Angela Osmon’s job begins with seeing others at their worst, their darkest and most desperate, hearing their stories of self-depravity, watching sickness rack their bodies. And knowing that they have no one else left to depend on but her.
For nearly 40 years, Osmon has watched this scene rewind thousands of times. And if anyone questions that this couldn't be the start of something positive, of human redemption, of beginning a new life, then they've never been a drug addict or known one.
Angela Osmon is a substance abuse counselor.
"Addicts have done so many things, sometimes unspeakable things, that are in conflict with who they are or who they think they are, they have a lot to hide,” she says. “There's guilt and shame. It's overwhelming to them. I've heard stories of how they took advantage of people in the worst way, stealing, robbing, lying, sexually and physically abusing people they love and being abused themselves in ways you don't want to know. And, yes, even murdering.
"When they were addicted, they didn't care. Now they're clean and have to deal with what they did, or what people did to them. Helping them be accountable is the most difficult part of this job."
Osmon is slight and blonde with an easy laugh and lots of experience. She's also the Suboxone Program Coordinator for PORT/New Horizons, Dare County's only substance abuse treatment center.
"Is the job challenging?" She repeats the question, signaling that her answer is obvious. "People come in at the worst point in their life, strung out, sick, at the lowest depths of their endurance, tired of the lifestyle, but terrified of withdrawal."
And then, inch by agonizing inch, step by cautious step, these people can change before her eyes.
"You see the difference in their eyes when it suddenly clicks: I can do this. They get clean and start putting the pieces of their life back together. You hear it in their voice when they talk about little victories, like having money in the bank – money that isn't going to drugs – having a clean place to live, maybe having a job.
"That's success. That's my reward."
As every substance abuse counselor and drug addict knows, success doesn't always last, and that's reality.
But for most, even though they fall off, they come back because they've seen that glimpse of hope. "They know that the goals out there are attainable." Osmon says. "They know they can have a better life. They know that they can be the person they think they are."
How Osmon got here
A Dare County native, Osmon's journey into substance abuse counseling came almost serendipitously. She was happily majoring in psychology at East Carolina University. One day, walking across campus, her path crossed with two professors in that department. They asked if she'd be interested in taking on a new undergraduate course of study that would become a precursor for ECU's Master's Degree program in substance abuse counseling.
"My first reaction was, why would I do that? But after giving it some thought, I said, yes." She became the first person to come out of ECU a certified substance abuse counselor.
Osmon's work history runs the circuit of substance abuse clinics throughout eastern North Carolina. She did her internship at the Walter B. Jones Alcohol and Drug Abuse Treatment Center in Greenville, subsequently put in 28 years with Albemarle Mental Health Center in Dare County, Elizabeth City, Edenton and Currituck. After Albemarle closed its doors, there were several other clinics and programs. Two years ago, she came to PORT/New Horizons.
Osmon sits casually in a rolling desk chair in the office, a large ECU sign hangs on the wall over her head. The lighting is subdued, there are two other chairs separated by a small table with the requisite stack of magazines on top. A hint of fragrance hangs in the air – Beach Walk it's called, and the advertisements market the scent as "evoking a familiar and forgotten moment… a walk along a sandy beach."
Does anything surprise her anymore after a long career in substance abuse counseling? Osmon swivels her chair gently back and forth, as if stalling to collect her thoughts. And then there's that easy laugh. "I've seen what any substance abuse counselor would expect to see in a long career…and then some."
In the first 20 years of her career, "people were more of a purist, so to say, when it came to their substance of choice. People who did marijuana typically only did that drug. Those who were alcoholics rarely abuse drugs. People who did cocaine only did cocaine."
But in the last half of her career, addiction took on the elements of a toxic stew. "People began using and abusing a variety of drugs." and the pattern she sees most these days are people going from addiction to pain killing medications to heroin.
"I hear the same story over and over again, 'I injured my knee or my back, I had surgery, I began abusing painkillers, then I couldn't get any more prescriptions, then I bought it on the street, the pills get too expensive, so I started using heroin because it's cheaper'."
They are the most heartbreaking, she says, because if it were not for circumstance, most of these people would never have become an addict.
Even more distressing to her is another trend. "Young people who move very quickly from drinking beer, to smoking a joint, to a full-blown IV heroin user. They walk in there, nineteen years old, and already have two years of addiction under their belt."
The reasons for addiction, she explains, are as varied as the drugs addicts use. "Depression, anxiety, sexual or physical abuse as a child. When they first touched their first drug of choice, they immediately felt better. The drugs numbed that emotional pain."
That feeling of numbness, of euphoria, becomes a driving force for the use of drugs in ever increasing amounts. One is good; two is better. And so the cycle begins.
Listening and gaining trust
Substance abusers spend their addicted life mistrusting just about everyone they come into contact with -- dealers, police, friends who rebuke them, fellow addicts who want to rip them off and family members who mistrust them. Suddenly, they sit before the person of last resort.
"Simple listening helps you break through and gain their trust," Osmon says. "Remembering small details of their stories and reflecting that back. It shows them you care. That eventually leads to trust, as much trust as they'll give you."
After trust must come accountability. And that means reliving the nightmare.
"I feel empathy, I feel people's pain. Ultimately, though, they're responsible for their lives. They made the choices; they own the problem. They have to figure their way out of it."
Still, the addicts and the stories keeping coming.
Osmon has seen therapists come and go. They couldn't hack it. They burned out. They became depressed, angry. They changed fields. "It doesn't make me better than them. It just means my self-protective devices worked better than theirs.
"I've been doing this for a long time. It's what I was educated and trained to do, it's what I think I was supposed to do. One of the things I've learned to do ninety nine percent of the time is not allow myself to get drawn into their lives, take on their burdens, I'll get burned out so fast I won't help anyone.”
And the other one percent of the time?
"Yeah, well, you know, there's always that occasional patient, that unimaginable revelation that sticks to me, when I'm driving home from work, when I'm taking a shower." When she can't shake it off, Osmon talks with a close friend, a former counselor, who, like her, as been there and seen that.
Does she like her job? Osmon takes a deep breath. "I love it. Yeah. I must. I'm still here."
She pauses and then looks away. "But you know, if substance abuse fell off the face of the earth tomorrow, I'd be all right with that. I'd just enjoy days taking walks on the beach."
Third part in a series examining drug abuse and narcotics trafficking in Dare County, the people committed to fighting and treating it, and those who become its victims.