Interview With Sydney M. Silverstein

The next few months we’ll be highlighting authors who have published in Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry.

Sydney Silverstein is an Assistant Professor at the Center for Interventions, Treatment, and Addictions Research/Department of Population & Public Health Sciences, Boonshoft School of Medicine. She is an anthropologist and filmmaker with a mixed-methods, multimedia research practice. Her scholarship explores the diverse social worlds that come together around the production, circulation, and use of illicit drugs. She conducts research in both Peru and North America.

What is your article “‘Visualizing a Calculus of Recovery: Calibrating Relations in an Opioid Epicenter” about?

This article uses participatory visual methods (photo elicitation) to explore barriers to, and motivators for recovery from drug addiction among a group of people with opioid use disorder living in Dayton, Ohio, an epicenter of overdose death.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your research interests.

I came to anthropology later in life – I was nearly 30 and working full-time at a non-profit when I took my first anthropology class at a community college. But after that I was hooked! I have pretty diverse research interests, but mostly I love the research practice of being an anthropologist. Being employed at a medical school—and often the only person advocating for qualitative, let alone ethnographic methods to be incorporated into research design—I have only come to appreciate my training more. For me, there is no substitute for the holistic approach that anthropology brings to studying the human experience.

What drew you to this project?

I got interested in this project because I was trying to carve out a space for my visual and ethnographic research praxis amidst my work on a study that was much more straightforward public health. As an anthropologist, I often felt limited by the kinds of insights I could gather from a one-time qualitative interview. I was constantly trying to figure out ways to develop relationships I was building with participants in the longitudinal, federally funded study that I had been hired on to as the project ethnographer. I thought that the photo-elicitation project would be a good excuse to follow up with some of the study participants that I found interesting and learn more about their worlds.

Another special thing about this project is that my co-authors included three undergraduate students who worked with me as part of a virtual internship over the Summer of 2020. Because I work in a medical school, I don’t often have contact with undergraduate students, but when COVID hit I saw a post from a colleague asking if anyone new of virtual internship opportunities for students who were now unable to complete their summer plans due to the pandemic. So, I created one, and very much enjoyed collaborating with these outstanding and highly motivated students even though we have not, to this day, ever met IRL!

What was one of the most interesting findings?

The profound ambivalence of things in the context of recovery. For instance, I have heard people tell me how their children have been a huge motivator in their recovery, but just as often (perhaps more) participants described how a deep sense of shame over losing custody of their children kept them in their addiction. Same with money. In early stages of recovery, participants described feeling helpless when they did not have enough money to buy a bus pass to get to work, or pay rent, but others told me that they were petrified to start earning money, and especially to have cash in their pocket, lest they get the urge to use and have the resources to do so.

What are you reading, listening to, and/or watching right now?

I keep track of the all the books I read each year on the last page of my planner, so my book list is available upon request – ha! One of my favorite books that I read this year is called Hostal Amor, by Cayo Vásquez, although this may only appeal to those who have spent time in the beautiful city of Iquitos. I have a long commute, so I listen to a lot of podcasts—All the Smoke, Radio Ambulante, El Hilo, Fresh Air, Ear Hustle, and Mad in America are in the heavy rotation.

As for moving pictures, I just finished the last season of Atlanta and am kind of at a loss for what to watch next. I think that the third season of Atlanta (when Paper Boi is on tour in Europe) was some of the best TV I have ever seen. For now, I’m mostly watching NBA basketball. It is frustrating because I have League Pass, which lets me watch all the games except the ones that are broadcast locally, but my local team (the Cavaliers) are really, really good. But I refuse to get cable just to have Fox Sports!

If there was one takeaway or action point you hope people will get from your work, what would it be?

Just how hard and all-encompassing recovery can be. I think that this is not unique to recovery from addiction, but there are consequences that people who use drugs suffer more so that people dealing with other kinds of chronic illnesses. For instance, the fact that so many people who use drugs over a long period of time end up entangled in the criminal justice system makes recovery about a lot more than reckoning with one’s relationship with a substance. Many times, you are also trying to navigate the world with a felony on your record, a wrecked credit score, no employment history, etc. It’s just a lot to deal with, and I think it is hard to understand unless you have direct experience. And treatment centers don’t often help with this. Their goal is to help an individual stop using drugs, but recovery is much more than that. The good news is that there is a growing movement to incorporate peer supporters—individuals with direct, lived experience—into treatment and recovery systems, which I think is a step in the right direction. Shout out to all the amazing peer supporters in Montgomery County who have given me hope during dark times.

Other places to connect:
Wright State University

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