NORTHWEST ARKANSAS (KNWA/KFTA) — The pandemic has been hard on people battling Substance Use Disorder and those in recovery.

“I decided enough is enough,” said Jim Northcutt, who is currently in recovery. “I was living in a tent two years ago.”

“The first step (toward recovery) is the hardest, and it’s worth it.”

Jim Northcutt

Jim has been battling opioid addiction ever since he hurt his back in his late 20’s.

“I started seeing a pain doctor and back then, pain pills were quite a bit easier to get than they are now,” he said. “I was taking a lot away more than I was supposed to. They would run out every month and it just got worse and worse, and I got prescribed more and more.”

As opioids got too expensive, Jim turned to meth. He said he even managed to get clean for about four years before slipping back into using. He said he lived on the streets, hotels or couch surfed, and that a low point for him was when he got a felony when he was 43.

He credits being able to get back into recovery and get his life back on his wife, Heather, and his son, who texted him one day saying that he needed both of his parents around. Jim said his son sent him some money for a hotel and that night, he decided to go to rehab. He is getting treatment from Ideal Option recovery center.

He was able to start over by moving out of Fort Smith to Bella Vista with his family.

“I decided to get clean and that first step is the hardest part and really, truly being honest with yourself and admitting that you have a problem,” he said.

Struggling with addiction is hard enough, and a global pandemic only makes things worse.

“Being in quarantine so much, it can play with your mind,” said Jim.

“If you don’t have that motivation, you know, I don’t have a job. I don’t have anything to do. I don’t have any money. I’m just stuck here at home, then I think that really has done a lot to people’s psyche.” said Andy Miller, who is the Nurse Practitioner and provider at Ideal Option in Springdale.

Danny White is the Chairman of Recover Arkansas and is in recovery himself. He said when people are at this low moment is when they return to what helps numb the pain.

“The drugs are there, the alcohol is there, the food is there, the whatever the addiction is, is there as a scapegoat,” he said.

“I can’t believe the past year and a half year and a half, people that either know or went to high school with or even treated that are dying from an overdose,” said Kasey Wilson, who is the Addiction Services Director at The Guidance Center in Fort Smith.

He said he has seen an increase in addiction and deaths in the River Valley over the past few years.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said an estimated, record-breaking 100,300 Americans died of an overdose from May 2020 to April 2021. Arkansas saw a 33% increase in deaths during that time period. The CDC also expects 2021’s numbers will also be above 100,000.

“All those people have parents, they have children,” said Jim, getting emotional as he spoke. “That’s such a huge waste of what could be a beautiful, productive, happy life. It really does hurt you to hear that.”

But there are people working to fight that statistic in Northwest Arkansas and the River Valley. The Guidance Center received a Suboxone Treatment Grant from the UAMS Department of Psychiatry for the second year in a row. Last year, the grant helped 45 people begin treatment by removing the financial barrier to treatment.

“It pays for medications, it is able to get them transportation, you know with the reimbursement. So there’s no excuse for someone with an opioid use disorder to not get help,” said Wilson.

He said they combine therapy with medicated assisted treatment, and peer recovery support to walk beside the person going through recovery.

Ideal Option opened its new outpatient clinic in Springdale this past fall. Ideal Option also has clinics in Fort Smith, Hot Springs and Jonesboro.

Miller said the landscape of drug abuse has gotten more deadly in recent years. According to the CDC, synthetic opioids, like fentanyl, are the primary driver in overdose deaths in the U.S. He also mentioned an alarming statistic from the Arkansas Opioid Dashboard: Benton County saw a 109% increase in opioid-related deaths from 2019 to 2020.

“Fentanyl is in everything that we see now,” he said. “Now people come in, they are being treated for meth addiction and they’re tested positive for fentanyl.”

Recover Arkansas is a non-profit working to reduce stigma through sharing stories online of people in recovery.

“It’s a place where people could come in and share their stories, we can post those stories we can all kind of gain insight from it. We could all have a shared empathy,” said White.

He said Recover Arkansas is working on three initiatives: peer recovery, veteran and military, and recovery resources.

Jim said he has felt the backlash of stigma for his use of Suboxone to help him fight his addiction. He even said at one point he had preconceived notions about people who use the medication. But now that it’s had such a strong impact on his life, he hopes his story can be a beacon of hope for others.

“Stop fooling yourself. The first step is the hardest, and it’s worth it,” he said. “I have a beautiful family, a job and I’m a productive member of society. I enjoy my life and I love my life.”