Finding a way out of addiction
The Orange Recovery House, one of the county’s three residential addiction rehabilitation facilities, runs at near capacity.
Inmates in the drug recovery D Pod at the Franklin County House of Correction participate in their morning meeting.
The paths out of addiction are as varied as those that lead in. There is no silver bullet to slay a demon that is unique to each victim.
Jerry began taking Vicodin in his early 20s, prescribed for back pain. That led to a dozen years of what became addiction. Jerry, a Franklin County resident who asked that his real name not be used for this series, will have been clean for four years in September.
Jerry’s path to recovery is surprising in that it began the same way his addiction did, through self-medication.
At first, he says, he used less than his prescribed dose of one Vicodin twice a day or as needed.
“It just never crossed my mind to take advantage of it. I wasn’t into drugs, period. I did smoke pot, but I wasn’t an addict or wasn’t looking to take advantage of the prescription. It didn’t even cross my mind really to try to get high off it,” he said.
He took a pill when his back acted up, otherwise he left the opiate painkillers alone.
“I guess it was probably in my upper 20s. I would start taking a couple at a time, I think probably because I was getting used to it and I could feel a little buzz from it, but I still didn’t take more than a few,” he said. “In my head I was probably being cautious about it.”
Around the age of 30 his back was feeling better, physical therapy and injections were working, but the bulging discs in his spine still looked serious on an MRI and he didn’t want to lose the pills.
“I was telling the doctors I’m good as long as I stretch out and take a pill here and there, when in actuality my back probably would have been fine with just exercise,” he said. “It put me into a position where I wasn’t an honest person anymore, and it wasn’t the way I was brought up.”
Then he ran into some personal relationship issues, anxiety and depression set in and relatively light abuse — a few pills from his prescription some days balanced out by taking none on others — turned into as many as 30 pills some days, bought or cribbed from friends.
“It was just a long drawn-out addiction, baby step by baby step. I don’t have a certain event, anything that made me realize I was addicted to it,” he said.
Finally, a friend introduced him to Suboxone, and he began using the prescription opiate illegally, when he could find it.
Suboxone is the brand name for a combination of buprenorphine, an opiate medication that functions on the same principle as methadone, staving off withdrawal without getting the patient high if used properly, and naloxone. Naloxone binds to opiate receptors in the brain more powerfully than actual opiates, preventing the patient from feeling the effects of other opiates.
Under the brand name Narcan, naloxone is a narcotic antagonist approved for emergency use to reverse the effects of overdose.
With a certain degree of creativity, however, Suboxone can be abused to get high by new opiate users.
Jerry by now had more than a decade’s worth of tolerance. Getting high off Suboxone was not an option even if he had been looking to do so, and what he was looking for and found was relief from the constant craving.
“When I was first introduced to Suboxone — from a friend, not a doctor — I loved it,” he said. “I would rather have that than any other pills I could get illegally. I wasn’t looking for my next fix. I just took a reasonable amount of Suboxone and I was fine all day.”
“It was calming but at the same time, for whatever reason, it didn’t click in my head to go to a doctor,” he said.
A year later, finally, it did. His doctor wasn’t stupid, and Jerry was running out of options for pills. He was in debt, he had a child and it was time to get his life back on track.
He decided to get into a Suboxone treatment program, and has been sober for going on four years with no hiccups. At some point he expects to be weaned off Suboxone, but it isn’t a major preoccupation.
The drug keeps him clean and allows him to lead a normal life. He suspects it saved his life, and he sees it like any other medication for any other disease.
He attends Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous programs occasionally, but for him Suboxone is sufficient and the 12-step approach doesn’t really appeal to him.
“For whatever reason it’s not something that really clicks for me, but it works for a lot of people,” he said.
For Melissa O’Malley, also a recovering addict, it does work.
During her years of addiction to heroin and opiates, O’Malley said, maintenance therapy medications were among the many substances she abused.
Because she used some of those drugs she is not comfortable trying to use them to stay sober, and has instead opted for the 12-step approach. She originally attended four meetings a day, but four years later she says she is OK with one.
O’Malley volunteers with the Recover Project in Greenfield, which follows the philosophy that any road to recovery is a good road.
While she shies away from opioid replacement therapy herself, she said this is entirely personal and she will help others who walk through the door at 68 Federal St. to get in touch with the Suboxone or methadone clinics, if necessary, or any other resources which may seem appropriate based on what the individual is willing to share.
The Recover Project advocates no particular path to recovery, only recovery. While 12-step programs rent space in the building, they are not affiliated and meet only outside of business hours. The Project works on the theory that people recovering from addiction have their own learned wisdom and can support one another in a community.
Celebrating its 10th year, the program is a program of the Western Massachusetts Training Consortium, funded by the Department of Public Health’s Bureau of Substance Abuse Services.
The Recover Project occupies a storefront at the corner of Osgood and Federal streets, the glass facing the main throughway decorated with the faces of a number of its members.
“We’re no longer in church basements,” said Project Director Linda Sarage.
One of the project’s aims is to remove the stigma from addiction so addicts will seek and find the help they need to recover.
“We have a society that punishes alcoholics and addicts more than helps,” said Sarage. “They’re an easy scapegoat for society, and I think what happens is we are an addictive society and it’s easy to point — this is a good addiction, that is a bad addiction.”
“Heroin addicts are probably the lowest of the low when it comes to thinking about addiction. There’s such a stigma to being a heroin addict and that often gets in the way of people being able to get the help. That’s why part of our role is to remove that stigma,” she said.
“You don’t wake up one day and say ‘Gee, I think I’ll be a heroin addict.’”
In keeping with this, the Recover Project focuses on recovery rather than reliving the details of addiction as is often the case with 12-step programs. Members may be and are in any form of treatment they choose for whatever their addiction might be, which doesn’t necessarily come up.
“It doesn’t really matter what you used or if it was even a substance, it could be anything,” said Community Engagement Coordinator Mary Kate Farley.
“That’s why when we have our All Recovery meeting we don’t even talk about that, we talk about recovery not addiction. It levels the playing field that way. Among our own community there’s no stigma or separation between the kind of addict you are, how ‘bad’ you are. It’s not about that, it’s about the recovery.”
There seems to be a consensus among those who have successfully quit that the success of treatment depends on the individual’s decision to quit.
Once that choice has been made, there are resources available.
The Recover Project maintains a full directory of area resources at:
and there is always someone around the office.
“When people come here and they say we want help, we help them make the phone calls,” Sarage said. Unfortunately, there are waiting lists. “I’ve sat there and I’ve gone through the four detoxes and had to say to somebody, you know, hang in there, come back tomorrow, we’ll try again.”
Farley said the four area detox programs are in Holyoke, Springfield, Pittsfield and Worcester. Greenfield’s detox center is no longer in operation.
Because opiate withdrawal isn’t lethal, detoxification in a specialized facility isn’t medically critical, but it is more likely to work and is also a prerequisite for many other programs.
Few, if any, seem able to quit with nothing but the initial week or so necessary to get opiates out of the patient’s system in detox.
Getting dry in jail
Robert, 28, of the Athol and Orange area, used prescription drugs and eventually heroin while living on the street as a teenager. Once he began injecting heroin, he said, it was all over. He used every day for five years, committing a lot of crimes, he said, to support a habit as bad as 30 bags at worst.
“I couldn’t get out of bed without doing three or four bags; just to sit up and crawl out of bed I had to shoot three or four bags,” he said. “I was dedicated to that drug. That drug ruled my life.”
A five-year jail sentence in 2008 put him on the right track, and if it weren’t for the Franklin County House of Correction he believes he would be dead.
Recovery programs in the jail were scarce at the time, he said, but there were some, and when he was released on parole two years ago he went into the Orange Recovery House at the recommendation and with the help of Elaine Ballard, a Franklin County Sheriff’s Office substance abuse counselor.
He stayed six months ... and because he wasn’t ready to leave they gave him a six-month extension.
Robert said it helped him to see there were others in a similar situation. Being entrusted with the keys to lock up a church after a 12-step meeting helped as well, and now he has been clean and sober for five years, almost two while out of jail.
Until recently, life was good. He was working, with a wife and kids. Then he had what he described as a “small interruption” and in March he was back in the House of Correction.
His problem, however, was not drug-related and his five-year run of sobriety remains intact and he intends it to continue.
The Orange Recovery House is one of three long-term residential recovery programs run by social service non-profit ServiceNet in this area, along with the Beacon House for Men and the Beacon House for Women, both in Greenfield.
The three were founded and run by Baystate Franklin Medical Center until 2009, when they were cut by the hospital and picked up by the agency.
The Orange house has beds for 16 men and typically runs at above 90 percent capacity, said Michael Wing, who runs the house. The Beacon houses have room for about 13 clients each.
Residents from the North Quabbin Region have an edge on the waiting list for the Orange program, but Wing said if restricted to that region the house would run at 70 percent capacity, although this is more because not everyone who needs help comes forward than because there are not enough needing help.
The house functions as a sanctuary, with staff providing what he describes as lay-counseling — they are not social workers — and referring residents to mental and physical medicine as needed.
Wing personally believes abstinence is the best route to recovery, but he said he has seen opiate-replacement therapy work. Many of his residents take Suboxone, which can be taken home on prescription, and he has just had his first resident to last beyond three days on methadone treatment.
Methadone is tightly regulated and must be administered in a clinic.
The nearest clinic is in Greenfield and the daily commute from Orange is daunting, Wing said, particularly when a person is penniless, or with few resources.
In ServiceNet’s Orange Recovery House the average stay is about five months, Wing said, although they can and do keep residents for up to a year if there are mitigating circumstances.
The program is funded mainly through the Department of Public Health. Residents are asked to give 30 percent of their income, up to a maximum of $500 a month, but that 30 percent may be 30 percent of zero. Wing said most residents contribute by turning over their food stamps to the house for communal use.
“In my opinion it’s a great investment of the taxpayers’ money,” Wing said. “I’m a true believer. I get to see the good things happen and so many don’t, so I do understand the arguments.”
Wing has practical counter-questions for the abstract question of what it benefits me that my tax dollars should go to another’s recovery: “Would you rather be sharing the road, or having your loved ones share the road, with a drunk driver — or somebody who used to be a drunk driver?”