BY MATT SALIS
Anyone who doesn’t believe the power of the stigma to hold people locked in addiction hasn’t met Darin Valdez or heard his story.
Darin is the founder and executive director of Colorado Artists in Recovery – a Denver-based nonprofit with the mission to help people find their artistic creativity as a pathway to healing from addiction and other mental health challenges. Like a lot of us, Darin’s dedication to helping people is born from his determination to pay it forward. Just a few snowy winters ago, Darin nearly died from exposure as he lived on the streets and battled a debilitating meth addiction.
What kept Darin from getting help? Why did he nearly freeze to death in an outdoor stairwell in December of 2013?
He was too ashamed to ask his family for help.
Ashamed of his addiction. Ashamed he was wasting his business degree from CU. Ashamed of how far he had fallen.
The stigma was killing him.
When he did return home to his family in Louisville on that Christmas Day, he didn’t stay. He returned to the streets of Denver because he didn’t think he deserved the overwhelming love of the family he had deserted.
He was too ashamed. He didn’t deserve their love. The stigma was winning.
But Darin’s family didn’t give up on him, and he made it out of the stigmatized life of addiction. He is thriving in recovery, and now he is reaching out to help pull others into the light inside his heart.
At Stigma, we are proud to partner with Darin and Colorado Artists in Recovery. We have started offering The Story Writing Workshops to the residents at Colorado Village Collaborative (the tiny homes villages) in the Globeville and Cole neighborhoods of Denver.
CAiR believes that leaning into our vulnerability, and expressing ourselves creatively, are key components to recovery from the circumstances faced by our neighbors who have experienced homelessness. Darin is so committed to this philosophy that CAiR works with local artists who are in recovery from addiction to teach art classes to others who need help finding their way home. At Stigma, we are thrilled to be teaching writing workshops to help carry out Darin’s vision.
Here’s how it works: Residents of the Colorado Village Collaborative are invited to The Story Writing Workshops hosted right in the common area at the CVC locations. We talk about a specific writing theme such as scene setting or character development, read the students a writing sample that illustrates the theme, share a writing prompt, then give them time to write to the prompt. After the free write, that’s when the magic happens.
The writers are invited to read their stories aloud, one by one, to the rest of the group. The listeners give the writer feedback.
The one and only rule of The Story Writing Workshops is that the feedback must be relentlessly positive.
We are asking for people to share the stories of their lives. We are asking them to dig deep and be vulnerable in a way that has never felt safe before. We must reward that vulnerability with empathy and compassion. Vulnerability welcomed is therapeutic. Vulnerability appreciated brings mutual benefits for the writers and the readers. Vulnerability rewarded leads to more vulnerability.
That is a cycle of healing. That is a cycle that crushes the stigma.
Last week, we had our first session of The Story Writing Workshop at Colorado Village Collaborative. Darin and Colorado Artists in Recovery coordinated and funded the partnership. And he attended and wrote during the workshop, too. His story was both painful and uplifting. Even more importantly, the feedback he gave to the “villagers” attending the session was enthusiastic and empathetic.
Each time a new writer read – telling the story out loud for the first time – Darin was eager to make sure the reader knew he appreciated the story. The villagers were seen. They were heard. Their confidence grew and the feeling of connection was palpable. And there was no bigger cheerleader for hope than Darin Valdez.
Colorado Artists in Recovery isn’t just a good idea trying to make a difference. CAiR is like a heart beat pumping hope into Denver’s homeless community helping give people a reason to keep trying.
And it all starts with a story. Darin’s story, the villagers’ stories, and the story of this unique and innovative partnership. Crushing the stigma and solving the epidemic of despair won’t be easy, but we know where the solution starts.
We can’t solve the problems if we aren’t willing to listen to the stories.
To learn more about Colorado Artists in Recovery, check out their website. Click the “about” link and read Darin’s story.
Matt Salis writes, speaks, podcasts, directs a non-profit, leads alcoholism recovery programs, coaches soccer at Denver South H.S. and runs (very slowly) around the crushed-gravel path that surrounds our beloved Wash Park. Read more from Matt at SoberAndUnashamed.com