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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.

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.

Capt. Tyrone Collington -Alternatives to Incarceration

Captain Tyrone Collington is the commander of Takoma Park, Maryland's patrol division. His #1 mission is to save lives. Sometimes that entails the use of a powerful tool called Narcan.

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Well, our number one priority from a police perspective is to save lives, and that’s what we want to do.

For our department, there are a number of us, including myself, that are trained to administer a counter drug treatment that you can give someone who you suspect to be overdosing, and what it does is it knocks off the drugs and revives the person, brings them back around. Even if it may not be an opiate, it’s harmless. It won’t cause any other type of medical effects.

Seeing people just strung out, unconscious, unresponsive, eyes may be rolled back in the head, shallow breathing, sometime they may be clammy, cold – it’s troubling because at this point you don’t know how long they’ve been unconscious, you don’t know what drug they are under. So you don’t really know how to begin administering any type of resuscitation or first aid. And you have to be careful that you don’t confuse that for some type of diabetic episode.

Sometime we get the calls from someone saying a friend has overdosed. And we have had anonymous calls where people have been left in bathtubs and it’s so sad. They don’t want to remain on the scene because they don’t want to be involved. So they’ll put the person in the cold water and left them which puts them in even more danger because they could drown.

So we have to get them out of the tub and then we’ll immediately administer the Narcan drug, two squirts, one in each nostril, and that will within there to five minutes start to revive the person.

To see them come back you feel like you’re helping this person live, you’ve just saved someone’s life. But I have been on scenes where I’ve seen the same person in the same state, unconscious, and you just ask yourself, you know, how many more times are you going to be able to come here to save this person before one time it’s too late.

I’ve encountered many different age groups, different colors, different race. You have a lot of professionals, students. Sometime when I see them I’m surprised, especially if it’s someone that I’ve dealt with within the community. And so I always say, You know, you never know what a person is going through, what demons they are dealing with within themselves. It’s a sickness. It’s an illness, and it’s important for us to educate ourselves, educate the community on, you know, how can we prevent this, what signs to looks for, and how to proceed with trying to get them treatment.

I’ve met a lot of good people who have had whatever setbacks and I’ve had conversations with them like, How did you get here?

One incident that really stick in my mind was an individual that told me he was using for 25 years. And I asked him, "How do you continue to look at your body just deteriorate?" And he said, "You know, sometime you just -- you need it. It’s a sickness that we’re dealing with. In our mind, we believe that we can’t function without it."

So when I see people on the street using, immediately I want to refer them to like some type of health and human services. I want to get them to talk to someone. There’s always alternatives to incarceration.

Not all the people that use drugs are bad people. You know, sometimes, you know, they have chronic pain, like back problems, you know, any kind of problem. They get medication, hard narcotics, and become addicted to them. That doesn’t make them a criminal.

So it’s more important for me to try to get them help, wean them off the drug, than put them in some kind of confinement.

You’re taking people away from their families, you’re taking them away from their jobs, you know, you’re taking them out of the community. If it had not been for this sickness, they would be productive citizens. These are someone’s, you know, wives, sisters, brothers, daughters -- loved ones.

Sometimes they just need treatment. You know, if you really want to get to the root problem, let’s get the person some help, especially if we’re not catching them breaking in the house or anything like that, we just find them using on the street.

I can come up and have that conversation, like, “What got you here?” That’s important to me. Let’s find out what really happened as opposed to “This is illegal, I need to take you to jail.” Because that’s not going to solve anything. You’ll go to jail, you’ll get back out, you’ll use again. But if I can help you to find some kind of medical treatment, I’m willing to do that, to save you, save your family, save your life!

Just saving one person means I’ve done my job but there are a lot more out there to be saved.

I’m Capt. Tyrone Collington and this is my story.