‘Before recovery, I never lived’
Vanessa Santana works as a recovery coach at Turning Point of Windham County.

‘Before recovery, I never lived’

Vanessa Santana’s struggle with addiction cost her everything that she valued, including custody of her two daughters. Now as a recovery coach, she helps others find the resources and support to leave that world behind.

BRATTLEBORO — A trained recovery coach at Turning Point of Windham County and an emergency coach at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, Vanessa Santana is a person in long-term recovery who works with folks whose lives are affected by addiction.

During this pandemic, she also created a new outdoor program - Adventures in Recovery - for Turning Point.

We talked about her personal journey, and also her collaborative work with local police and other community members who are bringing help and hope to those vulnerable in our town.

For more information about Turning Point and its resources, or to connect with someone about the issues we talk about here, call 802-257-5600.

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Wendy O'Connell: I know that you have a story, a personal story. But you also have been working at Turning Point for quite a quite a while now - a few years?

Vanessa Santana: Yes, I got introduced to Turning Point about 4{1/2} years ago through the Vermont Recovery Network. It was introduced to me when I actually ended up in a treatment center here in Vermont. When I walked through the doors, it was a really welcoming place. I quickly got a recovery coach, Jedediah Popp - he was a really amazing part of my early recovery. I looked at him like a mentor in my early days, and he was just a powerful example for me.

And, yeah, so domestic violence brought me to Brattleboro, unfortunately. I moved here back in 2014. I was brought here by a group of women from the Women's Freedom Center. And I was welcomed by these amazing women. I sort of started over here ... yeah.

W.O.: You had a pretty challenging childhood and early upbringing as well in - western Massachusetts, was it?

V.S.: Yes, that is correct. My family moved from Puerto Rico to the Big Apple, so that's where my family went in the early '80s. And then shortly after that, they moved to Western Mass. area, and that's where I was born and raised.

I come from a family of seven. And out of the seven, I'm the second oldest. Growing up was really hard for me, as I watched my mother struggle with her own issues and battle addiction.

I do believe that she did the best she could at the time with what she had. And I do know that internal generational trauma was a main factor of how my life unfolded.

And also, in a bigger frame, the war on drugs was designed to keep marginalized people and people like me -people of color - oppressed and incarcerated. And I know that because I was a victim of that and I'd also seen it in the community that I lived in, all around me. I witnessed it myself when I was put in the foster care system with the Department of Children and Families at the early age of 13.

So one of the main things I think that I struggled with at that time was just feeling emotionally disconnected with my family and the world around me. I became really kind of fearful around my surroundings and not knowing who to trust and stuff.

And as a result of that, I became very self-absorbed and in the triangle of self obsession - resentment, anger, fear. Before the drugs took a major part of my life, I was going through the foster care system, moving from home to home and in and out of group homes. I was struggling with all this trauma, and all this change was happening around me, and I wasn't able to heal - or they weren't able to treat - that trauma.

So the next thing for someone like me was was to use substances, right?

The substances were sort of the solution to deal with this, to numb everything up, and to suppress the feelings that I was experiencing at such a young age.

Eventually, I ended up fitting into this drug culture. I was able to relate with other people who were using.

And so, it led me down to using every day, to forming a habit, and then to it becoming an addiction.

W.O.: You so perfectly describe the fact that the drugs were not the problem, it was everything that happened before the drugs that was the problem. And I think generational addiction is something that people are just beginning to wrap their minds around.

In substance-use disorders, the disorders are probably the underlying situation, and the substance use just makes it worse, but that's what you go to. Right?

V.S.: Yes.

W.O.: I'd love for you to talk a little bit about your training, because I know that that you went through training in Montpelier.

V.S.: The Vermont Recovery Network is actually how I got introduced to the 12 Turning Points in Vermont. All are set up the same: They all have recovery coaches, they all have recovery meetings, like 12-step programs for individuals who have substance-use or alcohol-use disorder.

We also have the recovery coaches in the emergency departments. Really, our roles are to just advocate for people who struggle with addiction.

I started off as a volunteer at the Turning Point of Windham County. Within a year and a half, I was offered to go to a Recovery Coach Academy. The Vermont Recovery Network actually funds this program for individuals who are part of the Turning Points and who want to become advocates for other folks in early recovery.

It was definitely very rewarding. It was very educational. I learned things about the pathways of our brain and how the chemicals that we put into our bodies affect our brain and what that does to us over the years. And I learned how once we put the drugs down, how our brains can recover - they do recover.

So we always like to say, that's why we like to celebrate recovery. Because we do recover - our brains and our bodies - and we heal from all of that trauma.

We have all different types of trainings. We have effective communication training, we have motivational interview training, which teaches you how to work with individuals who have substance use. We learn how to be a team leader, how to facilitate a meeting. They take place all year round. If anyone ever needs any more information on those, they can check out the Vermont Recovery Network.

W.O.: Could you talk a little bit about your own turning point?

V.S.: My personal turning point? I'd like to say it was when I lost everything that was of value to me, everything that meant anything to me. I lost my two daughters because I was using substances at the time. And so when, when you've had everything ripped out of your life, there was only one more thing for me to do and that was to seek help.

I was at the turning point of my life where either I was going to die from the disease of addiction, or something needed to change. And, unfortunately, it took me losing everything that meant the world to me to decide that there was something wrong with me that I needed to get better.

At the treatment center where I was, that's when I realized that I wasn't just emotionally sick, I was a sick individual.

W.O.: A very, very physical situation - not just psychological.

V.S.: Yeah.

W.O.: First, you were helped, which takes a tremendous amount of motivation and wherewithal. And then you turned around to help others as well. So were you motivated to help other people after you yourself had been through this program?

V.S.: I think for me, it was just a sense of awareness, that if I could do it, I could help other people get out of that struggle as well.

W.O.: During this process, did you feel like you were getting to know yourself as a new person?

V.S.: I always say that before recovery, I never lived. I didn't know what it was like to experience freedom from the trauma of the act of addiction. I didn't know how to live outside of that world; I didn't know there was a life outside of that.

I didn't know that I would be able to breathe and walk in nature and just experience real emotions. I didn't know what that was before recovery.

W.O.: Did you know that you had that kind of strength inside you? Do you think that was something that you knew all along and you hadn't had the means to make it happen?

V.S.: At an early age, I had to learn survival skills and to suppress feelings as I would go to the foster homes never feeling good enough. And I was out in the world at a really young age trying to make it on my own. I learned to be really independent and work for what I needed to work for.

W.O.: It seems like in moving away from survival mode, that if you get the right kind of support and the right kind of information and skills, something starts unfolding in you.

V.S.: Yes.

W.O.: And you were able to get your children back?

V.S.: I was able to get my children back. It took 18 months. But - I did it. And yeah. I'd like to think of myself as very grateful for that. Because I know a lot of families who struggle with addiction do not get that opportunity to reunite with their children.

W.O.: And to have those changes stick as well, right?

V.S.: Yes, yes.

W.O.: Well, congratulations to you for that. That's a mighty, mighty thing that you have done.

It would be great also to hear you talk a little bit about Turning Point itself. It's right here on Elm Street in Brattleboro, in the center of town, which is wonderful. It's pretty much run by volunteers. There's some paid staff, but there are a lot of volunteers. People can just walk in, is that right? And sign up for programs?

V.S.: Yes, that is correct. You can come in the door, somebody will welcome you into the Turning Point center and the different programs that happen there.

W.O.: You have something called Smart Recovery.

V.S.: Smart recovery is not like the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous. Actually, Smart Recovery focuses on coping with urges, managing thoughts and behaviors, living a lifestyle balance. It really focuses on cognitive behavioral therapy and how you can be aware and learn how to cope with urges.

We welcome any and all family, we welcome someone who has maybe lost their son, or a sister, or a brother to addiction. They're part of that recovery process as well. We welcome people who struggle with overeating. We have some folks who hoard things in their house. We have people who have issues with gambling. They're all addictions. And people are more than welcome to attend a meeting at the Turning Point center.

W.O.: At Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, you are an emergency department recovering coach?

V.S.: I've worked in the emergency department of Brattleboro Memorial Hospital for about a year and a half. I have seen the change in how the doctors and nurses view addiction - I do believe that they've come a long way in terms of how they treat addiction by having us in the front lines as recovery coaches to work with people who have substance-use disorder.

We've built those relationships with the hospital staff throughout this year and a half. It's clearly been showing in the lives that have been transformed as a result of us doing the work there.

W.O.: So you have referrals for people, but you meet that person where they are, right?

V.S.: We get paged, and we see an individual who has substance-use disorder. We let them know that everything they share with us is confidential. I kind of get to know the person a little bit. I like to build those relationships - I think that's really important.

I also let them know that I am also someone with a lived experience, who struggled with addiction. So that opens up a window of opportunity for them to be really vulnerable - but it also lets them know that they're not alone.

So I do motivational interviewing, and we can then decide whether that person wants to go to inpatient treatment -you know, a detox - or if they feel like they might benefit better from outpatient services, such as an intensive outpatient program, or even the Turning Point center, where they can go to meetings several times a week and also meet with a recovery coach.

W.O.: So you work with with different organizations in town as well, as far as referrals go. And you're working with the Brattleboro Retreat as well?

V.S.: We used to have meetings at the Retreat, but we no longer have those. We now have the Rapid Access Program at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, where someone comes in who has an opioid-use disorder and might need to get on medication-assisted treatment right away.

A doctor might evaluate that person, and then we get paged as recovery coaches to do the warm handoff to the Retreat, which is the hub-and-spoke program here.

And they get inducted at the emergency department that day, and then the next morning, they would go to the Retreat and dose. So they're actually getting introduced to recovery coaches, and the Turning Point and where they can get meetings. So all around, we provide a rapid support for them.

W.O.: It sounds like there's so many options available for people to get involved with immediately, right? Is that fulfilling for you?

V.S.: It is, it is very rewarding for me. It's rewarding to be able to help other people come out of the same struggles that I struggled with.

W.O.: And do you still find many of them coming to Turning Point to volunteer as you did?

V.S.: Yes. I get people that I've worked with in the emergency department who have had two to three months of recovery. They started off with that window of opportunity to seek services with us. We called them for 10 days, to follow up with them and see how their recovery was going.

And then from there, you see their lives transform as a result of that one time they met with us in the emergency department. It's just so all-around rewarding to look at the relationships that we build with with people all around this community.

W.O.: During the pandemic, Vanessa, what have you noticed or seen in terms of addiction in the community?

V.S.: Since the pandemic, we have seen an increase in substance-use and alcohol-use disorder. A lot of folks have been isolated. And the main cause for addiction is isolation, right?

When you take people who have substance-use disorder and you isolate us, it can be very difficult. A lot of times people may not have the same resources they used to have. A lot of people didn't have connection to the virtual meetings right away. So people would relapse as a result of that.

I've also seen a lack of services in the Brattleboro community. Because of the pandemic, we don't have outpatient programs for people to attend. There's only one more alternative for people who have substance-use disorder, and that's to go back out, unfortunately. So we have seen a increase in those numbers.

And after the closing of different programs at the Brattleboro Retreat, we have seen an increase in visits to the emergency department.

We've been meeting folks by phone and through telehealth services - and, actually, we have folks that have been able to manage to get three to four months of recovery.

And that's truly mind-blowing that there is good coming out of the pandemic, even though we don't see it, that people are still getting the help that they need through the telehealth services.

And now that the center is open, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., they're able to at least go to the Center for a little while.

W.O.: Because of the pandemic, you created a new outdoor program for Turning Point called Adventures in Recovery. Can you just talk about that a little bit?

V.S.: Yes. Adventures in Recovery is a peer support group that seeks to support individuals by having recreational activities outdoors.

It offers peer to peer, but also therapeutic experience by getting us out in nature, connecting with ourselves and the world around us. So typically we go for a hike for 40 minutes, and then after our hike, we circle around and have a brief check-in with each other, and so on. So we're still having that peer to peer support.

We are following COVID protocols, so we're wearing our masks and we're staying 6 feet from each other. Bring your water bottle.

W.O.: Well, it's wonderful, because getting people outside makes a huge amount of difference - for all of us just to be able to get outside.

V.S.: Yeah, I have had a lot of good feedback from the people who have been coming about just how amazing it is, how therapeutic it is. You know, it's just really, really good for their soul and -

W.O.: - and connection with nature, connection with other people.

V.S.: Yes, it's wonderful.

I just want to mention our community partners. I want to give a shout out to the Brattleboro Police Department, because they have been a really huge part of meeting people where they're at.

We have an outreach program, Project CARE, where a police officer and a person like me - a recovery coach - go out into the community, meeting people where they're at with substance-use disorder. That program started about three years ago.

Basically our role is we meet people where they're at, but recently I've been looking at the officers in this community, and I'm just seeing how supportive they have been and so helpful. And you know, they want to be part of the solution, they don't want to be part of the drug problem. They want to be able to meet people where they're at, to help them, and to build those relationships with folks who are out there.

It's truly amazing to see that. And not only that coming from where I've come from, which is the other side, but to be an ally and to work side by side with the Brattleboro police has been truly life-changing.

The Brattleboro police will call us, so we're getting a referral from them if someone has recently overdosed. We then go get an escort with the police department to the person's home and we follow up with the client.

We talk about where we're from at Turning Point, we explain that everything is held confidential, and we hand them a packet of the resources that are available in the Brattleboro community.

W.O.: Right.

V.S.: Also, we let them know that they're not alone, and that help is available. And that's just the follow-up piece that we do with the Brattleboro police.

We also do the outreach piece, where we have been working with some of the homeless population here in town. We also target the areas of downtown Brattleboro. We talk to individuals, and while we're out there, we give them Narcan and packets about the resources around town.

It might be that someone might need help getting back on medicated assisted treatment. That is something that we also do during our outreach.

W.O.: It's so wonderful to hear that the community is working together in so many different ways. And that you are the eyes and ears for the different organizations when you're out on the street.

I really appreciate you sharing your story and letting us know about Turning Point and what they and other organizations are doing to make our community a little bit more together and connected.

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