Wake County

This former addict is working to help others overcome their addictions

Donald McDonald is director of advocacy and education at Recovery Communities of North Carolina.
Donald McDonald is director of advocacy and education at Recovery Communities of North Carolina. Courtesy of Donald McDonald

Donald McDonald uses the pronoun “we” to describe people who struggle with addiction, the focus of his job as director of advocacy and education at Recovery Communities of North Carolina, or RCNC.

While this may highlight his own history with addiction, McDonald says succeeding in helping others battle addiction also requires understanding how his experience differs from that of others.

“I had access to treatment and family support,” he says. “I didn’t have the obstacles of a criminal background or poverty or homelessness. We have to reflect upon the ingredients that went into our success and we set about deliberately creating that environment for everyone.”

As director of advocacy and education for RCNC, McDonald is a leader in the growing recovery movement in North Carolina to view addiction to drugs and alcohol not as a moral failing, but as a disease that is best fought through a prevention, treatment and long-term recovery.

His group supports people who have gone through treatment so that they can avoid relapse. It provides mentoring and support in addition to helping people find jobs, housing and other necessities.

He has a knack for providing genuine empathy and reserve or, alternately, comic relief, as the situation calls for. With recovery, that is a very useful gift.

Karen Kranbuel, Recovery Communities of North Carolina board

It’s a role that is increasingly important – and has received support – in light of the growing problem of opioid addiction. The group was part of a $7.8 million grant in 2014 aimed at recovery and is included in a recently announced $31 million federal grant to help deal with the opioid epidemic.

Karen Kranbuel, a member of the RCNC board who went to graduate school with McDonald, says he has helped combat the problem in a variety of ways, including: training recovery coaches, working with people as they leave treatment, holding public awareness events and advocating for the recovery movement among elected officials.

“He’s reaching out with that warm authenticity that comes through no matter who he’s talking to,” Kranbuel says. “He has a knack for providing genuine empathy and reserve or, alternately, comic relief, as the situation calls for. With recovery, that is a very useful gift.”

A young addict

McDonald grew up in Asheville, and says he started experimenting with alcohol and drugs at a young age. But unlike his peers, he says, his addiction only deepened.

While many young people experiment with alcohol and drugs, people who suffer from substance use disorder, as he does, find it difficult to escape addiction.

“We start with cigarettes and alcohol, maybe pot, and then we find some unused opioid,” he says. “And while everyone else goes about their day and pursues their dreams, we can’t, and people are like, ‘Why don’t they leave it alone?’ 

He joined the Navy after high school, and received treatment there for addiction and other mental health issues.

When he left the Navy, he studied at N.C. State University to be an English teacher but continued to struggle with addiction.

Eventually, his psychiatrist got him into treatment for substance use.

“It was 2004 and I had been married for 10 years and had four small children,” he says. “I was at that stepping off point one more time and am so grateful that I went into treatment instead.”

Going through treatment and recovery also inspired him to pursue a new career helping others who struggle with addiction.

“I found out I was good at helping other people recover from addiction after I had successfully recovered myself,” he says.

He started by taking a job as a security guard at a methadone clinic and signed up for classes at Wake Technical Community College with an eye toward a degree in counseling.

He later worked as a case manager at what was then The Healing Place (now called Healing Transitions). From there, he applied to graduate school at UNC-Chapel Hill, where he earned his master’s degree in social work.

Leading the recovery

RCNC started in 2012 as a grassroots organization and has grown quickly along with demand for its services. Often ignored in comparison to prevention and treatment, recovery has gained traction in recent years as playing a key role in combating addiction.

“It’s awesome to see recovery become an evidence-based and funded entity on equal footing with prevention and treatment,” he says. “That was not the case before.”

McDonald joined the group last year, and has since worked to establish recovery programs and raise awareness of the need for them. Part of that work, he says, is fighting the stigma associated with substance use disorder, a term that itself denotes a shift from the previous term “substance abuse.”

“We know this is a chronic illness, yet we’re treating it as if it was a self-inflicted broken bone,” McDonald says. “You get treatment but then you go back to your community and try to keep your nose clean.”

That model, he says, is particularly perilous in the face of addiction to heroin, given the risk of death by overdose if a person relapses.

McDonald says that the long-term support model can help people from all walks of life with all kinds of addictions.

The model is not unlike Alcoholics Anonymous, or the support some people might get from immersing themselves in a faith community, but it’s geared toward helping everyone find their best kind of support.

His group focuses on helping each individual create a recovery pathway. Part of the process is “finding a tribe,” a supportive community of people that often includes a mentor or recovery coach and a peer group.

The centers also help connect people with affordable housing, transportation and employment opportunities.

McDonald trains recovery coaches statewide and has started support groups for the families of people recovering from addiction. He’s working to help other communities create such centers, and is involved in state and national recovery organizations, speaking widely on his own experience and the importance of recovery. Earlier this year, he organized the N.C. Addiction Recovery Advocacy Day, which drew more than 150 residents from 50 cities.

As communities better understand addiction, he says, they can push for more resources.

“Previously there was so much stigma surrounding addiction that communities and families did not readily ask for what they deserved,” he says.

Know someone who should be Tar Heel of the Week?

Contact us at tarheel@newsobserver.com.

Donald McDonald

Born: July 1967, Asheville

Residence: Raleigh

Family: Wife Jill; children Taylor, Nathaniel, Emma and Madeline

Career: Director of advocacy and education, Recovery Communities of North Carolina

Education: B.A. English, N.C. State University; M.S.W. UNC-Chapel Hill