Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, January 10, 2019
Opiate abusers, their families, find support in Island programs
Stephanie is being treated for opioid dependence at the Downeast Treatment Center in Ellsworth, through a referral from Island Family Medicine.
by Anne Berleant
Opiate addiction has increased in alarming rates nationwide over the past several years. Deaths from opiate overdoses, over 40,000 of a total 63,632 of all overdose deaths, in 2016 surpassed those from car accidents, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in late 2018. And for every person mired in addiction, their circle of friends and family can feel the effects in different but also damaging ways. Add in the culture of stigma and blame that can surround addicts and their families, all can feel alone and trapped in the downward cycle of addiction.
As the Opiate-Free Island Partnership begins its third year, it has helped provide services and training to help fight the epidemic on the island. These include embracing the widely accepted medically assisted model of treatment, funding recovery coach training, and paying for a licensed drug and alcohol counselor to lead a weekly Friends and Family Support Group in Deer Isle.
Recent interviews with a Sedgwick woman in treatment, and with two island mothers, highlight the fact that everyone involved suffers from opiate addiction and can also find help.
Stephanie, a Sedgwick resident in her early thirties, has cycled through addiction, detox, treatment, abstinence and back into opiate addiction since she was 18 years old. Through a referral from Island Family Medicine in May 2018, she attends the Downeast Treatment Center in Ellsworth, where she engages in group counseling three times a week and receives the opioid receptors inhibitor buprenorphine, or Suboxone.
The mother of six children, four of whom were taken from her by the Department of Health and Human Services and entered into foster care or adopted, Stephanie said at her worst, “I cared more about getting high. I loved the baby inside me but not enough to not get high.”
When she gave birth to a son in 2014, two state troopers took custody of him for the Department of Health and Human Services, straight from the hospital.
As an addict, her life became “typical stealing, thievery, trying to get by every day just trying to get a roof over my head,” she said. At her worst, she was homeless, sleeping in hallways or entryways or walking the Bangor streets at night. But she could always go to her mother’s home in Sedgwick when she was pregnant or to work in a local wreath factory.
In 2015, while detoxing at Mercy Hospital in Portland, she met a man. Together, they dove back into active opiate use. “He was a carpenter, the money was coming in, the drugs were flowing. We had a roof over our head and a nice car.”
Now, living with a different, sober boyfriend in Sedgwick, on Suboxone and in treatment, she stays sober by “putting one foot in front of the other and taking it one day at a time.”
As a “hub” for opiate treatment, the Center decreases treatment visits as clients put together weeks and months of sobriety, eventually referring them to “spokes,” that is, hospitals with doctors licensed to prescribe medical treatment. Stephanie began attending three times a week in May, and was down to one day every two weeks when her mother died, which she said weakened her resolve. She relapsed on alcohol after four-and-a-half months of sobriety, and is back at the Center three times a week.
“The hardest thing about recovery is staying sober,” she said. “No matter how much [clean] time you have under your belt, it’s like there’s this whole other person inside you waiting to get out. For me, I just try to stay busy.”
She added, “It’s nice to wake up and not pick up my phone, [thinking], who do I call to get what I need.”
Despite still going through cravings and mood swings, she had a few words for those who are still deep in her former way of life: “Pick up the phone, make that call.”
Support for friends and families
The first evening Jean (who asked her real name not be used) walked into Deer Isle Town Hall on a Tuesday evening, she was a mother with a child in recovery for opiate addiction. She was thankful he was in recovery, she said, but was still “just feeling so alone.”
She came because she saw a Facebook post for the weekly family and friends support group, facilitated by drug and alcohol counselor Maryann Ogonowski.
“I saw it and I said, I need that,” she said.
A second member, Wendy, “hedged back and forth. I nearly talked myself out of coming several times.”
But since that first meeting last April, the two women keep returning each Tuesday evening. They still are the only attendees.
“It’s very difficult to find someone to talk to without being judged,” said Wendy.“I was and still am what people consider ‘a good mother.’ I knew where my kids were, knew their friends, was involved with their school.”
The group’s meetings are confidential and anonymous, and participants learn how to take care of themselves, and support those they love who are addicted.
“I think I went into that first meeting knowing I wasn’t doing it the right way,” Wendy said.
When her son relapsed, she had someone to talk to, she said. “At times like that, you feel alone…. There’s a lot of people who could really use this one night a week.”
Before her own son became addicted to opiates, Jean said, “I, for one, had my own view of what an addict should look like.”
Having a licensed drug and alcohol counselor to facilitate the meetings helps, she said. “I feel this group is special because we have a counselor who has also gone through stuff. She brings education to us on what our kids are going through so we can help them the right way.”
Wendy and Jean, and Ogonowski, are still waiting for someone new to step inside on a Tuesday evening.
“I’ve thrown it out to people, [said] ‘I know what you’re going through,’” Jean said.
“It’s people sitting around the table, talking,” Wendy said, “and one of the things a lot of us have forgotten to do: we laugh a lot.”
Friends and Family Support Group meets Tuesdays, 6-7:30 p.m., at Deer Isle Town Hall.
To schedule an appointment at the Downeast Treatment Center, call Aroostook Mental Health Center at 1-800-244-6431.
Opiate-Free Island Partnership offers a free confidential visit with a licensed drug and alcohol counselor. To schedule one, contact Debra Matteson at 367-5850 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit opiatefreeislandpartnership.org for more information or the Opiate-Free Island Partnership, Inc. Facebook page.
Editor’s note: This story was updated on January 14 with the correct phone number for the Downeast Treatment Center. This story was also corrected on January 18, removing an incorrect reference to Wendy’s son currently being in a drug rehabilitation program.