A Lake Junaluska rally draws more than 600 people from throughout Western North Carolina and beyond to celebrate recovery from mental health and substance use disorders.
By Taylor Sisk
“Today we raise the profile of recovery way up here,” said Richie Tannerhill, greeting guests to the inaugural Western Regional Recovery Rally, as he reached high up into the blue mountain sky on a gorgeous, mids-70s, first-hint-of-autumn morning.
And to judge by the energy and enthusiasm percolating through the day, his reach was an underestimation.
Six hundred-plus folks gathered on the shore of Lake Junaluska, near Waynesville, a week ago Saturday to celebrate National Recovery Month and underscore Tannerhill’s take-home message: Recovery from mental health issues and substance disorders happens everywhere.
“There are many pathways to recovery,” Tannerhill, a peer and family support specialist with Smoky Mountain LME/MCO, said in an interview, “people get well a lot of different kinds of ways.” Healing may begin in therapy sessions and treatment programs, but, he stressed, recovery occurs in homes, in communities.
And, Tannerhill assured the crowd, “There are no hopeless cases.”
A ‘self-directed life’
The day of celebration was sponsored by Smoky Mountain, the managed care organization responsible for public funds for mental health, substance use and intellectual and developmental disability services in 23 mostly rural western counties.
The event included a Recovery Walk around the lake (two and a half miles for those who chose to go the distance), live music, testimonials and award presentations to Recovery Champions.
The theory behind recovery-based care is that people with behavioral health issues should be helped to find their own routes back to good health, happiness and productivity.
The recovery movement in North Carolina has been gaining momentum. Broughton Hospital now takes a recovery-based approach to care, the seventh annual One Community in Recovery Conference is this November in Clemmons and there’s a strong push to open peer-run respite centers throughout the state.
‘Shaking off the shame’
The Lake Junaluska event was an occasion to celebrate the lives of individuals who’ve faced down a variety of debilitating disorders, then found the strength, in community, to talk about what they’ve experienced.
Among them: Charlyn Boyette, who’s been in recovery from drug and alcohol disorders and several behavioral health diagnoses since April 2013.
Boyette said she’s steadily gained stability in her life and found that strength to speak up because, “I want to be involved in reducing the stigma and shaking off the shame.”
Rich Willey, a musician and college instructor, has been in recovery from drug and alcohol misuse for 7,845 days. “When we recover, we really can do remarkable things,” he told the crowd, relating the joy he’s found as a father and in the classroom.
Ernie Gentry said he jeopardized “44 years of marriage, four wonderful kids and eight grandkids … saw it all unravel with an addiction to pornography.” He’s now approaching five years in recovery.
Knowing where they’re coming from
Tannerhill works with many of the folks who offered their stories. He also has an inherent understanding of where they’re coming from.
They are, he said, folks who’ve been many of the same places he’s been, having confronted “homelessness, hopelessness,” a lack of resources and opportunity and any sense of self-worth, “all the things that go with those challenges.”
“All the things I do today, I do as a person in long-term recovery,” Tannerhill said. “What that means for me is that I haven’t had to use drugs or alcohol or be inpatient hospitalized for more than nine years now.”
He completed his last engagement with the state correctional system on Nov. 14, 2007, re-entering the world “two years clean; two years in recovery. It was the longest I’d ever had.” For the first time, he felt motivated to do something positive with his life.
As for resources: “I got out of prison with the clothes on my back, not a penny in my pocket, nowhere to go. ‘Good luck, Richie. We’re done.’
“What do you do with that?” He had no home, no driver’s license.
“But I had hope.… I realized I had to be the difference-maker” – first in changing his own life, then getting to work in and on his community.
He began enlisting what he calls “recovery allies” throughout Haywood County and beyond: landlords, business owners, insurance agents, neighbors.
“I believe in accountability,” Tannerhill said. “I made some bad choices; I need to be held accountable. But then let’s help people move forward.”
How to measure?
The day’s speakers largely focused on substance disorders, which occasioned an opportunity to reflect on the difficulty of defining what recovery means for people living with mental health issues.
“AA members have tokens to celebrate so many years of sobriety,” said Bonnie Schell, former director of consumer affairs at Piedmont Behavioral Health (now Cardinal innovations).
But “consumers of mental health treatment have no symbol for years of remission,” Schell said. “There is no symbol to announce, for instance, that one hasn’t been paranoid in five years or homeless for seven years, or [has been able] to manage one’s own bills or appointments for 10 years.”
She pointed out that Paolo del Vecchio, director of SAMHSA’s Center for Mental Health Services, references “home, health, purpose and friends” as the marks of recovery. But those are qualitative measures.
“How could a moderator help celebrate hard-won recovery from mental illness at a rally?” Schell asked, and suggested, for example:
“How many of you are looking for a job? How many of you are employed? How many of you do volunteer work in the community?… How many of you have safe housing and a key to your own front door?… How many of you have at least three friends?… How many of you believe that you have a purpose in life and meaningful things to do?”
Tannerhill will continue to advocate for communities that fully embrace those in recovery from all the issues that have haunted their pasts toward helping brightening future prospects.
He reiterated the role that everyone in the community plays in this process.
“Even if you have every individual in recovery speak out, it’s not enough,” he said. “Without the voice of the ally, this doesn’t work.”
“I have to do the work for my recovery, and I get that,” Tannerhill said. “But it takes relationships to get some folks to understand that, to find hope in themselves.
“When people can begin to find that hope and believe in themselves, and have a safe place to stay and a job to go to – that’s where the difference is made.”[box style=”2″]This story was made possible by a grant from the Winston-Salem Foundation to examine issues in rural health in North Carolina. [/box]