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John Turnipseed: Getting sober takes time; adjusting and finding a job take even more

Extended programs are most effective for achieving long-term sobriety, says the nonprofit leader and treatment veteran.

John Turnipseed: “I know from personal experience that turning yourself around is an enormous job.”
Courtesy of Urban Ventures

A little more than two decades ago, a yearlong residential drug-addiction treatment program at Minneapolis-based Eden House helped turn John Turnipseed’s life around.

Though today he is two decades sober and vice president of the Center for Fathering at Minneapolis nonprofit Urban Ventures, Turnipseed’s earlier life was consumed by drug addiction and violence. A member of the family that founded Minneapolis’ notorious Rolling 30s Blood gang, Turnipseed was a drug dealer — and user. He eventually spent a decade in prison for his crimes. Thirty of his relatives remain in prison. Ten were convicted of first-degree murder.

Earlier this month, Turnipseed was a featured speaker at the Humphrey Policy Fellows’ second annual Big Think alumni conference, which focused on shaping policy around mental health, addiction and recovery.

Turnipseed told the group gathered at the University of Minnesota’s McNamara Alumni Center that he credits his own successful recovery from addiction to his lengthy treatment program. In recent years, shorter treatment and recovery programs have become the norm, he said, and he doesn’t believe they are as effective in promoting long-term sobriety.

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I asked Turnipseed to expand on this point:

MinnPost: Why do you think long-term treatment and recovery programs work best for people battling addiction?

John Turnipseed: First off, when a person goes to treatment, especially in the urban community, it is usually because they have messed up everything in their life — financial support, housing, everything. I know from personal experience that turning yourself around is an enormous job. A person who goes into treatment for addiction to crack has probably for two years been off and on a crack run. For those two years, on a weekly basis, they have probably taken a hit of crack 2,800 times a week. If you spend $100 on crack a day, you are going to hit that pipe. That means you have taken your brain from ground zero to 1,000 miles an hour something like 700 times. That’s hard on your brain and your body.

A treatment program that lasts for 21 days or even for two months only gives you time to let your body adjust to being normal. When they are in the process of physically coming down from addiction, people can’t sleep. They are depressed. There’s a whole lot going on. After those first two months of recovery, that’s when you’re finally receptive to hearing the stuff that people are telling you. Really letting the recovery messages sink in takes another few months. Then, after your body is rested and recovered, you’ve got to figure out your next steps. About six months after going sober is when — taking into account that you’ve eaten correctly, your stress levels have gone down and you’ve seen a doctor about health issues — it’s time for you to start looking for a job, which, for the average person, is going to take three to six months to find. You shouldn’t have to leave treatment without having those pieces in place.

Ideally, to be successful in recovery from addiction, when you leave treatment you should have a job and a place to stay and a relatively good health record. I can’t see anyone doing that successfully in under a year.

MP: Describe your own recovery experience.

JT: It took me a year to get sober. Twenty-one years ago, I went through residential treatment at Eden House [in Minneapolis]; you had to commit to staying for a year or more to be in the program. Some people stayed longer. The program enabled me to get my feet on the ground. I got my first job, got an apartment — I had everything by the time I got out of treatment.  

MP: Was there a turning point in your journey to sobriety?

JT: In my first six months after going sober, I was crazy as heck. I was depressed every day. Before I was sober, I did crack constantly, daily. So my body was still looking for that up. Since crack was what provided that up, when I was sober all my body did was stay down. Finally my parole officer made an order that I go see a psychiatrist. It was the best thing that ever happened. With help from the psychiatrist, I was able to work on what was happening with me. At the residential center, I was living in a place that was sober and clean. They protected me from outside people. They even screened my visitors. I needed that time. I needed every day of it.

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MP:When did average treatment lengths get shortened?

JT: About 10 years ago, the average length for addiction treatment programs was shortened down to 21 days, 90 days max. It’s usually about health insurance. The people in charge said, “Twenty-one days is the most we will pay for it.” But I think short-term treatment is just a waste of money. If you have the money, you can pay to stay in treatment longer than insurance will pay for, but most people usually stop after the first month, and low-income people don’t have that choice. The only programs that do long-term treatment for low-income people these days are faith-based centers. They raise money outside of health insurance and provide the treatment free of charge.

MP: But some people get sober with shorter-length treatment programs. How does that work?

JT: Say you’ve been in treatment for just 21 days. If you have a strong support network, if you can go back to your parents’ house and they go to Al-Anon meetings to learn how to support your recovery, if you have the support of friends and you get to go to the health club, if you have all that in place, you may succeed with 21-days’ treatment. But most people in treatment don’t have that kind of support. That’s why you see people continuously coming back. Even when those high-end movie stars go in for 21 days, they’re back in treatment within a few months. Even with all the money in the world, short-term programs don’t work if you don’t have the support.

MP: But 12 months of addiction treatment must be expensive. How do you make the case for the financial benefit of long-term treatment and recovery programs?

JT: Up front, long-term treatment may seem more expensive than short-term treatment, but the overall costs of people relapsing after failing short-term treatment are high. Recovery doesn’t always stick. What about the person who goes in for 21 days, falls off the wagon and then goes back to treatment five times for 21 days each? In the meantime they keep ending up in the emergency room. They keep committing crimes. They keep ending up in urgent care. That way, everybody’s taking the hit.

And there are larger health costs of addiction. I can tell you that smoking crack is a hazardous thing. I’m sitting here with a defibrillator in my chest and hep C. I’m still paying 20 years later for the years I was using. Luckily I have a job. I can afford health insurance, and I’m paying my own way. But there are other costs. I’m in the emergency room at least once a year because of my heart.

People need a base of strength to draw from in order to succeed at getting sober and staying sober. You are not going to build a new character set, you are not going to rebuild your life and change your behavior in 21 days. You’re just not. Getting sober takes time.