Growing up in Charlestown Katie O’Leary never thought she’d one day struggle with addiction and later become an influential figure in the world of recovery services. O’Leary graduated Matignon High School and after graduation went off to college at UMass Amherst. However, from 1998 to 2001 something became apparent. “In my very early years it was alcohol because it was so socially acceptable,” said O’Leary.
“At the time I minimized it. My parents obviously knew that I was struggling with alcohol, but they thought it was just a phase–like partying too much in college. I was a problematic drinker from the second I got to UMass until probably a couple of years after I got home and then obviously things just got worse.” As the opioid crisis gripped America and O’Leary’s hometown of Charlestown in the early 2000s she did not travel down the same road of many of her peers. “The very early years were alcohol and that was it,” said O’Leary.
“Some of my friends were junkies and as long as I wasn’t a junkie and just drinking I was okay but I was like a full blown alcoholic. I mean, I drank every day and every night. But they were the ones that were sick, not me.” Eventually O’Leary would try pharmaceutical opiates and once she was hooked she moved to heroin. “Between alcohol and opiates my struggle with addiction was about 8 to 10 years,” she said. But in January 2011 O’Leary entered treatment for the last time and had been sober ever since. It was two years into her recovery while she was receiving recovery services from North Suffolk Mental Health Association (NSMHA) when O’Leary met NSMHA Kim Hanton. In 2013 Hanton suggested O’Leary should look at a career in helping others get and stay sober. “At first I really wasn’t interested to be honest,” said O’Leary.
“I was working at a rental car company at the airport. I was also bartending and working in the restaurant industry, and I knew that was something that I didn’t want to continue to do.” Around this time one of O’Leary’s friends asked her if she wanted to take a Recovery Coach class. “He had a really difficult time writing and he thought he was going to have to do homework and stuff so he begged me to take this class with him,” she said. “I thought I was just going to support a friend. I took this course and then a year later this same friend reached out to me and said Kim Hanton was looking for a female Recovery Coach for NSMHA’s East Boston clinic. O’Leary said she interviewed for the job and was hired by Hanton. Still, she was skeptical of how far this career would go but almost a decade later O’Leary is thriving and now serves as NSMHA’s Director of Recovery Support Services. “NSMHA definitely provided me with a great deal of support, a great deal of training and education,” she said.
“They’ve really empowered me and pushed me to seek outside education and supported me in my process of managing up through the years.” O’Leary said as a woman in the field of recovery services she brings a slightly different approach to the job. “I think there’s a lot of empathy and compassion, and just kind of a maternal instinct that kind of comes into play where we (as women) want to nurture people and help them heal and make them whole again,” said O’Leary. “I wouldn’t say it’s a different perspective from what a man would bring to the job, I would just say it’s a more empathetic perspective.” During her last decade of work in recovery services O’Leary said andovcating and expanding the Drug Court system has been a legacy she feels most proud of.
“Expanding the Drug Court is the most important piece to me just because it really minimized the authoritative gap between the probation officer, the judge, and then the participant who was receiving services,” she said. “We currently have six drug courts. We are in Chelsea, Lynn Malden, Charlestown, Dorchester and I have Recovery Coaches in all of those courts. I also consult the Court Assisted Recovery Effort (CARE), which is the federal drug treatment court.” When we talked, O’Leary was preparing for her first meeting with the New England Regional Recovery Court Advisory Board, of which she is a member.
“I have my first meeting tomorrow,” said O’Leary. “So it’s a whole lot of judges and chiefs of police and just very powerful, intimidating people but I’m there to be the voice of the person in recovery to kind of bring a boots on the ground perspective. I think a lot of the time people like myself don’t have a seat at the table and there’s everybody at the top making decisions that have no idea what’s going on on the ground level. So I think they were really methodical about next steps and they wanted somebody that could speak to what is actually happening with the participants in the court. It’s pretty cool.”