ON A RECENT Monday afternoon, Heather Martin was at her desk in the Orient Park office of the addiction treatment center she co-founded in Tampa Bay, just down the road from Big John’s Bail Bonds, the local work-release center, and the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, otherwise known as the Orient Road Jail.
There was a lot going on. She was preparing for an admissions call from a university professor in an impaired professionals program, she had just fielded another call from a family whose son had been arrested for the first time and would be coming directly from jail into treatment, and two other new patients had to be picked up, one in Orlando and another from nearby Brandon Hospital. Meanwhile, a delivery of insulin for a patient in one of the center’s off-site residential houses was arriving, and arrangements had to be made to receive it and get it to the right person.
“So much happens in a day here,” Martin says with a laugh. “That’s for sure.”
As executive director of 7 Summit Pathways, Martin is involved in just about every aspect of the center’s work. She isn’t a hands-off manager; if a job needs doing, she’ll jump in and do it. She knows she’s on the front lines of a national epidemic, and she knows from painful personal experience that the stakes couldn’t be higher.
“It’s in mainstream America,” Martin says of the opioid crisis. “It’s in every little town.”
Widely attributed to the prescription of pain-relieving drugs like OxyContin®—and claims by pharmaceutical companies that such drugs wouldn’t be addictive—the explosive growth of opioid addiction that started in the United States in the late 1990s has taken a massive toll. In 2016, nearly 64,000 people died from drug overdoses in this country, with synthetic opioids the leading killers. As a recent Vox article noted, that is more deaths than have ever been caused in a single year in the United States by guns, car crashes, or HIV/ AIDS, and a higher death toll than all U.S. military casualties in the Vietnam and Iraq wars combined.
Among the near-casualties of opioids has been Martin herself. Her struggle with addiction began when she was 11. By 14 she was hooked on heroin. She graduated from high school but quickly dropped out of college, then got in trouble and was incarcerated, an experience she says only led to worse problems.
When she was ready to accept help, family members were eager to support her. In her years of recovery there were some setbacks, particularly after her first husband’s death from multiple sclerosis, but she repeatedly picked herself up—often for the sake of her daughters. She has four, two of whom are pursuing successful careers and one who is in active addiction. She also has an 11-year-old from her second marriage. “My children inspired me,” she says. “I didn’t want more pain in their lives.”
After years of struggle, enrolling at Springfield College at age 44, she says, changed her own life forever…. despite the mistakes she had made and the emotional wreckage she had caused, hope remained. She still had a chance to create a successful life and career.
She majored in addiction studies, then went on to get a Master of Science degree in human services with a focus on management and leadership, learning along the way that as an institution founded on “leadership in service to others,” Springfield has a robust human services program, and a deep appreciation—especially in the context of the opioid crisis—of the critical importance of training skilled caregivers.
John Eisler, dean of the School of Professional and Continuing Studies, says that the College is “committed to redoubling the efforts to prepare our students to make a difference with regard to the substance use/abuse crisis, which currently focuses on opiates. We are taking many intentional steps to pursue the broadening of our programs of study related to this area.”
“Addiction is a national emergency, and it can happen to anyone, regardless of income,” adds Martha Potvin, provost and vice president for academic affairs. “The ability to understand the underlying social and psychological issues that promote and contribute to addiction is a key to helping individuals recover.”
For Martin, one key to recovery and survival—and, later, a hallmark of 7 Summit’s approach to treatment—was the intellectual engagement she experienced as a Springfield College student. Classes in which participation and discussion were encouraged, and professors and peers who considered life experience just as valuable as academic achievement, helped her realize that, despite the mistakes she had made and the emotional wreckage she had caused, hope remained. She still had a chance to create a successful life and career.
“I think it was just realizing that after everything I had been through, there was definitely more I needed to be doing,” she says. “Because I definitely didn’t have the confidence when I started school. Participating in the opportunities that Springfield offered helped me build that confidence.”
It also gave her professional training—and the skills to succeed as the leader of an organization.
“I loved research,” she says. “I took an issues and research course and really learned how to differentiate the quality of research, looking at the numbers of people, the time period [a study] was over. And I was laughing today, talking to somebody that’s going to go to Springfield [College], about my first public speaking class with [adjunct professor] Susan Biszewski-Eber, and how scared I was getting up in front of a class of maybe 15 or 20 people, and the difference today. In each class there was something that I had to walk through that was uncomfortable or out of my comfort zone.”Martin has found a way to combine her academic expertise and her lived experience in the service of saving lives.
It was in these classes at Springfield College that the idea for 7 Summit Pathways (formerly Valley Counseling) was born. When Martin and others—including her classmates William Atkinson ’12 and Connie Belcher ’12, and her mentors, former adjunct professor Frankie Valle ’04 LMHC and Professor Richard Davila, PhD—saw the high relapse rates associated with addiction treatment, they wanted to find a way to do better.
“You hear people talking in class,” Martin says, “and it’s like, ‘Oh, you’re talking my language. It was just people wanting to do things differently, knowing we needed a recovery community.”
As executive director of 7 Summit, Martin has found a way to combine her academic expertise and her lived experience in the service of saving lives. Building on the meaning that intellectual engagement forged in her own life, Martin helped design the 7 Summit Pathways program to provide a varied curriculum to its recovery clients, rather than simply telling them to give up drugs.
“I was introduced to the 12 Steps at 17 when I went to my first treatment center,” Martin says. “The message was ‘don’t drink, and go to meetings.’ For me, at that time, I just couldn’t grasp that. So I believe in bringing in intellectual stimulation early on in recovery. I know that it was important for me to feel like I hadn’t lost it all, and I had a purpose.”
At 7 Summit, clients—whose length of stay can vary, depending on a variety of factors—may participate in a range of therapies, including a “bio-psyche-social” education model written by Davila and medical educational groups. As they learn about their illness, they also have the opportunity to pursue personal interests and practical accomplishments.
“The hope is that we can identify people who, maybe they need to get prepared for GED, and then we can get them somebody working with them for that test,” Martin says. “Maybe they want to go to vocational school, and let’s find out what they need to do to make that happen.
It’s mentor-driven. Once the goal is identified, then we identify a person who has that experience who can help them achieve that goal.”
The program also uses music and other expressive arts, as well as modalities such as yoga, massage therapy, and mindfulness and guided meditation, in an effort to figure out what will click for a particular person. With a nod to the Springfield College policy of granting credit for life experience, Martin calls it an “asset-based” model of recovery. The approach, she says, starts by acknowledging that addiction is only one part of the totality of a person—and that everyone has skills or talents that can be brought out.
“When you go to school at Springfield College as an adult learner, all of your experience is brought into the classroom,” Martin says. “We have a similar model here. Maybe you’re detail oriented, you can multitask, you’re great with communication skills, you’re awesome on the computer, you know WordPress. All of that we can bring into your recovery journey because those are all the positives. When I [the client] focus on that, then the addiction, all of a sudden, becomes right-sized and I realize, ‘Okay, I can manage my addiction one day at a time through some simple tools,’ which are in recovery support, and finding a power greater than ourselves. We let the person define that and then we find multiple pathways to recovery.”
Its leaders’ personal histories with addiction are other factors that lend credibility to the approach at 7 Summit Pathways. Both Martin and Dr. Lawrence S. Wilson, the center’s medical director and CEO, are on what Martin calls their own “recovery journeys.” For patients, knowing that their mentors and doctors have firsthand experience with addiction, Martin says, can be essential to building the kind of trust that effective treatment requires. In her conversation with a recent incoming client who had been referred to 7 Summit through an employee assistance program—meaning something had gone wrong at work—she says that her willingness to reveal her own personal history allowed the client to open up about his own experience, a critical step in successful recovery.
“It’s different for each person,” Martin says. “It doesn’t mean that he has to say he’s an alcoholic. I don’t know what that journey is going to be for him. But the important thing was making sure he felt comfortable, and that he knew he wasn’t alone.”
Although 7 Summit, which opened its doors as Valley Counseling in 2015, hasn’t had much time to accumulate data on outcomes, Martin says their results so far have been encouraging. She says they are focused on improving their outcome measures, but that of their first 10 admissions, eight remain in long-term recovery. Of the two who have relapsed, one has returned for further treatment. By contrast, according to figures from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the relapse rate for all patients in drug-addiction treatment in the United States is between 40 and 60 percent.
Many clients, Martin says, remain engaged with the community after their stay. Some come back to volunteer, and some have even joined the 7 Summit team as employees. Others come for the Saturday night bonfire meeting, or participate in other ways.
Now also an adjunct professor at the Springfield College School of Professional and Continuing Studies, and a board member and trainer for the Florida School of Addiction Studies, Martin remains astonished, and profoundly grateful, that she has been able to accomplish as much as she has. She is eager to give back to the world, and to the Springfield College community in particular,
in any way she can. While her work at 7 Summit Pathways will remain her focus for the foreseeable future, she also dreams of helping women like she once was—young, addicted, and newly released from incarceration—find a safe place to land. She has already sketched out trainings she would like to present to probation officers to help them understand the challenges facing this extremely vulnerable population, and she recently awarded 7 Summit’s first college scholarship to a young woman in Tampa Bay. As with all her work, these efforts draw upon a deep well of experience, resilience, and faith to guide her in helping others find their way through the treacherous labyrinth of addiction and recovery.
“I always say, as long as a person is breathing, they’ve got a shot,” she says. “They’ve got a shot. I came back from the depths of hell. I lost everything, including myself. It’s never too late.”