Never Use Alone
Co-founder and President of Never Use Alone
Carmen Skarlupka lost her daughter to an overdose. Like many parents who go through a similar devastating tragedy, she wanted to help make sure it never happens to another family. Carmen is the Co-founder and President of Never Use Alone. Never Use Alone is a toll-free national overdose prevention, detection, life-saving crisis response and reversal service for people who use drugs while alone. Never Use Alone’s peer operators are available 24-hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, and can be contacted at 800-484-3731. No stigma. No judgment. Just love! Never Use Alone can be accessed at https://neverusealone.com
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Mike: Welcome, everybody. This is Avoiding the Addiction Affliction, brought to you by Westwords Consulting and the Kenosha County Substance Abuse Coalition. I'm Mike McGowan.
Mike: You know, if you're a parent, one of your ever present concerns is whether you can navigate your children into adulthood without the damage substance use can cause.
Mike: And when the drug takes the life of your child, What do you do?
Mike: Well, our guest today, Carmen Skarlupka, responded to the loss of her daughter by founding Never Use Alone, a national overdose response hotline. Never Use Alone reduces the risk of an accidental overdose by people who use drugs while alone.
Mike: Welcome, Carmen.
Carmen: Thank you, Mike.
Mike: I'm so glad you could be here. Carmen, it's always interesting, and I know it's always difficult, but can you tell us a little bit about your daughter, Samantha, Sam?
Carmen: Of course. I love talking about Sam. Samantha was 26 years old, and she experienced a fentanyl overdose that was fatal.
Carmen: She texted me and asked me to come pick her up and when I arrived, or I shouldn't say when I arrived, I then got a responding phone call from shock trauma telling me that she had passed. If you have a family member that uses substances or has a substance use disorder, or even just a child experimenting, a grandmother whose pain medication has been cut off. The thing that you dread. That life changing moment is called "the call". You don't want to get "the call", right? Because all of your hopes and dreams and aspirations for your child or your loved one, your partner, your parent, go away. And I got that call in 2018, April 14th. And it forever alters your life. You know, having a child, the moment you know that you're going to have a child, and then you see that child, you understand a depth of love, unconditional love, that may not have been in your life prior to that.
Carmen: You will do anything. to support their life, their well being, their happiness. And so Sam was this wonderful, brilliant, funny, charismatic. She was an artist. She taught herself to read and write Japanese so that she could go from Pokemon and wait for the English dubbed version to come out so that she could get keep up on episodes. Right?
Carmen: That whole anime generation, which is still with us, right? I mean, today I'm a grandmother, right? And it's like, Oh, my gosh, it's still here. (laugh) But Sam was extraordinary. So briefly, she was struck by a car. As a pedestrian. Complex, life threatening trauma. She had to have her arm reattached to give you an idea of the extent of her injuries.
Carmen: So I became her personal caretaker. She was fully disabled and we put her pain medication prescriber from shock trauma was charged by the state. This was in Maryland, by the way, at the time as being a pain over prescriber as a way to reduce the opioid crisis right in 2018. Because it was declared an opioid public health emergency in 2017.
Carmen: So she had a morphine drip for goodness sakes, a pack. And we were unable because of this legislation to find anybody willing to give her a couple of days prescription to carry her over until we could get to an appointment to refill her prescription. So she went into withdrawals. And to the best of my knowledge, she went bought something off the street and was gone.
Mike: Which is not uncommon, right?
Carmen: Oh, not at all. Not at all today. I mean, there are pressed pills. There are of, you know, Fentanyl. We just, this morning, I had somebody on the Never Use Alone Hotline text us and say, I'm using your service because you saved my friend's life who used Cocaine, but it had Fentanyl in it.
Carmen: And they overdosed. And they're still with us, right? It was the intent. Yeah. Not everybody that calls Never Use Alone has, you know, a substance use disorder. Some people are recreational, right, they only call on the weekends with their party drugs or a first time user. We have, everybody calls us from minors children.
Carmen: Okay. Teen teenagers to, I think the oldest person that has shared with us, is what they were over 70. And realize we're confidential, we're anonymous. You don't even have to give us a real name, give us a real phone number in a real location. And, and how extreme is that will be in a Wisconsin girl, right?
Carmen: Grown up in the north woods. We actually found somebody in a national park in Oregon utilizing GPS coordinates and guide, they of course have, not of course, but they had, they experienced an overdose and we notified park rangers who got to them and were able to save their life. We have received 31,000 calls since 2019 and we have detected 110 overdoses.
Carmen: All of those calls, zero loss of life.
Mike: Well, let's, all right, let's go with that. So you founded Never Use Alone, but how does it, so how does it work?
Carmen: Okay, so I'm a co-founder. There were 12 of us. We call our founder a man named Mike Brown. He put up a Facebook post of all things and said, "Why isn't this a thing?"
Carmen: And in 24 hours we had a phone number, staff, a training guide, a call script, and we were going. So how does it work? Well Never Use Alone hotline is 800-484-3731. People who use drugs call us before they use, and our operators who all have lived experience and the majority also have medical backgrounds, will walk you through a substance use safety plan.
Carmen: Unlock your door, put away all of your extra supplies, give us your location, lock up your animals, right? We don't want the cat or dog interfering in care, if we have to call EMS, or escaping while, if, if somebody has to come in to, you know, provide you with life saving medical intervention. And so we walk through that, and then the people use their, their drugs.
Carmen: We listen for signs of an acute opioid induced acute respiratory depression, apnea, hypoxia, anyway, and then, oh, 99.5 percent of our people never experience an overdose.
Carmen: For those that do, we call local EMS and we stay on the line with you and sometimes EMS remains on the line with us until EMS responds, like when somebody knocks at the door and we hear that they are with, now their patient, right? Our caller, their patient.
Carmen: Because North America has the same 800 service. So we provide services in Canada. So everybody's going out hunting, fishing, we got you covered. There's also the National Overdose Response Service of Canada.
Carmen: And then we also partner with programs called BRAVE. BRAVE is a Canadian co op, and BRAVE is an application. And we work very closely with them. There you utilize an application. But you end up with an operator. So you log into the app.
Mike: So you've had 31,000 people who you've convinced or are convinced and trust you that you're not law enforcement or a way to bust them, right?
Carmen: Right! Great question. So we are a non profit organization staffed by people who use drugs for people who use drugs to keep people who use drugs alive, safe and without any judgment, without stigma. We are a love based organization. If you give us a call, you're going to say, Hey love, how are you doing today?
Carmen: This is Carmen, what can I do for you? You know, whom I have the pleasure of speaking with. And we will, we, again, 100 percent anonymous and confidential. You don't have to tell us anything, or you can tell us anything. You know, and it stays with us. We have never ever called the police, had a call from the police.
Carmen: I mean, we are (chuckle) harm reductionists. We are here to keep you alive. We're not about the police, we're about your life. We can give you a chance to be there tomorrow.
Mike: Well, I heard one of your volunteers tell a story about her daughter who she was chasing around town and, and just, she had this contentious relationship with her.
Mike: And so they're in a parking lot somewhere fighting like crazy.
Mike: And the daughter said, what do you want? And I think the quote one of your volunteers used was, I just want you to live.
Mike: That's the objective, right?
Carmen: Yes. So, when, when the idea of Never Use Alone was presented, it wasn't even a moment's hesitation.
Carmen: I'm all in. Yes, yes, yes! Please. Give me an opportunity to save someone else's child, someone else's parent, someone else's partner, and to prevent them from getting "the call". I know Sam didn't intend to die that day, or she wouldn't have asked me to come pick her up.
Carmen: That was not her intent. Her intent was to reduce her risk of going into full, well, it's something called precipitated withdrawals when you, you're using heavy doses.
Carmen: I realize this is two years after her vehicle accident, right? Two years and she's still on heavy doses of opiates. So what everyone needs to know is we are your partner. If you are a law enforcement, we work with I mean, I would tell anybody in parole, probation provide people, your clients that have substance charges to give them our phone number.
Carmen: We can keep 'em alive. If you have somebody in recovery or who has just left a recovery program, give them our phone number, call us, call us, and if you need testimonies, we can share it.
Mike: And I heard. That your calling cards are now being distributed in some EMS safe-use kits as well, right? That's easy to drop that in.
Carmen: Absolutely! So in Wisconsin, Wisconsin Department of Health, the Veterans Administration, believe it or not, the United States Veterans Administration was the first federal agency to endorse Never Use Alone.
Mike: That makes a lot of sense.
Carmen: Because veterans substance use associated with PTSD, right?
Carmen: And we know that Wisconsin is a veteran rich environment. I am actually a Navy veteran. Kenosha County, we're seeing Milwaukee, Madison Dane, Props to Oneida County. I grew up in Oneida County. Let's see, Door, the Bad River branch of the Superior Chippewa.
Mike: Yep, right.
Carmen: The Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council endorses Never Use Alone. You can go up to other websites. Just Google Never Use Alone and your local city, state, county, or... Tribal nation, and you will find us.
Mike: Well, because, you know, going back to Sam from it, as a parent, or even as a loved one, you're never sure, as much as we know our kids, you're never sure what's going on.
Mike: And you, like a lot of parents I read, found out at Sam's funeral that she was using earlier than you thought, right?
Mike: No matter how well you know your kids, you don't know what's, what's really going on.
Carmen: Right. Right. So the University of Wisconsin Madison, Stevens Point, and I think Wisconsin Rapids all also endorse Never Use Alone.
Carmen: So one of the biggest things is, you have a child, you can, you can monitor your child when they're maybe in K through 12, right? But when your child goes off to college, I can tell you that the students are very keenly aware that their generation is dying. Almost no one, you know, can, hasn't had a connection, either an incredibly close loved one or some, you know, third party connection to someone who's been lost to an overdose.
Carmen: So for the, for the college age students or parents with college age students, why is Never Use Alone so important? They're up late. They're studying. Hey, here's a little something to keep you going, right? We're not talking about Heroin. We're not talking about Fentanyl. We're saying here's a Xanax and it's not.
Carmen: And it becomes a one and done. So just call us, you know, 15, 20 minutes. We're good to go.
Mike: What do you say to people, Carmen? And I'm sure you've heard this occasionally, what do you say to people who use the word enabling?
Carmen: Oh yeah, we're enablers. (chuckle)
Mike: (laugh) That's a great answer.
Carmen: We enable love. First and foremost. We enable your child, your loved one to greet you tomorrow. We enable the opportunity for somebody to find recovery, sobriety, if they want it. We also enable you to not get "the call".
Mike: I can't, I should have saved that for the last question. That's such a, that is such a great answer. It's unbelievable.
Mike: Well, I also read, if I, am I getting this right? You have a son who's also recovering.
Carmen: Yes, he's eight years by the way. Yeah, can't be prouder of this young man.
Mike: You know that goes to the whole thing is if you're gonna take responsibility for one, you gotta take the credit for the other, and you, you're not gonna take credit for his recovery.
Carmen: Well, there is such heartbreak, turmoil, and chaos when you realize that your child has an addiction. Because you can't control it. What you have to figure out is. So boundaries you know, I was, I had a top secret security clearance working for the federal government. We don't have drugs in our house. We don't have drugs.
Carmen: You know, I'm like everybody else. I mean, I grew up in Wisconsin. I'm conservative. I'm, you know I don't even know what, how to throw up what else to put in there. I'm Wisconsin native, you know, go Packers. And that's it. Cheesehead for life! But when it comes to a substance use, you have no control. You have to get educated really fast and figure out how to keep your child alive, to get them off the drugs, to get them the medical help that they need to transition to a life of sobriety or recovery. And we acknowledge every small change and getting away from chaotic use. In other words, right now we know from the CDC that 63 percent of the people who die of a drug overdose were alone.
Carmen: That's why we say Never Use Alone. The other people oftentimes weren't alone. They had a bystander present, but sometimes were abandoned.
Carmen: There's lots of abandonment stories.
Mike: Don't want to get in trouble.
Carmen: No, right. Police, legal issues, right? Possession of paraphernalia, or even just being in proximity to somebody that overdose, people get scared.
Carmen: And they run and we say, don't run, call. You know, you can call us. People call us sometimes after they've used and they've got, they get scared because all of a sudden they're like, Oh my God, what if, and we can take away their fear, the anxiety. Because you're not alone, you're, you're supported, and should something horribly life threatening happen, we're there.
Mike: And clearly, you know, listeners, you know we'll put links to this and the 800 number in our podcast, but how does one Carmen become a volunteer?
Carmen: Oh, just contact neverusealone.com/volunteer.
Mike: How many volunteers do you have nationwide?
Carmen: So that's an interesting question. Okay. The majority of our volunteers are actually on the call centers, right?
Carmen: So we're looking at about 45, 50. It's hard to keep up with the call volume. We just had 2,300 calls last month and, and we didn't have 2,300 calls in the second year. By the way, we're in our fifth year, so we're really excited, right? Because this is, we're making a difference. We're making an impact.
Carmen: And we're now endorsed by the C.D.C., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as an evidence-based overdose prevention intervention, which is really exciting to finally get that recognition that we're saving lives. So volunteers. We have outreach and advocates across the nation.
Carmen: We've received a call from every single state in the U. S., The District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the U. S. Virgin Islands, and Micronesia. Which is a U. S. territory, by the way. And we've also received a call from every single province in Canada, Australia, U. K., Scotland, Ireland. I mean, all over the world.
Mike: It seems like a great way for recovery people to give back. My mom, who was recovering instead of going to meetings sometimes, she worked the hotline locally. And very much the same way, but very, very local, you know, people calling up and what can I do? I'm, I'm having trouble. So this would be a great thing for a recovering person to do.
Carmen: Oh, absolutely. So we consider our operators to be peer support operators. People with lived experience. The medical experience helps a whole lot because people have issues with wound care. I just took my medication, benzos, and and now I'm getting ready to use this substance, whatever it is.
Carmen: And you know, and we might advise them it's wiser to wait or to just do a small amount. So even though we might get one phone call from somebody, they may use three or four times on that call, testing a little bit and then a little more. So what people are doing is they're not just jumping right in, right, and having that immediate fatal overdose or overdose, which could be a fatality.
Carmen: What they're doing is they're using smaller amounts, testing their products. By the way, naloxone, you can give naloxone to every single person in the world. You cannot self administer naloxone if you've overdosed.
Carmen: So, that's what we do. When you asked about enabling, we enabled naloxone to get to somebody that experienced an unintentional, accidental substance use overdose.
Mike: That's great. I'll give you what I intended to be your send off question, even though you did it earlier. And, and I'll come back to you. So, how is doing this... and helping others. How is this helping you?
Carmen: Oh my gosh.
Carmen: It has taken my grief that was irrevocable and unconsolable and turned it into love, into healing, into action that I know we are making a difference in people's lives. People come back to us. You know, we just, we just had an article on National Public Radio, This American Life did an episode of the call following an overdose on our line that happened and and. What happens is during that, our education director, Jessica Blanchard said, you know, people stop calling and we wonder what happened. Right. And people have been responding to us saying, Hey, once you know, I'm three years sober, right? I've got a family. I've got this great job. I've been to college and you see life happening. You see people thriving. I see where Sam could have gone had she had this service. And I see where your child or your loved one can go, what their potential is realized. So what it does for me is,
Carmen: I feel blessed to do this work.
Mike: Well, and thank you for doing it, and thank you for doing this. You know, like I, yeah, like I said before, you already know, listeners, that links to Carmen's work, Never Use Alone, is attached to the podcast. If you can't volunteer but you want to learn more about it, please click on.
Mike: If you want to donate, that's always beneficial, right?
Carmen: Always! Oh my gosh. Yes? We are growing. So outreach advocates, you want to do a presentation? Do you want a presentation? Come and talk to us. We are ready. We work with, by the way, we do work with the University of Wisconsin Madison. They are our research partner.
Carmen: We've been published in 70 peer reviewed journal articles. And if you Google Never Use Alone, you're going to come up with something like a hundred thousand hits.
Mike: Yeah, right.
Carmen: We're out there.
Mike: I didn't read all of them, but yeah.
Carmen: We're out there.
Mike: Yeah, you are. Well, Carmen, thanks a ton for being with us today.
Carmen: Thank you.
Mike: And listeners please tell your friends and listen in next time. You never know what you're going to hear. And until next time, stay safe and please be there for somebody.
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