Traveling That Same Road: A Peer Lends a Hand

By Taylor Sisk 11/24/17

By 21, Smith recalls today, he was living by two guiding principles: “Nobody’s ever going to put their hands on me.” And, “Everything is solved through violence.”

Thomas Hayes and Kevin Butler
Hayes and Butler, peer support specialists, use their experience in the system to help people who are currently hospitalized. Image via Author

FRANKLIN, N.C. – When Roger Smith talks of his past to a new acquaintance, he summons for analogy the movie Big Fish, the story of a man obsessed with the telling of seemingly fantastical tales.

“’Ain’t no way you’ve been through all that’” is what Smith says he sees in folks’ eyes when he recounts the events of his decidedly volatile days. “And then, in the end, they see that it’s really true.”

The pain infused in the retelling is the tipoff, a pain that Smith’s just begun to purge.

Smith grew up in the picture-postcard town of Waynesville, tucked into the Smoky Mountains of western North Carolina. Raised by his grandparents, he was molested by a family member at 7. He was drinking and drugging by 12, and locked up at 15 for stabbing a boy twice during a fight at school.

By 21, Smith recalls today, he was living by two guiding principles: “Nobody’s ever going to put their hands on me.” And, “Everything is solved through violence.”

That year, 1993, three months prior to the final day of his probation, “I caught a real serious charge. I shot a man.” The man subsequently died of complications.

Smith did six years for assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill, and has some colorful tales to tell of the subsequent years—liquor-, meth-, opioid-infused tales, of arson and firearms and many more days and nights behind bars—that might easily be perceived as hyperbolic.

Fortunately, Smith has found a true believer. His name is Brandon Dietz.

Dietz is a peer support specialist with Meridian Behavioral Health Services, based in Sylva, North Carolina, 20 miles up U.S. 23 from the home in Franklin that Smith now shares with his family.

Dietz is a member of a Meridian Assertive Community Treatment Team assigned to Smith, who today acknowledges the depths of his substance and mental health issues. Dietz’s primary responsibility is to relate, which in his interactions with Smith comes easily: He too has an intimate history with law enforcement.

A former high school baseball coach, Dietz transitioned from alcohol to everyday methamphetamine use “in the blink of an eye,” he says. “I did it one evening, and my world just went boom – absolutely went boom.” To maintain his habit, he sold meth, prescription opioids and guns. He was in and out of jail, soon staring down a stretch of serious time.

He recalls the 8 a.m. knock at the door, 10 armed law enforcement officers, his stepsons watching cartoons as he was dragged out of bed, cocaine and meth within reach.

“I still remember sitting in that kitchen, hearing the tears,” he says. “It was like, ‘It’s come to this. It’s really come to this.’”

You know he has the keys, right?’

Peer support is a central element of recovery-oriented care for those with behavioral health issues. There’s a movement behind the recovery-oriented approach that’s been gaining momentum across the country, in fits and starts, for the past decade or so.

Peer support programs are the vanguard of this movement. The advocacy group Mental Health America calls them a “unique and essential element of recovery-oriented mental health and substance abuse systems.” And in 2007, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid encouraged states to cover peer support services under Medicaid.

More recently, there’s a growing awareness of the importance of forensic peer support; for people with histories of behavioral health issues who’ve been incarcerated, communicating with someone who has first-hand knowledge of the criminal justice system seems to show positive results.

Some states are now providing those services inside jails and prisons.

Twin Valley Behavioral Healthcare is a hospital under the authority of the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. Located in Columbus, it provides psychiatric care to acute and forensic patients, including those in a maximum-security forensic center.

Kevin Butler is a Twin Valley peer support specialist.

Butler had a successful 20-year career in radio and TV advertising, but was meanwhile in and out of psych wards, on and off his meds. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, he was sentenced to a stay at Twin Valley as the result of a psychotic breakdown in which he became convinced his neighbors were with the Taliban, shattering the front window of their home with a flashlight and leaving a trail of his own blood down the block.

Once out of the hospital, having “been there” and back, he was prepared to share some wisdom gained on that journey.

“It’s our job,” Butler says of being a peer support specialist, “to give these folks hope for the future and to be an example and show them that if they follow a good recovery plan they can accomplish anything they want in this life.”

For Twin Valley staff, peer support was initially a hard sell, says CEO Veronica Lofton. Here were former forensic patients now returning to the units as colleagues.

Lofton says administrators received phone calls from unit staff when Thomas Hayes, Twin Valley’s first peer support specialist, first walked in. He’d done a stint at Twin Valley, including in its maximum-security facility.

“‘You know he has keys, right?’” Lofton today recalls staff informing her.

Peer support specialists can establish relationships with patients that clinical staff can’t, Lofton says. “Once they’ve done their magic—whatever that magic is that they’re able to do—our staff can then go in and start working with the patient, or collaboratively work with the patient and the peer support specialist.”

On a typical day, Butler says, he might review a new patient’s clients’ rights and discuss advanced directives and living wills. He’ll conduct discharge surveys for those soon to be released. He asks if they were treated with respect and dignity, what could have been done differently, then passes along this information for discussion among staff.

Susan Cross, Twin Valley’s clients’ rights specialist, said the hospital’s peer support specialists educate patients to be assertive in how to get their needs met. “Not to be aggressive and not to be passive either…. To build that confidence to speak up for yourself.”

The most effective peer support specialists, she affirms—among whom she counts Hayes and Butler—“bring a gentle, human approach,” one of “acceptance and openness.”

“I tell them what they need to do to get out of here sooner,” Butler says, “and they really appreciate that.”

He then ensures his clients are put in touch with a peer support specialist and other services within a community support network.

“I feel like I’m making a difference in people’s lives for the first time in my life,” Butler says.

Brandon Dietz can attest that the manner of support Butler offers does, in fact, change lives. He recognizes today that his turning point came through the relationship he built with a counselor—an ex-con—while incarcerated in North Carolina.

What he had done to his family crushed him; he had incentives to turn things around. “But I was tough on therapists. I said, ‘You’re going to teach me about me and my addictions from something you learned in a book?’ I was one of those guys.”

But when his counselor told him that prior to his 15 years as a therapist he’d done nine years for trafficking cocaine and involuntary manslaughter, the conversation commenced.

“And my life changed,” Dietz says.

They Do the Work

Smith and Dietz meet regularly on the porch of Smith’s home on a ridge above Franklin, wind chimes laying rhythm to unrushed conversation. They talk about most everything – prison time, family, a fitful night; today’s anxiety, tomorrow.

They sometimes talk about how peer support works: “Peer support works when you hold hope for someone else,” Dietz said on a recent afternoon, “and you support and stand by them while they do the work.”

You use that lived experience, he says, “to help the next person. The way this thing survives, and thrives, is by the next person going forward with their story.”

“His,” Dietz affirms, nodding to Smith, “needs to be heard.”

Smith returned to the streets an even more deeply troubled man than the one who’d taken leave, haunted by his crimes.

“Shooting that man – I shot him, and he was gone. His whole side from here to here was gone. His son was standing right there; his wife was there. I can’t bring that back. Six years in prison wasn’t shit.”

He was drinking a lot of liquor in those days, not store-bought: white liquor. “A lot of it.” Plenty of drugs too: meth, oxycodone. “I’d do whatever.”

“I just got so tired,” Smith says. “It just wasn’t working. Everything I kept trying to do, it just wasn’t doing it.

“I was trying to commit suicide without committing suicide.”

He went to visit his parole officer, Elise Sutton, “drunk; couldn’t stand up. I said, ‘I want you to give me my time. I want to go to prison. It’s just so much easier for me to do.’”

Sutton assured him he needed help, “And it’s not just what she said; it’s how she said it. It was so sincere. Inside she knew I was crying for help, but outside I was being hard-ass, like always.”

Time to try something new: “I probably wouldn’t have made it back to the prison system. I’d probably be dead right now, honest to god.”

Sutton drove him to Meridian Behavioral Health Services.

Roger Smith
Roger Smith

Refusing to Quit

Dietz and Smith’s paths could easily have crossed back when they were both running these mountain two-lanes in pursuit of iniquity. But it wasn’t until about two and half years ago that they finally did.

Smith approached Meridian’s services tentatively, once hiding in the woods behind its offices for three days, watching people enter and exit, scared, uncertain, anxiety-ridden.

The breakthrough in his relationship with Dietz came immediately after that woods episode. Dietz took him to the emergency room, in hopes of getting him into a behavioral health bed.

“I started advocating,” Dietz says, “and I think Roger then saw the importance of advocating for himself.

“He didn’t quit at any moment. He could have flipped the bird and walked out the other side of the door – like I’ve done before. But he kept going.”

“I held in there,” Smith allows.

“He had a moment of, ‘I’m going to do this.’ And, by gosh, he did. And he’s still rollin’.”

“We relate so much,” Smith says. “We’ve been through so many of the same things…. We’ve both been down the same road. Same big bus; same big gray goose. The bullpen. Just everything.”

When inspiration strikes, they can converse in prison jargon.


Roger Smith has been almost three years now without alcohol or drugs.

“Last week I was like, ‘You know, I feel like I’m at the bottom of the mountain. You just want to get to the top, and slide down the other side. But I’m stuck right here. It don’t feel like I’m getting anywhere.’

“And they say, ‘Well, just look where you were at two years ago.’”

His family has been hugely supportive. “My family is so awesome. I’ve got a beautiful family,” Smith says, ducking into the house to retrieve a group photo: four daughters and two sons, their spouses, and his partner of 14 years, Tonya. “I absolutely do.”

He’ll have a smoke, rock on the porch, tend to his garden, take measure of the landscape before him. He returns to the road analogy, saying of Dietz, “We traveled that same road. We came back that same road.”

Gazing farther down it, he says, “I want to be in the passenger side of that car out yonder of Brandon’s, going to visit people. That’s where I want to be. I want to be going around helping somebody else, just like I’ve been helped. I’d like to pass that along somehow. That’s what I want.”

“We’ve got a long haul here,” Smith acknowledges with a sigh, and these travelers share a nod.

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Taylor sisk is a writor, editor and film/video producer living in the Raleigh-Durhalm, North Carolina. You can find him on Linkedin.