‘We are the medicine’: Nonprofit uses community connection to combat addiction
A new nonprofit expanding its services into Haywood County is challenging the status quo when it comes to overcoming addiction.
Seek Healing began in Asheville three years ago, but recent grant support has allowed the organization to open an office in downtown Waynesville with hopes of meeting people in need exactly where they are.
Seek Healing operates with the belief that addiction is not necessarily the opposite of sobriety — “Rather, it is an authentic connection and a deeply rooted sense of purpose and belonging” that can help people deal with the underlying causes of their addiction. With free facilities and programs that work to rebuild that lost sense of connection so many people are experiencing, Seek Healing aims to have the community rethink the traditional model of rehabilitation in the U.S.
“What we understand now is addiction has roots in trauma,” said Executive Director Jennifer Nicolaisen. “Once we understand that, it becomes less relevant to talk about what they’re doing, whether it’s opioids, heroin, etc. By stepping back, we can see the bigger picture and help them as they heal from their trauma and that looks different for different people.”
Nicolaisen said it’s all about how we learn to connect to the people in our lives from our early caregivers to how we’re socialized later in life. For a child who’s suffered from early trauma, it can be common for them to form unhealthy bonds with drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism. Even when someone is working to break these habits, she said the person will often just shift to another addiction if they can’t get to the root cause of the behavior.
“We’re truly starting to understand this on a national level and in the scientific community, and we see how recovery is extremely nuanced,” she said. “We see the journey people take when they end one relationship and still cycle through addictions to others. For example, I’ve never seen so many cigarettes being smoked and coffee consumed than at AA meetings.”
With all that in mind, Seek Healing focuses more on offering people nonjudgmental friendship and understanding during their individual journey. That’s done through something called Connection Practice meetings — a hallmark of the Seek Healing program. These meetings are conducted by a professional facilitator who has completed the organization’s active listening training. However, the focus of these meetings isn’t necessarily addiction. Participants don’t have to share anything about their past mistakes and no one hands out medallions for being sober for certain periods of time — they can talk about whatever is on their minds and whatever they might be struggling with that day.
“It’s an alternative recovery meeting. We practice healthy communications skills and people can talk about whatever they like,” Nicolaisen said.
You don’t even need to be struggling with addiction to attend a connection practice meeting — maybe you’re just depressed or isolated and looking for an outlet.
Danny Wallace, now the community engagement director with Seek Healing, said finding the Connection Practice meetings three years ago in Asheville changed his life. He compared drugs and alcohol to a Band-Aid that covers up a deeper wound.
“I started going to connection practices and it opened my eyes to what real recovery is. When you fix the wound, you don’t need the Band-Aid,” he said.
Now three years into his recovery journey, Wallace sits on the Seek Healing board and was hired on as community outreach director to help the organization expand services into Haywood County.
“What we think of today as traditional recovery started back in the 1950s. The only options were AA, NA and Celebrate Recovery, and that works for some people, but for many others it doesn’t,” Wallace said.
That traditional method of recovery didn’t work for him either. Wallace grew up in Haywood County and lived at Broyhill Children’s Home as a child.
“I had a rough life growing up,” he said. “I’ve been a functioning addict for a majority of my life, and when I decided to finally stop, the 12 step programs were the only thing available. I couldn’t get behind it because I wasn’t allowed to identify as Danny. I had to identify as an addict who has no control over his life.”
The new office in Waynesville offers a safe and nonjudgmental place for people to receive information. Donated photo
For someone who was under the influence for much of his adolescent years, Wallace said he was emotionally immature and it was hard for him to express himself. Attending NA support groups only made him feel shame for his situation. Seek Healing believes identifying as an addict facilitates socially acceptable shaming and further isolates them from forming a positive connection to the local community.
As a co-founder of Seek Healing, Nicolaisen brings her experience in business and project consulting, but as with most people, she also has her own story about how addiction has impacted her life.
“I found a passion around this work in 2016 when a dear, dear friend of mine was dying from heroin addiction,” she said. “I partnered with her to get her into treatment and I learned a lot during that process.”
The most important thing she learned was that there was a glaring gap in the recovery process — the lack of a strong social support network that allows people to reconnect in their community.
“We start to get close to that human connection with providing peer support but that’s still a relationship built around structured advice,” she said. “What people need in recovery is genuine friendship instead of the toxic relationships they’ve created with other people who are also struggling.”
With the office set up on the corner of Depot Street and Branner Avenue in downtown Waynesville, Wallace is now reaching out in the community to create relationships and partnerships with other organizations, churches and civic groups working toward common goals. Seek Healing is hosting a Connection Practice from 1 to 2 p.m. every Tuesday at the Bethel Resource Center on South Main Street. The center also hosts other organizations working to help people with addiction or who are experiencing homelessness like N.C. Harm Reduction Coalition and Helping Hands of Haywood.
Nicolaisen said Seek Healing received grants from Vaya Health to hold Connection Practices for inmates in the Haywood County Detention Center, but the COVID-19 Pandemic has put that plan on hold. Evergreen Foundation has also given grant funding to Seek Healing to expand its programming.
“We’ve been working with Vaya Health since the beginning of Seek Healing. They’ve been a long-time supporter of our work,” she said. “Vaya granted us funding for Danny’s position and focused work at the jail, but the jail is shut down to outside visitors so it’s been challenging to get that up and running. We did a couple of sessions in the summer during a brief window it was open, and the participants really appreciated the program.”
Until the jail is back open to accepting outside visitors, Seek Healing staff will continue to train people as facilitators and for other volunteer opportunities while building relationships in the community.
Entering a community where many established organizations working to address the issues of addiction are abstinence or religious based can be daunting, but Nicolaisen said there is room for everyone to do their part and work together toward a common goal.
“Our intention is to coexist in the local culture. Compassion is an important value we all have. We’re not seeking to compete with those other models — we’re just adding this additional layer to social awareness,” she said. “Our approach partners well with traditional recovery programs. We just want to help people up level their communication skills and help address the stigma and changing paradigms in recovery.”
Seek Healing facilities in Asheville offer Connection Practices every day in addition to many other resources and classes. For now, a once a week practice is being held in Waynesville. Wallace hopes to offer more practices in the future. People are welcome to stop by the office on Depot Street for a safe place, a cup of coffee or someone to listen. Seek Healing also offers wellness kits for people going through detox — the kit contains herbal teas, kratom, epsom salt, CBD oil and more.
Whether you’re in Haywood or Buncombe, Seek Healing has a 24/7 listening line for people who need connection and support. For more information on services or how to volunteer, visit seekhealing.org.
Seek Healing Open House
- 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 4
- 116 Depot St., Waynesville NC
- Visit seekhealing.org.
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This makes me so happy! I hope their work spreads out into the more rural counties of extreme WNC, where addiction is dealt with in two ways: Through religious organizations and/or through the incarceration system, neither of which have a VERY small percentage of long-lasting success.