Finding Joy

Peer recovery coaches offer glimpse of hope from the grasp of opioid addiction

Published in Dome - Dome March/April 2018 and Winter 2018

People with opioid addiction are mothers and fathers. They are nurses, teachers and store managers. They hold master’s degrees. They love their children. They dress well. They speak articulately. They live in cities, suburbs and small towns. You may work with them, live next to them, love them–without ever knowing they have an addiction.

In 2016, 1,856 of them died in Maryland. Others loved them, depended on them and miss them every day.

But this year, Joy Haywood will not be one of them. For 30 years, the 58-year-old Baltimore native lived with an addiction to opioids and alcohol. Now four years in recovery, she works as a peer recovery coach in Johns Hopkins Bayview’s emergency department, meeting people with opioid addiction in their darkest hours, and reminding them of their chance at a different life.

Removing the Shame

Johns Hopkins Bayview is working to prevent more opioid-related deaths, in part by taking away the stigma often associated with opioid use disorder. “Never lose your dignity to a diagnosis,” says Michael Fingerhood, M.D., chief of the Division of Chemical Dependence at Johns Hopkins Bayview. “Addiction is full of shame. We do our best to take that away.”

Using peer recovery coaches in the treatment of opioid addiction is a national evidence-based model. The Surgeon General’s recent report on alcohol, drugs and health called its results “promising.” When Joy enters a patient’s room in the emergency department, she does so with an open mind and an open heart. Patients are often more comfortable talking with her because they know she has walked a mile (or three decades’ worth of miles) in their shoes. If they are ready to take the first step, Joy will refer them to a treatment program, then follow up with them to see if they’ve moved forward with treatment.

Beating Opioid Addiction | Joy's Story

For over 30 years, Joy battled addiction. Now with four years in recovery, she tells her story.

“I Am You, and You Are Me.”

Joy’s story starts out like so many of our stories. She grew up in a loving family, a middle child with two sisters. She loved to play music and write poetry. In her 20s, she joined the Army Reserve and struggled to fit in. What started as an occasional drink to “calm down” turned into alcoholism, and then an addiction to opioids. “By the time I realized it was a problem, it was too late,” she says.

Still, for years, Joy thought she had everything under control because she was dressing nicely, going to work and maintaining her relationships. She worked as a corrections officer for a while. In fact, the only time she had a problem showing up to a job was when she went too long without using opioids; the withdrawal symptoms made it impossible to work. “I didn’t use because I wanted to feel high. I used because I didn’t want to feel sick,” she says.

Today, Joy smiles with the brightness of someone who has made it to the other side, but who doesn’t forget the path she took to get there. “I tell patients that I’m not here to judge,” she says. “I am you, and you are me.”

The Courage of a Phone Call

Joy found the courage to seek treatment four years ago. With most of her income going towards her addiction, she could no longer afford rent, and had been staying with family. One day, her older sister told her, “no more.”

“The disease had covered my eyes,” says Joy. “My light was going out. My spirit was dying. I cried out to God. He told me to find treatment.”

With her sister by her side, Joy called Baltimore County to inquire about a referral for treatment. She admitted herself to an inpatient facility, where her care team prescribed buprenorphine to calm her withdrawal symptoms during the most trying first days. Months at a transitional home helped her to rebuild the life she had lost. Slowly, Joy began to find herself again. She continues to attend Narcotics Anonymous meetings to this day.

Now, as a peer recovery coach, she earns a living by helping others find the courage to take the first step in treatment. One quarter of all patients who come to Johns Hopkins Bayview’s emergency department screen positive for substance use disorder. Joy, and other peer recovery coaches like her, visit each of them with the reminder that there is hope. And she is living proof of it.