Long Term Survivor

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I was asked to write a bit about my work for Voyage Magazine Denver- I have no idea whether it will be be picked up for publication but I thought I’d put it out there.

 

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This specific volume of my story begins in Chicago in 1985. I tested positive for HIV after a checkup following a fainting spell at an afternoon aerobics class. My best friend died a month later from AIDS complications and my neighborhood (now known as Boys Town) was infested with young men dying and/or trapped in the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. My cocaine and alcohol use spiraled into the stratosphere. This resulted with my effort  in 1986 to “pull a geographical” move to California which then perpetuated a crash landing in Denver 1988. While still in LA, I phoned a cousin living in Denver after losing 20 lbs. in 2 weeks, bluntly asking if I come die at his house. He responded “sure- when”? I said “tomorrow”. I truly had every intention of dying right away. But there were other plans.  I wasn’t in charge.

Another 13 years of expecting the worst and guzzling numb, with many years of failed attempts to stop an ever-accelerating downward spiral in which I existed, I exhaustively pursued and was able to grasp personal recovery in 2004. Initially, I was frustrated with available substance treatment and finally found more appropriate support with a therapist. When I stabilized, I began to do client advocacy for people with HIV and was introduced to the power of peer support in many ways. I drove people to make their medical appointments, co-facilitated a substance treatment group as a peer and watched the weekly engagement go from 6 to 20 within a year and was recognized by a local  HIV clinic for having an impact. Finally beginning to understand and come to terms with my personal struggle, I decided to become an addictions counselor in order to be a part of change in a system which I felt was failing so many of my peers in their attempts to pursue treatment and, even more importantly, to connect to a recovery community.

I first contracted with the State Health Department to bring Peer Mentor training from Cicatelli’s Leadership Training Institute to Colorado in 2009. This effort resulted in the formation of a new HIV case management program at a city hospital that is functioning quite well today. I trained and became an addictions counselor and worked at the largest public hospital in Denver at their HIV clinic.  I found that connecting our patients to treatment and recovery met with many false starts and disappointments. There were many individuals who were firmly entrenched in relationships with alcohol, methamphetamine, and IV drugs.  Our patients tried to engage, but their own traumas and anxieties often kept them from launching. I advocated with the hospital’s substance treatment arm and was invited to join their team with the hope of making some serious changes. We began a peer recovery program at the methadone clinic, after which we experienced a significant increase in services engagement. We engaged a few successful (or completely finished) former patients to co-facilitate the support groups six days a week

These groups became very popular because everyone wanted to hear how other people had gotten off methadone. How they did it. What worked. How they succeeded.  This kind of conversation was not typical at the clinic prior to the formation of our groups.

Sadly, the entire leadership and administrative staff of the hospital about-faced when the CEO resigned. The focus of the facility shifted to billing and departmental re-organization with less emphasis on the patient and more on policies and procedures.  The impact of our patient-engaged program became a back story and many crucial changes which had been made at the clinic were rescinded or simply disappeared. It was extremely frustrating to me that I was no longer in a position to effect any lasting changes. People continued to fail when launching into recovery after leaving treatment or jail. There was still a huge gap. It seemed my co-workers were expecting people simply to change and judging them when they didn’t. I somehow felt that our clients might need more reason to want to change. I left that position in 2014 and 4 days later flew to Hartford to enroll in CCAR’s (Connecticut Community of Addiction Recovery) Recovery Coach Academy training followed by an additional specialized training of trainers. In the 5 days I spent with CCAR I had a spiritual experience which I lovingly carry in my heart to this day.

I facilitated my first RCA training in 2015 in collaboration with a local Mental Wellness Peer Program. This was followed by 3 trainings in 2016 while attempting to hold on to full time positions. I engaged some recovery warriors and we founded a 501C3 in August 2016.  My health and my spirit soon demanded that I focus more time on sharing this wisdom of generosity that I gleaned from CCAR to increase the support available for folks who might need it.  Since that time, I have flown back to Connecticut 4 times and became a Core Trainer for all their curricula in 2017.

Also, in 2017, I came across a gif graphic from the Colorado Health Institute that illustrated the increase of overdose deaths in Colorado-county by county from 2002-2014. I was gobsmacked that so many rural counties had shown the most dramatic increases. Of course, I realized that those areas have far less access to treatment and recovery support and that it must be immensely more challenging to find support under such circumstances. I knew then that I would begin to travel beyond Denver to share the inspiration for recovery support that I had gained in Connecticut.

I began training in Colorado Springs and facilitated regular trainings there with a local Recovery Community Organization. I traveled to Sterling and provided coaching trainings there. Pueblo, Boulder, Grand Junction, Arapahoe County, and Golden all followed within the next year.

At the same time, the grassroots national recovery advocacy movement with Faces and Voices of Recovery continued to expand and take root. Recovery coaching increasingly became integrated into public health systems and behavioral health vernacular. I encountered a tenacious Peer Advocate from Kansas with “Poetry for Personal Power” who contracted PCA to provide grant-funded trainings in Kansas. We have completed three thus far. P3 engages artists to provide wellness messaging through slam poetry and talking circles, engaging segments of our population that often goes unseen.  We decided to write a SAMHSA grant application filed as “Building Communities of Recovery” in April. Amazingly, we have just been informed that our application has been funded for three years,  comprising of working with five different Colorado counties each year to provide telephone recovery support and  work locally to advocate, strengthen, and network their recovery support services. Our plan includes mobile technology for much of this, as well as poetry slams, story circles, sober athletics, sober tailgates, yoga, arts, etc. to provide a variety of support options for people recovering or reconnecting to wellness. There will be Spanish speaking telephone support as well as English. This effort is to be called 1 Voz.

Our 1Voz team has a steep learning curve but ahead of us lies a great adventure. Policies, lack of resources, different philosophies on substance use, economic disparity, cultural idiosyncrasies … those are just a few of the hills we must climb.  However, I managed to live through the ravages of the AIDS epidemic only to find myself in the midst of this new scourge and my perspective has mellowed and matured with age. I am not inclined to numb or to run away.

I realized early in my recovery that I had a choice. I could either be angry that my life was spent hiding or I might turn my face to the sun. I understood that the mere ability to laugh and cry with which I am graced with are realities that so many of the people I had loved and mourned have been denied. It would be like pissing on their souls if I remained stagnant.  For whatever reason, I have this opportunity . I might well not take this for granted!  I will continue to pursue being of service. I know shame! I know trauma! I know anxiety! I know fear! But I know that many other aspects of life are far more enjoyable..

 I continue to believe in CCAR’s mission and values. I will share their words to end our story: I can’t be sure how I would have described the term survivor in 1985. But I know what it looks like to me in 2019. It’s not what I imagined. It so much more.

Our Values – CCAR meets people where they are. We don’t push any one form of recovery on anyone. Over the years CCAR has developed some foundational principles on which we base our work. They are

 

    Recovery First.

    You are in recovery if you say you are.

    There are many pathways of recovery.

    Focus on the recovery potential, not the pathology.

    Err on the side of the recoveree.

    Err on the side of being generous.

 

Many times, people are left to navigate the system on their own. By the time they get to us, they are frustrated, crying, discouraged. We talk with them. We meet them where they are. We offer the hope of a new way of living. We help them.

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