As opioid addiction continues to be a widespread problem in Maine and throughout the country, it may be easy to forget that behind statistics and political debates there are real people coping with recovery, addiction and the pain these things can cause.
Ahead of National Addiction Treatment Week, which began Monday, Mainers who are at different stages of recovery spoke with Jennifer Rooks on Maine Calling last Friday about their experiences, and they shared advice to those struggling with addiction.
Alan Beam, a 56-year-old Portland man, struggled with addiction to opioids for almost 20 years. He starting in his thirties taking pills, then began using harder drugs. But then he was hospitalized with endocarditis—a bacterial infection that often strikes IV drug users, entering the bloodstream and lodging in the valves of the heart.
“I had been buying Suboxone off the streets for two years. I was shooting. When I found out I could die from the endocarditis, I threw everything away—all the needles and stuff.”
The realization that he might no longer be there for his daughter, who is now 8 years old, pushed him to get clean.
“I made a promise to myself and to her that I would straighten up and do the right thing,” says Beam.
It has been about 14 months since Beam’s hospitalization, and he says he’s in the first part of recovery. He attends a weekly group class, where he pulls up his sleeves to show the others that he has no needle marks.
“I don’t have to do that, I just want to. I’m still taking weed—I know I need to quit that. But I had my first clean blood test. I don’t drink, and I read the Bible now.”
Seth Blais was addicted to heroin for many years, starting at age 19. He now writes and speaks about his experience and has a column with the Portland Press Herald.
Blais says he started taking prescription opioids “not really understanding what it was, that it is so similar to heroin. You think, maybe it’s safer because it’s a medication my doctor prescribed me or prescribed to a friend, not really understanding the road you’re potentially putting yourself on.”
While Blais was struggling with addiction, he was still working. “Outwardly it looked as though I had a perfect life, and the reality is that I was miserable and sick,” he says.
He also says that there was no one moment when he decided to quit, but rather came to recovery gradually. “Being able to turn the wanting to get sober and wanting to enter recovery into action took me a long time and a lot of different attempts,” he says.
Natasha Huff is in long-term recovery for heroin addiction, and she says, like Blais, she started using at 19, taking pills before switching to heroin. She has been clean since 2013, when she became pregnant. She says her children are the reason she stays in recovery, and hopes others can find similar motivation to get into recovery.
“You have to have something bigger than the drug, something you can turn to in your mind and think ‘I love this so much more than using,’” she says.
Suffering trauma at an early age can often be at the root of substance abuse—and that was the case for Andrew Kiezulas.
“I went through mental, physical and sexual abuse,” he recalls. “I internalized it. Here you are from white suburbia—I was captain of the lacrosse team—so you learn to say ‘no’ to your emotions, and to the trauma and shame.”
He started early with drugs and alcohol, which made him feel more positive, but by high school the drugs got harder and the volume increased. Then he slipped and fell at work, receiving a prescription for opioids from his doctor.
“I became dependent—pills, pills, pills. They treated my physical and emotional pain. I began getting them off the street. Then snorting heroin became legit—then shooting heroin. Blink, and you’re down the road.”
Blais says removing the stigma around recovery is also an important step for someone wanting to enter recovery.
“For me, what prevented me from getting help was the stigma, I was terrified of identifying as someone who had a substance use disorder, I was terrified for professional and personal reasons of being labeled as a person in recovery...if you’re sitting at home and you don’t know how to go about getting in recovery, people care about you, and we want you to succeed in your recovery,” he says.
Kiezulas found he had gone from an athletic person to someone who was “in a physical prison.” At age 30, he called his mother and told her, “I don’t know what to do.” She began making phone calls, and he started the path to sobriety, including detox and medication-assisted treatment and a recovery residence. He has been sober since 2012.
To parents and others who are worried about a loved one, Blais says to “realize this is not your fault or a failure of your parenting...your child needs to know that they can come to you and not feel shamed and judged, because I guarantee that they already feel bad about themselves.”
“If you want to get sober, the best advice any addict will have is: do it. Go to a meeting, talk to somebody, and don’t use today. And it will be real hard, but it will get easier,” says Sam Mercer, a manager at the Nickelodeon-Patriot Cinema in Portland. He is in long term recovery for opioid addiction after beginning treatment eight years ago.
Mercer also says recovery and sobriety have given him the opportunity to find new interests.
“Staying clean means finding out what I enjoy doing,” he says. “You have to figure out what you like, why you like it, and what else you enjoy doing. If you don’t know what you like, this is an opportunity to try stuff.”
Huff agrees, saying that when she was using, “I didn’t care about the way I looked, anything. Now I feel good about myself again.”
What is propelling Kiezulas forward is a desire to reach his full potential. He is studying at the University of Southern Maine to pursue a master’s degree in policy, planning and management. He co-founded USM’s Recovery Oriented Campus Center, and he also founded the Young People in Recovery in Portland. In addition, he is an active advocate at the state level, with the goal of influencing public opinion and policy.
Beam recently got a new job and is looking forward to not only support himself, but to pay child support. His advice to others trying to fight addiction: “Bad things can happen—like the infection I got, or losing your kids, or doing prison time. Don’t give up. Even if you’ve tried and tried and failed, keep trying. One of these times you might actually get it right.”
Although theses individuals have all been able to enter recovery, they say that finding resources and seeking treatment can be difficult, even when someone wants to get help. Often, individuals looking to enter treatment have difficulty and face long wait times to get into recovery facilities, or are uninsured and underinsured, making many options too expensive.
"We’re putting up barriers to treatment in our state when we should be breaking down those barriers, regardless of what that pathway is, whether its medication-assisted treatment, or absolutely any pathway, we need to make sure it’s open and available,” Blais says.
Blais also mentioned the benefit of drugs like Nalaxone, a medication used to block the effects of opioids, especially in overdose. While there has been political pushback to the use and marketing of the drug, Blais says it’s still a tool that should be utilized.
“It isn’t the key to recovery,” he says. “It only prolongs death, but you can’t enter recovery if you’re dead.”
All three said that changing the perception of addiction in the public eye was key to seeing more successful recoveries.
Mercer says it’s really difficult to recover “when there aren’t public support networks available, and the ones that are available get vilified just for existing.”
Blais agrees, and has advice for those facing obstacles to treatment. “It’s not as easy as saying ‘I want treatment,’ but taking action is far better than doing nothing. Reach out, talk to someone, stand in line at seven in the morning at Milestone detox and go there every morning. Don’t let yourself down, the most important thing to do is to do something.”
“People shouldn’t be chained to their past or given life sentences,” says Kiezulas. “I’ve had to come to terms with my past and move on.”
You can find resources related to addiction and recovery and listen to the full conversation on Maine Calling here.
This story was originally published April 21, 2018 at 1:55 p.m. ET.