Richmond's Friends 4 Recovery Whole Health Center was looking for ways to help support people recovering from opioid addiction, which is known to involve a 91% relapse rate among opiate addicts.
The center is a peer support recovery community which provides educational and wellness classes centered around learning new life skills, sharing recovery resources and providing peer-to-peer support to help those who struggle with mental health or substance abuse challenges. Everyone on staff, including Executive Director Chris Newcomb and most of the board of directors, share their lived experiences openly with people who come to the center looking for help, hope and healing.
In April, Friends 4 Recovery Whole Health Center was awarded a grant from the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services to promote opiate use disorder recovery in central Virginia. After surveying people with lived experience of addiction, the community identified a need to provide entertainment on weekends in a drug-free space.
Their answer was to play host to a series called Sober Nights.
The center began by purchasing a 7-foot pool table and two competition dartboards, but a key component was contracting with local promotion company, Rockitz.
Long-timers remember Rockitz as a live music venue in the mid-'80s, but it currently do video production and archive work documenting bands from 1996 through the present, as well as live music booking and event production. Friends 4 Recovery asked Rockitz to contract with local musicians to perform and record a 12-song CD based on the stories of people in recovery from opiate use.
"It's a peer support community program designed for peers to come and eat a free meal and have fun," Newcomb says. "They can play pool, corn hole, cards, listen to music, watch a movie, have conversation, play guitar or use our computer lab while being in a safe and sober environment."
Sober Nights was a hit and every Friday and Saturday night from March 23 to June 15, the center welcomed local performers. Over the course of that time, it recorded recovery stories from people in attendance and forwarded the stories to musicians who wrote songs using the real-life experiences as lyrics as a means of promoting hope and recovery.
Musician Pamela McCarthy got involved playing music at Sober Nights because she'd witnessed the addiction issues of friends and family.
"It was a humbling, generous evening and one of the attendees gifted me with her story of recovery," she recalls. "What happens in recovery is that you finally learn to love yourself, by learning how to take care of yourself. You learn how to mend the broken places that make you stronger and more compassionate."
The dozen songs of opioid recovery will be released Sept. 29 on the CD "HopeFiendz: Songs of Hope from the Opioid Crisis." Musicians and songwriters donated their time and resources to make the album a reality. Profits from the sale of the CD are being used to continue the Sober Nights series into the fall, as well as help picking up clients. A second CD is already in the works, which will focus on suicide prevention.
Newcomb says it's worth mentioning that Sober Nights has two meanings. The word sober is most recognized as meaning abstaining from alcohol and drugs. However, there's a second definition regarding mental health, which is "calm." In that regard, the series helps peers be calm in terms of mental health and abstain from drugs and alcohol which can lead to addiction. Each event includes a free meal, but registration is required on their website.
The importance of providing social outlets for those battling opioid addiction grew from the stigmas that are often aimed at people who struggle with mental health and substance use challenges. Often, fear of being labeled a druggie or a psycho prevents recovering addicts and those being treated for mental illness from seeking out social situations.
"Connecting socially with other peers who have experienced similar mistreatment helps peers to identify with someone else's lived experience," Newcomb says, pointing out that mutual trust and support is fostered through identified shared suffering.
Because those who battle opioid addiction often struggle with social isolation, low self-esteem, fear of judgment and fear of being bored, he says people embracing recovery from opiates must learn that "safe people are sober people" and that "fun" is not self-destruction through drugs and alcohol.
Rather, as Newcomb likes to tell them, it's pursuing, obtaining and maintaining maximum health and wellness.
McCarthy agrees. "Recovery is an inside job and hope and friends and love are crucial to that," she says. "This is all about education and treatment not shaming and denying the victims. We're here for each other."
"HopeFiendz: Songs of Hope from the Opioid Crisis" will be available for a suggested donation of $15 directly through Friends4recovery.org. Sober Nights will be held Oct. 19, Nov. 16 and Dec. 28 at Friends 4 Recovery Whole Health Center at 7420 Whitepine Road. Call 308-1366 or visit Friends4recovery.org.