The organization’s TREE IOP is nine to 12-months long and includes weekly therapy sessions.
Every day, Michele Spann battles two different fights simultaneously: her battle against HIV/AIDS and against her addiction.
“You wake up with it, you go to sleep with it,” said Spann, a South Philadelphia native. “You have to control it, you have to let the disease know that there is no room for it here, and that’s what I do.”
In 2004, Spann was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, which attacks the immune system and can destroy cells that protect the body from infections or infection-related cancers.
“First it was shock, then it was a period of denial,” Spann said. “Then I went into a stage of acceptance, which led me to where I am today.”
Spann entered recovery 13 months ago, after she struggled with a heroin and cocaine addiction for 30 years. In 2004, she joined Philadelphia FIGHT, a federally funded primary care provider on 13th and Locust streets for people living with HIV/AIDS.
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, scientists have seen a correlation between a history of heavy alcohol or drug use and a tendency toward high-risk sexual behaviors like multiple sex partners, unprotected sex.
Spann uses Philadelphia FIGHT’s Teach Recovery Education Empowerment intensive-outpatient program. TREE IOP is a nine to 12-month program for people living with HIV/AIDS whom are also in recovery. Every week, participants attend 10 hours of individual therapy and group therapy, designed to allow participants to share their stories without fear of being stigmatized.
According to the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, group therapy can be used to present role models who have successfully addressed many of the issues clients in inpatient treatment may face.
The city’s Department of Health 2015 Surveillance Report reported that an estimated 20,000 people with HIV live in the Philadelphia. HIV-positive individuals are three times more likely than the general U.S. population to develop an alcohol use disorder at some point in their lives, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
“There’s still a lot of stigma out here revolving around HIV,” Spann said. “If we can dispel those myths, get rid of the stigma and if people can just come here and spend one day here, they will see that it’s a whole different world.”
TREE IOP participants are also taught budgeting, job preparedness and life skills.
Akia Feggans, the director of behavioral health at the Diana Baldwin Clinic, FIGHT’s official clinic that provides HIV-informed, culturally competent behavioral health services, said many people stop maturing at the point they become addicted to drugs or alcohol.
“Someone who started seriously using at 18, and now they’re 42, chronologically they’re 42, but the brain has ceased to stop maturing and growing,” Feggans said. “You’re looking at a 42-year-old man or woman, but really what you’re dealing with is an 18-year-old, because their brain has stopped.”
Spann is working on her coping skills and maintaining a prayer and meditation routine. As a peer educator, she also provides moral support and monthly presentations for treatment groups in the city.
“TREE IOP has given me opportunities that I wouldn’t have been able to get anywhere else as far as peer education,” Spann said. “I can go on any floor in this building and I have people to wave at me, holler, get a hug. It’s a whole community and it’s a beautiful thing.”