A 36-year prison sentence turned into a life of recovery and stability.
A jail stint turned into a life helping others as a licensed clinical social worker.
A seven year journey of sobriety that led to becoming director of a recovery program.
A four-year transformation from addiction points the way to the County’s Office of Consumer Engagement.
Those were just a few remarkable stories recounted Thursday, Sept. 19 as the Board of County Commissioners proclaimed September as Recovery Month in Multnomah County. The annual public declaration aims to raise awareness about recovery from substance use disorder. This year’s theme: Together We Are Stronger.
The packed meeting of testimony and celebration follows an unprecedented year of advocacy for people in recovery. Among the actions: the Board filed a $250 million lawsuit against opioid manufacturers for causing a national public health crisis, authorized naloxone for people leaving county jails, expanded access to medication-assisted treatment for residents and inmates, and made new investments in harm reduction services.
Speakers share stories of recovery and redemption
Four years ago, Deandre Kenyanjui joined Central City Concern’s Recovery Mentor program with just a few months clean. He had no idea if he could stay in recovery. But since that day, he says, he hasn’t been alone.
Little did he know it, but that was the beginning of his journey towards joining the County as a staff member of Mental Health and Addiction Services’ Office of Consumer Engagement. In his role, he uses his lived experience to advise senior leaders on how to better serve people in recovery.
On Thursday, Kenyanjui helped deliver the proclamation alongside his fellow Office of Consumer Engagement coordinator, LaKeesha Dumas. “Now I get to help others that were in my shoes,” Kenyanjui said. “Who better to answer the cry of another addict, than the addict, himself?”
Kenyanjui spoke alongside Tony Vezina, the chief executive officer and co-founder of 4th Dimension Recovery Center in north Portland.
Vezina lost his mother and many friends to drugs and alcohol. His father is imprisoned for methamphetamine charges. And many of his friends are still suffering from addiction. Vezina, himself, has been sober for seven years.
Vezina is one of the leaders behind the Oregon Recovers movement —a statewide coalition of people in recovery and their loved ones — helping to advance recovery prevention, treatment and support services statewide.
Last year, Gov. Kate Brown declared addiction a public health crisis at an Oregon Recovers rally. Now the organization is working to support the Governor’s Oregon Alcohol and Drug Policy Commission, which is developing a framework to strengthen state and local substance use disorder services and reduce the number of people who go untreated.
“Part of the issue is that the burden of helping people recover has been pushed on the recovery community for years,” he said. “And there hasn’t been the necessary support or systems that are culturally responsive or individualized that will help people recover.”
Members of the recovery community showed up in force to tell their own stories of recovery, including Charles Johnson. Johnson says his addiction issues led to him being imprisoned for 36 years.
He’s been out seven years, living in Central City Concern supportive housing. The program surrounds him with like-minded individuals who are committed to living a clean and sober life.
Johnson also said he attends Narcotics and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings every day. Those meetings, he said, have given him an opportunity to transform himself. Without them, he says he’d be back in prison.
“I live in permanent housing, I’m clean and sober, I’m in my right mind, and there’s a lot of people who I left behind in prison who don’t have an opportunity like I have,” Johnson said.
Commissioners voice support, call for policy changes
As the Board celebrated Recovery Month, Commissioner Meieran called for new strategies to address Oregon’s addiction crisis. Among them: raising Oregon’s tax on alcohol. She called on the Oregon Alcohol and Drug Policy Commission to take it on.
“We have not raised the tax on alcohol since the 1970s,” Commissioner Meieran said. “We have the lowest tax rate in the country and are the fifth worst in the country for alcohol-related deaths. We can’t avoid it any longer. It’s really unconscionable to have this potential and not be out there and advocating every day for that.”
As an emergency room doctor, Commissioner Meieran said she knows from experience: addiction is not a moral failing.
“This is not a moral weakness, it’s not a lack of willpower or a willingness to stop using,” Commissioner Meieran said. “It’s a chronic, relapsing illness accompanied by changes in the brain and it’s time we treated it as such.”