GILLETTE, Wyo. — A phoenix rising from the ashes is more than a myth for Personal Frontiers, it’s a statement about the resiliency of the human spirit.
For the many Campbell County residents who have crossed over Personal Frontiers’ threshold in the last four decades, the phoenix also is symbolic of their efforts to rebuild their lives, said Sherry Bertoncelj, the agency’s executive director.
But people are not phoenixes. They live real lives. Rising from the ashes of drug addiction or substance abuse to pick up the pieces of their lives and put those pieces back together takes a little more than mythology, reported the Gillette News Record (http://bit.ly/2dHAnVm).
It often takes a humble spirit willing to change, as well as a team of dedicated people walking alongside them on the road to recovery.
That’s where Personal Frontiers steps in. For 40 years, the organization has worked with thousands of people in their struggle with substance abuse.
But it’s more than recovery. The agency has helped them become better human beings in the process.
400 a year
Personal Frontiers began in 1976 as the Powder River Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse. Its goal was to help people struggling with drug abuse and drug addiction through counseling and group treatment. The name was later changed to Powder River Chemical Dependency.
But in 2001, the organization’s board changed the name to Personal Frontiers to help reduce the stigma carried by those seeking treatment, as well as to increase the anonymity of its clients. It offers a wide range of services, including intensive outpatient treatment, group treatment and substance abuse prevention.
Levi Coy was 13 when he began drinking.
“I figured out that I was able to get friends more easily when I had alcohol. I found my ‘in’ to be accepted,” he said. “When I started using meth at 18, I thought, ‘If I always have a bag (of methamphetamine), I’ll always have people to hang out with.'”
Michelle Young began smoking marijuana at age 10. Within two years, she “would go from weed to meth to coke to ‘shrooms to Ecstasy to acid to heroin to whatever I could get.”
No one plans to be an alcoholic or drug addict, she said.
“We’ve been through things in our lives that we don’t know how to control,” Young said. “We’ve been through feelings that we don’t understand, and we don’t know how to talk to somebody or deal with it in a healthier way.”
Along with their own demons, addicts often also spend a lot of energy trying to escape the stigma the public has about addiction, said Marty Huckins, a counselor with Personal Frontiers who has worked in the field for 28 years.
The main misconception people like Coy and Young have to overcome is that it’s easy to quit, Huckins said. If it’s destroying your life, just stop. It’s something those who haven’t been through drug or alcohol addiction can be sympathetic to, but not understand.
“It takes so much more than getting sober,” he said, adding that kicking a drug habit is as much an emotional journey as a chemical one. “You have to start growing up.”
Huckins said when people start using drugs or alcohol at an early age, their development is stunted.
“It’s a great stifler of emotional maturity because we use it to deal with all our problems, and we don’t deal with life on life’s terms,” he said.
Instead of dealing with problems rationally, addicts instead choose to cope by taking drugs.
Huckins knows this firsthand. Introduced to alcohol at age 12, he didn’t get sober until he was 34. He admitted that he’s still recovering.
“I just take it one day at a time,” he said. “I can tell I’m not cured, but I do what I need to do to stay away from it.”
No shortage of clients
Personal Frontiers does more than just treatment, whether it’s providing snacks for clients because they have to be in group treatment for three hours at night, or if it’s giving taxi vouchers to people who have lost their licenses to drunken driving convictions. Bertoncelj said what’s most important is making sure that a person’s recovery is as smooth as possible.
What the agency does is to work with people on an individual scale, she said.
“We will do our best to meet the person where they’re at,” she said. “We try to work with everybody individually with where they’re at in their situation.”
And Campbell County keeps the organization busy. Since 2011, Personal Frontiers has served 2,448 clients, Bertoncelj said. That’s an average of more than 400 a year. Some years, more than 500 people have come through the doors.
The agency typically has three counselors, one case manager, an administrative assistant and the director.
“So, we’re pretty small, and to serve 500 in a year with two, three counselors, it is hard work,” Bertoncelj said.
“We do have to work to take care of ourselves and not get too desensitized when you’re seeing addiction problems every day,” she said. “We work really hard at that.”
Although it can be a stressful job, Bertoncelj said it’s a rewarding one as well.
“To see the difference in a person from day one when they walk in here to when they graduate our program makes it all worthwhile, helping someone put their life back together,” Bertoncelj said.
“The reward is seeing people grow and stay sober long term, seeing them reclaim their lives from addiction,” added Huckins.
I have a problem
One of the hardest things for addicts to do is admit they have a problem, Bertoncelj said.
“When I was in addiction, I was in huge denial that I was even an addict,” Coy said. “My opinion on it was that society had a problem with me using drugs, and I was totally OK with it.”
Young said she ignored her mother whenever she asked Young to sober up.
“That didn’t bother me,” she said. “It wasn’t a thought that crossed my mind.”
In fact, it wasn’t until they were arrested that Coy and Young said they realized what their behavior was doing to themselves and their families.
Young had been using drugs on and off for years, but in 2012 she said she “went off the deep end.”
She lost a 5-week-old niece. Both her cousin and her dad died of cancer, and then her brother killed himself.
“That did it for me. When my brother killed himself, I just went off the deep end,” she said. “It was just so painful that I went right back to what I knew would numb that for me, and that was meth.”
In May 2013, Young was pulled over by police. She was speeding while high on meth with a child in her car.
She was arrested and ended up with two felony charges, one for possession of meth and one for child endangerment. She lost custody of her 2-year-old son, Drayden.
“It was after two months of sitting in jail when that all came down on me, like, ‘Wow, you chose drugs over your kids, you chose drugs over your mom,'” Young said about her “ah-ha” moment.
“I think that was my breaking point, realizing drugs took my kid away from me. Drugs had ruined every part of who I was, my morals, my beliefs. Who I was as a person was all gone in a matter of minutes, seconds.”
Young was given a choice. Spend six to 10 years in prison or straighten out her life. She chose the latter.
As for Coy, he was arrested in one of the larger drug busts in 2014. One pound of meth in liquid form was found in his trailer, along with a large amount of crystal meth and several smoking pipes. Coy was charged with possession of meth, possession with intent to deliver and the delivery of meth.
He was looking at spending the next 50 years of his life in prison.
A plea bargain offered him a last chance through Adult Treatment Court. It was then that he found help at Personal Frontiers.
Struggles of their own
Many social service agencies in Wyoming are going through struggles of their own with large reductions in state funding, and Personal Frontiers is no exception.
The cuts have forced the agency to look “at how we can streamline because of the cutbacks without cutting services,” Bertoncelj said.
The money Personal Frontiers gets from the state filters down through the treatment court, which faced major cuts of its own earlier this year. Bertoncelj said that state funding this year looks to be down $17,000, or 15 percent from last year.
“In the first quarter I’m already down 5 percent of my budget in income,” she said. “We’re not meeting budget, which might mean there might be future budget cuts if we stay at this rate.”
The financial squeeze also comes at a time when many in the community need the services of Personal Frontiers the most.
“With the economy right now and people losing jobs, sadly we quite often see people turning to substances for their stress, so we have seen an increase in services recently,” Bertoncelj said.
She said she is grateful for the support shown by local governments.
“It is pretty rare to see your city and county governments giving grants to social service agencies, and we have that in Gillette and Campbell County,” she said.
Despite this, “it’s been my experience that even with that help it’s been very difficult to keep the doors open,” Huckins said.
Personal Frontiers’ doors have remained open for 40 years, but other agencies have not been so fortunate, which increases the load for Personal Frontiers.
“Now we’re getting the rush of more people calling for help because of other programs being closed down,” Huckins said. “It’s frustrating and rewarding at the same time to do this work.”
One of the things that makes it frustrating, he said, is that “we have calls every day from people needing help, but we can’t help everyone.
“Many times there’s that therapeutic window when people are in pain,” he said. “They’re what I call ripe for getting sober. If you miss that window, they’re going to go back out and use again, drink again.”
A-courting we will go
Most of Personal Frontiers’ clients are referred through the legal system. The Adult Treatment Court contracts with the agency to provide services for everyone in the program.
“We work hand-in-hand with Personal Frontiers,” said Denise Fuller, program coordinator for the court. “We walk side-by-side in this whole program, and we wouldn’t have a program without them.”
Fuller said everyone in the program goes through intensive outpatient treatment, Personal Frontiers’ most intensive level of care. Huckins meets with clients, and he’s pretty popular with the participants and program graduates.
“I can be out at lunch with him and there are so many people that will come up and shake his hand and say, ‘You saved my life.’ We’re very fortunate to have him, and he truly is able to connect with the clients,” Bertoncelj said.
Huckins said that “it’s enormously gratifying, and I always tell them that they taught me too, so it works both ways, I think.”
“Marty is the pillar of our program,” Fuller added. “I tell him, ‘Marty, you can never get sick, and you can’t take a vacation. You can never leave and you’re going to have to work here forever.'”
Coy, who graduated from the drug court in August, said his one-on-one meetings with Huckins helped him come to terms with reality.
“I was able to actually tell him what’s going on in my life, and I never had the fear of judgment,” Coy said. “That’s why it took me a long time to admit that I even was an addict or an alcoholic because of the shame that I had.”
Young has known Huckins since she was a 12-year-old in juvenile probation, and she met with him while she was going through drug court. Now in the adult probation program, she meets with him again.
“It’s one of those things that I enjoy now,” she said. “It’s not like, ‘Oh, shoot, there’s Marty.’ I actually can go and talk to him.”
Huckins said treating addiction is so much more than teaching people to stay away from drugs or alcohol. It also involves helping them improve their lives on different levels.
“There were three stages in Personal Frontiers,” Coy said. “Each one digs a little deeper and actually makes you become comfortable in your own skin. So that’s huge. For so long, I couldn’t even look in a mirror.”
Coy said that when he was in intensive outpatient treatment, he learned how to deal with emotions and “how to own up to what you’re feeling, which was really hard for me. Being an addict for 10 years, I only knew a couple of feelings, which were anger and sadness.”
For Young, Personal Frontiers helped her rediscover herself.
“I really enjoyed it, because you’re always learning about yourself. When you’re an addict, you lose all of who you are, you don’t know who you are,” she said. “You don’t know who that is.
“So while you’re working through all this stuff, you’re trying to figure out, ‘Who am I? What do I really want in life, and what parts of me do I not want to continue to be?'”
Although she’s graduated from the program, Young still meets with Huckins every so often and shares her story with others. And just as Personal Frontiers made a difference in her life, she hopes to do the same for other addicts.
“That’s what keeps me sober today,” she said. “If, say a year down the road, five, 10 years down the road, they think in their head, ‘Oh, that’s why she said that. I get it now,’ then my work’s done and I won’t even know it. God knows, and that’s all that really matters.”
Since 1976, Personal Frontiers has been at the community’s side, through the booms and the busts. As the economy struggles to recover from the downturn, Personal Frontiers is there, helping people recover from their addictions.
But the agency faces an uphill battle. The future of the coal industry is cloudy, meaning that funding for treatment may continue to decrease. But drugs are not going to disappear.
“Medically determined, (addiction) is a brain disease, and just like any other disease, it’s something you have to take care of the rest of your life,” Bertoncelj said.
And just as a person has to take care of his addiction for the rest of his life, a community can’t just ignore those who struggle with addiction.
“The addicts always try to stay one step ahead, so they’re always looking for something new that can’t be tested,” Bertoncelj said.
Only time will tell if the agency will be there five, 10, 40 years down the road. But for right now, Personal Frontiers will continue to walk with those who come through its doors and help them rebuild their lives from the ashes.
Information from: The Gillette (Wyo.) News Record, http://www.gillettenewsrecord.com