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From User to Coach: A Counselor’s Journey

  • Wayne Miller, a substance abuse counselor, leads a session at Groups, an addiction treatment program in West Lebanon, N.H. on Oct. 3, 2016. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Groups clinic coordinator Jillian Sheldon, left, works on her computer while Wayne Miller a substance abuse counselor talks with Dezarae Durkee, of West Fairlee, Vt., after a group session in West Lebanon, N.H., on Oct. 3, 2016. Durkee is a participant in Groups, an addiction treatment program. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, October 15, 2016

Lebanon — Groups counselor Wayne Miller has experienced addiction and recovery.

The 28-year-old counselor “has been through the whole thing,” said Damean Prenticz, of Canaan, who is a member of one of the therapy groups that Miller now leads.

Miller used pills and drank alcohol for a decade before quitting with the help of a 12-step program. He now shepherds dozens of former users on their quest for recovery.

Miller said he wishes he could do away with the stigma that weighs upon his patients. “They are constantly being beaten down by what their neighbor thinks of them, or what their ex thinks of them, or what the state thinks of them,” he said. “They think, ‘I’m a failure, I’m on probation so I’m a loser, I’m a scumbag.’ ”

Caregivers say the stigma of substance use and dependence isolates those with the disease of addiction and keeps them from seeking treatment. “People are getting stigmatized by the medical profession as well as society at large,” said Peter Mason, a retired primary care doctor who still treats addicts at Groups and in other settings.

Miller displays no reluctance to tell his story. He started smoking pot when he was 14 or 15 and attending Hartford High School, and went on to using alcohol and then pills.

He struggled for a decade, “bouncing from dead-end job to dead-end job.”

His family knew he was using. It seemed like a majority of the people in his life were using. Once, a police car pulled up next to him as he was getting high in his car outside the drug store where he was working.

“I was like, ‘Whatever; if they come, they come.’ But I just didn’t care,” he said.

Yet there was always more to his life than addiction.

“I considered myself creative and very into film and art and literature and I loved to read,” Miller said. “I still had my dreams and my goals and stuff, but I just wasn’t taking the initiative to make them happen, because it was so much easier to just continue using.”

A decade after he started using drugs, he had enrolled at the Community College of Vermont. He still was “actively using ... and had no intentions of stopping. That wasn’t part of my plan.”

His plan changed after the teacher in a class he had taken to get enough credits to keep his financial aid assigned him to attend a 12-step meeting and write about it.

“Going to that meeting really started my personal recovery,” Miller said.

He recalled “listening to people’s stories in the meeting, and hearing the things that they’d been through, and it really hit me that this was the road that I was going down, this was where I was going to end up. So I decided to get clean: stop doing drugs and stop drinking.”

Miller’s recovery came through a 12-step program. Such programs provide roadmaps and support for recovery, but not medication. “I went to meetings and got a sponsor,” he said.

“I used to be judgmental about” medication-assisted treatment, Miller said. “I didn’t understand why people felt they needed to do that.”

That attitude changed as he listened to participants talk about how such treatment saved their lives. “I am grateful that I didn’t need that,” he said. “I don’t think I’m better (than others) because I didn’t.”

Miller remembers the loneliness that came with quitting when the majority of his friends were still using.

Now Miller must cope with an exhaustive workload, as he attends the St. Johnsbury, Vt., branch of Springfield College seeking a bachelor’s degree in human services, works full-time at Groups and at a second job, and has a 3-year-old daughter.

He is modest about his own role in treatment.

“I always tell (patients that) you’re on a conveyor belt and my job is to be walking beside you filling up your basket with tools and advice and resources and mutual support while you’re progressing toward whatever that goal is at the end,” he said.

But he savors what he describes as “those lightbulb moments” when patients, who came in “fearful and angry and oftentimes sick,” suddenly understand what recovery might mean to them.

That echoes Mason’s description of the “incredible pleasure and satisfaction” that comes with seeing patients fighting addiction and putting their lives back on track, stabilizing their relationships, returning to work and, in some cases, getting their children back.

“We know we save lives,” added Mason, the retired doctor. “When people get appropriate treatment, the disease process is arrested.”

Miller thinks that stigma can work both for and against users who want to get healthy.

“I think there are two kinds of people in recovery,” he said. “Somebody that’s going to take that stigma and that judgment and use it as fuel, and then the person that’s just bogged down by that, that’s kind of just progressing through sludge, going very slowly, constantly aware of what people think of them.”

But he wishes that stigma could be erased: “I think it just really slows down the growth process.”