Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
Today, Melissa King is a surgical technician at a local hospital. But a little more than three years ago, she was addicted to heroin with no hope and nowhere to go.
“I was in and out of jail. I had some charges pending. My life revolved around heroin and finding ways to get money to buy heroin. It was miserable. I wanted to get out of it, but I didn’t know how,” she said.
King’s parents took her in for a time. She continued using her drug of choice.
“I was still figuring out ways to use,” she said. “I was manipulating my parents and my family. I saw this look on my mom’s face. I was just so sick of it and so desperate that I was willing to just surrender everything.”
King said she spent some time at different rehab centers but nothing worked.
She then checked herself into the county’s Metropolitan Assessment and Treatment Service, which provides detoxification services from alcohol and other substances. Most visits last three to five days.
King said she knew she needed more time.
“I wasn’t accepted into any aftercare program after detox,” she said. “I asked the staff if I could stay longer. I knew that if I left this facility, I wouldn’t stay sober. I know I was going to use. I didn’t have the skills or the resources to stay sober on my own.”
Her stay was extended to 21 days.
“That’s a very long time,” she said. “I saw the same people come in and out multiple times. It’s much easier to go and get high.”
King was then accepted into Bernalillo County’s Supportive Aftercare Community program, a low-intensity residential service social model program designed to allow clients to remain in a supportive recovery environment after completing alcohol and drug detoxification or rehabilitative services.
Operated by the Department of Behavior Health Services at a cost of $1 million annually from the county’s general fund, the program, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary, provides clients with the opportunity to reintegrate back into the community as productive, drug-free members.
A stay at the facility, depending on the needs of the client, could last as long as 30 weeks.
Participation is voluntary and provided at no cost to qualifying New Mexico residents seeking a supportive recovery environment after completing alcohol and drug detoxification or rehabilitative services.
Margarita Chavez-Sanchez, the county’s assistant director of behavioral health services, said clients need “a true passion for sobriety” to succeed in the program.
“It’s a phased program where every minute of the day is scheduled out, from the time they wake up in the morning until they go to bed,” she said. “It includes programming on substance abuse and conflict mediation and resolution as well as time for physical activity.”
King graduated from the program. She shows off her medal to celebrate her three years of sobriety but admits the journey was not easy.
“The program itself is great – I can look back now and I love it,” she said. “I’m grateful for it, but when I was in it, I was rebellious. I didn’t like authority. There’s all these rules. You’re living with a bunch other addicts and alcoholics that are trying to get sober, so we’re all kinda emotional. It was difficult and I didn’t like it.”
But she embraced the opportunity in time, she said.
“Once you’ve reached a certain amount of time, they give you more freedom and responsibilities,” she said. “You can get a job and they help you to budget. It was that kind of accountability I needed.”
King then attended Central New Mexico Community College and graduated from the surgical technology program.
“It’s a really cool job,” she said. “I’m still looking into continuing into nursing. I’m on my last prerequisite now and can hopefully apply in the summer.”
The program gives its clients a place to live rent free while dealing with finding a job, mending family relationships and resolving legal and other issues that are still a part of life after drugs or alcohol.
Any New Mexico resident, age 18 or over, who has had an inability to maintain post-treatment recovery and is in need of continued supportive care can apply.
In the 10 years since the program started, about 410 clients have graduated from the program, according to county records. An average of 35 clients graduate each year.
But the program also affords clients something just as important as overcoming drug or alcohol addiction, Chavez-Sanchez said – an opportunity to be part of a community.
“It creates a community where they wrap around each other and they do stuff for each other’s birthdays,” she said. “And the staff is often seen as a peer. I think that is the heart of the success of the program – that they have that peer relationship.”
On the day of a Journal visit to the facility, clients were treated to a 10th anniversary party of sorts with Frito pie and other goodies. A lot of smiles were seen on people’s faces that likely weren’t there before.
A recent graduate of the program was also visiting the day of the anniversary party.
The woman had participated in the program in 2015, but what she called bad choices led to a relapse that resulted in the state Children, Youth and Families Department taking her son.
After a 25-day stay in MATS, she returned to the SAC program.
“All my resources were depleted,” she said. “I was living on the streets. My feet hurt. I was going through a grieving process because my baby’s dad got murdered. It took awhile to work through that in order to get off drugs.”
She said she has overcome many obstacles during her participation into the program. She said her son has been returned to her.
“I learned quite of few things while I was here,” she said. “No. 1 was to stay out of relationships and work on yourself – do the things that I need to do to be OK. I learned that for me that’s God. Having my son back in my life was one of the most important goals while I was here.”
Out of the same facility, the county also operates the Milagro program, which provides housing, medical services, case management and drug rehabilitation services to pregnant and postpartum women and their infants. The program is a collaborative effort with the New Mexico Department of Health and the University of New Mexico.
“We found that there is a large need in the community for women who are pregnant and postpartum in a similar program,” Chavez-Sanchez said. “But having their child with them hasn’t always been part of process and has eliminated women from participating in programs. The role between mom and baby right after birth is critical, not only in sobriety, but also in help for the baby.”
The operating budget for the Milagro program is about $200,000, which comes from UNM.
The recent graduate of the program said that if the programs didn’t exist, she would likely still be on the streets or even worse.
“I’m a chronic addict,” she said. “My next step was death.”