Editor’s note: This is the latest in an occasional series on personal stories from the front lines of the substance abuse crisis.
By Douglas Imbrogno
Joe Deegan thought his life was over.
One Sunday in September 2008, a South Charleston policeman pulled up behind the car he was riding in, driven by a friend and weed-smoking buddy.
The officer’s report would later note he smelled marijuana coming from the car.
That was true. In fact, the officer’s search of the car turned up more than a third of a pound of marijuana.
Deegan, 59 at the time, was charged with felony drug possession.
“I thought it was the end of my life,” recalled Deegan, who at the time of the arrest was working for a managed behavioral health care company.
News of the event — splashed in the pages of this newspaper — noted some extra details that made Deegan’s arrest more noteworthy than just your average traffic stop drug bust.
The article noted his previous job as a former clinical coordinator for the SouthWay Alcohol and Drug Treatment Center at Thomas Memorial Hospital in South Charleston.
The article went on to note that he had been a past president of the West Virginia Association of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors. And that he had done work for NAADAC, a national association for addiction counselors and educators.
His life, while it wasn’t over, veered wildly.
The felony charge was dropped as he went out of state to attend a month-long treatment program.
“My career kind of caved in at that point,” he said. “I lost my job with that managed care company.”
But by the end of that month, he also did what he had counseled many an addict to do at SouthWay — get into recovery.
And stick with it.
“I already knew a lot of people in our program who’d gone through recovery, so I was welcomed with open arms,” he said.
Deegan has been sober since that devastating month — from Sept. 29, 2008, to be exact.
These days, he is part of a team that has helped revive an in-patient drug and alcohol recovery unit back at his old stomping grounds of Thomas Memorial.
“We’re kind of resurrecting a program that had been around for years, called SouthWay Treatment Center,” said Deegan.
The eight-bed unit opened this past October. It has since served about 25 people who work with addiction counselors, therapists and nurses during their 28-day stay, a few of whom, like Deegan, are in recovery themselves.
The bottom fell out
The hospital-based treatment center is part of an attempt to revive what had been commonplace across West Virginia in the last decades of the 20th century, said Deegan.
At that time, some 20 hospitals across West Virginia had in-patient, 28-day treatment programs, he said. “Then the bottom fell out on treatment back in the late ’90s.”
About that same time, managed care came on the scene and began cutting back on benefits for substance abuse treatment, said Deegan.
Medicaid also began to cut back on paying for in-patient care for adults with treatment needs, he said.
“All the hospitals across the state got out of the business almost within two years in the late ’90s,” Deegan said. “We went from having a pretty solid infrastructure around the state of having treatment centers in hospitals to basically nothing within a few years’ period.”
So, how did Deegan find his way back to Thomas after his own career hit the skids from substance abuse?
After his arrest and turn toward recovery, he found another job with Diamond Health Care’s child and adolescent residential program in Virginia.
One day, he decided to stop by Thomas to see if the hospital — which used to contract with the company — might be interested in renewing the relationship.
He ran into Dan Lauffer, who would shortly become the president and CEO of Thomas Health.
“And he said, ‘You need to get in here,’ ” Deegan recalled. “He talked to me for an hour-and-a-half cold, about, ‘I’ve got all these drug overdoses showing up all the time. We’ve got to do something.’ ”
The hospital had long had an outpatient substance abuse program. But Lauffer wanted Deegan’s help in doing more at Thomas.
Deegan was hired in April 2016.
“My charge was to help with all the behavioral health services, but to focus on the addictions issue,” Deegan said. “What can we put in place to help serve that population that’s lacking in the community? That’s when we started talking about reopening a unit.”
The unit takes in patients dealing with all manner of addictions and cross-addictions, from alcohol and marijuana to cocaine, heroin and benzodiazepines.
The opioid epidemic that has swept the state and country has made the need for such services ever more pressing, he said.
SouthWay’s smaller size has been a boon, said Deegan, a licensed social worker with a master’s degree from West Virginia University and an addiction recovery specialist. He helps out on the unit along with other recovery specialists, therapists and nurses and sometimes takes residents to recovery meetings.
“Since we’re smaller, we’re able to engage people a lot faster in the recovery community and get them into the meetings,” he said.
Deegan said he is glad he can bring to the table what he has learned in his own ongoing recovery. He recalled when he first started attending recovery meetings and his sense of relief.
“I’m, like, ‘My god, I should have been here a long time ago!’ But I wasn’t ready. I just wasn’t ready,” he said.
A lifelong Catholic, he said he feels a higher power and higher purpose was at work in his life.
“I mean, I don’t want to overdo that — but I don’t want to under-do that. I felt like God has basically restored me to being able to work with what I love in the field of addiction and working with people one day at a time,” he said.
Given the arc of his own life, Deegan knows of what he speaks when it comes to being ready for undertaking the journey of recovery.
“It takes some time for people to accept, ‘I’m responsible for this,’ ” he said. “That’s what we teach people, ‘I’m responsible for my own addiction and I need to do something about it.’ ”
One person at a time
While the opioid epidemic may sometimes seem like an intractable, metastasizing problem, having more comprehensive treatment options in the state can only help, Deegan said.
“It’s a very difficult addiction,” he said.
But is the basic issue any different?
“We ran into it back in the ’80s with crack cocaine: ‘Oh, we’ve got to treat those people differently, we’ve got to treat them special.’ I’m, like, ‘Addiction’s addiction, you know?’ You still have the same person, one person at a time, changing their life, getting back into the community, getting stabilized.”
Having a range of in-state services can only help, he said.
“We’ve just never had enough of those after-care services: sober living services, sober communities. To me, hospitals being back in the business, even though it might be a little more expensive, if it’s managed well and we end up building services onto the tail end, what we’re basically giving here is a time for people to stabilize, above and beyond just getting detoxed.”
SouthWay recently launched a pilot program for state and public-school employees with health insurance through West Virginia’s Public Employees Insurance Agency.
“That’s helping us really stabilize and get off the ground. PEIA discovered a lot of their dollars for treatment were going out of state and they wanted to have an option within West Virginia,” he said.
“It’s all about birthing it. At some point, I think we’ll consider taking charity care,” he said. “Now, we have to see whether we can get financially stable. They don’t want to make a profit off of it — they just want it to be something that can be viable so we’re not really losing any money.”
Lauffer, the Thomas Health president and CEO, said the state needs more treatment options to address a sprawling problem.
“There’s a need for more treatment centers,” Lauffer said. “Without treatment centers, we’re going to continue to see a problem with crime, overdoses and deaths from substance abuse.”
Lauffer added that Deegan’s life is “an interesting story in the sense he had issues and he was able to go through treatment and he’s now helping others through the same problem.”
But there’s an ongoing issue in the state of people who can’t work because they can’t pass a drug test or don’t have insurance.
“I also think we have an issue in the state where we have people who could work but can’t because they can’t pass a drug test,” Lauffer said. “We have to reach out to those people, to help them get into treatment and give them a job.”
For his part, Deegan — a Bridgeport native whose father once served as the town’s mayor — has become an advocate for expanding addiction treatment options in West Virginia.
“The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” he said. “I have sort of a knack to be involved with advocacy and the political realm.”
On Feb. 23, Deegan spent the day at Hospital Day at the Legislature, urging legislators to pass Second Chance Employment Act legislation.
The bill would allow a person to petition a court to have a nonviolent felony expunged from his or her criminal record.
“We desperately need Second Change legislation passed for people in recovery,” said Deegan. “Second Chance legislation would give people the opportunity to get back into the working environment. I know their feet need to be held to the fire, but they also can be very, very helpful in helping others change their lives.”
Even a person five or more years into recovery will have trouble finding work with a 10-year-old drug-related felony on his or her record, Deegan said. “I can’t hire them to work as a recovery coach. They need a chance. We need to let people give back and be helpful.”
As for his own recovery story, he looks back on that long-ago Sunday in 2008 and now has a different view of that day.
“Now, I’m thankful that it happened, I really am. Because it squared me up with my life.”
For more on the SouthWay Treatment Center, call 304-766-3553.
Reach Douglas Imbrogno at 304-348-3017, email@example.com or follow @douglaseye on Twitter.