(Editor’s Note: Staci Mercer contributed this article for Appalachian Unite, which is working in partnership with Southern Ohio communities to address the opioid crisis. Appalachian Unite is a team based out of Ohio State's College of Public Health. Mercer’s article profiles a recovered drug addict who volunteers his time to help families dealing with the scourge of drug abuse.)

 

Every week, Andrew* volunteers at a support group for parents and loved ones of people who use drugs.

The group always looks a little different. Sometimes, it’s just a space for loved ones to vent, to talk about their struggles and their shared experiences. Sometimes, it’s educational: a nurse comes in to give a training on Narcan (the life-saving overdose medication), or the Sheriff speaks about drug use from a law enforcement perspective. As someone who formerly used drugs himself, Andrew plays an important role— his goal is to help the attendees understand what it’s like to be in the shoes of someone who uses drugs. He answers questions and sheds light on what people going through addiction are thinking or experiencing. “You just don’t see very many meetings for…the loved ones. I think they’re trying to learn how to deal with it, and I thought it was a very good thing. I thought it would be wrong of me not to help out.”

Andrew is a busy man. He usually works seven days a week, tackling various odd jobs in addition to the regular job that he’s held for the past three years. Between his work, his relationship with his fiancée, and raising two daughters, he doesn’t have a lot of free time -- but he makes volunteering at the support group a priority.

Andrew is motivated to help out because he knows just how important a strong support system is for someone who uses drugs. “One of the biggest things that helped me was that I had a lot of support, a huge support system,” Andrew says. “I had my family, my girlfriend’s family, my girlfriend…a lot of the customers where I worked, they knew about my past, and they were very supportive of trying to be better, and that made it so much easier.”

Andrew’s recovery journey began in the local drug court system. Drug courts offer a positive alternative to incarceration. Instead of throwing the book, a judge offers individuals the option of entering substance use treatment under court supervision. In the intensive two-year program, participants work with case managers to maintain sobriety, not only through treatment, but also by addressing the root causes of their substance use, like lack of employment or educational opportunities. With support from his friends, family, and community, Andrew was motivated to keep going even when the deck seemed stacked against him. “No matter where I was, whether I was at home, or at work, I always had people telling me ‘good job,’ things like that, and it made you feel good about yourself.”

Communities aren’t always compassionate toward those who struggle with drug use. It can be easy for someone to pass judgment until they have a friend or family member experience addiction themselves. “A lot of people don’t realize it can happen to anybody’s kid. Or to anybody, period. I mean, there’s a very wide range of people in this world that are addicts,” Andrew says. There are many paths to recovery, whether it involves medication, counseling, support groups, or some combination. But there one common goal that Andrew says is crucial – empathy. Without the kindness and positivity from those around him, he believes he wouldn’t be where he is today.

Andrew’s recovery has transformed his relationships with other people in ways that he never expected. He enjoys feeling like he is a member of the community again. “Every time I see the Sheriff, I talk to him… that’s a really cool thing. That’s something I never would’ve imagined would’ve happened…There’s a lot of people in town now that, four years ago, they wouldn’t have spoken to me for nothing.” Since his recovery, Andrew has been able to form friendships in new corners of the community— an accomplishment that makes him proud.

Now, the most important thing in Andrew’s life is his family, including his fiancée and his two young daughters. Being a father, he says, is his main focus. But he’s also excited about what the future has in store for him. When asked what he’s most looking forward to, he says, “Well, I guess my next big goal in life would be to buy a house. [And I’m looking forward to] just watching my children grow up. I think that will be wonderful.”

*The person featured in this article has chosen to use a pseudonym. Because of the stigma that surrounds drug use, many are hesitant to speak openly about their past use. Appalachia Unite hopes to reduce this stigma and envisions a world where people do not feel like they have to hide their experience with drug use.

To learn more about stigma and substance use, visit www.drugabuse.gov/drug-topics/addiction-science/words-matter-preferred-language-talking-about-addiction. For information about treatment and harm reduction services, visit sciotoconnect.org or call Jackson County’s Drug, Addiction and Mental Health Services Board Crisis Hotline at (800) 252-5554. For more information about Appalachia Unite, visit www.facebook.com/AppalachiaUnite/.

 

Appalachia Unite is working in partnership with Southern Ohio communities to address opioid crisis. We are a team based out of Ohio State's College of Public Health. We'll be using this Facebook page to communicate with community members and partners.