"I didn’t realize that I could turn my life around and be something different."
NHS/Fresh Start Director
Currently living in Parkesburg, PA
Jodi Savits is a 2017 SAMHSA Voice Awards Consumer Leadership award recipient. As a mother, grandmother, sister, student, peer, Fresh Start Program Director, and person in long term recovery, she has dedicated her life to helping others—especially veterans—in need. After losing herself and her family due to addiction for 23 years, Jodi is now Director of the 40-bed program on the campus of the Coatesville, PA Veterans Administration Medical Center (CVAMC). This innovative NHS/Fresh Start program offers an integrated service model serving veterans with serious mental health issues, substance misuse issues, and homelessness. Jodi and her team work with veterans to get them medically and psychologically ready for services, including providing drug and alcohol counseling, mental health care, primary care, and job placement assistance. This year’s Voice Awards program, hosted by Chef Robert Irvine, shined a spotlight on those who give hope and support to service members, veterans and their families who have faced behavioral health challenges.
We are honored to have had the opportunity to speak with Jodi Savits. Below is a transcript of our interview.
Would you share your addiction story and how you got into recovery?
Sure. I started experimenting with things when I was 12 years old. By the time I was 13, I was drinking whenever I could and smoking marijuana—that just continued through high school. I was always considered a party animal. But everyone else who I went to school with and I hung out with, they all stopped and got on with their lives, but I was stuck—I couldn’t. So I just continued my addiction and it just continued getting worse and worse. I maintained for a lot of years—or so I thought I did. I got married, I had children, but I still drank every day and smoked and did cocaine whenever I could.
I guess it got really bad when I moved to Florida. That’s where I started smoking crack cocaine and that took me down fast. I knew they were coming to take my children away from me so I had put my children on an airplane to go stay with their father. That was always my one foot on the ground—that I had my children and that I had to be responsible. So when they left, I was homeless. I was living in Tent City in Fort Lauderdale. There was no hope and I didn’t care. I was breaking the law, getting arrested, going to jail, getting out, and just going right back into the same crazy lifestyle.
So I tried to move back to Philadelphia area, thinking if I got away from Florida, I would be okay. But it didn’t work. I still did the same things in Philadelphia that I was doing in Florida. I didn’t have a car, I lost my job, I was staying with a friend and sleeping on his couch. I was hiding from the boyfriend that I was with because he beat me up to the point where I was in intensive care in the hospital. So I took an entire bottle of pills because I didn’t see a way out. I woke up in the hospital with a suicide attempt. They sent me to Friends Hospital in Philadelphia and I wasn’t even on a drug and alcohol floor. They didn’t have a bed so I was on the Geriatrics unit for senior citizens.
When my head finally cleared, I was looking around and I was like, “Why am I here with all these old people?” I didn’t even know what recovery was. I was in the hospital for I think 7 days and they had given me a booklet about recovery houses when I left. I knew that I would go back to doing what I was doing and that I had to do something different, so I opened up that booklet of recovery houses and the first place I saw was Fresh Start. I called, and they told me to get right over there. So I went, stayed for six months, and was able to maintain my sobriety. I had 3 years clean when I had gone back and started working there. Then I started going to school. I enrolled in the community college, got my Associate’s degree. I wound up becoming a full-time employee, then a supervisor. Then I was promoted to Director. Kept going to school, getting my degree, just trying to help people. Everywhere I go, everyone knows I’m in recovery. I don’t hide it at all because I believe that you have to be an inspiration to other people. I’m still in school now and going for my Master’s degree in Public Administration.
At this point, how many years sober are you?
In October, I’ll have 17 years.
Wow, okay. So once you got sober, was recovery a straight path for you or were there relapses?
It was a straight path, which I know is unusual for people. But I always tell people who are entering recovery for the first time that it is possible. Everyone thinks that if you didn’t relapse then you don’t know what the struggles are, but you do—you just have to keep people around you that are doing the right thing. It’s not easy. I mean, I’m not going to say I never thought about using again, but when I did get that thought, I exposed it, I talked to people, and I made sure that I put myself in a place where there were other recovery people around me instead of being by myself where I would act on that thought.
What do you think gave you that sort of resolve?
Well every year the night before my sober anniversary is the night that I tried to take my life. So every year I remember that, and I cry again. I have to remember that that’s where I was. I was at the point where I didn’t want to live anymore and I knew what I was doing. I fought the hospital staff when they tried to save me. I told them to leave me alone. Now, I keep that fresh in my mind. I celebrate that night as well as my sober anniversary the next day. I just remember where I was, and I don’t ever want to be there again. Because there was absolutely no hope.
How was getting back with your children like afterwards?
The father was actually hiding them from me and I had to go to court. I was in the recovery house when I finally went and filed the papers because I wanted my children in my life and I was finally able with support to go down there because, again, that low self-worth was like, “Well, he’s going to win, why should I try? I’m living this lifestyle that isn’t good for my children.” So I had gone down to court and when I walked into the hearing room, the Serenity Prayer was hanging on the side of the Master’s desk. My ex-husband was trying to say how bad I was and when I said that I was in a recovery house, the Master was like, “Are you going to meetings? Do you have a sponsor?” He gave me supervised visitation but, after my ex-husband left the room, he disclosed to me that he was in recovery himself and that he had been clean for like 18 years. And he told me to keep doing what I was doing.
For some people, they don’t hit the rock bottom. Do you feel like you needed to hit rock bottom before you got help?
I definitely needed that rock bottom because I wasn’t going to stop what I was doing—I didn’t know how to stop what I was doing. It was all I ever knew. I never lived sober as an adult. And I didn’t even know what that would look like. I didn’t realize that I could turn my life around and be something different.
Now as the Program Directory of NHS Fresh Start at the Coatesville Veterans Affairs Medical Center, what are some of the unique struggles of veterans that you’re witnessed to when it comes to getting into recovery?
My unit is veterans with serious mental illness so their biggest struggle is that they get stabilized with their medication, they feel better, they stop taking their medication, then they go back to their drug use because their symptoms come back. So I think that might be the case for a lot of people because a lot of people suffer from depression or maybe bipolar disorder and they don’t realize that the medication makes them feel better and if they stop taking the medication, they’re not going to feel well anymore. So that’s what we try to stress.
You’ve really come along way. How does it feel to be a recipient of the Consumer Peer Award?
I couldn’t believe I won. I mean, I do what I do because I like helping people. Standing up there on that stage in front of all those people and getting the award—it was just surreal because I’m just me and I help other people because they need help. And to be recognized for that is amazing. I’m still in shock.
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