Council candidate Joel Robert addresses opioid crisis

On February 7 President Kenny Matassa declared “a big need in Ascension Parish for some type of detox facility for our people…Everybody knows about the opioid epidemic.”  Some know better than others.  Candidate for Parish Council Joel Robert, who came by his intimate knowledge of opioid addiction the hard way, applauds Matassa’s efforts.

Under discussion is a plan to convert ten or 12 rooms at Donaldsonville’s Prevost Memorial Hospital to a detox facility.  Robert called it “a step in the right direction, though we have a long journey ahead in this battle against addiction.”

His plans to challenge District 2 Council-incumbent Bill Dawson include measures to combat the local opioid crisis in the campaign platform. Robert:

“I was an addict. I hit rock bottom. Through the grace of Jesus Christ; with the help of friends, family, other addicts; I was able to beat addiction.  With the right resources available to our community anyone can beat this.”

Robert has “been clean” since 2011.

The Grove at Ascension opened its doors this week on the former grounds of RPCC in Sorrento.

“Our community has witnessed the destruction caused by opioid abuse.  Rare is the family untouched by this health crisis,” he said in a recent interview.  “We can do something about it locally and I am encouraged to hear President Matassa address the problem.”

Robert’s struggle to overcome opioid addiction took him “to a place I could never have foreseen.”  His experience is not unique; after all, who plans to become an addict?

“My initial experience with opiates was during my freshman year in college,” Robert recalls.  “I had wisdom teeth removed and there were complications.”

In pain, he began taking prescribed pain medication which led to drug abuse somewhere short of full-blown dependency.   That brief dalliance did not prepare Robert for what would come seven years later after suffering a work-related injury, not serious but very painful.

In 2010, now married and dealing with the day-to-day challenges of raising a young family, the physical pain was compounded by emotional stress.  Once the former subsided, the latter did not.

“Hydrocodone masked the physical; and it numbed the emotional pain,” Robert remembered.  “I took advantage of that three-month prescription even though my injury healed in a couple of weeks.”

Once my prescription ran out, I tried to stop but I was unable to do so.  Every time I would quit all those things that I ignored just came tumbling down on me.  It was a vicious cycle of delusion and fear,” he explained.

His story is a familiar one to those struggling with drug dependency and their loved ones.   Divorce, avoidance of family and friends, time wasted chasing that next fix…arrest.  Given the choice of rehab or prosecution, he struggled with the decision.  It is something only addicts can understand, the power wielded by one’s drug of choice.

“I know it sounds crazy, but that seemed a difficult decision at the time. I’d been in jail a few days when I was given the choice between rehab or jail.  I told the warden I’d have to think about it. The guys in my cell would have given anything to get out of jail and into rehab,” Robert described his “turning point.”  “And here I am having to ponder a decision that was no decision at all.”

His detox began in jail and, as the mind-altering substances wore off, began thinking more clearly.  Opting for rehab, the hard part had just begun.  That’s when the guilt, embarrassment, shame crashed down all around.

“And fear over what was next,” Robert added.  “Drugs had been my coping mechanism for all that life throws at us.  I had become a liar, wallowing in self-pity without accountability for my actions.  Worst of all, I had put my selfish needs before my family’s well-being.”

These are the difficult truths confronting every addict seeking recovery through rigorous honesty.  Many never arrive at a place where they can confront those faults and foibles which led to active addiction in the first place.

“I count myself among the blessed to have been given the opportunity to heal.  Without the loving support of family and friends, without my faith in Jesus Christ my Lord and Savior, it would not have been possible,” Joel Robert bore his soul, wanting more than anything to share those blessings with others.

“If my campaign accomplishes nothing else, I want to begin an open, honest conversation about addiction to opioids and other drugs.  Among the greatest challenges in combating this epidemic is overcoming the stigma attached to addiction,” he said.

Preliminary drafts of Robert’s campaign platform include:

Ascension Health Unit and Counseling Center are devoted to the well-being of our citizens, including substance abuse treatment. 

Long-term:  Additional funding to establish a parish-owned rehab facility.

Short-term: Allocate resources through the Health Unit to provide out-patient treatment for citizens in recovery and support services for their families.