The courthouse in downtown Lincolnton was lit purple on Saturday for International Overdose Awareness Day. The lighting was arranged by Kathy Vinzant, United Way of Lincoln County executive director, and Cory Richardson on behalf of Integrated Care of Greater Hickory/ICGH Lincolnton with Lincoln County Substance Use Coalition and Project Lazarus. The purple glass plates that were put over the flood lights at the courthouse were purchased by Traci Johnson, who lost her son, Joshua, in early 2018 after a 10-year battle with addiction.
A recovering addict himself, Richardson is now the CEO and clinical director of Integrated Care of Greater Hickory, which now has an office in Lincoln County offering medical, behavioral, pharmacy, transitional housing, transportation and comprehensive toxicology services.
“The model that we use is the same one that I did to get clean,”he said. “You’re going to get some counseling. You’re going to see a psychiatrist, if you need some medicine, but you’re going to go to NA or AA whether you like it or not. Then you’re going to work the program. I honestly didn’t think I was going to be able to stay clean and sober but I did exactly the suggested method and guess what? I never picked up again. It’s been 21 years. Now I help other people.”
The medicine that ICGH gives to help addicts with withdrawal, which they only get if they come to counseling, is buprenorphine but it’s very, very expensive so Richardson set up his own pharmacy within ICGH and gives the medicine away free through Partners Behavioral Health Management. There are some agencies, which Richardson calls “dose and go’s,” that give out the medicine and say, “see you next month,” which he doesn’t believe are successful. ICGH tries to get its patients off buprenorphine in six to eight months.
“We brought a grant for $1.5 million to Gaston and Lincoln counties so if the citizens of those counties don’t have insurance, are coming in and out of jail, have Child Protective Services or Department of Social Services cases or are at the shelter, we take them completely,” Richardson said. “Partners reached out to us in 2017 or 2018 and asked us to open an office in Lincolnton.”
Part of ICGH’s services include transitional housing, which Richardson has arranged through funding from the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office and City of Lincolnton Police Department. If patients continue to be in treatment, they are able to utilize the free housing.
“Sheriff Beam is an amazing guy,” Richardson said. “He’s innovative, open to recovery, he doesn’t want to see the jails filled with people who are drug addicted. He and (Lincolnton Police Department) Captain(Brian) Greene have worked very closely with us. They put their money where their month is. A lot of people won’t do that. Addiction is a brain disease, these aren’t bad people. They get clean and sober and they turn their lives around.”
ICGH uses clinicians who are in recovery or have lost someone to addiction, which helps bridge the gap between lived experience and what’s read in a textbook. Becca Collins of Denver is one of those people.
“In my brain, I thought I would die an addict in active use,” she said. “I had a list of agencies on a piece of paper and I called the Hickory office of ICGH and Corey himself answered the phone. Normally there was waiting lists, but this was different. He told me to come in and get the packet and fill it out. They got me in within three days.”
Collins used for 18 years. It started with opioids “thrown at her” by a physician who was treating an illness and before she knew it, she was hooked. She’s been clean almost three years. She tried one of the “dose and go” clinics before going to ICGH but it wasn’t at all successful for her.
“It took time to get hooked and it takes time to clear your mind and get retrained,” she said. “With Integrated Care, we have accountability and that structure that I needed. They taught me how to be a friend, a worker, a mother, a wife.”
While she was in counseling, she told her counselor that she wanted to help. She was invited to start doing peer support and now she’s working on her substance abuse counselor’s license.
“It makes me humble,” she said. “People believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. I have a lot of gratitude for that. Watching these people transition their lives and start loving their selves is an indescribable feeling. These aren’t bad people, that’s a stigma. They’re not bad, they’re sick.
Alicia Lawrence is currently going through the ICGH program in Lincolnton. She started using drugs and alcohol when she was just nine or 10.
“My parents would let us go out and hang with older boys and they were using,” she said. “I used up until I was 39. I started at ICGH in 2018. I was tired of being broke all the time and tired of being tired. I wanted to do it for me, for my kids and God.”
Because of her addiction, Lawrence didn’t graduate from high school.
“I’m going back now to get my GED and either do peer support or go to school to be a CNA,” she said. “I want to give back what’s been given to me.”
Not all of the stories have good endings. Susan Fleming, who lives in Lincolnton, found out about the lighting and, even though she has multiple sclerosis and is mobility challenged, made her way to the courthouse. She lost her only son on May 4, 2018 to an accidental overdose.
“He moved here to help me with my MS,” she said. “He was in NA and dosing with methadone, but they pulled the funding from him after he moved back here. He was on 100 milligrams of methadone daily and went from 100 to zero overnight. The physical and psychological pain was horrible.”
Fleming’s son was in the service but was injured and received opioids for the pain, which “flipped a switch in his brain.”
After a few months, he was seemingly on the road to recovery. He attended NA meetings with his mother, who is also in recovery, until one day he said he didn’t want to go to a particular meeting. He had ordered dried, pure opium off the dark net. It was barely enough to kill him, but it did. His mother came home from the meeting and found him dead in the bathroom.
“We need more resources, more compassion and love,” she said as she fingered a locket containing her son’s picture. “The stigma is hurting people. I found out about this lighting at 5:30 tonight and I could have crawled back in bed and be depressed or be here.”
Johnson was unable to attend the lighting on Saturday but wanted to share this quote:
“Every moment of everyday there is an emptiness, a sadness in the air, it sits with you within every breath you breathe when you lose a child but when you see a community come together like this you are able to smile because you see how much everyone cares.”
ICGH Lincolnton is located at 1228 North Flint Street in Lincolnton. The telephone number is (828) 322-5915 extension 180.