Profiles of Service: Paul Ressler and the Overdose Prevention Agency Corporation

Paul Ressler, holding a picture of his son, Corey.

Paul Ressler’s son, Corey, died on July 14, 2010 of a drug overdose. He spent the next year both grieving and trying to find a way to make a difference in the lives of people who had problems with substance abuse. I met Paul in the summer of 2011 when he showed up to his first meeting as a new appointee to the Governor’s Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse (GCADA). After the meeting, I walked over and grabbed his hand and introduced myself (Paul is blind). He told me about his son and how he wanted to “make a difference and save lives.” I recognized the rare fire that burns in people who want to implement change.

Paul told me he also cared about veterans. I asked him why. He responded that he had been a combat medic in Vietnam (it’s one of the most meaningful jobs in the military that I can think of). I told Paul that a blind, Vietnam combat medic who lost his son to a drug overdose could be a powerful advocate in the fight for better public policy, improved treatment and maybe even insurance reform. Paul responded, “Whatever I can do Frank. Whatever I can do.”

Within a year, the NJ Heroin and Opiate Task Force was formed. Neil Van Ess, the Chairman of the GCADA, appointed me as the Chairman of the Task Force, Eric Arauz as the Vice-Chair and Paul as one of the other members. We held hearings around the state and listened to testimony from the parents of dead kids and a few people who fought their way into recovery. After the last session in October of 2012, we got down to the business of writing our report.

Also that October, Governor Christie vetoed the Good Samaritan Law. It was a law that had been enacted in other states in order to save lives. There is evidence that shows that 70% of people who died from an overdose and were found alone were actually not alone at the time of their overdose. People flee the scene and don’t call for help because they don’t want to get arrested. The Good Samaritan Law would have saved lives and all it would have cost was to not charge someone with drug possession that called for help. Governor Christie vetoed it because he said that drug dealers would use it to avoid getting in trouble.

Paul went public and denounced the Governor. It was a bold move, because this was pre-bridge, still-national-rising-star Governor Christie. Paul didn’t care. He said the Governor was wrong. He wanted the Task Force to officially support the Good Samaritan Law, but he couldn’t sway a few members who didn’t want to publicly oppose the Governor. Along with a number of other advocates (including Patty DiRenzo from South Jersey), Paul raised hell for the next six months. On May 2, 2013, Governor Christie announced that he was doing something that he rarely does – “I’ve changed my mind.” He signed the Good Samaritan Law and the Overdose Prevention Act into law. Paul was there when the Governor signed it.

Meanwhile, the Task Force report was repeatedly stalled, changed and blocked. Politics. The delay made the front page of the Bergen Record with the brutal title: In the Fight Against Heroin, Help Stalls While Frustration Grows in Trenton. Paul continually argued that the report should be released immediately, regardless of the political fall out (behind closed doors, he even gave me an earful on a couple of occasions). Eventually, the report was released on March 17, 2014.

Paul is on the board of Daytop-NJ. He was trained by NCADD-NJ to do advocacy work. He donates his time and money to the cause. He makes phone calls. He shows up to events all over the state. He speaks his mind without fear – “I don’t care what happens to me Frank…no one can do anything to me. I lost my son and I’m blind.”

This fall, Paul founded the Overdose Prevention Agency Corporation. It is a non-profit that conducts free trainings on how to administer Narcan to someone who has overdosed. The corporation also supplies free kits of Narcan to people that attend the training. It’s a big deal (it is supported through donations, so consider giving). Paul has continued to deliver on his words that he told me when we first met: “I want to make a difference and save lives.”

You have Paul. You do. Thank you.


A New Treatment Program

Back in August, I wrote about how I left a dream job working at the Rutgers Counseling Centers and overseeing the Rutgers Recovery House. I mentioned that there were several new prospects that I was pursuing, including rejoining the United States Army (USA Today ran a nice article about me as well). I am now ready to unveil another one of those opportunities: late last summer, I was hired to be the Executive Director of College Recovery. We are a new business (that has ties to a large, successful and ethical treatment program in California) that has a Sober Living Component as well as a NJ DMHAS-licensed Substance Abuse Treatment Center.

College Recovery (click here for the treatment website) is treatment program that provides individual and group counseling to people with alcohol and/or drug problems and people with co-occurring disorders. We treat people at a variety of levels: Partial Hospitalization (PHP – 20 hours a week), Intensive Outpatient (IOP – 9 hours) and Outpatient (OP – 1 to 8.5 hours a week). We are less than a mile from the Rutgers campus and only a few blocks from the New Brunswick train station. We are located in a brand new, green (eco-friendly) building in downtown New Brunswick just a block away from City Hall and the Courthouse. Our population age range is 18 to 29, although we will take older individuals when they make sense. The key requirement (after the diagnoses) is that they are in college (or just wiped out of college and plan to go back within one semester). Soon, we will be licensed to offer individual and group treatment (both IOP and OP) for people with mental health disorders and/or eating disorders.

Those close to me know about my affinity for supergroups (Cream, the Traveling Wilbury’s, the Avengers, Giffen’s Justice League, the 2006 Swedish Hockey Team, the 2012 NJ Opiate Task Force, Temple of the Dog, the special case unit in The Wire, etc…). Within a week of being hired, I put together an all-star team of treatment experts.

Dr. Louis Baxter is our consulting medical director. He is the past president of the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM). He served with me on the aforementioned Task Force and is nationally known for his expertise in medication assisted therapies (MAT’s). Joe Buttler is the clinical director and comes to us with over 40 years of experience in the field. Joe is known throughout the state for his expertise in training clinicians, especially running internship programs. Jass Pelland is the compliance officer and has 30 years of experience on the front lines. She has an absolute expertise in quality assurance and regulations. There are a few other well known figures and experts that I’m in discussions with about joining our team. I’ve hired a number of clinicians that I’ve worked with in other places, as well as a handful of my former students. They are young, bright, motivated and extremely coachable. It’s a great team. I’m both thrilled and proud of it.

At College Recovery, we do monitored urine screens. In addition to traditional groups like gender groups, relapse prevention and multi-family groups, we offer a guided mediation group and multiple yoga classes each week. We encourage exercise and take people to the gym. We take students to 3+ 12-step meetings a week and offer 2+ social activities a week as well. Being outside of Rutgers is a wonderful fit, as there are 40 students in recovery housing and 60 young alumni that live nearby, so there are over 100 young people in recovery that understand the unique issues facing college students who don’t drink or drug. This provides an immediate social circle, set of role models and potential sponsors that are not available to young people in early recovery anywhere else.

We also offer supportive housing (click here for that website). The brand new building has 20 beds, live-in staff and is located a block behind the Rutgers Student Center on the College Avenue Campus. Residents must submit to a breathalyzer in the morning and night, follow a curfew and be enrolled in some kind of treatment (obviously our treatment program is an easy fit, but they can choose to go to another program if they want). Getting sober at a young age is tough, and doing so on a college campus provides an even more difficult set of challenges. We are providing supportive housing, treatment, exposure to positive peers and role models, and perhaps most significantly, fun activities throughout the week and on every Friday and Saturday night. If people don’t find new ways of having fun, they aren’t going to stay sober.

So, I’m doing what I’ve done for over a dozen years (with my students in Japan, the residents at Integrity House, the residents at Earth House, my students at Elizabeth High School and my Rutgers Recovery House members)….I take them for late night, high caloric foods and on brutally long, surprisingly cold hikes.

Spread the gospel.