The year was 1980. I was playing on a future Oregon State University Hall of Fame basketball team, and I was on track to join an NBA team. A severe arm injury on the court put me in the hospital, and my life took an abrupt turn. I was given prescription drugs to cope with the pain of my injury, but the pain didn’t go away. I became addicted to prescription painkillers, an addiction that led me to crack cocaine.
Close to that time, my aunt was killed. She had taught me to drive. She was the primary caregiver in our family. She was charismatic and spirited. She was strict. Here was a person who was the joy, the love, the enthusiasm of the family, and she was gone. Her death, which was drug-related, took away the breath of the family. We all felt disconnected. We all fell into the very addiction that caused this pain. We didn’t know about any services that would help us cope.
Seven years later, a program called Teen Challenge helped me understand what led to my addiction. Since then, my whole family and I have been on a quest to help people. Today I lead Healthy Oakland, which offers mental health services, community supports, and spiritual sustenance for people hurting from violence and addiction.
Healthy Oakland is part of the East Bay Safe Prescribing Coalition, a broad community effort to help stem the overprescribing and overuse of prescription opioids that are wreaking havoc on families and communities throughout our nation. (The California Health Care Foundation supports 16 such coalitions in 24 counties across the state.)
In the West Oakland community where I live, work, and worship, there is a high level of drug addiction. This community is also known for crime, violence, unemployment, food insecurity, and little access to health and wellness resources. People have been shot, lost loved ones to violence, and experienced incarceration as the norm. Most of our people constantly grapple with serious health issues.
In the past, government officials tended to see addiction as a moral failing plaguing poor urban neighborhoods that could only be solved through the criminal justice system. In recent years, as addiction to prescription painkillers has skyrocketed and claimed victims from all socioeconomic groups, including the affluent, the policy thinking has thankfully changed. Now we see resources and efforts to change practices. I hope this progress will help communities like West Oakland, which have been gripped by the epidemic of addiction for decades.
The reality is that addiction strikes every community, and it is costing lives. We’ve lost Prince, Michael Jackson, and Whitney Houston — and those are just a few famous names. An addict could be the person on the street corner, a CEO, a doctor, a nurse, a preacher, a politician.
At Healthy Oakland, we have a unique model that helps build trust. We believe in prayer and holistic approaches. We provide primary care, mental health, and alcohol and drug rehab services. We do everything it takes to reach people. One of our best preachers, Pastor James Carbin, is a barber who reaches young men as he cuts their hair. Many of our staff members are former users of addictive medications and illegal drugs. Sometimes clients who are addicted come through the door and you remember: When I was there, I was in pain, I was angry, and there was self-pity. You think it’s only you, and then you learn it’s not only you. People can sense that you understand, and they realize that there’s a chance that they can make it.
We need to get over the misunderstanding and blame that have hindered progress in dealing with this epidemic. Doctors have to make a connection with their patients. That means having conversations with them and talking to them about what’s going on in their lives. If I’m a doctor, I not only have to be educated about the medication I’m prescribing, I also need to understand whether the patient for whom I’m prescribing it is at risk of becoming addicted to it. If that person is already addicted, they need to feel respected. I’ve heard many stories from patients of doctors being short with them, not acting as if they care, sometimes not even looking at them or greeting them.
Many in the medical profession discredit the value of 12-step programs, and 12-step programs look down on people unless they’re medication-free. While 12-step programs have worked for millions of people, others need medicine to become sober. When you stop taking drugs, it affects you mentally and physically. You’re not 100% whole, which means some people require some form of medication or alternative treatment. We have to be respectful and realize there’s no one-size-fits-all way of overcoming addiction. People trying to recover can make it if they step out of their former lives and create new ones. When I was addicted, I hung out in a two-block radius, because I was just getting high. That was life. But when that ended there were beaches, there were mountains, there were parks, there were people I could visit. I could go somewhere and eat and still have money in my pocket.
To solve the addiction problem, we need to go out of our immediate communities and comfort zones. We need to build coalitions. Coalitions are going to help you get into the tents and condos and townhouses and penthouses and clinic waiting rooms and back alleys that you wouldn’t be able to reach in any other way. It means working together in teams with a collective breadth of information and approaches to connect with everyone.
At the East Bay Safe Prescribing Coalition, health care professionals, public health leaders, community leaders working on addiction issues, and law enforcement officials are all sitting at the same table. We have entered into a meaningful dialogue that has enabled us to join forces in crafting the messaging and supporting the awareness and education of local doctors so they will better gauge when prescribing painkillers is more likely to cause harm. Our coalition is committed to helping athletes like me and so many other people suffering from pain to avoid the path of addiction to prescription drugs. We’ve made sure that all 20 emergency departments in Alameda have safe prescribing guidelines that educate providers and patients on how pain care is changing.
We are working to make sure addiction treatment is available to everyone in the right dosage, frequency, and form. We have much work ahead. Find out more about our work and join us. Or wherever you live, speak up. Addiction is a disease in search of a cure, and together we can get there.
Pastor Raymond E. Lankford is executive director of Healthy Oakland, a nonprofit, free to low-cost clinic that was California’s first African American faith-based state-licensed community clinic. As an associate pastor at the Center of Hope Community Church in Oakland, Pastor Lankford was a cofounder of Healthy Oakland in 2001. Pastor Lankford has been awarded numerous honors for his community service, including the City of Oakland Humanitarian Award, the Man of the Year Award from Brothers on the Rise, and recognition by Black Expo as one of the 101 Outstanding Champions for Youth. He founded VOICES of Hope Community Church in West Oakland in 2005.