A Path Back To The Light


Visiting the Front lines of Opioid Addiction in Massachusetts

Bob Massie

On Monday afternoon I ascended the steps into Edwards Church and entered the comfortable meeting room used by the Northampton Recovery Center.  I was greeted warmly by the convener, Lynn Ferro, and asked to join the circle of men and women in recovery who gather there faithfully several times a week.  We each took slices of pizza - which was still hot -- and the participants started to talk about what the Recovery Center meant to them.

Over the next hour, we listened to each other.  There were moments of laughter, of sadness, and of deep honesty as the men and women from all walks of life recounted their courageous stories of fighting to recover from opioid and other addictions.

“I have been through a lot of bad stuff,” said one man named John, “and I ended up in prison.  When I got out, I didn’t know where to go.  I didn’t have a place to live, I didn’t have a job, and I knew that if I relapsed I was going back to jail. Then I found this place.  It’s been a lifeline.  I never thought that anyone would give two shits about me, but they do.”

Glancing around the room, I noticed the participants did not look out of the ordinary.  Dressed in jeans, sweats, and winter jackets to protect them from the cold, they could all just have stepped off a bus.  About halfway through the meeting, a group of inmates from the Hampshire County Jail arrived; all big men, they took their seats quietly and listened with intensity.

“When I got out I was homeless for more than three months, and I realized that there was no way that I was going to maintain my sobriety,” said one woman.  “One of the biggest problems for me and I think for a lot of people is the shame.  There is a self-stigma about what we have become, and some of us wonder whether we can ever get out of it.   But I feel welcome here. And I have been sober for two years and two months.”

The groups applauded warmly.

“There’s no judgment here,” said another man. “None. We know that people do not want to focus on the past but in the future.  On how to bring us back.”

Fighting addiction is about helping broken people to get the support and resources to fix themselves.  But that is much harder to do when the system itself is broken.

We know the terrible statistics:

  • Every 10 minutes in the US another person will die of an opioid overdose

  • In Massachusetts we lose more than 5 people a day and 2,094 in a year.

  • A baby addicted to drugs such as opioids is born every half hour

  • Opioids kill more Americans than those die by guns and in car accidents

But there is more than just numbers to this scourge.  Here’s what I learned from the people on the front lines who work daily in the fight against all forms of addiction - from alcohol to opioids to heroin.

First, we need more beds for those seeking recovery. When someone chooses to seek treatment, everything depends on timing.  Care needs to be available immediately.  And not in prison-like settings, but in a clinic where the patient receives the humane medical treatment he or she deserves.

Second, funding for the fight is woefully inadequate and must be boosted. Currently, only 1 in 10 addicts has access to treatment. We need to do away with barriers to Medicaid for in-patient addiction care. Some health insurance companies illegally limit mental health coverage. We must stop this practice.

Third, more must be done to prevent addiction. Steps have been taken to monitor and prevent over-prescription, but the programs need to be reinforced.

Fourth, we need to make sure that programs like the Northampton Recovery Center have adequate funding to provide the critical support services that are enabling former addicts to remain sober and rebuild their lives.  

Fifth, we need to get Fentanyl and Heroin off the streets. 

Sixth, though we want people to move into recovery, we will need to support those who have not yet started down that important path.   We need to reduce harm for those struggling with active addiction, in an effort to keep them alive until they are willing to enter a recovery program -- even if it means acknowledging that their addiction will continue.

On Monday, I also visited a needle exchange program. I had a long and moving discussion with the caring men and women who counsel and care for those individuals still caught up in the throes of addiction.

 “When someone is drowning,” one of the caregivers said, “we don’t stand on the shore and lecture them how they really should have taken swimming lessons earlier in their lives.  We don’t just yell at them to struggle harder.  We throw them a lifeline -- and sometimes we even jump into the water ourselves to help”

This means providing needles, and housing, and medical help. Some argue that safe needle access and disposal sites promote addiction. False. The programs reduce deaths and provide support. In fact, an addict is 5 times more likely to go into a treatment recovery if he or she has access to a needle exchange program

Needle exchange programs also spark fear among neighbors, who worry that such will attract crowds of dangerous people who will leave behind needles on the ground.  But these fears are imaginary.  Addicts come in one by one, spread across the whole day.  And needle exchange programs make sure that needles are safely gathered and disposed of - they do NOT end up on the street.  

Most important - we need to treat the opioid and addiction crisis as a public health issue. A “war on drugs” approach will just make it worse.  And we should be going after the pharmaceutical companies who turned a very positive development in medicine -- in which doctors realized that pain actually slows healing and thus needs to be treated -- into an epidemic as they aggressively and fraudulently promoted these highly addictive medications at levels far beyond what was necessary so that they could reap profits.   4 out of 5 people who try heroin today started with prescription painkillers

Big Pharma is facing legal challenges for their actions all over the country. In forty states the Attorneys General have launched investigations to gauge the viability of litigation. The actions of pharmaceuticals must be investigated, and, where appropriate, punished severely.  Perhaps, as with the tobacco companies, we could recapture some of these stolen profits and put them towards treating the people who have been harmed.  

It’s time that we stepped up every facet of our battle with addiction.  We must remember that many communities of color have been struggling with addiction for decades and that there is something disturbing about the reality that public attention seems only to be rising now that we are losing large numbers of white people. Our approach must be comprehensive.

We also need to recognize that at least part of the epidemic comes from a broad feeling of despair that has risen up among young citizens.  What future can they believe in?  Whether you are an active addict, a person leaving prison, or someone in recovery, who will offer you a job? How can you find a home? How can you rebuild your life and your sense of self?  How can you finally pull away from the alluring darkness and threat of death to come back to the land of joyful living?  To do so, we must create not just programs for individuals, but a comprehensive reform to our economy that offers stable jobs at decent wages for everyone -- even those who fell far off the path.  All they want to do is to get back on track - and we have an obligation to make that possible.

All across this state, I have heard heartbreaking stories from mothers and fathers who have lost their children at a young age and who are desperate for us to stop the epidemic before it wipes out a big piece of the next generation.  I have spent time in communities that feel under attack; and I have come to know users and recovering addicts who have been beaten to the ground, physically and spiritually.   

But I have also seen the other side.  On Monday, in two different places, I saw the brave men and women who are fighting to recover their freedom and the generous souls who are completely committed to helping them.  It is through the courage and compassion of such human beings that we can forge a path back into the light.