The Key Competencies of the COO: Part 1

Congratulations, Heather, in your new role!

The Chief Operations Officer of any organization carries a great deal of responsibility. In a nonprofit that provides essential behavioral health services to a vulnerable population of adults, the burden is even heavier. Heather Hickey recently accepted this position at WSTC, signing on to keep operations running smoothly, support the treatment of substance use disorders, and promote the organization’s commitment to improve lives and restore hope for people suffering from the effects of substance use disorders in the Kitsap community and beyond.

I asked Heather what Operations involves. Here’s her take on the job duties: “It’s the basic day-to-day functions that are a million tiny pieces: making sure that the offices are running smoothly, that all the business licenses are current, that the locks on all the doors work, that everyone knows who to call if there’s a plumbing emergency or something else needs to be fixed. That’s the basic job. And leadership is covering the bases when it’s needed.”

Leadership is more than just a piece of the job to Heather, though. Like many professionals in the behavioral health field, her experience in the industry began as a participant in programs, and she brings the insights of her lived experience to work with her every day. “It’s about modeling where recovery can take you. Showing the newcomer that you really can come from rock bottom and work your way up.”

Early Trauma & Health Issues

Heather suffered from traumatic events while she was a young person. The CDC explains that adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, involve potentially traumatic events that occur between the ages of birth and 17. ACEs play a major role for many people suffering from mental health problems and substance use disorders (SUDs).

“After that,” she says, “for a few years, I was looking for something to soothe me, to entertain me. Getting into trouble felt like fun to me, then. It felt like entertainment.”

In her twenties, Heather tried to pull her life together — first, by going into the military, which didn’t work out due to health problems and a hospital stay. Next came a whirlwind romance with a military servicemember. They married, and after a couple of years, decided to have a baby. “I wanted to be the perfect wife and mother,” she says. “I would take our daughter out all the time. To parks. To playland. I’d get her all dressed up and get her pictures made. All that stuff.”

The Downhill Slide

During her husband’s second deployment, the restlessness came back, and she started to lose her way again, drinking too much and falling into risky behavior patterns. “After five years of marriage, we divorced, and I moved from where we were stationed in Colorado back to my folks’ house.”

For a while, depression made it difficult to cope. “My parents were happy to have me. It was a good environment. But I was already sliding off the rails.” Heather’s mom encouraged her to get dressed up, go out, and have a good time, but what began as a once-in-a-while occasion turned into every weekend, and then stretched into two or three nights a week. “I started to do really risky things,” she says. “Driving drunk, making very poor choices, and being willing to join random people I’d just met and do whatever they were doing.”

The Early Stages of Substance Use

“It was my 27th birthday that I tried meth for the first time. I wasn’t prepared for what was going to happen and how good it was going to make me feel,” Heather says. “It was like the sun, moon, and stars lined up, or like I met the love of my life, the first time I tried it.”

At first, the “friends” she’d been hanging out with gave her drugs for free. Over the course of six months, she lost her job, her utilities were turned off, and she was evicted from the apartment she’d worked so hard to get. Then, at six months, they asked how much she wanted to buy. By then, she was hooked, so she used her unemployment, and sold her jewelry and anything she owned that would provide some cash.

More Loss = More Use = More Loss

Meanwhile, her ex-husband had moved to Mississippi, and Heather’s parents went to court to testify that she was using drugs, and that her daughter wasn’t safe with her. “I think they thought it would scare me straight,” she says. “I wish that it had. But it didn’t.” Adding new pain and trauma only made her situation seem more difficult to handle.

Heather had to put her daughter on a southbound plane, but she intended to go to court and fight to get her back. “I was still lying about everything at that time, though,” she explains. “I told the court that I had used meth a few times, but I was using every single day.”

The judge wanted her to prove that she was clean and could stay clean, but she couldn’t. “Instead of having that traumatic event turn me around, it actually caused me to go deeper into my addiction. I got lost in a world that I didn’t know how to get out of.”

I got lost in a world that I didn’t know how to get out of.”

At first, Heather tried to keep in touch with her daughter, but as she lost track of time, their contact became sporadic to the point that finally, her ex-husband said that it was better for their daughter if Heather stopped calling altogether. “He wanted me out of his life forever, even if it wasn’t the best thing for me to be out of hers. He didn’t care. He told her I died.”

Early Attempts at Recovery

After a couple of years of hard using, Heather decided she couldn’t miss any more of her daughter’s childhood. To begin her recovery journey, she moved to Kitsap County with her parents. Unfortunately, the rural areas throughout Kitsap make it an easy place for hiding substance use. She found the wrong kind of people, used meth, and ended up with a felony. Although she screened for the Drug Court program, she ended up telling the judge she wasn’t ready to stop using yet.

When she did go to treatment in 2005, she had trouble focusing on herself and her recovery, instead feeling obsessed about her boyfriend, who was still using, and being concerned with what the others at the facility thought of her. At the end of the 28 days, she left the treatment center with many of the physical effects of drug use fading but without the mental and emotional commitment to recovery that she needed to stay clean.

Relapse: Part of the Recovery Process

She went looking for her friends again, and this time, imposter syndrome set in hard, convincing her that she wasn’t bad enough to truly deserve help. “Something in me said I should be injecting,” she says. “As if the only way I’d ever go to treatment again was if I could say I was an IV user. The only way anyone would take me seriously is if my problem was really bad.”

Meanwhile, Heather’s mom had become addicted to pills, and the two began selling them together. Still, she wanted to reconnect with her own daughter, so she tried again to get help, getting an assessment from a counselor at Kitsap Recovery Center. When a raid led to her arrest, she was able to tell the officer she already had a bed date for treatment at Highland Court in Port Angeles. “I needed to be away from Kitsap County,” Heather says. “I was afraid if I went to KRC, I’d just walk off the campus. I knew people up the street from there who used. I needed to be far away from that.”

Identification of Triggers & Solutions

It was in Port Angeles that a counselor suggested to Heather that it wasn’t meth alone that she had a problem with, but alcohol, as well. The suggestion made her angry enough that she threatened to leave, but she was told that if she went somewhere else, she’d have to pay for it out of pocket. She returned to the session, fuming, but the counselor’s rationale made all too much sense: Whenever she drank alcohol, she got into fights, she took dangerous risks, and she inevitably returned to her drug of choice.

I was going to go ahead and give it all I’ve got and not use anything, ever. I didn’t know what forever looked like. I just wanted to get through treatment and face the charges against me.”

“I made a decision that day,” Heather says. “I was going to go ahead and give it all I’ve got and not use anything, ever. I didn’t know what forever looked like. I just wanted to get through treatment and face the charges against me.” This time, when she completed inpatient treatment, she continued on to West Sound Treatment Center for outpatient treatment. She went to meetings, met others in recovery, and in the process of working on herself, she started liking who she was.

When she went to court, Heather was offered the chance to go into the Drug Court program, and this time, she was ready. “I told the judge I’d been to treatment, I was going to meetings every day, I was living in an Oxford house, and I had a sponsor. I was really doing it. His face lit up. He smiled at me, and he said, ‘OK. Let’s see what you got.’” I graduated from Drug Court with flying colors.

Recovery: More Than Just Not Using

At that point, Heather was finally ready to work on getting back in touch with her daughter. Her ex-husband didn’t care that she was clean – he didn’t want to share custody. But their daughter, who was 10 years old by that time, was eager to have her mom back in her life. So, Heather fought to regain custody. In the end, after a tough and expensive legal battle, the judge ordered shared custody.

“For me, getting clean wasn’t just about not using anymore. It was about getting my child back, getting through the legal system successfully, being a good citizen. It’s about not breaking laws, not lying, having integrity, taking accountability for my mistakes.

“There’s a lot of solace in wanting to live clean,” Heather says. “I also have the goal to die clean. I honor my clean date, which is 12-02-07. I’m very proud of that date. I don’t ever want to give it up.”

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