When Harvey Blackmon, 68, first started working in substance abuse services, society looked at addicts as criminals who don’t have the will to stop using substances. People thought that addiction was just a problem of will.
But Blackmon has seen society begin to understand that addiction is a disease in his 38 years in substance abuse services.
After helping thousands of substance abusers recover, Blackmon is retiring at the end of the month from his position as clinical supervisor at the Mecklenburg County Substance Abuse Services Center.
Blackmon started working at the Seventh Street Detox Center in 1975 after a layoff from the quality control department at Florida Steel. He was looking for part-time work but was offered a full-time position as a substance abuse technician.
At the time, Blackmon said even he thought substance abuse was a problem of will or faith, but as he continued to help patients heal, he realized that it is a disease.
He said he was “addicted to addiction.”
Blackmon soon learned that homeless people and criminals represent only 5 percent of people suffering from addiction.
“I often describe this as a thinking person’s disease,” Blackmon said.
Blackmon said there are a lot of “closeted alcoholics” such as a mother who routinely waits for her husband to leave home and takes her kids to school before drinking or a businessman who needs to drink with every meal in order to get through the day.
“There are folk who are able to go for some period of time, and they’re functional as an alcoholic,” Blackmon said. He said these people don’t want to be associated with the stigma of addiction and try to deny that there is a problem.
“If we had a nickel for every time somebody has said ‘I can quit if I want to,’ we would all be able to retire,” Blackmon said.
The detox center moved from Seventh Street to the Samuel Billings Center on Billingsley Road in 1990, adding a residential treatment center, and people all around Blackmon realized that he has a knack for helping people deal with their addictions.
Many of the people Blackmon has worked with say he had a special ability to get clients to share problems.
“If you have any secrets that you don’t want anyone to know, don’t spend a lot of time with Harvey because he will find a way to get it out of you,” said Connie Mele, director of provided services for Mecklenburg County.
Blackmon said recognizing that addiction is out of one’s control is a big step in healing.
“It can be a very painful process to get in touch with that pain and be able to expose it,” Blackmon said.
He said he is best able to help people who are able to share their pain.
Blackmon has been able to help even those who relapse repeatedly get back on their feet. Kim Phillips, Blackmon’s supervisor, said Blackmon has a way of getting through to patients many people wouldn’t know how to help.
“When he speaks, everyone in the room gets quiet,” Phillips said.
On April 25, Blackmon received the Wallace Godfrey Courage to Change Award from the Dilworth Center for Chemical Dependency for his commitment to helping people in substance abuse services change. He is rarely able go out in public without being recognized by someone he has helped.
He said he runs into people in parking lots, sports games, malls and even out of state. He said the people who approach him thank him for helping them get their lives back together.
“It’s neither a burden nor a headache,” Blackmon said. “It validates the work.”
Blackmon said he believes that he was meant to work in substance abuse services and that the layoff back in 1975 was meant to be.
“There are no accidents,” he said. “It was always meant to be.”
Seeing people make significant changes in their lives has kept him going.
“To be a part of that process has been the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done,” Blackmon said.
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