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Helping others is key to recovery for two Rhode Island addiction survivors

Sreehitha Gandluri

Youthcast Media Group™

Addiction led Rhonda Warren and Paul Moore to years of despair, including prison. Recovery set them free – and put them on the road to helping others with their hard-won wisdom.

Peer counseling is frequently part of the journey of addiction recovery. Studies show its benefits include reducing the length of hospital stays and symptoms of depression and anxiety for patients, along with boosting the self confidence and skills of the counselors themselves.

“Peers have what we call lived experience. Their experiences may be something that the person can identify with very strongly, and that can be very helpful to them in not only helping them to stick with their treatment but in also providing them hope,” said Dr. Elinore McCance-Katz, a Rhode Island psychiatrist and former administrator of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

“They a lot of times are a linkage for us, to help to keep people engaged and offer hope to people, because they are in their recoveries and able to talk about what it was like for them,” she said. “And people who are trying to recover can often benefit from hearing of their experience and getting support from them.”

That can be healing for the helpers as well as those they help.

Warren, of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, faced trauma as a child. She said her parents divorced when she was a baby, her father was an alcoholic and living with her mother was difficult.

“She had different boyfriends and abusive relationships, so we got to see all of that,” Warren said.

Rhonda Warren shares her experience with addiction at the young age of 15, and how it eventually led to her incarceration.

Warren eventually turned to drugs and became addicted. “Drinking and smoking weed led to the harder stuff, especially having a child at the age of 15,” she said.

She found herself homeless and spiraling, especially after losing custody of her daughter.

“I ran away from home. My daughter was already taken,” she said. “I ended up hanging out on the street, hanging in the bars and shoplifting.”

Soon after, she began selling the drugs she had become addicted to. “I really thought I was going to die in active addiction,” she said.

The first time police caught her selling drugs, they let her off with a warning. But the second time, an undercover police officer arrested her.

Warren compared her experience in prison to being homeless: “It’s kind of like being on the street. You’re getting in trouble in jail. You get into fights in jail. You’re not getting the support you need. I never had a psych doctor in jail that would help me get on meds and get stable.”

Like Warren, Moore also suffered childhood trauma before he started using drugs and drinking at 14. That led to an addiction to prescription medication, which he resold to get other drugs, arrests for drug possession and time behind bars.

After experiencing childhood trauma, Paul Moore turned to prescription medication for comfort, which led to addiction.

“I had been abused physically and emotionally by a teacher very young, and I don't remember for the next 40 years after that ever feeling comfortable in my own skin,” said Moore, who also lives in Rhode Island.

Moore’s experience in prison hardened him more.

“There’s a dark cloud of impending doom always over your shoulder,” he said. “In just two short weeks of being in prison, I actually learned how to be more of a criminal than I was when I got in there.”

McCance-Katz has seen similar situations in her career. While the experiences are always a little different, she said, people with substance use disorders and severe mental illness often have abuse and traumatic experiences in their backgrounds. ”It's also possible that when someone is under the influence of substances, they become more vulnerable to traumatic experiences because it's easier for others to take advantage of them,” she said.

As a peer counselor, Moore now understands how much the prison system has failed those with substance abuse and mental health issues.

“We got 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s criminals. It’s an industry to make money and it’s broken. It doesn’t work,” he said. “Other countries have looked at decriminalization and so on and are treating substance abuse as a wellness issue.”

McCance-Katz shared similar sentiments.

“The unfortunate case in our country is that jails and prisons have become the de facto mental institutions in our country,” she said. “It's my strong opinion… that we do not provide appropriate care and treatment for those with serious mental illnesses and severe substance use disorders. It is not a crime to have a mental illness.”

For Warren, Moore, and countless others, peer counseling has shed light that has helped them move forward in their lives. And Warren has seen the impact she’s had on those she counsels.

“A lot of them know me from when I was out there on the streets. If they see me doing this thing, they get some hope that they can do this,” she said.

“If I could help one person throughout the day, then I did my job.”

Sreehitha Gandluri is a high school senior from Clarksburg, Md. who has been published in USA TODAY, the Washington Blade and Black News and Views. She worked on this article with Laura Ungar, a Youthcast Media Group mentor-editor and Associated Press medical/science writer.

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