Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Recovery Month 2020: But for His grace

By LORI STONE | Peer Support Specialist, Louisiana Department of Corrections

On August 10, 1992 the courts made a decision that changed the course of my life forever. I was ordered to stop drinking and taking drugs if I ever wanted to get my three children back from state custody. Honestly, because alcohol and drugs were all I had left in my life, I was pretty reluctant.

When reality set in on that day, I asked myself, “How did I get here?” I had lost my children and my family. I was homeless, embarrassed and spiritually bankrupt. This wasn’t the way my life was supposed to end up.

Growing up, I had everything a child could dream of. I was blessed with a loving, supportive family and I lacked for nothing. I was an honor roll student who was very athletic and had a bright future ahead of me. I had choices.

Any means of escape

When I was 14 years old, I found out I was adopted as a newborn. Instead of being thankful for what I had gained, I became hateful for what I felt had been taken from me. My thoughts, feelings and behaviors changed dramatically. I felt betrayed, confused, angry and unloved, for some strange reason. The hurt was almost unbearable, and I began looking for ways to escape that pain.

At that moment, I began to break the 10 Commandments and our Family’s Golden Rules. In our family you knew what to do, how to do it, why to do it and were taught to just do it because it was said to be done, with no questions asked. There were “do’s” and “don’ts” based on right versus wrong. I began to live life acting out the “don’ts.” Even knowing I was doing wrong, I wouldn’t find out the importance of these basic rules of life until later.

I started hanging around the wrong individuals and the wrong places, and doing things I had no business doing. Those decisions led me to dropping out of school early and, eventually, starting to have children at a young age. My family stuck by me throughout everything, but with their tough love, I knew I wasn’t making the choices they wanted for me.

By the age of 25, I had been raped, discarded into a canal and left for dead. I had been incarcerated, was living on the streets and had almost lost my life during an overdose. I had to bury one of my children because of my addiction and an abusive relationship I was in. I had lost all of my self-respect and dignity as a person. I drank alcohol and did drugs to escape and survive my reality. It was the only way I knew how to cope with my life, which had become unmanageable by the time I stood in that courtroom. I realized I had finally hit bottom and began to ponder how to change. How could I turn my life around?

Learning to be a mother

I decided that I was going to get my kids back first. I didn’t know how to be a mother or a parent, because my adopted mother had raised my children. I realized I had been following the pattern of my biological mother, and I wanted to break the cycle. I hated her for not loving me. I just didn’t understand.

And, I didn’t want my kids to go through what I had gone through.

Under the direction of the courts and the Office of Community Services, I was given provisions, requirements and conditions to help turn my life around. I began to adhere. I was fortunate to get into an amazing halfway house, and I completed the program they set before me. I had to attend AA meetings, parenting classes and counseling for myself and my family. I was drug tested at their discretion and lived by their rules.

As I sobered up and began to feel again, I struggled with the emotions I had numbed for so long. However, I had also been numb and out of tune with the beauty of life and what it had to offer. I still wasn’t thoroughly convinced that I wanted to live a clean and sober life. I was fighting a process that I now realize had already begun.

I completed every class and met every goal that was put before me. Good things started to happen in my life, finally. Most importantly, I got custody of my children back. Eventually, I had a home, a family and a host of new friends. One day I looked into the mirror, and I saw Lori Ann Stone for the first time in a long time. I told her that I loved her and truly meant it.

Living by grace

From that point on, I allowed my wings to spread and I soared by living life on life’s terms. That was the point in my life that I fell in love with Jesus, and that was the best thing to ever happen to me.

I was given an opportunity to be a parent from scratch again, and I now have four wonderful children. I am a very proud grandmother of nine healthy, beautiful children. Today, I’m buying a new house and car. Currently, I’m a peer support specialist who loves to assist and empower others. I also work as a program coordinator who assists persons with disabilities and the disadvantaged in achieving their goals of being self-sufficient.

I’m a survivor — only but for the grace of God — who is taking it one day at a time. Every day, I continue “letting go and letting God.” Just for today, I will strive for progress rather than perfection in all my ways.

I grieve for the many addicts before and after me who didn’t make it, and I try to help everyone I can. I will share my experience, strength and hope, which is my greatest treasure, hoping that my past mistakes don’t become someone else’s future.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Recovery Month 2020: Recovery isn’t just possible — it’s transformational

By KATHERINE PENTON | Certified Peer Support Specialist, Florida Parishes Human Services Authority

I thought I was going to die with a needle in my arm, all alone and empty inside.

I had fully accepted this as my fate because I had tried to quit shooting heroin so many times before and nothing ever seemed to work. When in those dark and hopeless moments of despair, I would often wonder how I got there. In those moments, I could never put my finger on what led me to that place, and it seemed like I was destined to stay there.

Abstinence alone did not work for me. I almost did not make it through my addiction to be able to sit here and tell this to others. If my story can help one suffering addict or change one person’s mind about Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT), then my pain will all be worth it.

Empty and broken

I remember a time when I was 9 years old and living in the middle of nowhere in Mississippi. I was outside, behind the trailer we had just moved into. I was looking up at the moon, feeling very empty and like something was terribly broken inside. I remember wondering if all other 9-year-olds felt the same. Now, looking back, I realize that the emptiness I would struggle to fill for most of my life started from a very early age. That 9-year-old girl had no idea what the next 25 years of life would bring, or that one day she would be taking any and every substance to try to stop that empty feeling.

A selfie of Katherine
Penton from the years
she was abusing substances

My story of the challenges I faced with addiction is not dissimilar from most other addicts. I was in and out of detox facilities and short-term treatment centers. I even had a few visits to various psychiatric units. I was miserable, hopeless and defeated by the time I was 30 years old. I somehow managed to obtain two college degrees during this time, but my goal of going to graduate school was soon forgotten.

It was difficult for my family and loved ones to understand what was happening to me. I was on the honor roll every year of high school and made straight As my first few years of college. Then, my substance abuse began. I dropped out of graduate school. I isolated myself from everyone I knew and loved. I began living on the streets. I did whatever it took to keep myself numb.

I was miserable and slowly killing myself, physically and spiritually.

Depression and anxiety are a big part of my story. Every time I would decide I was done using and either quit on my own or go to a treatment facility to get clean, once I would get through all of the physical symptoms from detoxification, my mental health challenges would rise up to meet me with a vengeance. The pain and emptiness I felt would bring me to a place of contemplating, and sometimes attempting, suicide. It became a regular occurrence and I knew to expect this every time I would quit using.

I began to associate getting clean with wanting to die, and this became torture to my soul. I was done with using and terrified of what I would become if I continued. But at the same time, I was petrified of what life would be like when I no longer had a substance to put into my body to make my mind stop racing or to make me feel normal.

My only experience with recovery was a time I managed to not use for a few months. I could not leave my house and sometimes even my room. I was overwhelmed with my emotions, and I was having constant cravings and obsessing over using.

True recovery

March 10, 2018 was the day that my recovery began. I did not know at that time that I would be sitting here today, almost 2½ years later, still clean and writing this in the hope that it might help another addict like myself. I could not have predicted that my life would be worth living and that those feelings of being empty and broken would rarely ever occur.

I found out that I was pregnant in January of that year and still could not stop using. I went to the emergency room one night after being in horrible withdrawal and reading that withdrawal could kill a fetus. The ER referred me to an outpatient clinic that had a program for pregnant women who were addicted to opiates. I was placed into the program and prescribed Suboxone as part of the MAT program.

Katherine Penton, in recovery, with her family

I still struggled in the beginning and had to go to treatment for 28 days but when I came out, something was different. I could go about my day without obsessing about using. I could talk about my trauma without being overwhelmed by the need to escape.

I realized that I felt normal for the first time ever as an adult.

I did not want to die, and I did not want to use. I no longer felt that there was a huge hole inside me that needed to be filled with something.

I began to actively participate in my recovery, going to meetings and doing individual therapy. I was able to focus on moving forward and healing from my past traumas. 

Of course, MAT did not fix everything overnight or make all my depression and anxiety go away instantly, but what it did do was allow me to feel relief and to feel balanced. I was able gain some tools and get some recovery under my belt for the first time ever. 

I no longer feel like I want to die.

I now have hope for my future. 

(Katherine Penton now works with people going through the same kinds of challenges she once tried to face alone, and she still can't stop pursuing even more education. Using medication to support her recovery changed the game for her, and has helped her to rebuild her life into something wonderful.)

Friday, September 11, 2020

LDH Staff Spotlight: Masking all y'all

Kelly Smith at her sewing machine


By MINDY FACIANE | Public Information Officer, LDH Bureau of Media and Communications 

Kelly Smith spends her days working as a transition coordinator with the Office of Behavioral Health.

In her off hours, she’s a maestro of masks.

Since March, she has sewn and donated nearly 4,700 handmade cloth masks to help slow the spread of COVID-19.

“I like sewing, and at least I’m doing something kind of useful,” Smith said.

Kelly Smith with two of her masks

That’s an understatement.

When the pandemic broke out in Louisiana in early March, the speed of the virus’s spread created a shortage of critical personal protective equipment. First responders, hospitals, nursing homes and other healthcare providers found themselves rationing, improvising or even reusing the PPE they had on hand, sometimes for days or even weeks

With supplies dwindling, hospitals began turning to commercial retailers and even made appeals to the public to make and donate cloth masks.

Soon, instructional videos and guides were on the internet showing how to make masks at home. One such video caught Smith’s attention.

“This video came up on Facebook, and I looked at it and went, ‘Oh, wow, that is so easy. I can do that,’” Smith said.

She set up her sewing machine and got to work. Her sister, Alyssa Hayes, pitched in by cutting fabric and elastic, handling shipping and maintaining the caffeine supply.

A river of handmade masks began streaming its way from Smith’s home to hospitals, the Louisiana National Guard, military deployments and other places in need.

As Smith sewed, the number of COVID-19 cases continued to rise at an alarming pace. Governor Edwards issued a Stay at Home order on March 22 aimed at flattening the curve. Although cases dropped off initially, a second wave in July prompted the Governor to issue a statewide mask mandate.

With the mandate in place, the need for face masks exploded.

Kelly Smith, right, with sister Alyssa Hayes

“I started off making masks for hospitals and stuff like that, but then pretty much everybody needed them,” Smith said. “People were selling masks on Facebook for $25 apiece. It takes a dollar of materials. It takes 15 minutes per mask. It’s not worth $25 for everybody to do that.”

Masks continued to flow from Smith’s sewing machine to hospitals and others in need. She also set out a big bin in front of her house, which she filled with masks free for the taking for anyone in need.

“People from different states started asking for masks, too,” Smith said.

Smith settled into a routine: Work from 8 a.m. until 4:30 p.m.; sew until around 10:30 p.m.; sleep until 6:30 a.m. the next day; and resume sewing until time to leave for work.

As of September 3, Smith has sewn 4,690 masks — and she’s still going strong.

Her dedication has not gone unnoticed. She said a lot of friends and complete strangers have donated bags of fabric, and some have even donated money toward buying sewing supplies.

“I’ve kept track of everything in a spreadsheet. I didn’t want to profit off anything,” she said.

All she wants is to keep on sewing, masking as many people as she can.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Recovery Month 2020: Living a live in recovery

By BRENT AMBACHER | STR and LaSOR State Peer Recovery Support Specialist, LDH

(Note: In 2019, Brent Ambacher shared his recovery story in honor of National Recovery Month, observed every September as a time to increase awareness and understanding of mental and substance use disorders and to celebrate the people who recover. The Department of Health is reprinting his story as the state celebrates Recovery Month 2020. Learn about recovery resources in Louisiana here.)

The last time I had a drink — April 29, 2012 — I didn’t even want one. After about 10 days of AA meetings, I’d heard enough to make me decide I was done, and had given up for good (I thought) about 72 hours earlier. The problem was, after 27 years of consistent and ever-increasing drug and alcohol use, my body wasn’t down with this plan. I was unable to hold down food or water, and had started vomiting blood.

Alcohol is one of the few substances that can actually kill you if you stop abruptly. I sort of knew this. I was fully aware that I was a hopeless alcoholic who hadn’t gone a single day without drinking myself to “sleep” in probably 10 years. But I wasn’t able to connect the dots. I was told I needed to go to the emergency department, but the prospect of waiting for hours in that condition was too horrifying to contemplate.


So, instead of my usual vodka intake of more than a liter, I was sitting on my back porch, crying, sweating, shaking uncontrollably and trying to choke down a glass with a mixture of two-thirds beer and one-third honey.

I could not for the life of me understand how this was helpful, but I knew enough to know that I was in serious physical trouble and that a guy with 20 years of sobriety probably knew more than I did about quitting. The drink was his recipe. It took me two hours to get it down, but it worked. How does somebody end up the way I did — 46, jobless, divorced, broke, homeless and staying with my eldest sister?

Struggling to cope

I was a missionary kid who grew up in Hong Kong and moved back there after college. I’d been a successful photographer, journalist, advertising executive and spin doctor. I’d lived on three continents, married a beautiful, smart and talented English woman, spent nine years in London, moved to New York, traveled the world. I was SOMEBODY. But that was just on the surface.

Inside, I was desperately frightened that one of these days, everyone would figure out that I was a fake, with no talent, and that I didn’t deserve anything I had. I had also been struggling with anxiety and depression for as long as I could remember. Drugs and alcohol were my way of trying to cope with feeling like a failure and prop myself up so I could keep impressing everybody else.

I guess I thought if other people loved me enough, I’d be OK.

I wasn’t. I was a pathetic drunk and I was close to death.

Climbing back from the bottom

That was seven years — and an entire lifetime — ago. I had to start over, from the bottom. I delivered auto parts for a while, and then someone suggested I might look into becoming a Peer Recovery Support Specialist. I’d never heard of one, but I gave it a shot. Besides getting sober, it was the most important thing I’d ever done for myself.

I went to work at a treatment center and spent a little over two years helping people like me. Another person suggested I apply for a job that I never would have dared to try for, but they hired me — as the Statewide Peer for the STR Grant, here at the Louisiana Department of Health’s Office of Behavioral Health. Then they asked me if I wanted to try my hand at facilitating Peer Employment Trainings, so I said yes to that, too. I’ve learned that I don’t often know best what it is that I’m supposed to do next, but saying yes is usually the right idea.

I make about a quarter of what I used to. I don’t jet off for the weekend because I feel like it. But in return, I have so much more than money could buy me. I was able to be present and help nurse my father through the last four years of his decline from Parkinson’s and dementia, and I was at his bed when he died. I have a job where I’m allowed to be useful, and where the pain of my past can light a pathway forward for people who are looking for a way out of substance use and mental health challenges. 

And, for the last 2,600-and-something days, I haven’t needed a drink or a drug to be OK with myself. It sure seems like a good trade to me.

Friday, September 4, 2020

Sheltering in a time of COVID: Non-congregate sheltering

By DR. DAVID HOLCOMBE | Region 6 Medical Director, LDH Office of Public Health

Sheltering during a natural disaster has always been a responsibility of the State of Louisiana, in collaboration with a few other entities. General population shelters are opened by the American Red Cross and other private groups. Shelters for those without transportation (Critical Transportation Needs Shelters, or CTNS) and those for people with medical needs (Medical Special Needs Shelters, or MSNS) are provided by the State.

The Megashelter — or more properly, the State Emergency Shelter at Alexandria — was completed near LSU Alexandria in 2010, just in time for Hurricanes Gustav and Ike. At more than 200,000 square feet, this facility can hold up to 3,000 non-medical clients and up to 700 MSNS patients. This elaborate operation involves:

  • Department of Children and Family Services: shelter management
  • Office of Public Health: medical care
  • Louisiana State Police: security
  • Department of Agriculture: pet care
  • Department of Transportation: patient movement
  • Other public and private entities

The Governor of Louisiana, in collaboration with the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (GOSHEP), chooses when and how the Megashelter will open. It has been activated in numerous hurricanes including Gustav, Ike, Isaac, Harvey, Barry and, most recently, Laura. It has housed thousands of evacuees over the decade of its existence.

COVID-19 posed a particular problem for the opening of any congregate (group) shelter during Hurricane Laura. This terrible pandemic struck Louisiana with full force during the spring and summer of 2020. In Louisiana alone, we have had more than 150,000 cases and around 5,000 deaths, with some of the highest per capita infection rates in the country. Positivity rates in some regions and even singular parishes exceeded 10% for weeks, indicating high community spread. These rates have only recently begun to decline.

Because over 50% of individuals with COVID have no symptoms at all, the risk of spreading this contagious disease becomes enormous, especially in large groups. To curb this, groups are restricted to 50 or fewer individuals, depending on the size of the facility and whether it is indoors or outdoors. These restrictions severely limit the number of people who can be safely transported and/or placed in any kind of shelter, especially a megashelter.

High rates of community spread and restrictions on group sizes led the State to develop a unique emphasis on non-congregate (no group) sheltering. Evacuees were directed toward reception centers where they received assistance locating available hotel rooms and vouchers to pay for them. This effectively separated family groups from one another and eliminated the need for a massive Critical Transportation Needs Shelter.

The Megashelter was made available for those with special medical needs. Beds in the MSNS were separated by a minimum of 6 feet, and masks were required of all patients and caregivers. A special sub-unit for known symptomatic COVID-19 positive patients contained separate pods where dedicated staff in more comprehensive personal protective equipment could provide care.

This solution redirected the bulk of evacuees to non-medical, non-aggregate locations such as hotels, friends or relatives rather than expose them to the dangers inherent in a group setting. Such flexibility demonstrates how policy and practice remain adaptable to new, challenging circumstances.

Although pandemics are not new, we have not experienced anything similar since the Spanish flu of 1918. Sheltering has also existed in one form or another for centuries. But the two together offer particular challenges requiring creative solutions, which have been demonstrated by the non-congregate sheltering plan developed by Louisiana’s disaster planners.