Peter Brunzelle, director at SALS Recovery Centers, knows from personal experience the pain and difficulty addiction can cause. But he also understands the importance of support from those close to him. His story is that of hardship, and heartbreak as well as grace and recovery.
Peter started experimenting with alcohol at around 12 years old. He found out quickly that he liked it. Not the taste, but the effects. For the next several years he bounced from boys’ homes and detention centers in Wisconsin. He always felt that he didn’t fit in. He didn’t belong anywhere. So Peter looked for any way or any place he could, to find belonging. He escalated into drugs and began to steal to pay for his addiction, even getting into auto theft. He was arrested, charged with 7 felonies and 6 misdemeanors.
During his hearing, Peter’s social worker said, “Peter has no regard for himself or what he does to anybody in society.” The judge then waived 17 year-old Peter over to adult jail. But since he was still a minor he couldn’t be put in with the general population. So he sat in solitary or “the hole” for 90 days. “For long periods of my life, I looked up to people in jail,” says Peter. He got in fights and stole because he thought that is what you had to do to get respect. During his time in “the hole” he started to reflect on what was actually important to him.
To talk to others in solitary you have to lie on the ground putting your face up to the crack beneath the door. He remembers listening to others talk about what they would do when they got out. It was all talk about doing drugs and screwing over people that they didn’t like. “These people that I was looking up to were more afraid of life,” says Peter, “I saw that maybe I could live life differently.” Instead of going back to what he knew, Peter wanted to do something different with his life. He wanted to change.
Many people that cared about him began to reach out to him, such as his foster mom. “She looked at me like I was a good person, even though I didn’t feel like one,” Peter remembers, “So I made a pact with myself that I would do whatever I needed to do to live differently.” But he still had a lot to overcome. He faced up to 60 years for his crimes. A sentence that would guarantee a good majority of his life would be spent locked up.
When the time finally came for sentencing, he was shown grace from the judge, who sentenced him to only 10 years, 2 of which he would serve behind bars and then 6 years of probation. In prison he lived up to his promise to change. “I went to recovery meetings when I was in there and I listened to the people. They told me to read the 12-step literature and start working the steps,” recalls Peter. Having a network of people on the outside that cared made a huge impact as well. There were a couple people that would visit him. One was Russ, a man that looked like a cowboy, with the big cowboy hat and big belt buckle the size of a dinner plate, who was his sponsor while he was in jail.
When Peter got out, at age 20, Russ said that he could live with him. His wife had 2 conditions in the household, she cooked all the food, and she did all the laundry. Peter said, “I was OK with those rules.” While he was there he had a few different jobs. Worked at Subway for a while. He had a need to serve. So he started working for a home for the mentally ill. He was there for about 2 years and became a morning shift manager.
As time went on, Peter learned to develop his own businesses. “I saw that I wasn’t dumb at all,” said Peter, “I realized how much therapy and meetings helped me. That support saved my life.” He understood that he wasn’t stupid, but just learned things differently. “If you sit me in a school classroom, I don’t get anything out of it.” But if he applied himself in the right way, he could be successful.
Peter got to travel a lot through his business. He wanted to see the world and help as many people as he could. “I still love to give and want to be part of the recovery world.” He wanted to know, “How can we help people here in what I’m doing now? How can I help them do it faster than I did?” He worked at SALS for a couple years, before moving on to set up other programs across the US in California, Arizona, Colorado, etc. “I just want to be able to live my life and give.”
Then John Arneson, founder of SALS, crossed paths with Peter and asked if he could come back to help him and Dan Bater set up SALS Recovery and Housing as it is today. In 2015 they developed structured programing to better assist those in recovery. Peter found that there were different therapies that helped: trauma-based, dealing with ADHD, learning disabilities, Dialectical Based Therapy (DBT), Cognitive Based Therapy (CBT). These all help cope with different issues people have to better understand why they turned to substance abuse. “We have to find out what the trauma is before we approach it. Each therapist approaches each person individually,” says Peter. To really recovery you have to deal with the underlying cause as well as the wreckage you may have caused as an addict. “What I see is that when people take ownership of their addiction and their life, all the help they need is present for them.”
SALS approaches people individually to find out where they are cognitively, how they learn, and their cultural history. SALS takes this information to help them learn new coping mechanisms. We promote community by involving them in all of the 12 steps – activities, social life, recovery-based incentives. We bring in their families very quickly.
As for the future, Peter and SALS are always looking for better ways to help people in their recovery, such as a more holistic approach in overcoming addiction. With the Opioid epidemic getting worse, there is an even greater need for people like Peter and those at SALS. Peter believes this is different from other epidemics for a few reasons.
According to Peter, Opioids seem to fast track someone’s addiction. It is a drug that can kill and fast. Crack was something that people took for years relatively safely. It didn’t kill as quickly. That is why there is an elevated urgency to treat people. Also there are cultural aspects that we need to understand when treating people. There have been stigmas around different drugs and addiction in the past. We need to overcome those and get more people involved.
Community and family need to be a part of treatment for it to be successful. There are a lot programs and funding going to stop this epidemic, but Peter believes it isn’t enough yet. To him $10 million wouldn’t even scratch the surface. You would need a number more like $500 million to begin to turn the tide. There has been a lot of discussion lately of what is the best way to approach this new epidemic; continue treating people or funnel resources into prevention. His focus is on treating people first. That should be the goal right now according to Peter. Community building and teaching is important, but we have to stop the deaths first.
Peter has been proud of Waukesha and their embrace of community services, but he also believes as a whole we all can do better to help others on the path of recovery. That is why he continues his work at SALS and is working to bring awareness to these issues.
To learn more about SALS Recovery Center and our approach to treatment and recovery click here.