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Karen Miller isn’t the type to talk about the good she’s done or sugar-coat her past. She’s lost track of how many people she’s helped in the 17 years she’s been in recovery.
“It’s to the point where people come up to me and I don’t even know who they are sometimes,” she said, chuckling. “I just show up.”
She’s quick to laugh, but just as quick to share her challenging past without mincing words.
Miller’s history includes a narrative that’s not uncommon in Wyoming: substance abuse that started young and killed many of her friends — another number she’s lost count of. If it isn’t a drug like methamphetamine or opioids affecting Wyoming families, she said, it’s alcohol.
“Every damn person in every damn family in Wyoming [knows of addiction] going on, somewhere. How can they not?” she asked.
The door of her cozy office at Cheyenne Regional Medical Center’s east campus reveals her title: peer specialist. She was the first to fill that role at the hospital just a few years ago.
A peer specialist is a certified individual in recovery who provides resources and support to those struggling with mental health challenges, including substance use disorders.
“I’m that person who has sort of been there and done that,” she said. “I’m not a therapist, I’m therapeutic.”
As for the “been there” part, Miller has personal experience with challenges such as anxiety, PTSD, bipolar disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, substance use disorder and even prison, she said.
“She’s not someone who shows up in the paper, and the mayor wouldn’t know who she was, but if you were in the recovery community, you’d know Karen Miller.”JOHN OLIVE
She helped create a Wyoming-specific curriculum to certify peer specialists here. She has trained supervisors of those specialists and sat in on training in prison — helping those who have struggled like her become a part of the solution.
“The lifers and the long-timers in prison, they show up and they don’t have to. They can sit in their cell and rot, you know?” she said. “And we’re teaching them how to be peer specialists.”
Miller is also on the board of directors for Recover Wyoming and is a recovery convention chair.
“Karen is one of the most influential people in recovery in Cheyenne,” said John Olive, a retired probation officer who befriended Miller when she was working in a recovery facility. “She’s not someone who shows up in the paper, and the mayor wouldn’t know who she was, but if you were in the recovery community, you’d know Karen Miller.”
Miller is a compassionate, professional and passionate advocate for anyone in recovery, said Olive, who has worked in the recovery community there for decades.
“She’s got a heart of solid gold,” he said.
To understand how Miller became this beacon of hope for those in recovery, it’s important to understand what she’s overcome.
The first time Miller abused substances was in Cheyenne at around 7 years old, she said.
She was prone to sinus infections, and in the ‘70s, a popular treatment for that was Actifed. At the time, that included codeine and phenylpropanolamine.
Today, codeine is restricted from children’s medication, and studies on mice have shown adolescent use of phenylpropanolamine can also potentially contribute to addiction in adults.
All Miller knew was that if she took more of it, life felt better, she said. Only later did she learn that her dad’s outbursts were related to hidden alcoholism and she was struggling with school work as a young girl with undiagnosed ADHD.
“I don’t know that that’s abusing drugs at the time,” she said. “All I know is ‘this is better than normal.’ So I loved it when I got sick.”
As she entered her teen years, Miller turned to alcohol and diet pills, getting attention from older boys she now realizes was inappropriate. She also started taking acid and mushrooms.
While she didn’t graduate high school, Miller did graduate from a treatment facility in Fort Collins and earned her GED diploma at 18. She passed with flying colors on her first try without studying, she said.
“They said I had one of the highest scores in the state of Colorado,” she said, smiling. “My mother was pissed … ‘See, I told you you didn’t apply yourself.’”
Around 21, Miller tried cocaine and meth. That was also around the time she moved to Arizona.
Miller had a son in her early 20s, and another son a few years later. She said she wasn’t using when she had them, but a few years later, meth lured her back in. She initially didn’t realize she was pregnant for a third time while using, and then found out she was carrying twins.
“It was terrifying. Absolutely terrifying,” she said.
Miller testified before the Wyoming Senate Labor, Health and Social Services Committee on Jan. 18 about the experience, sharing her support for Senate File 79 – Plan of safe care-newborns. For her, the bill could encourage mothers struggling with substance abuse to seek help instead of fearing prosecution.
“There’s not a mom out there who wakes up one day, finds out they’re pregnant and says: ‘how can I mess this kid up? I want to continue using drugs,’” she told lawmakers.
Senate File 79 unanimously passed the Senate. It now heads to the House.
Miller stopped using when she learned she was pregnant and her twin girls were born healthy and able to go home.
Not the end
After the birth, however, she resumed using meth.
Miller was working as a sheet metal fabricator in Arizona. She liked the work and was good at it, she said, but eventually “the drugs just kind of took over.” She sought outpatient treatment and moved home to Wyoming.
Back in Wyoming, meth continued to be hard to kick. The final straw was a prison sentence that mainly resulted from a forged check. Miller chalked the ordeal up to “stupid” decisions.
Prison likely saved her life, she said. Most of her close friends who stayed outside those walls have died.
But early on, while in county jail, she’d tried killing herself. She was going through withdrawal, she said, which brought on psychosis and thoughts about how she felt she failed her loved ones.
“There was no hope,” she said.
When officers intervened, she said they asked her why she wanted to end her life, and she told them they didn’t understand.
“‘No, you don’t understand,” she remembers one telling her. “There’s something beyond this … Just give it some time.”
Shame is powerful, so convincing herself that she was worth staying alive wasn’t easy. But she followed the officer’s advice and gave herself time as she spent two and a half years behind bars.
Building a life after prison and staying in recovery wasn’t easy, either. It entailed finding work as a woman with a record and facing tens of thousands of dollars in child support.
Miller doesn’t excuse her past behavior and paid that child support. She’s a strong advocate for people taking responsibility for their actions. Still, it was a struggle.
She remembers walking in front of the Capitol one night, crying. She saw the statue of the state’s first female justice of the peace, Esther Hobart Morris, which was outside at the time, and screamed at her in the wind. “I felt so sorry for myself, but then it did hit me: ‘I got me here.’”
“One thing I love about her is just how authentic she is. She’s just herself all the time.” LANA MAHONEY, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF RECOVER WYOMING
She said her negative self-talk also got under the skin of one of her parole officers. After referring to herself as “just an ex con,” the officer slammed on her desk and told Miller: “‘You’re not an ex con, you’re a former inmate who’s feeling sorry for herself.’”
With help and connections in the community, Miller was able to find work, starting with laundry. She was happy to have the income, but it wasn’t satisfying. Later, she got a job as a detox technician, helping others entering recovery. Finally, she worked to become a certified peer specialist, first at Peak Wellness Center and now Cheyenne Regional Medical Center.
Cheyenne has the state’s best support system for those in recovery, including avenues to jobs, Olive, the retired probation officer, said. Miller has supported that system at several junctures, he added, helping others and doling out the support and occasional “tough love” she needed herself.
“Karen is one of those people that jumps into everything with both feet,” he said.
Olive recommended Miller join the board for Recover Wyoming, which he also served on. The nonprofit offers resources and support to those affected by substance use disorders.
“To me, [Karen is] kind of like a beacon of light for people,” said Executive Director Lana Mahoney. “And one thing I love about her is just how authentic she is. She’s just herself all the time. You know, she’s funny, she has wisdom and she’s just Karen.”
Mahoney is also in recovery, and knows from personal experience that support from people like Miller who can genuinely understand is crucial.
“Recovery isn’t always sunshine and rainbows,” she said. “If I need someone to kind of bounce thoughts off of or something like that, [Karen is] always someone that I can rely on to kind of see things from a different perspective.”
Happier phase of life
Miller’s current husband went into recovery shortly before she did, and they’ve stayed together in the years since. She said support from him and her parents have been pivotal in her life. She also beams when she talks about her five young grandkids and four adult children.
Meanwhile, she said, she keeps showing up for people, like she showed up for Angie Tsukas. Tsukas, who is nearly a decade into recovery, said she met Miller at the Chrysalis House in Pine Bluffs after a years-long struggle with meth.
“Karen came in there and really was just raw and real, and she has this just caring and loving persona about her. That really gets you to trust her and look up to her,” she said.
She said Miller didn’t just inspire her but also pushed her to do more that would benefit her life. Thanks to support from those like Miller and staff at Chrysalis, Tsukas said she is now also a certified peer specialist and is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in psychology with hopes to one day provide therapy to others who need it in the state.
Both Tsukas and Miller hear from others that Wyoming’s drug scene is getting worse — particularly with the addition of fentanyl.
“Everybody said it was hard to get off of everything else. And now it’s just impossible,” Miller said.
All the same, Olive said Miller just keeps encouraging people to show up to meetings and contribute wherever they can. One of his favorite quotes of Miller’s is: “We can always be 100% successful in planting seeds.”
If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, you can call or text The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988.
This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.