Focus on individuals in active addiction as “people with problems,” not as “problem people.” If each one of us made a list of the things he/she was ashamed of or regretted while under the influence, I believe none of us would have done about 80 -90% of those things if they were not done under the influence of drugs or alcohol. The simple reason is that part of the brain where judgment and reasoning take place is impaired. This is why the driver who is under the influence of a substance is charged with driving while impaired. The person is still responsible for his/her actions, but it sure is a good incentive to stay sober. It does not mean the person will never make another bad decision or exercise poor judgment, but it will not be due to brain impairment from drug or alcohol abuse.
As a part of my series “Heroes of The Addiction Crisis,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Anthony Acampora.
Anthony is a published author and graduate of Vision International University where he earned a Master’s degree in Ministry. He also holds a Master’s diploma in Biblical Studies from the Int’l School of Ministry. Anthony is a Chaplain and Faith Program Director at Banyan Treatment Centers. He is an ordained minister, speaker and writer with articles published in numerous national magazines.
Most recently, Anthony was awarded the 2019 Professional of the Year by Broward National Recovery. In 2018, Anthony was selected as a Global Goodwill Ambassador representing the USA. In 2015, the National Alliance of Mental Illness, Broward Country awarded Anthony its Volunteer Recognition Award. In 2014, the National Association of Social Workers, Broward County awarded Anthony its Public Citizen of the Year.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit of your backstory?
Igrew up in a middle-class family in a quiet area of Connecticut and was the youngest of five children. My parents fought a lot, and I was always in trouble, but overall it was a pretty normal upbringing. Things did not go off the rails until I was in my mid-thirties.I began my career in the loss prevention field at the age of 20. This unique and interesting job at the entry level consisted of catching shoplifters and dishonest employees. I loved the excitement and adrenaline that came with the job. I also realized there were many opportunities for growth and became very motivated and driven to succeed.
Over a 10-year period, I was promoted six times and became a regional director in the extremely challenging New York City region. When the company went out of business, I went to another organization where I was also a regional director. Then I was responsible for 88 specialty stores throughout the east coast and the mid-west United States. I traveled frequently throughout this area, was highly motivated, and had very good performance statistics.
Two years later, I was promoted to the corporate level as Director of Loss Prevention and relocated from New York City to northern California. I made it to the top position in the industry and life was really good until it was not. About a year and a half later, in the midst of an intense political war between various factions in the corporate office, I found myself right in the middle of these ongoing battles. This is where things took a dramatic turn for the worse.
Is there a particular story or incident that inspired you to get involved in your work with opioid and drug addiction?
Yes, indeed. As I mentioned, things took a dramatic turn for the worse during some pretty ugly political battles in the corporate office. Let me shed some light on this.
In January 2005, I left California and moved to South Florida where I became a licensed private investigator and founded a security consulting and investigations firm. The business did well, but my heart was never really into it, especially as the focus became more on investigations and less on security consulting.
For the next seven years, my life spiraled out of control with a straight downward trajectory. In other words, it was a complete disaster. I did what some refer to as “parking in your pain” by continuously replaying the painful experiences again and again in the movie theater inside my head. I soon became completely tormented by my own thoughts which were intently focused on the previous job situation. It was a horror movie consisting of deep-seated anger directed toward others and myself. If you have ever seen an aerial view of a tornado as it tears through a small town, it would give you an idea of what my life became. There seemed to be no relief in sight. I was in an extremely dark tunnel with no light at the end of it.
In January 2006, my suspicions were confirmed. I learned that I was the target of many lies and manipulations as a result of others’ selfish ambitions. The emotional anguish began to rapidly escalate with an even deeper round of resentments. When in this tremendous prolonged emotional pain, I looked for an escape in all the wrong places. After a few years of this torment, excessive drinking and gambling became the new tools of my trade. It was truly a perfect storm and I mean perfect for all the wrong reasons. I had cashed out large sums of stock options I had accumulated over the years with the previous company.
I was completely broken in spirit and had now found a way to distract myself from my pain. I did this by spending countless hours gambling at the Hard Rock Casino in Florida. Murphy’s Law set in over me, and if something could go wrong, it did. This new gambling obsession had very little to do with the money and much more to do with an outlet to distract me from my misery. It was an illusion that would eventually result in even more despair. The problem with my using something to distract or numb my emotional pain was the reality that at some point. I had to go back to my miserable existence and then start the entire process over again. The same issues remained and new ones began to rapidly accumulate.
During these seven brutal years, I was completely without purpose. I came to the realization that once I lost my sense of purpose, the downward spiral of losing hope was not far behind. What is so excruciating about addiction, depression, and its hideous companion, anxiety, is that they, an unseen enemy, are not visible to the outward appearance. It was not a physical injury where I could take an x-ray, allowing the doctors and family to understand what the injury was and about how long it would take to heal.
On the contrary, with this type of pain, I never really knew if I would ever come out of it. This only fueled the fear, anguish, and bewilderment. The initial empathy or attempts at understanding were short-lived, replaced with a bombardment of the sickening phrases which always seemed to come out in slow motion: “Snap out of it!” “You want to stay sick?” or “Where is your faith?”
I became the issue and target, not the hideous emotional pain itself that was devouring my peace of mind and any remaining self- esteem. In a weakened state, I found myself in a war battling two fronts: the illness and the judgment/stigma. I still have not determined which is worse. After living a nightmare, an interesting thing happened; I began to develop compassion for those who were suffering from similar issues. I began to regain a sense of purpose and peace, and hope soon followed.
Numerous doors opened, the timing was perfect, and I began my new journey in the substance abuse and mental health field. Coming into this field became a beautiful opportunity for to me to pull from my horrible experiences in an effort to encourage and help others.
Can you explain what brought us to this place? Where did this epidemic come from?
From my own experience of working in the field for six years, I believe that the core of addiction is an issue of the heart, or more specifically a broken heart, meaning someone who is broken in spirit. Many people are really hurting out there for a variety of reasons. Perhaps some of the reasons may seem more legitimate than others, but they are legitimate to the person dealing with the issues. What is for some a minor situation can be devastating to someone else. People look for a way out of the pain and turmoil only to find the very thing they are using to numb the pain is now causing them much more suffering than the original issues. In the midst of the pain we begin to lose our identity and purpose. When we lose our purpose in life, the downward spiral of losing hope is not far behind.
Another major contributor is simply how addictive opioids, in fact, are. We see many people, who sustained an injury, whether from sports or a manual labor job, and were prescribed a semi-synthetic opioid such as OxyContin and become quickly addicted to it. The law of diminishing returns rears its ugly head and these people can no longer keep up with the need their body now requires. They are unable to fill multiple prescriptions and cannot afford the high-cost prescription opiates. Think of running on a treadmill when the speed begins to increase rapidly to the point where you fall off. They quickly find themselves at the mercy of addiction. Those same people, who in a million years would not be injecting heroin into their veins, now find themselves doing just that.
The major pharmaceutical companies sold the American public and many in the medical professional a pack of lies when they said opiates are not addicting. In the 1980s, it was the cocaine dealers on the street corners assuring their customers that crack was not addictive, now it is the opioid dealers who are sitting in large corporate offices who have shared the same lies at an enormous cost.
Can you describe how your work is making an impact battling this epidemic?
As a faith program director and chaplain in substance abuse and mental health treatment center, I focus on providing our clients with a better understanding of who God is and walk them through the process of establishing or restoring their faith. Oftentimes clients come in with a distorted view of God. Their view is one of judgment and condemnation, not of a loving Father. They may have spent most of their lives running or hiding from Him as a result of their addictions and poor decisions. We allow them opportunities to focus on who they truly are and how God sees them, not the person they became in active addiction.
What occurs in our program is spiritual. We see genuine transformations of the heart, not simply behavior modification. They come to realize that they have value and worth. The self –loathing and lack of purpose gets stripped away, and their true identity takes center stage.
Wow! Without sharing real names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted by your initiative?
One that comes to mind is a client who came into the Faith in Recovery program as a devout and extremely outspoken atheist. He spent much time debating Christians on university campuses, etc. He was so into his denial of the existence of God, he actually had a tattoo on his arm representing atheism.
He hated the program the first day and said he was going to switch to another program, yet he continued to show up every day. He started to become more and more engaged in the program. He came to my office one day and said that something strange had been happening to him. It was as though God was trying to get his attention, and each time this client would try to leave, something else would occur. We affectionately call this “God-incidences.” They are not coincidences because they happen too frequently. Often times “the God incident” is the exact thing we need to hear or read at the perfect time. There is also confirmation when we get the same message from numerous platforms. Whatever the case, these “God incidents” really had his attention.
During his time in the program, he accepted Christ as his Lord and Savior. He was water baptized, and his father, whom he had previous issues with, was baptized with him. The day he completed the Faith in Recovery program, he declared that he was going to put a line through the atheist tattoo and add a cross above it. That’s some change of heart!
Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?
Four years ago, I had the opportunity to rescue an abandoned pit bull terrier. He was so dirty he needed three baths to get him to his normal color of a beautiful steel gray. He was underweight and had ear infections. He was obviously mistreated, and, as we drove home from the vet, he was staring intently at me, perhaps trying to determine if I was going to hurt or abandon him too. At one point he let out a sigh and moved closer to me. I believe it was a sigh of relief. I guess I passed his test because from that point on, he has not left my side. Since then he has become a certified therapy dog and for the past four years, he (“Luke”) has been coming to Banyan Treatment Center and visits five Florida Banyan locations.
The unconditional love and affection that Luke provides our clients are astounding. They hug, kiss, and wrestle with him. When a client gets emotional during a group, he always approaches them in such a gentle manner as he puts his paw and sometimes his head on their leg. Luke will not leave them until they stop crying. I never taught him this; it is an instinctive, unconditional love that he displays.
I am proud of him and how he was able to forgive people who did not treat him well. He did not carry resentment as many humans do and I, myself, was trapped in that category. I think of all of the smiles and joy he has provided those who were in desperate need of it. I have been so blessed to rescue Luke and in the process, he has rescued many of our clients and has been an integral part of my own rescue.
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?
- Love one another. I am blessed to have a front-row seat to watch this play out on almost a daily basis. The reason our clients are able to express love to each other is the fact that they have an intimate understanding of the suffering that the others are going through. I am also able to empathize with our clients as a result of my own suffering.
- Stop judging. If people truly knew the back story of many of those who are suffering from addiction, they would not be so quick to judge. Addiction is, in most cases, a byproduct of a lot of other sufferings, torment, trauma, PTSD, etc. Addicts believe their drugs help them escape the pain. When judged, the person suffering will be more inclined to hide the underlying issues and their addiction, which, in turn, prolongs the pain.
- Focus on individuals in active addiction as “people with problems,” not as “problem people.” If each one of us made a list of the things he/she was ashamed of or regretted while under the influence, I believe none of us would have done about 80 -90% of those things if they were not done under the influence of drugs or alcohol. The simple reason is that part of the brain where judgment and reasoning take place is impaired. This is why the driver who is under the influence of a substance is charged with driving while impaired. The person is still responsible for his/her actions, but it sure is a good incentive to stay sober. It does not mean the person will never make another bad decision or exercise poor judgment, but it will not be due to brain impairment from drug or alcohol abuse.
If you had the power to influence legislation, which three laws would you like to see introduced that might help you in your work?
If we are going to turn the corner of the issue of substance abuse, there must be tougher laws for dealers, especially when a loss of life occurs. Big pharmaceutical company executives and decision-makers must face serious legal consequences for misrepresenting the products that flood our streets.
Finally, I had the privilege to have Dr. Keith Ablow (Fox News Mental Health Team) on my radio show on June 30, 2018. His comments were shocking! Quote from Dr. Keith Ablow, “People go to the emergency room for help, and they don’t get the help they need. They go there feeling as though they are going to hurt themselves or someone else and they are asked if they could ‘contract for safety’ Translation- to say that they will not harm themselves or others. Wait a second, what happened to the fact that they just came in and said they were going to do that! That question is designed to show them the door. Somehow third party insurers have been able to let the therapist do the bidding of the insurance company or they will get the third degree.”
That is a very sad and disturbing commentary on a truly broken system. I could not think of anything worse than a person who is suicidal, due to active addiction, and have his or her life be in the hands of greed- motivated insurance companies. Are you starting to get the idea as to why it is a broken system?
There must be federal mandates on insurance companies, in particular when someone is suicidal and or homicidal. The mental health and addiction professionals must have the autonomy to make sound ethical decisions on a patient’s treatment. They no longer can be influenced by insurance companies.
Insurance companies playing a part in treatment regimens for the mentally ill and for those with addictions cost lives and will continue to cost lives until something dramatic changes.
I know that this is not easy work. What keeps you going?
I’m reminded of a quote from President Teddy Roosevelt,
“Courage is not having the strength to go on; it’s going on when you don’t have the strength.”
I truly believe that God allowed me to go through the suffering that I endured for a period of nearly seven years for a greater purpose. We live our lives forward and we understand it backward. The pain and torment made absolutely no sense while I was going through it, but now as I look back, it makes perfect sense. God worked all things together for good. When I see the hopelessness and despair in the eyes of our new clients, I see myself as I was. I have a deep understanding of what they are going through and I have the compassion to help them. Compassion I did not have before going through it. The blank and scared look their face motivates me, so does the look of joy and peace on their face when they are leaving. That is what keeps me going, and I am truly blessed to be given the opportunity to be able to try and help them.
Do you have hope that one day this leading cause of death can be defeated?
I do. A few years ago, many areas of the country and in particular Broward County, Florida where I am, we were dealing with the horrendous synthetic drug called FLAKKA (Alpha PVP). Its nickname was “five-dollar insanity,” as it would oftentimes put people into a state of “excited delirium.” They would literally lose their mind. Those who were taking FLAKKA were biting people’s faces, running headfirst into cars, etc. A major campaign was implemented by law enforcement and others in the community. FLAKKA has been completely eradicated and we are all the better for it now. I believe the same will happen with the opioid epidemic. The major pharma companies are already feeling the heat, and many will go under due to class action law suits, etc.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I believe the most important attributes in a leader are to treat people, especially your team, with respect and the ability to inspire people by pulling out something that is already inside them. The clients that I deal with on a daily basis have incredible potential, but they have been so beaten down by their life and their bad choices that their confidence is completely shattered. Being able to allow them to understand who they truly are and how God sees them is often the beginning of a big breakthrough for them.
What are 5 things you wish someone had told you before you started and why?
I wish someone had told me:
- How many people I would come in contact with that would die. During the period of time where fentanyl (a synthetic opioid) was being added into heroin a few years ago, the deaths were on a nearly monthly basis.
- How difficult it would be when you lose someone to addiction. You almost always immediately go into the Monday morning quarterbacking mode, second-guessing yourself, or contemplating what you could have done or said differently
- How frustrating it would be dealing with insurance companies who sometimes look at patients as a number and not the incredibly talented, intelligent, and compassionate people that they truly are when not using substances
- How emotionally draining it could be when working with patients who are not ready to change. Sometimes you just know patients are heading in the wrong direction like running east looking for a sunset, but they simply will not surrender their will.
- How heartbreaking it could be when dealing with the family members of patients. It is usually the mothers who have a very similar look in their faces — a deer in headlights look of fear, pain, and bewilderment would be the best way to describe it.
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. 🙂
It would have to be, to put God first in your life. I know from my own experience, and from witnessing the transformations of many of our clients, that God is the answer. I myself as a faith leader simply do not have the capacity to change someone’s heart, but He does. If you look at the teachings of Christ throughout His three-year ministry, you will see a continual focus on others. You see forgiveness, mercy, and the radical idea of loving your enemy. Whether you believe that Christ is the Son of God or not, you cannot deny the impact of His incredible message of love, hope, and peace.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
In the depths of my resentments and hopelessness, I came across this passage from Romans 12:17–19
“Never pay back evil with more evil. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable. 18 Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone.19 Dear friends, never take revenge. Leave that to the righteous anger of God.”
That really spoke to me and hit home as I had been often consumed with paying back evil with more evil. I read it over and over, and it started to go from words on a page to something much more, something that began to really empower me. I began not only reading the Bible but actually applying God’s principles to my life. I prayed from the heart and asked God to help me to forgive. I could not do it on my own, and it was destroying me from the inside out.
Through much prayer, I was finally able to truly forgive. I realized my inability or reluctance to forgive was the root cause of my downward spiral. True forgiveness was like a key that unlocked the door to the prison in my own mind. The door swung open and I walked through it. I was no longer allowing people who hurt me in the past to continue to hurt me in my mind.
Yes, God intervened in a major way! He truly began to transform my heart which was once selfish and focused on worldly achievements. I had viewed people as mere obstacles who were obstructing me from what I wanted to attain. I developed this incredible compassion for people suffering from similar issues and I wanted to help them in some way, even if it was just sharing my story with them.
My most painful life lesson is also the one where I grew the most from
The most painful life lesson that I grew from was the inability to forgive those who devastated my life.
The saying rings true, “Not forgiving someone is like taking poison and waiting for them to die.” In many ways, it is actually worse because if you take the poison, it would not be long until you were dead. Resentments could last far longer than that timespan. As in my case, I was tormented with my own thoughts for nearly seven brutal years. I learned to apply God’s view of forgiveness to my life and found it’s a far better approach than the pain that’s caused by not forgiving those who hurt us.
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 met Anthony Hopkins when I was working a second job in security at a company that provides security for special events such as movie premieres and celebrity functions. I met many of the A-list actors, but only a few really stood out. While going to a premiere for the movie Hannibal, the lead actor, Anthony Hopkins, himself, arrived out front. I tried to allow him to enter, but he did not want to cut the line. It was a cold and rainy evening, and I was blown away by his humility and respect for others. He would be certainly someone I would love to have lunch with and a deep conversation about life in general.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much!