Nearly three decades into her own recovery, Anita Bradley ’95, founder of the Northern Ohio Recovery Association, is helping others get past their pain.
by Justin Glanville
Photography by Billy Delfs
It’s the night the Cleveland Indians clinch their first entry into the World Series in 20 years, and an auditorium on the city’s East Side is packed. People high-five each other. There’s swaggering banter all around.
“We’ve got this,” one man says to another, a grin across his face. “We’re going all the way.”
But the victory officially being celebrated tonight isn’t the Indians’. It’s that of the latest graduating class of the Greater Cleveland Drug Court—a program that allows people convicted of a drug charge to complete a rehabilitation program in exchange for having the charge removed from their criminal record.
It’s difficult not to feel the parallels between the two triumphs: Successes no one anticipated, long shots overcoming troubled pasts to gain a shot at reinvention.
Here to address the 20 graduates—and the crowd of family members and friends gathered to support them—is Anita Bradley ’95, the keynote speaker, who strides to the podium carrying a white canvas bag.
Bradley begins her speech not with platitudes but her own story of addiction and recovery—a story that starts more than 30 years before, when she was a student at Kent State, and continues through her founding and leadership of the Northern Ohio Recovery Association (NORA). The nonprofit program operates residential recovery houses for women and provides outpatient support and treatment programs for people in recovery.
Today, as the organization’s executive director, she oversees a staff of 60 serving an estimated 5,000 people in recovery across northern Ohio, either through direct services or online support programs. A growing number—including some of tonight’s graduates—are struggling with addiction to opioids, including prescription painkillers, heroin and fentanyl.
In April, Bradley traveled to the White House to be honored as one of 10 national “Champions of Change” for her work in drug and alcohol abuse treatment and recovery, chosen from more than 900 nominees.
“I went from being an addict to a secretary to an executive director,” she continues. “If you have a foundation of support, like you all do, you’ll get through it. You can overcome anything.”
She reaches into her canvas bag. The crowd hoots with appreciation as she reveals the contents—an official Cleveland Cavaliers basketball and a jersey emblazoned with her name. They’re souvenirs of the time last spring when the team recognized her work by inviting her to their second playoff game.
“I love the White House,” she says, to laughter and applause, “but I’m telling you, there’s nothing like being honored by your hometown.”
For Bradley, the jersey also has a deeper significance. Back in the 1980s, in the depths of her addiction, she shoplifted expensive sports jerseys from malls so she could resell them for money to buy cocaine.
To be given a personalized one, in the year her hometown team won a championship, symbolizes the sea change she’s made in her life since that dark period.
“I was so messed up,” she recalls, sitting in her office at NORA’s headquarters in downtown Cleveland and dressed in a neatly tailored suit. “I mean, I was stealing and getting caught on a regular basis. But I didn’t care. I needed my drugs.”
She’d gotten hooked as a way of coping with the sudden death of her father in a boating accident in 1986. It was her junior year at Kent State, and Bradley, a self-described “daddy’s girl,” was devastated. A friend introduced her to cocaine, which offered a quick and easy escape from her grief, one that Bradley says fit her go-go personality.
“When I dive into something, I dive in 110 percent,” she says, shaking her head. “I got started and didn’t look back.”
She went from snorting cocaine to smoking it—which makes the drug even more potent and addictive. By the end of that year, she was far enough gone that she dropped out of college and moved back in with her mother in Cleveland Heights. For five years, mostly jobless, she drifted between there and seedy apartments shared with friends who were also addicted. Her days were a haze of drugs and alcohol.
Her first real wakeup call came about four years into her addiction, when—still using—she suffered the miscarriage of an unplanned pregnancy. Around the same time, she was arrested during a shoplifting expedition and spent a few days in jail.
“I was never sentenced to an actual jail term, but those few days made me see how close I was to it,” she says. “That, combined with the miscarriage, was like the lightbulb went off. I was responsible for my own life. I couldn’t blame anyone else.”
She asked a friend to take her to a rehabilitation clinic, then followed that up with a stay at a sober house. She used drugs for the last time on May 7, 1989.
For Bradley, recovery began with remembering the person she’d been before drugs took over: a star student who applied her fiery temperament to running track, getting good grades, taking care of her appearance. At first, she attacked her recovery with the same intensity, trying to win others’ approval. But as the clouds of addiction continued to clear, she realized that even the earlier, achievement-oriented version of herself had been a way of trying to cover over deep pain.
“Most addicts have a hole they’re trying to fill, and mine was low self-esteem,” she says. “I’d been trying to mask it through being excellent in other areas. It was my way of overcompensating.”
She wouldn’t only have to give up drugs, she realized. She’d have to discover a new, more compassionate way of treating herself. The process took years—of counseling and therapy, of living with and learning from other women in recovery who’d turned their lives around.
“Becoming confident in yourself is what you need to deal with the stuff that happens every day,” she says. “It’s what helps you absorb the challenges, helps you cope when you’ve got big things to deal with, instead of going back to drugs.”
“Becoming confident in yourself is what you need to deal with the stuff that happens every day. It’s what helps you absorb the challenges, helps you cope when you’ve got big things to deal with, instead of going back to drugs.”
When Bradley returned to Kent State in 1991, her studies gave her a newfound sense of purpose. She graduated in 1995 with a degree in criminal justice and corrections, a field that had fascinated her since childhood. Law school seemed the logical next step, but a friend talked her out of it.
By then, the recovery center where she’d lived had hired her as a secretary, and she spent a lot of time interacting with and supporting the residents.
“My friend had seen me at work, and she pointed out what a natural fit it was for me,” Bradley remembers. “She saw I thrived more on the therapeutic than the corrective side.”
She worked in several program planning positions in Cleveland before being hired as the executive director of Compass House Inc., a residential treatment center in Lorain County. Along the way, she also earned a master’s degree in social work at Cleveland State University.
She founded NORA in 2004, wanting to build an organization that reached beyond the typical treatment and residential programs to serve people once they’d returned to the real world.
“People are in these programs and then you send them home and say, ‘Don’t drink, go to meetings and pray,’” she says. “My big idea was, why don’t we let people who are in recovery help each other more? For me, that was what made all the difference—having people who helped me get more than just treatment but got me back into church, back into school, back into a job.”
Today, NORA manages a network of 200 active volunteers who visit NORA’s treatment centers and residential houses to talk to women about their own recovery experiences, just as Bradley herself did for the Drug Court.
“To come back from addiction and get your degrees and start an organization—that is rare,” says Daryl Jackson, program coordinator and director of the Greater Cleveland Drug Court, who invited Bradley to give the keynote speech. “I wanted her to speak to the graduates to say, ‘If I can do it, you can do it.’ They needed to see that to believe it can happen.”
The keys to her success, he says, are her dedication and warmth.
“She has a love for this field,” Jackson says. “She genuinely wants to help people, and you need that, because otherwise she wouldn’t be in it. Everyone knows it’s not a way to get rich.”
Today, Bradley’s biggest battles are more external than internal. Much of NORA’s funding comes from federal grants whose regulations were written years ago. Some don’t allow funds to be spent on food or minor construction costs, which are often among the greatest needs in residential recovery houses.
Even more critically, many programs don’t reflect the troubling and well-documented shift toward opioids as the substance of choice for many users. An estimated 2 million people nationwide now abuse opioids. Many start with legal painkillers, prescriptions for which are written at a rate of about 250 million a year.
The epidemic has hit Ohio particularly hard. The state was second in the nation for drug overdose deaths in 2014, with opioids the main killer. (KSU recently organized a forum on opioids’ impact; see sidebar, below.)
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Bradley says. “Heroin gets you so quick. You wouldn’t believe how many stories I hear about young kids going in their parents’ medicine cabinets, people who get prescribed pills to help them sleep or to relieve back pain, and then they’re out on the streets.” (Street heroin is cheaper and more potent than prescription painkillers.)
Back when Bradley was using and cocaine was the drug of choice, accidental deaths were rare. Today, on average, one Ohioan dies of an opioid overdose every two-and-half hours. Part of the reason is that heroin is many times more addictive than cocaine, and street varieties are often strengthened with substances such as fentanyl, which can be lethal even in tiny doses.
During her White House visit last spring, Bradley called for new initiatives to educate children in elementary schools about the dangers of the drugs—as well to train teachers and coaches to look out for the warning signs of addiction. She’d also like to see greater funding for replacement drugs such as Vivitrol.
Still, she cautions against letting the opioid epidemic overshadow the continued dangers of abusing other substances. NORA now works with the Drug Court to provide counseling for what Daryl Jackson calls a “lost population” of participants addicted to cocaine and other drugs.
“In the end, addiction is addiction,” Bradley says. “What people use is different, and it changes, but it’s all deadly.”
“In the end, addiction is addiction. What people use is different and it changes, but it’s all deadly.”
It’s a sunny afternoon in October as several dozen women gather in the living room of a NORA residential treatment center in Cleveland Heights. They’ve just finished lunch, and arrange themselves in a circle of chairs to start their daily sharing session. They’ll talk about their battles with cravings, encourage each other to tell their drug-dependent brains to back off.
Bradley is here, too. She doesn’t visit often—she’s too busy at the office managing staff, attending meetings with partner organizations and seeking and managing grant funding. NORA has an annual budget of about $3 million, approximately 40 percent of which comes from federal programs. Still, she occasionally checks in on the women and staff to help keep in touch with their needs.
One resident, who identifies herself as Gloria B., has struggled for years with addictions to crack cocaine and alcohol. She’s three weeks into a 90-day stay in the house, undergoing a program of meetings, shared meals and therapy that Bradley developed herself. She’s predicting this recovery experience will be more successful than any she’s had before.
“It feels more spiritual,” Gloria B. says. “We talk about things, our childhoods, our relationships. We call it our ‘lost history.’ Just looking at that…”
She trails off, beginning to cry. There are murmurs of support from the other women. “I know this is my last treatment,” she says, more firmly.
Bradley speaks up, assuring her that she will be assigned a recovery specialist when she goes home. The specialist—trained by NORA, funded by the state—serves as a kind of mentor or sponsor to those who have completed their initial treatment, accompanying them to recovery meetings, church, the store—whenever and wherever they want company.
Gloria B. looks up, surprised. “Thank you,” she says.
“You get back out there, and you’re around your old friends,” Bradley says. “You’ve got to have support.”
“Thank you,” Gloria B. says again, clear-eyed now. “I’m glad I know that.”
It’s a striking moment, one that makes clear that in a year of keynote speeches and White House dinners and hob-knobbing with the Cavs, this intimate setting is where Bradley feels most in her element.
“The program piece comes from my heart, because I’ve been there,” she says. “Everybody has their own issues, but what’s the same is we all need to go back and understand ourselves. And we all need support.”
Justin Glanville is a writer based in Cleveland.
A KENT STATE FORUM ON HEROIN ADDICTION RAISES ALARM—AND OFFERS HOPE
In recent years, the area around Kent State has become a hotbed for opioid addiction. The number of heroin deaths in Portage County increased in each of the last three years, and it now ranks 15th in heroin deaths out of 88 counties in Ohio.
In a real-time poll at a public forum on the effects of heroin addiction organized by Kent State’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication (JMC) in October, about one in five attendees reported having a family member or close friend who abused opioids.
The forum was moderated by JMC assistant professor Stephanie Smith and designed to highlight the opioid crisis nationally and on campus.
Here are some of the panelists’ key points for responding to this crisis:
Anyone can get addicted: “This is an equal opportunity destroyer, it cuts across all demographics,” says panel moderator and assistant professor Stephanie Smith.
Young adults are at increased risk: People between 18 and 25 are at particular risk of becoming hooked on opioids, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—in part because of stresses in making the transition to college. Pills such as Vicodin, Percocet and Codeine are often their introduction.
Pain is the ultimate cause: Underlying any addiction is deep pain—physical, emotional or both, says panelist Maureen Keating, a chemical dependency counselor for University Health Services. “Sometimes the pain hides in the smiling face, the student who appears to be doing so well.”
Prescription pain relievers are a common gateway to opioid abuse: Many addictions can be prevented by first trying alternative treatments such as low-impact aerobic exercise and non-opioid medications. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention publishes a full guide at www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/.
Look for warning Signs
Appearance: Physical signs of a person on opioids include tiny pupils, sleepy eyes, flushed skin, dry mouth, runny nose, sudden nodding off and slowed breathing (which is how an overdose kills).
Actions: Behavioral signs of opioid use include loss of memory, rapid mood swings, poor decision-making and irrational anger.
“As soon as I picked up the drug, I became a jerk,” says panelist Jarrod Pyle, a heroin addict in recovery who is now a counselor for a treatment house in Akron.
Other signs of heroin use are itching, nausea and vomiting. Opioid abusers often suffer from constipation and may look for laxatives. They may not eat properly, be careless about personal grooming and try to cover needle marks by wearing long-sleeved clothing.
Paraphernalia: Heroin is usually smoked, snorted or injected, so depending on the method of administration, you could find remnants of the drug or drug paraphernalia left behind such as syringes, small glass or metal pipes, dirty spoons and lighters, belts or rubber tubing.
Start a conversation: “When someone’s using . . . they’re doing things they wouldn’t otherwise do to support their habit, and they’re ashamed,” says panelist Greg McNeil, whose son died of an overdose in 2015. “So even if they don’t want to talk about it, talk to them. They need support.”
Respond quickly to calls for help: Friends and family should respond right away when users ask for help—by taking them to a rehab center or clinic, for example, before they change their minds. “Time is of the essence,” says McNeil, who founded Cover2 Resources, a foundation that provides support to parents of addicts (www.cover2.org).
Notify experts: For those who are truly unapproachable, Kent State students should notify Student Affairs or Health Services so trained university staff can reach out and try to help, says panelist Jennifer Kulics, dean of student of affairs.
Understand what they’re up against: Recovery from opioid abuse is particularly difficult, because opioids change the chemistry and structure of users’ brains. “Once you’re addicted, your brain’s been hijacked,” says Keating. It may take several attempts at recovery before users can finally kick the habit.
Be an advocate, not an enabler: When you want to help, “it’s easy to try to make sure they are not suffering the consequences of their actions,” McNeil says. “But [enabling] isn’t the way to support them.”
Explore options: Pyle points to the many options to recovery that now exist for addicts, including rehabilitation programs, therapy, anonymous groups and replacement drugs such as Vivitrol.
Don’t judge: Friends and family should avoid any hint of disapproval when talking to users about their addiction. Opioid users “want to be connected to something or someone, so they’re going to pick up on judgment quickly,” says Keating. “We have to approach people with compassion.”–JG
Watch the entire forum at www.kent.edu/JMC/heroin.
Flashes for Recovery
Ongoing support group for KSU students, www.kent.edu/csi/student-organizations/flashes-recovery
University Psychological Services
Licensed psychologists provide personalized care to KSU students, www.kent.edu/psych, 330.672.2487
Mental Health & Recovery Board of Portage County
Counseling, support and education for those struggling with mental health and addiction, www.mental-health-recovery.org, 330.673.1756