Recovery Month Article

The Prevention Alliance of Greater Prince William is proud to publish this feature article for Recovery Month written by Michael Phillips. His unique perspective highlights the lived experience, hope, and triumph his recovery story and some insightful truths he has learned along the way. It is our great honor to provide a platform that encourages our members and the greater community to share their unique perspectives and help to build a strong and resilient Community Voice. We want to invite our readers to share your own message of encouragement of hope on our Recovery Wall and share to social media so we can lift up the voice of our recovery community here in Greater Prince William!

The Prevention Alliance of Greater Prince William encourages and supports the sharing of perspectives from all community members. The Alliance as a whole does not directly endorse the specific views of each of it’s constituents.

Article written by Michael Phillips Jr.
Michael is a Certified Peer Recovery Specialist and Community Health Navigator. Michael serves our community through his meaningful work with Empowered Communities Opioid Project (ECOP) and the Mason And Partners (MAP) Clinic.

Connection: The Key to Sustained Health and Wellness

What is recovery? How is recovery defined? Is it subjective, or is there an objective measurement that applies to the whole? Viewing recovery through an objective lens has proven to be a difficult endeavor, as recovery is an ongoing and dynamic process. Working in my current position as a Peer Recovery Specialist has made it increasingly more challenging. Each individual’s circumstances are completely different, and yet still, each individual perceives their circumstances differently. That is to say that each person views their experiences through an entirely different lens of a world in which they are trying to successfully recover, and ultimately survive. Each person faces their own set of barriers and challenges to their recovery along their individual path, thereby utilizing the best possible judgment at the time, given consideration of those circumstances. I was fortunate enough to find myself here, writing this article, at this particular time, to speak more in depth about those challenges on behalf of every person in recovery who feels hopeless, lost, and defeated by their disease.

I have been on my recovery path for four (and a quarter) years now. I still have credit problems caused by defaulted student loans. I am still paying off fines every month for a charge and conviction from 2014. I am still dealing with the challenges of stress, anxiety and depression caused by my mental health disorder, and on May 27th, 2020, I had major brain surgery after CT scans at Prince William Hospital revealed a mass on my right frontal lobe. Just when I was beginning to settle in to my life, my calling, as a professional peer, a pair of seizures happened that led to my trip to the emergency room and the subsequent discovery of the mass on my brain. Ironically, it was right in the space of my brain that concerns behavior. I have done some research, and have come to find that these particular tumors are relatively common, and not often fatal, if managed correctly. The only reason I mention this is to put in perspective those good things in my life that I may otherwise take for granted, like my beautiful five-year old daughter, her mother, my mother, and the rest of my family and good friends that I can lean on. That is my recovery community, and that is how I stay true to my path, focused and determined to keep surviving and prospering.

What is a recovery community?

A recovery community is a group of peers who advocate for social equity, including those challenges with criminal justice involvement, insurance, transportation and employment. Those four areas are the most common challenges, and ultimate barriers, that I have seen with people in early recovery. My individual recovery community has been effective, but until we combine our resources and create something sustainable, efficient and effective on a grander scale, we will continue to see these challenges manifest as barriers outside of the control of our peers as a collective.

Advocacy and education are the keys to evolving change, but the right people have to step up to be a part of the solution. Substance use disorder is not a criminal problem and should not be treated as such; it is a healthcare problem and should be left to health professionals alone. If you are not a health professional but have an interest in co-occurring disorders and a desire to support those in need, advocate for systemic change. Demand that all illicit substances be decriminalized so that your taxes are used for ethical reasons, like eliminating stigma and getting treatment for those marginalized in society. Demand that we stop institutionalizing people for the “crime” of poverty and the subsequent use of substances for medicinal purposes. We need to find a way to end this perpetuating cycle brought on by the health disparities and the unequal distribution of resources in our community and across the nation.

It is neither a crime to be poor nor sick. In fact, four out of five new heroin users started by using prescription painkillers that were ultimately mismanaged and abruptly denied subsequent prescriptions despite what we know (now) about chemical dependency and tolerance. Some people can use and never become addicted; others, because of hereditary and environmental factors, become tolerant to the substances they are using, and therefore are at greater risk of overdose and/or exposure to other risky behavior.

Earlier I mentioned that there are several systemic barriers that you will encounter along your individual path to sustained recovery. One of those barriers is with prescription coverage for life saving medications. I am currently employed at the Mason and Partners Clinic MAT Program for George Mason University. This position allows me the freedom to work across systems as an academic, learning-driven peer. “In the system, but not of the system,” as my good friend, PRS Trainer, and mentor once explained. However, there is still stigma surrounding that particular medication from both pharmacies and insurance companies, among others. Suboxone (buprenorphine/naloxone) has proven to be effective at not only eliminating withdrawals, but also the associated cravings. I know that I never would have stopped abusing substances if it wasn’t for suboxone. That is why it is so critical. When insurances abruptly discontinue coverage of this medication, it can cause a person to become severely agitated, feel betrayed, and can set them back indefinitely; permanently, in some cases. With employment and transportation being the core barriers for people in early recovery, they need equitable, unrestricted access to care, including their prescriptions. We are asking these people to change their lives, but we expect them to resort to the same habits, in the same environments, with no sense of worth or identity.

With that said, people in recovery do not trust easily. Trust is earned, mainly through authenticity. The last thing someone contemplating whether to quit using substances or quit at life wants to hear, see and feel is someone who is inauthentic, wearing a façade, and is not compassionate; someone who is evidently indifferent. The systems in place to help them have failed them already. They have been burned, they have been scorned, and as a result, they begin to do things that are out of character. By adding the physiological and psychological torment of withdrawals to the mix, what’s left is an apathetic, desperate person. The deeper they go, the more they’re dug in. That is why approaching people who are actively using is such a delicate matter, and I suspect that is why, and how, this profession evolved. We need to bring the care back in caring.

After reading all of this, do you still want to get involved? This life is not for everybody. However, I do believe that anybody can become a peer, if they are genuine and willing to learn, grow, and share their story. It is simply a matter of who you want to be, and what you want to do with your unique gifts; and I firmly believe that everyone has individualized, very specific gifts, that ultimately lead to purposeful lives. Imagine, if you will, a community where everyone embraces their individuality and uses it purposefully for the health and wellness of the collective. That is what a recovery community truly is. City by city, state by state, nation by nation, this can be accomplished at every level with the right combination of culturally humble, forward-facing peers who embrace their natural gifts and use those gifts to contribute to the vitality of the whole. When people in recovery find their purpose, they find themselves. Why else should they stay sober? The opposite of addiction is not sobriety; it is connection. Connection, in every regard, from social to internal connection, is the most powerful force for every human being on this planet, independent of their unique stories and experiences. Connection is the key to sustained health and wellness.

The Prevention Alliance of Greater Prince William encourages and supports the sharing of perspectives from all community members. The Alliance as a whole does not directly endorse the specific views of each of it’s constituents.