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The Voices Project Partners With Google To End Addiction in America

The Voices Project is proud to collaborate with Google for its Recovery Month launch of the Recover Together Initiative. This groundbreaking collaboration puts recovery voices front and center at a time when millions of Americans are struggling with substance use disorder.

Google’s Recover Together campaign includes personal stories from people in sustained recovery, including recovery advocate and Voices Project founder Ryan Hampton. Ryan shared his story about his decade-long battle with heroin addiction, which took him from a promising career in the White House to panhandling for change outside a gas station. His addiction stole years from his life, but in recovery, Ryan is working hard to break the stigma and encourage others to talk openly about their health.

The Voices Project supported the Google initiative by providing storytelling, resources, and insight into the national crisis. People come to Google every day to seek information on addiction and recovery; in fact, just last month, we saw an all-time high in search interest for “rehab near me,” “addiction treatment near me,” and “how to help an addict.” The Voices Project is proud to help Google, and millions of people in need, find the answers to those questions.

On September 12, the 30th anniversary of National Recovery Month, every visitor to google.com in the U.S. will see a home page promotion aimed to spread awareness about recovery tools. This will link to Google’s new website, “Recover Together,” which provides resources and tools to those in recovery, including:

Recovery Maps Locator: this tool will allow users to quickly find 33,000+ locations that offer recovery support services (including school-based support and family support services). It shows 80,000+ recovery support meetings all across the country (AA, NA, Al-Anon meetings, SmartRecovery, etc.)

Naloxone Locator: Google Maps will integrate locations where users can easily and quickly find Naloxone, the overdose-reversal drug, without a prescription. The tool will include at least 20,000 locations (CVS, Rite-Aid, Walgreens) in 50 states. The site will also have more information about the availability and life-saving capability of this medication.

YouTube Videos: 8 videos of people in recovery, featured on the site, including Ryan Hampton.

Treatment Resources: to help people who are affected by substance use, Google is highlighting the National Institute of Drug Abuse screener AND state-specific Helpline resources to help people find recovery support in their own community.

Google has created something truly groundbreaking, unique, and powerful in a time of great need. As the epidemic worsens, it’s more important than ever to put recovery tools in the hands of people who need them. The Voices Project is proud to stand on the cutting edge of the recovery movement, along with other recovery leaders whose work saves lives every day.

Visit Google’s Recover Together initiative here: g.co/recovertogether

We Can’t Allow Big Pharma To ‘Check Mate’ Court System and Families Devastated by Opioid Crisis

Late last month, a court in Oklahoma held drug manufacturer Johnson & Johnson accountable for the role its products play in the national drug epidemic. Johnson & Johnson will pay $572 million, which must go toward supporting treatment and recovery services for people who struggle with addiction. However, accountability and public awareness are just the beginning.

Looking at the Cleveland County court’s decision, Johnson & Johnson was convicted of being a “public nuisance.” There may be a legal rationale for the name—but language is everything. The danger of a word like “nuisance” being thrown around lightly risks losing sight of the fact that real people are dying. Real families are grieving. Real survivors, like myself, won’t get the years they spent fighting addiction back. A “nuisance” is a minor inconvenience, like a car alarm that goes off in the middle of the night, or litter on a public sidewalk. “Nuisance” means a minor irritation. It doesn’t align at all with the seriousness of the national drug epidemic, which claims more than 200 lives every day. We can’t sanitize this epidemic for the purposes of legalese.

Accountability for pharmaceutical companies means finally calling out the irresponsible, reckless, and greedy behavior of billion-dollar companies. For years, Big Pharma has minimized the risks of their medications, failed to protect consumers from the fatal consequences of using their products, and straight-up lied to doctors and the American public about what their pills and patches could do. I lost ten years of my life to heroin addiction because I was marketed a “perfect pill” that was supposed to solve all my problems. I will never get those years back. Unlike many others, I did manage to stay alive, get through treatment, and avoid a fatal overdose. There is no dollar amount that would compensate me for the years I lost or fill all the empty chairs at dinner tables around the country.

Compared with the irreparable damage that the epidemic has done to families, neighborhoods, communities, workplaces, and individuals, a payment of $572 million is miniscule. You can’t put a price tag on the loss of a beloved child, parent, partner, or friend. Our loved ones weren’t a “nuisance.” They were people who had a highly treatable, yet highly stigmatized illness. They died because they didn’t have access to recovery services, including treatment, housing, peer recovery supports, harm reduction and specialized medical care. Those people were treated like they were “nuisances” while they were alive. That is one of the reasons they are dead today.

$572 million is a minimal start to help fund treatment, prevention, and recovery supports in Oklahoma. The court talks about applying that money directly to the epidemic, which is the real mitigation when they talk about “abatement.” That word, too, is problematic. “Abatement” is a word we use when we’re talking about lead, pollution, spilled chemicals, and trash. It’s not a word we use about human beings. This epidemic is the biggest public health crisis in our nation’s history. It’s bigger than AIDS, worse than polio. It’s put billions of dollars in the pockets of pharmaceutical companies. A payment of $572 million is just the beginning—and it’s not enough.

The verdict amount is less than 4 percent of what Oklahoma asked for, and Johnson & Johnson still have plans to fight it every step of the way. They believe they owe nothing to help save lives and clean up the mess they made. To be fair, Johnson & Johnson is probably not the company most at fault. If anything, the ruling shows how easily Purdue Pharma evaded justice and settled out of court, out of the public eye, and behind closed doors. Purdue settled with the state for $270 million back in April. Sadly, a large portion of Purdue’s settlement—$102.5 million—went to fund a new university research center at Oklahoma State.

Recently, it came to light that negotiations between state attorneys general and Purdue officials for a settlement have come to an impasse. And instead of facing trial like other opioid manufacturers and distributors next month, the company plans to dodge accountability once again and file for a “free fall” bankruptcy effectively removing them from the federal trial and moving their case to bankruptcy court. This is a prime example of Purdue literally getting away with murder.

My only hope is that the bankruptcy court sees this for what it is—a smug, self-satisfied family and drug king pin company attempting to ‘check mate’ the courts. Purdue’s intentions make it crystal clear that the states must go after the Sackler family personally if we have any hope of getting them to pay. It’s clear they’re in this for the long haul. Well, I’ve got news for them—so are the families and people whose lives they’ve destroyed.

Let me be clear: the only definition of “abatement” for a survivor is to make sure every penny that may come from these lawsuits goes directly to subsidizing recovery services for the millions of people in need across America, not to a state university.

As we move forward and seek justice for the families and survivors of the drug epidemic, we have to remember that people with substance use disorder are people, too. We must connect every single settlement, verdict, or bankruptcy asset to ending the crisis. We don’t need to reinvent recovery: we have resources and proven pathways that will save lives. We don’t have a single day to waste.

The real “nuisance” is Big Pharma’s unwillingness to clean up the wreckage they caused. If these lawsuits inconvenience them, they’re welcome to join me and hundreds of thousands of others at the graves of the people they killed. Broken families are not an “inconvenience.” When we talk about the addiction crisis, we’re talking about millions of people—real hurt, real pain, and real loss. We can never lose sight of that. Human lives are not litter. We are people, and we deserve compassion and solutions that work.

Ryan Hampton is an activist in recovery from heroin addiction and author of “American Fix: Inside the Opioid Addiction Crisis — and How to End It.” He is also the founder of the non-profit advocacy organization The Voices Project.

Naloxone Saves Lives

For people who use opioids—whether their use is intentional or accidental, and whether their substance of choice is prescribed or self-administered—overdose is always a risk. Even people with a tolerance for opioids can experience an overdose. In these life threatening situations, naloxone is essential. Without it, many people do not survive. That’s why The Voices Project is spearheading the Overdose Response Initiative with the Clinton Foundation and in partnership with NGO’s Direct Relief and the National Alliance of Recovery Residences. The primary goal of this initiative to help bring recovery residences (also known as sober livings) to scale in providing overdose response supports.

This 3-year initiative will provide free naloxone and digital overdose response training—along with best practices—to recovery residences in the United States. Community organizations that provide direct services for substance use disorder are encouraged to participate. However, initial preference for the free naloxone distribution will be given to recovery residences.

There are an estimated 13,000 recovery residences in the United States. These homes tend to be a first-line of defense for people who are in early recovery from opioid use disorder. Recently, there has been a severe uptick in overdose deaths in recovery homes. Through this partnership and initiative, we hope to eliminate access barriers to the overdose antidote by providing free naloxone along with the necessary training and support for recovery homes to develop individualized overdose response protocols.

This multifaceted initiative works to prevent opioid overdoses. Making naloxone universally available is a key element in fighting substance related death in the United States.

Naloxone is the generic name for Narcan, an opioid blocker medication that stops overdoses and saves lives. The medication is administered via injection or through a nasal inhaler. It can be given to anyone who shows signs of opioid overdose:

●    respiratory failure
●    slow breathing
●    small or pinprick pupils
●    unresponsiveness
●    blue or pale skin from poor circulation

Most overdoses are not immediately fatal. Naloxone can save a life if it’s given to the person as quickly as possible. Naloxone is effective for 30-90 minutes, and more than one dose may be needed to keep someone alive. Naloxone is an essential part of any First Aid kit, especially in places where people may experience higher risk of opioid exposure, such as sober living homes, hospitals, pharmacies, and households where someone has an opioid prescription.

As fentanyl becomes more prevalent, having naloxone on hand is more important than ever. Fentanyl is a powerful opioid that can be mixed into other substances, such as methamphetamines, heroin, and non-prescription pills. Even a small amount of fentanyl can be lethal once it enters the body. Fentanyl overdoses require more than one naloxone kit. If somebody doesn’t revive after the first naloxone kit is administered, they may have been exposed to fentanyl.

The Overdose Response Initiative is important because it acknowledges that anyone, in any family, at any time, can be affected by overdose. Making naloxone universally available helps dispel the stigma of substance use disorder. Just like EpiPens for people with allergies, condoms for HIV prevention and safer sex, and AED machines for people at risk for heart attacks, naloxone is a necessary public health measure. A single naloxone kit can cost anywhere from $0 to $40, depending on your insurance plan. Some nonprofits distribute the kits for free: they should always have two doses of naloxone, to contend with more severe overdoses. Many recovery advocates offer free naloxone training so that families, friends, and caregivers are prepared.

Naloxone is one of the best tools we have in the fight against the national drug epidemic. Let’s make it a universal care measure, for anyone, anywhere whose life is endangered by opioids.

Don’t Wait To Be The Change: Mobilize!

Mobilize Recovery is a nationwide recovery initiative, supported by Facebook and spearheaded by The Voices Project. The initiative’s goal is simple: to create a network of people who are passionate about recovery and motivated to get involved in grassroots efforts to end the drug epidemic.

Although our national public health crisis surrounding addiction started decades ago, it has reached a fever pitch in the last few years. New opioid painkillers, such as OxyContin, entered the marketplace in 2002. These drugs were marketed aggressively to prescribers and patients alike. People were told the pills were a “cure-all,” a low-risk treatment for everything from menstrual cramps to chronic illness. However, few doctors were informed about the serious, life-threatening risks attached to these pills. Instead, they were educated by the very companies that were selling the pills. Misleading marketing materials, high-class resort vacations, and financial incentives for writing more prescriptions helped push billions of these pills into American homes.

The average person develops a physical dependence on opioids after 3 days, even if they’re taking pills as prescribed for legitimate pain. After the three days, the person will experience withdrawal. They may return for more pills, even though they don’t need them. The wheels of addiction are set in motion, although the person doesn’t realize it yet. They start to experience symptoms of substance use disorder, and may end up with severe consequences if they’re left untreated. Multiply this patient’s experience by millions of people, and you’ve created a national drug epidemic of sick people who are desperate for help.

Mobilize Recovery wants to break this cycle. The initiative works on a broad scale to:

●      support efforts to educate people about addiction

●      offer solutions like harm reduction and recovery support services

●      train people to use naloxone for overdose prevention

●      connect with elected leaders to push pro-recovery legislation

●      amplify the voices of people with substance use disorder

●      change the narrative around addiction to a story of hope

●      empower people in recovery as voters, community members, and advocates

Beginning with 100 motivated recovery advocates, Mobilize Recovery had its first training in Las Vegas in July 2019. Representatives from each state gathered to share resources, learn about recovery efforts in other areas, and get trained on advocacy tactics. Hundreds of other attendees listened to the conference via livestream.

Presenters spoke about the history of the recovery movement, ways to uplift the message of recovery, how factors like race and class affect recovery outcomes, and where the epidemic comes from. After the two-day event, participants returned home with an action plan and goals for their state and regions. They continue to work together with initiative leaders to recruit, motivate, and actualize those goals.

Mobilize Recovery acknowledges the devastating effects of the drug epidemic, while also offering a way for people to fight back. Recovery is the solution to addiction related deaths: hundreds of advocates, nationwide, are already hard at work saving lives and speaking out. The Mobilize Recovery initiative brings those voices together so we can do more, speak louder, and end the crisis faster.

Substance Use Disorder is a Mental Health Issue

Addiction is a mental health disorder. Substance use disorder (SUD) is classified as a chronic mental condition, yet the stigma of addiction is so severe that people with SUD are often excluded from the national conversation on mental health. All mental health conditions, including addiction, must be a priority for policymakers. We need real action to end the national mental health crisis and bring solutions to people in need—in ways that are realistic, accessible, and reliable.

Along with the Voices Project, I am proud to stand with the Mental Health for US coalition. We are dedicated to lifting up the voices of people in recovery and calling for policy change that directly addresses the urgent needs of people who struggle with addiction. We call for comprehensive, inclusive, and accessible care for people that includes recovery housing, specialized medical help, integrated recovery services, and a continuum of care that focuses on sustaining recovery after the initial, acute stages. We encourage people to register to vote and become more informed on support recovery and other mental health support measures.

We are in the midst of a national public health crisis that affects millions of people, their families, and their communities. The impact of mental health is profound and goes far beyond the individual:

  • One in five American adults—tens of millions of people—will experience a mental illness or substance use disorder in any given year
  • Untreated mental health illness costs the country at least $444 billion per year
  • More than 47,000 people died by suicide in 2017, making suicide the 10th leading cause of death in the United States
  • Every day, more than 130 Americans die from opioid overdose
  • Fewer than 10 percent of people with substance use disorder will ever seek medical help

Substance use disorder has a high rate of co-occurrence with other mental health disorders. According to SAMHSA, an estimated 8.9 million Americans are living with co-occurring disorders. However, they also report that fewer than 7.5 percent of these people enroll in a comprehensive treatment program that can effectively address those disorders. People are falling through the gaps. To help more people recover, survive, and thrive, we need to close those gaps, and we need to work with our policymakers to make sure this happens.

Access is crucial to supporting people at all stages in their recovery. We need a system that supports any person at any time—whenever they’re ready to ask for help. Many people enter recovery services because their substance use placed them in danger. They may end up in the ER due to an overdose or an injury sustained while using; they may enter the criminal justice system because they were arrested for possession, being intoxicated in public, or driving under the influence. These are valid pathways, but they are not ideal for people because they are not designed to be part of a continuum of care. People who detox in jail are at risk of death. Similarly, someone who is revived from an opioid overdose with naloxone in an ER and immediately put back on the street is extremely vulnerable. These deaths are preventable. Education and prevention measures can help, but for people in crisis, that information is too late. If the needed help isn’t available, they could lose their lives to a highly treatable disease.

To jumpstart change, policymakers need to know that mental health and addiction care really matter to Americans. I encourage you to start by joining the thousands of mental health and addiction advocates in signing the Mental Health for US statement of support, which tells policymakers that breaking down barriers to prevention strategies, treatment, and recovery supports needs to be a top priority in this country.

We need to build bridges for people who are seeking recovery, and Mental Health for US is working to elevate mental health AND addiction in national policy conversations to fix a struggling health system. From ethical sober living homes, to peer recovery support, to universally available naloxone, to accessible services that encompass a wide spectrum of mental health needs—we need to think way, way outside the box. Mental health includes addiction. When we bring these issues under the same umbrella, we can save millions of lives—and change millions more.

I Will Never Let My Daughter Be Forgotten

Heroin stole my daughter and I will never let my girl be forgotten. Through her story I hope to help others.

When you have children, you never dream that you will outlive them. Addiction stole my daughter and changed my life forever. My first born, my person, my baby girl, is gone forever.

Shalynn Brooke Conner was a beautiful young lady whose smile could light up a room. Growing up, she loved life and couldn’t wait to see what the world had in store for her in the future! Shalynn had a zest for life that showed in everything she did. At a young age she began singing at church, local events and talent shows. Her love for music carried through to school where she sang in concerts and participated in marching band playing the clarinet. Shalynn always loved high school where she participated in many activities such as the school play, cheerleading and Spanish Club. She was even chosen Homecoming Queen which was possibly one of the best days of her short life. She was accepted into her college of choice and was planning to move to school in the fall of 2013.

Shalynn was a daughter that any parent would be proud of! She was a one of a kind, fun-loving kid who loved her family, as she would say… to the moon and back! Although she enjoyed hanging out with her friends, many weekends she could be found staying at her Grandma Long’s house or spending time at home with her mom, step-father and her brother. She was independent, knew what she wanted in life and had dreams of getting married and having a beautiful family.

All of those plans changed when she started hanging out with a different group of people just a few short months before her high school graduation. By the time she graduated in 2013, she was already experimenting with marijuana. Within months her drug use had escalated and she withdrew from college. This was the beginning of a four year addiction that she struggled with every day. There were times during these four years that we didn’t know where she was. I remember driving the streets of neighboring towns looking for her car or just asking people if they had seen her. I would find her and sometimes she would go to treatment, come home, be clean for a few months, but then she would take off again. It just seemed to be a vicious cycle that she couldn’t escape. Finally on Dec. 22, 2016 she called me and asked me to come get her. This was the call I had been praying for! I drove 45 minutes to get her and when she walked out the door, I didn’t even recognize her. She had been abused by her boyfriend and was in withdraws from heroin. She had bruises on her, weighed about 100 pounds and hadn’t eaten in days. But thankfully at that time she was adamant that she wanted to get clean.

Shalynn didn’t want to be an “addict”, she wanted to walk away from her addiction and go back to the life that she loved so much before drugs. She worked hard every day to beat the chains of addiction. Shalynn completed 6 months inpatient treatment and came home to start a new life. She wanted to share her story and hopefully discourage others from trying drugs in the first place. Unfortunately, the grip of addiction wouldn’t let her go and she relapsed.

On the evening of Oct. 13, 2017, Shalynn came home from work like any other evening. We visited, she mentioned she wasn’t feeling good but insisted on going over to a friend’s house. It was harvest season and she had extreme allergies so I believed her when she said it was just her allergies acting up. She hugged me, told me she loved me and was out the door. Less than 2 hours later she woke me up to tell me she was home. She told me again that she didn’t feel well and just wanted to go to bed. She hugged me and said “night Mama, I love you!” Little did I know that it would be the last time I would hear her voice.

I had no idea that she had relapsed until I walked into her room on the morning of Oct. 14, 2017 and found her unresponsive. She had passed away sometime in the middle of the night from an accidental heroin overdose. She was only 22 years old. Just like that my sweet girl was gone.

Today I work to educate others about addiction and overdose through a non-profit started after Shalynn passed. Through Shalynn’s Hope, Inc. it is my hope to reach as many people as I can to help prevent any other families from having to go through the pain of losing someone to addiction. I will never let my Shalynn be forgotten and through sharing her story, I know she is leading me to help others. I love you baby girl, forever and always my angel.

Forever Shalynn’s Mom
Stacy Welch

Our Family Was Rocked By Addiction. But We Are Sticking Together Through It.

I watched as my sister struggled from 2004-2014 with her heroin addiction. She, like so many others at that time especially, started off with Oxycontin and Perc 30’s. It was less than a year on those pills, and out of high school, before she was totally addicted. Her once beautiful face scarred with quarter sized scabs from her trying to scratch away the itch of withdrawal that would haunt her her the rest of her life. Worse than the loss of her beauty, and even perhaps the loss of her dreams, was the loss of her voice. Amanda Beth had the voice of an angel. She sang like a Broadway star every day in her showers and driving in her car. Behind that voice was the wit and personality of our best friend, most trusted confident, most reliable laugh and most of all….our baby sister. Opioid addiction stole that voice from her. She was silenced. She screamed but no one listened. She cried out for help and doors slammed in her face. She begged for understanding and backs turned to her. She pleaded for social awakening….she she was told to be quiet. And so, in silence, and with a smile, no matter how shamed she was, no matter what demons she had to battle or wrong doing out of desperation she had to overcome, she labored in silence for her recovery. When no one listened, she did what she could to try to make us all see the truth…she wrote.

You see my sister didn’t become an addict because she was stupid. Ignorant to the harm and dangerous of the pills? Yes,-weren’t we all? But dumb was not something she could ever be called. She read huge novels on the regular. She could quote poets and recall trivia like no other. Her book smarts were out done only by her street smarts. Her writings, when no one was listening, was perhaps a sign of just how smart she truly was. My sister had poetry as a hobby. Growing up, we would write poetry to each other and take turns writing verses. This habit continued through high school, and then, through her battle. We had saved so many poems she sent us during her struggle. Poems of dreams, poems of regret, poems of love. Poems of intelligence. Poems of a generation.
After my sisters death, I gathered all I had left of this beautiful creature who was gone to soon. How could that bright light she carried be gone so suddenly. I was angry! I was so mad! Why did this have to happen??? Why did no one care? Why did no one have a solution? Then, I felt more than ever that I knew how she felt because now, I was screaming, too, and no one was listening. I decided my sister was smarter than anyone else I had ever known and I made it my mission to make sure her voice would NEVER be silenced again. I had made her a promise ON THE DAY SHE DIED that we would write a book together and I intended to keep that promise and make her voice heard in the way she would’ve wanted it-in her story.

Two years after she passed, the story was published. The Book: The story of Red Tail Hawk, named after one of her poems, has now started to spread across the country. Her voice has been heard in recovery centers, schools, churches, hospitals, jail cells, outreach centers, radio stations and most importantly…homes. You see, we believe this battle is fought in the hearts of every person. Every one of us is at risk and everyone of us can play a part n ending this once and for all. It starts with talking, and being real about what this epidemic is- a killer disguised as a friend. Reader beware, this monster is out there. But, the good news is your story doesn’t have to end the way it did for my sister, or for us. Hope is not wasted. Changes are coming, and there are so many of us THAT WILL NEVER STOP FIGHTING!
Red Tail Hawk
In my dreams I’m a red tail hawk
soaring unreachable heights
No one can touch me
so far above the city lights
I feel so much freedom
I have no worries or pain
nothing can harm me
no snow, sleet, or rain
I see so much beauty,
there’s so much to admire;
if something get’s in my way,
I just float up a little higher.
I am a perfect creature,
feathers cream, mahogany and gold,
not self conscious at all,
I am fearless, proud and bold.
I cruise past the stars and up to Heaven,
stare in amazement at the colors and lights.
I know I’ll see this place again,
when I take my final flight”—A. Beth Randall

Recovery Support Services Gave Me A Path To Long-Term Recovery

When I think back on the year 2010, I think of the nights spent drinking until I blacked out in a dirty house/apartment/trailer or field if need be, and ingesting lines of whatever was offered to me at the time. I rarely think of the fact that I was going into my senior year of high school because a majority of my time was not actually spent in school; it was spent sleeping off a raging hangover until my school counselor would call and implore me to get to class, and then upon arrival attempting to figure out how I was going to get drunk that night.

I had made a new group of friends who would host me and my binge drinking any night of the week. My childhood friends would try partying with my new friends and me only to be horrified at the debauchery taking place by a group of misfits all fiending to get as messed up as possible.

A different life and a different group of friends didn’t seem desirable or attainable at the time, and I would continue drinking for another six years. However, as I was edging closer and closer to my personal bottom, a place called the Bethlehem Recovery Center was being conceived by Mary Carr which would be an answer to the problem that me and many others who decide to get sober ask, which is: “What now?”

For me, putting down the drink and the drug was the first step, but then I had to figure out what to do with a majority of my time that was previously spent either drinking or planning for my next drink. Not to mention my closest friend on any given night was whoever sat down next to me at the bar, so I didn’t have many people calling me with plans.

The Bethlehem Recovery Center started as a dream of Mary Carr’s, then head of Northampton County Drug & Alcohol. Carr knew first-hand the difficulties that arise in early recovery such as finding a safe and sober place to spend time outside of recovery-based meetings, where and how to look for things such as employment and housing, and how to become reintegrated into the community.

The Lehigh Valley Drug & Alcohol Intake Unit and Northampton County collaborated to provide a resource such as this and in 2010 the BRC opened its doors to the recovery community. The drop-in center is run by individuals in recovery from drugs and/or alcohol and supported by volunteers from the community both in and outside of the recovery community.

Carr credits the long-term success of the BRC to the aforementioned recovery community in the surrounding area taking ownership of the space and what it offers. In the beginning, the center hosted one AA meeting, but has now expanded to offer 11 recovery-based meetings, yoga and meditation, crafting and art classes, job and resume workshops, and life-skills classes, all of which are led by volunteers.

Some of those whose beginnings can be traced back to the BRC have gone on to work at inpatient treatment facilities in the area, local nonprofit organizations, or even to work at the BRC like myself. One of the miracles of recovery is that the lives that are saved from drugs and alcohol go on to save others, as shown by one longtime visitor of the BRC Leslie Simmons. Leslie, who continued to volunteer at the center even after it was no longer court-ordered through his probation, went on to help keep the BRC’s Friday night Narcotics Anonymous meeting alive when its founders could no longer run the group.

Tim Munsch, executive director of the Lehigh Valley Drug & Alcohol Intake Unit, expressed the importance of utilizing the strengths of those in recovery and the surrounding community as the BRC  continues to assist those in all stages of recovery, and especially as it begins to extend its services to those on the wide spectrum of mental health issues.

On any given day, since the center is open seven days a week, you can walk into the BRC and see familiar faces from local meetings, new faces waiting to meet with their Certified Recovery Specialist, or someone stopping in to seek assistance with a job application. All of these represent the community-led recovery initiative of the Bethlehem Recovery Center and the wonders of sobriety.

Chris Was My Son, My Baby. He Was So Much More Than His Disease.

We moved to NJ when Chris was in the 5th grade. Prior to this he was diagnosed with ADHD and had started taking Ritalin. In elementary school Chris was in the gifted and talented program and he was so far ahead in math he was kept inside during recess to be taught math lessons one-to-one. Our family are members of the Catholic Church, where I was a youth group leader for 11 years. Chris was involved in multiple youth groups and attended the diocesan “Summer in the City” retreats to do community service. In high school he was inducted into the national honor society, and graduated HS with Honors. He went on to Rutgers University and graduated with his BS degree in Administration of Justice with minors in Sociology and Geography. He was awarded certification in Criminology. While attending Rutgers he worked in the County Prosecutor’s office, which is ironic as he would later serve time in state prison. In college Chris became addicted to caffeine, cigarettes, and then alcohol. He just seemed prewired or genetically predisposed to addiction. Most teens and college kids will try alcohol or drugs and never become addicted but about ‪1/10‬ have that genetic predisposition to a substance use disorder. His biological father’s side, being of Native American (Cherokee) decent, was riddled with people living with substance use disorders and addiction. We have the Nature/Nurture story of addiction. My husband’s family and my family don’t seem to have this genetic make up. My husband adopted Chris at age 6 when we were married. Chris did well in college even though addiction started to rear its ugly head with regard to alcohol. I questioned if his drinking was normal college age shenanigans or something more. After college Chris was employed by the State Government, and as a bachelor bought a single family home. He was extremely smart, and was a successful individual. He had taken the LSAT exam and had aspirations of becoming a lawyer or criminologist.

In 2009 he stepped off of an uneven curb falling and breaking all three bones his left ankle (trimalleolar fracture). The tendon also needed to be reconnected as it had been ripped off of the bone when he fell. He spent a long time in the hospital and the surgeon told us that he had put more hardware in Chris’ ankle than he had ever put into an ankle repair before. Chris had to stay with us in our home while he healed. He was out of work for months on disability. He went from wheelchair, to walker, to cane, to opiate pill dependent, and then to opiate pill addict. He became addicted to his prescribed Percocet almost immediately, although I was unaware of its grip for a long time. He had three surgeries when all was said and done. When the doctors quit prescribing his pain killers without tapering down, he found them on the streets of Trenton where he worked. They cost $1 per milligram and as his tolerance kept increasing, he needed more and more milligrams just to feel well. Feeling well, meaning helping with the continued pain in the ankle as well as feeling well from the pain of opiate wIthdrawal. Withdrawal, if you have ever seen it let alone lived it, is the worst pain imaginable. It’s an indescribable feeling of pain that convinces you that you are dying. Pain like no other. The pills physically changed his brain making it very difficult, if not impossible, to make good decisions regarding using and/or needing these drugs. One of the symptoms of this disorder, is to seek and use the drug no matter how dire or detrimental the consequence of using it might be. The consequence of losing your loved ones, your children, your job, your home, of going to jail, and even of the possibility of losing your own life are not deterrents. This symptom often causes those afflicted to do things that are criminal and out of character to obtain the drug. Many end up with criminal charges for possession, DUI, stealing, robbery, and the like. The individual often ends up in jail or prison.

My son became tolerant to higher and higher milligrams of the pills. He needed 60-80 milligram pills multiple times a day. He would sign his entire paycheck over to the dealer waiting for him outside his office in Trenton on payday. He was later introduced to heroin. It packed a bigger punch for, get this, only $10 in comparison to $80 a pill. He thought, with some convincing by the dealer, that this was his way out of a growing negative financial situation. He was behind on his mortgage and his other bills. In his mind he said, “Yes, sure sell me heroin and teach me how to inject it.” Remember when in full fledged addiction that positive decision making skill is compromised, and to him this less expensive option seemed to make perfect sense. It took some time before I realized that Chris had a problem. It wasn’t until he didn’t show up for my sister’s funeral (they were extremely close) that I knew something was very very wrong. I helped him get into treatment which he reluctantly agreed to. Chris went to an inpatient rehab facility in Florida but relapsed not long after completing the program. He would try to stop using on his own, but the severe withdrawal symptoms made him feel as if he was actually dying and he would relapse. Later he said to me, “mom, if you were dying and you knew the anecdote to cure you was just down the street on the corner for $10 wouldn’t you get it and use it?!” My son ended up receiving a three year sentence to prison due to making a poor decision while under the influence. He spent three years in State prison for being with two other “friends” who went into an abandoned house to steal copper piping to sell to obtain drugs. He was outside being “the lookout”. The house was not abandoned. Before he was even found guilty of his crime he was fired from his State Government job. He was released from prison and he had a criminal record. He was now a felon. No white collar job, in his field of study would ever hire him. After he spent 3-4 months in prison he was released on the NJ ISP program. This is a drug court program that has many rules to follow. Every aspect of his recovery and life was closely monitored. The program has a high success rate and I truly believed this would be how Chris would finally get well. He got a job selling popcorn at the movie theater but was “let go” when they ran his background check. A very discouraging scenario for a successful college graduate, who had worked hard to get well and get back onto the right track. He was trying to do the right things. He finally found a job delivering pizza for 5 dollars an hour. He happily did this job and battled, yes battled, the constant cravings for the drugs. He was in recovery for two and a half years. He did relapse in the beginning of the program when he lost the movie theater job, but did well after the ISP program placed him on medicine assisted treatment. My hopes were high. He was doing all the right things. He was determined and he wanted nothing more than to be well. After 2 1/2 years he accepted a better higher paying job at a warehouse and left the pizzeria. He was very excited until he found out that a third shift highly physical job would be extremely grueling. He could hardly walk due to pain after the long 12 hour shifts of physical work. His body got stronger and he adapted to the hard physical work. He confided in me that he was really starting to enjoy the job. He was feeling more physically fit and more able to do the work. Just a day or so later he was called in to the bosses office and was let go. The boss said that the job was not a good fit. He was still within the first 90 days on the job. He was crushed, he was broken, he was jobless, he was depressed, and yep, he went out to relieve his pain like he so comfortably did years ago. Sadly, he relapsed. It only took one time and he was right back into the grips of the drug. Relapse, I learned is normal when recovering from this disease. Relapses would become further and further apart as his brain would heal and he would learn the coping skills needed for long term recovery. Chris fought so hard, he would always get back up and start again, over, and over, and over again. Rehabs, detox, counseling, acupuncture, 12 step programs, etc., he had been to them all. He was the strongest person I have ever known.

During this period without a job he went to trade school to learn to drive fork lifts. He graduated and was certified to drive 9 different types of fork lift equipment. He was extremely proud. He then found the perfect job doing computer work/logistics at a local cold freezer warehouse. A blue collar job that utilized his white collar skills. He was happy. He loved this job. His knowledge and talents were being utilized. He said “Mom, I finally feel like I have an identity again.” He was a man with purpose. I was so proud. You know, these poor individuals become their disease. They are thought of as nothing more than that stereotypical junkie, an addict, a loser, a person with no willpower, a person that should “just stop”, a person that “chooses” the drug over more important things, and unfortunately, in their own mind someone who is worthless. So worthless, so horrid, and so unworthy of love that even their own families disown them through “tough love” or what they refer to as “detaching with love”. With no one to turn to, and no one who cares, guess what many turn to to escape? Drugs. But my son had an identity again, he was useful, he was needed, he was smart, and he was well liked at his new job.

He was just about at the 3 month anniversary of his hire when he would be eligible for health benefits, life insurance, and 401k. Unfortunately, on payday December 17, 2016 (for reasons unknown) Chris came in from work and relapsed. I heard him collapse upstairs above where I was sitting. I ran upstairs and found him in a ball against the wall in his room. I pulled him onto his back and he was black/blue. I called 911, administered CPR and two doses of injectable Narcan right through his blue jeans and into his thigh. He was non responsive. He was in cardiac arrest with no pulse, and he was not breathing. I was hysterical. Police and EMTs arrived and gave more Narcan. No response. Paramedics arrived and after about 37 minutes from when I made that call they were able to restore his heartbeat. He was in a vegetative state in ICU for 6 days. He tested clean for drugs in the ER and again in the ICU. Unfortunately, he was pronounced brain dead on 12/23/16 two days before Christmas. His liver and two kidneys became a Christmas miracle and they/he saved three people’s lives on Christmas Day. He was only 35.

Neither myself, my family, or my son were bad people. I was a good mom, I did everything I could. I did nothing less than any mom would do if their child had lung cancer, liver disease, or another disease caused by an addiction. He died knowing that I loved him and that I tried to save him to the very end. So often this is a terminal illness, but it shouldn’t be. People with substance use disorder can and do recover, but many things need to change to provide all people with that opportunity. Due to the stigma surrounding this disorder the many people in recovery stay silent. It is sad because those success stories could be encouraging to others. Upon autopsy the medical examiner determined my son’s cause of death to be “adverse reaction to fentanyl”. Fentanyl isn’t tested for in most urine drug screenings. So that is why he tested drug free in the ER and in ICU. According to his girlfriend he had purchased what he thought was heroin.

Chris was so much more than his disease. He was so much more than a number or a statistic. Addiction was just one facet of who he was. One small facet of the jewel we called Chris. He should not be, or have been, defined by his disease. This is an epidemic of unbelievable proportion. This is a public health issue more than it is a public safety issue. Yes, our children commit crimes and need to be held accountable for those actions. They also need to be treated for their substance use disorder, not only to keep the public safe, but more importantly to keep them safe from disease and themselves. They ARE worth saving. They are good people with a horrible debilitating affliction.

My son was strong. He always said, “I can tell you one thing for certain, there isn’t a drug addict out there that wants, or chooses to be an addict.” “If the devil has anything to do with anything, it is this drug”. He helped many others get off drugs and couldn’t understand how he could help everyone else, but couldn’t help himself. He wanted to be well more than anything in this world, and God knows he tried. He worked hard at it. He wrote an email to a local top Dr. and addiction specialist, literally begging him to take his case even if just for an initial consult with diagnosis’s. This doctor, by law, was unable to take on any new patients. His practice was full. That email was dated 5 months prior to Chris’ death. My son would get angry at people that would say, “yes it becomes a non choice overtime, but you had a choice that first time you used”. He said, “I never made that first choice. I just came home from the hospital and followed the discharge instructions”. Addiction and the dangerous outcomes of using the Percocet were never discussed with him. He was never asked if he or anyone in his family had a predisposition to becoming addicted to substances. There was no medical help from the prescribing doctors to teach/help him wean off the drugs as his leg healed. There was no place to turn for help when the drugs were no longer needed for the injury and your body had become dependent and/or addicted. When the pills were no longer prescribed, he became extremely sick, so he turned to the streets to self medicate.

I wish there were a special place for those who break the law due to the symptoms of addiction. Places that are secure (for public safety) but with all the amenities of home, of community, with education, expert treatment, with help in job placement, with tons of love, respect, and medicine assisted treatment. Jail and punishment does not cure addiction, and treatment for addiction needs to be advocated. Abstinence based 12 step programs should not be the only answer. People with substance use disorders need to be treated individually. What works for one may not necessarily work for another. We need person centered care to treat addiction. Access to that care should be available to all when it is needed. Too many die, too many people don’t “get it”, they just don’t understand addiction. The stigma has to go. We need to speak out and educate others. My son was 1 of approximately 65,000 who lost their life to an accidental overdose in 2016. I have cried every day for the past 2 years. I think of my grief, the grief of my family, my extended family, my son’s friends and the people who knew and loved him… and I multiply that times 65,000. Then add another 150,000 or so since his death. That is a lot of hurt in this world. If just choosing to stop was all it took to be well the world would not be in the midst of this epidemic.

Chris was my baby, he was my son. I remember when he was in the 5th grade. We were all watching the news coverage on CNN. We saw that about 15,000 Iraqi’s and “only” about 300 Americans had been killed in Operation Dessert Storm. As the 300 names of the deceased scrolled across the screen, Chris cocked his head and looked at me. He said, “They act like it’s nothin’ but a thing, but everybody is somebody to somebody else.” No one should lose their identity to one facet of who they are. No one should be defined by their disease, disorder, disability, ethnicity, skin color, age, by who they love, or by any one facet that makes them the beautiful person God created. Every life matters. “Everybody is somebody to somebody else”. Chris was SOMEBODY. He was a big guy with a big personality. He was successful, a great friend, someone who was excellent with children, and someone who would come to your rescue at the drop of a dime. There are many sides and facets to each of us, that when put together, make us beautiful and brilliant. Chris did the best he could to beat his disease. He was one of the strongest people I have ever known. If “love and try” could have saved him he’d be here today. He said, “No one in their “right mind” would “choose” this life. No one. No one wanted to become addicted, and those that are, are fighting a constant battle”. Please join me in continuing to fight in memory of those that have lost the battle, and for those still waging the war. Together we can help those suffering, and we can “Stop the Stigma” by starting the conversation and by listening to the stories. “Everybody is somebody” and everyone has a story. How each person developed their substance use doesn’t matter. Everyone is somebody and everyone deserves access to medical treatment for whatever ails them.

Chris died on 12/23/16. He saved lives with his organs on Christmas Day. Since Christmas will forever be “Chris” “Miss” for me; I will conclude by saying. “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with each of us.”

With much love and empathy,
Chris’ Ma

Brenda Stephens Deckman

My Son Got Stuck In The ‘Florida Shuffle’ And Lost His Battle To Addiction

December 7, 2016 will forever be the most difficult day for all of us.

That is the day we found out our beautiful son Jamie had died. Rumors surrounding his death circulated throughout our community, but Jamie’s story is not what anyone expected.

There was no predisposition to addiction in our family. And honestly, I didn’t know how to recognize the signs. I do know that at times throughout Jamie’s life, he’d feel like he didn’t fit in, or would go to the extreme to fit in, as was the case while he was in university.

When Jamie was about 16, he gave a self-diagnosis to a therapist as having ADD and asked for Adderall. After seeing the therapist for several weeks, the therapist agreed with Jamie and told me I had set him up to fail. That he wasn’t smart enough to get through high school, let alone get into university. I was dumbfounded, almost speechless. Maybe it was adolescent behavior, stress or anxiety, but it absolutely was not ADD. Years after his diagnosis, and after graduating university, Jamie admitted to me he had intentionally answered the questions wrong on the ADD test. It was that easy.

After that, Jamie gave us no reason to suspect he was using or abusing drugs. He graduated high school without issue, and went on to university. He was still taking Adderall.

In January 2015, just 4 months prior to Jamie’s graduation from Michigan State University, we found out he had been abusing prescription medication. We don’t know exactly when he turned to opioids, but we do know they were easily obtainable on campus and by the time he graduated, he couldn’t stop.

I got a referral to yet another therapist near Jamie’s school who told me not to worry, he’d be fine. He passed Jamie off to another therapist, who continued to get Jamie his Adderall pills.

With Jamie being over 18, he was now able to find his own therapists. He found a psychiatrist that several of his friends went to, who’s office was about an hour away from school, and who only saw Jamie a minimal amount of time , and continued to prescribe Jamie Adderall.

Jamie graduated Michigan State University with a 3.5 GPA in May 2015. He had arranged a summer job that he started in June. By early July he was in serious trouble. In an attempt to detox himself, Jamie called and begged for help.

We found him a rehab facility in Michigan and he signed himself in. Since they felt he had already detoxed himself, he was admitted for 2 weeks for therapy. He seemed to do okay. When I went to pick him up, I had asked his therapist at this facility for recommendations for therapist to continue treatment. The answer … the person who has that information was off, but call her tomorrow. When I called to speak to the woman the next day, she told me to Google therapists. At the same time, we had Jamie call the psychiatrist he had seen before going to rehab and tell him he was an addict. I had a difficult time finding a therapist. Jamie told us he felt most comfortable with the psychiatrist he had been seeing, so we agreed to let him go back knowing that Jamie had admitted to him he was addicted to pills. We came to find out that the Adderall continued to be prescribed, along with sleeping pills. Jamie relapsed 2 weeks later.

I watched him try to detox himself several times. On three occasions I took him to the emergency room during an acute crisis, only to be discharged hours later with no long-term plan.

We finally found help from a psychologist in Michigan, who at Jamie’s lowest point recommended he move to an inpatient treatment center in Florida. After spending 10 days in the hospital in Michigan going through detox, where they weaned him off all the medication he was taking, less than 24 hours later he was on a plane to Florida.

The plan that was arranged for Jamie by the psychologist, the admissions advisor at the treatment center, Jamie, and me, was to spend a few weeks at the inpatient treatment center, then move to a sober living home.

With guidance, he’d attend outpatient treatment meetings, be routinely drug tested, be expected to find a job and acclimate himself back into society, clean and sober.

Jamie was in Florida for 7 months. We had high hopes of his being a success story of sobriety, but it wasn’t to be.

We had no clue about the corruption in Florida. No one said anything to us. When I was on the phone with Jamie and his therapist in Florida, and we spoke about him moving into a sober home, not once did the therapist mention anything about what had been going on in Florida.

It took almost 8 months after Jamie died to put the pieces together.

With the help of the State Attorney for Palm Beach County and his special Drug Task Force detectives, we have now learned that what has become a billion dollar, broken recovery industry, often involves corruption and criminal activity, and took Jamie’s life.

Florida has become the recovery capital with over 400 sober living homes in Palm Beach County alone. These homes are linked with outpatient treatment programs, doctors and labs. However, many sober homeowners realized there was more money to be made by preying on individuals, with insurance. They pay anywhere from $500 – $1000, to what have been termed ‘body brokers’. These people befriend and lure individuals into specific sober homes with offers of gifts, or as in Jamie’s case, a promise of rent completely covered by insurance. In many cases drugs are easily accessible to those in recovery, so the relapsed client has to enter detox again and the cycle starts all over. All the while, the owners are charging the insurance. In a nutshell, it is ‘patient brokering’. They receive kickbacks for each patient they refer, and they can keep billing the insurance. With Jamie, the doctor they sent him to, a self described addiction specialist, put Jamie on new medication for his anxiety. Jamie had already been on an anti-anxiety medication for a month. This new doctor prescribed Alprazolam, commonly known as Xanax. A highly addictive drug and not one that would commonly be prescribed to someone addicted to prescription medication. In other words, Jamie was set up to fail.

On December 7, just 4 days after being prescribed these medications, Jamie ingested heroine laced with fentanyl. Since Jamie had been clean for seven months, that pill shocked his heart and eventually killed him. Unfortunately, it wasn’t clear to police at the time, nor to us now, how or where Jamie got the drugs, as no drugs nor any of Jamie’s medications, were found at the scene. What we do know is that the house manager never gave Jamie Narcan , that could have potentially saved his life. There has also been question as to how long Jamie’s roommate and the house manager waited before calling 911.

Shortly after returning from the cemetery after Jamie’s funeral, we started receiving a series of text messages from Jamie’s roommate from the last house he lived in. In addition to telling us he had some of Jamie’s possessions that he’d return to us if we sent him money, he told us that he had enough information on the house they were living in to bury the owners under the house.

The intent of course, was not to kill Jamie, but keep him in the system, and continue to abuse his insurance.

After speaking with Blue Cross Fraud Department, and the Drug Task Force detectives, it was determined that charges from 2 of the 3 sober homes Jamie had lived in, were fraudulent. In less than 7 months there was upwards of $60,000 in insurance charges for urine and blood tests.

Recently a report was made of drug screens being sent to rural hospitals rather than city labs, as insurance companies pay out more to keep money in the rural areas. Specifically, a hospital in rural Georgia is under investigation for fraud after being recently purchased by someone in Florida. After looking at Jamie’s EOB’s again, we found lab screens that were sent from Florida to this hospital and paid out by Blue Cross Blue Shield.

It turns out that the doctor he was sent to after moving into his second sober house has been on the FBI’s radar since at least 2013. Working with Blue Cross fraud, we found that 3 requisitions signed by the doctor were done during the week of Thanksgiving and we were able to show proof that Jamie was home with us in Michigan and not in the state of Florida.

We were told that we had no recourse with either doctor. Because there is no standard of care, I was told that, if we went to court, it would be my expert witnesses against the doctors’. So, Jamie’s cause of death remains accidental death by overdose.

Jamie seemed to embrace his sobriety. He had just started studying again to take his LSAT and he was working as a law clerk in a large firm in Boca Raton.

While back home in Michigan for Thanksgiving, Jamie told his friend’s mom that he had ‘taken the wrong path, but was on the right road now’. That was 13 days before he died.

Jamie is one story of many, but one that has to be told to help make a change.

Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to share Jamie’s story with you.