Susan Tyrrell isn't a doctor or a social worker.
Her expertise on addiction comes from personal experience -- from years of drinking and drugging. Now clean, she's an invaluable source of support for people in recovery, in large part because she understands their struggle.
"If I feel like using drugs, I ask Susan how she does it," a 31-year-old woman whose first initial is A told me. "Just knowing that other people can do it and have done it helps."
"I know what a struggle recovery was for me," Tyrrell, 56, said. "I just want to help people I know are struggling, no matter what their addiction is."
Tyrrell is a certified recovery peer advocate for New Choices Recovery Center in Schenectady, and A is one of her clients, a recovering opioid addict who began using drugs in middle school.
I met with the two women in Tyrell's modest office in downtown Mechanicville -- the first of five field offices established by New Choices as the organization seeks to better meet the needs of addicts in communities where the rate of substance abuse is high, but treatment options are scarce.
New Choice's expansion is part of a broader initiative, called the COTI (Center of Treatment Innovation) Project, that aims to bring services to these underserved areas.
The goal is to eliminate some of the barriers, such as a lack of transportation, that can make sticking with a treatment regimen difficult, particularly for those who live in rural places.
Chad Putman, director of the COTI Project, described the approach as "treatment without walls."
"There are so many barriers that prevent people from getting to a traditional treatment center," he said.
The severity of the opioid epidemic makes the COTI Project's mission both timely and urgent.
Last year a record 72,000 Americans died of drug overdoses, a grim data point that suggests that, for all the attention the opioid epidemic has received in recent years, we have yet to come up with an effective model for treating those struggling with addiction.
It's a problem that demands creative thinking -- and the COTI Project provides it.
One of the COTI Project's big innovations is providing transportation.
The program recently acquired three vans and three cars, and it uses them for a variety of purposes -- giving clients rides to appointments, visiting potential clients in places such as hospitals and parks in hope of connecting them with needed treatment.
"We can do assessments in the van," Laura Coombs, the associate executive director for prevention, treatment and recovery services at New Choices, told me. "We can ask where people want to follow up with us -- we can bring them to a satellite office, or we can meet them (at our main office)."
"Some of the folks we see are very ill, very weak," Combs said. "They're worn down from addiction."
New Choice's other field offices are located in Amsterdam, Fort Plain, Saratoga Springs and Glens Falls.
They are all staffed by certified recovery peer advocates, and outfitted with technology that enables clients to meet with a physician's assistant remotely, via a video-chat platform. The physician's assistant can prescribe medication to treat opioid addiction, such as Suboxone.
New Choices received over $1 million from the state Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services to fund the COTI Project.
For A, who lives in southern Saratoga County, the Mechanicville office, which opened last fall, has been a lifesaver.
She moved to the Capital Region from my home state of New Hampshire, once described by President Donald Trump as a "drug-infested den," for a fresh start. Her friends and family were all using opioids, and her previous attempts to get clean had failed.
One day late in 2017, A traveled to Schenectady to buy drugs and ended up walking into New Choices' headquarters on State Street, where she met Putman.
"They have literally done anything they could to help me," A said. "Because I don't have a vehicle, they transport me, or help me with taxis if they can't transport me. If there had been a program like this in New Hampshire, I might have gotten clean and sober years before."
It's easy to tell people to get clean, but getting clean isn't easy.
If we want to make a dent in the opioid epidemic, we need to make getting clean easier. We need to break down the barriers that make it hard for people to get help, and to go the extra mile for those in need.
The COTI Project goes the extra mile, and the Capital Region is lucky to have it.
Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]