by Raymond Devine
By any reasonable expectation or actuarial measure, Geri Lynn Utter ’11, ’16, M.S., Psy.D., should be a statistic instead of a clinical psychologist and the author of a forthcoming nonfiction book.
She grew up in the Kensington section of Philadelphia, the epicenter of the city’s opioid crisis. Her parents had substance abuse disorders. Her father spent time in jail on drug charges. Later, she often lived with housemates addicted to opioids. Yet she escaped a grim ending herself. But how?
In her words, Utter believes she had a guardian angel watching over her.
“I remember clearly being 5 or 6 years old, and my dad sat me down and told me I was wired differently than other kids,” Utter said. “As I grew up, he said that my friends would want to try alcohol or smoking some pot, but I couldn’t do that because it would wake up the monster living inside of me.”
These father-daughter conversations continued for the next 20 or more years of her life and kept her from falling victim to a substance abuse disorder.
Indeed, these conversations also made Utter feel that her father was her biggest cheerleader. He frequently said to her, whenever she would begin to doubt herself, “Come on, kid, you can do it. You have to work hard, but you deserve better than we did.”
When Utter was around 5 years old, her father was sentenced to jail for almost a year on drug charges. Her mother, who struggled with binge drinking, anxiety, major depressive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder, was incapable of caring for her, she said.
When her father, still in jail, found out his daughter was virtually on her own, Utter said that he directed her aunt to “kidnap her.” Her aunt then went to the house where she and her mother lived and picked up Geri while her mother stumbled about, intoxicated.
“Come on, Geri Lynn — you’re going with me,” her aunt said.
For the next four or five months, Utter lived with her aunt and uncle until her father was released from jail.
Utter’s debut book, “Mainlining Philly,” due for release at the end of February, is an autobiographical account of her life as well as an in-depth look at the opioid crisis as viewed by a trained professional.
Utter wrote the book, she said, because she was “inspired and determined to provide insight from my personal experiences and clinical education as a psychologist.”
“Throughout my life, because I had parents who struggled with drug addiction and severe mental illness, I worked hard to conceal it by presenting myself in manner very different than what others would assume of me based on my upbringing,” Utter said. “I, too, adopted the same mentality of feeling ashamed, angry, and embarrassed about my upbringing.
“So, I am hoping that writing this book will help to destigmatize addiction and mental illness, in turn creating a safe space for people who need treatment to seek it out without feeling judged or ashamed.”
Even though she faced unrelenting adversity throughout the years, Utter managed to thrive in school and earn a bachelor’s degree. After she graduated, she spent the next 10 or so years in advertising sales. She strode along this career path with determination and enjoyed the chase and success of sales, but she yearned for change.
“I always felt the need to do something else, but I didn’t know what it was,” she said. “The advertising sales job didn’t feel meaningful enough for me. I knew I wanted to make a difference, and I felt compelled to help other people.”
After her father died, Utter had strong feelings to return to school and become a clinical psychologist. With that, she began searching for a graduate school. She visited several colleges and universities, too, but, to her, Chestnut Hill College rose above the rest.
“The campus felt like I belonged there,” she said. “I felt at home, and the staff and professors were so good to me.”
Utter felt as though she were behind in her studies because, unlike her, her classmates had taken psychology classes as undergraduates. Still, she excelled at the College, spending three years pursuing her master’s degree and then another five earning a doctorate in clinical psychology.
After years of study and an equal amount of time evading the pitfalls of addiction, she was, finally, ready to “help other people.”
Utter, however, is laboring in the shadow of a mountainous problem. A study conducted in 1999 showed the number of overdose deaths from opioids at three per 100,000 population. By 2017, the number of deaths had jumped to 14 per 100,000. Now, more than 130 Americans die every day from opioid overdose.
The opioid crisis is not abating, either — it’s getting worse. Today, synthetic opioids like fentanyl are becoming increasingly ubiquitous across the country, continuously erasing lives and families.
Despite the statistics, Utter said, “There’s always hope.”
“I’m a natural optimist,” she said. “There’s hope as long as there is education. The stigma associated with drug addiction and mental illness is preventing people with these issues from seeking help due to the judgment they feel from others. If we can begin to view people with addiction as individuals struggling with a neurobiological midbrain disease instead of viewing them as moral failures or bad people, we can begin to stomp out the stigma and provide better medical and mental health treatment.
“So if we start looking at it like a chronic illness like diabetes, like hepatitis, like HIV, and we start to treat it and approach it in that manner, we’ll do a better job of treating individuals who are struggling.”