Building Up Self-Esteem in Early Recovery

Substance use disorder often brings a person very low in terms of how they see themselves and how they present to the world around them. It can cause someone to steal, lie, cheat, to poverty and homelessness, and so on. Because it takes so much away, it doesn’t leave a person with much confidence or self-esteem. They feel they can only survive with that substance, and it’s the only thing that will make them feel whole. Addiction will often continue because if and when the person stops using, they will experience feelings of shame and guilt at what transpired due to their use. It’s a terrible cycle that can only end with abstinence, which is when the discomfort of all those buried emotions come rushing to the surface and must be felt and dealt with.

When processing the trauma of an addiction, it is recommended that a person acknowledges the damage done, right wrongs where possible, and commits to living honestly going forward. While it is necessary to be cognizant of the past, it can make it difficult for the person to feel good about themselves. Having confidence is needed in order for them to continue on this new and righteous path of sobriety.

Having a healthy level of self-esteem can increase the chance of successful recovery. The tricky part is getting there without becoming overly confident, which can eventually lead to feelings of invincibility and possibly a relapse. The following covers why self-esteem is important and offers some tips on building up confidence in early recovery.

Importance of Self-Esteem in Recovery

Many people dismiss the importance of self-esteem in recovery, while others don’t believe they even deserve self-esteem because of the wreckage they caused. When you finally accept life on life’s terms, the glaring truth of what your addiction did is difficult to do, especially when you’ve been living in an altered state for so long, but it is possible and necessary.

Here are some of the reasons it is so crucial to build self-esteem for people to remain sober.

Learn to Say No

Some people struggle to turn down drugs and alcohol due to low self-esteem; it is often called a ‘social lubricant.’ An individual  will think that people will like them more if they go out and party, or supply them with drugs. Their social life plays a large role in their lives, and losing it can make the user feel alone. However, increased self-esteem can give someone the confidence to say no when other people offer drugs. While most people think that this only applies to young people, adults can struggle to say no to the bar or substances, too.

Less Depression

Confidence will help alleviate the depression an addict may experience by increasing the person’s self-worth. The addict will not feel as strong of a need to take drugs to reduce the pain they feel inside every day. In some cases, depression requires medication that will keep chemicals in the brain under control.

Improved Outlook About Future

When someone is confident, they see the future and the possibilities it holds. Someone will not want to slip back into bad habits that can jeopardize their future if they truly believe they have a bright future ahead.

Endless Cycle

Sometimes it can be difficult to identify if the self-esteem or the addiction came first. Either way, when they become connected, it turns into a vicious cycle. People will use drugs to hide the pain of self-esteem. However, the addiction will lead to more self-esteem problems. This continues until it is difficult to know which problem developed first, but either way, it perpetuates addiction. The cycle continues until it is eventually broken for good.

How to Build Self-Esteem in Early Recovery

It is easy to know that you need to increase your self-confidence. However, that can be difficult, especially when you are in the middle of a low point that puts you into rehabilitation. Here are some tips on how you can build self-esteem in early recovery.

  • Forgive Yourself.
    Many people experience a hit to their self-esteem due to the things they did during their addiction. Some people make the mistake of neglecting friends and family in favor of the good feeling of the substances. Other people take it a step further by stealing or causing chaos.
    Whatever you did in the past, you are on the road to becoming a better person. Forgive yourself for your past transgressions. You can’t change what you have done in the past, but you can change what you do from here on out. Being sober is one of the first ways to get on the road to forgiving yourself.
    Start your road to self-forgiveness by committing to your sobriety. You should also do what you can to reach out to the people you have hurt in the past and put in the effort to rebuild those relationships.
    Forgiveness takes time. You may need to be patient with yourself when you experience guilt for past actions. You will need to learn to push those thoughts out of your head. You will also need to give others time to get to know the new, sober you and forgive you.
  • Get to the Bottom of Self-Esteem Problems.
    Some people have self-esteem issues well before they started using. The addiction will be difficult to manage until they manage the self-esteem problems. One way to dive deep into the heart of self-esteem issues is through therapy. In therapy, a therapist talks to a patient about their self-esteem issues. The patient will have a safe space to express themselves. If you have struggled with self-esteem since childhood, a therapist can help you get to the root of the problem. When you get to the root of the problem, the change that comes next will be long-term.
  • Surround Yourself With Kind People.
    Some people in our lives support positive mental health and self-confidence. Other people are not as helpful in this regard. No one deserves to be made fun of, nagged, or critiqued too much.
    If you have people in your life who seem to enjoy bringing you down, you need to do what you can to reduce their presence in your life if they do not change after you explain your need for more support. Instead, spend your time with people who build you up. Search for people in your life who already uplift you. If you need more people, make friends with people in rehabilitation or a 12-step program. In a pinch, you may even consider recruiting a life coach.
  • Daily Affirmations.
    Words and internal dialogue have power, and you can gain control over your words and internal dialogue with daily affirmations. Daily affirmations are small phrases you can say throughout the day to help keep your spirits up. For people who struggle with self-esteem, it’s a good idea to recite affirmations that point out positive things about yourself.
    Start by writing down a long list of the things that you like about yourself. Read this list to yourself when you get ready for your day in the morning. You can keep them in your journal if you keep one. If you can, look at yourself in the mirror. You will start your day off with an extra boost of confidence.
    Affirmations aren’t simply a list of positive qualities about yourself, though. You will also need to have a list of affirmations about maintaining a positive attitude and believing in yourself. You will use all of your positive affirmations throughout your day when you start to feel down.
    Positive affirmations may not take right away, and the process may seem awkward at first. However, you should keep at it. The more you do it, the more likely you will be to feel good about yourself in time.
  • Accept Compliments.
    Many people receive a compliment and immediately get uncomfortable or dismissive. Every person deserves compliments from time to time — even addicts! It is important to learn how to hear and accept compliments. With time, people may even start to believe that they deserve a compliment and then start complimenting themselves.
    To train yourself to receive compliments better, start by simply saying, “thank you.” Do not turn compliments down. Accept them. If it makes you uncomfortable, try not to show it. Maintain good posture, eye contact, and a smile. You don’t want to appear nervous or guilty. This can require practice and training, but keep at it. Ultimately, though, you want to get to the point where you aren’t too worried about compliments or insults from other people at all. Your confidence should not derive from other people but from your own qualities, accomplishments, and good deeds.
  • Help Others.
    Self-esteem can develop from helping others and putting others before yourself. Take some time to put yourself out of focus and worry about someone else for a change. Start small by visiting relatives. You can also find opportunities to volunteer for charities that appeal to you. You can feed poor people at the local soup kitchen, tutor underprivileged children, or help people with their sobriety. Doing something good for others will make you feel better when you lay your head down at the end of the day.
    It’s important to remember not to help others to the point that it hurts you and your progress. Some people think that they can make up for past sins by helping others to the point of self-sacrifice. Just remember that you won’t truly be able to help others until you take care of yourself first.
  • Take Actionable Steps Toward Change.
    The life you were living wasn’t giving you the self-esteem you need to stay sober. For that reason, you need to make some changes. Some positive changes include improving relationships, getting a good job, and staying sober and healthy.
    Change doesn’t happen overnight. It is a good idea to write down your long-term goals so that you have something to work toward. Long-term goals can include weight loss, career aspirations, and family goals. However, for each long-term goal, you should write down the small goals that will get you to the ultimate goal. Start small and go day by day. Celebrate the small changes until you finally see significant change. Eventually, you will look back and hardly recognize where you were a year or two earlier. Hold yourself accountable by including close people or a therapist on your journey — set deadlines for certain goals to give yourself a point to evaluate your progress. When progress isn’t coming along as far as you’d like, don’t get discouraged. Try again or slightly change your goals to make them more realistic. Don’t forget to celebrate the little wins when you do succeed at your goals.
  • Continue Therapy.
    During early recovery, you have mental health staff available to work on any self-esteem issues you may have. Even if you have made substantial progress, you need to keep up with treatment for your self-esteem after rehabilitation. The best way to do this is through individual therapy, if possible. Of course, you can look into alternative methods. The point is to prioritize self-esteem long-term. You don’t want self-doubt to lead you to crave illicit substances that will set you back in your recovery.

Mental health takes a toll on the incarcerated — and their families

Sept. 20, 2021, 6:00 AM EDTBy Patrice Gaines

Throughout her adult life, Miquelle West has hesitated to date. Dating might lead to love, which might lead to marriage. And Miquelle does not want to marry until her mother can walk her down the aisle.

Her mother, Michelle, now 60, has been incarcerated for almost three decades now. She was sentenced in 1994 to two life sentences plus 50 years in a drug conspiracy case, which held her responsible for the actions of her co-defendants, including one who committed a murder. It was her first offense.

“I feel more impacted by her incarceration now than when I was as a child, because now I don’t see an end to this,” said West, who lives in New York City and works as a fashion stylist. “I’ve been successful in my professional life, but I haven’t been able to focus on getting married or having kids, because I’m still trying to get my mom out of prison. It has ruined both of our lives.”

Having a loved one who is incarcerated can be emotionally stressful. The experience, though, is not rare. More than half of all Black American women, for example, have at least one incarcerated family member, and that experience can cause high levels of depression and psychological distress, according to a research paper published in February in the Journal of Marriage and Family.

Black Americans are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of whites Americans, according to an NAACP fact sheet. After decades of mass incarceration, this means  families and communities across the country  have struggled to fill the voids caused by imprisonment.

“From slavery, to lynching, to incarceration, generations of African American families have endured having their family members taken away. African Americans have had to learn how to compartmentalize this trauma and have survived, in part, due to their resilience,” noted the research paper, which also called this resilience “a double-edged sword as these experiences worsen health outcomes.”

Miquelle West understands this firsthand. 

“We’re both doing time in our own way,” she said of herself and her mother. “Certain things I can’t achieve because my mom is not present. But sometimes when you are fighting for something of this magnitude, it should take your time,” West said, talking while crying softly.

Miquelle’s uncle Marcel Mays — her mother’s brother — was arrested with her mother and was convicted in the same drug conspiracy. He was released in 2010 after 16 years and five months in prison.

“Michelle doesn’t have an out date,” Mays said. “I always wonder: What does that feel like, not having an out date? I woke up with something to look forward to.”

Marion “Pete” Mays, Miquelle’s aunt who helped raise her, said she suffered years of depression after her siblings were incarcerated.

“My whole life was consumed with very dark days,” Marion Mays, 58, said. “Later on in life I have been able to seek help for this. This is something I have had to live with. It’s similar to death. It also causes grief. I haven’t lost my sister, but I’m losing time with her.”

She said that going to therapy helped her. “Journaling helped me. And my faith has helped me, too,” she said.

Evelyn J. Patterson, an associate professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University and the lead researcher on the study about familial incarceration, said that most studies, as well as programs offering aid to people with incarcerated loved ones, focus on “children and also for mothers of young children whose fathers have been incarcerated. Far less attention has been paid to people in other familial roles like siblings or a daughter.”

Yet families of all types and on all levels have faced the mental stress of having relatives in prison.

“There really hasn’t been any point in American history where we have not had laws purposely meant to disrupt Black families,”  Patterson said.

Marcel Mays, who lives in the old family homestead in Detroit, said communication within his family has never been the same since he and his sister were imprisoned.

“You become estranged from your family,” he said. “All of us become so accustomed to not talking to one another. It becomes the norm.”

But he emails his sister Michelle about four times a week. “Prison is designed to break you mentally, physically and financially from your family. You are stripped from everything. It’s like slavery. I don’t really have a relationship with my nieces and nephews. I have great nieces and nephews I don’t even know,” Marcel Mays said.

He said he and his sister Marion seldom talk to an older brother, who lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Marcel Mays’ mother died of a heart attack seven days after he was released in 2010. It angered him that people said she wanted to see him come home before she died. “It was as if, had I stayed in prison, she would still be alive — or like she didn’t want to see Michelle free,” he said.

Miquelle West is Michelle’s only child. She was 10 in 1993 when her mother dropped her off at her Detroit elementary school. That was the last time daughter and mother would be together outside of a prison. West was raised by her grandmother and aunt.

Over the years, Miquelle West has devoted much of her time fighting for her mother’s freedom. She has appeared on radio and television broadcasts and in newspapers and magazines, all of which she understands is a privilege not afforded the loved ones of most people who are incarcerated. The organization Can-Do Justice Through Clemency, has also repeatedly called for West’s release. But Miquelle is frustrated that nothing she has done has led to her mother’s freedom.

In 2015 Miquelle West was invited to a clemency summit at the White House during President Barack Obama’s last term to plead for her mom. However, the Obama administration rejected West’s request for clemency. Still, she said she does not regret one day spent fighting for her mother.

“Maybe some people are to get married, have kids. God put me on earth to fight for people who are wrongly imprisoned,” Miquelle said. “Some people live their life and don’t know their purpose. I knew my purpose very young. I knew the day I discovered my mom had gone to prison.” 

The story of the Wests was featured in the bestselling book “Humans of New York,” with the elder West writing from prison at the time: “My sister told me that after graduation, when everyone else was taking photos with their family, my daughter just broke down and cried. When she visits, she tells me that she feels too guilty to start a family because I won’t be there to see it.”

After high school, Miquelle moved from Detroit to New York City to be near the federal prison where her mother was incarcerated at the time, so she would be able to visit more often.      

In between visits, West worries about her mother. And the past year was particularly stressful, as prisons locked down because of the pandemic. At times, she said visits and even phone calls were forbidden.

“To have a loved one incarcerated is to be in a state of constant concern, anxiety, depression, worry,” said Laura B. Morse, a psychotherapist in Atlanta. “You’re always wondering: Will they be safe? With Covid, we knew how fast it was progressing through these facilities.”

Michelle West did contract Covid-19 after being placed in a cell with two people who had the virus. On the day Miquelle spoke to NBC News, she was angry that her mother had been injured helping to move beds inside the prison. 

“I’m tired of the harsh treatment of my mom,” Miquelle said. “She’s up in age now and this thing hit her on the head. Why do you have women moving heavy metal beds?”

Her mother is better now. 

In addition to worry, Morse, said relatives of people who are imprisoned often experience shame.

“The shame might come from most people making strong assumptions about people in jail or prison,” Morse said. “There’s this immediate judgement that they deserve to be there. So it closes people off, makes them hesitant to reach out for support and understanding.

“They even ask: Do I deserve support?” Morse said. A client who had a son who was incarcerated “couldn’t bring herself to tell me why. I knew it was a violent crime. You could see the pain and guilt in her.”

Michelle West’s sister, Marion Mays, lived with their mother. “I could see her anguish over Michelle. It was extremely hard to watch,” said Mays.

Marcel Mays believes he has dealt fairly well with the mental challenges associated with his sister’s incarceration.

“But you never know,” he said. “Maybe I should have sought therapy. I think if you do any time [in prison] maybe you should get therapy.”

Marion Mays recalled her own hesitation to talk to anyone after her siblings were arrested. 

“I didn’t mix and mingle with people. … I stayed secluded,” she said. “I was feeling lost, hurt, had anxieties, and did not want to go out. It was a very lonely time.”

Mays suggested Miquelle might benefit from therapy, but her niece was reluctant and only got a therapist last year during the pandemic. 

“I wasn’t sure anyone could understand this situation,” Miquelle said. She’s also turned to meditation to help her through the most difficult days.

“I still feel the absence of Michelle,” said Marion Mays. She last saw her sister two years ago and had considered visiting her for her birthday this year. But Michelle is now in California and Mays is in Detroit. She weighed whether the trip would be worth the cost.

“It’s a lot to fly into San Francisco and rent a car to go see my sister behind plexiglass for two hours,” Mays said.

The two communicate by email nearly every day. Mays sends her sister money every week.

“I could not survive and live in this free world without knowing my sister is OK,” Mays said. “I look at the things I have, and I ask myself, ‘Does she need new gym shoes?’”

“I like to say the most valuable possession we have in life is our time,” Mays said. “Not our money, it is our time. Sometimes I hear it in my sister’s voice that she wants to give up. But I tell her: ‘You can make it. You can come home.’”

New Federal Grants will Fund Work Combating Stigma of Drug Addiction

by Hannah Catlin

A lantern honors someone who died from an overdose. Credit: Hannah Catlin / Aroostook Republican & News

Healthy Acadia and Aroostook Mental Health Center, which both won million dollar federal grants last week to combat the opioid epidemic, will use the money primarily on community prevention and training initiatives.

A total of 502 Mainers died of an overdose last year, and there were roughly 360 overdose deaths by the end of July this year. Nearly half of all Americans know someone addicted to prescription painkillers, and 20 percent know someone who has died from an overdose, a Kaiser Family Foundation poll found in 2017.

But in rural Maine, advocates have said the stigma surrounding substance use disorder is still killing people.

The new grant money will primarily go toward raising awareness and expanding resources into schools and primary care offices where more people may be able to access them.

“It’s one thing to have all of these different options. It’s great to have all kinds of different services. It’s great that they’re available,” Aroostook Mental Health Project Coordinator Erik Lamoreau said. “But at the end of the day, none of that is any good if we don’t have anyone to run it and work in it and participate in it.”

The U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration has earmarked the Rural Communities Opioid Response Program grants to be used specifically to establish and expand certain prevention, treatment and recovery programs. As examples, it lists implementing drug take-backs, training more peer recovery coaches and teaching health and social service providers to identify the symptoms of substance use disorder.

“If someone comes into a dentist’s office … and somehow that dentist learns they have a substance use disorder, that dentist may not be prepared to support that person,” Healthy Acadia Recovery Programs Manager Caroline Bloss said.

While the funds were awarded specifically to Healthy Acadia and Aroostook Mental Health, both groups work with health care centers, plus advocacy and law enforcement groups in Hancock, Washington and Aroostook counties, which will implement programs using the funding as well.

Aroostook Mental Health, for example, is championing an initiative with the funds to give naloxone to every incarcerated person as they leave Aroostook County Jail, Lamoreau said.

U.S. Sen. Angus King — alongside U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and U.S. Rep. Jared Golden — backed Aroostook Mental Health Center’s application to the grant in February. Local organizations are often best positioned to deal with the opioid epidemic in Maine, where the needs in different communities vary wildly, King said.

“Particularly in rural areas, it often is a matter of personal contact and trust,” King said. “The clients, the patients, those afflicted with this terrible disease have to feel that they know who they’re dealing with and there’s a community behind the treatment.”

Building trust means making it easier for people to ask for help, and teaching the community how to respond when that happens, Healthy Acadia Recovery Programs Director Penny Guisinger said. When people with substance use disorder don’t come forward, it often has to do with fear.

“It’s about people’s perceptions: not wanting to be seen, not wanting to be judged,” Guisinger said.

Lamoreau, who is in recovery himself, led a community survey earlier this year to determine what programs were needed to address substance use disorder in Aroostook County. After interviewing people in active addiction, recovery and in the wider community, he said training emerged as one of the primary needs.

Widespread misconceptions about addiction — that it’s a personal choice, that people don’t recover — stem from decades of harsh legal penalties and few medical resources for people with substance use disorder, Lamoreau said. Having a criminal record from drug possession charges still makes it difficult to get a job, even when a person is sober and years into recovery, he said.

To turn the corner, Lamoreau said the war on drugs, and its punitive approach to addiction needs to end.

“We need to get people passionate, we need to get people interested, and we need to start talking about it more,” Lamoreau said. “The more we talk about it, the more that it’s out there the more resources will come.”

Aroostook Families and Advocates Say More Resources Needed to Prevent Overdose Deaths.

Hannah Catlin • September 3, 2021

CARIBOU, Maine — In photographs, TJ Poitraw smiles kindly into the camera. His mom, Renee Fulton, said he was the type of guy who was always trying to make people laugh, always trying to help other people get better.

Poitraw was in recovery and just 26 when he died of an overdose three months ago. He had been living in Vermont and working at Adult & Teen Challenge — a faith-based recovery organization — and was only back in Caribou temporarily when he died.

Maine is on track to have its deadliest year of the opioid epidemic in 2021 — an average of 51 people are dying every month from overdoses. Since January, 16 people have died of an overdose in Aroostook County, just one less person than in the entire 2020 calendar year.

Renee Fulton places a lantern in honor of her son, T.J. Poitraw, who died of an overdose earlier this year. Credit: Hannah Catlin / Aroostook Republican Credit: Hannah Catlin / Aroostook Republican

Poitraw was among those honored at a vigil on Overdose Awareness Day on Tuesday in downtown Caribou. His smile beamed out from photographs glued to paper lanterns that lined Main Street where it crosses Caribou Stream.

“Even on the day he died he was still reaching out to people and trying to help people with their addiction,” Fulton said. “People don’t care if you’re sober, they’ll still offer it to you. Ultimately he made the choice to use, but addiction is something that’s really very hard to beat.”

Families of overdose victims and people in recovery say stigma and a lack of resources are keeping people with substance use disorder in The County vulnerable to relapse and overdose.

“We need so much help here,” Fulton said. “I think if they weren’t so worried about going to jail more people would reach out for help.”

While some resources — recovery houses, for example — are being developed in the area, many people struggling with their addiction have to leave their homes and support systems behind to seek out help. But staying in northern Maine, or even coming back after, can be dangerous if there aren’t enough resources to keep people on the path to recovery.

The County has no detoxification facility, and no long-term living options for people with addictions outside of Caribou.

Roland Belanger has been in recovery for decades and was shocked at how few Narcotics and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings there are in Aroostook County — he moved to Caribou from New Hampshire in June. Since then, he’s driven to Ellsworth, several hours both ways, for a meeting.

While Roads to Recovery — which organized the vigil on Tuesday alongside Recovery Aroostook and Aroostook Mental Health Center — has meetings, Belanger said he would like to see more of them across the county, and in neutral spaces like churches.

He’s approached both Van Buren and Limestone to suggest using some of their town-owned abandoned buildings to open up facilities to help people with substance use disorder.

Belanger was at the vigil to honor a family friend, 20-year-old Malcolm Allen who died of an overdose in Bath at the end of July. As much as he tries to think positively, Belanger can’t shake the feeling that people are dying younger and younger from overdoses.

“Everybody knows somebody that died from drugs or alcohol,” Belanger said. “As far as I’m concerned, everybody has an addiction. The stigma is we don’t talk about it and we’ve got to start talking about it.”

This was Caribou’s fifth time participating in Overdose Awareness Day. After setting up the lanterns on Main Street, a small group bowed their heads in a moment of silence before dispersing.

Jan Jackson, a representative from Recovery Aroostook and Cary Medical Center, said that small as they may be, events like this are important in raising awareness — which will be key if The County is going to make any progress in the fight against the substance use disorder epidemic. It will take widespread support in the community to fund the facilities and treatments needed, she said.

“It’s not just the Narcan, it’s not just the naloxone that can keep people from dying. We all can,” Jackson said. “We as a community all have to do that.”

What I Would Give for a Second Chance

No photo description available.

Today, I read a brief email from my son. He was talking about a woman he loves being in jail and not being able to get out. Understandably, he is heart broken by her choices. He said, “If she could only realize how shitty it is, what I would give for a second chance.” Those words broke my heart. Those words have been on my mind since early morning.

A second chance is to know how horrible a situation is, and to know what you need to do to fix it. It means making amends for the hurt you have caused others. Knowing that you are better than the situation drugs has led you to. It means knowing that you aren’t healed yet, but you are willing to work toward that every single day. Even if that means doing things you can’t stand doing. Even if it means you have to live without some people in your life.

Getting that second chance is hard work. Sometimes it takes years to get to where you can acknowledge that your choices, illness and mental health have caused hurt to those you love. Sometimes those things put you in situations you could never imagine being in. Looking back at that is hard. Looking in the mirror and knowing those things is hard. But it is also worth it.

So here’s to the young man in jail who has reconnected to his family and gathers all the support and love from them he can. Here’s to the ones working crappy jobs, because it’s the right way to live life. Here’s to the young pregnant woman who vows to pass every weekly piss test in order to take her child home. Here’s to the ones who go to school and work hard and make their own second chance. You are rockstars.

In the past months, I’ve also seen brave posts from one of our local mental health providers on social media. Outstanding people in recovery have shared their stories with before and after photos. Congratulations to you all, you have shown the utmost courage and resiliency in sharing your story. Those are the stories that will change someone else’s life and I applaud you.

I’ve been away from posting for a couple weeks, but I haven’t been away from seeing and listening and researching how this war is going, what steps are being taken to end it and the pain and suffering of those in active addiction. There is help. Please reach out.


A Novel Idea?

California looking to pay drug addicts to stay sober

by ADAM BEAM | Associated Press Thursday, August 26th 2021

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Frustrated by out-of-control increases in drug overdose deaths, California’s leaders are trying something radical: They want the state to be the first to pay people to stay sober.

The federal government has been doing it for years with military veterans and research shows it is one of the most effective ways to get people to stop using drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine, stimulants for which there are no pharmaceutical treatments available.

It works like this: People earn small incentives or payments for every negative drug test over a period of time. Most people who complete the treatment without any positive tests can earn a few hundred dollars. They usually get the money on a gift card.

It’s called “contingency management” and Gov. Gavin Newsom has asked the federal government for permission to use tax dollars to pay for it through Medicaid, the joint state and federal health insurance program for the poor and disabled that covers nearly 14 million people in California.

Meanwhile, a similar proposal is moving through California’s Democratic-controlled Legislature. It’s already passed the Senate with no opposition and is pending in the Assembly, where it has a Republican co-author.

“I think there is a lot in this strategy for everyone to like,” said state Sen. Scott Wiener, a Democrat from San Francisco and author of the bill. “Most important of all, it works.”

How much it would cost depends on how many people participate. A program covering 1,000 people could cost as much as $286,000, a pittance in California’s total operating budget of more than $262 billion.

The San Francisco AIDS Foundation, a nonprofit agency, runs a small, privately-funded contingency management program. It’s where Tyrone Clifford, who was addicted to meth, enrolled because they promised to pay him for every negative test over 12 weeks.

His first payment was $2. That increased slightly with each subsequent negative test for a total of about $330.

“I thought, I can do 12 weeks. I’ve done that before when my dealer was in jail,” he said. “When I’m done I’ll have 330 bucks to get high with.'”

Clifford did make it through the program without a positive test. But instead of using the money to buy more drugs, he bought a laptop computer so he could go back to school. He says he hasn’t used methamphetamine in 11 years and now works as a counselor at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, helping people who had the same addiction problems he did.

Clifford, 53, said earning the money didn’t matter much. Unlike some who struggle with drug addiction, Clifford always had a job and a house and was never much in danger of losing either. But he said watching his account grow with each negative test motivated him more than any other treatment program did.

“You watch those dollar values go up, there is proof right there that I am doing this,” he said. “By no means is anyone getting rich off this program.”

There is “clear and convincing evidence” that the treatment works to keep people sober from drugs like methamphetamine and cocaine, according to an analysis by the California Health Benefits Review Program. However, while research shows it is effective in keeping people sober during the program, the effect doesn’t last much beyond six months after treatment concludes.

Clifford acknowledged the program doesn’t work for everybody, but added his treatment included extensive group and individual counseling sessions that kept him accountable and made him feel part of a community.

Clifford said he considers the treatment a success even if people don’t make it without a positive test.

“They are trying something,” he said.

If California starts paying for contingency management treatment through Medicaid, Clifford said he thinks it would mean an explosion in similar programs across the state.

California, like most of the country, has struggled with opioid abuse, including drugs like prescription painkillers and heroin. But overdose deaths from stimulants in California nearly quadrupled between 2010 and 2019, and the problem has gotten even worse since.

Preliminary data from the first nine months of 2020 — when much of the state was locked down because of the coronavirus pandemic— shows stimulant overdose deaths jumped 42% compared to 2019.

While opioids have several pharmaceutical treatments available to help people get sober, there are none for stimulants like methamphetamine and cocaine, often leaving people to their willpower to kick the habit.

“There is a clear kind of hole in regards to treatment services for individuals who have a stimulant use disorder,” said Jaycee Cooper, director of California’s Medicaid program. “At this point (contingency management) is the only thing people are pointing to that has been effective.”

Contingency management is not widely used because it’s not clear if state and federal law allow Medicaid money to pay for it. California has a law prohibiting people from profiting or receiving “kickbacks” from treatment programs. Wiener’s law would clarify contingency management is legal under state law.

Whether it violates federal law is still a question.

“We don’t think it does,” Wiener said, noting the Biden administration has signaled its interest in the treatment.

Wiener’s bill would require California’s Medicaid program to pay for the treatment while Newsom’s plan would let counties choose whether to participate.

Maine-based arts project seeks to spur conversations on captivity, abolition

Maine-based arts project seeks to spur conversations on captivity, abolition

August 27, 2021 Evan Popp

For Leo Hylton, prison abolition doesn’t mean having no system at all: it means replacing what is with what should be.

“It’s tearing down the structures that exist and building ones that can be restorative in nature,” said Hylton, who is serving a 40-year sentence in the Maine prison system.   

Such conversations around what abolition is and how to bring about an end to mass incarceration will be at the forefront of an upcoming Maine-based arts and humanities project launching in early September called “Freedom and Captivity.” The project, put together by a coalition of groups and advocates, will kick off with a public event Sept. 2 at Kennedy Park in Portland and continue into December with events around the state. 

The initiative features a wide range of materials, including artwork by those who are incarcerated, an exhibition in Augusta examining prison from the perspective of veterans on the inside, and photography documenting artwork and murals done by those in prisons. Also included in the project will be a digital exhibition of pieces that respond to the prompt: “What does abolition look like, sound like, feel like?” Those submissions will be projected at the launch party and will come in various formats, such as film, poetry, prose and sculpture. 

The exhibition comes at the same time that reform advocates are working to change aspects of the criminal legal system in Maine, such as the lack of an opportunity for parole and the dearth of clemency requests granted in the state — policies they argue have killed hope among incarcerated individuals that rehabilitative efforts will be recognized. The state system has also drawn criticism for large racial and gender disparities in drug-related incarceration and for not prioritizing those in prisons and jails for the COVID-19 vaccine despite their presence in high-risk congregate settings. Another source of frustration has been vetoes by Gov. Janet Mills, who earlier this year nixed a series of criminal justice reform bills, including a measure that would have closed Maine’s last youth prison.

Catherine Besteman, coordinator of the Freedom and Captivity project and a professor of anthropology at Colby College, said she hopes the project provides attendees with an education on the dire impacts of the carceral system.  

“I want a lot more Mainers caring about this issue, about hyper incarceration and the impact of mass incarceration,” she said. “I want a lot more Mainers to feel personally implicated and personally responsible for the system as it exists now, and I want a lot more Mainers to have clearer directions on how they can participate in bringing this system to an end.” 

‘We are still human beings’ 

Hylton — who writes regular columns for the publication Mainer — said he put together an essay on restorative justice for the Freedom and Captivity project, contributed to a piece on “the A.B.C’s of abolition” and submitted a series of poems.

He said he’s excited about the opportunity the project provides to discuss the concept of prison abolition. Hylton explained that his definition of abolition acknowledges the need to remove certain people from society who may be a danger to themselves or others. However, he said the idea behind abolition is that the current system doesn’t do an effective job at fostering rehabilitation and growth. 

“The whole restorative mindset is to address harm with healing, to create spaces of accountability for healing and potential reconciliation,” he said. “But [that’s] just not feasible with the current magnitude of incarcerated bodies right now, so it needs to be scaled down so you can really deal with the root of crime.” 

In addition to spurring such conversations, Hylton hopes “Freedom and Captivity” will serve to humanize those who are incarcerated.

“Regardless of the worst thing we have done in our lives that led us to this place, we are still human beings and we still have all those basic human needs of expression, of compassion, of empathy, of love,” he said. “And I think that comes out a lot in the different pieces that are going to be on display from incarcerated people.”

That’s been the takeaway for Jan Collins, the curator of an exhibit of artwork by incarcerated people that will launch Sept. 3. Collins, who is also the assistant director of the Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, said while the artwork is “as individual as the artists themselves,” the collective pieces show that people who are incarcerated have many of the same hopes and desires as those on the outside.  

That is a powerful message to send, Collins said, and one she hopes will spur increased energy for prison reform. 

“I think the only way to get changes is for people to see themselves in these men or these women,” she explained. “Until we can see people as people and other members of the human race, it will be extremely difficult to make any changes to policy that reflect that humanity.” 

Olivia Hochstadt, who is curating the art project along with Collins, added that being able do something creative while building community through Freedom and Captivity has come at an important time for those who are incarcerated, many of whom were further isolated and unable to access art materials during the height of the pandemic.

In one case, Hochstadt said the initiative helped unearth a passion for arts and painting for one of the contributors, an incarcerated individual named Chris, who said he had never picked up a paintbrush before participating in the project. 

Hochstadt said Chris came to their meetings every week with beautiful paintings of landscapes that featured winding paths of water leading to sunsets and sunrises, complete with vivid greenery in the background. 

“He was like, ‘Well, in my cell I look out onto a cement wall and I can’t see anything beyond that wall. And so my paintings are what I imagine is behind the wall,’” Hochstadt said. 

“To me, that just shows the impact making art has for these guys and the freedom it gives them,” she added. “It’s just amazing.” 

United States of America – Shame on You!

Lennar mortgage subsidiary under DOJ investigation - Colorado Builder  Magazine

Two years ago twenty eight people were arrested on federal drug charges in Aroostook County. The charges claimed each was a part of a large conspiracy to distribute drugs. If you follow my blog, you will know that when you are charged in a conspiracy, you are charged with the actions of every person involved. All 28 of them. The strange thing about this is you may have never met some of them and wouldn’t be able to recognize them on the street. Seems strange to me, but not as strange as what I’ve also learned through this journey.

Yesterday I made my weekly view of the Federal District Court calendar in Bangor to see who might be coming up next for their sentencing. Surprisingly, there were two men from this same case scheduled in the next two weeks. The infuriating part is this. After having the opportunity to read all of the evidence in this case (you get everyone’s when it’s a conspiracy in your discovery) these two men were the ones that moved into Aroostook County and “actively recruited” members of the conspiracy to distribute their product.

You might wonder what that means. These men facilitated the purchase of product from the Western U.S and Mexico, they arranged for that product to be delivered to them for distribution by their recruits. They created the conspiracy. But, guess what? Not a single drug charge for either of them. No mandatory minimum sentence, in fact they are likely to get much less time than any of the other 28 people involved.

What is wrong with this picture. This is our drug war. This is how our country deals with this. As you sit in judgement of those with the longest sentences in this conspiracy and consider them drug king pins through your lack of understanding remember this; those with the longest sentences refused to “rat” on others, particularly these two men. Why? Because they have families to look out for, because they would be unable to look over their shoulder for the rest of their life. They are not king pins, but pawns.

To the members of the Northern District Drug Enforcement Agency – Shame on you! From the moment of arrest, you begin making your deals, you decide how to charge people based on their cooperation. You don’t give one shit about truth and justice, just arrests and hefty prison sentences. I don’t know how you sleep at night.

To the Federal District Attorney – Shame on you! How dare you try to say someone doesn’t accept responsibility because they refuse to give in to your demands to name names. How dare you twist evidence that is completely unrelated to the individual to assist in longer sentences. If your worth is determined by the amount of time you can get for someone on a first offense ever, you are worth nothing.

To the Federal District Judge – Shame on you! You are one of the worst human beings I have had the opportunity to run across. How dare you shame my family, my son and all of the other pawns who enter your courtroom that you know fully well that you are wrong. How dare you talk to people like they don’t matter at all. You are not after truth and you do not represent justice. I have my doubts that you even know those definitions.

To the Members of the United States Legislative Body – Shame on you! You are the ones who have perpetuated this war thinking that locking people in active addiction away is the answer. You knowingly let the money makers off scot free and throw away the people with mental illness in the name of justice. You sit on your high horse and make laws without even once looking into the reality of the impact of those choices. It starts with you and you are responsible.

This country has supported this for too long. It is time to be informed and to make decisions based on the truth. To stop being prideful about throwing people who are suffering away. 94,000 of them currently. Why has this war not fixed the problem after 50 years? It’s because every single one of those 94,000 people are ones just like my son, my friend’s son, my neighbors son. Get with the program and do what you should have been doing 50 years ago.

Those who know me, know that I have sat on this for 24 hours otherwise this post would be much stronger than it is.


Someone said,

“Well do you think he’s learned a lesson?”

A friend and family member asked this question in my home about my son yesterday. Thankfully, I was not within earshot at the time. But let me just say what this lesson has been for the handsome, young man in this photo. Not only his lesson, but all of ours.

May be an image of 2 people

Here is what he’s learned thus far:

  1. That mental illness fuels many decisions, particularly risky decisions.
  2. That trauma does not heal itself and cannot be medicated away with any substance known to man.
  3. That Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is real and impacts every aspect of life.
  4. That very few people in your life are really your friends and care about what is best for you.
  5. That the time has come to deal from his sister’s murder and the guilt, depression and anxiety related to that are still there, waiting to be honestly heard.
  6. That substance abuse is a pervasive disorder that only grows worse with time.
  7. That even though your child is almost grown, you can still benefit from parenting classes.
  8. That a good life does not come without work and sacrifice.
  9. That sometimes, even those you consider the best of friends or family will desert and gossip about you.
  10. That there is not one friend from the past that he wishes to hang out with when he comes home.
  11. That Mom will always answer the phone when he calls.
  12. That everyone does, in fact, die famous in a small town.

There are many more lessons to come, but these first ones are the most important. Never has there been a time when I have looked on this face in judgement. Nor any other face suffering with a substance abuse disorder. I think the thing that most breaks my heart, other than judgement against him, is that people don’t try to understand what’s really going on. Most people don’t care. The media takes bits and pieces of a story in order to get the most sensational version they can in order to have more people look at it. But to those who sit with those suffering, they get it. To anyone who has any interest in how to change this cycle it takes very little effort to google what went wrong.

What takes the most courage is to sit with this information, to study it, to understand that the person above is not unique in this situation. There are 1.8 million people in prison across this country, 80% of those people are there for drug crimes. More than 45% of only the male prison population have suffered some type of childhood trauma. That doesn’t even take into account the women included in that 1.8 million.

So what lesson have I learned? The war on drugs has failed. It has failed to fix the drug epidemic. It has failed because imprisoning addicts without adequate mental health treatment doesn’t change anything. It has failed because it has become a vast money maker in our country. It has failed because we are incapable of recognizing that trauma has a true and lasting impact on those involved, particularly in men. It has failed because we have become a nation of judgemental assholes who spread rumors and misinformation like it is gospel. We have stopped truly caring and see traumatic incidents sensationalized in the media and accept them as commonplace.

That’s what we have learned.


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