Q&A: This one-time heroin addict gives back as head of substance abuse program

Name: Vitka Eisen
Age: 57
City: Berkeley
Position: CEO, HealthRIGHT 360

J.: You have been involved for more than three decades with San Francisco’s Walden House, which serves people with substance abuse disorders. It merged with Haight Ashbury Free Clinics in 2011 to form HealthRIGHT 360. How did you end up leading the organization?

Vitka Eisen: I initially came to Walden House as a client in the mid-’80s. I was a heroin user. After I graduated from the program in 1987, I ran the high school at Walden House. Over the years, I have served in various capacities at Walden House. I was the director of our prison treatment program, overseeing all of our criminal justice programs, and I was chief operating officer for about five years before being named CEO in 2010.

Since the merger, we’ve grown considerably, serving about 38,000 clients annually throughout California. We run Lyon-Martin Health Services, which provides health care services to lesbians, other women and transgender people, and manage prison health care programs throughout the state.

Other mergers are in the offing, but we are particularly excited about opening a new location in San Francisco at Mission Street and South Van Ness, where we will provide central intake, a dental clinic, pharmacy, outpatient mental health and substance abuse programs, a medical clinic, a resource center and other ancillary services to help people get back on their feet.

You have been an outspoken and eloquent advocate of prison reform, particularly as it pertains to substance abuse. Why?

Prisons should be for dangerous people, not for people with substance-abuse problems. Substance abuse is a chronic health condition. It is not a dereliction of character or morality. It can’t be cured. How many people are incarcerated because of a health condition? It is crazy when you think about it. We need to invest funding in medications, therapies and social supports, not in the prison system. Prisons destroy communities at great expense — and they don’t cure people.

Experts often point to family histories of substance abuse. Was this true in your family? When did your own substance issues begin?

Yes, my father and his brothers had a history of drinking and prescription drug use. When my mother complained that he was about to lose his job, he stopped drinking — and he never drank again. Later, he started using barbiturates, particularly sleeping pills.

I was smoking weed at 12. I was a gay teen in the early 1970s — it was a pretty lonely and isolating place to be. After going to the High School of Music and Art in New York City, I went to college at SUNY Purchase, but I dropped out and took drugs. I did other drugs before heroin, but I took opioids for about five years. Research shows that adolescent use of drugs and alcohol makes you much more susceptible to substance abuse in adulthood.

What you’re saying — that your Jewish family struggled with substance abuse — runs counter to the notion that Jews do not typically face these challenges.

There is a disproportionately low use [of alcohol and drugs] among Jews. It makes you think it doesn’t exist. But it does. When I was in treatment at Walden House, there were three other Jewish residents.

Tell us about your family now.

I am married to Rachel Sing. We met at the Harvard School of Education more than 20 years ago, where we were both graduate students. We adopted three children. We have two daughters, ages 15 and 11, and a son who is 14.

How do you express your Jewishness as an individual and as a family?

My Jewish identity is a cultural identity that is very important to me. As a family, we celebrate Passover and Hanukkah. When I was a resident at Walden House, I wanted to have a seder. Passover is a historic holiday that honors liberation, so it is significant to me on many levels. We invited a Holocaust survivor, and it was a very uplifting experience. I also think that my love of learning, belief in the importance of education and my commitment to doing good in the world are parts of my Jewish identity.

“Talking With” focuses on local Jews who are doing things we find interesting. Send suggestions to sueb@jweekly.com.

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