‘Life is beautiful clean’
“I wanted to be clean for so long and it didn’t matter how much I wanted it, that disease had a grip on my soul. Oaklawn has taught me the tools I need to battle this disease.”
Talk to Sandy Hempel for more than a few minutes, and one thing is clear: She is grateful for life.
Sandy is in recovery from a 12-year opiate addiction. Her story is one that echoes across America. She grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, in a loving, close-knit family with her parents and four sisters. She played sports through school, including at the University of Kentucky. But a back injury required surgery in 2006. That’s when it started.
“The first time I injured my back, I was given pain medicine and I didn’t want it. Then when I had surgery, I just had a taste for it. As soon as I got that bottle, I could not make that bottle last. I would abuse and abuse and abuse,” she said.
She started seeing a pain management doctor in Louisville, faithfully attending treatment to manage her dependence. But a new law intended to help curb opioid addiction would have a far different effect for Sandy.
“He cut me off,” she said. “He cut me off without any referral to treatment or somebody to talk to or knowledge of withdrawal, and it was awful. I was so sick, and I went to the street.”
Sandy started buying pills: $60 a pill, five pills a day. She was a successful business-to-business sales rep for a cell phone company, so it was a habit she could afford – for a while. But a bag of heroin only cost $20. She switched in 2011.
“It just all went downhill after that,” she said.
Her family – “Team Hempel,” they call themselves – had an intervention. She walked into her townhouse one night, her whole family was there, and they had booked her a flight and a bed at an inpatient facility in Michigan. She went – 90 days – but relapsed almost as soon as she got home.
She says she wasn’t ready then. She wanted to do it for her family, but she didn’t want to do it for herself.
Until March 23, 2018. By then, Sandy, her parents and two sisters had moved to South Bend.
“When I got here, I relapsed again, and I was just done,” she said. “I lost everything, I destroyed my body, my resume means nothing. I was tired of hurting everyone and I was just crying out to God for help.”
Sandy entered the intensive outpatient program at Oaklawn and completed aftercare. Everything started to click. Things she had heard in treatment before began to feel relatable and make sense. Oaklawn’s staff taught her new tools to use in recovery.
“I learned so much from Oaklawn,” she said. “I wanted to be clean for so long and it didn’t matter how much I wanted it, that disease had a grip on my soul. Oaklawn has taught me the tools I need to battle this disease. I’m super, super grateful for Oaklawn.”
When she was in active addiction, Sandy didn’t think a life like this was possible. Now she knows it is. And she’s eager to help others find it, too. She’s a certified recovery specialist working for Oaklawn, serving the residents at Oliver Apartments in downtown South Bend, a housing-first complex for formerly chronically homeless people.
She leads group activities, checks in with residents and does one-on-one coaching where she helps clients set recovery goals.
“I love doing the recovery goals, because I have to do it in my own recovery every day,” she said. “Which is why I love this job, because every day, I get recovery. I remember where I was – afraid to ask for help – and I’m grateful for where I’m at now, grateful for support. Life is a beautiful thing clean.”