- Associated Press - Saturday, March 11, 2017

SALISBURY, Md. (AP) - People who struggle with addiction share a common bond the rest of us cannot grasp. They are intimately familiar with how opioids like heroin change an addict’s worldview, decision-making process and priorities in ways the rest of us can’t begin to understand.

Recovering addicts are also all too aware of how fragile a decision to get clean can be. Those decisions, perhaps reached in the depths of the night or middle of a weekend, can be fleeting. The resolve to change melting away in the cold light of morning with grueling hours or days still to go before gaining access to the kind of help that’s needed to stay on track.

That’s the reason Wicomico County’s Community Outreach Addictions Team exists. COAT was launched in June 2016 as a joint initiative to help combat the growing opioid addiction crisis in Wicomico County.

Fully funded by city and county government and administered through the county health department, COAT team members are recovering addicts who have met specific criteria in terms of recovery. As peer support workers, they play a unique role in the effort to help active users escape the bonds of addiction.

They use what they have learned in their own journeys to help others navigate the path to recovery.

Tasha Jamison, 40, of Delmar is employed by the Wicomico County Health Department as a registered peer supervisor.

“Although heroin was the driving force that led to creation of COAT,” Jamison said, “we help with all kinds of addiction.”

Her COAT team members step in whenever needed, and may be summoned by parents, law enforcement or emergency room personnel during a moment of crisis.

“We have an unbelievable collaboration that’s unlike anything seen in other communities,” Jamison said. “Our law enforcement agencies and hospital get calls from around the state.”

The help provided by COAT team members is appreciated, Jamison said, adding police officers and hospital personnel appreciate the extra help in linking addicts with resources. COAT members don’t stop at responding to hospital visits. They engage users after hours, post-hospital, and try to keep them engaged in recovery activities.

“They also provide important assistance with necessary documentation, like licenses, and basically try to break down any and all excuses and barriers to recovery,” Jamison said.

Typically, she said, a call will come in on a Friday evening. Someone is ready to make a lifestyle change, but there’s no place to send them until Monday.

“That’s when COAT steps in, and engages that person throughout the weekend, until we can connect them with the resources they need,” she said. “Team members talk about options like Vivitrol or Suboxone. They answer questions, and point them toward the facility that will best meet their needs.”

The COAT team has three members at this time. Cristen Phillips is one of those members.

Cristen Phillips, 29, lives on Hoopers Island, in Dorchester County. She works full-time for the Wicomico County Health Department as a peer specialist and a member of the COAT team. She grew up in Cambridge.

“When I finished high school,” she explained, “I was an honor roll student with a full scholarship to nursing school.”

Her parents divorced when Cristen was 23.

“At that point, when all the attention was on my parents as they went through the divorce, I ran wild,” she said, “It wasn’t so much in my DNA to become an addict, but instead it happened by association, as a result of who I was hanging around with.”

Cristen didn’t know much about addiction, she just did what her friends were doing.

“We’d drink a beer, do some cocaine every so often,” she said. “I didn’t understand addiction until I encountered heroin. I couldn’t control it, I had to have this drug every day. But I like to be in control.”

She kept her habit a secret until her first overdose. She was in Cambridge at the time, living with her parents. At this point, she had a 4-year-old daughter.

“They found out, and they pushed drug classes on me,” Cristen said. “They stipulated that I had to attend the classes to keep my child.”

She stayed clean for eight months with that first attempt at rehab. She stopped attending meetings and classes because she got the feeling that she had it under control. But she made one mistake - she did not change who she associated with socially.

“This took me right back to where I was before. I OD’d again in Philadelphia. My child was with me at that time,” she said. “There were no consequences, but there should have been. So I just continued doing what I was doing and forgot it happened.”

She returned to rehab again after a year or so.

“The day I left rehab, I used,” she admitted. “I didn’t take it seriously. I didn’t listen, I was just set on doing whatever I wanted. I was a lost cause at that point. It just was what it was. I gave up. Rehab didn’t work the second time either.”

“Every ‘never’ I said - things I said I would ‘never’ do - happened,” Cristen said. “I would get clean at home, alone, but then I’d go out and do it again. Every time, the addiction got worse. I said I’d never use a needle, but I did.”

And then there was her daughter.

“Everyone always said to me, ‘Look at your beautiful child. Isn’t she enough?’ But they didn’t understand,” she continued, searching for the right words. “My love for her never changed, but I had to use drugs so I could take care of her. You don’t know any other way. If I didn’t have it that day, she might not have lunch or get dressed.”

Cristen paused to collect her emotions.

“Things started coming into perspective after my first arrest,” she said. “I was helping a friend who had run out of gas. I picked her up. She had been under surveillance the whole trip, and she had what I needed.”

After she was arrested, her father picked up her daughter, but refused to post bail for Cristen until five days later. When he did, he stipulated she had to enter a one-year rehab program.

“But I weaseled out of that, too,” she admitted.

Another two years of addiction passed.

“By now, I had nobody,” she said. “Dad kept a roof over our heads, but that was all. I don’t know where I’d be if not for him. Truthfully, maybe that was what I needed. I needed to find the bottom, because he always made sure I had a place to live. He was the only one I had, he was my enabler.”

In February 2014, Cristen was pulled over for failing to wear a seatbelt. The officer searched her car - with permission.

“I had paraphernalia, but I thought I wouldn’t be jailed. I was,” she said. This time there was no bail, and she spent four months in the Dorchester County jail.

That was Cristen’s pivotal moment.

“It took a long time to convince anyone to listen to me and believe what I was saying,” she said. “I knew I wanted no more jail and no more drugs, but I also knew if I hit the streets in Cambridge again, that’s where I’d end up.”

Cristen left jail after four months, and entered a six-month rehab program in Baltimore - which was the city she used to drive to for drugs.

“I was wary at first,” she said, “but I used that wariness as my strength to succeed. If I could stay clean in Baltimore, I could come back home and stay clean. I moved to Hooper’s Island, and to this day I rarely go to Cambridge, except to drive through.”

From Baltimore, she moved to a halfway house in Salisbury. Like many recovering addicts, she had trouble finding a job.

“This was a really big issue for me,” she said. “I felt I was clean, had done everything I was supposed to do, but still I was not good enough to get hired. I was almost at the point of giving up hope again, wondering if it would always be this way. And then I was hired by Red Door Sub Shop. After having a not-so-great work history, this really meant a lot to me.”

That’s when she started attending classes at Wor-Wic Community College, where she is finishing a medical assistant program.

Cristen found her position with COAT through her mother, someone who she felt hadn’t always been supportive.

“She said she couldn’t watch me do bad,” she said. “But she went to a church meeting with me, a support group for family members. I was the only addict in my family, and everyone had questions for me about their own children. I think it was after this that she began to believe I could do it. It was a big starting point for us, we hadn’t spoken in a long time.”

Cristen believes if they hadn’t gone to that meeting together, she might not have found about the COAT position she now holds. Her mother had always worked in the social services field, and Cristen said she often felt more like her mother’s patient than her daughter. She felt she could never meet her mother’s high expectations, felt she was always failing her.

“I used her as my excuse to use drugs,” she admitted. “She wasn’t an affectionate person, never told me she loved me. She was just raised that way. Our relationship now is the best we’ve ever had, even before I was involved with drugs.”

“As an active addict,” Cristen said, “I didn’t know about any available resources to help me. Now, I can share how those resources that helped me with others, and that means a lot, because three years ago, I was them.”

Jamison said the collaboration with law enforcement is so strong, sometimes now when deputies find marijuana during a traffic stop, or if the person they stop has previously been identified as a user, that officer will recommend COAT instead of jail.

Cristen started working for COAT because of her ability to perform so well,” Jamison said.

Funding to cover Cristen’s full-time salary as a peer support worker came from the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention, through Salisbury’s Safe Streets program. The program is a partnership between the Wicomico County and Salisbury city governments, the Wicomico County Health Department, State’s Attorney’s Office and Sheriff’s Office, among other.

COAT has also partnered with the Wicomico County Detention Center to support re-entry programs for inmates, including Vivitrol programs, as well as for following up on the counseling services provided while a person is incarcerated.

Life Crisis refers calls to COAT, too. It’s a number that people who are battling addiction can call and know that someone will answer, no matter what time of day it is.

Anyone can cal, but most calls come from Peninsula Regional Medical Center’s emergency department or from law enforcement officers.

Cristen noted the importance of the free Narcan training sessions at the Wicomico Public Library, which happen on the second Tuesday of each month from 6-7:30 p.m.

“I wouldn’t be here if not for Narcan - literally,” she said. “I know it’s been brought up to eliminate Narcan, and we’ve been asked to explain how it helped us.”

She said it should be available to everyone, including active users.

“It gives us an opportunity to make things right,” she explained.

All COAT members are trained and carry Narcan, also known as naloxone.

“You never know when you will encounter someone overdosing,” she said.

And if the user isn’t ready yet to commit to recovery?

“We let them know we’ll be there for them whenever they’re ready,” she said.

Jamison pointed out that the number of overdoses has dropped since COAT was launched in the community, and calls are also down.

“I can’t prove a correlation,” she said, “but numbers are what they are.”

Cristen, meanwhile, has turned her her worst nightmare into a positive force because of COAT, which provides her an opportunity to give hope to others.

“It’s one chapter in my life, and thus far,” she said, “it’s my biggest accomplishment.”

___

Information from: The Daily Times of Salisbury, Md., https://www.delmarvanow.com/

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