I’d like to share a window into some work that’s been incredibly important to me.
In 2017 I began a project which centered around understanding the connections between trauma addiction.
As many of you may know, I was born into an opiate addicted family, and so this struggle is one that moves me to my core. In the past decade, the opioid crisis has reached epidemic proportions. It’s a tragic situation that has affected almost all of us in some way.
In 2011 my life was changed by the work of Dr. Gabor Mate, who helped me to understand that addictions are an attempt to soothe the pain of a nervous system that has been disrupted by a history of trauma, and is struggling to find relief. This new perspective helped me to forgive and to reconnect with members of my family whose addictions had plagued our lives.
Believing that this understanding could shift the way we as a culture see addicts and address addiction, I asked myself how artists might be able to help build alternatives and help push our culture toward healing.
The Road Home was an almost year long project that worked with people who were living homeless and struggling with addiction, as well as with social workers, and families and friends of addicts. Our aim was to connect with those who were suffering, to provide a balm through creativity, to share what we were learning in their presence, and, in doing so, to help shift our cultural perspective on this crisis.
The project began with a month long series of workshops given at the Kensington Storefront in Philadelphia.
Kensington is a neighborhood in Philly that has been particularly hard hit by the opioid epidemic. The truth is, I’ve never seen anything like it – people are living in a state of emergency, and overdose deaths occur daily. Mural Arts has done something radical by creating an arts community center in the middle of this skid row. At first The Kensington Storefront seems like an unlikely idea, but immediately we came to understand the importance of giving people who are in dire circumstances a space to be safe, to be respected, and to engage their creativity. Creativity is calming and centering for anyone who takes part in it — but even more than that — I have come to believe that it helps people to contact the parts of themselves that are most capable of healing. This matters because psychological and emotional healing are major steps on the path out of addiction.
And so, 6 days a week Jess, Heather, Julian and I created workshops with people at the Storefront, from story telling and song circles, to drawing exercises aimed at connecting people to their own internal wholeness. One of my favorite workshops was “Manicure Day”, where people could come in and get their hands cleaned up. Because – not only is it difficult to look for work or feel your best if you can’t get clean, there is also a way in which this simple act of care creates an intimate space for sharing and connection that might not happen otherwise. And we believe that any healing process begins with respect, care and human connection.
When this leg of the journey was over for us (it continues on at the Storefront with resident artists who run weekly arts workshops year round), the next phase of our work took the form of a mural on Kensington Ave, and two public events which sought to broaden public knowledge and bring some heart centered understanding to this epidemic.
Our first public event was a conference headlined by Dr. Gabor Mate. Getting to introduce and thank Dr. Mate for helping me to forgive and reconnect with my family was an immense and profound honor.
After his keynote speech, given to health professionals and lay people alike, the conference broke out into workshops on somatic healing, race-based trauma, safe injection sites and more. All presenters worked to push the conversation forward around how to heal the trauma that causes addiction, and how to keep people alive while they find ways to get help.
Here’s a link to a wonderful zine created by Jess Radovich for conference participants and folks on Kensington Ave. which addresses the need for accessible materials to teach mindfulness as a tool for healing.
Next was “Stories from the Road Home”. Because facts, statistics, and theories all have their place, but nothing moves us to action nor brings us to understanding like a story. Two members of our team, Heather Box and Julian Mocine-Mcqueen, have dedicated their lives to helping people tell their truest story, and they brought that life’s mission to Kensington Ave. Over the course of our time at The Storefront, we fell in love with the artists and social workers that keep the place going.
The kind of compassion they deliver day after day is truly miraculous, and most of them are working from a deep well of life experience with addiction and trauma that fuels their dedication to helping others. The media often asks to hear stories from folks in addiction, but we realized immediately that it would be far too stressful for people in active addiction to stand up and deliver a talk, and so we focused on stories from people who were further along the road of recovery, and who had dedicated their lives to going back to help others.
The evening was a moving look at human resilience and a testament to the potential of every single person, no matter how far gone they may seem, to recover from addiction and to become a source of strength for others.
The last piece of the puzzle was a mural created across from an incredible drop-in center called Prevention Point, on Kensington Ave. Prevention Point is a partner of Mural Arts, and has been providing relief to people in the neighborhood for decades. The mural “Healing Begins With Connection” was drawn from people I’d worked with in Kensington – representing neighbors, people who volunteer at the storefront, and people who come in for services.
I’ve never created a work of art that was so much at home in its place. Most unforgettable for me were the looks on people’s faces when they saw that the mural was truly a loving reflection of their community. A number of times I heard people say things like “Did you hear? It’s real people on here!” Or “Hey that’s us!” And my collaborator Jess Radovich commented on how unusual it felt to have the sense that something overwhelmingly and unanimously positive was happening on a block that sees so much suffering.
The Road Home was just a small piece of what I believe to be a deep reckoning needed in our country. The first step involves seeing where addiction comes from – understanding that true addiction is neither hedonistic behavior nor willfully bad choices, but a desperate attempt to self medicate an unmanageable pain. The next step involves learning that there are ways to heal a nervous system that has been damaged by trauma, isolation, abuse, and neglect. From Somatic based therapies and EMDR, to the MAPS trials that are using psychedelics to treat PTSD — there are paths out of the pain that drives people to addiction, but it takes work and resources. If we can find it in ourselves to help people get access to these cutting edge forms of treatment within a context of caring and respectful human connection, we can create far different outcomes than the tragedies that are playing out in places like Kensington every day.
Our role as artists has been one of seeing from the heart, and connecting the dots. As people who are not trained in one specific methodology, or being funded by one specific agency, we are able to use our voices freely, to speak up for new ways of addressing a problem that affects all of us if we’re truly honest about it.
If you’d like to look deeper into this work, here are some links.
The series of talks given by myself, and our collaborators at the storefront. The Million Person Project helped each of us dig deep to tell our truest story, and we hope you find them inspiring. Special thanks to Ursula Rucker, Myles Orion Butler and and Ashley Flynn for performances at both events.
While The Road Home project has come to a close for now, the work being done by folks at the Mural Arts Storefront continues. Prevention Point Philadelphia is working to create the East Coast’s first supervised injection facility, which will save countless lives. Our cultural struggle to come to terms with why we get addicted–and how to help each other when we do–continues. If you’re feeling inspired to help out in any way, please contact Mural Arts, or Prevention Point.
Learn more about the work of Prevention Point here.
Special thanks to Doug Woodsey and John C. Zerbe for being the lead muralists, executing the mural in the cold and under tough conditions. They did an amazing job and lead their team beautifully.
Special thanks to Mural Art’s incredibly open minded and supportive partners at the Department of Behavioral Health Philadelphia.
Special thanks to Steve Weinik for taking all the photos that are any good here….(the blurry ones are mine!)
And special thanks to the Mural Arts Director Jane Golden, and the rest of the Storefront and Porchlight team:
Roz Pichardo, Stephanie Vituccio, Kathryn Pannepacker, Lisa Kelley, Michael Worthy, Lizette Lewis, Laure Biron, Emily Crane and Jess Lewis-Turner.
And to everyone reading this update!
Big hugs, and thank you!!