Former addict now a recovery peer advocate

Barbara Bell overcame a life of addiction to become a recovery peer advocate.
By Naeisha Rose

Far Rockaway resident Barbara Bell recently graduated from a city program to train unemployed or underemployed New Yorkers who have a personal history of substance abuse.

Bell and the 13 other recent graduates who took the Department of Small Business Services’ Certified Recovery Peer Advocate training have received full-time job offers, according to SBS Commissioner Gregg Bishop.

The department’s New York Alliance for Careers in Health Care program allows former substance abusers to use their own life experiences to become support systems for those who are currently struggling to kick their substance disorders.

“Not only are New Yorkers with personal histories of or experience with substance use gaining meaningful employment, but area hospitals are also gaining valuable staff to effectively support substance use treatment,” Bishop said.

Bell’s journey from addict to substance abuse counselor was a long and arduous one.

Bell said she had a great upbringing and attended church, but her rebellious nature led her to becoming pregnant and she dropped out of school two months into her pregnancy to give birth seven months later on Sept. 10, 1979.

During the weekdays she would work at the post office, but on weekends she would sniff cocaine with friends out of peer pressure, because it was the thing to do and drugs were prevalent throughout the neighborhood at the time.

“I was going out, hanging out, indulging and then I started sniffing cocaine,” Bell said.

After losing her job at the post office and having arguments with her mother about being unemployed, Bell became depressed and started smoking crack.

“I was introduced to crack by a friend,” Bell said. “At first I didn’t understand the high because I didn’t immediately get addicted to it.”

Bell, then 24, became addicted to crack within six months and had to leave her daughter in her mother’s care.

Her breaking point came in 1999 after she was arrested for a third time and went to prison for trying to sell drugs to feed her addiction. Between the time she became addicted to crack and incarcerated, she was also homeless.

“It was a lonely horrible time for me,” Bell said. “I was humbled and I was ready to better myself.”

Bell was released in prison in 2000 and went to drug rehab programs at Samaritan Village, Basic Bronx Addiction Services, and J-CAP.

Wanting to contribute to society, Bell became a recovery coach at Samaritan Village, but disliked that she was not able to reflect on her experience with clients to help them.

“They wanted us to utilize our counseling skills and theories to engage the clients, but not to get in-depth with our personal history,” Bell said.

In 2010, Bell learned that she had multiple sclerosis and in 2013 she left her job to focus on her health.

Not wanting to slip into depression from being unemployed again, Bell started seeking work again and stumbled onto the SBS training program. After taking the test twice, she passed the second time and became a certified recovery peer advocate and received a job offer at NYC Health Hospitals, where she will be able to use her personal history to help addicts who are struggling with substance abuse.

“I’m excited about helping and supporting people to find their way,” Bell said.

Reach reporter Naeisha Rose by e-mail at nrose@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4573.

More from Around New York