Paterson native Kimberly Govak began experimenting with drugs at 14 and became addicted two years later, after one of her best friends was shot to death in front of her. Govak continued to dull the pain with alcohol, crack and heroin for 25 years, while getting married, holding down a job and giving birth to two daughters along the way.
Today, Govak runs a recovery program in Voorhees that helps thousands of people each year. But getting to this point in her life involved a decade of attempts at treatment and another 13 years in recovery, working to rebuild her life and self-esteem. According to some experts, it could take several years more before her quality of life is truly normal.
“For me, my thinking was so distorted, my thought process always wound me up in some stage of inebriation,” Govak recalled recently. “I could not trust the decisions I was making weren’t setting me up.”
Not just more programs
When it comes to addressing opioid addiction in New Jersey, the response has focused largely on expanding prevention and treatment programs. But some experts — including panelists at an NJ Spotlight roundtable on recovery last year — suggest those services address only part of the problem and more help is needed to properly support individuals with substance-use disorders as they negotiate a new, sober world.
“The hardest thing is leaving treatment and getting to the next step,” said Govak, who leads the Living Proof Recovery Center at the Center for Family Services — one of two full-scale recovery programs supported by the state. The center features group programs, peer counseling and help with housing, employment, education and more. “You’re out from under your bubble of protection and you’re on your own,” she said.
To elevate the role of recovery, Morgan Thompson, CEO of Prevention Links in Roselle, which helps families and communities address addiction, and other leaders came together two years ago to form NJ CARS, the New Jersey Coalition for Addiction Recovery Support. The group, which now includes 26 organizations and several hundred individuals, is dedicated to assisting the patchwork of nonprofits working to help those with addictions long-term, many of which Thompson said are “under-resourced and understaffed.”
Without a comprehensive system in place, Thompson and others said individuals with substance-use disorders will continue to cycle in and out of treatment but may never get a solid foothold to the future. They need assistance — preferably from peers who have been through the same experiences — to help them secure income, navigate an alphabet soup of programs and providers and re-establish a social life and support system free of illegal drugs.
“It’s really critical that those long-term supports are in place,” she said.
The first recovery rally
It’s also critical that the public understands long-term recovery is possible, as is life without drugs. To raise public awareness of these services and celebrate the many stories of success, NJ CARS will host the state’s first official recovery rally on Saturday, Sept. 28, a free public event scheduled to run from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the College of New Jersey in Ewing.
“Recovery is real,” Govak said, “and we want people to see that and celebrate that.” The event — Unite Recovery New Jersey — also coincides with recovery month, which is observed in September.
The need for recovery services has not been lost on state officials. The current budget includes nearly $20 million in funding for the Department of Human Services, which oversees most addiction programs, to support a handful of community-based initiatives designed to boost long-term success for individuals with addictions. In addition to Living Proof in Voorhees, the state funds Eva’s Village, a full recovery program in Paterson, and a growing number of smaller programs.
The state has also invested in supportive-housing programs for some 200 residents with substance use disorders and a high risk of homelessness, Medicaid coverage for peer recovery services, employment opportunities for those in recovery and a telephone referral service. More than $9 million will go to fund multidisciplinary teams — with case managers, peer specialists and other experts — now established in a dozen counties particularly hard-hit by the opioid epidemic.
“We strongly believe that combatting the opioid epidemic is not only about expanding prevention and treatment strategies, but that it is also critical to support recovery services,” said Human Services Commissioner Carole Johnson, who has prioritized addiction programs. “We are investing in important supports to help individuals with opioid addiction get on a path to recovery, as well as the services they need to help sustain their recovery.”
“Treatment works, recovery is possible, and our goal is to create a policy environment that supports the best possible outcomes for all,” Johnson said.
State data shows more than 3,000 New Jerseyans died of drug-related causes in 2018, with another 1,600-plus perishing through July of this year. Tens of thousands of residents seek treatment help annually, while many more are unable to get help or don’t seek assistance. Recovery data is hard to come by, but state-funded programs alone have helped thousands of people in recent years, DHS notes.
Long, slow work of recovery
The need for services is reflected not just in the number of people who need help re-establishing their lives, but also in the timeline for recovery itself. It takes many years to build what experts call “recovery capital” — a growing body of positive experience, goals achieved, and personal self-worth — and find a healthier path in life.
According to the Recovery Research Institute, a nonprofit run by Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, it takes 15 years after completing treatment to achieve a level of happiness, self-esteem and general well-being enjoyed by those who haven’t experienced substance use disorders. The institute also found that, on average, it takes five attempts at treatment before individuals are ready for the recovery phase.
“You’re talking about a chronic disease,” said Michael Santillo, who founded New Jersey’s first full recovery initiative, at Eva’s Village, and has just launched the new recovery program at John Brooks Recovery Center in Atlantic City, which also receives state support for various programs.
“Our current system of care is really an acute-care model,” he said, one focused on detoxing and medically stabilizing the patient and connecting them with treatment. “People do need to be stabilized, but as we often say, recovery is a life-long process.”
Like Thompson and Govak, Santillo welcomed the state’s growing role in the recovery process, but agreed more must be done to create a coordinated recovery system that is better integrated with treatment providers. (All three organizations are NJ CARS members, and they hope building this coalition — which currently includes about a quarter of the state’s recovery providers — will help improve collaboration.)
Among other things, these experts would like to see a recovery specialist integrated with a patient’s treatment team from the start, mandatory referrals to recovery programs for those leaving treatment, and more “recovery-ready communities” with suites of services in place for those in need. They’d also like to expand access to and insurance coverage for peer-based recovery programs; those with relevant lived experience are far more effective than those who haven’t experienced addiction in helping people negotiate a sober life.
“We need more treatment beds, but that alone is not going to solve the problem. You need to have a much more strategic, comprehensive approach,” Santillo said.
While she may not yet have reached 15 years in recovery, Govak’s life is now on a positive path, and she fully credits her daughters for fueling this change. She loves her work at Living Proof, saw both daughters married this year and recently renewed her wedding vows with her husband of 25 years during a trip to Jamaica.
“I gave that man every reason to leave, and he said he was waiting for me to show back up,” she recalled. “Now our relationships are better than they’ve ever been,” Govak said of her family.