A Peer Recovery Coach Walks The Front Lines Of America's Opioid Epidemic

Dec 27, 2016
Originally published on December 30, 2016 10:42 am

Charlie Oen's battle with addiction started when he was 16 and his family moved to Lima, Ohio. It was the last stop in a string of moves his military family made — from Panama to North Carolina, Kentucky, Texas and Germany.

"I went toward a bad group because those were the people that accepted me," he says. Drugs became a substitute for real friendships.

He started drinking, popping pills, cooking meth and shooting heroin. He was homeless for a while when his parents kicked him out of the house. "I would just be wandering the streets of Lima at all hours of the night until I found somewhere, chilled, sat down, fell asleep in an alley," he says.

By age 19, Charlie was serving a three-year sentence in prison on a burglary charge. That's where he stopped using drugs. He spent the last five months of his sentence in a community-based correctional facility where he took classes and completed group work to learn about addiction. The lessons stuck.

"I started telling people, 'I want to be a probation officer,' and everybody knocked it," he says. "They were like, 'You can't do that, you're a felon.' I said, 'Check it out, I'm going to do something.' "

One year later, he started working as a peer recovery coach, using his own experiences to help other people stay in recovery.

Charlie is one of five peer recovery coaches at Coleman Professional Services in Lima, and at age 25, he is by far the youngest. Each coach works with about 20 clients to help remove some of the impediments, big and small, to living a drug-free life. Some clients may need help learning to socialize without drugs or getting a ride to their recovery meetings. Others, like 52-year-old Anna Hershey, need more constant support.

"I texted you last night. I know it was late but I needed someone to talk to right away," she tells Charlie when they meet in Coleman's parking lot the week before Thanksgiving. She'd argued with her boyfriend the night before, and anger is usually a trigger for her drug use. Charlie is her first recovery coach in over 30 years of addiction.

"I'm proud of myself because I didn't leave the house and go do the drugs, and that's what I usually do when I get frustrated," she tells him.

Over the course of their 90-minute appointment, Charlie takes Anna to two food banks to pick up donated groceries, and then to check on her application to ring a bell for the Salvation Army this winter. It's been approved, and despite the previous night's quarrel, she's excited to share that news with her boyfriend when Charlie drops her off at home.

Some days Charlie meets with as many as five clients. Today it's just two: Anna and Shelly Cavinder.

"It's not been a great day," Shelly tells Charlie as she gets in his car. She was written up twice in the morning at the women's shelter where she's living, which puts her on thin ice for the final two weeks of her stay. She's moving into a new apartment and bought furniture in anticipation — but the unit where she's storing the furniture got infested with cockroaches, and today, Charlie is helping her throw it all away.

Shelly is 50. She's been using drugs since before Charlie was born. Still, she calls him her lifesaver. "If I didn't have Charlie, I would probably be back on drugs and dead," she says. "He even talks to me on his days off, you know, after hours when I have an issue."

"I appreciate that Shelly," Charlie says. She smiles and pats his leg.

"You're welcome," she replies.

The little pick-me-ups and attagirls Charlie gives Shelly every day go a long way to keeping her from becoming a statistic. There were 52,000 drug overdose deaths in the United States in 2015, 18 of them in this small Ohio county alone. Addiction is a tough disease to beat and relapse rates are high.

It can be easy to forget sometimes that Charlie has his own history with addiction, one he still deals with to this day. His first job out of prison was making salads at the Texas Roadhouse. He left the job when he was hired as a peer recovery coach two years ago.

He wants to continue working in the recovery field and plans on going to school to get a social work degree. But last year he started working three nights a week again at the Texas Roadhouse to help pay off his court fees, something he has to do before he can start taking classes. He's got $2,900 to go, down from $10,000. "This is what I do to get the judicial system off my back," he says.

After everything is paid off, he says he'll keep working two jobs for a while, "to build the bank back up a little."

Every day he makes a point to do something for himself — he's in recovery, too, so focusing on self-care can be just as important as caring for his clients. Lately he's been playing soccer at a park near his house, sometimes with friends, other times alone. "Early in the morning there'll be no cars driving," he says. "All you hear is your feet and the grass and the ball flying through the sky. It feels good."

Charlie is five years clean, three years out of prison and has spent more than two years as a peer recovery coach. He has a lot of life to live. But, he says, "When people ask, 'Where do you see yourself in five years?' I've never had an answer. Because three years ago I didn't think I'd be having this interview today."

"So just as long as I continuously do what I've got to do and stay positive, stay out of the way and continue to want to strive, something will come my way. The doors will open."

Meredith Rizzo, Carmel Wroth, Nancy Shute, Gisele Grayson and Diane Webber edited this story, which is part of a reporting partnership with NPR, Side Effects Public Media and Kaiser Health News.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We're going to meet a coach now not for athletes but for people trying to stop using drugs. Charlie Oen is a peer-recovery coach in Lima, Ohio. Like many sports coaches, he draws on personal experiences to guide others down the same path. Bram Sable-Smith of member station KBIA spent today with him.

BRAM SABLE-SMITH, BYLINE: If you were writing Charlie Oen's life story, you might say it's been grim. But he won't.

CHARLIE OEN: If it was to be written, I guess it'd be an uplifting tale from a comedic point of view with tones of seriousness.

SABLE-SMITH: Here are the tones of seriousness. Charlie fell in with the wrong crowd when he was 16. He started drinking, popping pills, cooking meth, shooting heroin. He was homeless for a while when his parents kicked him out of the house. By 19, he was serving a three-year sentence in prison, where drugs were still available.

OEN: They're like, dude, do you want these morphines? Do you want this bit of heroin because everything was in there. And that's when I was, like, damn. I do, you know? And that's when I started to be like, I got to do something. I'm here for doing this. And I'm having these thoughts while I'm here. And I didn't want to let anybody else down, including, like, myself.

SABLE-SMITH: Now Charlie is three years out of prison and five years clean. For his clients, like 52-year-old Anna Hershey, his own experience kicking the habit makes a difference.

ANNA HERSHEY: It helps to have someone that's been there, you know, that's done some of the drugs that I've done.

SABLE-SMITH: Why?

HERSHEY: Because they know where you're coming from. And other people don't.

SABLE-SMITH: Anna has struggled with addiction for over 30 years. Charlie is her first peer supporter. Today he's driving her to a food pantry. It's less than a week away from Thanksgiving, so there's a chance there might be a turkey. But they're not optimistic.

HERSHEY: Look at that line. It's freaking out in the street. Oh, my God. It's way down here.

OEN: Yeah.

HERSHEY: I don't know. I don't know if I'm going to get any food out here.

OEN: I don't, either.

HERSHEY: I don't think so.

OEN: That woman was sleeping in her car. So, like, she's been there for a while.

SABLE-SMITH: Charlie's been working with Anna for about a year now. He helps take away some of the small impediments to living a drug-free life. He takes her shopping, helps her stay on top of her bills, apply for housing. And all the while, he's just there for her.

HERSHEY: Last night, I let him know that something was going on and stuff. But I'm proud of myself because I didn't leave my house and go do the drugs. And that's what I usually do when I get frustrated.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We have to shut it down for today, buddy.

OEN: All right.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: All right. Y'all be good. Take it easy.

OEN: Thank you.

HERSHEY: Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Uh-huh.

SABLE-SMITH: They're turned away. But later in the day, Charlie takes Anna to a second food pantry, then to check on her job application to ring a bell for the Salvation Army. Up until now, Charlie's peer-coaching job has been paid for with grants. But starting July 1, Medicaid will cover this kind of work in Ohio, just like a counselor or social worker. He'll still see the same 20 clients he does now. Today he meets with two, Anna and Shelly Cavinder.

OEN: What's up, Shelly? Give me one second - just getting paperwork together.

SABLE-SMITH: At age 50, Shelly is twice Charlie's age. She struggled with opioid addiction since before he was born. She calls him her lifesaver. They talk most days. He takes her to doctor's appointments and to get her daily meds.

SHELLY CAVINDER: If I didn't have Charlie, I would probably be back on drugs and dead. I would be done. I mean, he even talks to me on his days off when I have an issue.

OEN: I appreciate that, Shelly.

CAVINDER: You're welcome.

SABLE-SMITH: The little pick-me-ups and atta-girls (ph) Charlie gives Shelly every day go a long way to keeping her from becoming a statistic. There were 52,000 drug-overdose deaths in 2015, 18 of them in this small Ohio county alone. When her mother died earlier this year, Shelly credits Charlie with helping her cope without drugs.

CAVINDER: He came to my mom's funeral, checked on me every day. And I still have it rough.

OEN: Some days are worse than others.

CAVINDER: And it's really hard on me right now with...

OEN: The season.

CAVINDER: ...The holidays.

SABLE-SMITH: It can be easy to forget that Charlie's also in recovery. He's got to take care of himself, too. He wants to be a social worker someday.

OEN: You know, at this point, I wanted to go to school. You know, I wanted to start evolving in this field that I'm in.

SABLE-SMITH: And that can only happen when he finishes paying his court fees. He's got $2,900 to go, down from 10,000. His peer-support job doesn't pay enough to cover that comfortably. So three nights a week, he picks up shifts at the Texas Roadhouse.

OEN: I'm a little salty about, you know, like, my time and money just going straight to court still, which - I mean, I know it's my fault. But cut a break, you know?

SABLE-SMITH: Sometimes, after a long day like this, he meets up with friends to unwind - but not today.

OEN: My friends wanted to play today. But I just want to shoot around by myself today. I don't feel like dealing with people. Sometimes, I don't, you know?

SABLE-SMITH: So he drives to the park near his house to kick a soccer ball alone as the sun sets.

(SOUNDBITE OF KICKING SOCCER BALL)

SABLE-SMITH: For NPR News, I'm Bram Sable-Smith in Lima, Ohio.

(SOUNDBITE OF KICKING SOCCER BALL)

SHAPIRO: This story is part of a partnership with NPR, Side Effects Public Media and Kaiser Health News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.