"I always grab an opportunity to chat with someone who may be caught up in the stigma surrounding addiction. I know I won’t change everyone’s mind, but I at least try to open people’s eyes just a little wider to the realities when possible."

For over a year, I have been serving as a certified recovery specialist for a Northeastern Pennsylvania-based, integrated primary care-behavioral health organization, The Wright Center for Community Health. I work with Scranton-area residents who are doing their best to rebuild their lives while seeking treatment for opioid addiction.  

It’s a story I know all too well. After all, I’ve experienced the depths of addiction firsthand.  I grew up in a close-knit, loving family in Olyphant, PA. However, in my teens, I began experimenting with alcohol and painkillers. Eventually, it became a full-blown addiction, and by my early 20s I was putting my family through a lot of heartache and trauma on account of my self-destructive behavior.  

It’s hard to explain why I did the things that I did. To be honest, I guess it was that I just always felt like I needed that extra boost for nearly everything, whether it was talking confidently to people or performing simple daily tasks like cleaning.

My addiction eventually caught up with me. Following a night of hard partying, I was arrested for DUI. The next day, a gorgeous May afternoon, I finally allowed myself to recognize—and really start to digest—just how empty I felt inside. With that feeling came my moment of clarity, as I thought to myself, “I do have a problem, and I need some help.” 

Thankfully, I found the help I desperately needed at Pocono Mountain Recovery Center. There I worked with dedicated counselors whose personal stories of overcoming addiction showed me that a life of sobriety was entirely possible. It hasn’t been an easy road, but I am eternally grateful for those who came into my life as I started to reshape my life as an individual in recovery. 

I’m now more than three and a half years into my sobriety, and as personally gratifying as it is, I now have the added bonus of helping others overcome their addictions through my job as a certified recovery specialist, or CRS for short.  

My path to becoming a CRS started through a conversation with my longtime family doctor, Dr. Linda Thomas-Hemak, who is also the CEO of The Wright Center for Community Health. She was familiar with parts of my story and suggested I would make a great candidate to become a CRS, an individual in active recovery trained to assist others seeking treatment. Of course, it sounded great to me, considering it fit completely with my vision of helping people in the same way that I had been helped. I knew that being in a CRS role would help me to always keep my own recovery at the forefront of everything I do, personally and professionally.

I officially joined The Wright Center for Community Health’s staff in 2018, and it’s been a great fit. Specifically, I’m a CRS in its Opioid Use Disorder Center of Excellence (COE) program, where I work one-on-one with about 30 male patients receiving care through the center’s team-based COE program. In my job, I strive to meet my patients where they are, both emotionally and literally. Of course, I’m a sounding board and guide for them. I also assist them in more practical matters, like writing resumes finding transportation to appointments as well as support groups and meetings. I also serve as a presence in Lackawanna County’s Treatment Court so I can help connect individuals to physical health and behavioral health treatment.  

I really take my clients under my wing as they start their journey through the program. I’ve been in their shoes, and I share that with them up front. The fact that they know I won’t judge them and that I really understand—because I’ve lived it too—is a huge component of building the relationships with clients. I’ll meet with them at home or for coffee. And they can reach out to me anytime by phone with their problems, or really anything at all going on in their lives.  

As far as I’m concerned, the path to recovery is like a pizza in that it has many different pieces. Even the small victories like finding employment, are so rewarding, but only if you put in the work. I always remind my clients that I’m always there to help, but they’ve got to do the heavy lifting in their own recovery.

A role as a CRS is a wonderful job, and I’ve already had a lot of memorable experiences. A few weeks ago, one of my peers went to the dentist following years of heavy drug use. Afterwards, when he sent me a picture of himself smiling with a brand-new set of dental implants, it had me in tears. This was huge for his self-esteem and overall recovery. For me, seeing how hard someone worked to reach their goals is priceless.  

I also see myself as an educator on substance use disorder. It bothers me when people say that people struggling with addiction are “no good.” What they often don’t stop to realize is that these people are somebody’s child, somebody’s parent, somebody’s sibling. And so many times, I talk with people whose addiction started from a drug they were appropriately prescribed from a doctor. There are so many factors in play and everyone’s story is unique. I always grab an opportunity to chat with someone who may be caught up in the stigma surrounding addiction. I know I won’t change everyone’s mind, but I at least try to open people’s eyes just a little wider to the realities when possible. 

For family members of those fighting addiction, please hear this—you are not at fault. My mother often blamed herself for things that were out of her control. But, the unfortunate reality is that substance use disorder is a disease that takes over people’s lives, families, jobs, and relationships. In addition to being there for their loved ones, family members need to find the right support and resources for themselves. Both they and those struggling with addiction need to know that nothing happens overnight when it comes to recovery. The journey is so worth it for those who seek help, stick with it, and don’t try to do it all on their own.  

Believe me, I know. Without the guidance and direction of the people I encountered early in my sobriety, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to become a CRS, a great son, an awesome boyfriend, and the proud dog dad of Cooper, my beagle-lab mix. Nor would I have had the chance to become a successful small-business owner; I have a cell phone repair store in Olyphant, and I create lifelong memories as a DJ at many different events each year. All of this I owe to my sobriety, a lot of mindful work, and living One Day At A Time.

This is why I am sharing my story. In my case, substance use disorder was chaotic, financially draining, and life-threatening. Today, however, I look at it as a blessing in a sense. Today I focus on making the next right choice each day, and I don’t have to look behind my shoulder or worry when the police drive by. Today, I wave at the police.

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