Sitting in front of a group of his peers, a man named Corey Michaels unfolded two pieces of paper and, without knowing who they were from, began reading aloud.
“This is definitely from my dad,” he said, after a few words.
Corey was reading a “changing places” letter, one of many exercises for residents at the Power House Treatment Center in Hermiston, a facility for people recovering from drug addiction. Sending requests out to friends and family, they hear specifics about how their drug use has impacted others.
“What has been hard for you about being a family member or friend to Corey?” he read.
“His drug use, and watching him sleep for days.” He paused to collect himself. Others in the room wiped away tears.
“What would you like to say to Corey?”
He paused for a moment, then read: “I’m proud you decided to get help on your own. It will be more than fun to do things with you now.”
It can be tough for residents to hear those words from loved ones, but it often leads to introspection and emotional vulnerability crucial to their recovery.
Tucked on the outskirts of town, Power House Treatment Center operates a men’s house and a women’s house, each focused on developing skills for recovery. Most residents arrive after going through detoxification elsewhere, and stay at the inpatient facility for 60 to 90 days.
Each day, the residents do some form of group activity that focuses on cognitive restructuring. That can include relapse prevention; conflict resolution; step group, which goes over the 12 steps of Narcotics Anonymous and the Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT) group, which focuses on cognitive restructuring. Those groups focus on understanding addiction and relapse as processes, and identifying situations that put them at risk.
They also delve into their personal histories, attempting to understand what brought them to this point, and working to forgive themselves and move forward.
One exercise is the “breakup letter,” in which residents write a letter saying goodbye to whatever substances they used.
Adriahna Ashard, a 21-year-old resident at the women’s house, read two letters — one to meth and one to heroin.
“You’ve affected me since I was born,” she said in her first letter. Her father had used the drug, and she wanted to understand why he was different when he took it, which ultimately led to her using.
Calmly, she said she didn’t regret what had happened, because it gave her a better understanding of her father.
“Now, we’re fighting this battle together,” she said. “I don’t blame you or hate you. But I no longer need you.”
After these exercises, other residents offer feedback and support.
“What I liked is that you weren’t mad,” said a resident after Ashard read her letter. “That logical response — you made the decision that it’s not part of your life anymore. That makes me confident in you.”
Many residents said it’s been helpful to understand that addiction is not simply a choice to keep doing drugs, but has a biological base and changes the way the brain functions.
“Growing up with my mom as an addict, people would say, don’t do drugs, don’t do drugs,” said one female resident during a group session. “But nobody explained it to me like that. I wish someone would have said that to me.”
Though each person’s story of abuse and recovery is different, many of the residents have faced adversity that led to drug use.
Amanda Carey, 29, will graduate at the end of this week. The mother of two started using pills in her early teens, and heroin at age 18. She got sober at 20, and stayed that way for five years, but then relapsed and quickly started using fentanyl and heroin.
“I think — I had a pretty rough childhood,” she said. “I had some childhood traumas, and my parents didn’t know how to deal with them or seek help, so I kind of pushed those traumas down.”
Before arriving at Power House, she described hitting her lowest point.
“I had no fear of dying,” she said. “I was hoping for it, and I desperately needed something different.”
She said the peer-led community here has made it a more comfortable place for her to seek treatment.
“The way strong women in recovery run this place, we get to be strong women in recovery,” she said.
Kaden Stice, 25, grew up in Umatilla, and said he started using drugs when he was about 15. He said he had issues of chronic pain, and after one trip to the emergency room doctors prescribed him pain medications, which he soon began abusing.
He was 21 years old the first time he overdosed. He said he remembers waking up in the hospital and not even knowing who his girlfriend was.
“That OD really (expletive) me up,” he said. “I lost an entire month I can’t recall.”
Despite several attempts to quit, health issues and family tragedies set him back. But it wasn’t always monumental events that led to his relapse.
“One of the guys I graduated with here,” he said, “I offered to take him and his girlfriend out to eat, and they asked me to take them to pick up some stuff. It blew me away that that’s all it took for me to go out and use.”
He is in Power House for the second time, and is set to graduate Jan. 22.
“I’m trying to figure out what I missed last time,” he said. “I think the key for me is to always continue doing the next right thing. If I’m always doing the right thing, there’s not really any chance for me to relapse.”
Jason Werder, a 34-year-old from Toledo, said this was his seventh attempt at getting clean.
“Growing up was real tough,” he said. “My mom was a pretty severe drug addict. She’s clean now, 22 or 23 years.”
Throughout his childhood he lived in tents and trailers, even on mattresses in the park.
“I started when I was eight, smoking weed, huffing gas, pills,” he said.
He entered foster care when he was 14.
“I got to see the structure of a real family — even just eating at a table, going to school. So for four years, ages 14 to 18, I didn’t do drugs.”
But then he moved back to the coast, started using drugs again, and soon went to prison. He’s been imprisoned twice, and in county jail more than 50 times.
Werder had been clean for 10 months last year, when two things sent him back.
“My oldest son, who was 14, wrecked a truck and died,” he said.
Shortly after, he found out that his father had been killed. At that time, Werder was in Power House, but he was allowed to leave to take care of his father’s funeral. When he left, he started using again. He returned to Power House in late December, after going to the facility’s detox center in Otis.
Despite the childhood traumas that catalyzed drug use for many residents, a key part of treatment is accepting responsibility and acknowledging that their use can have a ripple effect on those around them.
Casey Sanders, the director of the women’s house, said she thinks often about the way her own addiction affected her family.
She started using drugs recreationally in her early teens, but her addiction reached its peak a little later. She had just had a baby girl, but when her house got raided, her daughter was taken, and Sanders’ mother ended up adopting the baby. Through the next few years she was in and out of jail and her children ended up living with her sister. She said she went to treatment and was clean for a while, and got her children back. But it took several attempts, and losing her kids a few times.
Throughout her addiction, she said her family tried to help.
“My sister reached out to me that day, and asked if she could help me get away from where I was.”
Sanders teared up.
“She just wanted to help me. She was super sad.”
It took a while longer for Sanders to accept that help, but she finally did.
“Now, five and a half years later, life is pretty amazing,” she said. “My kids are recovering. It’s not just us that recover — it’s our families too.”
Though many of the residents are optimistic about recovery, the work doesn’t stop once they leave Power House.
“It’s always ‘recovering,’ said Pearla Peña, a recovering addict and women’s house counselor. “It’s a lifelong process. Here, we don’t even cover the basics of how to live a recovery life. Three months is not enough.”
Instead, she said, the center focuses on the immediate aftermath of getting clean, cognitive restructuring and healing — as well as connecting them with outpatient facilities or sober living houses when they leave.
The right path
As they go through treatment, each resident learns about what coping mechanisms and techniques work for them.
“We have a lot of free time here,” said Men’s House director Caryn Dunn. “It helps them learn how to cope with being bored, and trying to figure out things to do other than getting high.”
Some find it helpful to do art, listen to music or focus on specific programs in treatment.
Ashard said she has recently started poi, a form of rhythmic dance that includes swinging tethered weights. She also said hearing what others have gone through, as well as sharing her own story, has helped her.
“Some days, something just clicks for you,” she said.
“For me, it’s going to church, Celebrate Recovery and NA,” Werder said. He said he has to make sure he doesn’t hang out with old friends who use. But the biggest motivator is his family.
Werder writes poems, draws and sends artwork home to his children, and talks with them through video messaging every day.
“I have three kids that are still alive,” he said. “They’re six, eight and 10. Being with them, working, going to church — I don’t have time to use.”
The other side of the table
Most of the counselors at Power House are on a path residents hope to follow — recovering addicts who are now helping others with their treatment.
“It’s really hard to go to treatment with counselors who have never done drugs,” said Werder. “They’ve gone to school, have a degree in it, but they never truly know what you went through.”
Peña said it’s been a great feeling to help others with the struggles she had.
“The way I was treated (in recovery) — that’s the way I treat my clients.”
Some residents are court-ordered to treatment, and some are referred by programs like Community Corrections or the Department of Human Services.
Jim Meyers, assistant director of Umatilla County Community Corrections, said a few years ago the county did the “New Life” program, where everyone released from custody had to go to inpatient treatment. They had Portland State University review the program.
“We found that it was largely ineffective for those who didn’t want to go, but were required to,” he said. “But it was very effective for people who did ask to go.”
Dunn said people do relapse, but with some, the time that they’re back in addiction before seeking help again gets shorter — someone may go from using again for six months, down to three, and then down to 30 days before they seek help again.
“That means there’s progress being made,” Dunn said.
Residents said there is no formula for recovery, but rather a personal reckoning that makes them decide that they want to stay clean.
“I think a lot of it has to do with if you’ve been through enough pain,” Sanders said. “I don’t think there’s a key. When you’re ready, you’re ready.”