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Yvas Witherspoon, addiction counselor: ‘You can’t heal what you won’t reveal’

Yvas Witherspoon (Ariel Worthy/The Birmingham Times)
By Je’Don Holloway Talley
For the Birmingham Times

Yvas Witherspoon (Ariel Worthy/The Birmingham Times)

“What happens in this house stays in this house” is a saying familiar to many in the black community. Yvas Witherspoon, a veteran domestic violence and addiction counselor, has her own saying: “You cannot heal what you will not reveal.”

Witherspoon, born and raised in Birmingham, does not mind traveling to get clients to open up. She considers herself an “on-demand traveling counselor,” and she said people sometimes “need to talk to one another.”

“Individual therapy is not always needed, but it is useful, especially if a person does not want to disclose their problem to their family or friends,” Witherspoon said. “‘What happens in this house stays in this house’ [can] hurt our community because there are situations that need to be shared.”

Therapy can help in several areas, especially with issues that can lead to addiction, she said. Witherspoon educates her clients about the “disease” of addiction, while providing tools they need to remain clean and sober.

“‘Clean’” refers to drug use, and ‘sober’ refers to drinking,” she said. “Choosing to be intentional and work the steps is self-care. I believe in the 12 steps, … although there are other ways people can deal with their addictions.”

Twelve Steps

The 12-step process is a guide to help alcoholics and addicts stay clean by working on the inner self, and “the first step is admitting that you are powerless.”

“The 12 steps are a continual lifelong process,” Witherspoon said. “The [alcoholic and or addict] initially works the 12 steps with a sponsor, which is an accountability partner. …The 12 steps were birthed from Alcoholics Anonymous [as a method of recovery from alcoholism].”

The field of addiction recovery has changed since Witherspoon started her work as a counselor, when crack cocaine was the major issue plaguing the black community.

“I worked at a local treatment center for women and children, and our clientele was predominantly black,” she said. “Now the drug treatment centers are predominantly white, … due to the [methamphetamine] and opioid crises.”

Asked what steps can be used to address the opioid crisis, Witherspoon said, “We are doing a lot. Just making education … more accessible, starting from middle school, is how we’ll avoid it. Storytelling from recovering addicts to students helps to spread awareness.”

Prescribed Narcotics

The spike in the opioid epidemic stems from prescribed narcotics, she said.

“People often start [their addictions] on prescription [acetaminophen-and-hydrocodone tablets]. … I’ve seen addicts that take up to 40 tabs a day, while the prescription may call for only one every eight hours.

“The thing about getting high is you’re always looking for that ‘first high’ again, but people never find it, so they end up progressing to heroin. Then they move to fentanyl, [a pain medication that’s stronger than heroin and is the same drug that killed the entertainer Prince in 2016], and that’s an even more dangerous drug.”

Witherspoon said she’s seen cases in which drug dealers have combined heroin and fentanyl, creating a deadly elixir that can kill the user. Asked whether there is too much focus on opioids at the expense of other drugs, she said, “I don’t think there’s too much focus on it. … My issue is that I wish that same interest had been put on crack.”

Increased Awareness

“Crack was tearing up urban communities for decades, and there was not a push for treatment or considering it a health crisis,” she said. “With opioids, white kids were dying at a rapid pace, and it brought attention toward the matter.”

Still, increased awareness about opioids means help for all communities, Witherspoon said, “because more money is being put into state-funded treatment facilities. More facilities can open, waiting lists are shorter, and now people can get the help they need.”

Witherspoon remembers when methadone clinics were considered controversial, but because so many people are dying now “the government is putting a lot of money into medically assisted treatment, which makes it more acceptable. It is saving lives.”

Several other steps are valuable for people who want to stay clean, Witherspoon said. Many are using Celebrate Recovery, a support group for any type of addiction, to maintain sobriety.

“Mindfulness and meditation are being used as ways to stay clean,” Witherspoon said. “Some [recovering addicts] just stop and never look back.”

And the church has always been a refuge in the African-American community.

“Some churches have specialized groups for recovering addicts. Shiloh Baptist Church, [located in West End], and East Lake United Methodist Church [in East Lake] host meetings for recovering addicts and also allow for other fellowship and community outreach opportunities,” she said.

Always Wanted to Help

The Ramsay High School alum began her undergrad studies at the University of Alabama, but finished at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), earning a Bachelor of Science degree in psychology. She decided to go into the counseling field because she’s always wanted to help people.

“I like criminal justice, and … my initial plan was to be a prison psychologist,” Witherspoon said. “During college I visited with a prison psychologist and was taken aback by what I found that day. I was done with [the concept of being a prison counselor] after I found out there are high divorce and alcoholism rates among the prison staff. It wasn’t worth the risk.”

As an independent contractor, Witherspoon is able to still serve within the prison system: “I do work in the prisons and in jails, but I don’t work for them.”

“When you do something at a place every day, you get burned out, and you deal with company politics,” she said. “When you’re a consultant, you get variety. You get to work within several types of industries. You’re a fresh face to them, you get to bring in your own ideas for treatment, and the patients get to look forward to something new.”