Sue Polston’s story is a screenwriter’s dream. Raised in a dysfunctional home, she became a mother while still in high school, and fell into a crack addiction. Today, Polston is the executive director of Sunrise Community for Recovery and Wellness.
We talk about how Sunrise operates as a peer support network helping those with mental health and substance use disorders, experiencing homelessness and incarceration. We also explore the stigmas that challenge people in her circle and learn about Polston’s own path from addiction and despair to community leadership.
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Sue Polston: I'm also a person in recovery myself. That's what qualifies me as a peer support specialist. And so I've recently celebrated 10 years. And so I would even say in the last five years things have changed quite a bit.
Matt Peiken: How so? in what ways?
Sue Polston: For me, my Substance of choice was crack and the streets, the game, if you would was a certain way and it is not that anymore.
Now, folks are literally playing Russian roulette every time they use any substance. It's just, it's changed out there in the streets and So many of our folks are dying.
Matt Peiken: You said it's Russian roulette with any substance. I think that's probably news for a lot of people. We hear a lot about fentanyl, different opioids, but you're saying any substance.
Sue Polston: Absolutely. So, Unfortunately, we had somebody very close to us in a staff member a couple years ago thought they were doing something safer. By doing cocaine and it was laced with fentanyl and they overdosed and died.
Matt Peiken: So it's not so much that other drugs, pot, cocaine, you name it, they themselves had not necessarily become more dangerous.
It's that you just don't know what the drug you're using is laced with. Correct. Wow. And there's no way to know.
Sue Polston: Yeah, there is. They are, there are fentanyl test strips. There's and Excuse me, because I can't say it but xylene is a new drug that's out there right now, and they do have test strips for that as well.
So if you are actively using there is ways to test your product to, Potentially see if it could be fatal or not. Sunrise itself has A syringe services program and harm reduction program and we do have those available for anyone
Matt Peiken: So with a lethal level of drugs that weren't introduced 10 years ago, has that made your job across the board, you and your other peer support specialists, has that made it a lot more difficult?
Sue Polston: Yeah, for sure. Like I said we've lost so many friends family members to addiction and with just the whole epidemic. And so that does, that weighs heavy on us.
You know, We're human beings and it's really important that we just take care of ourselves and that our support system is there because it is hard. And, we do take on the feelings and emotions and it can be. Extra stressful and taxing.
Matt Peiken: Not only that, but I imagine the actual work that you do in terms of helping people might be more difficult.
So let's talk about Sunrise. There are a lot of non profits and other agencies in this town that are tasked with helping people in addiction and through recovery. Talk about Sunrise. What is the unique mission of Sunrise?
Sue Polston: We are a hundred percent peer run and managed From my position to the other 49 positions.
We are all Either already certified which is the big bulk of it And then some of our newer staff are in the process of becoming certified, but definitely qualify so To me, that's the one uniqueness about it is that we all have done that, been there and are able to provide hope and inspiration just based on our own experiences.
Matt Peiken: Now, is the mission to wean people or get people off of drugs or get them through or past addiction or is it simply to recognize that people are using and to give them some support so that the worst doesn't happen? Give me a sense of when people who are addicted come to your attention, what happens in the Sunrise
Sue Polston: programs?
So we have. of different programs and we actually can encompass every stage of that. So we do have our harm reduction program. So those are generally folks that might be still actively using in ways to reduce harm. And then we have reentry programs.
Matt Peiken: Let's go through piece by piece. I know you have a thing called Peer University. What is Peer University?
Sue Polston: So Peer University was a thought and idea from a board member and our founder. And it is a three tiered program. So a lot of folks are like, Ooh, yeah, I'm in recovery. I should be a peer support.
Peer support is not made for everyone. And Peer University, in that first tier, you can sign up for our classes we have a multitude of different modules and trainings that we do during the Peer University program. Sometimes actually a handful of folks have actually been like, nope this definitely isn't for me.
And then. Others go on to get certified. Many of our peer support, our peer university graduates are actually our staff members now.
Matt Peiken: So I just wanted to be clear, peer university is for people who've maybe gone through recovery themselves and want to contribute in terms of a counseling level. This trains them and certifies them to then take on that role.
Sue Polston: Yeah, I would say it's not counseling or anything. thing like that. It's not
Matt Peiken: it isn't so distinguished. I think that's important to know what is different about what peer to peer support means through Sunrise as opposed to counseling.
Sue Polston: Sure. So counseling is clinical, right? We need our counselors. We need our therapists.
We need our doctors. We need everybody on our team. Peer support is just another piece of that team. It's evidence based practice. It's, very highly recognized, but it isn't like we don't have counseling sessions. We'll have peer sessions. And what I'll do is I'll share my own personal lived experience.
I don't care about their diagnosis. I don't care about anything. Like that. So it's really just a a back and forth conversation.
Matt Peiken: Is it like, and I've not been through an N. A. or A. a. program, but is it similar to that where peers share their stories with each other and relate to one another and feel a certain, or hopefully, feel a certain ease and kismet with each other because they've, you've all gone through it?
Is that basically this?
Sue Polston: It has some similarities. Yes. We are not 12 steps, but we do support 12 steps. I personally have a 12 step foundation. I no longer attend those meetings. So it is similar in that peer to peer, but with pure support at sunrise, we we don't have any expectations.
We're not of. We were in a 12 step fellowship we'd be working with folks to work through steps of the program. We don't, that's not something that we do.
Matt Peiken: So give me a typical interaction that happens in the peer to peer program through Sunrise.
Sue Polston: So it could happen in many ways. We're all over the place.
We cover the entire region. So some of our peers are out in the van in rural areas. Some of them are right here at our drop in center at Westgate currently. And so it could look different, but basically say somebody walks into the drop in center, there's a little tablet. You just sign in. No IDs required.
Absolutely no fee for services ever. Except for maybe some of our training programs. But for our peers, our participants that are walking through the door, there's no cost and no requirement, no expectation. Basically, we're asking what are your needs and what are your goals?
Matt Peiken: Yeah, what do people want out of peer to peer support if it isn't counseling, if it isn't clinical in that way?
What are people needing from other people who have used?
Sue Polston: Based on my experience when I was out in the community, I don't do that. Hands on work as much anymore, but I know for me I knew all the resources because I accessed them myself, so I went to the abcdm soup kitchen I've been to closed closets.
I Did a housing application all those things and so That's what makes peers able to really connect. I know when I go back into the jail that's been pre COVID I was going into the jail while I'd also been to Buncombe County Jail. And so to sit with the women and point at the cell that I was in, they just, they melted.
You know, and it's just like, Oh, okay, I can trust you, you know, me, cause I am you. And that's just the really special uniqueness around peer support.
Matt Peiken: Does this connect to also, I saw another program called peers on the move. What is that? How does that relate to this?
Sue Polston: So peers on the move is our van.
We finally got a van We have packed up if you can visualize packing up our recovery community center brick and mortar into the van This program right now is set to go within one mile of Asheville into the rural areas. So even Candler, Black Mountain Big Ivy, they've been going out there a lot.
So they're able to give access to folks that may not be able to make it down to The recovery community center in Asheville. And we are providing not only the one on one peer support, but Basic needs whatever that may be, you know, if somebody says hey, I'm I don't have an ID.
We'll help them get that ID whatever it is that they need to break down the barriers that might Lead to them thriving.
Matt Peiken: You mentioned Buncombe County jail and one of the programs you have is a Medication assisted treatment program in partnership with Buncombe County Detention Center.
Talk about that
Sue Polston: Yeah, so that's been a huge success We are recognized from the state level from Attorney Josh Stein Recognizing that program as like one of the best ones in the state. And what does it do? Historically prior to this program folks would come in from being arrested Be in like a full detox which can be very physically and mentally emotionally all the things that they just didn't do a proper detox protocol and so people were suffering.
I actually witnessed a lady jump off the balcony because she just couldn't do the detoxing anymore. And this is back, at least 10 years ago. So things have changed. They are able to offer medication assisted treatment. There are certain criteria and guidelines and basically they can receive their suboxone some cases methadone while they are incarcerated. So they don't risk that detox.
Matt Peiken: So you're sort of a go between a liaison to identify what some of these people who are incarcerated, what they need and looking for. And you talk with county staff and say, I think this person needs X, Y, or Z.
Sue Polston: Yeah. So they come in during booking and they're asked do you use substances?
And Those folks that identify right off the bat would go to one of our peers for a referral. Sometimes folks are coming in that are already connected with clinics and we're just trying to make sure that continuum happens with their medicine.
Matt Peiken: It sounds like in some ways you might also, tell me if this is a role that you and your, and the peer support specialists who work for you do.
You're supplementing what county staff do. County staff aren't large enough, to handle all the cases they would need to all the people come into the county detention center that, in a sense, you're sort of adding to the numbers of staff. Is that one way of looking at it is that you have the training to support county staff in this
Sue Polston: Yeah, so a lot of the county staff are very educated on trauma informed care and a lot of them are very receptive and supportive through all of this.
And right now we have two peers that are in there. And in the community. So the cool thing is we also follow folks up to a year after they're released to, continue. It's not just about the medication assisted. It's about do you need housing? Do you need transportation? All the things.
I think it's in addition to what the county is doing, but there's another program, too, actually, RHA runs and they're in the jail, too, and they have some peers. I know at the Buncombe County Jail now on Fridays, there's a handful of peer supports that are going in for power hour.
What's RHA? RHA is one of the community behavioral health Companies here in Asheville, so there's RHA, Family Preservation, October Road
Matt Peiken: so you work, in some ways, you work complementary and in concert with these other organizations. Yeah. Because that's one of the things I think people have a sense of, that there are some organizations in town that overlap in mission.
They each have their own distinct roles, but they really depend on each other to work in concert with one another.
Sue Polston: Yeah. 'cause sunrise can't do it by themselves. I guess it takes the entire community, all the community partners, to all really come together and work together. 'cause we're working with the same folks.
Matt Peiken: You have some other programs here. You have two other things I wanted to talk about. You have a harm reduction which is designed to reduce negative impacts of behavior. Associated with substance use and this gets to a little bit of what we started the conversation on and how things have just gotten worse in 10 years.
Talk about the behaviors that you're seeing now associated with fentanyl and opioid use that maybe you weren't seeing you yourself and others who were using 10 years ago just wasn't getting how has the behavior changed?
Sue Polston: It's scary is sad. Recently I stopped in a Ingles parking lot because I seen this lady just talking to the sky and I just stopped to make sure that she was okay at least.
And so that's very more noticeable. So people's behaviors. I'm sure everybody's heard about the downtown issues and all that kind of stuff. So yeah, the behavior, I don't, again, I don't have any experience with the fentanyl and the xylene and all that. But that has, I think really changed folks and how
Matt Peiken: they're yeah, you're not, you don't have experience using it, but you and your colleagues have experience in seeing the effects of it.
And you're talking about, you just alluded to. We've all seen in downtown this rise in people who clearly are on some effect of drugs in a way that from a distance, we weren't seeing 10 years ago. You and your colleagues are like frontline soldiers in this because you said you approach that woman at Ingalls, 99 people out of a hundred would not have approached that person.
Now when you're approaching people do the interactions, are they different? Are they more challenging now? Are they, is it tougher for you to get through to that person and have an actual conversation where you can assess what this person needs?
Sue Polston: Yeah sometimes in that moment when they are in I don't know, psychosis of sorts whether it's substance related or just mental health related to mental health is increased significantly to so it's not just substances that we're seeing out there that are contingent with this same behavior.
We do have folks that are just very mentally, mental challenges, very significant.
Matt Peiken: How do we suss out or how do we parse out what is drug influenced and what Isn't drug influenced in terms of those mental health challenges that we're seeing on the street every day what would you want people to know about?
What maybe some of the perceptions are versus what you think?
Sue Polston: I would suggest that it doesn't matter if it's mental health or substances. It's all mental health. And to remember that person is a human no matter what, and they are not in their right minds in the moment. And. It may not be the right time right then to try to assess what their needs are right?
Because for peer support we don't tell anyone what their needs are. We ask them what their needs are. And so if they're not able to communicate that, then that's just not the right time. But we've at least planted a seed seed. For that person possibly and maybe do a follow up and see what that person needs later
Matt Peiken: And this gets to the last program thing.
I wanted to ask you about which is the respite center And from what I understand that's an alternative to inpatient psychiatric hospitalization Which I think a lot of people In the community would say, let's hospitalize those people, get them off the streets and get them into, some sort of forced either hospitalization or incarceration.
How does the respite center, how does this define itself as an alternative to that?
Sue Polston: Our respite, it was the very first in North Carolina. We started with a three bedroom house. We now have a five bedroom house that we keep about four beds full most times. It is for anyone who is over 18.
resides anywhere in North Carolina and is experiencing emotional distress. And I don't know about you, but I could identify emotional distress almost daily. So a good candidate or there's a bunch of good candidates, but one candidate would be for example I know the death of my daughter is coming up in November and I have a really hard time I usually end up in a psych unit Let me reach out to the Blair H.
Clark respite house and see if I can stay during that week And what we have found is that when folks do then they are avoiding Patterns of whether they're IVCd, which is a whole thing. What's IVCd? Involuntarily committed so when a lot of police officers or family members Feel that person is a harm to themselves or others.
They will forcibly Lock them down that in itself is very traumatic. So we want to avoid that whenever possible,
Matt Peiken: right? But you just mentioned how somebody who is anticipating an episode would voluntarily Enroll themselves or admit themselves into the respite center. I would imagine that's very infrequent right that people Anticipate having a psychotic episode.
It usually just happens right and then Before they even know it they're out of control tell me if I'm wrong on this but of the five beds that it might be full at any given time All five of those people, none of them voluntarily, of their own advance warning, said, Oh, I'm going to have an episode, I better enroll here.
So how do they come into your
Sue Polston: system?
The unfortunate part with only having four beds, We're just like barely touching the surface on the need. And we have a wait list. The respite is not for immediate placement. It is not for anyone in active crisis, anyone in need of a medical detox from substances.
And so Those are the criteria and generally how it works is the individual would call the respite they would do basic demographic information And within two to three days one of our staff would call them back and do a more in depth Conversation to see you know where they're at what their need is what their goals will be.
It is a seven night Maximum stay you can stay less, but most people stay the seven nights We do have a lot of our in house population that really benefit from coming into the respite for seven nights.
Matt Peiken: We've gone over a broad brush stroke of the range of programs that you have at Sunrise.
One of the lines of conversation or comment I hear in the community is Asheville has the homeless problem that it does. It has the addiction problem. That it does In no small part because we have so many agencies and services that are here to support them That people who are homeless or addicted Know that they can get care in Asheville So they come to Asheville and that's why we're having such a problem. I think that's People on the outside looking in, outside meaning they are not addicted, they are not homeless, but they live in this community. What's your response to people who believe it's because we offer such a range of services from Sunrise and other agencies that we, in part, Can attribute our homeless and addicted problem to that.
Sue Polston: So we have connection within the homeless coalition as well. So Sunrise volunteers and is a part of the point and point in time. Thank you. And so we've been around the last few years to really. Capture some of that data firsthand. The majority of those that are unsheltered are either natives of here, have a tie here, whether their families in the western North Carolina region, very few actually just came here because they heard the resources were great. As a organization that is working regionally and other rural counties that don't have anything, that's one of our goals and some of the things that we're doing is building up a recovery ecosystem like we have here in other areas.
Because there isn't recovery housing. We're resource rich. Even 10 years ago, we didn't have what we have now. And if we did, I feel like maybe I could have flourished even sooner. You know, I don't know. I'm just I'm super stoked that we're able to offer the things we do because these are exactly the things I needed.
When I got out of jail and when I got out of treatment,
Matt Peiken: let's talk about your story a little bit I don't want to draw a big magnifying glass on that. Everybody has their story and their downturns You mentioned you've been incarcerated. You've gone through addiction. What came first?
Sue Polston: oKay. So I don't know if there's basic childhood trauma. Nothing huge and significant. I had a father that was addicted to cocaine and a stepfather that was an alcoholic and a mother that was a workaholic. And so that was my childhood. I became pregnant and had a daughter at a very young age. I finished high school.
She was two. I was a hairdresser and then she died by accidental drowning. And so that trauma is what led me to substances. And then just 12 to 15 years trying to get it right. And for so long, I would just focus on the fact that I had to stop using drugs, but it wasn't until ten years ago that I was okay. I need to focus on my mental health and I need to focus on the drugs Like I knew how to not use drugs. I just didn't know how to not use drugs For a long time. But when I was able to wrap my head around that I needed mental health and substance use support that's what helped me sustain not using drugs.
Matt Peiken: So you had obviously your own journey in this. What have you learned on this job and in doing this work that you didn't know? \Through your own journey.
Sue Polston: For example, our syringe services program, our harm reduction program. I have zero experience or know what that's like. I was not an IV user. So that's really opened my eyes.
I will say also when I first started as a peer and like I said, I was in a 12 step fellowship. I had just In my opinion at my had a very closed mind. I thought you had to do it this way and this is how it works The more I got into pure support the more it broadened my idea that There are people that could use a harm reduction approach and still be successful and still thrive There's people that can use medication assistance.
Like I'm gonna be honest years ago. I thought that was just another drug You know, and I was very close minded about it. So that's opened my eyes based on data like I'm seeing I also have a sober living house and We have some of the guys that are on medication assistant treatment. I have staff on medication assistant treatment.
I see it work. And so it really, yeah my open mindedness has completely just. Flourished.
Matt Peiken: What do you see as Sunrise's and other organizations working alongside you? What do you see as your greatest challenge facing you right now?
Sue Polston: Stigma. Stigma of those who have not been there or done that. Those who just see the erratic behavior and just, classify everybody as, It's not well or we have had stigma challenges at every one of our locations.
That we're at pretty badly. So yeah, I would say stigma is still just a huge challenge. We've come a very long way where there's so much work to do. The not in my backyard stuff.
Matt Peiken: Yeah. How do you battle that here? There, it takes a political lobbying in some ways. And you talk about the stigma and that always gets exacerbated by the next instance of something publicly happening with one person or some violent episode that I imagine Brands everyone going through homelessness or addiction issues with the same broad brush stroke
Sue Polston: yeah, and again, I just Would challenge folks to really just see that person as a human, right?
That is somebody's child. Thank goodness. You haven't had that experience in your family, but it's in a lot of families. And so don't please don't classify everybody just It's all in the same because they look the same or doing the same things or don't
Matt Peiken: have a home.
How can the community, or can the community get involved people who May not have used and aren't going to be peer support specialists beyond giving money Which obviously every small nonprofit wants that beyond that how can the community be involved or be supportive?
Sue Polston: Again be open minded Be compassionate and empathetic We do have volunteers that are not They're recovery allies, they don't have personal experience. We do all kinds of things to give back to our community. And we would love to have somebody help.
We're always going and volunteering. And so they can come along with us. We do outreach. So we're, at places like 12 Baskets and Haywood Street. And at AHOPE, they come along and just, be with us. And it's really just about being present there for the person that walks up or the person in need.
Sometimes people just want to be heard and then they're good.
Matt Peiken: how has this changed your personal world being the executive director of this organization? How has this changed your life here.
Sue Polston: It's given me lots of passion and purpose. And so my journey with Sunrise, like I said, in January, it'll be seven years that I've been there.
I started as a program coordinator. Then I was the team lead at the respite house, and then I was the operations director. And as we grew, I grew. I don't have any formal education on how to do this. I was freaked out about it. I said, I could not be an executive director. I don't know what I'm doing. And my supports and my mentors along the way really just, yeah, you can, you got this.
And then here we are four years later as the executive director and with 50 staff and just like really blown up. And I am super passionate to be able to give this opportunity to other peers that for the opportunity that was given to me. Sunrise gave me a chance, even with all my felonies gave me a chance, even with no education beyond a high school diploma, and it has changed my life personally and professionally that I love being able to give that opportunity to somebody else so they have the chance to do that too.