The United States Attorney’s Office and the DEA’s New England Field Division have announced the launch of a state-wide opioid abuse prevention campaign — #ResistTheRisk — to educate the public and spark conversation about the dangers and consequences of abusing, selling and sharing prescription opioids.

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

“The goal of this campaign is to remind people about the dangers of abusing, selling and sharing opioids, including prescription pain pills.  Misusing prescription drugs is risky and illegal.  We must do more to deter people from misusing opioids, and we hope that increasing awareness will help people make better choices – to resist the risk,” said Acting U.S. Attorney William D. Weinreb.

The #ResistTheRisk campaign will utilize a multi-media strategy including print designs on MBTA subway lines and buses, and buses operated by Southeastern Regional Transit Authority and the Greater Attleboro Taunton Regional Transit Authority. Also, the U.S. Attorney’s Office will engage in direct outreach with youth and will use online marketing.

“The DEA believes that a critical component to its role as the nation’s lead drug law enforcement agency is reducing the demand for drugs,” said Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent in Charge Michael J. Ferguson.

“Opioid abuse is rampant in Massachusetts and throughout New England and many times the abuse of prescription opioids is a gateway to heroin and fentanyl addiction. DEA is proud to collaborate with the U.S. Attorney’s Office on this campaign to encourage conversation and raise awareness about the dangers and consequences associated with the abuse of opioids,” Ferguson added.

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.