Recovery community tackles stigma, focuses on fun

When local Casey DenAdel travelled back to her hometown of Petersburg, one of the first things she did was write a letter to the editor of the Petersburg Pilot, the local paper. She wanted to let the tight-knit community know she was sober.

“I said, ‘Hi, you guys know me from growing up here, but I am back and I just want to let you know that I am a person in recovery. … This is my face, this is my name and I am not ashamed anymore,’” DenAdel recalled writing.

Other than starting a recovery support group in Petersburg — which DenAdel also did — penning the letter was the best thing she could think of to combat drug use in the small commercial fishing community.

“The only way to get it out there in the public and get these kids and our family members and our community members to quit dying is to say, ‘Hey, I am standing up and I am letting you know that I’ve been there, and I made it back, I’ve changed,” DenAdel said.

DenAdel, who’s been sober since May 1, 2014 (she has a good memory for dates) related this anecdote during a Friday interview at Haven House, a Mendenhall Valley recovery house for women reentering society from incarceration.

Haven House is one of several local organizations participating in National Recovery Month, a September celebration for those in recovery from substance use disorder. Free yoga, alcohol-free “mocktails,” a costume ball: events in Juneau during the month share a theme: they’re all fun, group-based activities.

Cutting through stigma

Coming out as a person in recovery — in a public space — can liberate, even empower, Haven House Director Kara Nelson said, and help others in the process. She says it’s just one path a recovering substance user can take. Every path is different.

Anonymity also has a role to play in recovery, Nelson explained. Without groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, which choose to stay private, many would not be able to find the support they need to stay sober.

The choice to share your experience with a wider audience is a weighty decision, she said. People with families and professional lives don’t want to risk being labeled as a junkie or fiend. So they stay quiet. They don’t seek help.

“People are dying because of the stigma. Even people in active addiction don’t want to reach out to people they know who are in recovery,” Nelson said.

And the stigma isn’t just limited to those outside of the recovery community.

“We have stigma in our own circles too. When I started speaking out about my own recovery and solution, I had people within my own circles … who did not agree with how ‘out’ we were.”

Cutting through the stigma requires a change of language, Nelson said. Not “substance abuse” but “substance use and misuse.” Not “former meth-head” but “recovering from a substance use disorder.”

The phrases can be clunky, but the language surrounding recovery matters, Nelson said. She’s not alone in this: In January memorandum, the Director of the National Office of Drug Control Policy encouraged executive branch agencies to start using the terms “negative” and “positive over “clean” and “dirty,” when it came to drug screening. The term “substance use” is also preferred over “substance abuse.”

Giving back

Unlike DenAdel, William James Musser doesn’t remember the exact day he stopped using. An app on his phone reminds him when a reaches a milestone of sobriety.

He started using opiates after being prescribed painkillers for breaking his wrist during a commercial fishing accident in the Bering Sea, Musser explained during a Friday interview at his Lemon Creek home.

“I abused the heck out of them right away,” he said. “It seemed like only two or three weeks and I was hooked.”

He stayed on Oxycontin for four years until it became too expensive to buy on the black market. He then switched to heroin, which he stayed on for four years, “like, without a break.” It cost him some time in jail and a felony conviction.

When he started his recovery out of jail, he attended every Narcotics Anonymous meeting he could, but he found it hard to be alone, even for a short time. He says he doesn’t trust himself; being alone is “bad place for me to be,” Musser said.

“If I am alone, my thoughts are going to, ‘you can just do drugs once.’ It never goes away,” he added.

In his 21 sober months, Musser has gone to treatment, been certified as a recovery coach by the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence, gotten off probation and found purpose in advocating for those in recovery.

But he remembers being scared in the early stages of recovery. He was a different person on drugs. When sober, he had to relearn how to be himself. The question, “What if I don’t get to be me again?” gnawed at him.

In his mind, that wasn’t an option. So the self-described social and outgoing Musser asked for help from those with more sober time.

He found that it’s a paradox: the only way he can stay sober is by helping others stay sober. He craved a sense of community, of purpose.

“I just started talking with people on what it would take. People that had 20 years, 30 years, how do you do this this long?” Musser said. “It all kind of turned into those same answers where the only people who had been clean that long are people that help people.”

When Great Bear Community Collective started six months ago, he jumped at another opportunity to get involved. They helped organize many of the events taking place around town this month and just held a disc golf tournament.

The group is still in its infancy, but Musser hopes they’ll be doing some great things around Juneau. His aims for Great Bear Recovery Collective to open a recovery center, a “one-stop shop,” for counseling and community. Those in recovery could come together for games, events and classes there.

Even when heroin and opiate use across the nation has surged in recent years, Musser said he chooses to focus on the positive. He has to: years of heroin use has skewed his brain chemistry.

“Why fun is needed, and is so crucial, is I have to get my endorphins, my dopamine up so high for me to feel normal,” Musser said. “Fun activity and healthy hobbies and experiences, that makes life worth living.”

Know and go:

Sept. 8 and 15, 5:30-7 p.m.: Yoga for recovery at The Yoga Path (5326 Shaune Drive). Open to people in recovery.

Sept. 17, 2-3 p.m.: Hands Across the Bridge. Community members are invited to join those in recovery to form a human chain across the Douglas Bridge.

Sept. 22, 5-7 p.m.: Yoga event open to the general public. Yoga Path will host this free event in association with the Trini Foundation, a nonprofit which provides scholarships for yoga classes for those in recovery.

Sept. 23, 3-6 p.m.: Sober Ultimate Frisbee and disc golf event from 3-6 p.m. NCADD will provide discs for those who don’t have them.

Sept. 30, 5 p.m.-midnight: Recovery costume ball and silent auction at the Juneau Arts and Culture Center. The ball will have live music, a “mocktail” bar, a masquerade crafting table and a costume contest.

• Contact reporter Kevin Gullufsen at 523-2228 or

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