September is National Recovery Month. Established by SAMHSA in 1989, this observance promotes and supports new evidence-based substance use treatment practices, the community of U.S. individuals who are in recovery and the dedication of service providers and communities who support recovery.
In honor of National Recovery Month, Pyramid Healthcare’s Sara Ritchie has shared her personal experience. In this interview, Sara walks us down the path that led her to recovery and a fulfilling career, sharing the insights she’s gathered along the way.
Walk us through your recovery journey.
I come from humble beginnings in a small town in West Virginia. I started using when I was 14 years old and this escalated into full-blown addiction and alcoholism for 22 years. While I’m not a convicted felon, I do have 17 mugshots from various run-ins with the law. My clean date is 1/1 2017 when I was in my late 30s. So, I was a bit older when I began this process of healing.
Right before I started on my recovery journey, I hit rock bottom. I was working as a CNA in a hospital in West Virginia. The nursing staff discovered me in the bathroom, unconscious, during state surveyor week. My job and life were jeopardized. At the time, I was married. I had everything that a person could dream of. On the outside, everything looked nice and put together. Inside, I was a hopeless mess.
The Director of Nursing from the hospital I was employed with encouraged me to ask for help. Initially, I didn’t want to, because I’m stubborn and thought I could do it on my own but I put my guilt and shame aside and began making phone calls to seek treatment that aligned with my insurance.
While Googling treatment facilities near West Virginia, I found Silvermist. I was impressed with the pictures of its beautiful campus tucked away in the rolling hills. Ironically, I was looking for the five-star, premier luxury treatment even though I was very sick and a hopeless mess.
When I called the facility, the staff determined that I needed medical detox, so they directed me to the Pyramid Healthcare Detox and Inpatient Treatment Center at Duncansville. I didn’t know what to expect, because this was my first attempt at recovery. I was one of those hard-to-handle clients at Duncansville. After two days, I told them to take me to Silvermist, because I felt that the amenities were not what I had signed up for.
Needless to say, I was a troubled client at Silvermist as well. For the first time ever, I struggled with self-harm and took two ambulance trips to the ER. Once all the substances were gone, I had no coping skills. Eventually, I did start to feel better — but not before trying to order a helicopter out of there, using foul language and making outrageous demands to the staff.
The staff encouraged me to remain in treatment. I made them promise not to let me leave, no matter what. One week at Silvermist turned into two weeks. Then I completed the 30 days, and instead of going home, they encouraged me to go to sober living. I knew I needed to do something different, so I decided to go and give it six months. In hindsight, I should have stayed longer. I found myself living with 11 women in a three-quarter house in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, the happiest I’d ever been. There were a lot of us and only one bathroom in the house, but we were going through this process together, leaning on one another for support.
The first year of sobriety is messy for any individual. In my addiction, I believed that if I died, my death would alleviate a burden on my family and these thoughts continued to haunt my early recovery. If you don’t adopt healthy habits, then the harmful thoughts and behaviors will try to kill you just as much as the drugs and alcohol will.
It was a beautiful, painful, scary time in my adult life. I started to learn who I was as a woman, a human being. I discovered what kind of music I liked and even how I liked my eggs. Most importantly, I was learning what made me happy and sad, because I had never experienced any of those emotions clean before. I became strong enough to withstand a very painful divorce but I needed a new beginning for myself.
I’ve been clean for almost six years. Silvermist saved my life. My willingness to want treatment played an important part, but my own guilt and shame were no match for the love and patience that the Silvermist team showed me. I feel like I owe them my life, but also owe it to our clients to offer them the most transparent, honest advice possible.
Tell us about your career path. How did you arrive in your current role at Pyramid Healthcare?
After an unsuccessful move home to WV and decided to save my own life and return to Butler Pa, I found myself living in my Jeep. Someone told me that I needed to get my life together, and it was true. I got a job as a waitress and made some friends through a 12-step recovery program and surrounded myself with strong women.
One of these friends was a CARN ( Certified Addictions Registered Nurse) named Rachel S. and she must have seen something in me because she invited me to work on her team with UPMC in Montefiore for the Center for Opioid Recovery with General Internal Medicine in Pittsburgh. I started working for UPMC full-time in 2018. By the beginning of 2019, I was extremely motivated and hungry for more, so I got a part-time job at Silvermist.
In 2019, I’d been clean for two years, which was a requirement for working at the facility. They hired me as a Behavioral Health Technician (BHT) two evenings per week. I was doing that simultaneously while working in my case management role for UPMC. I loved it. But in late September of 2019, my significant other and I were blessed with a pregnancy. That’s when I decided to come to Silvermist full-time because I wanted to stay close to home and put down some roots for a family.
I had a baby during the Covid quarantine in 2020. Upon return after maternity leave, our Silvermist team was going through internal transitions with directors and I began to wear many hats for our program while we were being restructured. I was growing within our company by happenstance and solidifying a role as an Aftercare Coordinator working with national providers to get clients into a continuum of care upon discharge from our program which I’m extremely passionate about.
I spent two years in that position. Recently, my supervisors suggested that I might be a good fit for my current role as a Business Development Representative. I fought and interviewed hard for this opportunity as Pyramid has always recognized their employees within their programs. I am now enjoying this new role and setting bigger goals for myself, which I thrive on!
Was there a particular mentor, sponsor or peer who helped you along the way?
I’m surrounded by a circle of incredible women. The current Clinical Director at Silvermist, Desiree Pannier, has been a guiding light for me. She watched me grow from a BHT, mentored me on our clinical team for two years, and encouraged me to get my AAC, which is a goal within a few months of conquering!
In addition, Kristen Hall, an external colleague of our program, who also owns the Dignity House, which is the sober living house that changed my life, has continued to be an inspiration and a close friend who has made a great impact on my personal and professional life.
Then there’s my significant other. He’s my biggest cheerleader, but he’s also kind of a thorn in my side sometimes. He has watched me grow continuously through the years in recovery, and we have a family together. He is also employed by Pyramid Healthcare and serves in a vital role at Silvermist.
What piece of advice would you share with someone currently in recovery?
When I speak at local rehabs, domestic violence shelters and crisis homeless shelters, I want the audience to know that recovery is possible. Six years ago, I thought that I deserved to be dead and that it would be better for other people if I wasn’t around. That change of heart — that spiritual awakening — can happen when you are ready.
Whatever you’re struggling with, give yourself some grace and let other people help and support you.
Do you have any tips for avoiding relapse?
Don’t isolate. Put yourself out there, step into discomfort and see what happens.
The disease of addiction wants us in isolation. When we are away from our supports that keep us resilient, accidents are going to happen. We need to stay connected with other like-minded individuals. I know when I share my problems with somebody else, their burden is half as heavy. It’s a relief to say something out loud in a safe space instead of keeping it inside where it feels heavier. Now the other person you’ve shared with knows how to best support you.
How do you like to spend your free time?
I love to be on the water and spend time outdoors. I love to be with my family. We have two kids in our house and we love to be active with them.
However, sometimes the best downtime is truly downtime. I enjoy drinking coffee in my robe and watch Law and Order. I also recharge by spending time with loved ones, writing, reading or calling my amazing sponsor.