Early one morning, around street cleaning time, Toni Isabella was on her way to work at Ohloff Recovery Programs when she saw someone on the sidewalk exhibiting signs of an opiate overdose.
“I saw three meter maids clustered together and asked if any one of them was carrying Narcan,” she said, referring to the emergency medication used to reverse the effects of an overdose.
“The first one said no but the second woman said yes and sped off in her vehicle to help. Now I carry Narcan,” said Isabella. “It’s something all city workers or anyone who wants to can learn to administer while you wait for 911 to get there.”
As a counselor at Ohloff, where people go to seek 30-day, long-term and outpatient treatment among other addiction services, Isabella offers help and hope to those looking to kick drugs and live sober lives.
“We have wineaholics and hard drinkers, meth users and people who went from fentanyl by accident to fentanyl on purpose,” said Isabella, offering a general profile of the San Franciscans who seek help. And while the new year is a traditional time people choose to quit or moderate, this past pandemic year has brought new challenges for the hopelessly addicted. Plagued by anxiety and depression from isolation and world events, substance use is up and moods are down. Sometimes folks who truly want to get on track don’t know how or might even think, why bother? Yet some way, somehow, they find themselves at Ohloff’s doorstep, willing to try.
“I saw an interesting trend a couple of months ago,” said Isabella, noting her observances are informal and anecdotal. “Women who worked in finance or offices where drugs and alcohol were part of the environment and have been at home, alone, have turned from a glass of wine or two into getting hammered every night. Or, they’ve started drinking earlier in the day.”
Though Isabella is in favor of harm reduction tools like needle exchange and safe injection sites, she’s an abstinence-based counselor, emphasizing Ohloff’s holistic and progressive approach to recovery.
“We don’t punish or penalize people who use, but drugs and alcohol are not tolerated,” she said of the Ohloff campus, designed as a safe haven to distance from substances.
The majestic Queen Anne corner house at Fell and Steiner, a short block from Alamo Square, was originally built in the 1890s by one of the era’s industrialists as a single family five-bedroom home. By the ‘20s it was operating as a convalescent hospital, and in 1958, the building and its surrounding properties was acquired by the Episcopal Church for the purpose of creating a rehabilitation home for alcoholic men. Named for Henry Ohloff, a priest who had devoted his life to serving San Francisco’s sick, poor and incarcerated populations, today’s campus includes a women’s residential program – originally funded by the county from 2002-07 and reactivated as an Ohloff program in 2017.
At the time, Isabella was working in administration at Ohloff doing intake.
“It gave me a good window into what I was ultimately going to be doing as a counselor,” she said. Studying at UC Berkeley Extension’s certificate program in the treatment of substance abuse disorders gave her the opportunity to work in the field.
“I loved Berkeley, it’s an amazing program,” she said, though her time there has ended. She is preparing to transfer credits and complete her certifications at City College of San Francisco, known for its tight knit cohort style of learning.
Originally from the East Bay, Isabella moved to San Francisco in 1980. “I’ve been very fortunate to have only lived in a couple of places and made it work,” she said. “Obviously things are so different but some things stay the same,” she said, pointing to the beaches and La Taqueria, standbys she relies on to always be there.
Long interested in recovery work, “I never had time to pursue the training,” she said, until recently. For over 30 years, Isabella worked in the music business, first in the box office, then moving into artist management at Bill Graham Presents (the time and place I first crossed paths with her). Following Graham’s 1991 death in a helicopter crash, the spirit of BGP was lost and she left the firm to form an independent production company, guiding the careers of recording artists and producers. Conversant in a wide range of sound, from country to hip hop, Isabella was also embedded in the Bay Area’s thrash metal scene.
“The thrash metal scene was very inclusive,” she said. (She’s among the many women featured in the recent documentary on Bay Area metal, “Murder in the Front Row.”)
As working with musicians entails a fair amount of cajoling if not counseling, I asked if it was fair to consider her experience in the volatile music business as preparation for her present calling.
“I suppose. I’ve seen people whose anxiety kept them from working, and I knew it was their crystal meth use that precipitated their anxiety,” she said. “But it really doesn’t matter which came first, the chicken or the egg. Everyone who seeks help ticks the boxes for anxiety and depression.”
Isabella has a way of welcoming prospective recoverers that though, perhaps not traditional, she helps people adapt to a potential new way of life that promises to turn their darkest night into a day without substances. She likes to talk music and movies and share pet pictures with prospective clients. Occasionally, trained service dog Barker Posey accompanies her to Ohloff, “But only when she has a day off from her job at the pediatric emergency unit at CPMC where she works full-time.”
Isabella loves her overnight shifts. “That’s when you get to the heart of the matter talking to people. We make a lot of progress that way,” she said. “We have some amazing people who come in as strangers and bond, becoming their own tribe.”
She also likes to pass on books, like the one by actor and activist Russell Brand as well as Madeleine L’Engle’s young adult novel “A Wrinkle in Time,” a title that’s often attacked by the evangelical right for its wide-awake approach to spirituality, science and the supernatural.
“We offer a warm and welcoming environment,” said Isabella. “I always tell people, come on in, it’ll be great. And I can say that because I really believe that it will be.”
Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” She is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Follow her at www.denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.