June 1st marked the three-year anniversary of the original Life of Purpose facility at Florida Atlantic University opening its doors to our very first client. Many of the founding staff members had worked for the better part of a decade in various aspects of the treatment field but this was different–this was unprecedented. We were standing in the first primary care treatment facility to be located on a university campus rolling out not just another new facility, but a new treatment model for emerging adults. On a personal note, I was excited. At over a decade in long-term recovery and having successfully completed both undergraduate and graduate school since my last use, I knew what we, as recovering individuals, are capable of with the proper support and motivation. That knowledge didn’t just stem from the fact that all of the research supports education, meaning and purpose in life (hence the name), and self-esteem being massive protective factors against relapse. That knowledge came from the fact that I had personally observed the transition in my own sense of self over the course of my pursuit of higher education.
What I was truly shocked by and unprepared for in those early days of the model was the level of resistance I encountered from not only some professionals in the field but other recovering individuals.
After the initial thrill of the first few weeks of operations, the sense of accomplishment began to give way to a nagging sense of frustration. Despite our team’s enthusiasm and evidence-based research to support the implementation of our clinical approach, as with all things, change and progress come slowly and old entrenched ideas don’t give way without a struggle. What I was truly shocked by and unprepared for in those early days of the model was the level of resistance I encountered from not only some professionals in the field but other recovering individuals who had themselves pursued higher education and received degrees. It’s easy to look back now and dismiss this resistance as folly now that we are armed with hundreds of successful recovery outcomes and dozens of graduations. At the time, however, resistance and even scorn, much of it stemming from individuals I both admired and respected within the substance use disorder treatment field, was the stuff of nightmares. Fortunately, a few clinicians, predominantly in private practice, liked our model and referred a handful of clients. Other students would arrive from word of mouth, largely from the very first clients and their parents being pleased with their own outcomes. I have attended graduations of many of those very first individuals to come through the doors of Life of Purpose, several of whom I personally pulled out of crack motels and apartments at the request of an alumni, or distressed parents located in another state.
Several months into the project, we began seeing our first truly successful outcomes. These weren’t just individuals who had maintained their abstinence while they were in primary treatment with us but had continued to maintain it after transitioning to lower levels of care and were concurrently succeeding academically (many of them making Dean’s List and even the President’s List). The clients who were embracing our model were so successful in fact that it forced myself and many of the other staff who had themselves achieved a higher education degree to face a hard truth. Our clients were doing it better than we had. They were stronger in their recovery and had achieved more than we had at a comparable age and comparable period of sustained abstinence. This realization may not sound like much of a burden as it concurrently substantiated the efficacy of our model, but it hit me very hard; harder than I care to admit, but I think it’s significant to mention in reflecting back on the past three years of Life of Purpose. I was recently corresponding with a friend of mine in the northeast who is very active in the parents’ support group movement.
One of the things that my friend has repeatedly stressed as a source of endless frustration for the parents of individuals undergoing treatment is a general sense of lack of transparency. In that spirit, I’ll admit that I found myself personally in a constant state of turmoil. Every client that didn’t embrace the model stirred feelings of frustration and resentment in me as I wasn’t afforded the same opportunities they were in my own recovery journey. Worse than that though was the majority who did embrace the model, particularly the ones that fully embraced it and skyrocketed forward. These individuals elicited an emotion I have never before, in over a decade of working within the substance use disorder treatment field, felt toward a client. I felt jealousy. Candidly, this was my own character defect and one which I have since been forced to address with my own recovery support network.
Many of the individuals going through Life of Purpose will eclipse my own accomplishments with regard to our respective recovery journeys.
There is a fallacy that we fall victim to in recovery. I have observed many of my fellows in long-term recovery struggle with it and, as stated above, have fallen victim to it myself on occasion. It is, quite simply, that whatever path we took to achieve long-term recovery is inherently superior to all other paths. If we took a year to complete the twelve steps of whatever specific fellowship we may have attended, then that’s the proper time frame for all recovering individuals to do them in. If we took two, three or five years to return to higher education then that is the optimal time frame for all others to wait as well. If we did or didn’t go to treatment, did or didn’t see a clinician in private practice post treatment, did or didn’t get forced into an artificial state of homelessness based on the recommendations our family received then that is the very best way to do it. After all, we made it, therefore, is it not the best possible solution for any other individual suffering from a similar affliction?
Having made my peace with the realization that I am not, in fact, a super special and unique snowflake with regard to my recovery has allowed me to accept that some, and perhaps many of the individuals going through Life of Purpose will eclipse my own accomplishments with regard to our respective recovery journeys.
I have chosen to spend the majority of this reflection writing about the beginning because I have come to understand over these past three years that when you build something of substance, it is the foundation, not the roof that everything you do afterward rests upon. When I look around now at all of the truly exceptional people involved in the Life of Purpose project, it’s easy to lose sight of that. What we have accomplished together far surpasses anything I would have been able to do as an individual. In just three short years, we have contributed to opening two recovery research offices both here at Florida Atlantic University.
And at the University of North Texas.
We have thrown as much weight as we can muster behind the larger recovery advocacy movement in this country by supporting Young People in Recovery.
We received the Vison Recognition Award from industry leader Sierra Tucson for the establishment of our model in 2014.
We were awarded the Association of Recovery Schools Recovery Philanthropist of the Year Award in D.C. before a crowd that included many of the most prominent recovery researchers on the planet and the seated Drug Czar of America among others.
We published a practice update of our model in a peer reviewed journal.
I truly don’t know how far we will be able to take our academically focused substance use disorder treatment model in the coming years, but two things are already apparent. The first is that the continuum of care for emerging adults can and will shift to accommodate the academic needs of individuals afflicted with substance use disorders. We, as an industry, have become quite effective in providing acute care; there are numerous facilities that do this extremely effectively (also quite a few that don’t, but we’ll leave that topic for a different time). That said, where we are falling short, as an industry, is in our discharge planning and continuing care planning. Parents and clients are becoming better-informed consumers and simply will not continue to accept treatment with no real post treatment trajectory in sight and, they’re 100% in the right to demand more from us in this regard. The second is that we, as a society, will no longer be able to marginalize the population of individuals suffering from substance use disorders. The population is simply too large and the epidemic is too widespread. Consequently, we will be forced to create a supportive infrastructure to ensure that such individuals have a pathway to meaningfully participate, live, grow and thrive within our society just as we have done with countless other special needs subpopulations.
Where we are falling short, as an industry, is in our discharge planning and continuing care planning. Parents and clients are becoming better-informed consumers and simply will not continue to accept treatment with no real post treatment trajectory in sight.
Developing a drug and alcohol problem young won’t constitute an almost insurmountable pathway to success (I know there are young people who have overcome the odds and I salute them, but the number, historically, of young people who haven’t is literally an order of magnitude greater). I’ve seen firsthand what these young people are capable of. I know better than to simply dismiss their future out of hand. I know that they can be an asset rather than a burden to both their families and society as a whole. These aren’t my opinions. These are facts. I know what they’re capable of because I’m one of them.
Andrew Burki, MSW
Founder and CEO
Life of Purpose Treatment