Herren Wellness Center Outdoor Group Circle

Herren Wellness Center Outdoor Group Circle

Healing Is the Game Plan

By Kerry J. Bickford, VOICES Editor

Before my sons were born, my husband and I were huge Boston Celtics fans -- a  passion we shared when they were growing up. I recall their excitement when Chris Herren, a Massachusetts native, was traded to the team in 2000 and their disappointment when he was later released from his contract. I also remember hearing stories about his substance use disorder and the inner terror it ignited as my sons began to experiment.

I recently caught up with Chris -- now approaching his 13th year of recovery -- and asked him if he could recall the “aha” moment that led to healing after struggling for so many years.

“Things were bad,” he said. “I had been using it for ten years, and we were on food stamps. My wife had just given birth to our third child, so I decided to leave a program I had been in for 45 days. I told myself, I’m going to do this -- want to do this...hold the baby, support my wife, take care of my 7- and 9-year-old kids. But within six hours, I was using again. I knew that was it; if I was going to get sober this time, I needed to go into long-term treatment. I knew my wife and kids needed me at home, but I couldn’t do it without going back into recovery, so that’s what I did.”

Chris went straight back into treatment for 11 more months “anywhere they would open the door,” he said, and this time it was a game-changer. As a former Massachusetts high school basketball star and an NBA player, he was more than familiar with hard work and determination, so it only made sense that he would apply this same ethic to his recovery. “My back was to the wall,” he said, “and this is when the healing began.”

Herren, who will celebrate his 13th year of recovery on August 1, looks back at that moment with laser-clear insight. “Going home was a trigger. Everything is a trigger when you are 45 days sober,” he laughs, and he’s right about that.

Our spin-dry philosophy that treats and discharges newly sober and fragile people has often proved that they are not even close to ready to return to the pressures of daily life. In his case, Chris put his nose down and surrounded himself with people who knew and understood what he was going through and then never looked back. He focused his attention on his desire to live, in his words, “a beautiful life” and confronted every demon it took to move away from the temptation to pick up again.  As his inner strength grew, Chris’s fears diminished, and the power shift gave him hope that the life he longed for was, indeed, possible.

Chris also talks about being married twice, but to the same person -- for 23 years. He spent the first ten years of their marriage in active addiction and the next 13 in recovery This was poignant because he was referring to the two different partners his wife, Heather, had been married to. The awe in his voice as he describes his family and his life now says it all. It’s something he doesn’t take for granted, and the gratitude he feels is palpable. He knows he was one of the lucky ones.

I had to ask him about the astounding number of casualties in this overdose epidemic and how it affects his recovery, work, and personal life. “My phone is full of names of people who have died,” says Herren.“It's tragic.” These are people he worked with or helped or who helped him but who missed out on the opportunity he had seized to save his own life. The very fact that those names remain in his phone says a lot about Chris; I hear it in his voice -- not his words. Every one of them represents something that went wrong somewhere along the way. Recovery is a long and winding road -- and things can fall apart fast if you don’t have a plan, a sponsor, a meeting, or a routine to help you through the challenging times. You also need to know the answer to why you began using in the first place.

These days, Chris is focused on Herren Wellness, two recovery centers (one in MA and one in VA) that heal the mind, body, and soul in a holistic approach. They were established after he traveled across the country for years telling his motivational story. Guests (not patients) work closely with staff, some of whom are in recovery themselves. There is a strong sense of community and families are incorporated into the process long before anyone goes home. It makes excellent sense, of course, because they will eventually leave with a support system in place to work through the highs and lows they encounter as individuals and together as a family.

Still, even in an exemplary recovery program like this one, there are losses. When this happens, the community-centered model invites families to grieve with others at the center, providing compassion and support in a familiar and sympathetic space. Families begin to heal, not only from the loss of someone they cherished but also from years of trauma endured in their exposure to the disease and its deadly progression.

Substance use disorder and overdose fatalities are in the news daily. We watch with sadness as talented actors, athletes, scholars, musicians and politicians struggle publicly with their disease or, even more tragically, overdose or die. People in recovery, famous or not, suffer shame and blame when we (as a society) refuse to acknowledge SUD as a brain disease and minimize overdose loss.

Chris Herren has publicly fallen, gotten up, and then championed his own success story, resulting in a unique wellness model to reduce relapse and promote long-term recovery -- family style. Support does not stop when a guest completes the program because, as Chris well knows, that is when the most challenging work begins. For this reason, the door is always open --  whether it’s for recovery, relapse, or grief.