approved the Board's recommendation for full admission to practice law in South Dakota.

Professor McKeown was a former public defender. I wanted to be a public defender. What better place to impact the lives of individuals struggling with the same mental health and addiction issues I struggled with.

But life does not follow some of the best laid plans. The challenge, because of my past, was not getting into law school, but getting admitted to practice law. Overcoming that challenged required a 4-hour hearing that strategically educated the Board of Bar Examiners about addiction and addiction recovery through key witnesses and other evidence. The entire presentation to the Board was architected and led by Professor McKeown as my lawyer. We not only proved-up 8 years of recovery -- sobriety, in a less enlightened world -- but my good moral character, which is the standard to meet in South Dakota.

It took a year from that hearing before the Supreme Court approved the conditional admission. By this time, I was out of law school for a year with a massive financial aid debt about to become reality and no possibility of practicing law in a traditional way. 

By this time, I had been working at Face It TOGETHER for 9 months. 

The public defender's office would have been poetic, but Face It TOGETHER was where I was meant to be. 

Consciously I knew during law school, during the bar exam, during the Board of Bar Examiner's Character and Fitness Hearing, and during three years of conditional admission that the accomplishment of the above letter was not for me. The accomplishment was for others like me who can one day see that addiction or mental illness should not be an immediate barrier to becoming a lawyer. Addiction, like many other chronic illnesses, can be managed and is not instantly or forever disabling. 

Today, as I write this, I am the newly appointed chair of the Lawyer Assistance Committee for the State Bar of South Dakota. My first task is to redraft out-dated statutes that define addiction and mental illness as "misconduct" versus the health conditions that they are.

I am incredibly grateful for that moment nearly 10 years ago that, in part, set the destiny of my life, but will undoubtedly set the destiny of many other lives.

Taking Time to Process Experiences

This writing is being typed and posted from 35,000 feet somewhere over the middle of the Atlantic Ocean enroute to Florence, Italy via Paris, France. Ten days in Italy and France will end a month filled with a lot of travel and enlightenment. It's been a whirlwind, which frankly did not leave much quality time to thoughtfully process the experiences I was having. Just a few hours into this eight hour flight and I'm finally getting a chance to simply think and reflect. Without reflecting upon and processing our experiences, we risk capturing the full meaning of our lives and applying what we've learned in future experiences.

I was fortunate to travel to Big Sky, MT to deliver a speech on my experience with South Dakota's 24/7 Sobriety Program for the inaugural National 24/7 Summit. From there, I went to the Utah Fall Substance Abuse Conference to give a presentation on the use of technology in supporting addiction recovery -- this was the second year in a row that I've presented at the Utah conference. Last, the month ended in San Francisco at the Rock Health Summit -- a conference dedicated to digital health solutions.

While I was bouncing around the country -- living the dream, as they say -- Pollen published an incredibly well-written and illustrated feature on me and the work of Face It TOGETHER. I am really grateful for this piece because of the dignity and care all the people at Pollen put into it.

The intensity of life over the last couple of months has been managed in large part because of the wellness techniques that are simply embedded in my regular routine. For a few years, I have begun every day with a short five minutes of meditation. Most recently, I've followed the meditation with 120 seconds of planking. It was only after I returned from San Francisco and while unpacking, doing laundry, and repacking that I consciously recognized how at peace I was and how slow time was moving. Nothing seemed rushed, despite having very little time to relax. The only think I can attribute this calmness to was the commitment I've made to small but over time significant wellness activities. 

It was in this moment that I knew I needed to take a few moments to simply think about the experiences of the last few weeks.There is nothing complicated about taking brief moments to think. In a world when every moment of our waking day can be occupied by screens, news feeds, and text messages, we generally fail at simply letting ourselves be bored and to daydream. We have to do this, otherwise when will we contemplate conversations and moments with both the important and least significant in our lives. If we don't allow our brains to naturally review parts of that conference we just attended, will that big idea pass us by?

There's something to be said for slowing down to think; to let our mind wander. I plan to do a lot of that during this well-timed and much needed vacation. I'm going to Paris for the first time in my life... that will be an experience! It will likely be information and stimulus overload, but in the moments between great architecture (minus I.M. Pei's Pyramid at the Louvre), wondrous food, and quality time with my wife, I'll think about what all the travel and speeches and conferences were for -- not the surface reasons but the deep meaning in it all.

Maybe the next writing will be a report on what insights were gained from all the contemplation and processing. Stay tuned.

Intentionality and the Epicenter of Good Notion

Two January's ago I had the great privilege of delivering a TEDx talk in Sioux Falls. In that talk I extolled the virtues of Sioux Falls, or more precisely, the virtues of those that became my social network during a crucial transitional moment in my life. One important connection was just one connection removed from the CEO and Co-Founder of Face It TOGETHER, Kevin Kirby. Ten years later I work with Kevin and others on designing and executing solutions for the disease of addiction.

Whenever I tell this story, I often say: "It's no accident that I now sit seven feet from Kevin."

Until the most recent OTA Sioux Falls event, my framing of that statement was purely spiritual or meta-physical. In other words, it was meant to be. While that may be true and is certainly a belief I strongly hold, 10 years ago, the entire string of connections that led me to whatever success in life I have today seemed like an enormous folly. The meta-physical blanket simply provides a way of adding structure to something that can seem very random -- humans have been doing this for Millenia.

Credit: VPD Studios 2015

Credit: VPD Studios 2015

The more I think about the series of connections that helped me in my journey these last ten years, the more I wonder whether it is possible to take that seemingly random but impactful experience and get more intentional and even predictable with connections that are made.

One of the greatest frustrations in medicine is the mystery of certain illnesses. Addiction is shrouded in mystery ... from the nature of the disease to the efficacy of treatments. The mystery keeps people sick, and for some, kills them. What if we could shred some of the mystery around what it takes to get well and stay well? What if when we are rebuilding our social network we could be plugged into connections that are more likely to yield a positive outcome versus simply relying on hope and luck?

We've come to know a lot about the workings of social networks (not the digital kind, but real, human, analogue kind). I'm becoming more and more convinced that while the network I was plugged into was unintentional and seemingly random when it happened, it's effect and probability for success can be retroactively measured and modeled. By knowing just a few data points about a person and a few data points about a social network -- series of individual and group character profiles, if you will -- we could steer individuals into better networks, either on the periphery or right into the epicenter of good. 

I think we can take the mystery out of the phrase all of us first hear in addiction treatment: "You must change the people, places, and things in your life in order to get well." I'm not sure we need to be so dramatic and so drastic with people and their lives at a such a critical moment in time.

Which Wolf are You Feeding?

Recently, I was introduced to a parable that was new to me. It's the parable of two wolves and it goes like this:

An old grandfather told his grandson: “My son, there is a battle between two wolves inside us all. One is evil. It is anger, jealousy, greed, and resentment. The other is good. It is joy, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy, and bravery.”

The boy thought about it, and asked, “Grandfather, which wolf wins?”

The old man quietly replied, “The one you feed.”

My introduction to this parable was somewhat happenstance. I follow Simon Sinek on Twitter (author of "Start with Why"). He tweeted an interview he did with a podcast called "The One You Feed". I needed something to listen to for a three hour drive and queued it up on the iPhone.

Instantly, the parable and the premise of the podcast resonated with me. I was so struck by the parable and how I had applied a form of the parable to my life over the last decade, that I completely reworked a speech I was to give at the end of my three hour drive at a drug court graduation.

The parable of the wolves worked wonderfully for the drug court speech. Here were a number of individuals, some graduating the program and others at some other stage, but all faced with the great weight of the court as they work through significant life changes.

We can easily commit ourselves to the doom of failure, especially in a criminal justice like situation, if our focus is not on feeding the good wolf. The given is that life with the restrictions and requirements of a drug court are tough, but the alternative is worse, right?

That's quite the tricky question, actually. For some, time in jail or prison is relatively easy compared to having to face real life.

Even for the average person out there, the tendency may be to go through life choosing the path of least resistance. This person makes safe choices in life, which over time, equate to a steady, but anemic feeding of the good wolf. Thus, this person may never quite reach their full potential.

My philosophy over the last 10 years has been see the path of least resistance but not to take that as the given path. Many told me not to go back to college just six months after getting out of jail and being very early in my addiction recovery and new life. I listened to their advice, but was not satisfied with such a safe option. Sure, I might limit or eliminate the danger that could trigger a relapse, but frankly, relapse was no longer a fear for me. For years of fighting addiction and cycling through periods of treatment and recovery, everyone put the fear of God in my mind that a single relapse was the end of the world and the the only way to win was to fear alcohol and everything associated with alcohol.

That fear was feeding my bad wolf. 

When I started college, I immediately began counseling sessions at the student counseling center.  Through that consistent counseling, I learned and improved upon an ability to identify positive and negative energy, people, places, and things. With practice, I got real good an assessing situations and people and running them through a personal cost-benefit analysis. If the scales tipped in favor of being a positive impact on my life as I was constantly defining it, then I would further explore the situation or relationship. If not, I graciously found ways to reject negative.

This was me starving my bad wolf and feeding my good wolf.

It worked. 

My life dramatically improved. I accomplished goals many didn't think were possible. I took risks, but not without intentionality and thought.

This process continues to this day. I just have another way of viewing it.