In the iconic film “The Wizard of Oz,” the Wicked Witch of the West conjures a field of red poppies to thwart Dorothy’s entry into the fabled Emerald City, and foil her return to Kansas. Today, poppies like those are inflicting a plague of opioids across America, feeding an addiction epidemic that doesn’t discriminate based on race or income, or distinguish legal drugs (like those that took the life of actress Judy Garland) from the illicit. But thanks to a partnership between Alvernia University and Caron Treatment Centers, there is hope for some, and training for the next generation of addiction counselors.
It’s been 28 years since Jennifer Weissberg first got high. But she still remembers every detail like it was yesterday.
She was 14 years old, living on Long Island, a suburban teenager who took ballet lessons and played softball but never felt like she fit in until she started hanging out with “the rough crowd — the misfits, the people that did drugs, that smoked cigarettes, that drank, that got into trouble.”
“I remember exactly where I was,” recalls Weissberg, now 42 and working on six years of living clean and sober. “It was in a dead end right up the block from my house. I wasn’t allowed to be there, it was off limits, but I went there anyway. I even had a curfew, but I made it home on time.”
That night, she tried both drinking and smoking pot for the first time. “And I absolutely loved it,” she says. “I didn’t like the pot so much, but I loved the alcohol. After 20 minutes, I loved the way my legs felt. I can remember the warm feeling. I especially loved the way people asked me to do this with them.
“It wasn’t like I heard, ‘Have a drink.’ It was like, ‘Be our friend. Hang out with us.’ I didn’t want to do it. I knew I could get in trouble. And who likes the taste of liquor? The smell of it was disgusting. But I did it anyway. I loved the way it made me feel. I fit in. I felt beautiful. I felt funny. I felt like I was popular. It was unbelievable.
“And I couldn’t wait to do it again.”
Struggling with addiction, finding redemption
Perhaps it is only fitting that Weissberg first did drugs in a dead end, because that’s where her life was headed over the course of more than two harrowing decades of addiction that followed, as she moved quickly to smoking crack cocaine and eventually to shooting heroin. Today, Weissberg is an addiction studies major at Alvernia and works as a case manager and recovery support specialist for TASC (Treatment Access and Services Center, Inc., of Berks County).
“I want to work with people like me,” she says. “I know that’s so cliché, and that’s what all the counselors and people who work in this field say, but, truly, there’s nothing else I want to do.”
For long periods since that first night, her life was a living hell. She lost almost everything: her career as a nurse, her house, her marriage, and even her daughter. And after getting her nursing license and daughter back almost 10 years ago, she lost them again when she relapsed with heroin.
It may seem odd to say, but Weissberg was lucky. Despite being arrested on two felony drug charges in 2009, she committed to getting clean. It took two stays at Caron Treatment Centers in Wernersville, Pa., and working through Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12-step program. Yet there is one simple fact, without which none of the others would have mattered.
Her brother Rudy wasn’t so fortunate. He died from a heroin overdose, another casualty in what even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention call “The Heroin Epidemic.” Between 2002 and 2013, heroin-related overdose deaths have increased by a staggering 286 percent. In the past decade, heroin use more than doubled among young adults between the ages of 18 and 25.
But it’s a mistake to focus solely on heroin, experts say, because the problem goes much deeper, with skyrocketing levels of prescription opioid drug abuse and addiction. Every 19 minutes in the United States, someone dies from an opioid overdose.
“Just to give you some perspective, last year, about 30,000 people died from opioid overdose,” says Douglas Tieman, president and CEO of Caron Treatment Centers, one of the nation’s largest and oldest not-for-profit addiction and behavioral healthcare treatment centers. With a sprawling campus nestled on South Mountain, Caron has worked in partnership with nearby Alvernia to help address the ever-growing problem through the university’s Addiction Studies program and new initiatives directed at students in recovery.
Caron also provides on-site counseling services to Alvernia students, a service it also offers to corporations in the region.
“About 20,000 of the overdoses were from pharmaceutical prescriptions; the others — a little over 10,000 — were from heroin,” says Tieman. “And that 30,000 figure represents about 60 percent of people who die of a drug overdose, which is right around 50,000.”
According to the CDC, 45 percent of people who use heroin are also addicted to prescription opioid painkillers such as OxyContin and Percocet. There’s a good reason for that: The fact that one opioid is legal and the other is not makes absolutely no difference to your brain.
“There’s this misperception that because a drug is classified as either legal or as prescribed, and it’s dispensed to you by a trained medical professional, that the drug is somehow safe or safer,” says David Reyher, a certified advanced alcohol and drug counselor who is an instructor and program director in Alvernia’s Behavioral Health Department.
“That’s only true from the standpoint that you know what the dosage is. It is, in fact, no safer in terms of addictive potential than heroin. It is just as easy to become addicted to any prescription opiate as it is to heroin. That’s why we see a crossover.”
In late March, the Obama administration, which earlier proposed $1.1 billion in additional funding to fight opioid addiction, offered additional new measures to expand drug treatment centers and increase the use of drugs, such as naloxone, that save lives by reversing the effects of overdoses from opioids.
“We are seeing more people killed because of opioid overdose than from traffic accidents — I mean, think about that,” President Barack Obama said at a meeting of the National Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit, where he announced the new initiatives. “It has to be something right up at the top of our radar screen.”
In Pennsylvania, Rachel Levine, the state’s physician general, has placed opioid abuse and addiction squarely at the top of the state’s public health radar screen, citing a coroner’s report that 2,500 people — or seven individuals a day — die of opioid overdose annually statewide.
The scope of the problem is encapsulated in a statistic that Tieman admits “just blows me away: Americans are 5.6 percent of the world’s population. But we consume 80 percent of all opioid medications, and 99 percent of hydrocodone (a narcotic painkiller found in such popular brand-name drugs as Vicodin and Lortab). That’s alarming.”
Tieman recalls that when he entered the addiction treatment field in 1983, more than two-thirds of Americans considered addiction to be a willpower issue. “There was a significant amount of stigma to it,” he says. Fortunately, those numbers have flipped over the past three decades, as the public has come to understand what leading experts have been saying since the late 1990s: that addiction is a chronic brain disease.
“Opioids actually destroy that part of the brain that produces the chemicals that make us feel good,” Tieman says.
When you have a nice meal, or your football team wins, or you see your child sing in a concert, your brain releases dopamine, the chemical that makes you feel good. “Opioids make you feel much better when you get high than you can possibly imagine,” Tieman explains. “The trouble is they then destroy the brain’s natural ability to make you feel good. So the only way you can even feel decent after a short period of time is to take an opioid.”
History of trouble, hope for the future
For decades, heroin, specifically, and drug addiction, more generally, were widely seen from both a public and policy standpoint as “inner city” problems, attributable to weak willpower and bad choices, and treated as a criminal justice issue. A 2010 report by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse found that 65 percent of all inmates in U.S. prisons and jails met the medical criteria for substance abuse or addiction, while for another 20 percent, drugs or alcohol were significant factors in the crimes that put them behind bars. That represents a combined total of 85 percent of the nation’s prison population. The number of inmates who receive treatment during incarceration? Only 11 percent.
As the opioid epidemic has devastated families and communities across America — suburban, rural and urban; rich, middle class and poor — it is increasingly seen as a health issue, and there is gradual movement toward responding to it with treatment rather than jail.
“A decade ago, the common misperception that addiction happens to those who are less fortunate was pretty frequent. People believed that,” says Kate Appleman, a 2005 Alvernia graduate who has worked at Caron for 13 years and now teaches as an adjunct professor in the university’s Behavioral Health Department, recently recognized as one of the best small school programs in the nation. Today, she says, opioid addiction is so pervasive across almost all demographic groups that most people understand that it transcends socioeconomic boundaries.
“It is the most humbling experience to have somebody who is from Franklin Street in Reading sitting across from somebody from Park Avenue in New York City, and they have the exact same story,” says Erin Goodhart, a 2008 Alvernia graduate who started working at Caron 12 years ago as a counselor assistant and has been director of women’s services for the past five years.
Whether they went from prescription opioid medication to heroin, or from drinking a glass of wine to drinking vodka straight from the bottle, Goodhart says, “It’s the same disease, and recovery works the same way for people.”
And that’s the good news amid all the grim statistics and shattered lives. As Goodhart puts it: “I know that recovery works. So I’m hopeful. I think if we can help people get healthier and reduce the stigma of addiction for men and women, then I’ve done my small piece on this Earth. I truly believe that.”
Caron has invested in research to prove that recovery works, partnering with the University of Pennsylvania to follow a percentage of alumni after they complete treatment. Instead of relying on self-reporting, which is considered far less reliable, they solicit input from families, employers, therapists and sponsors, and even conduct urine drug screens. The results one year out from treatment are impressive: 79 percent are sober at the end of the year (59 percent continuously sober; 20 percent sober at the end of the year, though they may have relapsed at some point during the year). In addition, another 15 percent may not be abstinent all the time, but feel their lives have improved.
Providing addiction treatment that can transform lives is a goal Alvernia and Caron share. When Alvernia launched its addiction studies program three decades ago under the guidance of the legendary Sister Pacelli, it was one of the first of its kind in the U.S. The university has since added a master’s degree program as well.
“For us, it’s been great because so many of our employees have been able to go to Alvernia for advanced education,” says Tieman, who serves on Alvernia President Thomas F. Flynn’s advisory board and whose oldest daughter graduated from the university’s master’s program in community counseling. “It’s also been great for us because we’ve been able to hire many graduates from Alvernia.”
A partnership that works both ways
Appleman, the clinical director of the Primary Care Men’s Program, as well as the clinical coordinator of the Professionals Program at Caron, is an example of how the partnership benefits the university and the treatment center.
She started at Caron at age 19, working as a receptionist in admissions on nights and weekends while going to school at Alvernia, where she got her undergraduate degree in social work. That first job at Caron gave her a unique perspective she has never forgotten, that of “being the first face that people see” when checking in for treatment. “I really appreciated the ability to help people when they were at their worst,” Appleman says.
As an experienced professional, Appleman is teaching an Assessment and Evaluation course and developing an online course for counseling techniques this year. When asked about being an adjunct professor at her alma mater, she replies, “It’s fulfilling to say the least. I’m really grateful for what other people have done for me, and to be able to go back and bring my understanding and my excitement and my experience is something that I will give back tenfold.
“I see how thirsty students are for knowledge. If we can arm them with the most up-to-date information and tools and guidance, they’re going to mold the next generation. And I’m really grateful to be part of that.”
Alvernia and Caron are also working together on a three-pronged project to help students in recovery pursue a college education, says Karolina Dreher, associate dean of students and director of residence life. The partnership includes:
• Online courses that young adults living at Caron can take while they are still in the early stages of recovery
• Courses on campus, as well as online offerings, that students who have completed treatment can take while living in transitional housing off campus
• A pilot program to provide special housing for students in recovery starting in fall 2017.
Alvernia would become one of only a handful of universities nationwide offering recovery housing. A team from Alvernia and Caron visited Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., currently one of the only colleges on the East Coast with recovery housing for students, and plans to visit Augsburg College in Minneapolis, which pioneered the concept, this summer.
The idea, says Dreher, is to “reintegrate students back and allow them to have a true college experience living on campus.”
Luke Stopper, who was a football standout at Conrad Weiser High School and Villanova University, is the director of young men’s services at Caron, overseeing the treatment program for males aged 13–26. More than half of the young adult population he works with have some college experience, meaning they started college and had to stop or decided to quit, usually due to drug and alcohol use.
“A lot of them talk about their goals and their desires and their hopes that they want to get back into school, complete their degree and be successful,” says Stopper, who made the Rutgers trip and spoke with their staff and plans to visit Augsburg this summer.
“One of the things I learned at Rutgers is you have students who come in knowing they need to have a safe environment with support based on their history with drugs and alcohol,” Stopper says. “And they should have the same ability to get a college degree on the campus of an institution as anybody else.”
One of the keys, in treatment and in recovery housing, is positive peer support from other students in recovery, Dreher and Stopper agree.
“To connect with other people who want to be in the sober house, clean and sober, and get their degree provides a tremendous amount of hope and belief that they can accomplish that goal,” Stopper says.
Living with addiction
When Jennifer Weissberg applied to Alvernia, she wrote an essay detailing her long battle with addiction. She didn’t sugarcoat any of it, just as she hasn’t tried to hide any of it from her daughter, now 16 years old and back in her life.
“People ask me, ‘Do you tell your daughter everything?’ Everything. There’s nothing I don’t share with my kid. She’s been there. I’d insult her if I didn’t,” she says.
Weissberg admits that, on bad days, she thinks about the brother she lost tragically to heroin. “He doesn’t have another chance,” she says. “But I do. My daughter does. We do.”
Going to school part-time, Weissberg is completing her junior year, and hopes to pursue a master’s degree after she gets her undergraduate degree.
“I’m just going to keep going to school, dreaming and working my program,” she says. “That’s all I can do.”
Caron names Alvernia 'Partner in Recovery'
Caron Treatment Centers presented Alvernia with one of its highest honors this May, the Partner in Recovery Award, recognizing the university’s ongoing support to the organization’s mission of education, prevention and recovery from addiction. “Alvernia and Caron Treatment Centers share a common goal: to transform lives,” said Thomas F. Flynn, Alvernia’s president.
“This is an important and often difficult task, but one that is always well worth the effort. We are thankful that Caron continues to partner with us in impactful ways, by helping provide programs that focus on prevention and intervention, by joining together to teach the next generation of clinical counselors and behavioral health professionals, and by supporting us as we offer a life-changing education to patients still finding their way through recovery,” he said.
Caron’s Partner in Recovery Award recognizes a Berks County organization that has been a significant partner in carrying out Caron’s mission related to addiction recovery and prevention. Past recipients include East Penn Corp., Carpenter Technology, Wells Fargo and The Wyomissing Foundation.