By Daniel H. Gillison, Jr.
September is National Recovery Month. Every year, around the country, we use this time to increase awareness and understanding of mental health and substance use disorders, to encourage individuals in need of treatment services to seek help, and to celebrate individuals in recovery.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, excessive alcohol use leads to more than 95,000 deaths each year in the U.S., and there have been more than 800,000 drug overdose deaths in the U.S. since 1999. We know that roughly 50% of people with a mental health condition also have a problem with substance abuse. And more than 1 in 3 people who die from suicide are under the influence of alcohol at the time of death.
Substance use disorders affect many people. If you or someone you know is struggling, you are not alone; there is help and there is hope. Today, I wanted to use my platform to highlight someone who really embodies this message of hope.
Christopher Cisneros is a Substance Use Disorder Certified Counselor with the Amity Foundation’s Prison Project. Check out our conversation below (the dialogue has been edited for clarity and length):
Gillison: Chris, can you tell us a little bit about what you do and what led you to this work?
Cisneros: I work for the Amity Foundation in the Integrated Substance Use Disorder Treatment program developed by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Basically, I deliver services to students struggling with substance use disorder. We call them students — not inmates or by a number — and we call the prison a campus — because changing the vernacular helps them better integrate into society afterward from a position of dignity.
What led me to this work was my own experience. I experienced 30 years of active addiction; I spent over 15 years in jails, institutions and prisons myself. In that time, I got sick and tired of being sick and tired, and I knew something had to change. On Sept. 27, 2021, I celebrated nine years of continuous recovery; that’s my clean date.
I’m really proud to let you know that change can happen and it does happen. I’m living proof of it. So never give up hope.
Gillison: You went from 30 years of addiction to now almost a decade of being clean and helping others who are struggling. That’s incredible. What would you say your turning point was? And what was the most helpful thing for you in your journey to recovery?
Cisneros: My turning point was rock bottom. I came to a point in my life where I didn’t know how to take care of myself or where to go. So I made a geographical move, and I met my nieces and my nephews. I would look into their innocent eyes and they would say, “Uncle Chris, I love you.” And I would think to myself, how can they love me? After isolating myself from the family for so many years, it really touched my heart, and I wanted to be a part of their lives.
Gillison: It sounds like the geographical move was important, but what was even more important was realizing all this love in your life.
You mentioned earlier that peer support is a big part of the programs you help lead. Can you talk more about that? How do you see the role of peer support in recovery?
Cisneros: Community is the method to cure alienation. The way out is to let others in. People have been marginalized from society — through homelessness, poverty, incarceration, racism, sexism and other trauma. The way to support them is through inclusion, through getting everyone involved. When people get the information from someone who has sat in the same chairs they have, they tend to open up and listen more and want to contribute.
Gillison: It’s about belonging, and peer support is such an excellent way to affirm that every single person has value. That’s a big part of why much of what we do here at NAMI is peer-led. We have a saying here, “Nothing about us without us.”
But society has a way of judging a book by its cover without taking the time to look inside. What misconceptions do you think people have of individuals experiencing a substance use disorder?
Cisneros: Like you said, they see the cover: ex-convict, drug addict, homeless, poverty, he can’t change. But if they look in my book, they’ll see I started a new chapter. With every end, there is a new beginning. People don’t believe that individuals can change — especially individuals living with a substance use disorder — but I’m living proof that they can.
Gillison: It’s especially important for people to see role models who look like them. There is such a huge need for mental health and substance use disorder support in communities of color; but unfortunately, there is still a huge disparity in the number of researchers and providers who look like them. Do you feel like you faced any unique barriers as a member of the Latinx community?
Cisneros: I grew up in a white neighborhood, and I went to a white school. I wasn’t invited to a lot of good things I wanted to be a part of. I suffered a lot because I wanted to fit in, but I didn’t understand prejudice at that time in my life. Racism was a barrier.
Another thing worth mentioning is that we don’t have enough services in Spanish. There are a lot of resources out there, but we need more specifically for the Latino community. Fortunately, Amity does have Spanish services.
Gillison: You’ve been through so much, and now you spend most of your time helping others. How do you take care of your own physical and mental health today?
Cisneros: When I’m not at work, I also manage a sober living home. There are people who live with me who are all on the path to recovery also. So that’s really helpful.
For my physical health, I go to the gym with my niece. We’re able to keep each other motivated. We like to lift weights and run on the treadmill.
And in terms of my mental health, I don’t go to places where people use drugs. I go to meetings to maintain my recovery regularly. I don’t hang out at bars. I stay vigilant, and I stay diligent.
I never want to get to that place where I think I’ve arrived. I never want to get over-confident. I always have to remember where I came from. My mental health is really important to me. I pray, I meditate, and I intentionally take care of myself.
Gillison: The World Health Organization coined a phrase over 20 years ago, “There is no physical health without mental health.” What you’re doing physically helps your mental health, and it sounds like it also keeps you connected with your family, which is great.
We know that, in general, substance use has increased during the pandemic. What advice do you have for people struggling with addiction during this time?
Cisneros: A first step is to change the way you think. And the most important component of doing that is to get honest with yourself.
When you get honest with yourself, you can start to develop some goals and a treatment plan that works for you. For me, I did that geographical move, and then I actually went back to college. I was 50 years old when I went to college — my niece who is way, way younger than me was actually in my same math class! It just goes to show that all things are possible and change can happen at any time.
You’ve got to find your purpose. And for me, I didn’t know what I was going to do. But my brother and I were cruising down the street when we saw a billboard that advertised becoming a drug counselor. I knew immediately that’s what I wanted to do. That’s my purpose.
My advice to someone who still suffers is to listen to the message; don’t get distracted by the messenger. I’ve had second, third and fourth chances. And the message is that there is hope, there is help, and change is possible.
Gillison: Thanks so much for sharing your story and your insight, Chris. You’re so right — there is help. We have resources here at NAMI, too for anyone who is struggling. You can visit nami.org/help or call 800-950-NAMI to talk to a trained support specialist today to find local resources — like the one Chris works at — near you.
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