You are a former New York City police Department officer. When you were a new officer serving the community, what was your understanding of opioid addiction and medication-assisted treatment (MAT), and how has your understanding evolved?
When I first became a New York City Police officer, I had little to no understanding of substance use disorders or how to identify or interact with individuals who had a substance use disorder. Our training mainly focused on policing in diverse communities and dealing with people who had emotional disturbances. My understanding of MAT was even more limited. For example, a fellow officer might point out a person they thought looked like they were on methadone. We would see people standing on the street, and officers would make comments such as, “They’re the walking dead.” In the academy, there was a lot of emphasis and education about the crack epidemic of the 1980s and early 1990s. However, our training was simply to be as cautious as possible when dealing with people with substance use disorders because they’re unpredictable.
Since my tenure as an officer and throughout my recovery journey, I have come to understand that people with substance use disorders come in all shapes and sizes. I look back at my time as a police officer and wish that I could have been more understanding and empathetic to people suffering from addiction. I can sadly admit that I looked down upon them but was in immense denial that I was, in fact, one of them. Once I grasped addiction as a disease, I realized that just like any other ailment, treatment is an option and is necessary. I have explored and researched MAT. I understand that what worked for me may not necessarily work for another, so it is important to have an open mind. I have also come to see that MAT is most effective when it is used alongside treatment services, such as individualized therapy, intensive inpatient and outpatient services, and 12-step or self-help groups.
You are in recovery from an opioid use disorder. Part of your journey involved treatment at a program in Pennsylvania specifically designed for first responders. What are the unique aspects that make this treatment program helpful for first responders?
When I first walked into Mirmont Treatment Center in Media, Pennsylvania, I was unaware of how much help I needed. I chose to go there because of a first responder program called Valor with Integrity Program for Emergency Responders (VIPER). I felt as though I was unique and that there wasn’t anyone who would truly understand what I was going through. What made VIPER an excellent experience for me was that I could sit with other officers, firefighters, combat Veterans, and other first responders who have had similar experiences I had on the job. I was able to see that I am not unique, and even though I was an officer, I was still very capable of being addicted to drugs. This program also was able to show and teach me the empathy I was lacking while I was an active officer. I learned that the job and badge didn’t define who I was and didn’t make me superhuman. It was the first time in a long time that I was able to be proud of myself. VIPER and the services at Mirmont gave me an understanding of what I was lacking and an introduction to the tools I would need to recover. VIPER was helpful to me and others because there are aspects of life working as a first responder that many people do not understand. You experience some amazing moments of life and see the absolute best of people, as well as the worst of people.
You recently worked as a peer specialist and house manager at a Phoenix House on Long Island, a nonprofit drug and alcohol rehabilitation program. You have said you should be dead instead. How did your own experiences guide your work with the men you served?
While working as a credentialed alcoholism and substance abuse counselor (CASAC) and lead recovery support specialist with Phoenix House, I was able to apply what I have learned through my recovery process to help better the clients we served. I liked them to know that there is no difference between them and me—the only difference is I was lucky enough to find a solution and work hard to regain my life, and that they can do the same.
I often see people who feel defeated because they are in treatment again. I try to convey that being in treatment is a victory and something of which they should be proud. It is an amazing thing when someone falls but is willing to continue to fight. In my opinion, people with substance use disorders tend to let their behaviors and actions define who they are. Maybe we have done some things that we are not proud of, but we do not run from them or let them determine who we will be for the rest of our lives. We learn, make amends, and use them as lessons of a life to which we do not want to return. We use these actions, experiences, and behaviors to help another person in the midst of addiction find their way to a life of recovery and health. I loved being a police officer but am prouder to say that I am in recovery from addiction. Without recovery, I would never be able to live the life I have today and be able to appreciate it with a heart of gratitude.
As other law enforcement officers hear your story, what is one key takeaway that you hope they will carry with them in their work after hearing about your experience of addiction, treatment, and recovery?
I would like them to think about how they would want someone to treat a family member if they were experiencing addiction. The stigma surrounding addiction has lessened over the years, but there is still much naivety surrounding it. I want the training law enforcement officers receive for people with emotional disturbances to be expanded and applied to someone experiencing addiction. It is very important for officers to be safe and return to their families after every shift. One way to be safe is to take some time to understand the population you come across. Since I left the department, there has been some advancement in training. Most officers are required to carry naloxone on them now, which is vital to saving a life from an overdose. When I was a child, my dream was to be a police officer—never did I think I would be a person with a substance use disorder. The person you are treating with naloxone at one point had a dream of their own, and hopefully, one day will be able to fulfill that dream.
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