Sometimes what seems like the worst thing in life turns out to be the turning point for something better. For Philip Cooper, that rang true when he was convicted and sentenced to nearly four years in prison on drug-related charges.
Cooper began serving time in 2007 and became a peer counselor for fellow inmates in 2010. After completing his sentence, Philip enrolled in Asheville–Buncombe Technical Community College and earned a degree in human services technology. He went on to work in crisis stabilization, re-entry counseling, alcohol and drug recovery services and job skills programs.
Today, Cooper is a self-described change agent. He works as an Investments Supporting Partnerships in Recovery Ecosystems (INspire) Coordinator for the Mountain Area Workforce Development Board at Land of Sky Regional Council, an organization supporting local governments. He provides support and resources to people recovering from addiction and re-entering the workforce after incarceration. The INspire initiative also sponsors training for people in recovery to become certified peer support specialists and community health workers.
Cooper sat down with Xpress to share how poverty influenced his life, misconceptions about the formerly incarcerated and why he is “in love” with substance abuse recovery.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.
What was your childhood like?
I was born in Rutherford County. I moved to Asheville in eighth grade with my dad. He’s a veteran and he struggled with substance use. He moved up here and turned his life around. Being an only child living with my dad, who had just bounced back, I had it made in a lot of ways. It was hard though, being separated from my mom. That was a battle and something that I struggled with.
When I was living in the projects in Hickory, North Carolina, I identified drug dealers as role models at an early age. We were living in poverty from fourth grade until the eighth grade when I moved with my dad. But by that time, I had already determined that those drug dealers in the neighborhood were the people who I looked up to.
… The people who weren’t in poverty were the drug dealers. The ones that were feared, respected, dressed nice and had a lot of money were the drug dealers. So I wanted to be like them.
You served time in prison from 2007- 2011. How did being incarcerated change your life?
Prison saved my life. I couldn’t get it together on the outside. So when I went to prison, I found out who my real friends were. I learned work ethic, because on the inside I worked a job every day on the road squad. The first promotion I ever got was when I went from road squad to janitor.
I also went through a 90-day [substance use disorder] treatment program called A New Direction and it was life-changing. It’s an evidence-based program that focuses on cognitive behavioral therapy with a focus on criminogenics. It made me think about my thoughts, even though I didn’t want to fully apply myself initially.
But I started to apply myself and a lot of it made sense [in terms of] things that I identified with. I knew that I was a person who struggled with substance use. There was a guy in there, a peer counselor named Ken Coleman. He was a mentor to me. And there were other people who had been in prison for a long period of time who were respected in the yard and would give me advice on life.
That’s how I got into the behavioral health world, into peer support.
Your work focuses on helping folks reenter the workforce, as well as recover from substance abuse. How do those two components work together?
At least 70% of the people who have substance use disorder have a job. There are many people who didn’t struggle with the work ethic, they didn’t struggle with having a skill, but they struggle with their recovery. So we understand that they have to be recovering during work. When people meet with us, we’re talking about recovery. We’re not jumping straight into talking about getting you a job. We talk about what sober living you’re going to, what pathway of recovery are you going to choose.
What do you think are common misconceptions about people who are incarcerated or have substance abuse disorder?
There’s a lack of understanding for the trauma. There’s a lot of trauma that people experience in their life that lead them to that lifestyle. A lot of times people are coming from poverty and poverty is often preceded by single parent households.
There’s some special cases where one event on one night went wrong. For some people, one bad night, one bad moment, can send them to prison for 14 years. But for the most part, that lifestyle is preceded by some unaddressed trauma and unaddressed mental health challenges. People not having the mental health support that they need and are living in poverty. And when you’re living in poverty, you experience the drug dealing in the neighborhoods, the lack of mental health support, the lack of mentorship.
What words of encouragement would you offer for people who are in recovery or seeking help with substance abuse?
If it is a person who is in recovery, what I would tell them is don’t don’t get too comfortable. Recovery is not a it’s not a destination, it’s a journey. Fall in love with the recovery process. That’s what’s worked for me and it’s been working for 13 years. There’s ups and downs, there’s baby mama drama, there’s friends overdosing and dying, there’s friends getting murdered. It’s a hard life. But it’s not as hard as it could be because I’ve got a recovery process that I’m living by.