As he walks around a dormitory at the Kenton County Detention Center that’s reserved for prisoners with substance abuse problems, the man dressed in street clothes greets each inmate the same way.
“Hi, I’m Jason. I’m an alcoholic.”
With that simple introduction, Jason Merrick lets inmates know that he intimately understands their plight, and he reminds himself of his own difficult journey to recovery.
Merrick is director of inmate addiction services at the detention facility in Covington. He appeared on Connections to discuss his history with substance abuse and the innovative addiction treatment program he implemented at the facility last year. Their conversation is part of KET’s Inside Opioid Addiction initiative.
’The Help You Deserve’
Merrick says he was a child when he started on his path to addiction.
“I had access to all the drugs that I could ever want from my home,” Merrick says. “My parents were active users so I chose to travel down that road.”
At some point he says his choice to use became a necessity. As his addiction progressed through his 20s and early 30s, Merrick says he needed some kind of pills, marijuana, crack cocaine, or even a shot of whiskey just to be able to sleep at night and function during the day.
The native Ohioan moved to northern California, where, delusional and malnourished, Merrick barricaded himself in a tree house. He simply wanted to be left alone so he could die there.
But that’s when his girlfriend at the time said the words that would change his life: “I want you to get the help you deserve.”
At first Merrick couldn’t believe it. How could someone he had hurt so deeply believe he deserved help? But the sincerity of his girlfriend’s words cut through Merrick’s drug and alcohol-induced haze, and helped him realize that he had a decision to make.
“It finally got to a point where I had no choice but to either come out with the truth despite what the consequences would be or continue living that way and die from it,” Merrick says.
Merrick soon entered a nearby rehab facility, but the mandated 28-day stay was not enough for him to break his cycle of addiction. He started using again. He left California and wound his way back to the Midwest. He eventually landed on the doorstep of a family member in northern Kentucky who forced him into a residential treatment program.
Merrick entered a facility run by Bellevue’s Transitions Inc., on April 16, 2009. He was there for 13 months and one day.
“That was not mandated by any insurance company, that was client-centered care,” Merrick says. “That was a personal treatment plan developed by me and professionals and that’s what it took for me.”
Now Merrick is marking his seventh year in recovery.
Inmates Receive Medically Assisted Treatment
Merrick says he was so moved by the care received in northern Kentucky that he decided to stay in the region and give back to the communities that had embraced him. He worked part-time at Transitions and graduated from Northern Kentucky University before landing the job at the Kenton County Detention Center. There he helped develop the treatment regime for inmates suffering from drug and alcohol addictions.
The program serves 70 men and 30 women who commit to the minimum six-month intensive process. In addition to daily work requirements the inmates receive cognitive behavioral therapy as well as group and individual counseling. They participate in 12-step support groups and they’re encouraged to commit themselves to spiritual studies of their own choice. The participants also receive medical treatments to alleviate withdrawal symptoms and prevent a relapse of substance use.
The support doesn’t end when an inmate successfully completes the program. Merrick says just before graduates are released, they are given an injection of Vivitrol, which blocks the effects of opioid drugs and alcohol for 30 days. He says individuals leaving jail are 300 times more likely to die of an overdose within the first two weeks of their release. The Vivitrol, he says, buys the person time to connect with outside recovery resources and get reestablished in their communities.
One of the Lucky Ones
Merrick laments the lack of more treatment resources for those already in the criminal justice system as well as addicts in the general population. He’s also disappointed that the medical profession has yet to develop a standard routine of care for individuals with substance use disorders.
“Any other disease of this nature, there’s a clearly laid out plan of action,” Merrick says. “I know there’s a lot of physicians out there that are working towards that, but it’s not jelled yet.”
Developing that standard of care hinges, in part, on people’s willingness to openly discuss addiction, according to Merrick. He compares the drug crisis to the AIDS epidemic, which he says also started as a taboo subject. But as people became comfortable with discussing AIDS in public, Merrick says the medical community soon followed with standardized protocols to treat those with the disease.
As he reflects on his own long-term recovery, Merrick admits he’s one of the lucky ones. He knows he could have died in that tree house a decade ago, or at any other point during his years of active addiction. His former girlfriend’s directive to get the “help you deserve” still inspires Merrick in his own recovery and in his work to help substance-dependent inmates return to healthy and productive lives.
“Sometimes when we get into recovery, we can go on to do some pretty amazing stuff,” Merrick says.