Provider Perspective: Charles McCleary

Healthcare providers who care deeply for their clients have the ability to create a welcoming and affirming environment. For people with substance use disorders, these providers serve as inspiration, support, and determination.

Charles McCleary, a Peer Recovery Coach at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, assists individuals who are actively using substances and seeking treatment. Aiming to represent a beacon of hope, McCleary meets his clients where they’re at by sharing his own experiences with substance use disorder and recovery to remind them they are not alone. 

Read below to learn more about McCleary’s story, the motivations for his work, and how his work helps to bring the state of Maryland alive!

What has been the impact of your position?

“I always share my story with my patients. I was in addiction for 17 years; it was 16 years before I went into recovery for the first time. 11 years and 10 months later, I relapsed for a year. And this coming November will be 11 years that I’ve been in recovery and living a sober life.

When people see me and I tell them my story, they no longer see this exterior. They get to know the internal; they get to know the man behind what they see. They get to see what I’ve been through and the steps that I took to get to where I am today. My road to recovery is unique for me. It may not be the traditional road, [such as] people who go to treatment centers or clinics. My road was a spiritual road. I asked God to deliver me from addiction because I saw no other way out. And I’m here today as a testament.”

What is one thing most people don’t know about your field of work?

“One thing I feel as though a lot of people don’t know about my field of work is the importance of it. To have someone who’s been through what you are going through and can relate to what you’re going through without any judgment or stigma is a big thing because for me– and I was just telling one of my colleagues this yesterday– had I had a peer recovery coach when I was in active [use of substances], I don’t think I would’ve been there 16 years. I had people around me telling me, ‘Charles, you have potential. You need to move on.’ But these were the same people who I was using with. We were in the same boat sinking together. 

So if I had someone who I could see that had changed their lives and was living a productive, sober life, I could have had something that I could grasp without feeling as though this person was trying to save me but not trying to save themselves. Peer recovery coaches are much needed.”

With increasing numbers of overdoses within the past couple of years, how has this impacted your work?

“At times, it can be overwhelming. To work with someone who knows that each time they go and use the potential was there that they may not come back, but yet they still go and use – it can be overwhelming. But then you look at the bright side, whereas you reach those people. You tell them your story, you tell them the story of people who you are out there with, and they grasp that and sincerely seek help.

I’ve been working here now for two and a half years at Bayview, and I’ve had some success stories, but I’ve also seen people come back and come back and come back – and I encourage them to come back. The reason I encourage them to come back is that I tell them that the shame isn’t in coming back. The shame is not getting the help that you know is there.”

What advice would you give to other providers in the same or similar field?

“I would say to not judge. Be understanding. We all go through things in life. It may not be substance use, it may not be alcohol use, but we all go through things in life. We all have our peaks and we have our valleys. And when people are in the valley, they need support. They need encouragement.

Just be there and let people know, ‘You are human and you are my brother or my sister.’ I would tell the provider to put themselves in that person’s shoes. Think about how that could be your loved one.”

What do you hope to see in the future?

“I hope to see understanding of peer recovery coaches grow, to see it have a bigger impact in the community and the health field in general. Drugs aren’t going anywhere, alcohol isn’t going anywhere. So we are going to be here to have people understand our role as peer recovery coaches or peer recovery specialists, and to embrace us and not see us for our past.”

Charles McCleary is a Peer Recovery Coach (PRC) at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. He works as a PRC on the Addiction Medicine Unit (AMU), Acute Psychiatry Unit (APU), and as one of three PRCs on the Expanded Psychiatric and Addiction Medicine Consult Team. He loves working in the hospital setting because it affords him the opportunity to work with people at a vulnerable time in their lives and to see the progress in their healing and recovery from whatever Substance Use Disorder they may have at the time.

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