Breaking the Stigma
Featured Guest: Amy Cooper and Margaret Phillips
Today, I’m joined by two of the lead advocates for Heroes in Recovery, Amy Cooper and Margaret Phillips. They share about the personal journeys that drew them to become leaders in the recovery community and about their work with Heroes, a grassroots movement seeking to break the stigma surrounding addiction and mental health issues.
David Condos: Hey guys. Welcome to another episode of Recovery Unscripted, a podcast powered by Foundations Recovery Network. I’m your host David Condos, and I’m joined today by Amy Cooper and Margaret Phillips, two of the lead advocates for Heroes in Recovery. Heroes is a grassroots movement that works to break the stigma around addiction and mental health issues through storytelling, connection, and local events all over the country.
In this episode, Amy and Margaret share their personal stories of recovery and explain how replacing isolation with community has opened their eyes to all the ways that we can help and be helped by others. All right, here’s Amy and Margaret.
Well, welcome Amy and Margaret. Thanks for being with us today.
Margaret: Absolutely, thank you for having us.
Amy: Thanks for having us.
David: Yes. I thought we could start off by just having each of you tell us a little bit about yourself, about your personal journeys, and yes, and go from there. You want to start Margaret?
Margaret: Sure, I’ll start. I probably started drinking around the age of four, so it escalated pretty quickly. I think most people say, “I remember when I got my first bike,” or, “I got my first Barbie,” or whatever and it was, “No, I remember when I had scotch and sugar on the kitchen counter at four years old and how it made me feel.” The only thing I got from that was I felt sick, had this concoction, and now I feel better. Later in childhood some things happened, and so I went back to, “Oh, well I felt bad, I drank alcohol, I feel better,” and it just escalated rather quickly.
It was just a typical journey, I was very uncomfortable in my own skin, drank the drug to escape, still managed to be okay on the outside. You had to put up the facade with the family. Then it gets to a point where it got totally out of control and I was the only one that wasn’t admitting I was an alcoholic or an addict.
In short, it takes you down paths you don’t want to go, doing things I’d never intended to do with people I had no desire to be with. I think for all of us we get to that point where it’s, “I’d rather die than live this way,” and then you’re too scared to kill yourself [chuckles], so you’re like, “Okay, there’s got to be a way out,” and there’s just this internal battle that just never seems to stop. Then there’s this moment of clarity and it’s phenomenal when it happens because you’re like, “I see the light.”
I stumbled in that journey for a number of years but once it finally clicked, it was the greatest day of my life, literally, because you find out who you are, you get your life back and you realize, “I’m not living in that hell anymore and I don’t have to.” I think, when you’re in it, it’s like, “This is the only life I know, what else am I going to do?” To say I’m grateful would be a big understatement. You live for so many years knowing that life just sucked, for lack of a better term, and now there’s so many opportunities and I feel like there’s no limit to what I can do. Yes, it’s been a journey but an awesome one at that.
David: Yes. Amy?
Amy: Well, I started drinking, had my first drink probably age of 14. My parents were rather strict I guess you could say growing up so any chance I got to be out of the house, I would take it and take advantage of it, for that matter. I woke up on a cold ceramic tile floor, and just remembered the night before walking into this house and picking up a drink and that’s all I remember. That slowly progressed, I’d had no thought process of being an alcoholic. I had really not even heard the term because I was raised — my parents didn’t drink.
After probably 10 years, probably by the time I was 23, I tried cocaine. That was very interesting I felt like I was on top of the world and I felt like I could conquer the world, and I could walk into any place and feel confident. I believe after getting sober I found out that I had really low self-esteem [chuckles]. That progressed. I was involved in a case that took me to Augusta, West Virginia, for a hiatus for about 19 months. Served my time and came back home and was able to start a sober life.
I guess I was sober while I was there, but really not knowing and embracing the term sobriety until coming back home and realizing that this is a lifestyle, this is a new way of life. It’s your people, places, and things, your surroundings, your awareness. I found I guess, as my personal journey continues, that growth every year. Struggled with codependency and learning how to stand on my own two feet. In a relationship whether it be with my kids, friends, family, being an independent person and that person being independent but then coming together and have it help the relationship, it’s been such a huge experience for me being able to have relationships with people that I didn’t take advantage of [chuckles].
David: Right, yes.
Amy: Being able to have people trust me. I can honestly say I feel I have integrity now. That’s been huge for me, just from years of low self-esteem and using not only drugs and alcohol but using people. The alcohol and drugs were just a symptom of my character defects. I’ve experienced personal growth every year. Celebrate seven years this March and I’m very, very grateful for my recovery.
David: When you were in that place where you found recovery and you were figuring out what your new life was going to be, what led you to advocacy and then, eventually, here to working with Heroes in Recovery?
Margaret: I had stumbled into a lot of different scenarios that I never imagined I would be in. I was with a very supportive family who had resources to get me to the right treatment center to fix whatever was wrong with me, not understanding what the whole deal was. There were a couple places that I was in where there were people that didn’t have those same resources, who needed help I thought more than I did, of course, in hindsight that might’ve [chuckles] been the case.
It just struck a chord with me that I was able to get to an institution that solved the needs that I had with the trauma issues, and the addiction issues, and was able to help me get a new life and I see so many people that don’t have that opportunity. As soon as I was able to get my head together and clean up my side of the street, it just became a passion. It’s like I don’t want anybody to suffer like I did. That should never happen. What can I do to make that better? The guy on the street that’s living out of a box may not have always been there. You don’t know his story.
I just get extremely frustrated with the system, and I get very passionate about helping others because I don’t want anybody to suffer. I suffered for a long time and I just– there’s a way out and I feel like I’ve got to help people find that. The same way I did.
David: Yes, you’ve been there, you’ve seen it, and you want to help stop them before they get to that point.
Margaret: Right and not everybody has resources, either the financial resources, or the support from the family, or any of that stuff, and they’re just all there all by themselves. That breaks my heart.
David: Yes. Absolutely. Amy?
Amy: I went to run for recovery for Saint Christopher’s in Baton Rouge and they had put out an alert saying, “If you’d like to tell your story, this is all what we’re all about,” so I went online, and I signed in the information, and eventually my story was posted. I found out that there was an advocacy position opened and I interviewed for it. I’m passionate about recovery but I know there’s so many stories to be told, not only of the addicts and alcoholics but the families because there may be someone out there, the mom, or the dad, or the grandparent, or the brother, or the sister that could relate and be able to connect with that person whose story is told. It can help them, and it may even help with the process of getting their loved one in treatment, or getting their loved one the help that they need.
David: Yes. I know Heroes isn’t the only way that you guys are active in the recovery community. Amy, could you tell us a little bit about Faith at the Beach and all that?
Amy: I founded Faith at the Beach five years ago. We’re now 501C3 and its mission is to educate and help those who are ready to help themselves with recovery. The Kelly Gorman Watson Women’s Center was founded in July of 2015. We are opening up sober living, and the non-profit will support those who are not able to afford it.
David: Okay, cool. Faith at the Beach is the 501C3 that’s connected then with-
Amy: With the Kelly Gorman Watson Women’s Center. At the Women’s Center- we help women. We get them dressed up for their interview, we help them with their resume, we get their hair and makeup, and help them also find jobs.
David: Providing some of those resources that they may not have around them.
David: Yes, awesome. Is there anything else that you’d want to talk about, that you’re involved in?
Margaret: I think for me my career is shifted after I got sober into academic medical research. About five years ago I moved to Richmond to take a job, overseeing an institute that specialized in behavioral genetics, specifically substance abuse. It was combining my passion with just what I do for a living, which seemed like the best job in the world. That has evolved. I don’t work directly with that center anymore, but it turns out that one of the researchers there has a huge project that involves genotyping for alcohol disorders. I get to play in that role a little bit and help try to make a difference. It’s a pretty enormous project, but I get to do that for fun [chuckles] and get paid for it. It’s just neat. I think there’s advocacy in anything you do. Everybody at work knows that I’m in recovery, so I don’t have to hide it. I have that luxury.
One of the researchers on the committee for the DSM, he’s been on it since I think version three. It’s neat to get his perspective on how they break down the categories of a disorder. I’m like, “But that’s not really how it works in real life,” and so I’m sharing a book with him and he’s telling me what the scientists think of alcoholism. It is funny but it’s just nice to give a different perspective and, I think they appreciate them.
David: Also, Margaret, you actually went through firsthand, through the Foundations Recovery Network program. Could you tell us a little bit about that experience?
Margaret: Sure. Yes. I was just on my last leg, as most of us are. We don’t go into treatment feeling great, so yes, battle on death’s door and the big thing — I had been able to sustain a year to three years of recovery at different periods, but something would trigger an old response from an old trauma and I just would fall back into old habits.
Actually, my therapist had googled this place. We’re looking for somebody that specializes in PTSD as well as the addiction — it wasn’t something that she could get into in an hour session once a week. Came across this, next thing, I know I’m on a plane to Memphis, Tennessee. For me, it was just one of those God things. I wasn’t aware of what was happening, they just put me on a plane.
The right people were there at the right time and they did focused on the PTSD I had from some sexual abuse in my childhood. I could get sober up to a point, but I never wanted to disclose that information. I never wanted to walk through it. La Paloma had an EMDR specialist which was a treatment specific for PTSD that I’d never tried because nothing else had worked.
It was like a miracle. I was able to reprocess that whole event, come to a resolution that I could deal with, resolve it and put it to rest and that literally was — When I picked my sobriety date, it wasn’t the day I arrived. It was the day when I finally was able to put all that to rest. I just remember that day because I woke up and I felt different, didn’t really know why. Maybe because I was clean and sober. There was an anxiety in the pit of my stomach that had been there, since I was 10, that was gone. I didn’t know how to explain it but I thought I was just bouncing off the walls.
The people that were there were just phenomenal. Some of them were in recovery. The counselors were great and they just saw me through a lot of tough times. I stayed there for a few months. Best thing that ever happened to me and I’d literally made some life-changing decisions, as I said about the career change, and it’s been a heck of a ride ever since. Anytime they call and ask for a favor, put me on a plane, I’ll be there. What do you need? I can’t repay that. You literally saved my life. It was an awesome experience.
David: Yes, thank you for sharing that, yes. I know that’s something that we cover on the show when I’m talking with all kinds of people is the importance of integrating that treatment and not just focusing on the physiological side because, as you said, it’ll just be a cycle. Places like The Oaks at La Paloma that do that-
Margaret: It was a safe environment. They’d let me get through detox. They’d that let me get out of the fog. Then they delved into the issues that I would — didn’t want to face, but it was safe where I was — you’re in an environment where somebody’s there 24/7, so we could get into the stuff that was not easy or had been buried for so long. It was just a blessing.
David: Yes. Couple of last questions here. Why is being involved in this recovery community — Why is that important to you? Could you start us off Amy?
Amy: I think people — everybody has a home town they’re from and everybody lives in a community. If we can bring awareness to that community and let people know that they’re not the only ones struggling and be very vocal about our recovery and that one person that needed to hear it, Lord willing to hear it. Know that recovery is right out your back door literally, and that no matter what they’re facing or what their struggles are, that there’s someone in the community that can help them, that is — can relate to their story and that’s — I guess focusing on the similarities and realizing that, like I said earlier, everybody’s story different but we all have similar — we all got the similarities that run through and if we can connect with just one person, help that one person, it’s worth it.
David: Yes. Making sure they know they’re not alone.
Margaret: I think that’s the greatest fear of all of us. When we’re in active alcoholism or addiction, it’s just you feel so isolated. You don’t know where to turn and nobody lives the life you have, so nobody understands. It’s a hard place to get out of if you don’t have resources around you, or you know somebody that is. I think so doing it at a grassroots level, as Amy was saying, is I can see somebody across the street who’s gone through the same struggle I have. Yes, I think grassroots is where it has to happen because that’s where most of us are. We don’t have the luxury of living in Hollywood and living the glamorous life. The addiction that I did was not glamorous and for most of us it isn’t, I don’t think so. For me, I like to reach out my hand to the person across the street and just say, “Hey, I’m here, here’s my number. Call me when you’re ready.”
David: Well yes, that’s where it all starts.
To wrap up with this final question, what are some things that you would like to say to someone who is maybe where you were and is trying to figure out their new life in recovery and they’re wanting to maybe become more involved? How would you encourage them to do that or impart to them what that’s meant to you?
Margaret: I think for me, when I set out to do it, it was very much to help other people. What I found in the first year is that it helped me way more than I ever anticipated. So it gave me the opportunity to look at myself in a different light which I think — as well as hear other perspectives from the other advocates, so it broadens my ability to see a bigger picture. It’s just been phenomenal. Very eye opening. I think we, as Amy said, we all suffer with the same disease but we go down very different paths to get there. Having people share their experience, provides hope but it also is — when we’re out there at a grassroots level and somebody comes to me and say, “Hey, I need help and this is my story,” you say, “Ah, let me put you in touch with this person because-“
David: Yes. Having that network.
Margaret: Let that person share their story, so you can see it, what it’s like on the other side.
Amy: I think the modalities of recovery are growing, which I think is awesome. You have your AA your NA, there’s Celebrate Recovery. There’s different other meetings that branch out whether it be faith-based or secular. Even I’m seeing more and more that police officers are being trained to deal with mental illness, which I think is awesome, because they may come up to someone and they’re struggling because they’re not sober.
I think with everybody joining together, these facilities — I know that foundations every — people who are passionate about this, they’re available 24/7 and people don’t seem to realize, they’re used to people being nine to five or eight to five but in this industry addiction never sleeps.
Margaret: One thing I just want to add real quick, when you were mentioning about the passion, for a lot of us, we don’t get involved in the advocacy until we have a personal experience. Usually something happens, unfortunately, tragic perhaps that pushes you to do something about it. There is an oral surgeon at the University where I work whose son died of a heroin overdose. He grew up in a good family, everything was right, but started with a pain pill for something and it led to a heroin overdose and he died. What that did is that spurred him into action. Now he is, actually in this past fall, put in a curriculum for all the oral surgeon interns coming into his course to teach them about addiction and prescribing opiates and how all this works.
To me, that’s phenomenal, that’s how you do it at the grassroots level. The sad part is it took him losing a son to do that but at least it’s starting somewhere where you’ve got to talk about it.
David: It’ll lead to more of that openness and conversation that brings people together.
Margaret: That’s the exciting part I think about being an advocate. is that you really get to see change and you’ve got your finger on the pulse of what’s happening. It’s hard to have your finger on the pulse of congress. [chuckles] When it’s right here in your own community, you can see change right away in it. It’s a neat experience.
David: All right. Well, that’s it, yes. Thanks for your time, guys.
Margaret: Thank you, sir.
Amy : Thank you for having me.
David: Thanks again to Margaret and Amy for joining us. Now I have the privilege of welcoming Will Hart who is going to introduce us to the Life Challenge program. I’m happy to collaborate with the LC to feature one of their challenges each month. You’ll be hearing more from them in future episodes as well. Now, welcome Will.
Will: Hello everybody.
David: All right. How’s it going, man?
Will: I’m good. How are you today?
David: Good, good, good. All right, could you tell us a little to introduce the LC to people who aren’t familiar with it? Then a little bit about this feature challenge.
Will: Well, the LC is the Life Challenge program. It’s the after-care support for all of the foundation’s facilities. We do anything we can to help support our members who are everybody that had finished treatment at one of the facilities. We do follow-up calls, follow-up emails, anything to get in touch with them. We have events around the country. We got a website with blogs, other resources they can use to move forward in their recovery.
David: Awesome. Then part of that is doing these challenges. Could you tell us about that?
Will: Yes. Our challenges they just — little bit of everything. We just try to challenge our members to be better. We challenge ourselves to be better, so some in the past have been find a new recipe, go on a walk. They’re a little bit of everything. This month we thought we’d do “Go out of your way to brighten someone’s day.” Give somebody their favorite candy bar, call an old friend you haven’t talked to in a while. It can really be anything that you want. It kind of goes along with sharing their story with the Heroes in Recovery movement. We thought it’d fit right in.
David: Yes. All part of that grassroots network.
David: Cool. Yes, if you’re listening out there, you can accept this challenge as well. Go brighten someone’s day. Then, can they check you out online to see more future challenges?
Will: Yes, absolutely. We have a website lcaccepted.com and if you complete the challenge and you’re interested in getting a free t-shirt or something, submit a bragging right. There’s a page on there for that and we’d love to see any photo you might have.
David: All right. Well, thank you, Will and we’ll see you again for next month’s challenge.
Will: Sounds good. Thanks a lot.
David: This has been the Recovery Unscripted podcast. Today we’ve heard from Margaret and Amy, lead advocates with Heroes in Recovery. If you’d like to talk with someone from foundations about the integrated treatment available at The Oaks at La Paloma and other facilities, please call 855-823-2141. Thank you for listening. If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please share it, review it, and subscribe. See you next time.