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Peers provide helping hand to those in recovery

The day before Christmas Eve, a group of people recovering from addiction sat around a table at the Carroll County Health Department discussing ways to sustain sobriety during the holidays at a time when it's an even greater challenge.

"How's everybody doing in the holiday season — anyone struggling at all?" asked Vicki Matiukas, addictions counselor for the Health Department. The holiday season presents a number of temptations for people who are struggling to stay sober, Matiukas told the group, which is why she facilitated a discussion about how they can maintain their sobriety.

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Richard McCartney, 32, currently enrolled in the county's Drug Treatment Court, was among those in attendance. McCartney has been addicted to heroin since he was 19, but has been clean for four months.

"I can read papers until I'm blue in the face, but that isn't what helps me," McCartney said. "What helps me is when we pick a topic and discuss it amongst ourselves."

Attendees of the peer recovery meeting were joined by Dale Baker, a certified peer support specialist for the Health Department, who got sober in 1987 after a longtime addiction to alcohol. He and other peer support workers, who may have dealt with addiction themselves, use first-hand experience to provide support and insight to others struggling with addiction.

"The peers are really trying to decrease — and basically the whole system is trying to decrease — the stigma that goes along with addiction," Baker said after the meeting.

Everyone in recovery has their own story, but finding someone to relate to can lighten the load of someone getting sober.

"Knowing what it feels like and being able to empathize with that is helpful," said Heather Coates, a peer recovery support worker with the Health Department.

Coates, who was not at the recent group meeting, is embedded with the Outpatient Mental Health Center and is often paired with people who have mental health issues as well as substance abuse issues, because that is her background as well.

"Working here means you have to be open to telling everyone and anyone [your story]," Coates said. "There are so many people out there who are suffering in silence."

She wasn't used to talking about it before. Coates was diagnosed with major depressive disorder and general anxiety. She also abused prescription narcotics.

Program Director Amy Baker said the peers do not shy away from anything.

"These guys are so remarkable in what they do," she said.

Stacia Smith is the peer assigned to the homeless shelters in the county. Smith was homeless in Baltimore due to her addiction, and got help for her substance abuse in the shelter she ended up staying in.

"I didn't run into the recovery process saying, 'I want to be healed,' " she said. "I wanted to find a place to stay."

Eventually, Smith said, she was not as concerned with immediate needs like food and shelter, and began to hear the message of recovery.

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"In some kind of way, I started to believe that good things could start happening to me," she said.

Now, Smith spends time at the shelter and in the community connecting with the homeless population.

"You can always find me in the park," she said.

Baker said peers do everything from go out into the community to meet with people, like Smith, to helping individuals get to appointments.

Angel Clark, a peer worker assigned to state care coordination, said when she first began, she took it personally when an individual she was meeting with relapsed or overdosed.

"Sometimes I feel like shaking them," she said of the people she works with.

Greg Hendricks, a peer worker assigned to the Carroll County Detention Center and Carroll County Drug Treatment Court said he has learned how to be careful with his language to keep an open dialogue.

Hendricks said he doesn't use the word "but" when talking to someone about their progress. Telling someone they're doing well then following it with what they could do better makes them forget about the good things you just said.

Making accusations also makes someone clam up, according to Hendricks, who draws on his own experiences in the jail and in drug court to get into the minds of current participants.

"If you know someone is lying, what good is it to tell them that they're lying?" he said. Hendricks prefers to listen to people until they feel comfortable enough to be genuine with him.

Clark said she had to learn to accept that the behavior of others is not her responsibility.

Baker said the peers do intense work and people have to be in a good place with their recovery to do the job. The peers make sure to talk to each other when they meet.

"We are each other's peer support," Coates said.

It's been 10 years since Clark used alcohol or drugs, and she said it's good to give back as a peer worker but that alone does not keep her sober. She also attends meetings and works on herself.

Clark began drinking young and had her first blackout when she was 12.

"It was acceptable, as a child, for me to drink," she said.

After she stopped drinking and using drugs, Clark said she was sober for three years before she started using drugs again because she thought alcohol was her problem.

"I thought I would always have a Coors Light longneck in one hand and a joint in the other," she said.

Now, Clark said, she shares her experiences with people who think recovery is out of reach.

"It's really hard for them to see that light when they're just starting," she said. "They just think the sky has fallen and the sun is never going to rise."

Kelley Fitzpatrick said she drank at family functions from a young age and drinking was a weekend activity for most of her youth and her 20s when she worked as a bartender and in sales after college.

"There was a lot of drugs, but I didn't do drugs," she said. "To me, drugs just took you out of the party and I wanted the party."

When she got married and decided to "grow up," Fitzpatrick said she was sober for 11 years while she raised her daughter, then began drinking on weekends then at happy hour during the week.

For eight months, Fitzpatrick said she drank "alcoholically" as an adult.

Fitzpatrick began substance abuse treatment to look good for the judge in her DUI case, but said she realized she was an alcoholic and wouldn't be the best mother she could be if she was drinking.

Now Fitzpatrick works with pregnant women dealing with substance abuse and though she made the decision to stop drinking and smoking when she got pregnant, Fitzpatrick said she leaves her "judgment cap" off when speaking with women.

Baker said the peers deal with a lot of difficult situations, including clients who overdose and commit suicide, but they speak honestly with each other about issues.

"I think the nicest thing that I ever hear from these guys about working here is that it's very safe," she said.

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410-857-7862

Twitter.com/LaurenLoricchio

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