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Harm reduction advocate emphasizes seeing substance users as “people first”

Frederick, MD – John Dittmann leans against the wall while sitting at his Starbucks table, with a kind smile on his face and a coffee steaming by his left hand. He speaks with an accent that’s hard place, which makes sense considering he grew up bouncing between California and West Virginia before settling in Maryland as an adult.

His baseball cap casts a slight shadow over his eyes, but passion lights up his face the moment he begins to discuss his work as an advocate for people in recovery from opioid addiction. 

“Being in recovery myself, my goal is to blend my advocacy work and to teach people about the medical aspects [of addiction] to correct misconceptions,” said Dittmann. “I will educate anyone who needs educating … where I see a need, I speak up.” 

Aside from running his Facebook group, Dittmann is a paramedic and also works as a member of the national group Advocates for Opioid Recovery as a member of their survivor’s council. He provides consultation for people in legal struggles with clinics as well as providing support systems for their recovery. 

Dittmann was in college when he first used opioids. It started with recreational cocaine use with some friends, but one night when they didn’t have any coke, they decided to take some Oxycontin with a friend who had been prescribed the drug.

“It kind of just snuck up on me,” said Dittmann. “It actually took me a long time to realize that I was physically dependent and became addicted.”

In school, Dittmann studied microbiology and analytical chemistry, and was on track to go to medical school. The science behind addiction had always fascinated him. By the end of college, he moved in with friends who also used and had gone from snorting crushed Oxy to injecting heroin, which culminated in his arrest after graduation. 

Part of his probation included a requirement to seek professional recovery assistance. Lacking confidence in 12-step programs, Dittmann instead chose to begin treatment at a methadone clinic. 

But what drove Dittmann to become an advocate for other people in recovery was not his personal experience as a user, but, rather, the neglect and corruption he saw during his decade hopping form one methadone clinic to clinic. During a span of 10 years, he sought treatment at seven different rehab facilities, seeking one that provided him with adequate support.

“We’re never going to stop the overdose crisis until we start seeing people who use drugs as people first.”

–John dittmann

At one time, after raising questions about medical advice he received at a clinic, he was put on “administrative detox,” where a patient is weaned off of the drug over 10-21 days. This is the process of slowly reducing the amount of methadone given to a patient and allow them to leave the clinic without suffering the most serious side effects of detoxification.

“It’s cruel, it’s dangerous, it’s to get you out of the clinic,” said Dittmann. He saw detox used as a punishment when other people like him were unable to pay their bills, or questioned the decisions of the clinicians.

Dittmann began to question the power dynamic in clinics that the people he and other people in recovery were relying on for medication and support. He saw contradictory information, such as warning signs and threats of felony charges for failing to follow clinic protocols, despite his knowledge that those punishments themselves were against the law.

When Dittmann’s younger half-brother died from an overdose, Dittmann realized that addiction is often a response to trauma. 

Even more important, he said, is understanding that people experience addiction and trauma in different ways. Making the recovery process more personal, allowing for mistakes and educating former substance users became a goal for Dittmann. 

From contradictory advice from clinician to clinician, to threats of legal action if patients failed to follow the program entirely that were posted in clinics and had no basis in state or federal law, Dittmann saw a need for advocacy on the behalf of others in recovery that didn’t have the same background in medicine he does. 

“It breaks my heart … the way people are being treated, the way they’re looked down on” while trying to recover from addiction, said Dittmann. “We’re never going to stop the overdose crisis until we start seeing people who use drugs as people first.”

Stacy Lesko was three years sober when she decided to join a Facebook group dedicated to helping people in recovery from opioid addiction. She said the group broke down “myths” and biases about addiction that are held by doctors and patients alike. 

“When you’re in active addiction, your life becomes this non-reality,” said Lesko. “A part of recovery is coming back to reality, and that was one of my biggest struggles.” 

For her, it was John Dittmann, the creator of the group, who helped her regain her footing. 

“Every morning I would get on there, and just read through,” said Lesko. “Not even just the questions you ask, things you didn’t even think of, or you forgot about, people were asking.” 

John would dedicate hours of time to researching and responding to each individual group member’s questions. He would provide links to research and personal anecdotes as a way for people to understand their addiction, and their recovery. 

“During active addiction, you’re fighting to get out, and you’re also fighting to defend yourself,” said Lesko. “All these people that loved and cared for me … they didn’t understand so then it built a barrier.” 

“When you’re in certain situations, people don’t understand how quickly it is to relapse,” said Lesko. “By John sharing everything that he knows, or can find, it’s easier to understand everything that you’re going through and to make better decisions.” 

Dittmann is too humble to admit the direct role he played in Lesko’s recovery.

Lesko said that thanks to Dittmann, she was able to reconnect with her friends and family because she had an outlet to discuss her recovery.

“I’ve learned that when defending yourself, you also have to be understanding of where people are coming from, too,” said Lesko. “People feel a certain way or have opinions about you, for a reason. Everything that I’ve gone through, they’ve gone through as well. ”

Hailing from Waldoboro, Maine, Braeden Waddell is a junior at American University studying Journalism and Latin American area studies. Waddell is an avid podcast listener, an aspirational chef, and a two-wheeled transportation enthusiast currently suffering a minor setback. His long-term career goal is to work as an investigative reporter for a podcast similar to Post Reports, Reveal, or In The Dark. His choice to attend American University was inspired by desperate need to leave his 5,000-person town in rural Maine and enjoy the benefits of modernity he lacked at home, such as a cable internet and being able to go to a grocery store without seeing upwards of five people from his high school. Fun fact: Waddell only learned to ride a bike 3 weeks ago. Fun fact 2: While Waddell loves to cook, he is less knowledgeable with the art of baking. He can only bake one thing: Banana Bread. But, it’s damn good banana bread.

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