This article is part of a quarterly series giving voice to the perspectives of individuals with lived experiences as they share their opinions on a particular topic. The authors of this column facilitated a focus group of their peers to inform this writing. The authors are provided with services by Services for the UnderServed (S:US), a New York City-based nonprofit that is committed to giving every New Yorker the tools that they can use to lead a life of purpose.
You have no doubt heard about the opioid epidemic. It has been prevalent in the news, talked about by politicians and their constituents, as well as by the general public. There are also lawsuits filed by various levels of government against opioid distributors and manufacturers. For many, opioids have become synonymous with pain relief.
According to the National Institutes of Health, more than 130 people in the United States die after overdosing on opioids every day. Roughly 21 to 29 percent of patients who are prescribed opioids for chronic pain misuse them. Between 8 and 12 percent develop an opioid use disorder. And an estimated 4 to 6 percent who misuse prescription opioids transition to heroin. In 2017, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared a nationwide public health emergency on opioid use. And while more people are aware, more needs to be done to curb opioid use.
S:US currently supports over 400 individuals with the highest risk for substance use disorders, including opioid abuse. Services include out-patient clinics, residential treatment services and individualized care coordination that focuses on improving the health and wellness of people living with complex healthcare needs.
Using Methadone and Narcan
Our group came together to initially discuss our experiences with using opioids. We discovered most of us have used opioids to treat our substance use dependency. One person said he was on methadone for seven years because he needed to detox from heroin. “(Methadone) made me sick. At the local hospital, they gave me Suboxone. This made me feel better. I wasn’t sick or did any crime. But then I started experimenting with the dose and then I started to sell my pills for crack money.” Suboxone is a partial opioid agonist and is considered somewhat safer and not as strong as methadone.
We also talked about Narcan (Naloxone) that is commonly used to treat a drug overdose. Most of us have been trained on how to use Narcan but only a few of us have actually used it. One of us shared that he used his Narcan training to revive his brother when he overdosed. “I sprayed him (with Narcan). After one minute I tried to revive him. He came to, but then immediately got very angry with me. Because he didn’t want to be revived. He also has mental health issues.” Another mentioned a similar experience. “I overdosed and they used Narcan to revive me. I remember becoming aggressive. No one told me that Narcan has those side effects. I think more training is needed more frequently.” All of us who have experience using our training agree that even though Narcan has side effects like being sick and aggressive towards others, Narcan saves lives. As one person grimly put it, “I’d rather be sick than dead.”
When asked about other types of intervention, we discovered that a few of us use cell phone apps to keep track of our sobriety. One of those apps is called Clean Time, a clean day counter for anyone recovering from alcohol, drugs, smoking, gambling or any other bad habit. It helps to keep track of years, months and days you are sober. One person also makes use of it for his daily meditation, to schedule appointments, and for gratitude prayers. As he put it, “The app motivates me and reminds me of where I’m at.”
Very early on in our conversations, the topic switched to other interventions that work. We found that the more we talked, the more we realized that we have a lot of things in common. Collectively, we have substance use challenges and have lived through incarceration and periods of homelessness. Some of us also battle with mental health issues. Having access to mental health services at the same site where we get treatment services is crucial, because we are more inclined to participate when it is convenient and easily accessible.
Our experiences tell us that treatment works when coupled with individual and group counseling sessions, other forms of therapy, and attending group meetings. Some of us work one on one with a therapist. They meet us where we’re at. We set goals for ourselves and our therapist helps us achieve those goals and makes us accountable if we slip up. One of us said, “It’s personal. I talk about my issues and feel more comfortable.” Another said, “I’ve been shot at and I have PTSD. Talk therapy makes me feel better versus taking meds. Pills make me sick. I also do art therapy and breathing techniques. My therapist is great! It’s eye opening for me because she lets me know that I have to give myself a chance and that she has my back.” A third person shared, “Let’s have more meetings, like 3-4 times a week. NA works for me. When I stay connected and go to meetings, I stay clean.” A new S:US participant also shared with us his journey: “This is my first time at S:US. The staff welcomed me with open arms. There is no coddling. I’m 45 days clean and that’s never happened before. The counselors here genuinely care, they keep me going. I also met new friends who are serious about their recovery.”
Other Services to Help with Our Journey to Recovery
A lot of us are homeless or have had periods of homelessness. We want access to affordable housing with after care services a few times a week in neighborhoods where there are no drugs around. Physical exercise also helps. One person said, “I work out regularly. Physical activity is important to get the mind right.” Another person also mentioned, “Since we have a lot of down time, we should aim to better ourselves by taking vocational courses, doing arts and crafts, taking computer classes, learning about home economics and how to keep a home.” When one person exclaimed, “I want to learn how to live right again and how to maintain it,” the rest of us nodded our heads in agreement.
Finding gainful employment is also important in feeling whole again. A few of us have had success with getting a job at S:US. One person quipped, “I am clean and sober, which I need to be to find employment. I became a certified Residential Aide at S:US.” Another shared that he works as a farming assistant in one of S:US’ urban farms. “The job helps with my self-esteem and it motivates me. I like my job.” While some of our experiences in finding a job are varied, what they have in common is the importance of the support and resources made available to us through organizations like S:US, and programs designed specifically for our needs.
As we finished our focus group, we began to feel both a sense of camaraderie and accomplishment. Our experiences bond us. Another thing that bonds us is our appreciation for S:US. The staff is warm, caring and sensitive to our issues. They are experienced professionals and show interest in our lives. One person shared, “S:US attends to my problems. Because S:US cares, I want to be clean. They have my best interest at heart.” Another said, “I love S:US – the people, the staff, the clients. I feel I belong here. They can relate with me. I’ve been clean for two years and this place saved my life.” Another person said it best: “S:US is like a family. I look forward to coming here, to be around my family motivates me to be a better person. While we might miss our real families, this right here with S:US – this is our family now.”