Purple question marks in the background with the Reduce The Stigma logo in the foreground.

Reduce The Stigma: Help Us name Our New Series

Contest to Name the New Reduce The Stigma Series

naming contest reduce the stigma

Mental health, addiction, drug use, recovery, struggle… these topics can be heavy, confusing, and shrouded in stigma. Reduce The Stigma, your favorite podcast for recovery stories, peer specialists, and recovery-oriented organizations, is taking a bold step forward with a brand new series.

Why A New Series?

Meet The Peer and Recovery Conversations have been well-received and we’re so grateful to our audience. We found there was still more we could be doing to reduce stigma. What else can we be doing? Diving even deeper into these tough topics. Sometimes, the most powerful conversations are the raw, honest ones. We all know mental health, use, addiction, and recovery aren’t easy. They’re messy, complex, and often overwhelming. This new series will rip off the bandaid and dive deep, tackling the realities of mental health challenges, substance use, and the stigma that surrounds them.

What to Expect:

  • Live & Interactive: We’re going live! Every episode will be livestreamed, creating a dynamic space for real-time interaction with you, our incredible audience.
  • Peer Power: We’ll be joined by some of your favorite peer specialists, individuals with lived experience who bring invaluable insight and empathy to the conversation.
  • Your Questions Answered: Got something on your mind? Curious to hear a different perspective? Submit your questions for our hosts and guests to tackle head-on.

This isn’t just about sharing stories – it’s about fostering a supportive community where everyone feels empowered to speak their truth. Whether you’re struggling yourself, supporting a loved one, or simply want to learn more, this series is for you.

But We Need Your Help!

To launch this exciting new chapter, we need YOU! We’re hosting a contest to name the show. We’re looking for a title that’s impactful, engaging, and perfectly captures the essence of meaningful conversations about mental health, addiction, and recovery.

  1. Go to Name The New Series to submit your most creative and powerful title suggestions!
  2. Tell all your friends, family, and everyone you can to go vote for your submission! 

The new name and top winner will be announced during our Livestream show 6/25/24 at 8pm ET. 


  • All submissions will be entered into a random selection raffle to win one (1) $20 gift card to the SUC/RTS store
  • The 5 submissions with the most votes will receive a RTS T-shirt
  • The submission selected to be the name will win a $50 SUC/RTS gift card and a $30 peer support voucher redeemable on Straight Up Care. The voucher can be transferred to a friend/family member

Stay tuned for more information on the premiere date, guest line-up, and how to tune in live!

Tips for Coming Up With A Name

  • Know the audience: Who is the show trying to reach? Tailor the name to their interests and language.
    • We are trying to reach individuals with lived experience with substance use, mental health, recovery, struggles, all of life’s hard moments. We also want to reach their friends, family, and people in their community.
  • Keep it catchy: Short, memorable titles are easier to recall. Aim for 2-3 words, ideally under 29 characters.
  • Clarity is key: The name should give listeners a hint about the show’s content or tone.
    • Content: Deep, sometimes emotionally-charged and difficult topics.
    • Tone: Laid back and friendly but also serious about helping others.
  • Search friendly: Include relevant keywords to help listeners find the show. But avoid keyword stuffing; prioritize natural-sounding language.
  • Be unique: Check to see if there’s already a popular show with that name. Think about what would catch your attention?
  • Wordplay magic: Puns, alliteration, or rhyme can make the title stand out.
  • Get feedback: Bounce ideas off friends, family, or potential listeners.
  • Say it out loud: Does it roll off the tongue? How would you introduce it?

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Contest to Name the New Reduce The Stigma Series Mental health, addiction, drug use, recovery, struggle… these topics can be heavy, confusing, and shrouded in stigma. Reduce The Stigma, your favorite podcast for recovery stories, peer specialists, and recovery-oriented organizations, is taking a bold step forward with a brand new series. Why A New Series? […]

Continue reading "Reduce The Stigma: Help Us name Our New Series"
Two hands with glitter and streams and a floating heart with different symbols of peace, love, accessibility. Represents being able to create safe spaces for recovery mental health addiction by carrying it within you to offer others.

Safe Spaces for Mental Health, Addiction, and Recovery

Creating Safe Spaces, Reducing Stigma, and Fostering Support

The need for safe spaces surrounding mental health, substance use, addiction, and recovery continues to grow. While we have seen numerous stigma reduction efforts nationwide, there is still significant discomfort talking about these significant life experiences. This article will provide an overview of how safe spaces can be created in every environment and the necessity for the average person, not just healthcare professionals, to take action to make sure others have a place to go for help, support, or a listening ear free of judgment, punishment, or fear.

Understanding Safe Spaces

A safe space, in general, is a setting/environment in which a person can be their authentic self without fear of discrimination, harassment, or emotional harm. Safe spaces for mental health, addiction, substance use, and recovery, similarly, are spaces in which those topics are not judged, where the person is not shamed, and where empathy is abundant. There is intentionality in safe spaces – a deliberate effort to foster a sense of security, acceptance, and mutual respect. As a result, the person can be vulnerable and open about their experiences and needs. The majority of safe spaces are formal programs, but that limits the availability of support and acceptance to only those entities when we all could benefit from safe spaces everywhere. Truly safe spaces take into consideration the physical, emotional, spiritual, and mental safety of the person. This means thinking about images depicted, language used, noises heard, and resources provided. 

Benefits of Safe Spaces

Regardless of the nature of the space, safe spaces offer a variety of benefits that contribute to the overall wellbeing of an individual. When considered in the context of mental health, addiction, and recovery, these spaces may be the only place the person feels secure asking for help or expressing a need. Let’s look at three specific benefits of these spaces:

  1. Reduced Stigma and Isolation: We know that, sadly, significant stigma and shame continue to surround addiction, mental health, and recovery. This can lead a person to avoid acknowledging their needs and refraining from interacting with others out of fear of judgment or ridicule. By providing a safe space, we are sending the message that the person can be whomever they are without fear of repercussion. When there is a safe space, people are less likely to withdraw and isolate. And as we all learned from COVID-19, social isolation is extremely detrimental to wellbeing.
  2. Increased Access to Support: Let’s be clear – the role of a safe space is not solely to provide services, referrals, or references. The is so much power in simply existing as a place of acceptance. However, for those who are seeking assistance, the existence of safe spaces break down barriers to awareness of services and even accessing care.
  3. Empowerment and Self-Efficacy: When someone has a safe space to be themselves, their self-esteem improves. Perhaps while in that space, they’ll learn about a helpful resource, show kindness to another person, or experience a sense of pride for engaging in a space that embraces them. This can all contribute to an increased sense of empowerment and self-efficacy. Think about it, if you have become accustomed to being told, or the message implied, that you’re “bad” or “wrong” for an aspect of your life and then find a place of acceptance and empathy, wouldn’t you, too, feel empowered? That who you are IS enough, that you DO matter?

How to Create a Safe Space

Safe spaces can be offered anywhere, and should be everywhere. There are no physical building requirements for a safe space, sometimes all it takes is the ambiance of acceptance. Here are some ways to facilitate the provision of a safe space.

Physical Safety

  • Secure Environment: Ensure that the space is free from potential hazards. Create safety protocols to ensure the physical safety of the person. 
  • Address Potential Concerns: If someone is fearful of others hearing, take time to explain how conversations are kept private.
  • Accessibility: Provide ramps, elevators, accessible restrooms, and other accommodations to eliminate any discomfort or exclusion of the individual.
  • Cleanliness: Maintain a clean environment.
  • Amenities: Consider providing things such as water and healthy snacks. (Think about Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs)

Emotional and Mental Safety

  • Non-Judgmental Environment: You cannot simply say it’s non-judgmental, the actions and words of all in the space must demonstrate true acceptance and lack of judgment. Know the proper terminology and language to avoid accidental stigmatization. 
  • Supportive Atmosphere: Validate the person’s experience, don’t interrogate. Offer resources when needed and wanted.
  • Clear Communication: Don’t make an assumption that you know what they mean or that they understand you. Confirm what you heard and ask if they have any questions. Encourage open dialogue to prevent misunderstandings and conflicts.
  • Conflict Resolution: Promote a culture of forgiveness and reconciliation. 
  • Trauma-Informed: Be mindful of potential trauma experiences and possible triggers. 
  • Eliminate Stress: Create a calm and soothing environment. 
  • Encourage Self-Care: Empower the person to spend time taking care of themselves.

Spiritual Safety

  • Respect for Beliefs: Acknowledge and accept diverse beliefs. Avoid imposing your own. Ask thoughtful questions to take their beliefs into consideration.
  • Inclusive Practices: Provide the opportunity for their traditions and practices to be facilitated.
  • Holistic Recognition: Take into account the various components of spirituality.
  • Trauma-Informed: The person may have experienced spiritual or religious trauma – be attentive to and respectful of their engagement or lack thereof in spiritual activities.


Whether it’s a formal setting, an online community, or a park bench – we can make any space safe for individuals with mental health, addiction, substance use, and/or recovery experiences. Regardless of where we are, we carry within us the ability to provide a safe space by being empathetic and non-judgmental. If we all commit to making whatever space were are in safe, we will be making tremendous strides forward to ensuring all who want or need support are able to obtain it.

Looking for a safe space?

Connect with a peer specialist.

Visit Syndicate 12, an online environment designed specifically for individuals with mental health and/or substance use lived experience.

Creating Safe Spaces, Reducing Stigma, and Fostering Support The need for safe spaces surrounding mental health, substance use, addiction, and recovery continues to grow. While we have seen numerous stigma reduction efforts nationwide, there is still significant discomfort talking about these significant life experiences. This article will provide an overview of how safe spaces can […]

Continue reading "Safe Spaces for Mental Health, Addiction, and Recovery"
Ken Dun on Meet The Peer Joy in Recovery

Embracing Joy In Recovery: It’s Possible and Okay to Have Fun

Ken Dunn, Recovery Coach and Chief Joy Facilitator | Meet The Peer

Picture of dandelion with it being blown away with smileys and hearts. Quote about joy and fun in recovery

Joy and the recovery journey aren’t usually synonymous, but if Ken Dunn, Chief Joy Facilitator has his way, that won’t be the case for much longer. With an emphasis on the importance of joy and play when pursuing a goal, learning something new, or taking on a challenge, he delivers a message of hope and inspiration. Sharing his lived experience with substance use, work, and video game addiction, Ken discusses the importance of mindfulness and acceptance. Additionally, Ken encourages everyone to design their own recovery pathway – finding what works for them and knowing that their recovery is truly theirs.

Connect with Ken: https://straightupcare.org/consultant-profile/515

Click here for the episode’s full transcript.

Has Ken inspired you to get outdoors? Check out 6 Free Nature-Based Activities for Improved Mental Health and Wellbeing.

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Whitney (00:48)
I’m your host, Whitney Menarcheck, and on this episode of Meet the Peer, we have Ken Dunn, Chief Joy Facilitator in North Carolina. Welcome, Ken.

Ken Dunn (00:56)
Hey Whitney, thanks for having me.

Whitney (00:59)
Thank you for joining us, Chief Joy Facilitator. That is not a title I hear very often. Can you tell me, and all of us, what exactly that entails?

Ken Dunn (01:10)
Yeah, I mean, obviously that’s a title I’ve made up for myself. What I do that’s different than what some others might do is I facilitate a lot of group activities and those group activities are often surrounding some sort of fun activity. It might be community drumming or going on a day hike or it might be playing frisbee golf or some other activity. And, you know, the primary focus of these activities is to have fun and just learn that it’s possible and okay to have fun in recovery. And so, you know, I want to really stress joy, how important joy is, and it’s really important to understand that play really makes learning a lot easier. So if we’re holding real tight to whatever it is we’re trying to learn or goals that we’re trying to accomplish, they’re just that much harder. And as soon as we introduce an element of play, everything becomes easier and it’s fun. Who doesn’t want to have some fun. So I really tried to stay focused on that.

Whitney (02:13)
I love that. I mean, I just think about how much, you know, we tend to be in a negative or stressful state. And if we can take something that’s very serious but make it enjoyable, how much more impactful and long-standing it can be.

Ken Dunn (02:27)
Absolutely. Yeah, we take a lot of things very seriously and you know, some things are very serious and we need to meet them that way. But there are a lot of things that we just kind of stay in a serious state where, where we can have fun. There’s not a reason why we, we couldn’t have fun. So let’s do it.

Whitney (02:43)
Right? And so you do groups and work with individuals. Let’s take a couple steps back. What is your journey? What led you to the place where you are now supporting others?

Ken Dunn (02:55)
Sure. Yeah, so I really struggled a lot with substance use. My primary drug was alcohol. I also spent a lot of time playing video games and I had a real serious relationship with work that took me away from my family. And it really was a place where I avoided a lot of the difficult things that were in front of me. So I had that experience. I was 46 when I decided to get into recovery.

It was at the end of a relationship and I had to really take a serious look at what was going on in my life and see that I was really doing a lot of harm to myself and harm to those people around me. I actually got sober sort of through the back door. I was doing meditation as a way to deal with some intrusive thoughts and other mental health issues. In that process…I found a Buddhist based, sorry, I was going to say 12-step, but a Buddhist based recovery program that focused on mindfulness and meditation. And I thought I was going to use that program to moderate. And it didn’t work like that for me. You know, after a period of time of thinking I was going to moderate, I eventually woke up one morning and was like, oh, I guess the reality is I actually need recovery. I can’t keep playing around with alcohol as if it’s not dangerous to my life. So after a little bit of introspection and arguing with myself and going back and forth, I eventually just decided to just throw myself into it. And that Buddhist-based program was working pretty well for me, so I really dedicated myself to that program and to just getting as much out of it as I could, doing as much healing as I could. And that was just the beginning. You know, I think for a lot of people, once we get in there and we start working programs, we realize there are a lot of other things going on. It led me to a place where I realized that, you know, alcohol, work, video games, whatever the processes or behaviors were, were really just avoidance of the underlying mental health issues that I was struggling with. You know, eventually I made my way into adult children of alcoholics and dysfunctional families and really saw, you know, the way the generational trauma that my family has endured has affected me and caused a lot of my behaviors. So I’m now seven years in recovery from alcohol, work, and video games. I actually haven’t engaged in any of those things in an unhealthy way. Since I started my journey, I’ve been working a program at ACA for three years. And along that time, I’ve also worked pretty closely with a couple of therapists and dipped my toe into some other programs as well. But that’s my current path.

Whitney (06:07)
Now, the Buddhist-based program, that’s not something that I personally have heard much about. Could you provide kind of an overview of any of the key components that may be relevant for someone to hear about?

Ken Dunn (06:24)
Sure. Yeah, there are two fairly well-known Buddhist-based recovery programs. Those are Refuge Recovery and Recovery Dharma. I currently practice with Recovery Dharma. I started my path with Refuge Recovery, and because of some reasons, I moved to Recovery Dharma. But those programs, they both bear a fair amount of similarity. They’re both based on mindfulness and meditation. And they use a…set of teachings by the Buddha which are called the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. And the Four Noble Truths is a really simple observance of life, basically, that in life there is suffering. That’s the First Noble Truth. The Second Noble Truth is that suffering is caused by craving and aversion. The Third Noble Truth is that there is a path to the end of suffering. And the Fourth Noble Truth is this thing called the Eightfold Path, which is series of teachings, wise mindfulness, wise livelihood, wise effort, wise action, eight in total. And it’s really based on seeing life for what it really is, you know, seeing your patterns, your behaviors, seeing the way that we sometimes can become aversive or crave and trying to just sit with that and recognize it for what it is, you know, without trying to change accepting life on life’s terms. And for me, it’s really come down to just simply acceptance, realizing that difficult things are gonna come up in life. And some of them I have the ability to change and some I don’t. And if I can simply accept the things for what they are, then I’ll suffer a lot less because I won’t be trying to change things that I can’t change. And so it really is very liberating. Or it is very liberating for me, I should say. It’s the right…It’s the right language that suits me well.

Whitney (08:24)
It sounds liberating and I see some similarities, the 12 step, the serenity prayer and things like that. But I think that, like you said, language, it’s an approach that’s, this is the uniqueness of recovery is that there’s a different style out there for everyone and sometimes you make your own style as you go, similar to what you’re doing with your outdoors activities, fun, joy, play.

Ken Dunn (08:32)

Yeah, absolutely.

Whitney (08:54)
It sounds like you are also kind of leading a different way to look at recovery and experience it.

Ken Dunn (09:02)
Yeah, I mean, I don’t feel like I’m leading necessarily, but I’m taking some of the things that I’ve learned from others and I’m trying to put them as best as possible to use. So yeah, and just to go back to one of the things that you said, you know, I see a lot of similarity between 12-step and Buddhist recovery programs. There are a lot of people who don’t feel that way. You know, I do practice ACA, which is a 12-step based program and frankly, I don’t think that without my Buddhist teachings, without the Buddhist path, I would be able to really work a 12-step program. I needed that foundation to be able to really understand 12-step work. And that was just for me, right? The way my brain worked, it really required me to get some other teachings under my belt before I was really ready to see 12-step as being really as useful and powerful as it is, you know. So, and one of the things that I’ve learned, through my process is that everybody’s got their own path to get there, however they have to get there. I see people that come from 12-step programs and come to Buddhist-based programs later, and they’re like, oh, this is what I was missing. It was the next thing that a person needed. And for me, I kind of went the other route, and it was what was right for me. So I feel like it really sets me up to be well-suited for. A multiple pathways approach to allowing others to have their own approach for their own recovery.

Whitney (10:32)
and you are supporting others, you have your lived experience, you’re helping others with similar lived experiences, what led you to take on that type of role?

Ken Dunn (10:44)
Well, you know, I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that I got a lot of benefit from the benefit. I benefited directly from the lived experience of others. You know, I got to see how others had changed their lives and how their lives were better and actually seeing others live the life they wanted to live. And it was very inspiring, you know, when you see somebody else that’s conquered or is in the process of conquering and healing and making progress and growth. Now, it’s motivating and it’s inspiring. And so, you know, I kind of was in a place where I didn’t have a lot of purpose in my life. My career, my previous career, paid the bills pretty well and it had, there was some glamor to it. However, it just didn’t feel like any purpose whatsoever. And when I found peer support, it was immediately like a light bulb went off, you know, and, um, frankly, I had recently just had a sort of spiritual awakening, and the two things kind of came together at the same time, and it was like, oh, this is what I meant to do. You know, this is where I belong.

Whitney (11:50)
That’s very powerful.

Ken Dunn (11:52)
That it is, yeah.

Whitney (11:56)
And you know, whenever you mentioned you had a previous career that was paying the bills, it reminds me that you mentioned that you’re, you haven’t, you said you haven’t engaged in playing video games or work in an unhealthy way for seven years, which is amazing. Congratulations. Those are two areas. I think video games, you know, there’s a lot more attention to that becoming something that you can have unhealthy, you know, an unhealthy relationship with work.

Ken Dunn (12:12)
Thank you.

Whitney (12:24)
we almost have a society that pushes you to have an unhealthy relationship with it. I’m curious what your thoughts are in having gone through an almost more traditional recovery pathway with a substance compared to a process, which is video games, as well as work. What was that like having those different experiences?

Ken Dunn (12:46)
Well, I’m going to answer your question the best I hear it. So at the time when I sort of hit my bottom, I was in this place where I was playing video games when I wasn’t working. And I was working when I wasn’t playing video games. And there was alcohol involved and all the video games playing. It was basically work, play video games, drink, and sleep. And that was my life.
You know, when I got into recovery and I was really doing some of this deep, uh, personal investigation, I realized, uh, pretty quickly that, you know, my life was being consumed by my work. I was spending, you know, 10, 12 hours a day, some days longer. And, you know, I was really using work as a way to avoid difficult experiences, you know, whether it was difficult relationships with my partner at the time or whether it was difficult discussions with my children or showing up at events that I didn’t necessarily want to go to. Almost no one will ever tell you that you should neglect work to go do other things, right? It’s part of our social conditioning. And for many of us, we’ve been conditioned that productivity is really valuable, that your value is tied to your productivity. And… I was right there, you know, I mean, I was very much tied into my title and how much money I was making and, you know, the prestige of my work and all of these sorts of things, how connected they were to within the community and within my workplace. And, um, you know, I came to realize that wasn’t the same as actually having real connection, you know, having a title, having wealth is not the same as having real connection with other people and really all I ever wanted was that connection with other people in the first place. The way that the title was benefiting me was that I felt like it made me more respectable and that it made me more connected, but the reality was that it was actually a setback. It prevented me from building deeper connections with people that I cared about. When I stepped away from that career and I started to really…

Whitney (14:55)

Ken Dunn (15:05)
invest myself in relationships with other people, the relationships got much better pretty quickly and they continued to get better. That’s not to say that I’m like perfect at having relationships because I’m not. I’m still a work in progress like everybody else but certainly making a lot of strides in that area of developing better relationships.

Whitney (15:25)
Thank you for sharing that. Again, I don’t think that’s an area that enough attention is put towards. I know that with COVID, work from home, work flexibilities, there was a little bit more of a movement there where the employee was taking back some of that say. But I think even if maybe you work from home a little bit more, there’s still this pressure to have the title, the impressive resume, pay, things like that to…dictate your worth. So I’m sure that your story is gonna resonate with quite a few people out there. So thank you for sharing it. And so there’s video games, there’s work, there’s alcohol. What other life experiences do you like to support people as they go through them?

Ken Dunn (16:05)

Right. Yeah, thanks for asking that question. So, you know, my own experience involved a lot of anxiety, a lot of depression. And I had a lot of dysfunctional behaviors. You know, I had mentioned that I was really struggling with relationships. So, you know, I didn’t have my own direction. I had a lot of codependent relationships, a lot of dysfunctional relationships. And so those things, I think, are areas where I can really support somebody. You know, there is the substance abuse angle or substance use angle, excuse me. Um, substance use angle. I mean, I, alcohol was my drug of choice and I certainly used it to avoid a lot of things and also to thinking that I was having fun when I really was just isolating. Um, so those are, those are a couple of areas. Um, I’m drawing a blank at the moment as to what other areas, um, I mean, there’s a lot I feel like.

Whitney (17:12)
That’s okay.

Ken Dunn (17:16)
All of the experiences that I’ve had, I see an element of mental health experience there that where my mental health wasn’t what it could have been. And so I think that’s another area where I can really provide somebody with some support.

Whitney (17:33)
That’s wonderful. And is there anything else about your style? I know that you mentioned ACA, a Buddhist-based program, some 12-step experience, you certainly do activities. Anything else about your style that would be important for someone to know?

Ken Dunn (17:49)
Sure. Well, I’m a strong believer in the fact that we all actually know deep down inside what’s best for us. And we might struggle at times to actually trust ourselves to gain access to that or to just trust whatever that wisdom is. So, like I said, I’m a strong believer in trying to set up a scenario where a person can trust in themselves and believe their own wisdom and try it out. Create a space where an individual can feel like it’s safe to try trusting themselves, try something new, build some goals and see how it goes. And if it doesn’t go well, come back and let’s talk about it and try out a new goal. So I’m really focused on agency, people having their own direction and guiding their own recovery, their own healing journey. Also, the multi-pathways approach is really important to me. I think it’s really important that each person feel like their recovery is their recovery and that they are able to find the things that match for them. And I can’t tell a person what’s right for them. They have to do it themselves. I can give them some ideas, some suggestions, here are some things to try, here are things that worked for me, things that didn’t work for me. So, kind of set up a little bit of a framework. But ultimately, individually, we all have to figure out what’s the right approach for us. So the other thing that I like to incorporate is mindfulness. It’s been a really important part of my journey. And I, you know, prior to me starting a regular meditation practice and really investigating mindfulness, I really didn’t have good access to my emotions. I really didn’t know what was going on inside me, both physically and emotionally. And… I trusted my brain entirely too much. And so, um, having gone through this practice, going through this journey, I see the value in it. That’s not to say that it’s like, gotta be an important part of every one of my peers practices, but I, but I do like to encourage a little bit of like, what does it feel like right now? You know, just pay attention to what’s going on, what’s happening inside your body and mind right now, and they can share it or not, you know, it doesn’t have to be something that we talk about, but, but just pay attention.

Whitney (20:09)
And that’s such a powerful inner tool that you can carry with you anywhere you go, kind of relating back to that person finding their pathway. Whenever you can practice some mindfulness, you can really take that control of yourself to a whole new level.

Ken Dunn (20:29)
Absolutely. Yeah, you can practice mindfulness anywhere, whether it’s in traffic in the car or at the line at the grocery store or whether you’re sitting on a cushion doing a formal meditation practice at work. It doesn’t matter. You can always practice mindfulness.

Whitney (20:44)
Wonderful. And so as we get to the end here, I wanna ask you our two kind of wrap up questions. The first is, we know stigma is rampant with substances, with processes, with everything and anything at this point. If you could say one thing to challenge stigma, whether a specific type of stigma or in general, what would you like to say?

Ken Dunn (21:09)
Well, that’s a really good question. How much time do I have?

Whitney (21:12)
Yeah, right? I know. You can have as much time as you’d like.

Ken Dunn (21:15)
Okay, well, I’ve got a prop here actually.

You know what that is, it’s an apple. What color is it?

Whitney (21:21)
Mm-hmm. Red.

Ken Dunn (21:24)
red, right? That’s what almost everybody would say. However, I cut it open. What color is it?

Whitney (21:34)
Like a yellowy white.

Ken Dunn (21:35)
Yellowy white, right? So that on the outside, that thin little bit, that’s just the skin. And when people see those of us who are either in the middle of our substance use journey or whether we’re in the middle of our mental health challenges, all they see is this, that little bit on the outside. And as they say, it’s only skin deep. So down inside there, that’s where all the juice is. That’s the important stuff. That’s where the heart of us is. And if we’re only ever looking at the outside, we’re only going to see the defenses. We’re only going to see the challenges that a person has presented. We’re not going to see what’s inside their heart. So, um, and I think this goes beyond simply a stigma regarding, uh, substance use or mental health issues, but I think it’s a pretty good analogy in this area as well. There’s a lot more than just what you see on the outside.

Whitney (22:27)
I love that was amazing. I was not prepared for a prop and that was incredible.

Ken Dunn (22:32)

Whitney (22:35)
And I’m excited to hear what you have to say for this next part too. Um, then, so there’s going to be someone who listens to this or watches it and they’re struggling, they’re in that place where they may need some support. What would you like them to hear?

Ken Dunn (22:38)

I mean, I think the most important thing for a person to hear, I think it’s kind of two parts. One is that, you know, as much as we are all unique, we’re not unique. You know, there’s this ideal of terminal sickness or terminal uniqueness. Thank you. I needed that little bit of help. Yeah, I mean, we have this common humanity, right? We’ve all got these struggles.

Whitney (23:09)
Oh, uniqueness.

Ken Dunn (23:19)
And the things that I have done are not unlike things that other people have done. So it’s not the end of the world. You know, there, there is some life to come beyond this. I think that’s a really important thing to remember. And the other thing is you don’t have to do it alone. You know, a big part of my challenge was letting people help. And once I let people help, once I let people in, things got a hell of a lot easier, really fast when I realized, Oh, I don’t have to carry this all alone. Even if it’s as simple as just sharing my thoughts and feelings with somebody else. The relief that comes along with that to be genuinely authentic to another person and to be able to allow myself to be myself was just a game changer, a life changer for me. So I hope others can embrace that as well.

Whitney (24:06)
Wonderful. Well, Ken, I can’t thank you enough for taking the time to speak with me today and sharing your journey and all the work that you’re up to, as well as what I’m still, I can’t get over what an amazing response to addressing stigma.

Ken Dunn (24:26)
Thanks Whitney, it’s been really great to be here with you. Thanks for entertaining me while I play with my fruit. It’s been a good experience.

Whitney (24:33)
Anytime, anytime. Yeah. Well if you are interested in working with Ken, visit straightupcare.com forward slash members. And on behalf of straight up care, thank you for joining us.

Ken Dunn, Recovery Coach and Chief Joy Facilitator | Meet The Peer Joy and the recovery journey aren’t usually synonymous, but if Ken Dunn, Chief Joy Facilitator has his way, that won’t be the case for much longer. With an emphasis on the importance of joy and play when pursuing a goal, learning something new, […]

Continue reading "Embracing Joy In Recovery: It’s Possible and Okay to Have Fun"
RL Kramer with a picture of his book Hocus Focus. Book addresses growing up with ADD/ADHD and its medications

Medication-Arrested Development: The Impact Of Growing Up Taking ADD (ADHD) Medications

RL Kramer, Hocus Focus: Coming of age with ADD and its medications | Recovery Conversations

RL Kramer Hocus Focus, Coming of Age with ADD ADHD and its Medications
And the conversation about ADHD is central to meds because there was no ADHD before there were meds.

ADD/ADHD has received a lot of attention in recent years for the over-prescribing of medications. In fact, the US is experiencing a nation-wide shortage of medications used to treat ADD/ADHD. While the diagnosis has been in existence since the 1960s, albeit under a different name, the prevalence of ADD (now known as ADHD) and its medications surged in the 1990s among elementary-aged children. As a result, we’re now able to gain insight into the impact of childhood medications on personal development and adulthood. 

In this episode of Reduce The Stigma – Recovery Conversations, RL Kramer, author of Hocus Focus: Coming of age with ADD and its medications, Kramer shares his experiencing growing up with prescribed medications, starting at the young age of seven years old. Kramer’s story will have you rethinking our quick acceptance of recommended medications. A supporter of everyone doing what’s best for them, his message is that we all be more informed and aware of the potential consequences of medications, particularly amphetamines.

Connect With A Peer Specialist

Are you someone who has been diagnosed with ADHD or identifies as being neurodivergent? Here are two peer specialists ready to support you using shared lived experience. Or, find a peer for other lived experiences: straightupcare.com

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Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (00:00)
The 1990s saw a surge in young children, particularly boys, being diagnosed with ADD, which we now know as ADHD. Many of these kiddos were prescribed amphetamines. But what does that mean for their development and for who they are today as adults? Stay tuned to hear the conversation with R. L. Kramer, the author of Hocus Pocus, Coming of Age with ADD and its Medicines. And you’re ready to be inspired as we reduce the stigma.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (01:40)
Hello and welcome to Recovery Conversations. Today’s conversation is with R .L. Kramer, the author of Hocus Focus, Coming of Age with ADD and its Medications. R .L., thank you so much for joining me today. I just finished your book the other day and it was a really great read.

R.L. Kramer (01:54)
Thank you.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (02:02)
a perspective that I haven’t heard before. And so I’d like to start with, if you could just set the stage for anyone who isn’t familiar with your book yet, what is your story about? What was Hocus Focus, the purpose of writing it?

R.L. Kramer (02:19)
So I started writing the book when I was about 23, 24 years old and I was withdrawing from Adderall, which I had been taking in some shape or form since I was a child. When I was seven years old, I was diagnosed ADD. And it’s an important distinction. I’ve gotten some comments about the title that it says ADD and not ADHD. And there’s a semantic battle sort of going on with ADD versus ADHD. And I was diagnosed ADD, so that’s why I use that term. But…

I was given amphetamines when I was seven years old in the form of dexedrine. And I took that on and off until about seventh grade. And then I was off dexedrine until I was 15 years old when I was introduced to Adderall. And I took Adderall intermittently until the age of 23 or 24. And when I was withdrawing from Adderall, I kind of chose to take a look at this whole phenomenon by way of examining my own experience to examine.

the cultural experience of taking amphetamines and the history of amphetamines as they relate to our culture and ADD and my own personal journey of learning how to focus and manage what was diagnosed as ADHD without the use of amphetamines.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (03:36)
And you know, it’s said so easily as part of your story, but I think we need to highlight seven years old, you were prescribed with medications. That’s just so young at such a vulnerable developmental age, the brain is nowhere near finishing its development. And so I just want to make sure everyone heard that.

R.L. Kramer (03:47)

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (04:03)
um it’s just i think about that little boy right

R.L. Kramer (04:05)
Yeah, I was a small child. And I think what was interesting is I was the youngest person in my class. I was a late birthday kid. You know how there’s always a kid who’s nine to like 11 months younger than the rest of the students. I was one of those kids. And at the time of diagnosing, I’ve seen some statistic that I can’t pull up accurately, but somewhere above majority kids who are diagnosed are often in that bracket because that developmentally.

nine months for children is significant.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (04:36)
Right, and they’re being compared to their classroom peers who are developmentally advanced compared to them. Right, but if you look at them at their age and their developmental age, then they’re right on track. But it’s just that comparison that can be kind of the thing that puts the spotlight on the kiddo.

R.L. Kramer (04:41)
Mm -hmm.

Yeah, sometimes a whole year.

Yeah. Yeah. And it’s important to point out too, that my experience is totally anecdotal. You know, some people, they have different experiences, but for me, the medication did sidetrack me, I think, in retrospect, but I did like them.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (05:13)
And I think if we can talk about that a little bit more because I know that at one point in your book you wrote about how you’ll never know what the medication could take away. You also don’t know what it could it gave to you and talk and you talk about that.

reflection in processing what it could have been like developing without the medication. What do you see as something that really stands out to you as part of your growing up that was impacted by the presence of the medication?

R.L. Kramer (05:47)
positively or negatively.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (05:49)
wherever you’d like to go.

R.L. Kramer (05:51)
Okay, well, the medication to kind of reduce it down, what I think the medication does for did for me and does for a lot of people is it biochemically gets me going and gets me motivated and gets me completing tasks, more or less effortlessly, without having to surpass this barrier of discomfort or motivation or whatever it is that’s keeping me from working. The medication acts as what I considered like

a neurological prosthetic that would function, that would get my executive function in motion. So then without that prosthetic, my ability to regulate my own executive function was totally depleted in withdrawal. So then you become obviously dependent on this mechanism to get you going. But in terms of some things, I mean, I think it’s, it’s really hard to pinpoint, but I did develop my brain, you know, I blazed neural pathways as a young person.

on amphetamines. And yeah, sometimes I think like pattern recognition or certain approaches to tasks and highly detailed. Sometimes I think maybe that was taking all the amphetamine, but like the book says, there’s no control group on the study of the individual of myself without a twin who had all my experience and stuff like that.

And so sometimes I wonder if I have those advantages almost like sometimes traumatic experience can strengthen us, but we still kind of are not super stoked that it happened.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (07:25)
Right, right. If we could have, we would have stopped it, but then we also recognize that there’s a developmental impact that, you know, we can take some good things away from it. And, you know, I don’t, as I was reading your book, I found myself thinking about that we don’t.

think about the long term impact of a medication. Yes, we think about side effects if it’s effectively communicated to us. Maybe we do our own research and we may think about like the physical long term effects. So high blood pressure, you know, something like that.

But I’m curious how common it is for people to really think about the personality and coping skills development, particularly for individuals who are prescribed a medication at a young age as they are growing up and going through those processes. And it sounds like there is an impact, positive and negative, on who the person becomes and then the skills that they may feel they lack as a result of.

R.L. Kramer (08:33)
Yeah, and I think it’s really close to impossible to measure because it’s so complex and so nuanced and so down to such significant details that for me didn’t really reveal themselves clearly until I was in withdrawal and I realized how much, how many things were dependent on it and also certain elements, for example, when it came to like dating and connecting with people intimately.

after a long time of Adderall, it really started to change the way I interacted with people. And it made me very difficult to, I think, form deep connections with others. And it was very clear that like, when I stopped taking it, I wasn’t effective at work, but people were connecting with me. It’s almost like what I told myself a lot was that it was, if I imagined that I had a finite amount of human energy, you know, 100 units, for example, that on Adderall,

abundance of those units went to my brain. I was very brain centric. I would come into a social situation using my brain. How can I adapt to this situation and be likable or charismatic or make this person want to talk to me? Whereas, you know, now normally it’s I’m listening, I’m just here, it’s in the heart. So I think it depleted my heart a little bit, not to be a woo woo, but

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (09:56)
No, I mean, I think that’s a great way to explain it because, you know, it’s like…

fight or flight, we go to the resources of our brain, right, and our essential organs. And it sounds like that’s almost what Adderall was doing to you as well, where you were in that place of almost authenticity and genuine connection because everything was taking you to that analytical level and brain first. Yeah.

R.L. Kramer (10:14)

Mm -hmm. Yeah, and I think part of my healing, my addiction to add it all was learning how to relax that analytical part of myself.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (10:38)
How did you go about that?

R.L. Kramer (10:44)
To be completely honest, I had a big reckoning with it in the midst of an ayahuasca ceremony. So, you know, I know that a lot of the talk on this show I’ve listened is about complete sobriety and I don’t know how people would feel about psychedelics for improving or almost as a further therapeutic sense.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (11:04)
We’re all about whatever is best for the person.

R.L. Kramer (11:07)
Okay, yeah, I mean, there was one one particular instance on with that substance, where I was really confronted with a representation of the analytical mind. And it’s, they’re silly in retrospect and talking about these things. But I was sort of trapped. And it’s kind of everybody’s biggest fear when it comes to psychedelics that something’s going to flip in their mind and not really stop. And it really pushed me into that analytical part. Like, I think,

that that medicine can take you to the parts of yourself that you try to suppress and really make you look them right in the eye. And I was really battling with analyzing the ceremony and like what was going on there. And I was trying to ask myself, there’s like another part of me that’s like, I don’t want to do this. Can we stop the analysis and explanation and just be here? And it kind of led me to this insight that really stuck with me is that, does it make you feel

good to be right? Or does explaining things help you feel safe when you can’t let go and into the unknown? And just accept that I can’t know everything, I can’t name everything. And that explaining things in the long run doesn’t always make me happy. And that maybe I can let go a little bit and just just hang around and be here and be ordinary.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (12:31)
That’s beautiful to think of, that acceptance of letting go of some control almost. Yeah.

R.L. Kramer (12:40)
Yeah, and giving yourself some trust in something other than your brain.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (12:45)
That’s hard. It is really hard. I’m just thinking about that just personally if I had to. That’s that stuff that that’s not a natural process, especially when. Society really pushes us to think primarily with our brain and and not to touch or tap into those other sources of knowledge within us.

R.L. Kramer (12:46)

Mm -hmm.

Yeah, yeah, and a lot of the medicines that we prescribe, I think, you know, as a culture, are encouraging of that, you know, because I probably, as a child, was very emotionally driven, you know, by impulse and feelings and what I wanted and what I thought and what I wanted to say. And that’s not conducive to a behaviorless pedagogy.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (13:40)
Right. And kind of going back to that child, I couldn’t help but think about, you know, who was…

You think about medication. Medication is prescribed to fix something. I’m saying that in quotes. Or, you know, there’s a problem and it’s a solution or because someone’s suffering in some sort of pain. And reflecting on your story and your presentation of it, I couldn’t help but think, well, who was actually suffering? It didn’t seem to be seven year old you. It seemed to be the adults.

that then took your energy that maybe was a little bit more than they were used to and then put you force you to better meet their needs in the classroom or where have you.

R.L. Kramer (14:29)
No, absolutely. At that time, it seemed to be for the convenience of my mom and my teacher. But, you know, I take responsibility and accountability for enjoying the medicine and then later in life.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (14:44)
So let’s talk about that because you do share that there became a time when you started to enjoy it and were using it different than as it was prescribed. And what are your thoughts on any role, if there was one, of being prescribed the medication early on than to you using it more the way that you wanted to rather than as prescribed?

R.L. Kramer (15:14)
Well, I didn’t really ever take it. I never like went on benders or anything like that. It was more or less staying well within the window of prescription with a couple of times where I had like a few, a few like two or three day experience where I didn’t get much sleep, but mostly I did stick to my prescription regimen and I did enjoy it. You know, I was prescribed 20 milligrams of time release Adderall in the morning and I was given the option to take five or 10 milligrams of the salt in the afternoon.

And even when I was 15, I sort of was really slacking off in school on purpose and medication was kind of a punishment for that. So I was really groggy and I really didn’t want to get back on the medication. But the, you know, and I was kind of forced to, and the first time I took it, I went to school and I was really pepped up and I was a really effective student. And then after school, when I was skateboarding, I had an aptitude on skateboarding that I had never had before.

you know, and I had this connection with my body that totally made me be like, okay, I’m on board. I like this. And the, something that happens that I see a lot because we’re experiencing a wave on social media, I’m sure you’re seeing of mostly young women, young men as well, but a lot of young women who think, who are saying that they were missed because, um, in, in the nineties and early aunts, it was the targeting of ADHD diagnosis was angled toward young boys.

So, and a lot of these people though, who are coming out and creating social media accounts based on their ADHD, they often are saying, I feel like this is who I always am and who I’ve always been. And I kind of, I have feelings about that because I felt that way too. But then I, after, you know, 16 years, I think that must, that’s kind of a delusion. And that’s one of the most, you know, my retrospective perspective without taking it. I’m like, that’s so dangerous.

because now you are immediately handing your identity over to a substance. And it’s so, I think the reason your podcast stood out to me is because it’s a stigma. A lot of people are saying, stop the stigma around medication. And I’m thinking, well, maybe it should be a little stigmatized. Maybe we should be really careful about this because you’re giving a lot of yourself away. And it takes…

It takes over you like any other addiction, not to go too ahead, but once I was withdrawing, I was like, this is a drug addiction. I’m in a drug withdrawal. I had not even realized it because you have a support system. The people who care about you most, your parents, your doctors, your teachers, and later in life, your employers, they all will start to prefer the version of you on these medication. So it’s very different from other.

substance addictions or dependences in that it actually makes you sometimes a better member of society.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (18:21)
A little bit more compliant sometimes.

R.L. Kramer (18:24)
Oh for sure. You know, I had the oppositional defiance thing going on big time.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (18:29)
Which is a fascinating thing to me that someone can be.

prescribed medication that truly helps to wind them down in many ways. I know for you, it really kind of revved you up though. And then an oppositional defiant disorder, I don’t know. You’re the second person this week I talked to who was prescribed amphetamines at a young age and then received an ODD diagnosis as well. And oh, oh, oh, I apologize.

R.L. Kramer (18:42)

I wasn’t diagnosed with ODD. I just know that that’s typically kind of in the umbrella of ADHD. And I was like anti -authoritarian.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (19:04)
Yeah, well.

And I would, again, you said there’s no way to know based off of because it’s one person, one life. But I had also would love if we could get in time machine to see if those moments were when maybe you, the medication wasn’t in your system. Because I know you mentioned that whenever you weren’t on the medication, things like came to the surface. It was like you were finally like experiencing certain things that you hadn’t whenever the medication was in your system.

R.L. Kramer (19:35)
Yeah, when I was a child.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (19:36)
Yeah. And so it’s like, okay, were you defiant or were you figuring it out because it had been kind of subdued, medically subdued?

R.L. Kramer (19:45)
Yeah, and there’s something in a clinical term I think it’s called the rebound effect when it comes to ADHD medication. So you end up being more, displaying more ADHD behaviors than you had prior to beginning medication. There’s a bounce back effect.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (20:01)
Right. Right. And that goes back to the not building those coping skills because you had the medication doing it for you.

R.L. Kramer (20:10)
Yeah, yeah. So for me, I think it really prolonged a certain part of my development as a person. And I mean, that’s beneficial because then I identified that when I was in my twenties and I was like, all right, let’s, let’s pretend I’m a little kid and I need to learn how to work hard and be disciplined.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (20:26)
Yeah, which is, that’s not an easy thing to do, especially whenever you’re at an age when people expect a different level of maturity and certain behaviors. So then be processing and going through that to try and catch up in a way.

R.L. Kramer (20:46)
Oh no, it’s literally the opposite of easy. Because I was like, this is supposed to be hard. That was kind of the insight I was sticking with is like, I shouldn’t be breezing through any of this. I’m supposed to get uncomfortable, find resistance, not want to do something, and just keep my head down and do it.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (21:05)
I’m so glad you shared that. I think it’s interesting. That stood out to me in your book as well, because you wrote about, and clearly I’m a fan of your book because I can reference it and quote it pretty well, but you wrote about how you thought, okay, anytime there’s a challenge, okay, this is my deficit, therefore I don’t have to even try. And a lot of times people want to get out of those tough times.

R.L. Kramer (21:29)

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (21:34)
And here you are saying there’s so much value in going and pushing through that it’s actually beneficial to feel that. It is at least what I took away. Is that resonating with what your message was?

R.L. Kramer (21:48)
Yeah, well, I just knew that that’s what I had to do because my throughout my academic childhood, I did feel like I kind of holstered this excuse like anytime I stumbled like, well, you know, I have a learning disability. So this makes sense that I would struggle with this. And I think also when I was in the withdrawal, I was so in the pits. I was so bad. I was like, you know, I’m going to feel like like crap. If I sit around here, I don’t feel like crap. If I get out,

and try to get a job anyways. So if I’m gonna feel like crap either way, might as well push myself.

Which I feel like is in the ADHD community kind of goes along with this, this advice we’re not supposed to give. Cause people are like, Oh, you can’t just say, work harder, try. That’s what I did.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (22:37)
Yeah. Yeah. Why? Why? I’m curious. Why can’t you say those things? Or why shouldn’t you say those things?

R.L. Kramer (22:45)
I don’t know. I think it’s really weird because, you know, I’ve promoted this book to try to, you know, I don’t have a internet cloud. I don’t have anything. I just worked really hard on writing for the past decade, but because of my participation in the online ADHD conversation, my feed is totally saturated with ADHD influencers who do this for a living. So I see these patterns and I recognize most of the people who are

talking about ADHD are on meds and promoting meds. And the conversation about ADHD is central to meds because there was no ADHD before there were meds. So I know it’s a big part of the conversation and I think a lot of that, that sometimes when I see ADHD tips online, I wonder are these ADHD tips or are these daily amphetamine use tips? I’m not trying to be a jerk or stigmatize you for taking meds, but a lot of the tips you’re giving,

remind me of things, habits I would need to keep track of on meds. For example, remember to eat, remember to drink, you know, because you’re so focused and your metabolism is so, you know, just on that you would forget to eat or drink because you’re you have an external source of energy. So like when I see tips like that for ADD, I’m like, well, I don’t know. And I don’t know why people say they just get mad when you bring up getting a planner or

work trying harder. And I guess you can’t just tell someone who has an executive function problem to do harder. They have to, that’s, that is rude and it can be dismissive of their struggles.

So I understand that, but that is what helped me and to use a planner.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (24:32)
As I have one right next to me, I think it makes me think about, you know, mental health and substance use recovery that there’s no one pathway. There’s also no one pathway for someone who has ADHD. No two. I mean, it’s called neurodiversity. So, yeah, maybe the same or ADD as the diagnosis was back in the 90s. It may be under the same umbrella term, but each individual and what works for them is going to be different.

R.L. Kramer (25:02)
Yeah. Yeah. And I try to, I mean, I do kind of promote the med free approach. And I think people on meds sometimes feel attacked. And I’ve had to go on and say, it’s not my intention to tell people on meds they’re doing it wrong, but there are people who are trying to get off meds and what I’m providing is a valuable resource. And that’s what I want to speak to.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (25:28)
Absolutely, because meds aren’t going to work for everyone or for whatever reason someone may not want them. And that’s okay.

R.L. Kramer (25:33)
Yeah, I mean, the thing, I never thought they didn’t work for me though. You know, I get that. Yeah, and I gotta be honest, I didn’t choose to quit. You know, you read my story, so you know that my insurance didn’t work, things fell through. I just, I couldn’t access the meds and I actually was totally fiending. I was paying people on the street for five ants and stuff like that. So I didn’t willingly choose to quit them.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (25:39)
That’s right, because you said you liked how you felt on them and you found them.

R.L. Kramer (26:02)
But at a certain point I just said, all right, I’m going to figure this out. And I think they’re very, it’s very hard to turn your back on them once it’s part of who you are.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (26:12)
Right. I mean, you built a life with them being present. And if you like how you’re feeling, yeah, right. Why would you? And…

You know, we talk a lot about like, there’s been so much attention on opioids and doctors prescribing opioids and then the prescriptions getting cut off. But let’s also think about individuals, especially at that young adult age when they’re transitioning insurance and things like that, who could be on medication and then have it ripped away. And then we have a problem maybe with how they cope with that situation.

R.L. Kramer (26:46)
Oh yeah. And I understand why opiates are, they get more attention because the, there’s more at stake when it comes to their consequences in the body. You know, people, people are losing their lives more often with opiates and Adderalline amphetamine, it doesn’t have that reputation, but it does modify a person’s personality, I think.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (27:10)
Right, absolutely. And can lead to, you know, just a more of a willingness maybe to engage in other, I think you put it as mind altering, not just mind altering substances, but mind altering experiences.

R.L. Kramer (27:27)
Yeah, and when it came to substances, I think that Adderall or amphetamine was my gateway drug. You know, later in college and stuff, when someone offered me to experiment with a substance, I was always unafraid of trying something because I was so familiar with the idea of taking something to feel differently.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (27:46)
Yeah. And, you know, and love us to start to talk about that life post -medication for anyone who may be interested, particularly, you know, someone who’s been prescribed and found the means as you had been. What are the ways that you were able to fill the needs that you had? So coping skills, you develop routines, practices, what has been essential to you to tend to your yourself?

R.L. Kramer (28:16)
Well, when I stopped, I tried a lot of stuff, you know, and I think that was key is just to Google everything and give it a go and see how you feel and be open to seeing what fits because it’s so unique. It’s not a one size fits all the way medication is prescribed. So for me, what kind of is definitely a keystone is exercise. It’s very simple. But when I was first withdrawing, I forced myself to run.

And that helps because at least in the, you know, I, and I was always questioning, am I dealing with my ADD, my latent dormant ADHD that’s been waiting for me? Or am I dealing with amphetamine withdrawal? Either way, what works for that? And so exercise really helps because it does bring in those chemicals that you want, that dopamine, that serotonin, but it also, it trains, it trained me to do something I don’t want to do for a reward that is deserved and not.

simple to achieve. So just by running or lifting weights or doing yoga or riding a bike, just being physical in my body helps me get in my body and slow down.

and relax. And I think a big part was training that delayed gratification, like training delayed gratification.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (29:36)
Can you expand on that? What do you mean by training the delayed gratification?

R.L. Kramer (29:42)
I think just where on the medication, I was always doing things that felt good in the moment, even creative acts, you know, doing art or music just felt good at the time. And I wasn’t really putting down things for long, for later reward. Everything I was doing was for now. And by delayed gratification, I mean practicing guitar instead of playing it. Maybe for example, just that intention that I’m practicing.

I’m not playing. And projects that wouldn’t be done in an evening. Usually if I started a project on Adderall, I had to finish it before the day ended or else it would just fall to the wayside. So showing up to the same project every day. And in my withdrawal, I did this by learning how to play Clare de Lune.

on the piano.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (30:32)
with that is that is it an instrument?

R.L. Kramer (30:36)
Claire de Lune, it’s a piano piece.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (30:38)
Oh, oh, wonderful.

R.L. Kramer (30:40)
is a chapter in the book.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (30:41)
Okay, well that one I forgot. We’re gonna call me out on that.

R.L. Kramer (30:42)
No worries. Yeah, but just I showed up every day to learn this song and instead of something long, so an exercise regimen too, it’s something that you don’t get reward for the first time you exercise, but after going every day, every other day for a long period of time, you notice changes in your body, your strength, your flexibility, whatever. So having, and then the work I do now, which is like construction and carpentry, you know, it’s…

You show up every day and you work a little bit, I guess.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (31:14)
Yeah, you definitely can’t do many big projects in one day.

R.L. Kramer (31:18)
No. And there’s something too, I talk about in the last chapter about the Purae Ternis. You remember that one? And I think that a shift from pleasure to satisfaction, and that I think is just essential with maturity, is, you know, that when I complete a construction project, it’s not necessarily pleasurable, but it’s very satisfying. And I guess that also comes with sort of a sacrifice.

of my own desires and for pleasure.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (31:53)
Isn’t that a different type of pleasure? Being satisfied?

R.L. Kramer (31:57)
Mm hmm. Totally different. But for me, that was kind of a shift that was important. And that’s why I highlight in the subtitle of the book, though, the coming of age with ADD. Because some of it’s just growing up. But I grew up with this experience.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (32:13)
Yeah. And I’m curious, I would love to know, part of your story is a film that you were working on and it was really externally focused. And you said, I’m focusing on telling other people’s stories and why not mine? Or, you know, like I didn’t want to tell mine. You now are telling yours. What led you to start sharing your story?

R.L. Kramer (32:39)
Hmm. I started doing it. Um, I, well, when I started writing my book, I was writing a research memoir. So I was still doing that kind of ego led humility thing where I would be like, so getting over that, I think too, has been part of it. Cause I would try to be like, I want to be in the background. I’m not really going to do it. And because I’m so modest or humble and really that’s, that’s like a, a loop, you know, cause it’s actually.

egoic to try not, I don’t know, this is a different conversation, but yeah. So I was writing this book that was half research, half memoir. And I was sharing it with some other writing people and they’re like, just tell your story. Just there’s enough in that. And the through line of your truth will show people this thing. So I just, the writing process, I think helped me get over that. And I am writing a book now.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (33:12)
All of you, yeah?

R.L. Kramer (33:39)
that is the guide for unmedicated ADHD where I’m not really a part of the story.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (33:43)
excited to read that. So I’ll have to sign up for your newsletter or whatever notification I can get. That’s really exciting. And as we wind down, I’d love to ask you, and there’s a lot of very valuable things you’ve shared, but if there’s one thing people take away from our discussion, what would you like it to be?

R.L. Kramer (34:05)
I think that people should be more apprehensive before they listen to psychiatrists to be honest. I think that they see sometimes our struggle or our deficiencies in our own development as an opportunity to commodify. I have a lot of mistrust from them and I’m working through that as a person, but I do know people in my life who’ve lost their lives because of…

pharmaceutical medications and there’s no real recourse for it. And I just think that they treat symptoms and not sources. So, you know, I don’t want to tell people not to take a medication when they need it. But I just think that we should be a little more apprehensive and understand that the person who has the ultimate agency when it comes to ourselves is ourselves. So,

There are doctors and there are professionals who can advise us, but ultimately we have to figure out what’s right for us and who we should listen to in that regard. And just be careful because taking medication like that is not a light thing. At least amphetamines are the eighth most addictive substance in our world. So when you take it, you sort of sign a contract and it’s just a big decision.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (35:26)
Yeah. Thank you for sharing that. And for those who are interested in connecting with you, maybe finding your book, how can they reach out to you or where can they find it?

R.L. Kramer (35:40)
The book is available everywhere books are sold online. You know, Amazon and stuff like that. I have a website that’s RLKramer .us R L K R A M E R I have a lot of videos on YouTube where I talk about adderall and withdraw and stuff like that. And that’s RL Kramer and those links you can find on my website. And I’ll be at the Gaithersburg Book Fair on May 18th.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (36:06)
Well, I will make sure that we include all of your links in the show notes and in any posts so that people can connect with you and continue learning from you. Thank you so much, Arielle, for sharing your story, for taking a different approach and really just finding your pathway through it. I think that’s the thing that we all look for is to be us. And it sounds like you figured that out.

R.L. Kramer (36:33)
constantly, constantly shifting and changing. And I think that’s, that’s the trick too, is to that the ultimate, like I wanted to say when you’re asking, sorry to add on too much, when you’re asking about what I do, it’s I think it’s a constant progression that there’s no swish that’s been flipped. And ultimately growing as a person heals that my whatever ADD struggle I had and managing my stress and learning how to grow like that has been the most beneficial thing.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (36:43)
No, please.

Well, that’s wonderful. And I look forward to being an observer through your social media and your books as you continue to evolve as yourself. And for all of you who are listening, check out R .L. Kramer’s website, book, definitely on YouTube, and share with anyone who maybe this could resonate with.

Please be sure to pass this along because we want to keep getting stories out there and continue reducing the stigma. Thank you.

RL Kramer, Hocus Focus: Coming of age with ADD and its medications | Recovery Conversations ADD/ADHD has received a lot of attention in recent years for the over-prescribing of medications. In fact, the US is experiencing a nation-wide shortage of medications used to treat ADD/ADHD. While the diagnosis has been in existence since the 1960s, […]

Continue reading "Medication-Arrested Development: The Impact Of Growing Up Taking ADD (ADHD) Medications"
Mary Beth O'Connor author of "From Junkie to Judge" on Reduce The Stigma - Recovery Conversations

Overcoming Trauma and Addiction: A Conversation with Mary Beth O’Connor, Author of “From Junkie to Judge”

Reduce The Stigma - Recovery Conversations: Mary Beth O'Connor, "From Junkie to Judge"

Mary Beth O'Connor on Recovery Conversations - Reduce The Stigma
Always a path forward. Recovery Conversations. Addiction trauma

Overcoming trauma and addiction isn’t an experience you typically hear a former federal judge discussing from a first-person, lived experience perspective. Perhaps that’s what makes Mary Beth O’Connor’s memoir, “From Junkie to Judge,” so powerful. In this episode of Reduce The Stigma – Recovery Conversations, Mary Beth shares an overview of her personal experience with trauma and addiction, highlighting how the two are often closely connected and thus must both be addressed for a successful recovery. In addition to sharing her own lived experience, Mary Beth also highlights what she sees as actions that can be detrimental to an individual’s recovery, specifically mandating a certain treatment method and dismissing alternative pathways. An advocate for decriminalization and evidence-based practices, Mary Beth is shattering myths and stigmas often associated with trauma, addiction, and recovery. 

Organizations mentioned in the episode:

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Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (00:01)
Today’s conversation is with Mary Beth O ‘Connor, author of From Junkie to Judge, which shares the story of Marybeth recovering from methamphetamine use and eventually taking a seat as a federal judge. Marybeth is a staunch supporter and advocate for all pathways to recovery and speaks about the potential harm that can be caused whenever an individual is mandated to a certain pathway. So stay tuned. I’m sure you’re going to enjoy this just as much as I did as we embark on this wonderful conversation and continue to reduce the stigma.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (01:40)
Hello and welcome to Recovery Conversations. I’m your host, Whitney Menarcheck, and today’s conversation is with Mary Beth O ‘Connor, a retired federal administrative law judge, director, secretary, and founding investor for She Recovers Foundation, a director for LifeRing Secular Recovery, a member of the Advisory Council for the Hyer Calling Foundation, and the author of From Junkie to Judge. Hi, Marybeth. Thank you so much for coming on today and speaking with me.

Mary Beth O’Connor (02:09)
Thanks for having me. Thank you.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (02:12)
Well, it is just, I mean, your background alone, your accolades are significant. And, you know, to have an opportunity to speak with you really gives an opportunity for our audience to really understand what it’s like to be someone from a very, you know, respectable profession in recovery. So to get started, let’s just ask. Formal -ness aside, formality aside, can you introduce yourself? Who is Mary Beth?

Mary Beth O’Connor (02:49)
So the subtitle of the book is One Woman’s Triumph Over Trauma and Addiction because for me those things were really closely connected and they are connected for a lot of people. So I grew up in a violent household, I mean physically violent, sexually violent. My mother wasn’t really connected to me or interested in me and it sort of created the type of like stress and anxiety and depression at times. Even had OCD life symptoms for a while. And that really made drugs attractive to me. So when I found my first drug, which was alcohol, and it was Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill wine, which a lot of people are familiar with, what I noticed was how much better it made me feel. And so that made it very appealing. And so I pursued alcohol heavily from the beginning, added in weed and pills and acid, and found my drug of choice, which was methamphetamine when I was 16. And I was shooting meth by 17 and in full bore addiction in high school and I didn’t get sober till 32. So I did go to college during there and I did a little better but still it was a really long haul and I was in a pretty pretty bad place by 32 years old.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (04:01)
In that 17 to 32, those are some very foundational years, right, for establishing who you are in adulthood, what pathways you can live. Can you tell us about at 17, what you were looking at, what your future was about to hold for you?

Mary Beth O’Connor (04:20)
Well, school had always been my one positive experience. I did well in school. I got a lot of positive attention in school. And so that was sort of my place where I felt seen. And so I had always done well. And in high school, I was still doing well despite my excessive drug use until toward the end of my senior year, maybe the second half of my senior year. So I grew up in a blue collar family. I mean, my mother was a blue collar secretary and my stepfather worked at the steel mill but I was it was always assumed I was going to go to college and no one saved any money which turned out to be a problem later but I always assumed I was going to college and so I had actually been accepted I lived in central Jersey and I came to California for college and graduated from Berkeley but at the same time it was really it was really frightening for me when I was actually ready to go to college Because I was worried about losing access to meth right so even that was complicated But I did do better I did better my first three and a half years of college and you know mostly used on the weekend I decreased my the amount that I was using but I had this really bad Kidnapping and raped by three men for six hours and moved in with a violent boyfriend. It was sort of like I lost my grip again, and I started using meth again on a daily basis my senior year of high school in January. And so the next 10 years were just, you know, professionally I couldn’t hold a job. I say I worked my way down the corporate ladder. But also it was just physically debilitating, emotionally debilitating. So all that promise and all the hopes of what my academic success had set up for me, I lost all of those things by the time I was 32.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (06:05)
Right. And if you don’t mind, I’m going to read a quote that really stood out to me when I read your book. It’s quote, people often ask how someone so smart could become an addict, but brain disorders don’t discriminate based on intellect. And that is exactly what you, Berkeley is a phenomenal school. You were succeeding in school academically, had all of this promise and opportunity ahead of you. Certainly not an easy childhood and adolescence, and they’re right there. How could someone so smart become an addict? Could you speak a little bit more about that? Because I think that is such a misconception.

Mary Beth O’Connor (06:47)
It’s true, I mean when we see successful people like say, you know, somebody in the music industry or an actor or anyone who sort of seems to have it all and then they lose it because of a substance use disorder, people act surprised. But the reality is that most people use substances to excess. I don’t mean the casual users or the, you know, I mean most people use all drugs casually, but for the subset of us who use them to an extreme, who develop a substance use disorder,there is trauma underneath or is there is another mental health condition underneath. So it’s a very high correlation between those two things and substances and those things certainly do not discriminate based on academic success or intellect. So the root cause for me was a root cause for many other people and the solution that seemed to work in the beginning is the solution that many people in those circumstances choose.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (07:47)
Absolutely. And in many ways, you know, what is in some cases a protective factor that high intellect can almost be a risk factor in others because people overlook the person who can get straight A’s. Oh, if they’re getting straight A’s, then they’re doing just fine. Did you experience that where people just didn’t understand that you could be both a stellar student and someone in pain?

Mary Beth O’Connor (08:12)
I think that’s true. I mean, I did so well that even if I would come in with, let’s say, bruises, nobody thought anything of it. I mean, I wouldn’t go to school with like broken arms or anything, but there were some signs of people living. But also, I should depression signs. Like there was a period in grammar school where I didn’t take a shower as often as I should have. I often would look sort of somewhat unkempt. Later, I went, I got out of that, but there were signs. I was really verbally aggressive, like to teachers in class sometimes. I could be, triggered those are also signs that I mean so it’s you know was it just normal teenage behavior or is there something more going on and then even my senior year of high school when I lost a lot of weight I mean it was already thin but I was bone thin I was falling asleep in class my face didn’t you know didn’t look well and I was missing a lot of school. I told them while I was having problems at home, so they let me make up the work, but no one said, is there anything else going on? You don’t look well. And I just, I think they just didn’t see it because as you say, I was generally succeeding.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (09:19)
Right, right. And the young Marybeth, that 17 year old with, you know, so much to offer the world and still so much pain to have to navigate. And you said that then you went on, you did a little bit better in college and started climbing down the professional ladder. That’s something that, you know, people talk about a functioning addiction where you can navigate both worlds, but can you tell me when did it come to a point where you realize you were not where you wanted to be and that climbing down was not the direction for you?

Mary Beth O’Connor (10:04)
Well, I mean, I will say the climbing down started right after college. So I’ve actually been accepted to Berkeley Law right after I graduated from college. But by the time I got there, it’s six months after, nine months actually, after I had started using meth again on a basically a daily basis. And so when I got to Berkeley Law in the fall, I couldn’t do it. Like I couldn’t get there. I couldn’t, I missed school like one time for three weeks. You know, I just couldn’t get there for three weeks. So I had to withdraw because I knew it was going to fail out because I wasn’t able to get there and I wasn’t able to do the work. Not intellectually unable, unable because of my addiction. So that was like a major loss. And then the jobs, every job I had was like less money and less responsibility and I held it for less time. So that was, you an obvious pattern that I tried to ignore And so by 32, I was struggling to work. I really was unable, my last job was word processing and I didn’t have the energy after I got fired from that to even put a resume together. But also my body was having physical problems and I was just exhausted. Like, I mean, the deepest of exhaustion and I was just emotionally debilitated. I felt trapped. My partner was ready to throw me out. So it was sort of like all of those things in combination that made me finally say, you know, well, what’s my good reason? Maybe it would be a good idea if I went to rehab.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (11:25)
And so you did. And, you know, one of the unique things about your story is the lack of involvement in the criminal justice system. And I’d love to circle back to that in a little bit, but normally, first experience in treatment can come from a mandate. And that was not the situation for you. You go to your first rehab and… Tell us about that experience. What was the, I don’t want to say ambiance, but what was the message you were receiving?

Mary Beth O’Connor (12:03)
So in my mind, I was going into a medical facility for medical treatment. And so when I got there, I found out on the first day that they were adamantly and exclusively a 12 -step house. And so 12 -steps is alcoholics anonymous, narcotics anonymous, all of the anonymuses. And for a proportion of people, it’s a really good fit. Some people really like that program and they do well, but it’s not the right fit for everyone. And it was a terrible fit for me. And it wasn’t the biggest problem wasn’t they offer 12 -steps. It was that they denied there was anything else. And they kept telling me that if I didn’t do what I was ordered to do, which was do everything that false stuff says. They said I was going to fail. So I raised questions about the higher power. I didn’t, wasn’t turning my will and my life over. I didn’t agree I was powerless. I didn’t like to focus on defects. I mean, it just was a terrible fit. But they swore that there were no other options and I had to do it this way. And that was a real surprise for me. And it was a challenge because it was hard for me to trust my own judgment. I mean, I had been using drugs, you know, for 20 years. I was really debilitating.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (13:09)
Mm -hmm.

Mary Beth O’Connor (13:12)
rehabilitated as I said and now already the first day there I have to I’m challenging the Orthodoxy and the authority and it was hard because I didn’t know was I think I’m telling me I was arrogant. I was self -willed run amok and and I wasn’t sure. Well, maybe they’re right. Maybe I will fail if I don’t do it that way. But I also knew I couldn’t so I needed to trust my own judgment. But it turned out that they actually weren’t telling me the truth. There were other options. And so when I found them, it was a great relief. Now, initially, I did everything I could to pull some ideas out of 12 steps. I mean, I read all the books and went to meet

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (13:50)
Mm -hmm.

Mary Beth O’Connor (13:52)
But when I found the other alternatives, it was a real, again, a weight off my shoulders to know that other people had succeeded other ways. And that gave me permission or a reassurance that I was on the right path, that thinking about what will work for me, what’s the right techniques for me, but also being proactive about looking for ideas and strategies and techniques. I wasn’t trying to shut the door on anything. I just needed to…

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (14:19)

Mary Beth O’Connor (14:22)
I needed to filter everything for do I think this is a philosophy that will work for me? Do I think this is an approach that will work for me? Do I think it’s a strategy that will work for me? And so once I saw that other people had done it, that took some of the fear out of it and I was just able to more confidently proceed by doing it a way that I thought would work best for me.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (14:45)
And what were some of those other methods, other pathways that resonated for you?

Mary Beth O’Connor (14:52)
So I’ll emphasize for the younger people, it’s 1994. I actually just had 30 years of sobriety in January. So, thank you. So it’s 94, there’s no Google, okay? It doesn’t exist. So I got home from rehab and I thought…

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (14:59)
Oh, congratulations!


Mary Beth O’Connor (15:07)
Is it true that there’s no other way? So I got my card. I went to the library. I did the research and it turned out even in 94 there were other options. And so I first found Women for Sobriety, which is the first modern secular alternative. It’s a peer support group with a different philosophy. For example, in a WFS meeting, you don’t introduce yourself the 12 step way. The 12 step way is I’m Mary Beth and I’m an addict. In WFS, the introduction is I’m Mary Beth and I’m a competent woman. And that was really

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (15:36)
Oh wow.

Mary Beth O’Connor (15:37)
appealing for me. And then I also found rational recovery which exists a little but basically today it’s smart recovery and I found SOS which I think has three meetings left but basically today that’s life ring secular recovery and I’m on the board for life ring as you know. So these programs they’re all different but Some of the core ideas that are similar is it’s more of a self -empowerment approach. It’s more focused on your efforts and your motivations and life in particular, one of its fundamental precepts is a personal recovery plan, which is that my plan and your plan won’t be the same most likely because we’re different people in different places with different worldviews and different techniques work for us. And so that’s what I did. I built a personal recovery plan.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (16:15)

Mary Beth O’Connor (16:26)
So it was a belief to find the other groups and I just never followed anyone. I continued it the same way. I read the books, I went to the meetings, and I synthesized the ideas and built what Liferick would call a personal recovery plan.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (16:41)
Just even thinking about the way that you would introduce yourself in a different way, you know, I am Mary Beth, I am a competent woman. And that, or I apologize if it was confident woman, competent woman, that comes to the fact that for so many people addiction becomes their primary identity. And even in that first switch in that language, you change the narrative to say, oh no, I’m Mary Beth first.

Mary Beth O’Connor (17:06)

That’s right. And I will say this. I like this uses as an example that what works for us at one point in our recovery may not serve us later. So in the beginning, I thought it was useful to say, I’m Mary Beth and I’m an addict over and over and over again. But by the time I got home, I was feeling less comfortable with it because I felt like I was announced. I was saying it like it was the essence of who I was. It was my core self. And that wasn’t true. And so when I found that I’m a competent woman, that meant me sort of where I was at. That was more consistent with how I was starting to think about it. And so it’s an indicator that different techniques over time will change, but also that what works for some people is not gonna work for others. And we need to be open to people finding their own path and making their own choices.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (18:00)
Absolutely. And even just as a human who’s developing, who we all go through different processes in our life. There are different things that are important to us. You know, teen and adolescent, it’s about our identity, who we are as independent beings. Then later in life, it’s about leaving a meaningful purpose in this world. And even at those different developmental stages, you can have to reprocess trauma, reprocess recovery and addiction. And it may need something different than what, you know, for you celebrating 30 years, your recovery today and what you’re doing for yourself, I’m sure is very different than what it was 30 years ago.

Mary Beth O’Connor (18:42)
Yeah, and when I talk to newcomers, I talk a lot about that, that our plan, whatever it is, is going to change over time, right? And there’s a couple reasons for that. I mean, one is that hopefully we’ve had some initial successes so we can set our second goal or our third goal, right? I mean, we’re not still working on goal number one in that area. So the plan’s going to be iterative and change over time. And that’s an important part of recovery. And I will say… When my rehab told me there was one and only way, they actually put my recovery at risk because if I would have believed them, I would probably have given up. But also, it wasn’t true. So why did you say that? But on the other hand, taking ownership of my plan and sort of really doing an analysis like, well, okay, that’s not a good fit. Who am I? What do I think would work better? And then, you know, sort of proactively gathering information and synthesizing it and then setting my priorities.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (19:14)

Mary Beth O’Connor (19:39)
and my initial goal and my initial plan and implementing it and then saying goal number two and plan number two and it turns out that skill set works for everything and so in the long run it actually did strengthen me that I took control of my recovery and it built up my sense of competence and confidence to sort of handle all areas of life so it worked out in the long run even though they put me at risk when they told me that in the beginning.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (20:08)
That and the amount of investment whenever you’re the owner of the plan, I think it is deeper too than when someone is telling you. And so you said they put me in my recovery at risk. There’s a lot of mandates that individuals who are actively using drugs or who are in recovery face. And a lot of times it comes from the justice system. What are your thoughts on?

Mary Beth O’Connor (20:14)

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (20:35)
you know, maybe mandating 12 -step meetings or mandating a certain type of treatment model.

Mary Beth O’Connor (20:42)
So, drug courts have a wide variety of quality, and some are better than others. But some of the issues that are not uncommon are… much too common. For example, mandating 12 -step as peer support. Well, first of all, you actually aren’t allowed to do that because the courts that have looked at it have found 12 steps to be religious and you can’t mandate religion. You can offer 12 steps as one of the options, but you can’t make it the only choice. But the other problem is that there has been a study, it’s called the peer alternative study. It compared the effectiveness of AA, lifering, women for sobriety, and SMART and found that they’re basically all equally effective. So there’s no data as to why you would mandate 12 steps. But the other problem with it is that when you do that, you’re forcing some people into a program that’s not the best fit for them. And therefore you’re on you’re reducing their odds of success when your goal is supposed to be to increase their odds of success, right? So that’s a problem with 12 steps. But there are other issues as well. I mean, not with 12 steps with me and dating 12 steps only. Again, I support 12 steps when it’s the right

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (21:50)
Yes, yes.

Mary Beth O’Connor (21:50)
right fit. But there are other problems. Drug courts, for example, often force everybody into a certain kind of treatment because they were arrested for drugs. Well, not everyone who was arrested for drugs actually has a substance use disorder. And the other problem with that is that there aren’t enough treatment beds in most communities. And now you’re taking up treatment beds with people who don’t actually need treatment for a substance use disorder or don’t need the kind of treatment that you’re forcing them into.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (22:03)
Mm -hmm.

Mary Beth O’Connor (22:16)
Another problem is that a lot of drug courts will not allow medication assisted treatment. So for opiate use disorder and alcohol use disorder, although not yet for stimulants, for stimulus they’re still looking, but for opiates and alcohol, there’s medications. Let’s just take for opiates. Reduces the risk of overdose by 50 to 60 % and increases the odds of getting sober or having a significant reduction in your intake significantly. These are the gold standard of medical treatment these drugs. And a lot of drug courts won’t allow them. They’ll say, well, that’s, you know, methadone is an opiate. Well, yeah, but it’s a very different type of opiate than is heroin or fentanyl. But the other problem is that actually the Pennsylvania courts, they just had to settle with the Department of Justice because it’s an Americans with Disabilities Act violation to not allow people medical treatment that’s appropriate for their condition. So these are some of the problems with drug courts. On the other hand, some drug courts will

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (22:49)


Mary Beth O’Connor (23:15)
are more based on the science of change and how the process really works. I’ll say one other problem. Some drug courts expect perfect abstinence or people pay a very drastic penalty. But the truth is that perfect abstinence is rare. And so you’re setting people up for failure. On the other hand, other drug courts understand that and they’ll work with the person to try to, you know, what else do you need for support or, you know, we’re going to give you another chance or whatever. So it’s not the

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (23:33)

Mary Beth O’Connor (23:45)
that I’m against drug courts is just if we’re well if we’re going to have them we need to make sure that they’re evidence -based and right now a large percentage of them are not evidence -based.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (23:55)
Right. And you speak specifically for drug courts. I ran a substance use program in a large county jail. And so I worked with a lot of judges, not even just drug court. And I saw the same thing. And I had to do all of the assessments to determine does someone need a certain level of care. And you spoke to wasted resources. And it was this mindset that simply possession or admitted use, equals absolute disorder, addiction, dependence, let’s send them off to rehab, rip them out of the community and any supports they may have. And I think you touched on something so overlooked, which is what are the appropriate interventions or responses and where does the person need to be and where do they want to be? Not just where.

Mary Beth O’Connor (24:50)

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (24:51)
Okay, it worked for this person. So we’re going to cookie cutter you your way into recovery.

Mary Beth O’Connor (24:56)
That’s right. That’s right. And I will say the other side of it for me. And it is, you’re right. It’s all judges, but it’s also probation, parole, family court. If you want visitation with your kids, it permeates the system, right? These issues. Um, but my other problem with it in general is that I don’t believe in criminalizing substance use disorder. So I really think we, you know, I support decriminalization for personal use and there’s, and there’s a few, well, I have a list of reasons, but my top three, my top three are number one, that even the government acknowledges that substance use disorder is a

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (25:21)

Mary Beth O’Connor (25:26)
disease or disorder and yet we criminalize it. So that’s a contradiction. There are around half a million people today in jail or prison just for possession. I mean not for not for dealing not for any other related crimes, pure possession. But one big problem with that to get to your resources point as well is that we can treat three to four people for the same amount of money as we incarcerate one. Right? So that’s not a good use of resources. On top of which there is a vast racial disparity

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (25:36)


Mary Beth O’Connor (25:56)
in the way we enforce our drug laws. And so people of color and whites use drugs at pretty much the same rates, but the rate of getting arrested is higher for a person of color, the charges tend to be higher and the sentences tend to be longer. So to me, that’ll also undermine the legitimacy of our system. So I have other reasons, but those are my top three big hits as to why I think we need to do decriminalization for personal use.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (26:17)
Great And that ties into your story. You experience an arrest and you wrote that because you didn’t have a pre -existing record and you were a successful student with an acceptance into a prestigious school that you were able to get probation and eventually have it expunged. What is that impact on someone’s recovery trajectory, being able to have a record expunged versus continued presence?

Mary Beth O’Connor (26:59)
Yeah, so I didn’t just I wasn’t just allowed to have an expunge usually to get a record expunge you have to like wait a certain amount of time and then petition the court in my Sentencing order the judge said if I didn’t get arrested again for five years I could just file and get it expunged and that’s what I did and said that’s a rare thing but you’re right I was a you know, I was it was in a small town. They knew I didn’t have a history of arrest. I they knew about my academic success I was going off to a big college in Berkeley in California and they and they treated me

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (27:17)

Mary Beth O’Connor (27:29)
treated me lightly. Had they not, I really don’t know I would have ever made it to college because if I would have been incarcerated or if I would have been forced to stay there for a couple years, I don’t know if I would have made it to school. Because the reality is that a drug conviction, particularly a felony conviction, impacts people’s ability to get work. It can impact your ability to get housing. It can impact a lot of benefits programs. You’re not eligible for a lot of benefits if you have that kind of a record. It disrupts the family. There’s a lot of ramifications. But the upside of that is that for those last 10 years that I used, I had meth on me every day. And I was stopped multiple times by the police for like little fender benders or some kind of a motor vehicle violation. And I wasn’t ever searched. But had I been searched, they would have found drugs on me. And so even if I would have started to have more charges, then I would have been put in a different box. And then I would have started to have heavy penalties.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (28:29)

Mary Beth O’Connor (28:30)
So I was in search because I was a white middle class woman in a neighborhood that didn’t have a high crime rate or a high crime rate. you know, problems. No, they have obvious, they have an obvious drug problem in that neighborhood. And so for multiple reasons, I was lucky in the sense that if I would have been a different color or in a different community, the odds of me being able to have only one charge, which was expunged and therefore much easier to get into law school, much easier to pass, you know, to get through the bar process, much easier to get through the judge background check, things would have been very, very different for me.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (28:43)
great. Absolutely. And just to think about, you know, 30 years in recovery, the work, the good you’ve done in the past 30 years, and I’m sure prior to you achieving your recovery, that’s a lot that could have been lost to the world because of, you know, discrimination and judgment and a broken system that sets people up for failure. And
Here we were able to talk to you today. You’re an author, you’re on multiple boards, you were a federal judge. You truly represent how valuable individuals in recovery are and the positive impact that they can have when we support individuals and give them opportunities to achieve their optimal self.

Mary Beth O’Connor (30:01)
That’s true. And I will say that’s a big part of why I use junkie in the title to my book. I mean, first of all, junkie to judge, right? There’s the alliteration. But, but I really wanted to show in a couple of words the whole arc and, and don’t get me wrong. I mean, we’re really focused today on not using stigmatizing language and I would never use that term for someone else, but it’s out there in the community. And I really wanted to own my, that I shop met for many years. I really wanted to own that in part, because when I see people on television that shoot meth, they’re presented like almost like a

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (30:08)

Mary Beth O’Connor (30:31)
like they’re animals in a cage, like they’re beyond our empathy, they’re not even really human. And I wanted to stand up and say, I did that too, not a couple of times for many years. And yet in recovery, I was able to become a judge. And so it’s not that I think judges the most important part of our recovery. It’s not. It’s just that that job has a certain social resonance. And so I wanted to help reduce the stigma by showing, you know, who we are in the middle of our active addiction and who we are. It’s very different, but also those people you see that you’re looking down on perhaps They are worthy of our help, you know They’re they’re really because they’re humans But they’re also worthy because their future could be very bright and they could be a valuable and contributing member to society if we can help them get out of the hell that they’re living in right now

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (31:22)
Absolutely. And you know, one of the things you talk about in your book as well is the big R recovery, the reconnecting to your authentic self. And I sort of asked you at the beginning, who is Marybeth? But I’d like to ask you again, who is Marybeth today? 30 years in recovery.

Mary Beth O’Connor (31:44)
Well, I’ll preface it with the big arm recovery is also partly talking about how I, for me to be my true self, my authentic self, to be my best self, I didn’t have to just recover from the drugs. I had to recover from the trauma. When I got sober, I went into therapy and I was to my surprise, but correctly diagnosed with PTSD, which for me showed up as severe anxiety. And I had to go into treatment for that. And if I wouldn’t have been able to get that under control, I would never have been able to be,

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (31:58)
Mm -hmm.

Mary Beth O’Connor (32:14)
you know, the best happiest version of myself. It was actually harder to get my PTSD and anxiety under control than it was to get my substance use under control. By two and a half years, I really never struggled with any cravings for substances again. I was in therapy for nine years, and even at that point, I was only basically 80 % recovered. It took me another 10 years to get another 15 % recovered. So many of us, when we walk in the rooms of substance recovery, we need to also address the mental health side if we’re going to first of all have the best chance of staying sober but also have the best chance of really having a full and productive and happy life and so I needed to do that. And for me now, what’s really important, especially since I’m retired, although my husband says I need to look that up in the dictionary because I don’t know what it means, but this is my opportunity to really give back in a new way. I’m able to now speak openly about my whole story without having to worry about professional ramifications. As you said, I have my book out, which I view as part of my stigma reduction, as part of my advocacy, as part of showing multiple pathway options. And I really

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (33:07)

Mary Beth O’Connor (33:29)
I’ve had pieces in the Wall Street Journal, the LA Times and others. I’m on the boards and I do a lot of speaking to a lot of different organizations. And this is, you know, it’s very rewarding for me to be able to part -time, part -time, do these activities to try to give back to my community and to try to help my community be better understood. But the other thing is that I’m also now able to be a good wife and a good friend and a good aunt and
you know, things that I could not do when I was using, right? I mean, you know, if you have small things, like if you invite me to your birthday party today, I will show up on time with the president and behave appropriately. You know, like that wasn’t what was happening when I was using, okay? That wasn’t it at all. So it’s all those small joys of being able to connect with people and have mutual relationships and to really be able to experience life, but also for me to be able to be productive. So,

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (34:15)

Mary Beth O’Connor (34:29)
So I like intellectual challenges. I like my, you know, with work or whatever I’m doing to try something new. Writing the book was a new intellectual challenge. I didn’t know how to write it anymore. It actually requires certain skills that I had to develop. So, so it’s sort of all of those things are really where my life is today.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (34:41)
Hehehe. Wonderful. And as we wrap up, I’d like to ask you a question that I ask everyone. If people take one thing away from our discussion, what would you like it to be?

Mary Beth O’Connor (35:00)
I say hope, you know, I mean for the person who may be struggling with substances or with their trauma or with their mental health but also for their friends and family to know that look I had a pretty significant child abuse history, I had multiple sexual assaults, I lived with a violent boyfriend, I had a drug addiction for you know 15, 20 years and I think it started until I was 32, you know until 32 it didn’t look like I was ever gonna get better, it did not look good at 32 but I did, I was able to get better. And so, no matter where you are, there is a path forward. No matter where your family member or loved one is, there’s no reason to give up hope that they might be able to find a path out eventually.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (35:43)
Wonderful. Well, thank you so much, Marybeth, for coming on and speaking with me and sharing your experience, your lived experience, your journey. I was so touched reading your book, and I’m sure everyone who is able to come across it is as well. So thank you.

Mary Beth O’Connor (36:04)
Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.

Whitney Menarcheck | she/her (36:07)
All right, well, if you are interested in reading from Junkie to Judge, you can get it on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and anywhere books are sold. We’ll also link to the book in our show notes. So check out From Junkie to Judge and certainly follow Mary Beth as she continues to use her story and semi -retirement to help us reduce the stigma. Thank you.

Mary Beth O’Connor (36:35)
Sure, thank you.

Reduce The Stigma – Recovery Conversations: Mary Beth O’Connor, “From Junkie to Judge” Overcoming trauma and addiction isn’t an experience you typically hear a former federal judge discussing from a first-person, lived experience perspective. Perhaps that’s what makes Mary Beth O’Connor’s memoir, “From Junkie to Judge,” so powerful. In this episode of Reduce The Stigma […]

Continue reading "Overcoming Trauma and Addiction: A Conversation with Mary Beth O’Connor, Author of “From Junkie to Judge”"

Rising Strong: Addiction, Mental Health and Finding Purpose

Reduce The Stigma - Meet The Peer: Ryan Spillane

Overcoming Addiction and Finding Purpose: A Story of Hope and Recovery

We're not weak. You know what I mean? I didn't choose this. You know, I'm a smart, worthy, loving individual, and I just was lost for a very long time. And the people that I know in recovery, in all walks of recovery are doing some of the biggest things that I know anyone to do, to be honest with you, you know, they get sober and it's just like a rocket ship.

Ryan Spillane, Certified Peer Specialist shares this harrowing journey through addiction and the long road to recovery, finding purpose and hope along the way. From battling mental health issues and OCD at a young age to navigating the treacherous waters of substance use, Ryan’s story is one of resilience, hope, and ultimately, redemption.

Ryan’s journey began with struggles in childhood, marked by crippling anxiety, OCD, and the relentless torment of bullying at school. These challenges, coupled with a family environment where alcohol was a constant presence, set the stage for a tumultuous journey ahead.

As adolescence unfolded, the allure of drugs and alcohol offered a temporary reprieve from the inner turmoil. But what started as a coping mechanism quickly spiraled into a full-blown addiction. From experimenting with alcohol to descending into the depths of heroin addiction, Ryan found themselves caught in a vicious cycle of substance use, rehab stints, and brief moments of recovery.

The interview reveals the stark reality of addiction, from the initial euphoria of escape to the devastating consequences that followed. Ryan recounts the highs and lows of his journey, from moments of clarity to brushes with death. Through it all, the underlying struggle with mental health loomed large, exacerbating the challenges of recovery.

Despite numerous attempts at rehab and interventions, Ryan found himself trapped in a cycle of return to use and despair. The constant battle with suicidal thoughts and paranoid delusions painted a bleak picture of a life consumed by addiction.

But amidst the darkness, a glimmer of hope emerged. After a near-fatal suicide attempt, Ryan found himself at a crossroads, faced with a choice: to continue down the path of destruction or to embrace the possibility of recovery.

With the eventual support of the VA and a newfound determination to change, Ryan embarked on a journey of healing and self-discovery. Through therapy, support groups, and a commitment to recovery, Ryan slowly began to rebuild his life from the ground up.

The road to recovery was anything but easy, marked by setbacks and challenges at every turn. But Ryan persevered, drawing strength from the community of fellow survivors and finding solace in spirituality and self-reflection.

Today, Ryan stands tall as a beacon of hope for others struggling with addiction and mental health issues. His journey serves as a powerful reminder that recovery is possible, no matter how daunting the obstacles may seem.

As Ryan reflects on his journey, he offers words of wisdom and encouragement to those still struggling: “Life is good. I don’t have those suicidal ideations anymore. I’ve learned to cope with things in a variety of ways. There are struggles, there are mental health issues, but there’s also hope and light at the end of the tunnel.”

Work with Ryan: https://straightupcare.com/members/ryans/

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Reduce The Stigma – Meet The Peer: Ryan Spillane We’re not weak. You know what I mean? I didn’t choose this. You know, I’m a smart, worthy, loving individual, and I just was lost for a very long time. And the people that I know in recovery, in all walks of recovery are doing some […]

Continue reading "Rising Strong: Addiction, Mental Health and Finding Purpose"
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