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A Texas-Sized Dose of Support

July 1, 2006
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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Joe Powell worries about the addiction community's hidden majority. He trusts that the recovery support services his Dallas agency promotes can help bring much of the vast untreated population out of society's shadows.

“Only about 10% of the people who need treatment are receiving it,” says Powell, president of the Association of Persons Affected by Addiction (APAA). “What are the other 90% who are not getting treatment doing?”

If any of these individuals reside near Dallas, they stand a good chance of having access to a variety of support services out of Powell's peer-led agency. The outreach can be as involved as coaching an individual through the stages of recovery, or as routine as scheduling a free haircut for a member (the word “client” isn't uttered in this setting) about to embark on a job interview.

APAA, one of only two recovery community support services organizations in Texas, grew out of a prior partnership with another Dallas agency that in the 1990s was receiving recovery advocacy grant money from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. APAA broke off as a separate nonprofit during the advocacy grant period, and was poised to flourish after SAMHSA shifted its attention to awarding recovery support services money.

Powell's journey

The history of how the 54-year-old Powell ended up in Texas to spearhead this effort is somewhat more complex. It started amid the backstage partying in the theaters of Harlem in the 1960s, almost took an even more dangerous detour into Vietnam, and found its way to Texas after a youth services program put out a search for hungry recruits.

Powell, the son of an alcoholic, performed on stage with his father and brothers from the time he was 5. The family appeared on arguably the biggest national stage of the time, The Ed Sullivan Show. Powell quickly became caught up in the trappings of the entertainment world. “At 10 I snuck my first drink, and it changed my whole life,” he says.

All of his seven siblings have an addiction history, and half have a serious mental illness. Powell now considers his escalating substance use in the 1960s “the soft and easy way” to respond during a civil rights era in which other young blacks were fueling the Muslim movement. He began using heroin at 15, and soon made plans to go to Vietnam “because the good dope was there.”

He and a group of fellow infantry recruits were sent home briefly before they were to go overseas. Powell used heroin during that time, and when he reported for duty he was sent not to Vietnam, but to a drug and alcohol halfway house for 30 days.

He eventually stopped using heroin in his mid-20s, but continued to drink for more than 10 years after that, long after he had relocated to Texas and had dabbled in a number of trades. “People always said to me, ‘One of these days you're going to find your niche.’ But I was drinking my niche.”

In the late 1980s he began to worry that he would meet an untimely death like his father, who died at 64. He was taken to an AA meeting and introduced to a sponsor, who happened also to be a psychiatrist. Powell maintains a strong bond with his sponsor and clearly espouses 12-Step principles. But he says his support organization does not push one philosophy of treatment and recovery. “We honor all roads in recovery,” Powell says.

Diversity of support

Powell's agency still depends largely on grants, although it has broadened its base from the original SAMHSA money. He outlines the agency's services under a four-category model of support. “Information support” makes members aware of community resources and helps them understand their legal rights. “Companionship support” plays out in events such as dances and membership meetings. “Emotion support” incorporates recovery coaching and a strengths assessment. “Instrumental support” deals with the tools members need to maintain recovery, from vocational assistance to basic needs such as clothing.

Anyone served by APAA becomes a member of the organization, which sheds light on its mission with this statement on its Web site: “Recovery is living a satisfying, hopeful, and contributing life even with the limitations caused by addiction and its associated stigma.”

Powell urges treatment professionals to do more than pay lip service to recovery. “Have a recovery plan in place, even in treatment centers,” he advises. “Don't just discharge people. Treatment providers discharge folks; we don't.”