He should have died so many times, especially when he was pushed out of a car after an overdose. But Jay Berry climbed back from a life of pain to one of promise and purpose: “Fifty percent or more of my job is planting a seed of hope.”
By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior journalist, firstname.lastname@example.org
When Jay Berry looks in the mirror, he sometimes sees the 11-year-old boy who stole prescription pills from his grandma’s medicine cabinet. Or the teenage wrestler who self-medicated to cut weight. Or the young adult who couldn’t drag himself off his parents’ couch.
But then he sees the 29-year-old man who has finally found his footing.
Berry is a peer recovery coach for IU Health. He works the overnight shift in the virtual care program of System Clinical Services, helping others who struggle with addiction.
It’s appropriate that Berry started his job with IU Health a year ago this month. Every September, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration sponsors Recovery Month to boost awareness of mental and substance use disorders and celebrate recovery.
As a coach, Berry offers help and hope to those who are spiraling down, caught up in a dependence on alcohol, illegal drugs or prescription meds.
He’s seen it all. He’s done it all.
He comes from a place of understanding. One of the requirements of the job is lived experience.
So when he looks in the eyes of a patient who comes into the emergency department, he can relate to their pain, their confusion, their sense of hopelessness.
“Jay is a passionate fighter for those in the throes of addiction,” said Ian McDaniel, executive director of virtual care for IU Health.
HOOKED ON “HOUSE”
As a boy, Berry used to watch the medical drama “House,” about a pill-popping doctor. He was intrigued.
“I was always a little too smart for my own good. I knew in my grandma’s medicine cabinet she had the same stuff that was making him act so silly, and I wanted to know what that felt like.”
He was 11.
Not long after his 12th birthday, he tried marijuana and alcohol. He says he did it to fit in with the older kids he hung out with. Not regularly, but often enough.
“It made me feel like an equal,” he said.
At the time, Berry lived in Anderson with his family. A move to Fishers before high school meant he had to find new friends.
He struggled, coming from an inner-city environment to a wealthier suburban school.
“I was out of my element. I became shy and closed off. I felt like I didn’t fit in.”
He did, however, have a talent for finding drugs. So that’s how he fit in.
Weed, alcohol, pills – those were the go-to substances. When he was introduced to heroin, he tried to act cool. He snorted it.
When he made the wrestling team, he had less time and opportunity to mess with drugs.
But when he needed to drop weight quickly to wrestle in a lower weight class as a sophomore, he started mixing appetite suppressants with more opioids. That’s when his habit truly started, he said.
And it continued into college at Ivy Tech Bloomington. He gave up wrestling, deciding the drugs were more important.
“I began to really break bad,” he said. In 2011, as a college sophomore, he started selling pills, in addition to taking heavy doses of Oxycontin, more than his 5-foot-7-inch, 140-pound frame could absorb.
He overdosed several times, he said. He was arrested a couple of times, he entered treatment programs. Eventually, he moved back in with his parents and enrolled in an outpatient treatment program, which he stuck with for a couple months before the heroin pulled him back.
When he was arrested again, he started taking recovery more seriously.
He had an apartment with his fiancé and life was pretty good for a few months, he said. Then came another relapse and another overdose.
“I’ve overdosed several times before, but this time was different,” he said. “I was in a car when I OD’d on heroin and was just pushed out of the car. I was taken to the hospital and revived, but I suffered severe trauma to my brain.”
Berry was in a medically induced coma for 13 days to let his brain heal, but when he woke up, he couldn’t walk or talk and he was nearly blind.
It was the summer of 2012. He was placed in a rehab hospital in Indianapolis and started on a long road to recovery, learning to walk and talk again, dealing with partial blindness.
When he left the hospital, he returned to his parents’ home in Fishers. He lost his girlfriend; he couldn’t work.
“I really did not do anything,” he said. “I laid around feeling sorry for myself.”
And he got high on pain meds.
He lived like that for several years, until eventually even he got tired of his situation.
“I took a hard look at my life and came to the conclusion that it wasn’t my disability holding me back, it was my drug use.”
He entered a 12-step program, determined to do it “100 percent their way,” he said. He has been clean since February 2017.
LIVING WITH PURPOSE
Once he had a grip on his own sobriety, he learned to extend a hand to others, and that is what led him to IU Health.
“I wanted to be independent, I wanted to live a purposeful life again.”
His job is to provide non-clinical support to IU Health patients coming into emergency departments with a substance issue, whether that’s an overdose or another health problem related to drug use. A nurse will contact Berry or one of the other peer coaches, who work out of a building on Senate Avenue in Indianapolis.
The coach will speak with the patient through a secure communications portal, do an assessment, then discuss the patient’s goals.
Often, he said, patients suffering from addiction don’t know how to get help. When he can share his story, it gives hope.
That is his purpose.
“People can and do recover. I am living proof.”
In those meetings, however, he gets as much as he gives.
“I get a continual reminder of where I was, where I can still end up. I get a constant feeling of gratitude and appreciation for where I am now and for all of the hardships. I am grateful for the good and the bad. It’s because of those bad moments that I am employed today with IU Health.”
It’s an incredibly rewarding experience, he said, even when you get a patient who doesn’t want to talk or who gets angry.
“There’s still a chance that I can plant a seed. Fifty percent or more of my job is planting a seed of hope.”
Photo by Mike Dickbernd, IU Health visual journalist, email@example.com