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A View of the Epidemic: ‘There Were People Dying Around Us’

  • Dale Pushee, of Wilder, greets a member of the congregation at Riverbank Church, in White River Junction, Vt., where he leads the Celebrate Recovery support group, during a service Thursday, March 29, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Dale Pushee, of Wilder, prays with guitarist Clay Reed, left, and Lead Pastor Chris Goeppner, right, before a service at the Riverbank Church in White River Junction, Vt., Thursday, March 29, 2018. Pushee is a leader of the Celebrate Recovery support group at the church, a certified peer support specialist at the White River Junction VA Medical Center, and police chaplain for the Hartford Police Department. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Alex Annunziata, of White River Junction, attended Riverbank Church in White River Junction, Vt., Thursday, March 29, 2018. Annunziata is in recovery from opiod addiction and works as a recovery coach. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, March 31, 2018

White River Junction — At the beginning of each of the weekly gatherings in a meeting room of the Riverbank Church off Sykes Mountain Avenue, people always identify themselves in the same language.

“Hi, I’m Dale,” said Dale Pushee, 48, of Wilder, explaining how he introduces himself during an interview at the church on Monday. The legacy of his 20 years with the military is apparent in his neat, trim clothing and straight posture. “I’m a grateful believer in Jesus Christ. And I’m in recovery from — whatever it is, for each one of us.”

And increasingly, “whatever it is,” is opiates.

Statistics show that Vermont is struggling beneath the weight of the same opiate epidemic that has put New Hampshire in the national spotlight in recent years. The Vermont Department of Health shows that the number of people treated for opiate addiction in the state has nearly tripled, from 1,139 in 2006 to 3,304 in 2017.

The number of accidental drug deaths in the state involving opioids went from 51 in 2012 to 101 in 2017.

At the Riverbank Church, which draws about 1,000 worshipers each weekend, opiate abuse is a very tangible crisis, according to Pushee, who is not only in recovery himself, but also is an ordained chaplain.

Several years ago, when it became apparent that a growing number of Riverbank congregants were losing loved ones to opiate overdoses, leaders within the church, including Pushee, were moved to respond.

“There were people dying around us,” Pushee said. Each death rippled through the entire congregation, he said.

Those who died had somehow, in the end, fallen through the safety net that includes family and friends, social agencies, medical services and the criminal justice system.

Perhaps, they thought, for those who were struggling with addiction, faith could add something valuable to the mix.

“It’s become a big issue. … We’d like to be on the front end of that,” Pushee recalls church leaders saying. And so, three years ago, they began a new substance abuse program at the church.

Ever since then, on Tuesday and Sunday evenings, as many as 25 parishioners troop into a meeting room to set up chairs in a circle and participate in “Celebrate Recovery,” a 12-step program that’s a close cousin of the one used by Alcoholics Anonymous.

The basic idea is that giving unconditional, faith-based love and support to the participants will help them to navigate their own dark inner waters in a way that will help them resist the seductive lure of opiates.

“The common thread in all of us is that we’re fallible human beings who are sinful by nature. Sin being an old-fashioned term right? It just means we missed the mark somewhere along the way,” Pushee said.

“And God gives us an opportunity to return to him and reconnect and move forward.”

People who are actively participating in 12-step programs — often done in conjunction with a broader base of treatment methods — are more successful at avoiding substance abuse, though the effect is much better documented for alcohol and marijuana use than opiates, according to a 2008 review of research that was funded in part by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

At Riverbank, after a reading of the Serenity Prayer and the formal around-the-room introduction, Pushee might lead a discussion that highlights a particular step in the process and encourages attendees to dig deep and connect the lesson to their own lives.

But the meetings can also be flexible, built around the needs of the people in the room. Pushee said he’s come to some meetings planning to read a particular text, only to have an important conversation emerge among attendees who are setting up the room. In those cases, he said, he scraps his agenda and brings the conversation into the more formal discussion.

“It’s more important. It’s not about a program. The program is a method. It’s a process,” he said. “The 12 steps are a way for an individual to confront things and move through things in a group. When we have an opportunity and the spirit is moving, I’m not going to interrupt that.”

In addition to faith, Pushee said, the magic ingredient is building personal relationships with those who are in the grip of an opiate addiction. “God created us to be in relationships. … He’s relational and he wants us to be too, in a healthy way,” he said.

And so, over the course of an involvement with the church that predates Celebrate Recovery, Pushee has built dozens of relationships — hundreds. As a result, the cellphone in his pocket is never silent for long. People need help. And Pushee is the one to call.

“Almost every day I get a phone call from someone in some situation in life,” he said.

Alex Annunziata , 37, has been coming to Riverbank since 2011.

Pushee calls Annunziata, earnest and tattooed, “an easy guy to love on.” He’s been struggling with addiction since he was a teen; he spent 10 years locked in an unpleasant dance with the criminal justice system on a variety of drug charges and probation violations, but a prison stint and treatment programs did little to stop him from falling back into his old habits of using.

Annunziata took to stopping by the church during off hours, “hung over, strung out and beat up from life in my addiction,” he said. He’d hang out at a picnic table outside, hoping someone would give him a kind word, and some small task to do. He eventually accepted a ride from Pushee to a conference for Christian men, and during the trip, the two bonded over their shared history of addiction.

Annunziata eventually went through a 28-day program, during which staffers developing an after-care plan asked Annunziata who would be waiting for him on the outside.

There was only one person, Annunziata said. He placed the call to Pushee, and “he picked up his phone.”

Since then, Annunziata has been 11 months sober, the longest out-of-prison period of drug abstinence in his adult life. When he hits a discouraging roadblock, such as an effort to get out of the Haven homeless shelter and into more permanent housing, he looks to the church, rather than drugs, for comfort.

Without Pushee, he said, “I don’t think I would have made it past the month mark.”

Amid the daily phone calls of people saying they’re in crisis and need help, Pushee takes away something positive.

“A little while ago,” Pushee said, “I got a group text from an individual who is struggling today: ‘Hey guys. I’m struggling today and I need your prayers.’ ”

The response was typical, he said.

“My phone buzzes all the time. It doesn’t ring. It buzzes. Because we have this community. We have this group of men and women who are in recovery. … And then it buzzes and buzzes and buzzes from there, because guys are responding to that. We’re not alone. … We’re here and doing what you need.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.