Chris Gleason of BRIGHTSIDE Recovery: “Humor is essential”

The number one most important thing you can do for yourself is self-care. I would work 12 to 15 hours a day, one day I thought I was having a heart attack. I was in my 30’s. I let stress lead the way, ignoring the fact I needed time to myself in order to give […]

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The number one most important thing you can do for yourself is self-care. I would work 12 to 15 hours a day, one day I thought I was having a heart attack. I was in my 30’s. I let stress lead the way, ignoring the fact I needed time to myself in order to give my full attention to everything else in my life.

As a part of my series about “Heroes Of The Addiction Crisis” I had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Gleason, MA, CAADC.

Chris Gleason is the Chief Clinical Officer at BRIGHTSIDE Recovery where he leads all aspects of the business. Chris received his undergraduate degree from Judson University and is a graduate of Argosy University. A Certified Advanced Alcohol and Drug Counselor, he has held numerous leadership positions in the field over the past 25 years working in all levels of substance abuse and mental health treatment. Chris co-led a team of therapists recognized by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) receiving the SAMHSA Science to Service Award in 2010 for co-occurring treatment for adolescents. Chris is a sought-after presenter on co-occurring, opiates, and community integration, where he has spoken at local, state, and national levels. He is also an adjunct professor at Aurora University in the School of Social Work with a focus on substance use and co-occurring. He practices a servant leadership approach with a recovery focus, as he has been sober for over 30 years and believes in the power of the human spirit to change.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit of your backstory?

I was born into an Irish Catholic military family; my father was deployed to Vietnam shortly after I was born. We moved every three years until I was 13 years old. It was when my father was stationed at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, that I first experimented with drugs and alcohol. In my mind, I found a home with those two substances. Over the next six years, my substance abuse increased, I was hiding it not only from family but also friends.

My father was an alcoholic, which greatly impacted our relationship. When I was 19, I moved to Minnesota after failing out of college. I spent the next 10 years getting sober while working for the Catholic church as a youth minister. One of the priests encouraged me to go back to school and become a substance abuse counselor, which started my journey of working in the field. From that point on I have made it my life’s mission to help others who are struggling with substances, help them find HOPE, and their road to recovery. I have held many leadership positions that have allowed me to share my passion and story. Recovery is not just a word I use; it is an action I follow each day.

Is there a particular story or incident that inspired you to get involved in your work with opioid and drug addiction?

I had been working in the substance abuse field for about 10 years when I took a position as the Director of Substance Services at a community mental health agency. When I was looking at our service lines, I noticed that those with opioid use disorder were not staying in treatment and struggling to stay sober. I started an opioid only group focused on their unique needs. I experienced loss as I had never before in this field, but also saw extreme resiliency, when they got it, they got it.

Can you explain what brought us to this place? Where did this epidemic come from?

We can point to several factors: over-prescribing of opiates, the introduction of oxycontin as the most effective pain reliever, lack of education on the long-term impacts of opiates, people not disposing of old prescription medications, presenting easier access for people in their own homes. But one of the major factors I believe is the stigma surrounding being labeled a drug addict. That alone has caused an abundance of people to not seek treatment.

Can you describe how your work is making an impact battling this epidemic?

I recently joined BRIGHTSIDE Recovery in Northern Illinois, an expansion of BRIGHTSIDE Clinic. Since 2015, they have made significant strides providing patients access to evidence-based treatments making a major impact on this epidemic. The program notedly looks at each patient as a unique person, not just a number, which I believe is a huge part of their success and I am excited to be a part of it.

Wow! Without sharing real names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted by your initiative?

I once worked with one woman who was in and out of treatment for years. She was living in her car, had lost custody of her child, and was estranged from her family. I repeatedly told her, there is nothing you are going to do that will cause me not to work with you and that became my motto to her. It took a few years for that message to sink in, but she finally got it.

Now eight years sober, she is a Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor after graduating college with a degree in social work, has her daughter back, and is in a long-term relationship. I’ve since had the opportunity to work with her in the field. The process works, but it requires patience and focus to stay the course.

Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?

What makes me most proud is seeing patients getting their life in order, having the life they have always wanted and/or dreamed of. One night I was out to dinner with my family and the hostess kept looking at our table. On the way out the door, she asked if I was Chris Gleason. My family was glancing at me as if to say, “Who is this?” After responding yes, she turned to them and said this man saved my life; he never gave up on me. I think I was walking on clouds when I left the restaurant that night. It is those moments that make everything worth it.

Can you share three things that the community and society can do to help you address the root of this problem? Can you give some examples?

Some of the most important things we as a society can do are reduce stigma, encourage increased education on substance use disorders, and offer a welcoming spirit in our communities for recovery homes. Stigma is one of the things that frustrates me the most. When someone is diagnosed with cancer or another disease, people rally around them, their families, and provide an astounding level of encouragement. The same is not true when someone is diagnosed with a substance use disorder. People tend to take a moral or behavioral approach like they did that to themselves, it is just a behavior, we do not want those people in our neighborhoods. My vision is that when people are diagnosed with a substance use disorder, we embrace them and their families, provide education, meals, support, and welcome them to the community.

If you had the power to influence legislation, which three laws would you like to see introduced that might help you in your work?

The three areas of focus most needed would be the ability to increase funding directly to providers, offering greater access to evidenced-based medications without the need for preauthorization, and for recovery homes and treatment centers to be able to operate without needing to fulfill special zoning requirements.

I know that this is not easy work. What keeps you going?

As someone who is in long-term recovery, I know that it can be done. People need someone to listen to them, who is willing to walk the road of recovery alongside them. When I needed help people helped me, and that is what keeps me going, the joy of seeing people like me get their life back.

Do you have hope that one day this leading cause of death can be defeated?

I will always have hope, that will never change. If we can reduce the stigma and treat substance use disorders like everything else, then we will decrease the loss of a generation.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

My father continuously defined leadership to me throughout my life by saying; “Son, you need to be there for people, show them the way, always be willing to do the job, always serve others.” He would share that with me weekly. Also adding, “Son you can do anything for a year, after that keep doing what leads you to your passion.” Those two simple phrases stick with me to this day.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

The number one most important thing you can do for yourself is self-care. I would work 12 to 15 hours a day, one day I thought I was having a heart attack. I was in my 30’s. I let stress lead the way, ignoring the fact I needed time to myself in order to give my full attention to everything else in my life.

In this field, it is pertinent to remind yourself that you cannot save anyone’s life. When a patient would die of this disease, I would often blame myself. Until one day, when someone finally said to me you can only point the way.

If you are in recovery, you must remember your recovery is not at work. This was an important lesson I learned early on, I was pouring from an empty cup because all of me was at work and not in my recovery program.

Patience is key. You must remember that it took years to get here, it will not just turn around in a few weeks.

Humor is essential. I was profoundly serious when I started in this field. One of my supervisors always played practical jokes on everyone, he finally said to me, “Chris if you do not laugh, you won’t make it in this field.” He was right.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I believe that if we simply show up for families, teach them how to deal with substance use disorders, bring them dinner, listen to their pain, help them navigate the process we could make substantial strides, ultimately helping reduce the stigma.

In April of 2019, my niece died from an opiate overdose, it brought me to my knees. She left behind two beautiful children and so many family members who loved her. The stigma kept her sick, if we could just see people as people and not as a junkie or an addict, we could go a long way in creating healthy communities.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite quote is pulled from the pages of Robert Fulghum’s book, “All I Really Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” In the book, Fulghum writes, “When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.” That quote directly applies to how I try to live my own life, looking both ways, seeing things from other perspectives, sticking together. You will have a hard time arguing with people when you are holding their hand, and if we do not help each other, our problems will not go away.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I greatly admire Gary Vanderchuk. He has a great handle on life, lives what he talks about, gets to solutions, and not problems. He not only grows business, but he is more interested in growing people. I respect how he has defined himself; I would want to bring this epidemic to him for solutions from someone who sees the big picture.

How can our readers follow you on social media?





This was very meaningful, thank you so much!

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