Manny Slaughter was hugged by his daughter after he shared the story from the darkest times in his life with a full room at the annual Unico dinner.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Most of the community leaders in the central Berkshires know Manny Slaughter.
They know him now from hours upon hours of volunteer time he puts in every summer, with a smile on his face, running a basketball program for the area's youth. They know him now from thousands of Pittsfield children he's taken under his wing. They know him now as a mentor and a role model.
They know Slaughter now as a shining star in the Pittsfield community.
And on Thursday, they saw the man who means so much to so many cry. Because the sharply dressed Slaughter stood in front of a room of some 200 of the county's top elected officials and business community and non-profit leaders and told about the days when it was very dark for him, the days when he was struggling so bad with mental health and substance abuse that he wanted to die.
Most in the Pittsfield community know Slaughter now as a shining star because of the Brien Center and Dr. Jennifer Michaels, who gave him the help he needed to now give such a speech after nearly 16 years in recovery.
"Being in recovery and doing all of the suggested things they told me to do, I have done things and seen things beyond my wildest dreams. I am no longer living in darkness," Slaughter said.
"That is why I am so proud to look at each and every one of you today to see you are truly looking at me in the light because once upon a time, I knew what it felt like to want to die and not care and not be a productive member in society and be OK with that. I know what that feels like. I never, ever want to go back to that dark place in my life."
Slaughter said his being there "is a miracle" because he has accepted that "mental health doesn't discriminate and the disease of addiction doesn't discriminate." He remembered his mother saying that nothing was wrong and he didn't need medication. And he stuck by that and didn't get the mental health help he needed.
Then he went to the Brien Center where he met Michaels and Michaels told him, "Manny until you get the mental illness part down in your life you will never get the disease of addiction down in your life." And that stuck with him.
"I started off at the Keenan House way back in the day. From the Keenan House to the day program and from the day program to an outpatient program, I was taught 'Manny, how far are you willing to go to not just make a difference in your life but be available and accountable to make a difference in somebody else's life,' " Slaughter said.
Now he's learned to accept it and how to manage it. And he's not afraid to admit it, even into a microphone in front of 200 people at the Berkshire Hills Country Club.
"Because the Brien Center had such a significant impact on my life, it has now made a significant impact on those in the community in Pittsfield, Massachusetts," Slaughter said. "I am not ashamed. I am in denial to tell anybody that I suffer from the disease of addiction and the disease of mental illness because the minute I get into a debate saying I don't have a problem is the minute you don't see Manny no more."
His past isn't one many in the room had heard about including state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier.
"I hope everybody realizes the thousands of lives that he has touched and made a real difference in with the youth he works with. I know it has a fancy longer name but we just call it Manny and Vanessa's camp and the spirit and the gentle kindness that he gives to seniors who are maybe living in the shadows of their old age because they are living with dementia. He does those two things and making impacts on families that are real and lasting," Farley-Bouvier said.
"I didn't know the source of that miracle was the work that you did in your recovery but it makes it that much more powerful."
State Sen. Adam Hinds said Slaughter's story is the message that needs to be spread when talking about these issues.
"There is hope. You can get out of addiction and move toward recovery," Hinds said.
Slaughter is one of 10,000 people in Berkshire County receiving some type of service from the Brien Center. CEO Christine MacBeth said the Brien Center provides 11,000 services a month from adult and family to children to medical to community services to responding to a crisis.
"We do what we do because prevention works, treatment is effective, and people can and do recover. The Brien Center is guided by the belief that everybody in Berkshire County benefits when people are emotionally healthy. Our goal is to promote healing, health, and hope for the future," Macbeth said.
Michaels did work with Slaughter but he was only one of many. She has been with the center for 23 years and in 2007 took over as the agency's medical director. She has not only been on the forefront and considered an expert for the Brien Center but has become the county's go-to for information relating to those living with addiction.
For her efforts, the Brien Center honored Michaels with the 2018 Achievement Award at the annual dinner for the Pittsfield chapter of Unico.
"Dr. Michaels spends a tremendous time being an advocate for individuals in recovery and their family members, developing effective systems of care and promoting evidence-based practices. She is an exceptionally dedicated and highly skilled technician, leader, an extraordinary educator. She understands the complexity of addiction and respects the need to develop and implement safe recovery approach for each individual's journey," Macbeth said.
"She is the Brien Center's rockstar."
Michaels credited a number of others who help with the program. She had been the force behind the development of addiction treatment programs but she it wouldn't have happened with the support and desire from others.
"I think it is so much more powerful when we work together as a team and here in the Berkshires, we've got it. I'm really grateful," Michaels said.
Michaels said mental illness and addiction is "not a sexy disease. They can be devastating. They are often filled with shame." But it gave her hope to see the packed event space because it was filled with people who purchased tickets to the dinner to help support the work she and her colleagues at the Brien Center do every day. And it is work she loves doing.
Pignatelli is recognized for his work in securing funds for the Keenan House for Women.
"Every day we get to help people transform their lives. In that process of helping people better their lives and become better people, we have become better people. Every day we get to see the miracle of people like Manny," Michaels said.
And even more of that work is going to get done at the Keenan House for Women, which opened one year ago in Pittsfield. The 17-bed recovery shelter supports women in early recovery, including services for pregnant and postpartum women.
But that wouldn't have been possible if it weren't for state funding and the Brien Center honored state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli for his continual push in the state house for those funds with the Community Service Award.
"Smitty is a long-time Brien Center partner, friend, and advocate who was instrumental in securing more residential recovery beds specifically for the Brien Center. It was his constant advocacy at the statehouse, that means picking up the phone, knocking on the door, that means walking into the office, and his tireless, timeless effort with the Department of Public Health officials to make sure they are well aware of what was out in Western Mass and well aware that we need more residential recovery beds," Macbeth said.
"It is because of him we secured the funding from the Department of Public Health that we needed."
Pignatelli also echoed the sentiment of teamwork, saying the award should go to the entire Berkshire delegation who "worked well together on this one." And for Pignatelli, it was Slaughter's story and many others that haven't yet been told that will be important in address addiction.
"Other people need to share their stories. The stigma we still have on mental illness and substance abuse is real, is deep, and it doesn't help. If we can break down the barriers of stigma and get people to make that phone call, take that first step, 16 years clean and sober with a healthy family, I hope you have 50 more. That's the barriers we have to break down. Those are the struggles we have all throughout Massachusetts," Pignatelli said.
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