The resources for addiction and mental health services have always been limited, especially in rural areas like Litchfield County, but with more and more individuals in need, finding care has become an even more daunting endeavor.
Kerri Johnson knows, because she has been there.
You would never know by looking that this mother of two, married and with a full time job, struggled for years with alcohol addition. Nevertheless, she did, and her story is not unique — by far.
The need for drug and alcohol treatment services is growing in Connecticut, compounded by a dramatic increase in the number of drug and opioid cases. In 2013, for example, Connecticut surpassed the national average for drug and opioid overdoses, according to one locally produced report. It said from 2012 to 2016, the number of admissions in Northwest Connecticut for drug addiction treatment more than doubled, from 679 to 1,425.
From 2014 to 2015 the drug overdose death rate increased by more than 25 percent in Connecticut, according to the Centers for Disease Control. In 2016 it increased by even more, 26.8 percent, with 917 deaths.
Johnson first entered treatment in 2012 in an intensive outpatient program at the University of Connecticut Health Center. She has relapsed several times, including once in 2014 that led her to an inpatient treatment center in Florida. Once sober, her husband didn’t know where to turn to make sure Kerri would have the outpatient help she needed.
After two stays at the Mountainside alcohol and drug rehabilitation center and years of struggling to find an outpatient clinician that worked for her logistically, Johnson and her husband found Greenwoods Counseling Referrals, which works to match Litchfield County residents with an appropriate clinician or inpatient service.
It was through Greenwoods that they found John Simoncelli, the services’s executive director and Johnson’s clinician. She’s been in recovery now for several years; and in this week’s Sunday Conversation, sat down with Simoncelli to talk about the problems facing people seeking help today.
John: We have a lot of people who are struggling with addiction, overdosing and we don’t have enough services in the area to meet the need. So, it’s a very common problem throughout the state, but in terms of the opioid epidemic, that’s where we stand. We have a great need for services and not enough services. But we do have a lot of energy and a lot of people coming together to try and address the issue.
Do you think the problem has changed over the past 10 or so years?
John: I think a problem that’s consistent in Litchfield County, and Kerri can speak to this too, is that we just don’t have enough providers to meet the need – the mental health and addiction need. Addiction essentially is a mental health issue; and, in most cases, addiction to any substance, alcohol or any type of drug, is a symptom of a mental health issue, a symptom of trauma. In Litchfield County we simply don’t have enough people who do the work, enough people who are able to provide the services for people who really need them. I think that’s a problem that’s been consistent for 10 years or longer.
How did you make the transition from being an inpatient to finding an outpatient clinician?
Kerri: My husband actually found John through Greenwoods. He was struggling to find a provider, didn’t know who to go to or where to start. With our insurance, you have the main insurance company, but then they’re contracted out. So to find somebody that took our insurance was a lot of work. I don’t know how he found Greenwoods, but he found Greenwoods, and we found John, and he even found [a therapist for] my son, who is 8 now but at the time was 4, and we were looking to get someone to maybe talk to him because he saw what was going on with me and things. So, we found a therapist for him to see, too, through Greenwoods.
Can you talk a little bit about how Greenwoods works and how does it do that for patients when there is such a disparity in how many providers are available?
John: We are able to meet with someone, identify what their needs are, and then try to place them with the best person to meet those needs, not just clinically but logistically: where they live, what insurance they take, do they need some financial assistance. Greenwoods also offers a subsidy program: For anybody who comes through our doors we will help pay for that treatment. So we are able to kind of match that person with the clinician that can best meet their needs.
So, are there services out there and people just can’t find them?
John: At Greenwoods we do have a great placement rate, but I think that’s only because we are focusing on people who are in private practice and because we are dedicating a tremendous amount of resources to finding someone that placement.
For the average individual who is addicted to a substance, they need detox, they need inpatient, then they need some kind of outpatient care. That’s a lot to manage. And to tell a person who is actively using, “call back every hour and we’ll see if we have a detox bed available for you,” they might call once. But you know, you have to grab that person when they’re ready, when they’re ready to go.
That’s one of the reasons why, in Connecticut at any one time, only 80 percent of the detox beds are full. That’s because logistically it’s challenging to get people into the beds. The need is there, but logistically if things worked better we’d have those beds filled up quickly. It can take three hours and three phone calls to get a person into detox. I guarantee most patients wouldn’t stick around. That’s a hard thing to do.
I know there has been an increase in opiate usage, but has there also been an increase in the driving forces behind addiction?
John: I think what happens with opiates is that all of a sudden people who were never exposed to a drug as powerful as that were exposed to it on kind of this enormous scale. A lot of those people have trauma histories or mental health issues… but, how do you know if something is wrong when it’s always been that way?
So if you experience trauma or neglect when you’re 4, 5, 6, 10 years old and you’ve been living with it most of your life and you feel that stress and that anxiety or whatever it is, and that’s all you know, then how are you supposed to know that that’s not the way that you’re supposed to feel? Then you get a drug introduced to your system, and break your ankle, doctor gives you 30 Percocet. You take that Percocet, yeah it’s helping your physical pain, but it’s helping your emotional pain you didn’t even know you were in. All of a sudden it’s, “Wow, my ankle feels better and I feel a whole lot better, too.”
Without even knowing it, people are becoming addicted to substances. Without even knowing they have a trauma history, people are getting addicted to substances. I’ve talked to so many people who have been so neglected, but they would never tell you that they were neglected because that’s all they know. So, it’s not necessarily that opiates have caused this, it’s that the over-prescribing of opiates has given individuals a way to soothe their suffering when they didn’t even know they were suffering.
Is that your experience?
Kerri: Yeah. I had no idea the underlying reasons. Mine was drinking, but it’s the same. After my daughter was born I thought it was postpartum and all these things. I was trying to make reasons and excuses for why I wanted to drink all the time. Then I started hiding the drinking and wanting to drink at night, alone, to forget, and I didn’t even know what I was trying to forget. There wasn’t anything present in my mind, I just wanted to feel better. Until I started coming here, and talking about it, really talking about stuff that I never thought was relevant, then it all clicked one day and I was like, “Holy cow, I didn’t even put two and two together.”
I know Torrington tends to have a bad rap about having the most overdoses and being a rough area, but is this truly a Torrington issue?
John: The best way to explain it is to give an example. A couple months ago I was speaking to a gentleman that owns a business in Washington, Connecticut, and he has a son who’s in recovery. His son lives in Torrington. They live in another town in Northwest Connecticut, they don’t live in Torrington, but his son now needs services, so he is in Torrington. He didn’t start in Torrington, he started in another town in Litchfield. When he is sober, and doing better, he may stay in Torrington, but he may not. He may go back to his hometown. That’s very typical of what happens in Litchfield County. If someone needs the service, they are going to go to where the service is, and that’s in Torrington.
Kerri: I think that, I’m in the healthcare field as well, I work for an insurance company for the state of Connecticut and you hear about it a lot. When I was at Mountainside [drug and alcohol rehabilitation in Canaan], a lot of the people who left Mountainside went into aftercare programs in Torrington. Many of them were coming to Torrington for the recovery portion, but yet you hear on the news that it is also a very high usage area.
John: We just want to get the message out that the surrounding communities need to support the services in Torrington and the services in our communities – McCall Center, Greenwoods – places that provide these services, they need to support them even if they don’t think that it’s their particular problem
If you live out in Roxbury, or Bethlehem, or Thomaston or Harwinton, you might say that’s Torrington’s problem. But not really. A lot of the folks that are going to services here didn’t start here, and when they’re better, they probably won’t stay here. That’s what I think the surrounding communities need to recognize.
Is there anything that you wish your neighbors could know or do about the problem in Litchfield County?
Kerri: There are so many people out there that aren’t aware of the addiction disease, or they don’t know enough about it. I mean I’ve lived with it for so long. My father was an alcoholic, but people in my immediate family still don’t understand it. So, getting more information out there for people to understand that it’s not something to frown upon.
For the longest time, I didn’t want to say anything because I didn’t want anybody to look at me differently or treat me differently or anything. Now I’m to the point where I almost tell everybody that I’m in recovery. It’s so much more common now that you hear about it, but there are still so many people that don’t understand it or don’t know it.
Even the insurance company that I work at, people come in and kind of whisper or lower their voice when they need to tell me that it’s because of a behavioral health thing, or they don’t even want me to know what it’s for. But then you pull up a claim and you’re like, “Oh, that’s why they’re tiptoeing around it.”
So, I try to let them know that I’ve been through it so I can relate with them on that level. But if there was a way to get people more aware and not make it look like such a bad thing, because it’s not. It makes great people look bad. It’s hard to make others aware. People just view it as, “Well you could just stop.” Well you can’t. It’s so hard to explain that to people who don’t understand or haven’t been through it.
John: When I think back on my ten years of doing this work, and I think about the people I’ve worked with, I don’t work with bad people. I don’t work with immoral people. I work with people who are struggling with an illness. Most of them are struggling with issues around trauma, issues around neglect, issues that they keep bumping up against in their life. And they found drugs and alcohol as a way to soothe. Through that lifestyle they do things they normally would never do. But that’s because the chemical’s changed the brain. It changes the way you think.
Kerri: It’s like an allergy. I’ve been told I’m allergic to alcohol, cause once I have one in me, that’s not enough. I know once I have it in my system that I’m going to do whatever I can to get more alcohol until I pass out. It’s that scary.
John: Reducing that stigma is incredibly important because we have for so long tried to arrest our way out of this problem and viewed it as a criminal justice issue when the folks who are getting arrested don’t need to be punished. They need to get treatment, they need to get help. We have, I think, an obligation to provide that service when they’re ready to receive it, when they ask for it. We need to be there.
Recovery is possible and it is real. People can pay attention, they can donate their time and money, and they can be involved.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.