The road to recovery

........................................................................................................................................................................................

(Editor’s note: This is the sixth of a year-long monthly series about how alcohol and drug addiction affects the community and how those affected work to achieve a better life.)

Julia M. Dendinger-News-Bulletin photo: Told he would never walk again, Matthew Brant has beaten many odds in his life. Not only standing, but standing clean and sober for a year now, Brant is a graduate of the intensive outpatient program offered by Partners in Wellness at The Recovery and Wellness Center in Los Lunas.

Matthew Brant was ready.

He had given his mother power of attorney so she could take care of his two children and made sure she had the mini-van he had purchased. He had nothing left; no estate to dispose of, no belongings to parcel out to family and friends.

Last year, Brant went to the house of his heroin dealer.

“I decided I was just going to live there,” Brant says. “And die there.”

After three days, his mother beat down the door, physically dragged him out of the house and threw him in the mini-van.

“She beat the (expletive) out of me, took me home and detoxed me,” he said, smiling.

After a week of unending agony, Brant knew this time was different.

“When I was laying there, in that room, God was there,” he said. “I knew I didn’t want to be this monster anymore.”

After years of rehab and half-way houses, this time was different.

“I didn’t want to live that way anymore,” Brant said.

So he went to the one other place that would take him. The Recovery and Wellness Center in Los Lunas, home of Partners in Wellness. Because of staffing changes and medically necessary absences, Brant has gone through the six-month intensive outpatient program twice before.

A proud graduate, Brant is part of the program’s Moving Forward program, which helps graduates continue in their recovery process.

Brant, a Los Lunas resident, is a sterling example of what the programs can do for its clients. While a great number of the services focus on recovery from substance abuse, Administrative Director Anne Martinez says there are many other services residents can access at the center.

There are parenting groups, group counseling sessions exclusively for women, those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, sessions for anger management and individual counseling.

Their intensive outpatient clients often use these services, Martinez said, as well as those in the Moving Froward and Explorations groups.

“We offer service to everybody,” Martinez said. “We accept those with Medicare and Medicaid and private insurance, as well as the under insured and uninsured.

“We do that through the great state of New Mexico recognizing the level of need and allocating certain dollars to nonprofit providers for services for under and uninsured clients. Those we serve know this. We never want to worry that somebody out there doesn’t know they can walk into PIW and get services.”

Partners in Wellness is based at The Center for Recovery and Wellness, a state-owned facility that opened in February 2011. Unlike many recovery centers, clients do not have to be in the criminal justice system to avail themselves of services.

“We will have three generations of family members walk in together, in unity, supporting each other to break the tragedy of addiction,” Martinez said. “They are not coming in with heads hung in shame. They are coming with open hearts. That’s what recovery is.

“We recognize that addiction is a community problem and the stigma that so many sadly apply is not helping anything. The fact that people are able to openly go to a wonderful place of service and receive expert care for addiction, absent the shame, really promotes the aspects of recovery.”

The original vision of the public/private partnership for the center came in 2005 from New Mexico State Sen. Michael S. Sanchez and Pamela S. Hyde, former New Mexico Cabinet Secretary for the Human Services Department and current head of the substance abuse and mental health services administration.

A native of Valencia County, Sanchez said he has seen many families struggle with addiction.

“I know people who have lost loved ones because we don’t have the services to treat them,” Sanchez said.

One example he gives is the story of a young man he knew in another community. He was ready to get help, his family was in full agreement.

The inpatient facility he went to on a Friday didn’t have an open bed. He was told to come back on Monday. He overdosed over the weekend.

“Our approach to the problem is usually to incarcerate, instead of prevention and treatment and access,” Sanchez said. “You pretty much have to commit a crime if you just want help.”

Even when the recovery center was still just a sketch on a legal pad in his office, Sanchez said there was always a grand plan, a master plan for the facility.

It would start with an intensive outpatient facility, followed by an inpatient dorm for women — a dorm where they could bring their children — and finally a men’s dorm.

The outpatient facility has been built and open for three years, but despite legislative appropriations to the tune of $6 million, the next phase has yet to come.

“The plan was for this to also be a clearinghouse for information, to connect people to help,” Sanchez said. “It has worked so far. They get so many calls, it’s unbelievable.”

And while the facility is based in Valencia County, it is a resource for the entire state, Sanchez says.

“Drug addiction isn’t just a problem here. It’s across the state, the country and there are not enough beds for treatment,” he said. “We know we have to work on this 100 percent of the time. There is no such thing as part-time addiction.”

Since PIW began offering services, its counselors have seen nearly 4,000 clients, more than 1,300 people a year.

Deanna Sanchez, a licensed master social worker with PIW, says one of the things she most enjoys about the program is that the doors are always open, even for those without insurance.

“The really nice thing is our availability. And it’s not just addiction. We have a recovery theme that connects to everything,” she said.

Many of the issues the program treats are present before the addiction and are exacerbated by substance abuse.

During her group and individual sessions, Deanna Sanchez doesn’t candy-coat the situation for her clients. It’s going to be a hard process and there is a chance at relapse.

“It takes the brain six months to start functioning differently,” she said. “Just like there is a recovery process, there is also a relapse process. Does that give them the right to relapse? No.”

Instead it gives them an opportunity to use the tools they have been given to recognize that “relapse drift” and correct it.

“I don’t take responsibility for their addiction. I can give them the tools and techniques, teach them how to recognize and avoid their triggers, but if they don’t apply those tools, it won’t work,” Sanchez said.

It’s hard to see a client relapse, but there’s a good chance they will get back on course fairly quickly, she said.

“After that six-month period, if they relapse, they realize they liked themselves clean. They realize they like themselves,” Deanna Sanchez said. “I love this work. The people I work with are amazing. They are funny and smart and see the world a little bit differently.”

And being addicted to a substance gives you a very different view on the world, Brant says.

“For years, there were trips to Mexico to bring pot back over the border, women, money and guns,” Brant said. “It was the ‘gangsta’ life’ and it was great. Until it wasn’t.”

It took Brant a long time to get to the “wasn’t” part. His first encounter with drugs was smoking an angel dust-laced joint at age 5, then crawling home along a ditchbank with his brother because the hallucinations were so bad.

Trying to be one of the “cool kids” in high school and doing meth, then skipping school to get high, he finally just dropped out all together after repeating the ninth grade for the third time.

Repeated back injuries introduced opiates to his repertoire of substances. The overdose of his second wife and mother of his children led him back to meth because he needed to be strong and competent to take care of his kids, and he remembered that near-indestructible feeling meth gave him.

Brant listened to his brother’s last breath after shooting a speedball and remembers being furious: Angry not that his brother’s death was senseless, but because now he had to try and get him to a hospital and couldn’t get high.

Now, at 40, Brant walks with the help of two canes — something doctors said he would never do.

“They don’t know me. They don’t know my God,” he says.

He is living with his mother and children, ages 13 and 11. He is applying for aid to get a house for himself and the children, so his mother can live her own life.

Brant is under a pain management plan that involves narcotic medications. The plan is strictly monitored by his primary care physician and a pain specialist.

“I go in every month, get tested,” he said. “I am working with a pain specialist to find a non-narcotic solution. I want to get off all of them for good eventually.”

On a scale of one to 10, Brant says his pain is a seven, all day, every day.

But for now, there is something stronger than his pain that keeps Brant going, that keeps him on the path of recovery: His desire to help.

He says addiction spreads like wildfire — someone turns you on, then you turn on two more people, and so it goes like some pyramid scheme from hell.

But you can fight fire with fire.

“Now I turn people onto recovery,” Brant said. “Every time I see somebody who needs help, I tell them to come here. I insist. Right now, there are five people I’ve referred here getting help. I get a lot of satisfaction from helping.”

Brant isn’t the only one who derives satisfaction from helping people recover from addiction. The members of the Tears of Strength and Support, a nonprofit organization that provides drug education and rehabilitation resources to the addict, the family and the community, are taking the fight against addiction out to the public.

“We have to be honest with them, educate them,” says TOSS founding member Stacy Johnston. “They need to know the consequences. They need to know how to respond when someone asks them if they want to experience the best high they ever had. Because it is. That first time. And you never get it back.”

A native of West Texas and a mother to a daughter once addicted to meth, Johnston believes young people need to be told the hard facts about drugs like meth — what’s it made from, the effects it has on your skin and teeth.

“If ‘just say no to drugs’ worked, we wouldn’t have addicted kids,” she said.

When parents come to TOSS, it’s often with a sense of guilt. Where did they go wrong? How did they fail as parents?

Patty Gutierrez, also a founding member of TOSS, says one of the first things she learned was that addiction was a family problem and to let go of the guilt she carried.

“You realize you can’t run anymore and you can’t save them,” Gutierrez said. “Those who are addicted have ostracized their whole family. They do a lot of ugly things to get where they are. But, as a parent, you want to protect your child always.”

By acknowledging that desire to protect and turning it outward, to wanting to protect and educate all families and the community, TOSS member Stephen Stephens hopes to begin changing the cultural and societal acceptance of drug use and abuse.

“Until we realize that if we aren’t part of the solution, we’re part of the problem, and say these things are not acceptable, nothing will get better,” Stephens said. “We are in a cultural and familial denial. This is in our own lives and we don’t know how to deal with it.”

Stephens says the first step in battling that denial is developing grassroots groups, such as TOSS — groups that are of the community, for the community, that hold a mirror up to this behavior and say “no more.”

Speaking up is something Johnston has no trouble doing, calling herself a “bit of a community agitator,” to the chuckles of Gutierrez and Stephens.

After traveling back to Texas to place her daughter in a rehab facility that could deal with both her meth addiction and traumatic brain injury, Johnston stormed into Sen. Sanchez’s office for a hard talk.

“I said to him, ‘Really? 400 miles is the best we can do?’ This is unacceptable. How do we change this culture of acceptance,” she demands.

And she looks back to something her mother said.

“She told me, ‘If you don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel, sometimes you have to go down there and light it yourself.’”

The Center for Recovery and Wellness, 750 Morris Rd. SW, Los Lunas, is open from 8 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., Monday to Thursday; 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Friday. For information, call 866-2300, or visit www.partnersinwellnessnm.com.


-- Email the author at jdendinger@news-bulletin.com.