This is a story about a young mother named Michelle. Michelle is her real name, and her story, all too real. She wanted to use her real name because, for the first time in years, certainly for the first time in her adult life, she is proud of what she is accomplishing.
It wasn’t long ago that Michelle descended to a low point in life that few people will ever know. I expect few of us here could even imagine it. She neglected her children so much the state took custody of them. She stole from her family and others and served time in jail. She sold her body, something she swore she’d never do, but did anyway. All of this behavior came about to satisfy a need – a need for a steady supply of heroin.
It’s hard to escape the news that the opioid drug epidemic is having across the country. Perhaps you saw the recent 60 Minutes segment about heroin use in the suburbs. Perhaps you saw the HBO special that focused on the heroin epidemic on Cape Cod. The entire Commonwealth is facing a state-wide crisis. In Massachusetts communities large and small, wealthy and poor, people are fatally overdosing on heroin, on average four people a day.
Heroin is sold by drug dealers and fundamentally they are business people. They want to make more money so they’re going where the money is. Dealers trafficking in powerful strains of heroin have found a large market of new buyers: young people who live in well-to-do suburbs. Star athletes on high school and college teams are getting addicted to heroin. For many it starts with opioid pain killers, prescribed when they suffer serious injury like a broken bone. These prescription pills ease the pain with powerful narcotics and the people who take them can become addicted quickly.
When their prescription for pain pills runs out, too many young people look for a way to satisfy the insatiable, uncontrollable urge that comes with dependency. It’s all too easy to find connections who can get more prescription pills—the real thing acquired unethically—but there’s a cheaper and more powerful alternative. Chemically, it’s essentially identical. It’s heroin.
Michelle was raised in a middle-class Boston suburb by two professional parents; mom was a nurse and dad an accountant. She was especially close to her dad. But during high school her parents separated and dad moved out, leaving a deep, empty hole in her heart. Michelle found herself looking for a way to feel better. She connected with a boy and started hanging out with his crowd. It was the wrong crowd and she started experimenting with drugs they were using. She liked the feeling she got when she drank or smoked pot. At a party, she was offered ecstasy. Then someone offered her prescription oxycodone and quickly she became addicted. Her indescribable need soon drove her to the less expensive and much more powerful chemical sibling: heroin.
Michelle couldn’t break her addiction. Even becoming a mother–twice–didn’t make a difference. She’d leave her kids at home alone when she went out to find heroin. She ended up losing custody again. She tried to pull away from heroin but had multiple relapses as many addicts do, as there is no quick fix for addiction.
Addiction is recognized by the medical profession as a chronic, lifelong disease. It doesn’t ever go away completely, it can’t be cured, but it can be treated. Persons who are addicted, whether to pain pills or heroin or alcohol or problem gambling, need treatment for recovery.
Michelle had brief segments of clean living but about a year ago Michelle relapsed again. Depression and loneliness drove her again to seek refuge in heroin. But then she witnessed change in someone she knew well, someone she loved. He had made the choice to move away to get himself free of all the triggers and bad influences that kept him locked in dependency. He joined a residential recovery program to get the help he needed. With support and guidance and tough-love structure in his life, he got his act together. It didn’t happen overnight, but today he has a well-paying, skilled job and a network of community supports that are keeping him on the steady road of recovery.
Michelle saw that change was possible. She saw change in someone who had shared the darkest depths of dependency with her. It was then that she had her epiphany. She knew she had to do it for herself and for her children. She finally asked for help—and she’s receiving it at Grace House.
Grace House is a CHD residential program for mothers in recovery and their children. The professional staff at Grace House provides a very structured, highly supervised yet caring environment so mothers like Michelle can get clean—for themselves and their children. Residents also have access to trained peer recovery coaches who provide non-judgmental guidance on recovery from the perspective of someone who’s winning in their battle against their own addiction. Some are on location. Others, who Michelle calls her “community women,” are a phone call away, any time of day or night. It’s a win-win: whenever a recovery coach talks to Michelle about staying clean, it also reinforces the coach’s commitment to recovery.
Michelle recently gave birth to a baby boy. She is doing so well that she will be moving out of Grace House in just a couple more weeks and starting her life anew. Michelle has even begun to provide recovery coaching to young mothers just moving into Grace House.
Michelle’s future is looking brighter, but it wouldn’t be fair to say this story has a happy ending. You have to understand that Michelle’s story, her journey of recovery, will not end. Recovery will be part of her story for the rest of her life.
Treating addiction as a disease is critical, but the long-term solution is prevention. Considering the costs of addiction—in lives shattered and resources consumed, and to individuals, families, communities and our economy—serious prevention efforts are not only crucial, they will pay for themselves, over and over. CHD is working now to create a new evidence-based, addiction prevention curriculum designed to engage parents in their role as their children’s first and most influential teacher.
CHD is paying attention to the epidemic of opioid addiction, and we aren’t the only ones. Congressman Richard Neal, who is co-sponsoring The Opioid Overdose Reduction Act of 2015, is paying attention. Governor Charlie Baker, whose Opioid Addiction Working Group is attacking the crisis head-on in Massachusetts, is paying attention. President Obama, who referenced addiction at the beginning of his hour-long State of the Union address, is paying attention.
If you haven’t been paying attention until now, I hope you’ll start because addiction affects all of us. I hope you’ll support CHD in our efforts to prevent addiction wherever possible, and to treat those who fall victim to addiction’s iron grip with compassion and support. Whether you support our work by telling your elected officials that it matters to you, by making a financial donation to CHD to enable us to continue our work, or perhaps both, I implore you do something. Please…don’t do nothing.
If it helps, and I believe it will help, think about Michelle. Think about a young mother, someone who made dreadfully poor choices and experienced life’s lowest depths, but also someone who decided things had to change. Michelle is making good decisions. She’s getting support and traveling her journey of recovery. She’s beating addiction, one day at a time.