By Jared Weber
For Healing Transitions alumni, the silver chip is a symbol of sobriety and accomplishment.
The token is earned at an individual’s “transition ceremony,” a night of celebration that concludes one’s experience in the substance use recovery program, based on the old Dorothea Dix Hospital campus in Raleigh. It’s a critical accomplishment that marks somewhere between 12 to 18 months of progress.
“[The silver chip] is really important for folks in terms of sticking with something … and not giving up,” executive director Chris Budnick said. “It gives a sense of accomplishment. It plays a big role in that.”
Ten men — program graduates number 796 to 805, respectively — received their silver chips on a recent Thursday night in the Healing Transitions cafeteria at the now 17-year-old recovery program’s 122nd men’s transition ceremony.
Budnick, in recovery for 28 years, has helped oversee Healing Transitions since it opened in 2001. He said the reason for most participants showing up there varies far more now than it did in the early years.
In those days, many low-income African Americans frequented the program, many as a result of cocaine use, but opioids have also been ravaging America’s black communities long before this decade.
Now, however, there are more middle-class whites enrolling in the program as opioid use among them has skyrocketed.
While data show that opioid-related overdose deaths have risen over time since 1999, the issue was rarely referred to as a “crisis” or “epidemic” before that number skyrocketed within the white population.
In 2013, opioid overdose numbers in white suburbia surpassed that of any other demographic.
According to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, more than 12,000 North Carolinians died after overdosing on opioids between 1999 and 2016. So far this year, whites – most of them between the ages of 25 and 34 – have accounted for 84 percent of the state’s overdoses.
“Our population has gotten younger and whiter with the opioid crisis,” Budnick said. “A lot of folks that have ended up here now have never been on the streets, but mom and dad say ‘You can’t stay here anymore.’”
That’s forced Healing Transitions to re-evaluate how they administer care and help people in general.
Life preserving connections
Budnick said the opioid epidemic has changed the way the program views people with substance use disorders.
For one, they’re much more prepared for potential crises.
“The number one difference with the opioid crisis is you cannot help somebody get into recovery if they’re dead,” he said.
Budnick and his colleagues have brought naloxone, a life-saving overdose reversal drug, into facilities. At first, it was just kept in detox. Healing Transitions now keeps the drug stocked throughout the facility and makes it available for at-risk people at a moment’s notice once they’ve left the campus.
“It’s at the front desk, it’s in the residential buildings, it’s in the shelter, it’s everywhere around the facility,” Budnick said.
The program has also started regularly conducting what they call “naloxone overdose drills,” where they simulate administering naloxone shots to someone suffering from an overdose.
Budnick said that administering the drug can be an overwhelming experience for the program’s staff, so they’ve attempted “to normalize it some by having a routine, as you would with a fire drill.”
Healing Transitions has also placed more emphasis on communicating with at-risk patients after they leave the facility.
In coordination with Wake County EMS, they launched a “rapid response” unit on April 5. Each member of the two-person team currently reaches out to 48 people via phone calls and text messages, regardless of response, to see how they’re faring with their substance use disorder.
Volunteer Coordinator Justin Garrity, a 2015 alumnus of Healing Transitions, oversees the rapid response program. He estimates the peer support staff is making over 100 phone calls and text messages to at-risk individuals per week.[sponsor]
Garrity said the initiative began as a mechanism to keep tabs on folks who refused to be taken to an emergency department after overdosing and getting naloxone, but the program has come to encompass other priorities too.
“It’s basically a way to connect to an invisible population and try and get those people the help they need, in any way that looks like,” Garrity said.
Cory Choquette, 33, arrived at Healing Transitions last June, empty handed other than a backpack full of clothes.
What began as a stash of prescription opiates from a friend had turned into a 10-year heroin addiction.
Choquette had sobered up once before. A year before he’d arrived at Healing Transitions, he was clean. In fact, he was educating local high schoolers about the dangers of narcotics.
His sobriety was abruptly interrupted, though, when he and his then-girlfriend relapsed — seven months into her pregnancy with Choquette’s son.
His son was born addicted to heroin. Soon after, Choquette nearly died after an overdose in his home.
“I knew, if I didn’t do something about my situation, I was going to die,” Choquette said.
About one year after he’d arrived, Choquette took the podium at his own transition ceremony, and received his silver chip.
“It was a major accomplishment,” Choquette said. “For me to actually decide to commit to something and stick to it until the end … it was an amazing feeling to get that silver chip.”
Now, he’s able to enjoy “the little things,” as he put it.
Though he and his girlfriend broke up — “it was an unstable relationship,” he said — they share joint custody of his son. He also speaks regularly with his 12-year-old daughter who lives in Massachusetts.
Choquette is a construction worker now, but he plans to go back to school and pursue a career as a substance abuse counselor, working in his life’s passion: recovery.
He said he owes much of his progress to his time at Healing Transitions.
“There’s definitely things here that helped him and gave him the best opportunity, but there’s probably a mistake to say this was the magic thing that worked,” Budnick said.
“The things he’s experienced outside of our program,” said Budnick, referring to Choquette’s 1-year-old son. “It probably influenced his desire to make changes.”