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From left, Berta Halverson, Jodi Marsh, Bob Stewart and Michael Accardi discuss their past and the benefits they see peer support care provides the community. All four are peer support specialists at Instar Community Services in Helena.

Addiction is one of the most complicated intersections of mental, physical and spiritual health. Add in the criminal justice system, and it becomes a Gordian knot of decisions, punishment, recidivism and pain.

For many people struggling with addiction, it can be hard to find others who have made headway on the road to healing. But several Helena-area residents who have been there before are using their experiences to reach out to others who are struggling now. 

The interior of Instar Solutions is one of soft surfaces and soft light, with a Peanuts blanket over a table and well-used leather furniture placed in a circle in the center room. 

The group of peer support specialists gathered on those leather chairs and couch is a study in contrasts: Michael Accardi is a massive man with a bald head and goatee, Berta Halverson is a short woman with brilliant red hair, Jodi Marsh is a tall blonde woman with a laconic manner, and Bob Stewart is a thin man who wears glasses and a quarter-zip sweater. But they hold one important experience in common; all are sober and are on the road to recovery.

The peer support specialist program at Instar is funded by a state block grant through the Department of Public Health and Human Services' Addictive and Mental Order Division. Because Instar is a state approved chemical dependency program and a 2017 legislative decision expanded the number of state approved programs per county, Instar was able to start the program in June of 2018.

For anyone in the throes of addiction, finding balance is one of the hardest parts of coming out of the depths. The peer support specialists at Instar are all adept at giving a hand to those who need it, and using their own experiences of grief, loss, addiction and recovery to help.

Accardi said that while growing up he was an "awkward kid" who struggled to fit in and used drugs and alcohol to be socially accepted. Accardi spent years in and out of prison as his addiction escalated, knowing that when he used, the world was slipping away from him, but he held onto a "fantasy" of everything working out right.

"I was committing suicide on an installment plan and I was doing life in prison on an installment plan," Accardi said. But he found Narcotics Anonymous, the program he credits with saving his life. 

"I got clean in 2009," Accardi said, but his extensive criminal record made it difficult to find jobs. "I kept running into walls. I wasn't employable and nobody wants to hire a felon," he said.

He found that he wanted to help other people get clean and had a well of empathy that he and every other peer counselor draw from when they work with people at rock bottom.

For every 20 hours of support each person provides, they need to meet with clinical supervision to check in on their mental health and wellness. Taking care of the whole self is an important piece of the puzzle, Berta Halverson said, because failing to do so can lead to many very bad places.

Jodi Marsh has a life experience that would count for multiple lives. She, at different points in her life, was addicted to meth and alcohol, lost a child to meth addiction, had a person take a fall for her, helped cook methamphetamine, became a teacher and finally got clean and became a peer support specialist. 

"Peer support is another outlet for people who don't want to be seen in a 12-step program," Marsh said. When she was teaching and addicted to alcohol, she did not want to be seen at Alcoholics Anonymous because she was afraid of running into a parent of one of her students. "People don't want the status, the stigma of society, so they can come and find the recovery they need here."

Berta Halverson was born in San Francisco at the end of the '60s and went through everything under the sun before she turned 18.

"We are not a way to get recovery like 12-step or a licensed addictions counselor," Halverson said. "We're not professionals, but we are a support tool for recovery."

"Our job is to support, facilitate and guide people through the process, whether that is sitting beside them in court or saying we'll go with them to a meeting," Halverson said. "We can say we remember being in a cell."

Bob Stewart was studying to be a mining engineer at Montana Tech when he became addicted to alcohol and "completely blew up my life," Stewart said. He remembers when he first went to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting sitting next to a man who was burning himself with a cigarette the entire night, ostensibly to stop himself from hunting another drink. "That ruined me on AA," he said.

Stewart said the addiction got worse as time went on.

"I was changing goals to meet behavior," he said. "I lost everything."

Stewart said that it got so bad at one point he was trying to figure out how to commit suicide without making it look like he had done it himself. But he found a man he connected with at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and that sparked a fire that kept him going on his road to recovery.

Each of the peer support specialists agree the most important piece of any recovery comes from the people themselves. Without that choice, nothing will come of all the work everyone else is willing to do.

"A person has to make a decision," Berta said of getting clean. "They have to be willing to make the decision for themselves."

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Reporter at the Helena Independent Record.

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