Text and photos by John Bean
If you’ve glanced at a paper recently, turned on a radio, or channel surfed at all then you’re probably already aware that we’re in the heat of an opioid overdose epidemic. More specifically, opioid overdose-death epidemic. In Massachusetts alone we are losing at least four residents per day to this – that’s 56 people since the last issue of In City Times just two weeks ago. When you add to it the number of ODs that were able to be revived or simply lucked out, the numbers are even more staggering.
But this isn’t just about numbers this is about real people with real families, real jobs, careers, friends and futures – its about all of us. By definition, this is a Public Heath Crisis.
Public health and the general well-being of our community was always a priority for one Worcester resident, Tim Houston. Weather collecting and preparing food to give to those in need of it here in our city or by providing live background music in support of those doing like-minded works, he was always close to the front and often first to volunteer in addressing any public need, even while he was still just a young teen coming into his own. However, addiction knows no boundaries, isn’t concerned with social standing, or personalities, and no-one is immune. After a relatively brief period of experimentation, followed by a prolonged and difficult struggle with dependency, Tim succumbed to his disease last August. He was 23 years old.
Tim’s mother, Anne told me, “Around the time he was finishing up high school there was a proliferation of pain pills in every kids medicine cabinet they could dip into for fun”. She saw first hand that after his first use, “it was no longer a choice for him”. After a period of abstinence and staying away from the kids he was hanging with, a prescription for his wisdom teeth extraction brought him right back in. By then the availability of prescription drugs had dried up due to new, perhaps overdue prescribing regulations and the shutting down of the so called “pillmills” in Florida. And he, like so many others, found himself turning to the street where heroine is cheaper and readily available to anyone. Only on the street there is no way to know what you are getting from one dose to the next.
It’s well established within the medical community that addiction, (to drugs or alcohol, etc), is a disease, not a choice – at least not at first. The risk for one to become addicted increases with the number of immediate ancestors that are addicted. This is true weather you’ve witnessed their behavior or not. Its genetic. However, people without the genetic history are not necessarily off the hook. In fact anyone can become addicted simply by using or abusing any mood altering substance over a prolonged period of time. This is especially true with certain “feel-good” drugs, such as opiates.
Once addicted it takes a lot more than mere determination to get and stay clean. One major reason for this is how severely sick one can become during withdrawal. This ‘dope-sickness’ has been compared to, “your worst flu ever, times ten, and for twice as long, then you’re drained and left depressed.”
It hits you from both sides: intensely euphoric on one end and deathly sick on the other. It should not be surprising for us to see someone caught up in this seemingly never-ending cycle.
Even so, while so many die from heroine overdose, one cannot die from heroine withdrawal.
That’s not to say that the one going through it wouldn’t welcome death at that moment. Going it alone Cold-Turkey, is a traumatic enough experience that it must be considered thoughtfully as a crucial part of anyone’s recovery process.
Medically there are several options to assist in the physical withdrawal. Perhaps most commonly known is Methadone, a pharmaceutical opiate primarily used as a long-term maintenance tool for chronic addicts where the patient is required to follow fairly strict regulations, submit to random toxicology-screens, and show up to a clinic, usually daily, to receive their dose.
Suboxone, a semi-synthetic opiate relatively new to the US market, (2002), is used in a similar way but is said to have less undesirable effects than Methadone and be less subject to abuse. It is also being studied for its off-label potential as an anti-depressant – depression being a common underlying factor keeping many addicts from long term recovery, and for many the very thing that lead them to drugs in the first place.
Some have even become desperate enough to try a controversial drug therapy treatment said to provide a, “rapid detox without the side-effects”. In the early ’60s a long term heroine user, Howard Lotsof, realized, quite by accident, that several days after taking this halluginegen from West Africa that he was, “not dope-sick and hadn’t even thought of using since last week”. This Ibogaine has been studied on and off for its medicinal uses, most recently at the University of Florida. It is still illegal in the states and one must travel, at considerable expense, to Mexico, Canada, or any of several European countries to find this treatment in a controlled enviroment.
However, there is no magic pill for any of this. The whole person needs to be treated. Of Suboxone, Annie Parkinson, Central and Western Mass Coordinator for MOAR, (Massachusetts Organization for
Addiction Recovery), and former director of a local Suboxone program says, “It’s more than a pill – it’s a program.”
Throughout the community various support groups and programs can be found. From Narcotics Anonymous, made up of addicts in recovery passing on the message to others seeking sobriety to more formally run peer support groups such as Everyday Miracles, operated by Spectrum Health Systems, who additionally offers a variety of treatment options including detox facilities and outpatient clinics.
Everyday Miracles Peer Coordinator, Michael Earielo says, “We’re peer driven/staff run. We are unique in that we accept all pathways to recovery.”. All addictions and schools of thought are welcome to visit the center at 25 Pleasant St, dowtown Worcester.
In classic Worcester tradition the crisis is being met squarely from the bottom up, by diehard and dedicated individuals, non-profits, grassroots groups, and of course addicts who have found recovery.
And in tragic Worcester tradition, City Hall is rushing to catch up. The city has received a grant from the Substance Abuse Services of Mass Department of Public Health. I was unable todetermine from the Board of Health web site how the grant is being used.