Inside one of the small alcoved rooms at the far end of Cabot Plaza in Taos, Kathy Sutherland- Brauw, founder of Inside Out Recovery, and peer support worker Bob Johnson open their doors each week to anyone seeking treatment for addiction.
On a Tuesday, clients started to file in around noon for a free acupuncture session, some taking up seats at the corners of the room to wait in quiet meditation while others join in conversation at the large table at its center – where, for many, the most important form of therapy begins.
One client describes the new school where her son has just started the first grade. Another mentions closing on a new apartment, where he and his girlfriend intend to move at the end of the month. And as local acupuncturist Selah Chamberlain makes his way around the room, carefully inserting needles into clients’ ears, arms, legs and back, another jokes that the tiny metallic protrusions make them all look like aliens.
The conversation wends its way through many subjects, though addiction rarely enters into it.
While one-on-one peer support is at the foundation of Inside Out’s services, for many, activities like acupuncture, yoga and pottery offer hourlong reprieves each week from the realities of addiction.
Some come seeking treatment for alcoholism, while others wrestle with substances like methamphetamine, heroin and other opioids – though all are able to relate, even if without words, through a common struggle.
Peer to peer
Speaking on the condition of anonymity under the alias “Vanessa,” one client, 35, says she began abusing opioids when she sprained her ankle five years ago. Like many others, her addiction started with a prescription.
“I started off with the little pills of Vicodin,” she said. “Then it escalated from there. After I broke my wrist, I went up to the stronger ones – Oxy 10s, Oxy 20s.”
The rise of opioid addiction in the U.S. has been widely documented and was recently classified as a nationwide “epidemic” by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which estimates that approximately 21 million Americans suffer from opioid addiction. It follows, then, that opioid overdose has become a leading cause of death in the U.S., killing approximately 33,000 people annually.
New Mexico continues to oscillate between the top one and top two spots for states with the highest number of drug poisoning deaths each year – around 27.3 deaths per 100,000 people. Taos County and neighboring areas in Northern New Mexico record the highest rates in the state, at around 67.7 deaths per 100,000 people, more than double the national average.
Though prescribed opioids are a common starting point for addiction, heroin – an illicit opioid derivative that offers a similar euphoria – is often where one is sustained.
After her doctor lost her license for overprescribing to patients, Vanessa turned to smoking heroin in order to cope.
But as her highs grew shorter and her down periods grew longer, she found herself becoming extremely ill – feeling nauseous and vomiting, experiencing extreme migraines and body aches – something she later recognized as withdrawal, otherwise known as “kicking” among addicts.
Supporting two young children on her own, Vanessa decided to drop the habit entirely and on her own, a notoriously difficult way to drop a heroin habit.
“I was getting tired of being sick all the time and just constantly forking over the money for it,” she said. “It was just getting awful. I couldn’t be there for my kids.”
Vanessa described a nightmarish withdrawal in which she remained bedridden for weeks, but at the end of it, she had kicked her addiction.
Shortly thereafter, Vanessa encountered Sutherland-Brauw, whom she had met as a young girl growing up in Chama.
As a former addict herself, Sutherland-Brauw could recognize the signs and told Vanessa about a program that she had started in 2008 in Española – one focused on peer-to-peer counseling and services. A Taos branch had opened in 2014. Vanessa reluctantly agreed and started attending group therapies and yoga a few times per week.
“Ever since then, I’ve been coming here,” Vanessa said. “The acupuncture helps me with cravings, and I’m still doing the group meetings for women and yoga, too.”
Like Sutherland-Brauw, freedom from addiction has inspired Vanessa to pursue her own certification as a peer support worker. She plans to join the team at Inside Out in the near future.
“I want to help other people,” she said. “There aren’t too many programs available for people to come and get help – especially for younger people. I’d say to anyone who’s struggling to come and check this place out. It really changed things for me.”