The voices of recovery
In its 27th year, National Recovery Month is continuing its climb out of the darkness that is the stigma of addiction and into headlines around the globe. This year, Recovery Month follows only a few weeks after President Trump declared the opioid epidemic in America a national emergency.
Local Lehigh Valley news has been plagued with stories of tragic deaths from overdoses and families torn apart by addiction. There is no one path to recovery and no one way to erase this problem, but there are millions of voices that are willing and able to help, and here are just a few of them.
Dr. Lance R. Dunlop
Dr. Dunlop is a full-time child psychiatrist, working part-time at a drug treatment clinic in Pittsburgh, and for Pennsylvania Assessment Consultants for Co-occurring Disorders (PACCO). He got started in addiction and recovery issues in May 2013 after being inspired by a colleague, Dr. Allan Clark of Pittsburgh. Dr. Clark, also a child psychiatrist, lost his license to practice before eventually turning his life around and starting on a path of helping people with addiction.
Dr. Dunlop believes “people in recovery are some of the most amazing self-disciplined and self-aware people and a lot of them, for me, are real role models. The will power and hardworking people are rejuvenating to work with; it doesn’t really feel like work to me.”
His typical patients start out defined by the illness, but with treatment and medicine, they use their own wherewithal to function as normal contributing members of society and raise their families. He also pointed to recent advancements in addiction treatment. The American Society of Addiction Medicine has gained great traction in recent years, and there is now a recognized board certified subspecialty in Addiction Medicine. After 63 years, the timing of addiction medicine becoming nationally recognized as a medical science is crucial.
“At a time where there is an epidemic and literally every few minutes people are losing loved ones,” he says, “we can reach people where they are now and give them treatment and medicine.”
Dr. Dunlop has been fortunate that he has not had a person in his clinics, yet, that relapsed and overdosed or died. But what is heartbreaking is the people that fall through the cracks and he loses contact with them.
“It is hard to see how well people are doing and then they disappear,” he says. Equally hard, as a child psychiatrist, is to see how addiction effects the whole family, the children, and the community, when a parent isn’t where they are supposed to be.
How does it feels to help someone finally reach full recovery? Dr. Dunlop cautions that the verbiage is tricky.
“We can’t completely arrive because we as humans are all flawed to an extent,” he explains. “We all have flaws, look at food, food can kill you too, nobodies weakness is better or worse than anyone else’s, but it feels great, because we know the drug companies have been pushing addiction for years. It’s discussed and well documented in medical literature, so this work is a way to turn the tables and not live like this forever.”
The final item the doctor wantes to share is advice, to the families and friends of people in recovery.
“Get on their case and have them come in,” he says. “Encourage them to get help, but don’t enable them.”
And to anyone who needs help overcoming an addiction, he says, “Just reach out, there are millions of people in your situation, just do it!”
There are millions of people in the same situation and recovery is possible. Here are the stories of a few Lehigh Valley residents that have made the journey to recovery.
Adam, 36, from Allentown
Adam started his recovery journey May 8, 2012.
“I lived my life chasing highs, and trying to come up with the money to afford it,” he says. “During my 13-year run with substance abuse, I saw people pass away, commit and attempt suicide, sell themselves, and commit many criminal acts. I made my decision to get sober after about eight years of heroin use and during a two-and-a-half-year-binge. I was so tired of feeling emotionally dead and being a slave to that substance.”
Growing up in a strict conservative Christian household, Adam believes that his addiction is rooted in acting out against his perceived childhood suppression. He hung out with the wrong people and sought out a huge gambit of substances. Adam has tried three state-run detox/rehab facilities without success. He also tried attending NA programs but struggled with feelings of dishonesty, people arriving to meetings “high as a kite” and the feeling that the “war stories” being shared were glorified efforts to brag.
Ironically, what finally worked for Adam, was the same thing that he had rebelled against. Throughout his addiction, and the severe consequences of his actions, Adam’s parents never gave up hope. They believed the strength of their love and their faith would eventually guide him the right way.
His mother took him on a day-trip to America’s Keswick Colony of Mercy, a free 120-day Christian program in exchange for the free lunch. He vowed he would never go back there, but a few years later, desperate for change, Adam agreed to seek help there.
The program had no medical-assisted detox, just 39 men living, working and studying the Bible together. They learned how the power of God can help them through their troubled times. He firmly believes it was the best decision he has ever made when it comes to his substance abuse and recovery.
His time at the Colony was spent working seven days a week cleaning toilets as a janitor, doing mandatory chapel attendance, daily scripture memorization, prayer groups and more. It was not fun, or easy, but it set the groundwork for his recovery.
After leaving the program, he connected with a local church that offered a program called Celebrate Recovery. Initially, he was uncertain as he was the youngest member and the only substance abuser in the group. He told himself, “If I could invest so many years into getting high, what was one year of meetings?”
Fortunately the program worked well for Adam and he stuck with it for two years, learning the replacement method of recovery, where he replaced drugs and the action of getting drugs with a spiritual relationship with God, and behind-the-scenes goodwill acts of service. He began volunteering to drive shuttles for church events, running young adult programs, and organizing large community service events.
Now that Adam has reached his recovery goal, he hardly recognizes himself. The first two years of sobriety were the hardest, not because of wanting to use, but because of the amount of emotions that regenerate. After living so emotionally dead for years, it took over two years for the ability to feel happiness and sadness to return, and it was a lot to process.
Looking back says he he feels so removed and disgusted, but refuses to let his experience go to waste, and is always willing to be a source of support and hope to others struggling. His advice to anyone starting recovery: “Do not give up, if something doesn’t feel right, or it makes you uncomfortable just try to clear your head and stick with it. Recovery is not easy or comfortable, but so much better than living in addiction.”
Anonymous female, 30
“I am still in my early days of recovery. My brain and body are still healing. It takes up to 18 months for the brain to reach homeostasis.”
Anonymous female, who defines herself as a chronic relapser, is deeply committed to recovery now more than at any other point in her life. She thinks she was always an addict, before substances she always found herself craving more and more. Once she found alcohol, her social anxiety disappeared, and she found herself becoming the life of the party. She loved who she became when she drank and used, but that kept leading her to hit rock bottom. She had tried several different treatment options and facilities, but never remained fully invested until the trauma that was associated with almost losing her life.
“As an addict, we thrive on structure, but it’s hard to be honest with yourself and live sober with 20-plus other addicts around you,” she says. She found more personal based services and therapists to be the biggest help in her journey to recovery. But you have to be willing to work the foundation that is laid for you, or you will relapse, she explains.
She advises to seek out, meet and surround yourself only with people that have a lot clean time. Make all of your meetings, don’t allow yourself to make excuses, find a sponsor, and whatever you do, don’t pick up. The best advice she has for those who may not be religious: “All the big book is, is a simple guide to life. Don’t get tripped up on the God part. Your higher power can be anything. Trust in your higher power.
Dan, 33, from Catasauqua
Dan started his sobriety Jan. 24, 2011. After years of recreational drug use and partying, he reached the point in his life where wanted to stop, and realized he was unable to do. At the age of 20, his outlook was way different. At some point, he had crossed the line into alcoholism and drug addiction, and life consisted of DUI’s, arguments, fights and more using.
Numerous times he would find himself in a moment where he wanted to stop, and he would reach out for help, but it never lasted. He eventually started going to 12-step fellowship meetings, with people who struggled with the same addictions. There were tons of suggestions, and people in the program guided him, but he had to have an open mind and be willing to do things that he did not want to do.
He believes nobody walks into recovery willingly. Something forces you to go there, whether it is court, family, or just the pain of your problem.
“If you think you have a problem, you probably do,” he says. “Don’t compare yourself to other people. Some people can drink, or do drugs, and you may not be one of them. Give recovery a year. Do what you are told to do, and if you haven’t improved in a year, go back to your lifestyle and see your misery return.”
The major emphasis in Dan’s recovery comes from reaching out and helping others. He has a Facebook page Dan Carpenter Recovery #365 that allows people to connect to thousands of resources and articles on the topic of recovery. He also runs a radio show Dan Carpenter Live on Facebook and YouTube. He uses both as a platform to reach those that are struggling, help with family and friends of those, and to celebrate the stories of success.
“If I don’t help someone, then I’m being selfish, and selfishness is a part of my addiction,” he says. “I have to give away my recovery to stay in recovery.” He encourages anyone reading this to reach out to his pages and get involved.
“Never give up hope.” He says. “You never know when it will click for someone.”
Too often, the stigma the general public associates with addiction and recovery is the hardest part to overcome.
“People complain that they want change, but they judge and they don’t want to think their kids are involved until it’s too late,” he says. “But recovery is about action. I had a great childhood, was raised properly, and just chose to go the wrong way.”
He admits he finds it hard to put into words how life is now.
“For the most part I am positive about things. They promised me if I did some things, my life would get really good. I would’ve sold myself short if I kept doing what I thought wanted. It’s not beyond my wildest dreams, but it’s a pretty good life.
“Wherever you are at, we can help,” Dan says. “God’s in control, I’m not anymore.”
Anonymous male, 36
Anonymous male never faced illegal drug or alcohol addiction, but a motor vehicle accident left him with a severely broken joint that required multiple painful surgeries and still causes pain to this day. The prescription painkillers prescribed to help with the pain became a normal part of his life, and he was unable to quit on his own.
He began to see the problem in his behavior when someone offered him heroin in lieu of painkillers. To this day he is grateful that he had the forethought to say no, and doesn’t want to think of where his life would be if he hadn’t. His need for recovery became a priority after his first child was born, and he realized that he didn’t want to keep waking up every morning feeling worn and terrible.
He started on the path to recovery by going to a doctor that prescribes treatment medication for opioid dependency (suboxone). While this helped him get off of the painkillers, and he hasn’t turned back to using, the process didn’t feel right. He would see a doctor, pay cash and get a prescription, but saw that the potential for abuse was still present.
“I attended an NA meeting, and I didn’t feel like I belonged there, so I kept searching out the right place for me. That’s when I turned to the program at PACCO. It combines meetings with a doctor, a counselor and group meetings. I feel like I get a lot out of the structure of the program. It’s good to hear the positive of my progress, and I have found a counselor that is a really good fit for me.”
Now that he is in recovery, he says life is great, “a lot more stable and normal.” His advice to others: “Recovery is going to be uncomfortable. You want to be in uncomfortable situations and test your mental and physical awareness, but you need to spend your time where you feel like you belong and you are accomplishing something with your time.
“You WILL find where you belong,” he says. “The world wants to beat people down, especially people with opioid addictions. Remember you won’t ever hear anything positive about what you are doing in recovery except when you are around people that are pushing for the same goals.”
Aneelia, 33, from Bath
Aneelia didn’t just wake up one day and decide to start using drugs. She attributes teenage peer pressure from being around the wrong friends as the initial reason she experimented. Although as a teen, her use was scarce and recreational.
At 18, she started working at a bar, and the late hours and social interaction created a downward spiral. She started using cocaine to keep more energy and spirit in her late night work and found that people responded positively, with bigger tips. Eventually, she started selling cocaine to make her habit more affordable, but she was fired from her job for selling drugs on the premises.
She tried to get clean then, but kept following a vicious cycle of shaky withdraw symptoms, getting high to avoid them, and then beating herself up about it. She would constantly promise herself “never again, but there was always another again.”
Eventually, unemployed and exhausted, she hit her rock bottom and decided it was time to get clean. She tried using family support, NA and even a treatment facility, but each one failed because she wasn’t ready to commit to the process. Her final cleanse came with the help of a deeply committed friend.
She spent three days lying in bed with supervision and no access to drugs. Just water, light snacks, and a seemingly endless amount of Motrin. She struggled but forced herself to sleep through the pain. After the third day, her body began to function normally again, she was able to eat and had the strength to move.
After continuing to grow and move forward on that success, life became so much clearer. Her memory started functioning better; she no longer lost days at a time; and there were no more worries about passing drug tests for employment.
Aneelia is now a wife and a mother and attributes her love of her family as the biggest reason to stay clean. She has to stay clean, because she knows she cannot do anything that would risk harm to her children.
Her advice: “There are times when the stress overwhelms me. I had to leave all those friends behind and surround myself with people who never used or had many years of sobriety. You have to be ready to close that chapter of your life and never look back. Starting a new chapter in life requires big changes, which are always scary, but don’t forget they are exciting as well!”