BUCKHANNON — In the world of alcohol and drug addiction, change typically starts with hitting rock bottom.
For longtime recovery coach, Randall Brown with the Opportunity House in Buckhannon, there was no mistaking which moment qualified as his “rock bottom.”
Brown, who is the longest continually working recovery coach in the state of West Virginia — as well as the best, according to Opportunity House executive director, Matt Kerner — remembers that critical juncture as if it happened yesterday.
Brown relayed that experience, while serving as the facilitator for a motivational interviewing group, which took place during a recent Public Addiction Recovery Meeting Wednesday, Nov. 15, in the Virginia Thomas Law Center for the Performing Arts on the campus of West Virginia Wesleyan College.
Wesleyan’s entrepreneurial club, ENACTUS, sponsored the event, with club president Sam Brody noting that addiction “can really happen to anybody.”
Throughout the evening, individuals in recovery shared their stories of how their addictions transitioned from “fun” experiences to “fun experiences with problems” to simply worsening problems — problems with maintaining employment, issues with relationships, isolation from beloved family members and run-ins with law enforcement.
Brown’s turning point came when he was homeless, living under a bridge along Route 52.
“I had just gotten fired from a child care agency while I was the program director,” Brown recalled. “About four months into my relapse, I was sleeping under the bridge.”
One morning, Brown woke up because he thought it was raining.
“I said to myself, ‘well, let me roll over because I certainly don’t want to get wet,’” Brown said. “Now, when I rolled over, it wasn’t raining. It was a dog that has his leg up [and was peeing on me]. Now, people laugh when I tell that story, but I hope nobody in their life ever has the opportunity for a dog to piss on you.”
Brown didn’t have anywhere to shower; he wasn’t welcome at his mother’s or brother’s or sister’s or friends’ houses. He had no one.
“I couldn’t go anywhere; I didn’t have any friends,” Brown said. Luckily, he found refuge in a fellowship home in Beckley.
“I realized in that moment that I had to get off the ground,” Brown said. “I sat there and I cried, and I thought, ‘Randall, how in the world did you get to the point in life where an animal’s urinating on you?’ It was time to do something different or go back under the bridge.”
Brown said sometimes those who try to “rescue” individuals struggling with addiction only prevent them from hitting the rock bottom they need to hit; that “bottom” often serves as a catalyst for real change.
“Sometimes, the rescue of us is only hurting us,” Brown said. “The thought is, ‘Oh, I can’t let him be homeless, what’ll he do?’ Well, let us be something. It’s different for everybody, but everybody has to hit one (rock bottom).”
Brown asked a group of people in recovery sitting in a semi-circle around the stage to share their stories of addiction – particularly the way the course of their addictions progressed from fun times to turmoil and mounting problems.
For Chris, the turnaround point came when he no longer recognized himself in the mirror.
“It got to the point where I was mixing alcohol (with other drugs) and ended up overdosing in the hospital, in and out of the hospital all summer long,” Chris said. “It got to the point where, like, I lost my best friend, to this disease — like my best friend. And I still didn’t stop. I was wrapped up in that lifestyle, wrapped up with the people I thought were my friends … depending on them to make me happy, depending on the drugs to make me happy.
“It began to be a problem when I began to be a person that I wasn’t anymore, and I didn’t even know myself anymore,” he continued, “and I just couldn’t identify with myself anymore.”
Another participant, Michelle, said she knew she had to make different decisions when she got lost on a simple trip to her local bank.
“What happened to me was I started losing my memory,” she said. “I would get in the car to drive to Progressive Bank, and I couldn’t find the bank, and it was like right in front of me. I ended up down an embankment on the railroad tracks. I had no idea how I got there. [My drug habit] was taking away my memory and then after that, I had a couple suicide attempts because it just became a horrible, horrible life.”
There were echoes of Michelle’s story in Brian’s.
“I couldn’t figure out why I kept ending up in the hospital, in the psych ward, then you know like, there were suicide attempts, more suicide attempts, hospitals, more hospitals, broken glass, ending up in the regional (jail),” Brian recalled.
And when getting high was no longer fun, Brian only used for one reason, and one reason only – “to get the courage to commit suicide,” he said.
“I got to the point where there was no point in living anymore,” Brian said. “I was alone, I was completely alone, spiritually bankrupt.”
Brown asked one participant, James, to talk about his near-death experience from heroin overdose.
“My friends took me to a shower and put me under some cold water and basically brought me back,” James said, “but I just went about my day like nothing really happened. It didn’t really bother me at the time… it kind of scared me a little bit.
Brown asked, “Just a little bit? And the reason I say it like that is because those that don’t have our issues don’t understand how we can damn near die and minimize the experience, but it happens all the time — we minimize it.”
Brown said one of the phrases people in the Opportunity House don’t use is ‘doing good.’
“We don’t talk about doing good; we talk about doing better,” Brown said. “And we don’t talk about trying; we talk about doing … trying does not involve doing in recovery.”
Matt Kerner, executive director of the Opportunity House, said Wednesday’s forum was a step in the right direction as far as breaking down the stigma surrounding addiction. For so long, addicts in long-term recovery — like himself — have been afraid to speak out for fear of losing relationships, being fired from jobs and experiencing social ostracism.
“There are 25 million people in America living in long-term recovery — people like myself — and up until now, we haven’t had much of a voice because the shame and guilt associated with addiction, we’ve hidden behind the anonymity of our 12-step programs,” Kerner said. “That [guilt and shame] keeps [recovering addicts] from reaching out and helping other people trying to recover, but that is starting to change.
“Sometimes, I get tired of listening to myself talk, but I know I need to keep telling my story until everybody else is comfortable telling their story,” Kerner said.