Going through a difficult stage in life can feel dark, frightening and lonely. Because of the stigma placed on mental health and addiction, many who suffer do so in silence. Canopy Children’s Solutions is Mississippi’s most comprehensive provider of children’s behavioral health, educational and social service solutions, working with families across the state facing challenges ranging from mental health, addiction, autism and even possible separation. A key component in Canopy’s therapeutic design is to ensure youth and families never feel alone or judged; this sense of safety and acceptance if largely contributed to the work of Peer and Family Support Specialists.

A Peer Support Specialist as defined by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is a person who uses his or her lived experience of recovery from mental illness and/or addiction, plus skills learned in formal training, to deliver services in behavioral health settings to promote mind-body recovery and resiliency. The specialist’s background is largely what contributes to the program in which he or she serves. These specialists support youth and families as they move through the process of getting help for themselves or a loved one and often serves as a reminder that there is hope for their future.

Mae Slay

Mae Slay, Peer Support Specialist for Canopy, works with the Central Region In-Circle teams who assist families who are at risk of being separated from their children or are working toward regaining custody of their children from the Mississippi Department of Child Protection Services (CPS). These families are referred to Canopy by CPS for assistance creating home and family environments that are suitable and safe for children. In-Circle connects families with local resources for things like job training, parenting skills, addiction recovery, home stability and more.

“It’s easy for people to look at me and think ‘what does this girl know about my problems?’ but when I begin to share my story and my life experiences, they come to see that we aren’t all that different,” said Mae.

Rocky Road to Redemption

Mae was your typical fun-loving high school student. She wasn’t the party girl; she didn’t drink or use drugs; however, her life was not perfect. She struggled with adversity and personal challenges growing up which left her feeling empty inside. During high school, Mae developed a severe attack of kidney stones. At the hospital, she was given extra-strength pain killers containing opiates. The feeling they gave her brought relief not only for her physical pain but also her emotional pain.

“This is what I need,” Mae recalled. “If I can just have this, everything will be ok.”

Her addiction started gradually. She wasn’t meeting people in back alleys or betraying her morals to get high. The urge was there but never in the forefront, at first.

Mae’s college life took on the persona of many typical students. She was accepted to college, pledged a sorority and worked three full years toward a degree in social work. While attending school, she came down with a nasty cough and visited the local clinic hoping for relief.

“The doctor I saw gave me a prescription for a codeine-based cough medicine,” said Mae. “He also gave me more refills that should ever be allowed for such a potent substance, and there it was. I was hooked.”

A month later, Mae returned for more cough medicine, and the doctor again gave her a prescription for the codeine-based medication with plentiful refills. Her drinking amped up and Mae began spinning out of control.

A few months into her senior year, Mae left school and returned home. She began seeing a psychiatrist to treat her anxiety and depression, while all along she was really suffering from untreated addiction. Later that year, her mother found Mae unresponsive from an accidental drug overdose. First responders revived Mae and she was taken to a local hospital and soon after admitted into inpatient rehab.

“Going into rehab was the turning point of accepting I had a problem,” said Mae.

After getting sober, Mae met her now ex-husband. The couple married and in time, welcomed their beautiful son, Slay.

“When I had my son I was given pain medication,” said Mae. “Even though I was open about my addiction recovery, I was still sent home with medication that ultimately derailed my sobriety. I had to learn the hard way that complete abstinence is the only answer for me.”

Mae was able to stay at home with her son, which she loved; however, home life was not as perfect as it seemed on the outside. She had very little adult interaction, and as with most any mom of a young child, exhaustion set in. At a local gas station, she discovered Kratom—a plant-based substance originating from Southeast Asia whose side effects can range from mild energy boost to pain reliever, mood alterant and even so-called opioid self-medicated addiction management. However, if taken in higher doses, it offers a high similar to prescription or illicit drug use.

In 2016, Mae’s mother, who she describes as “an angel” and who was her biggest support throughout her entire life, passed away suddenly from a heart condition. Mae was devastated and felt more alone than ever. With a small child to care for, Mae was desperate to find something, anything, to “get her outside of her skin.” She lived in constant fear of relapse, losing her son and everything she knew, but something had to give. Her Kratom use escalated and her world began to slip through her fingers like sand. For a second time, she was caught in the throes of her addiction.

About a month after her mother’s passing, Mae entered treatment for the second time. She stayed sober for a while, but never fully surrendered to a program of recovery. Mae still thought there were things that were within her control.

“I remember my husband was playing with Slay. I had a moment alone and I just threw up my hands in the front yard,” said Mae. “I didn’t know what else to do. I made the call that I needed help again. My addiction was going to cost me everything. In a way, it already had. I felt like I was going to die.”

In 2017, Mae returned to rehab for a third time. While in rehab, she and her husband began their separation.

Mae stated, “I didn’t know what to do, but I held on to the belief that I was going to be okay if I could just keep my sobriety above everything else.”

Mae credits a 12-step fellowship and support from her father and other family members for getting her through that difficult time.

“I believe sobriety is as much about your environment and support as it is your own will turned over to God,” said Mae. “I am in a supportive, stable environment now and I have people who help to keep me accountable and are always open to me when I need to talk. I have healed relationships with family and I feel like we are all in a good place. All of it has helped make this time different. Finally having a program of recovery and finding a purpose for my life has made this time different.”Stigma

In her search for employment, Mae was told about a listing for a Peer Support Specialist position with Canopy and felt her heart flutter when she read the job description.

“I was relieved to find a place where I didn’t have to worry about disclosing my past and it be a problem. Canopy wanted me because of my recovery over my addiction, not in spite of it,” said Mae. “As a mother and a recovering addict, I didn’t want judgement passed on me and I don’t want our families feeling judged or that their problems are too big. I am so happy to be part of teams that help keep families together and make them stronger. As a Peer Support Specialist, I can keep my sobriety at the forefront. I am constantly reminded how easily the families I meet through In-Circle could have been me.”

“Mae is raw, passionate, and not afraid to meet someone where they are,” said Tonja Smith, Child and Family Advocate for Canopy. “We are so proud of her and she has become such an integral part of our team in the few months she has been here. She helps families see there is hope, there is light at the end of the tunnel, and they can do it.”

A Time to Celebrate

On July 12, 2018, Mae picked up a 1-Year sobriety coin for the first time. When she came to work, she was met with a standing ovation of friends and colleagues cheering her on.

“Mae and I talk a lot about self-care,” said Tonja. “That is all part of the recovery process and that is also what we are trying to teach these families. So as we celebrate milestones with our families, we also have to celebrate our own milestones with each other. It helps keep us going.”

“I have so much gratitude for the life I live, and the only reason I am here is because of grace,” said Mae.

“I have received many less than desirable consequences, but consequences are good. They hold you to your commitments. I think that is why I enjoy working with Drug Courts because they give someone what they want—the opportunity to change. And being an ambassador of change is why I love Canopy.”