When Paige Miller entered into recovery and began leading a sober lifestyle in the beginning of 2014, she was only 22 years old.
At the time, she said it felt like the end of the world.
“I thought my life was over,” Miller said. “I was like, ‘I will never have fun again. I have no idea what to do with myself anymore. I might as well just work because what else is there to do?’”
In February 2014, she had decided to seek help through an outpatient treatment and support group after her drinking had spiraled out of control.
“For a year, I woke up sick, went to work, promised myself I wouldn’t drink, and by 5 p.m., my skin would be crawling,” Miller said in a recent profile featured on drugrehab.org. “By 6 p.m., I was on the verge of blacking out.”
At 22, Miller thought recovery meant that her life ceased to be fun, but she soon learned that recovery was actually her key to happiness.
“I found people in recovery who were like, ‘We are going kayaking on Saturday. We are going to play kickball. We are going to go ride our bikes on the Augusta Canal.’ All of these things that I used to do, but now I have a group of people in recovery that I’m doing those activities with, which is awesome,” Miller said. “In fact, I never thought I could go to a concert sober, but that is something I found out that, if I went with people in recovery, I could do that again. I now live to experience life.”
These days, Miller is not only an advocate for own recovery, but she is helping those struggling with addiction turn their lives around.
Miller helped start the local chapter of a national organization called Young People in Recovery (YPR), which provides a variety of workshops and programs to assist those in recovery access necessary resources in their community.
“In July of 2015, we started the chapter here in Augusta, and we were a pretty small group in the beginning; like, there were five to eight of us that were really actively volunteering and working toward implementing more programs,” Miller said. “But we’ve really grown since then. Basically, Young People in Recovery focuses on three primary areas: Employment, education and housing. And they have added a fourth element: recovery support.”
Employment, education and housing are crucial for anyone to succeed in life, Miller said, but those going through recovery sometimes need extra help breaking through the stigma associated with their past addictions.
“Employment gives a lot of people purpose, but it also gives you the opportunity to sustain yourself and give back to your community,” Miller said. “So at the end of 2016, we received a grant from the Community Foundation for the CSRA, because YPR is a 501(c)(3) and we were actually able to take those workshops into the Day Reporting Center (which serves probationers and parolees) in Richmond County.”
These workshops went through basic steps on how to address a past criminal record when applying for a job or looking for a place to live, Miller said.
“People asked us, ‘How do I apply for a job and explain my criminal record? How do I sustain my recovery while employed? And how do I prioritize all of those pieces?’” Miller said. “We talked about resume building and how to explain gaps in their resumes because some people have had periods of incarceration or times where they have been in treatment, so there might be spaces in their resume. That is an opportunity for the community to have a conversation and talk to people who may not be familiar with recovery and what that looks like.”
Christian Frazier, the chapter lead for YPR-Augusta and a recovery counselor at Bluff Plantation, said it’s vitally important that the Augusta community begin viewing recovery in a positive light.
“We want to change the conversation that is associated with our disease,” Frazier said. “There is a lot of stigma associated with who we are and who people perceive we are, and a lot of that is our fault because we perpetuate a language that helps feed that stigma.”
YPR is trying to help change the way even those in recovery view themselves and treatment, he said.
“We try to remove some of those stigma-inducing words out of the things that we say,” Frazier said. “Such as, I don’t identify as an alcoholic. Whereas, some groups that you go to, you say, ‘Hey, my name is Christian. I’m an alcoholic.’ Well, I’m not an alcoholic. I’m a human being. I struggled with the disease. I’m in recovery from it. And I’m a person who lives in long-term recovery, so that’s how I identify myself.”
Terms such as “drug addict” and “alcoholic” immediately cast a negative image upon someone, Frazier said.
“So when we are speaking in the community, we don’t use the word addiction anymore,” he said. “We use the words substance-use disorder. And probably YPR’s main mantra is that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, it’s connection.”
People in recovery need social engagement with others to understand that the fun doesn’t stop with sobriety, Frazier said.
“Every month, we have activities that not only people in recovery can come and attend, but we invite them to bring their children, their loved ones, people who they refer to as allies because we want people to know that there is life after addiction,” Frazier said. “Because one of the barriers to recovery is, ‘I’m not going to have any fun anymore.’ They associate their disease with all the good times. And they have this inability to recognize all the consequences that went along with their substance abuse. They just think back to the times that were good. So we offer activities like kayaking, disc golf, flag football, kickball games and going to the movies because connection matters.”
YPR also helps advocate for those in recovery to fight discrimination when they’re seeking housing or trying to further their education, Miller said.
“Housing is a problem for a lot of people in the Augusta area. We just don’t have enough affordable housing, but the thing is, especially when somebody receives a felony conviction for whatever reason, your options are really limited,” Miller said. “You have to check that felony box over and over again for employment. But especially for housing, you are almost immediately disqualified.”
YPR is trying to help change the community’s mindset in that regard, she said.
“Some places do consider what the criminal charge is. They will look and see, ‘OK, it’s not a violent drug offense. Clearly, this person has had some challenges, but they are doing well now,’” Miller said. “But more often than not, when a person has to check that box that they have a felony or once they go through the background check and someone finds out that they have had a felony, they’re immediately disqualified.”
Such rejection can cause someone in recovery to find themselves in an extremely vulnerable state, she said.
“How can a person be successful if they don’t have a safe and stable place to lay their head at night?” Miller asked. “So, we are working to educate our community on what recovery looks like and change that stigma.”
But Miller is not only volunteering with YPR to make a difference.
For the past six years, she has worked at Hope House, a local nonprofit organization that has been helping women recover from substance misuse, mental health challenges and poverty since 1992.
Hope House is a long-term residential treatment facility that encourage families to stay together by allowing children to live onsite with their mothers going through recovery during the duration of their treatment.
“We target women 18 years or older who are single, pregnant or have children under the age of 13,” said Miller, who serves as the compliance officer for Hope House. “We want our services to be no- to low-cost for people who come to us because we really fill that gap for people that don’t necessarily qualify for Medicaid but can’t afford private insurance. We want to be there for them.”
For more than 25 years, Hope House has served approximately 1,800 families and assisted with more than 200 drug-free births.
“We know that pregnant women especially take top priority,” Miller said. “There are a lot of programs that won’t take a pregnant woman all the way up until the birth because there is such high risk associated with it. But we are one of those programs that will. And we are the only one like us in 13 area counties. There are about 20 other programs across the state like us, but if you have 159 counties in the state of Georgia, there’s a lot of area to cover.”
Across the state of Georgia, the demand for recovery assistance is growing.
“We serve about 100 families a year because we are a long-term treatment facility,” Miller said of Hope House. “But just this fiscal year since July of 2017, we’ve had more than 800 people apply for our services.”
Both Hope House and YPR also are on a mission to educate the community about the dangers of opioids and the rising opioid epidemic.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics, drug overdoses killed about 64,000 people in this country in 2016.
In fact, drug overdoses are expected to remain the leading cause of death for Americans under 50, according to a recent article in The New York Times.
Specifically, drug deaths involving fentanyl more than doubled from 2015 to 2016, accompanied by an increase in deaths involving both cocaine and methamphetamine.
In just the past three years, deaths involving synthetic opioids have risen to more than 20,000 from 3,000 back in 2014, according to The New York Times.
Here in Georgia, there were 1,475 drug overdose deaths from July 2016 to July 2017.
And, as with most states across the country, opioids played a significant role in increasing overdoses here in the Peach State.
In 2016, 982 people lost their lives due to opioid drug overdoses in the state, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health.
And the problem is growing here in Augusta with each passing day.
“We had 159 people die in 2016 from overdoses in Augusta-Richmond County,” Miller said. “And 88 were identified from overdosing from opioids, whether that was a legal prescription or heroin.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly nine opioid prescriptions were dispensed for every 10 residents of Augusta-Richmond County in 2016.
So, along with supporting those in recovery, YPR also works to educate the public on naloxone, which is sold under the brand name of Narcan, Miller said.
Naloxone is medication used to block the effects of opioids, especially in overdoses.
“We want people to know that this is like an EpiPen and you give it when it’s needed because those seconds matter,” Miller said. “Opioids basically tell your body to stop breathing and that’s the thing that is a little bit different than other overdoses.”
“We want people to be equipped with that knowledge and for them to know about the medical amnesty law because a lot of people are afraid. They’ll think, ‘I’m on probation. I’m on parole. I can’t get in trouble. I am going to get arrested.’ We want them to know what it means if they do call 911.”
The medical amnesty law protects those who seek medical attention as a result of illegal actions, she said.
YPR is also involved in communitywide naloxone training with local law enforcement and firefighters, Miller said.
“Our first training we did with 50 officers from Columbia County Sheriff’s Office as well as the fire department,” Miller said. “What was really cool was Columbia County actually purchased (naloxone) kits. They have now built it into their budget, and in March 2017 they actually carried them on all of their vehicles. They had 33 successful overdose reversals just last year.”
The naloxone kits can make all the difference in the world, Miller said.
“That’s 33 lives saved just in Columbia County,” Miller said. “So that’s a story we need to tell. As long as there’s life, there’s hope.”
YPR has also teamed up with Richmond County State Court Chief Judge David Watkins to offer recovery support for those in the State Court Alcohol & Drug Court Program.
Watkins, who hosts the weekly radio show, “The First Step” on WGAC at 6 p.m. Sunday, worked with Beasley Broadcasting to arrange for YPR to offer what’s called an “All Recovery” meeting at the station during the same time as his radio broadcast. “We have all-inclusive community group meetings held every Sunday night at Beasley Broadcasting at 6 p.m.,” Frazier said. “The groups are run by certified peer specialists who have been certified by the state of Georgia as peer advocates or peer support counselors.”
Miller said the All Recovery meetings are unique because no matter what kind of treatment or support someone is receiving for their addictions, they are welcome at the meetings.
“So, no matter someone’s pathway, whether it is a 12-step program like an Alcoholics Anonymous or maybe someone has chosen a faith-based pathway, like Celebrate Recovery, or if they don’t have a pathway like that and they found recovery in different ways, everyone is welcome,” Miller said. “If you are in recovery, you are welcome to come. Or if you are thinking recovery and you are still struggling, you are welcome to come. Or if you have a family member, say you are not specifically in recovery yourself, but you need to get a little hope, you are also welcome to come. That’s different than a lot of other meetings.”
While the All Recovery meetings encourage people to introduce themselves to the group, they don’t have to do so, Miller said.
The entire purpose of the meetings is positive reinforcement and support, she said.
“Typically, how I would introduce myself is I would say, ‘Hello. My name is Paige Miller, and I’m a person in long-term recovery,’” Miller said. “Then we ask the question, ‘What is right with you today?’ Because we want to talk about the positives. Because living the negative over and over again and continuing to talk about our use as opposed to what our lives look like today isn’t helpful. Because we change.”
In the beginning, the All Recovery meetings started out small, but they have grown to almost 50 people during each meeting.
“So the hour-long meeting goes pretty quick,” Miller said. “We try to limit it to two or three minutes for each person so everybody can share and we wrap up always with, ‘What keeps you hopeful?’”
Since the local YPR chapter began here in Augusta in the summer 2015, Frazier said more people are starting to understand that there are multiple pathways to recovery.
“We don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all approach to the problem or the solution,” Frazier said. “For a lot of years, 12-step programs have really been the McDonald’s of the recovery world. It was really the only option available, and it still is in a lot of places.”
Frazier said he fully supports the mission of programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, but all people are different and some individuals going through recovery need other avenues or options.
“It has just taken forward thinking folks like myself and Paige and others to say, ‘You know what? That’s not enough,’” Frazier added. “This disease does not discriminate against people, so the solution shouldn’t discriminate either.”
To help educate the community about YPR and its mission, the group is hosting the Third Annual “Run Into Recovery” charity run on Saturday, March 24, at the River Levee Trail in Augusta.
“We want people to know who we are and what we do,” Miller said. “And there are just so many people who sign up for 5Ks because they want to run, and they may not know the organization that the run is supporting. We are able to provide that information to them.”
The charity run also raises money for YPR’s events so more people can participate in social gatherings without any cost to them.
“When people come to YPR events, if they can’t afford something, for example, we did active climbing a few weeks ago and that was $20 to get all of that equipment,” Miller said. “We don’t want that cost to be a barrier for someone not to come and participate. So fundraisers like the run actually help pay for those kinds of social gatherings and events.”
But most importantly, Miller said the charity run helps those in long-term recovery celebrate their overall wellness, both physically and mentally.
“We stand as people in recovery saying, ‘Hey, we are people in your community,’ because people don’t necessarily know we’re here,” Miller said. “So we are working, not only to empower people in recovery, but we are also working to educate our community on what recovery looks like and change the stigma around it.”
For more information about YPR-Augusta or the upcoming “Run Into Recovery” on March 24, visit the group’s page on Facebook or the national organization’s website, youngpeopleinrecovery.org. To learn more about Hope House, visit hopehouseaugusta.org.