Denise Williams -My Twin Sons

About ten years ago, Denise Williams found herself trying to navigate the intersection of mental illness and addiction with her twin sons, Ryan and Matt. 

She wishes she had been better prepared.

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I have twin sons, Ryan and Matt, and a daughter, Katie. She's two years younger than the boys. And both of the boys, they’re twins, they died of a heroin overdose.

From the beginning, I thought I was a very lucky person. My kids flourished. They did well in school. They were active in all the community things. The boys played sports. My daughter did the cheerleading.

I thought that we were the white picket fence family, that there was nothing wrong.

And when Matt was in high school, just before graduating, I got a letter or a note sent home from his English teacher. She had given them an assignment to write a speech to their classmates what they would wish for them for the future.

And Matt's was totally morbid.

It talked about suicide. It talked about bullying. It talked about the injustices in the world.

He did not want to go on living if, if this is what life was. I thought it was a joke. I thought it was his senior prank -- that someone had put him up to it because of this wasn't Matt. Matt was my happy-go-lucky. He was the people-pleasing child. Out of the three that I had, he was the easiest to get along with, always looked for approval and wanted to please people. And he never had anything bad to say about anyone. And here he's talking about suicide? It wasn't a prank. It was his words. He wrote it. He started feeling like that in middle school.

And it's like, "Well, why didn't you tell me that this is how you felt?"

And he said, “Because I didn't want to be like grandma.”

My mother-in-law lived with us. She suffered from severe mental health issues. And not understanding what mental health was, I thought it was a weakness. And, um, if she would just get up, out of bed, take her medicine, take a shower, eat a good breakfast, she would be good. It was her choice to lay around and feel sorry for herself.

Often there were jokes around the household that,"There's grandma, she's up to her old tricks, you know, just trying to get attention."

Matt flat out said,"I didn't want to be like grandma. So I handled it."

"Well, what did you do to handle it?"

And he goes, "You know, I handled it. Today I'm feeling a lot better."

In my mind I was like, Okay, well, I was right. He got out of bed. He pushed himself forward. And it's just, like I said, mental health is a weak disease that, you know, he overcame it.

I did find out the first time he went into rehab, what he meant by that.

He meant I had a bottle of liquor hidden underneath my bed. And every night I would drink. Every day before I went to school, I would drink, and it would take away my anxiety, my depression, and it was my coping. You could have blown me over with a feather. I, I just -- what, where was I? Why didn't I notice all these signs? I mean, he just -- he hid it so incredibly well.

Nobody ever would have guessed that he was depressed, and suffered from anxiety disorder, and bipolar disorder.

He said he didn't want anybody to know because that was his problem. And he didn't want to be made fun of. And he didn't want to be like grandma.

It increased after high school. But after high school he did go to college in the evening. He worked full time. And he had a girlfriend that went to Towson. And he would spend most of his weekends out there with her.

And I thought everything's great.

When Matt was around 20 years old, he just had a big turnaround in his personality. He quit college. He broke up with the girlfriend. No one knew that he was unhappy. And he became this person that he was staying out all night. Coming in totally wasted, disrupting the household, dropping things, walking into walls.

It finally got to the point that, you know, "If you can't live under my roof, doing my rules, you're going to have to go.”

And Matt welcomed that conversation because he already had a place set up.

It was quite a bit of a party house. But I thought, Hey, now he's got to pay rent. He's going to have to grow up.

Well, that didn't happen. The partying increased.

January 17th of 2007, 4:15 in the morning, I get a phone call from University of Maryland Shock Trauma. Matt had been in a serious car accident and we needed to come quickly.

You know, he had some pretty serious injuries to his arm, but he would survive. And the state police were there. And they said they would be charging Matt with driving under the influence.

And when the doctor came out, he said, “The good news is, he's in recovery right now. The bad news is he's got a long road to recovery.” He was in the hospital for a week. He broke, chipped, dislocated, and crushed every bone in his left arm. He broke his right leg. He had lacerations all over his body, a couple broken ribs, a concussion. When I went to go pick him to bring them home, they had just taken them off of the morphine drip and they had started him on opiates.

And he was not doing well. He started vomiting.

The vomiting continued. He was supposed to take the opiates, the Percocets and the Oxy's, every four hours. And every four hours Matt would be vomiting.

I called back up to the hospital,and I was just told, “Matt's got to get used to it. He's got a long road to recovery. He's got to just keep taking the opiates. There is nothing else that we can give him. And eventually he'll get used to it.”

Well, he did. He said it was less than two months after starting the opiates he was waiting for that for 4-hour interim to come so he could take another pill.

He ultimately needed seven operations, four days a week of intense occupational and physical therapy.

They did wean him down from the Oxy's but he was given Percocets, ninety at a time.

I didn't think this was going to be a problem because this wasn't Matt's drug of choice. It was pot, cocaine and alcohol. Pills? He was vomiting, you know. He isn't going to get addicted to it. And he kept the fact that he was looking forward to that every four-hour timeframe to himself.

As he got more mobile, he started buying them on the street in between. But eventually he couldn't afford it. He wasn't working. He, you know, he had a girlfriend that was helping them buy things, and he was coming up with lame excuses to borrow money from us, and we never, ever dreamt it was to buy a pill.

He said by the one-year anniversary of his car accident, he had to switch to heroin because he could not afford to keep up his opiate habit on the street.

That happened when he was 21. It wasn't until he was 25 before we actually got him to commit to a rehab. And you know, it's just like anyone else suffering from the disease of addiction -- things were coming up missing. Electronics. My husband had a welding business so there was a lot of tools that were very valuable. They were always coming up missing.

We didn't call the police on him. We tried to handle this on her own, buy it back from the pawn shop, and threatened Matt, You got to stop it.

We finally got Matt to commit to a rehab right around his 25th birthday, which was 2012. But he was there for two days and I got a phone call from the psychiatrist and the caseworker. They needed a meeting with me.

Matt greeted us at the door, and he’s like, “Happy birthday to me!” because it was actually was there his 25th birthday.

“Happy Birthday to me! It's the first time since I was 14 that I've been sober on my birthday.”

And it's like, “What are you talking about? What about when you were 15, 16, 17?”

He said, “No. I wasn't.”

And then we went to meet with the psychiatrist and the caseworker. She said, “He has so much pain. Matt will never be sober unless he handles the demon beyond the addiction, which is his mental health.” For probably an hour, he just sat there and bled his heart. The things that bothered him -- I mean it went back to early childhood. The counselor would say, “Remember, this has been festering in, in him. It snowballed and got bigger and bigger, and he was never treated for any type of mental health.”

But then there were other things. His father is an alcoholic. And he said, “I don't think my father knew my name until I was old enough to sit on a barstool next to him. He didn't go to my concerts. And if he did, he came in at the last five minutes, and he was drunk. And that hurt.”

I get it. I get it.

They gave me a list of mental health treatments, and she says, “Matt's insurance only pays for 14 days, but I think because of the mental health, I can get an extended time. But you have to have him set up with a psychiatrist before we leave. That is the only way he will remain sober.”

Well, as it turned out, Matt's insurance, they would pay for if I paid out of pocket. We had just paid $1,500 for him to walk in the door, and then after that it was going to be $65 a day, excluding any expenses. And I, I just did the math. How can we afford this? You know, we're middle class. We struggle!

And so I had to bring Matt home, prior to getting a psychiatrist. And I hate to bring money up because his life is way more valuable than that, but these are the walls that people face for healthcare.
In 2014, Matt finally did get clean and he was seeing the psychiatrist and, and everything seemed to be going well.

Ryan thought he -- it's time for him to follow up because he had fallen into the same path from depression, from actually having adult issues, finances and relationship problems.

It was in December. Ryan wanted to wait until after Christmas because he had a young son and he didn't want to be away from home. So just like he promised, two days after Christmas he went and got his own Maryland state insurance, then went to a treatment center. Well, when he got to the treatment center, they said, "We don't take walk-ins.”

So he made an appointment, went back the following week.

They told him, "You don't have that insurance card in your hand," even though he was preapproved, and state --Maryland state insurance does work that way -- that you can be preapproved. And there is a website that any treatment center can go on and see who is preapproved. And we were not aware of this at that time.

They told him no. They told him to come back when he physically had the insurance card in hand.

Ryan died 25 days later. The insurance card came the day of his funeral.

But Matt held everything in. And he told me later he didn't deserve to cry because he was the one that introduced Ryan to the heroin after being turned down from treatment and Ryan needed something stronger than the pills he was getting on the street.

Matt pretended for two years, and right after the anniversary of Ryan's death, because it was in January, Matt started becoming more and more verbal that things weren't right. And he had a full blown-out relapse.

At the hospital, they looked into his past history, and they didn't call this the normal relapse. They said that he's never dealt with the grief. He's never dealt with the guilt. And that he was doing what Matt knows how to do -- self medicate in order to resolve his problems. And it was treated like that. He never went into a drug treatment program even though all the mental health facilities overlapped with that. The drugs was the secondary. The most important thing was the mental health -- getting Matt to cope with Ryan's death, and the grief and the guilt.

It was like everybody was pulling together to help Matt.

In February of this year, he wasn't doing good, and he did not want to go back into inpatient because every time he complained that the demons with Ryan were getting greater, and more vivid, and keeping him awake all night long, all's they did was increase his antidepressants. And he said he could actually exist in a world doing illegal drugs and still function normally. But the antidepressants were so -- at such a high volume, he slurred his words. He was falling over. He was Zombie-like.

And, and he was crying.

And he said, “Mom, I can't exist being a drug addict, and I can't exist being highly medicated. I am unfixable. Once Ryan died, that was it for me. I've always envied where he went because he's at peace. I hate that I'm doing this to you but you have to know it's time to let me go. I have to do what I have to do.”

And I begged him. And he said, “No! If they come here, I'm over 18. You know, if I'm not hurting anyone, all's I have to say is I'm not going into treatment. And I won't. And they have to leave.”

And -- which is true. So I said, "Well, will you go back to the hospital?"

He said, "Sure on Monday," but it wasn't a very convincing ‘sure on Monday.’

The next day he intentionally overdosed.

Matt went into the addiction with mental health issues. With Ryan, he did not have them and I do think Ryan could have recovered.

But I think Matt would have always lived a very troubled life. I saw my mother-in-law. She died with this disease.

It ruled Matt. It was Matt's demon beyond the addiction.

And, you don't want to lose your kids.

I'm 62 years old. I have four grandsons that are beautiful little boys-- and they, they put a smile on my face.

But then come like Christmas morning, it's obvious the ones who are missing.

I'm Denise Williams and this is my story.

Paula Fish -Drug Court

There are currently more than 3,000 drug courts in the United States. The one in Anne Arundel County, Maryland continues to expand to respond to need. Drug Court manager, Paula Fish, explains how it works and why it saves lives.

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Drug court is an alternative to incarceration for nonviolent offenders. The thought was that if people were given treatment and reconnected to the resources within their community, given the opportunity to put their lives back together, they wouldn't re-offend.

There's a tremendous cost savings to keeping people in the community and offering them treatment as opposed to incarcerating them and paying for all of their care, and then releasing them back into the community with the same problem that got them incarcerated in the first place. The way people come to drug court is not usually by choice. People are arrested. They're in a lot of legal trouble. They don't really have anything to go back to in the community. And they don't want to spend a lot of time in jail.

So they'll be referred to drug court by somebody who's working with them -- their public defender, the state's attorney, probation agent, as long as the person has an open case in the court, they can be referred.

At the beginning they're not all that excited about not using drugs anymore. They're not all that excited about following our rules. We have a lot of things that you need to do in the beginning. So the first phase of our program is engagement. And it's at that time that we are trying to help the person get some information, get into treatment, and get started even though they're not really sure that that's what they want to do.

When people first come into the program and we're trying to get them started, we don't kick them out for using drugs. And we don't kick them out for not showing up for their appointments. We find behavioral interventions to try to make that happen.

The only time someone would get kicked out in an early phase is if they don't show up. I can't work with them if I can't even get them here. But most people will keep coming back because they don't want to do jail. And eventually some of the things that we're teaching them starts to make a difference for them.

Once we get them engaged, the next thing that we focus on in Phase Two is the treatment. We're really focused on what they need. If they need more than one kind of treatment, more than one level of care. Some go to inpatient, some go to outpatient. Some end up doing several different treatment programs. And we also encourage people to use medically assisted treatment such as methadone, suboxone, and vivitrol when that's appropriate to them.

The third phase of the program is reconnecting people to their community to get jobs, attend school or training. To get some permanent housing and to get them involved with a sober support network, sober support network, whether that's one of the already established groups like AA or NZ or Smart Recovery or Celebrate Recovery or just through their own family friends, church. But they're going to need a whole new set of friends and supports than they had when they were using.

The fourth phase is just maintenance. People just show us that they can do it. When that's done, that's when they graduate. And that's when the real work begins because they have to do it on their own. One of the greatest benefits of drug court is that it saves lives. We have experienced a huge increase in opiate addiction in this country, and here in Anne Arundel County, and when people go to jail and they don't get treatment, they come out of jail and go back to using drugs right away. They’re at extreme risk at that point in time because a lot of them will go back and use the same dose they had been using regularly, and their tolerance is down and it's too much. And so we see a lot of overdoses happen right when somebody gets out of jail. There's a lot of fentanyl out in the drugs these days that is killing people. It's extremely potent. It's very cheap, and all kinds of different substances are being cut with fentanyl. So it's not just, um, the heroin users that are dying from overdoses.

We've seen people get fentanyl in their cocaine, get fentanyl in marijuana. Dealers are using it to pack the product and make it more potent and more desirable, and it's tragic and it's killing people. It can be really difficult to work with people in active addiction. There's a lot of lying. There's a lot of shame. There's a lot of depression and anxiety, and so it's very difficult to engage, just difficult at getting them in the door.

It's a tough job, uh, at the beginning, but the end is glorious. I mean, it's, there's nothing more uplifting than a dru g court graduation. We have people come back to us all of the time, even people that didn't successfully complete the program and end up in jail, come back to us after and say, Drug court really helped me. I learned so much in drug court and that's why I'm doing well today -- even though I didn't graduate, you know, you guys saved my life. And the people that graduate come back and see us, and show us how wonderful they are doing -- their new jobs, their are new families, their new children. It's incredibly uplifting.

Now that I've been at the drug court here over 10 years, I've seen a lot of different. When I first arrived here, we saw a lot of cocaine. We saw a lot of PCP, which was very common to this area and yet not in many other parts of the country.

And then recently it's just been a huge increase in opiates and it's probably the largest cycle that I've experienced. There's so much more need. We've been expanding our program to meet the need. There's been more money on the street in terms of support money available for people to get their lives back together and to keep them alive.

The opiate crisis has hit all walks of life. You know, there are very affluent people that are finding themselves in having a drug problem due to prescriptions for accidents, pain, trauma. And so people who never thought that they would end up in a courtroom are finding themselves here faced with very difficult choice: to go to jail, to stay alive, whether they want to work at changing their life and getting their old life back.

One of the most difficult things in this job is that some of our people die. And that's very hard to take, to see so much death around you. So, um, what keeps me going or what, what makes me love this work and love this job, is that so many people are saved. I mean, I feel like I save lives all of the time. And not just the lives of the people in the program, but that I've made life better for their children. Um, I’ve, you know, helped their children have a better parent, have a better connection with their parents, have a better life. And that I'm interrupted a cycle of, uh, maybe intergenerational substance abuse and neglect that goes along with that.

So it's more than just the people that come to drug court that I feel good about. It's all of the people in their lives whose lives are changed when one of our people changes their life. So there's just a lot to be grateful for and a lot to be excited about when I go home and take stock of everything that we've accomplished through bringing people into the drug court program and helping them be successful.

There are places where drug courts have not been implemented ,where the community has resisted them and where even some courts that call themselves drug courts don't follow the best practices, and don't function in the way that drug courts were meant to function. So there is still work to be done.

My name is Paula Fish and this is my story.

Maureen Cavanagh -Maternal Instincts

Maureen Cavanagh is the founder of Magnolia New Beginnings, a non profit nationwide peer support group for those affected by substance use disorder. Her memoir, "If You Love Me: a Mother's Journey through her Daughter's Opioid Addiction" was published in September 2018.

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I think as mothers, we feel like it's our job to fix everything because that's what we do. From the time that they're born, we carry them in our bodies and we take care of them.

And fathers feel this way. But I'm a mother and I can only speak from my own experience.

I felt that everything that happens to them because they're vulnerable and they’re children-- it's our duty to make better.

You spend years and years of doing that, and then you come up against something that you can’t fix.

So even if you're trying to do that slow release that we all do when kids become young adults -- when it's something that can kill them?

Well, all bets are off! Then you jump back in there just like if they were two.

Katie always felt like she sort of didn't fit in. And I think a lot of kids feel like that. I believe that drugs made her feel like she fit someplace. That there were doubts and struggles that she had that she numbed with drugs. Before she knew it, some recreational use, some fitting in, turned into addiction. Then she could no longer control whether she wanted to use or not.

So many things happened that she felt like she wasn't worth saving her own life.

This is often how people feel. I work with a lot of people and try to get them help. And there’s this feeling that even if they get well, what's the point? It'll never be what it could have been. They'll never get their relationships back. They'll never get their life back. Sometimes there’s criminal records. Sometimes there's damage to their health. There's all these lost years and what's the point?

At my age now, I know that there was some really low times, and times when I couldn't picture things being any better. And then they were. But these are very often young people that haven’t had that experience yet.

So very often, and it certainly was Katie's case, that she never believed that she could ever have any kind of life worth living again. She got stuck in this cycle of trying desperately to recover. But going down the tubes again, over and over again.

This is something that I couldn't fix. It was not mine to fix.

Katie and I were both on a journey, and for a long time I thought we were on the same journey. And we weren't.

I was on mine and she was on hers.

Although I tried very hard to be on hers with her. And I acted in a variety of crazy ways. Some were helpful and some were not. But you do whatever you think you have to do in order to save your child.

I sectioned her, which is a civil commitment in Massachusetts, when I thought she was beyond getting help herself, and she was a danger to herself.

We once had her arrested in the lobby of a treatment center as she was leaving, so that she wouldn't be able to go back to the person that was putting drugs in her hand.

And I would still do those things again.

But it was hers to fix. And about the time that I realized that, she started to take control of her own recovery.

The thing that helped her is knowing I was there if she needed me. And I armed myself with an unbelievable education in everything I could possibly know about the disease model. So I wouldn't blame her. And it was hard in the beginning because everybody's angry.

I hear people say this, How could they do this to me?

Well, I learned very early on that she was not doing anything to me. She was doing it to herself and if she could stop, she would.

People would ask me, Is what you're doing helping?

And in the very beginning I would probably have said, Of course it's helping! Everything I do is helping because I'm trying to save my child.

And I have to be on high alert all the time.

And I have to answer my phone 24 hours a day because it could be her.

And I have to go through the streets in my car looking for her because that will make the difference -- if she just sees how much I love her. And maybe if she just sees how I'm making myself sick, she'll see how much I care, and then she'll get help.

And that was not true.

I was so consumed. All these thoughts were constantly swimming around in my head. But I know I wasn't doing anybody any good. I was making myself sick and I was ruining everything else in my own life. And I wasn't helping.

And it was really my boyfriend, Randy, who kept saying that to me -- that I'm just like a ghost walking around in my own life. And that’s exactly how I felt.

But I also felt like, this was a problem caused by drugs and I'm not solving it with drugs.

But I just couldn’t get it together. And finally, I gave in, and went and talked to a psychiatrist about medication.

She said to me something that I'll never forget. She said, "The things that have happened to you in the last years, the pressure you’ve been under, the pain that all this has caused -- these things cause chemical changes in your brain. So you may not have needed this before, but you may want to see if it would help now."

I wound up on a small dose of an antidepressant of Zoloft. And it didn't take long. It took a couple of days, and all of a sudden I was having clear thoughts. And I was able to finish a conversation. I was afraid it would make me different, but what it did, it returned me back to myself. And this is what medication is for.

I always tell parents three things: The first is to get educated. To learn everything you can, not only about the resources that are available, but to understand what's going on in your child's brain. And how drugs are keeping them from understanding that they can stop. And that's what happens in addiction is they don't think they can stop.

The next one is to connect with other people, people that can offer you support, and can offer you a direction.

But the third thing: always tell them that you love them. I made a point of every single day of my life somehow getting to her that I loved her. Whether it was a Facebook message or a text message or a phone call that she wouldn't answer and I left a message or what ever it was.

And I never left her without saying that, no matter how hurt I was, because I really never knew if I would get another opportunity. She overdosed over 13 times that I know of. And I knew that no matter how I felt about what was going on, I would never regret that being said.

There’s a hopelessness that comes with this disease. What did I do wrong? What could have been different? What could I change?

And all of those things that we have to learn to put aside, and start every day, as silly as this may sound, with hope that it could be different.

Because it can be different.

And I say that because I see it all the time.

I'm a little delusionally optimistic most of the time anyhow. And I think that's a fabulous quality for what I do. It's exactly what's needed.

You have to have hope that it can be different.

Because if one other person in the world has done it, you can do it too.

I’m Maureen Cavanagh and this is my story.

Yana Khashper -Filling the Void

Photo by Luke LaPorta Photography, courtesy Yana Khashper

As a social worker, Yana Khashper knew how to connect people struggling with mental health and addiction issues with the resources they might need. But for many years, there was a disconnect when it came to helping herself. Now in long-term recovery, Yana and her partner run ROCovery Fitness in Rochester, New York.

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I came over from Russia with my family when I was 6 years old in 1992. I didn't speak the language. We were refugees so there was some hardship. And it took me a while to kind of adapt to American life.

We were living in New Jersey at first. And a couple years later we moved to Staten Island, New York. That was a challenge for me. I was about 10 years old. New school. I didn't dress like the other kids. There was some kind of bullying or I was made fun of. I just wasn't someone that really fit in. And I felt really awkward and kind of out of place. And just didn't know, you know --there's some nuances with language or humor that I didn't quite understand.

My parents didn't have much involvement in my kind of school life just because they didn't quite understand. They worked evenings. And so when I came home from school, I really was on my own, to do my homework, to, you know, do the right thing.

But it left me a lot of freedom. And I didn't do the right thing.

You know, I would go and hang out in the neighborhood when I wasn't supposed to leave the house. In my neighborhood there were folks that were older than me. And they saw this weirdo little kid, you know, kind of on her own walking around. So they sort of took me in. By twelve is when I started experimenting with drugs and alcohol with them, you know. And really from there my addiction kind of took off.

I did okay in school. I wasn’t a bad student. I sort of went under the radar, kind of unnoticed. I didn't get into trouble. I didn't excel. And I was able to really go through the motions, of going to school and continuing on to college, and then later grad school.

And there was a good period of my life where even though I wasn’t making great choices, I was really functioning, and I was doing well.

I went to school for social work. And I was really drawn to that field for a number of reasons. One of it was that I wanted to help people, and help people kind of find their voice, understand themselves, and, and heal. And the other part is I really wanted to understand human behavior and relations, and what makes people tick, how they function, how they adapt. And really it related to my experience in learning this new kind of the world and new culture.

In 2009, I got the opportunity to work for the New York City Fire Department in their Employee Assistance Program. And it was a program primarily working with World Trade Center survivors and those affected by the tragedy.

It was an amazing job. I felt purpose. I felt like I was really making a difference. And I, you know, met, you know, such incredible, courageous, strong individuals, men and women. You know, I’m left speechless by the folks that I met there.

You know, I didn't quite have the coping skills to deal with the things I was hearing on a daily basis. I was there for about 3 years, and it got harder. It got really hard to hear the stories and the experiences. And when I left work, and when I went home, I just didn't know what -- I don't know how to process it. And that's where alcohol and other drugs became really a huge part of my life.

You know, it was this double life. I went to work. And I do believe I was effective. But when I left work, I became this other person that needed to just numb what I was feeling, what I had heard.

There came a point where I couldn't contain it anymore. And I felt that I was no longer effective at my job.

I didn't know what to do. I didn't understand that addiction was taking over my life. You know, it’s something that I did in the professional world where I helped other people and I connected them with resources and helped them through their addiction. But it was such a huge disconnect, really a disconnect from reality of what was happening to me.

So really out of desperation, I decided to kind of start fresh, get away from my life – well, to get away from, from me.

So I decided to move. And in the process of one of the very first trips up to Western New York for a job interview, I got my first DWI.

And I remember the New York City Fire Department, they find out about these things. And I remember talking to my supervisor and then the supervisor for the clinic about it, and really trying to hide it, you know desperate to believe that it was a one-time experience.

I couldn't stop drinking. I couldn’t stop taking pills and using cocaine. I really became this really shell of a person, without coping skills.

So in the process of that move, I got another DWI, and I was facing legal consequences, you know, from the very first one. I was able to get out of it kind of unscathed. And so I relocated to Western New York in 2012.

I had gotten a job. I really thought I was going to be okay. Even right off the bat I really couldn't function. I wasn’t a functional human being really. I drank every day. And my alcoholism really kind of progressed because I wasn't using drugs but I was using alcohol in much, much larger quantities and much more frequent.

And within that first year I got another DWI. And with this 3rd DWI, I was facing really serious consequences. I was looking at prison time. And I was scared. I was really scared and I somewhere kind of understood that I wouldn't be able to drink anymore.

I didn't know how to live without alcohol. I didn't know how to even function. So that was such a scary thought for me. That took me to a place where I didn't want to live.

I attempted suicide. And I ended up in the emergency room in the hospital. And from there I-- really I advocated for rehab. It was 2013. I learned about recovery in a way that I could finally apply to myself.

I was able to abstain and I was able to start to have some hope. But there was still something missing, you know. I was in my late twenties, and I just couldn’t see my life being, you know, going to work, going home, going to a meeting, and that's it.

What do you do to fill that void? To fill the isolation? You know, when I got out of treatment, I looked at my phone and I had nothing but phone numbers of people that I drank and drugged with.

I didn't have hobbies. I didn't know how to socialize. Everything I knew revolved around alcohol.

So in recovery, I found exercise and fitness, and really the outdoors. And it really just changed my life. That was something I learned -- that when I was anxious or afraid or lonely, or I wanted to drink or I wanted to use, I could get outside. I could go for a run. I could go for a bike ride, and it would go away.

And then I met a person. I met my partner in recovery. An athlete through his whole life. A service member, he's coming up on 20 years in the service. And he really helped to introduce me to this world of health and wellness.

Right before I had about a year in recovery, he and I were -- it was a record-breaking cold winter up in Western New York, and he and I began to isolate. We weren't going outside. We weren't connecting with our recovery supports. And we were headed towards relapse. You know, we’d both been there before, and we just didn't want to go there again.

So we decided to go on a hike. And we posted this hike our personal Facebook page. And it was just a kind of open invite, you know – We’re going hiking on such-and-such date, at such-and-such time and Join us!
And people came. And we had a great time! We weren't thinking about our depression. We weren't thinking about using drugs or alcohol. We were just having, you know, pure fun.

And someone asked if we could do it again the following weekend. And we did!

It just, you know, blossomed from there-- from weekly hikes to park workouts to kayaking and bike rides, to peer-led retreats to the Adirondacks.

The possibilities felt endless.

And I knew we had something. You know, we tapped into something that had been missing in our lives, in the recovery community as a whole.

So we -- I did a little bit of research, and I came across an organization out of Colorado called The Phoenix. They are a peer-led, sober active community. And I reached out to their founder, Scott Strode. He's mentored us. He shared all his knowledge. They’ve developed an evidence-based and trauma-informed model for their program. And, and we mimic what they do.

We created ROCovery Fitness, here in Rochester, and we are a peer-led sober active community.

We now have a gym. We have a yoga studio. We do social gatherings for every holiday, times that can be really triggering for folks. And we've created this safe, supportive, nurturing community -- really a place where shame and stigma doesn't exist, where clean and sober is the norm.

You don't see folks relapsing when they're in an out patient group or when they're at church or when they're in a mutual aid meeting. It's that time in between.

So this is such an important place because it -- it gives people an outlet. It helps them build the confidence that they need to believe in themselves to obtain long-term sustained sobriety.

It's so important to have these outlets. And it's so important to not have shame, to not feel that they are somehow unworthy or fundamentally flawed.

You know, we’re, we’re incredible people. We’re mothers and fathers and friends and children. We’re productive members of society. We’re taxpayers. We hold government positions. We’re just everywhere.

We have a disease and our disease is substance use disorder. And recovery is our solution.

My name is Yana Khashper and this is my story.

Sicily Owings -I Work at a Methadone Clinic

Photo by Lindsay Hahn, courtesy Sicily Owings

At the methadone clinic where she works, Sicily Owings hears from clients about the relationship between trauma and addiction in their lives. She also knows about it firsthand.

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In a child’s brain, they don’t know how to make sense, we don’t know how to make sense of certain things so it is imprinted in our brains as trauma.

Addiction is so based in trauma. Addiction is so -- like the goal of drug use, when you originally go into it, is literally it just makes you feel better. It makes you forget it. It makes you numb. And a lot of people who come from trauma backgrounds who have experienced horrendous things, really just have a lot of pain that they don't know what to do with.

And so we use drugs. We use drugs to cope. We use drugs to numb. We use drugs to escape.

If you’re coming from a trauma background, and you reach adolescence when the chemicals in your brain and your brain chemistry are kind of all over the place, your hormones all over the place, you're experiencing new things, and you just don't know how to deal with them -- it's kind of like a, a recipe for disaster.

When I was around three or four, my biological father went to prison. He was charged with the possession and sales of illegal firearms, and also the possession and sales of large quantities of cocaine. I think when he got caught he got caught with two kilos on him which is over 4 lbs. And pretty much spent my entire adolescence in prison in Canyon City, in here in Colorado.

So I think it was around '88,1988. I was born in 1985. I'm 33 now.

I remember knowing who we was, knowing what he did, not having a relationship with him because he went to prison when I was so young, and always saying to myself like, I'm never going to do that. Like his entire life was ruined. I'm never going to do hard drugs. Even when I started smoking marijuana and stuff, I’m like,Oh I'll never go there.

But eventually that happened. And I eventually started using cocaine, and eventually started using methamphetamines. And it was just kind of downhill from there.

I was using drugs, and I was using drugs pretty heavily in high school, and I remember coming home, and all of my stuff was in the driveway,and my mom just told me, she's like, “If this is the way that you're going to live, you can't live here.”

What was interesting about that is they kicked me out and so I left. And I ended up living with a friend in Littleton. That's when I ended up dropping out of high school. That’s when things really got worse because I didn't, I didn't really have any structure, I didn't really have any family. I was finally free. I can do whatever I want.

But I ended up getting pulled over. In essence, I was with a friend and we were parked, and a cop pulled up and I was in the car and they ran my name. And had basically told me that I had to go with them because my parents had called me in as a runaway.

And I was so confused. I'm like, They kicked me out! Why are they calling me in as a runaway?

But when they tried to get a hold of my parents, they had actually left town to go camping. And it's illegal if you call your child in as a runaway to leave the state. And so my parents temporarily lost custody of me, and I had to go to this like youth home for like 2 weeks. And I remember that as being super traumatic -- to go from like living at home and having this family to getting kicked out and then like being stuck in this home. It was -- it was really crazy.

Things took a while to change. I mean it did. I started using when I was 14 and I quit when I was around 21. I was almost married at the time that I quit. And I was with my ex-husband at the time, and him and I used together. And that's when I started using methamphetamines really heavily, was like 2002 2003, and used for about 3 years. And he ended up doing some jail time.

His dad was a pastor, and I, for whatever reason, just like really wanted to connect with his dad and his step mom. And so I remember calling them. And I went over to their house for dinner and I remember having soup. And feeling really safe there. And feeling that it was really different. And they had invited me to church and then when Josh got out of jail, I told him I was like, “I would really like to go to your dad's church. I want to check it out.”

And ended up going to church and felt like my entire life had changed. I just remember crying a lot and I just remember … I always want to cry at this part … I just remember feeling like very hopeful because I had spent so many years feeling so shameful, and feeling alone. And feeling like I could never get out of that.

You know like, I don't know how to get out of this. This is so much bigger than me. And I've burned all of my bridges. And I have no one.
But in that moment, like I finally felt like there was this glimmer of hope --that potentially I could do it.

I remember telling my ex-husband, "I want to quit. And I’m serious about it." And so we moved north pretty far north, to the suburbs, changed our phone number, and started, you know, pouring my life into going to church and decided I wanted to be a drug and alcohol counselor.

I knew how alone I felt. I knew how isolated I felt. I knew how shameful and ugly -- and all of these things that I felt and I was like I don't, I don't want people to feel that. I want them to know that like somebody sees them, and somebody cares about them, and somebody believes in them. That's all I wanted -- to like be with people in that struggle. Watch them get out of that.

I started working at a methadone clinic about a year-and-a-half ago. I love it. I love working in medication assisted treatment. I believe in it because I see it work.

Typically, recovery has focused on abstinence. And harm reduction kind of came on the scene when they realized that abstinence doesn't work for everybody.

The biggest thing with addiction is struggling with ambivalence that I know I want to feel better. I know I want something different but I don't know what I want. And the great thing about methadone is it really keeps you alive while you're struggling with ambivalence.

People are dying. People are dying waiting to get abstinent so they had to figure out another way.

I would rather have a child on methadone on medication helping them get clean then have a dead child.

And I know that there is stigma around medication-assisted treatment. I know that when you hear the word "methadone," it doesn't sound great, or it sounds scary, or it sounds like they're just replacing it with another drug -- or like, what whatever comes up for you when you hear the word "methadone" -- but I'm telling you that this medication saves lives every single day. Every single day.

And I just hope that we as a community, as a nation are willing to really put that stigma aside for the sake of saving lives.

My name is Sicily Owings and this is my story.

Isabel Landrum -Working on Myself

Photo courtesy Isabel Landrum

“This is what addiction does. It takes everything from us.” In recovery since, 2015, Isabel Landrum is working on getting her life back as she helps others at a detox and treatment center in Southern California.

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Being an addict is -- it’s just, it’s, it’s hard. Like people don't understand. Like, I wasn't born and I didn't grow up thinking, Oh, I’m going to grow up to be an addict --that’d be great!

No, it just -- it ruins lives, you know. It ruined my life. It took everything I loved from me. I didn't have a relationship with my family, with my mother, like I will go months without talking to my mom. And it, it was very hard for her. And it was sad.

I've been hospitalized three different times. I've been in a coma. I remember when I was taken to the hospital by the ambulance, one of the nurses there, I turned around and I looked at this person, and I grabbed this person, and I said, “Please don’t let me die. I have 3 kids and I don’t -- I don't want to die.”

And I remember when I woke up, he was there. And he said, “Oh, you’re still alive, I didn’t let you die. I didn’t let you die.”

I was tired. I was sick of doing drugs. I wanted a way out.

So back in 2015, I had somebody come to me and ask me if I wanted to go to treatment. I wasn't getting any younger. And I said, “I do. I need help. I want to go to treatment.”

So my clean date is October 10th, 2015. And that was it for me. I’ve, I’ve never looked back.

I wanted to have a life. I didn’t want to be in the hospital all the time. I wanted to have a relationship with my children again. Like, I wanted to have my kids in my life.

Now I talk to my mom every night. I have a wonderful relationship with my mom. I’m working on seeing my children again because my kids are the most important thing in my life, and I haven't been able to see them for a while now.

I have to work on myself, and I have to get myself better before I can have that chance again to be in my kid's lives. I am working towards that right now.

I never used around my kids, you know, like when they were there, I never used around my kids. But, like as soon as they would go with their dad, like I would get high just because there's so much pain there to just see my kids go. I’d just get high because it just numbs you, like you can’t feel anything. You just don’t want to feel anything with all the pain, you know.

I have a boy and two girls. And they are fun kids, you know. My girl, my oldest one, she looks just like me. And I look at their pictures and stuff, and I just, I so want to be part of their life again, you know.

I know I have to like take little steps to get there. But I am doing it. I'm doing it now. And if I was still out using and stuff, this would not be happening. I would not be on my way to see them again, you know.

It’s hard, and I know it’s going to take a while, but this is what addiction does. It takes everything from us.

So now, it's my turn to give back to people. I found what I like to do, and that's help others to recover from addiction. It’s such a good feeling when you know that you helped someone not pick up that drug, you know, like just if you can stay here with us, stay just one more day -- it's going to be okay, you know, just…

That’s what God put me on this Earth to do -- be a mom, of course --and help other people recover from addiction.

And my name is Isabel Landrum and this is my story.

Eric Sterling -Inside the War on Drugs

In 1979, 30 year-old Eric Sterling went to work for a Democrat-led House committee tackling crime. A year later, Ronald Reagan won the White House and Republicans won the Senate. An epic battle for political control consumed much of the rest of that decade, and Sterling was in the middle of it, tasked with drafting the mandatory minimum sentencing policy. 

 He has spent the last 30 years speaking out against the repercussions and cynicism of the drug policy he helped enact and the destructive nature of the war on drugs.    

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When I started doing this work, it was very clear that the drug policy wasn't working.

The objectives: Keep drugs out of the hands of high school kids --we weren't doing that. Save the lives of drug users --we weren't doing that. Reduce crime -- it's clear we weren't doing that.

And so this policy, which is deeply, deeply entrenched and continues at billions and billions of dollars a year, it's doing something. And what I think its real function in our society is, is to maintain white privilege.

When I make this claim that this enterprise of the War on Drugs is about maintaining white privilege, I'm looking at a long history that when you understand, what was the basis of the early opium laws in the 19th century? It was anti-Chinese. When there was a need to get anti-cocaine and anti-heroin laws passed in 1912 and 1914, the rhetoric was Cocainized Negroes were the cause of the rape of white women in the South. When we look at federal marijuana laws in 1937, it's about Hispanics and the dangers of this new drug. Late 1940s and early 1950s, blacks using heroin, jazz musicians, urban heroin.

Race plays a very, very important part of how we conceive of this. This is very much the case in the 1980s -- crack was a black drug -- and the early 90’s. Now we're seeing the exploitation of the dangerous Mexicans. It's the dangerous Mexican traffickers. It's the Hispanic gangs, MS-13 from El Salvador. It's not white people. We’re the victims. We're in danger from people of color.

It plays out, then, when you look at who's being prosecuted. Overwhelmingly, the federal data is these are people of color. Only roughly one out of five federal drug defendants is white -- in a majority white country. They are overwhelmingly Hispanic and black.

Most drug users in America are white, and all the drug data shows whatever drug it is you are talking about, overwhelmingly the use is among white people, and those white users are overwhelmingly buying from white dealers.

In 1979, I was hired by the House Judiciary Committee Criminal Justice Subcommittee to help rewrite federal criminal law. I had just turned 30, and Jimmy Carter was the president. The House of Representatives and the Senate were controlled by Democrats, as they had been since the 1950s. The Democrats were ensconced in power. They felt perfectly secure.

And in November of ’80, Ronald Reagan was elected, defeating Jimmy Carter, and the control of the Senate switched to the Republicans for the first time since the early 1950s.

Now in 1981, I'm working for a new subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee, and I now have to kind of establish myself, and I’ve got the drugs jurisdiction and this is a big deal issue. And then somehow I got assigned pornography and organized crime and money laundering! And so I had these extraordinarily high profile, controversial, political issues and legal issues to work on as a very young man, you know, I'm 31 and 32, you know, with relatively little experience on Capitol Hill. So I would have to become an expert relatively quickly on the subject matter. It was a lot of work.

We got deeply involved then in ‘83-’84 in the Department of Justice wish list of criminal justice enhancements which President Reagan had sent to the Congress in January of ‘83. It's called the Comprehensive Crime Control Act. Huge bill, you know, fifty major sub-elements.

The drug issue, of course, was a huge, huge issue at this point. Cocaine trafficking was increasing. There was still the concern about wide-spread marijuana use. And the Democrats in the House were working on this on the understanding we're going to do it on the piecemeal basis. On the Senate side, they just suddenly passed the whole bill! Many, many Democrats said, “I'm not voting against the president's crime package six weeks before the election!” And so it passes.

Many Democrats were defeated in that ’84 election. Of course Mondale and Ferraro were defeated. And it really stung. It really, really stung the Democrats.

In June of ‘86, Maryland basketball star Len Bias died from a cocaine overdose the night he signed with the Boston Celtics. The Speaker of the House was from Boston. This was stunning! Bias was a star, known around the country, extremely well-known around Washington because he was a local. And the Speaker saw a political opportunity. He called the Democratic Leadership together. “Let's put a democratic crime bill together. I want every Committee involved.”

And now as a young staffer, I am in the Speaker’s room meeting with the most senior staff of the House of Representatives as they are trying to figure out what their committee, the Agriculture Committee, the Interior Committee, the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee, the Ways and Means Committee, you know, what are all these committees going to do about drugs because they all have to kick into the pot. And so I am involved in all of these kinds of negotiations.

This is now July and August 1986. There is an Election coming up, and the Speaker’s objective is If we play this right, we can take the Senate back from the Republicans that we lost in 1980.

There is this perception of a crisis. This is the summer that crack cocaine is exploding into the national consciousness. Cars are being broken into. Car alarms in cities are going off all night. It’s crack, it’s crack! Oh my God, it's an epidemic! And so there are numerous hearings going on, and press conferences and there's a kind of a media frenzy. You know, What are we going to do about this epidemic? And members of Congress are pounding the table and pounding their fists and raising their voices.

And the Republicans are kind of back on their heels, you know, How can we push back on this? How can we make this harder for Democrats? You know, Are there votes we can structure that will embarrass them with their base? Or something like this. And so, the Republicans on our sub-committee got two of the anti-drug Democrats to go along with them to say, Let's have tough mandatory minimum sentences. Let's crack down on drug dealers, on high level drug dealers.

Mandatories had been eliminated in 1970. Mandatories are a terrible idea because they deprive judges of the ability of looking at the particular facts in the case and saying, Yes you've been charged with a serious crime, but your role in this case wasn't so serious. You're not the kingpin. You deserve a couple of years. But the mandatory minimums were structured on the basis of weight.

So I was given the responsibility of writing this bill. And this was being done with incredible speed. My first version was we would focus on genuine high-level traffickers as defined by the D.E.A. And so I bring this to the subcommittee, and Congressman Mazzoli from Louisville, Kentucky says, “Well, Mr. Chairman, we wouldn't be using this kind of law in Louisville, Kentucky because we don't have drug dealers that big.”

And nobody said, “Well, that's okay. This law will do its job in Miami, in Houston, in New York, in Chicago!” Nobody turned to the congressman and said, “Well, you know, Ron, people don't go to Louisville to do their big drug deals. Doesn't matter!”

But no, that wasn't the reaction. It was like, “Ron's right! Eric, come back tomorrow with something else.”

And what I came back with, after consulting with it turned out a very bad expert, we came up with much, much smaller quantities. Those were immediately adopted -- with no hearing, with no, no opportunity to get the D.E.A to sort of say, Well, wait a minute these quantities are too low. Or the Justice Department or the Bureau of Prisons to say, Well, this is what's going to happen. Or the federal judges to say, Step back a moment. Catch your breath.

No, none of that.

So it passes our committee. The next day, Friday, it passes the full Judiciary Committee, and that afternoon Congress adjourns for the August recess to everybody go back and campaign on how tough on drugs they are.

Labor Day comes. Congress comes back. Boom! The bill passes the House. It's back and forth to the Senate. They are going to be tougher. They're the Republicans. They raise the length of the maximum sentences. They lower the trigger quantities. And finally the bill passes in October and the president signs it. And the Democrats win the Senate back in 1986. So the bill is a success--in its political terms.

Many people thought that the important distinction that this legislation had between the quantity of crack cocaine of five grams for five years, and the quantity of powdered cocaine-- 500 grams for 5 years -- this one hundred to one ratio was racially-based. But race was not the factor in the setting of the quantities. Race was a factor in the hysteria. There was very much a sense that this was a black problem. There was the sense that this was going to spill out into the white community. There was a failure to look at the data recognizing that crack was overwhelmingly being used by whites compared to blacks because it still then was an overwhelmingly white country.

But race played an important role in the perception of the problem and in the shaping of the problem.

The prison population then was about 40,000. That was the size of the federal prison population and it had grown fairly dramatically by that point. Only 10 years earlier, it had been 25,000, and the federal prison population had been about 25,000 since the 1920s. It had been remarkably stable in its size. And there was not a sense that there would be a dramatic change in the size of the federal prison population as a consequence of this legislation. But we soon learned that that was not the case.

And by the late ‘80s it was clear that the prison population was growing dramatically. And, you know, in the early ‘90s, it bumped up to over 100,000. By the Obama Administration, it reached 213,000, and almost 60% of all the cases were drug cases.

The prison population, you know, as we're doing this interview is about 180,000, and half of those are drug cases.

The issue continued to be highly partisan and political. And so, as the 1988 election is coming up, the Democrats said, Gee, ‘86 worked. Let's do it again! Let's have the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988. And again, I was deeply involved in what was now much more clearly an exclusively cynical political exercise of the Democrats trying to set it up so that they could win even the White House in 1988. That wasn’t successful.

People would then ask me, you know, in 1988, you know, “You've been here a long time, Eric. How has the drug problem changed during the Reagan years? What would your summary be?”

And I would -- my response to the reporters, and this would have to be off the record then, but it was, you know, “We started with a marijuana epidemic and we ended with a crack cocaine epidemic, and HIV and AIDS. An AIDS epidemic associated with injecting drug use and the prostitution around crack.”

In 1979 and 1980, we didn't know about HIV. You know, the term, AIDS it had not yet entered into the vocabulary.

And this was a very telling moment for me. There was a briefing of the House Narcotics Committee that I attended in which members of Congress are having explained by public health officials that HIV is being spread by the sharing of needles. And this is a particular problem with injecting drug users such as heroin users. And suddenly, a member of Congress -- and I forget who it was, you know -- he just like sits up and says, “This is going to solve the heroin problem!” Meaning they're all going to die from AIDS and the heroin problem is going to be taken care of when they all die.

I was deeply shocked. I wanted to leave. I understood that this policy was a failure. I understood it was driven by irrationality and by hatred and by contempt and by cynicism, by political ambition, by partisan ambition. That solving the problem and caring for the people who suffered was not the driving agenda of the Congress.

I wanted to use my expertise and my voice to begin to organize against this. And so I told the congressman after the election in 1988, “I’ve loved working for you. I'm leaving and I'm starting the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation.”

And so in the beginning of 1989, I began to work to try to end drug prohibition, to save the lives of drug users, to fight organized crime, to redirect law enforcement resources against crime as opposed to focusing on the tragedy of drug users.

It has become clearer and clearer to me that the objective of drug policy should be to minimize the suffering of drug users. This terrible opioid epidemic shows that our policies are not concerned with saving the lives of drug users.

If we were concerned about saving the lives of drug users we would do the things that we know would save their lives: Make sure that the drugs that they get are not coming from organized crime, are not polluted with fentanyl and other kinds of chemicals. That we would help drug users manage their addictions. We would not be trying to shame them. We would be certainly encouraging them to go into treatment but we would not put them into treatment when they're not ready. We wouldn't put them in situations where they lose their medical tolerance and therefore be at risk of overdose when they relapse.

Everybody who comes out of treatment would be given naloxone. Everybody who comes out of jail would be given naloxone if they had any kind of history of opioid use. We would be giving out naloxone like condoms. If we believe their lives were worth saving!

And so we have created an industry – it’s the police industry, the prison industry and in many respects, the treatment industry that feeds off the courts — that continue a rhetoric and a vision about what we're going to do about the drug problem that is not about the drug users. It's about other kinds of goals that cannot be accomplished. It's not about saving lives.

I’m trying to change that. I’m speaking about it and organizing it.

And my name is Eric Sterling and this is my story.

Angel Traynor -Recovery Housing

From her own experience, Angel Traynor knew that if you don’t give someone a structured place to go after treatment and send them back into their old environment instead, they are at a high risk to relapse.

So she stepped in with Serenity Sistas housing, a safe haven for up to 47 people in recovery.

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The last time I walked out of jail, I was 45 years old. I had been using opiates for about 11 years. I was absolutely convinced that I was never going to use again. I was never going to use. I was never going to go back to jail. I was never going to hurt my family. And I tried to do it on my own and that never worked for me.

So what that led to was for the next 9 months I used and I got to the point where I was homeless. I had pushed everybody away from me, except for the people that were doing the same things that I was doing.

And, Labor Day of 2007, I had been using for 9 months. I wanted to die. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know where to go. But I knew that I had to do something. I called a former counselor and said to her, “I need help.” And she got me a bed in a treatment center.

I was supposed to report the morning of September the 6th. When I came to that morning, I was so full of fear. I was afraid of failure, because I had failed so many times before, and I was also afraid of success, because if I succeeded even for a small amount of time, and then I failed, in my head, I was still a failure.

So being trapped in that fear on that last morning, my solution was easy. My final decision in active addiction was suicide.

By 7am that morning, the people that were in that room with me were reviving me.

I was just touched that day when I walked into rehab that I knew, I knew quickly within three days, I was willing to do whatever it took to never go back to using drugs.

And I’ve continued to do that for the last 11 years. I’ve not found it necessary to use drugs or alcohol since September 6, 2007.

I find it very important to share my story publicly. People need to hear that we can recover from our addictions.

I was an addict for 33 years which meant that I started when I was 13 years old. Through that time I was a teenage mom. I was a battered wife. I was a business owner. My business was successful. I owned a home. I raised not only my child but I raised two other children as well.

For the first 20 years, I really didn’t suffer any consequences. And about at year 21, I tried opiates and that was the beginning of the end for me.

The last time I walked into a rehab I had absolutely nothing. I had lost everything. I had lost my family, my business, my home. I was a three-time convicted felon. My dignity, my own self-respect. All of that was gone. So I really started from the very bottom.

I was 45 and three days later I celebrated my 46th birthday. I had no idea what I was going to do with myself. I had half a backpack of clothes and nowhere to go. Gratefully, I had a friend that was willing to take me in and let me sleep on her couch and quickly I had to – not only did I have to learn to live without drugs and alcohol as my coping mechanism – I had to figure out what I was going to do with myself.

I got my GED. I went into college because I wanted to be an alcohol and drug counselor. And I started my – I started my journey.

If it hadn’t been for other people supporting me, I don’t know that I would have made it because what I’ve come to find out is that there is no way you can overcome an addiction yourself.

I guess about 5 years into my own personal recovery, I saw a lapse in housing for women, in my town. There was nothing in the town of Annapolis. So I decided to start doing recovery housing.

The recovering addict, specifically women in the beginning, they didn’t have anywhere to go after treatment. And if you didn’t give someone somewhere to go after treatment and you send them back into the same environment, I already knew from my own experience, they were at a high risk to relapse.

I decided to start the houses, Serenity Sistas. I think I had about $983 in the bank and that was it. Right before Christmas of 2011 I was shopping, I was shopping at Kmart, and I saw bedframes on sale, for bunk beds. I was like, “Oh, I need those. I’ll just put them on layaway!”

Three weeks later, I got a very tearful phone call from my mom. She said, “You’re never going to believe what happened. Layaway Angels went in and paid off your bunk beds!” Which to me was, to me it was a God shot. They paid the entire amount off.

Three weeks after that, I received an anonymous check for $3,000 with a letter that said, “Go out and buy your new mattresses, and go out and buy your new sheets for your house because everybody deserves fresh linens and new mattresses when they start a new life.”

That was in 2012 and we now currently have 6 locations – single women, single men, mothers and children’s, and then I have a location that I use for crisis beds, people who seek treatment through our safe stations here in Anne Arundel county. They go there seeking help but they’re not going to get into treatment for 4 or 5 days because you just don’t get in right away. So we house those people as well.

So on any given day, we house up to 47 people that are entering recovery. And residents anywhere from 18 years old to 77 years old – that was my oldest resident.

These individuals, they’re just like me. They come and they either have lost the skills that we need to get by, or at 18 years old, they never had them in the first place. And they can be as simple as doing your laundry or parking correctly in the driveway. But then there’s other things like resume-writing. You know, if you don’t have a good resume and you can’t get that out there, how will you get employed? And I think at the end of the day, that’s all any of us want – we just want to be happy, healthy, productive members of society.

Often I go out and I try to educate the community. There are things they don’t know or maybe they aren’t thought about. And I have been told on a regular basis that, “Addiction does not affect me. I don’t know anybody that suffers from addiction. Why should I care?”

I’ve had people say that to me, and thank goodness, I have gained a filter because in the beginning, it was a little -- I stated this a little differently.

But we are all impacted by addiction.

I personally went to rehab or detox on public funds, through medical assistance, so that increases everybody’s insurance rates. It puts our taxes up.

There are times that I wrecked cars and I was an uninsured motorist which means your insurance went up, your insurance rates went up.

Theft – that’s how I made my living for a while is I stole things from people which today I’m certainly not proud of that. That also raises the cost of living.

So if you are to say to me that you are not impacted by addiction, I’m sorry but you are.

You drive a car. You’re out on the road. There are people who are under the influence whether it be from drugs or alcohol. You’re, you’re at risk.

So everybody is impacted by addiction.

I got to hit my own personal rock bottom emotionally and physically. With what’s going on in our world today, people are not making it to rock bottom. They are dying and they’re dying young.

So we have young parents that are dying, so there’s a generation there, and then they’re leaving behind children that are severely impacted. I know families where the children in that family have lost both parents to the disease.

It’s a societal issue.

If I were to ask one thing of anybody that can hear me right now, I would ask that you get to know somebody in recovery because the people that I know that are in recovery are some of smartest, funniest, most hard-working people that I know.

And I think that that stems from -- I know for me that it stems from knowing that I took from my community for so long, I just want to give back. I want to balance the scales if you will, and make that right.

Terry Brent -Music Therapy

Everyone's journey of recovery is different but finding the strength, courage and hope to share your feelings is integral to living life to the fullest without drugs and alcohol.  In South Florida, musician Terry Brent leads clients through a song-writing, recording and performing process that boosts them on their personal journey.  Featuring the song, Piece of My Heart, by S.

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I think you have no idea where expression can take you. And I think approaching music from an expressive standpoint rather than just impressive will take you a lot further because people can sense that you’re trying to impress them rather than just you have something to share or a message.

I’ve kind of taken that forward into my interactions with humans, hearing their story, and seeing their hidden talents, either they knew or didn’t know they had, or maybe drugs and alcohol took away from them.

I work at a treatment facility in South Florida. I came from a recording and touring background. I was in a couple of different bands, going all over the country doing festivals, show cases for different labels. We recorded a full-length record, a couple of EP’s, had a management team.

So that, I think, prepped me for where I’m at today. I had the privilege of being able to start a program within Transformations called Soundpath Recovery. We’ve been able to see great outcomes with clients that are either in the music industry and haven’t been able to find success remaining in the music industry and staying sober or clients that aren’t musicians but they want to try something different in their recovery and they were able to go from, “There’s no way I could perform or do karaoke or share clean and sober, I’ve always been messed up,” and then by the end of their experience here they look back and are like, “Wow! I actually did it a few times.”

The way we wrote the program was to speak and cater to a client that is coming off of drugs and alcohol usage and dependence to where their mind is racing. You know, they are starting to get a little bit of clean time and they are now thinking about like, “Oh my gosh, I have so many things I have to do. I ruined this relationship. I got into this trouble. I have court, I have work, I have money – like all these issues.”

One thing that we offer first is a Quieting the Mind group to where clients can go and learn breathing techniques and grounding methods. From there they are able to slow it down just enough to be able to give their brain a little bit of a rest.

And then the next group we encourage them to go to is a writing group, it’s a creative writing group. Everyone can write. So in a creative writing group we say, “Just write the first thing that comes to your brain. If you think it, it’s the right thing to write down.” It could be “I hate writing.” “This is the dumbest exercise ever.” “My brain is out of control again.” “Why am I here?” Whatever comes to their mind. And by the end of the stream of consciousness writing, they’ll have some very succinct, trackable writing where they will be “Oh my gosh, where did that come from?” And they’ll be able to pull certain things out of it that they want to develop or work on.

We offer a songwriting group that structures whatever comes out of their racing thoughts or whatever comes out of their stream of conscious, and then after well go through and allow them to work together as a team and collaborate and say, “Hey, I have an idea. I’m a little bit foggy but I kind of hear like you know a trumpet in the background and like a shaker, and I can sing but maybe you can sing what I wrote, and then I need a guitar player.” And the next thing you know, they’re all connecting and they’re on the same wavelength and they’re like “Wow, I didn’t know you felt the same way I did about the same experience or a similar experience.”

Clients get an opportunity to go into the recording studio -- we have a professional recording studio – and they’re able to kind of sit under their own weight of anxiety and they sweat, and they’re like nervous. “How am I going to do this? I’m not Christina Aguilera. I’m not like David Bowie.”

You know we say like “Look, your whole goal here is to be in this studio clean and sober for two hours. Can you do that? Everything else is on top of that. But can you be here?” And they’re like. “Yeah, I think I can.” “All right cool, then what’s going on? Let’s do this!”

And we coach them, and get them to relax and drop their shoulders, and teach them how to breathe. And at the end they walk out, and most of them, if not all of them, say, “Wow! I feel – can I say high? I don’t know if I can say that.” And I’m like, “Absolutely! You’re experiencing life. You just enjoyed life.”

And then the last part of the curriculum is to give them an opportunity to share their expression in front of people and then receive feedback. And it is one of the coolest experiences to have someone freaking out, sweating, feeling like they’re going to throw up, thinking about man, this would be so much easier if I were drunk or high. Getting up there, sharing and then having a standing ovation of 50 to 75 people just like losing their stuff because they saw how difficult it was but how strong that person was to share in front of all these people.

I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve been on lots of stages, played for thousands of people and the feeling that I get from watching that compared to being on stage myself is – it’s un--describable. You can’t buy it. You just can’t buy it.

I never get emails of clients saying, “Man, thank you so much for letting me skate by and not forcing me to perform.” Like it’s always the emails like, “Thank you so much for, like, encouraging me to do something I didn’t want to do. That changed my life. I listen to my song and I’ll never be the same again.” And those are the emails that I always get.

I’m might even start to cry thinking about it but there is, there is this hope that comes from having new perspectives and new experiences. And at least saying, “I’m afraid,” but doing it anyway.

My name is Terry Brent and this is my story.

Karen McGinnis -What God Gave Me

Photo courtesy Karen McGinnis

At age 37, after 20 years of battling the disease of addiction, Karen McGinnis found a reason to make a change and make it work: the birth of her son.

 "I’m a single, independent, fully self-supporting woman today. And it’s the most liberating thing I’ve ever experienced because there was a time in my life where I took advantage of the system. And I have overcome all of that."

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You know they say that the disease of addiction is greater than the love that a mother has for her child. I intellectually understood that, but I didn’t feel it until it was happening to me.

But at the age of 35, God said to me, “I have carried you through some storms. I’ve put angels around you to protect you all those nights that you were driving in a blackout and you were walking the streets homeless. You’ve had one DUI, you’ve had two DUI’s, you’ve had three DUI’s. You’ve lost great jobs, you’ve lost your soul, you’ve lost your family. You’ve -- you are going to kill yourself. Or you’ve going to end up in prison. So I’m about to do something for you. It’s going to be very tangible. And it’s going to give you a reason to want to live.”

So I had my first child when I was 36 years old. By the time Owen was a couple months old, DCF stepped in – the Department of Children and Families. I was an unfit mother. So he was removed from my care. And I was left with an opportunity to go into the drug courts and work on Karen so I could get my son back.

I was headed down that spiral for 20 years. I started drinking alcohol at the age of 14. The alcohol led to street drugs. The street drugs led to opioids and doctor shopping and -- I had for 10 years already been in and out of treatment centers, and halfway houses, and structured living, and jail and .. you know, so what was so different this time? Because I was still addicted to drugs and alcohol and I still loved my alcohol and drugs more than I loved this beautiful little child that God had blessed me with.

I kicked and screamed and finally went into treatment for a good solid 6 months of inpatient and a couple months of outpatient. And I did everything I could to get Owen back. I fixed the outside. I went and got a great job. I got insurance. I got a nice, fancy Camaro. And it looked real pretty on the outside because I wanted my son back.

And I got him back. But what I failed to do is, I failed to work on Karen. I failed to take a look at what was really going on. What is causing me to continually and insanely – knowing that there is going to be significant consequences, whether it’s loss of marriage, loss of child, loss of job, arrest – still continue to pick up that substance and start the cycle all over again?

I did not do a lick of work on Karen. I did not work a 12-step program. I didn’t reach out to my higher power. I didn’t build a network. I -- I just fixed everything real pretty on the outside, got my son back, went back to work, and before you know it, life started showing up. I started getting stressed out at work. I was stressed out being a single mother, a lot of resentment still towards Owen’s father, a lot of anger. Before I knew it, I found myself at the liquor store.

One is too many, a thousand is never enough. When I put that substance of whatever it is in my system, it sets off a chemical reaction within me and I start the obsession and the compulsion and I want more. Trying to fill that void, trying to find that high.

You know within a couple of days I was a no-call no-show at work. My parents ended up coming to my apartment and found me, naked on the couch with empty bottles of Crown Royal. And my father called DCF again. And Owen was removed from me.

So now we are at Owen is not quite even two years old yet and DCF has already removed him from my care twice. That wasn’t enough to stop me. How did this happen? I was so guilty and shameful, I was off on a mission to really kill myself for the next three months, drinking and overdosing and driving drunk and…

Finally, my parents stepped in and here in the state of Florida we have what’s called a Marchman Act. If you have a loved one that is using substances and you know that they are a threat to themselves or the community, you can take it down to the courthouse and get the law involved. And the law did get involved.

Judge Espinoza who is our drug court judge here in Tampa, he ordered me to go back into treatment. I knew that was my saving grace. That, hey you know what? My parents do still care about me. They care enough about me that they were willing to go down to the courthouse to save my life. They might not be talking to me right now, and I might think that they hate me but they love me. And they saved my life by doing that.

This works if you work it. Recovery is possible. There is hope.

I wanted to start from a fresh clean slate at 37 years old because Owen was the only thing I’ve ever done perfect in my life. And I refuse to let the disease of addiction take that from me too.

And I went back into treatment and I started following suggestions. You know we learn from behaviors over, over time on how to get what we want as addicts. And someone had told me, “Karen, if you could just use those skill sets in a positive way, you will be amazing.”

A large part of recovering is being surrounded by people who are like-minded; people that have gone through what you’ve gone through. Yes, we come from all very diverse backgrounds, and some of us are tall and short and fat and skinny. And some of us are Hispanic and Caucasian and African-American and Chinese but we all have one common thread: the disease of addiction. You know, I think it’s so important for us to come together and, and build those relationships with other people that know what we’re going through so we can feel like hey, you’re not alone, you’re not different, you’re not unique.

And that is one of the reasons that I work in the field that I work in. Because I can empathize with what you, ma’am, are going through, sitting on my couch in my admissions office. I know what you’re going through. I’ve been there 15 times, sitting on that couch with my mom and dad or my husband sitting over there so I understand what you, husband and mother and father are going through.

I do this because life is rich. And life is a gift. And we have to stay in the present. This is a wonderful life.

I’m a single, independent, fully self-supporting woman today. And it’s the most liberating thing I’ve ever experienced because there was a time in my life where I took advantage of the system. I took advantage of Medicaid. I took advantage of food stamps. I took advantage of my mother and father. I took advantage of men. I took advantage of people to get what Karen wanted. And I have overcome all of that.

Never did I ever think at 12 years old, that I was going to be 40 years old, a single mom, and have lived the life that I live. And I’m so grateful, so grateful I’ve gone through what I’ve gone through to find what I found.

And I believe that God will allow us to go through that, to get to a point in our lives to where we have no other choice but to cry out for Him to help us.

And, and, I’ve – I’ve made a mess of my life and I believe that there is something greater than myself that can restore me back to sanity and give me the life that You always intended me to have.

And that is something to be grateful for.

My name is Karen McGinnis and this is my story.

Kim Manlove -Surviving the Worst Loss

Photo by Rocky Rothrock, courtesy Kim Manlove

Grief is an individual experience. When the Manloves' son David died from a drug-related event, Kim's feelings of guilt and shame overwhelmed him  -- but it did not divide him from his wife and together they have found acceptance.     

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You know, we first discovered that he had a problem in late 2000. He was 16 at the time.

It started with marijuana and then eventually alcohol. There were some pills. We didn’t know what they were -- pharmaceuticals of some sort.

We got our son into treatment, and while he was getting help, we were getting some education about the disease of addiction, that it was chronic, that there was also could be a genetic component. And that it could be deadly.

But we of course didn’t think anything about that. We just concentrated on supporting our son in every way that we could.

We began 2001 with a lot of hope. About five months into treatment, he had been doing well and we had been pleased with his progress, and so he came to us on one day and asked if he could go swimming at a friend’s house. We knew the kids he was going to be swimming with, and he’d been doing well, so we decided to kind of lessen the reins a little bit, and said sure.

They swam for a while, and then the girls decided to go in and have lunch. David then and his friend went to a nearby drug store, bought a can of computer duster. David had learned somehow that he could inhale the propellant, which would give him a very brief high, anywhere from 10 to 15 seconds, and it wouldn’t show up on the drug screens. I don’t think he knew is that in some cases computer duster can cause something called Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome, a disruption of the electrical activity of the heart, and can also bring on a heart attack.

They were passing the can back and forth, taking turns, going underneath the water. And then at one point, David didn’t come back up. He’d gone into Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome while he was underneath the water. His body’s first reaction, naturally, was to try and take a breath. He opened his mouth and took in all water.

The main cause of death was drowning. The secondary cause of death was Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome.

While the EMTs were there, the parents had called my wife. So Marissa drove to the hospital, and by that time, he was already gone.

I was actually a couple of thousand miles away in Phoenix, Arizona. I got the call from her saying that he was – had died. I rushed to the airport. This is before 9/11. I basically told the ticket counter what had happened. And they -- they were great. They didn’t ask for any documen-tation or anything. I mean they could tell that I was distressed, and immediately put me on the first plane directly back to Indianapolis. And so --- but that, that was -- that flight was the worst. Just so much going on in my head.

The addiction gene ran on my side of the family. I had two uncles who had -- were alcoholic on my father’s side, and I was someone who overindulged on a regular basis. I had already pledged to my wife that I would know how to help him and get through this, and I failed at that. Between the grief and the guilt, you know, I began to spiral down myself, drinking more alcohol and then I began also abusing the anti-depressants that I was being prescribed for the grief and the guilt and the depression. To the point where I began shopping doctors for the medications. I had a tragic story. It was pretty easy for me to go to another physician and share the same story and immediately get a script for Xanax.

One day, my wife and my son, my other son, my older son, came home and found me in a blackout. And I can still remember coming out of that blackout seeing, you know, my wife screaming at me and saying, “What the hell is wrong with you?”

I said, “I’m in trouble. I’ve been abusing alcohol and drugs, and I think I need to get help.”

My situation was so serious that I ended up having to come in-patient at that point in time.

Part of the recovery regimen, too, was going to 90 meetings in 90 days, and I ended up doing 180 meetings in 180 days. And I’ve been in recovery now for 15 years and I still do 5 or 6 meetings a week. That’s the medicine that I continue to take for my disease of addiction. And the dollar that I put in the basket at each of those meetings is a lot cheaper than the prescription drugs I take.

I’m an academic by training. Spent 28 years as an administrator and dean at the largest university here in Indianapolis. But a couple of years after I got into recovery, I started kind of a new chapter. I went to the CEO of the treatment center and told her that I’d be interested in getting some profession experience in this field of addiction treatment and recovery.

And so we started a parent support group. There’s no question that the death of a child is the worst loss. What we found was, you know, we didn’t have to do counseling in that group. The counseling took place just by people sharing where they were, what they were struggling with, and then hearing others sharing exactly the same things in a same way, and found comfort there for the first time.

After David died, friends, family, and even people that we hadn’t been acquainted with, came to us and often started off by saying, “Well, what went wrong?” you know. And sometimes it would be a little more pointed, you know: “Were there some things that you didn’t do?”

Our children aren’t supposed to die before us. It’s like a violation of some sort of rule. What went wrong? What could we have done differently? All that kind of mental machination is part of what led to my serious depression, and frankly, trying to find relief from the shame, and the guilt – probably more the guilt. Again, because the addiction gene ran on my side of the family. He caught this from me.

We learn in recovery that acceptance is the release of all hope for a better past. That’s become our mantra. And that then has freed us up emotionally and psychologically, and brought us to the point where we can help others, at least try, to work down that path.

I describe our mutual recoveries as kind of what a strand of DNA looks like. DNA has two trunks. I’m one of the trunks and she’s the other trunk. They’re separate and distinct but there are branches periodically that connect those two trunks. And that’s what recovery has done for us. It’s connected us in some marvelous ways.

But at the same time, if you look under a microscope, DNA kind of spirals around. That’s what life continues to do to us is that it continues to spiral us around. And we continue to have challenges and things happen to us. But there is still that tightness and structure of us together.

The most important thing recovery has done for the two of us is that it has allowed us to -- to move on from the worst loss and celebrate our son’s life in a beautiful way.

My name is Kim Manlove and this is my story.

Mariel Hafnagel -Grace & Luck in Recovery

Mariel Hafnagel is the Executive Director of the Ammon Foundation. In longterm recovery since 2007, she knows the disease of addiction well. Grace and luck and a lot of compassionate support changed her life.

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I didn’t wake up when I was 17 and decide that I wanted to be a drug addict.

The trajectory of my life and how I began to manifest addiction was not a conscious decision. Was picking up alcohol and drugs a conscious decision? Absolutely – because I was in tremendous pain and I wanted to take that away.

My addiction progressed rapidly, leaving limited if not zero time for intervention, education, primary level care.

My name is Mariel Hufnagel. I’m a woman in long-term recovery which for me means that I’ve been alcohol and drug free since May 7, 2007, after an alcohol, heroin and crack cocaine addiction from the ages of 17 to 21.

There was nothing extraordinarily dysfunctional or out of order or catastrophic that happened in my childhood. From a very young age however, I always felt less than, different, and was constantly looking for a way to diminish those feelings.

I acted out. I stole. I was promiscuous. I threw temper tantrums. Anything I could do to get outside of me and to get some attention from you.

I do remember at a very young age experimenting with alcohol, alone, and I just think that is important because the reason why I used alcohol and drugs, the reason I acted out was because I was trying to self-medicate.

It’s very clear to me there was something off in my brain, and that there were mental health issues, underlying and untreated.

I didn’t start using anything regularly until I was about 17. And in literally a matter of months, if not weeks, I went from having a seemingly pretty normal life, you know, a beautiful house, a loving family, a decent GPA in school, friends, a boyfriend, etc. – to being homeless, a prostitute, living on the streets of Norwalk, Connecticut. I had a $1500 a day drug habit.

And what comes along with that lifestyle, as a 17, 18, 19 year old female, is a lot of trauma, a lot of sexual abuse, a lot of dangerous situations. All that does is it perpetuates the need and the desire to continue getting high. There was nothing I needed to do more than numb out so I could escape from all of that.

May 7, 2007, I was arrested and I was brought to jail. That was the beginning of my recovery story.

So often we talk about someone needing to have a willingness or a honest desire to enter and maintain their recovery. I was not willing or voluntarily brought to Volusia County Correctional Facility. But what that allowed is it allowed just enough time for me to get physically separated from alcohol and drugs that I could begin to have some clarity about my life. And it was through that clarity that I became willing to be an active participant in changing and addressing some things, so that I could be sober and live a life that was worth living.

Detoxing in jail, potentially in physical danger, unlike any other chronic disorder that would be medically addressed, addiction is not ,and was not, for me. And so I’m terrified and just kind of just left to fend for myself. Which is not loving and not medically appropriate for anybody.

So I ended up being in jail for about two months. And when I was released I needed to make a lot of changes and I needed to address a lot of things that I had been shoving down and unwilling to address for years at this point.

I got accepted into a halfway house and I was there for almost 9 months. It allowed me to have a safe place to live, get involved with peer-to-peer support. It allowed me time to look for employment, apply for Medicaid and food stamps, and social services. All of this was vital for that first year.

I also needed to get honest about how I was feeling, what I was thinking. And one of the most important things that I have found in my personal recovery is having people around me who hold me accountable and who I can be transparent with about what’s really going on. Recognizing that part of just the human condition is that we are broken and imperfect and that’s okay. It’s okay to be uncomfortable. It’s okay to be who I am, in all its glory or in all its ugliness, and finding people who embrace me and love me and hold me up during those times. And had I not be able to kind of find that support, I don’t know if I would have been able to maintain my recovery.

I think it’s really important when we talk about recovery to talk about people being able to build meaningful, purposeful lives. Because without being crass – although I am crass -- if I can’t have a life worth living, why would I not want to be getting high?

Not saying that life needs to be perfect al of time. No one’s life is all of the time. However, when the bad times come, if there is purpose and meaning and love and connection in their life, it’s easier to weather those storms.

What happened when I was about five years in recovery is I realized there is a lot of discrimination against people like myself, and I became motivated to try to make a macro difference.

Oftentimes people ask me, what do I attribute my recovery to? And I say grace and luck.

Grace is defined as an unwarranted gift from God. And whatever you believe is your beliefs, but I believe that the universe is conspiring for our greatest good, all the time.

I believe that I’ve been put in the right place at the right time with the right people enough times to maintain my recovery and to become who I am today.

That’s also combined with luck. Luck for me is connected to privilege. It’s connected to the fact that I’m an upper middle class white female. Between the ages of 14 and 21, I was a repeat offender. I am now a convicted felon. I’m a sex-trafficking survivor, and I’m formerly homeless. Time after time, I was given second, third, fifth, a hundredth chances, by everybody – police, judges, by people who I just crossed paths with. I also experienced tremendous generosity because I was seemingly non-threatening. And, due to the socio-economic status of my family, I was able to access treatment, go back to school.

I was able to do all of these different things that are off-limits or much harder to attain than say my African-American female counterpart, my trans counterpart, my lower socio-economic counterpart.

My recovery should not be based on grace and luck. It should be based on the fact that I was given access to services, that barriers were removed, and that I was treated with compassion because I suffer from a brain disorder – and that’s why I should be able to have entered and maintained my recovery.

So since 2012 I have had the incredible ability to join what many people call the recovery advocacy movement. I have been able to work and live in a space where people are demanding what I like to consider the civil rights of people who suffer from a substance use disorder. And, you know, it started as a volunteer intern in 2012 and just six years later I have the distinct privilege of being the executive director of a foundation.

And that really is what recovery looks like, right. It looks like the fact that I got married. It looks like the fact that we rescued two dogs. We bought a house. I’m a daughter. I’m a sister. I’m an aunt. I’m a taxpayer. I’m an employer and an employee.

My story is not extraordinary. I just have been empowered to share it. There are thousands if not millions of others, just like me, living in recovery, a part of society who have overcome their own struggles with addiction. They have just not yet been empowered to share their story.

My name is Mariel Hufnagel and this is my story.

Dr. Faye Jamali -Doctor in Recovery

Photo courtesy Faye Jamali

In 2007, Dr. Faye Jamali broke her wrist.  What happened in the next few months jeopardized her career as an anesthesiologist and made her understand pain in a new way.

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I don’t want to say it’s unusual but for me it was unusual -- because never in a million years did I think I would ever find myself addicted to opioids.

I had never had issues with heaving drinking, using drugs. I even graduated Berkeley without even trying pot.

It was scary how much raw talent I had for being an addict. For someone who had had no history of it, I showed great skill.

At age 40, this is after I’d been an anesthesiologist for almost 15 years, I broke my wrist at a birthday party for my children. This was back in 2007. Had a couple of surgeries. Had some pain. The surgeon, who was actually a friend,, prescribed me a big bottle of pain pills. And back then it was not unusual to do that. We were taught in medical school, in residency, and even in my clinical work place, that we had to treat pain very aggressively, and that if patients were being treated for surgical pain, the chance of addiction was minimal. That was what we were taught. So to me, it wasn’t unusual that he prescribed me a whole bunch and he also said, “I don’t want you to have to call for a refill. Here you go.”

And I took the pills as directed -- every three to four hours when I had pain. Funny thing happened. I noticed that when I had those pain pills in my body, things didn’t bother me as much. I was just less stressed out about everything.

At that time, I had two small children, a two-year old and a five -year old. Life was pretty stressful. I was a full-time anesthesiologist. My husband was a full-time surgeon. Hectic life. But I found out that hey, if I took one of these Vicodin pills, it just smoothed the edges. I just felt like Oh, this is kind of cool – and it’s prescribed!

So I just started slowly taking things once in a while when I was stressed out. But it muddied the water for me.

I also have a long history of very severe migraines that I had gotten all kinds of treatments for. Botox injections in my scalp. I would occasionally find myself in the ER having injection of a narcotic. I was at work when I had a very bad migraine. It was towards the end of my shift. And at the end of the shift as an anesthesiologist, whatever leftover narcotics we have from the cases we’ve done, we waste them. As I was in the bathroom just dealing with this really bad migraine at the end of my shift, I thought, Oh my god, I have this narcotic. This is the exact same medicine they’re going to give me in the ER. And I don’t have to wait. And I don’t have to do anything. And I’m a physician. And I can inject. Let me just do it!

I did it. The headache went away. But I felt so guilty. I felt like I had just crossed a line that should never, ever be crossed.

The next day I got a migraine again. I tended to get them during my period. And I thought this time, Oh, I know exactly what to do. I went and injected myself again. This time though, I felt a rush of euphoria, not just pain relief. It was a euphoria that made me stop, and think, and be angry at myself for having had access to this amazing drug all these years and I never used it!? I mean, what kind of idiot was I?

Over the next three months, I just was chasing that euphoric feeling. And within a three-month period, I had increased the dosage of medications I was taking by close to tenfold. I was terrified. I kept thinking, Well, this is wrong but no, no, no, I’ll stop. It’s just really stressful right now. I’ll stop.

But something would trigger it, and I would just like I just want to feel good again. And I would find myself doing it and feeling worse afterwards because no matter how much I tried, I couldn’t quite stop myself. But I kept thinking, Look, I’m a smart person. I’m a doctor. I have good will power. I can beat this.

Nobody knew. Nobody. No, I did not tell my husband about this. He had no idea. I never used when people were around. It was always in private. And I would use on the day that I wasn’t working. Children were at daycare or at school. I hid it pretty well. I also didn’t know how to ask for help. I felt so ashamed. I kept telling myself, But I can’t be an addict. I’m a doctor. I’m a soccer mom. This is not addiction, this is just some phase.

But I -- I was scared. Anesthesiologists died from overdose but I never thought that that would be me. And I was afraid that if I overdosed and died, I would leave two small children without a mother.

So I had this brilliant idea one day. I would inject into my arms. So I put my daughter’s name on my arm where the vein was, and my son’s name on the other arm where I used. And I told myself, Just think of it, next time you’re injecting there, just tell yourself you’re injecting into their eyeballs. You would never do that, would you? But the craving would hit and I would rip that Band aid off, and I would inject, and I would feel a thousand times worse, because what mother does this? What mother would do this?

The worse I felt about myself, the more I needed relief. And the more I did it, the further down I would get. I would go two or three, four, five days without using and I would see the light. Like, okay, I am crawling out of this crevice, and then fall back down again further.

I had a fight with my husband one night, and I drove to the hospital, went straight into the recovery room. It was like 8 o’clock at night. Said hi to the recovery room nurses, went to the narcotic machine, just picked a random name, a patient’s name, and checked out narcotics. Went into the bathroom and injected. And I woke up, maybe a couple of hours later. I still had a needle in my arm. There was blood. I had vomited. I had urinated on myself. I was horrified. Horrified at my husband for having made me do this. I was angry at him. This is the depth of the change that happens in your brain. The addiction in you does not want you to call it addiction because it’s an existential threat to its existence.

My workplace – they called me one day. They said, “We need to talk to you.” I walked into a conference room. There was like ten people sitting around this large conference table, and they just had all these records of medications that I had checked out that had nothing to do with surgery or the operating room, just a random patient, a patient who had actually died two days earlier who was still on the list and I had checked out a medicine under his name.

I just didn’t even have the presence of mind to say anything. I just said, “I don’t know. I don’t know.” I just didn’t know. It was shocking. They said, “Turn in your badge. You’re under investigation. Until the investigation is done, you’re on suspension.”

And I remember walking out of the hospital wondering, Now what? Oh my God.

And that evening actually we had a marriage counseling session because our marriage wasn’t doing so well at that time. We went home, put the kids to bed. And after things were quiet, my husband said, “Faye, do you want to tell me something?”

And I just looked at him. I thought, Okay, this is it. This is the lowest point in my life. This is how it just completely falls apart. I didn’t even say anything. All I did is I rolled up my sleeves – I used to wear long sleeves all the time -- I rolled up my sleeves, just showed him my arms. And then what he did, was he just picked me up, hugged me and said, “Sweetie, why didn’t you tell me? We’ll get you help.”

And I have never loved him more. Because to be that low, and to have someone offer you help -- it is the world to you.

And also that moment taught me no matter how hard the situation is, the truth is actually easier.

So the next day I called up my hospital and I told them. And I saw this physician who is a psychiatrist at my hospital who is an addiction medicine specialist actually. He had treated me years ago for depression, post-partum depression, so he knew me very well. He’s my angel. He said, “Faye, it’s going to be a long, rough journey, but we’ll take you through it. We’ll walk you through it.”

And I’ll never forget the first day I showed up at the recovery center. I had dressed nicely, wearing a nice pearly necklace, and I sat down and this guy next to me said, “So, hey, what are you here for? Alcohol?” And I’m like, “No, I shoot up drugs.” And he was shocked. Like I didn’t fit the profile of someone who injects. But that’s who I was.

I was extremely fortunate. I had a job where they gave me the opportunity to take a year off. I had insurance that would pay for my recovery program. I was in a physicians’ support group. I had therapy. I had group therapy. I went to AA – I just felt more comfortable in AA versus NA – but just like a 12-step program. I really immersed myself into recovery.

But at the end of that one year, the hospital said, “You can either come back to the job you had before, as an anesthesiologist, or you need to sever your ties with this hospital.” And I was terrified. I didn’t know whether I could go back to being around narcotics. So we came up with a plan for me to come back slowly, be monitored. For the first three months there was another physician with me on every case. I took naltrexone, an opiate blocker. I told people in my group, my anesthesia group, of what had happened. I wanted them to be part of my safety net so that if something looked off, that they would be there and notice it. So we had a big program set up and I was able to return to work.

Most states, except for three, have a physician health program. If a physician has problems with substance abuse, they can be referred to this program, and as long as they abide by all the program rules, like going to meetings, having therapy, urine testing – as long as that is going on, the medical board doesn’t plaster their name on the internet, as long as they are in recovery.

Unfortunately in my situation, California is one of only three states that to this day, does not have a physician health program. So what happens is that if you have a problem with substance abuse, the medical board reviews you. So the medical board took two years before they got to my case – not because they are lazy, because they are backlogged. I was already back at work practicing for a year before the medical board came down on me and said you are under probation for five years. During that time I had to get tested four times a week. I had to take an ethics course because according to them, it’s an ethical failing. I had to take lots of continuing medical education in addiction medicine which was great.

I don’t think being a doctor is a right – it’s a privilege. I was willing to do whatever to do this. But any patient who wanted to could go on-line, put in my name, Dr. Faye Jamali, and what does it say? It doesn’t say I’m in recovery. It just says that I am this addict. That’s hard as a physician. And I don’t think it does the public any good because now physicians go underground if they have a problem.

Who wants their problems on the internet being broadcast? Physicians in recovery actually do much better long-term, 80% recovery rate vs. the general population. Also we have access to good insurance. We have the means to get the recovery we need. The general population, unfortunately, doesn’t.

But in 2015, I was able to finish my probation. During this time of recovery, it’s not like life was peachy. Pain happens. What I learned from recovery were all these tools to deal with life and pain that is inevitable in life. I think prior to that I had wanted to become numb to the pain. I think as a culture we want to do that. We want to numb ourselves. It’s almost makes things worse because rather than actually dealing with the problem, we never address the problem because we just numb the pain. And pretend it’s not there.

I will forever be an addict in recovery. There is no cure for this disease. Your brain has changed. It is not a moral or ethical failing on anyone’s part. And just like a disease we need to have a treatment plan. And recovery is a treatment plan and we should support that, and there should be money toward that.

You know, I always think of this thing when someone is trying to quit smoking, everybody is rooting for them. They’re like, Good job! You can do it! Why can’t we treat it like that? Why can’t we say, Good job! You can’t do it! and be the support that they need. And that’s what I want to be.

We need to have good policies in place, have people buy into it, to realize that this could happen to anybody. Hey, if it can happen to a 40-year old woman physician with no history of this, it can happen to anybody. And, you know, it is happening to everybody.

There is something going on in the brain, a neurochemical disease. It is no different that any kind of other chronic disease. And we have to approach it as a disease, take the stigma away from it, and that way with facts and science, we might have a chance.

My name is Dr.Faye Jamali and this is my story.

Dakota Ayers -An EMT's Perspective

As an emergency medical technician, Dakota Ayers has seen a lot of pain and illness, much of it related to opioid addiction.  When he responds to calls, he's not there to judge.  

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Growing up I wanted to be a cardiologist. And after I graduated high school, I soon realized, Wow, med school takes a long time! What can I do to make an impact on society now? What can I do to matter?

I am an EMT, an emergency medical technician. We only run medical calls, so anything from the flu to chronic back pain to car accidents and people who suffer from drug addiction, because that is an illness.

I’d say the percentage of drug calls that we run into would be about 60-70% of every call. We will either get the call from the concerned citizen. They see somebody on the side of the road doing what we call ‘the nod,’ that heroin nod. They’ll call 911. Or you’ll have people who are getting high together, and they realize one of their friends took a little but too much and now they are unable to wake them up so they’ll call 911, maybe throw them in a cold shower, and then just leave. Which makes it much harder for us to do our jobs because how can we really help you if we don’t know how long you’ve been in this condition?

We’re medical professionals and it’s not we’re there to arrest anyone. We don’t have the ability nor do we have the want to arrest anybody. Honestly, the most important thing is getting the full story. That’s all we care about is rehabilitating them to the point of reviving them and helping them to get the medical care that they need.

If somebody is slumped over on the ground and they’re unable to pick themselves up, what we need to do is get them on to the stretcher. And what we do is we can either go under their arms and pick them up by their extremities, under their arms or legs. It takes a lot of strength and it takes a lot of effort and when you’re doing that nonstop for 12 hours every single day, it’s very easy to become numb. To forget that you’re not picking up a patient as a part of your job. You’re picking up a human. You’re picking up somebody’s brother, somebody’s child. You know, you’re picking up a person.

And, really, what I do sometimes is I like to think about people in my family that I know have suffered from opioid addiction, and I know – I’m so sure, I don’t know for a fact but I’m so sure -- someone has called 911 on them before. And when I’m with my patients, I like to remember that and think about that to bring that level of self-awareness and consciousness to the scene. And just to remind everybody that we’re around that, you know, let’s take a second look at what we’re doing. And let’s make sure that we go about this, not only by our safety protocol, but let’s make sure we are giving these patients the extra respect that they deserve for being humans.

Once we get the patients on the stretcher, we have to do what we call an assessment, checking their vitals, their blood pressure, the amount of oxygen in their blood, so on and so forth. We also have to document their story -- how they got to where they are -- because that’s a part of their medical care. There’s a large difference, there’s a huge difference between somebody who’s been an addict for five years, one year, or has been a chronic problem throughout their entire life, thirty-five years of abuse. We have to treat that differently, we see it differently, and we have to report that to the hospital differently.

Somebody who’s been an addict for thirty-five years is going to have much more trauma to their organs. You need to be able to assess how much tissue damage they may have, how much opioids or heroin they have injected into their system, or snorted or smoked into their system, in that moment because that depends how much medicine on our end that we need to give you. If I give you two shots of Narcan, intranasally, up through your nose, but you’ve been using heroin for thirty-five years, I’m probably going to have to up that dosage. I’m probably going to have to do it twice as much. That’s important to know because that’s the difference between allowing somebody to be able to breathe or not.

If somebody calls 911 on themselves. because they feel like they need help, the conversation will go completely different. You know, How did you get here? Why did we come here today? That’s what we say. And then they tell us, Because I felt short of breath. Because I was unconscious. Because I need help.

Sometimes people think they need to be committed for psychological issues or they think they need to be committed for recovery. For a lot of the cases that I’ve seen, a lot of addiction comes from mental illness, and the lack of stable doctors’ appointments that they are able to get, the lack of consistent medication that they are able to get , and the lack of family support that they have.

There’s two different types of calls that we get. We get the patient who is completely overdosed, and then we get the patient that is too high for their own good. A lot of times, we will see people who are high wandering throughout the street, bobbing in between traffic, knocking on car windows at red lights for money. Sometimes they are just so high out of their mind, they don’t realize the dangers of what they are doing. It’s not that they’re so hungry and so greedy for money. A lot of times they are just so far out of their own mind, they don’t recognize the dangers that they are putting themselves in and the dangers that they are putting other people in driving by.

When I’m on scene, when I go on calls, I try to make sure that I provide a level of tranquility to the scene that I know sometimes isn’t always there. I will go out of my way to make our patients feel like they aren’t being attacked because a lot of the times when 911 is called, they don’t want to go to the hospital. They don’t feel like they are doing anything wrong so it’s really our job, and something I try to do day in and day out, is just remain patient and cognizant of the way that you touch people, the words that you’re using, the tone of voice that you have, the way that you guide them into the ambulance.

A lot of these people – I’m only 23. Okay, I’ve been doing this for two years. And most of the people that I pick up are in their 50s, 60s, sometimes 70s, still addicts. It’s so hard to look at somebody who is so much older than you and when they’re looking back at you and they, they feel so small. You can just sense it. They feel small. They feel insignificant. And the vibe that they give off is, is I’m hurting.

Most people aren’t addicts because they think it is fun and glorious. There are some people who are like that but most of the patients that I encounter are-- they’re hurting. And it’s imperative that you look back into their eyes and really acknowledge, I see you as a human and I’m here to listen. It’s not my job to arrest you. It’s not my job to judge you. It’s not my job to tell you, Well, if maybe you did this, then you wouldn’t be in this situation and you know, Get yourself out of these streets, and dahdidahdidah. That’s not our job.

We’re there to save lives.

This is Dakota Ayers and this is my story.

Lisa Curtin -My Mom Was Addicted

In the late 1990s, Lisa Curtin's mother read about a new drug called Oxycontin, and then nothing was ever the same for Lisa or her family.

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All through our years of growing up, my brother and myself, my mother struggled with alcohol before she got addicted to drugs.

My earliest memory is when I was about 6 years old, and my brother who’s eighteen months younger than me, was four and a half, you know, she was on a bender, just drinking like crazy, my father was traveling. She told my brother and I to pack our clothes. We were going to have to live in an orphanage because my brother and I were fighting with one another and she couldn’t handle it.

She literally made us go pack our clothes. A stranger came to the house to pick us up. She put us in a car with the stranger and the stranger took us to a grocery store parking lot. And in the grocery store parking lot, he just turned to us and said, “You know, you just have to start listening to your mom. She’s just sort of at her wits’ end, and if you don’t listen to your mom then you know, you’re not going to be able to live there anymore.” He brought us back to our house then.

And I don’t for one minute doubt that my mother loved myself and my brother. I don’t doubt that at all. But I realize that you can’t compete against a bottle of vodka. You cannot compete against whisky. And you can’t compete against prescription drugs. It just doesn’t happen.

When she was around 50, she diagnosed herself and convinced a couple of doctors at the time that she had fibromyalgia. This was her ticket to freedom. Very difficult to diagnose. She was smart enough to figure out ways to pretend that different pain points in her body when touched would be sensitive to that touch, and she then started to get prescription drugs.

It started with Vicodin, at first. Because sometimes she would not eat, physical things would actually happen, like she would actually trip.

One time she, you know, broke a toe on her foot. My mother, my daughter, Amber, and I were going on a trip together on a plane ride. She was on a crutch and her toe was casted and we get to Alabama, and my mother forgot her medication at home.

So, when we were in the hotel room, she unwrapped her toe, reinjured it which then caused us to spend a good portion of the time in the emergency room so that she could have another x-ray on her foot and get pain medication. Now she’s got you know, a supply at home and now she’s got a supply while we were on vacation so when she gets home she has a great party ahead of her because she’s got all this medicine.

The things that she did, the way she sort of manipulated situations to be able to get what she needed to get is no different that someone who is on a corner, you know, looking for a way to be able to get a quick fix.

All through my mother’s fifties, she struggled with some sort of illness, one way or another, that was causing her to get prescription medication. And then my father had his stroke. So the year would have late ‘96. My mother met a doctor – and I’m getting chills just thinking about it right now – who turned her on to Oxycontin and that’s when it really just started to go down.

At first, it seemed to be like good for her, in that she didn’t seem to be in pain and she had a better frame of mind, and she was gentler toward my dad and more sympathetic toward my father’s situation. But after awhile, she would just track when she would take her pills, and I have 3x5 cards of her handwriting of how she was like monitoring when she was taking the prescription medication, because I think she was trying to convince herself that she wasn’t actually taking more than she should. But she was. And it was an endless supply.

This also started a trend where she would overdose on a fairly regular basis. At least five times which usually was she took too much of her Oxycontin, she didn’t eat. Once in awhile she would mix it with alcohol. She’d go to the emergency room. I’d get a call and I’d get there, and I’d say to the doctor, or the emergency room physician, you know, “Test her blood alcohol count or test her for, you know, morphine or whatever. Just test her for something because I’m sure that she’s overdosed. It’s not that she just fell or that she’s disoriented.” And she would deny it, you know, she was always in denial about this. Constantly in denial.

Sure enough, you know, the next day they’d come back with test results and her blood alcohol count was really high or the presence of opioids in her system was really high. But still the doctor continued to prescribe them to her.

There was a time when my mother overdosed. I walk into the emergency room. I could hear my mother’s voice asking for morphine, that she was in pain, I want this, I want this, I want this drip. And they ended up giving her the drip. But then I went back to her apartment. I found thirty–seven prescription bottles of medication from four different doctors. Most of them had like one or two pills in them. But all either for Vicodin or Oxycontin.

And I brought all that medication to the hospital. And when I saw her doctor, I showed him. =I go, “This is what you’re dealing with. =She’s going between Illinois and Wisconsin. She’s going across the state borders to get medication.” And the doctor who I think was the worst influence in her life, you know, he just seemed to ignore it. He didn’t think it was like that big of a deal.

All I think about from the time I was 6 years old and I’m 58 years old now, that’s a long time, that’s 52 years of trying to figure out how the hell to take care of a woman who doesn’t know how to take care of herself, or anyone else, and refuses to get help.

The memory of all this stuff that went on with her still lives with me every single day. Every single day.

My mother passed away in 2006. It was actually my grandsons’ second birthday. I had gone to the doctor with her two weeks prior. And I told the doctor once again that my mother’s best day of her month is when she comes to see you, to get her prescription refilled. The doctor said to me, “Well, you know, your mom’s in pain. And she – you know, I don’t think this is an addiction. You know, this isn’t a drug that’s addicting.”

And I said, “She doesn’t even eat. She’s either falling in the bathroom or she’s falling, you know, in the living room or whatever. When they take her to the hospital you end up coming there, and she gets what she needs. So she’s figured out a way to get a fix until she can get the next prescription filled. This is a pattern and you’re not helping at all. I’m like powerless to do anything about it.”

The doctor still filled her prescription. And the twins’ second birthday was coming up. nd so she was going to come with us, and I was really excited that week because I thought, Ok, that would be great. You know, she’s going to come. This is going to be wonderful for her. And she called and said that she wasn’t able to make it. She wasn’t feeling very well.

I just had this weird feeling all day long. I tried calling her several times. I couldn’t reach her. She did end up calling me back, and she said, "I just want to lay around anyways, I don’t feel good." And I said, "Well, okay, we’ll talk on Monday."

So Monday came and Monday night came, and I still -- I hadn’t heard from her and I kept calling her. Finally, I called the apartment building that she was living in and I asked them to do a ‘check well-being’ on her.

She was gone. She was gone.

And I’m like Okay. I was at work and it didn’t really even sink in, you know. In a way it was sort of like, She’s gone so it’s like relief. But I know that sounds terrible.

But on the other hand it was like Oh my God, my mom’s gone and I never could fix her. I could never get her to understand herself. I couldn’t even get her to understand me. She didn’t even get that.

Nobody has ever once been on my sidelines except for my kids saying, You can do it! You can move forward. You know, we’ve got your back. And I wanted my mom to do that, and she couldn’t. And then I couldn’t save her either.

And so, you know, on the day when I’m having a good time with my twins’ birthday party, when they’re two, she’s laying in her bed, dying.

We got the autopsy results, and she died of morphine toxicity. The last year of her life was all about going to the doctor. You know, I took my pill this morning and so, I feel better and you know, I’ll take another one a little bit later today.

That’s all it was. Every single thing was about that particular pill which made her life so much better than everybody and everything else around her.

If I was able to sit in the front of the doctor today, I would like to say to him: If family members are involved in the patient’s life, and they’re telling you the best day in that patient’s life is the day they get to come and see you because they know they’re going to get their prescription refilled, and how this is destroying, actually, the entire person that’s sitting in front of you, that is your patient -- it would be really great if you could just listen.

*And I don’t know if the motivation for writing the prescription is related to great incentives for doctors. I don’t know if that’s the reason.

I don’t know if you really felt sympathetic to my mother because you thought that she really was in pain. However you really only saw her for like seven minutes a month, so you didn’t really know her.

And maybe it was just the time, late 90’s, early 2000’s. Maybe enough wasn’t known. I don’t know. Although I find that hard to believe because it’s highly addictive even though it was toted originally not to be.

It would just have been nice if you just would have listened.*

My name is Lisa Curtin and this is my story.

Jenny Beetz -Human Contact or Heroin? You Can't Have Both

Jenny Beetz loved how heroin made her feel but she appreciates the stability of her life without it.

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It’s very hard for me to pinpoint when exactly my addiction started, or even what started it. I would imagine I started doing drugs at around the age of 12, really. It just just always seemed to be part of my life. It wasn’t something I even thought about. Which has been an ongoing problem by the way. I’ve always missed that middle part where you maybe reflect and think, Well, should I do some drugs? As soon as that thought hits me, I’m already driving to go buy drugs.

By the age of 16, I had discovered opiates. The heroin. It was, This is my drug. I felt like I found finally my peace. And that is something that it has always given me is a sense of peace. And also a sense of wellbeing. A lot of people, it seems, when they do opiates, before you know it, they’re licking the floor, or their head is about a foot from the concrete. Contrary to that, I feel energy. It puts the skip in my step and I go around the house singing or humming.

Honestly, I have often felt it’s a financial problem more than a drug problem because when I have had plenty of money, gainfully employed and all that, it didn’t interfere in my life in any way. I wasn’t being arrested. I wasn’t crawling around half sick, trying to get my drug. But when it gets to that point, which it seems to for virtually everybody, that is the hell.

It feels like you’re missing a couple of layers of skin. And you’re jumping into rubbing alcohol. It’s hell.

But I took a long break and I thought that it was simply a passing phase. I had gone to college. I got a degree in philosophy. I thought philosophy was all Sartre and Camus, and all of that really great stuff. No! It’s this really boring analytical crap—Hegel, Heidegger -- oh my God, you know, that’s torture! They should use that at Guantanamo.

But I’m not sure what started me again, at all. A lot of my drug use has been because it’s just been right there in my face, most of my life. Every time I’d gone to New York City when I was younger, part of my visit there included good New York dope. So when I moved there, it was like Wow, I live in the land of good New York dope!

And it started out very slowly. I had a boyfriend who was not a drug addict and we started using together. I became a raging junkie and he stopped the first he got a habit. He was no, this is awful, this sucks. And I just kept going with it.

I spent pretty much all of my time in New York City being a heroin addict. In my 30’s, I went to a methadone program. I was very, very, very stubborn. I did heroin every day of my life for a least a year, knowing I’m not even going to get high because methadone has a blocker in it.

Again I was very stubborn. And I still am. I am on a methadone program now. I have a lot of resentment about it, in a way. In general, in life, I have a lot of resentment about my use or not use of heroin.

Why can’t I do my drug?

My friend for example, he – he gets drunk virtually every day, and it’s fine. You know, it’s socially acceptable, really. Well, to a degree. And, I’m not allowed to do my drug. It that pisses me off. It really does.

If I were to win the lottery, all bets are off. I’m, I’m buying land in Afghanistan. I’m going to marry Hamid Karzai, and I’m just going to have acres and acres of poppies. Drug lord, whatever, you know. I’m really looking forward to it, in fact. I mean, this is the sort of thing that comforts me.

But being a drug addict, weird things tend to comfort me, like Oh, I can always just kill myself! That’s a comforting thought to me. There’s always that option if I’m sick of this, I can always just, you know, do my last shot and be comfortable and …

What motivated me to go on a methadone program at all or even to consider quitting is I did lose that well-paying job, which by the way, was answering phones in a whorehouse. But I became homeless. Theoretically the methadone program, it’s there to help a person get off of opiates. Great! Wonderful! You can’t get addicted to methadone in two weeks. They would taper you off and then hopefully you have follow-up care.

Methadone maintenance? To me, it is solidly absurd. I have traded basically an illegal drug and illegal activities for a legal thing called methadone maintenance program.

I can’t get take-homes because I take Seroquel and that’s a whole other horrible – and that’s a -- by the way, a lot of mental illness mixed in with all of this. I am disabled, officially, with major depression. I’ve been hospitalized. And also with post-traumatic stress disorder. Like serious -- like my childhood was outrageous including kidnapping, gang rape. Just horrible things.

The benefits again are I’m not getting arrested two and three times a year. So now I’m on as low dose as I possibly be, and my life has been – it’s stable. I realized wow, I actually feel, both physically and mentally, I feel engaged in the world around me. And it’s pleasant.

And then I realize, and this is a strange way to realize it, somebody just rubbed my back in an affectionate gesture, and I realized I had had zero affection or anything like that, by choice. By choice. And it was again revelatory. It was like this is what I’m missing in my life. -- human contact.

And the less methadone I was on, the more engaged I became. And I got to a point where I was down to 10 mg of methadone, and that was great. My tits came back. I started fucking again which I enjoy a lot. But -- and you can’t have both. It’s human contact, and caring about people, and sex, and boobs and all that -- or it’s heroin addiction. You can’t have both. Heroin ends up being a kind of a boyfriend.

When I rejoined the living, I noticed all these benefits that I had not foreseen. And it’s good in a way. I really miss heroin. I do. And I feel jealousy when I see somebody licking the sidewalk out front – I feel jealous, actually. You know, it’s like, I want what she had!, you know.

I think this is definitely part of my nonuse rather than using, that my writing has exploded with regard to how much. But the quality as well is really good. And then, I started making collages. And I just started with one and now I think I have about one hundred and twenty. And I do them all by hand. And that’s been really great – the art work, you know.

I believe that from the day, the year, whatever age you are when you begin taking drugs, that’s pretty much when you stop maturing -- emotionally at least. And so, in a lot of ways, I’m this, you know, annoying, intellectual artist type. But also I am a, a 12-year old, you know. And if you start doing drugs at a very young age like I did, I mean you’re kind of fucked in a lot of ways, you know, being this 12 year old and negotiating the world supposedly as a 53 year old, you know.

I’m trying… I might cry. Yeah. I don’t know why that makes me cry but --

Because I’m the 12-year old for a second here, you know.

I’m Jenny Beetz and this is my story. Thank you for listening to my story.

Ted Stout -The Doctors Who Failed Me

If Ted Stout had continued to follow the advice of his doctor, he might not be alive today.  The prescribed opioids reduced the physical pain he suffered from Postherpetic Neuralgia -- until they made him much sicker. Then he took matters into his own hands.

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I was 38 years old and I thought I had a sinus infection, up towards the forehead, above my eye, behind my eye. The pain in my trigeminal nerve was intense. Eventually I went to the doctor, and he said, “Look, you’ve got a rash under your hairline. You have shingles. It should last about a week and you should be fine after that.”

Well, I wasn’t fine after that, and it just lingered. I went back and he said,“Well, we’ve come to the conclusion that you have post herpetic neuralgia.” The nerve was damaged and would never fix, that the only thing to do at this point was pain control.

Well, I didn’t quite trust this doctor and found a doctor who was a very well respected doctor in the Fredericksburg area. Right off the bat, he prescribed opiates. And I saw some pretty immediate help with the pain. But it kept coming back. And it kept getting worse. The doctor just kept throwing more medicine at me. And he said, “Well, if you feel any pain, if you feel a tingle, take the drug. You want to nip it. The more you allow pain to happen, the worse off you will be.”

Ultimately I was on something called morphine sulfate ER, and it was a time-release morphine. I came to find out that the stronger medications would take the pain down a little bit. For a couple of hours, it was like oh, whew, relief. And then after about two hours, it started to creep back in. And I kind of would joke that the pain was made at me because I was trying to get rid of it and it was coming back with a vengeance.

Frankly, I never got a buzz off of that. I didn’t even know I was taking it. ut I sure knew if I didn’t take it. And it just felt like I had little boa constrictors wrapped around my bones, my tendons – there was no comfort. It probably took a couple of times before I put two and two together, and I started feeling that it was time to get off of these things. If my body was this dependent on this drug that I didn’t even feel! So I went to the doctor and I said, “I think I should start to get off of this stuff.” And he was adamant that I don’t. He said, “You’ve come this far. It took us this long to get to this point, why would you want to mess this up?”

The doctors who you assume were doing their best – they are humans too. They will take the easy way out when they can. Plus they want to give relief. You know, I was in pain. “Here, take a pill, you won’t be in pain anymore.” I said, “Okay, but I still feel that we should start trying to get me off of this.”

So in 2014, I had a TIA stroke. It was scary. I was 49 years old, lying in a hospital bed, and I said to myself, “You’ve got to make a change. You have to take control.” This had been going on for about 13 years. I decided that I would get off of all medications, every single bit. And I found a facility in Virginia. I contacted them, told them what was situation was -- pain from post herpetic neuralgia in my trigeminal nerve -- and I said, “All right, well, I’m sure you can get me off of this stuff but what about the pain that happens afterwards? Because it will be there. The pain will come back and I have to have a pain management program to fall back on.”

They assured me that they did. They said part of you know, getting rid of this addiction was having a very comfortable bed and comfortable surroundings and all these things. OK, great. So I show up there and it’s-- it might as well have been a mattress off of a gurney. It was rubber, or plastic, with an old sheet on it. And I get that that’s how it should be, because when you start getting off of these drugs and it’s just nasty, nasty, nasty. And there were times that I couldn’t even make it to the bathroom in time. I couldn’t do it and I was lying there in my filth.

After three days there, and I’m getting off the morphine, I had not seen a doctor yet. And I was talking to the nurses there, saying, “When does the pain management part kick in? The pain is bad right now. You know, I’m off of this one drug and the pain is so bad, I would say it was a ten.” Now a ten probably is I want to hang myself and die. I really felt that way. I said, “If you don’t let me see a doctor right now, I am driving out of here.”

One of the nurses I called Nurse Ratched. She just kind of told me I was being a baby, and that if I left this facility she would call the sate police because they give – they give you something, I don’t know what it is, to try to help you get off this stuff and that that impairs me. And if I get in my car to drive, she will have me arrested. We’re in the parking lot, yelling at each other. I mean it was – it was awful. I’ve never been treated that way in my life. And I was paying for this, you know.

The fifth day I was there, the head doctor of the whole place called me into his office --beautiful, lavish office -- sat me down, and I’m thinking Great, now I’m going to get the plan. And the plan was to tell me that they had no plan. They talked about it. They monitored me, did some more research into it and found out that they had no plan for me. But I was welcome to stick around for 30 days if I’d like.

I broke down and cried. It was – I get a little…

I felt betrayed. They told me they had something. I put up with crap. I put up with Nurse Ratched. I put up with being an inmate. And now they’re telling me, Oops, I guess we should have looked into it a little more.

I did have Plan B. There is a place in UNC – UNC Chapel Hill Healthcare-- and they have a very well recognized trigeminal neuralgia program there. And, two and a half hours I talked to these people. I felt listened to for the very first time. It was like Hallelujah! They go to the root of the problem. They don’t mask it. They’ll be no drugs given. They told me to try Tylenol and ice. What they did was they gave my body a chance to get strong and knock this thing out.

He suggested that I go see a chiropractor every week and get a massage every month. Change my diet – organic everything. Don’t drink coffee. Don’t drink alcohol. Drink a lot of water. He said fat will help repair the nerve damage. You need good fats like avocado fats to heal your nerve. He said your body wants to be good. What you put into it, what you put on it, is going to affect everything, and if you are predisposed to this condition, every bad thing you do is going to cause you a problem. Every good thing you do will strengthen your body and it will make things so much easier for you, you will be able to do this without drugs.

I believe that the nerve is mostly fixed. It took about a year and half for me to get totally good. And I know that opiates will make it flare up again. And I know that some will say,Wow, that’s great, but I could never do that. I know people who’ve done it and they are happier people for it. Do they still have pain? They do, a little bit. But are they better off for it? Yeah, they are better off without the opiates. Opiates should be a temporary thing, not for chronic pain. It will kill you. Or you might kill yourself. I came close because it just seemed like there was no way out of this.

I’m a very private person but if my story can help one person realize the dangers of extended opiate use, it’s well worth being uncomfortable with my story being out there in this world. If you hear this, know that you can do this. If I can do it, you can do it. And please try. Give it at least a try. You won’t be sorry.

I’m Ted Stout and this is my story.

Eric Whitaker -Peer Pressure

Eric Whitaker understands the destructive patterns and habits that can rule life. And he's figured out a way to break his. He's clean and he's sharing his story.

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When I was around three or four years old, my parents decided to move us from West Baltimore out to Carroll County, a very small town in Carroll County. It was a shock but it was a welcome shock.

Now, school begins and the first thing I notice is I don’t look like these people, I don’t sound like these people. And I felt different. You know, I am a black man and 2% of the population in that county, to this day, is minority.

At first I tried to work through it. However kids are cruel. For one, I had a stuttering problem. It was fueled by anxiety and everything else. So I was made fun of and I was picked on. But it was stressed in my household to read, to learn, and no one would ever be able to deny you. And as soon as my grades were great – I mean, I was a great student – I was always at the top, I won spelling bees and everything. I felt like I was part of something that I belonged to. So, one could say that like at an early age I was also searching for approval of others. What kid doesn’t?

However, throughout middle school and high school, that same need for approval had me doing things that I really didn’t even care for. I went places with people that I didn’t like or even want to be with. It was a constant need for approval. Peer pressure.

The time I turned 15, I decided to start using drugs. I started to do heroin before I did anything else. I thought that a cool guy my age did drugs and drank. And this was 1995. When I graduated there were four black people in my class, counting myself. What was happening was, I was not black enough to be around them, but I was not white enough to be around the others. That’s when I debuted selling the drugs, because at this point, my heroin habit had gotten insane. I had gone from thirty, forty bucks a week, to now I’m close to a hundred dollars a day.

No one knows what it’s like to need to put fifty bucks in your body before you can brush your teeth. No one knows what that’s like unless you’ve been through this. It’s like waking up with the flu times one thousand.

Every night, I’m not going to sleep. I’m laying down and resting my eyes for three hours, after homework, sports, social time, girlfriend, family time. Getting right back up at four o’clock in the morning. I’m being picked up from a small town in Carroll County, Maryland by older white men that would otherwise not talk to me at all so we can go down and I can get them their fix, their money can get me mine, and I can be dropped back off to get on a school bus and go to school and perform, pass tests, give speeches, and act like nothing was wrong.

One teacher my senior year spoke to me. She said, “You know, Eric, I know you’ve had some problems. And if there was something I could do to stop you, I would. Only you have the answer. Please let me know what I can do to help.“ And I looked her dead in her face, and I said, “There’s nothing wrong with me.”

What can you tell a teenager --especially a teenager that feels like he or she is in charge? When you’re not done, you’re not done. And I was out to do harm to myself. I couldn’t do enough drugs. I couldn’t do enough drinking. Everything I did was just so far off the meter.

It’s not about the drug pulling you. It’s about feeling you have nothing to live for. You have no hope.

So I began to seek the solution. I chose this self-help group. I could show up the way I was. I could be who I was. And within reason, me keeping my story as my story, someone was going to relate and get something from me, even on my worst day. It was about learning how to live again. All I knew was drugs and that’s not living.

So in ‘08 or ‘09, I checked into a sober-living situation. I put together two years clean – my first time getting clean, I put together two years living clean. But I fell again and used. And in 2010, I overdosed for the first time. It was a combination of prescription meds that I was prescribed for anxiety, pain meds that I was prescribed for a broken collar bone, and a couple of beers. So that began my overdose history.

Once you overdose once, you’re pretty much in line to continue that path until you die. And that’s just what I know based on experience. Overdose again, two more times that year. At this point, we know how it goes: I do well, and then I do not. I continue the same behaviors and I get the same results. I didn’t have enough to live for to worry about -- dying. It was as if I always needed someone’s approval to validate me wanting and needing to live. I was never good enough for me.

And I believe that’s what different about this time around. And I’m never going to say, I got this, I’m okay. But I’m definitely all right.

This time I checked into a facility. That was in April of 2017. I now work for a very prominent local hospital. My job is I link people with the help and the hope that they need to possibly seek treatment. Because I practice the principles tolerance, patience, faith, perseverance, I managed to make a career out of my story, my life, and my experience. So this has taught me to look at myself and learn myself. And when someone is speaking, truly listen, listen to learn. Because I don’t always have an answer. But I do have an ear to listen.

I’m Eric Whitaker and this is my story.

Andy Viner Seiler -Surviving Withdrawal

Andy Viner Seiler was prescribed opioids by his doctor to deal with pain.  He was hooked and his doctor wasn't helpful.

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Withdrawal is the worst.

I mean, here I have an illness and the pain is just unbelievable. And then I find getting off opioids is worse than that.

It all began in 2004. I got hit with something called Ramsey Hunt Syndrome. I call it the evil cousin of shingles. It’s the same virus. Basically, all you have to have done to get it is to have had chicken pox when you were a kid. But it’s rare enough that nobody’s doctor ever diagnoses it correctly. That’s what happened to me. So I got sicker and I got sicker. This thing attacks the nerves in your face. It looks like Bell’s palsy. It feels like – oh my God, it’s nerve damage. It’s insane pain.

Now the doctor, the same doctor who misdiagnosed me, gave me a whole mess of meds, antivirals and things, and he threw Oxycontin actually, into the mix.

And after awhile, I didn’t know why I was sticking to him so I went to a specialist neurologist. Unfortunately, I was seeing that neurologist for more than ten years. She would put me on higher and higher does of opioids. And I didn’t even know what they were. And I remember that I’d been on them for several years, and it started to dawn on me that opioids might be the same thing as narcotics.

There was no publicity about these drugs at the time, and in fact she told me they were non-addictive, which is what the manufacturers said at the beginning.

But I was just beginning to figure this all out, and I said to my neurologist, “Is there any difference between these drugs you have me on and heroin?”

And she said, “Oh, it’s totally different from heroin. When you buy heroin on the street, you never know what quality you’re getting. And this is pure. This is good stuff.” And I’m like, Oh no. And that was when I first realized I was in big trouble.

They had me on an enormous amount of Oxycontin and Percocet around the clock. This went on for thirteen or fourteen years. Every once in a while, I would realize that they weren’t doing a very good job compared to what they’d done before so I would want to get on more. And she’d prescribe more.

It was only in the last couple of years, things changed so much. All of a sudden there is heat coming down on the doctors for prescribing this stuff. So, all of a sudden my neurologist -- she just totally changes her tune. But she doesn’t just change her tune. She starts to rewrite history. And it was something that my wife and I both noticed. She suddenly started saying things like, “Well, that’s why I’ve been trying to get you off these drugs bcause they’re not good for you.” And it’s like, You’ve never said that before.

By this point, I was on such a high dose -- because your body adapts and it starts tolerating a higher and higher amount to just do the same thing. And what eventually happened was we managed to immediately lose an entire huge vial of Oxycontin as soon as we got the prescription filled -- which we later found. But, while we couldn’t find it, I mean all of a sudden I didn’t have any, and my neurologist just freaked out. She became convinced that somebody was selling them or something was going on, and she wouldn’t prescribe anymore, probably because she couldn’t prescribe anymore, but I don’t know.

She just fired me as a patient. She gave me a referral to a pain clinic. But she didn’t follow up with me or anything. And I guess what most people would do is immediately go on the street and try to buy heroin or something. I mean that -- I could see exactly how that would happen.

But, I just realized I’ve got to detox myself and I’m not going to go to a clinic. I’m just going to do it. But it took a long time and it was horrifying.

You’re incredibly hot and then you’re incredibly cold. And I mean like you can put on all the clothes you’ve got, and cover yourself in blankets, and you’re still freezing. And sometimes your head is sweating uncontrollably and you’re unbelievably hot in your head but your body is cold. And you’re just in horrible, nagging, gnawing pain.

It also does a horrendous thing to your digestive system. When I first got on these drugs, I got so constipated I thought I was going to die. But when you’re getting off the drugs, of course you have the opposite situation. I mean, this is disgusting this part of it, but diarrhea isn’t even the right word for it. I mean it’s just about a hundred times worse. And it doesn’t stop. I mean even after you finally wean yourself off the drugs, it lasts for another month.

I started about the week before Christmas. I did not completely wean myself off till sometime in February. But I do feel better than I did when I was on the opioids.

The other thing that kills me about it is how expensive it was, because insurance just paid for a very small amount. And boy, would I like all that money back again.

It was like climbing down a totally vertical rock cliff. So you’re terrified. And you’re working your way down, climbing down and climbing down all day long for a really long day. At the very end of it, you look down, and the ground isn’t any closer. That’s what it was like.

I’m Andy Seiler and this is my story.