Who Knew? Things we have learned in this arena!

September is national recovery month, but for those battling substance use disorder (SUD) across the country, recovery is much more complicated than a 12-step program. Perhaps no one sees this more than organizations that work directly with this population daily, including REAL LIFE in Richmond, VA, who works to provide resources to individuals battling substance use disorder, formerly incarcerated, and/or homeless. 

As Recovery Month 2019 comes to a close, Dr. Scarbrough, REAL LIFE Founder and Director, and her staff reflected on some of the things they have learned while working with those suffering from a SUD. 

“Welcome to the world of grey,” Scarbrough said. 

Though shows like CSI and NCIS have led many Americans to believe they understand the criminal justice system, the reality is much more complicated. 

“It’s not what’s on TV,” Scarbrough said. 

That’s certainly true.

Processes, like transfers between (or even releases from) institutions, take much more time than shown on television. It is also true that law enforcement officials have incredibly high caseloads, which can have an impact on their work.

While those battling addiction are often portrayed negatively in the media, Scarbrough and her staff see addiction as a part of the cycle of abuse and a much deeper issue than just the drug. 

“I work with women that were raped by their fathers, as a form of punishment, when they were children,” Scarbrough said. 

“Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, these women started doing drugs and alcohol when they were young, because they knew what was gonna happen at night,” she added.

The story is more or less the same for many of REAL LIFE’s male clients. 

“I have not had one case where childhood trauma did not result in drug use,” Thomas Young,  case manager with REAL LIFE, said. “There is a reason why people act the way they do and many times the reason is pain,” added case manager, Tauchanna Bullock. “There are a multitude of people whose spirits have been broken due to the abuse of others” she said.

For many of their clients, dependency on drugs and alcohol can start when they are young – seven or eight years old, sometimes. This makes the cycle doubly hard to break.  

A lot of them end up in prison – for attempting to cope with things that happened when they were young. Most often, this is often not the best option. 

“A felony conviction can change your life forever,” said Young. 

Convicted felons can face more challenges coming out of prison than they had going in. There is a hiring bias that makes it more difficult to get jobs. Without a job, they often do not have access to proper housing, meaning they lack resources, such as a phone, to contact potential employers. Because of this, addicts are often forced to return to the environment that caused their addiction and often causes relapse. 

There are also very few programs within prisons to help addicts get on their feet once they come out. Similarly, there are programs available after release. But, one must be careful, as many of these programs prey on the poor, seducing them with false promises, while putting more effort into billing Medicaid than helping and providing services. As Tauchanna stated, “Many agencies are prospering financially while providing less than satisfactory services.”

Scarbrough pointed out that mandatory programs for people can also backfire. 

“It doesn’t matter why you come to us or how you come to us. There is no court order or probation strong enough to make somebody do a mandatory program if they don’t want it,” Scarbrough said. 

This was a reoccurring theme with the REAL LIFE staff, everybody agreed that they could not help an addict who didn’t want to be helped. 

“We cannot fix everyone. Nor can we fix people who don’t see an issue in their thoughts or actions,” Jessica Jones, case manager with REAL LIFE, said. 

“We are going to have far more failures than successes. The successes make it worth it, but they don’t make the failures any easier,” Jessica added. 

Instead, REAL LIFE focuses on addressing the root causes of  addiction, such as childhood trauma, abuse and insecurity. 

“We don’t excuse or justify, we provide an understanding of why people do what they do and why they continue to do it,” Scarbrough said. 

Once they understand these root causes, they can tackle the heart of the issue to provide the most effective services. 

“A lot of what we do is building them up,” Scarbrough said. 

“Most of them have been taught that they’re stupid; they grow up believing that they will be failures,” she added. 

REAL LIFE focuses on building relationships with clients and providing support systems that will set them up for success. Scarbrough thinks this is the most effective, and underutilized, way help build a thriving life for someone faced by such adversities.  

“Millions of dollars have been spent on these issues, but it’s just putting a bandaid on it. It’s not getting to the root cause and it’s not solving anything at all,” she said.

When it comes to fixing the criminal justice system as a whole, Scarbrough has a few ideas.

“We need to involve former or recovering addicts, or those working intimately in the field” she said. “Often the people making these decisions are bureaucrats, and nothing against them, but they’ve never been involved in that situation, so they might not know how to best handle it.” 

Scarbrough is not naive, she knows that criminal justice reform will be a long and complicated process. But, she has hope that someday there will be more resources and support for this population.

“It’s not gonna be easy, but the first thing we have to do is address the issues at their core,” she said.  

REAL LIFE  hopes to help individuals take that first step towards recovery during September and every other month of the year. 


Written byMacy Pressley, VCU Student and REAL LIFE Volunteer