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How This Doctor Brings Hope to Those in Recovery

The West Virginia physician overcame his own addiction and now helps others in his community.

Lou Ortenzio, director of the Clarksburg Mission Community; photo by Scott Goldsmith

To anyone suffering the pain of addiction, I want to offer three simple words I know are true: There is hope.

How do I know that?

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Because for four decades, I have lived through every facet of this complex and heart-wrenching problem. And I wake up every day filled with hope.

As a small-town doctor, I prescribed opioids to generations of patients in pain—physical, emotional and spiritual pain.

I became addicted to those same drugs. I lost my medical practice, fractured my family and was convicted of prescription fraud. God found me, and I entered into recovery. Now I work at the Clarksburg Mission, a shelter and treatment center that has been helping my town’s most vulnerable residents since 1971.

I know what addiction does to the body and brain. I know how and why people become dependent on drugs and alcohol. I know what it’s like to bust up your life. And I know what it’s like to put things back together with God’s help.

I have hope because I have seen people change and because I too have changed. I want to share my hope with you in the form of some hard-won lessons that I’ve learned, time-tested principles for turning around a life—your own or someone else’s.

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God’s wisdom is present in these principles. Take heart. Keep going. There is hope for you, today and every day.

Change begins with truth and grace.

When it comes to addiction, everyone wants to know: How do you get someone to stop using?

The answer is: Some things work better than others, but there’s no magic bullet. Here are some things that work.

Be honest. If you are a drug user, stop lying to yourself. Saying “I can stop anytime I want” is a sure sign you can’t. Sober people don’t have to tell themselves things like that.

Loved ones should be equally honest. It’s okay to tell someone, “Your life is out of control.” Or “You are hurting yourself and hurting me.” Once you’ve stated the problem, ask, “Is this really how you want to live? What’s your goal? What would help you get there?”

The most important thing you can say—to yourself or someone else—is “I love you.”

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Love is not enabling; it is truth and grace together. Love gives you strength to hang in there with someone dealing with a drug problem. And love gives you courage to say hard things and walk away when someone’s destructive behavior becomes too much.

When a person with a drug problem is faced with the truth of their situation and, at the same time, hears a voice of love telling them there is hope, that is an environment in which change can begin to happen.

I denied my drug problem for years, lying to loved ones and going to shameful lengths to supply myself with pills. My doctor’s office staff confronted me in a meeting and told me they knew I was addicted and writing fraudulent prescriptions. “We want to help you get better,” they said. Their honesty and compassion forced me to realize I was not the person I wanted to be.

Truth and grace are essential, and they work best when offered together.

Recovery requires community.

Chronic drug use impairs parts of the brain that enable people to make good choices and foresee the consequences of their actions. At the same time, abuse, trauma, poverty, stress and loneliness often accompany addiction. Given those headwinds, it’s unrealistic to expect someone to recover on their own.

I was helped by my office staff, a nurse I confided in who led me to Jesus, people at my church and everyone I now work with here at the Clarksburg Mission.

When someone comes to the mission, the first question we ask isn’t “What’s the drug?” Instead, it’s “What’s the hurt?”

We surround hurting people with a community, many of whom are working on their own recovery—counselors, staff, volunteers and clients. We tell people we love them until they are able to love themselves. We hold them accountable and walk with them through struggles.

It’s like a big family.

A woman named Amber came to us when she was 40. She had been living on the street for three years, addicted to methamphetamines. She was arrested for burglary, went to jail, attended a 28-day treatment program, then was referred here.

“I used to camp over there across the street,” she told me one day. “I would stare up at the windows of the dorms and wonder, ‘Would it ever be possible for me to get in that place?’”

Amber thought she had to sober up before she was welcome here. The opposite is true. We do recovery together at the mission, and the togetherness builds us up, gives us support, helps us feel loved and keeps us on track.

“I’ve never felt so cared for,” Amber said recently. “Everyone here tries to help me.”

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There are many ways to find a community that will support recovery. Twelve-step groups are excellent. Celebrate Recovery is a Jesus-centered 12-step program in churches. Family members can find support in Al-Anon, Nar-Anon and other groups.

Remember the honesty I talked about earlier? That will enable you to reach out for help. Surround yourself with people trying to do what you want to do. Together, you can achieve your goals.

Structure and accountability matter.

Recovery also requires structure, consistency and consequences for bad decisions.

Consequences sure helped me. I will never forget the day that my office was raided by federal investigators. I stood in front of a judge, was sentenced to probation and had to tell my family how I had lost my medical license. My drug use cost me my marriage.

These losses clarified my thinking. No longer could I fool myself that it was possible to succeed in life and do drugs at the same time.

People we work with at the mission need help learning how to organize their day, finish what they start, meet their obligations and think through the likely results of their actions. “If you do that, what do you think will happen?” we ask.

At first, our program wasn’t regimented. Over time, we found that the more we expect of our residents, the better they do. We insist that people wake up on time, complete chores, show up for meetings and do what they say they’ll do.

The more they accomplish, the better they feel about themselves. More important, the routine builds new neural pathways that help heal the impairments caused by drug use.

That was my experience. I had to learn a whole new way of life. No more late nights chasing down pills. No more blowing off appointments or showing up late.

I needed a job. I cut grass at a golf course. Delivered pizzas—sometimes to my former patients! Worked as a janitor at a community center.

I felt humbled and humiliated at first. That was hard, but humble is good. Gradually, I came to realize that these jobs were honorable and that I was being helped by the discipline they required. Hard work remains a core value for me. It too forms part of my hope.

Be patient.

Recovery from drug addiction is almost never quick, easy or straight-forward. Relapse is frequently a part of the process.

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Don’t give up if someone relapses. Say everything you said the first time around, and be there when they’re ready to change. Don’t give in to the shame that goes with a relapse.

The physician in me wants to see instant, measurable results in my work at the mission. I’ve learned that recovery—including my own—requires taking a longer view.

Here, we work one day at a time and trust God with the rest. I’ve come to accept that sometimes we plant a seed, other times we water it, and we may or may not get to see the harvest.

Don’t give up. Keep doing the next right thing, and don’t try to solve everyone’s problems all at once. You never know what God is going to do next. Wait patiently for the miracle.

About a decade ago, we had to let go of our revered director of housing after she relapsed and started using cocaine again—that’s the accountability part. It broke our hearts.

But God wasn’t done. The former director eventually found her way back to recovery, went to college, got a law degree and became an attorney. She’s now a Legal Aid lawyer representing clients just like she once was.

Faith is key to success.

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This lesson is the most important one.

Early in my recovery, I didn’t want to go to a 12-step group where I had to say, “I’m Lou, and I’m an addict.”

Over time, I saw I was wrong. Working the steps, I came to understand that while my outer struggle was drug use, my real challenge was spiritual.

I was anxious, fearful and selfish. At once insecure and puffed up with pride in my medical abilities.

No way could I overcome all of that by sheer force of will. I needed God, just like everyone else struggling with addiction. Twelve-step programs begin with frank admission that a person’s life is out of control and that only a higher power can set things right. For me, that higher power is Jesus Christ.

I think this is one of the hardest parts of recovery: admitting powerlessness. No one wants to do it. In that respect, drug users are just like everyone else, seeking a shortcut that will enable them to solve their problems without relying on God.

Recovery begins with two words: Help me.

My hope is steadfast because I know that God always hears those words and responds. No exceptions.

If you reach out to God and truly ask for his help. If you turn to the people who put that help into practice—for example, at a place like the mission. And if you let God lead and open your heart to his timing, you will not fail.

It worked for me, and I have seen it work for so many others.

God is the hope you can count on now and forever.

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