Local volunteers fight war against heroin addiction
JANESVILLE--Jen was conquering her alcoholism when she first tried heroin.
The Janesville woman in her mid-30s--Jen is not her real name--calls it the darkest chapter of her life.
After seven months on the drug, Janesville police officer Brian Foster found her using in a parking lot.
Instead of jail, Foster offered help.
Foster had created a new program that year, called DROP, which stands for or Death, Rehab Or Prison--the three options of a heroin addict, as police see it.
Foster reached out to addicts, telling them that when they are ready, he would help them get help and get clean.
“I credit him for getting me on the right path and being first person to try to save my life,” Jen said.
Foster arranged for counseling and suboxone treatment. Suboxone, an opoid, is used to wean addicts from the drug.
Things were going well nine months later, when the suboxone program's rules changed. She could no longer bring her young daughter to treatment. She had to drop out.
Mike Kelly, meanwhile was one of a handful of people who heard about Foster's work and volunteered to help. A recovering alcoholic, the Milton man had helped other alcoholics.
“Mike was first person I told I was using. He was there for me from that day on,” Jen said. “He still checks up on me, too often, sometimes.”
Jen's body was still hooked on Suboxone. She had a few of the skin-contact strips left. She gave the strips to Kelly, who cut them into eighths and doled them out, monitoring her progress.
“I lasted three months off Suboxone, and then I relapsed,” she said.
Two months later, she fell asleep in her car at a convenience store. She woke to police trying to break the window.
Officer Chad Woodman had taken over the program by then. Woodman had been trying to get her to try inpatient treatment.
Woodman and Kelly called her the day after the convenience store incident. Jen decided to try the treatment, and she is marking 18 months of sobriety this month.
In between treatment and today, Woodman and Kelly continued to monitor and encourage her progress.
“They were just there for me,” she said.
“I feel if I ever were to slip again, I would be comfortable calliing (them),” she said. “I know they would be there for me, no matter what.”
Jen was one of 40 in inpateint treatment. She is one of two who succeeded in staying clean, and she owes much to the people of the DROP program, she said.
And DROP works because recovering addicts can best understand what recovery is like, Kelly is convinced.
The home-grown program resembles programs being touted nationally as a best practice in combating heroin addiction, said Sheri Farber of Janesville Mobilizing for Change, the anti-drug organization and a member of the local heroin task force.
The federal government has made money available for such programs, and local officials hope the state will make the money available locally so the liaisons can get training to become what is called peer recovery coaches.
The state is proposing hospitals take over paying for part-time, on-call coaches and bill those services to Medicaid, Farber said. Training is required before that can happen.
Kelly, a burly General Motors retiree and part-time landscaper with extensive experience as a 12-step sponsor for alcoholics.
In the beginning, “I got a crash course in heroin,” Kelly said.
Now, Kelly sees signs of the epidemic everywhere, down to needles lodged in the cracks in the pavement.
The epidemic is strong enough here that it's killed six people in Janesville so far this year, according to the police department. That comes after 12 deaths in 2016 and four or five in each of the two previous years.
Janesville police have recorded a total of 32 heroin/opiod overdoses so far this year. Twenty-six survived.
Kelly turned to a 12-step program 14 years ago. He relapsed years later but rebounded. “So I know what it's like to go out and try to come back in.”
RELAPSE, RELAPSE ...
Heroin addicts are notoriously prone to relapse. Some backslide 12 or more times, said Sue Schumacher of rural Milton, another liaison, also a recovering alcoholic.
Schumacher, like Kelly, is one of a handfull of experienced liaisons who keep the program on an even keel. She said she was an alcoholic for 11 years and would be dead by now if she hadn't stopped.
Schumacher works with about 30 clients at once. It's a huge time commitment.
“We are essentially a Band-Aid, getting them from the bottom to treatment,” she said.
The liaisons understand that relapses happen, and they continue to work with their clients--as they call them--even after backsliding.
One of the newest liaisons is former heroin user Lyndsay, who asked her full name not be used.
Lyndsay became addicted to pain pills at 16, and by 19, she had graduated to heroin.
She tried rehab many times, kept relapsing, and finally hit bottom when she lost her job and got in trouble with the law, she said.
Now five years clean, Lyndsay works two jobs and has bought a house.
And she is ready to help others.
“Some of these people have never gone to treatment. They don't really know how it works, so it's helpful to have someone to go with, someone who introduces them to people, who is nice to them and cares about them and wants them to succceed. I think thats really a big thing,” Lyndsay said.
It doesn't always work. The biggest problem locally might be the lack of inpatient rehab slots. A recently detoxed addict often has to wait six to eight weeks get in, Kelly said. Many don't make it.
“The reality is, without treatment they don't succeed, because the addiction is so strong,” Schumacher said.
After rehab comes counseling and a fight to stay clean, and that means a 12-step program, such as AA, Narcotics Anonymous or Smart Recovery.
Liaisons make sure their clients go to meetings, often attending with them. They also take clients' phone calls, day or night, as does Officer Woodman.
Clients and liaisons also have one-on-one meetings throughout the process, more frequent at the beginning, fewer as the clients improve.
“The biggest thing we do is give them some sort of hope and some sort of direction, so they know there's something there,” Kelly said.
One key to recovery is the support system a person has, the liaisons said. Families often have been hurt by the addicts' behavior. Often, they don't know what to do about their loved one's habit.
So the liaisons have developed HOLA, or Helping Others Love Addicts.
Parents often don't want to call police and say their child is an addict, Schumacher said, but they will talk to the liaisons.
Cards with Kelly's and Schumacher's phone numbers are distributed around the community.
Some parents don't realize when they give their children money to fix a car or some other excuse that they're supplying money to buy drugs, Schumacher said.
“They have to realize that little Johnny is gone. He's going to be an addict the rest of his life,” Kelly said.
“They ask for guidance, and we help them stop enabling the addict and provide a little peace in their homes,” Schumacher said.
Kelly requires those he helps to exercise.
“I make it mandatory that they hit the gym at least five days a week,” he said.
Exercise has been shown to make the body produce chemicals that feel good, Kelly noted. “It gives you a natural high.”
It's good for them and gives them a way to burn off energy and keep busy--away from boredom that can lead to a relapse.
Anytime Fitness has offered free, three-month memberships for this purpose to any of its Rock County locations.
The addicts can go to the health club only when staff are present, And, if they miss counseling appointments or stop keeping in touch with Woodman or their liaison, Woodman will pull the plug.
On a bench next to the Rock River in a Janesville park, Kelly sat last week with Eric, a 42-year-old Janesville man who is the only DROP client who is an alcoholic.
Eric was recovering when he relapsed last December. He was hospitalized with alcohol poisoning. He should have died, he said.
Now seven months clean, he's feeling positive about his future, but still dealing with problems. He got an anxiety attack in a grocery store recently, feeling anxious because of all the people.
Kelly knew the feeling. An addict has spent so much time feeling nothing because of the drugs that feeling emotions again can be hard, he said.
Eric said he wants to join the DROP progam. He wants to give back. He wants to be like Mike.
“Guys like Mike, they give a damn,” Eric said. “They care about people.”
Jen, meanwhile, is living a longtime dream of pursuing a graduate degree. She also speaks at drug-treatment centers. She lost her best friend recently to a heroin overdose. The woman had been clean seven years. Officer Woodman called the next day, offering to meet, if she needed it.
Jen said she got through it sober, and she is left with gratitude for those who cared enough to keep her that way.
“People who care about you, you want to make them proud,” She said. “Sometimes that's all I need.”