Crystal Oertle Gets Invited to Join President Obama at the National Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit
Almost twelve months into recovery after an almost twelve year addiction, there may be no better marker of a changed life than an invitation to not only meet the President, but join him on a panel discussing drug abuse and addiction policy. Crystal Oertle may not need any markers of change beyond those she sees up-close everyday—her family, her wellbeing—but … “it was awesome,” she says.
Overwhelming, at times, too. But more than anything, the 2015 TEDxColumbus speaker is honored and grateful for the opportunity to use her voice to help others. She is also hopeful: “I was so amazed that the President referred to addiction as a disease,” she shares. “He said, ‘the disease of addiction,’ and that was really a good step forward for addicts and for everyone.”
Joining Oertle and President Obama on the panel, were Dr. Leana Wen, health commissioner for the city of Baltimore, and Young People in Recovery CEO Justin Luke Riley, who traces his drug abuse back to the third grade. Dr. Sanjay Gupta moderated the discussion, held in Atlanta as part of a 3-day National Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit. At the White House earlier that day, before flying in for the panel, the President announced his proposal for a set of initiatives to expand addiction treatment. This is in addition to the $1.1 billion in new funding for opioid use disorder he proposed in February.
About Obama, Oertle says that he made everyone feel at ease. It was clear to her that he and others in a position to help, such as the surgeon general and drug czar, “actually care.”
Oertle’s own journey to Atlanta began at TEDxColumbus. In mid-2015, her sister, a TEDxColumbus attendee, told Oertle the theme for the next event: Disruption. Her decision was immediate. Though not a public speaker, not an advocate, and just a few months into recovery, she thought, I know what has disrupted my life, and she sent in her application. On the stage, she shared her story of an addiction that began with Vicodin and found its way to heroin. She shared her recovery. Addicts are burdened with social stigma, she said, “I’m not ashamed that I was a heroin addict.”
After that, life was quiet for a while. Then CNN sent her a message through Facebook, which Oertle promptly deleted. She laughs, “I thought it was an ad or a sign-up for something.” CNN tried again, this time with more detail and an offer: Would you like to ask a question at Bernie Sander’s town hall in Columbus?
She did, and the question she asked, “What would you do about the failed drug policy that wants to incarcerate addicts instead of rehabilitate them?,” was prefaced with her truth: I’m an addict. I’m in recovery. After the town hall aired on CNN, Oertle’s Facebook page filled with messages of support. Then the White House reached out . . . and if you’re wondering how . . . through Facebook.
How Does Someone Start Down the Path to Using Heroin?
Oertle’s introduction to drugs was through legal opiates. At the panel discussion, Dr. Gupta shared a shocking statistic: “80% of the world’s pain pills are consumed in the United States. “We are 5% of the world’s population; we take 80% of the world’s pain pills,” Gupta said, then added, “We don’t have 80% of the world’s pain—my guess.”
One part of the solution, says Gupta, is better guidelines for doctors, so that opioids are not the “first-line treatment for chronic pain.” Another is to increase access to drugs that help curb addiction, hand-in-hand with immediate access to effective treatment. This is the most immediate need, says Oertle. “We need more funding for treatment centers—people wait weeks, months for a place or a bed. That’s not acceptable. They could die.” And, they do. On the panel, Dr. Wen spoke about a patient who overdosed while on a waitlist. Too many doctors have similar stories. Drawing an analogy to a heart attack patient, Wen said, “We would never say, go home, and if you haven’t died in three weeks, come back and get treated. If we treat addiction like a crime then we’re doing something that’s not scientific, that’s inhuman, and it’s, frankly, ineffective.”
The panel clearly agreed. Though Obama made the point that the flow of drugs must be stemmed, the consensus is that addiction is best addressed as a public health issue. Criminalization has not been effective. Some comments faintly echoed the lament that this understanding did not come earlier, such as when the crack epidemic was shattering black communities of the inner city.
Talking to Oertle, it becomes clear that treatment, getting clean and recovery don’t all mean the same thing. Over her 12-year addiction, Oertle got clean a number of times, but she didn’t get over her addiction. She sought help, which was sometimes offered reluctantly and with judgment, and also didn’t work for her because it focused on one aspect—be it withdrawal symptoms or personal behavior—not the integrated whole.
This time Oertle is in a different program: UMADAOP, a mouthful that stands for Urban Minority Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Outreach Program. It’s recovery, she says, and that one word covers a lot of ground: regular one-on-one counseling, regular group counseling, medical care, and all are in contact with each other. “That’s very key,” says Oertle, “no one can hide anything from anyone.” It’s a network of care that offers multiple avenues to build on successes and to respond to challenges. One important tool for Oertle is suboxone, a drug that curbs cravings and blocks opiate receptors—meaning it blocks the high from heroin. Also, says Oertle, “It tricks the brain so that it thinks it’s getting what it needs, which allows addicts to be okay, so they’re not out there searching for drugs, they can get into recovery and get the tools that they need.”
The 22nd of this month will mark one-year that Oertle has been in recovery, but she clarifies that this does not mean one year without using. “I had a slip-up for 3 days,” she said. “Then I was like, ‘Wow, what am I doing? These are not the people I want to be around.’ Those behaviors, though, came immediately back. It was so easy to go back.” Asked what brought her forward again, she said that this time she had the tools. It was easy for her to identify what she was doing and what had triggered it and how to stop. It was easier for her to access what she truly wanted for herself and her loved ones (or, more vividly, what she didn’t want).
“Addicts do recover and can do great things,” says Oertle. She says she’s not ashamed, but that doesn’t mean she’s immune to the stigma. “Coming here,” she said to the panel in Atlanta, “and it’s not that anyone treated me bad or anything, but it’s in the back of my mind…like, I’m not worthy, to be really honest.” But, she knows that shame is the defeat of recovery, whether it comes from doctors or probation officers, whether it comes from the families of addicts and, maybe most harmful, when it comes from inside.
Oertle says she’s lucky in a way, harboring anything—be it shame or something else—is just not part of her personality. “I’m kind of an open book,” she says. “But also, I’ve seen a lot of people who have that shame and I’ve seen how it prevents them from getting the recovery that they need. They can’t be honest and it puts a halt in their process. Being around all this shame I just thought, this is not right, someone needs to stand up.”
And she will continue to stand up, while remaining mindful of her own recovery. She knows that telling her story brings up difficult memories and feelings. At the same time, it helps. It keeps her focused on recovery and on helping others. “Whether it’s speaking, advocating, talking about medication-assisted treatment, I’m going to help wherever I can,” she says, “because we have a big problem . . . we really do have a huge problem.”
Video of the President’s Panel at the National Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit
Source: Author Kendra Hovey at TEDxColumbus blog.