Willie Payden first started going for care at Unity when he was a teenager. Now 63, he values all it has done for him and believes it’s greatly changed his life for the better.
“They have always treated me really good, but when they started offering a drug class, I went and that was a big thing,” he says, admitting he was hooked on opioids. “I was drinking and drugging and frustrated. I would lie to people and think I could kick my habit, but I couldn’t. They became like family and really helped me clean up.”
Ever since he was 25, Payden spent many of his evenings getting high and “wasted” and the next thing he knew, he was addicted and didn’t have help.
“I got caught up in it all and somewhere along the line, I lost stretches of time and just didn’t care,” he says. “My girlfriend got pregnant and I knew I had to strengthen up and do what I had to do for my baby. Unity was there.”
Unity providers are committed to helping those like Payden who may be battling opioid addiction. Their Medical Assisted Treatment Program (MAT) is designed for opioid addiction treatment, counseling support groups, and case management.
Payden says going to the support groups, talking with other people and hearing their stories, plus getting the counseling from those at Unity helped tremendously and made him turn his life around.
“Just being there is sometimes enough. I felt safe,” Payden says. “I go to classes every week and keep myself focused. It’s important to keep going. They gave me the willpower to live a solid life. I know it’s going to be a struggle, but know they are there to help me through the struggle.”
For others who are facing opioid addiction, Payden recommends coming into a class and just listening for the first time, saying Nekia White, Unity’s social worker, is just an amazing motivator who will make you feel good and
“A lot of people who are on drugs don’t have families or someone to talk to, but she’s the type of person who makes you feel good and feel like you belong,” he says.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on average, 130 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose and that number is increasing every year.
White says this is such an important thing for those not only in the country, but especially for those in the D.C. community.
“Not only are we dealing with an opioid crisis in our country, but Washington D.C. and the district of Columbia are also going through a big crisis,” she says. “D.C. is 3rd per capita for deaths, so for Unity to develop this program was huge. We’re providing drug treatment in a primary care setting, which I think is important.”
Andrew Robie, MD, is a family physician at Unity who is a big part of the MAT program, providing the care for those with opioid addiction. He says how D.C. is different with the opioid crisis is in other parts of the country, it tends to be a problem among younger people, where in this community, most of the patients have been users for years if not decades.
“We’re starting to see more overdose deaths that we have seen in the past and people are terrified,” he says. “Many of our patients are those who have used heroin for 30 or 40 years, and they are starting to see people die and I think it’s driving them in to seek treatment from opioid addiction and change their life.”
Not that it’s easy.
“Treating addiction is a challenge. Medication helps, but it takes a huge amount of other support to pan out for patients to break free from the struggle they have been fighting for so long,” Robie says. “They need to change patterns of behavior and often see friends still using, so they need to find new people to associate with and lead healthier lives.”
White says it’s important that friends and family of those with a problem play a part in the addiction recovery, starting with getting them help.
“We get referrals from people in our program who tell their friends, and once I get their information, I will reach out to them by phone and just do a brief assessment of what they are looking for support for, whether it’s heroin use or addiction or opioid pills or medication,” White says. “I’ll give them an overview of what’s expected in our program and the expectations, such as meeting with a mental health expert for individual or group therapy.”
Once they agree, she will schedule them with a mental health clinical and medical provider as soon as possible at whatever their preferred Unity site is. White will also reach out to their insurance provider to get prior approval.
“They meet with a provider, go through a major intake of their drug history and always get urine screened, and a prescription to start Suboxone,” she says. “With me, I’ll do the initial mental health appointment, a psycho-social background intake, their drug history, mental health history and if they are homeless and other stresses that can be a barrier to their recovery.”
From there, the patient will start going to groups and getting the help they need with regular appointments with the doctor and social worker.
“They need to show up to their appointments, take their medication as prescribed and using it as they are supposed to,” White says. “We do drug screening to make sure they are taking the drug properly and sticking with their recovery.”
When Unity helps someone with managing drug dependency, they are not only helping the person addicted, but the entire family and sphere around that person, creating a safer and more loving environment.