When Allie Severino was in high school, she was addicted to opioid pills and at one point seemed on the verge of becoming yet another casualty of America’s worst-ever drug epidemic. But after going through recovery, the now 28-year-old South Florida native has dedicated her life to helping others do the same, currently working on community outreach for a local recovery center. She’s even "become everyone in Delray Beach’s emergency contact number” when it comes to opioid issues, she told me.
VICELAND’s new series DOPESICK NATION follows Severino and her coworker Frankie Holmes—also recovering from addiction—as they attempt to save lives in a billion-dollar rehabilitation industry notorious for corruption. While outside scrutiny has helped begin the process of cleaning up the private rehab scene, it’s still an uphill battle and the people most in need of help are often left out to dry.
Ahead of the series premiere on Wednesday, we talked to Severino about South Florida’s notorious addiction-treatment hustle, mental health, stigma, and what this crisis looks like when you’ve seen it from both sides—recovery and treatment.
VICE: From your experience, how long do people who work in the rehab world stay in the industry?
Allie Severino: So many people come and go. And the ones that really stay, they’re so beaten down. There are a few people in the industry who have made it long term, since, like, the 90s. They’re usually larger sober home owners. I think it’s easier when it’s a sober home—it’s nice to see the clients when they’re recovering, right? Not before, while they’re using. You deal with them in an easier state.
But you have to think, in South Florida, there’s really only three industries to be in. It’s tourism, construction, or treatment. So a lot of therapists are going to get paid the most in the treatment industry. A lot of people like our [behavioral health technicians] that work for us get paid more than they would at another regular job. So they try as hard as they can, for as long as they can, to work in this industry, because they need to make a living.
How do you avoid burning out?
My personal mental health is really important, because without that, I’m not very helpful to others. It’s really hard. It would be nice to turn my phone off, but [if] you miss a call and you call that person back, they could be dead. [Usually] when you miss a phone call from someone that you work with, you’re like Okay, I’ll call them back later. In the back of my mind it’s like, Oh, how bad of an emergency is it? It’s so easy to continuously reach for the phone. But I try. I get a lot of massages, but it’s because I need to turn my phone off when I go in there. I hang out with a lot of amazing friends who are super grounded. I just try to have a decent amount of alone time, too, where I don’t have to deal with anyone else’s issues and I can just chill.
Why is Florida such a hotbed for the problematic side of the rehabilitation industry?
It is going on everywhere. California, I have a feeling, will be next. But South Florida was such a big rehab capital, and so when the clients come down here for treatment and they don’t stay sober, they think, You know what? I’m going to use my insurance card to just go back in a couple weeks when I’m done partying. Then their insurance runs out and they’re homeless. They might find a way down here, but they don’t have a way back. Because mom and dad have been sending Western Union this whole time thinking they’re sober, and they use a lot of their loved ones for everything they have. I know a lot of loved ones that are in bankruptcy, because their kids just take and take and take until there’s no more left. And then they’re left here with nowhere to go. They think that they’ll have insurance forever.
Sometimes it doesn’t work that way. Insurance is not going to want you to go to treatment 30 times in a year. That’s crazy. It comes from some of the treatment centers—”Help is a revolving door”—letting clients think that it’s okay to continuously go to rehab over and over again. They go and go and go and then when their benefits are used up and no one can get anything out of them, they’re now a burden instead of making profit. It’s over. They really find out the hard way.
What are some misconceptions about this specific type of addiction?
It can literally happen to anyone. I personally feel like the biggest contender to heroin addiction is alcoholism. Alcoholism is so bad. They’re somehow okay in society, because alcohol is legal. It’s a social norm to drink. It’s just so normal that you can go your whole life being a fall-down drunk and somehow make it through. But the thing is, there’s a ton of people who shot up heroin and went to work today, too. There are people in their office buildings shooting dope, and there are people in their office buildings hiding their alcohol and drinking it. It’s the same thing. I feel bad for a lot of alcoholics, because they’re not going to go and get help. At least with heroin addiction, it usually gets to a point where they are so stigmatized that they have to go get help and get better. [But] it’s all deadly.
What advice do you have for people who are trying to get help?
If you’re trying to get help or your loved one is struggling, I mean, just cut the bullshit. Stop the denial. You’ve got to man up and you’ve got to get on it. I asked my dad, "What would you have done differently?” He said, “I would have paid more attention. If I would have paid more attention, I would have known what was going on.” If we really want to stop this drug crisis, we need to start talking and educating our children when they’re in, like, fourth grade—when they’re still at mom’s hip. Because you lose them when they go into middle school. And parents need to tell their kids the truth. We have to educate the children as young as possible as to what can happen, what can go on, what can go wrong, what to do when you see something happening.
But if you’re struggling, just call and get help, man. There’s no shame in it. There’s a way out if you’re ready. Just do it. The day that you feel like this is enough and you have that moment of clarity, call.
The show deals with negative outcomes associated with addiction, including sex work and homelessness. What is the perception of these struggles specifically in Florida, seeing that it’s a relatively conservative state?
I don’t think political party matters, because most people are in shock when they see true addiction. Almost everyone has empathy for it when it affects them and their family. They’ll care. If it affected you and your family, you will feel empathy for that girl walking down the street. You will feel empathy for that homeless person. Maybe you’ll talk to them. So many cross to the other side of the road when they see somebody homeless. I walk right past them and say hi. They’re human beings. You have no idea what struggles they’ve gone through in their life that they’ve ended up in that situation. Some of the most amazing, brilliant minds out there are just struggling. We all just need to be more human. People are just judgmental. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from, people judge you right from looking at you right away. That sucks. We can change that a little bit.
What are your thoughts on the enduring stigma surrounding Methadone, Suboxone, and similar medications?
Any medication-assisted treatment program has an awful stigma around it. It makes it very difficult for people who need those programs to assimilate back into society. We have clients at the place I work at where—some are on Suboxone and some are not. A lot of programs are introducing medication, because… listen, after your 30th run in rehab, if it’s not working for you, get on medication or you’re going to die. I’ve talked to parents who are like, “I wish I wouldn’t have had a stigma against medication, because my kid might still be alive today.” So guess what? If you’re on medication, I have a place to start working on you from. If you’re dead, I don’t.
Finding employment and rejoining “regular” society still seem to be extremely difficult when people are recovering from addiction. How do you think this can change?
Employment is definitely one of the biggest hurdles and struggles most people coming into recovery are going to face, because most of them have a [criminal] background. If we want to talk about stereotypes—Well, I don’t want to hire this person because they’re going to steal from me. That’s what a lot of people think. They’re unreliable or they’re not going to show up to work. It’s not true. You have to look at that person and see where they’re at and give them a shot. And that’s what the treatment industry does for a lot of people. A lot of the [behavioral health technicians] do have backgrounds, but they’re sober and they have a job. They can move up, go back to school, and they get an education in something that they care about.
That’s why so many people in recovery work in treatment, because they have a tough time finding jobs anywhere else.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. Those struggling with addiction or related issues can visit the official federal government SAMHSA National Helpline website for treatment information.
Follow Sarah Bellman on Twitter.