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Relapses teach addicts 'where the edge of the cliff is'

Relapses teach addicts 'where the edge of the cliff is'

Each morning, Tara Vermillion's prayer is the same: "God, keep me sober today."

Some days are easy for the 34-year-old recovering drug addict and some days are not. Like last week, when Vermillion's grandmother went to the hospital for a broken hip.

A few months ago, Vermillion would have rushed to pills to dull the emotional pain.

Now, she turns to her roommates in the Papilion House, a nonprofit sober living house for women, and

dissects her feelings and lists her blessings. That, and God, help keep her sober.

"I was homeless, living in a motel. Do I want to go back to that life?" she asks. "No way."

The Papilion House in American Fork is just one path to recovery, and it's the path Vermillion is confident is taking her in the right direction.

Other addicts find healing from addictions through inpatient treatment, intensive outpatient treatment, day reporting centers, court-ordered programs or a combination of all of them.

"There isn't one (treatment plan) that's the best," said Casey Hill, executive director of Utah Support Advocates for Recovery Awareness. "There is one that's right for every person. Our whole purpose is to give them the access to the system in whatever way they need."

And many, like Vermillion, need the ability to come back to their paths after relapses.

"You can't think you have this beat," she said. "You don't. That was my problem. Before, I thought, 'I'm cured.' You're not cured. Relapse will be there all my life."

Life at Papilion House

In the Latin spelling, the word papilion means butterfly — an appropriate name for the home where broken women heal and emerge stronger, more beautiful.

The Papilion House is the creation of Angela Waghorne, a recovering addict who has devoted her life to spreading the message of recovery.

"Integrating into the sober community is imperative," Waghorne said. "The more you realize and appreciate the sober fellowships, the more likely you are to stick around."

She wants her women to do more than just stick around. She wants them to succeed, to learn they are stronger than the drugs. In two years she has helped 27 women.

Each week, Vermillion and her five roommates juggle school, work, Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous meetings, service hours, chores and house meetings.

There are also movie nights, camping and river-rafting trips in the summer, visits from children and significant others and group meals.

Having fun is required in the home, Waghorne says. Sober fun. It's a new concept.

The women learn how to discuss their emotions and how to deal with triggers that bring on drug cravings.

"We want each other to succeed in life," Vermillion said. "Sober living is the best thing I've ever done."

Other pathways

For Nathan Anderson, 24, the path to recovery began in the Utah County Jail.

After racking up more than a dozen meth-related charges, he was ordered by a judge to stay in jail until he finished the On Unit Treatment (OUT) program — a 30-day life-skills course.

Despite years of drug use, it was his first round of treatment. And it worked.

"It was amazing to me," Anderson said. "I thought I had a decent understanding of how life worked, but almost on a daily basis I had these 'aha' moments, a little different way of viewing something."

At age 20, he learned to accept his disease and fix his thinking errors. And once out, he hasn't gone back.

"In my situation, once I tried to get clean, I stayed clean," he said. "I've been clean for over four and a half years. Life just keeps getting better."

Jamie Talbot is anxious to have a story like Anderson's. At age 26 she has already been through inpatient drug treatment seven times, outpatient programs five times and was close to prison.

While sitting in jail, away from her two children, she realized she had to change.

She heard about the Papilion House, and after her release, was granted an interview and welcomed in. Now, she can't imagine where she'd be without the Papilion house.

"I have two jobs, I see my kids on a regular basis, I'm getting married to their dad," she said. "I don't have very much, but I'm grateful for what I do have. I've worked for it, I didn't steal it."

She's been clean for nearly eight months.

The role of relapses

"(A relapse) doesn't mean treatment is a failure, it means that the individual's brain is still drug affected, still experiencing addiction," said Shawn McMillen, executive director of First Step House, an inpatient and outpatient treatment center in Salt Lake City.

The average addict requires treatment seven times before he or she can stay clean on their own, said Seanna Williams, program manager for Utah County's Drug Offender Reform Act (DORA) treatment program for addicts with felony charges or who are first-time parolees.

"Most people have years being an addict," Williams said. "Why would we assume that in three to five months they're all of a sudden going to get it?"

Talbot had used drugs since she was 14. Her brain was changed. She couldn't escape in weeks.

Although Anderson never relapsed, he said it can often be someone's best tool.

"(They) learn where the edge of the cliff is," he said. "(They learn) 'I can't let my stress levels get that high. I can't get to that point again."'

If someone slips, it's an indicator their disease needs more attention. More medicine, different treatment — something to address the underlying emotional trauma that triggers drug use.

Often restarting is beneficial, changing the participation from "compliance, where the guy is jumping through the hoops because he has to, to adherence, where the guy is jumping through the hoops because he wants to," McMillen explained. "For a significant number (of clients), that second time around we see a much higher level of adherence."

But what happens between the first round and the second round of treatment? What if there isn't family support or money for additional treatment programs?

That's what worries Colette Hawley, 46, a "straight-up alcoholic" from New York who cleaned up her life in rehab before moving to a sober living home in Orem. She never relapsed but watched as her friends did.

They were kicked out of treatment and ended up on the street with no money to pay for more treatment.

"Relapsing is part of the whole business plan," she said. "If you throw someone out who's relapsing, you're sending them out to a death march."

Rules of relapse

"We won't give up on them," Waghorne said about clients who slip. But she has a responsibility to keep her other recovering residents safe.

After a relapse, she'll do everything possible to find the vulnerable client a safe place to stay, whether it's a willing neighbor's house, with family or in another residential treatment facility.

In the Papilion House, which is patterned after The Oxford House, a relapser is asked to be sober for 30 days before re-applying. But down the road in Orem, a recent change in city code requires 60 days of clean time before a resident can reapply.

It has to be that way, said Orem city attorney Steve Earl, because of the Fair Housing Act.

The act prevents housing discrimination against those with disabilities, which includes recovering addicts. However, he said, the courts have defined an "active user" as someone who has used drugs or alcohol in the past two to three months.

Active users are not disabled, thus not protected. So they can't live in a home with special allowances for more disabled people, he said.

But many treatment providers agree that a relapse is the strongest indicator someone is disabled.

"(They come saying) 'I have a disease' and as soon as they actually exhibit the symptoms of that disease, they're told to leave," Hill said.

Others, like Jesse Logan, former director of operations at Safe and Sober Living of Utah in Sandy, believe that despite the disease, relapses must carry consequences.

"When you use drugs, basically that's a ticking time bomb," he said. "If you're caught (dirty) ... you gotta go," he said. "(Owners) have to keep the community safe. That's their job."

After two years of running a sober living home in Sandy, Logan shut down in June, saying he was too emotionally drained from clients taking advantage of him.

Other providers agree with Logan.

"Our clients appreciate and understand the fact that when you're in our system ... (we) have a zero-tolerance policy," said Jake Shoff, director of operations for the Makin Homes, two private residential transitional-care facilities in Orem, similar to sober living homes. "This is going to be a safe environment from start to finish."

Justin and Jen Makin, who own the two centers, the Joshua and Steele Houses, say if they don't take relapses seriously, others get hurt.

"We have started these facilities to help people regain their lives," Jen Makin said. "People are dying from this."

Richard Nance knows that all too well.

As director of the Utah County Division of Substance Abuse he hears about clients who never come back from relapses. To avoid that, he wants treatment for everyone, especially those who slip the most.

"'We care about your recovery,'" Nance tells clients. "'We're not going to kick you out into the dark of night because you're sick. But we'll do our best to fix you up and get you back to where you belong.'"


E-mail: sisraelsen@desnews.com

SUNDAYEXTRA

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There isn't one (treatment plan) that's the best. There is one that's right for every person. Our whole purpose is to give them the access to the system in whatever way they need.

Casey Hill

executive director of Utah Support

Advocates for Recovery Awareness

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GETTING CLEAN, STAYING SOBER

A4 DESERET NEWS, MONDAY, JAN. 12, 2009

Sunday: Dissecting addiction: Cycles

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