“My personal life was just tanking,” he said. “My addiction got worse and worse. I became homeless, my kids stopped talking to me, my parents pretty much disowned me. I went from being somebody who is the center of my family and social life to somebody who was homeless and living out of his car.”
Things got worse before they got better. The turning point came when he traveled to Portland and regained housing, only to become homeless a second time. He put himself in detox, entered rehab, and spent eight months in residential treatment through Central City Concern’s Imani program. The center provides behavioral health treatment for the Black and African American community.
Hoover’s experience in recovery allowed him to reclaim his life. He landed a job and secured an apartment. Today, he’s the co-founder and co-director of Black Futures Farm, a Black-owned community farm in Southeast Portland. Through the farm, he and his wife, Mirabai Collins, produce healthy, locally-grown food while promoting Black land ownership and stewardship.
“I can tell you without any doubt that if I was still actively using I would definitely not be sitting here at my farm in the middle of Southeast Portland farming vegetables with my newly-married wife,” he said. “My life is beautiful. I never imagined, even when I was doing drugs, that my life would be this good.”
Hoover was one of several invited guests Thursday, Sept. 16 as the Board of Commissioners proclaimed September 2021 Recovery Month in Multnomah County. By highlighting people’s stories, the proclamation aims to break down stigma and encourage anyone experiencing substance use disorder to seek help.
“Sharing stories is not just inspiring; it is essential to the recovery movement,” Commissioner Sharon Meieran said. “Our understanding of substance use disorder and recovery has evolved and changed as a direct result of people sharing their stories and persisting in changing the questions we ask, the research we conduct, and the policies we produce to better meet people’s needs.”
Recovery is for everyone
This year’s theme, “Recovery is for everyone,” sheds light on how anyone can experience substance use disorder, and anyone can achieve recovery. Some populations are at greater risk of experiencing substance use disorder including communities of color, rural residents, the LGBTQ+ community, older adults, people with disabilities, and those experiencing homelessness, or income and education disparities.
“I think all of us probably have family members, friends, who have been impacted, if not ourselves, by recovery,” said Commissioner Lori Stegmann. “We know there’s not one singular path to recovery.”
Multnomah County is committed to helping all residents access recovery services by providing behavioral health care that is culturally-specific and responsive, and peer-led. The importance of that mission is underscored by COVID-19. In 2020, Oregon saw a near 40 percent increase in overdose fatalities as communities struggled with the social, financial and health disruptions of the pandemic.
“One of the things that I love most about Recovery Month is that in opening up conversations about recovery and destigmatizing and normalizing it, it gives people who are in recovery more freedom to be and express their full authentic selves,” said Chair Deborah Kafoury. “The need for hope has only grown during this pandemic.”
The power of peers in recovery
Lynn Smith-Stott supervises the Office of Consumer Engagement, which integrates lived experience into the County’s addiction service delivery model. This year is also her 40-year addiction recovery anniversary.
Smith-Stott’s message is simple: most everyone is recovering from something, which challenges them to achieve their full potential. Through the power of storytelling, people with addiction can find a path to recovery.
“Forty years ago, recovery seemed like it was something for everyone but me,” she said. “I just didn’t think that I could find a path to wellness. And it was only through stories of hope and inspiration that I could find my way.”
“The more the stories are told, the more it is obvious that recovery is possible for everyone,” said Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson. “Everyone from different backgrounds, different ways of life, different ways they have come through recovery, there is a path for everyone.”
Sharmalee Nadarajah, another invited guest, experienced 17 years of active drug addiction and, in her words, was viewed as a “lost cause by many.”
Nadarajah’s addiction led to homelessness and incarceration. She dropped out of school, and felt spiritually disconnected. At one point, her intravenous drug use also caused her to be hospitalized due to infection.
One infection led to spinal surgery, which almost left her paraplegic. Another led to open-heart surgery, where she received a valve replacement and a pacemaker. She was 30 years old.
During one of her hospitalizations, she received peer support through Oregon Health & Sciences University’s Impact Team. The program connects recovery mentors with people admitted to the hospital because of issues related to their addictions.
“Having that one person that didn’t just see me as another junkie patient was invaluable,” she said. “My experience with this support specialist was also significant because it showed me that through the power of recovery we can shatter stigma.”
The seed was planted and, one year later, Nadarajah said she woke up and decided that she was “worthy of life and recovery.” She entered Central City Concern’s Recovery Mentor program, which connects clients with housing and an assigned mentor to help clients follow an action plan.
“I am so glad and grateful that you decided that you are worthy of life and that by modeling that you will convince others that they are too,” Commissioner Susheela Jayapal said.
After completing the program, she entered recovery employment services. The program helped her re-enter the workforce and move out of transitional housing. This summer, she graduated from Portland State University with a Bachelor’s in psychology.
Today she works for the Mental Health and Addiction Association of Oregon — the same organization that provided her peer support. She has been substance-free since October 24, 2019.
“I no longer regret my past,” she said. “For it’s because of my past, not despite it, that I became the woman of strength, integrity, compassion, and agency that I am. I am no longer Sharmalee the junkie, the criminal, or the lost cause. I am Sharmalee, a woman in recovery who has dedicated her life to serving her community and helping others to believe that they are worthy of life.”