What does it take to overcome opioid use disorder? In episode 8 of “The Problem”, follow the journey of Robbie as he recovers from addiction and finds a new passion.
(00:00) Phil Lofton:
From the Regenstrief Institute, this is The Problem. The Problem is an anthological podcast dedicated to fighting the hydras of healthcare, those complicated big, hairy issues that impact healthcare on the societal level. Every season you’ll hear about a different big, massive problem and each episode within that season will feature a different discipline or industries take on that problem, how it’s being addressed, how it’s being talked about, and the trials and triumphs of those involved clinically and personally. This season is all about opioids. Over the next few episodes, the problem, we’ll talk about how we local communities, Indiana and the United States got into this crisis, how people suffering from addiction are treated and how the needle can be moved on addiction. This is a podcast for anyone who might be interested in how these problems have developed and are approached. You don’t need a PhD to be affected by them, so you shouldn’t need a PhD to learn more about them. Regenstrief institute is a global leader dedicated to improving health and healthcare through innovations and research and Biomedical Informatics, Health Services, and Aging. Welcome to The Problem.
(01:12) Phil Lofton:
Hey guys, it’s me, Phil. Before we get into the episode, I want to give you all a heads up on some things. This week’s episode is so important. It’s the story of a man named Robbie about how he got into opioids, about how he recovered and about how he stays clean. It’s a story about the place he works, a really unique nonprofit that helps people learn valuable skills. It’s a story with a happy ending, but there are some serious dark spots on the way there. This episode features some candid discussions about depression, self harm, and suicide, so I want you all to be aware of that. Now, again, having said that, I think that it’s an absolutely vital episode because at the end of the day, everything that we talk about before and after this episode comes down to helping people avoid opioid use disorder. Welcome to The Problem. I’m your host, Phil Lofton.
(01:57) Phil Lofton:
Robbie’s story is about chance encounters about those moments where things line up perfectly and everything. Somehow, some way it goes right. The morning I met Robbie and Margaret, it felt like everything that could go wrong was going wrong. Seriously. My phone had broken the night before. I printed out directions to Purposeful Design, the nonprofit where I was supposed to meet both of them and I reserved a car from the Indianapolis Electric car share online at my computer. Of course, I discovered halfway through the ride that I had forgotten the printout of directions and with no phone and no clear map. I returned the car to a station about a mile away from the destination and began walking towards where I vaguely remembered Purposeful Design to be on my way. I was thinking of everything that could go wrong, tripping and injuring myself with hope of contacting help, getting hopelessly lost, having a missed cancellation email. Then I arrived. I met Margaret, Purposeful Design’s director of sales who explained the organization’s mission to me.
So we started in a sweet little church right down the street here and building beautiful furniture like you see here in the showroom. We use solid wood and then also lots of metals for the basis of things. And we had five men working for us and now we’re up to 14. So God’s really blessed us. So, we hire our men mainly through Wheeler Mission and we have two craftsman that work for us who are their supervisors, who don’t have the same background as the other men. They train the men and mentor the men. And so several of our team members have been here from almost the beginning, about four of them, so they’re very skilled at their craft. And so our prayer is that the men want to stay and we just give them raises and promotions and that kind of thing because we want them to get better and better and better.
And you can see it, it reflects in the furniture. The furniture is really, really beautiful. Yeah. So, um, our main mission is to spread the Gospel and mentor these men. And um, we also started something called the school of woodworking and discipleship, which we’re really excited about. And so what we do is anybody that’s hit rock bottom or anybody from Goodwill, Salvation Army, any of the local outreach programs, they can send people to this school. It’s a 30 hour program where the attendees are, um, taught woodworking. Some of our craftsman teach them, also volunteers, discipleship. So we teach them about the Lord. And then we also have job readiness taught to them. So people volunteer from local businesses may come and teach them that. So it’s really exciting. We’ve had four classes and of those four classes I, I’m not sure the quantity of men I can get that information to you later.
I want to say it’s men. And we had our first woman, which was really exciting, but 90 percent of them graduate and then we have companies lined up to hire. I’m sure. So yeah. So we partner with salvation army, goodwill, um, and several other companies who, who will hire these people and then, you know, that’s one step. They’re just looking for a job, right? So it’s just, it’s really a great program and we believe that you have to change a person’s heart first before anything else. And the Lord saves, and that’s for sure. So let’s see if we can come over here.
(05:49) Phil Lofton:
After our tour, she walked me into a conference room, let me set up my gear and then sent in Robbie. Robbie’s a thin man with big eyes and a beard to match. He’s friendly and he was immediately ready to talk about anything from the shop to his past. This is his story.
It makes me happy. I don’t mind coming into work everyday. I wake up in the morning and I feel good about what I’m doing. Feel good where I’m doing it. I mean I jumped off an overpass running from the police. That’s where I did that and I crushed my ankle and I never did get it fixed. Couldn’t go to the hospital because you know, I, I was running from the police and my ankles about that big around [gestures to ankle]. Gashed my eye. I had knee high socks on. I jumped off the overpass. When I did, this leg gave out, Bam. I hit the concrete divider there. I ran. After I did it, ran. I hit this bench and just fell over it. Took my shoes off. I took my socks off and I knew my head was cut, and my blood’s running into my eye and I was wringing blood out of these socks and after that I’ve had, I’ve had a lifetime of pain. I’ve been in pain every single day since I’ve done that, you know, and it was more of a pain thing. I had to climb ladders. I got to climb up and down ladders for living on roofs for a living, you know, with a broken ankle and being on a roof and hurts. No, I got on the opioids and uh, they did away with the opioids. So I got on. I wasn’t spending what they wanted for the pills no more. I got tired of so I went and got on the heroin.
(07:47) Phil Lofton:
How did you, how did you come to Wheeler Mission?
Back then, I was on my dad’s couch. I ended up quitting my job to get off the opiates to get off the heroin. So I quit my job. My Dad said, hey, you know, you can live here. Oh, you know, he’s buying me my pack of cigarettes in my every day, you know, and it just, it was just overwhelming. You know what I mean? There I was living for nothing and I wanted to die every day. First thought, the first thought that popped into my mind every day is how much I hate this life, how much I wanted to die. One day I just had enough and I packed my backpack. My Dad was taking my brother to the dentist on Washington Street, so I packed a backpack and told him to drop me off at the dentist’s office and he got to the dentist’s office.
I got out of the truck and I just started walking, didn’t know what I was going to do, didn’t know where I was going, but something either something was gonna happen for me to live my life, or I was going to die. One of the two. I didn’t bring my wallet too. I didn’t want them to identify the body.
(09:23) Phil Lofton:
So where’d you go?
I got out of the truck and I just started walking. I seen Good News Mission. They turned me away. So I thought that was the end. You know, I was going through downtown thinking about what I was gonna do. Didn’t have no money, no place to stay, no phone. Even if I had phone and nobody really wanted to call and you know, I was just ready to lay down on the railroad tracks and then I saw Wheeler Mission and it’s like, why not just give it a shot?
And they accepted me. They, they took me in and that next day I went and seen the counselor and the counselor heard my story, everything I was going through and he said, uh, well you’re a perfect candidate for this program that we have: the STEPS program.
(10:29) Phil Lofton:
What is the STEPS program?
The first three months you’re in there, you don’t work. You did learn. You learn life skills. Really, about Jesus, about God, about a deeper purpose in life. You had to have something with and you know, trying to put yourself back together so you don’t fall back into the same thing that you used to be in it. It’s just the program to, to make you better, you know? It’s amazing. Yeah.
(11:20) Phil Lofton:
It sounds like you think the work that you do, they make you take off work so that you can work on yourself.
Yeah. Yeah. They didn’t want us to do work for the first 90 days. I thought it was kind of strange, you know, but they just have everything. Yeah. Clothes, food, everything. In my whole life I went through, I think it nobody cared. You know, what to do now. What are you out there? Who, who catered at all and then I, I get into this place and they’re just, you listened to us worth this program and we’ll take care of everything. We just want you to know about t plus we want you to know about that.
(12:15) Phil Lofton:
Who was kind of the, the main person there, during the steps program. Is there one person that was kinda like your, your, your main point of contact during STEPS?
Well, my counselor, but there was one guy and I was tore up the first day I got in there. I was just, I didn’t know if I wanted to be there. I, I knew I didn’t want to be there. Not at that time, I just wanted to die.
(12:48) Phil Lofton:
So why did you stay?
This guy took me out in the hallway. I’m bawling. Crying is, I know what to do, man. I, and he told me, he said, man, just stay here today. Stay here tonight, just cool down. If you want to leave tomorrow, then leave tomorrow, so just don’t leave tonight. So I sat there overnight. I talked to him and I talked to some of the other guys and, and realized, you know, my dad always told me I was here for a purpose because I’ve been through five or six near death experiences I shouldn’t be living. Yeah. But for some reason I’m still here.
(13:37) Phil Lofton:
What was the recovery process like for you?
No, it’s terrible. It really was. I went to Valle Vista. They, they helped me detox, you know. So the detox was bad, don’t get me wrong, but Valle Vista took the edge off of it. I was on suboxone for a week or so. They usually keep people three days, four days. They kept me for two weeks. No, but they knew that I was just, I was at the end of my road and I had been for a lot of years and you know, I, I just don’t think killing yourself as is the right thing to do. I mean, it’s why I always try to. No, not directly do it, but still get it done. Right.
(14:46) Phil Lofton:
Is that how some of those near death experiences happened?
Yeah, because I never, I mean, you don’t fear death. What do you fear? Right. No, nothing. I’ve never feared anything. No. As you know, being a painter, I’m 40, 50 feet in the air, hanging off ladders and everything. I mean there’s just no fear.
(15:16) Phil Lofton:
How did you come to be involved in Purposeful Design?
It was through Wheeler Mission. I was in their first school. Wheeler, one it’s s homeless shelter, the homeless shelter. But I was on the market street. That’s where I first went into and I was not going to be able to handle it there. I just couldn’t do it. I mean, I, I needed out of there that next day I went and talked to the counselor. He said, you’re perfect for this program, this and that. He said, I want you to talk to this guy. They had me out of there in two days and it usually usually takes people four or five months to get from Wheeler One to Two. The programs building. There was always somebody there that knew what to say to talk me down.
Yeah, and in my life that I started feeling real bad, you know, like I wanted to die. Then my brother has a son and that’s my nephew and he’s like a son to me and I adore this kid. He kept me alive for years and then he moves. I get down on myself again and my other brother has a daughter and she, she kept me alive, you know, all this stuff just kept happening to do keep me going, you know, and I don’t know how to explain it. It’s just, there’s no explaining it. I kept having stuff put in front of me that you know, you. There’s a reason.
(17:14) Phil Lofton:
How did the steps program lead to Purposeful design.
(17:18) Phil Lofton:
Yeah. I was only in, I wasn’t signed up for the class, but this buddy of mine said that “you might be interested in this class that that’s going” on because I wanted to do everything.
I wasn’t wasting no time. I mean they gave me this opportunity. I was going to do everything that I could to change my life around. You know, I, I was ready for change and he tells me about this woodwork in school, you know, and why not? What have I got to lose. Yeah. So I came in and I met everybody here and the shop manager, Justin and me just got along. I mean, just Bam and uh, went through the class, got outstanding marks through the whole class. I mean, I had a good attitude, did all the homework, participated in class. My cutting board was nice. I made a nice cutting board and uh, you know, the class was ending. The three guys that were with me found jobs and I was reaching the end of my, my 90 days I had like maybe two and a half weeks left at the end of the class and the goodwill lady came and was trying to find me a job and I went.
Justin called me in his office one day and he says, don’t leave here thinking that you might get a job. He said, Oh, you got to do is call me. I’ll put you to work. So I went back. I talked to my counselor. I said, Purposeful Design wants to hire me. He said, oh, well you must have done a good job. He’s in, but he let me go two weeks early out of the steps program.
(19:14) Phil Lofton:
What’s the shop like here?
Uh, it’s a great atmosphere. I make people care, you know, we get our work done and you know, if we have a problem, if there’s 10 people to go to, you know, everybody watches your back and you know, if they think something’s wrong and they’re going to tell you about it, you know.
(19:38) Phil Lofton:
So was there a moment as a part of this process where you were like, okay, I, I can do this, I’m going to make this happen. God’s going to help me make this happen. Like what, what? Was there a moment like that for you where you were like, okay, this is gonna, this is gonna take, this is going to work. When, when was it?
Probably three days into the program. Yeah, three or four days.
(20:04) Phil Lofton:
The STEPS program?
Yeah man. Yeah. You know, Mike asked me, he said stay. So I stayed the next day. Wasn’t really, you know, into it, but I’m going to try this, you know, we woke up in the morning at 6:30 a breakfast, then we had quiet time 45 minutes in the morning where you just sat with your Bible, did your journal. How I felt. How I feel right now. Your put offs, your put ons, you know, stuff like that. And uh, we had class from 10 to 1145, so 10:30 to 1145 something and one of the counselors would teach a class and it was all a Bible based and it was funny that I ended up not knowing, not knowing where I was going to go, not knowing what I was going to do and stumble onto the exact thing that I needed. And I didn’t. I just ended up on your doorstep here. I ain’t got to climb ladders and there ain’t in a lot of pain. My life ain’t pain anymore. You know, I don’t wake up hating life anymore. I don’t need to escape anything anymore. You know, I want to wake up in the morning, I want to live my life, y’know?
(22:01) Phil Lofton:
After Robbie and I wrap up, he leaves and gets back to work. There’s always another table or bench to make and he’s excited to do his part and getting it out the door. I stick around for a minute, looping back with Margaret debriefing and grabbing another cup of coffee before I go on my way back to the electric car share station. I think about how crazy it is that everything perfectly lined up for Robbie to wind up where he has being at the right shelter at the right time, making the friend that kept him in the steps program. Justin overhearing him talk about needing a job then because how could you not? I think about the 757 people that died from opioids in Indiana in 2016. I wonder because how could you not about how close they might’ve gotten having things line up perfectly to get them out of addiction. Would they have met the right person if they had overdosed in the right place near someone with Naloxone, but then I think again about Robbie because for him it did line up and I think that even among the countless people who didn’t make it out of addiction or who are still struggling, this one person did and that needs to be celebrated because why would we keep doing anything that we’re doing? If at the end of the day we can’t help get that one person out of trouble or if our treatment centers and our nonprofits can help keep that one person out of trouble. So I celebrate it and I keep walking. Thinking of the man who recovered. The man who found his place.
(23:27) Phil Lofton:
Music for this episode was from Everlone and Broke for Free. Our theme and additional musical cues in this episode were written and performed, as always, by Mrs. Elodie Hess. The Problem is produced at studio 132 in the Regenstrief Institute in Indianapolis, Indiana, where we connect and innovate to provide better care and better health. Learn more about our work and how you can get involved at Regenstrief.org, and see bonus content from this episode, including sources, pictures and more, at theproblem.regenstrief.org. The Problem is written, hosted, edited and produced by me, Phil Lofton, with additional editing by Andi Anibal, John Erickson, and Jen Walker. Web design and graphics are by Andi Anibal, and Social Media Marketing is done by Jen Walker.