Q&A with Joe Powell

President & CEO of the Association of Persons Affected by Addiction

Q: You describe yourself as a person in long-term recovery. What does that mean to you?

I always say I’m a young person in long-term recovery. What that means is that it’s only because of recovery that I’m able today to be a father and a husband and a lifelong learner and someone who serves by leading. It’s only because of long-term recovery that I’ve been able to be the president and CEO of APAA, the Association of Persons Affected by Addiction, here in Dallas for the past 21 years. Long-term recovery means I have purpose in my life today. I got sober on October 8, 1988. With that, I learned that my purpose is to get up every day and stay clean and sober and to help those who are seeking recovery.

Q: What are your proudest accomplishments as president and CEO of AAPA?

There are so many! I think one of the big things is just maintaining the relationships with people who are in the recovery movement and being a part of it myself. I think that’s a huge accomplishment—the fact that people still call, and people still want to learn about how to get involved.

Moving the community, the state of Texas, and the nation overall toward recovery-oriented systems of care is another big accomplishment. APAA was the first group in Texas, and one of the first 20 in the nation, to receive a Recovery Community Support Program grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). That was in 1998. In the past decade, APAA became one of the first five groups in the country to be nationally accredited for peer recovery support services, and we recently made history by signing the first addiction recovery contract with the managed care company Value Options for peer-to-peer recovery support services. We also now have peer coaches who are trained in MARS—medicated-assisted recovery supports—because we know medications can work, but they work better with recovery support services to go along with them.

Personally, I’ve done a lot of work with SAMHSA over the years. I was one of 20 people––10 on the addiction side and 10 on the mental health side—to help SAMHSA develop a definition of “recovery.” We defined it as “a process of change to improve our health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach our full potential.” I use that definition every day. I’m also a licensed chemical dependency counselor, and in 1998 I started the first African American National Alliance on Mental Illness chapter in Dallas.

Looking at the field broadly, I’m pleased to see the language is changing, because I think the wrong language can keep people stuck in the problem. Everything is moving toward health. People are moving away from the word “illness”—now we talk about mental health, wellness, and recovery. We’ve also really expanded our reach in our area, so we can offer recovery support everywhere people need it. We have had what’s called a “recovery pod” in the local jail, where we offered recovery coaching and did recovery groups. Then we helped connect the men in our groups to recovery support services in the community.

Q: You have said that APAA operates on a strengths-based approach. What does that mean for someone who has been in jail or prison?

Everyone has strengths. With the recovery movement we call it “capital.” Capital is like gold, it’s like money, it’s powerful. Whether you’ve experienced homelessness, incarceration, addiction, mental health issues, hospitalization, treatment, or trauma, you have capital. We do a strengths-based assessment with everyone that comes to APAA. Usually, no one has even asked them about their strengths in a long time.

Potential sources of capital range widely. We ask people about human capital—do they still have friends and family who can support them in recovery? A lot of people who come in here have burned all those bridges, but some haven’t. Or maybe they have a high school diploma. Education is a strength for some people. They might have a car, but they never used that car for recovery. They used it to get drugs or to go to the liquor store. Maybe they are a spiritual person. In recovery, we gain more and more strengths, or more and more capital. I could never have dreamed of all I have today, but it’s because of recovery and what recovery has given me, which I call the lessons and blessings of life.

People recover in the context of a community, so we look at the recovery strengths in their community. Where are the champions? Maybe they are in the church or the police department or the community center. Who are the people in recovery who are advocates? All advocates have strengths, and we want to capitalize on that.

Q: What doesn’t the general public understand about recovery from addictions and mental illnesses?

My dad died from alcohol use disorder (AUD), and one of my brothers died from substance use disorder. Growing up as a kid in Harlem, nobody ever said, you know what, there’s a bunch of people with AUD right around the corner getting sober, why don’t you take your dad to a meeting? People just didn’t talk about addiction, treatment, and recovery like that. That’s why we do the work we do today. Everybody needs to know that you can recover, that there’s support out there to get sober and have a new way of life. I never got that as a kid, and I think that makes a difference in the work we do today.

Young people don’t see recovery enough. When a movie star dies or gets in trouble with alcohol or drugs, then it’s in the headlines. In our local communities, there are personal celebrations of recovery every day that need to be on the air and in the newspapers. That’s what we do. Wherever I go, I ask people, how will you promote recovery in your community? How are you getting the word out? We help communities become ROCC stars—recovery-oriented communities of care. We’re training people to educate those in their area, so that everyone knows recovery is possible. That’s how we’ll change the world!

 

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