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'She Insisted I Go to Treatment When She Found Out I Had a Substance Abuse Problem'

Robert Harrison sits – wearing a white shirt and blue tie. He smiles into the camera. There is an American flag behind him.
Trevor Hook

Robert Harrison was born in St. Louis and has dealt with a substance use disorder throughout his life. After living drug-free for more than 20 years, Robert became the executive director of an alternative sentencing program in Columbia aimed at low-level drug offenders. He left his post two years later.

He spoke with KBIA’s Trevor Hook about why he first came to Columbia and sought treatment.

Missouri Health Talks gathers Missourians’ stories of access to healthcare in their own words. You can view more conversations at missourihealthtalks.org

Robert Harrison: I came here – it’s almost been 24 years ago now – in search of substance abuse treatment. I’m from St. Louis, Missouri, originally. It’s not that there’s not plenty of treatment in St. Louis. However, I had exhausted all of my attempts at treatment centers there, and I felt like I needed a change of pace.

I grew up in a public housing complex in St. Louis. I was a drug dealer for a lot of years. That's just where I came from. I had a brother that was a drug dealer, and I followed suit. I had a single parent - mother. Didn't know my father, basically in my life. But my mother was a very Christian lady, and worked really, really hard to provide a really stable home for her kids. 

Despite her best attempts at helping me, I fell short and decided to take that route to the streets. That lasted for a lot of years.

My usage came later on, I mean, I was a drug dealer long before I was a drug addict. But they have a saying, “You eventually start to be your best customer.” I fulfilled that prophecy.

I came to Columbia because one of my therapists in St. Louis found a treatment program here that was long-term, meaning three, four, five months. That program was the Phoenix Program here in Columbia. I found it, I interviewed. They didn't really have any openings, and they had a long waiting list. But when I interviewed with them - you have to interview with them in person though, so I had to take a bus trip to Columbia to interview for a treatment program that I knew I wasn't going to get in right away. 

But as soon as I got back to the treatment center in St. Peter's, at that time, I had a phone call that said I was accepted and they wanted me to come back right away.

Trevor Hook: Can you talk a little bit about the influence that your mother had in sort of you growing up and even looking back now, in retrospect?

Robert: She was amazing, man. She insisted I go to treatment when she found out I had a substance abuse problem. She knew nothing about treatment, she grew up in an era [when] people just didn't know much about treatment.

She did some research, went on the phone and found treatment centers and wrote down numbers of various treatment centers that I could go to, and I rejected them the first time she tried to give them to me.

But two nights after she passed, I was at her house and I was... using, and I totally desecrated her apartment. She was a very, very clean lady. I was in her bedroom using, and papers and paraphernalia all over everywhere, and in the midst of all that stuff, all that trash, was that list of numbers. I picked up the numbers and the next morning I called them and I got in for my treatment for the first time.

This piece was reported and produced by Trevor Hook.

Trevor Hook is a reporter, producer and morning anchor for KBIA 91.3 born and raised in New Franklin, Missouri. He graduated from the University of Missouri with both a Master's degree in Audio Journalism in 2020 and a Bachelor's degree in Convergence Journalism in 2018.
Rebecca Smith is an award-winning reporter and producer for the KBIA Health & Wealth Desk. Born and raised outside of Rolla, Missouri, she has a passion for diving into often overlooked issues that affect the rural populations of her state – especially stories that broaden people’s perception of “rural” life.
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