For years, health care providers have treated alcohol and drug addiction like an acute condition: when someone checks into a treatment center, they’re given psychiatric care under close supervision to help them get clean. After treatment, they’re referred to a recovery community like a 12-step program, to help them stay on the right path, and released back into the community.
Daniel Sokulski knows that this traditional approach doesn’t always work.
“I was a chronic relapser, multiple treatment stays, and each time you dig a deeper hole, it takes more out of you, it takes more out of the people that love you,” he said.
Sokulski went through treatment for alcoholism seven times between 2008 and 2014. He found himself unemployed after a decade at State Farm, facing divorce from his college sweetheart and possible prison time.
“It was Mother’s Day 2015, and I’d made a promise to my wife to go to church and a meeting that we would go to, and I woke up at 8:30 in the morning passed out on the couch,” he said. “There was all sorts of ugliness going on. My wife was going to Al-Anon, which was a program for recovering family members, and she told me, ‘I can’t have you here, I can’t work my program.’ We had children in the house, and when she told me that, the next day my sponsor drove me 22 hours to a facility down in Florida for long-term treatment.”
This time was different. Sokulski calls it the "gift of desperation."
“If we get enough suffering, if we get beat down enough, we’ve lost hope and we’re desperate to try something different,” he said. “Then you finally start doing what’s suggested.”
Sokulski is now nearly five years sober and working as a recovery support specialist at Chestnut Health Systems. He spent his first three years working on the residential floors of the nonprofit’s Bloomington drug addiction treatment center. Then last year the center had an opening for a recovery support specialist. Interviewing for the position, Sokulski learned about Chestnut’s plans to participate in a statewide program to change the way communities approach recovery.
New State Funding
Last year the Illinois Department of Human Services set aside $1.1 million to establish Recovery-Oriented Systems of Care (ROSC) councils across the state. Chestnut Health Systems received a $284,000 grant to serve as the lead agency in efforts to create ROSC councils in McLean, Madison and St. Clair counties.
Instead of treating addiction as an acute condition, the state wants to use the ROSC model to help communities begin managing addiction as a chronic condition.
Alan Markwood works with Sokulski at Chestnut as the corporate director of prevention services. He said that after years of research, scientists have convincing evidence that “substance use disorders are truly a brain disorder.”
“Once somebody has a substance use disorder, they’ll need lifelong support probably, rather than a short-term treatment kind of approach,” he said.
Markwood said in light of this research, they need to change the view of recovery “to match the fact that it’s an ongoing process, not always straightforward. Forward, oops, back a little bit, but that happens, then on forward again. So just all of those things that have been found to be true of recovery that aren’t necessarily matched by a system based on a short-time kind of thing, ‘You get sick, you get better’ kind of model.”
Chestnut also cites research showing access to a variety of medical, psychological and social services improves engagement, retention, and treatment outcomes for those in recovery. The job of the ROSC council is to bring together the many organizations that touch recovery to make sure those leaving treatment get connected with the services and supports they need. So far Chestnut has recruited almost a dozen agencies to the council, including the YWCA, Project Oz, Advocate BroMenn Medical Center, and local 12-step groups.
Vera Traver represents the YWCA Labyrinth on the council. She’s a case manager for the formerly incarcerated women the program serves.
Traver said addiction recovery and basic needs like housing and employment intertwine; you can’t just address one without the other.
“A lot of our clients, ladies that I work with, do have this background, and are often repeat offenders unless they get this addressed,” she said. “And sometimes that goes for years unnoticed like, ‘I have a drug problem, so I continue to do the things that get you incarcerated.’
At the same time, Traver said the courts ask more than usual from these women.
“Say if they’re on probation or something and their requirement is to show up for group or show up for probation, get a clean urine screen, but when they don’t even have a place to live at night, that’s the last thing they’re thinking about, is making it to my appointments on time, coming up with a clean screen—they don’t have anywhere to go that night.” she said. “So until their basic needs are met, housing, clothing, everything else is probably going to fall by the wayside.”
That’s where Traver sees potential for the ROSC to help people in recovery.
“It’s the bridge,” she said. “It’s the different agencies coming together, focusing on what is best for people in recovery, because a lot of times, the segregation is, one person being bounced from one place to the next to the next, really not getting anything accomplished, but when the community can come together and brainstorm together, I think that all the needs that a person needs can be met.”
Now, the different agencies that touch recovery have known about each other for a long time, with the ROSC. But Chestnut Court Treatment Coordinator Brian Hinman said it feels like they’re building momentum together for the first time.
At their monthly meetings, the council talks about the best ways to let those in recovery know what resources are available. He said a big challenge is just getting the information out to the community.
“For a lot of people, especially if they’re a family, it’s downright mind-boggling to try to navigate, ‘OK where can I get this resource and this resource,’ and in the confusion a lot of information is missed, like the fact that we have over 80 A-A meetings in this area alone,” he said.
They’re also brainstorming ways to pool resources for new offerings in the community. The council wants to explore developing substance use first aid training, or helping sober housing agencies expand the number of beds.
Recovery Specialist Daniel Sokulski said the council also hopes to build a sober leisure space, where people in recovery can meet one another in a safe, non-triggering environment.
“Like a sober clubhouse or some kind of cafe where people can go, and it’s no different than if you were to go to a bar and play pool, darts, foosball, whatever games, but there’s just no alcohol, we’re serving snacks, soft drinks,” he explained.
Sokulski said most sober events that are currently available happen within the 12-step community. But for those who don’t want to join a 12-step group, there’s not much available. And that’s a problem for people in recovery.
“Boredom comes up all the time when we’re talking about triggers and relapse prevention,” he said.
Sokulski said one of the most important moments in his recovery was being able to joke around and laugh with others.
“It’s just that natural sort of high you get from connecting with other people. So I think if we can create some opportunities for people to just remind themselves that they can have fun without the substances ... It’s baby steps, but I think we have to find some opportunities to get people back involved with pro-social activities,” he said.
Addiction In Underrepresented Groups
It’s hard enough for most addicts to socialize, but it’s even worse for underrepresented groups. Dave Bentlin is the president of the Prairie Pride Coalition, an organization dedicated to making Bloomington-Normal more welcoming to the LGBTQ community. He also serves on the ROSC council.
“Decades ago bars were one of the few places people could go to meet other people like themselves,” he said. “And so it became sort of a central hub for our community to interact with other people, to meet up with other people, to socialize with other people.”
Bentlin said he’s heard from several LGBTQ members in recovery at Chestnut.
“They are looking for socialization outlets, places where they can meet other people, where they can be in an environment where they don’t feel like they’re struggling with their addiction,” he said. “They don’t want to be in a space where they feel they’re in danger of relapsing, such as a bar.”
The creation of the ROSC councils is also part of the state’s goal to reduce opioid-related deaths by a third in the next year. So far, the effort has seen some success. The Illinois Department of Public Health reported in January that after drug-related deaths rose dramatically between 2013 and 2017, from the available first and second quarter data, it looks like the rate of increase hit a slowdown last year.
McLean County has seen a similar trend. McLean County Coroner Kathleen Yoder said her office recorded 30 overdose deaths in 2018. That’s down from 40 deaths in 2017.
But Chestnut Court Treatment Coordinator Bryan Hinman said the issue still deserves the community’s attention.
“People can often write it off as, ‘Oh well it’s not affecting me or my family,’ which I would argue if you’re one of the lucky individuals that can make that statement, it still affects the police, the EMTs, jail, so many factors,” he said. “It’s costing this community a lot, and we’re also losing a lot of quality people. I’ve sadly, last year lost I want to say at least 15 former clients that I can think of off the top of my head. And again, they had more lives than just their addictions. These were people with goals, dreams, everything else.”
Daniel Sokulski said he hopes that with greater awareness and education, the community will not only see addiction differently, but change the way they see those living with addiction.
“In my opinion, this is a disease,” he said. “I didn’t choose to bring the havoc I did upon my personal life. I didn’t choose to lose good jobs, to scare my parents and wife half to death with some of my behaviors; there was an obsession occurring and this physical craving where, I put that stuff in my body after any period of abstinence, something different is going happen to me than happens to most people.”
“There’s a saying, ‘We’re not bad people trying to be good or do good, we’re sick people trying to get well,’ and I definitely believe that,” he added.
Sokulski said if ROSC can help change the minds of people who think addiction is a kind of moral failing, they’ll see more buy-in from stakeholders who want to help. But just as recovery doesn’t happen overnight, it’ll take time for the council to flesh out ideas and come up with a strategy to get the rest of the community on board.
Community groups interested in joining the ROSC council or individuals who want to learn more may contact ROSC Coalition Project Coordinator Angela Chasensky at firstname.lastname@example.org or 309-451-7835.
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