In 1992, Marc Potter, MSW, was working at the Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, Washington as a mental health specialist in the HIV/AIDS Clinic.
“At that time, everybody died and the pace was horrific; none of us in the field had any time to grieve. When I worked there, I could only hope that the people I was working with might have a good death,” says Marc.
He understood that he could not continue bearing witness to so much loss, and made the decision to work in homeless services. “But I quickly learned that people experiencing homelessness also die, often unexpectedly.” says Marc. “Sometimes, I felt I had little to offer beyond a pair of socks and a few days of shelter,” recalls Marc.
The hopelessness of Marc’s work and his own grief lead him to feeling trapped. A deeply felt belief in his lack of self worth caused sleeplessness, anxiety and fear. Marc searched for anything to make him feel better.
What he found was methamphetamine.
“Meth brought me out of my shell and allowed me to stay up all night,” says Marc. In one summer, Marc lost 25 pounds. His physical changes were dramatic and his colleagues assumed that he was dying of HIV. “I let people believe this. It was a handy excuse for my erratic behavior and that was it…I began telling people I had HIV.”
While the news gave everyone an explanation for Marc’s deterioration, soon he was injecting methamphetamine four times a day. In one year he lost everything. A tough and caring supervisor guided Marc to see how sick he was and to admit he needed to leave his work. Today he understands how much support she offered him and what a difficult situation she was in.
“I had been using the excuse of having HIV for so long that I could see no way out. I knew I was going to die and one day, I decided it should happen quickly. To make this lie true, I injected HIV positive blood into my own veins. I did this twice. It shows how hopeless I felt in the grips of methamphetamine addiction,” explains Marc. He pauses and shares that our conversation is the first time he has been able to publicly share this part of his story. He also shares that he continues to test negative for HIV.
After he left his job, Marc and his partner were evicted from their apartment and spent one night in a storage facility. The next morning, Marc’s partner checked himself into treatment. Marc’s family implored him to come home to Salt Lake City. “My father tells me that the worst day of his life was leaving me standing outside the storage unit,” says Marc.
Eventually, after trips to the library, calling friends who would not answer, and spending a week in a family member’s office space, Marc returned to Salt Lake City. Here, he would eventually detoxify, heal, and enter recovery. To get there, he had to recognize the need for honesty as a primary starting point. He wore numbers on his clothing to indicate his clean time to family members. It was a quiet process as he began taking steps toward change.
During this time, Marc spoke with a friend and former colleague. She told him that she sensed he was close to being done with his addiction. She believed in him. She suggested a 28-day detoxification and told him, “You can do this.” A month later, Marc had nothing but four shirts. He found himself begging his sister to buy him a chair. With a mix of conflicting emotions, he committed to 28 days of sobriety starting with detoxification at a family cabin in Southern Utah with the help of his partner. Marc was motivated by desperation and a desire to prove to his former colleague that she was wrong about his ability to recover.
“There is an acute phase of withdrawal,” explains Marc “and then a longer period before any energy comes back. In the first week, each day is worse than the day before. When I made it to the end of the month, I was shocked. While I still had major impairments in many cognitive and motor functioning skills, I had to admit that I felt more like myself.”
Marc listened to show tunes obsessively. The energy of show tunes infused him with momentum toward change and levity. Disability funding provided Marc with a limited time period to regain skills and a semblance of health. His brother gave him a job working construction one hour a day offering him routine and responsibility.
Eventually Marc started working at a children’s hospital. “I fell in love with the work and found that I was still able to do it,” recalls Marc. He would meet children who were depressed and a door in his mind would unlock and reveal everything he knew about depression. “Through the healing process, drawers of knowledge began to unlock inside my brain. I was shocked to learn I knew an inordinate amount about topics as varied as Carl Jung, jazz, and Oscar Wilde.” says Marc.
Marc’s sister introduced him to the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who teaches mindfulness. He started listening to guided meditations and reading about mindfulness and Buddhism. “I had been told to meditate so many times, but I had never done it.” explains Marc. He had spent his life looking to the future and focusing outside of himself. With practice, he learned to be present in the present moment. “I had been taught this intellectually, but had never actually practiced it.”
“I had once been very good at helping people not be depressed. Now I want to help people learn how to focus on positive emotions.” In addition to working at a children’s hospital, Marc is dedicated to creating opportunities for people in the field of human services to practice self-care and has created podcasts of guided meditations on self care for service providers, available on his website.
Marc is also sharing his own recovery story through speaking engagements. “I would hate to have gone through what I went through and not be able to help someone else.”
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