Richie Tannerhill was a primary force behind the inaugural Western Regional Recovery Rally.
Richie Tannerhill was a primary force behind the inaugural Western Regional Recovery Rally. Photo credit: Taylor Sisk

In the mountains of Western North Carolina, Richie Tannerhill is championing recovery from mental health and substance-use setbacks.

By Taylor Sisk

Richie Tannerhill is high today. He’s higher than a man should be. He’s been high, in fact, for a very long time, but not quite so high as he intends to be tomorrow.

Tannerhill smoked pot with his mom as a preschooler. He was tripping in junior high.

Richie Tannerhill was a primary force behind the inaugural Western Regional Recovery Rally.
Richie Tannerhill is a recovery ally in the mountains of Western North Carolina. Photo credit: Taylor Sisk

From there: Prison, inpatient treatment, prison. Alcohol, crack, prescription meds. Overdose, rehab, repeat – punctuated by a visit to Mission Hospital’s Owen Heart Center in Asheville, fighting for his life after being stabbed in the heart during a drug deal gone wrong. Surgery. Stitches in his heart.

“You’d have thought that would have gotten my attention,” he said, but it didn’t.

But today Tannerhill’s high on recovery – skull-reverberatin’, foot-stompin’, come-to-Jesus high. He’s loving life – his kids, work, community – and has big plans for Haywood County, which he now calls home.

But this story is about today; Tannerhill wouldn’t have it any other way. He’s in recovery today. But recovery, he knows well, is a process.

There are no guarantees.

“All the things I do today, I do as a person in long-term recovery,” Tannerhill said. He hasn’t partaken of drugs or alcohol for about 10 years now or been institutionalized in just over eight.

But Tannerhill embraces the tenet “One day at a time” with every element of his being. The man forever seems to be both in peril of redlining RPMs and at ease, ravenous for the next experience.

He’s a peer trainer with Smoky Mountain LME/MCO and an every-moment recovery enthusiast.

The ultimate goal

“Every recovery movement needs a champion,” said Phil Valentine, “a champion who’s really passionate.”

Valentine is executive director of the Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery and a pioneer in a movement gaining momentum across the country, nowhere more so than in North Carolina. The recovery movement is founded on a notion that you might reasonably expect would be the guiding principle in the care for people with mental health and substance-use disorders, but isn’t.

It’s the belief that people with behavioral health issues should be helped to find their own routes back to good health, happiness and productivity. That medication compliance and symptom control aren’t ultimate treatment goals: Recovery and reintegration are.

Valentine was referring, in that instance, to Richie Tannerhill. In the largely rural counties of Western North Carolina, Tannerhill is that recovery champion.

Richie Tannerhill, left, and Phil Valentine in Waynesville, where Valentine took a brief pause from his walk on the Appalachian Trail.
Richie Tannerhill, left, with Phil Valentine, executive director of the Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery. Photo credit: Taylor Sisk

Tannerhill’s recovery path has led him through some life-threatening terrain. His parents both suffered from mental health and substance-use disorders. His dad was sentenced to an extended prison term, and Tannerhill was “passed around from friend to friend, family member to family member.”

By the age of 4, he’d lived in five states.

His first arrest came third-grade year, caught breaking into a school. He was dealing drugs at 12, and by 14 had sampled pills, mushrooms, cocaine and LSD. At 15, he landed in a psych ward; prison, a year later.

He entered adulthood needing a drink each morning just to ease the shakes. His intoxicant of choice? “Anything – and as much as I could get.”

At 31, he was back in jail, facing a 15-year stretch. He had a 4-year-old child and an infant at home and two more kids he wasn’t allowed to visit. He was, he said, “everything I didn’t want to be.”

“I was physically, mentally, spiritually, financially – I was broken, man.” And ready to reassemble.

‘Clean time’

But this is no redemption song. Richie Tannerhill didn’t become a new man. He hitched onto the man he was born to be. Solitary confinement had sobered him up, and he was convinced he was ready to stay clean.

“Thought I was fixed,” he said.

He entered a courtroom and said to the man, “‘Judge, I’ve had a spiritual awakening. I’m good. You know? I’m good.’” Judge said, “‘Richie, I’m glad to hear that. Two more years.’”

But he didn’t freak out, as he once would’ve done.

“I went back to prison. And, guess what? It turned out to be exactly what I needed.” He spent that first year in a long-term treatment program, “clean time,” where he was introduced to peer support.

“I needed that time, man.”

On Nov. 14, 2007, he re-entered the world, “Two years clean; two years in recovery. It was the longest I’d ever had.”

No driver’s license. Homeless. But nurturing that spark of hope, sheltering it from the wind.

“I’d figured out that life is about choices, man, and every time you make a choice, one of two things is guaranteed to happen: a consequence or a reward,” he said. “And my entire life had been a life of consequences because of the choices I was making.”

“What I realized was that smoking dope at 4 years old with my mom? That was pretty much her fault,” he said with a shrug. “I’ve got to give her that one. But by the time I was 12 and I was dealing drugs and doing everything I could find, I knew what I was doing was wrong. I just didn’t care about the consequences.

“I accepted accountability for my choices, and I realized I wanted something to be different. I realized I had to be the difference-maker.

No fairy dust was forthcoming.

“You have to do the work. And that work that I do is called recovery.”

Been there

Today Tannerhill is a husband and Little League coach. He’s director of student ministries at Nineveh Baptist Church in Waynesville. Weekends and evenings, he’s a construction contractor. And in his peer support work for Smoky, and otherwise, he builds recovery communities.

This first involves emphasizing to those who, like himself, have been down a rocky road the importance of coming out, of sharing their stories.

“People get well and say, ‘I’m done. I don’t want to be associated with that anymore.’ So we don’t get to hear those stories,” he said.

There were plenty of days behind bars when Tannerhill convinced himself he just wasn’t going to do it again, not make the same mistakes. “And it wasn’t that I didn’t mean it.” But: “I didn’t know how to do anything any differently. Many people who haven’t found recovery yet are stuck in that same position.”

They need the support of their peers, those who’ve been there and can relate. Those who’ve been consumed by a suffocating terror, or by the manic craving for a drug that then demands more.

Tannerhill will tell you that peer support isn’t about fixing a person. It’s about offering the insight of lived experience, of knowing what it takes to get out of that struggle, and asking, “How can I help you get out?”

And what a wonderful thing if there’s a community to greet you: your “recovery allies” – a term Tannerhill uses with such authority that it seems he must have coined it. (He didn’t.)

In interacting with the community, he believes, language is of critical importance.

“When you say recovery can happen, what are you also saying? ‘Maybe so, but maybe not,’” he maintains. “What we’re doing is shifting the language. Let’s shift that one word and say recovery does happen.”

There are, he urges, many pathways to recovery. “People get well a lot of different kinds of ways. Healing may begin in therapy sessions and treatment programs.”

But – and we’re back to the core: “People recover in their communities.” The community offers “natural support.”

Tannerhill and his fellow peer support specialists are there to offer the emotional support, help find affordable housing or fill out a job application, offer a ride to a doctor’s appointment – everyday things in an everyday world.

It’s all about “not treating individuals who get better as the exception, but expecting it from them, and empowering them in the process.”

A better day

“I believe in accountability,” Tannerhill said. “I made some bad choices; I need to be held accountable.” Then, ideally, comes acceptance, extended, he says, by “the voice of the ally.” Relationships are nurtured, both personal and professional, throughout the community, fuel for that spark of hope.

“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.”

Tannerhill turned 41 in August. “Life’s busy, it’s full,” he said. “And I can tell you, brother, it’s good.”

He knows what it’s like to be cold, hungry and homeless, or facing a life sentence in prison.

“Brother, that’s a bad day. Now I have a bad five minutes. And there are days when I have multiple bad five minutes.”

But he recovers. And extends a hand to help others do the same.

[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]

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Taylor Sisk is a writer, editor, researcher, producer and documentary filmmaker who served as the rural health reporter from 2015 into 2016. He has served as a managing and contributing editor of The Carrboro...