If I could put heroin into my veins, why not get a Covid vaccine?

I’ve always been that one rare person that experiences side effects.

I have so many stories about times where I’ve had side effects and reactions to medications. I’ve also had a lot of unbelievable things happen to me throughout my lifetime. I lived a high risk lifestyle for many years. All that hard living finally caught up with me. At almost 40 years old and I have a few medical issues and believe most of my medical challenges are an indirect result of my drug use over the years.  

Almost 10 years ago I was still putting a needle into my veins; using IV heroin multiple times a day for many years. I’ve struggled with addiction since the age of 14. I had seven knee surgeries before I was legally old enough to purchase alcohol. It started with pain pills and ended with black tar heroin I was buying from the Mexican Drug Cartel.

After I overdosed in 2012, my body was pushed out of a vehicle and left for dead. Six weeks later, I entered detox and with the help of Suboxone, I was able to kick my heroin addiction. Now in recovery for more than nine years, I’m a mom, a wife and a homeowner with an amazing career helping others.  

Toward the end of my active addiction with IV heroin use, I can remember one particular experience with Cotton Fever. Cotton Fever, the slang term, caused when bacteria, from reused cottons/filters or needles, is injected into the body. IV drug users will use the cotton filter from a cigarette or a from a Q-tip to use as a filter when drawing up the liquid heroin into a syringe. Bacteria or even pieces of the cotton material itself will still end up in the bloodstream. The symptoms usually begin within 15 to 30 minutes of injection. Symptoms of the illness include fever, headache, nausea, chills, and muscle and joint pain. Symptoms usually subside within 12 hours.

For some people reading this they will wonder why that wasn’t enough to make me stop using heroin. Well, it’s because addiction is a chronic relapsing brain disease. I was completely dependent and addicted to opioids. I needed treatment to stop using. So, it didn’t matter to me that I experienced cotton fever multiple times throughout and toward the end of my active addiction. That was just part of the disease.  

My life today is filled with community outreach, digital marketing, presentations, public speaking, always advocating for everyone to have access to Narcan, quality addiction treatment and Recovery Housing. I love creating initiatives and programs that help others find recovery. 

I started a new job in January 2021. I became the outreach and marketing manager for New Foundations Recovery Housing in Cincinnati. One of my first projects was to create a process surrounding COVID-19. I needed to put together information on where our clients could access the free testing process, access vaccinations and what to do if a anyone were diagnosed with having Covid. I quickly discovered that when I asked more than 100 recovery Housing clients, who is Interested in getting the vaccine, less than 10 people spoke up. It wasn’t going to be a shock that the number of people wanting a vaccine at NF would be low. However, I wasn’t prepared for it to be this low. When I asked the clients why they were so reluctant to get the vaccine. Most of them said, “I don’t trust the government” or that they “don’t believe the vaccine works”, or that “Covid isn’t real”.  

So, I continued to provide resources to those who wanted them. And then finally in springtime we experienced our first outbreak of coronavirus within our recovery homes. Our largest Recovery Home in Cincinnati had 11 positive cases. Resulting in the quarantine of over 30 women. Our Office is on the first floor of the same building. We were lucky to have the immediate assistance in guidance of our public health department. The health commissioner of Cincinnati was responding to us personally. They along with the Ohio Mental Health and Recovery Services Board assisted us providing at home test kits and on-site rapid testing. I’m happy to report that all the women that tested positive and that were exposed to Covid are healthy today.  

During this time my family and I were exposed to Covid on two separate occasions. Both times having to quarantine for what seems like forever. When I had to keep my kindergartener at home from school for an entire month because we were exposed to coronavirus, my attitude toward the vaccination started to change. 

I’ve never been one to get the annual flu shot. I’ve never taking my daughter to have a flu shot. We practice good handwashing techniques, long before Covid came. When the vaccination came out so quickly, I was immediately skeptical. Like so many others, I questioned the efficacy, safety and even wondered if this was all a way for a microchip to be implanted. I know I’m not the only one. Don’t even act like you didn’t think of it. *wink* 

I wondered, if they could create a vaccine so quickly, where is the cure for AIDS, cancer? I wondered if everyone who was vaccinated are all going to turn into zombies on the next Friday the 13th. I was one of those people that wanted to see how it affected other people first. I will admit that. With some of my health challenges, I am much more careful about what I put into my body these days. I was not going to become vaccinated in the year 2021. I considered that I would become vaccinated when it was made into a mandate. I was going to hold off until the last moment. 

But then we were quarantined again. That’s when I started to question if I was making the right decision. So, I started my own research. I asked around to several people that I know and trust who were vaccinated. I spoke with several doctors, including my own primary care provider. I asked questions and I got the facts. I wasn’t reading headlines. I wasn’t convinced by rants on social media. I was getting the accurate Information that I needed to make an informed decision for myself and my family. 

We were about to embark on a family vacation to my parents’ home in Florida, inside a senior citizen gated community. We wanted to make sure that we were not only protecting ourselves but protecting my parents and all of their friends. We also wanted to make sure that we were doing our part to flatten the curve.  

I scheduled an appointment for myself and my husband to go together to get the vaccine. We went over to our local clinic right after eating dinner at home. It only took about 15 minutes and we were good to go. Between the two of us we felt no other symptoms other than a sore arm. We were able to come back and get our second dose, making us fully vaccinated. And again, we felt no side effects. But we did feel empowered, and we felt proud that we were brave enough to do what we feel is the right thing to do. It was important to me to be able to set an example for all the clients of New Foundations Recovery housing. How could I ask all of them to become vaccinated, if I wasn’t willing to do it for myself? I wanted them to see that there’s nothing to fear. If we could go through all the horrors and tragedies of addiction, then getting the vaccine should be a piece of cake.  

Since around 2018, drug screens stopped showing actual heroin and started showing synthetic fentanyl instead. Even though users were buying what they thought was Heroin, would be surprised to learn that not only were they not purchasing heroin. They were purchasing synthetic fentanyl mixed with other things like cocaine methamphetamine, benzodiazepines and baby aspirin or baby formula. If those of us with the disease of addiction can use this potent mixture of deadly drugs without even caring or knowing exactly what was in the batch, why can’t we get vaccinated? That’s the real question I wanted to ask. If we can shoot dope into our veins, why can’t we do this?  

 

Helping combat this challenge.

At a collaborative meeting with other community partners and Sheriff Charmaine McGuffey of Hamilton County, a colleague and I put together an idea to help combat this challenge we were facing. Interact for health and Addiction Services Council and New Foundations Recovery Housing collaborated for a Covid vaccination incentive program. When New Foundations Recovery housing clients became fully vaccinated, and provided proof, Addiction Services Council would provide funding for two weeks of program fees for each individual, through a grant with Interact for Health.

So far, we’ve been able to provide incentives for 35 people who have been able to show proof that they are fully vaccinated since this incentive program started.

The payments come directly to New Foundations Recovery Housing and are applied to each individuals account toward program fees that covers their housing which includes a bed with new sheets, sharing a room with one other person. Also included in the fees are all utilities, free WiFi and landline phone.

Our support program includes resource referrals, relapse prevention and weekly random drug testing. Sometimes people need a little nudge to make an informed decision. Once the program participants watched an educational video with facts about the vaccination, they agreed that they would accept the incentive to become fully vaccinated. We are looking forward to this program continuing so that more and more people are becoming fully vaccinated against Covid. 

Just like the disease of addiction, how it affects more than just the person using drugs. Covid affects more than just the people who actually test positive and have the symptoms. Covid affects people without symptoms. Covid affects people in ways by not having employment. Covid affects people with fear of isolation and developing depression. Covid is so much more than this upper respiratory contagious monster.

We must come together as a human nation and put our beliefs and opinions aside and do the right thing. The science is there. The masks work. The vaccinations work. Please consider doing your own research so that you can make your own informed decision to vaccinate.  

 

Amy Parker, 8/11/2021 

Staying Sober Through Coronavirus Times

Throughout the last year and a half of the Coronavirus Era, we’ve learned what we truly need when it comes to social behaviors while in recovery. Losing the connection of so many ways to have fellowship, like AA and NA meetings, many lost sight of how to maintain a structured support network. Some folks saw the shut down as time to brush up on some of their hobbies. Many people took the shut down as a time to remodel their homes or their routines for that matter. Others however, saw the shut down as a much darker time. Closing themselves off from what was still available. Losing connection with more than just their support network, but even with themselves.  

Maintaining sobriety requires ongoing, daily intentionality. It requires preparation, structure, and personal insight of oneself – personal knowledge of what someone finds stressful versus what someone finds rejuvenating. Staying in recovery also requires an engaged and supportive community. Like everyone else, folks in recovery from addiction are now finding their support systems overburdened, their self-care skills challenged, and their vulnerability at a high-point, regardless of past effort invested into personal wellness. Even those without a formal diagnosis of substance use disorder and those who aren’t in active addiction treatment are finding themselves on the edge. Alcohol sales – which have seen a 26% rise in year-over-year overall sales and a 400+% increase in alcohol delivery services – tell the tale. People aren’t buying all that alcohol to hoard in the event of an economic cataclysm – they’re locked in their homes, drinking at never-before-seen rates. Mental health professionals call this behavior “self-medication” – people are using whatever they can get their hands on to alleviate stress and get through this crisis. Or friends and neighbors are joining others in social media trends and delivering surprise wine and drink kits as “porch drop offs” without asking if anyone in the home is at risk. Restaurants are now able to serve alcohol to go. 

People are able to access alcohol like never before. Unfortunately, that list doesn’t stop with alcohol – it includes opioids like heroin and fentanyl, the use of which leads directly to spikes in overdose deaths, even in communities where tremendous progress was being made in addressing the opioid epidemic. All the pent up stress is coming out in other tragic ways too, with a dramatic uptrend in domestic violence sweeping the world. The worst of it? The fact that while some states are starting the process of reopening, we don’t have a true sense of when everything will go back to “normal.” And the longer we stay locked away – isolated, self-medicating – the greater the certainty that more people will come out of this crisis clinically depressed addicted to alcohol or drugs. So what do we do? We have to start talking about it. We have to start normalizing the conversation to tell someone you need help. Or to reach out for help for ourselves. If we have learned anything during this time, it’s that we can directly access just about any service we need, through other means than being in person. 

Learning ways to cope with our anxiety and stress are imperative. In the now DIY phase of the shut down, we can see that there are many ways to help ourselves in fashions we may never have considered before.  

A simple place to start? Control your breath by learning diaphragmatic breathing. Practice progressive muscle relaxation. Listen to music, engage in guided imagery exercises – there are countless apps for this now. Learn mindfulness – in other words, realize that it is understandable to feel anxious about the future. Allow yourself to experience those feelings without judgment – only then will they pass through you. Mindfulness can also build self-awareness – which will help you identify cravings and triggers for alcohol or drug use – or stress-eating, anger outbursts, and other self-destructive behaviors. In other words, it’s something helpful even for those without a formal diagnosis of addiction. Once you notice a craving or trigger, ask yourself why you’re experiencing these thoughts and redirect your attention to something else. Journaling, reading, drawing, exercise, cooking, playing music – all are just examples of activities you can get wrapped up into in a healthy way. As tough as it sounds, we can build a sense of control in an uncontrollable situation. Have enough supplies, yes – but don’t hoard. Be sure you have enough medication you may need – over-the-counter, prescribed, and for children. Stay connected to your healthcare provider – call them if you have concerns and ask about telehealth options for appointments. Most providers, including those providing addiction treatment services, have started offering more telehealth options.  

Maybe your entire living situation needs to change. Maybe being alone in your apartment is making things so much worse than you ever imagined. Have you considered sober living or recovery housing? You can increase the amount of support that you have in your life by 80% by entering into a recovery housing program. Most recovery housing programs offer housing much cheaper than market rate, but more than that, the family like atmosphere will give you the support that you need to get through this unprecedented time. You can look into finding a quality housing organization by searching through NARR the National Alliance of Recovery Residences, in your state.  

Having a Fun Sober Summer

Summertime is filled with lots of outdoor events including festivals, concerts, family gatherings, and barbeques.  Most, if not all of these get togethers will unavoidably include alcohol.  If this is your first sober summer, it doesn’t have to be any less fun or eventful.  Here are a few ways you can stay true to your recovery during these summer months. 

If you’re feeling nervous about being around a large group of people. Maybe there will be alcohol available. It’s scary to imagine yourself in a position to be offered alcohol and have to turn it down. What will you say? Will you feel shamed or embarrassed? Do you say anything at all and just politely decline?  Maybe you’re going to be around people that know you’re working on your recovery and sobriety. Chances are, they’ll be willing to stay sober when they’re with you, to show you support. The more that the “breaking the addiction stigma” is seen as the norm, the more accepting the general population is becoming about sobriety in general.  It is not “weird” to not drink, now a days it is admired and respected. It is easier said than done, but by surrounding yourself with the right people aka the ones who understand your recovery process and won’t jeopardize it, you will feel less pressure to explain your sobriety. 

There are so many ways to enjoy yourself, while staying sober this summer. Having a sober crew, people who don’t drink anyway will always be a great option. Or you can consider bringing a sober plus one, a huge advantage.  Power in numbers, especially regarding sobriety, can be incredibly helpful if you are new to recovery or a few years in – it doesn’t matter! 

Remember, it is okay to leave an uncomfortable situation.  Your sobriety is your number one priority.  In fact, planning your own events can help to ensure that you won’t be walking into a tempting situation.  Schedule a dry pool party or a sober cookout, invite people who you know will respect your no alcohol rule. 

Everyone likes a tasty and pretty drink, it doesn’t have to have alcohol. You can go the extra steps and create a variety of “mock-tails” that are fun and easy to make. There are many already well known virgin style drinks to have on that list.  

  • Shirly Temple, lemon-lime soda and grenadine, I like to ask for them with a lime twist! 
  • Arnold Palmer, just tea and lemonade 
  • Virgin Mary, a Bloody Mary without the alcohol 
  • Lime Rickey, simple syrup, lime and soda  
  • Cinderella, pineapple juice, orange juice, soda water and lime 

If you are attending a party or event that will have alcohol, bring a small gift for the host and a beverage of your own choice.  It’s a good idea to have your own beverage in your hand at all times, so people will be less inclined to offer you a drink from the bar, or to bring you an unsolicited alcoholic beverage. 

Always have an exit strategy, for example, you’re at a party and you are doing fine, but then all of a sudden, you feel a craving to drink. Rather than staying at the party, fighting yourself. Don’t stay there with the temptation. Use your exit plan and excuse yourself early from the party. There are always a few creative excuses to come up with to get yourself an easy out. You can go to the bathroom and come back out to announce that your friend called and needs a ride home from work. Or you can always use my favorite excuse for anything, I’ve got a migraine, and I need to get home asap.  

Instead of going out in the evening, when it’s easier to let loose. Try going out on lunch dates and outings. It’s usually less common for most to want to drink during the day.  

Whatever you do, just stay sober. Sometimes it’s best to just dip our toes back into the social life. You don’t have to jump into the party pool fully clothed.