Chris Walsh was once a graphic designer. He worked at an archaeology company, in tech support with Apple, and for more than a decade in the banking industry.
But Walsh, who dabbled in social drug use since his teens, fell into drug dependence in 2009, after he was given a 30-day supply of Lortabs following surgery on his arm. His opioid addiction killed his job prospects and he turned to heroin in the years before a near-fatal overdose.
"I gave him a shot of Narcan," recalled his brother, Andy. "Nothing. I was holding him in my arms, and all I was thinking was that my mom was upstairs and how the hell am I going to tell my mom?
"I dropped him and gave him more Narcan, hit him with it and boom, he got up immediately."
Walsh checked himself into a 30-day treatment program last September, then moved into Unity House to continue his recovery. Sobriety gave way to determination that, at age 40, he would remake his life.
What would it take to break completely free from his troubles? Find a new place to live? Rebuild an existence that continued to focus on recovery but included new friends, a meaningful job and healthy social outlets?
BestSelf Recovery Community is helping him answer those questions.
The program, launched last spring on Linwood Avenue, started with a drop-in center where those on the road to recovery can plug in to group support meetings, get help with employment searches, work with a recovery coach, and gather for healthy activities with loved ones and others in recovery.
"A program like this is extremely crucial and I encourage everyone else in recovery to come here," Walsh said on a recent Friday night as he, his brother, and his nephew, Joe, 11, took part in a Splash of Color Paint Night in the Recovery Community Center.
A five-year, $1.5 million grant from the state Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services fuels the Recovery Community, the first of its kind in the region. It's already helped inspire a similar effort, Sparks of Hope Recovery Support Center, which recently started in Hamburg United Methodist Church.
Amber Minter, 28, of Hamburg, and Alexis Andrews, 25, of Derby, were among several parents in recovery who brought their children to paint night. Both said they became addicted to opioids after getting a 30-day supply of them after dental work while they were in their teens.
"We need more centers like this for recovering addicts to come and be part of the community, with friends and family," said Minter, who, along with Andrews, is also involved in the Hamburg effort.
“Typically, individuals struggling with opioid addiction need more than medication along their path to recovery," said Dr. Gale Burstein, Erie County Health Commissioner. "Those who … are able to discontinue drug seeking behavior often find themselves frustrated with planning what to do with their newfound time during the day. Work and school are often not an option at this stage. The BestSelf Behavioral Health’s Recovery Community offers a safe space to reconnect with community and family and to learn skills to improve their health, employment potential, mood and self-esteem.”
BestSelf – formed last year with the merger of Lake Shore Behavioral Health and Child & Adolescent Treatment Services – applied for the grant that led to the program. Other BestSelf programs include substance abuse recovery clinics and the Lighthouse, a residence for women recovering from addiction who can stay for up to eight months with their children.
All five staff members in the BestSelf Recovery Community are in recovery themselves. They welcome others at any stage of recovery – as well as their families – to drop in any time the center is open, for a chat or something more structured. All services are free.
"I had to leave the safety of treatment, start a life of recovery and redefine my life," said Stephen White, Recovery Community program director. "It was scary, and also exhilarating in some ways, so I really relate to a place like this."
White, a Syracuse native, worked for years at a major news magazine in New York City before a drug habit costs him his relationship and job. He sought treatment in 2001 in his hometown, and became a credentialed alcohol and substance abuse counselor a couple of years later. He moved to Western New York two years ago and took a job with Lake Shore after he married a woman from Buffalo.
He and his staff consider the program headquarters a "hub of hope."
"I felt supported in treatment," White said. "I remember when they said, 'You don't have to come back anymore,' that I felt this voice, 'What do I do now?'"
The new program has plenty of answers – and allows those who use it to make their own plans using a Recovery Wellness Plan.
Center programs are broken into four parts:
Support groups: Walsh is among those to attend a Saturday morning Self-Management and Recovery Techniques (SMART) group. "We go out for brunch after meetings," he said. The center can direct people to 12-step groups. It also hosts Addiction 101 support gatherings for individuals and families who want to learn more about substance abuse disorder and recovery.
Education and vocation: The center includes a small computer lab, where visitors can build resumes and begin to examine job prospects. Staff also can put visitors in touch with General Equivalency Degree (GED) and other career-building programs. Walsh used the lab to take a philosophy course through the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and plans to go back to college.
Health and wellness: The center offers Cornell Cooperative Extension nutrition workshops. Chef it Up healthy cooking classes are led by the center's two coaches. White also would like to add yoga and low-impact aerobics classes if enough visitors express interest. There is talk of starting a community garden.
Social activities: Paint night, Coffee and Conversation, and movie nights are among regular offerings. The center includes two foosball tables and video games. A "Let's Go" program includes visits every other month to spots that have included the Ice at Canalside, Kleinhans Music Hall, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and Tifft Nature Preserve.
Along with White, staff members include two recovery coaches, an outreach and volunteer coordinator, and a family support specialist.
Donita Munn, one of the recovery coaches, celebrated 25 years in recovery on Jan. 13.
"With the opioid epidemic, if people have a recovery coach to come alongside of them, they can be very successful," she said. "I like that it's nonclinical. We embrace the different pathways to recovery, meeting people where they're at. We offer hope, and empowerment."
She and Jeanna Manspeaker, the other recovery coach, started their jobs late last fall.
"I've only been clean two years," said Manspeaker, 29, of Orchard Park. "I thought I'd always be thinking that every morning I'd wake up and say to myself, 'I'm not doing drugs anymore.' It sounds silly but you think that life isn't ever going to be normal. It gets back to normal quicker than you think.
"I also tell people who come in here, 'It's work every single day. We didn't get to that point of being an addict overnight, so we're not going to get fixed overnight.'"
Manspeaker started her recovery journey by moving back with her mother and surrendering her car keys and cellphone. "I took my credit cards and cut them up," she said, "and told my mom, 'If you see me leaving this house, you tackle me. I was on house arrest for my first six months, under my own accord. I wanted it. I needed it."
She spent a lot of that time painting, and leads Recovery Community paint nights. She also helps visitors establish wellness plans, plug into programs, support groups and services, and show how recovery can succeed.
Manspeaker said she feels stronger as she helps others.
"I say all the time I wish I would have had this when first started recovery."
The Recovery Community serves those who are 21 and older. Many of the visitors live in the city – more a reflection of the headquarters location than need, White said. That’s why he and other staffers look to work with others in outlying communities.
"We're seeing a mix of people," the program director said, "but tend to see more in the 21- to 30-year-old age group. We have participants who are in their 50s and 60s. We're seeing people by and large with opioid use histories – heroin and prescription drug medications – but we also see other people who are addicted to alcohol and other drugs."
Andrena Locke, 32, of Amherst, has been among the regulars since leaving the Lighthouse residential program last spring. She is rebuilding her life after being jailed, losing her two children for several months and regaining them after going through Amherst Drug Court.
Locke brought her kids to paint night, and looks toward a future with more education and stable employment. Her recovery coaches point out that her story should give hope to others in the throes of drug abuse that a pathway to a better life is never out of the question.
"This has been my number one support in the community," Locke said.
Walsh – who has lost eight friends to drug overdoses during the last few years – agreed. He looks to go back to school, get a social work degree and advocate for greater drug abuse awareness and treatment.
Meanwhile, he and his family revel in his new life.
"It's wonderful," his brother said. "To be with him, sober and present, is like night and day."
BestSelf Recovery Community Center
What: Available when inpatient and outpatient addiction recovery programs end, connecting individuals and their families with ongoing resources that include support groups, educational advancement, vocational training, wellness education and healthy social activities.
Where: Shares a headquarters with Prevention Focus at 69 Linwood Ave.
When: Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday and Friday, 9 a.m. to noon Saturday.
Serves: Those age 21 and over.
Cost: Free. Co-pays, referrals and health insurance are unnecessary.
Collaboration: The program looks to become a "center without walls," teaming up with municipalities, civic groups, churches, and health and wellness organizations on related activities, as well as sharing information at health fairs and other events.
Upcoming programs: Activities at the Buffalo center include Chef It Up at 4:30 p.m. Feb. 14 and 28 (preregistration required); Recovery Jam, in cooperation with the Restoration Society, 5:30 p.m. Feb. 16, featuring special guest Jim Candytree, who will perform an acoustic set; Splash of Color Paint Night, 5 p.m. Feb. 23 (preregistration required); Eat Smart, 10:30 a.m. Feb. 28.