Hope for the (Wet) Windy City?

By artofrecovery 05/22/18

It’s a muggy summer day in the Windy City. A fortysomething male arrives at his post in Wicker Park at approximately 5am, diligently working as a self-made interior designer with a rather “Polish-ed” exterior, a fine byproduct of Chicago’s earliest Polonia. On the other side of town, a late thirtysomething East Indian female, is finishing her PhD, striving to achieve the unobtainable Asian ideal of perfectionism.

Despite the vast differences in cultural heritage, both individuals possess a common link: They were born and raised on soil cultivated by Polish and Indian settlers who molded Chicago’s landscape and contributed to its economic, social and cultural well-being. From its first iteration to second-city, this city’s ability to endure is unassailable. But times have changed, and recent events have rendered those classic Chicago blues practically indistinguishable from the daily news.

Chicago resembles many large American cities, in that stress, anxiety, and crime are commonplace and gun violence is pervasive, but the stats are depressing in their magnitude. Shockingly, Howard Spivak M.D., director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Violence Prevention, stated that inner city youth in America have higher rates of PTSD than soldiers. According to the University of Chicago Crime Lab, homicide rates in Chicago increased 60% in one year (2015-2016).1 That’s almost unfathomable for a city of its size. The daily news stories bring those statistics to sobering life and are evidence enough that this iconic city is suffering.

As if crime weren’t enough, the rates of substance misuse are equally as alarming. Chicago is within the “Midwest Binge Belt,” a phrase coined for the region’s copious alcohol consumption. Here’s what’s concerning: The annual average of heavy alcohol use among adults aged 21 and older was higher than the annual average for the nation from 2010-2014. In Illinois, about 7.6% of all adults in this age group reported heavy alcohol use, indicating a possible Substance Use Disorder (SUD).2

Recently, I had an illuminating conversation with a friend who works in Chicago, disclosing the secret stories of this drunken culture. As my friend sat peacefully working at her desk one day, a “beverage cart” came around the corner. Said friend, who is sober, was caught off guard, not realizing her newly acquired position involved in-house happy hours. When politely declining to partake in the office slosh, she was immediately confronted: “We would not have hired you had we known you did not drink,” were the perplexing words of her superior. I can empathize with my friend; the streets of Chicago are lit with bars, booze, and bravado. Not exactly an ideal location for those in recovery, striving to build a sober network and stay off the sauce.

Crime and cocktails walking hand in hand, but what’s the moral of the story? Chicago may need to sober up– in more ways than one–but how that will happen remains to be seen.

A program taught in Chicago schools, Youth Empowerment Seminar (YES!) promotes human values such as non-violence and teaches techniques to remain sober, empowering youth to become change agents; a promising strategy to uplift and revive the streets of Chi-town.

In fact, Serenity Academy Chicago, a newly launched recovery high school, provides teens with a safe and sober environment to complete their high school education while refraining from alcohol and drugs. Similar recovery high schools and colleges are popping up across the nation, a possible remedy to the drastic addiction epidemic in the U.S, particularly prevalent in youth.

Chicago’s fate is obscure. Novel approaches to combating crime, substance misuse, mental health issues, and violence provide hope for perhaps, the city’s best iteration yet.

A sober scenario for the (Wet) Windy City.

Anjali Talcherkar, M.A., holds a Master’s degree in Psychology with a specialization in Addiction Studies. She is currently finishing her Ph.D. in Integrative Medicine from Saybrook University. Anjali has assisted at UCLA’s Center for Addictive Behavior and at Cambridge Health Alliance’s Division on Addiction, thru Harvard University Medical School. Anjali’s blogs have appeared on rehabreviews.com, AddictionUnscripted.com, Addiction Professional, Fulfillment Daily, Prevail Health, and The BASIS (Brief Addiction Science Information Source). Anjali’s personal recovery journey also motivates and informs her current work.

1. University of Chicago News. UChicago Crime Lab releases 2016 gun violence report.
2. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). (2015). Behavioral Health Barometer: Illinois, 2015.

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