Public shares tales of heartbreak and hope

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MANCHESTER — Two years, fourteen months, and sixteen days.

That's how long Deena, a recovering addict, had been free from opiates when she took to the stage at the second annual FedUp Rally, held at Manchester's Factory Point Town Green last Friday in observance of International Overdose Awareness Day.

"Addicts in recovery are making a change when we carry the message, when we speak," she said. "That's why tonight's event is so beautiful."

Having been first exposed to opiates at the age of 10, when she witnessed her brother overdosing, Deena told herself, "that will never be me." After developing an addiction to prescription opiates in high school, however, it was her.

Though Deena tried to quit multiple times, her addiction became worse and ultimately progressed to heroin use. Just before quitting "cold turkey" in 2016, she lost her uncle to an overdose and a close friend in a drunk driving accident.

Today, Deena is an active member of her community who sponsors other women struggling with addiction

"When I first got clean, I was contemplating suicide; I really lost myself in addiction," she said. "I try not to think about the fact that I've had loved ones die from overdoses. I try not to think about the fact that I'm part of the stigma."

"Deena telling her story is probably the most important thing that's happened tonight," said Commander Matthew Prouty of the Rutland City Police Department. Prouty also serves as the director of the community organization Project Vision. "You fight the stigma by telling your story."

An epidemic hits home

The community members who spoke alongside Deena worked to do just that, shining a spotlight on the local impacts of the national opiate epidemic. Though some resources are available, said organizers, Manchester and the surrounding communities still have a long way to go.

"Drug addiction is a real problem in Vermont, and it is a real problem in our own local towns," said organizer Wendy Galbraith. "My son Carter found recovery for a few months; he stood by my side at last year's rally. That was the last time I saw him."

"I'm so, so tired of going to young people's wakes and funerals," said Kenneth Sigsbury, executive director of Bennington's Turning Point Recovery Center. "It's crazy — we get to work with these young people, they're doing great, and all of the sudden they relapse. They don't understand that when you abstain from using opiates your tolerance goes down."

According to Sigsbury, drug-related deaths in Vermont did drop by nearly 10 percent, from 132 fatalities to 123, between 2016 and 2017. Nationally, those statistics rose by 10 percent, with approximately 72,000 overdose related deaths in 2017.

Either way, he says, it's not enough.

"They're dying," said Sigsbury, sharing the story of a 23-year-old Manchester native and addict in recovery who overdosed as his mother slept outside of his bedroom door in an effort to keep him safe. "When I went to his wake, something inside of me died."

A fresh start, a new calling

"What got me clean [was when] the person that I was with overdosed," explained Justine, who, like Sigsbury, found a career at Turning Point following her own struggle with addiction. After detoxing on her own due to long waiting periods for admission to inpatient facilities, Justine found herself homeless and without a job before finding support from local organizations such as Turning Point and United Counseling Services (UCS).

Though her work at Turning Point began on a volunteer basis, Justine says that she soon found her calling: Working to get other recovering addicts into the rehabilitation and detoxification facilities that weren't available to her.

"I got my life back; I feel that I'm making a difference," she said. "I'm not homeless anymore, I pay my own bills, I take care of myself, and my parents are proud of me. That's something I couldn't say a year ago."

"When Justine came to Turning Point I gave her a small opportunity and she blossomed incredibly," Sigsbury added. "Justine's chief responsibility is to get people into inpatient facilities, which usually takes one to two weeks on average. Justine's success rate, on average, is one to two days."

Thomas also found a vocation at Turning Point after conquering his own addiction to opiates, which began following a football injury during his freshman year of high school.

"That injury ultimately led to four surgeries and constant prescriptions, and my addiction progressed further and further into heroin," he said. "My addiction was devastating to my family, myself, and, quite frankly, anyone in my path."

'It's all of us'

"There are no words to describe the desperation an addict feels, the gut-wrenching fear and trauma that the families experience, or the permanent hole left in your heart when you lose your child," Galbraith explained. "We cannot afford to wait for the government to do something. We must work hard as a community to find the real solutions and develop services to save our kids and help our families."

Finding those solutions at a community level was a major goal of the rally according to its organizers, who brought together a number of resources currently available to those in recovery including Narcotics Anonymous, The Collaborative, and even 12 Step Yoga from the local studio Heart of the Village. Representatives from organizations such as UCS and the Valley Vista Treatment Center also took to the stage to share their work, as well as their own experiences with the opiate epidemic.

Though those resources are invaluable according to organizers, FedUp continues to actively advocate for a more widespread, community-level solution to the epidemic encompassing access for all to long-term rehabilitation and detox facilities, job training programs, and more. As part of the national "FedUp" coalition, the group also supports nationwide measures including $60 billion in federal funds to address the opiate epidemic over the next decade, alongside liability for the pharmaceutical companies that market medicinal opiates.

"When my son first told me that he was addicted to opiates, I'm embarrassed to say that I had no idea what an opiate was," said organizer Gretchen Lima. "I had no idea that if you got prescribed medication from a doctor, or a dentist, that it could potentially open the door for addiction."

"The enemy is not the 'overwhelming number of suffering addicts,' nor is it even some of those that sell drugs to alleviate their own suffering," added organizer Geri Gilmore. "It was, and still is, the unmitigated greed of the multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical companies, in concert with insurance companies, and even some unscrupulous caregivers. Those who care more about bottom lines than broken hearts."

That battle, they say, begins with the communities impacted by opiates.

"Over 50 million Americans are currently suffering from substance use disorder, and 25 million of them are living in recovery. When you consider the families that this disease has impacted, that's over 85 million," said organizer Jo Lambling. "It's not 'those people.' It's all of us."

Cherise Madigan is a frequent Journal contributor.

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