‘Community’ can be an antidote

Facing mental health issues and addiction in our midst

Two recovery programs in Anderson County — Renew Recovery at First Baptist Clinton and Rocky Top Recovery at Main Street Baptist in Rocky Top — are focused on creating community as a way to heal from addiction.

Solutions Addiction Recovery Center Director Tom Fowler said he had a big smile on his face when he went to visit Rocky Top Recovery and the place was so full, he couldn’t even sit down to eat.

“These are quality problems,” he said.

He said there were between 30-35 people at another local recovery program. These community recovery programs that have cropped up over the past year are a solution to not only a growing addiction problem in the county, but a mental health crisis as well.

“Mental health resources have taken a big dive with the closing of Lakeshore [Institute],” Fowler said. “The jails are getting filled up with people with mental health problems, and Knox Area Rescue Ministries is filled up. It’s very important to get both sides addressed when you’re talking about co-occurring mental health and addiction issues.”

The deinstitutionalization of state-run mental institutes left a gap in care for people with severe mental illness. This series has previously focused on mental health problems and the judicial system, but a lifetime of events leads up to a person going from mental illness and substance abuse to ending up in jail.

While co-occurring issues have contributed to a spike in the jail and homeless populations, there are plenty of people not in jail and in a home who struggle with this double whammy. Say a person in addiction is ready to get clean and goes to a detox facility. The average stay is 21-28 days. According to Fowler, it can take up to 16 days just to get the substances out of a person’s system.

The remaining days that are left aren’t enough to prepare a person to live without drugs or alcohol, especially for someone who has been homeless for an extended period of time.

“It’s the scariest thing in the world, to think they’ve got to go out in the world, keep appointments, especially for someone with mental health issues,” he said.

Finding community

There are sober living residences available like Journey Pure in Knoxville, which accepts TennCare and private pay insurance. More than anything, finding people that care is the way forward, according to Fowler.

Not everyone has time to go to a treatment facility, and finding regular support is crucial.

“People that want it and are willing to do the work, who follow up with the mental health treatment and are willing to take direction, it’s possible to heal,” he said.

“Some people have been through a lot of trauma and used illegal substances to numb that, so these mental health appointments are important.”

Fowler believes that for the community to get better as a whole, the entire community has to be on board with addressing the issue.

“It’s getting better,” Fowler said.

“Here, you have a lot more people who want to help. I’ve seen progress here, maybe a little bit at a time.”

In his experience as a substance abuse counselor — and someone who was formerly in addiction himself — he recognizes that a lot of issues stem from isolation. And isolation often stems from resentment. Recognizing that and focusing on “keeping your own side of the street clean” brings healing, according to Fowler. Being aware of what has happened but taking responsibility for your own life, and releasing what you can’t control, is crucial to getting out of addiction.

But getting to that place when a person has mental health issues is very challenging.

“A lot can’t come to that place until they’re stabilized,” he said.

People in his field of work in Anderson County are really good people, though, he said, and if a person asks for help, they will get it whether they can pay or not pay, whether they’re insured or not insured, and whether they have mental health issues or not.

Just reach out.

“It’s just that connection,” he reiterated.

The power of positive pain

He shared a story of a man he worked with that was very out of shape. The man hired a personal trainer to move in with him and basically offer a course correction to his life. One morning, his trainer woke him up at 5 a.m. and had him exercise. He instructed him to do 100 pull-ups.

Fowler’s friend didn’t want to do 100 pull-ups.

“‘That’s your problem,’ the man told my friend,” Fowler said. “‘Your limited belief system and telling yourself you can’t.’ People are their own worst enemies. We’re good at placing blame on others, but at the end of the day, a lot of the chaos is self-created.”

Isolation creates a lot of that chaos. Pastor Larry Blakeburn of First Cumberland Presbyterian in Oak Ridge spoke about this cause and effect of isolation and addiction.

Isolation leads to a need to numb the feeling of loneliness, and addiction springs from that, whether it’s sexual addiction, drugs, alcohol, materialism, workaholism, and any number of other things.

Addiction increases the need for isolation, as feelings of shame often grow the deeper into addiction a person gets.

The church offers that community, according to Blakeburn, and so do community support groups.

Fowler called the path toward healing positive pain. Many in addiction have experienced negative pain in the form of trauma, abuse, difficult childhoods, broken relationships, and try to avoid further pain. But without positive pain — the pain that leads to breakthroughs and ultimately healing — there is no progress.

“One of the biggest human needs is support and love,” said Fowler. “If they’re not loving themselves, they need someone to love them until they can love themselves. And when they start helping themselves and recovering, some of these people then become the best counselors.”

Fowler’s resource center is now full of community members who are eager to help change the statistics in Anderson County regarding addiction and mental health issues.

“That seed of mindfulness has been planted,” he said. “It’s in that place of change right now. I feel it. There’s a lot of good people here who will make those resources.

“It’s getting better.”

Community and support groups are one solution to broken mental health system. Next week, this column will focus on what other resources are available, and what obstacles there are to receiving regular mental health treatment.