I first met Jim Gillen, who died over the weekend after a long battle with cancer, a couple of years ago. I was reporting on skyrocketing rates of opioid addiction and overdose. And if you wanted to know about addiction and recovery in Rhode Island, you sought out Jim.
Jim Gillen headed recovery services for The Providence Center, which he joined in 2008. While there, he launched the Anchor Community Recovery Centers, neighborhood spots for folks in recovery or still thinking about it, the one in Pawtucket a come-as-you-are storefront where everyone was welcome, no matter where they were in their journey. You could see a counselor there, hit an AA meeting, take yoga for people in recovery, even receive help finding housing or crafting a resume. Gillen brokered partnerships with the YMCA in Warwick to open another such community center for people in recovery, and yet again with the women's correctional facility, or ACI. He helped put recovery coaches - people who've been there, themselves, and have some training to connect people to addiction treatment services - right in emergency rooms throughout Rhode Island, so that people brought there after a drug overdose might not simply be discharged, alone, and hopeless, but given a glimpse of how things could be different.
Gillen was tall, salt and pepper-haired, wore earrings, and smiled big, showing the story lines on his face. He was generous with his time, and helped connect me with sources to interview for my documentary about opioid addiction and overdose. But there were many demands on his time. People seemed to want to be near him, to soak up a bit of the kindness and joy he emanated.
On a panel discussion I convened about the state's opioid crisis, Gillen provided a comforting blend of well-informed but down-to-earth commentary. After the discussion, so many people surrounded him, wanting to introduce themselves or reconnect. I imagine he's had a hand in many an addict and alcoholic's path to wellness. I didn't know him well, but I know that's a path he trod himself. I know he spoke not only from his academic training but also his experience.
We got a chance to talk only a little bit about his past, and it was clear he'd had a long and adventurous one. I remember loving a story about his stint as a traveling circus animal trainer - or at least, I think that's what it was. But I was so tickled by it, he sent me this photo of his former cowboy life.
There are many courageous people in the recovery community, health care professionals, recovered addicts and alcoholics, their friends and family, and many more. But you don't always hear about them.
Addiction is a horrible, awful, terrible disease. It's treatable, but most addicts don't get treated. It's well-established as a disease among medical professionals, but it's still not as easy to get treatment as it should be. And it still carries stigma, although not as much as it used to.
And that is thanks to people like Jim Gillen, who spoke up, who agitated for awareness and action, and left the light on for strangers lost in the dark.
(The Providence Center provided this information about services for Jim Gillen:
Calling hours will be held Tuesday, July 21, from 3:00-7:00 PM, with services at 7:00 PM, at Carpenter-Jenks Funeral Home, 649 E. Greenwich Avenue, West Warwick, RI.)