Texas native stops in Tuscaloosa to help erase stigma against substance abuse disorders

Published: Jan. 20, 2023 at 10:18 AM CST|Updated: Jan. 20, 2023 at 10:47 AM CST
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (WBRC) - ‘Stop judging.’ That was the name of the opioid summit in Tuscaloosa Thursday as social workers, first responders, physicians and just about anyone who comes in contact with an opioid addict. The keynote was someone who’s been there, done that with a story to tell.

At the Bryant Conference Center at UA Damon West once had it all; college athlete, a national fundraiser for a U.S. presidential campaign, and later a stockbroker, and then he lost it.

“But I got hooked on meth and once I got hooked on meth, I gave everything away,” said West.

Everything was taken away, including his freedom. After seven years in prison, West emerged a changed man, all because of a chance encounter with a fellow convict over the principle of a coffee bean in a pot of boiling water, a metaphor to something better.

“Be the coffee bean in the boiling water. That’s what I did. I worked on myself, changed in the prison system and worked on the best version of myself possible,” he said.

With that message West sought to change the stigma about people with substance abuse disorders.

“I tell people all the time; addicts aren’t bad people for the most part. They’re sick people who do bad things,” he said.

“It is the cycle of the disease,” said Shanna McIntosh of VitAl.

McIntosh says society on the whole is making progress in not judging people with addictions but there’s still more to accomplish.

“First and foremost, language first. The words we choose to use to be able to describe an individual, a situation, a behavior, those immediately create walls, barriers to an effective outcome,” she said.

Lawanda Vanhorn is the Community Engagement Program Coordinator for the Tuscaloosa VA.

“If we can find opportunities in our situation that makes us better people,” said Vanhorn.

West says the underlying theme here is hope. The hope of overcoming the stigma, the hope of overcoming the addiction. He believes he is a living testimony it can be done.

“That’s where I take the coffee bean message. Even in your biggest crisis in your hardest and most difficult moments, there’s an opportunity there somewhere,” said West.

Take it from the coffee bean man; change is possible for the better.

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