A new crop of advocates tell their stories to legislators, and they find some open ears.
By Rose Hoban
Jesse Bennett doesn’t remember the time when he almost died.
“I didn’t know I overdosed until I woke up in the ICU,” he said.
But that experience didn’t stop him from shooting up.
“I was homeless, I couldn’t figure out how to stop sticking a needle in my arm,” he said. “I wanted to, [but] I guess I didn’t have the capacity to understand how to stop.”
But eventually Bennett found that capacity. A friend told him about The Healing Place of Wake County and he made his way there.
He stayed long enough, in fact, to become a counselor at the drug-treatment program, now known as Healing Transitions. Today he’s a husband, a dad and a student at NC State University, where he leads a Collegiate Recovery group.
And now Bennett is an advocate. He spent a day last week at the General Assembly talking to legislators about his recovery.
“We met with most of our representatives,” he said “Most of them were pretty on board; they took our info and listened to us.”
The message Bennett wanted to deliver: Don’t give up on someone just because they use drugs.
“I mean, nobody threw me away or tossed me aside. I had chances to get engaged,” he said.
It can be somewhat difficult to define recovery because it looks different for different people. But what Bennett and other people in recovery wanted to convey to legislators is that recovery is possible.
“It’s not people coming from under bridges anymore,” said Mark Niewald. “It’s wealthy people, it’s wealthy people’s kids, it’s white people, black people, it’s all people.”
Sporting a sticker reading, “I’m in recovery and I vote,” Niewald spent hours going from office to office talking to lawmakers and their aides. He said that at first he was nervous and didn’t know what to expect.
“We absolutely did not have a clue when we got here,” he said. “But it was totally different from what we thought.”
Niewald said he spent time telling the lawmakers about his own recovery. That was the point of the day, to demonstrate the many paths people take to recovery.
He spent decades as a nurse before losing his license, but said he knew little about recovery until recently.
“Addiction as a disease was eye opening for me,” said Niewald, who said he learned precious little about addiction in nursing school and during his practice as a cardiac nurse. “I learned more about recovery in the past two years, and I thought I knew something when I came into [my] program.
“But … I found out I didn’t know nothing.”
According to Chris Budnick, executive director of Healing Transitions, it can take months for the brains of people who have been using alcohol or opioids or other drugs to get to a place where they can really imagine being without that drug. Some folks end up on an anti-depressant or psychiatric medications to help their underlying mental health issues. Some go cold turkey.
“Research with brain scans show that your brain is still not back to normal functioning for many months,” Budnick. “Anything short of 90 days of engagement is not effective.”
Help from the NCGA
The gathering last week was held as some lawmakers were in a committee meeting considering legislation to make it possible for people in North Carolina to more easily obtain naloxone, a drug that almost immediately reverses the effects of narcotic overdose.
Gov. Pat McCrory included a million dollars in his budget for medication-assisted treatment, a form of substance-use treatment that uses drugs such as methadone or suboxone, narcotics that are used to wean people off of other opioids. Another drug being discussed in budget hearings is naltrexone, which works in the brain to block the pleasurable effects of opioids and alcohol.
The governor’s budget also includes $5 million for specialized courts aimed at substance users.
Folks in the recovery community would like to see the designation of those courts changed.
“The recovery community had an opportunity to address the Governor’s Task Force [on Mental Health and Substance Use],” said Donald McDonald, head of Recovery Communities of North Carolina, an organization that promotes the visibility of people in recovery. “One of our suggestions was why don’t you call ‘drug court’ ‘recovery court.'”
McDonald said Department of Health and Human Services Sec. Rick Brajer was receptive to the idea.
Lawmakers were receptive too, giving the advocates the names of people in the court system to speak to who could make the changes happen.
McDonald said he thinks that throughout the day the advocates were able to change some minds.
“We had a lot of neophytes today that really didn’t know what they were doing, they just wanted to come and support recovery,” he said. And at a wrap-up at the end of the day, person after person rose to say the experience was powerful for them.
“We firmly believe that the more people who speak openly about their recovery status, it will change the public perception about recovery and the stigma,” McDonald said.
He said that stigma is what drives discriminatory policies. He also argued that people diagnosed with mental health and substance-use issues don’t get adequate treatment because the federal Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 is not well enforced, due to stigma.
McDonald said that In the past they didn’t have a “constituency of consequence” to push for policy changes.
“Now we do,” he said. “Time’s up.”