MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — WVU student Dustin Daniels spent years “lost in the clouds” — losing most of his 20’s to substance abuse disorder.
“I’ve been in long-term recovery just shy of four years now,” he said. “I’ve fought substance abuse disorder the better part of 10 years. And since I have found recovery, I’ve made some steps to get into working into the field.”
Daniels is studying under WVU’s Regents Bachelor of Arts program and now is among the first students to minor in addiction studies, a minor that will be offered by the College of Education and Human Services in full to the entire university beginning Fall 2018.
“It’s both an outreach service to help people, but also an educational component,” said Dr. Gypsy Denzine, the Dean of CEHS. “Certainly, we prepare professionals at the graduate level to work in the field in addiction studies, but also a very important research component.”
Daniels, now four years in long-term recovery, a recovery integration specialist professionally, and hoping to expand his work helping those recovering from addiction, might just be the perfect candidate for the Spring pilot of the minor program.
“I’m a person in long-term recovery,” he said. “That’s kind of how my excitement for this program was initiated, because I had hopes of working in a helping profession helping other people with addictions recovery.”
“I’ve kind of been waiting for a program like this to start at WVU to go back and finish my classes,” he added.
Daniels is a 2003 graduate of Musselman High School. He attended Shepherd University for some time, hoping to become a nurse. But his addiction, which he said wasn’t inclusive to one particular substance, became a road block to his future.
“I lived in some denial for quite some time,” he said. “But I knew for the majority of that time that I had something that I needed some outside help for. I just did not have any idea where to go for that help, what kind of help that I needed. But, I knew something wasn’t right.”
Now 33, his 20’s became defined by substance abuse — and trying to figure out how to cope with it.
“That was my driving motivation coming to Morgantown,” Daniels said. “The area that I’m from, we didn’t have the resources that I needed personally to help me along this process of recovery.”
In Morgantown, he found solace among a tight-knit community of those in recovery — both inside and outside of WVU.
“It’s always one day at a time. Still to this day, it’s always one day at a time for me. Now, times are a lot easier now than they were when I first got this process of recovery started.”
Explaining how one succumbs to addiction or a substance abuse disorder can be difficult, Daniels said. Just as difficult, he thinks, is explaining why not all recovery attempts are created equally.
“I don’t think there was any light bulb moment,” Daniels said. “I had made multiple attempts before, and they were wholehearted attempts. Just, this time, luckily, I was blessed enough to be placed around certain people that would help me along the process and kind of show me the way.”
2016 marked the seventh year in a row that West Virginia led the nation in opioid overdose death rates, according to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation. Daniels knows his story isn’t unique, but that his survival and turnaround has provided him with a chance to help those who are now walking his once familiar path.
“Things started off very harmlessly in the late teenage years,” he said. “The disease just kind of progressed. It got worse and worse. I tried for many years, when I was living in Martinsburg, to find a solution and to get away from that lifestyle.”
“I just had multiple failed attempts, not because of lack of effort. I just didn’t know what I was doing. I was kind of navigating the waters on my own and had no real direction of what it is I needed to change in my life.”
Even four years later, Daniels is still taking his life day-by-day. He has a strategy now though — to arm himself with what he calls the most powerful defensive weapon at his disposal.
His weapon of choice is knowledge.
“The more that I know about how this disease actually works, the more informed I am to kind of live a life in recovery,” he said. “The second aspect of that is to help another person. In addition to trying to hook up people up with services that will be beneficial to them, that service to them helps me as well.”
Dr. Denzine said knowledge is precisely what the new 15-credit hour minor is offering.
“Heavy information dissemination,” she said. “Understanding the facts, some of the reasons, how did we get here, but really looking ahead to how do we wrap our arms around people and help them.”
In fact, Denzine said the people who might have the most to gain from these lessons are those who aren’t going into a professional field like Daniels, but those who simply want to be of help to their communities when they leave school.
“You absolutely should consider it,” she said. “There could be a neighbor, a cousin, a co-worker. Absolutely, everyone can benefit from having knowledge.”
Daniels said that’s part of what drew him to this field. For years, information about how to actually fight back against the opioid epidemic had been sparse, difficult to aggregate, and full of uncertainty. For Daniels, answers to treating his disease were elusive.
“I think a lot of people are kind of lost out there in the clouds, not really knowing what to do, not knowing who to ask for help, what kind of help to ask for, and that’s completely normal,” he said. “That’s why I get excited about programs like this addiction counseling minor. We’re educating people to put them in our community to be there waiting.”
That take might be optimistic, Daniels said. But, he countered, the best way to treat those currently suffering from addiction is to be ready and waiting to ‘meet them.’
“What we learn as a peer recovery coach is to meet someone where they’re at,” Daniels said. “And, if they’re not ready for any type of treatment or recovery options, what can we do to help them take the next step toward a healthier lifestyle?”
“Not everybody’s ready in the present moment, but if they are just aware when they are ready that there is help available? That’s the best we can do.”
Daniels said, among the numerous obstacles standing in the way of recovery, is the stigma attached to addiction — and how it grows exponentially when an addict admits to their addiction.
“It’s not something that people have a moral decision whether to or whether not,” he said. “Once they are kind of trapped in that lifestyle, it’s just something that continues to progress and progress.”
“And even though people make multiple attempts to get away from it, it takes an entire lifestyle change to find a solution and seek some recovery.”
The addiction services minor, currently in pilot phase at WVU, will consist of multiple learning experiences to educate students, including introductory work, hands-on efforts, and — perhaps most importantly — mountains of information.
“Addiction cuts across all levels of income, education, rural urban,” Dr. Denzine said. “It’s a national crisis. They’ll learn about the demographics, and they’re going to learn some strategies for helping themselves, their friends, their neighbors, their parents, their cousins.”
Daniels is genuinely optimistic, but he knows the situation is grim in Appalachia. West Virginia has led the nation in overdose death rates among all drugs since 2010 — a rate that has nearly doubled since West Virginia first took it’s grim spot among the top of the dreaded list.
“We might be in the second act of this deal right now,” Daniels said.
“Will it ever come to a complete end? I have no idea. I have hopes that it will in some way, shape, or form. But that’s a big question.”
Daniels said he’ll treat his work in the field with others in recovery the same way he treats his own recovery: one day at a time.
“The best that I can do in this circumstance is just to play my part and do my best to create a small ripple in the pond of recovery.”