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Becca Collins, Cory Richardson and Alicia Lawrence place a piece of purple glass over the flood lights at the courthouse in downtown Lincolnton to honor International Overdose Awareness Day.

To be caught in the grip of addiction could be described as being set adrift in a large body of water. At first, it’s a pleasant experience to be floating on that high, but in time, like with any disease, addiction takes its toll. It starts to take more or stronger drugs to get that high, health and welfare starts to suffer, and it becomes much more difficult to stay afloat. Drowning, or death, becomes an imminent danger.

There’s a way out, but most people need some sort of hand up to get there. Many of these people end up in jail, which in and of itself can be a vicious cycle. If a person who is suffering from addiction gets arrested and spends time in jail, while they may come off the drugs and/or alcohol while they’re incarcerated, getting out and returning to the same environment may result in a relapse.

This is what happened to Marty. He suffered an injury while at work and was prescribed painkillers. He became addicted to painkillers and methamphetamine. He had previously spent 60 days on a program offered by Integrated Care of Greater Hickory/ICGH Lincolnton, but he violated his probation and ended up in the Lincoln County Detention Center.

“From prison, I had nowhere to go,” he said. “I told my counselor to call ICGH to see if they could help me.”

ICGH is run by Corey Richardson, who is himself a recovering addict. Together with Lincoln County Sheriff Bill Beam, the Lincolnton-based organization has set up a small block of sober living quarters to give addicted individuals the opportunity to go through the program offered by ICGH in a clean environment. The program includes medical, behavioral, pharmacy, transportation and comprehensive toxicology services. It’s based on the same model that Richardson used to get clean.

“It’s given me a safe, calm, drug-free environment to focus on my life and my sobriety,” Marty said. “I’ve been clean six months now and it’s working out great.”

While Marty may have spent time drug-free when he was previously in the ICGH program, he was still living with his wife in a difficult marriage. It’s the safe housing coupled with the daily programs that he has to take part in which offer him coping skills and how to avoid triggers that Marty attributes to his current success.

There are currently five people, three men and two women, enrolled in ICGH’s sober housing. Some of them are covered under the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department and others under other insurance or medical plans.

“This sheriff (Bill Beam) has made a real effort to help people who clearly are drug addicted so they don’t go back to jail,” Richardson said. “Marty had a work injury that put him on disability so his ability to move and function is different. Very often, people who get clean and sober in our program, do go back to work.”

The housing that ICGH offers is very close to the Lincoln County Industrial Park so ICGH patients have ready access to employment.  Staff members from local companies come and talk to the patients about employment opportunities.

“These companies want stable, sober people for employees,” Richardson said. “We offer that employment assistance piece but very often if you get into these situations some employers feel if they’re drug addicted they can’t work. What we say is if you have an employee with diabetes, you don’t fire them, but you do want to make sure they have good medical care.”

Herein lies the problem of being labeled a former addict, formerly incarcerated or formerly homeless. Employers, and even sometimes the general public, will shun that person because somehow they think that they caused the condition through some flawed personality trait.

Looking at a young man like Marty, it may be hard for some people to not blame him for becoming drug addicted and to say, “it’s not my problem to fix it because you did it to yourself” or “don’t use my tax payer dollars to fix your problem.”

“Addiction is a medical condition,” Richardson said. “If you give them the right input, the right type of treatment, whether it’s anxiety or depression, suicidality or addiction, they’re going to get better and they’re going to be better than when they started.”

Of course, the addict has to want to get better, but that’s the case for any disease. A diabetic could take their medicine but continue to eat a poor diet and remain sedentary. They may not die from the disease, at least right away, and they’re unlikely to become healthier. Then there’s the problem with not having the necessary funds to pay for treatment, which is something that addicts and even those with other chronic conditions face. 

That so many people are addicted to opioids because they were prescribed pain medicine for too long or too frequently makes this dilemma that much more compelling. These people are addicted because of doctor mis- or over-prescribed pain medicine. This type of person accounts for approximately 50% of the people that Richardson sees.

“Every medical condition has a behavioral component,” he said. “We look at addiction differently because the symptoms are different – criminality or leaving our children. When the drug hits us, it hijacks the brain, but when we see a psychotic person, or one with schizophrenia, we never say they’re a bad person. We understand that the brain has been hijacked and we account for that. When it comes to addiction, we somehow think that they’re making those decisions with a clear mind and they’re not.”

Another difference in what ICGH offers is that their clinicians, who are all certified and licensed, are often themselves in recovery or have lost someone to addiction which helps bridge the gap between lived experience and what’s read in a text book. 

Becca Collins of Denver is one of those people. 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 for going on three years. Because these clinicians know what an addict goes through, they’re able to offer personal experiences and coping skills.

Alicia was first interviewed by Times-News at the International Overdose Awareness Day at the end of August 2019. She was enrolled in ICGH, but not in the sober housing program. She started using drugs and alcohol when she was just nine or 10. She’d been in jail three different times. It was during the third time that she learned about what ICGH offered. Back in August, Alicia was working, but said that the job wasn’t offering her, as a former addict, a safe environment and she relapsed. Since entering the ICGH sober housing last November, she’s acquired a job working third shift at Aptar.

“When I first got into the program, I wanted what they (the counselors) had,” she said. “I’m 95 days clean now and my children are back in my life now.”

The gender-specific housing offered by ICGH is not glamorous, but it was clean and organized. Alicia is sharing housing with another young woman who is almost a year clean. There’s no limit on how long patients are able to stay with the ICGH sober housing program. If they start working, they are required to pay for their housing.

“If they’re paying their own way, are stable and it’s a good environment for them, why would anyone want them to leave,” Richardson said. “They are helping the next group that’s coming in. This is often the first time some of these people have enjoyed sobriety since they’ve been in their teens. 

Of course, ICGH patients have to take frequent drug tests. A recent highlight of Alicia’s life was that she took a drug test at Aptar, which of course was clean.

“People don’t realize how good it is to take a drug test and not worry about it,” Richardson said. “It’s a new way of life.”

Richardson is working with other agencies in Lincoln County to help with continuing to fund the program he’s offering through ICGH in Lincoln County. He’s determined to keep it going even if he has to take the money out of his own pocket because it’s not about making money but helping people. For more information on ICGH or to donate, visit integratedcarehickory.com or call Richardson at 828-322-5915, extension 180. 

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