His eyes were cold and restless, his head pounded with the ferocity of a runaway freight train. Hands trembled, lips quivered; to him, the world felt distant and dark.
“Thank you, officer.” He heard someone’s soothing voice in the background as he tried to locate his misplaced bottle.
“How are you feeling?” The soothing voice penetrated his senses, bringing him closer to reality. The reality that he had been drinking, that he had been stumbling along Main Street, and that he had stopped to rest only for a moment… possibly falling asleep.
“Where am I?” He inquired.
“You’re at the Lighthouse, Sir. We’re going to take good care of you, give you a place to sleep, and in the morning we’ll get you some breakfast, a shower if you’d like, and perhaps chat a bit. How’s that sound?”
“Whatever…” was the only response he could muster in his deeply inebriated state.
As cooperatively as he could, with the room dizzying around him, he allowed the friendly voice to take his blood pressure, check his temperature, clamp a box on his finger called an Ox or something, and then blew into a straw. He remembered hearing the words “point two-two-seven” before following the voice down a long, lonely hallway into what appeared to be heaven. Heaven had two floating beds and the warmth reminded him of his mother’s loving arms. He didn’t know where he was, but as the pillow nestled itself under his heavy head he remembered not caring; he was warm, cozy, and drifted off to sleep as the soothing voice softly comforted him.
Meanwhile, across town, a sad woman stumbled from the bar and pulled on her expensive coat… and cried. Even though her life seemed perfect to those who had much less, she had secrets that shattered her world and escaping into the fuzziness of alcohol felt, to her, the only option. With intense focus, she concentrated on the blurring sidewalk in front of her; gripping the air as if strangling her latest troubles into oblivion. Dots of reality flashed by as her head swayed to the music that could only be heard inside her own troubled mind. A rush of air streamed by her face as she searched for the door knob, only to realize that she was not yet at home, and that she had somehow stumbled into the street.
As the blue lights flashed innocently behind her, a nice gentleman helped her to her feet and asked if she was all right. “Of course I’m all right,” she slurred. “You’re cute.”
The ride in the back of the car with blue flashing lights and the nice gentleman was pleasant.
“Here’s another one.” She heard someone’s voice as she tried to sit up straight.
“Where am I?” She inquired.
“You’re in jail. We’ll let you out in the morning after you sober up. How’s that sound?”
“Whatever.” She slurred as the cold steel doors slammed shut behind her.
A cacophony of loud clangs and radio chatter mixed with incoherent outbursts from hidden voices battled for dominance in her mind for most of the night. The solid pillow under her head complimented the cold steel shelf where the thin mattress taunted her in the bright loneliness of her cell. Reality slowly crept in amidst the echoing noises, making it difficult to distinguish her tears from those of the inner chambers of the correctional center. She hung tightly to her trembling body, fading in and out of sleep for an eternity. This was not the escape she had sought.
The man at the Lighthouse woke in the morning with a pounding headache. After a simple breakfast sandwich was washed down with a hot cup of coffee, he was escorted into the office where the necessary paperwork for his release was completed. The staff treated him with the dignity he didn’t feel he deserved, and they listened as he discussed the events that brought him to his current stay at the Lighthouse, which he soon learned was something called the “Public Inebriate Program.” This program is an alternative to jail for people who have been screened by the Washington County Mental Health Services screeners and classified as being incapacitated due to alcohol. If the incapacitated person is non-violent with no legal reason to be held in jail, is not injured to the point where they need to be admitted to the hospital, provide a Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) lower than .3%, and agree to abide by the rules of the facility, they are admitted to the Lighthouse where Sobriety Support Workers (SSW) provide them with a safe environment for non-medical, social detoxification.
Answering statistical questions such as relationship status, employment history, housing situation, education level, law enforcement involvement and substance abuse related health incidents in the past twelve months often leads to an in-depth discussion of those topics. It is within this discussion that the SSW compassionately implements the Motivational Interviewing (MI) techniques they have been trained to utilize, and the guest soon realizes they can discuss their situation and needs with someone who truly understands. For some, this may be the first time someone has listened to their concerns and are willing to help them. For many, this is the first step in their recovery. For this man in particular, it was the dawning of a hope he had not felt in an eternity. His life now had a direction, some guidance, and the promise of a better tomorrow.
Back at the correctional center, the electrical current surged through the holding cell door and shocked the woman awake with its abruptness. She was told to take a breath test. She is informed that her BAC is below the incapacitation level and is free to go. They allow her one phone call, and then she was ushered out the door. Their job was complete. Her life left in shambles with no direction, no guidance, and no promises of a better tomorrow.
In stark contrast, the two situations unfolded in their own unique ways. From a personal and caring interaction at the Lighthouse to the strict process at the correctional facility, two people picked up for public inebriation and presenting evidence of being at risk to harm themselves or others found themselves at each end of the rehabilitative spectrum. One was provided with guidance and options, and the other simply housed and released. These are but two scenarios of more than 200 public inebriate screenings performed yearly by Washington County Mental Health Services’ (WCMHS) Emergency Services Screeners. Each of the scenarios is a common representation of experiences for those sent to the respective facilities utilized for protecting inebriates who have been brought to the attention of law enforcement authorities. Each scenario provides much needed services; however, only one of the scenarios is staffed by service providers specifically trained to help end the vicious cycle for those struggling with alcohol and/or substance abuse issues. Only one of the scenarios has proven to be effective in providing avenues that change people’s lives.
The Public Inebriate Program’s Lighthouse facility, staffed with a peer support group who care deeply for those struggling, utilize more than compassion and empathy with our inebriated guests; the Lighthouse staff also utilizes Motivational Interviewing training and statistical gathering alongside a knowledge of the area’s most affective addiction recovery resources that include our two partners, The Turning Point Center of Central Vermont (TPCCV) and Central Vermont Substance Abuse Services (CVSAS). With a passion for helping those still struggling, TPCCV and CVSAS are our first points of contact after successfully socially detoxing our guests. With the compassion and empathy not traditionally shown those lodged for public inebriation, the Lighthouse has become a valued resource for local law enforcement officials that historically had no alternatives other than locking the struggling addict in a jail cell until they were sober. Locking them up to protect them from themselves or others was certainly a public service, but it did nothing to help end the cycle of those suffering addictions.
After Vermont decriminalized public intoxication in 1978 (Alcohol Services Act of 1978), those intoxicated presenting to be “at risk of harm to themselves or others” were ordered to be lodged in protective custody. Due to a lack of alternative resources for housing, local correctional centers and city/town lock-ups were the primary placement locations for those needing to be lodged. It wasn’t until 2010 that Legislators introduced a Bill (H.611) which stated that the Alcohol Services Act of 1978 was not sufficiently funded and asked for the establishment of a Public Inebriate Program (Sec. 4. 33 V.S.A. § 709) to be developed by the office of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Programs (ADAP). This was the dawning of the ages for programs like the Lighthouse, and since our program’s inception the Central Vermont area has seen successes where few had been seen before.
The Lighthouse offers 24/7 emergency placement; staff monitoring; a comfortable, non-threatening environment in which to discuss individual situations and needs once sobriety is regained; direct access to case managers at WCMHS and CVSAS; peer support at TPCCV; on-site literature and a comprehensive listing of community resources; follow-up services; communication assistance with recovery centers, community assistance programs, transportation entities, and more. The Lighthouse philosophy recognizes that recovery is a personal process and that individuals respond best when engaged at the stage where they are in dire need. We believe that each individual needs to be involved in deciding which recovery approach is best for them, that the individual with a substance abuse problem may be at high risk of having mental health needs as well, and that housing and/or food concerns may weigh more heavily on the suffering addict than their substance abuse issues. With all these factors taken into consideration, our SSW’s strive to connect each individual at the Lighthouse with valued resources while allowing them to maintain their dignity; which is why we attempt to employ staff members with personal connections to substance abuse recovery who are able to bring their experiences into the program as an asset in supporting, interacting, and communicating with individuals.
Our goals at the Lighthouse, as outlined in our official literature, are “To ensure a safe and humane environment for those incapacitated due to the consumption of alcohol. To connect individuals to substance abuse services and/or any other services that address unmet needs. To affect the current system of handling public inebriation in a way that saves time, resources, and expenses for law and medical personnel.”
We feel we are meeting these goals as evidenced in the two very real scenarios outlined at the beginning of this article. The man and woman depicted in this article are very real, very much a part of our daily lives in the addiction recovery world, and the evidence of their outcomes due to where they were housed during their time of need are very different.
Within two weeks, the woman who spent a night on the cold steel slat of a jail cell stumbled toward her car. Barely able to insert the key into the ignition, she backed out of the parking space with no thought of looking around. She thought she felt a bump, yet ignored that thought in exchange for searching her pockets for a cigarette. As she entered the roadway, oblivious to the darkness her neglected headlights provided, it became evident that she would need both hands to search her brand new jacket for the sticks of nicotine which brought her such happiness. It was at that moment, as she searched diligently in her inebriated state, that she thought she felt another bump. This time, the bump came with those now all-too-familiar blue lights.
This time, there was no “are you all right” question asked by the cute officer. This time, the eerie red lights of the approaching ambulance helped her focus on the shadowy form sprawled out across the cross walk. This time, the ride to the police station was not pleasant. This time, there was no one telling her they would let her out in the morning after she sobered up. This time, she did not utter the word “whatever” when the cold steel door slammed shut behind her.
Within a week, the man who had found himself in Heaven on a floating bed at the Lighthouse was contacted by the Lighthouse Coordinator as part of the follow-up process. The man had reached out to TPCCV and visited numerous times, made new friends and attended meetings with his new Recovery Coach. He said it wasn’t easy to open up at first, but his experience at the Lighthouse gave him the confidence he needed to trust someone, and the fellowship that grew from that experience had changed his life. Within two weeks, he reconsidered his initial apprehension about seeking services at CVSAS and agreed to meet with their staff for an assessment. Within three weeks, his smile returned in full force, his appetite recovered, a true relationship with his counselor solidified, and the path to his future seemed brilliant. After a month, his eyes were warm and focused, his head peaceful and sure. His hands did not tremble, his lips did not quiver, and the world felt inviting and filled with the bright light of a better tomorrow.
Written July 2016
© 2014 Washington County Mental Health Services All Rights Reserved