VA Palo Alto Health Care System
Meet Harold Smith, Addiction Therapist at VAPAHCS
For Veterans with an addiction problem, whether it be alcohol, drugs or a host of other addictive diseases, meeting Harold Smith, an Addiction Therapist at the VA Palo Alto, would be akin to striking gold.
Harold is a passionate man – both about life and work. He possesses a warm smile and bright eyes, and pictures of his loved ones blanket his office. As he welcomed me and we began to talk about his life and his career, I could tell he was a special man with unique talents.
Harold, an Army Veteran, grew up in Detroit, Michigan, the eldest of eleven children. His dad worked two jobs and his mom took care of their eleven children.
Harold’s father was a WW II Veteran, who experienced tough combat in the Philippines. “Knowing what I know today, I think my dad suffered from PTSD,” Harold explained. But as he reminisced, the love he holds for his parents, brothers and sisters and his childhood was evident.
Love for his girlfriend and two beautiful children, and his young granddaughter are also primary emotions for Harold. As in all lives, some of the relationships were more difficult than others but you could tell as he spoke, gently and quietly, that he loved all of them! He noted that a hard learned life lesson for him has been patience!
Harold’s unique work as a leader in the Palo Alto VA Addiction Recovery programs is well known among local Veterans in recovery. Every Thursday evening, Harold facilitates the “Shark Tank,” a group meeting, where recovering addicts, alcoholics and others struggling with addictions join together for a group “how’s it going” discussion.
"Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising up every time we fail." – Ralph Waldo Emerson
When Harold was asked to detail the unique qualities that set the “Shark Tank” apart from meetings like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotic Anonymous, he shared a bit of history. Thirty-three years ago, when a younger Harold attended the “Shark Tank,” he was in a recovery program. Trudy, the Director of a program called “one-thirty-seven, two” asked Harold if he would consider joining her staff and eventually leading a new program. “I was totally blown away when Trudy talked to me,” Harold recalled. Trudy saw Harold’s intuition for understanding the disease and the mindset of an addict/alcoholic and convinced Harold that “he was a natural.”
The VA addiction recovery program at the time was structured so that during the first 90 days of in-patient treatment, a Veteran focused on getting to know themselves, their likes, their dislikes and how to face their fears. The second 90 days were focused on a re-introduction back into either their work environment or their school life. The most important lesson, according to Harold, is learning to be accountable for every aspect of their life.
As a Veteran participating in the “one-thirty-seven, two” program, you were required to attend the “Shark Tank” on Thursday nights. Harold has been the facilitator for the last 33 years. The Thursday evening meeting is interactive with participation from all attendees who face similar challenges. Where the “Shark Tank” differs from other programs is in its confrontational approach. “In the Shark Tank,” Harold mused, “we are going to eat you up if you’re trying to BS your recovery. Everyone learns very quickly that your fellow Veterans are your comrades and they have your back, so don’t try to fool them -- they see right through all the charades!”
Over the years, the “Shark Tank” has morphed just as the “face of recovery has changed,” explained Harold. “Our understanding of addiction and insight to the disease are light years ahead of where they were three decades ago. The basic principles and the confrontational approach of the “Shark Tank” are still alive and well, but sometimes, given the complexities of our patient issues, we mute it slightly.” What remains constant is Harold. He is always present to direct and re-direct the discussion when it starts veering in an undesirable direction.
On a recent Thursday evening, I joined Harold for the “Shark Tank” meeting and a first-hand observation. As we made certain the coffee and cookies and chairs were set up, Harold told me to expect as many as 50 Veterans, all of whom are in active treatment or attending weekly programs for years to actively work on their recoveries.
As the Vets gathered, I could tell some were old friends, and others were new and looking like deer in headlights. It occurred to me that all of them had the common bond of being Veterans. They shared the pride and brotherhood of knowing they each served the United States of America in the Armed Services. And, they were also sharing a common disease and helping each other in their struggles and their victories.
Harold began the meeting by asking each of the forty or more participants to “check-in” and tell him if they needed “any time.” That translates to someone stating their name, their addiction, how long they have been sober and “how they are doing.” If they want some time to talk about an issue (good or bad), Harold would come back to them and give them the floor. It was remarkable how Harold knew nearly each one of them by name. He observed carefully and on occasion told them, even if they had not asked for time, that he was going to return to them and give them some time. The intuition that Trudy recognized 33 years ago is strong and clearly still active in Harold, as each time he would return to a Vet and ask them, “what was going on,” out would spill an issue!
Emotion and tears flowed freely during the meeting; when a Vet seemed desperate and in despair, Harold would talk calmly and assure them, and others would add insight or discuss similar experiences. One of the Vets tearfully expressed his challenges and then announced he was contemplating “giving up on sobriety.” The mention of “giving up” was like an adrenaline injection to all the attending Veterans who took turns giving him encouragement and advising he forgive himself and not look outside for validation. I was particularly moved when Harold rose up from his seat and walked over to the Vet and said, “give me a hug.” A procession of Vets and hugs followed.
Harold Smith is indeed a special man. He guides, comforts, and provides words of love and encouragement. Anyone needing a “reality check” and a dose of wisdom, kindness and love, Harold’s Shark Tank is the place to get it at the VA Palo Alto!
Harold appears to be one of those amazingly gifted people to have the uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time. Clearly, for 33 years, Thursday evenings at the Shark Tank is the right place for Harold and the Veterans attending.