Real, personal stories were the highlights of the Building Strong Foundations: Opioid Forum, hosted by the Glastonbury Community Action Partnership, on May 24.
Featured speaker Kayla Grammer, a 21-year-old from Galloway, New Jersey, spoke about how she self-medicated for depression and anxiety she had as a pre-teen by using marijuana, and then other drugs.
"By the time I was 16, I was already shooting heroin, using a needle, and using cocaine," she said. "What I thought was an escape quickly turned into a daily routine – quickly turned into my entire life."
Grammer spent years shuffling in and out of hospitals and rehab, but she still had blinders on.
"I stole, I lied, I cheated – I did everything that you could imagine, just for one more," she said. "I didn't see the harm I caused my family. I couldn't see the harm I was doing to myself."
Eventually, the day came where she wanted to make a change.
"Eighteen years old, a homeless, heroin-addicted prostitute with no friends, no family – nothing to make me feel better about myself," she said. "I woke up one day, after doing the same things over and over and getting the same results. I remember looking at the phone and thinking, 'I've got to make a choice here. It's live or die.'"
Grammer phoned her mother, who knew her daughter's story was different this time, and helped her check into treatment.
"For the first time in my life, I made this decision – the most loving and caring decision I made for myself – to do something different, to ask for help," Grammer said.
Recovery involved lots of group work, and talking about her problems. In the last few years, she has managed to finish high school, go to college, work, buy herself a car, and help other addicts.
"I have friends, I have self-respect, and I have empathy for others," she said.
Kayla's mother, Tracy Smith, said there were details her daughter left out, including a stolen company car, missing jewelry, and Smith waking up every two hours to make sure Kayla was still in her room, and breathing.
"Perhaps I should have trusted my intuition a bit more," she said. "You have the feeling that something is not right, but you don't want to believe it, and denial can be deadly."
Smith said the story of herself and her daughter is very similar to other stories she's heard, including that of speaker John Lally, a father from Ellington who lost his son, Tim, to addiction in January of 2016, at the age of 29.
Tim had overdosed on heroin, and suffered catastrophic anoxia, a lack of oxygen to the brain. Lally and his wife had to make the difficult decision of whether or not to take Tim off of the ventilator.
"We'd known Tim had struggled with drugs for a while, but we thought he was on a good path," Lally said. "We decided to let him go."
Tim was diagnosed with depressive disorder and panic disorder. Various medications and treatments were tried for years, but nothing made Tim feel good anymore.
"At one point, he told his mom and I that he was using opioid pain pills," Lally said. "That's what he used, and I imagined he felt better. It was very seductive for him, but it changes your brain. It was no longer a choice. It was a drive."
Tim turned to heroin many times, and also quit many times, but always relapsed. He was thrown out of a sober house because of a relapse shortly before he passed. Lally explained what he learned about opioids/opiates from his son's struggles.
"His day was looking for heroin," Lally said. "Your whole day becomes focused on how to get high. After a while, it's not about getting high. It's not about feeling good anymore. You need that next fix just to not feel bad – just to not go into withdrawal."
While pain led Tim to his death, Lally has since been connected with other families who have felt the same pain, and he has become part of a network of people trying to make a difference and save other people and their families.
"Addicts look like us," Lally said. "They don't look different. Mental illness and addiction are medical problems. They are not caused by poor parenting, poverty, or moral failure. We need to be compassionate and not judgmental about people and their struggles, so they can feel able to admit their difficulties and get support for their problems."
Shaking that stigma was the focus of what Dr. Samuel Silverman, a psychiatrist at Rushford, spoke about, as well as medication-assisted treatment.
Addiction, Silverman said, is a hijacking of the reward centers of the brain by drugs, and is a "disease of the brain." He likened addiction to a runaway truck heading down a hill. There is nothing a person can do to stop it.
"You have to keep taking more and more to get the same effect," he said.
Treatment with methodone and other drugs are seen by some as non-treatment, creating a stigma within the recovery community itself, but Silverman said that those drugs have worked well for some. Stigmas are some of the main reasons that treatments are not as available to people who need them. He compared it to other battles our country is fighting.
"We have a crisis on our hands here," Silverman said. "We're losing more people than we have to 9/11. Think about the four-letter word 'drug' and think about the four-letter word 'ISIS,' and think about how much money is going into that place, instead of this place, and think about demand reduction. The biggest importers of fentanyl to this country are North Korea and China. They manufacture it, it's coming in, and if you don't think they are our enemies killing us from in, and we're not doing anything about it, you're looking at it from the wrong end."