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A Dinnertime Discussion That Could Change Lives

A new yet age-old forum—the dinner table—provides an entrée into honest and open communication about tough topics.

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“Want to talk about it?”

We’ve been hearing—and speaking—that phrase since we were old enough to put cogent words to our pain. The theory, one we’ve each put to the test hundreds of times, is that open, honest communication, ideally with loved ones we trust, makes things better. Even if the people we’re sharing our challenges with—whether that’s a bruised ego or a scary diagnosis—can’t provide a quick fix, there is potent healing available in a conversation that allows us to bravely bare our souls and be seen for who we truly are.

This is the power that Michael Hebb and Jamison Monroe, along with yoga and meditation teacher Angel Grant, are tapping into with the new project Drugs Over Dinner, which also boasts prominent collaborators such as Arianna and Christina Huffington; David Sheff; Dr. Gabor Mate; yoga teacher Tommy Rosen, creator of the Recovery 2.0 conference; Buddhist teacher Noah Levine; Chris Blackwell; and Washington State Senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles. Like Hebb’s Death Over Dinner initiative, exploring the taboo territory around end-of-life issues, Drugs Over Dinner, which launches today, provides a template and resources for bringing people together to discuss topics related to substance abuse.

Since the launch of Death Over Dinner in 2012, more than 100,000 people in 30 countries have participated. Both initiatives include an online program that allows you to invite guests to your gathering, provides sample questions to get the conversation rolling, and even offers an appreciation ritual to close the experience on a positive, compassionate note. What happens during and after the gathering is up to the participants, and whether they choose to use the conversation as a catalyst for change and growth.

On the program website, users can invite guests, select topics for discussion, and choose free educational materials for the group to read or watch in preparation for the event.

The idea is that, in a culture where 20 percent of meals are eaten in the car, families and friends need a little support in gathering around the table and then laying their cards on that table, so to speak.

“We tend to come from two core beliefs in this culture—love or fear,” says Monroe, founder and CEO of the teen rehab center Newport Academy. “Fear tells us we need to keep quiet, hide secrets, and share our successes, but not our failures or losses. Love tells us that we are okay, that we are accepted, that we can be compassionate to ourselves and others. Drugs Over Dinner is an opportunity to push through the fear and embrace a compassionate perspective.”

For Hebb, a social entrepreneur and activist, the Over Dinner projects are a natural outgrowth of 18 years of bringing together world leaders, artists, activists, intellectuals, and musicians to discuss critical topics, “provoking them into intense dialogue and learning about the power of sharing a meal,” he says. “The dinner table has been shaping culture since we became human. Sharing food and cultural evolution are inextricably intertwined. It became very clear to me that my small dinner parties needed to expand, and that, through digital technology, the scale was limitless.”

“Creating an environment where people can open up over time is key to people being more receptive to new things, both intellectually and emotionally,” says psychologist Carrie Wilkens, Ph.D., cofounder and clinical director of the Center for Motivation and Change, and coauthor of the book Beyond Addiction: How Science and Kindness Help People Change. “What better place than over a great dinner where people are sharing an experience—asking questions, offering up their own experiences, challenging each other, supporting each other. The more ‘normal’ we can make these conversations, the less space there will be for stigma to take hold and grow within individuals and their communities.

A paradigm shift is desperately needed, Wilkens says, in a culture in which those with mental-health and substance-use issues are the most stigmatized populations (only 11 percent of the 23 million people who suffer from substance addiction receive treatment), in spite of significant improvements in the public’s understanding of the problems they face.

Hebb and Monroe hope that conversations prompted by Drugs Over Dinner will not only ignite personal change and open up communication among family members, but also—eventually—impact our institutions, by providing a space in which to safely discuss policy issues like legalization and incarceration.

“Open, honest conversation is valuable on so many levels,” Hebb says. “I often think of these dinners as a wellness activity. Our big vision is that compassionate conversation can change lives, [and perhaps] go on to impact the structure of our society.”

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