“People aren’t addicts. They are individuals who suffer substance-use disorder,” said Stacy Robinson, of Attack Addiction. “If you want to start to break the stigma, let’s start to use the right terminology.”
Robinson was one of nine people who spoke earlier this week at the Lord Baltimore Lions Club’s Drug Abuse Awareness Panel Discussion.
“I don’t like the terms ‘clean’ and ‘dirty.’ I like ‘people who are in recovery.’ There’s a way we can talk about this that doesn’t make people sound like they’re criminals, because they’re not. They’re people who suffer from a disease, just like people who suffer from diabetes and heart disease,” she said. “A person is not a diabetic — they’re a person with diabetes.”
Robinson, who also serves as the nurse for Sussex Central High School, said people need to educate themselves more about the disorder, which is an illness.
“It’s a chemical imbalance in the brain. When you do things you enjoy, your brain releases dopamine. Your brain tells yourself that you like it, it’s good — you want more of it. These are things that involve food, sex, sunshine, exercise — all things we need to keep ourselves healthy, to procreate our species,” she said. “Alcohol and drugs tend to create dopamine in exorbitant amounts in our brains. What happens when we do that — the reinforcement, the thing that says, ‘Hey, this is great, go out and get it’ — somehow becomes off-kilter.”
The Lions Club hosted the panel discussion with the hope of educating the community about the opioid epidemic that is hitting all too close to home.
“Everyone in this room, I believe, is directly or indirectly affected by opioid disorders,” said Lion Paul Bolton.
Organizers and panel members lamented, though, that there were fewer than 40 people in attendance at the discussion on Monday night.
“This place should be packed right now,” said state Rep. Ron Gray, who served on the panel. “It’s really scary times.”
Gray said he first heard about the opioid issue in 2014.
“Here we are four years later, and we continue to struggle for a solution,” he said. “We need treatment, not prisons.”
Lion Kaila Prince, who has been sober for four years, spoke about her own struggles with addiction. Having grown up in a household where her parents and stepfather had substance-abuse disorders, she became exposed at an early age.
“Just because my mom, my father and my step-father were in addiction doesn’t mean they were or are bad people,” she said. “Everybody in addiction goes through something, and when you’re in addiction, sometimes you don’t realize what you’re going through, so it makes it harder to realize you need help.”
Prince told the story of her childhood, which involved witnessing fights, substance abuse, being in foster care and her step-father’s suicide. She also witnessed her cousin sustaining physical abuse at the hands of her uncle.
Prince said she first got into drugs when she was 16 years old and moved in with her boyfriend and his family.
“That was a terrible idea. I was able to say no for a little bit, because I was 100 percent against drugs, but then his back went out and I saw how much Percocet worked for his back.”
Prince said she used his medication to treat her painful menstrual cramps, but that use escalated. She then went on to sniffing heroin for more than a year, because the cost of Percocet was so expensive.
“Then, just sniffing the heroin wasn’t working anymore, and he was like, ‘Can we just shoot up?’… Eventually, he kept asking and I couldn’t say no anymore, because he did it in front of me and I saw he wasn’t hurting anymore… So, I decided to do it also.”
Prince said she used for a few years before deciding “enough was enough” and got clean for her two children through the Crest program.
“And I’ve been sober ever since. “
“What happened to [Kaila] in her life led to trauma and pain that were not of a physical nature,” said Robinson. “When we talk to people who use drugs and alcohol, they are generally numbing a pain that we cannot see. Those types of pain are things we, as a society, can offer comfort and care for — not drugs, not punishment, not treating them like criminals.
“If we want to reduce the stigma that is surrounding substance-use disorder in our community, we have to stop treating people like they’re a problem and start treating them with compassion.”
State Sen. Gerald Hocker, who also was a speaker at the panel, said that faith-based treatment programs, such as Delmarva Teen Challenge, have shown to have a high rate of success — with 86 percent of graduates maintaining sobriety since the program’s inception nine years ago.
Hocker said that, in 2014, Delaware had the eighth-highest heroin fatality rate in the country, and since then the State has actively worked to decrease the prescribing of opioid medications.
Robinson echoed Hocker’s remarks, stating there needs to be more discussions on how doctors are prescribing medications.
“Because medications that were originally created for people with cancer pain are being given to people who have had a knee-replacement surgery,” she noted.
Pauline Powell, the leader of the Sussex County chapter of Attack Addiction, said she has been personally touched by addiction through her own son’s struggles.
She said the organization — a non-profit working to “spread the word about addiction by educating students and the community, assisting families in their quest for information, and supporting those in recovery” — began in 2013 and has worked tirelessly to address an escalating epidemic.
That first year, they successfully supported the state’s “Good Samaritan law,” which gives legal protection for those who call 911 in the event of an overdose, and for the victims.
“This was done to not only try to save lives but also to raise awareness of what’s going on in our communities,” said Powell. “We owe it to our neighbors to make changes.”
She noted that the organization also offers support and comfort to those who’ve lost loved ones, and she encouraged everyone in the community to attend one of their meetings.
“If you have never been in addiction, you cannot possibly imagine what it is like, any more than those people who are in addiction can understand what it is like for the family members that are going through this process, too — because substance-use disorder is not an individual disease. It is a family disease, and everybody involved plays a part.”
Naloxone use expands
Ocean View Police Chief Ken McLaughlin discussed how his department worked to be the first law-enforcement agency in the state to carry naloxone — a medication used to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. Today, more than 25 state agencies carry naloxone.
Within 21 days of his department being trained and outfitted with naloxone, they had saved a life — a 61-year-old resident he described as “affluent.”
McLaughlin said that, in the 27 years he’s worked in Sussex County, he’s seen how compassionate the officers are who serve the citizens.
“And don’t think, by the way, that this disease hasn’t impacted our law-enforcement community as well. I know many police officers who have children who are struggling with substance-abuse disorder; they have other family members… We’re part of the community, too, and we’re struggling with this every single day.”
McLaughlin said his department has an open-door policy to help or find help for anyone who asks.
“As a small-town police department, I would say 75 percent of what we do every day is not traditional police work. We handle all kinds of complaints. We also have people coming in with their loved one, or they’re coming by themselves to ask for help,” he said.
He noted frustration with the lack of treatment available to Delawareans, noting that the situation has gotten slightly better. With the opening of the Connections treatment facility in Bridgeville, McLaughlin said he was happy to no longer have to send those who walk into his department out of state for treatment. However, that is not always the case. His department has still on occasion had to send those seeking treatment to Hudson House in Salisbury, Md.
Along with helping individuals seek treatment, McLaughlin noted that his department began its prescription drug takeback initiative in 2006, using an old mailbox to collect unused medications, some of which might otherwise be used by family members or others.
Today, now partnered with CVS, the department empties their drug disposal box weekly, and works with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency to safely dispose of the drugs. The last collection day, in October 2017, yielded 278 pounds of prescription drugs.
Cpl./2 Juanita Huey-Smith of the Delaware State Police said that, in 2017, DSP had started carrying naloxone, with two doses out per shift, after purchasing 354 doses at a cost of $7,434 for two years. Naloxone is not only available on every shift but is also kept in evidence detection units, at the front desk of each DSP troop and in every evidence room.
“Since we started carrying [naloxone], we’ve had 30 deployments in the field — 28 of those in 2017 and two in 2018 so far.”
Huey-Smith said the DSP is in talks to bring to Sussex County the Reality Tour, a program similar to the “Scared Straight” program, but for addiction.
“That’s something for youth and parents alike. It’s a program where parents have to come to with their children,” she said. “They’re opening these lines of discussion, because many families don’t even want to discuss it.”
The DSP is also looking at bringing in to the county the “Chasing the Dragon” video, focusing on the stories of those who experienced addiction, to be followed up with a discussion session.
“Another program we’re working on and optimistic about is ‘Hidden in Plain Sight.’ This is a mock bedroom where parents can tour and see some of the paraphernalia that you may see in a teen’s bedroom.
“It doesn’t mean a teenager is using drugs, but it’s things to look for… It’s designed to open parents’ eyes.”
Huey-Smith also urged people that when they see suspicious behavior, they should simply call 911. If they see a needle or a blue bag that looks out of place — don’t touch it, call the police.
“We don’t want you to run the risk of exposure,” she said. “If you’re concerned about someone, it doesn’t hurt to call and just talk to an officer.”
Corrections officer urges parents to be frank
Jim Elder, bureau chief for Community Corrections, said society is at an impasse with regard to the epidemic, yet he is still hopeful.
“I think the way we bring about solutions is to get together, to hear one another, to communicate with one another, and get a sense of possibilities that are out there,” he said. “I think we’ve been chipping away at the edges of this for some time, and I think we’re making progress. I’m optimistic. I’m optimistic because I’ve seen recovery… I know recovery is possible. In that vein, I’ll remain hopeful.”
He noted the importance of naloxone in the fight to combat the epidemic, saying, “You don’t get a chance to recover if you’re dead.”
The officers who work for him in corrections are uniquely qualified for the job, he said, as they serve to enforce the conditions of the court, but at the same time, in many instances, are referral agents, counselors, teachers, guides and coaches.
Elder said a lot of work should be done at home, and parents shouldn’t be afraid to have difficult conversations with their children about substance use.
He said they should become aware and informed of some of the early risks and signs of substance abuse, which includes sudden withdrawal, isolation and/or a change in behavior.
“If something doesn’t feel right, if they become sneaky in what they do — look at it. Don’t ignore it… Don’t be afraid to snoop. Mind your medicine cabinet,” he said, noting that studies show that those who have honest, frank discussions about drug use tend to not get into drug use.
“There are also a bunch of studies that say most people don’t do it,” he said of these parent-child discussions. “The question is, why not? Well, it’s uncomfortable to talk to your kids about drug use. I understand that.”
Many parents, he said, are scared of those frank conversations because of the risk of being called a hypocrite.
“‘What about you? You smoked marijuana when you were in high school.’ ‘What about your beer you have every night?’ We avoid these conversations because of the risk of being labeled a hypocrite. Unfortunately, the avoidance of those difficult conversations can lend themselves to risky behavior of behalf of your kids,” he said.
Elder recommended parents come to a consensus before having the conversation with kids, and to do it when they’re emotionally calm.
“Go into it thoughtfully,” he said. “The best way we do rehabilitation and reentry is through ‘no entry.’ We don’t want your family members, your children, to be in our correctional system. It is our goal to keep them out of the correctional system, because quite often by the time they get to us, it’s, in some instances, too little, too late.”
Elder said there are resources out there to help those who feel helpless, noting the HelpIsHereDE.com website and Partnership for Drug-Free Kids. He also recommended reading “Get Your Loved One Sober: Alternatives to Nagging, Pleading & Threatening” by Robert J. Meyers and Brenda L. Wolfe.
“In the end, I wish we had 10,000 people in here, because I know we have hundreds of thousands of people who are affected by this,” he said. “This is a complex problem, and there isn’t just one solution. The solution is multifaceted, and involves everyone in this room and every agency that’s represented here.”