Overdose survivor now works helping drug addicts

Two-time drug overdose survivor Polly Jessen, a Kingsport, Tennessee, native, now dedicates her time to helping others battling drug addiction at Frontier Health.

Jessen’s addiction to opiates began after her mother died from breast cancer, she recently told the Bristol Herald Courier. She was barely 18 years old and was already abusing alcohol and marijuana.

“I eventually discovered my mother’s leftover pain medication,” she said.

She began swallowing and snorting pills, which eventually led to intravenous use of more dangerous street drugs, such as heroin.

“I quickly lost control over my addiction, which amplified my depression and caused me to begin having suicidal thoughts,” Jessen said.

During this time, she experienced her first overdose, which she described as a suicide attempt. Emergency medical technicians were able to revive her, and she was given psychiatric treatment at a local behavioral health hospital.

But Jessen was unable to stop using during that time, she said, which led to another overdose. She described the second overdose as unintentional.

She said she struggled for years with mental illness, depression, anxiety, legal issues, a lack of motivation, self-harm and addiction — issues that many face in the region. Eventually, after her third driving-under-the-influence charge, she finally got help. Through the court system, she was offered assistance in a residential treatment program at Frontier Health back in 2006.

The program helped, and she managed to stay clean and sober for a few years, but she eventually relapsed. She went back to treatment, again at Frontier Health, in 2012, and she has remained in recovery ever since.

She celebrated nine years of recovery last Thursday.

“Through a process of figuring out what worked and what didn’t, I was able to find a long-term way to manage my mental health and abstain from drugs,” Jessen said. “I became part of a supportive recovery community, and my goal became to eventually work in the field and be able to give back what was so freely given to me.”

Despite her past, Jessen was hired in 2013 as a residential tech at Frontier Health. She later obtained a certification through the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services to become a certified recovery specialist. In 2018, she became a peer recovery navigator on the Frontier Health Crisis Team. Her job consisted of assessing people who had experienced an overdose or been to the emergency room seeking help.

Jessen now serves as the staff development coordinator at Turning Point, a Frontier Health facility.

“My entire life was out of control, and I knew I was going to die if I didn’t get help,” she said, recalling her battle with addiction.

The region has been in the midst of an epidemic of deadly fentanyl and synthetic analogues for years, Jessen said. Many of these substances have been found in heroin and pressed or fake pills, methamphetamine and other drugs.

“In my opinion, the drugs are much more deadly now,” she said. “Each use includes a chance of overdose, and that is not just limited to heroin and prescription pills anymore. We have seen staggering amounts of methamphetamine users being positive for fentanyl, and I have personally heard instances of fentanyl being present in some batches of marijuana.”

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