Q&A: Meet Nayibis Pacheco, addiction escape artist
This is an excerpt from the monthly Advocacy Update. If you’d like to receive Hazelden Betty Ford Advocacy Update emails, subscribe today.
Growing up in Miami, Nayibis Pacheco felt trapped within an extreme, cult-like religion that emphasized gender and other stereotypes that were at odds with her sensibilities from the start. She says her childhood was marked by conflict and the trauma of being condemned and cast aside repeatedly on moral grounds. Perhaps it is no surprise she became trapped within addiction, too. That wasn’t the end though because she eventually found the wherewithal to take a first step toward recovery, which unlike drugs — has enabled her to finally escape the trauma of her youth.
Today, Nay — as many know her — holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Florida and has worked at the nonprofit Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation for eight years. She currently supervises the addiction technician staff at Hazelden Betty Ford in Naples, helping others find hope and healing from addiction and mental health challenges every day. Drawing on her Cuban and Nicaraguan heritage, she speaks both Spanish and English and works with a diverse population of patients while also helping lead Conscious Inclusion Dialogue Groups internally with colleagues.
Q: What drew you to the field of addiction treatment?
I had a very sheltered, extreme religious upbringing where addiction and alcoholism were seen as sins against God. This always felt wrong to me. Even as a child, I thought people who experience these challenges need help, not judgment. And then I myself began to struggle with addiction and was cast out from my religion for that and other reasons. While traumatizing, the ultimate impact of this was that it pushed me forward in a good way and opened the door for me to redefine what I believed in and what drives me as a human being. What is it that drives me? It’s love. I like to think that everything I do is motivated by love and genuine empathy for others. And after establishing my own recovery, I knew pretty quickly I was bound — in one way or another — for a career that would allow me to help others just as I had been helped. Sure enough, that has happened, and my work today is all-the-more gratifying because it’s so personal.
Q: How has your cultural background interwoven with your recovery experience?
It’s tough because addiction issues within my culture are seen as vices. There is constant pressure to just stop drinking or using and straighten out. But substance use disorder is a disease, and the process of recovery is a lot more variable and complicated than the average person knows. I understood, because of my culture, that I needed to have strong boundaries with my family and their beliefs in order to give myself the best opportunity to recover and be successful. It has worked. And today, I hope that living well in recovery and sharing my story has some positive impact in helping them and others understand the reality of addiction — that it’s a preventable, treatable health condition that can be overcome if we approach it that way. That’s especially important to me because I — like so many others — have family members who are struggling with addiction today.
While I have left behind the religious parts of my upbringing and culture, I stay connected to my Latin culture, honor it, and am able to use my bilingual skills at work and in the community to engage and help others in a way that is very meaningful to me.
Q: What do you wish more people knew or understood about recovery?
I wish, collectively as a society, we prioritized helping over judging. There are certainly strides that have been made. Eight years ago. Hazelden Betty Ford was accessible almost exclusively to people who could pay out of pocket. Today, almost all of our patients are able to utilize insurance. That’s the result of our society and healthcare system viewing addiction more and more through a health care lens, rather than as a moral choice. And it reflects a reduction in the systemic stigma and discrimination that have hurt families affected by addiction for generations. This progress means more people have the opportunity to access critical help for their chronic and often devastating disease, and that they will be met with loving, kind professionals who prioritize help over judgment, shame and guilt. We’re on the right track in many regards, but I certainly wish more people knew and understood that people with addiction need and deserve health care every bit as much as those with other illnesses and diseases.