Addiction Professionals in the Pandemic – Michael Harney

  • Who are you?

My name is Michael Joseph Harney, Jr.  I was born in Newport News, Virginia at Riverside Hospital.  I grew up in the city called Hampton, Virginia.  When people ask me where I’m from I say “Hampton, Newport News” and they can’t figure out which one I’m from, but that was the peninsula.  And so, I’m the eldest of six children.  I was born in 1966.  I live in Asheville, North Carolina.  I came at the behest of my friend, Patricia Adell.  She and I had gone to college together at Belmont Abbey College, also in North Carolina.  And she asked me to come and build her garden and paint her house, and I never left.  That was in 1992.  So this many years later I’ve made my life here in North Carolina, in Asheville. And, I have a degree in Business Administration and a degree in Spanish – neither of which has anything to do with the subject matter we are dealing with today, in essence.  But it has been a growing process and my experience here in Asheville has brought me to who I am and where I am these days.

Some other things about me – I work at a place called the Western North Carolina AIDS Project, sometimes known as “win-cap” WNCAP.  I came to work here in 1993 at what we called the AIDS Project, and worked for a guy named Marty Lynn Prairie Chicken.  And his name comes from the Oglala Lakota Sioux people of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.  He had spent a number of years in some of the bigger cities of California and during the time living on the streets the best way he could to survive, acquired both HIV and Hepatitis C.  So I came to work for him because he had found Asheville as a place to gain his, what he called, sobriety and recovery.  And he worked at the Western North Carolina AIDS Project.  I brought a donation of money at the time.  And he asked if that was my Toyota pickup truck out front – it is a 1986 rusty-colored Toyota pickup truck that I still drive today.  It’s 35 years old.  He asked if I would help deliver some food or move some lady’s furniture, and would I volunteer for this, that and the other thing.  And of course I was like “Yeah, sure, ok, that’s fine.”  And from that he asked if I would like a job with them.  And I said, “Sure”.  Because the truth is about me I’m what I would say kind of in a joking way – a workaholic.  I like to work.  And I like to have multiple jobs.  They give me some flexibility, stimulation, and access to a variety of components of the community. 

So my job was street outreach worker. And I said, “Sure, I’ll do it.  What is it?”  And it meant, at the time here in Asheville, which was quite a dead town back in the 90’s, certainly not as lively as it is nowadays even under the pandemic – but I was to stand on these streets that were known as public sex environments for men who were having sex with other men, who would pick up these hustlers, and I presented myself as such, but with a message of prevention, HIV prevention, STD prevention. At the time we really didn’t talk a lot about hepatitis prevention overall, so that came a little bit later.  But I would stop the men and ask them if they wanted condoms or if they wanted to know where to get an HIV test, or if they were having STD symptoms – that kind of thing.  It took me a long time to gain the trust of the community and being that person.  But it was there that all of this started.  I tell the story sometimes in trainings that I was tripping over needles discarded on the sidewalks of what we called The Cage – that was the area downtown.  If people look into Asheville there’s an area called the Grove Arcade.  It’s a very swank shopping center and restaurant area now but back then that building was the Federal building.  It closed at 5 o’clock at night and opened back up at 7.  But between the hours of 5pm and 7am it was really a very social environment and a public sex environment that you might find in some other cities in parks and odd places.  So that’s where I got my start. 

And I asked Marty, who had spent all these years in these big cities – San Francisco, and LA, and San Diego for example – I said, “Doesn’t it seem like it’s a public health risk having all these needles on the street?”  I mean, that’s kind of my naïveté.  And he said yeah, we need to start a needle exchange.  And I said, “Yeah, ok.  Let’s do it!  What does that mean?”  I’m telling you my background was not in any of this.  And so he described what he had seen created in these cities during the early part of the AIDS epidemic – now 40 years into it by the way – and it sounded reasonable to me.  It sounded reasonable and feasible.  It sounded like within a year we could have that up and running and it would just be the intervention that was necessary.  It took 25 years before it became legalized in the state of North Carolina to actually operate needle exchanges.  And I’d say that because it took so long to get the government to understand it – both the Federal government and the State government – local was a little bit different here in Asheville – there was great support for years but they couldn’t supersede state law in order to implement it legally. Finally in about 2015-16 the laws started coming in and making it legal we saw what we started in 1994 actually come to fruition.    

So, a little bit about who I am.  Sometimes I’m known as Miguel because I teach Spanish at what’s called Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College and at Blue Ridge Community College.  I’ve taught there since 1993 – at A/B Tech we call it.  At Blue Ridge, I’ve probably been there, I don’t know, 17 or 18 years, and I’ve taught all the levels of Spanish they offer.  So some people know me as Miguel.  Some people know me as The Rubberman.  And it’s not because I’m a little flexible, I say it’s because annually I’m a part of a team at WNCAP who distributes generally about 180 or 190 thousand condoms around town to anywhere between 40-50 locations – coffee shops, night clubs, stores downtown, restaurants, things like that.  And to local agencies.  One for example is Neil Dobbins which is a detox center here, ADACT which is an alcohol and drug treatment center – we are able to take condoms there.  And then other presentations that we make in the community or other agencies or organizations that allow condoms we tend to bring those to.  Some people know me as The Needle Guy because of what I just talked about and started that with Marty.  And some people just call me The AIDS Guy because I’ve been doing this for so long.  And so no matter what you call me, you can call me any of those names really, I’m Michael Harney at your service.  So that’s a little bit about who I am.                    

  • What do you do professionally?

I am what’s called a Prevention Educator at the Western North Carolina AIDS Project, or WNCAP.  And that entails condom distribution.  Over the years that entails operating the needle exchange in a variety of different ways.  I stepped aside from that officially, although I am a support staff for a great team that is taking it to another level now.  I also do HIV and now Hepatitis C testing.  At our agency we do rapid testing, so we do a finger stick – two drops of blood – and in 20 minutes’ time have a test result.  It’s an antibody test.  But I’m also able to draw blood as a phlebotomist to collaborate with the local Health Department when we go out and do bigger testing events.  So I draw venous blood for HIV, syphilis, and Hepatitis C testing. 

I, over the years, have gone to so many trainings; Marty died in 2001 and asked me to continue to do the work that we were doing.  He was the greatest of trainers, I thought, teaching me more about what it would be like to live with HIV or Hepatitis than anybody’s ever been able to.  And so I promised him on his deathbed that I would continue to do the work as long as I could. 

So in saying that, I also have gone to numerous international AIDS conferences, and country-wide the US Conference on HIV and AIDS, and harm reduction conferences.  And it kind of built up my knowledge and experience to the extent that I’m so lucky and honored to be invited by regional agencies – these are alcohol and drug, and mental health, treatment centers, to actually come and provide anywhere between 3 and 6 hours of certified education credits or units – CEU’s – and so I do that in the community.  That’s with WNCAP.  I am a professional Spanish instructor for the two community colleges.  All of which kind of blend into this odd concoction of educating people or getting messages to people.  Often times in my classroom I will bring up HIV and AIDS, and I’ll bring up the needle exchange, and I’ll bring up the agencies where I work and the treatment centers that are available, and The United Way 211 data base of services in our community.  And people – students – will come up at some point oftentimes later and just say “I’m impressed by your work”, or, “I’ve used your services”, or, “Can you tell me more”, or, “I need your services”. 

And then, in the world itself I may be walking down the street or in the grocery store or the mall or somewhere, and somebody will come up to me and say, “Hey, Miguel, how ya’ doing?”, or, “Hey Rubberman, how you doing?”.  And I don’t always know where I know that person from, because they could have been at a treatment center, or they could have been in a prison or jail, or they could have been I tested at the university, or they could have been someone I gave condoms to at the bar, or a client I saw walk through the office.  And I just say, “I’m doing ok, how about you? What’s going on?”  Or sometimes I’ll say “Muy bien, como estas?” I don’t know – were you in my Spanish class years ago?  And I get these incredible stories.  People say, “Man, you were my teacher 15 years ago”, or, “You came and did a program at the treatment center”, or, “You were the person that visited me in the prison and tested my blood”. It’s just all these incredible connections that I’ve made over the years by simply I guess skipping a rock into the pond and seeing where the ripples go, and eventually come back.  That’s a little bit about who I am professionally. 

  • Do you have any personal interest in addiction and recovery that you’d like to share?

My personal experiences were as a teenager having experimented with – the list is: alcohol, marijuana, mushrooms, and cocaine.  That’s it.  I’ve never been a big adventurous person. So I guess I would also count myself somewhat lucky in that my addiction is to work.  I mean I used to do 14 lawns when I was growing up, and wash cars, rake leaves, and do windows, and babysit.  But I will say, with the caveat that they haven’t given me the permission, or maybe are not able to answer for themselves, but in my family I have members who certainly know how to drink quite a bit – to the extent that they black out, and might find themselves on a park bench, or have a shoe missing, or their shirt off.  And with several other drug concoctions, too, they have had troubles – a broken leg from falling off a roof, for example, or a car crash and things like that. 

I found out very early, and because I worked with Marty to whom I’m very grateful, he – being in his recovery, as he put it his sobriety, was not a drinker – and so, in early 1995 was when I had my last drink.  I don’t count it by years so much, or by months or anything, I just say it was in 1995 that I stopped drinking alcohol. Part of the reason I’m even more grateful to him is that when I drank alcohol, if I had two drinks, and certainly if I had a third, it was almost an absolute I would completely vomit and pass out on your floor, and just be sick for days.  You know, Tricia, who I said had brought me here to Asheville, knows the stories of college where I tried to keep up with my college mates at parties, and I couldn’t.  And she can tell you stories about me sitting next to a tree just vomitous and unable to interact with anybody for 2 or 3 more days.  And it wasn’t as though I’d had a case of beer or a bottle of liquor, or any of that.  I truly believe I’m allergic to the stuff.  Cocaine I tried once in Costa Rica and the guy told me “Don’t mess around with this.  This is the real stuff.”  And so I took 2 little bumps and I’m very open about answering questions about who I am and what I’ve done.  Those two bumps kept me awake for several days.  I thought my heart was going to explode.  I said I would never do that again, and I have not.  Marijuana I have smoked over the years.  I go through spells of years or 2 or 3 and I don’t smoke any.  I’ve been telling this funny story this last couple of years I met a friend who’s got his own issues but he doesn’t smoke marijuana.  And so being around him for like the last 2 and a half years, I’ve maybe taken a few puffs, or one on an odd occasion, but really have not smoked pot in 2 and half, almost 3 years now, because hanging around him, he’s the only person I’ve met in all these years that doesn’t – as a friend that doesn’t smoke pot.  I think that’s kind of funny and interesting. 

My interest is more than that, though, because I see what’s going on in the community and the struggles that people have faced.  So, with the needle exchange all these years I’ve seen people reach recovery and their sobriety at their own pace. There’s nothing I could say or do that made them stop or forced them to stop doing anything.  But then that story, that rippling effect that comes back.  “You know, Michael, you were there when I was using”, and now it’s been 3 years, or it’s been 5 years, “…and I have a family, and I’m so proud of myself and you just wouldn’t believe I’m so glad to run into you and let you know this.”  Or, “I just wanted to call and tell you.  I saw your name somewhere” or “I saw you walking across the street and it reminded me” and “Thank you”.  I get all of these, having these incredibly honoring and motivating stories told to me by people who experienced addiction and recovery in much more strenuous ways than I ever have.  And again, I thank the stars for making me who I am and providing me this great community and then the experiences of the people in my life.  I’m enriched every single day and don’t understand why I get so much and so many people have to struggle so hard. I sometimes say – and I put my fingers in about the spread of an inch – that if I could share this much of the goodness I’ve had in my life, if I could spread just this little tiny bit that the world would change dramatically because I’ve received so much good in my life.

  • Tell us about your professional experience in the area of addiction and recovery.

It’s kind of combined in what I’ve been saying thus far.  I don’t have a degree in addictions or in social work.  My Bachelor of Arts degree in business and Bachelor of Arts degree in Spanish really have little to do with that.  It’s been the training I’ve had over the years, the experiences with the community.  I guess one of the greatest classes I ever took was public speaking.  I’m very grateful to Mrs. Thomas in the 11th grade for being such a great instructor.  Because by having that ability I am able to speak before people and make presentations, and I’ve been invited to speak at I can’t tell you how many different places, which again it’s enriching to me and gives me so much honor.  I don’t understand personally why they keep inviting me back. I have my own self esteem issues, I guess.  But, the professional community – those who are licensed professionals in mental health, substance use, and treatment, and social work – they’re where I get my training.  I mean we hear about it, we talk about it, they share things, new updates and references, and I like to read and I get a lot from a number of websites that are correlated to the subject matter.  HIV and AIDS and hepatitis – they are correlated to alcohol and drugs and addiction and recovery.  So I’m around it in a weird way in that it’s all encompassed.  It touches anybody and everybody.  And so I guess, as a professional, I just know and am part of the community as it is.  And I get honored again and again by being invited to come and make a presentation and these CEU trainings, to be part of committees, to for example have been the chair of the human rights committee at the alcohol and drug treatment center, years ago the mountain area alcohol and drug treatment committee – I’d have to look at my CV again and see some of the things that I’ve done over the years.  And I’ve just been part of that work with health departments and health directors for years, worked with police chiefs, deputies, and the Sherriff’s department because they’re involved in all of this too in a major way.  I’ve worked with city council members, county commissioners on some of these issues – so I guess I’ve just been able to meet lots of people through lots of linkages in the community, which has expanded my abilities to be of service and to serve those who need the service.   

  • What are you most proud of?

That was a tough question when I looked over the questions.  I don’t know.  In a silly way I’m most proud of I guess my yard work.  I like working in my yard.  And it is my solace and it is my creative environment.  It’s personal to me.  People know and laugh at me around October when pine needles or pine straw you may call it, falls from the trees.  And I have such an addiction to pine straw, as I call it.  I grew up as I said on the peninsula, and we had a lot of pine trees.  And people used it around their flower beds.  And the minute I see some fall on the ground that time of year it strikes something in my brain and I’m like, “Oh my gosh.  Here it comes.  I’ve got to get my rake out. I better get to it.  Oh no, here it goes.”  And I fill up my pickup truck with anywhere between 14 and 16 big piles of pine straw to put on my flower beds around my yard.  And I create different designs and so I’m always very proud of that.  My neighbors always compliment my yard and they say they love watching me out there working in it, and creating a new design.  Or they know that it’s pine straw season when they see these big piles that end up overnight on my yard.  I don’t spread it all when I bring it – I put the piles there and then over the next month get the chance to fix it up and spread it the way I’m going to. 

But you know, what else am I proud of?  I am proud of myself in the sense of making my way independently somewhat, obviously we’re codependent on each other.  But I’m a pretty independent kind of person and feel really comfortable in any group or environment.  I often fear bringing people together because I don’t know if they’ll like each other or get along or find conversation.  But you can set me in front of any group, or bring me into anybody’s house, or take me to a play, or take me to music events, or a family reunion, or wherever, and I’ll do my best to fit in and find something to talk about.  I’m proud of myself being able to do that. 

I often think that maybe others miss out on the richness of life, the richness of diversity, if they’re not willing to be open to experiencing others and the cultures of others.  I guess I’ve been lucky to have been able to travel the world – I’ve been on all but two continents.  And those two that I’ve not visited are South America and Antarctica. Outside of that I’ve visited every continent, at least a little bit of it.  And that to me I think has led to an awareness that this space and place we call Earth is such a small, small space and place, really, compared to the universe, and we’re here for such a short, short period of time, that I just feel like my philosophy is to at least try to get along.  I don’t have to love you, I say, and you don’t have to love me, but to see you as a human being that if we could take these masks of skin and hair off – and look at biologically we are much more similar than we are different – maybe we would get along, maybe we could end the bullying, the judgment, and the stigma, and the ridicule, and the hurt.  And I don’t know if that is what is core to why people end up in such serious addictions, and if they make it to recovery find such value in that.  I don’t know what the core is that takes people down so far in ways that they seem not comfortable or happy.  I am happy and I am proud of that.  And I find richness in every day. And I just try to live the best I can in the short time that I’m here.         

  • What keeps you working in addiction and recovery?

Because I’m given the opportunities.  Because I can.  Because I’m willing to.  Because there’s so much need.  Because I have received so much goodness in the world that you know, it seems I should only in fairness give back – because I think philanthropy comes in more than just financial ways.  I think that it is something that’s not going away and is ever-changing.  I was listening to a story this week about Captagon the brand name, a form of amphetamine, fenethylline, and there was this story this week that the Italian government is trying to destroy a billion Euros worth of this, 14 tons of this, that came out of Syria.  I mean there are people doing stuff like that putting these chemicals in their bodies and I think, “Why are you doing that?”  What would make somebody put that kind of stuff in their body?  Trying not to sound judgmental; it probably does. But people do with their bodies what they will.  I have no jurisdiction over their bodies.  They have no jurisdiction over mine.  I just hope that we make informed decisions.  And I guess I can bring some information to the world and share it.  And I’m able to reach certain communities, reach into certain agencies – you know, not everybody gets to go into the jail or prisons, or is invited to a drug and alcohol treatment center, or gets to present to a women’s group just being a male.  All these things that have been given to me – tells me that I need to keep doing it. 

And besides that, I promised Marty that I would continue to do this work the best I could; I kind of fall back to that as the original promise that I would keep working in these fields.            

  • How has the pandemic affected your work?

It has in a number of ways.  One way is that since February of 2020 I have not provided any of the CEU trainings until very recently – only a week ago had I been invited back to actually do one, with the technology of what we call “Zoom”.  You know, these Zoom meetings where people can be sitting at their computers and be part of a meeting or a training.  So that dramatically changed.  I was doing one every month-and-a-half or two or so, but reaching our local and regional providers to get them the CEU credits that they are required to have for their licensures.  So that got shut down. 

Testing – where we might do in a normal month, a hundred or a hundred and twenty HIV and hepatitis C tests, we’re doing like maybe 15 to 25 or 30.  Where we went to 40 or 50 different locations or so to drop off condoms, many of those businesses either shut down, completely closed and went out of business, or are not allowing people inside. So for example, many of the coffee shops where we had a basket of condoms on the counter for people just to take as they wanted, those coffee shops are at the doorway or the front window, and they’re just providing coffee out the window.   So nobody comes in the coffee shops to sit down and hang out, and read magazines, and do their internet.  So they weren’t really providing the condom basket accessibility.  So that changed. 

The office space itself has changed.  People are not coming inside our office very much without going through this whole COVID-19 screening, and everybody’s wearing masks.  It changed a lot in that sense. There’s a lot of phone calls, conference calls, and Zoom meetings. 

It also affected my work at the schools.  At the time, Spring break was just happening when this outbreak happened, the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak, and so classes were shut down.  And then we had to figure out how to finish off the semester via Zoom or electronically or online, and that dramatically changed the experiences of the students.  I’m not very technologically minded, as you may have guessed that when I said I drive that old pickup truck.  I don’t have a home computer.  I don’t have a stereo or television.  I don’t have a cell phone.  I have a plug-in-the-wall phone, you know.  And so for me it was a real struggle to work with my department chair/chairs, because it’s at two different schools – to figure out how we could provide Spanish classes to the students through the internet.  So I did that for a while.  This Fall we ended up deciding that we would try two face-to-face classes.  But where I might normally have 21-25 students in a classroom, it was limited to 9 students, 3 rows (3 students in the front, 3 in the middle, 3 in the back), all distanced by at least 6 feet, and distanced to me up at the front of this big classroom by 10 or 15 feet.  I wear a mask and a face shield.  We have to clean the tables before and after class.  You know, these are the kinds of things we took for granted.  A lot of time is spent at home now looking out the window or reading a book, not socializing as I might have otherwise.

And that’s how it’s affected me in particular and some of the work that I do.                   

  • What effects of the pandemic are you observing in the people you serve?

That’s a tough question to answer I think because people are experiencing much of this pandemic in isolation, I believe.  Not everybody.  Obviously there are plenty of people out and about.  But I have some folks in my life, friends, who lost jobs.  They ended up staying at home trying to save money.  Having to go to food pantries that they never thought they would have to use. 

Several people began doing things that they had stopped doing for a number of years – smoking cigarettes.  There’s a friend of mine who stopped for, gosh 3 or 4 years, and during this year he picked up smoking again.  And you can hear it in his voice, and his coughing and hacking.  The house – I had delivered a food box to him (I deliver food on Saturdays for an agency that’s called Loving Food Resources, a food pantry), and I walked in there to bring his food box, and I thought I was going to suffocate for all the smoke in there and all the nicotine.  And all my clothes smelled like it in just the short 5 minutes I was there, and he’s got 4 cats and I’m sure they’re not as healthy by being in all that smoke.  I’ve known several people who’ve started using more methamphetamine.  Some people who’ve started drinking very heavily. 

Some people who are sad and talking about suicidal thoughts they’ve had.  And hate.  I hear a lot of hate – I hate this and I hate that.  And this government.  I hate the governor.  And I hate the scientists.  And I hate whoever, you know, that started all this COVID-19. You know, there’s all this hate going on.  So I’ve noticed a lot of that. 

And I guess, again, I’ve been lucky because my jobs have kept me activated.  And I’ve been able to get out in my yard, and find the solace there that I find most useful.  But it’s others who are having a tough time. 

And I guess it’s exacerbated by the fact that many of the treatment centers have also had to reduce the number of beds available.  So, the detox center Neil Dobbins, for example, is only utilizing half of its bed space.  And ADACT for example, is trying to distance their patient population – you know, not having visitors, presenters coming in to do programs for them, missing out on some of these educational opportunities that would potentially give them some support to maybe make some changes in their lives.  You know, if I’m telling you about HIV, and statistics, and where you can get tested, and how to protect yourself, and prevent it with a once-a-day pill, or treatment or prevention, or “undetectable equals un-transmittable” – those kinds of things – that word is not getting out there.  So it’s reducing exposure to useful information so that people can make informed decisions. 

I think that this is going to have years-long ramifications that perhaps we can’t even foresee at this time.       

  • What, if any, long term effects do you anticipate on the field?

Again, it’s probably a bottle-neck of need, where people are not able to get into treatment programs as they wanted to or at the pace we used to make it available.  I don’t know for certain.  I’m just guessing.  I think that with suicides we’re going to see more and more people try it or actually commit suicide.  The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention is trying its best to get information out there, to spread the word, and to have a virtual awareness walk, and to be supportive, and to reiterate the phone numbers for people to call. 

I think that young people we hear and read stories about – the abuse that they may be experiencing – because their parents are frustrated, stuck at home, maybe facing financial difficulties, taking it out on the children whether it’s verbally, sexually, physically, emotionally, all of that.  And I think that may lead to more need later, as people grow older, and find access to alcohol and drugs because of the experiences they’ve had, wanting to get away, to suppress things and experiences that they’ve had during this pandemic. 

And it’s nowhere near over.  We’re not even a year, a full year, into it yet.  And so, do we have another full year to go?  What happens to people, to their mental state, and their physical states for that matter?  People’s obesity is an issue, there are cardiovascular issues – just any number of things. 

I just think that addictions are going to be bottle-necked in terms of finding the treatment needed.  And then, multiple languages are also an area that needs to be addressed.  It’s not just happening in English-speaking communities, but in any number of language groups. 

It’s huge to me.  And I can’t even foresee what’s going to happen. 

  • Have you seen any benefits or new opportunities in the pandemic?

I guess an odd benefit is that people have had to slow down a little bit.  We were at a race pace.  We’re so high-paced in this country, and most of the world I think is a pretty high-paced place to live.  It really was shocking I think that first couple of weeks – that first month or so. To see the streets were empty and to see fewer cars out and about.  And not to hear an airplane.  I remember when you started to hear airplanes go by once in a while you were thinking, “Woah.  When was the last time I heard an airplane go overhead?” So it really forced us to take pause, and to maybe get to know ourselves a little bit, and to see some things that maybe we hadn’t been seeing.  A lot of people started taking some nature walks when they finally came out a little bit after the initial scare.  So you started to see more people walking, families walking together, walking a dog or not.  I think that it brought people back home to eat together. 

And some new other opportunities.  You hear about people working from home – some of that is an opportunity, but also to have the extra time to catch up on some reading, and to do a webinar, or a Zoom meeting.  It was easier than having to rush around, and get to work, and get to a meeting, and make sure that a deadline was met.  People are a little bit more relaxed, I think, in a sense, by being able to be at home and not have to spend money on a suit of clothes and gasoline to get to work, and the travel time of traffic.  And so maybe there’s somewhat of a balance for some people. 

Obviously there are a lot of people that are having to go to work who are either what’s called “front-line workers” or “essential workers”.  There’s a great article in the New York Times either on December 19th or 20th that talked about the difference in what a front line worker is and what an essential worker is.  And they show you on a Venn diagram of the gray and the beige.  I had no idea that so many different lines of work were out there, actually, when you start to think about it.  So not everybody gets a day off or extra time off. 

But I also think that being around the most important people in our lives or communicating with them in certain ways that maybe we hadn’t been has been a benefit, and maybe an opportunity.  In terms of other benefits and opportunities for recovery I think it’s been stressful more than a benefit and opportunity.  I think it’s been a little bit more stressful and challenging and difficult.  That’s kind of how I see it. 

  • If you were able to work on a fantasy project to improve treatment and recovery support, what would it be?

I’ve been a long-term advocate that all Health Departments operate syringe services programs, access to syringes, just as you would go in and get a vaccine, or your condoms, or birth control, or food stamps at the health and human services department.  I just think that all health departments could be a – to me, it’s a fantasy – here in North Carolina for example we have 85 health department locations and very few operate a syringe services programs or access to syringes.  But they are a place where people could come in and get those, dispose of them properly, and see this as a public health issue and not as a stigmatizing, drug using “those people” kind of issue.  That it would just become “regularized” – that they get a test for HIV, or hepatitis, or get a vaccination for Hepatitis A or B, or treatment for gonorrhea, chlamydia or syphilis – that kind of thing – all in one place. 

But I also think that treatment-on-demand is kind of a fantasy of mine.  I remember seeing the movie by Michael Moore that was entitled “Where To Invade Next”.  And he travels to different countries around the world and one of them was Portugal, where it’s my understanding that it’s still their policy that they provide treatment on demand.  They don’t want to arrest you for the possession of drugs, illegal as those drugs may be in essence, but they want to offer you treatment on demand.  If you’re ready then let’s take you down the street here and we’ve got a bed ready for you.  There’s always one waiting for you no matter when or what time of day or night.  And I think we’ve done a dis-service here in this state over the last 20 years or so by cutting away at – and it’s just my observation or my understanding or misunderstanding – that we’ve cut away at the financial resources to support more treatment slots.  And what that looks like – if it’s expanding ADACT, or First at Blue Ridge, or Pavillon, or Neil Dobbins, or whatever other agency you could name, to put more beds available, to make sure that people don’t have to wait two hours, six hours, two days, or a week before they can get into a treatment slot.  When they’re ready, they’re ready. 

So to me my fantasy is to really have all Health Departments operating needle exchanges, or syringe services programs, and then to have treatment on demand that’s just easy to access, and cost effective, both for the consumer and the provider.  And ultimately that we understand that people are going to do drugs in whichever way they are.

I kind of tell the story that I don’t like to drink coffee in the morning but some people you can’t speak to until they’ve had their coffee in the morning.  I like mine at night.  It puts me to sleep.  And that seems odd to some people, but that’s how I prefer my coffee.  And so, whatever you do with your body and whatever you may or may not ingest, I can’t judge you for that. 

What I hope is that you find a peace in your heart and soul and mind, and that you live life to its fullest with joy and happiness, that you are philanthropic, that you give back to the community, and the community receives you and what you are able to and willing to offer, and that we really just get along a little bit better in the short time we are here in the universe in which we live.  That’s my fantasy.       

       This interview was conducted on 12/22/2020.