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There is a Latin proverb that states, “The first step towards a cure is to know what the disease is.” For those diagnosed with addiction or mental illnesses, however, the next step may not be so clearly defined. The road to recovery is paved not only with the treatment of the illness, but also with feelings of fear, shame, anxiety, misery and/or despair. That is how it was for Harvey Shells and for John*. Two men, with very different issues, both found sanctuary at Summa Health System for treatment of their diseases. It was there they found the tools to deal with the complexities surrounding their illnesses.

Harvey Shells — A long walk to recovery

Twenty years ago, Harvey Shells was living in California and doing well enough. He was in his midtwenties and had a decent job. One day, while playing basketball in the park he met a man who told him he could help him make some money. That’s how Shells was first introduced to drugs.

Harvey made a lot of money selling drugs, but soon, he began to use them himself, becoming his own customer. “Because of my crack-cocaine use, everything started falling off; my job, car payments and I ended up homeless and living off the streets on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles,” Harvey recalled. “I was worrying about chasing the drug instead of having a roof over my head. I thought I could quit whenever I chose to, but when I tried, I couldn’t stop.”

Finding sobriety was no easy task for Harvey. After ten years of drug use, he would try for the next ten years to overcome his drug addiction — moving to and from Ohio to seek help. He would abstain occasionally from using drugs — most often when he was involved with a church. Eventually Harvey would return to drugs, each time the use would be worse than the time before.

“I would get into myself, I wasn’t serving God and fell from the church and started using again.”
After 20 years of being a prisoner to crack, he found himself living in downtown Akron. His first wife, whom he met in California, had passed away from kidney failure, creating a void in his life. He met his second wife, Vernay, at church, but their marriage struggled mainly due to his drug use. These were sad times for Harvey; he was miserable because of his addiction, his losses and his declining health. He suffered from diabetes which was getting worse. He found himself at Bridgepark Nursing Home — looking across the street at Summa’s St. Thomas Hospital.

“I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. I asked myself, ‘do I want to live?’ I knew that if I continued this lifestyle, I’d die,” Harvey said. “I faced St. Thomas Hospital, I had been to outpatient treatment there before, but I didn’t take it to heart. I decided to ask my social worker about getting back into the program.”
The Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) for chemical dependence quickly became his life support system. He met with Greer Kabb-Langkamp, RN, LSW, LICDC, manager of the ambulatory chemical dependency program at Summa, and was introduced to his counselor, Rozalynn Martin, LICDC, and the group. The first day in the group, he met different people from all walks of life and all at different stages of sobriety. They discussed their feelings and how they got there.
“When you get there, you feel like you are beat up by the world, you are down to nothing. Greer and the others, they handle you with gloves. St. Thomas Hospital is a safe place to share or seek the help you desire.”

Harvey was taught coping skills as well as how to better manage his feelings, emotions and cravings. As time went on, Harvey became the person who gave insight to the next new people in the group. There is a constant interaction between new and old members of the group.

“Seeing the new members takes you back to when you first came in. You coach each other along when you are vulnerable. You don’t have to be ashamed; you are all connected in the struggle… it is possible to be sober if you do the work and take the tools they give you and use them.”

Harvey now attends Men’s Aftercare. He acknowledges that this group helps him deal with life on life’s terms. Together they take what they have learned and collectively help one another and hold each other accountable to their sobriety. He also goes back to the IOP group every third Monday and talks about his experience and continues to help others gain their sobriety. He is also working to regain the trust of his wife and family.

“Drug use caused so much hurt and pain to my loved ones and to me. Living life is different than getting high. I’ve learned to deal with reality. I like my life today. I like Harvey today. He’s a nice person to be around and I like him.”

Harvey has been sober since July 5, 2006. He continues to help others like himself find their way.
“The greatest thing I can offer them is hope.”

John — Learning to cope and to trust

Looking at a problem from all sides doesn’t seem like it would be a nuisance, but for John, it is. When faced with a problem, he pushes to find the solution — always scanning — never relaxing — in hopes that when he finds the solution his mind will rest.

Seven years ago, John was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder with overpowering thoughts. He had always been very analytical — in college he constantly studied while others relaxed and enjoyed life. He continued the same behavior on-the-job for many years. As his life progressed, his issues began to creep closer to the surface. John eventually found himself in between jobs and his heightened anxiety triggered a downward spiral. He began to concentrate his thoughts on minor medical issues. His mind took him to dark places and he began to think that these issues, which turned out to be nothing, could be life-threatening. He kept seeing doctors and obsessing over what it could be.

“My mind was like a computer, constantly searching for files and for answers that just weren’t there.” John remembered.
Finally when it got so bad, he got help. John began seeing Lori Pittinger, M.D., of the Center for Akron Psychiatry. Together they decided on a treatment plan of medication and psychotherapy. He began to feel better, and tried to forget what had happened, returning to his normal routine.

In March 2006, John underwent a routine physical. His blood work came back inconclusive and another test was ordered. The test could not be done for several months. Waiting to find out what was wrong caused John extreme anxiety. He began researching on the internet more than eight hours a day trying to figure out what might be wrong. John was unable to control his mind or his worries.

He went to see Dr. Pittinger. He was unstable emotionally and mentally. She wanted him to get into a good structured group program but since the family had planned a vacation, she told him to “give himself a vacation when on vacation.” She promised to see him when he returned, but if he got into trouble, he was to call her immediately.

John and his family went on vacation, but he was still in a panic, unable to stop his racing mind. He returned to Akron and called Dr. Pittinger. She referred him to the Psychiatric Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) at Summa.

John sat down with Sheri McGivern, RN, MSN, an advanced practice nurse in Summa’s IOP, and after talking with her he felt like everything would be okay.
“I was an emotional wreck and mentally exhausted. When you are in that state, you need the help of professionals who can help you identify the problem, what you are feeling and what is going on so you can work on it…these are special people.”

“I was an emotional wreck and mentally exhausted. When you are in that state, you need the help of professionals who can help you identify the problem, what you are feeling and what is going on so you can work on it…these are special people.”

“You find yourself in a circle, a circle of trust — you have an opportunity to open up and get everything out. You hear from different people from all walks of life and situations who are having a hard time coping and you start reflecting.”

Along with the group interaction, Amy Huddleston, Ph.D., a psychologist and primary IOP group therapist, kept things moving. She listened to everything going on and facilitated discussions that allowed the healing to begin.

“It is a team effort. We are all working towards a goal….when you are in a room with people in crisis, you see the true person and are amazed to be in a room with people who are being so revealing and you are doing the same. These are extremely special people and you see the compassionate caring and love for one another present in this environment. Dr. Huddleston was a tremendous help to me in getting better,” John said.

In the IOP, John not only learned about himself, but the structured environment provided him the tools he needed to relax and understand his illness.
“My time spent at Summa was a humbling experience. It left me in a better place, it left me with what to do and how to help others.”

These days, John continues to be active in the IOP program at Summa and goes back regularly to share his story with new group members.
“There are true spiritual reasons why I go back. After being in a position, seeing this pain — real intense pain — and suffering, I just want to help…my objective is to give hope and to be an inspiration to people.”

* To honor John’s anonymity, his last name is not mentioned in the story.