Dianna Sandoval: “Pride isn’t the right word”

At AspenRidge, we’re making progress by implementing an extended care model. We’re not like other facilities where it’s 30 days of treatment and then goodbye. Studies show that the longer someone is actively involved in treatment, the greater the chances of success. We keep people at our In-house Transitional Program for 90 days, and we […]

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At AspenRidge, we’re making progress by implementing an extended care model. We’re not like other facilities where it’s 30 days of treatment and then goodbye. Studies show that the longer someone is actively involved in treatment, the greater the chances of success. We keep people at our In-house Transitional Program for 90 days, and we spend that time stabilizing and starting to dig into the underlying psychological reasons behind addiction. Our clients spend the day in groups and individual therapy sessions at our main facility. In the afternoon, they return to recovery residences, also referred to as sober living facilities.

As a part of my series about “Heroes Of The Addiction Crisis” I had the pleasure of interviewing Dianna Sandoval, LPC, LAC.

Dianna is the Executive Clinical Director of AspenRidge Recovery and has more than 30 years of experience in the behavioral health field, focusing on addiction treatment. She has designed, implemented and managed multiple recovery programs in the state of Colorado and Maryland. In addition to developing clinical programs and providing direct clinical services, Dianna is also a leader in providing clinical supervision, team building, and establishing healthy organizational cultures in the behavioral health industry.

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

Thank you for speaking with me! I am the Executive Clinical Director at ApenRidge, and I’ve treated addictions for more than 30 years. I have a master’s degree in Psychology from Regis University, and I’m a Licensed Professional Counselor and Licensed Addiction Counselor. I love helping people find recovery and have made it my life’s work to help people discover their true, clean and sober selves.

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

The addiction behavioral health and industry chose me and not the other way around. My family has a long history of addiction, and the topic was never discussed openly. It wasn’t until I was in treatment myself that I finally realized that this topic isn’t one that should be swept under the rug. Addiction is a subject that needs to be acknowledged, discussed and treated because silence and shame are fatal. I have made it my life’s work to build and shape organizations to serve our clients better.

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

There’s a view that addiction and the opioid epidemic are somehow a new phenomenon. Addiction has been with us since the first humans learned how to ferment grapes. There’s a 4,100-year-old Sumerian clay tablet that contains a recipe for a prescription containing opium. Addiction is nothing new, and people have been using and abusing opiates, alcohol and other substances for millennia. However, the problem we see today has two causes.

I want to start by saying that I have the utmost respect for the medical profession. It’s filled with dedicated professionals who have given their lives to healing the sick and injured. However, the Western medical model identifies the problem and provides a chemical to treat or offers a surgical remedy. The drive to prescribe is well intended to alleviate real pain, but they routinely hand out powerful and dangerously addictive substances. If there’s even a slight propensity for addiction, the brain’s switch gets flipped, and then we have a significantly larger problem to treat alongside the physical pain.

The other side of the equation is psychological. Inner, core feelings of inadequacy and the desire to escape those feelings drive most additions. There is a drive to be more to the center of all human behavior than others. There’s a deep and profound desire to be the best, and it’s hardwired in all of us. For some people, drugs provide relief from those feelings.

After 30 years of work, I’ve discovered that fear of human inadequacy drives all problematic relationships. We express that in overindulgence. It can be with sex, drugs, alcohol, overeating, or workaholism. We can trace it back to how we feel about our place in the world. It’s not an easy answer. Sure, it’s easy to say, “the doctor gives me too many pills,” but that answer ignores the underlying psychological issues and motivations that make many people susceptible to substance use.

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

You’re kind, but it’s not just me! The behavioral health industry as a whole is making a significant impact by merely acknowledging the epidemic. We aren’t afraid to go in, invent new treatment methods and partner with new people to find a way out of this. Treating people with an addiction is a unique skill set, and the profession itself and the people we help face stigma. We’re making progress because we’re treating the core issues and not just the symptoms. We’re making progress by treating the brain, the heart, and moving even more profoundly and treating the soul.

At AspenRidge, we’re making progress by implementing an extended care model. We’re not like other facilities where it’s 30 days of treatment and then goodbye. Studies show that the longer someone is actively involved in treatment, the greater the chances of success. We keep people at our In-house Transitional Program for 90 days, and we spend that time stabilizing and starting to dig into the underlying psychological reasons behind addiction. Our clients spend the day in groups and individual therapy sessions at our main facility. In the afternoon, they return to recovery residences, also referred to as sober living facilities.

When they graduate the 90-day program, we move them into a 90-day Intensive Outpatient Program, we call it IOP, with 12 hours of therapy a week. We do this in-person, and we also have a new telehealth option called REACH. It’s the same IOP program but conducted through secure, private video conferencing technology. It’s an excellent option for people who live in rural areas or those who can’t readily access treatment. We’ve seen it explode in popularity in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. After IOP, we move clients to Outpatient care with both in-person and virtual options. Of the people who’ve completed the full program, 80 percent report they are clean and sober a year later. That’s unheard of in this field and testament to our unique approach to treating addiction.

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

I’m tempted to tell a success story since I think that’s what you’re asking for, but addiction and treatment is a matter of life and death. If you’re going to be in this field, you have to ready to accept and learn from the unfortunate outcomes.

Twenty years ago, I met a woman with opioid addiction in a program that I managed. We both flew to speak to a conference about opioids and the power of treatment. On the plane home, she told me her mother had been a heroin addict who overdosed and passed away at 38. Her mother left her and her siblings to raise themselves. She told me she would turn 38 the following year and was the mother of two children. She was terrified of repeating history. I told her how important it would be to reach that milestone and break the cycle. She agreed that it would be a meaningful benchmark.

Her birthday was on July 3. On July 4 of the following year, I received a phone call and heard she overdosed on opiates on her 38th birthday. She, too, left her two children without any parental direction. It was an awakening for me that we must explore family histories and engage the family in treatment services. If we only treat the symptoms, we’re not empowering people with the tools they need to change their lives. This moment was so poignant that I never forgot it, and it changed my approach to treatment. Every person I worked with since received better care and has been impacted by this tragic story.

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

Pride isn’t the right word. I have humility. I feel honored and humbled to do this work. I come in every day approaching my job from that place. People come in not knowing me at all, and they expose the deepest and most shameful parts of their life to me. That’s a humbling experience for both of us. Pride is more about me, and this isn’t about me. It’s about them and the partnership we create. I feel humbled, honored, and I feel very responsible for the quality and safety of the environment we make to do deep work, and I feel inspired. I feel humbled and channel that into designing and implement the best possible treatment experience here at AspenRidge.

I do have an uplifting story, though! Four years ago, a man in his early 20s came in with a long history of opioid use. He’d been to treatment several times and had a long family history of addiction. He hated the family work, 12-step meetings and was very resistant to the process. He changed when we connected him with The Phoenix. It is a beautiful organization that helps people build an active sober community all over the country. He really connected there, and he began to thrive and integrate into their community. He’s stayed clean all this time and eventually came back to us and applied for a job! This example highlights my point about humility. You have to be humble enough to know there’s no single way to treat everyone, and if you have too much pride, you might be tempted not to hear what a human being actually needs.

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?

Let’s get honest and say we’ve never cured the opioid or any other addiction and probably won’t. Addiction has been part of the social fabric before we tracked it, but we can treat it.

We need to avoid glamorizing addiction. We shouldn’t be making reality TV stars out of sick and suffering people. If we’re going to make it a storyline, we should be about an opportunity to heal and not exploit.

Educate! We need to teach about addiction and the human side of it. This is a deadly disease with real and devastating consequences. We need to inform the public that it’s into part of some moral failing. There’s so much science and evidence to support this. Most people know someone who’s struggled with a substance use disorder, and we need to learn more about the root causes and lose the critical aspect.

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

We need to increase the standard requirements for people who work in the behavioral health field and addictions. It’s the only professionally licensed field that I know of where experience makes you qualified to work. You can’t perform surgery on other people simply because you’ve had a few operations. That would be crazy, right? We need to hear more from those who suffered but not put them in charge quite so fast. We, as an industry, need to slow down focus primarily on education. We badly need clear guidelines and standards about how people become licensed treatment providers.

I would like to see more clinical need representation and voting power on corporate boards. I’m lucky to have a voice that’s heard and respected at AspenRidge Recovery, but that’s not the case at all organizations in this industry. The clinical staff needs an equal voice about which and how we deliver services. We need a say in how the organization is built and functions. Understand me, there are some great organizations, AspenRidge is one of them, but I’ve seen some questionable behavior in my career.

We also need more funding. We desperately need corporate money, government money, and we need insurance companies to step up. If we want to make a dent in the epidemic of addictions, we need the resources to do it. It’s an incredibly expensive endeavor to provide long term care that works, but we will all save money in the long run if we fund it. If you break it down, providing treatment that works save employers money in lost work and reduced productivity. Government and health insurance companies save money by preventing the long-term side effects of drugs and alcohol. And it’s just the right thing to do!.

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

My Interactions with people who want to recover. The clients are my people and my sense of community. Connecting with them gives me the driving force to continue.

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

The honest answer is no. We haven’t defeated it yet, and it’s not a war or a game with obvious defeats. We can have a significant impact on the lives of real people, but we can’t eliminate addiction. There always have been and always will be people who suffer from it. I’m not a hopeless person–I’m very optimistic–but it’s is not an attachable goal. The goal is progress, not perfection.

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

A leader is a humble servant who’s honored to motive, move and inspire people to work for the collective whole. A leader has to be able to do hard things. Decisions need to be made for the greater good and not necessarily for short term wins. But leaders can’t do it alone. Real leaders collaborate with others and invest in people to grow so they and inspire and succeed.

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

I wish I’d known that people who work in the mental health field aren’t always the healthiest themselves. In my 20-year career, I’ve known clinicians who don’t take their advice and practice self-care. We have to practice what we preach and take our own mental health seriously. It’s hard work to treat addiction, and sometimes it takes a toll.

I wish I’d known that working in the behavioral health industry carries a stigma of being less than similar professions. We’re not viewed with the same level of expertise as medical doctors, even though many of us have more advanced training and more contact with the people we treat.

It would have been beneficial to know that medical and clinical worlds aren’t on the same page. Its the psychologists and the clinical social workers that work firsthand with the clients. If we think someone needs to be tapered off a medication, sometimes our recommendations aren’t taken as seriously as they should be.

I wish I knew that losing clients never gets easier. It’s something that will always stick with you. I get to know these people’s deepest, darkest secrets and fears. As I mentioned earlier about the woman who passed away, it’s an intimate relationship, and they always affect you.

It also would have been useful to know that the behavioral health industry is handicapped by corporate money. I’ve previously worked places–and I hear from friends in the industry–that there’s sometimes a mindset that profits come first. I just want to shake them and say, yes, America is a capitalist country, but we can effectively treat human beings and run a profitable organization! The two aren’t mutually exclusive.

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 would inspire a movement of spiritual exploration! People are suffering spiritually, and this doesn’t have to be attached to a particular religion. The world is growing dim with a lack of spiritual growth, commitment and direction. Spirituality is a core component of healing, and forgiveness is a spiritual act. Grace, mercy and kindness are spiritual acts. Who among us doesn’t need that? We have lost the ability to be kind to each other first. Human suffering is a universal condition, and we need a movement of universal healing.

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

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Aristotle said it, and I heard this is my early 20s. It has stuck with me because it empowers us to be better. To be the best version of ourselves we can be, but hold us accountable to being that. We can’t be complacent and lazy and expect the best. Everything worth it in life requires work.

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. 🙂

It would be Joyce Meyer. If you don’t know her, she’s a Christian preacher. What I love most about her is that when she speaks to people, she is the most authentic, transparent and vulnerable person I’ve seen in my life. She makes being human, with all of our faults, permissible. She makes herself vulnerable to thousands of people across the world. She’s inarguably real and authentic, and I just love her!

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can find my personal LinkedIn profile here. You can also find AspenRidge Recovery on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube.

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