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David Poses: “Something interesting happens every day”

Something interesting happens every day — making a new connection, gaining a different perspective, meeting a hero in this space. I started doing this less than two years ago, and I’ve met so many people who’ve lost a friend/relative to overdose or suicide. Those experiences, and the people who reach out to let me know they can […]

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Something interesting happens every day — making a new connection, gaining a different perspective, meeting a hero in this space. I started doing this less than two years ago, and I’ve met so many people who’ve lost a friend/relative to overdose or suicide. Those experiences, and the people who reach out to let me know they can relate to my story/perspective, reinforce the need to amplify truth above the noise and misinformation and remind me that this is my purpose. For many years, I didn’t know why I was alive when so many of my friends didn’t make it.


As a part of my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to promote mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview David Poses.

As a writer, speaker, expert and activist, David Poses is focused on evidence-based addiction treatment, drug policy, and harm reduction. His writing has been published by Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and NY Daily News (among others), and he’s appeared on various TV and radio shows and podcasts. He is the author of “The Weight of Air: a memoir of a double life, fueled by addiction and mental illness.”

Depression was David’s gateway to heroin/opioid addiction. He started using at 16 and kept his struggle hidden long after he got sober with Buprenorphine at age 32. Ten years later, in 2018, he realized his silence was working against the changes he wanted to see in the world. How could he expect anyone else to talk openly about their addiction or mental health issues if he denied the existence of his? David set out on a mission to share his experiences with the world through his books, public speaking, and bylined articles for major media.

David lives in New York with his wife, Andrea, kids, Ruby and Sam, dog, Hector Escobar, and many instruments he can’t really play.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?

I grew up in Westchester County, New York. My parents divorced when I was four — a few months after my brother was born. I was always “sad,” as my mom used to say. She’d ask, “Why are you so sad?” and “Don’t you want to be happy?” I didn’t want to be sad, but I didn’t know why I was sad or how not to be or how to talk about it. Mom started taking me to weekly therapy sessions at the age of five. Though I kept my darkest, crappiest feelings to myself, several psychiatrists figured out that I was depressed and prescribed every conceivable antidepressant by the time I entered high school. Nothing helped. Distracted with — and terrified of — the suicidal thoughts I’d been trying to suppress since early childhood, I experimented with alcohol and pot and hated the effects. I didn’t want to escape reality. I was desperate to make it bearable — unlike my friends, who used weed and booze as essential garnishes for activities. I’d heard about heroin at a drug prevention assembly in the fifth grade. A cop described it as “the worst drug” and a “painkiller so powerful, you don’t have any feelings.” Depression hadn’t yet entered my vernacular. I knew I was in pain, so when I was 16 and all else had failed, I tried heroin. It killed my pain and stopped me from killing myself.

You are currently leading a social impact organization or movement that is helping to promote mental wellness. Can you tell us a bit about what you are trying to address?

As a writer, speaker, activist and collaborator, I use science and lived experience to show that addiction and depression aren’t moral issues or personal weaknesses. I also advocate for increased access to mental health and addiction resources and evidence-based policy, treatment, and prevention programming. I always saw my addiction as a symptom, so I’m especially interested in connecting the dots between compulsive drug use and depression.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

By 19, I’d been through every conventional addiction care model — rehab, detox, halfway house, AA/NA. At every turn, treatment experts considered depression an excuse and insisted addiction was the problem; It was a disease, they said, and remission can only be achieved by eschewing science and medicine for God and prayer. It didn’t make sense. Depression is a degenerative, biological condition. If my illness wasn’t mental and a doctor prescribed opioids, would anyone expect the pain to stop if the cause was ignored? Sobriety had the healing power of a Band-Aid on a bullet wound. Over the next two decades, I relapsed repeatedly and led everyone in my life to believe I was sober and happy — even after I found buprenorphine and got back into therapy at 32 (I’m 44 today.) As depression and opioid addiction rates began to surge nationally, I wanted so badly to do something, but I couldn’t bring myself to unwind the lie I’d been living. I was married and had two kids and a successful career in private equity, and I was drowning in guilt and shame. Eventually (in 2018), I realized my silence was working against the changes I wanted to see in the world: how could I expect anyone else to talk openly about their struggles with these issues if I denied the existence of mine? How could I raise my kids to believe mental health matters if I acted like it didn’t?

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and take action?

My daughter was clearly very upset about something, but she insisted everything was fine. That was the catalyst for the revelation in my answer to the previous question.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began taking an active role and being a voice for this movement/organization?

Something interesting happens every day — making a new connection, gaining a different perspective, meeting a hero in this space. I started doing this less than two years ago, and I’ve met so many people who’ve lost a friend/relative to overdose or suicide. Those experiences, and the people who reach out to let me know they can relate to my story/perspective, reinforce the need to amplify truth above the noise and misinformation and remind me that this is my purpose. For many years, I didn’t know why I was alive when so many of my friends didn’t make it.

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors who helped you along the way? Can you tell us a story about their influence on you?

I’ve always been too shy and insecure to ask for anything, so every opportunity has been a result of someone else opening a door and pushing me in. Carol Giacomo, a former New York Times editorial board member, was instrumental in getting my first op-ed published. When I started tweeting, my Twitter following exploded as people like Maia Szalavitz, Johann Hari, and David Scheff retweeted my content. That kind of interest and support is invaluable for a guy like me, with lackluster self-esteem.

According to Mental Health America’s report, over 44 million Americans have a mental health condition. Yet there’s still a stigma about mental illness. Can you share a few reasons you think this is so?

We know physical pain can’t be willed away, but we think psychological pain can. Mental illness is often invisible, whereas physical illness isn’t. We hide because we’re ashamed and we’re ashamed because of the stigma, so while I’m not blaming any of us, it’s hard not to wonder if the stigma would be easier to defeat if we talked about these things more openly.

In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?

We should swap mental with physical: we need to be as compassionate and understanding to someone with mental illness as we would to someone with a physical illness. Every town has a police department, fire department, all kinds of municipal services but scant few towns have dedicated resources for mental illness/mental health issues. This leaves people who aren’t necessarily qualified to handle situations, which is unfair to all involved. My small town established a resource for mental health and addiction services in 2018. In spite of the established need, the bulk of our funding comes from private donations. I wish every town had something like it.

What are your 6 strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?

1. Family time is an everyday must!

2. Music: I need to listen to loud music and play the various instruments I own but can’t really play very well.

3. Writing has always been like breathing for me, so I need to make sure I write every day, although lately, I’m revising more than writing. My memoir, The Weight of Air, will be published in late spring.

4. Think of medication like glasses. (My therapist told me, “If you’re not ashamed to wear glasses, don’t beat yourself up for needing medication to be at your best.”)

5. Therapy: Every Tuesday morning.

6. Honest communication: Don’t suppress feelings.

What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?

Books:

Maia Szalavitz: Unbroken Brain; David Sandum: I’ll Run Till The Sun Comes Down; Jean-Paul Sartre: Nausea

Podcasts:

Atheists in Recovery; Recovery Confidential

Other:

Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. I’ve met so many amazing people on social media, especially Twitter during the pandemic.

If you could tell other people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on society, like you, what would you tell them?

Stigma isn’t going away on its own, and minds aren’t going to change themselves.

How can our readers follow you online?

Twitter: @davidthekick

Instagram: @david_thekick

Facebook: @david.poses

www.davidposes.com

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