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Harder-to-find recovery stories

February 11, 2013
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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Written stories of recovery are no rarity, but they usually fit neatly into a category that is either purely addiction-focused or exclusively about mental health. The CEO of the WestBridge treatment facilities (New Hampshire and Florida) specializing in treatment of co-occurring addictions and mental illness set out on a book project because few works of hope had been dedicated to the individuals her organization targets—and she believes that has reinforced misconceptions about these individuals.

“We wanted to give the guys’ perspective on what it was like for them getting sick, and then their treatment, and their recovery,” says WestBridge CEO Mary Woods. “We wanted to include information about their relationships, their families. Everyone has a life before they get sick.”

As omnipresent as the term “recovery” has become in behavioral health-speak, it is arguably applied least frequently when discussing individuals with a co-occurring addiction and a major mental illness. When the Door Opened changes that pattern, emphasizing the strengths of WestBridge’s “participants” when others prefer to focus on flaws (WestBridge, as we have reported elsewhere, does not refer to the individuals in its programs as “patients” or “clients”).

Woods co-authored the book, released by WestBridge last fall, with Katherine Armstrong, a project manager with a consulting firm to nonprofits; Armstrong offers an outsider’s perspective on the young men who share their stories in in-person interviews. Each chapter begins with impressions from Armstrong, followed by a participant narrative based on the interview content, followed by commentary from Woods on the message she takes from each individual’s story.

Also as a way of emphasizing individuals’ talents, each chapter closes with a work created by the individual—in some cases a poem, in others a drawing, and even some woodworking.

In assessing the difficulties the treatment field experiences in achieving optimal outcomes for persons with co-occurring disorders, Woods told me last week, “We know what to do but we aren’t funded to do it. The system is designed to highlight their deficits. If the person is determined to be doing ‘too well,’ they will lose their benefits.”

Several of the individuals who tell their stories in the book offer a frank assessment of the shortcomings of much of the treatment they have received over the years. “Charlie” (all names of participants were changed in the book to protect anonymity), whose illness resulted in his dropping out of law school, says in the book, “From what I could tell, the providers I worked with offered services just to say they had those services.” He says he wasn’t exposed to “smart dialogue about addiction” until his experience at WestBridge, which was not designed “to show me intimidating slideshows and kick me out after two weeks.”

“Sam,” who had undergone treatment in numerous psychiatric wards and addiction-focused centers that did not acknowledge the multiple dimensions of his illness, says of his WestBridge experience, “Being in treatment felt less institutional this time. They let me mess up. It was important that they let me learn from my own mistakes.”

Woods explains that proceeds from the book are being directed to WestBridge’s scholarship fund. She considers the book a resource for individuals and families, for public policy officials who need to have a broader view of co-occurring illness, and for clinicians who can refer families to the inspiring stories.

An Amazon review of the book states, “They put a human face on disease, and these patients’ success also made me feel so hopeful that we are making real progress in finding ways to individually tailor treatments and counseling.”