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Recovery’s chemical options

The life more medicated might last longer

  • Serenity by Millers River in Orange Recorder/Paul Franz
  • Recovering addict "Serenity" pauses at a band stand in an Orange park.<br/> Recorder/Paul Franz

Serenity, who asked that her real name not be used for her family’s sake, started drinking when she was 8 years old.

“A family member had sexually abused me and to cope with the pain, I started drinking,” she said. “And when I turned 18, that’s when it turned into heavier drugs and into crack cocaine and heroin.”

Twenty years after her first drink, she was a year and four months clean in April, fighting her addiction and its underlying cause with the help of a therapist she can’t speak highly enough of — and opioid maintenance therapy.

As an adult, Serenity wishes she had known as an 8-year-old that she could have turned elsewhere.

“I didn’t know that I could go to my parents and tell them what was going on,” she said. They didn’t know anything was wrong until a decade later, when she was arrested with her boyfriend, who dealt drugs. Instead she coped with the situation and what she now knows are post-traumatic stress disorder and depression with drugs and alcohol.

According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, genes account for 40 to 60 percent of an individual’s vulnerability to addiction. Addiction runs in her family, and trauma significantly increases the addiction rate. Studies of combat veterans have found substance abuse disorder in as many as half living with PTSD.

Whatever the mechanism of the disease, Serenity is recovering.

Tough probation

After her arrest and a guilty plea, she stayed clean for 4½ years, answering to a tough probation officer.

“My probation officer was very hard on me, but when I actually graduated from it, he was crying,” she said.

There were other helpful people along the way. Serenity attended Franklin County Technical School, where she was able to open up to her school nurse, Karen Sims, whose own granddaughter would eventually fall into the same trap as Serenity. Ashley Sims died two winters ago of a heroin overdose.

Ultimately, understanding that her pattern of drug abuse was a disease helped make a difference.

She said she learned in detox — a 33-day program, not the week that is reportedly the insurance standard — that addiction is a disease and that relapse happens. Relapse did happen. Her family saw what was happening after a spell of three months off the wagon, and she is now back in recovery and on Suboxone.

Suboxone/buprenorphine is a growing element of the treatment spectrum.

She expresses some unease over Suboxone. Opioid replacement therapy replaces one opioid with another, less damaging one at a level calibrated to fill the ditches dug in the patient’s system by heroin without getting them high.

Suboxone worked

Suboxone, she said, is “working amazingly.” She said “In fact, I had tried methadone, and methadone was basically exactly the same effect as heroin, and I did not like it, so I immediately put myself back in the hospital to get off that and into Suboxone. Even when the days are really bad, no cravings at all.”

Like many, she is nevertheless a little conflicted.

“I am grateful for it, for being on the medication, but I don’t plan on being on it for the rest of my life,” she said.

Suboxone is by no means the only thing keeping Serenity sober; she regularly attends Narcotics Anonymous meetings, and reaches out to friends she met in recovery if she feels herself slipping. She also has monthly meetings with her therapist, who she met at a treatment center and who now works at the Athol office of the nonprofit mental health service agency Clinical and Support Options.

“I talk about what’s going on in my life, if I’m struggling,” she said. “I’ve found that that’s just been a huge support.” Beyond the monthly session, she telephones to check in as needed, and she doesn’t have to volunteer her problems. “She knows me inside and out, she can read me like a book — she tells me if she picks something up.”

Serenity is temporarily out of work, but her dream is to go back to school and become an addiction counselor.

It’s a dream that comes up often in speaking with people recovering from addiction.

Jay Sacchetti, vice president of housing and substance abuse for ServiceNet, the nonprofit that maintains the Greenfield and Orange recovery homes, said the field is difficult and frustrating, not the easy choice for those headed into the health field.

“One of the things that happens that’s positive is there are people who recover, and they are the best in terms of working with addicted folks,” he said.

For the moment, Serenity has reconnected with her immediate family although she is still ostracized by a branch of her extended family, and has reconnected with old friends who never had anything to do with the addiction side of her life.

Some days it’s a struggle, but her life is on the mend and she isn’t dead. Relapse is part of addiction, affecting an estimated 40 to 60 percent of recovering addicts, but it’s something to be afraid of.

“I have lost four friends now, just within the last couple of months, from heroin,” she said. People relapse, and sometimes they can’t come back.


Series at a glance: Pushing Back

Friday, May 2, 2014

A year ago, we reported that addiction to heroin and its painkiller cousins was ravaging lives in Franklin County.  Now, this new six-day series asks “what can we do?” ... to reclaim those ruined lives and beat back the threat of chemical enslavement. … 0

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