The Ohio Opioid Project (OHOP) is a collaborative, NIH-funded study of substance use and substance use treatment in southern Ohio. It is a combined effort between The Ohio State University College of Public Health and the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health. Through this project, we aim to understand users’ and community members’ experiences with substance use, substance use treatment, and harm reduction efforts in the area. Ultimately, we hope to work with communities to develop a delivery plan that can address health service barriers and gaps in the study region.

The News Watchman is proud to partner with the Ohio Opiod Project. Special thanks to Pike County native and Project Member Madison Conley for providing information from this series.

Denice Harding likes to sew. Her mother taught her the craft when she was young, and it’s still one of her favorite hobbies. She belongs to a women’s group at her church, where she gets to share her love of sewing, quilting, and crocheting with other women. But for Denice, the group is more than just a creative outlet. “These ladies saved my life, actually,” she says. She had found the church four years after receiving treatment for opioid addiction. Although she was in recovery, she still felt like there was something missing in her life. “So I found this little church I went to. These ladies, I mean, we were so different. Night and day…But they saved my life.” Even though Denice initially felt like she didn’t quite fit in with this group, she found that she was able to learn a lot from them. They became an important community that helped keep her grounded.

Denice loves being around people. She says her extraversion is her favorite trait: “I like my outgoingness. No holds barred.” It’s this trait that led her to volunteer to support other people in recovery, even once she was no longer attending support sessions herself. Although Denice is retired now, she used to play an active role supporting people at The Counseling Center in Portsmouth and in the 12-step community. She sponsored girls and women who were entering the program, and she would drive people from the treatment center to meetings. “I used to do all that…give people rides, give people clothes, find them homes. Girls come into treatment with nothing, and I mean nothing. Somehow, I’d call a church, or something…I’d get it done.”

Denice knows firsthand how important community support can be to a person’s recovery. When she was first entering recovery, she struggled against stigma and related feelings of shame. Denice became addicted to opioids after experiencing a life-threatening accident, after which she had to spent substantial time in the hospital and was prescribed lots of painkillers by her doctors. “I was so embarrassed,” she explains. “Here I was, in this accident. I almost died. And now I’ve got to worry about being an addict?” She struggled to separate herself from that label of being “an addict.” She felt some people looked at her differently once they found out she was using opioids: “Once you say you’re a drug addict, you’re just a drug addict.” Yet Denice also had neighbors, friends, and community members who were there to cheer her on through her recovery. Her family was incredibly supportive, and her children played a major role in helping her start treatment. She hopes that other people in recovery will be able to have this same experience of community support and connection. “To support people who use drugs, we have to get rid of the stigma, the idea that they’re bad people, because they’re not.”

What does Denice want other people to know about recovery? “It can happen. You can recover.” Denice has a daily meditation book that she reads out of every morning, and she still sometimes calls her sponsor when she needs to. She also has seen that different things work for different people. To assist people in recovery, many providers will recommend medication-assisted treatment, where people take a medication, such as suboxone, often in combination with counseling. Medication-assisted treatment is based in evidence and can be one of the most effective ways to treat opioid use disorder. The medication helps reduce cravings and withdrawal so that the person can focus on managing their recovery. Yet in some circles, there is still stigma around using medication to support recovery from opioid use. Some people see it as still “using a drug.” But when used correctly, medication-assisted treatment is not addicting and can be an important step in helping people get their life back. “When I first went into recovery, I was against people using medication,” Denice says, “until I saw things happen that changed my mind.” During her time in treatment and as a volunteer, Denice has met people for whom medication-assisted treatment has been a lifesaver—helping them stop using substances, find a stable job, and keep their families together. She’s seen that this medication can help people change their life around. “That’s all we promise—that your life will change.” And she supports whatever approach works for different people to meet that goal.

Denice is proud to be in recovery. She wants to help as many other people as possible understand that they can do it, too. Because of this, Denice has actively worked to share her story with as many people as possible. “Any place they wanted me to speak, I would. I get pretty proud whenever I can stand up and tell someone my story.” And she is seeing the payoff from her efforts. “People come up afterwards and tell me, ‘Oh my gosh, I could relate to that…’ I’d shout it from the treetops. I was all for recovery. I still am.”

To learn more about stigma and substance use, visit www.drugabuse.gov/drug-topics/addiction-science/words-matter-preferred-language-talking-about-addiction. For information about treatment and harm reduction services, visit sciotoconnect.org or call Pike County’s Drug, Addiction and Mental Health Services Board Crisis Hotline at (740) 947-2147. For more information about Appalachia Unite, visit www.facebook.com/AppalachiaUnite/.

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