Staff spotlight: A calling in public health and a home in nursing after addiction and loss

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Matthew Ross

When Matthew Rosso was growing up and beginning to understand his LGBTQ identity, he traveled down a path teeming with painful experiences that many in the LBGTQ community have endured. There were internal struggles, feelings of not belonging, and external factors including severe bullying from classmates. There was also discord in his own family.

“I was 15 years old when I came out to my parents,” said Rosso. “They're really good parents but they were much more conservative back then and just didn’t understand it. They wanted me to see the church pastor. They thought it was a phase -- common reactions for a lot of parents. When they finally started to come around I didn’t want to hear their apologies. At that time, it felt like the damage was done.”

Rosso started using drugs recreationally, but he was still able to move his life forward in positive ways. He moved out of his parents’ house after graduating from high school, had a steady job and started going to college to pursue psychology. However, his substance misuse eventually became disruptive to his life and he sought treatment.  That’s where he met Tom.*

Life with Tom

Rosso performing an HIV test“Tom was kind and compassionate, high energy, just a really good person,” said Rosso.

They started off as friends, then roommates, but it didn’t take long for a deeper connection to form. They supported each other’s sobriety while their relationship flourished and Rosso found the acceptance he’d been craving.

“I felt a lot of relief because I had overwhelming acceptance from his family,” he said. “That felt really good.  Also, the Jewish community that he was part of was very accepting. I was struck by that because it wasn’t like that at all in the church I went to growing up.”

The downward spiral begins

The next few months were idyllic as Rosso and Tom built their lives together around sobriety, school and work. Everything began to change when Tom lost his job in early December.

“Our birthdays were a day apart, December 19th and 20th,” explained Rosso. “Our friends wanted to celebrate with us and then we had the holidays but he was in a deep depression. His job was part of his identity so it was really hard. I didn’t know how to put up boundaries and I became immersed in what he was going through.”

One of them got a legally prescribed bottle of Vicodin. It seemed so insignificant at the time that Rosso can’t remember what it was for but is adamant that it was a legitimate prescription. However, the men started sharing the bottle.

“It was a perfect storm of our prior addictions, him in this depression and me being co-dependent,” he said.

One of them made a casual comment about the pills to Tom’s brother who, unbeknownst to them until that moment, was a heroin user. He told them he could get “something stronger” and they took him up on his offer.

Very quickly, Rosso and Tom became regular heroin users. Rosso dropped out of school and was fired from his job. The families knew there were drug issues but did not know the extent of the usage that would continue for the next six months.

The day everything changed

Rosso began a typical July day by getting up early and cleaning up the apartment. He left Tom to sleep in. Awhile later, when Tom still hadn’t gotten up, Rosso checked on him and discovered that Tom had overdosed. Rosso called 9-1-1 and Tom was rushed to the hospital but it was too late.

When Rosso told his family what happened, they demanded that he start a treatment program. He refused because he didn’t want to miss Tom’s funeral. Instead, he quit heroin cold turkey.

“The day of his funeral was day three of withdrawal which was the worst,” said Rosso. “I remember sweating so much at the funeral but knew I had to stop using. There were no other options.”

He moved back into his parents’ home and started seeing a counselor that he had previously used for therapy.

“My parents were hesitant about me moving in but I had nowhere else to go,” said Rosso softly. “I really didn’t. I would not have been able to get sober without my family’s support. I’m very lucky in that way.”

Rebuilding

Rosso during a CSCD meetingRosso stayed clean and re-enrolled in school. He took a public health class which gave him clarity on his past and his future.

“Before that class, I had never heard about the quantification of people’s lived experiences with racism, sexism and homophobia,” said Rosso. “Learning that suicide and substance misuse are higher among LGBTQ people - often due to social and economic marginalization - was eye-opening.  It validated things that I felt and things I had been through. It also gave me purpose.”

Purpose in action

Rosso went on to earn a master’s degree in public health and now works at the University of Michigan School of Nursing’s Center for Sexuality and Health Disparities (CSHD). He’s a research associate on “Project Swerve," an intervention that integrates substance use education into standard HIV testing and care services.

“There’s a standard of care that happens in the 20 minutes between the HIV test and getting results,” explained Ross. “The research is finding that it’s not meeting the needs of people who are also engaging in substance misuse. We’re following people for 18 months to find out if the group that gets substance use information has better outcomes in that time period, like decreasing substance use and risky behaviors.” 

Rosso recently became a project manager for CSHD’s “We Prevent” project, which aims to help young, gay and bisexual men by incorporating a relationship skills session into existing couples HIV testing and counseling. The goal is to empower them with skills to effectively communicate and to protect themselves from HIV and risky behaviors. The hope is that We Prevent can provide the type of support that someone in Rosso’s position needed.

The work often touches on the dark feelings that Rosso had when his drug issues started.

“It reminds me of where I was at that time in my life,” he said. “I have to remember that my experience is not necessarily their experience and what worked for me may not work for others. But, I feel more equipped to help them because I know what it’s like. We can talk about impact in terms of data, but for me, the bigger impact is being face-to-face.”

The center

CSCD has a strong interdisciplinary focus that connects researchers and practitioners of nursing, medicine, public health and related health disciplines.

Rosso during one of his first presentations at U-M“What's often missing from some research, in my opinion, is the lived experience of doing the clinical work,” said Rosso. “That's what I like about the center being at the School of Nursing; we get to learn from each other. When we analyze data and make recommendations for clinical practice and programming, we get feedback from the community to help with implementation. I think that's a real asset. I’ve also had nursing students say things like ‘I want to know about the issues your people are experiencing because they are going to be my patients one day.’”

A reason for speaking out

Several years ago, Rosso got a glimpse of how different his life could be if he had not gotten sober. Three years to the day after Tom died, Tom’s brother, the one who provided them with their first dose of heroin, died from an overdose.

“It took me back to the day I lost Tom,” said Rosso. “I just felt so bad for his mom and sister. But, I was glad I wasn’t in that place anymore, that it wasn’t me.”

Now, more than seven years after Tom’s death, Rosso says he’s making his experiences public in the hopes of being a positive example.

“A big part of what keeps people in addiction is the shame they feel,” he said. “When we talk about mental health and the opioid epidemic, I think it’s so important that those of us who feel comfortable sharing our stories, share our stories. We want people to know that you don’t have to go through this alone and there is hope.”

 

*Not his real name.