When Pain Relief Turns to Addiction: Working with ORS to Save Lives

Irene-Westenberg-ORS - main photo Irene at deskIn 2017, Willingway created the ORS (Opiate Reduction Services) program to assist individuals in the reduction of opioid medications on an outpatient basis as they strive towards full abstinence-based recovery.

This is a unique program that provides clinical services and alternative therapies for pain relief to those who have become addicted to or physically dependent on prescribed opioid medications. Irene Westenberg, CAC I, NADC, helped form this program with our Medical Director, Dr. Shawn Williams, and has carried it through its infancy. Irene is not only an eighteen-year WW veteran, but also a fellow Inpatient and Women’s Residence alumni. It was Emily McFarland’s pleasure to sit down with Irene and learn more about ORS, herself, and her vast clinical reach.

EM: How did you first become acquainted with Willingway?
IW: My first association with Willingway began as a patient back in 1999, but my initial interest in counseling goes all the way back to the 1980s when I was working at Brighton Woods Treatment Center in Pennsylvania. I was facilitating groups at that time and I knew that this was a field that I was motivated to and interested in pursuing. Fast forward to 1999. Due to illness and some other things—relapse, et cetera—I ended up being admitted to Willingway and after having completed inpatient treatment, I went on to the Women’s Residence. After having spent a year at the Rez absorbing and watching those that worked with me, the deal was sealed. I knew I wanted to be a counselor and, in 2000, an opportunity presented itself for me to work at a Counselor Aide on Unit II. I worked at WW in that capacity for about six months with Raymond Scott, Dot Mooney, and a number of other Willingway old timers and loved working with the patients.

Pretty quickly there was an opening at the Residence for a counselor, which was my Alma Mater, and it felt like a really divinely inspired fit. I took the position as a counselor-in-training with Jean Johnson, who had been my own counselor and worked there beginning in 2000, earning my credits for certification. Eventually Jean, the Director of the Women’s Residence, left and Janis Ellington, who now works for our parent company Summit BHC, and I started running the residence together. That was one of my fondest memories. I think we complimented each other very well, as she was in family recovery and I was in recovery for my alcoholism and addiction. We were able to bring a perspective of both sides of the coin of addiction to our patients. I also believe that our enthusiasm and love for what we did for the girls and the patients really shone through.

In 2005, the decision was made to move the Women’s Residence off campus and into its current location, which would allow the patients to not just address their alcoholism and addiction, but to also develop life skills. I was really excited to be a part of the move. We did everything from painting to cleaning—all kinds of physical labor—and it was wonderful because many of the girls that were going to move there also had a part in setting the place up. We all developed a sense of ownership—it was ours.

I ran the Rez for many years but there came a point where my life became very full. Many things were going on in my personal life and I felt that the balance for my program of recovery and also working and running the residence had gotten lopsided. “Self-care” was not in my vocabulary and I had begun to neglect my family. I turned in my resignation and Jimmy Mooney simply said “no.” After talking with Dr. Bobby and Jimmy and explaining that I felt emotionally bankrupt, I was offered a counseling position at Outpatient, working less hours. I began counseling at Outpatient—working with the Lodge and various community members.

The Women’s Residence will always hold a special spot in my heart because it was nurturing, kind, and loving. It helped people love themselves when they had no self-worth and were only engaged in self-loathing. That was what Dot Mooney told me the residence was all about—helping women who had lost their way who had trauma and loving them back into health. And that was a good fit for me for a while, but I think I over-loved everyone a bit too much. But still, I’m very proud of that accomplishment.

Little did I know that going from working with only women to mainly Lodge men would help me in my personal life later when my son broke out with this disease. I have to admit that it was a challenge at first until I realized that an addict is an addict regardless of the gender. Working with the Lodge has been an awesome experience. For me the professional and personal is very tied together—counseling is a vocation, not just a job. I love working with alcoholics and addicts. Being one I know what it takes to be loved into recovery.

HC-embrace-cropped - Irene hugging lady
Irene embracing a former patient at Homecoming.

EM: You are currently running the Willingway ORS program. What is that?
IW: The ORS program assists patients in the reduction of opioid medications with full abstinence-based recovery being the ultimate goal. This program is unique in that it provides clinical services and alternative therapies for pain relief to those who have become addicted to or physically dependent on prescribed opioid medications. We are the only outpatient opioid-reduction program that addresses the need to fill the absence created by lowering or discontinuance of narcotic medications. ORS is a highly individualized solution to physical dependence on narcotics to relieve chronic pain.

EM: Why did Willingway create ORS and how does the program work?
IW: We created this program to aid with and address the current opioid crisis. It was brought to our attention that the pain management doctors in Statesboro, as well as local practitioners, were unsure of the direction to take when dealing with people in pain. Being the addiction specialists, we are able to define and see the difference in a physical dependence and legitimate addiction. We can address that with every single client.

We offer clinical services beginning with a confidential assessment, followed by treatment team staffing and client inclusive treatment planning. ORS aids individuals in finding alternative ways to cope with pain while reducing or entirely abstaining from the use of narcotics. This is facilitated through individual and group therapy, introduction into a 12-step recovery program (such as Chronic Pain Anonymous), and alternative physical therapies designed to reduce pain, such as aquatic therapy, core strengthening and stretching exercises, yoga, and guided visualization.

EM: Why is a program like ORS beneficial?
IW: Good question. I could give you numbers, facts, figures–the clinical data of what’s going on in the world today and the trauma that is caused by opioid addiction—but I would much prefer to discuss the actualization of what the ORS program has done for the patients that I have worked with over the past year. Two individuals in particular come to mind who had both crossed the line from using the medication for pain management to overstepping into the area of addiction. In both cases, they stopped using as prescribed and decided to increase their dosage. One ran out of the pills and then went out to the streets, while the other had an episode at work pushing her into treatment, where ORS was recommended to her. Both individuals needed something to replace their use of drugs to manage their chronic pain, which is where we come in. We addressed on multiple levels their situations and their management of pain through an alliance with Dr. Routon’s office here in Statesboro. We all got on board looking at what we could do to help these patients. And for the past year, one patient was able to work really hard to fight for her right to disability and then have surgery, which was successful and she is no longer taking opioid medications. She is active—walking five miles a week—and is one of our benefactors and leaders of the Chronic Pain Anonymous Group that we have started here at the Statesboro Outpatient Building on Fridays at 11:30 a.m. She has gotten a new lease on life. Her family has also contacted me and believe her attending ORS has created a healthier family and they do not want her to discontinue her engagement in the program, which has addressed mind, body, and spirit.

The other case that I mentioned was an individual who had ended up living alone in a very toxic situation. When this gentleman came to us, he had very little in the way of activities of daily living. He had very little will to live. He was very much believing in survival of the fittest and when you are disabled you don’t deserve to live. The gentleman has gone from that to working with Dr. Routon, who has taken over his pain management, and is currently engaged in yoga, multiple twelve-step recovery fellowships, and is able to be a present grandfather and father. He has admitted to me that he was hopeless, despairing and suicidal when he started this program, because all he had was the drugs and the pain. Today through alternative therapies such as yoga, swimming, and dry needling, that has changed.

ORS teaches people. These folks did not know about addiction. They did not know that there was anything that could be offered other than taking pills. So the first thing ORS gives them is an education. The second part of it is behavior change—I do a lot of REBT and solution focused counseling with our ORS patients. We have to find out what each person can bear and it has to be done in conjunction with doctors—the physical, the mental, and the spiritual.

So that is why ORS is beneficial—it gives people a life that they never had. In both cases, both people thought it was over. Today they are productive members of society and love and enjoy their lives.

Charlie-Irene-Janis-Ellington - group sitting at table
Irene (center) with her husband Charlie Westenberg and Janis Ellington, former Willingway employee and current senior director of national clinical outreach for Summit BHC.

EM: What are some of your other responsibilities at Willingway Outpatient?
IW: I currently provide counseling for Broad 90, the Lodge, and local community members. I do one group a week on Wednesday nights for three hours that includes patients and families, in addition to one morning group with the Lodge that is best described as a beginners group. That is designed to help restore their cognitive functioning and to give them a forum where they feel comfortable learning the ropes of twelve-step recovery and daily living, life skills, and life challenges. We look at their emotions and feelings in what is a safe and nurturing place to share those things.

Many years ago, Bobby Mooney asked my husband, Charlie, and I if we would consider doing family counseling during the last week of the WW Inpatient Family Program. We jumped all over that because we just absolutely love working with families. It’s something that we as a couple in recovery can do and we present to people not as therapists, but as a real-life family in recovery, which has now grown even larger for us as not just husband and wife, but as husband and wife and son. So Wednesday evenings after my outpatient group, I head over to the Willingway main campus and Charlie and I run a family group for the inpatients. This is an absolute joy. It is eye opening to see the collateral damage and devastation that this disease does, not just to the addict, but also to the families. It can be heart wrenching. It can be joyous. It covers all ranges of emotions as you work with both sides of addiction. It’s something we truly love.

EM: Would you care to share with us how going through extended treatment impacted your recovery?
IW: Extended treatment saved my life. I had been someone that started out in the 1980s in my mid-twenties trying to get sober, and I did go into AA off the street, and I didn’t get it. People would say read the book, but I couldn’t see the answers in there. It wasn’t enough for me, even then, and I went to my first thirty-day program in PA back in the 80s. There I started to understand things a little bit better, but not enough. At that point, I wanted to be sober, but I don’t think I got enough of the how.

So fast forward to having maybe five to seven years sober, trying to do AA, and just struggling. I had a heart attack and almost died, during which I was given morphine. I didn’t know anything about cross addiction, really that concept was a joke back then. All of this played into the perfect storm.

Enter, finally, the bottom of the bottom and that was in 1999. This time someone got it right and it was Willingway. They knew that I didn’t just need a four-to-six-week-long program. I needed extended treatment, where I could slow down for the first time in my life and look at who I was and wasn’t, find myself, and heal myself emotionally and spiritually. I needed to be loved on because I had absolutely no love for myself. At the Women’s Residence we were “care-fronted” on our toxic behaviors and were always loved. I needed to be nurtured. I already knew how broken I was and felt deeply ashamed, and extended treatment created in me a person that has ethics, values, and a moral compass. It showed me how to live twelve-step recovery, how to work a program. It’s such a privilege to be on a journey where I’m still in the seeking. You never arrive and I love that because every day is a new day, every day is a blank page. I don’t think I would have truly understood that without going through extended treatment.

To find out more about services offered by Willingway opioid treatment in Georgia, contact us 24 hours a day at 888-979-2140, and let us help you get started on the road to recovery.Willingway - Addiction Treatment Experts

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