Frank Lee Jimmy has been sober since 2012. Before then, he was trapped by his addiction to alcohol. For people who have never suffered from an addiction, it can be hard to appreciate the challenge of enduring seven years of sobriety.
“When you’re in your addiction, you know what you want to do,” Leo, who is known in Sitka by his middle name, said. “You know what your family wants, but at the same time, your addiction is going, ‘oh no I want to go out and drink.’ You’re caught in between.”
Leo owes his escape from addiction in great part to the Bill Brady Healing Center, he said, an intense residential program that provided 24-hour clinical care to people fighting addiction.
The BBHC closed its doors in 2013. Leo is working to bring it back.
He graduated from the facility a year before its closure, in 2012. There, he gained a “box of tools” and learned how to control his addiction and recognize triggers like stress and trauma that caused his urge to drink. Kicking his addiction transformed his life, he said.
“As you get sober, the cloud, the fog goes away,” Leo said. “You’re able to think more clearly. You know how to handle things differently than you would have in the past.”
The Bill Brady Healing Center was a clinic managed by the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium. It was one of Alaska’s high intensity residential programs for people fighting drug and alcohol addictions that separate patients from outside influences and lead them away from chemical dependency with 24-hour clinical and counseling support.
“It’s scary,” Leo said, recalling his first day at the BBHC. “That was a big step in my life because it’s like going into unknown territory. You don’t know what to expect. You don’t know what kind of people you’re going to meet. And you have to live with these folks and learn their issues and learn their ups and downs.”
Those programs, so-called 3.5 level facilities by the American Society of Addiction Medicine, are scattered throughout Alaska and about half are near Anchorage. In Southeast, only two facilities in Juneau and Ketchikan provide this level of care.
In Sitka, teenagers with addictions can still find intense residential treatment through Raven’s Way and the Hanson House. For adults, that hasn’t been an option since the SEARHC clinic closed.
Federal budget sequestration in 2013 cut about $3.5 million dollars in funding for SEARHC. Closure of the BBHC meant the loss of a 43-day residential program that graduated about 50 people every year but also saved SEARHC $1.5 million dollars a year in operating costs.
Adults suffering from addiction in Sitka still have treatments to look to for help like intensive outpatient therapy at SEARHC. But that’s not enough for everyone, Leo said.
“You go in and make appointments and then you walk back out into the environment,” Leo said. “You’re not protected. You run the risk of running into folks you don’t need to be around. Whereas residential, you go in and you’re not allowed to leave. Depending on your addiction, that’s pretty vital.”
Sitka Counseling offers a low intensity residential program for adults which offers clinic and rehabilitation services during portions of the day for patients occupying one of their 12 beds.
But even that isn’t always enough. Sitka Counseling referred 15 people to high intensity residential care out of 65 patients assessed in the last three months. That’s about 1 in 5 people that had to be referred to intense residential care outside of Sitka.
Those referred to higher care by Sitka Counseling can go to the lower 48 for care but that’s only if they have private insurance. Patients who depend on Medicaid have to stay in Alaska where wait times for free beds range from a couple of days to two months.
“It’s really hard because when somebody is ready for treatment, they want to go then and now. They don’t want to wait two weeks for a bed,” Sitka Counseling Executive Director Amy Zanuzoski said, adding that limited space is just one of many barriers people seeking care face in addition to a long application process.
“There’s a lot of barriers,” she said. “When you’re in that state, you can’t just show up and say ‘okay I’m going to get treatment.’ There’s a lot of paperwork involved, unfortunately.”
That’s why Leo is campaigning to bring back intense residential treatment. He’s approaching counselors that helped him at the BBHC and posting flyers throughout Sitka asking for help from other concerned citizens. He’s started a GoFundMe campaign and has approached local non-profits, the City of Sitka and even called the Governor’s office for guidance.
Leo has a lot of work ahead of him but his task is not impossible, Sitka Counseling Prevention Director Loyd Platson said.
“It’s a challenge in terms of trying to bring all those resources together,” he said. “I think we have them here. It becomes a matter of are there a lot individuals and organizations than can come together and kind of share the pie a little bit so that we are able to provide a service to our community.”
So far, Leo has faced an uphill battle as potential partners are hesitant to build a behavioral care facility from the ground up.
“Basically, you need to have a solid program, I think, in place before they step up,” he said. “You need buildings, insurance, doctors, nurses, and then how are you going to get paid? How are you going to charge clients to keep it going?”
Leo is aware that state support for a residential treatment center like the Bill Brady Healing Center is unlikely with proposed cuts to the Alaska Department of Health. But Leo is certain the need is there. He’s seen friends and neighbors lose their lives to addiction.
“I don’t like seeing that,” Leo said. “Hearing folks being turned away and they can’t into detox and they can’t get into a program. There’s just a number of different things that have encouraged me to get something like this started and give something back to Sitka.”
Correction (03/11/2019) – A previous version of this article mistakenly referred to Frank Lee Jimmy with the middle name Leo. His middle name is Lee and he goes by his nickname Leo.