Taking Action Summit: Peer Recovery and Lived Experience
Good morning everyone, and welcome to the third day of our summit, our final day here. Much shorter day than the last couple of days, but I would like to welcome everyone who's joining us on the virtual platform this morning for this session, and everyone that's here in person. This session today is Peer Recovery and Lived Experience. And it is my absolute pleasure to introduce our speaker for this session.
Before I do that, I just want to, again, give the reminders that the chat will be open for any questions that anyone has during this session, at the end we'll do a question answer period. For those that are in the room, please do come to the mic if you have a question so that the participants on the virtual platform will be able to hear your question. All right, so our speaker today is Regina, known as Gina Brockway. She is a peer recovery specialist at Casa Trinity.
Gina has worked in the field of addiction with Casa Trinity for about four years. She has lived with addiction her whole life. In recovery, with six years of sobriety, she is a peer recovery specialist, a full-time student working on her associates degree in social work, and a mother who adores her young son. She earned her CRPA, which is Certified Recovery Peer Advocate.
That is the certification for peers in New York State. And works with people trying to get sober and those struggling with barriers that impede their recovery journey. Her goal is to help those suffering find hope and a way out. Please join me in welcoming our speaker, Gina.
(applause) - Hi, guys. So, I don't know what that noise is, but anyway. So as he said, I'm a person in recovery for six years, and you know, I come from very much rural America. I'm about an hour south of here, little town, Hornell.
And you know, I come from a family that is addicts, alcoholics, criminals. So this was my way of life. It was everything that I ever knew, it was in my world. I was born and bred to be an addict.
And back then we didn't, it wasn't a person that suffers from substance abuse disorder. You were just, you know, an addict, a junkie, you were no good. You were the scum of the earth type thing. I started using when I was seven.
I had family members, cousins and stuff that were older than me, and it started out with marijuana. And both my parents are addicts. And so that started me very young. And being in rural America, and where I'm from, my family has a name, our last name is very well known.
And because of that, there was a lot of stigma that came with that. My father was always in some sort of legal trouble and very well known by the law enforcement. And my uncle, he went to prison for murder. So that was a whole thing.
And you know, we were in a town where like, even the school, they dealt with my parents, and family, and stuff like that. And they were still there when I was coming up. So it didn't make things very easy. I was already appointed as a failure and no good, came from poverty, all that sort of stuff.
All those things, you know? And so with being a person suffering from the disease of addiction, and then figuring out that I was gay, I faced a lot of stigma. And nobody had hope for me, right? And so I believed this, I believed everything that I had been told my whole life.
And so I started to, my addiction went from marijuana, and then smoking crack at 10, and then, by the time I was 11, I was shooting dope. And I lived with heroin addiction active for 22 years. And so, this put me in situations. I would get into all kinds of trouble.
I was in every kind of facility that you could think of, I was in juvie, I was in psych centers, I was in residentials, I was in foster care. I became ward of the state of New York. And so they had all rights to me. And this was in the nineties, late eighties and early nineties.
And so I was all over New York state in all kinds of facilities. And so I'd run away and ended up in the court system, got in trouble in school, all that stuff. It was who I thought I was. It was who I thought I was supposed to be.
I idolized what I didn't know at the time was sickness. Right? I remember being in grade school, and we're going to do a tour of the jail, right? And outside the jail, and I'm in like third grade, there's this busted up car at Yates County jail.
Anybody know where Yates County is? It's very, very, very little, Penn Yan. And it was my dad's car. Another DWI, another high speed chase.
And he had been ejected. The car was obliterated. And he was in that jail. And I thought that was great, because this is what I was born to do, born to be, right?
And I wanted to live up to that. Not knowing the lengths that I would go to because of the sickness and the disease of addiction that ran through my family that affected me. Then in turn, my addiction affected so many others, right? And so this went on for a long time.
I was arrested, I had to get my transcript for school, and I just could not believe all the pieces of paper they had to use for all of my arrests and ones that I forgot about. I thought about that and I wore that as a badge of honor. And I was stealing cars. At one point I took off and left my kids and went across the country to Kansas City, Missouri, smoking crack.
These are the things, this is places where my addiction took me. And like any good addict, of course I'm gonna sell drugs. What else am I gonna do, right? So that was a whole thing within itself.
So not only am I a person in recovery from substances, but I'm also a person in recovery from selling drugs. And that was huge in my life. That was something we also, as children in my family, were brought up to do. That was part of our job.
We were like the little mules, right? And so I did that all my life. I didn't think that, there was no reason for me to do anything else, right? It was profitable, I got to keep using, and I didn't care.
I didn't even think, I thought it was normal. I did not know that that the kids in my class weren't doing the same thing. I didn't know that their parents weren't doing the same thing. I didn't know that their families were different.
All of this was just normal to me. And so I did it, that's what I did all my life. And I'd get arrested, and I was the no good junkie, and I was never gonna get better. That was always, go to the hospital, same thing.
Just give her what she wants, get her out of here, that's all she wants. I remember being in a hospital, and my IV kept infiltrating. And these people, the doctors and nurses, they were getting frustrated and they're like, 'cause I'm an an IV user, right? And so somewhere in there they were like, this is because of you using, and you're doing this because you just want to get high.
And that wasn't the case. Like, it was what it was. It was infiltrating and it needed to be changed. And there were a few people along the way, there was one doctor and one nurse in particular, that they treated me like I was a human being every single time I went in there.
And they were on, they never treated me like I was less than, they never chalked everything up to my use. They cared. And that always stuck with me with them. And later on, after I got sober, I actually, the nurse, I actually ended up working with her brother who suffers from the disease of addiction as well.
So that was kinda neat to be able to pay it forward, right? And so it was, you know, 2016, at this point in my life I had my son, he was two, I had my wife, I was still using, had many, many times been through rehabs and tried to get sober. And I never had the support, right? 'Cause my family's addicts and everybody that I know and hang out with and all my friends, they're addicts.
And treatment throughout this, the access to it, this was at a time where, in order for me to get treatment, I had to be using, right? And I'd been to rehabs where they tell me we can't take you, you need to be under the influence and then come back, things like that. And it was just, it was hard. Nobody wanted to help.
Doctors, it was foreign to them. And so they didn't understand, especially in the nineties and the early two thousands. And so it was just, I would just be given all these meds and just pushed out the door, and none of it ever helped. And then I got arrested, my last time getting arrested, and it was 2016, it was January 8th.
And it was right after my birthday. And they pulled over my car, and my wife was driving and whatnot, and they were like, Brockway, we finally got you. Finally got you. And I remember the one officer in particular, he just, he despised me and any addict, and he was like, you guys are just, you're disgusting and despicable.
And it wasn't anything that I hadn't heard my whole life. So, at the time I didn't feel like it had affected me because, by being told this, you believe it, right? And that's really where I'd been my whole life, is that everything that anybody had ever said about me, I believed to be true. So I didn't think there was a way out.
I didn't think, no matter what I did, or what I wanted, or you know, and asking for help, anytime I had asked for help it was, you were never gonna get better anyway, so why now? So they booked me, took me to the county jail, and it was the same thing there. And they didn't offer any help. And I could not go more than an hour, hour and a half without using before I'd start going into withdrawal.
And the county I'm from, Steuben County, they did not offer any kind of medication for opiate withdrawal at all in the jails or anything. So, by the time they got me to the jail, I was in pretty rough shape and the guards and stuff there, it was the same thing. They were telling me what a horrible person I was, and that being a heroin addict and a drug dealer that I deserved everything. And so they booked me, get me downstairs and into my cell, and I spent the next six days withdrawing, cold turkey, on the floor, you know, urinating, defecating, vomiting all over myself and my cell, and having seizures.
I ended up having a stroke, and alls they would do is walk by and kick my door and yell at me to get off the floor before they took me downstairs. And I was hallucinating, it was really bad. And thankfully though, there was this one guard, this one guard, this gentleman, and my wife was in the cell next to me. That's that ripple effect, right?
And he allowed her to come into my cell, and get me up off the floor, and get me cleaned up and put back onto my cement slab. So they didn't take me downstairs, 'cause they were like, you don't want that. And I had lost my sight with the stroke. So I couldn't get myself up off the floor, and they did not care.
They did not care. They did not give me any medical treatment. I was just the heroin junkie, right? So during that time though, that period where I was in the county jail, in between the getting sick and all that, I had nothing but time to think.
I didn't know where my two year old son was at the time. I didn't know if they had went into my house and took my son. I had hurt so many people, and my wife's in the cell next to me, I don't know where our son is, and I don't know what's gonna happen. At the end of my use, I was just so broken, right?
And I just, I wanted to die. I would use as much as I could and pray to God that that shot was gonna be the shot that took me out. And it never worked, right? Well, during the time where I'm in the jail cell thinking about all this stuff, I realized that I didn't want to die.
I didn't know how to live without using. I had no idea, I'd been using since I was seven years old. But I knew that there were ways and help to get sober, with all my 22 years of bouncing in and out, in and out of the rooms of facilities, and seeing other people that had gotten sober. So I knew that there was hope, I just had to find it.
So I decided that, if I had the chance, that that's what I was gonna do, I was done. And so, went and they released me on pre-trial release, and one of the orders was I had to go to outpatient treatment. And so I did that and I ended up fighting my court case for six months, and then I went to prison, and I went to prison sober. That is different, going into criminal justice system.
And they say that there's treatment, but there's no treatment. Like they might have the books there, they might have recovery books. But other than that, there was nothing. And so, how bad did I want it?
So I used the books that they did have, and I would write everything down, 'cause what else was I gonna do? I couldn't highlight or nothing like that. So I just did what I felt that I could. And I became the go-to person in prison when it came to being sober and knowing anything about any kind of program or anything like that.
And I had amazing supports on the outside from my little bit of time that I had before I went to prison, I found a recovery base of people. And that foundation and that support was so vital, so very, very vital. And they all stuck with me through the whole process. And I never ever would've had that from my family.
The only people who stood by me in my family that wasn't using was my grandparents. And my grandfather died right before my son was born. And so I didn't have him, and my grandmother, after my grandfather passed, moved to Florida. So I was completely alone at this, but I found a family in recovery.
And for me that was everything. And so, when I came home, I had never really held a job. Here and there, but never more than a couple weeks. I was a drug dealer, I didn't need a job, right?
And it was ironic because I would pay people with drugs to do my daily things, like clean my house, do my dishes, things like that, right? My first job in recovery was cleaning people's houses. It was great. And it went from there.
And I got into home health aid work. And all this stuff really helped me feel better, because I was giving back to people who needed help, right? And so I did that, and then I was offered the opportunity to become a peer. To go to Corning Community and to take the courses and to do that.
And like, that's a no brainer, right? Because, throughout my addiction, I always was like, oh, I wanna go back to school and do this, right? And it was always, always, since I was a child, it was always something in human services. Just the focus had changed throughout the years.
And so I'm like, yeah, absolutely. Let's do this. And that began my incredible journey of being a peer, right? In my world today, it is my job to have my hand out for other people who suffer from substance use disorder.
And it's the most rewarding thing. And in my personal life and in my work life, it's what I do, it's just who I am, and it's the greatest gift, right? So I went to school, did the courses, and I started working for Casa Trinity, and it has just evolved from there. I've done a lot of things with this company.
I've worked in all of our New York state facilities and I've worked on a lot of grants. And so what I do right now is I work with the hospitals, the police, judges, DAs, and I build relationships and give a lot of education about those of us with substance use disorder, and how these different entities can better help people, right? Because everything that we've been doing beforehand isn't working, the incarceration isn't working, the abuse and belittling and all of that, none of it's working. And I have the opportunity to show these people that there is hope, all of them.
Those of us who are suffering from the disease of addiction and those of them who thought that none of us could ever get better, right? Which is amazing. So I've had the opportunity to work with the same officers who arrested me and saved my life. 'Cause that's essentially, that is what they did.
No matter what they thought of me, they saved my life. And it has really been amazing, because these people now have a totally different view and perspective on people with substance use disorder. These officers genuinely want to help people suffering from the disease of addiction and they want to get them into treatment. And so we work together to do that.
And the gentleman that spoke earlier, he said about wishing that there was the number for the get a bed within 24 hours. Most times I do that I can get somebody, whether it's detox, inpatient, outpatient, they have an appointment, MAT, within 24 hours. At the very least, it's 48 hours. Like he said, there's a little window of opportunity.
Because I know for me, I would wanna get sober, I'd be ready, and then something would take too long and then I'm gone. I'm getting high and it's gone. The thought is just not even there. And you know, the problem is, is people are dying in that gap.
And we as a community are responsible for these people, for us. They're our fellow brothers and sisters. They are somebody's child, cousin, sister, brother, mother, and they just need help, they need hope. And that is what they're getting.
I can offer them that, I can show them, and I get to walk with them on their journey and help them. The barriers, all those barriers that we face, the transportation, the MAT, all of that. We're partnered with the U of R down in our little town, it's like a bridging the gap induction program through the ER, and the social worker there and I worked very, very closely to make sure that people who come in, who are in withdrawal and cannot get medication for their disorder, they can get medication. And like I said, I get them an appointment within 24 to 48 hours.
And then I stay with them and I make sure they get to their appointments, if they need anything in the meantime they can call me 24/7, I am there. 'Cause a lot of times we've burnt all our bridges and we have nobody else. And it helps to have somebody that knows exactly what you're going through, who has been there. And so that is what I do.
If there's anything that I believe, and this was true for myself, that is lost through somebody's addiction, it would be hope. Like, even though you know that there's these options, there's a way out, like you forget that. And with all the stigma that surrounds addicts, and the negative talk, and then you get the negative self talk, you don't believe that there's hope for you, you don't believe that this time it's gonna work for you, or this time you're gonna be able to get the resources that you need to be able to. And oftentimes, like one of the girls that spoke here, her and her husband, we were at the same table yesterday and we were talking about how there are doctors in facilities, prescribers and programs that, if you go out, and you relapse and use, kind of like affirming our disease, right?
They will cut you off and throw you out without anything. And then there you are again, broken and withdrawing, and what other choice do you have, in your mind, other than to go out and use. And that leads to the overdoses and deaths. You've been on whatever it is, methadones, suboxone or whatever, and then it's just ripped away from you because you're an addict and that's what it is.
So, that is something that we are working really hard to change in our community, and we do not do that. Thankfully, the good thing with the company that I work for is that almost every single person that works there has been affected by addiction in some way. Whether it's a family member or themselves. And so we are better equipped to come from a place of understanding.
And yeah, so that's about what I got for you guys. And I just leave you with, if you do come in contact or you have somebody, a loved one, a friend or whatever that is suffering from the disease of addiction, remember that they're hopeless, and remind them that there's hope. 'Cause it doesn't matter what has happened, where you come from it, none of that matters. What matters is that there is hope, and there is a way out, and there are people that are here that are willing to have their hand out, and do have their hand out.
So thank you. (applause) - All right, thank you, Gina. Do we have any questions? All right, we've got a couple questions here.
Are you able to point to a key moment? Like is there something specific you could share that says, well that was like the actual breakthrough moment for me?
- It really was while I was on the floor in the jail cell. And I realized, 'cause I thought I was gonna die. And that made me realize I didn't want to, it wasn't that I actually wanted to die. And that was the pivotal point for me, right there.
I realized that I actually wanted to live. So I was willing, at that point, to do whatever it was that I had to do, to do that.
- Thank you. Would you be willing to share like a particular experience, in your job as a recovery peer advocate, a particular example of this work being rewarding or memorable? Like, is there one you can share with us that says, you know what, this job is really rewarding for me, and here's an example.
- I can. So there is this girl, she's been through our facilities a few times, and this last time around, and she always, even while she was out there she would keep in contact with me and my work partner, and this last time she was pretty bad off, and she ended up finding out that she was pregnant when she first came in with us. And so she was rough and didn't know what she was gonna do and all that, but she stuck it out. And she just sent us a picture of the baby, and mom and baby are doing well and still sober.
And you know, got her own place and moving forward with her life. And those are the things. We all know that the success rate is not great, but we're planting seeds. And as long as that's happening, there's still hope, right?
It doesn't matter how many times somebody has to come in, like you were saying, none of that matters. What matters is that they're getting there, right? And as long as they are making some sort of progress, there's some sort of progress from the last time to this time, right? That's really what matters.
And they are sober however many days they're there, and that's really, 'cause you know, like I said, it took me 22 years in and out, in and out. Nobody ever thought I was gonna get sober. I didn't think I was ever gonna get sober. And yet here I am.
- All right, one last question. So we've been here at a Stigma Summit, and part of the goal is to try to really eliminate stigma, educate people, and for years in working with advocates and recovery, and I've always said that the problem is that the myths, the ignorant perceptions, and how people view addiction, the behaviors that they see are very loud, and the actual facts, and the success in treatment, and the success in recovery are not loud enough. And people don't know. I think the power to eliminate stigma is in the recovering person's voice.
And what are your thoughts of what we can do, as a field or system, to further encourage and support more people in recovery to be that voice?
- Well, by allowing them to. Listening and connecting. Connecting people who come in with those of us who are in recovery. I mean, we're on the road.
It just needs to be further wide spread. It has been documented and proven time and time again throughout the years, the best way to help an addict is another addict, right? That's been my experience. And I know for me, my behaviors were very loud, right?
It was because I didn't know any other way and I needed to be taught. I didn't have parents that taught me how to do things, behave, treat people. Like that wasn't something that was in my family. So I had to be taught.
And still to this day, it's another addict that teaches me how to be a better human being, you know?
- Thank you. All right.
- [Audience Member]
So I know a little bit about Hornell and some of the other small towns that are down there, and I think, arguably, the people in the jails, and the people in the police department, and the people in the emergency room never saw recovery before. They only saw the negative side of the addiction. They only saw the negative behaviors, they only saw the throwing up, and the manipulation, and the drug seeking. And so it's understandable to realize how they culturized negatively about addiction.
What you've done is a couple of things. You've shown them what recovery looks like, and you've done that by working next to them, right? So now they're not just seeing the negative side, they're seeing what recovery looks like, and on top of that they're seeing someone in recovery helping them make their jobs easier. So my question is, as you've been doing this work with the police, and with the emergency room, and with the jails, have you noticed people having those "aha" moments, where they are starting to understand recovery and the value of having people in recovery work with the people that they encounter every day?
- Oh, absolutely. They are getting a better understanding because they have somebody who's already been there that can explain these things, right? And really that's a lot of what it's about is the lack of education. People get upset with medical professionals at the ED, especially, right?
Because they don't understand. But what people forget is, their job is to treat you. Medical stuff. Like they did not specialize in substance use disorder, so why would they understand?
And so with me going into the ED, I have had the privilege of helping them get an understanding of where somebody with substance use disorder is coming from and why we think the way we think, why we behave the way we behave. So it's really been a great learning experience for all of us involved. And the best part about it is the person in front of us, the person who needs help, is getting the help that they need, and getting that compassion and understanding and empathy, along with treatment. 'Cause I can't say it enough, it's about treating the whole person.
There's a saying that drugs and alcohol are but a symptom. There's a reason for all of it. And that's really the core of it.
We have one more question.
- [Audience Member]
Thank you. So I also come from a very small town, central Illinois, about 3,000 people in our town. Substance use in our area is generational. I manage a recovery care team with a prescriber, case manager, therapist, field support specialist.
And what we see is we have individuals who come in who say, this is all I know. My parents, substance users, my grandparents. And what we find is that, not only do we have our community members who look at them and stigmatize them as addicts, but when they come to us for help, this almost makes me cry, when they come to us for help and they start to get help, they have family members who say to them, who do you think you are? Why are you trying?
Really, like you're turning your back on our family. And who do you think you are trying to better yourself? So my question to you is, did you face that with your own family?
- I did, especially my father. My mother, I had to walk away. And I had to walk away from my mom, which, I mean, that's my mom, it's the person who gave me life, right? No matter how toxic it was, that's my mom.
But I knew that in order for me to get well, that was something I had to do. I had so many times I didn't change anything, I just put it down and picked it right back up. So there were things that I had to become willing to do, and I had to become willing to put me and my sobriety first no matter what. And that was the only way that I was going to stay sober.
And you know, thankfully in my case, my mom got sober about a year after me. And so I was blessed, she was blessed with that. My father's another story, but we have that. With generational, it's so hard, because it's so ingrained that to get away from it, it takes a lot of support from other people.
'Cause I still struggle with it today, as far as my father goes. But I know that I've been down that road. It's like my addiction, I don't need to do any more investigating, you know?
- [Audience Member]
Do you have any advice for us as the care team members on what we can do to help those individuals who come to us and say, I can't do this, my family is, it's too much pressure from my family. Like, what can we do? I mean, we're always there for them whenever they walk through the door. But it's really, it's hard to tell them, I know this is your family, I know this is your mom, this is the person who gave life to you.
I know she's pressuring you to not do this. Is there any advice you can give us as the care team?
- I mean, really there are some things that we can help with and there's some things that we can't. We can give them all the support, but it really comes down to them and the choice that they're going to make. And it's so hard when it comes to family. I know for me, I was raised that family is everything.
It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter what they do. It doesn't matter what they say, family is, that's it. And I had to break that.
And I tell you, it was definitely one of the hardest things that I have ever had to do. But for me, I knew that I had to do it. So if I wanted to live, it was the only way. And I would say, having that talk with them, and looking back at the generations, and do they want to keep that going?
Or do they wanna break that cycle? Do they wanna live? And with that just be there for them, like you said, that's really the only thing. I had to build, make my own family.
And that's why like, I make sure that with the people that I work with that are coming in off the streets, and outta the hospital, and jails and all that, that I am available 24/7, text, call and I will answer. Because it's hard. You don't have that support oftentimes. It's either that, it's generational and your family is everything that you don't want, or they've burnt all their bridges.
So that's the best I can say on it.
- [Audience Member]
- I have, just to add to that question, I don't know if that would be the case in your town, but I've seen, with some of the people we work with, that recovery groups kind of become that family, replaces that. If it is generational, where they're not getting that support from their family, it's not an environment that supports recovery, that if there are others in recovery or recovery groups that they can connect to, can become that other family for them, hopefully until something changes within their own family.
So we had one question come in online that asked, could you speak to the difference between those that have family support when they're trying to get out of this, versus those that don't, and the challenges that they face between them?
- Yeah. I think we all know about the challenges that people face that don't have the family support. Oftentimes the things that I've ran into with people who do have family support. A lot of times, yes, their family supports them, but they don't understand the disease of addiction.
And so that's something we have to educate. I think a lot of things stem from lack of education around the disease of addiction, or the family just wants to fix everything and they become sometimes too motivated and too involved. And then the person that I'm working with, it becomes too overwhelming, and there's too much stress put on them, and I've seen it a thousand times where it just becomes too much and they run. So yeah, either way, it doesn't matter, I think, what walk of life we come from, support, no support, addiction, no addiction, we all face challenges as a person suffering from the disease of addiction.
Regardless, that's why we're here.
- Thank you. Gina, well thank you for being a part of this conference and for this session. You have an incredible story of hope and I appreciate you sharing it with us and everyone who joined the conference. And just wanna thank you for that.
(applause) - [Gina]
- All right, thank you to everyone who joined us, and please remember that if you need any assistance, if there's anything that we can assist you with, please feel free to reach out through the Center of Excellence email address or the website. And there's lots of resources that we have available, and hopefully some of it can be helpful to you. Take care. Hope you've enjoyed this summit.
Gina Brockway, CRPA
Peer Recovery Specialist, CASA Trinity