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Rev. Jan Brown: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better”

Support families who are in the throes of the disease. Parents, siblings, children and other concerned family members need support for what they are experiencing in regard to their loved one’s addiction. There are growing numbers of parental support groups and other community resources. I know of very few programs and supports for siblings of […]

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Support families who are in the throes of the disease. Parents, siblings, children and other concerned family members need support for what they are experiencing in regard to their loved one’s addiction. There are growing numbers of parental support groups and other community resources. I know of very few programs and supports for siblings of those with addiction and even fewer children of addiction programs.


As a part of my series about “Heroes Of The Addiction Crisis” I had the pleasure of interviewing The Rev. Jan M. Brown, “Jan”

The Rev. Brown is the CEO of Global Recovery Initiatives Foundation, Founder of SpiritWorks Foundation Center for the Soul and an ordained Deacon in the Episcopal Church. She is the Board Chair of Faces and Voices of Recovery, served on the Governor of Virginia’s Task Force on Prescription Drug and Heroin Abuse and was appointed by the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church to serve on its Commission on Impairment and Leadership. Jan earned her B.A. in psychology from the College of William and Mary and received her Master of Science Degree in Addiction Studies in 2018 from the International Programme on Addiction Studies program conferred simultaneously by three universities: King’s College, London; the University of Adelaide, Australia and Virginia Commonwealth University.


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

I am a woman with addiction in long term recovery, which for me means that I have not used alcohol or other drugs to manage my thoughts, feelings or behavior for more than 33 years. I realized recovery when I was 22 years old. I am convinced that if everyone received the type of care I did for the treatment of my addiction, that recovery would be the expectation rather than simply possible.

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

Seeing one person too many have a reoccurrence inspired me to get involved in this work. The specific incident was this… a dentist who was in long term residential treatment “graduated” from the program. He left in his red pickup truck and within a few hours I received a desperate phone call from his wife, cursing and screaming, because he had been arrested and jailed for drinking and driving. In that instant I knew that we had to do something different and that I wanted to be part of the solution.

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

Pain is what brought us to this place. We, as a culture are in a tremendous amount of pain. Opioids are taken to relieve pain. And, unfortunately, they work really well for emotional and psychic pain, perhaps even better than they do for physical pain. The intersection of individuals, families and communities in pain and despair with those who injure and exploit others for personal gain or profit is at the root of the epidemic. Combine this with physicians who are not properly educated about addiction and best prescribing practices, and here we are today.

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

My work provides hope in places and for people who have no hope. My work allows people, individuals and families to be accompanied on their journeys from addiction to recovery. My work brings witness to the pain of loss and the celebration of victory and everything in between. My work is helping people to know, understand and offer compassion to those whose lives have been negatively affected by addiction.

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

This story is about one of the young women that has been impacted by the work I do. I have known her for almost four years and worked on and off with her during that time period. She has a very complicated history of trauma, addiction, brain injury and mental illness. She came to work with me because she did not respond positively to the care she was receiving at another organization in the community. I have seen this young lady battle with her addiction and other co-morbid illnesses and continue coming back.

She had a period of sustained abstinence, however, has had multiple episodes of reoccurrence of her active use disorder. Through it all, she maintains contact, is part of the extended community and is a partner with me in her recovery. She has taught me more about resilience and perseverance than I could have imagined. I have shown her compassion and unconditional love and regard, the very same things that were extended to me when I was in the throes of my addiction and early recovery. I am grateful each day for her presence in my life. She affectionately refers to me and my partner as her SoMas, her sober mothers; and we to her as our SoDa, our sober daughter. She came up with that a few years ago and it stuck.

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

Working with family members, especially children of addiction and parents brings me great joy. We know where the next generation of people with opioid and other addictions are — they are growing up in households with addiction presently. Shame on us for not doing what we know we can to change the course of life for those children and youth. I returned to college to earn an advanced degree with the hope of reducing the time it takes to go from research to practice, and then from practice to the community.

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?

  1. Support families who are in the throes of the disease. Parents, siblings, children and other concerned family members need support for what they are experiencing in regard to their loved one’s addiction. There are growing numbers of parental support groups and other community resources. I know of very few programs and supports for siblings of those with addiction and even fewer children of addiction programs.
  2. Talk about addiction, either on your own, with someone you love or someone you know who has an addiction related problem. Isolation, loneliness, and shame drive the stigma and discrimination towards people with addiction. The best thing we can do is to bring the issue into the open to reduce stigma and discrimination, thereby saving lives, supporting families, and enhancing communities.
  3. Take steps to educate yourself about addiction. Addiction is a chronic brain disease that is treatable, and remission and recovery are possible. Addiction as a brain disease has been known for many years, unfortunately it is not treated as such. People are denied access to treatment and ongoing support because they are not aware that it is chronic in nature. There is insufficient focus on brain hygiene and health and wellness, and an over emphasis solely upon substance use. Education leads to greater understanding, which in turn fosters compassion and kindness towards people living with addiction.

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

Law #1 Decriminalize simple possession and use of illicit drugs.

Law #2 Make Good Samaritan Laws universal.

Law #3 A law that requires every insurance company to cover treatment for substance use disorders in the same manner that it covers other chronic and often recurring diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

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

First and foremost, faith in God, my own personal recovery and the ongoing daily practices of spiritual values and traditions. Additionally, I have a wonderful group of people, beginning with my partner, who surround me with care and love and accountability. Lastly, I am fiercely committed to preventing deaths of despair.

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

Bigger than hope, it is my firm belief and commitment to helping this as a leading cause of death be defeated. We know what we need to do in order to make it happen. We simply need to have the will to act upon what we know.

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

I define leadership as the ability to bring one’s vision into reality through inspired action, the ability of an individual, group, team, or organization to inspire, motivate or guide others through change or an agreed upon goal. Growing up, the creed in our household was that a Brown does not lie, cheat or steal, or tolerate those who do. When I arrived at the United States Military Academy, I learned those words as the Honor Code, established in order to inspire leaders to live by a code of conduct that displays integrity, responsibility, honesty, and trust. I strive to be a leader in thought, word, and deed.

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

1) I wish someone had told me that addiction is treated more as a criminal justice issue rather than a health issue treated in the health care system.

I attended a conference several months ago at Georgetown University where I learned that the judicial system sends more people to treatment than any other system. It came as a shock to me. While I knew that there was some involvement, I was not aware of the depth of the involvement. Health care issues deserve to be treated in the health care system. And yet, here we are 50 years later, still waging a “War on Drugs,” criminalizing people with alcohol and other drug problems, and locking up black and brown, and other people of color at alarming rates for having a disease.

2) I wish someone had told me that it takes approximately 15 years to go from science to practice and then several more years to go from practice to the general community. And, that the percentage of the science that gets disseminated is less than 20%. The impact of this new knowledge for me meant that what the practitioners are doing and what the families and patients are receiving is not truly best practice and evidenced based because the practice and science has advanced and the majority of those who receive care are not benefitting from the advancements that have been made. This led me to return to college to earn my Master of Science degree in Addiction Studies to close the gap so that people would get timely and proper care.

3) I wish someone had told me that there is no definition of addiction recovery. Sadly, there remains no definition of addiction recovery. There are is an entire service delivery system oriented towards recovery, Recovery Oriented Systems of Care (ROSC), at least one institute that researches recovery, countless organizations that collect recovery data and yet we have not agreed upon a definition of recovery. Is it abstinence based? Moderation based? Are people who take medication to treat their addiction in recovery? Are you in recovery, recovered, or recovering? This is why it is so hard to measure recovery and have successful outcomes.

4) I wish someone had told me that we know what we need to do to help people with alcohol and drug problems, we simply do not have the will to do it. I have been convinced for the past 33 years of my own personal recovery that if others received the same level and type of care that I received, health and wellness would be the expected outcome. There are certain sub populations of those who have alcohol and drug problems who receive expert treatment, specialized care and ongoing monitoring for their addiction. These include physicians, pilots, social workers and other professionals. They include people whose lives, we as a society, have deemed valuable. I say that all people have inherent worth and dignity and that everyone is entitled to health care. As the young people say, “God don’t make junk.”

5) I wish that someone had told me that the treatment of pain requires more than treating just physical pain. We have great treatment protocols and procedures in place to address physical maladies. We do not include the treatment of emotional and psychic pain alongside these treatments. For me personally, it meant that on the numerous occasions I received treatment for broken bones, tooth extractions, and sports-related injuries yet no one addressed how it felt emotionally to experience the losses associated. It wasn’t until recently that I realized that I had not been asked back in 1984 while training for the Olympics, how it felt, upon breaking my thumb, to have my Olympic bid end in that moment. I know today that the progression of my disease was exacerbated by the lack of treatment for the emotional pain I was in.

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. 🙂 The movement I would inspire is to have the masses rally united in one voice to bring an end to addiction related deaths. We are told that these types of deaths are preventable and yet in 2019 there were more of these deaths than ever. Never mind, try telling that to a Mom or brother who is at the funeral of their loved one.

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

My “Life Lesson Quote” is from Maya Angelou, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” This is relevant to my life because I believe that it takes the fours A’s of: Awareness, Acceptance, Alignment, and Action to do better. The knowing better comes in that place of alignment where I align my thoughts and feelings with my values which allows me to take a powerful step toward being the person I am called to be.

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. 🙂

There are actually two people, I would love to have a private breakfast with Desmund Tutu. I admire and am inspired by the sparkle in his eyes, the wisdom in his mind, and the joy in his heart. Despite everything he has gone through he maintains love and compassion for others and has taught me a great deal about forgiveness. Being in his presence and having a conversation with him during our private breakfast would be akin to having a meal with Jesus with skin on. I would love to have a private lunch with Nora Volkow, the Director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse. Lunch with Nora will allow me to understand the necessity of maintaining the name of NIDA when it has been decided that the term drug abuse is not accurate. I would also be able to discuss her passion for researching addiction to the point of hoping to come up with a cure.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Your readers can find me on LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. I have also recently begun writing a blog on Medium, which will hopefully inspire thoughtful conversation for readers.

I welcome conversation especially as it leads to learning and responsibility. “When we know better, we do better.”

This was very meaningful, thank you so much!

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