The Opioid Crisis: A firsthand look at heroin’s destruction
Note: This article, written by Laurie Loisel, originally appeared in a Hampshire Gazette column on January 23, 2017.
Nicole Chapin and Sarah McLaughlin have a lot in common. Both are 35, grew up in western Massachusetts and attended public schools here. Both are mothers. They love their children. They have family members who love them dearly.
And both have lived on the streets and been in trouble with the law so often that police know them well. They’ve watched other people take care of their children when they could not. Each has had family members, close friends and acquaintances die of opioid overdoses. They have overdosed themselves, nearly died and been revived on numerous occasions.
They have both lived at the Wright Home for Women on Main Street in Easthampton with about a dozen others in recovery — where McLaughlin still resides. At the Wright Home, residents live in a stable, sober environment, while working to put their lives back together. They participate in workshops and house meetings, work toward employment and attend recovery sessions.
Still, relapse is a constant worry.
Chapin and McLaughlin are among legions of people swept up by the opioid addiction epidemic — involving prescription pills, heroin and fentanyl — which is cutting swaths of destruction across the country. Part of the addiction involves repeated bouts of active using punctuated by repeated attempts to stop. Relapse is part of the illness. Also part of the disease: ruined lives, shredded self-esteem, and profound loss.
I met Chapin and McLaughlin after assisting Cherry Sullivan, Hampshire HOPE coordinator, with a writing workshop at the Wright Home. Hampshire HOPE is a coalition working to address the opioid epidemic. Run by the city of Northampton’s health department, it is made up of representatives from community organizations including treatment centers, law enforcement, public health professionals and first responders. After our writing workshop at the Wright Home, I invited the residents to talk about their experience with opioid addiction for this column. Chapin and McLaughlin responded. They agreed to let me include their full names, a decision I heartily applaud. One of the aims of this monthly column is to erode the stigma rooted in secrecy, shame and misunderstanding about substance use disorders. That stigma is a barrier to recovery.
In December, I sat down with Chapin and McLaughlin at the dining room table at the Wright Home, where a colorfully lit Christmas tree brightened the gray day. Chapin had been at the house for two months and one week. She has since left after a disagreement over program rules. McLaughlin had arrived at the beginning of December.
Chapin told me she has long struggled with alcoholism and cocaine addiction. Her dependency on opioids began shortly after she gave birth to her daughter 12 years ago, after she was prescribed the painkillers to deal with complications from childbirth.
Her brother died of a methadone overdose in 2009. But rather than compel her to seek treatment herself, his death drove her deeper into her addiction.
“I was very angry at God and I didn’t care if I lived or died,” she said.
She came to Wright Home after Easthampton police petitioned the court to forcibly commit her into treatment under Chapter 123, Section 35 of the Massachusetts general laws which allows people to be treated involuntarily if their use of drugs put their lives at risk. Family members, doctors and police officers can petition the court for a Section 35, a civil procedure.
McLaughlin said she first used heroin when she was 18, and it did not take long for it to spiral out of control.
“Heroin turned into my everything,” she said. “It was good for a while. My life got bad really fast.”
She’s been in and out of detox, she estimates, at least 30 times. She has lived on the streets. She has found shelter in abandoned buildings and under bridges. At times, she used more than 30 bags of heroin a day. When she could not care for her three children, she said, her mother or their fathers took over.
Her own father died of a heroin overdose, as have 10 friends. I asked if those deaths motivated her to seek help. Addiction is not that simple, she explained. “When you’re using, nothing matters.”
On New Year’s Day 2016, she overdosed. Her sister saved her life, she said. It took four doses of Narcan, the drug that counters the effects of heroin, to bring her back.
But after that near-death experience she continued using heroin until she was arrested and incarcerated in July. She moved into Wright Home Dec. 6 when her jail term ended.
After we talked about their experiences, I asked McLaughlin and Chapin to write responses to questions I posed. Excerpts follow.
LL: When you were using and homeless, what stopped you from reaching for help?
Chapin: When I became homeless and was drinking and doing drugs, the loss of all rational thinking got in the way of changing for the better. It felt like the world was against me and didn’t care. It felt like there were too many obstacles. … Also, lack of access to a prescribing psychiatrist got in my way. .. I felt like there was no hope, so no use in trying. I wanted to just die.
McLauglin: I didn’t care enough about making healthy choices. I would call home maybe once a month. I would eat a meal two times a week. But other than that getting high was my priority. Getting the money to get high, doing my shot then starting it all over again. I was like a zombie on repeat.
LL: How should the community response to people in your situation?
Chapin: The community could band together and realize that we are not all lost causes or bad people. (There should be) education about addiction, awareness that it is not a moral shortcoming, knowledge that everyone is affected when any part of the community is sick.
Money should be allotted for mental health professionals to make access to real psychiatrists and doctors obtainable. Money should be allotted for programs like the needle exchange program to continue running and further expand its current position in the recovery field.
Effort should be given to rehabs, detoxes. We are only as strong as the weakest link and together we stand, divided we fall.
McLaughlin: I had a lot of people reach out to try to help me: probation officers, family, people from church, even my street family. I just never wanted the help, or I wanted it, I just didn’t know how to take it. It wasn’t until I was truly beat down and willing that I got the help I needed.
LL: What was the most painful thing you lost while using?
Chapin: The most painful thing I lost in my life is my beautiful, kind, loving daughter. I lost the ability to connect with her. When I was physically present, mentally I was not. At times I lost the ability to see her. …
The second most painful thing I lost was my self-respect and self-worth, which is the hardest thing to get back.
McLaughlin: My self-worth … self-respect … relationship with my children.
LL: Does your recovery now feel different than in the past?
Chapin: In the past I was never trying to recover. I may have seen that I had a small problem, but I blamed others not myself when I drank too much. I blamed circumstance when my addiction to Percocet became heroin. I blamed society for all its evils. I blamed the government and the people who allowed the cost of living to be high.
Today I want to recover as I see I had a sickness. All the problems of the world may still be there, but hopefully I will have a clear head to face them. Today, I want my voice to be heard.
McLaughlin: This is the first time that I’m working on myself. I put my recovery first, and because of this, I’m changing inside and growing spiritually. My family can trust me and I can be there for them today. They also see the change in me. I’ve learned how to accept things in my life today — good and bad.
My conversation with Chapin and McLaughlin illustrated for me comments by U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and so many public health professionals who say that opioid and other substance misuse disorders represent a true public health crisis. “We must help everyone see that addiction is not a character flaw,” Murthy wrote in the 2016 “Facing Addiction in America” report. “It is a chronic illness that we must approach with the same skill and compassion with which we approach heart disease, diabetes and cancer.”
Laurie Loisel is director of community outreach and education at the Northwestern District Attorney’s office.
A member of the Hampshire HOPE opioid coalition, she is one of several individuals who contribute to a monthly column in this space about local efforts underway to address the opioid epidemic.