WESTERLY — Addiction is here. In Westerly. And it’s not distant strangers who are struggling.
“We have to remember, regardless of the diagnosis and regardless of what this looks like, this is a medical problem, it’s a disease and the people who suffer with it are the people of this community...this is not a statistic, it’s the people of our community,” Christa Quattromani Beauchamp said Thursday during a forum hosted by the Westerly Substance Abuse Prevention Task Force.
An audience of about 20 listened as Beauchamp, a member of the task force and a mental health clinician, and five other panelists discussed various aspects of addiction with a focus on opioid abuse, treatment and recovery. Held at Ocean Community YMCA, the event was aimed at providing education and resources, increasing awareness, preventing overdoses, and eliminating the stigma that often complicates addiction recovery.
Statistics presented by Sarah Hall, the task force’s coordinator, and Ken Richards, Old Mystic Fire Department chief and fire marshal, elicited responses of shock from those in attendance. The Westerly Ambulance Corps responded to 80 overdose calls in the last year, and in 2015 Westerly Hospital treated 82 overdoses and L+M Hospital in New London treated 100 overdoses, Richards said. According to Hall, Westerly is in the top quarter statewide for drug abuse-related hospital admissions for both adults and people under 18 and for adult drug abuse-related emergency department visits.
“It’s escalating. We’re not winning the battle, we’re losing,” Richards said. He asked those in attendance to lobby their local and state elected officials for more resources to address the opioid epidemic.
Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, and its variants — 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine — are increasingly prevalent. Some forms of the drug are not treatable with Narcan, the overdose medication that reverses the effects of overdose from heroin and some other opioids, Richards said.
Lisa Cote Johns told the heartbreaking story of her son Christopher Johns, who became addicted to pain pills that he was first prescribed for an appendix problem while in high school. He eventually started using heroin to feed his addiction, and though he maintained periods of sobriety, he died of an overdose in 2014 at the age of 33. When her son first experienced withdrawal symptoms after cutting back on painkillers, Johns said she and her son were unaware of what was happening.
She encouraged those in attendance and those close to addicts or potential addicts to educate themselves. “I felt I had done everything I could to save my son. I now realize I didn’t know a lot,” Johns said.
Mike Fry, a peer recovery coach with Anchor Recovery Community Center and a recovering addict, discussed his descent into addiction, his journey in recovery, and the services his agency provides. The center sends recovering addicts to emergency departments throughout the state when patients seeking help receive hospital treatment. The coaches share their own experience and help patients access treatment programs and other resources. The coaching teams remain available as addicts progress through recovery. From occasional alcohol and marijuana use, Fry said he progressed to using cocaine and heroin. He found recovery while serving a prison sentence that followed a law enforcement raid on his residence. “It turned ugly fast,” Fry said.
A state Department of Health grant won by the task force is paying for Anchor to provide services in Westerly. The same grant funded the forum. While stories of death and struggles to get clean are common, Fry stressed that recovery is a reality. “I’m living proof...recovery is not only possible but if you put the right amount of work into it it’s probable,” Fry said
Alisha Choquette, a licensed chemical dependency counselor and a recovering addict, explained her battle with prescription pills and the challenges faced by counselors working with clients who sometimes lack the motivation to help themselves.
Katrina Niles, case manager in L+M’s emergency department, agreed with Choquette, saying medical professionals are often frustrated when overdose patients refuse aftercare upon being revived. “Most of them don’t want treatment. They’re upset because their high was taken away,” Niles said. The task force hopes to present similar forums in the future, Hall said.