Take Note: In A "State Of Emergency," Danielle Dormer Helps Students In Drug & Alcohol Recovery

May 29, 2018

Danielle Dormer at the WPSU studios.
Credit Min Xian / WPSU

This episode of Take Note is part of "State of Emergency: Searching for solutions to Pennsylvania’s opioids epidemic." State of Emergency is a combined effort of newsrooms across the state to draw attention to programs, therapies and strategies that are actually showing promise in the fight against this public health crisis.

Danielle Dormer is a mother and Army veteran in long term recovery from drug and alcohol use. She uses her experience to help Penn State students, serving as the Assistant Program Coordinator for the Collegiate Recovery Community. She is also earning her Masters of Education in Clinical Rehabilitation and Mental Health Counseling at Penn State, where she completed her undergraduate degree in 2017 earning a 4.0 GPA and the Outstanding Adult Student Award. She talked with WPSU's Cheraine Stanford.

Interview Transcript

 

 

 

Cheraine Stanford:

Danielle Dormer, thank you for joining us today.

Danielle Dormer:

Thank you for having me.

Cheraine Stanford:

Take us back to the day when you first hit rock bottom. Can you describe that moment for us?

Danielle Dormer:

I can kind of remember what led up to the moment. And what led up to the moment is this thought process of just trying to escape reality. Just, not having, really, a stable place to live, stable relationships, so, going out and partying, getting high, that's what is attractive in those moments because it's the only thing that feels good.

I can't remember so much the process of that night, of getting to that point, but I can remember waking up on a piece of concrete, in the middle of Philadelphia, unable to move my body, but fully conscious in my mind. It was sheer terror.

The second I was able to start moving, I got up, desperate and willing to do something different. And it was that event that led me into the Army Recruiting Office.

Cheraine Stanford:

Why did you go into the Army Recruiting Office? What led you there?

Danielle Dormer:

If I'm- I'll tell you, all my options were exhausted at that point, and I'm not even quite sure why I thought the Army was a option, at that point, but I knew I wanted to do better. I knew I wasn't someone ... I had already dropped out of high school, I couldn't face trying to go back, I wasn't able to do it the first time.

I'd say maybe it was some pride in the way, of not being able to back to that high school and say I wanted to try again, but again, I didn't have a stable living environment. I didn't have the support to succeed in high school.

So the Army just seemed, like a way to go. The narrative around me, about the military, was, "Be all you can be." I had heard the stories of people, or individuals enlisting in the military, who were a lot like me, who had no place to go, who were trying to escape a troubled youth. And I didn't have a criminal record, which I am very grateful for, because unfortunately a lot of the people that start picking up drugs and alcohol, at a young age, they get- they have criminal records and then that blocks them from opportunities.

So I marched myself in there.

Cheraine Stanford:

And you said that he, the recruitment officer, didn't judge you. So what- how did you feel judged before that? And why did that feel like a welcoming space?

Danielle Dormer:

So I'll tell you, my process of- so I was emancipated as a youth, I was 16 years old when I was emancipated. I had tried to live life on my own. I had tried to stay in high school. Obtain employment. But it's really difficult. And I felt the ... and I can remember even when I went in to drop out, from high school, there was no loving support, there was no asking of why or encouragement to stay. It was just, "Sign this paper and you're done."

So I guess I internalized that, as people just trying to get rid of me. And to be honest with you, I was trying to get rid of myself. So when that Army recruiter just kinda, laughed at my appearance, and was so willing to work with me, it was exactly what I needed.

Cheraine Stanford:

And you said you were emancipated. Can you explain to people what that means?

Danielle Dormer:   

Yeah, so, for me, what that means is the- my childhood was troubled, there was some abuse at home. So with the help of a lawyer, I was able to petition the court, instead of having to go into a foster care system, that I was able to provide my own living. So, I was given an Access Card and Medicaid, and went on my way.

Cheraine Stanford:

So when you got into the military, you ended up spending about, ten years-

Danielle Dormer:

Yeah, my service spanned about ten years.

Cheraine Stanford:

And you said that they time- your time in the military was part good and bad for your addictions?

Danielle Dormer:

Yeah, so what my time in- so when I ... so as a teenager, my drugs of choice were narcotics. I did a lot of drugs. I did- we don't need to go through all the drugs I did, but you name them, I probably did them. Alcohol really wasn't a big thing for me, because it's easy- believe it or not, on the streets of Philadelphia, in my day and age and I'm sure it's the same, it's easier for a teenager to get drugs than it is alcohol.

So, once I got into the military, I really- I dropped the idea of using drugs. I was so grateful to have a family, a community, a place to sleep at night. I had not really had those things yet. But I welcomed in this idea of alcohol because that's what people were doing around me, I still hadn't processed any of the things that had happened to me, as a youth, that had happened to me during my use. I never really fully addressed the fact that I had substance use disorder, and it became acceptable as an 18, 19-year-old, stationed in Germany, to go out drinking on the weekends.

So that's really what my addiction- it did not go away, it just transformed.

Cheraine Stanford:

Right now, you describe yourself as being in long-term recovery. What do you mean by that? What does that mean?

Danielle Dormer:

So, in the past with substance use disorder, we've heard people self-describe as “I'm an alcoholic” or “I'm an addict.” For me, that still gives the power to the drug. It still gives the power, it's the individual identifying with the substance. I don't want that for myself and I don't want that for anybody else that has substance use disorder. I want them to identify with their recovery.

So when I identify in public, I say, "I am an individual in long-term recovery." I give the power to the solution, not the problem.

Cheraine Stanford:

And how long have you been in recovery?

Danielle Dormer:

I've been in recovery for two and a half years now.

Cheraine Stanford:

You're particular about the language that is used around this issue. So, for example, reinforcing the idea of addiction as a disease, talking about substance use as a disorder. Why is that, even those things, why is that even important?

Danielle Dormer:

It's so important to me because the number one thing where we have to start in healing our communities, is we have to start with stigma reduction. And I believe it's difficult to reduce any kind of stigma when we're using the terminology of addiction and alcoholic and abuse.

When I hear abuse, I think of a choice. I think of an individual doing something wrong. I don't think of an individual that needs help, that is sick. So if we go to a more inclusive language, I believe we can start to reduce the stigma.

Cheraine Stanford:

You're very upfront, also, about acknowledging some of the privileges that you said you had in not getting in as much trouble as other people, maybe who are of a different race than you-

Danielle Dormer:

Yes.

Cheraine Stanford:

... different gender. Talk about that and how you think that kept you out of having a criminal record, for example.

 

 

Danielle Dormer:

Yeah, I actually- I welcome the opportunity to talk about that. Basically what that looks like, is, I'm an individual, if you look at me, I am a woman, I am a white woman, so when I talk about that kept me out of a criminal record, I was at many parties, I was in many cars that were pulled over. I was at parties that were raided by police officers. They would look at me and I got let go. My peers, that were using with me, if they looked like a man or a woman of color, guess what they got. They got handcuffs and they got carted off. But they were just as sick as I was.

So now we have put individuals that have substance use disorder in prison. We've stunted their growth, at 15, 16, 17 years old, they're going to juvenile detention centers. They're going to state/county incarceration. Where's the opportunity to build life? To build purpose?

I got that, in part, because of the way I look and I don't think that's fair, and I think that we need to change that.

Cheraine Stanford:

And now you're in a position, you're the Assistant Program Coordinator for the Collegiate Recovery Community. Can you talk about what that is and how it helps?

Danielle Dormer:

We support individuals as they strive to obtain an education. So they can develop purpose and meaning in their life. So a life of drug and alcohol use doesn't seem more appealing to them. Who needs that the most? Who needs that the most are the individuals who have not seen that in their family. Who have not had that opportunity. The individuals that have been incarcerated.

What I want to do here at Penn State, what I see us doing here at Penn State, every day, is we are building a recovery community that is inclusive, we're reaching out to the community. We're speaking wherever we get an opportunity to speak. And we're learning from our mistakes. We're not perfect. But we're learning from our mistakes and hopefully we can build these principles and build this community, so we can bring this down to all the commonwealth campuses. And even a further dream for me is to get collegiate recovery programs in our community colleges, our high schools, everywhere you have a group of individuals, you're most likely gonna have a group of individuals that are also using.

And for them to make the choice not to use, I wanna make it attractive. I wanna make a life in recovery look worth living.

Cheraine Stanford:

What are the things that you guys can do to help people on a college campus?

Danielle Dormer:

Yeah, so we have a large college campus that we operate our collegiate recovery program on, that's University Park at Penn State, and there's a number of bars, there's a number of drinking events around town.

So what we give the students is alternative events. Alternative peer groups. What we give students- something to do on a Friday night, on a Saturday night other than just sit in their room and watch Netflix or play Call of Duty, and think about how they're missing out.

We do social events, we do educational programming. Sometimes we're just sitting around chatting, but, together we are stronger than any one of us sitting in our room, all alone, feeling isolated. Because isolation, feeling isolated, feeling like you're different, you're separate, from the whole- we know that brings people back out. But feeling like you have a community of support, that you have a family, people that are invested in your recovery. We know that that maintains long-term recovery.

Cheraine Stanford:

And is there- you guys can all live together, too, there's housing for it. Is that an important part of it?

Danielle Dormer:

I believe it's an important component. Here at Penn State, we have 16 students in long-term recover; living together, making meals together, learning how to have relationships together. I mean, that's a lot of the part of substance use disorder, is you don't quite know how to be in a relationship.

So, we're giving these young adults the opportunity to build relationships. Supportive, life-long friends, the same opportunities that the college students are getting on campus in fraternities and sororities and housing- we're giving the individuals, that are in recovery.

Cheraine Stanford:

Why are you doing this kind of work?

 

 

Danielle Dormer:

I ... sorry, I'm getting choked up. Because, I think back to myself. And I think back to that 16-year-old girl, that was lying on that piece of concrete in Philadelphia, who didn't know what recovery looked like. I didn't have anyone around me showing me anything different and I don't want any little girl or little boy to have to live that life. I don't want them to feel isolated or alone. So, I stand up and I speak out. And I will continue to do that. I don't know if it's just love or purpose, but I've been given the opportunity, I've been given an education. I remember that feeling of thinking to myself, "I'm not one of those people." And now that I have this education, I want everyone that's sitting there thinking they're never gonna be one of these people to know you can be. That's why I do it.

Cheraine Stanford:

Do you ever think about the 16-year-old who dropped out of high school and now you're earning your Master's degree? I mean, does that seem unreal to you a little bit?

Danielle Dormer:

It seems very unreal to me. It still, you know, it chokes me up when I think about it. And I think a lot of the work I do, is about giving back, to me. Because I am so grateful for it. I would've never imagined it.

Cheraine Stanford:

There's a lot of media attention, right now, in particular around opioid addictions, there's documentaries, TV specials, WPSU- we're doing, you know, we're gonna be launching a big project about opioid use. But I always wonder, what is it that we're missing? We in the media, when we talk about something like the opioid crisis? Or if you haven't experienced it directly in your family, what are we missing when we talk about it?

Danielle Dormer:

Yeah, I could talk for a while about what everybody's missing, so, you can feel free to jump in and provide me direction. Number one thing we need to start with is, every generation has a substance crisis. Has a- so this generation right now, it's opiates. Let's not forget the generation that incarcerated many men of color when it was crack and it was cocaine. Let's go- I mean it's, so what we're talking about here, right now, in the opiate crisis, one, is we're talking about the opiate crisis because the truth of the matter is, there are children of privilege, teenagers, dying out in the suburbs. So, now we're talking about it.

But I'm grateful for that. I don't- I'm grateful for any conversation that brings up the concept of recovery. So as we talk about the opiate crisis, let's not forget that we're talking about recovery. It's more than Narcan, it's more than medication assisted treatment. We're talking about engaging people in long-term recovery. We don't solve the opiate crisis, we don't solve anything until we can build communities of support that make a life in recovery worth living.

Cheraine Stanford:

What are some of the factors that have led to you being successful in recovery?

Danielle Dormer:

So for my recovery, what it looked like was, I was working on healing the trauma, on healing the reasons why I was using. But at the same time I was developing purpose by coming back to school. So my recovery program was very comprehensive. I- if ... I was getting success in school. So I was feeling, "Okay, I can do this. I can do this."

So, I was able to go to counseling and go to treatment, ready to dig into the hard stuff, because I could see a light, through education, I could see, "Okay, if I graduate, I can get a job." So it made going through the pain worth it. But if we're just carting people into treatment and not developing purpose simultaneously by workforce development or education, why look at that pain? Why is it worth it? What's the best they're gonna go to?

So I believe that recovery programs, treatment programs, they have to be comprehensive. We have to work with people to build a life. We don't just give them treatment and send them back out on the street.

Cheraine Stanford:

And you've done a 12 step recovery? Has that been part of yours?

Danielle Dormer:

Yes. And again, my recovery program is comprehensive. I've done 12 step recovery, I've done individual counseling, vocational rehabilitation with the VA. The recovery path has to be individual. Any kind of cookie cutter approach, it just doesn't work. So treatment episodes, the 28 days for acute care crisis, I understand that that, you know, sometimes looks like a cookie cutter approach, but what needs to happen, what I believe needs to happen, and some treatment centers are doing this successfully, is, when you're coming to the end of your treatment episode, a career counselor, maybe it's a collegiate recovery program. You're developing a long-term plan, and in some cases, you're getting a peer support recovery specialist is coming in, and they're gonna follow you after treatment. They're gonna follow up with you and see how you're maintaining some of these goals.

Cheraine Stanford:

So what does recovery look like, day to day? Because, I think ... you're obviously a success story, but, it's not some easy thing where like, "Oh now I'm in recovery. The end." I mean, what does it look like in practice every single day?

Danielle Dormer:

Yeah. Recovery is an every day decision, which again, brings me back to say, "Why do we treat it with just acute care?" We treat substance use disorder with treatment episodes and then we give no long-term care. I'm able to be successful in my recovery, because I have received an education and I understand the utility of recovery supports. That's not the case for a lot of individuals.

So for me it looks like, I go to 12 step meetings. I meet with other individuals in recovery. I have coffee. I get a chance to share my experience, my strength, my hope. When I'm not feeling hopeful, right? Because I have bad days, I'm not this bright and cheery every day. I have people to call that I know have been there, too. There is not a situation on this planet that an individual in recovery has not faced. I just need to be in contact with those people. I need to know who to reach out to.

We need to continue to build our recovery community. I believe that we're doing that. The 12 step community has recently embraced medication assistance. We're looking at more inclusive terminology, like saying "I'm an individual in long-term recovery." You have people out here with lived experience in recovery, working around the clock to build supportive communities that they're not getting reimbursed for. Nobody's making money off this.

And that's just the matter. That's what it's a- it's a matter of building the community of support.

Cheraine Stanford:

And then do you have to say no to certain things, stay away from certain situations?

Danielle Dormer:

I do. So, if we go back, I think about my veteran identity. That's still with me, it's with me very strong. I'm still working to figure out what that's gonna look like. Moving forward. Because it's very difficult for me to be with my fellow veterans.

A lot of the situations, social situations, for veterans are, "Hey, you're having a bad day, let's grab a beer. Let's go to the VFW, down to the Legion, grab a beer." And we sit there on a bar stool, and we tell our stories.

I don't miss the beer, but I miss the friendship. I miss my veteran community. They get it. They've seen the things I've seen. They understand my mindset. But sometimes I feel really disconnected from them because I haven't quite, even at two and a half years of recovery, figured out how I engage with that community without being triggered, without wanting to pick up that beer. That's difficult. But for me, I have a recovery community through collegiate recovery programs, through advocacy that I do, that I can balance that with.

Cheraine Stanford:

And your son's a teenager now.

Danielle Dormer:    Yes.

Cheraine Stanford:

Your eldest son. How do you talk to him about drugs and things like that?

Danielle Dormer:

So when my son was going into high school, his very first day of school, I sat out front of my house with him and I tried to sell him drugs. Not actual drugs, this is all pretend and role-play. And he kept saying, "Mom, what are you doing? Why are you doing that?" I wanted to expose him. He needed to be exposed to the idea. Granted, I probably didn't approach him in the ways in which he will be approached, but I planted a seed.

What I think we do with a lot of our teenagers, is we have parents out here that are completely disconnected. They're not realizing, their sometimes, 11, 12 year olds, already know what it's like to be approached. We just assume that our schools are safe, that they're going to school and they're doing these things, but, 95% of our kids are on an iPad or an iPhone or on the Internet. They know. Let's have that conversation with them, expose them to the ideas.

Cheraine Stanford:

Did he- what did he think of that role playing?

Danielle Dormer:

Well he laughed at me a lot, and he told me that, "Nobody's gonna do that, mom. That's not how people try and sell drugs." So I said, "Oh, well then why don't you tell me how people try?" So it's a matter of informing each other, back and forth. But he knows that he can talk to me.

Cheraine Stanford:

Can you talk about your role in the HOPE Initiative? Which is the Centre County Heroin and Opioid Prevention and Education Initiative. What do you do with that?

Danielle Dormer:

What I do there is, I'm a person on that committee with lived experience. I believe- so we have a number of committees happening around the state, a lot of communities are coming up and building these Heroin/opiate prevention or education programs, support groups. They’re happening in a lot of places around the Commonwealth. What sometimes they're missing, on those committees, is a person with lived experience.

So here in Centre County, we have an amazing drug and alcohol office. We have amazing people all around this county that are coming to the table to try and figure out what we can do different.

Danielle Dormer:

In those meetings, they give me a lot of hope. I really love those meetings, because you're having the Coroner, representatives from district offices are coming and saying, "What can we do? How can we work together?" They're trying different things.

Do all of those things always work? No. But at least we're trying. And that's what I love about Centre County. That's why I love to be a part of that organization. Because, we just have to keep trying.

Cheraine Stanford:

What would you say to someone who's listening right now, who is dealing with substance abuse disorder, and trying to figure out next steps?

Danielle Dormer:

I'd tell that individual that you don't have to live like this. There is a different way to live. I know you don't see it. I know you don't feel it right now. But just grab a little bit of hope. Grab a little bit of hope and do the next right thing, and if you can keep holding onto that tiny seed of hope, and putting together a few steps, I promise you, I promise you life can get better. You're worth it. You're loved. We have a family here in the recovery world and we're waiting for you.

Cheraine Stanford:

Danielle Dormer, thank you so much for being with us today.

Danielle Dormer:    Thank you so much for letting me speak.

Cheraine Stanford:

Danielle Dormer is a mother and Army veteran, in long-term recovery from drug and alcohol use. She uses her experience to help Penn State students, serving as the Assistant Program Coordinator for the Collegiate Recovery Community. This episode of Take Note is part of State of Emergency, Searching for Solutions to Pennsylvania's opioid epidemic. State of Emergency is a combined effort of newsrooms across the state, to draw attention to programs, therapies, and strategies that are showing promise in the fight against this public health crisis.

Hear more Take Note interviews on our website at wpsu.org/takenote.

I'm Cheraine Stanford, WPSU.