Beyond addiction: Finding sobriety in WNC

STARTING OVER: Todd Stebbing poses with his dog, Gunther. In 2014, Stebbing enrolled in treatment at Red Oak Recovery, having spent the previous four years a heroin addict. Photo courtesy of Red Oak Recovery
STARTING OVER: Todd Stebbing poses with his dog, Gunther. In 2014, Stebbing enrolled in treatment at Red Oak Recovery, having spent the previous four years a heroin addict. Photo courtesy of Red Oak Recovery

Todd Stebbing was a 22-year-old heroin addict when he enrolled in Red Oak Recovery’s program on Sept. 14, 2014. The primary treatment facility in Leicester serves men ages 18-30 who have substance abuse and mental health issues.

Stebbing shot up for the first time during his freshman year of college in Norfolk, Va. Within six months, he was hooked. “It’s like this warm, comforting hug,” says Stebbing. “And then it just gets tighter and tighter and tighter, and it doesn’t let go. That’s what heroin addiction is like.”

Stebbing remembers his final year of addiction as the toughest time of his life. His tolerance continued to build, his withdrawal symptoms intensified, and he began using every day. “I would shoot heroin and I wouldn’t even get high,” he says. “I would just not feel sick.”

That year, Stebbing overdosed twice. His parents had paid for therapy in the past, but they made it clear that this was his last chance: Stebbing could either get help or be disowned.

When he arrived at Red Oak, the 6-foot-1-inch Stebbing weighed 135 pounds. “I was skin and bones. I was yellow. I looked sick. I had track marks all over my arms,” he recalls. It took him 30 days to detox and recover from the illnesses brought on by withdrawal. After that, he immersed himself in the program.

“Not only was I getting sober, I was learning how to have fun again,” he says. “I was learning how to connect with nature and with the people around me.”

Keeping it real

“The idea is, you get sober in a place that looks like a place you’re going to go home to and a place from which you came,” explains Alex Kirby, founder and executive director of Montford Hall. The nonprofit’s “true-to-life” residential recovery program — a term the organization actually trademarked before opening last March — serves teenage boys struggling with substance abuse.

And Asheville, notes Kirby, is a great place to run such a program. Unlike similar treatment facilities based in remote parts of Utah, Montana, Idaho and Washington state, Montford Hall can offer residents the best of both worlds — city life and natural splendor. Activities such as whitewater rafting, rock climbing, mountain biking and backpacking are crucial to the program, he explains. Besides building self-confidence and self-reliance, they foster teamwork while demonstrating an invaluable lesson: It’s possible to have fun while sober.

Asheville’s New-Agey side doesn’t hurt either. “If I say to a colleague, ‘Hey, do you know a shaman we could use to help one of our kids?’ they don’t look at me like I have three heads,” says Kirby. “That’s really helpful, because convention hasn’t worked for these kids. … We’re looking for alternative pathways, and Asheville is the most amazing resource for finding that.”

Other local facilities — including primary and extended care, recovery homes and wilderness programs — echo that sentiment. And together, they’ve made Asheville and environs a mecca for substance abuse treatment.

It’s not cheap, however: These programs carry price tags ranging from $2,000 to $16,000 a month, and patients typically stay for anywhere from 90 days to a year. Some facilities offer a limited number of scholarships, but insurance plans typically don’t cover such services (see sidebar, “The Money Question”).

Furthermore, that treatment is only the first step. Once clients leave the facility, finding a support group is crucial. And many local people in recovery say that’s another reason they continue to call Asheville home: The recovery community here is tightknit and strong.

Sober peak experience

Like Montford Hall, Red Oak emphasizes experiential education to help clients achieve sobriety. “It’s supported by research as the most effective way of learning,” says CEO Jack Kline. “Basically, we’re going to have you learn something, and then have you practice it and do it enough times until it becomes internalized.”  In addition to its Leicester location, the program has a sister operation in Fairview that is exclusively for women. Both opened in April 2014.

These outdoor activities, says Kline, provide empowerment, confidence and help in overcoming fears while showing clients that sobriety and pleasure aren’t mutually exclusive. “Just because they’re living a drug- and alcohol-free life now doesn’t mean life sucks and they’re not going to have any more fun,” says Kline. “We call it a sober peak experience.”

Overcoming the stigma

“Experts say that 10 to 20 percent of the population suffers from the disease of addiction,” notes Lisa-Gaye Hall, president and founder of Asheville North Star Recovery, a home for women ages 25 and older. Drug and alcohol addictions, she says, are just like any other treatable disease. Often, though, the stigma surrounding addiction keeps those who are struggling with it from seeking help — and those close to an addict from offering it. “I don’t think any of us would stay quiet if we had a friend who was ignoring a diabetic condition or skin cancer,” Hall points out. “But somehow, we think addiction is different, and we’re afraid to offer loving help. Addiction is not a moral issue: It’s a disease, and help is available.”

Pride played a part in keeping Brandi Medlin from trying to get help. “My whole life, I’ve liked to tell myself I could handle anything I came up against,” says the 34-year-old former methamphetamine addict. “But that’s not true with addiction: It’s a battle I lose every time.”

STAYING CLEAN IN WNC: After seeking primary treatment for addiction, Brandi Medlin (right), moved into Infinite Sober Living, a recovery home based in Candler. Stevie Williams, founder and operator of Infinite is featured in the photograph with Medlin. Photo courtesy of Brandi Medlin
STAYING CLEAN IN WNC: After seeking primary treatment for addiction, Brandi Medlin (right), moved into Infinite Sober Living, a recovery home based in Candler. Stevie Williams, founder and operator of Infinite is featured in the photograph with Medlin. Photo courtesy of Brandi Medlin

Last month, Medlin celebrated a year of sobriety. The arduous journey included periods of homelessness, an eight-month stint in jail, probation, losing custody of all three of her children and falling off the wagon several times.

It’s a common story. Between 40 and 60 percent of those seeking treatment for substance abuse have periods of relapse, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. But according to the organization’s website, relapse does not necessarily mean failure: “Successful treatment for addiction typically requires continual evaluation and modification as appropriate, similar to the approach taken for other chronic diseases.”

For Medlin, however, each relapse only added to her sense of shame. Back in her hometown of Dunn, she was “that girl who’s been to rehab.” But this stigma, says Medlin, didn’t come from the community. “It wasn’t even what my hometown believed,” she explains. “It was what I believed my hometown believed.”

In 2016, Medlin left Dunn for Pavilion, a center for the treatment of alcoholism and drug addiction in Mill Spring. After six weeks in primary care, she spent an additional six weeks in extended care. Then, rather than return to Dunn, Medlin enrolled at Infinite Sober Living, a halfway house in Candler.

Halfway home

Halfway houses, experts say, are a key component of successful recovery. “Ninety days is considered an optimal time to spend in treatment,” says Kline. “That’s what [Red Oak] targets. We also recommend that everybody go to some sort of step-down or transition program as a kind of ongoing support or aftercare, so they don’t go back home to the same people they were drinking and drugging with. They go to a different environment that can help them with their recovery skills.”

Infinite Sober Living opened in 2015, serving women ages 18 and older. All residents have gone through a primary treatment program before they arrive. Infinite offers clients continued guidance and support via 12-step integration, yoga, meditation and structured, sober living.

It’s also a zero tolerance program, meaning any substance abuse will result in expulsion. Owner/operator Stevie Williams, however, stresses that her organization tries to help those residents find their way back into primary treatment. She also emphasizes the importance of letting clients stumble as they navigate the stress of finding work, enrolling in school and continuing their recovery. “I have to allow them to make mistakes and have their own learning experience and know that they’re going to fall and get back up,” she explains. “It’s hard to see them go through the struggles, but I know that it’s a process.”

Brian Nolan, admissions director at Next Step Recovery in Asheville, says that’s one of the greatest benefits a recovery residence provides. Next Step is a transitional living community for young adult men recovering from alcohol and substance abuse.

“I like when a guy comes into our program and does some job searching, finds a job he really wants, goes after it and doesn’t get it,” notes Nolan. “Because that will bring up those emotions of ‘I’m less than; I’m not worthy,’ and so on. That’s a great reason to go use; that’s a great reason to go get a drink. That was our defense mechanism in the past, and we don’t have that anymore. So I want guys to come in and have those emotions … and have to work through it.”

Familiar faces

In 2012, Danner Marsden completed a 90-day program in Sevierville, Tenn., for opioid addiction. He spent the next nine months living at Next Step and has continued to call Asheville home.

“Having people around you that know what you’re going through, I think that’s imperative,” he says. “I have two or three absolutely best friends that I can rely on with my life. It takes a couple of years to get to that; I think that’s part of the reason I haven’t left Asheville yet.”

FINDING COMMUNITY: Danner Marsden joined Next Step in 2012. Originally from Atlanta, Ga., he now considers Asheville home. "People come here and get clean and end up staying," says Marsden. "It has a lot to do with the recovery community."
FINDING COMMUNITY: Danner Marsden moved into Next Step Treatment in 2012. Originally from Atlanta, Ga., he now considers Asheville home. “People come here and get clean and end up staying,” he says. “It has a lot to do with the recovery community in Asheville.”

Marsden’s previous attempts to achieve sobriety in Atlanta, were difficult due to the city’s size, he explains. When he attended Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings in his hometown, there was a good chance that he wouldn’t recognize a single face.

“One of the major things that can ultimately lead people astray is isolation,” notes Marsden. “If you come into [a meeting] and you’re not feeling part of the group and you see all these cliques of people and everybody has a friend, but you don’t know anybody, that’s not going to make you feel very comfortable with where you are.

“In a bigger location, I might go to a meeting on Sunday night and talk to somebody, but there’s a decent chance I wouldn’t see that person again for a month. Then I’m stuck the next day with the same issue: I don’t know anybody.”

In Asheville, on the other hand, the local recovery community has been an additional source of strength and support. No matter the day or time, he says, when he attends a meeting, there’s always at least one familiar face.

Give what you get

In addition to attending AA and NA meetings, recovering addicts are often encouraged to do volunteer work. Red Oak clients, for example, put in time at the Sandy Mush Community Center and Full Sun Farm; they also do cleanups on Willow Creek Road.

“Addiction is a very self-centered disease,” says Mark Oerther, the facility’s director of admissions and referral relations. “When we start to do service for others, it creates something in us that makes us feel better about ourselves.”

Besides giving back, volunteering also provides learning opportunities, says Rick Pollard, the executive director of Solstice East. “Those moments allow clients to practice and really make certain that they’re internalizing the work they’re doing in regard to their healing,” he explains. The Weaverville facility, which opened in October 2012, serves girls ages 14-18 who are dealing with varying levels of depression, anxiety, impulse control and substance abuse.

MANNA FoodBank is one of the organizations Solstice volunteers support. Since 2013, Solstice clients have clocked 780 hours at MANNA, notes Matt Farr, the nonprofit’s volunteer manager. “It’s a great opportunity for folks trying to get through a rough patch to come out and do good for the community,” he says. “I think a lot of these programs view this as an opportunity to surround their residents with goodness and positivity.”

Local businesses also partner with treatment programs. CrossFit Pisgah, for example, gives Montford Hall clients a discount. Hayette Bouras, CrossFit Pisgah’s business manager and coach, says it’s part of the business’s overall commitment to community involvement.

Bouras has had her own struggles with substance abuse. “I’ve been sober five years,” she says, adding that CrossFit is an ideal activity for those seeking to reinforce lessons encountered in recovery. “They’re learning to work together, learning self-efficacy, confidence, integrity,” she points out. “They’re also integrated into our community: They’re seeing what’s possible. I think that’s beautiful.”

Building a résumé

The all-consuming nature of addiction, and the fact that it often tends to start fairly early in life, mean that many people in recovery lack the kinds of basic life skills that “normies” take for granted. Even simple things like balancing a checkbook or preparing a grocery list may be foreign practices.

This is true for job hunting as well. To help address the problem, Goodwill’s Career Connections program offers various free services, including résumé building, mock interview sessions and job fairs that connect individuals with employment opportunities.

Lack of experience often translates into lack of self-confidence, says Liz Knight, career connections coordinator at the organization’s Patton Avenue location. At the same time, clients who’ve gone through recovery programs and had extensive therapy, notes Knight, may be overly open about their past, which isn’t always a good idea during an initial job interview. “We coach folks about this,” she says, adding that full disclosure “may not be something that the employer needs to know right away.”

Still, explaining that gap in your employment history can be challenging. “I came up with a story,” says Nolan, Next Step’s admissions director. Sober for seven years now, the New Jersey native remembers telling potential employers that he came to Asheville due to a family illness. “Nobody needed to know I was the one that was sick, or what I was sick with,” he points out. “I wasn’t lying, but I wasn’t absolutely telling the truth. I’ve shared that with other guys that have come through our program who share the same concerns.”

Over time, he continues, the uncertainty and discomfort tend to lessen. The further a person gets from addiction, the easier it is to address it. These days, he says, “Nobody in Asheville knows me for anything but a person in recovery. If I needed to go get a job now and it came up, it came up.”

From student to teacher

Nolan isn’t the only former addict who’s using the insights gained from his struggles to help others.

In October 2015, Stebbing returned to Red Oak — not as a client, but as a guide who led small groups of residents on camping trips. He later obtained his license as a substance abuse counselor and has worked as a clinical case manager at Red Oak ever since. Stebbing now sees himself as an advocate for his clients, saying, “I’m always there for them; I’m an open ear.”

Marsden followed a similar path. A certified substance abuse counselor, he now works at the Crossroads Treatment Center in Weaverville. His experience with addiction, he says, “really gives me an opportunity to build a solid foundation with my clients. It helps that they know I’ve been there. … I think it breaks down barriers that might exist between a client and the counselor.”

Medlin, meanwhile, is still a client at Infinite Sober Living, but she’s recently begun serving as a mentor to other residents. “It’s very humbling,” she says, and it helps her make sense of her past. “I don’t think my story would be worthwhile if I wasn’t letting someone else know where I’ve been. … If that can help them see or stop from making that same mistake, then it’s all worthwhile.”

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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. He has worked with several publications, including Gulf Coast and the Collagist. For his weekly #tuesdayhistory tidbits on Asheville, follow him on Instagram @tcalder.

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6 thoughts on “Beyond addiction: Finding sobriety in WNC

  1. A fellow person in recovery

    As a person in a 12 step fellowship with 5 years sober, I am disappointed to see the content of this article, which is one giant plug for overpriced treatment centers and halfway houses. The article features people who work at the places mentioned and are eager to have new clients paying $10,000 a month for limited services. While halfway houses are helpful, they are not necessary and are limited to only the wealthiest people seeking recovery. Asheville needs to be careful to regulate treatment centers and halfway houses to stop them from committing insurance fraud and taking advantage of families concerned about their loved ones. For myself and all of my friends in recovery, simply working the 12 steps in a 12 step fellowship, which is free, is enough to stay sober.

    • MuddyW

      I don’t know about the other facilities but early last year we contacted Next Step regarding the possibility of my brother, an alcoholic, being admitted as a resident. In the end my brother decided not to go but he talked to a counselor at Next Step several times who did not pressure him or ask for any payment for his time; it was just about seeing where my brother was at and if this was the right place for him. We were actually surprised at the monthly cost (nothing near the $10,000 a month you cite) and the support that would have been available to him.

    • Justin

      Also as a fellow member of the 12 step community in Asheville. I find that your comment is a little bashful and hateful. These young folks are living happy lives now and not dead. They put their stories out for people to see, read, and maybe give hope to someone struggling, not make money. Most people in the 12 step rooms went to some sort of detox, treatment center, or halfway house. I tried many times to just walk into AA and get sober. It didn’t work for me, along with a lot of other people. I needed to be removed from the culture and away for 70 days to get my head straight. Then the halfway house was incredible, I learned to live again while still having supporting friends, we went to meetings, did activities, had fun. (Yes you can do all that stuff in AA) but without going to treatment, I would have died. So before you go bashing it, look at how many people it has helped. Millions. Not all treatment centers or halfway houses commit insurance fraud or are out to make money. Some just want to help young men and women not die from the disease of addiction. It’s hard to just walk into a meeting in full blown active alcoholism or addiction and get sober. Some people, (I feel like most have) need to go to treatment, halfway houses, and also become a memeber or a fellowship. At least I know I did and most of my friends who are still sober did. And we are coming up on 6 years

    • Thomas Calder

      While I disagree with your comment about the article being one giant plug, I appreciate your willingness to share your individual experience with addiction and recovery. I also want to highlight the side box, titled “The money question.” It appears in the printed version; it has been included in an updated version of the online piece, as well.

      • A fellow person in recovery

        Thomas, thank you for your comment. I appreciate your response, and I am so glad to see the updated “money question” box in the online article (I only read the article online and didn’t see it in print). That section makes a big difference. Though my initial comment portrayed a negative view toward treatment centers and halfway houses, I do want to emphasize that they can be helpful and they do help millions of people and I recognize that. Lots of treatment centers and halfway houses are affordable and have good intentions. However, I’ve become discouraged in recent years when I’ve seen “patient brokering” and insurance fraud happening firsthand. I fear that people think that for profit companies and 12 step fellowships are the same thing, when only one of those seems truly available to anyone seeking recovery. That being said, I am happy that this dialogue is happening and you are a talented writer!

    • Jeff C

      Muddy, thank you for your post. The cost that parents pay is not as staggering as $10,000, but the costs that insurance providers have to fork over is astounding. Most halfway houses drug test their clients three times per week, and most of the halfway houses are now linked up with Intensive Outpatient treatment centers.

      Halfway houses send their clients to 12 step meetings, and the IOP’s provide minimal behavioral therapy. Very few halfway houses allow alternative treatment methods other than the 12 steps. If you do some research, the 12 steps have never been proven to be effective. The long-term recovery rate is around 5%-10%, which is the same as an addict or alcoholic getting sober on their own. Other treatment methods, such as the Sinclair method for alcoholism or lifelong Suboxone treatment for heroin addiction, are suppressed by the recovery industry. Why does the industry demand abstinence when most addicts and alcoholics relapse time and time again?

      Additionally, most of the people who work at halfway houses have no formal training in addiction treatment. Nearly all of their experience comes from 12 step programs, whose recovery methods are for an addict to develop and maintain a relationship with a higher power. We no longer tell homosexuals to “pray the gay away”, but we still tell addicts that the same method will work for them. We need more scientific-based approaches for treating alcoholism and addiction, or addicts and alcoholics will continue to relapse.

      The best part about owning a halfway house is that you are never at fault if a client relapses! You can tell the parents that the addict was not ready or the addict did not put the work into the program. That is a great business model.

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