As we think about the issues we struggle with as a society, especially the current opioid epidemic, we reflect this holiday season on how and why we arrived at such a place. We are all too familiar with our loved ones overdosing and the ensuing death toll. We are keenly aware of the struggles the people who suffer from substance use disorders experience when seeking treatment. We have placed the blame on nefarious figures, but the root causes and the issues aren’t all that different from the problems of the past.

People seek pleasure, relief, and comfort through substance use, whether it be alcohol, drugs, food, gambling, sex, shopping, etc.  The drug use and compulsive behaviors previously mentioned provide some sort of relief, albeit temporary, and offer a respite from their current discomfort.  

We know more now than ever before about the brain and its functioning, how drugs and compulsive behaviors affect our brain chemistry, and produce the euphoria and escape sought by those in distress, bored, or simply looking for thrills.  We can understand the mechanisms of the drugs, their effects, their power, and their related behaviors, but what continually eludes us as a society is “why”. Despite all the negative consequences, often life ending, we continue to consume more and more of these harmful substances, and exhibit even riskier behavior.

We look to find hope in a brighter tomorrow, despite the present overcast skies.   

After 30 years of working in drug and alcohol treatment, it occurs to us that working toward prevention and early intervention is where we need to focus more of our efforts and resources.  There is an old parable about a small bucolic village with a beautiful river running through it.  The story goes something like this. On one bright sunny morning, without warning lifeless bodies started to appear floating downstream.  The villagers all ran to the river to try to rescue these young beings.  As the good townspeople frantically tried to save these young lives, they realized that their efforts though heroic were not saving nearly enough of these young adults.  After a few grueling and heartbreaking hours, the villagers noticed a that few people had stopped helping and started to turn away.  Somewhat bewildered they yelled “where are you going, we need all the help we can get.” Those running said, “we’re going upstream to see where these lost souls are coming from.”   

We have been pulling bodies out of the stream for a long time now, work which is difficult, stressful, tiring, and frustrating.  Especially when we seem to be losing more than we save. We believe that we should put more of our focus “upstream”, to understand why so many individuals among us seek relief, entertainment, or social connection with substances, and risky behavior.  Our fear is that if we don’t resolve the source of the problem, we will always be watching our loved ones floating down the river.  

When should that help begin? How far upstream do we go? In broad terms we must embrace and practice the South African term “Ubuntu” or “humanity towards others”, a phrase that is often used in a more philosophical sense to mean “the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity”.

In research done by the Noble Prize winner James Heckman, Director of the Center for the Economics of Human Development, and echoed by Bessel Van der Kolk, MD, Boston Center for Trauma, we find that in today’s world one’s zip code rather than one’s genetic code is a more reliable determinant for having a safe and healthy life. Trauma and its antecedent social ills such as poverty, discrimination, violence, poor housing, community disruption and lack of opportunity are seen to be the major contributors of the epidemic. If we look at some sobering statistics, since 2001, more Americans have died at the hands of their partners or family members than the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan; American women are twice as likely to suffer domestic violence as breast cancer; and the American Academy of Pediatrics estimates that firearms kill twice as many children as cancer, we may discover the real culprit for our nation’s insatiable drug seeking behavior, and an opportunity to effect real change

Recent research suggests that our most pressing Public Health Crisis can be found in the ‘Pair of Aces’ depiction of the results of the Adverse Childhood Experiences study and the Adverse Community Environments, often considered the soil in which children’s lives are rooted.

As children develop and grow into adolescents, they are exposed to all that life offers, including stress, relationships, societal norms and practices, uncomfortable feelings and having to manage those feelings. For those whose lives intersect with exposure to divorce, homelessness, domestic violence, physical and emotion neglect, a mechanism for healing needs to take place early in the developmental stages. We also know from practical experience that mental health issues, attachment disorder, and trauma all have strong correlations to substance use disorders and surface as the predominant co-occurring issues and most difficult to treat.

Reaching our children while they are in school and talking with them about emotions, relationships, life’s challenges and healthy coping methods to help them manage what lies ahead is an important step in preparing our youth to meet the allure of alcohol, drugs, or other harmful practices.  It’s happening in places which have been previously considered “off limits”, like our public-school system.  Credit should be given to the administration of the Worcester Public School system. Over the past few years, new ideas beyond the teaching of math and science have emerged. Our public-school system is now educating children (and faculty/administrators) about bullying and drug awareness, skills that will help them navigate the difficult parts of life without seeking out the comfort of drugs, alcohol, or unhealthy behaviors.

While noteworthy, these initiatives are the beginning of what must become a national commitment to face the undeniable truth that trauma and its antecedents is our most urgent public health issue. “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” -Charles Darwin


The Worcester community has a long history of supporting people struggling with substance use disorders.

Within the city limits, inpatient treatment programs like Adcare Hospital, Community Healthlink (CHL), and the Washburn House provide detoxification services to the adult (18+) population, while Community Healthlink’s Motivating Youth Recovery provides inpatient detoxification services to adolescents.

The continuum of care then moves to Rehab (Adcare Hospital) or Clinical Stabilization Services (CSS) (Washburn House, Passages) which have a higher intensity of clinical involvement and then to residential programs or halfway houses like Linda Fay Griffin House, Channing House, Beryl’s House, Crozier House, and Hector Reyes House, which rely heavily on recovery oriented systems of care and the ensuing social aspects for reintegration into a life of purpose and fulfillment.

The preceding levels of care represent the gamut of medically managed and monitored, clinically managed and monitored treatment options, and all serve the fundamental purpose of keeping people in an environment that is safe and a stepping stone into recovery.

Although their corporate offices are in Westborough, Spectrum Health Systems has been a mainstay serving the addict population in the city by providing inpatient, residential, and outpatient methadone clinic services. Other neighboring providers are Independence Hall a clinical stabilization service (CSS) in Shrewsbury that is run by Veterans, Inc whose headquarters are on Grove St in Worcester and located on the grounds of the former Calvary Retreat Center on South St., and Recovery Centers of America (detoxification and CSS) in Westminster to the north.

Equally important to having this robust continuum of care is access. The No Wrong Door policy states that no one seeking treatment can be denied services without being helped to a facility that can appropriately meet their needs. It is a common misconception that you must use to be admitted into treatment. The policy states “you cannot be denied admission based only on the results of a drug screen.” The practical translation being “don’t let a facility or a loved one tell you that they have to be high to get admitted.”

In the last year, a Drug Court in the Worcester District Court System is providing substance abuse intervention in lieu of incarceration for offenders appearing before the court for drug related misdemeanors. Keeping people out of jail through participation in the Drug Court is a priority and it shows promising results especially if there is motivation to stay in treatment and remain clean and sober.

Many individuals seeking help for the first time from their substance use disorders can often start with a Day Treatment program or in early intervention cases perhaps out-patient counseling is the most appropriate level of care. Many non-profit and private agencies provide these services. For a directory of those agencies in the Worcester area, there is a free “Massachusetts Substance Use Helpline” number to call (1-800-327-5050) where a caring, trained Specialist will help you understand the treatment system and your options. For those who use the internet as their preferred method of communication, these identical services can be found at

Washburn House clients are working to recover from drug and alcohol addictions

Recovery management is a philosophy, promoted by the state of Massachusetts and endorsed by leading recovery advocates, of organizing addiction treatment and recovery support services to enhance pre-recovery engagement, recovery initiation, long-term recovery maintenance, and the quality of personal/family life in long-term recovery.

This philosophy is clearly evidenced by the city’s involvement and support of the recovery high school. Teenagers experiencing substance use issues who want to continue their education in a therapeutic environment may opt for the Rockdale Recovery High School.  This Grade 9-12 School specifically enrolls youngsters that would benefit from a safe and supportive high school environment with a dual focus of academic excellence and recovery support. The only requirement for admission in the Recovery High School is a diagnosis of a Substance Use Disorder and a strong desire to drug free recovery. The phone number at the High School is (508) 538-9102. The Principal’s name is Mary Ellen McGorry.

As part of the much-needed efforts to help stem the tide of the state’s opioid epidemic, legislation relative to substance use, treatment, education, and prevention (STEP Act) was enacted in March 2016 and signed by Governor Baker to be implemented annually in two school grades throughout every public-school district. This drug prevention program called “Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment “(SBIRT) will be starting this year in the Worcester Public Schools. Every 7th and 9th grade student will be administered a drug screening to begin a structured conversation to promote prevention and to identify early risk factors for substance use in middle and high school students. Follow-up referral to treatment will also be offered to any student who is deemed high-risk for a substance use disorder based on their answers to the screening.

With the recent passage of the Recreational Marijuana Law in Massachusetts, there is grave concern by many worried parties that youth will want to experiment with the widely accepted gateway drug. Some recent statistics out of Colorado, the nation’s first state to legalize recreational use in 2012 that show past month use of marijuana among 12-17-year olds have increased from 9.82 percent to 12.56 percent, and marijuana related emergency room visits by teens have more than quadrupled, highlight some troubling and unintended consequences, lending credence to the cries for heightened awareness.

With such a complex landscape, it’s little wonder that city residents and officials must band together and embody the words of Mother Teresa “What I do you cannot do; but what you do, I cannot do. The needs are great, and none of us, including me, ever do great things. But we can all do small things, with great love, and together we can do something wonderful.”

It is seen everywhere. People and organizations are calling for stories from recovering addicts to reduce the stigma, and shame that surround addiction, and that it’s important to show the world a different version of what they are used to when hearing about addiction.  

That sentiment was echoed by the work group assembled at Anna Maria College this past November 15. The group was reconvened as a follow up to an earlier meeting to develop strategies to stem the tide in this unending health crisis. The group of consisted of members of law enforcement, academic administrators, treatment providers, students, and recovery advocates

Discussion focused on the obstacles encountered in providing services to those in need. A prominent view people get of addiction is a pathological one. They read about it in the papers, and the newsfeeds, see it in the movies and on television. It’s generally characterized by an undesirable individual, hustling, stealing, dealing drugs, or prostituting themselves (and each other) to satisfy their insatiable need.  The news stories sensationalize the drug busts, or the violent crimes fueled by an out of control addiction.  

Addiction is often talked about in terms of a “war,” a need to stamp out the “enemy,” despite the reality that the “enemy” is our sons and daughters, nieces and nephews, mothers and fathers.   Society tends to turn away from this human wreckage, often portraying them as weak, misfits, with no redeeming qualities or value. They are chastised for their lifestyle, and there is a long-held belief that this must be what they want from their life.  

Without getting into a long discourse about the bio-psycho-social aspects of addiction, and the life experiences that influence an addict’s insatiable appetite to seek relief from whatever it is causing their distress or discomfort, the professionals in the room wanted to talk about what’s fueling this epidemic.  A topic that is rarely seen on the news, in the papers, or in movies. It is the story of an underlying health crisis that society is even more unwilling to address, let alone talk about it.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) more than one in five Americans have been sexually molested, one in four beaten by a parent, one in every three couples engage in physical violence, over 25% of Americans have an alcohol dependent relative, one in eight witness their mother being beaten. Against this backdrop is it any wonder that our society today is self-medicating in numbers unprecedented in history. When you consider that more than three in four women and men in treatment for substance use disorders report trauma histories the correlation is undeniable.

The working group believe that if we are to ever change the downward spiral on this story of addiction, we must address the underlying issues that are driving our youth to seek relief in such high-risk circumstances that death is a likely result.

If you listen to the story of a person with a substance use disorder history, it might sound like this, “my journey into addiction began early in life, long before I found the comforting effects of drugs and alcohol.  Since childhood, I always felt some type of emotional distress or discomfort.  I was a lost child, hurting and confused, needing comfort and escape from my reality at any cost. It is not a giant leap of faith to realize that drug use is only a symptom of the underlying disease. By definition trauma is unbearable or intolerable, as we continue to listen to the story that definition takes on more meaning, “these feelings lead to thoughts about being someone else, someone more secure and confident, whose life was safe and fun, exciting and loving, and not so confusing.  I could only struggle for so long before I needed to seek relief, and that is exactly what I did. However, my relief came in the form of dishonesty and fantasy.  I needed something to change how I felt, how I saw myself, and how I thought others saw me.  Once I found the magic of alcohol and later in opiates, I thought I had found the answer to my problems.  Being in an intoxicated stupor provided me with the comfort and security needed, and made everything seem okay”.

In the Minnesota Longitudinal Study that focused on how relationships shape development, trauma emerged as the most important predictor of adult functioning. The firsthand accounts of the current crisis by the panel members underscored the finding of the study and one by one everyone in the room nodded in agreement.  This led to a consensus in the room for beefed up prevention efforts in early education, a change in the way we interpret and interact with the substance use disorder population and assessing the impact of trauma as suggested by the Adverse Childhood Experience study.  A study that seemed to validate the 1895 work of Sigmund Freud, “this person suffers from memories” theory.

Advances in the fields of Neuroscience, Developmental Psychopathology, and Interpersonal Neurobiology are increasing our understanding of the human brain and its neural networks and show promise in being able to unlock the mysteries of what is often considered intractable behavior.

If society can’t envision it, recognize or embrace it, then how can we expect to change it?  There are plenty of success stories out there, but there are way too many failures. There are stories about resilience and redemption, of courage and love, and there are the tragic stories of unfulfilled potential, disrupted families and premature loss of life.

These success stories that are attributable to love, compassion, and understanding are needed to help us move away from the symptom-focused medicine practiced in the 19th century to an integrated approach where we understand the impact of environment and relationships on each individual and respond accordingly. As people, we can still learn something from one of history’s greatest minds. “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”


As a person struggling to recover from the devastating effects of substance use disorder, a typical day is one full of false promises, shame, fear, guilt, and questions about what dread the day ahead will have in store for me.

Getting up in the morning is akin to preparing for a funeral. I have no drugs in my “stash” to alleviate the discomfort of withdrawals I face in the morning, and the ways and means to support my “habit” now consist of acts of manipulation and deceit with my family, friends, and anyone unfortunate to encounter me in that day. If having a job is still an unlikely reality, getting to work on time to put in a day’s work is even more burdensome due to the overwhelming despair of my emotional state.

Can I get through this day without using drugs? The desire to use (or more appropriately called obsession) is described in Dorland’s Medical Dictionary as a recurrent, persistent thought, image, or impulse that is unwanted and distressing (ego-dystonic) and comes involuntarily to mind despite attempts to ignore or suppress it. It is this irrational thinking that is compelling me to put something in my system. My drug of choice is opiates (OxyContin) but I can’t get any more from my doctor because he finally figured out that I’m not using them as prescribed. I know that I can purchase some oxy’s on the street, but illicit oxycontin cost too much money (up to eighty dollars a pill) the kind of cash I simply don’t have. I can’t borrow any more money from my family and co-workers. They’ve heard the excuses time and again, whether it was needing to pay my utility bill or facing eviction due to back rent. When people see me coming, they hold onto their wallets and wait for another “sob story” in an attempt to get cash. If I really push it, I can try to manipulate my family by agreeing to seek treatment if they let me get high one more time!! As the saying goes, “I sound like a broken record!”

It’s only mid-day, but it seems like midnight!! The constant call from an imaginary unrelenting force is telling me to get high. If I don’t, the symptoms of withdrawal intensify (a runny nose, the cold sweats and other flu-like symptoms). I certainly can’t stay in this “morose” much longer. I try to come up with a solution. I’ll fake a mouth injury and go to a dentist, hoping I can get a script for some type of narcotic. Anything to relieve the anxiety of the impending doom. They call this doctor shopping. Going from one doctor/dentist to the next one. The only motive for this type of behavior is to get drugs. Nothing else! But this type of desperate “self-seeking behavior” usually has bad consequences, like leaving the dentist chair without a prescription for opiates. Any other option to get drugs today will likely lead to a dead end…

This is the world I live in every day. Using drugs to live each day and living each day to use drugs! Everything else gets put aside. My family, my friends, my co-workers, and other priorities I had one time in my life are no longer viable with my condition and the road it’s leading to, “jails, institutions and death.”

I sometimes think there is solution to my drug dependency. Get help. Even though many people consider me to be a hopeless case because the numerous drug treatment programs I’ve been in, only to leave and almost immediately use again, I was always told by my counselors that “I don’t have to be a statistic (death by drug addiction) and recovery is achievable if I admit I’m powerless over my addiction. “In other words, I can’t beat it, if I try to do it alone!!

My day is now winding down and I’ve barely made it through work. I would not call it a productive day because all I thought about was how I can relieve the pain and suffering that comes from being addicted to a powerful force that won’t let me go!!  

Tick, Tick, Tick. I tried going to bed early to erase this awful day from my life but unless I do something different, like seek help, then tomorrow holds the same as today. What do we call that? Insanity, doing the same thing over again expecting different results.  

As the celebrated Harvard Medical School teacher Elvin Semrad once said, “the greatest source of our suffering are the lies we tell ourselves.”

I know there’s a way out. I’ve been to twelve step programs when I returned to the community from treatment settings and saw how other addicts just like me with monster “drug habits” were clean and sober. Happy and productive members of society with family reunification.

That’s going to be me soon. I’m picking up the phone right now to ask for help. Mom, Dad, Sis, Bro, Kids, Counselor Joe. I’m ready. Will you help me???????

According to the New York Times, “the death toll from America’s opiate epidemic topped 59,000 in 2016, more than the deadliest year of gun violence (1993), more than the worst year for auto fatalities (1973), and more in one year than in all the years of the Vietnam War.”  Drug use is at an all time high, with collateral damage continuing to escalate, leaving a wake of pain and shattered lives behind.  

Though cold statistics of opioid casualties are readily available, it seldom sheds any light on the parents, children or family members of those whose lives are cut short from drug overdose.  This retelling is an attempt to give expression to those who have gone through it.

Treatment professionals talk of addiction as a “family illness,” something that affects all who encounter it.  Overdose death only serves to multiply the feelings of sadness and grief, often igniting feelings of anger toward addicts or addiction, or in direct contrast, a sense of relief that their troubled loved one is no longer struggling.  

It’s difficult to describe the process of losing a child (or parent, sibling) to a drug overdose, and although there might be similarities in the experience, it’s not the same for everyone.  Trying to explain it is unfair.

There’s a line in the song “It’s Quiet Uptown” from the musical Hamilton, which attempts to describe the emotional state Eliza and Alexander Hamilton experienced following the death of their son Philip.  “There are moments that the words don’t reach, there is suffering too terrible to name,” and ends with “you hold your child as tight as you can, and push away the unimaginable.”  After spending time with parents who have lost their loved ones to overdose, that last line “push away the unimaginable” really amplifies what their experience is.

As we gathered for a Learn2Cope sponsored Grief Support Group in a small upstairs music room at a local church on an August night, I had no idea of what to expect.  The facilitator had invited me to attend, and together we sat alone in the room; waiting.  At approximately 6:20 people began to walk in, mostly alone, except for a grandmother who had lost her daughter.  She was accompanied by the grandchild who had lost her Mom to an overdose.  

Even though my presence at the meeting had been previously discussed and approved, it felt as though the group was trying to determine if I was worthy of their trust.  We were gathered in a semi-circle, greeted one another with friendly, but subdued smiles, and began to chat about the heat, the humidity, the traffic, and because the windows were open the noise outside the church.  

We talked about my interest in their group, and my hope of writing a paper on the issue of what happens to those left behind and I asked for their permission to sit through their group. They willingly agreed, but I could sense some feelings of discomfort.  

I chose to disclose some of my own personal history to assure them I wasn’t there as a journalist or simply looking for a story. As I provided some of my experience with addiction, death of loved ones to substance use and my journey of recovery, I could feel the room open as these courageous people began to talk about their pain.  

One of the first speakers, fighting to hold back her tears, talked about what she called “the initial blow.”  It was “devastating, all consuming,” and “felt like I couldn’t take a breath.”  She spoke about how the loss of her son has “consumed me all the time and everywhere,” how there is no escape, and “nothing is the same after.” She shared how losing her child has impacted her relationships with her other children, and how hard it is for her.  

Listening to them talk about their grief, I noticed that the time since the loss didn’t seem to matter.  They spoke as if it had just happened.  I couldn’t help but think “more trauma.” Likely the underlying precipitant in the tragic scene before me, trauma exists in varying degrees in most if not all the individuals diagnosed with a substance use disorder. As the neuroscientist Dan Siegal states, “It’s part of our job to immerse ourselves into the chaos and rigidity, that is where the suffering is.” And here it is in full view continuing its emotional toll.

As more people revealed their heartache, we leaned toward each other, forming a tighter circle, connecting on a gut-wrenching emotional level, sharing the sadness together.  Another Mom told the group of how hard it is to tell people how her son died, the “anticipated reactions” once she says those dreadful words, “he overdosed.”  She painfully described how she immediately feels judged by them, and begins thinking “it’s my fault, I’m a horrible parent,” and worse, that somehow “my loss is less of a loss than anyone else who has experienced losing a child.”

Halfway through the meeting, the young woman who had lost her Mom, said one of the most powerful statements of the evening. “My Mom was doing the best she could.”  Her barely audible comments made it clear that she was proud of her Mom, and that, regardless of the circumstances, she loved her Mom unconditionally.  That is the power of love, which for this evening, conquered the sadness, grief, and even the shame.  Others wanted us to know that their loved-ones were “so much more than just an addict,” they were wonderful, gifted, loving and brilliant children who suffered from addiction.

The emotions in the room reminded me of another mother, Victoria Allendorf, an advocate from Facing Addiction, who lost two of her sons to opiate overdose at the same time.  She described it as “the moment we lose our soul; we die with our children.”  She also went on to say in her interview that, “the silence of everything we lost is loudest at night.”  

Leonard Cohen once wrote, “everything has a crack in it and that’s where the light gets in.” It is our belief, as long-time city residents and recovery advocates, that if we are open to new ideas, that sliver of light can quiet the silence and “Illuminate the path forward” to providing meaningful relief to those suffering from this modern day plague.

While government officials are shedding some “good news” by sharing the latest statistics that fatal overdoses are inching down in the state, let us not forget that Worcester’s fatal opioid overdoses were a staggering 268 between 2011-2016.

There are those who believe many of these tragic deaths can be prevented, and people’s lives saved, but it will take work.  We believe the work is well worth it. After all, we are talking about human lives, and saving them is the only way we can begin to help them.

Here are some of the reasons why local leaders and Substance Use Disorder (SUD) Professionals feel there is hope:

1.) The administration of Narcan (overdose reversal drug) by first responders when addicts have overdosed.

2.) Quicker access to treatment when people with substance abuse disorders want help. Often the window of opportunity closes quickly and immediate access to treatment increases the chances they will respond to interventions. Including a new program formed in partnership with the Worcester County District Attorney’s office, and Worcester Police Department, called the “Buyer Diversion Treatment Program” that will allow police officers to assist addicts to receive treatment, rather than prosecution, when they are found in possession of opioids. This new initiative will allow authorities to assist low-level offenders who purchase drugs and want treatment, to help start them on the path to a recovery

3.) Innovative Programs run by court and law enforcement agencies (Drug Courts, Recovery Coaches, Professional Advocate Recovery Program) that focus more on providing treatment instead of arrest and prosecution for addicts.

4.) Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs that allow doctors to effectively monitor the history of patients seeking opioids from the medical community for their active addiction. This is called “doctor shopping.” Going from doctor to doctor to obtain prescription opiate drugs.

5.) Initiatives to increase the use of Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) like Methadone, Suboxone, and Vivitrol, to name the most widely used are being implemented. These MAT (Suboxone and Methadone) options are for people wanting to either stop using opioids but won’t because of fear of withdrawals and/or cravings or (Vivitrol) for those individuals who are no longer dependent and need assistance in remaining abstinent. Suboxone can only be dispensed by physicians who complete an eight-hour training under the Drug Addiction Treatment Act of 2000 (DATA 2000) to qualify for a waiver to prescribe and dispense the drug which is comprised of buprenorphine (a partial agonist) and naloxone which limits the euphoric ability and provides a modicum of safety in its use. Licensed clinics that dispense Methadone a full “opioid agonist” have also increased in numbers and accessibility in recent years.

6.) Families are no longer trying to hide the fact that their loved one has a potentially deadly disease that often requires multiple treatments and a commitment to recovery that can’t be done alone. Many of these family members have been through an emotional, financial, and spiritual wringer with their love one and felt the shame and humiliation of the stigma associated with drug addiction. Today, more people are coming out of their private torment and publicly admitting that they need help.

7.) The availability of support groups for the addicted person and family members is more socially accepted, and provides support for ongoing recovery after acute treatment. Twelve Step Programs like Narcotics and Alcoholics Anonymous have been instrumental in helping people remain in long-term recovery while family members have turned to a support in organizations such as Al-Anon, Nar-Anon or more recently to an organization called “Learn2Cope.” Support groups like Al-Anon and Nar-Anon focus more on the family member getting better while Learn2Cope tries to offer practical solutions to helping the loved one get help. While these types of meetings are not for everyone, many people find solace knowing they are not alone in their struggle.  It can be extremely therapeutic for families that are trying to recover from addiction and return to a healthy life after years of dysfunction and devastation.

As contributors to the book, The East Side of Addiction, and with over 90 years of treatment and recovery experience, we have tried to briefly describe the current environment in our city today, some of the options available for people that suffer from substance use disorders, and provide some resources or hope for their families. We can attest to the fact that active addiction takes its toll on the community and society at large, often leading to family disruption, financial instability, incarceration, and in the most extreme and unfortunate cases premature death.

In the months ahead, we will be providing thought provoking insight into the many pathways to recovery, new advances in the science of addiction, and stories of people and their families that made it despite the odds being stacked against them.

WORCESTER – In a crowded Worcester City Hall conference room, the former National Drug Czar Michael Botticelli told a group of healthcare professionals and treatment providers to “align yourself with Law Enforcement.”

Michael Boticelli/Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Those words were met with a mix of bewilderment, skepticism and astonishment. This was certainly not the status quo of the socially conscious and caring individuals who take the lead in caring for our disenfranchised public.  

For some, Mr. Botticelli’s words on that Aug. 22 afternoon would become a call to action. Dr. James DiReda, the Director of Social Work at Anna Maria College, saw the synergy and simple truth to the former Drug Czar’s statement.

Dr. DiReda and the administration at Anna Maria know that education, prevention, treatment, and government all play a vital role if we are to change our current experience regarding addiction to opiates and many other substance use disorders.  

In response to that advice, Anna Maria College invited a group of diverse individuals, primarily from Law Enforcement to exchange ideas on the Opiate Epidemic in a Round Table Discussion on Wednesday, Sept. 20th.  

Invited to the discussion were Worcester Police Chief Steve Sargent, Massachusetts District Court Judges Timothy Bibaud and Michael Allard-Madaus — both pioneers in Massachusetts Drug Courts, Worcester Public Schools Safety Director Robert Pezzella –a leader in drug education for the Worcester Public Schools, Worcester County District Attorney Joe Early’s office, represented by Liz Haddad, Worcester County Office of the Sheriff, represented by Joe D’Ambra and Shawn McKenna, Paul LaCava from Quinsigamond Community College, Dr. Mattie Castiel, Commissioner of Health and Human Services for the City of Worcester, Jack Maroney, a treatment provider and co-author of the East Side of Addiction, Jim Gorske, Director of the Adcare Educational Institute, and several Anna Maria College students.  

Those gathered around the table know this public health emergency is important and made time in their demanding schedules to attend a two hour discussion about opiates and their impact on our community. They came to learn, to share, and to connect with colleagues, renewing their relationships and forming new ones to continue working to change the effects of opiates and addiction on our community.   

The meeting began with a warm welcome from the President of Anna Maria College, Mary Lou Retelle — a strong supporter of this initiative.  After the customary introductions and pleasantries over lunch, the conversation was guided by Dr. Christine Holmes and Dr. Judy Kenary into topics on workforce development, emphasizing the training students at Anna Maria receive in the disciplines of Nursing, Social Work, Psychology, Fire Science, and Criminal Justice.  

The idea and need for the creation of a Center for Excellence in Addiction Studies was also discussed by those around the table in conjunction with attendees sharing what they are seeing and experiencing in their day to day world.  

Real-time data from Worcester Police Chief Steve Sargent provided the starting point for a dialogue on the harsh realities of the current opioid epidemic.  With tragic data in hand, the conversation of how pervasive the problem is in Worcester was illustrated as each agency representative shared their perspective of their daily interactions with those suffering from substance use disorders.  The stress on manpower, resources, and morale were list toppers, with the unenviable task of informing the family of an overdose being the most difficult.  The Chief did hint at several new initiatives and collaborations intended to improve outcomes and the overall safety of our community.

Judge Bibaud stated that we have been talking about this problem for a long while and it is now time for “doing.” Hard-hitting examples of successful court interventions and ensuing treatments that resulted in positive outcomes were provided, as many of the onetime defendants returned to the court to share their stories of recovery.  These stories give us hope that we can change this terrible scourge on our society, robbing us of our most valuable resources, our children, but it will take all of us being involved, not simply one agency or organization.

Jack Maroney, offered this perspective: “Institutions of higher learning are an ideal location for prevention and treatment to intersect. The college setting offers unlimited opportunities for continued education, brief intervention and the social supports needed to maintain a sense of wellbeing.”

Rob Pezzella stressed the concern that providers and other professionals should have about the impact the new Recreational Marijuana Law is going to have on our youth in the city. The Worcester Public Schools statistics reveal that marijuana is the most common drug being used and abused by students. This gateway drug will now be viewed as socially acceptable because of its legality.

Paul LaCava and former Worcester Police Chief Ed Gardella believe that to make this change, people must first understand addiction and the recovery process.  The community must start from the premise that an informed local citizenry equipped with the knowledge for identifying and responding to individuals in crisis and the ability to contact health and other community agencies trained to respond to these individuals in crisis is among the most powerful and empowering approaches.

It is this hope that allows the people at this Round Table to tirelessly revive an overdose victim and intervene with treatment without giving up. These dedicated public servants believe that human beings caught in the grip of drug use or addiction are worth saving, and do get better, and they know it.     

Dr. DiReda reiterated, “Addiction is a condition that destroys relationships, and severs connection from community, co-workers, friends, families, and ultimately from self.  Those suffering from addiction end up alone in their pain and misery, disconnected from those around them, including self, craving the only thing that will alleviate the pain; drugs.”

WORCESTER – We often hear the phrase, “it takes a village” – a community effort to bring about a desired change or to face a difficult challenge.  

The City of Worcester is taking those words to heart.

On the morning of Thursday, Sept. 7, several courageous city residents and forward thinking medical students from Worcester’s own University of Massachusetts Medical School gathered to build on collaborations across disciplines to improve the health of our community.

In a crowded lecture room, a panel of impacted Worcester residents — led by The East Side of Addiction authors licensed social worker Dr. Jim DiReda,  alcohol and drug counselor Jack Maroney, and Worcester Public Schools Safety Director Rob Pezzella — exchanged questions and answers with a roomful of aspiring physicians

The purpose of the exchange was to increase the knowledge base and understanding from the consumer’s perspective on the “Opioid Epidemic” — an issue that has recently been declared an emergency Public Health Crisis.

The panel was invited to share their personal histories with substance use disorders and to respond to questions that focused on motivation for stopping to use, misconceptions that the public [as well as health care provider] tend to have about addiction, experiences with the healthcare system, and what future providers should know about addiction, recovery, and treatment.

With DiReda, Maroney and Pezzella facilitating the discussion, the panel — which consisted of five women and five men — talked openly of their struggles with substance use.

One of the panelists, State Representative James J. O’Day — a long time vocal proponent for progressive social change — talked about “our kids being at great risk when using drugs and alcohol” and said he was “happy to be here and happy to able to share a little piece of my story.”  

O’Day went on to say, “It is something, quite frankly, that I am incredibly proud of. The life that I have today wouldn’t be what it is if I was keeping [my former substance abuse] anonymous.”

The learning objectives of the evening’s panel discussion were to identify the stigma associated with addiction and behaviors that perpetuate this stigma, understand some of the challenges associated with addiction and substance use and recognize the prevalence of addiction in all socioeconomic and racial groups.

Lily, a second-year medical student, said, “Most of the audience was comprised of first year medical students. For them to be able to hear the strength, honesty, and courage in the stories of these funny, smart, kind people in the first few months of their medical training is an amazing step towards destigmatizing the healthcare providers view of addiction.”

The overall goal of the Substance Use Disorder elective that is being spearheaded by student leaders under faculty supervision is to increase awareness and understanding of substance use disorders, with emphasis on the impact of substance use on the patient, the patient’s family and friends, and the community.

Kelly, a second-year med student and one of the student leaders that hosted the discussion said, “The patient panel offered a diverse perspective on addiction and recovery. Hearing from those in long-term recovery and those who are still in the beginning of their recovery journey was powerful. It showed how this disease is lifelong and therefore, staying active in recovery is the key to successful treatment. I would recommend a session like this one to all healthcare professionals, as it very clearly showed the human component of substance use disorder.”

Dr. DiReda went on to say, “Addiction is a sickness that affects the mind, body, and spirit of those afflicted, wreaking havoc on those around it, including family, friends, relatives, neighbors, and communities. It is going to take a community-wide effort to change it.”  

Stigma, low self-esteem, child custody issues, mental illness, prostitution, sexual assault and human trafficking were all topics that the panel fearlessly and openly discussed. The desperateness of these revelations was not lost on the future physicians who were clearly moved by the forthrightness of the panel and asked questions to increase their understanding.

In summarizing the evening, Hannah, a second-year medical student leader, said, “The patient panel gives students a name, and a face, and a story behind the term ‘substance use disorder.’ This is both humbling and eye-opening and it allows students to encounter an addict as a human being, rather than seeing them as ‘an addict.’  I think this is the most important thing.

Worcester is a community that is facing a very difficult challenge — the impact of drug abuse and addiction.  

The daily news is full of stories of drug busts, robberies, physical violence against innocent victims, scams and a variety of other crimes fueled by addiction.  

We have come to learn that no one individual doctor, judge, or treatment professional alone is powerful enough to change this phenomenon.  It is going to take the work of many to accomplish what needs to be done, and we must form a unified front, working together with the goal of reducing and/or eliminating this deadly malady from our community.  

Doing this will not be easy, but it is possible.

At least that is our belief, which is why we are focusing our energy and efforts on developing relationships with stakeholders in our community to join forces to reverse this deadly trend.  

From every first responder to an overdose call, to the medical staff who treat them, to the providers in detoxes and rehabs, all the way through to outpatient facilities, and doctor’s offices.  Everyone is impacted in some fashion, and/or knows someone who abuses or is addicted to drugs and alcohol.  

We must come together as a community to harness the knowledge and strength needed to face down this deadly foe.